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Sunday Patriots Notes: What extending Adrian Phillips means for the New England defense

Related: Patriots reportedly sign safety Adrian Phillips to three-year extension

Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

It’s been a tough two weeks for the New England Patriots as they have seen their divisional and conference leads slip away because of back-to-back losses against Indianapolis and Buffalo. With only two weeks left in the regular season, however, the Patriots still control their own destiny in terms of making the playoffs.

They have a great opportunity to for a “get-right game” against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17. Before turning our attention to that game, however, it is time for our weekly Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. Adrian Phillips is a key member of the Patriots’ core moving forward. There’s starting the year off right, and then there’s Adrian Phillips. The veteran safety, who was set to hit free agency this offseason, signed a three-year contract extension worth up to $14 million with the Patriots on January 1.

Philips, who inked a two-year deal with the Patriots last offseason, found his way defensively here in New England; he was known more for his special team ability in Los Angeles. Phillips has been one of the Patriots’ most consistent contributors over the last two seasons filling the “Patrick Chung role” of playing in the box and helping shutdown opposing tight ends.

Extending Phillips now allows the Patriots to address one of their biggest offseason questions before it even comes up: with Devin McCourty on the back nine of his career and not under contract beyond this season, New England at least has two of its starting safeties signed for the foreseeable future now. Phillips and Kyle Dugger are both locked up through at least 2023.

2. Mac vs. Trevor. A year ago today, Trevor Lawrence looked like the “can’t miss prospect” even with Mac Jones in the midst of leading Alabama to another National Championship and having one of the best seasons ever by a college quarterback. It’s worth noting, though, that a quarterback’s career is primarily based on the environment and structure they have in place. Lawrence and Jones are perfect examples for that.

While Lawrence, the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, has thrown just one touchdown pass since Halloween, Jones helped the Patriots rattle off seven straight wins to put them in the mix for the top seed in the AFC. Both have had some good moment this season, but it is obvious that Jones has joined a much more favorable situation.

3. Jonnu Smith breakout game? It seems like we say this almost every week at this point but Sunday’s game versus the depleted Jaguars is a great opportunity to experiment and get tight end Jonnu Smith’s confidence going heading into the playoffs. It’s been a tough year for Smith, who has battled injuries and has seemingly struggled to pick up things offensively.

So far, the big-money free agent has caught just 27 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown so far this season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spoke this week and seemed to take some of the blame for Smith’s struggles this year, though.

“There’s no question about that, he’s a player that can do some things with the ball in his hands. We know that,” McDaniels said. “Very talented guy, works really hard. I’ve got to do better to get him the ball.”

4. The Patriots’ leaders are stepping up. It’s easy to be yourself and be positive when everything is going right but your leadership and character are always tested when adversity strikes your team. This week, the Patriots’ leaders sent a clear message to the media: stop talking and play!

After their 2-4 start, the Patriots leaned heavily on the veteran guys to turn the season around. Now, after seeing their dreams of winning the AFC East and earning the No. 1 playoff seed in the conference fade away, linebacker Dont’a Hightower set the tone.

“Enough talk, it’s time to work.”

Hightower, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, to name a few, all had a similar message this week: the Patriots need to get back to what was working for them earlier, both offensively and defensively, and get ready for the stretch run.

5. Nelson Agholor’s presence is missed. Say what you want about Nelson Agholor and whether or not he has lived up to the two-year contract he signed this offseason so far, but the former first-round pick has helped the Patriots mightily even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. The team’s passing game has taken a big step back the last two weeks since Agholor left the game in Indianapolis with a concussion.

Last week, we saw what happened when the Patriots didn’t have his speed or downfield presence available: the Buffalo Bills were able to lock things up over the middle and make it really crowded for Mac Jones.

Agholor is one of the only receivers on the Patriots’ roster that can beat man coverage and make plays down the field. Without him in the lineup, it makes the team’s offense more one-dimensional and limits the fire power it needs down the field.

6. Patriots need Matthew Judon to get going again. A few weeks ago, Matthew Judon looked like he was building a case for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Since picking up a sack in seven straight games, however, Judon has been quiet: the last two weeks he registered just one pressure and zero quarterback hits in the two losses.

Obviously, a lot goes into Judon getting after the passer and there has been a lack of pressure from the entire front seven during this recent skid. However, Judon is the Patriots’ energizer bunny and the unit’s success and swagger runs through No. 9.

After getting activated off of the Covid-19 reserve list on Saturday, Judon will look to get his juice back versus a Jaguars team that has allowed the most sacks in the NFL this season.

7. 2021 was a successful year or New England. Despite rattling off seven straight wins and then seeing expectations sort of hinder them, the Patriots’ success in 2021 should not be overlooked. Take a look at where this team was a year ago; no clear plan at quarterback, an aging roster, a lack of talent on both sides of the ball.

Now, a year later, the Patriots are right back in the mix in the AFC, found what they think to be a franchise quarterback and look like they will be a force to reckon with in the future. The way New England was able to turn a 2-4 start around and make things interesting down the stretch are positive signs for the future.

With Mac Jones growing and developing as the weeks add up, it is worth noting that whatever happens to conclude this season, the Patriots are back to being a well-respected, dangerous team inside a competitive AFC going forward. The foundation for that was laid in 2021.