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Sunday Patriots Notes: Trying to find some normalcy in the abnormal

Patriots vs. Bills: News, analysis, injuries, previews, final score, and more

NFL: JAN 01 Dolphins at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The past week has been a unique one for the entire NFL.

Following Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest in the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game in Cincinnati, the league slowed down a bit. This process included not just the two teams involved in the incident, but also the New England Patriots: they will play in Buffalo on Sunday with a playoff spot potentially on the line.

Under normal circumstances we would have plenty of pre-game analysis online here at Pats Pulpit. We’d be crafting a game plan, looking at the opponent’s roster in detail, analyze the roster ties and series history, and ask the SB Nation counterpart to provide a different perspective. Given Hamlin’s collapse and the uncertainty that followed, however, we thought it best to tone down our coverage heading into the game.

This week’s Sunday Notes will not be making up for that, but it will revisit some of the stories that were never published on top of addressing the usual stories that emerged during the week.

Patriots are trying to find normalcy in the abnormal: Week 18 was a turbulent one for New England, mainly because of the uncertainty surrounding the Hamlin situation. At the end of the day, however, the club still had to operate under a somewhat normal schedule: with the game in Buffalo not rescheduled despite some speculation that it might be, the Patriots had to get ready to play one of the NFL’s best teams on Sunday.

The stakes are, of course, high. A win over the Bills will secure New England a spot in the playoffs. A loss, and they will need to rely on Miami and Pittsburgh losing their respective games against New York and Cleveland.

As a result, the Patriots had to find a way to get into business-as-usual mode — something they did according to head coach Bill Belichick.

“Everybody has their own internal feelings and emotions on this,” Belichick said on Friday. “I can’t speak for each individual player how they feel or anything like that. But both days we’ve had, it’s not normal but it’s the Wednesday and Thursday practice. That’s what it’s been. I wouldn’t say they’re abnormal.

“The circumstances are abnormal, but I’d say if you just look out on the field and didn’t know whether it was January, whatever it is 5th, 6th, or October whatever. I don’t know if you would see a lot of difference on what you would see on the field.”

New England’s quest to find normalcy in what has been an unprecedented situation for all players involved might very much determine the team’s fate on Sunday. Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium, after all, will be an emotional scene in honor of Hamlin.

Through it all, the Patriots know they have to keep focused on playing their game.

“You just try to go through it the best you can,” said safety Adrian Phillips. “Talk to the players on the other side, let them know you’re praying for them, then you just go out there and have the mindset to win the game. That’s pretty much all you can do. Just be in the moment at the time, just understand that we all have a desire to be in the playoffs, and we have to do what we have to do to get to the playoffs.”

New England gets some first help on Saturday: As noted above, the Patriots have two paths into the playoffs. In order to earn the only spot left available in the AFC, they either have to beat Buffalo or hope for other games to go their way.

One of those already went down in their favor. As part of Saturday’s double-header, the Patriots received some help from the Jacksonville Jaguars: their 20-16 win over the Tennessee Titans eliminated one of three potential spoilers from the equation.

The only teams left standing that could still leapfrog the currently seventh-seeded Patriots are the aforementioned Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers. Like New England, they are 8-8 but would be losing out on tiebreakers if they do not finish with a better record.

Punter becomes a position to watch heading into 2023: While the Damar Hamlin situation was front and center throughout the week, it was not the only reason for the Patriots’ week being an eventful one. The team, after all, also suspended two of its players: cornerback Jack Jones and punter Jake Bailey.

While Jones’ suspension stems from missed rehabilitation appointments while recovering from a knee injury, Bailey’s is different. Per reports, it has to do with different viewpoints on his potential return from injured reserve. To add to the story, his agent announced on Saturday that he has also failed a grievance against the organization as a result.

At the end of the day, the result could very well be Bailey having played his last game as a Patriot. This, in turn, puts punter back on the list of positions to watch in 2023.

How it will be addressed remains to be seen, but the there is a scenario where New England’s special teams operation will experience some significant turnover this coming offseason.

Not only is Bailey likely headed out the door, long snapper Joe Cardona is also an unrestricted free agent. Kicker Nick Folk remains under contract but has had his struggles down the stretch. Furthermore, long-time captain Matthew Slater as well as Cody Davis could be headed for retirement. Add the future of coordinator Cam Achord not being certain as well, and you have a lot of question marks.

Re-signing with the Patriots is “kind of my dream” for pending free agent Jakobi Meyers: In the locker room after the 23-21 win over the Dolphins, fourth-year wide receiver Jakobi Meyers was asked about his contract status; Meyers is set to enter unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career in mid-March. While he acknowledged that anything is possible, he also made it clear that his preferred outcome would be to stay put.

“I’m hoping so. That’s the ultimate world. That’s kind of my dream,” he said before falling back to the team’s usual modus operandi. “But you never know. At the end of the day, I just try to take it day by day. If I’m here, I’m here.”

Meyers originally joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie out of N.C. State in 2019. Despite a lack of draft pedigree and facing competition from first-round pick N’Keal Harry, he was able to make the roster as a backup option at the receiver position.

Four years later, Meyers is the team’s most productive wideout. Having caught 64 passes for 771 yards and a career-high five touchdowns despite missing three games with injuries, he is well on his way to lead New England in receiving for a third straight year — a feat last accomplished by franchise legend Wes Welker.

“Jakobi has had a career like some other players at that position have had here,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about him. “Rookie free agent, wasn’t drafted, low expectations. Came in, made the team. Not really sure how good it was going to be. Kept improving, kept working. Quarterback going to receiver. Learned a lot. Played with some other good players and coaches.

“He’s worked hard and gotten better every year and expanded what he can do. Whether it’s blocking the running game, run option-type routes, go down the field, make plays in single coverage outside, he’s got a good feel. He’s got a good concentration. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s come through for us in a lot of big situations, but his progression has been a pretty steady incline since he got here coming out of college at N.C. State, after he converted from quarterback to receiver. He just works hard, keeps grinding, keeps getting better.”

Against the Dolphins, Meyers once agains played a prominent role for New England. Being on the field for 49 offensive snaps (82%), he caught a team-leading six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.

He did get banged up on that scoring play in the fourth quarter and was unable to finish the game because of shoulder injury, but Meyers said that he would expect to be ready for the Patriots’ regular season finale in Buffalo. Given his rapport with quarterback Mac Jones, having him in the lineup would be good news for a New England offense looking to build some late-season momentum.

“It is always good when you catch stride,” Meyers said on Sunday. “It does not matter when you do it.”

The Mac Jones-Tyquan Thornton connection is showing some growth: Tyquan Thornton’s first season with the Patriots has been a rollercoaster so far. The rookie wide receiver had some stretches of solid play and regular opportunities, but also has been quiet in several games.

All in all, he has caught 21 passes for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A significant portion of that production happened on Sunday versus the Dolphins: seeing regular action as a starter-level option, Thornton ended up catching three passes for a team-leading 60 yards and one touchdown.

It was a step in the right direction, coming after what was a challenging Week 16 game versus Cincinnati — one that saw the rookie drop a crucial pass that might have helped New England complete its comeback attempt from 22-0.

“It means a lot,” Thornton said. “Just to step up. I feel like I owed them for last week. So, just to do that for my quarterback, the rest of the offense and the rest of this organization. It means a lot to me.”

The 50th overall selection in the 2022 draft, the speedy Thornton arrived in New England as a potential field stretcher at the wide receiver position — something the team has lacked arguably since the days of Brandin Cooks in 2017. While that has not yet materialized, there is optimism in his ability to reach his potential.

Quarterback Mac Jones’ statements following Sunday’s game speak for themselves and are reflective a connection that is continuing to grow.

“I think he’s a really good route runner, really good, fast, smart kid,” Jones said. “Works hard. Doesn’t complain about anything. Just goes out there and does what he’s supposed to do. We have a lot of guys like that on our team. Just excited to grow with him. He’s a young player. I’m a young player. We’re working every day to get that chemistry. He’s done a great job.

“Definitely we’re going to watch the film together. I always like to tell him things to work on, same thing with him. He’s very comfortable about telling me, ‘Hey, put it here, put it there, let’s try this, try that.’ As a young player, definitely impressed with him. His ability to communicate at a really high level during the games by telling me what he sees, too.”

Jones’ statements were echoed by head coach Bill Belichick.

“He certainly has helped us. It’s good to have him,” he said. “He came back early in the year but he missed so much time early, it took him a little while to catch up on some things. He’s an explosive player that can attack the vertical part of the defense. Fast with run-after-catch opportunities, things like that. But like any rookie, there’s always room for improvement. There’s things he needs to work on and can do better. But he certainly helps us.

“He’s a big target. Obviously Mac likes to throw to him. Big, fast guy. Quarterback-friendly. He’s made some big plays for us. He opens up some other things because of his ability to stretch the field vertically. Hopefully we can hit on him some more going forward.”

New England will know its 2023 opponents on Sunday... Sunday’s slate of games will put a cap on the 2022 regular season, meaning that the Patriots will then know who they will go up again next season. Depending on whether they will finish second or third in the AFC East they could go up against some different opponents.

As for now, they are scheduled to play the following teams in 2023:

Home opponents: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, AFC South, NFC South

Road opponents: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, AFC North

The three undetermined spots can be filled by seven different teams, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s games: Tennessee or Indianapolis (AFC South); New Orleans, Carolina or Atlanta (NFC South); Pittsburgh or Cleveland (AFC North).

...and the first 18 picks of the draft will also be finalized: With the league set to enter playoff mode after the conclusion of the Sunday night game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, 18 teams will officially be headed into the offseason. This also means that the first 18 picks of the 2023 draft will be set.

The 2-13-1 Houston Texans are the frontrunners to earn the No. 1 overall pick, while the Patriots will keep an eye on two clubs: the 5-11 Los Angeles Rams and the 6-10 Carolina Panthers.

Both traded picks to New England, with the Patriots earning a fourth-rounder from L.A. as well as third- and sixth-rounders from Carolina. At the moment, those selections would come in sixth and ninth place in the respective rounds.

Additionally, the Patriots are projected to receive compensatory selections for cornerback J.C. Jackson (fourth), offensive lineman Ted Karras (sixth), and running back Brandon Bolden (seventh). Together with the seventh-rounder arriving via the Jarrett Stidham trade from Las Vegas and their own four picks left in hand, the Patriots might enter the 2023 draft with as many as 11 picks.