Sunday 7: To close out games, Patriots need more classic closers


1 – Through two weeks of 2023, Mac Jones’ Patriots have struggled to come back and close out potential victories.

New England is 0-2 heading into Sunday’s trip to New York to battle the Jets thanks in part to an inability of Jones and the offense to come through in the clutch.

But to be clear, this isn’t simply about the third-year quarterback failing to measure up to Tom Brady’s legend or the prerequisites of being a true franchise QB.

Sure, NFL comebacks have a whole hell of a lot to do with the quarterback position and that leader’s ability to make plays and get the job done. But that’s not all of it. It’s not all on Jones. It wasn’t always about Brady. Football remains the ultimate team game.

While Brady was the GOAT in many ways, including making plays with the game on the line as he proved from his first Super season as a starter through his final Tampa snaps, he always seemed to have help in the clutch. There were so many New England teammates over the years that made the plays matter when they mattered the most. Guys who always seemed to find a way to make the play and get the win. Whether it was fellow elite talents like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and James White or lesser names like Jabari Gaffney, David Givens or endless others, two-plus decades of clutch plays and comeback wins were driven almost as much by Brady’s playmaking pals as his own timely passes.

As the Patriots seek their first win of the season and continue to work to show the ability to find a way to win with the game on the line, certainly Jones will be in the spotlight. But so too will critical teammates like Hunter Henry, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rhamondre Stevenson and the rest, needing prove they can carry their share to secure victory when it matters the most. Even key defensive guys like Matthew Judon, Kyle Dugger and Ja’Whuan Bentley can always do more.

To close out games under Jones’ direction, New England needs to prove it has some classic closers on the roster as was the case for so many teams Bill Belichick sent to battle with Brady over the years.

2 – As former 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange tries to solidify his spot on the Patriots offensive line, he gets another shot at Jets dominant defensive lineman Quinnen Williams on Sunday at MetLife. A year ago this matchup didn’t go well for the rookie guard who was benched for his poor play against New York’s dominant defensive leader. While there is no shame in struggling against Williams who is one of the best defensive lineman in the game, at some point Strange will be expected to develop into a consistent, positive force on a New England line that’s very much struggling to find its way early in 2023. As a first-round pick in his second season Strange should be developing into a foundational piece on the Patriots front. That’s not happened yet and that’s part of the problem in the trenches.

3 – Speaking of the makeshift offensive line that New England has fielded to open the season, the group is certainly a part of why the Patriots rank 27th in the NFL in rushing through two games. Stevenson, who’s supposed to be blossoming into an elite back in his third season, is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry while ranking 33rd in the league with 75 yards through two weeks. Sure Stevenson has continued to show he can contribute to the offense as a receiver with nine catches for 74 yards in two games, but at some point the big back needs to come up big on the ground to help balance out the offense. Stevenson has had what might be described as “big” game on the ground just once since last October, a 172-yard effort in a loss in Las Vegas. Otherwise he’s not even topped 54 yards on the ground in a game since a win over the Colts early last November.

4 – With the offensive line struggles and lacking a run game, Mac Jones has been under pressure both literally and figuratively to open the season. While he’s gotten rid of the ball quickly to help negate opposing pass rushes, something he’ll likely have to do again against the Jets, Jones has had to throw the ball way too often through two weeks. He leads the NFL in both attempts (96) and completions (66). He’s on pace to attempt 816 passes this season, which would shatter Brady’s record of 733 from last season. That’s far from ideal for Bill O’Brien’s attack. Both players and coaches alike spoke openly this week about trying to balance out the New England offense, which means getting Stevenson, Ezekiel Elliott and Co. going on the ground and taking some of the pressure off Jones and his inconsistent weapons to carry the entire load.

5 – Patriots premier pass rusher Matthew Judon has two sacks in two games. He’s gotten to the QB in each of the first two weeks, something he did in each of the first five games last season. Judon has recorded at least one sack in 22 of his 36 games over two plus seasons in New England and is looking to establish a career high in sacks for the third straight season after notching 15.5 a year ago. As the Patriots work throughout all the injuries at the cornerback position, the consistent pass rush from Judon, Josh Uche and others up front will be a key to any overall defensive success in the coming weeks. That includes Sunday’s matchup with a suspect Jets offensive line and turnover-prone passer Zach Wilson.

6 – Mac Jones was a little on edge this week discussing his team’s 0-2 start and what needs to be done to get in the win column. During his Wednesday press conference at Gillette Stadium he made it pretty clear he didn’t want to continue to discuss comparisons to last year’s offense or even what had transpired over the first two weeks of work this year.

“I’m definitely done talking about last year, and just looking forward to trying to improve,” Jones declared. “Done with the first two weeks, just trying to focus on what I can do each play – What’s my job? Who is the ball supposed to go to? – and focus on that.”

Focused on trying to get win that’s much needed even at this still early point in the season.

7 – Prediction Time!: It seems every columnist or analyst in or around Patriot Nation is calling this Week 3 trip to New York to take on the Jets a must-win game. And it pretty much is. Starting 0-3 is essentially a death blow to even longshot playoff hopes. The Patriots seem to be teetering in terms of confidence and questioning themselves. The good news is that New England has won 14 straight games against New York. The other piece of good news is that Wilson finds a way to lose games. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy or that a win can just be penciled in. New England’s line remains a work in progress in this battle with Williams and a New York defensive front that has the potential to dominate a game. The Patriots secondary is undermanned and will again rely on rookie Christian Gonzalez to lead the way at cornerback. The Jets have dangerous playmakers in Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall who can chance the game on a single snap. Certainly Jones and the Patriots have contributed significantly to their own demise in recent weeks with turnovers and slow starts. The team that makes more mistakes will probably lose this game. The expectation here is that will be Wilson and the Jets. New England probably won’t cruise and this could be a low-scoring rock fight with plenty of punts to go around in what could be bad weather. In the end let’s go with a 17-6 win for Belichick and his team that very much needs to feel a bit better about itself.

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