It's a script that has played out too many times over the past three-plus seasons, and it's one Patriots fans unfortunately have become used to during the Mac Jones era. When the Patriots face a quality opponent, the games seem to take on an eerily similar outlook: fall behind early, turn the ball over trying to play catch up, fall short in the end.
Sunday in Dallas saw a slight variation of that tired act as Jones and the New England offense failed to mount any sort of pushback, unlike it did in the season-opening losses to Philadelphia and Miami. Instead, the mistakes kept coming in Big D and the Patriots came home with the worst loss of the Bill Belichick era.
Since Jones won the starting quarterback job as a rookie in 2021, the Patriots are 3-10 against teams that qualified for the playoffs, and all three victories come with qualifiers. In 2021, New England beat a Tennessee team playing without a dozen-plus starters due to injuries and COVID including Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and the bulk of the defense. The following week they squeaked by Buffalo in heavy winds that caused Jones to attempt just three passes in the entire game. The third win came late last season when Miami played without Tua Tagovailoa and still led until backup Teddy Bridgewater went down in the second half of the 23-21 Patriots victory.
A sampling of the 10 losses shows plenty of early-game deficits. The Eagles led 16-0 to kick off the season and Miami took a 17-3 advantage a week later. Last season saw Cincinnati race out to a 22-0 lead. Buffalo routinely forces the Patriots to play catch up as well.
Those 10 losses don't include any of the three defeats suffered thus far in 2023. The Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys currently have a combined record of 10-2 all appear ticketed for the postseason, but the season has yet to play out.
It's apparent that Jones and the Patriots aren't built to play from behind, and the turnovers in those games tells the story. In the Patriots three losses, the offense has turned the ball over seven times. Not surprisingly the one victory featured a clean slate in the turnover category.
But the struggles are about more than simply protecting the ball. It's not a coincidence that the mistakes come in games where the offense feels the need to keep up. As solid as the Patriots defense has been, it's unrealistic to expect the unit to shut down the likes of the Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys. All three mounted scoring drives to open the game and therefore put the Patriots in a position of playing from behind.
With the added burden of being forced to keep up, too often the response has been turnovers. After falling behind against Philly, the offense coughed it up on the next two possessions. Miami's early lead grew after an ensuing Patriots fumble the next week. On Sunday the deficit was 10-3 when the offense succumbed.
Unfortunately, the Jones-led Patriots appear to have only one way to win – get an early lead and keep the score down. Much has been made of the team's 0-14 record when allowing 25 or more points since Jones arrived, but it's indicative of the limitations the Patriots deal with.
The structure of the offense doesn't lend itself to getting involved in shootouts. The offensive line has been spotty as it's dealt with injuries, and the receivers lack a truly explosive option to keep defenses honest. So, opponents stack the box to stop the run, play plenty of man coverage while generating pressure on the passer and force Bill O'Brien's troops to make plays. More often than not the Patriots haven't made enough.
Sunday's performance may have been a tipping point for Belichick. With the game no longer in doubt, he removed Jones with the game still in the third quarter. That's not the normal course of action for coaches in the NFL. Generally, the starter remains in until much later, even in blowouts.
Belichick said he didn't see the point in leaving his quarterback in the game, so he made the switch. While Jones was under pressure throughout, he wasn't taking many hits and it would be unlikely to think Belichick had health in mind when making the move. He may not have liked the effort his quarterback put forth, however, particularly on the two drives he took part in during the second half.
Jones appeared to be affected by the pass rush and often unloaded weak passes toward unsuspecting receivers. His first series of the third quarter ended with a pick, the second with a non-competitive three-and-out. Belichick maintained that Jones would be the starter against New Orleans on Sunday, but it's fair to wonder what he's thinking down the road.
Mike Lombardi, a former member of the Patriots front office and longtime Belichick confidante, expressed some reservations about Jones after Sunday's loss, tweeting out the following:
The part about too many games looking the same is what resonated. Jones is a better quarterback than what he showed against the Cowboys, but against quality opponents his performances haven't been all that much different. The one big change was there was no response, however fleeting, to the early adversity in Dallas. Otherwise the mistakes have been regularly prevalent.
That's why it's fair to wonder if Belichick is thinking long and hard about the future at the position. There's still a lot of season left and the Patriots will have opportunities to right the ship, but it's hard to imagine major improvements on offense against quality opponents given the limitations.
Window very much open
Following Buffalo's opening night loss to the Jets, a game that saw Josh Allen put forth the worst outing of his career with four turnovers, many experts began to wonder if the Bills window in the AFC East was closing. Three blowout wins later and no one is suggesting the Bills days are done.
Sunday's thorough demolition of previously unbeaten Miami was impressive. Allen was masterful for the third straight week and Bills came up with enough stops to allow Buffalo to create separation. A close shootout devolved into a blowout midway through the second quarter as the Bills turned a 21-14 lead into a 31-14 edge thanks to the defense forcing a pair of punts and a fumble to allow the offense to put the game away.
Allen bounced back from the three-pick night against the Jets and has thrown eight touchdowns against just one pick in the three wins since. Stefon Diggs, whose disgruntled attitude many cited as a reason for the Bills downfall, has 31 receptions for 399 yards and four touchdowns. He looked to be enjoying his three-TD effort against the Dolphins in front of the home crowd in Orchard Park.
The one downfall of the impressive showing was the loss of top corner Tre'Davious White, who appeared to suffer a torn Achilles in the second half. That's a blow to the secondary as White was starting to resemble the form he displayed before tearing his ACL late in the 2021 season.
But as long as Allen and the Bills offense remains in gear, it's hard to imagine things slowing down anytime soon.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley did it again. If you know, you know. And again, his defense bailed him out when Asante Samuel Jr. picked off an Aidan O'Connell pass to preserve the 24-17 victory over the Raiders. … Staley's influence is working its way around the league – at least to Chicago. Bears coach Matt Eberflus passed up a go-ahead field goal and went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Broncos 18 with less than three minutes left and the score tied at 28. Khalil Herbert was stuffed and the Broncos easily marched into field goal range and came away with their first win of the season. When and why did field goals become such a bad thing? … Rams rookie receiver Puka Nacua has been nothing short of sensational while filling in for All-Pro Cooper Kupp. Nacua, a fifth-round pick out of BYU, set a record for most catches in his first four games with 39. He grabbed nine balls from Matthew Stafford on Sunday, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime in a win over the Colts. His 39 receptions lead the league and his 501 yards trail only Justin Jefferson's 543. Kupp is eligible to return from injured reserve this week, and the Rams offense could be quite dangerous with Nacua, Kupp and Van Jefferson on the outside. … Washington rookie corner Emmanuel Forbes struggled trying to contain Eagles wideout A.J. Brown on Sunday, allowing touchdowns of 59 and 28 yards in an overtime loss to Philly. Forbes was selected with the 16th overall pick, one spot ahead of Patriots rookie phenom Christian Gonzalez. Gonzalez opened his career by facing Brown and the Eagles and fared much better, allowing seven catches for 79 yards and no touchdowns. … Looks like it might be time for Bengals coach Zac Taylor to shut down Joe Burrow and allow the star quarterback's injured calf more time to heal. The Bengals offense looks broken – Cincy has scored the fewest points in the league thus far with just 49 in four games. Burrow has been under a ton of pressure and the calf problem has restricted his mobility greatly. Cincy's season is in serious jeopardy at 1-3 so it will be interesting to see if Taylor makes a move.
- San Francisco (4-0) – The Niners are a powerhouse and Christian McCaffrey is leading the way.
- Buffalo (3-1) – The Bills dismantled a Dolphins team coming off a 70-point outing.
- Kansas City (3-1) – Not the Chiefs best effort but Patrick Mahomes remains the game's best.
- Miami (3-1) – Having a 3-1 record after playing three of four on the road ain't bad.
- Philadelphia (4-0) – There are no style points in the NFL but the Eagles still don't look right.