These Three Questions Will Define Rest Of Patriots’ 2022 Season

What is the ceiling for the 5-4 Patriots?


Nov 16, 2022

The New England Patriots enter the back half of this NFL season above .500 and in possession of an AFC playoff spot. But what kind of team are they?

Are they a burgeoning contender that just needs to iron out some offensive wrinkles? Are they a house of cards poised to collapse as they navigate arguably the NFL’s toughest second-half schedule? Are they … essentially the same as last season’s team, capable of sneaking into the postseason but bound to be blown out in the opening round?

As the Patriots, fresh off their midseason bye week, prepare to host the New York Jets this Sunday at Gillette Stadium, let’s shine a spotlight on the three unanswered questions that will define the trajectory of their 2022 campaign:

1. Can Mac Jones and the offense be fixed?
This is a multilayered question that encompasses several facets of New England’s struggling offense, from coaching to O-line play to Jones’ own performance.

The Patriots have regressed in nearly every offensive category this season, including nosedives in interception rate (16th to 32nd), sack rate (eighth to 21st), third-down conversion rate (10th to 21st), red-zone conversion rate (11th to 28th), DVOA (ninth to 26th) and expected points added per play (10th to 25th). They’re averaging nearly five fewer points per game than they did in 2021, and Jones’ numbers have been downright bad, especially since his return from the high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the better part of a month. Oh, and defenders have been able to correctly predict New England’s offensive plays in each of the last two games, spotlighting a concerning level of predictability from first-time play-caller Matt Patricia.

Despite these persistent problems, the 5-4 Patriots have a winning record and control their own playoff destiny. They just had a bye week to self-scout, evaluate what’s not working and craft a second-half plan that better accentuates the strengths of Jones and his supporting cast. That plan needs to include, among other things, a viable solution at right tackle, which has been the team’s weakest position all season.

If the Patriots can get back to even league average offensively, they have a talented enough defense to book a trip back to the postseason in the wide-open AFC. But are Patricia and Joe Judge — the team’s primary Josh McDaniels replacements — capable of engineering such a turnaround? They have not inspired much confidence thus far.

2. Can Matthew Judon keep this up?
New England’s pass rush is deeper than it was last season with the emergence of players like Deatrich Wise, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, and Christian Barmore’s expected return from a knee injury should further strengthen that group. But Judon is the unquestioned energizer of the Patriots’ front seven. He’s been terrific so far this season, leading the NFL with 11 1/2 sacks and ranking in the top five in QB hits, tackles for loss and total pressures. Ten weeks in, he’s a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year contender.

Judon’s current pace might not be sustainable. And that’s OK. He’s on track to fall just short of the single-season NFL sacks record of 22 1/2 (and smash Andre Tippett’s franchise mark of 18 1/2). The Patriots don’t need a historically great season from their star edge rusher. But they cannot afford a repeat of 2021 when Judon’s December disappearance helped doom their entire defense.

The Pro Bowler had one QB hit, one tackle for loss and no sacks over the final five games last season, and the Patriots lost four of them, allowing an average of 35 points per defeat. Even with better depth behind him, they need Judon to be the point man of their pass rush. They have taken steps to avoid another late-season dropoff, cutting Judon’s snap rate by 6% and not playing him on special teams since Week 2, and Judon has spoken about the importance of being healthier and better conditioned for the home stretch. We’ll soon find out whether those measures pay off.

3. Can the secondary survive the upcoming schedule?
One of this season’s pleasant surprises has been the performance of New England’s cornerback group, which has not declined following the offseason departure of Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson. Even without their top cover man from last season, the Patriots rank second in the NFL in pass defense DVOA and tied for third in interceptions, thanks in large part to Jonathan Jones’ seamless transition from slot to outside corner and the emergence of standout rookie Jack Jones. The potent, Judon-led pass rush certainly has helped, as well.

But that new-look position group is about to be tested. Over their final eight games, the Patriots are scheduled to face the receivers ranked first, second, third, fourth and sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, Jaylen Waddle and Davante Adams), plus DeAndre Hopkins, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Hunter Renfrow.

Diggs, in particular, has tormented New England in recent years. Hill and Waddle combined for 163 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ Week 1 road loss to Miami. Adams was uncoverable in Pats-Raiders joint practices. This will be the Patriots’ first look at Jefferson and Chase, young phenoms who already have established themselves as elite talents.

The controversial move to let Jackson walk without a Pro Bowl-caliber replacement has worked out wonderfully thus far. But will this starless position group hold up against this parade of top-tier wideouts?

Thumbnail photo via Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Images
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