Bill Belichick likes to say he knows a lot more about his New England Patriots teams in November than he does in August or September. And the 2022 Patriots have begun to develop some semblance of an identity as they reach the halfway mark of the season.
But many questions surrounding this team — especially on the offensive side of the ball — remain unanswered.
As New England enters its Week 10 bye, here are six things we know and don’t know about this Patriots squad:
WHAT WE KNOW
1. Rhamondre Stevenson is emerging as one of the NFL’s best all-around backs
How many NFL players have more than 600 rushing yards and more than 200 receiving yards this season? Just two: Christian McCaffrey and Stevenson. The latter has been the Patriots’ top offensive performer thus far, remaining productive even as New England’s offensive line collapses in front of him and garnering the highest of high praise from Belichick. He’s made massive strides in the passing game and has not been responsible for any of the Patriots’ NFL-high 17 turnovers, completely eliminating an early-career concern from his game. New England’s offense is at its best when both Stevenson and Damien Harris are contributing, but it’s now clear who the top dog in that backfield is.
2. The Patriots’ secondary doesn’t miss J.C. Jackson
Replacing the NFL’s interception king with a more balanced, starless collection of cornerbacks was a controversial decision, but the Patriots haven’t seen any dropoff thus far. Jonathan Jones is excelling in his move from slot corner to outside, and rookie Jack Jones looks like a Pro Bowler in the making as he rotates with starters Jones and Jalen Mills. Slot men Myles Bryant and Marcus Jones round out a group that’s considerably deeper than last year’s edition. We’ll see how they hold up against the parade of elite wideouts that populate the Patriots’ second-half schedule.
3. Nick Folk is as steady as ever
A consistently reliable kicker is a luxury in the NFL, and the Patriots know how fortunate they are to have Folk. The 38-year-old converted 90.5% of his field-goal attempts thus far this season (19 of 21) and all 20 of his extra points, including a 9-for-9 showing on field goals over the last two games. The Patriots also have received big special teams contributions from two players at the other end of the age spectrum, with rookies Marcus Jones and Brenden Schooler excelling in the return game and in kick/punt coverage, respectively.
4. Deatrich Wise is having a career year
Ah, yes, the ol’ Year 6 breakout. The veteran defensive end has found a new gear more than a half-decade into his Patriots tenure. Wise already has surpassed his previous career high in sacks (5 1/2 through nine games) and has increased his snap rate by nearly 30%. Among Patriots defenders, only safety Devin McCourty has been on the field more often this season. This emergence has given the Patriots a formidable bookend to Matthew Judon, whom we’ll get to below.
5. Jakobi Meyers is (still) the Patriots’ best receiver
Meyers has 40 receptions this season. Despite missing two games, he’s on pace to set new career highs in catches and yards and already has done so in touchdowns. His 76.9% catch rate also would be the best of his career if it holds. He’s 15th in the NFL in yards per route run among wideouts with at least 100 receiving snaps. ESPN Analytics has him graded as the league’s 10th-best wideout. Simply put, Meyers is damn good, and he again is carrying the Patriots’ receiving corps. No other New England wideout has more than 15 catches total. Meyers has 12 on third down alone.
6. The Patriots will be in the playoff hunt in the AFC
Will they land a postseason berth? That remains to be seen. The back half of their schedule is a bear, even if teams like the Arizona Cardinals (Week 14) and Las Vegas Raiders (Week 15) haven’t met preseason expectations. But while they still reside in last place in the deep-as-ever AFC East, they’re above .500 at the midway point and just a half-game back of the final wild-card spot. At the very least, New England will be in the mix as the home stretch approaches, which did not appear likely at points earlier this season.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
1. Can the Patriots fix Mac Jones?
A combination of injuries, offensive line struggles, coaching staff turnover, poor receiver separation and the quarterback’s own shaky play has prevented Jones from performing like the poised, confident, promising passer we saw for most of his impressive rookie season. Nine weeks in, Jones is Pro Football Focus’s second-lowest-graded QB, and he ranks second-to-last in QBR and interception rate and third-to-last in passer rating. Jones’ own decision-making and ball security need to be better — and we saw signs of improvement there in last week’s interception-free win over the Colts — but the Patriots should reevaluate everything they’re doing offensively during the bye week. Identify their strengths (running the ball, quick-game passing, play-action, etc.) and lean into them. New England has a very good defense, but it can’t hope to make an advance in the playoffs if the offense continues to sputter the way it has thus far.
2. Who should start at right tackle?
The Patriots have tried out three different starters there (Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon and Yodny Cajuste), and all have been far from dominant. Cannon is on injured reserve, so New England’s right tackle options after the bye would be to reinstate Wynn, who started the first six games and struggled mightily; stick with Cajuste, who started last week and allowed a team-high five pressures and a sack; or shift Mike Onwenu over from right guard, where he’s been arguably the O-line’s top performer this season. This position has been the Patriots’ single most glaring weak spot this season, and it threatens to completely derail their offense if they can’t find a solution.
3. Can Cole Strange push through his rookie wall?
Speaking of O-line questions, Strange now has been benched for Wynn at left guard in back-to-back games. These demotions came after a prolonged stretch of unspectacular but solid play, and both came when starting center David Andrews was out of the lineup with a concussion. The Patriots need to hope that Andrews’ impending return can help get their first-round draft pick back on track and that Matt Patricia and Billy Yates will make the necessary tweaks to Strange’s fundamentals during the bye.
4. Will any of the Patriots’ depth receivers emerge?
As talented as Meyers is — and it’ll be very interesting to see how hard the Patriots push to re-sign him once he hits free agency this spring — New England need more from the players behind him on the depth chart. Parker was emerging as a dangerous downfield threat before his recent knee injury, but New England has received little from Kendrick Bourne, Tyquan Thornton or Nelson Agholor of late (six catches, 31 yards combined since Parker’s injury). A second-half breakout from Thornton, whose NFL debut was delayed until October due to a broken collarbone, would do wonders for the Patriots’ passing game. The speedy second-round rookie scored two touchdowns in his second career game but has just three catches on 11 targets for 37 yards in the three weeks since. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith also have been underutilized, and both are on track for the worst statistical seasons of their career.
5. Can Matthew Judon avoid another late-season nosedive?
Judon has been nothing short of phenomenal for the Patriots this season. The Pro Bowl edge rusher has three more sacks (11 1/2) than any other NFL defender and also ranks in the top five in QB hits (tied for second), tackles for loss (tied for fifth) and total pressures (second). He’s a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But can he maintain it? That’s the big question. Judon’s production vanished down the stretch last season, and the Patriots’ defense cratered. The coaching staff has taken steps to prevent that this season, like limiting his defensive workload and no longer playing him on special teams, and Judon has spoken about his need to be healthier and better conditioned late in the season. We’ll see if those measures pay off.
6. Is this Patriots defense for real?
The Patriots have smothered teams like the Steelers, Lions, Browns, Jets and Colts. They’ve also been run off the field by the Ravens and Bears and wilted in the second half against the downward-spiraling Packers. They’re seventh in scoring defense, fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, second in sack rate and total takeaways and first in expected points allowed per play. Is that stat-padding against flawed offenses? Or is this defense legitimately elite? We’ll soon find out. After a Jets rematch and a Thanksgiving road game against the talented, 7-1 Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots will host the Bills for their first of two late-season meetings. Those will be the true litmus tests for a New England team that did not force a single punt over its final two Buffalo matchups last season.