The general consensus is that Mac Jones was the most successful rookie quarterback in a talented 2021 class.
He even led the New England Patriots back to familiar territory, which is, of course, the postseason.
The Patriots were promptly slammed in the first round of the playoffs by the Buffalo Bills, though, and it’s now apparent that New England’s longtime hold on the AFC East has been wrested away by Buffalo as the AFC East Championship odds stack up in favor of the Bills.
While last year’s showing was encouraging, the Patriots are not expected to take back the division title this season.
Chasing Buffalo: A New Pursuit For New England
The Patriots Are Not The Bills, But How Good Are They?
Expectations have naturally been lowered in the early part of the post-Tom Brady era, but a quick return to the playoffs was promising. These Patriots are no match for the Bills on either side of the ball, however. Buffalo is arguably the most balanced team in the NFL, with a high-flying offense and a strong defense that just added Von Miller.
By contrast, New England is now much more methodical. Jones proved to be a poised decision-maker as a rookie and performed as well as he could with a mediocre group of wide receivers. There has been an attempt to upgrade his weapons this season, but there were no additions that could be considered major acquisitions. DeVante Parker should be a quality target for Jones, as his contested-catch skills and red zone abilities should mesh well with Jones’ skill set. Rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton is a speed merchant with size, but both of those newcomers wouldn’t occupy high spaces on the Buffalo depth chart.
Hunter Henry certainly did his job last season with nine touchdown catches, but Jones and the Patriots will need Jonnu Smith to start earning his contract more this season. He was expected to be a bigger part of the passing game last year, and if he has a better second season there, Smith can undoubtedly boost the offensive outlook. New England does not have the weaponry needed to compete with Buffalo’s passing attack, but more contributions from Parker, Thornton, and Smith can only help the offense operate more effectively.
The Patriots don’t have to mirror the Bills in terms of offensive approach, and they are not doing so when you compare the backfields, where New England is stronger. Buffalo’s Devin Singletary is adequate at best, and rookie James Cook could turn out to be a version of James White. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are an outstanding pairing of physical runners that allow the Patriots to control the clock and hammer defenses while taking some pressure off Jones. A healthy White can be a great asset in the passing game as well, and there’s good depth behind the top three.
The AFC East Is Improving
Winning time-of-possession battles will be important against scheduled opponents such as the Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, and Arizona Cardinals. New England’s defense does not look quite as formidable as some past versions, so keeping them off the field will be key. The defensive line needs to upgrade its play from last year, there have been changes at linebacker, and the situation at cornerback looks shaky after losing J.C. Jackson.
Finishing second in the AFC East is no given, either. The Miami Dolphins have obviously improved with the addition of Tyreek Hill and some new pieces in the backfield. If Tua Tagovailoa takes a step forward, Miami will definitely battle New England for the runner-up spot in the division. The New York Jets are also not going to be an easy matchup. They’ve drafted well over the past two seasons, and even if they don’t make the playoffs, they should be much more competitive.
Naturally, the Patriots still have the head coaching advantage over any other team, thanks to Bill Belichick, but there are obvious questions about how the offense will be handled. Without Josh McDaniels, Jones is losing one of his guiding forces from last year. Fortunately, though, Brian Hoyer returns as a mentor to Jones, who will be under extra pressure to improve and ensure the team does not drop off in terms of being competitive.
New England did not significantly improve during the offseason, but there’s a sense that they should at least be a playoff team again.
Overcoming modest projections is still new to the fan base and may lie in having faith in the Belichick/Jones combination. That duo surpassed expectations last season, so doing so again cannot be ruled out.
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