Whether their Thanksgiving table features mac and cheese, the New England Patriots have plenty of things to be thankful for this year. Here are seven:
An answer at quarterback
Will Mac Jones be the second coming of Tom Brady? Probably not. But does he look like a worthy successor to the greatest QB of all time? Absolutely. The Patriots’ decision to draft Jones 15th overall has been a smashing success thus far. The former Alabama star is the odds-on Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite and has done everything necessary to help guide New England back into playoff contention (more on that below) while quickly winning over the locker room with his toughness and leadership. Jones’ NFL ceiling isn’t yet clear, but the Patriots certainly seem to have found their quarterback of the present and future.
A vintage Patriots defense
Though Jones has been undeniably impressive this season, the Patriots aren’t winning games because of their rookie QB. They’re winning games because they?re running the ball effectively (151.8 yards per game during their current five-game win streak) and absolutely pummeling teams defensively. With depth and talent at all three levels, the Patriots have allowed a league-low 16.1 points per game this season. Only three opposing offenses have scored more than 20 points against them in regulation, and none have reached 25. Over the last three games, the Patriots’ defense has scored more touchdowns (two) than it’s allowed (one), and since that lone score, the Pats have piled up 70 unanswered points. This is a defense — and a team — that opponents will not be eager to face in December and January.
Much like the Super Bowl-winning Patriots defenses from the early 2000s, this group is loaded with key contributors, from Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore to Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, just to name a few. But Judon deserves special recognition. He’s been everything the Patriots could have hoped for in a big-ticket free agent signing, already eclipsing his previous career high with 10 1/2 sacks while making an indelible impression within the Patriots’ locker room. He’s been worth every cent of his four-year, $54.5 million contract thus far.
A resilient secondary
The Patriots lead the NFL in interceptions and interception rate and boast the second-best pass defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Not bad for a group that hasn’t had Stephon Gilmore (now with the Carolina Panthers) all season and lost top slot corner Jonathan Jones for the year in Week 6. New No. 1 cornerback J.C. Jackson is enjoying the type of season (six total interceptions, four catches allowed in his last four games) that should land him a massive contract come spring, and safeties Devin McCourty (two interceptions), Dugger (three) and Phillips (four) all have been game-changers.
A real red-zone weapon
Hunter Henry’s per-game reception and yardage averages actually lag behind the numbers he posted with the Los Angeles Chargers, but his red-zone prowess has helped transform the Patriots’ offense. The veteran tight end has seven touchdown catches in his last eight games, his strong connection with Jones paying off in crucial scoring situations. We’ll see if running mate Jonnu Smith can elevate his game for the home stretch.
A promising rookie class
Mac Jones. Christian Barmore. Rhamondre Stevenson. One month after Robert Kraft openly criticized the Patriots’ recent drafting history, they landed a class that, at least so far, looks like the franchise’s best in years. Add in starting-caliber 2020 draftees Kyle Dugger and Mike Onwenu, and the Patriots have laid a strong foundation of young talent that should serve them well in the years to come.
A wide-open AFC
Eleven weeks in, the conference lacks a clear front-runner. Buffalo Bills? They lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars a few weeks ago and just got blown out by the Indianapolis Colts. Baltimore Ravens? They’ve been hammered by injuries and have a beastly remaining schedule. The Tennessee Titans just lost to the Houston Texans and are without star rusher Derrick Henry. The Kansas City Chiefs looked lost for weeks before recently stabilizing. At 7-4, the Patriots lead the AFC East and can take over first place in the AFC this Sunday with a win over the Titans and a Ravens loss. This would have been a reckless thought just a few short weeks ago, but they now must be viewed as a legitimate threat to earn a spot in Super Bowl LVI.