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This is where we hoped the New England Patriots would be

Related: Who should the Patriots want to play in the first playoff round?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

So, the first draft of this article was titled “This is where we thought the Patriots would be”. That was after a humiliating loss the day after Christmas, in a game that felt far more lopsided than the final score would indicate, to the new-rich-kids-on-the-block-whose-parents-bought-them-a-Camaro Buffalo Bills.

The vibe was one of frustration that only a division game can bring, where the classic “just didn’t make as many plays as we needed to” was maybe the only fitting explanation. Then, a few Winter Lagers and a delayed flight or two later, calmer heads had prevailed, and the realization that while all was not lost, maybe the 2021 New England Patriots, for all their improvement as the season went on and trending towards the Belichickian ideal of “play your best football in January” was simply still not finished with their Luke-Skywalker-on-Dagobah-doing-Jedi-stuff phase.

Then came arguably the closest thing to a varsity-JV scrimmage to get some bad juju out that a modern NFL team can hope for: a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while most of New England would’ve been perfectly content to punch a playoff ticket with a win of any kind at all, the Patriots did one better: they dealt the Jags a crosscheck-after-crosscheck into the boards beatdown that you usually only see in a “D2: Best of the Bash Brothers” montage. As we’ve said in both Brady and non-Brady seasons around here before, giving a 60-minute atomic wedgie to bad football teams is what you’re supposed to do.

You all saw the games, you know how they went. Both of those games back-to-back, though, seemed to be as good of a shot-chaser reminder as any that this is what almost any rational New Englander saw as the second-most ideal outcome* once the Patriots declared it was the Mac Jones Era™:

(*first-most ideal outcome, obviously, being going full Burn Them All on the rest of the NFL from Day 1, which, if that had happened, the Avengers may have to get involved on behalf of the rest of the football universe)

Growing from a team that looked at first like it’d be dual-major study in “Can’t win the Super Bowl in free agency” and also “Bill Belichick drafts like Austin Powers plays blackjack” early on in the season, to “wins the games they’re supposed to win, almost always decisively so, and has a legit puncher’s chance with everybody else”

And even that was more or less a best-case scenario going into this season. If the 2020 campaign proved anything, it’s that even a Belichick-coached team doesn’t necessarily have a defined floor. And that’s in both an overall wins-and-losses sense, and also in the sense that at more than a few points of the 2020 season, the squad surely dreaded Monday film day in all 3 phases of the game. Whether or not you buy Bill Belichick’s explanation that he needed to reload on talent and reset some cap space and decided to just take it on the chin last year instead of dragging it out, an infusion of skill was the only way to get back in title contention. Or even division contention, really.

Obviously everyone remembers the fever dream that was the few weeks between 2021 free agency and the NFL Draft, so there’s no need to recap any of those, but the Patriots’ choice to roll into the season starting a rookie quarterback was a doubling-down on the entire offseason approach of “more money, less problems”. And like we said a second ago, none of these moves were guaranteed to work! Far from it. The average NFL team that wins on Day 1 of free agency by adding all the guys you know from Madden frequently immediately regrets that decision, in the Ron Burgundy sense of immediate regret, and going through the list of 1st-round rookie quarterbacks over the last several seasons might be spookier than any of the true crime podcasts. This season, as the Patriots built and prepared for it, was always going to be a high-variance endeavor.

We all know the record from last year — the Jeff Fisher Special — and all the other sore spots like Cam’s TD:INT ratio and the defense that finished pretty respectably in a lot of the counting stats like Passing TDs allowed and Passing Yards allowed, but got consistently gashed on the ground and, perhaps most importantly, always seemed to find a way to give up 4 on 3rd & 3. The advanced stats aren’t any kinder; the 2020 Patriots finished a pathetic 22nd in Football Outsiders DVOA metric — 23rd on offense, 26th on defense, and 1st (!!!) on special teams. All that is a kinder way of saying, all your jokes about Jake Bailey and Gunner Olszewski being the real MVPs were both funny and factually correct.

Those same DVOA metrics this season? Glad you asked.

  • Offensive DVOA: 10th
  • Defensive DVOA: 2nd
  • Special Teams DVOA: 21st (I don’t know how they suddenly forgot how special teams work, either)

And the onion ring in the curly fries here is Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which puts more emphasis on later-season games than, oh, I don’t know, let’s just say, getting wrecked by the Jameis Winston Saints and that kind of foolishness, has the Patriots at No. 1. Not a typo.

Meaning that relative to their strength of schedule, for most of the latter half of the season, the Patriots were as close to a sure shot as it gets, as far as beating who they were supposed to beat and giving everyone else hell.

Just how much have the 2021 Patriots rounded into form? Here’s some more counting stats to drive the point home on how the team’s taking care of business, in the Megadeth sense of the expression:

(excellent combo! Score points and don’t let the other team score them!)

Those are all absolutely cherry-picked and obviously (and deliberately) avoid a lot of Mac Jones’ passing stats to drive home the point that this is almost certainly what Bill Belichick had in mind. We could spill a whole ‘nother 2,000 words on Mac’s performance and improvement over the course of his rookie campaign, but the point is, all the evidence points towards Bill and the Patriots deciding to bet heavy (pun intended) on balance, limited mistakes, hellacious defense, ball control, and (gulp) doing your job.

Mastering more situations than whoever was next on the schedule. Executing at a high enough level in a balanced offense that they can attack teams in multiple ways instead of depending on a laser-show 55-pass effort every weekend. And defense and special teams executing at a level that’d make the aforementioned patient, balanced, one-chess-move-at-a-time offense a feasible option and not a prime Andy Reid “you realize you have only X amount of time to score more points than the other team, right?” clusterf--k.

That approach may have landed with a bit of a thud early in the season, as Belichick-coached teams this millennium often do, and then - and this can’t be emphasized enough - a lot of the Patriots and Bill Belichick’s educated guesses started paying dividends. Some free agents, like Matt Judon, produced on the stat sheet almost immediately, logging 6.5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss in his first 5 games as a Patriot. Others, like wildcard free agent DB Jalen Mills, took a minute to catch on, but have finished the season with an absolute vengeance:

And we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t give the proper, um, props to the rookie class, who are shaping up to be easily the best draft class to grace Gillette Stadium with their presence in years:

Mac Jones, who has started all 16 games so far this season, has not been excellent by fantasy football standards, but has slayed relative to his expectations and established himself as the high-floor prospect everyone hoped he’d turn out to be:

Rookie DT Christian Barmore, who’s still only playing under 60 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps as of this week, has done as much as he can to live up to his declaration to make everyone else feel his pain:

And of course, we’d be remiss to not mention preseason All-Star Rhamondre Stevenson, who apparently is on a mission to prove he’s a Madden created player in limited snaps in both the running and passing game, while splitting time with established Mack-Truck Damien Harris:

The point here, as much as it might seem a bit circle-jerky, isn’t just to look around and be grateful for what the 2021 New England Patriots have built, although there’s plenty of value and gratitude to be found in that too. It’s that for as much as constructing a team and developing said team often get reduced to dice rolls and, in the case of the draft, lottery tickets, there’s still building that needs to be done by the coaches and veterans.

There’s still growth during the season that has to be deliberately pushed to the limit and also brought along at a pace that won’t force the players to bite off more than they can chew. And for as many NFL teams start out blazing hot and then either get complacent or get figured out (or some combination of both), the Belichick standard is to get tougher, smarter, and get better at your job as the season progresses. Doesn’t matter if you’re 22 years old or if you’re coming off a career year. That’s the expectation. And last year, those expectations were not met, on any level.

This season, the 2021 Patriots have clinched a playoff spot with one game left to play, and while clinching the No. 1 seed in the upcoming playoffs appears to be borderline impossible, the enormity of what the 2021 players and coaches have accomplished deserves to be recognized as living up to a borderline-impossible ideal. They’ve punched their ticket to the postseason, one season removed from a losing record and two seasons removed from losing THE GREATEST PLAYER IN THE HISTORY OF THE SPORT, and they appear to be hardwired to give anyone they encounter in the postseason all 60 minutes of a steel cage fight when the playoff seeding is all said and done.

None of that was guaranteed. Quite the contrary; this squad making any noise at all was both a series of dice-rolls and an all-in bet that this coaching staff could take a collection of talent and build them up to levels that, dare we say, live up to the completely unrealistic expectations of this region of football fans. This isn’t supposed to happen. Rebuilds aren’t supposed to be as easy as this year’s Patriots are making it look. And yet, this year’s Patriots have made all of us that would’ve been happy with gradual progress (pointing at myself here) look silly.

This team wants to make noise in the playoffs, and has the weaponry all around to do so. And that’s, in our second-wildest dreams, exactly what we hoped that the 2021 New England Patriots would be.