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Sunday Patriots Notes: Looking for New England connections in Super Bowl LVII

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the rest of the NFL.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Only two teams are left standing in the 2022 NFL season, and they will square off on Sunday in Super Bowl LVII. All eyes will naturally be on the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, but we will still continue to do what we always do: keep our focus on the New England Patriots.

So with that said, let’s clean out this week’s notebook in what will be our final in-season edition of this year’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

Looking for New England connections in the Super Bowl: When the Chiefs take on the Eagles on Sunday, Super Bowl rings are on the line for a handful of former Patriots. In total, four men have prior connections to the organization — all of them on the Kansas City side of things.

Joe Thuney: The Chiefs’ starting left guard entered the league as a third-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2016 and played a key role in the franchise’s two most recent Super Bowl wins. Thuney started all 90 of the games he played in during his time in New England, proving himself an ironman and one of the best guards in the league. He joined Kansas City as a free agent in 2020, and will make his 38th start for the club on Sunday.

Brendan Daly: While far from a household name, the Chiefs’ linebackers coach is one of the most successful assistant coaches in the NFL. He won three Super Bowls in New England between 2014 and 2018, serving initially as a defensive assistant and later the team’s defensive line coach. Daly left for Kansas City in 2019 and promptly earned another title. Not only will he compete for his fifth ring on Sunday, he also has appeared in every AFC Championship Game and seven of nine Super Bowls since 2014.

Jonathan Howard: A member of the Chiefs’ college scouting department, Howard spent eight seasons in New England. He started out as a scouting assistant in 2013 before moving to college scout in 2015. Howard, who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, left for Carolina after the 2020 season and one year later found his way to Kansas City.

Rick Burkholder: Burkholder is Kansas City’s vice president of sports medicine, and his connection to the Patriots is the most marginal of the four men listed here. He served as a summer intern with the team’s training staff in 1986.

Beyond those four men there are other connections to the New England area with both the Chiefs and the Eagles. However, they comes mostly through the college level.

Frank Clark is closing in on Willie McGinest: Chiefs edge defender Frank Clark could earn his second Super Bowl ring on Sunday, and he also is in a position to move up the all-time leaderboard in postseason sacks. At the moment, he stands at 13.5 — third most in the league since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

The two men ahead of Clark include former Patriot Willie McGinest, who notched a record 16 takedowns in the playoffs between 1994 and 2008. Buffalo’s Bruce Smith is ranked second with 14.5.

Clark overtaking both men on Sunday is certainly possible, but unlikely. Philadelphia fields arguably the best offensive line in the NFL today, and has surrendered just two sacks in its first two postseason contests.

Patriots have their fair share of memories of Glendale: Super Bowl LVII will be the third time the big game will take place in Glendale, Arizona. The previous two both involved the Patriots — for better or worse.

The team took on the New York Giants in February 2008, trying to finish its perfect season with a victory in Super Bowl XLII. However, the 18-0 Patriots were upset with a final score of 17-14, losing their first Super Bowl of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.

Seven years after their defeat at the hands of the Giants, the Patriots returned to what was known as University of Phoenix Stadium at the time. The result was a different one: thanks to a frantic fourth-quarter rally and Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception, the team was able to pull out a 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

New England will host both Super Bowl teams in 2023: From the “looking ahead” department: the Patriots will play hosts to both the Chiefs and the Eagles during the 2023 regular season. While the game against Kansas City will take place at Gillette Stadium, the one versus Philadelphia is no lock to be played in Foxborough.

With New England set to host one contest in Germany this fall, the NFL might decide to send this particular matchup abroad. If so, it would be the Patriots’ second Super Bowl rematch outside the U.S. after a 2012 matchup in London between them and the then-St. Louis Rams.

Rob Gronkowski thinks ‘sky can be the limit’ for Mac Jones: The Patriots were mostly a footnote in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, but every now and then they were mentioned nonetheless. Former New England tight end Rob Gronkowski’s media availability as a FOX Sports analyst was one such occasion.

Among the topics brought up during his time at the podium was his view on the team’s current quarterback, Mac Jones.

“He had a great rookie season,” Gronkowski said about Jones. “Obviously, it kind of went downhill a little bit, but I really feel like sky can be the limit for him as well. In order to be successful as a player, sometimes you just have to be in the right system and I feel like having [Bill O’Brien] come in is going to be the ultimate test.

“If he doesn’t improve under Billy O. then I think the ceiling is closed. But if he improves under Billy O. and uses his talents the right way, I think that he can go as far as he wants.”

A first-round draft pick in 2020, Jones played like a Rookie of the Year candidate during his first season with the Patriots. With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels being replaced by the rather inexperienced Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, however, he took a step back as a sophomore. The hope is that the addition of Bill O’Brien as the new OC will get the young passer back on track.

Bailey Zappe, Tyquan Thornton are back in New England: While most of the eyes are on Glendale these days, the Patriots’ own players are currently going through their offseason routines. Two of them are quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, who recently held a throwing session at Gillette Stadium:

Zappe and Thornton both arrived in New England as part of the team’s 2022 draft class. Zappe enters 2023 as the Patriots’ No. 2 quarterback behind Mac Jones, while Thornton will be competing for starter-level reps at the wide receiver position.

Ex-Patriot Rich Ohrnberger sees an issue with ever-changing O-line coaches: With Matt Patricia not holding onto his coaching roles from 2022 into 2023, the Patriots will see change at several spots on their staff. The aforementioned Bill O’Brien will take over his role as play-caller, with Adrian Klemm was recently hired from the University of Oregon set to fill in as offensive line coach.

Klemm’s addition marks yet another change for the position group. Long-time assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia retired after the 2019 season, handing the job over to the duo of Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich. Popovich left the team the following offseason, with Bricillo departing a year later.

The Patriots then gave the keys to the offensive line to the now-outgoing Patricia and assistant Billy Yates. Whether or not — and in what capacity — Yates will be back remains to be seen, but the revolving door among the O-line coaching ranks could become an issue for the unit; that is at least what former New England offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger recently said on the Next Pats Podcast.

“Communication is such a key with offensive linemen. Having different voices in front of the room every single year for the last five years or so, it’s difficult,” Ohrnberger explained. “I have the utmost respect for Matt Patricia; I played for him, he’s a brilliant coach. Billy Yates, I played with him, I think a lot of his intelligence and his ability to communicate because he was a veteran when I was coming in and he definitely helped my development as a young offensive lineman. And I can see the reason why he found coaching as a path in his second career, because he was excellent in that role.

“But the reality is Bill wants to create an environment of competition at every single level of the football culture, and that includes the coaching staff. And so, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about receivers, or we’re talking about long snappers, or we’re talking about edge rushers or quarterbacks or offensive line coaches. If he thinks he can get even a fraction better by making a personnel choice — and even a difficult personnel choice — he’ll make that decision and he’s proven it over and over again. It doesn’t shock me, but the lack of consistency can hurt your team.”

The Patriots have not yet made any announcements when it comes to their staff, other than making the hire of Bill O’Brien official. The belief, however, is that Klemm will take over as offensive line coach; Yates, who was part of New England’s coaching contingent at the East-West Shrine Bowl, could return as assistant O-line coach.