This premise isn’t complicated.
The 2022 New England Patriots have shown moments of something between competency and home-run ability in all 3 phases of the game. Their playoff chances will come down to whether they can put them all together for a few weeks or not.
Before the Turkey Day game against Minnesota, it would’ve been fair to wonder if the offense had finally settled into permanent 2020 FUBAR condition, but after putting up 409 yards of total offense and, perhaps most importantly, zero turnovers in the air or on the ground, there’s a competent offense in there somewhere. And while you’d be correct to note that the Vikings defense Mac Jones bounced back against is decidedly meh, they’re also not, let’s say, the Houston Texans. Minnesota ranks 19th in points allowed, they’re somehow tied for fifth in turnovers (with, ironically, the Patriots), they’re 17th in passing touchdowns allowed, and they’re 21st in rushing touchdowns allowed.
Put another way, the Vikes are basically the Mendoza Line of NFL defenses. If Mac and the Patriots offense can hang almost 400 passing yards on ‘em and can play turnover-free football to boot, they should be able to hang with just about anyone on the rest of the schedule.
Is it foolish to put that much stock in a single game? Probably. Is it any less foolish to compare what happened last week to what happened over the last 2 months of the season when half the games were Bailey Zappe and the offensive staff doing their best to re-configure the game plans for a kid that was at Western Kentucky this time last year? Also probably.
In all likelihood, like everything, the truth’s probably somewhere in the middle. We do, however, have at least one confirmed instance that this thing can work, in a “Doc tinkering with the DeLorean until it can hit 1.21 jigawatts” sort of way.
The defense, meanwhile, not only can dominate the highlight reel every week, which is always fun, but perhaps more importantly, they’ve definitively proven that they can keep the games tight enough to give New England a puncher’s chance. Like we hinted at earlier, the Pats defense ranks fifth in the entire league in takeaways with 18, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, and Seattle Seahawks. They’re sixth in points allowed on the season, with a wee three points separating New England and the golden boy new-hotness Bills.
And in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which measures how a unit performs based on the quality (or lack thereof) of their opponents, New England checks in at 2nd overall. Switch it up to Weighted DVOA, which puts more emphasis on recent games than, let’s say, getting blasted by the Ravens in Week 3, and the Patriots reign supreme at #1.
You can also make the argument that Mathew Judon and Kyle Dugger and Jonathan Jones and Jack Jones and the rest of them have been fortunate to beat up on a recent string of bad quarterbacks. You’d be right, and I’d also counter that with “beating up on bad quarterbacks and bad teams is what you’re supposed to do.” Besides, you’ve watched the games. Your eyes aren’t lying to you. These defensive guys are good, and they’re mean, and they can frequently swing a whole game between turnovers and choking out drives. The eye test matches any stat you want to point out.
And now, our nation turns our famished eyes to special teams. In the punt return game, the Pats are ranked 14th in return yards allowed. Kick return coverage is... well, frankly, kind of a disaster; they rank a dismal 28th in kick return yards allowed, although a 97-yard kick-return touchdown courtesy of Minnesota’s Kene Nwangwu will do that to you. On the flip side, the Patriots are the NFL’s best team in racking up punt return yards of their own, and a not-too-shabby eighth in kickoff return yardage.
The punter situation is just as bad as you think; next-man-up Michael Palardy is only averaging 40.0 net yards per punt, which, let’s put it this way: NFL.com makes you click over to a second page of punters just to find him. And Jake Bailey, before he got shut down, was, believe it or not, somehow worse.
Fortunately, before special teams as a whole turns into a tragic case study in “life is tough when you suck”, the saving grace is exactly who you think it is. Despite a brutal outing against the New York Football Jets, Nick Folk currently has made the most field goals in the entire NFL, tied with the Ravens’ Justin Tucker at 24. All those field goals combine to give the Pats’ special teams as a whole the 9th overall ranking in the aforementioned Football Outsiders Special Teams DVOA, which... if you’ve seen some of what passes for special teams in this league, you can win with that. I wish I could take credit for this joke, but as long as special teams aren’t tackling like stormtroopers, special teams should still be a net asset for this team, even if field goal after field goal gets old fast unless you have Folk on your fantasy team.
So, like we’ve all more than likely gathered from obsessing over these games at this point: defense, elite. Special teams, certainly good enough to party. And offense... it’s at least popped a few times, and perhaps more importantly, the latest sign of hope came when Mac’s hopefully mostly finished battling through that gnarly ankle sprain:
(I’m not a doctor. But she is)
Mac Jones came back 4 weeks after what was, I’m sorry, CLEARLY more than just a moderate high ankle sprain. I agree he looks like his footwork has regressed, very likely the injury has something to do with it. (Like how a thumb injury is affecting Rodgers’ accuracy) https://t.co/Z8atzIUp2E— DocFlynn (@DocFlynnNFL) November 30, 2022
We’re all thinking it, unless you checked out for the season already: if the offense can just be... what is it that the kids say? Mid? If the offense could just be mid, instead of bad? Like they just showed us they could be? The rest of this season could go pretty respectably after all.
I mean, even if you chalk up both of the Bills games to Ls, which, that’s probably fair, who’s to say any of these other games aren’t a coin flip at worst?
This team has the horses to hang with most, if not all of the rest of the league — if they can get all three phases of the game to click on the same Sunday (or, this week, Thursday). So far, that’s rarely, if ever, been the case.
If there’s a time to do it — while the Pats still have a chance to end the season with double-digit wins that’ll largely hinge on whether they can put some freaking points on the board or not — that time is now. It has to be.