If the season ended today, the New England Patriots would still be on the outside looking in at the playoffs, even after their huge win over the Chargers in Los Angeles. Their quarterback, Mac Jones, is no longer the favorite to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award like he was after Week 1. Yet, in the second year of the post-Tom Brady era in New England, Bill Belichick’s crew has a path to the playoffs in sight.
Off the bat here, we should note that Jones losing his spot as the OROY favorite is through no fault of his own. It’s just that Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has been playing out of his mind this year. In fact, of all rookie quarterbacks out of this year’s stacked draft class, Jones has performed the best so far. He’s got a higher passer rating, more touchdowns, fewer interceptions (of those with more than one start), and, most importantly, more wins than any of his fellow 2021 draftees. He also has by far the biggest win: a close victory on the road against a Chargers team that currently holds the final AFC playoff spot.
Let’s take a look at Jones’ performance from that game. If we only look at the box score, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. He finished 18-of-35 with 218 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions. That’s the lowest completion rate (51.4%) and second-lowest passing yard and passer rating marks of his eight-week career. It just wasn’t the statistical explosion we had expected to see from Jones after back-to-back games completing more than two-thirds of his passes with two touchdowns in each of them. Fortunately for the Alabama product, there was a lot more to his game on Sunday than the stat sheet shows.
Jones began the game leading the Patriots on a 75-yard march to the end zone on their first drive. It was an excellent offensive response to the touchdown drive Justin Herbert and the Chargers had just completed. The rookie quarterback even made a highlight play to set up the score just four plays into the drive with his deep bomb dime to Nelson Agholor.
It wasn’t a sign of more to come, though. Jones looked very shaky with his performance during the middle quarters, including some ugly misfires in goal-line situations in the second quarter.
The fourth quarter came, and along with it were better plays from the Patriots’ rookie. After Herbert threw a pick-six early in the fourth, Jones threw to convert a crucial two-point conversion to put New England up seven with 10 minutes to play. After an L.A. three-and-out, the goal for the Patriots’ next drive was to chew clock and put points on the board. That meant Jones had to limit incompletions and not commit any big errors.
So of course, after his previous 30 minutes of subpar play, Jones goes a perfect 6-of-6 on his pass attempts and leads the Patriots on a nearly seven-minute, 54-yard drive that ended in a field goal. That final drive put New England up 10 with just over two minutes to go. It was the perfect drive for the Patriots, and it ended up winning them the game. The Chargers put together a 99-second touchdown drive, but they were still down three and had to attempt an onside kick, which failed.
Drives like the one Jones led are the kinds of things you wouldn’t see prominently in the box score but are crucial when considering a player’s performance, especially for a quarterback. It won’t count as a game-winning drive for the rookie and box score watchers will say Jones had a terrible game, but it doesn’t change the fact that without Jones’ leadership and complete lack of errors on that drive, New England doesn’t necessarily secure that crucial road win.
To put that victory in perspective, let’s start off with the obvious fact that a 4-4 start to the season looks and feels wayyyyy better than a 3-5 start. Looking ahead at the Patriots’ schedule, it also keeps them in a great spot to nab a playoff berth. New England travels to Carolina next week, where they’ll either face a quarterback with whom Belichick is very familiar or a guy whose best performances were in the XFL. After that, they face a struggling Cleveland Browns team at home, the Atlanta Falcons on the road, then the Derrick Henry-less Tennessee Titans, the Buffalo Bills (twice), and the Indianapolis Colts before closing the season on two near-certain wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins.
Assuming that they win all the games they should and only drop one or two of the Browns/Titans/Colts matchups, that would put New England at 10-7 or 9-8 (for now, I’m going to call the two Bills games losses.) That probably isn’t good enough to win the AFC East, but it should be plenty to lock the Patriots into one of the three wild-card spots in the AFC. If Jones has more performances like those against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets, and especially if he sprinkles in some drives like his first and final ones in Los Angeles, the Patriots could absolutely be a playoff team in Jones’ first season.