After months of preparation, dozens of OTA and training camp practices and 13 weeks of regular-season game action, the Patriots offense has yet to generate any positive momentum on a consistent basis. Whether it's penalties, turnovers, pass protection or play calling, nothing has been consistently good enough on that side of the ball all year.
Last Thursday's moribund performance was the latest but by no means only example of just how ineffective the offense has been. The Patriots managed just 242 yards of offense, 57 of which came on a meaningless field goal drive to close out the night, and Mac Jones was left expressing his frustration on the sideline late in the second half.
This effort came on the heels of what had been a promising performance in Minnesota just a week earlier. Jones threw for a career-high 382 yards on Thanksgiving night and the Patriots put 26 points on the board despite the loss. Some felt (raises hand) it might be a harbinger of better days ahead, but instead, the Matt Patricia-led attack remains searching for answers.
Jones clearly feels the same way most fans do as the cameras caught him yelling at no one in particular, imploring for the opportunity to throw the ball downfield more often rather than the short stuff that the Bills had little problem dealing with.
Based on that night, it was a reasonable second-guess. Aside from a 48-yard bubble screen to Marcus Jones for a touchdown, the passing attack was toothless throughout. Without the TD, Jones completed 21 of 35 passes for 147 yards as he constantly checked it down while dealing with steady pressure from the Bills front.
But delving a bit further into the offensive woes sees an offense that turned the ball over at an alarming rate earlier in the season when many of Jones' passes went downfield more often. Jones was probably at his best in the Week 3 loss to the Ravens when he hooked up with DeVante Parker (five catches, 156 yards) for several big plays. However, that game also saw Jones throw three interceptions, all coming on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air.
It was the most glaring example of the new-found aggressive approach on offense leading to turnovers. Jones tossed seven interceptions over his first five games (he missed three due to an ankle injury), and was fortunate to have a pick-six called back due to penalty in a win at the Meadowlands against the Jets.
Since that time Jones has been pick-free over his last four starts, but in three of those games (Jets, Colts, Bills) the offense mustered next to nothing in the passing game or otherwise, scoring two offensive touchdowns combined.
So, therein lies the dilemma. Can Jones consistently run an offense that pushes the ball downfield and produces big plays without putting the ball in harm's way? He was able to do that effectively in Minnesota, and perhaps that's why he was so upset over not getting the chance to do so again against Buffalo. But after watching the turnovers largely disappear in recent weeks, it would be understandable if Bill Belichick and his offensive staff felt continuing that trend was more important than becoming more explosive.
The problem is it is clear the Patriots can't expect to win games because the opponent can't score – as they did in their last two victories. In Minnesota the Vikings put pressure on the offense to keep up, and in the fourth quarter it fell flat on four possessions that yielded no points in a 33-26 defeat. Against Buffalo, the Bills scored on their first three drives, led 17-7, and it felt like 117-7 given the struggles for the Patriots offense.
Unless the coaches can find a way to have Jones air it out without risking disaster, which hasn't been easy, it's hard to imagine this version of the offense keeping up with the remaining opponents.
Marcus Jones has been outstanding as a return man this season, posing a threat on both punts and kickoffs. Now the rookie corner is even contributing on offense, ripping off a 48-yard touchdown off a bubble screen that saw him split two defenders with just Parker out in front as blocker.
Jones showed his speed and ability to operate in space, first finding daylight and then outrunning Pro Bowl safety Jordan Poyer, who had the angle, down the sideline to finish off the touchdown.
While his presence has injected some electricity into the attack, it's also somewhat troubling how much the Patriots have needed his offense. Over the last five games, Jones leads the team in touchdowns with two. Here's a list of touchdown scorers since New England's 22-17 win over the Jets in Week 8:
That means three of the team's last seven TDs have been scored by defensive players That speaks volumes about the Patriots offensive struggles this season.
After an 0-2 start, the Bengals looked like they might be yet another Super Bowl loser that has a tough time bouncing back the following season. But since then Cincy has won eight of 10 and moved into position to be again be in the mix in the AFC postseason race.
Sunday's win over Kansas City was impressive in many respects, but it was the play of Joe Burrow down the stretch that really stood out. Obviously quarterbacks are paid to engineer scoring drives, and playing against Patrick Mahomes the Bengals needed to put a few together in the 27-24 win.
Burrow really shined on a drive that didn't result in points, however, showing why he may be moving into the league's upper echelon alongside Mahomes and Josh Allen. After the Chiefs missed a tying field goal, the Bengals took over with 3:19 to go and KC in possession of all three timeouts. They then held the ball for the remaining 10 plays to close out the victory.
The plays that stood out came during an up-and-down sequence for Burrow that saw him rebound from a rare brain cramp. First, Burrow fed Ja'Marr Chase on a quick screen and let the wideout do the rest to convert a third-and-5, then after the Chiefs used their final timeout he handed to Samaje Perine for 6 yards as the clock wound toward the two-minute warning.
The Bengals let the play clock tick down to one before calling timeout with 2:05 left. Coach Zac Taylor wisely called a pass, knowing that the two-minute warning would stop the clock regardless of the outcome of the play. But Burrow made a mistake and held the ball too long before giving himself up for a sack, likely not wanting to stop the clock with a throwaway.
But in doing so he turned a potential third-and-4 into a third-and-11, and the clock stopped regardless for the two-minute warning. Some coaches would have been spooked by such an error, and many quarterbacks would have melted as well.
Burrow simply dropped into the pocket and fired a laser into a tight window across the middle to Tee Higgins for 14 yards and the game-sealing first down. An incomplete pass would likely have led to a field goal and given Mahomes about 1:45 to orchestrate the game-winning drive. Instead, Burrow took a pair of knees to close it out with one of the most impressive bounce backs you'll see from one play to the next.
There is still a long way to go with five weeks of games to be played, and determining playoff spots and tiebreakers with so much still to be determined is difficult. At this point the Patriots are on the outside looking in as the eighth seed behind Buffalo, Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Miami and the Jets, in that order.
The Patriots got some help with losses for the Dolphins, Jets and Chargers, who dropped to 6-6 with their loss to the Raiders. As an example of why it's not always easy to determine the postseason at such an early stage, the Raiders win was their third straight and suddenly has Las Vegas at 5-7, just a game back of New England and the Chargers. With a win over the Rams in Week 14, Josh McDaniels' team would have the ability to move ahead of the Patriots with a victory the following week in Vegas in a game the league flexed out of its original prime time spot and moved to 4:05 p.m. on Fox. Even a Patriots win in Arizona Monday night would only ensure a tie with the Raiders in that scenario, and obviously if the Raiders win it would give Vegas the head-to-head edge.
Another thing to consider is the health of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens (8-4) currently lead the AFC North, but if Jackson is out it could open the door for the Bengals to take the division. In that case the Ravens would have the head-to-head edge on the Patriots as well thanks to their Week 3 win in Foxborough.
Again, there's a lot yet to be determined.
- Buffalo (9-3) – The Bills are starting to get some personnel back and seemed poised for another late-season drive to the playoffs.
- Philadelphia (11-1) – The Eagles may be the most balanced team in the NFC after dismantling a solid Titans team.
- Kansas City (9-3) – The Chiefs fell short at Cincinnati, but Mahomes still has to be considered one of the favorites.
- Dallas (9-3) – The Cowboys defense is just relentless and with Dak Prescott leaning on the running game Dallas is dangerous.
- Minnesota (10-2) – Still don't believe in the Vikings … oh well, you know the rest.