“The Patriots are porked.”
That’s what Tony Massarotti said at the top of Monday’s “Felger & Mazz” episode on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and he’s not the only one who feels that way after a wildly entertaining weekend of playoff football. After watching what the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills did Sunday night, many feel New England, with Mac Jones at quarterback, isn’t close to competing for a Super Bowl.
And they might be right. However, depending on how you feel about Jones, you could argue that the Patriots and their fans should be encouraged by what happened during the NFL’s divisional round.
If Bill Belichick and his team intend to replicate, or approximate, the formula they rode to unprecedented success during the Tom Brady years, then they indeed might be “porked.” The defense, while acknowledging the presence of young talent, mostly is old and slow. The offense lacks game-breaking players and some assistant coaches might not be long for Foxboro. Jones obviously is not Brady, a player capable of covering up significant flaws. The NFL has changed, and building teams outward from the trenches while prioritizing cheap, serviceable depth is both difficult and time-consuming.
But here’s the thing: You might not even need to do that stuff anymore. Yes, complementary, hard-nosed football still is necessary, but Belichick’s emphasis on evenly distributing money across all three phases is looking increasingly antiquated.
The Chiefs scored 42 points, including 16 points after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, on the NFL’s top-rated defense. They’re back in the AFC Championship Game despite their bad defense (24th in DVOA) and middling offensive line. And the Bills, poorly coached and soft on both lines, nearly beat them.
The Cincinnati Bengals overcame their own bad defense and offensive line — not to mention a questionable head coach and a losing culture — to beat the top-seeded Tennessee Titans, whose physical, Belichickian defense, coached by Mike Vrabel, sacked Joe Burrow nine times. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came back from a 27-3 deficit to tie the Rams, only to watch Los Angeles, which puked on itself in all three phases and deserved to lose, submit its own Undertaker GIF and win on a last-second field goal.
The common thread: high-end quarterbacks surrounded by high-end weapons.
For all the talent that Tampa, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Tennessee have on defense, they mostly were powerless when they needed big stops against elite offenses. Every time that Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen got the ball at the end of Sunday night’s game, you just knew they would find a way to score. Despite everyone in attendance and watching at home knowing that Matthew Stafford was looking for Cooper Kupp on the Rams’ final drive, the Bucs still couldn’t stop the NFL’s best receiver from making two catches for 64 yards to set up a game-winning kick. The Titans entered Saturday’s game needing to slow down Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, and the Bengals wideouts still went off for 109 and 96 yards, respectively.
Even at the end of Saturday’s snowy, low-scoring game at Lambeau Field, a great Green Bay Packers defense had no answer for San Francisco 49ers “wide back” Deebo Samuel, arguably the most dynamic weapon in football.
It might sound defeatist, but Belichick and the rest of the NFL might need to wave a wide flag and accept that the game is becoming a track meet, with defenses largely rendered hopeless.
The good news for the Patriots: You can build a high-octane passing game a heck of a lot faster than you can a team that rides trench-war domination and an elite defense to consistent contention. New England, which had the fourth-ranked DVOA offense in 2021, might only be a superstar wideout away from keeping pace with the teams currently leading the AFC.
Of course, that’s predicated on Jones developing into at least a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. He doesn’t need to mirror the schoolyard playstyles of Mahomes and Allen, but he needs to be in the same ballpark as Burrow or Justin Herbert, two quarterbacks who primarily are pocket passers but also are able to use their legs in a pinch. Being a slightly better Ryan Tannehill or Kirk Cousins is not an option.
Does Jones have that in him? That remains to be seen. The only thing we can confidently assert after his impressive rookie campaign is that he’s a tough, highly accurate quarterback with elite intangibles. We’ll see how far those traits get him.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Patriots have a star quarterback on the roster. That makes the rest of the process much easier to complete.
New England, admittedly bad at identifying receiving talent, can use the draft, free agency or trade market to get Jones his Chase, Samuel, Kupp, Davante Adams, A.J. Brown or Tyreek Hill. If you subtract Chase while acknowledging the gap between Jones and Burrow isn’t that big, how much better is Cincy’s offense than New England’s, if at all?
Kendrick Bourne and Tee Higgins might be a wash, and the same could be said for Tyler Boyd and Jakobi Meyers. Hunter Henry is better than C.J. Uzomah. You could make the case that Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined are more intimidating than Joe Mixon.
Moreover, while acknowledging the unique greatness of Mahomes, the Patriots already might be able to beat the Chiefs. They almost did it last season with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, and Kansas City was better in 2020 than it was in 2021. Plus, Allen isn’t immortal, as evidenced by his 49% completion percentage, two touchdowns and three picks against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets in Weeks 17 and 18 combined.
Is going all-out for an electrifying offense an appropriate model for sustained excellence? Perhaps not. But if the Patriots simply want to re-summit the AFC mountain as quickly as possible, then the events of the divisional round indicate they might be closer to doing it than many are giving them credit for.