Foxborough, MA – The Patriots failed to carry the momentum forward in a 27-17 loss to the defending champion Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
As for a big-picture takeaway, we didn't learn much about these two teams that we didn't already know. Kansas City is trying to sharpen its execution for another Super Bowl run, while the Patriots story is focused on the future from the top down in the organization — from that standpoint, everyone in this game is who we thought they were. New England isn't on the Chiefs level, even a watered-down Kansas City team.
Looking at the last two games, the Patriots offensive operation with quarterback Bailey Zappe has a sustainability problem. In the last two first halves, Zappe has led the offense to 31 points, 18 first downs, and has thrown four touchdown passes on 13 offensive possessions. However, it's a different story in the second half over the last two weeks.
In the last two second halves, the Patriots have scored seven points with six total first downs, two interceptions, and a combined nine punts on 14 offensive possessions. The offense is a more watchable product with Zappe, who brings a different energy in the pocket than Mac Jones. Still, things suddenly fizzle out once the Pats get out of the opening script.
On Sunday, the game unraveled when Zappe threw an ill-advised interception that set the Chiefs up on the Patriots own seven-yard line. Then, the offense punted the ball back to the Chiefs on the ensuing drive, with Kansas City scoring 17 unanswered points in roughly 13 minutes of game time during the third quarter. To his credit, Zappe took full ownership of the second-half struggles.
"As cliche as it sounds, it all falls on the quarterback. It all falls on me," Zappe told Patriots.com. "I think you're going to look back at the film tomorrow; there's going to be a lot of things that maybe if I just do this a little bit differently, it's a bigger play. It directly reflects on me because it's my fault. I've just got to be better."
The Patriots quarterback said little miscues added up throughout the second half, pointing to missed reads and a protection breakdown on a corner blitz. Obviously, it's not all on the quarterback, as other things contributed to the Patriots failing to keep up with the Chiefs. For example, the Patriots had four miscues that were costly swings in the game: a 46-yard return by Jalen Reagor on the opening kickoff negated by a holding call on special teams ace Brenden Schooler, a seldom-called face mask on Demario Douglas, a touchdown by Hunter Henry negated by offensive holding, and a forced fumble negated by a holding call on CB Alex Austin.
When facing the playoff-bound Chiefs, those are momentum killers that are hard to overcome. As for Zappe, he needs to start putting together complete performances for four quarters to be considered a viable starting option heading into the 2024 season.
Before we get into observations, an update on #TheTank: the Patriots hold serve with the No. 2 overall pick while inching closer to the No. 1 selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. After the Panthers beat the Falcons, Carolina (2-12) is only a game ahead of New England (3-11) with three games remaining in the regular season.
Here are ten observations as the Patriots fall to 3-11 on the season in Sunday's loss to the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Bailey Zappe's 16-Yard Touchdown Pass to TE Hunter Henry on Fourth-and-2 in the Second Quarter
If this were Chiefs.com, we'd lead off with a Patrick Mahomes six-yard touchdown pass to Clyde Edwards-Helaire that showcased why Mahomes is the best improviser in the game.
However, there was a stretch in the first half where the Patriots were putting up a fight with Kansas City, taking a 10-7 lead in the second quarter following a Mahomes interception. Before the pick-three, New England went on a ten-play touchdown drive culminating in an aggressive fourth down decision by head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick opted to pass up a 33-yard field goal attempt down 7-zip to get more points out of a red zone trip early in the game.
With the Patriots in a three-tight end package, the Chiefs matched the heavy personnel grouping and run formation (TE Pharaoh Brown at fullback) with base defense. The defensive personnel got a favorable matchup on a linebacker for TE Hunter Henry, who has been a go-to target for Zappe in the red zone, so offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien dials up play-action. The run fake presents Henry with favorable leverage against a single-high defense, and Zappe progresses off a covered read in the flat to Henry's corner route for the touchdown.
"Hunter is a great tight end and receiver. He can do practically anything you want him to," Zappe said. "I feel like no matter what they do versus Hunter, I feel like it's a mismatch."
Along with putting enough touch on the ball to place the throw perfectly, Zappe's ability to come off his first read and calmly hit Henry over the top in that situation is good quarterbacking.
2. Evaluating Patriots QB Bailey Zappe's Performance in Loss to the Chiefs
It was a tale of two halves for the second-year quarterback, who has done some good things mixed in with too much inconsistency to catch The Fever.
Starting with the positives, Zappe generated +0.10 expected points added per play in the first half. Overall, Zappe has been far more agile in the pocket than Mac, keeping plays alive and stepping into throws with more confidence to execute the offense. There's no question that Zappe is a more natural playmaker at the position who livens things up offensively.
For example, the Chiefs bring an all-out pressure here on third down, one of two cover-zero blitzes Kansas City ran in the game. Wiith the Chiefs doing well to cover the routes out of the bunch to Zappe's left by banjo'ing the switch release, Zappe goes to his only answer: the one-on-one matchup with DeVante Parker against L'Jarius Sneed. Zappe also has the presence of mind to throw Parker open on a back-shoulder pass as Snead has inside leverage in press-man. Those are the plays the Pats get with Zappe under center.
Zappe's issues are currently in the pre-snap chess match phase and being consistent with his reads after the snap. The Pats QB took responsibility for failing to get the offense in the right protection on a corner blitz that resulted in a sack by Snead. Zappe also said he should've thrown the flat route rather than a slant against inside leverage on the fourth down play late in the fourth quarter. Plus, the second-half interception is a pass Zappe simply cannot make – he needs to throw the ball away there. It was never open.
The second-year quarterback is still not there with how he mentally processes the game. Kansas City generated three sacks and eight QB pressures by blitzing on Sunday. Typically, those pressures could be avoided if the QB is on his game with protections and hot reads. Although he's undoubtedly a more elusive gunslinger type than Mac, Zappe needs to be more consistent and detailed to become an NFL starter because his physicals are average.
3. Patriots Defense Falls in Chess Match with Chiefs HC Andy Reid, QB Patrick Mahomes
The Patriots heavyweight matchup against Reid, Mahomes, and the Chiefs offense was pretty on brand given the state of things for these two teams: the Pats competed, and Kansas City shot themselves in the foot, but the Chiefs had the upper hand.
New England opened this game with their highest man coverage rate in a half this season (67.4%). The Pats prefer to play man against Mahomes and TE Travis Kelce because the duo is a bunch of zone-busters, with Mahomes's off-script magic and Kelce's ability to find zone voids. Overall, the Pats 48.8% man coverage rate was their third-highest in a game this season, as the Pats played various coverages to hold Kelce in check (five catches, 28 yards).
With the Pats playing a heavy dose of man coverage, Reid's counter to the man schemes with consistent pressure on Mahomes early was to throw 13 passes behind the line. The Chiefs ran screen after screen to mitigate the Pats aggressiveness in their rush plan, with Mahomes averaging 8.1 yards per attempt (105 total yards) on passes behind the line of scrimmage.
On the biggest pass completion of the game, Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for a 48-yard gain on a screen pass. Kansas City used motion as window dressing in the backfield, getting the defense to overcommit, and safety Kyle Dugger lost sight of Edwards-Helaire in man coverage on the Chiefs running back. With that being Dugger's man, nobody is on that side of the field to stop CEH.
The Chiefs also used rub routes to the backs out of the backfield (McKinnon TD) and a single-wing formation near the goal line for an Andy Reid special (McKinnon TD pass). In the second half, the Patriots incorporated more zone coverages, where Mahomes used his mobility to extend plays and move the coverage structure to find open receivers.
The Patriots defense won some rounds by intercepting Mahomes twice and forcing another turnover on a fumble recovery negated by penalty, but ultimately Mahomes was too much. Mahomes generated +0.04 EPA per play and threw for over 300 yards in this game, with the Chiefs offense scoring above their season average of 22.5 points. Yes, the Chiefs scored a touchdown on a short field following the Zappe interception. Still, this is not a great Chiefs offense, and Kelce looks limited these days like he might be wearing down at age 34. The defense needs to find another level when they face elite quarterbacks.
4. Rookie LB Marte Mapu Logs First Career Interception in Splash Play vs. Chiefs
On a positive note, the Patriots got a huge play in the game by rookie LB/S Marte Mapu that was eight months in the making from this perspective.
As many of you know, I've been clamoring for the Patriots to use third-round pick Marte Mapu as a linebacker since they drafted him. Instead, the Pats are mostly working on converting Mapu to a hybrid safety in the same mold as Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers. There is plenty of crossover between the hybrid safeties and a traditional off-ball linebacker. But we wanted to see the Patriots evolve at the inside linebacker position by getting more athletic at the second level. When the Pats drafted Mapu last spring, the hope was they saw the same vision. Here was the rookie's breakdown of his interception to Patriots.com:
"I was reading the quarterback's eye right there. I saw him going through his progression, and he ended up going to his check down. At that point, just based on the timing of the play, you don't really have too many options unless you extend it, but I didn't think he was going to get out."
While logging eight of his 15 snaps in the box, Mapu's athleticism and nose for the football could make him a real asset to this defense moving forward.
5. DL Christian Barmore Continues to Dominate in Stellar Third Season
Along with Mapu's big takeaway, Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore can officially leave the "risers" list and move over to the "he's just a good football player" at this point in the season. Barmore had a sack, tied for the team lead with four quarterback pressures, and led the Patriots defense with two run stuffs. His first-step explosiveness, upper-body power, and instincts are turning Barmore into a game-wrecker. According to teammate Davon Godchaux, Barmore's performance against the Chiefs was his best as a pro. It's hard to argue with Godchaux there.
6. Patriots O-Line Losses Multiple Layers of Depth, Blitz Pressure a Major Problem
The offensive line continues to have health issues as starting left tackle Trent Brown (ankle/hand/illness) was inactive, backup LT Conor McDermott left the game with a head injury, and starting left guard Cole Strange exited with a knee injury. After leaving the field on the cart, Strange was ruled out immediately, which is never a good sign.
As always, we'll need to review the film first. However, Zappe was sacked four times and under pressure on 37.1% of his drop-backs, while the Chiefs generated pressure on eight of their 14 blitzes (three sacks). Zappe took responsibility for the failures against the blitz, but it's on all 11. Whoever is in charge next year has a lot of work to do along the offensive line. They need to be a lot better here.
7. With JuJu Smith-Schuster Inactive, Pats Go Heavy as Wide Receiver Issues Continue
The Patriots finally got a good game out of JuJu Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh, and he's inactive the following week due to an ankle injury, which sums up that signing. I viewed Smith-Schuster as an upgrade in Bill O'Brien's offense over Jakobi Meyers because of his YAC ability, and boy, was I wrong. Dead wrong. They've gotten one good game out of JuJu, and now he's hurt again. Woof. The Pats had to play most of this game out of heavy groupings with two and three tight ends on the field, making them incredibly slow in the passing game. Douglas and Parker caught eight passes for 77 yards, while 2022 second-rounder Tyquan Thornton was targeted once on seven routes. It's one of the worst WR rooms in the NFL.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, Kevin Harris Carry the Load at Running Back Sans Stevenson
After having a huge game in the win over the Steelers, it was tough sledding for Ezekiel Elliott on Sunday. Elliott finished with 25 rushing yards on 11 carries, with only two successful runs and two stuffed runs on Sunday. As good as he's looked at times, Elliott lost seven rushing yards over expectation as the advanced metrics continue to view him as a highly inefficient runner.
The Patriots offense did get a positive flash from second-year running back Kevin Harris, though. With the Patriots running back-to-back RPOs, an 11-yard completion on a screen to Douglas set up Harris's 18-yard touchdown run. Harris gained +12 rushing yards after expectation on the run, squeaking through the hole and breaking two tackles to find paydirt.
New England will take those tough runs by Harris if he's Elliott's primary backup for a while.
9. Despite Being Active for the Game, Patriots CB J.C. Jackson Was Not Available
According to Mass Live's Karen Guregian, Jackson wasn't at Sunday's game vs. the Chiefs due to a personal matter. The Pats cornerback was officially active for the game but didn't play and wasn't spotted on the sideline or in the post-game locker room. Hopefully, everything is okay with Jackson and his loved ones. Let's avoid speculating on this until more information arises.
10. Special Teams Woes Continue with More Miscues From Core Contributors
Every week, we are forced to write about the Patriots issues on special teams despite all the personnel resources invested and essentially two special teams coordinators on staff. Coverage ace Brenden Schooler is hurting the team more than he's helping, negating a 46-yard return by Jalen Reagor on the opening kickoff due to a holding penalty, his fifth penalty of the season. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland also missed another kick, this time from 41 yards. What a mess.