Mac Jones will be making his first career playoff start tonight. The first-round rookie will become the first New England Patriots quarterback not named Tom Brady to start a playoff game for the franchise since Scott Zolak lost to Jacksonville 25-10 in January of 1999.
He’s also the first rookie QB in Patriots history to start a playoff game. There is an immense amount of pressure and expectations on him, but fans should probably temper those just a bit. With that said, let’s take a look at the team’s two previous long-term QBs, and their success in their first playoffs.
A lot about the NFL has changed in the last 20 years, but what Tom Brady did in his first playoffs was not very impressive from a statistical perspective. The Patriots scored six total touchdowns in the postseason and Brady was only on the field for two of them.
Of course, his performance is measured more by what he did in the clutch moments, driving the team down to tie, and eventually win, the Snow Bowl against Oakland — helped, of course, by the best kick in NFL history — and then driving to win the Super Bowl in the final two minutes as well.
While what he did at the end of those games is impressive, the final stat line was not. Brady finished the postseason having gone 60-for-97 with 572 passing yards, a touchdown, an interception, and a rushing touchdown.
In the first half of the Raiders game, Brady was 5-for-13 for 74 yards passing and an interception. It is crazy to think what would have happened if the “Tuck Rule” hadn’t been called. At that point, the Patriots had scored 10 points and Brady was 21-for-40 for 254 and an INT. Outside of the one touchdown drive, where he went 9-for-9 for 61 yards, Brady was having very little success throwing the football.
In fairness, the game was a blizzard, and Rich Gannon, who would win NFL MVP the following year, had trouble throwing as well. Still, you would have liked to see Brady perform better with the football in his hands. Of course, Brady threw only two incompletions the rest of the game after the “Tuck Rule,” while converting two third downs and a fourth down in overtime to win the game and send the Patriots to the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh.
The stats may not have been there, but the defense kept the game close, and when it mattered most Brady was money and put his team in position to win.
Drew Bledsoe was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1993, and he led the Patriots to the playoffs in his second year. The Bill Parcells-coached Patriot went on the road to Cleveland and faced Bill Belichick’s Browns.
Bledsoe was a Pro Bowler in 1994 and finished as the league leader in completions, attempts, passing yards, and, unfortunately, interceptions. In fact, Bledsoe would never again eclipse the 4,555 yards that he threw for in 1994. The Miami Dolphins finished with the same 10-6 record as the Patriots, but, because they had swept the season series, they won the division, forcing New England on the road.
It was not a pretty day for Bledsoe and the Patriots, as they fell to the Browns 20-13. Bledsoe finished the game 21-for-50 with 235 yards passing, a touchdown, and three interceptions.
Bledsoe was picked off twice in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots still made it interesting, recovering an onside kick after a 33-yard Matt Bahr field goal. Bledsoe would complete his first two passes, but finish the drive with four straight incompletions, ending the game for the Patriots.
It was a subpar game for Bledsoe, but, in his typical fashion, he still gave New England a shot at the end of the game. Ultimately, however, his mistakes led to a deficit that the team couldn’t overcome. An interesting fact from this game is that Bledsoe’s first interception was caught by ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, while his second came via former Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson.
Both Bledsoe and Brady were second year players when the made their playoff debuts, and not rookies like Mac Jones. The numbers for first-year QBs look even more tough, even for those who win. The last four rookies to win their first playoff starts were Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson, and they all finished with under 200 yards passing.
Mac Jones might not put up big numbers against Buffalo, but he also might not need to. What he needs is some help from defense, special teams, and the Patriots’ running game, in order for his club to have a shot at beating the Buffalo Bills.
The best example of this was Flacco’s first playoff start, when he went 9-for-23 for 135 passing yards. The Baltimore Ravens defense, however, picked off Chad Pennington four times, one of which Ed Reed took back for a touchdown. The Patriots defense also has to step up on Saturday night, even though Jones himself certainly has to play better than he has the last month and not put the Patriots down early.
Can he do it? That remains to be seen, of course. But if the Patriots walk out of Buffalo without a win, try not to be too hard on their quarterback. Some of the best QBs of our generation have struggled in their first playoff starts. Mac Jones would hardly be the first.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.