For the third consecutive year, the New England Patriots watched the divisional round of the NFL playoffs from home.
At least they were treated to a good show.
This weekend had to rank among the most entertaining in NFL postseason history, with all four matchups featuring a field goal as time expired that either won the game or sent it to overtime. It concluded with a titanic clash between two AFC juggernauts — teams the Patriots will need to overcome if they are to re-establish themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Here are four Patriots-related thoughts on two fantastic days of football:
1. The AFC is going to be a gauntlet for years to come. That was the main takeaway from Sunday night’s Buffalo-Kansas City epic, which featured a pair of herculean quarterbacking performances from Josh Allen (27 of 37, 329 yards, four touchdowns, no turnovers) and Patrick Mahomes (33 of 44, 378 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers). The Chiefs prevailed 42-36 on the opening drive of overtime after an insane finish that featured three touchdowns and a last-second field goal in the final 1:54 of regulation.
Allen and Mahomes are 25 and 26, respectively, and both are locked up on long-term contracts. Joe Burrow, whose Cincinnati Bengals will face KC in this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, also is 25. All three control explosive, star-studded offenses adept at finding and exploiting mismatches.
For the Patriots to return to AFC contendership, they’ll need to take steps to improve their defense, which was exposed in their 47-17 loss to Allen’s Bills on wild-card weekend. New England dominated middling or injured offenses during the regular season but struggled against playoff-caliber outfits when weather did not intervene.
The Patriots also need to improve their offensive weaponry to keep pace if a game against one of these teams does morph into a shootout. Including the Buffalo playoff game, they were 0-6 this season when their opponent scored more than 24 points. They need continued development from quarterback Mac Jones, too, even if he never reaches the heights of the more physically gifted Mahomes and Allen.
2. There are plenty of similarities to draw between Burrow and Jones. Both were late bloomers in college before leading wildly talented teams (at LSU and Alabama, respectively) to national championships. Both throw with great accuracy and anticipation. Neither boasts elite physical traits, from arm strength to mobility.
That Burrow, who joined a Bengals franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game in 30 years, now is preparing to play for the AFC title in just his second pro season raised an obvious question: What must Jones and the Patriots do to get back to that point?
The simplest answer goes back to our earlier point about supporting cast. Burrow boasts one of the NFL’s best collections of offensive weapons in wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, running back Joe Mixon and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
The Patriots are well-stocked at running back and tight end and have a much better offensive line than the Cincinnati unit that allowed nine sacks in Saturday’s 19-16 win over Tennessee, but they lacked game-changers at wideout. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne had good seasons, and Nelson Agholor was more valuable than his lackluster stats suggested. But for Jones to reach his potential as a passer, they need to pair him with a true top-end receiver.
The Bengals did that by investing through the draft. Their top three wideouts all are first- or second-rounders. Higgins, the first pick of Round 2 in 2020, has 141 catches for 1,999 yards and 12 touchdowns over his first two seasons, and Chase (fifth overall, 2021) has been even better. He reunited with ex-LSU teammate Burrow and promptly enjoyed perhaps the best season ever by a first-year pass-catcher, posting an 81-1,455-13 receiving line to all but lock up Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The addition of Chase helped elevate Burrow from promising to prolific. The young QB led the NFL in both completion and yards per attempt in Year 2 and ranked second in passer rating, trailing only Aaron Rodgers
Though they have holes to fill elsewhere — especially at linebacker and cornerback — the Patriots should seriously consider drafting a receiver in the early rounds. Their chances of landing a Chase-level talent are slim, but this year’s class features a number of intriguing wideout prospects, including a pair of highly productive Bama products (Jameson Williams and John Metchie).
3. Watching Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Co. batter Brady on Sunday evoked memories of the 2015 AFC Championship Game, when the Denver Broncos abused a depleted Patriots offensive line to reach Super Bowl 50. The injury to All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs was a killer for Tampa Bay, which repeatedly failed to keep Los Angeles Rams pass rushers away from its 44-year-old quarterback.
Miller, who was traded from the Broncos to the Rams earlier this season, was instrumental in that 2015 meeting, as well. In his last two playoff games against Brady, the star edge rusher has 17 pressures, 3 1/2 sacks, five QB hits, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception, and his team has won both.
The Rams tried their best to give away Sunday’s game with four turnovers in the last 31 minutes and a missed second-half field goal, allowing Brady’s Buccaneers to erase a 27-3 deficit. But after Tampa pulled even with 42 seconds remaining, a puzzling and poorly executed all-out blitz resulted in a 44-yard complete to Cooper Kupp that set up Matt Gay’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
After the game, Brady — who would not reveal whether he plans to play next season — could be seen hugging Rams running back Sony Michel and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, his former teammates in New England.
4. Jimmy Garoppolo is far from a perfect quarterback. His San Francisco 49ers offense looked awful throughout the first half Saturday night, and Garoppolo’s red-zone interception just before halftime was ghastly. He finished the game 11-for-19 for 131 yards with a pick, and the Green Bay Packers almost certainly would have won had their atrocious special teams not allowed a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
But Garoppolo now is one victory away — against a Rams team the Niners have beaten six times in a row — from playing in his second Super Bowl in three years. Even if he hasn’t carried either of those teams, that has to count for something.