For most franchises a “good season” with a rookie quarterback under center would see the team finish around .500 and the signal-caller show both improvement and potential as a franchise leader.
But the Patriots are not like most franchises. In New England, anything less than a playoff appearance is viewed as a failure, especially when you invest as much money in a roster as Bill Belichick did this offseason.
But are the playoffs realistic for this team? Can Mac Jones handle a full NFL season? Will the retooled roster come together in time?
As part of our 2021 Patriots season preview, we examined cases for and against New England qualifying for the 2021 NFL Playoffs.
The true test will come late in the season when, over six weeks, the Patriots will play the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills (twice). That stretch will be tough, and likely will determine whether they qualify for the postseason.
Before that? The toughest game obviously is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchup, but all of the others are very winnable. In fact, you could argue the Patriots could/should be 7-2 entering the No. 14 game against Cleveland. Even if New England goes 3-3 in that stretch, it still would be 10-5 with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins remaining.
There’s a path to 11 wins and a playoff spot, if everything goes right.
Extra wild card
This one is pretty straightforward.
The NFL, along with adding a 17th game, added a third wild card spot to both conferences. Obviously, this helps all teams, including the Patriots, but the addition nevertheless gives New England another avenue to the postseason.
Listen, we can debate about Jones, the iffy secondary and the improved AFC East all we want. However, the reality is that the Patriots are a much-more-talented team now than they were at the end of last season.
Offensive line? Better. Defensive line? Much better. Linebackers? Faster, more versatile and impactful. Offensive weapons? Hard to be much worse than what we saw the last two seasons.
As for the quarterback, Jones has a lot to prove but he already feels like an upgrade over Cam Newton. If Stephon Gilmore indeed returns mid-season, the secondary should be fine.
This isn’t one of the best rosters in the NFL, but it’s miles ahead of what the Patriots put on the field in 2021.
A rookie quarterback never has made it to the Super Bowl, so Patriots fans probably shouldn’t get their hopes up for a Lombardi Trophy.
And while we ultimately are confident that Jones will lead New England to a winning season, we still are talking about a rookie. He’s going to make mistakes and he might make a lot of them. Plus, Jones’s body needs a lot of work, and his knee looked like an issue during the preseason.
What happens when opposing teams adjust to what Jones and the Patriots are doing? Will the youngster then adjust to them, or will he endure severe growing pains? As with all rookie signal-callers, this thing could go sideways in a hurry, despite Jones being in a better position to succeed than most early first-rounders.
Too many new pieces
We saw it last season with the Bucs. Tom Brady and his new team played so-so football for half of the campaign before a revamped roster finally gelled and went on a Super Bowl run.
But that was Tom Brady and an uber-talented roster. This is a rookie quarterback and a group of free agent additions who, while good, might not be at the level of what Tampa Bay brought in before last season.
The coaching, culture and veteran leadership on the Patriots is too good for the roster to go through a season-long feeling-out process. It will come together at some point — but will it be too late?
Was last season a fluke? Is Josh Allen overrated?
Maybe, but we’re kind of buying in on the Bills. The roster is loaded, and the coaching, especially offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, is excellent. What Buffalo is doing right now absolutely is working, and might be sustainable.
The Patriots are good enough to beat the Bills this season but, right now, you have to give the edge in both matchups to Buffalo. The Bills deserve to be the preseason favorites to win the AFC East.
And, so, New England likely will be battling for a wild card spot. Once you land in that crowd, one win or one loss can decide whether you qualify for the playoffs.