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NFL Notes: Pats working into the mix

20211102_PDC_Phillips_Harris_Adler
Harris exults with safety Adrian Phillips after New England defeated the Chargers in Los Angeles earlier this 2021 season.

After a rocky start to the season and in Los Angeles, the Patriots rebounded nicely and posted their most impressive win in almost a year.

Righting the ship

Sunday's spirited 27-24 victory over the Chargers was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it put the team back at .500 and smack dab in the middle of the muddled AFC playoff picture. But it also was impressive for the manner in which it was achieved: with stingy defense.

Before the start of the season the formula for success for the Patriots that many thought would develop was strong defense supported by a heavy dose of the running game with some help from coaching and special teams. The win over the Chargers featured that very blueprint, and that was the first time this season the Patriots won a game in that manner.

That's no insignificant fact. Good teams find different ways to win, and right now New England is trending toward that category.

Let's compare the last two wins as examples. Two weeks ago the Patriots offense overwhelmed the lowly Jets, scoring at will while going 6-for-6 in the red zone on route to a 54-13 victory. Sunday in Los Angeles was an entirely different story. The Chargers defense had Mac Jones out of sorts throughout the day and stiffened in the red zone. The Patriots managed just one touchdown in four trips inside the Chargers 20, and New England found itself trailing in the fourth quarter.

Strong defense allowed the game to remain close, and ultimately it was an Adrian Phillips pick-six that led to the win. Then Jones and the offense overcame their struggles and closed it out with an impressive field goal drive to salt it away.

"We overcame, kept battling as a team and showed some good mental toughness [Sunday]," center David Andrews said after the win. "We're starting to turn that page and believing in ourselves and believing how to win football games, and that's a big thing."

Two games and two entirely different paths to victory. That kind of balance will serve the team well during the second half of the season because now the Patriots find themselves in the thick of a playoff race that just two weeks ago seemed out of reach.

Instead of relying on one aspect of the game to lead the way each week, the Patriots are developing into a team that can succeed in different ways. The strong play of the defense on Sunday surely benefitted Jones, and that will bode well down the stretch. Instead of feeling the pressure of keeping up in shootouts, Jones knows he doesn't have to be perfect to win and the Patriots are learning how to make plays with the game on the line.

There's still a long way to go, but at the quasi-midway point of the season the Patriots are very much in the mix.

Backup plans

New York Jets quarterback Mike White (5) reacts against the Cincinnati Bengals.
New York Jets quarterback Mike White (5) reacts against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Week 8 was not a bad time to be a backup quarterback. Five of them were pressed into duty on Sunday and all five came away with victories including two from players making their first career starts.

The most improbable came at the Meadowlands with Mike White leading the Jets to a 34-31 victory over Cincinnati. White completed 37 of 45 passes for 405 yards with three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions in place of the injured Zach Wilson. He also engineered a pair of late touchdown drives to overcome a 31-20 deficit in the final five minutes. Based on White's performance, coach Robert Saleh might be better off keeping Wilson, who struggled during his first two months, on the bench even when he's healthy. Wilson remains the long-term quarterback, but plenty of young guys have benefitted from some time watching from the sideline and that might be the case with the rookie.

Dallas' Cooper Rush was the other first-time starter to win, and he was no less impressive. He took the Cowboys on the road to Minnesota and completed 24 of 40 for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns with one pick. He finished a 75-yard drive in the final minute with a 5-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper to give Dallas a 20-16 win. Rush hadn't thrown a pass since 2017.

The other backups who had a hand in their teams' wins were Geno Smith in Seattle, and Trevor Siemian and P.J. Walker, who came off the bench for New Orleans and Carolina, respectively. Siemian went 16-for-29 for 159 yards and a touchdown after Jameis Winston went down with a reported torn ACL, leading the Saints to a statement win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Smith hit 20 of 24 passes with a pair of touchdowns in the Seahawks blowout win over Jacksonville while Walker did little more than hand off after Sam Darnold suffered a concussion in the Panthers win in Atlanta.

Changing landscape

Mac Jones (10) breaks a tackle against the LA Chargers
Mac Jones (10) breaks a tackle against the LA Chargers

The Patriots are entering what most believed would be the most challenging portion of their schedule. Starting with Sunday's trip to LA, the Patriots are in a stretch of eight games that features six opponents with records equal to or better than their 4-4 mark.

But while the landscape looked daunting a couple of weeks ago, circumstances have changed things a bit starting this week in Carolina. The Panthers may be without quarterback Sam Darnold, who went down with a concussion in the win over Atlanta. The following week New England hosts Cleveland and the Browns have been beaten and battered all season. Baker Mayfield is trying to play through a significant shoulder injury while many of his top weapons and protectors are out. Then comes Atlanta, who will likely be without its best player in wideout Calvin Ridley, who has stepped away from football for personal reasons. After that comes a visit from Tennessee, who learned it may be without Derrick Henry for the rest of the season due to a foot injury. Henry may be the league's most valuable player and his loss will be a huge blow to the Titans.

It's never wise to overlook opponents who appear to be undermanned, but the Patriots potential to further inject themselves into the postseason race looks a lot better today than it did prior to the start of Week 8.

Week 8 tidbits

Matthew Stafford (9) of the Los Angeles Rams passes the ball against the Houston Texans
Matthew Stafford (9) of the Los Angeles Rams passes the ball against the Houston Texans

Week 8 provided more evidence of the league's top-heavy nature with many tight games as well as blowouts with very little in between. The week featured 11 games where teams were separated by one score at some point in the fourth quarter. There have now been 27 games this season decided by a score in the final minute or in overtime, which is the most such games through Week 8 in league history.

On the flip side, there were also four games decided by 15 or more points, two of which saw spreads of more than 21 points. That makes 23 games this season that resulted in wins of 21 or more points, which is tied for the second-most in history through eight weeks.

The score fluctuations are likely an indication of the lack of middle class in the league with some really good teams at the top (Green Bay, Arizona, Buffalo, Dallas, LA Rams) and some dreadful ones at the bottom (Houston, Jacksonville, Detroit, NY Jets). Injuries may be evening that out in the coming weeks, however. … Minor quibble dept.: Color analyst Charles Davis constantly applauding the Patriots for staying in bounds in lieu of picking up additional yards on their final drive in LA. The clock does not stop until the final five minutes even when a player goes out of bounds, so there was nothing gained by the players avoiding the sidelines early in that drive. The goal should be – and was – for the Patriots to tack on additional points to make it a two-score game. As the clock went under five minutes, then the idea of keeping the clock moving comes into play, and the Patriots executed that drive to perfection. … One final note: the lowering the helmet penalty on Cincinnati's Mike Hilton on third-and-11 in the final two minutes was borderline criminal. The Bengals trailed 34-31 and had all three timeouts left, and Hilton came up to stop Ty Johnson for a 1-yard loss. But the officials ruled that Hilton lowered his helmet when replays showed if anything it was Johnson who lowered his head to create contact. The 15-yard penalty gave the Jets a first down and allowed them to run out the clock against the deflated Bengals defense. It was a perfect example of the officials needlessly injecting themselves into the potential outcome of a game.

Power 5

It seems each week features an impressive win by an undermanned team and this time it was Green Bay turning the trick, posting a 24-21 victory in Arizona without its top three wideouts.

  1. Green Bay (7-1) – Remember when Aaron Rodgers didn't want to play anymore after a season-opening beatdown against the Saints?
  2. Buffalo (5-2) – Winning ugly can sometimes mean more to a team than the blowouts, and the Bills showed they don't need to be at their best to get the job done.
  3. Arizona (7-1) – The Cardinals overcame a lot to get in position to win Thursday night but ultimately fell short. Now they need to get healthy during their mini-bye.
  4. L.A. Rams (7-1) – When the Rams have it going on offense there aren't many teams that can keep up, and now they add Von Miller to the defense.
  5. Tampa Bay (6-2) – If Tom Brady and the Bucs have a kryptonite, it very well may be the Saints defense.

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