The Patriots closed out the 2021 preseason with a 22-20 win over the New York Giants. It was a similar kind of game to the previous two, with a mix of reps and opportunities, and limited action for many of the top players. Decoding who will or won't make the initial 53-man roster remains a tough task, but for the 81 players still currently on the roster, the game was a fine cap to a summer that felt like a return to normal.
Now, with cutdowns looming on Tuesday, the coaches will decide how to whittle down the roster and turn the page to two weeks of preparation for the opener.
But first, here are 4 Keys to take away from the preseason finale.
We're on to the regular season
With the win, the Patriots wrap up an undefeated 2021 preseason and shift their sights to the opener on September 12 at 4:25 pm against the Dolphins. It was a productive summer, highlighted by a fresh injection of youth and talent that have dramatically changed the team's dynamic from 2020. How it will all come together remains anyone's guess, football seasons have a way of bringing out an often unexpected truth, but the starting point shows a lot of options across all three phases of the game. If the new and old merge and play complementary football, there should be plenty to be excited about.
It's good news that the team appears to have avoided any major, season-altering injuries this summer, but the biggest question to hang over them remains Stephon Gilmore's status. By all accounts, Gilmore has been around the team, helping with preseason preparations as he rehabs, but it's clear how much the team needs the talented cornerback on the field and how much he changes the dynamic in the secondary.
With the first three-game preseason done, including two valuable sets of joint practices, the 2021 Patriots are far more prepared than they were last summer. Now, things get real.
Pass rush primed
It was a limited look at the starting defense, but they continue to intrigue, especially when it comes to the pass rush pressure department. Josh Uche notched a sack while Deatrich Wise and Ja'Whaun Bentley split one, but Daniel Jones was under pressure for most of the snaps that he went against the Patriots' top defenders.
With a deep group of linebackers and flexibility from their scheme, the Patriots defense should have plenty of options when it comes to getting after quarterbacks this season, but what's most intriguing is the growing array of options who can win their one-on-one matchups. Uche and Christian Barmore are two young players that have made impressive strides this summer and given opposing offensive linemen all that they can handle, while Matt Judon has been all over the place since his arrival in Foxborough.
There's some uncertainty in areas of the team, but the linebacker group looks like a strength, particularly when it comes to third down. In 2019, New England had the best third-down defense in the league but in 2020 they dropped to 16th.
After this summer, it's a good bet they'll be headed back toward the top of the league.
Cam and Mac
Cam Newton got the start to the game and played just two series, finishing 2-for-5 for 10 yards with an interception that came on third down with Jakobi Meyers getting outwrestled for the ball. Thus capped Newton's preseason work, which included just seven total drives, and never saw the veteran play past the first quarter. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception. It was a surprisingly limited amount of work for Newton, but all signs continue to point to him as the opening day starter.
Mac Jones entered the game in the second quarter and struggled early on to find the kind of rhythm he showed during the 17-play drive against the Eagles or last Wednesday's joint practice session when Newton was out. But as has often been the case this summer, Mac didn't blink, coming out to start the second half with an impressive touchdown drive, capped off by a 17-yard strike to Isaiah Zuber for the score.
Jones and the offense would produce another scoring drive on the next possession, with a 30-yard pass up the seam to Devin Asiasi being the big play of the game. Rhamondre Stevenson would finish off the drive with his fifth touchdown of the preseason, as the rookie continued his torrid summer pace. Jones' final numbers for the summer were 33-of-50 for 389 yards and a touchdown.
There was plenty of hype about a quarterback competition this summer, but it never really lived up to the billing. Jones got a ton of snaps while Newton essentially got the entrenched starter's treatment. Nothing that either quarterback did this summer appeared to affect that.
Bubble players make their case
The third and final preseason game was a mix of the traditional second and third preseason games, that still saw some starters early. But being the last game of the summer, there were opportunities for jobs to be won and a couple of players stood out with strong performances.
D'Angelo Ross started with the top defense as the slot cornerback and made some solid plays, including an interception of Daniel Jones in the end zone. Ross has been around the practice squad for two seasons and with injuries in the secondary, he took advantage of his time to shine.
Quinn Nordin made 48-yard and 37-yard field goals and an extra point as well as handled some kickoff work as he turned in a solid final performance to state his roster case. However, he missed a 50-plus yard field goal at the end of the game.
The receivers at the bottom of the depth chart had solid nights as well, with Kristian Wilkerson coming up with a team-leading four catches for 72 yards and Isaiah Zuber making a nice move to get open for his 17-yard touchdown, along with a tough third-down conversion catch.
But the performance of the night, as many might've expected, had to go to J.J. Taylor, who once again shouldered a heavy load and delivered, showing the kind of explosive speed and surprising power that have made him a favorite this summer. He rushed, he caught, he returned punts and kicks, and should be a roster lock with the only question being if he can crack a meaningful gameday running back rotation.