Foxborough, MA – The Patriots season ended in a game with a different vibe than a typical season finale at a snow-covered Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
New England's winning streak over the Jets, the longest active streak in the NFL, was snapped at 15 games in a 17-3 loss in Week 18. We'll break down this game like any other. However, the bigger picture was on everyone's mind during the post-game wintry scene in Foxborough.
Along with longtime players who might've played their final games as pros, Sunday may have been Bill Belichick's last as head coach. The Pats finished with a Belichick-era worst 4-13 record, locking them into the third overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. There will be a time for excitement about the offseason. For now, we have to consider an uncertain future.
In the coming days, Coach Belichick will meet with Patriots ownership to discuss next steps. Belichick will also conduct his customary end-of-year Zoom conference with reporters at 7:30 am ET on Monday morning, followed by one last open locker room for the 2023 season. At this time, nobody knows where Belichick will be coaching next season, with the loss to the Jets serving as a microcosm of the offensive struggles mainly to blame for a four-win campaign.
Belichick seemed to acknowledge an uncertain future in his opening statement in his post-game press conference: "As far as the future goes, I'll sit down with Robert [Kraft] as I do every year at some point at the end of the season and we'll talk about things as we always do. I'm sure that will happen. But that's really all I have to say about that right now."
The Patriots head coach is on the hot seat because he hasn't successfully rebuilt the offense in the post-Brady era. Defensively, the Pats are in decent shape with a good mix of young and veteran talent on a unit that will finish in the top half of DVOA for the third consecutive season, making it three of four seasons that the defense has held up its end since Brady's departure.
Although the snowy conditions were a significant factor, the Patriots scored three points, managed six first downs, and were 1-14 on third down on Sunday. In their worst season offensively under Belichick, the Pats 119 total yards vs. the Jets were their fewest in a game since 1992 — one last reminder that this team needs a complete overhaul on offense.
When Brady left, so did the scoring. In 2023, the Patriots will finish as the NFL's worst-scoring offense at 13.9 points per game. Armed with the third overall pick and a projected $74 million in cap space, the Patriots have the resources to upgrade the offense. However, the gigantic question for the Kraft's is who will be picking the players, and is Belichick the right personnel guy to handle such a major offseason for the organization? That's a complex topic we'll deliberate soon.
If this is it for Belichick as the Patriots head coach, it's been an unprecedented run of success that should be celebrated, and any suggestion otherwise is outrageous. For most coaches in the GOAT conversation, the Hall of Fame resume ends with a footnote about the lackluster final days of their coaching careers. Still, it's unfortunate to see Belichick potentially go out like this.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots season ends with a loss to the Jets in Week 18:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented By Enel: Jets RB Breece Hall's Ices Game With 50-Yard Touchdown Run
The one elite phase of the game for the Patriots this season was their run defense, which entered the final week of the regular season with several impressive stats.
New England was allowing the lowest yards per carry the NFL has seen over the last decade (3.2), ranked first in rush DVOA, and was second in expected points added per rush (EPA). However, on Sunday, Jets running back Breece Hall was the best offensive player on the snowy Gillette Stadium field. Hall ran for 178 yards on 37 carries, the most a Belichick defense has allowed in a game since Knowshon Moreno ran wild in the 2013 season.
Hall did most of his damage running off-tackle on the Jets outside zone schemes, where New York successfully forced the Pats cornerbacks and safeties into the run fit at the point of attack. On his 50-yard touchdown run, the Jets are blocking outside zone lead out of a two-back formation. With the fullback kicking out Jonathan Jones on the perimeter, the play-side receiver can block down on safety Jabrill Peppers, which causes a domino effect on the edge. The fullback washes out Jones, Peppers gets blocked out of the play by the receiver, and Hall does the rest.
"Nope, can't do nothing," nose tackle Davon Godchaux said about the interior defenders stopping outside runs. "It was a good game plan. I feel like we got out-coached. They kept running the same play, and we never adjusted to it. I don't know. I have to watch the film. We never really adjusted to it – Breece Hall is a good player. But we stopped him many times before."
The Patriots played most of the game in a five-man front (5-2). Hall's touchdown run came against a heavy box, but most of his runs were into neutral or light boxes, with the Jets running back averaging nearly five yards a carry into light boxes.
Both quarterbacks struggled to throw the ball, with Bailey Zappe and Trevor Siemian each throwing for under 90 passing yards in the game. This was an old-school, weather-impacted slush fest where New England lost the battle in the trenches – that was the difference.
2. QB Bailey Zappe Struggles in Sloppy Conditions, Patriots Don't Have a QB1
Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe will probably be on the roster moving forward. Zappe is under contract for two more seasons and is a cheap, developing player with some value as a backup.
However, after injecting some signs of life into the offense in Pittsburgh and Denver, the larger sample size for Zappe suggests he's also not an answer as a franchise quarterback. The second-year QB struggled to control the football in the wintry weather on Sunday, throwing for 88 passing yards, 33 on one play, while generating -0.76 EPA per drop-back (1st percentile).
Based on my live charting, Zappe had four turnover-worthy plays, including throwing two interceptions on the same drive. After Jets safety Ashtyn Davis intercepted a Zappe deep ball intended for Jalen Reagor, Zappe was intercepted two plays later by Tony Adams (Davis gave the ball back to the Patriots by fumbling the ball on the interception return).
Along with struggling with turnovers-worthy plays, the Patriots had opportunities to hit plays down the field, but Zappe couldn't get enough velocity on the ball to reach his intended target. This happened three times on notable throws to DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki (end zone pass breakup), and a fourth-down incompletion to Pharaoh Brown, a key play in the game.
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien went with an aggressive fourth-down call by dialing up play-action from under center. O'Brien disguises the look by motion Pop Douglas into the backfield, then runs mesh-wheel off the play-action fake. The play produces an open receiver, with Brown getting behind Davis who false steps upfield thinking run. However, Zappe's pass is under thrown, allowing Davis back into the play.
Although it's only fair to put in the weather caveat, Zappe's -21.4 completion percentage over expectation is indicative of what we've seen over the course of the year. Dating back to training camp, Zappe's had issues with his downfield accuracy, making it hard to envision him as a long-term answer without more consistency to his game as a passer.
With the Patriots picking third overall in April, it's challenging to make a case for the pick being anything other than a quarterback. New England hasn't gotten good enough QB play this season, and this might be their best opportunity to draft a top prospect at the position.
3. Patriots Send Captain Matthew Slater Into Potential Retirement in Style
The Patriots might've lost the game on the field to end a disappointing season, but it was truly amazing to see the outpouring of love and brotherhood for Matthew Slater. Slater, who declined to make a formal retirement announcement after the game, was welcomed on the field pre-game by teammates and coaches wearing hoodies in his honor.
"It meant a lot. It meant a lot. I was blown away by it," said a choked-up Slater. "I never wanted anything about my experience here to be about me, so it did make me a little but uncomfortable. But to have the guys do that, I'll never be able to put that into words as long as I live."
Slater was credited with one special-teams tackle in the third quarter, playing his usual hefty workload in the kicking game. Slater also had a huge contingent of family and friends on hand, including Hall of Fame father, Jackie Slater, with the group taking a photo on the 50-yard line long after the game had concluded. All the vibes suggest Slater will announce his retirement shortly, ending a fantastic run for the best special teams player in NFL history. Slater will have a legit Hall of Fame case, while the organization could try to keep him involved either in a team chaplain role or as a special teams coach. Slater's send-off, or so it seems, was a great experience to witness on Sunday afternoon.
4. Patriots QB Mac Jones Demoted to Third-String (Emergency) Quarterback Role, Nathan Rourke Active as Top Backup QB
A pre-game surprise from the Patriots was the team having Nathan Rourke as the top backup quarterback to Bailey Zappe over Mac Jones. Jones told Patriots.com it wasn't surprising that he was designated as the emergency third quarterback based on practice reps. In practice, Rourke out-repped Mac, which indicated to both understudy quarterbacks that Rourke would get the nod.
"Nathan had a good week of practice. We activated him for the second spot," head coach Bill Belichick said post-game.
Jones's final slide down the depth chart was a good reminder of his downfall this season, which certainly wasn't all on the third-year quarterback. The Patriots did Jones no favors with how they handled his development, from the coaching, public messaging, and lack of a supporting cast. It's hard to envision a future for Mac in New England.
5. Offensive Line is Another Major Offseason Priority for the Patriots
Although the opportunity is there to take a quarterback at the top of the draft, the Patriots offensive line remains a major issue for this team. As we saw with Mac, if you don't protect a young QB, that quarterback will get sped up and develop bad habits in the pocket. Zappe was sacked seven times in this one, with a pressure rate over 45 percent. The Pats current QB1 had as many sack yards (57) as passing yards if you remove Jalen Reagor's 33-yard catch (55).
Some of that appeared to be on Zappe holding the football. But when the quarterback is consistently in pockets like this, where post-snap movement by the defense is a death sentence for the Pats O-Line, there isn't much the passer can do. The Pats offensive line struggled to pass off stunts all year, and the Jets got them several times on Sunday.
The Patriots top offseason priority should be quarterback, particularly in the draft, but not far behind is finding a long-term solution to their offensive tackle problems on both sides.
6. Could Another Patriots Captain Hang Up the Cleats After Ironman 2023 Season?
Along with Slater, there are rumblings about the future for Patriots captain and starting center David Andrews. Andrews played every offensive snap this season, a remarkable feat for the two-time Super Bowl champ in year nine. Andrews's play dipped a bit down the stretch, ending the year allowing six sacks, including losing one-on-one to Pro Bowler Quinnen Williams on Sunday. Overall, Andrews was one of their most consistent players.
"I think I still got some in the tank. But we'll see. I'm tired, I'm sore," Andrews told reporters.
From a leadership and on-field production standpoint, the Patriots would have massive shoes to fill if Andrews doesn't return next season. One has to think Belichick's future will be a factor here.
7. Patriots Rookie P Bryce Baringer Sets Franchise Record in Season Finale
Patriots rookie punter Bryce Baringer set a franchise record with 38 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Granted, Baringer also attempted the second-most punts in franchise history with a whopping 98 (Shawn McCarthy had 103 in 1992). Baringer botched a punt out of his own end zone where he appeared to slip in the snow, which led to a Jets scoring drive beginning on the Pats 38-yard line. He also had a bad touchback on a plus-50 opportunity. On the positive side, Baringer booted two punts over 60 yards. That's been his rookie season in a nutshell – a mixed bag where he has flashed potential but needs to be more consistent.
8. Quick Shout Outs in the Patriots Loss to the Jets
- DT Christian Barmore logged three more QB pressures and a run stuff. His pressure was key on a third down play in particular. He ended a breakout season on a high note.
- EDGE Anfernee Jennings was solid again with a stuff and a blown-up screen pass. Jennings should be a priority to re-sign, assuming they're running a Belichick defense.
- DT Jeremiah Pharms (three pressures) and LB Josh Uche (two pressures) did their part to disrupt Jets QB Trevor Siemian.
- CB Alex Austin is an intriguing player for next season. He should've been credited with two pass breakups, but a personal foul on Jabrill Peppers wiped out one.
- WR Jalen Reagor made the only notable offensive plays with a 33-yard catch and a 17-yard run on a reverse. Reagor isn't a top-three receiver in a proper rotation, but he is a serviceable WR4 or WR5 with return value. I'd entertain bringing him back.