Where Mac Jones Really Improved And More Final Patriots-Cowboys Thoughts

Plus: The Patriots have been uber-conservative on fourth down

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As the New England Patriots shift their focus toward this week’s matchup with the New York Jets, here are four final thoughts on Sunday’s 35-29 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

— Mac Jones only attempted 21 passes in this game — he’d thrown 30 or more in each of his first five starts — but the rookie quarterback showed marked growth in one important area: deep passing.

Over the first five weeks, Jones was just 4-for-19 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus. More than half of those attempts came in a Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, when he repeatedly tried and failed to hit receivers on vertical routes.

Jones was much more efficient on those big-play throws Sunday. In fact, he was perfect, going 4-for-4 for 144 yards.

Both of his touchdowns — the 20-yard floater to Hunter Henry on New England’s second possession and the 75-yard strike to Kendrick Bourne late in regulation — came passes with 20-plus air yards. Jones also hit running back Rhamondre Stevenson on a wheel route for 22 yards and receiver Nelson Agholor on a post-corner for 27.

The Henry score was a beautiful bit of anticipation from Jones, who released his pass before the tight end turned to look for it.

Jones fit the Bourne touchdown in between two Cowboys defenders, both of whom misplayed it.

Jones impressed with his physical and mental toughness, as well, bouncing back from a punishing hit by pass rusher Randy Gregory and a late pick-six by ex-Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs. He was PFF’s second-highest-graded quarterback in Week 6, trailing only Carson Wentz, and the analytics site’s Rookie of the Week.

No, Jones wasn’t perfect. His throw on the pick-six — which came one play before the Bourne touchdown — was high, and he coughed up the ball on the first of Gregory’s two sacks. He also missed Jakobi Meyers on a third-down slant. Again, not perfect. But this was another positive step in a season full of them for the first-round draft pick.

— This was a good bounce-back performance for top cornerback J.C. Jackson, who really struggled in the first half of last week’s win over the Houston Texans.

Against Dallas, Jackson surrendered a pair of receptions on the Cowboys’ opening drive but not much thereafter, finishing with as many pass breakups (four) as catches allowed. He was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, but that looked like a ticky-tack call.

Fellow corner Jalen Mills, who missed the Texans game with a hamstring injury, had a tougher time Sunday. Mills couldn’t keep pace with CeeDee Lamb on three key Dak Prescott completions: a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter, the 24-yard gain on third-and-25 that set up the field goal that forced overtime and the 35-yard game-winner in OT.

— According to at least one win probability model — this one here by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic — the Patriots have been the NFL’s least aggressive team on fourth down this season.

Per Baldwin’s model, the Patriots have had eight opportunities to increase their win probability by going for it on fourth down and opted to punt or kick a field goal on all eight. (Plays run when a team’s win probability is below 20% aren’t included.)

Six games in, the Patriots have attempted just three fourth-down conversions — tied for second-fewest in the NFL — two of which were successful. All three came late in Week 3, while New England was trailing the Saints by 15 points. The Patriots also lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from New Orleans’ 22-yard line earlier in that game but changed course after a Henry false start.

The Patriots have faced fourth-and-4 or shorter from outside their own 35-yard line nine times this season and kept their offense on the field just once. Sunday’s game featured four such plays.

WeekDown/distanceYard lineOutcome
3Fourth-and-450Punt blocked
3Fourth-and-1Saints’ 47QB sneak, 3 yards
4Fourth-and-2Bucs’ 44Punt
4Fourth-and-3Bucs’ 37Missed field goal
5Fourth-and-1Texans’ 34Field goal
6Fourth-and-1Own 35Punt blocked
6Fourth-and-250Punt
6Fourth-and-4Own 46Punt
6Fourth-and-3Own 46Punt

The decisions that faced the most scrutiny were the fourth-and-3s against Tampa Bay and Dallas: Nick Folk’s 56-yard field-goal attempt through a monsoon and Bill Belichick punting on the opening drive of overtime Sunday.

As Belichick noted Monday, a failed conversion on the latter would have set the Cowboys up at the edge of field-goal range. But the Patriots had allowed an average of 58 yards per drive over the previous four Dallas series and were gassed on defense after playing upward of 80 snaps. Handing the ball back to Prescott on any yard line seemed like a death sentence at that stage.

Add in other conservative choices like kneeling the ball at the end of the first half Sunday, and it’s clear Belichick doesn’t yet trust his Jones-led offense to execute properly in those types of high-leverage situations.

— You’ve probably heard by now that this loss dropped the Patriots to 0-4 at home on the season. It’s the first time they’ve dropped their first four games in Foxboro since 1993.

Here’s another stat from the “uncharacteristic” file: This was just the fourth time in the Belichick era that New England lost a home game after leading at halftime.

Four times in 22 years. Four.

Before Sunday, the Patriots had 112 chances to hold a halftime lead at home and did so on 109 of them — an almost unfathomable winning percentage of 97.3%.

The uncharacteristic is becoming commonplace for this current iteration of the Patriots, though. They also found a way to lose Sunday despite forcing two end-zone turnovers and facing a Cowboys team that committed 12 penalties for 115 yards.

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