Gillette Stadium – Where were you when Patriots rookie returner Marcus Jones walked it off to capture New England's 14th-straight win over the rival Jets in a crowded AFC East playoff race?
After the Patriots defense held the Jets to just 103 total yards of offense and only two first downs in the second half, Jones broke a 3-3 tie in a critical game with major playoff implications for both teams by returning a Braden Mann punt 84 yards to the house in the closing seconds, delivering his team a 10-3 divisional win on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Despite a few wrinkles from the Jets to change things from Week 8, New England's defense was in total control and seldom fooled by a Jets offense with serious issues at quarterback and along the offensive line.
But as much as you want to rave about the defense and Jones's game-winner, the long-term view of this team is still underwhelming due to the offense's struggles.
In challenging weather conditions, the Pats had a few productive post-bye wrinkles that moved the ball at times. However, drives continue to stall due to negative plays, offensive penalties, and poor situational play-calling. It's two steps forward and one step back for this offense, and those inconsistencies are keeping this group out of the end zone.
"[We] did a poor job of finishing our drives, getting the ball in good field position into scoring range or getting the ball in the red area into the end zone. We've got to find a way to do that better," head coach Bill Belichick said following the win.
If the Patriots want to be serious playoff contenders, they need to start playing more representable offense in critical situations to put points on the board.
Here are eight takeaways as the Patriots improve to 6-4 on the season with a win over the Jets:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Marcus Jones's Game-Winning 84-Yard Punt Return Touchdown
The post-game locker room was filled with excitement where everyone took turns recounting Jones's 84-yard house call from their point of view.
Some were surprised the Jets punted to the rookie after keeping it away from him earlier. Some weren't surprised because of the Jets punt coverage's success, while others were gauging how fast Jones, who didn't run a 40-yard dash due to offseason surgery, is in the 40. The general consensus? Low 4.3s, said one player.
Although his speed in the open field was impressive, Jones's initial first steps made the play happen. The third-rounder took two steps upfield to the inside, setting up his blocking and eventually a cutback lane that allowed him to turn the corner up the sideline. From there, it was Jones vs. Jets punter Braden Mann, and that was all she wrote.
From this perspective, our mind immediately went to Jones's 100-yard kick return to beat SMU at the University of Houston in a similar fashion.
2. Patriots Pass Defense Shuts Down "Controlled" Jets Passing Game
Despite a few different play designs, the Patriots defense felt good about their game plan and had a read on how the Jets would play them heading into Sunday's action. Knowing that Jets quarterback Zach Wilson handed the Patriots three turnovers in the Meadowlands, New England anticipated a more conservative approach this time.
"They kind of play how they played in their last game vs. the Bills. I felt like it was a lot of controlled passing, and you could see he was trying not to make the mistakes he made last time, trying to use his legs more," Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson said.
In his post-game remarks, the Jets QB credited the Pats defense with taking away the easy throws that New York was trying to scheme open to avoid taking too many chances downfield.
For example, one of the key plays in the game was a third-and-1 stop by the Patriots defense where the Jets sent running back Michael Carter into the flat with the receiver routes trying to clear out the coverage. However, the Pats fell into a cover-two zone with five defenders across the short part of the field, and Kyle Dugger closed in a hurry to make the tackle behind the line, setting up the punt attempt that led to Jones's game-winner.
Bill Belichick's defense was all over the Jets schemed throws behind the line of scrimmage and took away the short area of the field, forcing Wilson to hold the ball and unlocking the pass rush.
3. Patriots Defensive Front Dominates Matchup vs. Jets Offensive Line Once Again
Along with anticipating and defending the short passing game, the New England defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage for the second time in three weeks against the Jets.
"Film watching earlier in the week. Knowing everything they were doing," defensive end Deatrich Wise said of the Patriots ability to dominate the Jets up front.
After watching this Jets offense over the last few weeks, their run-game script is predictable. From under center, New York becomes a Shanahan-style outside zone team. In the gun, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur calls more gap schemes, such as counter, to get downhill on the defense.
The Patriots seemed to be anticipating those calls all day long. Nose tackle Davon Godchaux was cheating the interior combination block when Wilson was under center, while plays like the Deatrich Wise TFL above show great recognition for the schemes with pullers.
New England's defense held the Jets to 2.6 yards per rush and just a 15% success rate on 20 non-quarterback rush attempts, which allowed the pass rush to eat in long-yardage situations.
Patriots star Matthew Judon led the way again with 1.5 sacks, bringing his season total to a career-high 13.5 sacks. Judon credited the Pats staff with dialing up stunts to get him free in the pass rush, such as the three-man game with Judon as the looper on his solo sack.
The other element to the Patriots five-man pressure package on third downs is using athletic linebacker Mack Wilson as a spy against more mobile QBs like Wilson. The Pats linebacker allows Judon, Uche, Wise, and others to pin their ears back while he contains the quarterback.
Although it will need to prove it can dictate the terms against higher-powered offenses, New England's defense is the top-ranked unit in expected points added through 11 weeks.
4. Patriots QB Mac Jones, Passing Game Make Strides vs. Jets in Windy Conditions
In a game where the offense only scores three points, it's naive to heap praise on the quarterback or overall passing-game operation. However, the Pats took some baby steps.
The Patriots second-year quarterback's 246 passing yards were the second-most by an opponent against the stingy Jets defense this season. Jones finished with a completion percentage over expected of +9.8, averaging a shade over nine yards per pass attempt.
New England found success with their play-action passing game, with Jones completing seven passes for over 100 yards, including hitting Jakobi Meyers on a downfield option route between the zone defenders for a 20-yard completion here. The Pats also incorporated bootleg actions and ran successful play-action concepts out of their full house formation (more on that later).
"Play-action pass is a good part of every offense, and you want to be able to get the linebackers to come up and the safeties and all that stuff. Definitely want to expand on that. Something we've done really well here in the past, and just try to do that and match it up with everything we're doing," Jones told Patriots.com during his post-game press conference.
The other element of Jones's game that stood out was quicker decisions to get the ball to his check-down options. With the Jets playing soft zone coverages to take away big plays, Mac focused on taking profits underneath the defense and got the ball in his playmakers' hands.
"That's huge. Not only for me but for any of the receivers. Anybody getting the ball on time, they can get their eyes upfield and see what they can do," said running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
The Pats need to find ways to cut down on the six sacks that the Jets defense tallied on Sunday, especially untimely ones that knock them off schedule and out of scoring territory. And the quarterback is a part of that equation, so we'll see on film if Jones was holding the ball too long.
Still, the passing offense can come away from this game with things to build on moving forward.
5. Reports Fear a Season-Ending Injury for C David Andrews Amidst Offensive Line's Struggles
The Patriots offensive line had things go from bad to worse on Sunday. With a surprise right out of the gate, a "coaching decision" led to benching starter Trent Brown, as the Pats started Isaiah Wynn at left tackle (left to right: Wynn, Strange, Andrews, Onwenu, Cajuste).
After exiting the game due to a foot injury, Brown went back in on the left side for an injured Wynn and gave up two sacks during his time in the game. Then, an even bigger loss hit, as starting center and team captain David Andrews left the game due to a thigh injury.
According to NFL Network, the fear is that Andrews suffered a significant injury that will end his season. It's hard to find answers for this group without Andrews, as breakdowns are coming in pass protection from multiple areas, and they cannot run the ball in gotta-have-it situations.
For instance, the Patriots faced a third-and-one late in the game, where they went under center and attempted to run the football up the middle. Although the play-call was questionable, the lack of push from the interior with a backup center (James Ferentz) and a rookie left guard (Cole Strange) was an unfortunate reality all afternoon. Plus, the Pats can't get competent tackle play to allow this offense to function properly without moving backward at inopportune times.
Ferentz is a reliable backup with his experience in the system and high football IQ since coaching is in his blood. Due to the mental aspects of playing center (line calls), he'll likely get the nod. But undrafted rookie Kody Russey is in play if things go downhill. At the other four spots, the Pats need to settle on a five-man unit and stick with it to build some continuity.
At this point, the Patriots have what they have personnel-wise along the offensive line. It's on the coaching to design ways around and the play-caller to keep in mind their limitations.
6. Scheme Wrinkles Offer Optimism, But Offensive Play-Calling a Major Question Mark
The Patriots had a few new wrinkles coming off the bye week with a "full house" formation and better play-action designs to get the offense moving. However, the play-calling was still disjointed and subpar in critical situations. For example, the Pats generated back-to-back 20-yard gains off under-center play-action in the third quarter to move into Jets territory. Then, they immediately went back to the shotgun and lost six yards in the next three plays, taking at least three points off the board by going backward in windy conditions.
Unofficially offensive play-caller Matt Patricia also had a few head-scratchers in key situations. As we mentioned above, Patricia called for an under-center run on third-and-short into the strength of the Jets defense with a backup center and a rookie guard. The result wasn't surprising, as Jets star Quinnen Williams blew up the play. Earlier, the Pats went for it on fourth-and-one and called a crack sweep out of the gun that stood zero chance.
The Pats desperately need to find some consistency with their play-calling. The offense can't get into a groove because it doesn't have a core set of plays that it can lean on, and when it's finding something that works, the play-caller moves away from it. Frustrating.
7. Patriots Break Out "Full House" Formation as Post-Bye Wrinkle
The coaching staff might've found something with a full house formation where tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith line up in the backfield with a running back to form a three-player backfield for the offense.
Out of this grouping, the Patriots had their two longest plays from scrimmage on a 30-yard run by Damien Harris and a 26-yard completion off play-action to Smith.
On Harris's run, the Pats running back does a nice job of seeing the Pats wash the Jets defense down on a nice block by Cajuste at right tackle, and Jets rookie corner Sauce Gardner vacates his responsibility as the secondary edge force, so Harris bounces the run outside for a big gain.
In the first half, the Patriots drew the Jets linebackers in by mimicking a lead play with the two tight ends in the backfield. New York's defenders stepped up to play the run and were late to react to the play-action pass, with Smith getting behind the second level for another chunk play.
New England has different options they can get to out of this look, with the tight ends serving as lead blockers, extra pass protectors, or route-runners on releases out of the backfield. Certainly, something to build on in the weeks to come for the Patriots offense.
8. Patriots Special Teams Has Eventual Day in Poor Weather Conditions
Along with Jones's heroics, the Patriots also tried out a new punter in veteran Michael Palardy. At the same time, typically automatic kicker Nick Folk missed two field goals to the open end of the stadium. The wind was nasty, blowing through the open end of the horseshoe, but you also wonder if Palardy holding for Folk rather than Jake Bailey was a factor. Palardy was solid punting the football with an average of 45.3 yards, a 52-yard long, and only one touchback. The Pats will take that performance from Palardy, especially given the conditions.