FOXBOROUGH — While there aren’t moral victories or anything like that, there’s reason to feel better about the 2019 Patriots following the 23-16 loss to the Chiefs.
Yes, the Patriots are still 10-3 on the season and have lost two consecutive games for the second straight year in December, but they are still in the driver's seat to be the No. 2 seed in the AFC. While they ultimately didn’t get the job done, they proved they can beat one of the best teams in the AFC.
The last part had not really been proven before Sunday.
The Patriots’ best win of the year came all the way back in Week 4 against Buffalo, as the wins over Philadelphia and Dallas do not look as good now given the state of both teams in the NFC East. Then after a tough loss to Houston last Sunday night, the question was can the team actually beat a top team in the league with a good quarterback?
No one can walk away from Sunday's game saying the Patriots have no chance against a good team with a good quarterback. And no, it wasn’t just because of a few blatant missed calls that did not go the Patriots’ way, it was an indication the defense can stop a good quarterback and the offense is slowly finding ways to get getter.
The Patriots defense held the Kansas City offense under 24 points for the first time in its last seven games and for just the second time all season. And the majority of the damage came in the first half. In the second half, the Patriots held the Chiefs to just three points, 97 total yards of offense and Patrick Mahomes to 57 yards passing. That doesn’t discount the 249 yards of total offense in the first half and Mahomes throwing for 226 yards, but it shows the ability to make adjustments and stop one of the best quarterbacks and offenses in the entire NFL.
While the defense is not in the same category as the 2000 Ravens, it is still a very good unit and has the ability to carry the team with a not so spectacular offense.
“I’m really proud of the way our team competed tonight,” Bill Belichick said afterwards. “Those guys went and battled for 60 minutes. It wasn’t always perfect, there were certainly things we could have done better, but we were competitive right down to the final play and that’ll serve us well going forward. Obviously, we’ve got to do some things better than we did them tonight. It just wasn’t quite good enough under the circumstances in the game. There’s no point in talking about those, but hopefully we’ve got a lot of football left and see if we can get back on track next week, and that’s really all there is to it.”
Offensively, it wasn’t close to perfect or even good enough for when it matters in the playoffs, but there were glimpses of hope for when it does.
It’s worth noting the unit does not need to score 30-plus points each and every week. Because of how good the defense is, it just needs to start scoring a touchdown or so more a game because it has averaged 17.6 points the last five games. Scoring 24 points with what the Patriots defense is should be enough to give the team a decent chance to win games come January.
So, where were the positives?
It appears Sony Michel’s role may be dissipating. The second-year back entered the game averaging just 3.5 yards a carry, but only had five carries for eight yards against a Kansas City defense that was averaging over five yards a carry this season. And all that came in the first half — he did not receive a single carry in the second half.
James White was the leading rusher with just 33 yards, but it seemed the Patriots went to him a lot more in the second half. While White is best used as a third-down back, the shift away from Michel could be a sign perhaps third-round pick Damien Harris might finally get his chance. Next week is the perfect week to do it, taking on the one-win Bengals. If he does get a chance to play, who knows what can happen? All he needs is a chance.
And even if it doesn't happen, anyone else carrying the ball seems to be a better option than Michel of late.
Another thing was whether it was the referees blowing a few calls or chippy play on the field, the offense was playing with the most life and showing more emotion than it has in weeks. That led to more confidence and with that came five drives totaling 30 yards or more, the same number as the Chiefs. Maybe a little extra fire will be what it takes to get the unit going. Those five drives are not ones to be raising a banner for, but it would seem likely they have the potential to carry over into future games.
And lastly, there's the Josh McDaniels factor.
While trick plays are never something an offense should rely on, the Patriots' offensive coordinator proved again he knows exactly when the right time is to call them and make them work. He has the ability to get the offense going just by the plays he calls, and really no other coordinator in the league can say that. He absolutely can make a difference in the playoffs, and he showed how Sunday against the Chiefs with the flea-flicker for a touchdown early and then White's pass off a pitch late. Just like the Patriots' special teams has proved it can make blocked punts and impact plays happen in almost every game, maybe the Patriots offense can do the same with trick plays.
By no means did Sunday’s game all of a sudden make the Patriots the favorites in the AFC, but it did make you feel at least a little bit better about their chances come the postseason than you did going in.
Think about it, pending beating the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins to close out the year, all it will likely take to get to the Super Bowl is a home win over Kansas City or Houston, and then an upset win in Baltimore over the Ravens.
Difficult, but not impossible.