FOXBORO, Mass. — Was Mac Jones hitting a rookie wall of sorts? That was a valid question after the New England Patriots rookie was less than stellar in victories over the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers.
Jones was fine in those games, performing well enough for the Patriots to win with their now-established formula of swarming defense and a punishing run game. But periodic miscues, like his frequent overthrows in LA and his two turnovers against Carolina, prevented him from delivering the types of all-around promising performances he had earlier in the season.
Well, Jones put those concerns to bed Sunday.
Though the Patriots received another dominant showing from their defense and superb play from rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson, Jones also came through with arguably the best outing of his NFL career to date as New England steamrolled the Cleveland Browns 45-7 at Gillette Stadium.
Here are five thoughts on Jones’ big day:
— Before being lifted for backup Brian Hoyer with 8:05 left in the fourth quarter, Jones completed 19 of 23 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His 82.6% completion rate and 142.1 passer rating both were career bests by wide margins.
Before Sunday, Jones’ high-water marks in those categories were 77.5% (against Tampa Bay in Week 4) and 118.9 (against Dallas in Week 6), respectively.
That pass-game production, coupled with 100 yards and two touchdowns by Stevenson, helped the Patriots’ offense hum even without leading rusher Damien Harris, who missed the game with a concussion. (Tight end Jonnu Smith also sat out with a shoulder injury.)
Hoyer added a touchdown pass to Jakobi Meyers — the first of the wide receiver’s three-year NFL career — to close out the scoring.
— Jones’ second-quarter touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne might have been his best throw as a pro.
Facing second-and-5 from the Browns’ 23-yard line, he zipped a pass between defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson, putting the ball where only Bourne could reach in. The wideout did his part, elevating to make a highlight-reel catch.
Jones delivered another beauty to Hunter Henry midway through the third quarter. The tight end beat linebacker Mack Wilson on a corner route and Jones hit him with a perfect over-the-shoulder pass to pick up 19 yards.
— Jones was especially effective on third down. On the Patriots’ opening drive, he hit Henry for 12 yards on third-and-8, Meyers for 7 yards on third-and-6 and Brandon Bolden for 20 yards on a third-and-13 screen pass. That drive ended with Jones’ first of two touchdown passes to Henry, who now has seven touchdowns over the Patriots’ last seven games.
The Alabama product completed his first five third-down passes — the other two went for 12 yards to Bourne and 26 yards to Harry — before Myles Garrett batted down a throw to Nelson Agholor in the final minute of the first half to end that streak. Jones finished 6-of-7 for 80 yards and a touchdown on third down.
As a team, Patriots went 7-for-9 on third down in the game, helping them stage three 90-plus-yard touchdown drives (and another 83-yarder). The Browns went 1-for-11 on third down and were outscored 45-0 after their opening possession.
— Not specifically Jones-related, but this was an excellent offensive game plan by coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Patriots were able to consistently keep Cleveland’s defense — which entered ranked 12th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA — off balance with motions, misdirections and varied formations.
One example came on Jones’ penultimate drive when McDaniels set up a Stevenson touchdown run by dialing up an end-around to Bourne with Henry pulling around as a lead blocker. Bourne, a wide receiver, finished with a career-high 43 yards on three carries.
Also, though Harris has been one of the Patriots’ best players this season, Stevenson’s versatility as a rusher and pass-catcher makes New England’s offense more unpredictable when he’s on the field.
Head coach Bill Belichick raved about McDaniels on Friday, saying he has “no weaknesses” as a coach and comparing him to Nick Saban.
— The Patriots have been rightly criticized for some of their draft whiffs in recent years. But with Jones (first round), Stevenson (fourth) and disruptive defensive tackle Christian Barmore (second) headlining, their latest class looks like a slam dunk thus far.