With playoffs likely out of the picture, here’s what Patriots can still accomplish in season’s final three weeks

BOSTON — If the Patriots win all three of their remaining games, they’ll make the playoffs.

That is to say, if the Patriots beat the 10-4 Bengals on Christmas Eve, and if the Patriots beat the 8-6 Dolphins on New Year’s Day, and if the Patriots beat the 11-3 Bills in Week 18, then the Patriots will earn the right to head to Buffalo or Kansas City for Wild Card Weekend.

In the more likely scenario that the Patriots lose at least one game over their final three weeks, then they’ll all but certainly be left out of the NFL’s postseason for the second time in three years, extending their stretch without a playoff win to four seasons. Such a streak is common in most NFL locales, but in New England, the transition to reality over the past several years has been jarring. (The longest stretch without a playoff win during the Tom Brady era was three years, from 2008-10, but Brady was injured for one of those years.)

Of course, nothing was more jarring than Sunday’s disastrous loss to the Raiders that has turned the Patriots into a bit of a comedic punching bag. Unlike the Butt Fumble, and unlike the Colts’ ignominious fake punt, the Patriots played the role of jesters in their loss in Las Vegas on Sunday. While most level-headed viewers foresaw a very realistic chance that the Patriots would come up short in their playoff quest, nobody saw it happening in such chaotic fashion.

As such … morale is a bit low. And outlooks are a bit grim. That’s what happens when you lateral a ball with no time left in a tie game to an opposing pass rusher (who used to be on your team) who then stiff-arms your quarterback into oblivion before frolicking into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.


There’s no way to put a bow on that or to find any silver linings in the current state of the Patriots. But there are still three games left to play, and they will most certainly be taking place whether you like it or not.

With that in mind, here are some areas where the Patriots can grow and progress in a positive manner for the future over their final 180 minutes of football this season.

Rookie Cornerback Experience

Lost in the madness of Sunday was the fact that Marcus Jones was covering Davante Adams … and was doing a damn good job of it. (He also forced Keelan Cole out of bounds on what was ruled to have been the game-tying touchdown, but Walt Anderson legitimately cannot see.) A week earlier, he was covering DeAndre Hopkins, and he more than held his own in that battle, even having the awareness and confidence to be looking into the backfield to capitalize on a wobbly Colt McCoy pass to pick it off while covering one of the most dangerous receivers in football.

That is no small thing.

Marcus Jones, Davante Adams
Marcus Jones breaks up a pass intended for Davante Adams.

Chris Unger / Getty Images

That role also opened up for Marcus Jones after Jack Jones suffered a knee injury in Arizona. Jack Jones had drawn Hopkins duty prior to the injury, and he broke up the lone pass headed his way during his brief time on the field.

Both rookie corners have shown they can play, and the next few weeks — against Ja’Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Round 2 of Stefon Diggs — provide ample opportunity for the young duo to get even better before their rookie seasons come to an end.

Other Rookies, Too

Tyquan Thornton missed time due to injury this year, so he’s still playing a little bit behind the 8-ball. With a few more games left, hopefully for his sake he will be used in some creative and new ways to spring him free for some deep shots downfield. 

Cole Strange has already gotten plenty of experience, having taken 92.17 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. That’s third-most on the team. But he’s still a rookie, and game experience is invaluable, so he’ll get plenty more of that.

The rookie running backs — Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong — have also gotten some run lately, with both Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris getting hurt in the past month. The duo had a combined 10 yards from scrimmage before Week 13, but they’ve since put up 172 yards from scrimmage in the past three games. They also both scored their first career touchdowns vs. the Cardinals.

The Patriots should get Damien Harris back, and Stevenson played (excellently) through injury in Las Vegas, so it’s not entirely clear how they’ll utilize their running back reps. But if they do get eliminated from playoff contention, perhaps they’ll pull back on their Stevenson usage and let the rookies get some more chances in game action.

Offense Tanking?

This one might be a little counterintuitive, but consider this: Pretty much everyone with eyes and a brain can see that the current offensive setup is not working. Matt Patricia has never run an offense before, and it shows. Patricia’s also never been an offensive line coach, and that unit has been a problem all year. Joe Judge has never been a quarterbacks coach before, and Mac Jones has — coincidentally or otherwise — never looked worse. 

Bill Belichick insisted all spring and summer that this setup was fine, and that if it didn’t work, then he’d be to blame. That’s all well and good, but the blame game doesn’t mean much.

What will mean a lot and what will be desperately needed are some major changes to the coaching staff.

Matt Patricia, Joe Judge, Bill Belichick
Matt Patricia, Joe Judge, Bill Belichick

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Those changes do feel as though they’ll be inevitable. The Patriots rank 25th in offensive yards gained, 24th in points scored per drive, 29th in third-down offense, tied for 30th in fourth-down offense, dead last in red zone offense and 30th in goal-to-go offense. It’s plain to see that the current setup does not work and should not be trusted for another year.

Still … some assurance in that regard wouldn’t hurt. So for as much as fans may want to see the offense finally start to click over the final three weeks, it may be best for some of those numbers to stay the same or get a little worse. Just to make sure the changes that we all believe are inevitable do actually take place.

Perhaps special teams, too

The Patriots allowed a block punt on Sunday. Sometimes, that happens … but not like that. Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers clearly weren’t expecting the snap to take place when it did, leaving them looking around and standing flat-footed as the Raiders broke though unblocked for one of the easiest blocked punts in NFL history.

That was the first block allowed this season by the unit, which is good. But the Patriots also allowed three blocked punts last season, the most in the NFL. For a team and a head coach that values special teams more than most, and for a team that employs a handful of players specifically for special teams roles, that was shocking and unacceptable. The Patriots hadn’t allowed a blocked punt since 2015 prior to last year, and they’ve now allowed four in less than two seasons.

Throw in the fact that the Patriots rank dead last in net punting average at 36.8 yards, and special teams has been a real weakness for a team that can’t afford to be giving up any hidden yardage in any game.

Special teams coordinator Cam Achord is always accountable for the team’s special teams gaffes, and it’s understandable why he’s liked by Belichick. But his lack of NFL experience — prior to joining the Patriots, he had only coached at Southwest Mississippi Community College — may be hurting special teams as a whole. Some more struggles from special teams ought to at least inspire the head coach to give Achord some more help or assign him to a specialty coaching role while bringing on a more experienced coordinator.

A good game from Mac

This isn’t to contradict the earlier point about a late-season offensive dip helping the Patriots in the long run. But it wouldn’t be so bad if Mac Jones could … have a good game.

To be clear, the overall offensive issues for the team don’t fall squarely on Jones’ shoulders. In many ways, he’s been set up to fail this year by the structure of the team, which is not what a team is supposed to do after landing a first-round quarterback. As a result, it’s genuinely difficult to make any sort of determination on Jones’ abilities and ceiling as an NFL quarterback at the end of his second year.

Still, after Jones was legitimately bad in the Las Vegas loss, a very good game could go a long way toward reestablishing some confidence for the young QB.

New York Jets Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones celebrates a touchdown against the New York Jets during the 2021 NFL season.

Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Jones has thrown multiple touchdowns just once this season. He’s thrown zero touchdowns in four of his starts (which was really just three games, after getting yanked in the Chicago game.) He’s topped 300 passing yards just twice. He’s had a passer rating over 90 just twice.

Consider that as a rookie, he threw multiple touchdowns seven times and had a passer rating better than 90 on 10 occasions, and it should be clear that Jones is capable of doing much more in an NFL offense.

While the odds will still be stacked against him with the play-calling, play design, and play execution, it’s theoretically possible that Jones could go out there and sling it for a few hours and post some stats that remind everyone that he’s capable of actually playing at an NFL level.

Matthew Judon franchise sack record

Frankly, most fans might not care about this. And understandably so.

Nevertheless, it’s always compelling when records are broken, and Matthew Judon still has a chance to set the Patriots’ single-season sack record. 

Andre Tippett owns that sack record at 18.5, a number he recorded as a 25-year-old in 1984.

Judon currently has 14.5 sacks. He’ll obviously need four in three games to match the record or 4.5 to become the new franchise single-season leader. He’s had five games with more than one sack this season, so it’s definitely in the cards.

Indianapolis Colts (3) Vs. New England Patriots (26) At Gillette Stadium
New England Patriots LB Matthew Judon performs his customary celebration following a first half sack. The Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts, 26-3.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Adding to the possibility? The Bengals have allowed 40 sacks this year, tied for seventh-most in the league. So Saturday should be Judon’s best opportunity to make some serious headway toward the record.

But what about Josh Uche?

Watching Judon dominate has been exciting, but the rise of Josh Uche as a real-deal pass rusher this season has been arguably more important to the New England defense.

That’s not meant to diminish Judon’s impact, because it’s been huge. But the development of a bona fide pass rusher working the opposite end of the line has really made the Patriots’ front-seven a formidable unit.

Uche had just four sacks in his first 26 career games, but he’s recorded 10.5 sacks in his last seven.

He’s looked like the real deal, but he has a few more weeks to show that it hasn’t been a mirage.

Better Draft Positioning

This right here is something we never really anticipated talking about with Bill Belichick still at the helm, but it’s nevertheless a blunt reality facing the Patriots: They’re better off going 0-3 than 1-2 or even 2-1 over the final three weeks.

Granted, 3-0 and a playoff spot would be a heck of a story. Nobody should discount that.

But if Saturday’s game starts to turn on the home team, it won’t be the worst thing in the world.

At 7-7, the Patriots are currently right in the middle of the NFL pack, and they’d be picking around No. 16 if the draft were held now. We can’t precisely predict where they’ll be picking if they finish 7-10, but it would likely get them down near the top 10, thus improving their odds of adding an impact rookie for next season.

If that doesn’t excite you, well, then that makes a lot of sense. But consider that if the 2020 Cam Newton-led Patriots hadn’t beaten the Jets in Week 17 that year, then they would have been picking where Micah Parsons and Rashawn Slater went. That year may be a bad example, considering the Patriots needed a quarterback and took Mac Jones at No. 15. But the point is that franchise-type players are available in the first round, and having a higher pick would increase the chances of landing one.

That, though, may be less important than it logically seems, mostly due to the abundance of bad teams at the bottom of the league. Five teams already have 10 or more losses, and at least four more teams seem like a lock to reach double-digit losses as well. So in terms of positive spins on negative realities, this one won’t even help all that much — a sad state of affairs that kind of sums up the spot the Patriots are in heading in to what may be a dreary few weeks.

Still, any little bit helps. It can’t hurt to be drafting higher.

No more game-losing laterals

Pretty self-explanatory here. Just can’t have that.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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