The New England Patriots got a beatdown provided by the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night, but anyone disparaging Mac Jones because of it is simply wrong. I previously wrote about the struggles that rookie QBs have in the playoffs, and what we are forgetting is that it’s not all about the quarterback.
Jones had virtually no help from anyone else on the team. The defense got shredded all over the field, the special teams outside of Nick Folk was subpar, and even his receivers dropped some catchable balls.
One thing to remember about winning — especially in the playoffs — is that the quarterback cannot do it by himself. Take Super Bowl LI, as an example.
Tom Brady had thrown a pick-six, and the defense was getting killed. The offense turned it on and won that game, but, without a strip sack by Dont’a Hightower and a late sack by Trey Flowers, the Patriots still lose the game.
Fans and analysts alike are so concerned with the results that we are sometimes blinded by how they came about. We see the Tuck Rule game, we and see Brady drive the Patriots down twice to tie the game and then convert repeatedly in overtime. What we don’t remember is that the defense gave up 13 points, and had to stop the Raiders twice late in the fourth period to give Brady even a chance to tie the game.
If the defense gives up more points, New England’s first Super Bowl run end right then and there. If the defense does not step up down three points, New England’s first Super Bowl run end right then and there. Nothing Tom Brady did after that matters, in this context, because without the defensive stops he never gets the chance to do it.
Trying to analyze the play of one player in a vacuum is very difficult, but it is important to try to be objective when breaking things down.
If Brandon Bolden doesn’t drop a long pass on the Patriots’ first drive against the Bills, is Mac Jones still intercepted in the end zone? If Micah Hyde doesn’t make a sensational play, does the game go a little different? Those are things we don’t know because they are hypotheticals. What we can do is look at the other players on the team and see if the QB was put in a position to win the game — and then, if they were able to get it done.
I could point to the other playoff wins by rookies and how they were carried by their defenses and special teams units. Instead, however, I am going to compare two of the biggest failures of the regular season to two other games from Patriots history.
Let’s first take a look at the Indianapolis Colts game. Jones was terrible in the first three quarters, and the Patriots dug themselves a considerable hole. The offense finally found some life, however, and was down only three points with just over two minutes left in the game, with one timeout and the two-minute warning still in New England’s pocket. A three-and-out by the defense, and the Patriots would have a chance to tie or win the game.
That seemed like an awful lot to ask, but let’s go back to 2013, when the Patriots played the Denver Broncos. The Patriots opened the game with two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. They went into the half down 24-0, and it seemed like the game was over. In true Tom Brady fashion, the Patriots came out and scored 31 straight points to start the second half.
During that stretch, the Patriots forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, and forced two Denver punts. The Broncos would score to tie the game at 31, and send it to overtime, where the teams both got two possessions, and had to punt. What happened is well known: the second Patriots punt hit an unaware Broncos player, New England fell on it and won. It was an amazing comeback, but one that would have not been possible if the defense didn’t step up and make the stops necessary for the Patriots to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves in the first place.
The second game to look at is the second regular season game against the Bills. You know, the first game where the Bills didn’t punt and reached the red zone on every possession.
Mac Jones and the offense started slowly in this one as well, and trailed 17-7 at halftime. All the Patriots’ offense did in the second half was score touchdowns on its first two drives. The problem is, the Bills scored on both of their possessions as well, keeping their lead at 25-21. Buffalo was getting the ball back with just over 7:30 left in the game, and a stop would still have given the Patriots another — possibly final — chance to take the lead.
Bills QB Josh Allen nearly threw a pass that hit J.C. Jackson in the hands, but he dropped it. Buffalo would march down the field on a 13-play, 75-yard drive to extend its lead. The Patriots would get the ball back down 12 with just over two minutes left in the game, and virtually no chance of winning. After picking up one fourth down, a heave towards the end zone was picked off, and the Patriots would lose 33-21.
Let’s compare that to one of the most famous games of the Tom Brady era: the epic comeback against the New Orleans Saints, again in 2013.
Everyone remembers the touchdown throw to Kenbrell Thompkins, but this was a back-and-forth game. The Patriots, up three in the fourth quarter, had a drive stall inside the New Orleans 5-yard line, and settled for a field goal. The Saints would then drive down the field and score a touchdown taking a one-point lead.
The Patriots got the ball back and immediately went three-and-out deep in their own end. The defense did not allow a first down and forced the Saints to settle for a field goal themselves to keep the deficit at four points. So, Brady went down and won the game, right? Wrong. He went deep to Julian Edelman on the first play and was picked off with 2:16 left on the clock.
The Patriots had only one timeout left, so it seemed like the game might be over. The defense forced yet another three-and-out, and Brady was able to engineer that legendary 70-yard drive to win the game. That series was impressive, but it does not happen without a bunch of help from his defense. Trailing late in the fourth quarter, Brady was unable to get a first down on two possessions, and yet was still able to win the game. That simply isn’t possible without a whole lot of help.
These examples don’t even include the Tuck Rule for Brady, or either Dolphins game this year for Mac Jones (the Dolphins got the ball back with under four minutes up one score and the defense couldn’t get a stop).
This is not to disparage Tom Brady. He’s the greatest football player in NFL history. The point is that even he can’t win games by himself, so judging Jones’ ability to win down the stretch is not really fair when the defense and special teams were unable to get him in those situations to begin with
The bottom line is that the future is indeed bright for the Patriots with Mac Jones under center — just like long-time team captain Matthew Slater said after the playoff loss in Buffalo. Jones is only going to get better. How much better is still to be determined, but, if his rookie year is any indication, he could be a top-10 quarterback in the NFL sooner rather than later.
But even then, just like any other player, he won’t be able to do it alone.