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Sunday Patriots Notes: One of the biggest games of the post-Tom Brady era awaits

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL on Oct. 8.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots have lost thee of their first four games of the season, including a 38-3 blowout to the Dallas Cowboys last week. Needless to say, they need to start building some momentum quickly if they want to be in the playoff conversation later in the year — starting with this Sunday’s game versus the visiting New Orleans Saints.

Naturally, all of our focus this week was on this particular game. For anything else we might not have covered just yet, let’s clean out the notebook. Welcome to the latest edition of our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. Patriots-Saints might be one of the biggest games of the post-Tom Brady era: The Patriots’ loss to the Cowboys in Week 4 raised quite a bit of questions about the team, both in the short and the long term. The most prominent among them surround quarterback Mac Jones, who played the worst football of his career in Dallas.

Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien appears to think that the three-turnover outing was an outlier for the young QB — one not representative of the player that Jones is and can be. Whether or not that is true will be seen, starting on Sunday against the Saints.

From that perspective, the game versus New Orleans might be one of the biggest of the Patriots’ post-Tom Brady era.

A win would not silence all the criticism around the team, but it might serve as a springboard for building some much-needed momentum and confidence — both for the team and for Jones individually. A loss, on the other hand, would drop New England to 17-20 with Jones as its starting QB, and 8-16 since the 2021 bye week. It also might lead to some uncomfortable discussions about the long-term direction of the team.

The pressure is therefore on the young passer and his coaches. They need to show that the Cowboys game was indeed a one-off affair, that Jones still has potential to turn into a long-term solution at the most important position on the field, and that the organization is rebuilding toward relevance rather than mediocrity.

Now in Year 4 of the post-Tom Brady era, after all, there are serious questions about that third point. The Saints game will not definitively answer them, but it will be a test of mental strength and straight-up ability unlike few the team has faced in recent memory.

2. Matthew Slater speaks on the importance of blocking out the noise: Operating in a social media society, the ability to put on the blinders and filtering out the noise is as important as ever before in NFL history. That is especially true for a team like the Patriots — coming off a devastating loss and facing questions about the future of the team.

After the Cowboys game, team captain Matthew Slater therefore spoke on the importance of staying focused and on course even with criticism just one click away.

“It’s so important that we learn to block certain things out,” he said. “We allow people — and I say we in society — to have influence and say-so over our lives that, in a lot of cases, we’ll never meet. We’re allowing the opinions of some men and women to hold us prisoner. And these are people that we’ll never meet, we’ll never interact with. They’ll never affect the way we live our day-to-day lives. However, we become a slave to their opinion. And if you operate in a way where you’re constantly vying for the approval of someone or something you will be a slave to that for the entirety of your life.

“Because no man who has ever walked the face of the planet has had the approval of every person they’ve crossed paths with, or every person that looks into their lives from whatever view it may be. We have to have enough maturity to understand that. We have to have enough maturity to navigate that and realize, ‘Hey, there are very few opinions that actually matter in life when it comes to your life, your profession, your family, and you need to know whose opinions really matter and how to apply them.’ And then everything else is just background noise.”

3. The J.C. Jackson trade is classic Patriots: New England bolstered its cornerback group last week, reacquiring former Pro Bowl J.C. Jackson via trade from the Los Angeles Chargers. The move itself is peak Patriots: bringing back a player whose value has diminished but who knows the system and customs around the organization.

Through the years, the Patriots did the same with players such as the recently retired Jamie Collins, LeGarrette Blount, or Trent Brown — getting positive results out of all those moves. The hope is that Jackson will follow in their footsteps, starting on Sunday.

4. Trent Brown has been one bright spot along the Patriots O-line: The Patriots’ offensive line has struggled through four games this season, and has been a big part of the team’s issues on that side of the ball. Not all was bad, however: left tackle Trent Brown is a bright spot, and playing like one of the better players in the league at his position.

If there is one graph to illustrate his success, it is the following: Brown is one of the best blockers in the league when left on an island — something New England is doing on slightly below 70 percent of snaps.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the same success is not found on the right side of the line. Calvin Anderson and especially Vederian Lowe have struggled mightily, with Lowe’s sub 65-percent success rate one of the worst in football.

5. Riley Reiff’s return could shake up the offensive line again, in more ways than one: Even though he had an uninspiring summer, Riley Reiff might be counted on to turn into a viable option at right tackle. Coming off injured reserve on Saturday, he will be given a chance to compete for the starting spot.

Of course, as Pats Pulpit’s own Taylor Kyles pointed out, having him back into the mix might also have the potential to shake up the O-line in other ways: Reiff might move back to guard — a position he played late in training camp — which might prompt the Patriots to push Michael Onwenu or even Cole Strange to tackle.

Both those moves seem unlikely at this point, but the Patriots need to do something to get their ailing line back on a positive track.

6. David Andrews speaks highly of Riley Reiff: Reiff’s return was one of the bigger stories of the week, and something center David Andrews also touched on during a media session. The team captain had nothing but praise for the 34-year-old.

“Riley, he’s been a great teammate all spring and all summer,” Andrews said. “Obviously, a veteran guy. Another Iowa guy, but I’ve really enjoyed having Riley’s perspective, his presence out there. Obviously, kind of unfortunate what happened — that’s part of it — but he can do a lot for us.

“I really love the way he puts the team first, playing guard this summer. He’s a 12-year veteran, only played tackle and now playing guard. Really respect that about him. He can obviously help our football team.”

7. Atonio Mafi is trending in the right direction: Fifth-round rookie guard Atonio Mafi has seen extensive action so far this season, seeing the field in place of both starting guards — Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu — this season. His performances have been uneven, but that did not stop Bill Belichick from lauding the youngster for his work on and off the field.

“I think he just keeps growing through his whole career,” said the Patriots’ head coach. “Started as a defensive lineman, played one year at UCLA on the offensive line. You know, we had him out at the East-West game. Even his growth from the East-West game, to the spring, to training camp was a lot. He’s been out there every day. He works hard. He’s a smart kid. He’s really smart. He just doesn’t have a lot of experience playing on the offensive line, but gets better every day, doesn’t repeat a lot of mistakes.

“There’s just some things he hasn’t seen a lot of. The more he sees them, the quicker he reacts to them. He’s grown in all areas — fundamentals, just overall awareness, recognition and playing against different types of players — some guys inside are big, powerful guys, and there’s other guys, especially when they kick ends inside in passing situations, those ends move inside. ... It’s a different type of player to block, so those different matchups and different pass rush games, it’s a lot at that position.”

Mafi was one of three offensive linemen drafted by the Patriots this year, and so far seen the most opportunities of the trio. And according to Belichick, he has made the most of them.

“He gets better every day,” he said. “He’s got a good future, if he keeps working hard and keep working on his fundamentals and just be a really good fundamental, technique player, he’s got a chance.”

8. The Patriots’ safety group is one the most versatile in the NFL: The Patriots love their defensive backs to be able to wear multiple hats, and the numbers reflect this. Their top three safeties all found their way onto a list of most versatile defenders in football:

Jabrill Peppers and Kyle Dugger are the Patriots’ starting safeties this season, with Adrian Phillips being used in more of a part-time role so far. Regardless of their level of exposure, however, the three of them have shown they are do-it-all players.

9. Patriots fan confidence has reached a new low: Let’s take a look at SB Nation’s latest Reacts survey. This week, fans were asked about their confidence level in the Patriots and the numbers look what you would expect from a team getting blown out 38-3: only 13 percent of fans feel confident in the team’s direction at the moment.

Please sign up here to participate in future surveys.

10. Setting up the week ahead: Following their game against the Saints, the Patriots will turn their attention to the upcoming bout with the Las Vegas Raiders. They will return to the practice fields on Wednesday, and release their first practice report of the week later that day. They will then practice again on Thursday and Friday, before a walkthrough and flight to Nevada on Saturday. Kickoff against the Raiders is set for 4:05 p.m. ET on Oct. 15.

Besides their game preparation, the Patriots also could opt to bring some players back to practice and/or the active roster. Wide receiver Tyquan Thornton and cornerback Jack Jones are already eligible to return to practice since last week, and the wideout in particular might be a candidate for a return.

Additionally, defensive end Trey Flowers and special teamer Cody Davis returned last week but remain on the physically unable to perform list. The Patriots have only 21 days to activate them, and the clock will keep ticking this week.

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