1 – Zappe Fever may be about to subside in New England as plenty of signs point to Mac Jones returning to his starting quarterback job on Monday Night Football against the Bears at Gillette Stadium.
Jones is officially listed as questionable for the matchup with Chicago, once again limited in practice this week with the high ankle sprain that has sidelined him for the last three games.
But according to NFL Network, Jones “took the bulk of the first-team reps” for the New England offense in Saturday’s practice, likely indicating that he’s in line to return to action and push popular rookie Bailey Zappe back into a backup role.
Jones looked much more mobile on the practice field this week and his short meeting with the media at his Gillette locker on Friday could also be seen as another sign that he ready to return to game action on Monday night.
At this point, it will almost be a surprise if Jones doesn’t play against the Bears, even though it will be just more than a four-week recovery from what as reported as a severe high ankle sprain, certainly on the shorter sided of expected recovery time from such an injury.
Expectations for Jones’ performance upon his return will be high, as Zappe has played well in his absence winning both of his starts while tallying a 111.4 passer rating that would lead the NFL if he had enough pass attempts to qualify for the league rankings. Zappe’s popularity – the fourth-round rookie’s name was chanted by the Foxborough Faithful during the Week 5 shutout win over the Lions – could lead to less than supportive reactions from the home crowd if Jones doesn’t come out of the gates firing against the Bears, even though Chicago has a solid pass defense and some rust might be understandable after a three-week layoff.
Jones’ performance on Monday, ESPN reporting that he indeed “expects to play” against the Bears, will be very much under the critical spotlight of Patriots fans, including the surprisingly vocal group of Zappe supporters who think he’s a better option for the Patriots moving forward. In terms of returning to action, beating the Bears and reclaiming his spot among fans as the perceived franchise quarterback in New England, Jones has his work cut out for him.
2 – Zappe won’t be the only quarterback at Gillette Stadium that Jones will be compared to if he returns to action on Monday night. Under center for the Bears will be fellow 2021 first-round pick Justin Fields. Chicago traded up to the No. 11 slot in last year’s draft to take the Ohio State star four picks ahead of New England’s selection at No. 15 overall. Many Patriots fans at the time expressed distaste for Jones and a preference for Fields. So far, though, the young passer has struggled in Chicago. Already in his second offense under his second coaching staff in just two seasons, Fields is completing 54-percent of his passes, has a 72.7 passer rating with four touchdowns and five interceptions while being sacked 23 times in just 138 drop backs (17 percent). Fields is 4-12 in 16 NFL starts to date.
Jones and Fields still have long NFL careers ahead of them and plenty of time to prove themselves as franchise QBs worthy of first-round draft status. But to date Jones has won the comparison with ease, and will look to do so in more direct fashion in his likely return to action against the Bears on Monday night.
3 – While Jones’ potential return will be the biggest Patriots story heading into Monday Night Football, the return to health of another key New England offensive player will also have a significant impact against the Bears. Damien Harris was a full participant in practice this week after missing last Sunday’s game in Cleveland with a hamstring injury. Though second-year rising star Rhamondre Stevenson handled himself quite well as the lead back and only real option in the backfield over the last week-plus, he did appear to get worn down and show fatigue at times against the Browns. New England’s rushing attack is at its best when Harris and Stevenson throw a 1-2 punch at opposing defenses. Chicago fields the NFL’s 29th rush defense, allowing 163 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry, offering an opportunity for the once again healthy tandem of Harris and Stevenson to be the foundation of the Patriots’ offense with Jones at the helm as it has been for Zappe over the last few weeks.
4 – Getting Jones and Harris back in action will certainly add punch to the Patriots’ offense, but it’s not all good news on the health front for New England. While the Bears did not list a single player on their injury report for Monday Night Football, Bill Belichick listed 14 different Patriots on the injury report at some point over the last week including 12 players listed as questionable to face Chicago. Key cogs like Christian Barmore, Kendrick Bourne, Lawrence Guy, Jonathan Jones, Mac Jones, Jalen Mills, Mike Onwenu and Isiah Wynn were limited in practice this week. New England has navigated the injuries well in recent weeks with its consecutive wins, but the overall health of the team is worth watching as the Patriots continue to try to take advantage of the supposed “soft” part of the schedule.
5 – Last place in the AFC East is not a place Belichick’s Patriots have found themselves too often over the years. That came in large part due to New England’s dominance for so long, but also thanks to struggles at various times of the Bills, Dolphins and Jets. But six weeks into 2022 and with a .500 record the Patriots still indeed remain in last place in the division. Obviously Buffalo is considered a Super Bowl contender. The new-look Dolphins also have strong playoff aspirations if they can get consistent, healthy play at the quarterback position. But the Jets are the upstart team that’s kept the Patriots in the basement thanks to a 4-2 record with a three-game winning streak, having already matched their season win total from a year ago.
New York, New England’s foe twice in its next three games following the Bears, is not the pushover they have been so often over the years. They are scoring points and playing solid defense. Rookies are making a positive impact on both sides of the ball. The Jets are far from being contenders, but they’ve stabilized themselves in recent weeks and aren’t nearly the frequent losers that they’ve been in the past or that many may have expected them to be this season. They certainly aren’t playing to the level that the Patriots can just pencil in wins against New York in Weeks 8 and 11.
6 – The NFL’s trade deadline is fast approaching. Certainly the 49ers’ deal with Carolina for star running back Christian McCaffrey may be the biggest trade of the season. But there will obviously be plenty of other conversations about players across the league between now and Nov. 1 at 4 p.m. Reports have already indicated that New England has at least talked about guys like wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Another name that might be worth keeping an eye on is Wynn, the veteran right tackle. The former first-round pick has not played well, including leading the NFL in penalties.
He’s playing out the fifth-year option on his rookie contract and has not seemingly embraced the switch from left to right tackle. With veteran Marcus Cannon working into form after joining the team during the start of the season, New England seemingly has a capable option to turn to at right tackle if it were to move on from Wynn at the trade deadline. Whether it’s one of the receivers, Wynn or some other position, Belichick has generally been one of the most active players in the NFL trade market over the years and there’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue in 2022.
7 – Prediction Time: Belichick’s seven-minute monologue this week detailing the strengths and virtues of the Bears was met with laughter and disbelieve in Chicago. The reality is that the Bears are a 2-4 football team that has plenty of weaknesses and not all that many strengths. Sure they can run the ball and their pass defense looks impressive on paper. But that’s about it. New England continues a trend of facing teams with a strong running but a weak run defense. Fields just hasn’t played very well for an offense that has plenty of limitations outside of the run game. Heck, those in Chicago claim that former Patriots’ first-round wide receiver N’Keal Harry is someone fans are hanging their hope on at this point. Good luck with that. Anyway, this is another week that New England should be able to control things on offense via the running game and then open up the play-action pass, regardless of who is at quarterback. Defensively it’s about stopping the run and keeping Fields from making big plays with his legs. Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise have been playing at an elite level together, which should go a long way toward making it a long night for Fields. Aside from freakish turnovers or the potential rainy conditions playing a factor, New England has every reason to win on Monday night. The Bears have scored more than 20 points just twice in six games while allowing fewer than 20 points just twice. The prediction here is that Jones returns to the starting QB job, plays more than well enough to win in conjunction with a strong run game, New England gets at least two takeaways and rolls to a comfortable 27-13 win.
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