The New England Patriots entered their Week 14 bye in early December as arguably the hottest team in the NFL. They had won seven straight games to climb from 2-4 to the top of the standings in both their division and their conference, beating fellow competitors such as the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills along the way.
New England seemed destined for a deep playoff run, but that never happened. Coming out of its bye week, the team ended up losing three of its final four regular season games. It eventually was bounced from the playoffs by the Bills on wild card weekend.
Within a few weeks, the Patriots had gone from one of the best teams in football and a serious Super Bowl pick to one barely making it into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC. So, what had happened?
According to linebacker Matthew Judon, the answer is simple: the team did not play its best down the stretch.
“We just played some good teams, and we weren’t playing our best ball. You can’t do that at the end of the season,” he told 98.5 The Sports Hub on Wednesday. “It’s really no excuse. I wish I could be like, ‘Well, this person got hurt...’ But it wasn’t that.
“It was just [that] we weren’t playing good football, and I think after like two games everybody tried to start making a play. Like, ‘I’m going to be the player that dose this, I’m going to be the player that does that,’ instead of just playing within the defensive scheme and stuff like that. I think that’s what happened.”
Starting in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots started to make the same mistakes that had already plagued them earlier during the season. They fell behind early, turned the football over, and were unable to make the key stops when they had to. As a result, they finished with a 10-7 record before their season-ending 47-17 loss to the Bills.
That game in particular exposed New England’s weaknesses, especially on defense. After ending the regular season as a top-three unit in points allowed and takeaways, it was unable to manufacture even a single stop versus Buffalo’s high-powered attack.
Safety Devin McCourty later expressed the group’s frustration, failing to get the job done regardless of which plays were called by Steve Belichick. Judon echoed these thoughts. He also put the blame for the late-season breakdowns on the players and their execution rather than the scheme or the coaching setup with Belichick and Jerod Mayo essentially serving as co-defensive coordinators.
“We have a system, we have a scheme, and it wasn’t a breakdown in that,” he said. “It was just execution, honestly. You go back and look at the film and look at the big plays we were giving up: if this guy was just in this gap or this guy did this, a lot of those plays shouldn’t have happened. It’s as easy as that.
“The defensive coordinator, whoever was calling the calls, they were calling the right stuff. We’ve just got to execute it, and we’ve got to execute it on every snap. We’d be getting off the field and we’d have good series or we’d look good time to time. But then when we don’t, it looks terrible.”
As for Judon himself, he too took a step back after the bye. After notching at least a half-sack in each of the six games before Week 14, he failed to add to his 12.5 quarterback takedowns over the final five contests of the year.
Judon again pointed to execution albeit on an individual level. While he did acknowledge that he was “football injured,” he downplayed the impact any bumps and bruises might have had.
“I don’t have excuses for anything. If I’m out there, I’m supposed to make plays,” he said. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s who I am. I should have made more plays coming down the stretch. So, I have to get back in the lab. I’ve got to be more in-shape because knowing that — ‘All right, I’m going to get chipped, I’m going to have an extra guy I’ve got to get around’ — any of that, I just have to be ready.”
Despite his comparatively uneven play down the stretch, the 2021 season as a whole was still a success for Judon. He ended his first year with the Patriots as a Pro Bowl selection and posted new career-highs in sacks (12.5) and playing time share (81.3%).