The Patriots holiday weekend didn't go exactly as planned, but it wasn't a complete disaster for New England.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots had a chance to win their game late in the fourth quarter of a 22-18 loss to the Bengals on Christmas Eve. The clutch gene escaped this team once again, as Rhamondre Stevenson's fumble at the five-yard line ended New England's comeback bid. Although it was a different ending than the week before, the result was the same, an offensive turnover and a self-inflicted wound taking a winning opportunity off the board for a 7-8 football team.
The Patriots didn't take care of business, but they got a Christmas gift from the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day. By defeating the Miami Dolphins, the Packers gave New England control of its own playoff destiny.
If the Patriots win out at home against the Dolphins and at Buffalo over the final two weeks of the season, they're in. According to FiveThirtyEight, that gives them a 20% chance to make the playoffs. Winning back-to-back games against two teams with winning records who've owned them recently sounds unlikely, which is reflected in their current playoff odds.
Still, there's a chance, and a momentum-swinging win against a Dolphins team that has lost four-straight games would make things extremely interesting in Week 18.
Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag as we head into Week 17:
Q: What do you think the Patriots need to do in order to beat the Dolphins (and Bills)? - @gtcgabe12
Play good defense and take advantage of their opportunities on offense. The blueprint for beating the Dolphins offense is very doable for the Pats defense. We'll have a detailed breakdown in Scouting the Dolphins later this week. But the crux is maintaining inside leverage/help to force the ball outside the numbers, where Tua doesn't want to live. This is the perfect matchup for the Marcus and Jon Jones pairing since they have the speed to match Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. From a win-loss perspective, Tua has their number. Still, I like this matchup on paper for the Pats defense. They have the personnel in the secondary and a defensive front that can overwhelm an overmatched Miami offensive line. Buffalo, on the other hand, is a different story. Let's cross that bridge when we get to it.
Q: I feel Mac has regressed in his pocket awareness from last year. Have you noticed this as well, and any way to improve this the last two games? - @LEM0484
I've heard this critique growing louder each week, so I will not completely dismiss it. Awareness is sensing pressure around you and knowing when it's time to save the play. Sometimes that's taking a sack. Other times, it's getting the ball out to a check-down or throwing it away. But QBs with poor pocket awareness are blindsided by hits and struggle with ball security in the pocket. I don't see that with Mac. I see poor timing in the passing game leading to him holding the ball, a lack of quick outlets, and distrust to anticipate receiver breaks. The areas I'd like to see him improve in this sense are poise under pressure and pocket movement. If he trusts what's happening around him more, I think he'll be less panicky under pressure. But he needs to develop those sudden explosive movements to bob-and-weave around the pocket: find a pocket of space, get into clean air, and make throws from muddy conditions—the Brady stuff. We'll see if he can get there, but that's more an offseason project than an in-season fix.
Q: Part of me thinks Marcus Jones' ceiling is higher as a WR rather than a DB. What say you? - @JimmyTalksPats
I had the same thought after the Cardinals game, Jimmy. Our eyes aren't used to seeing the explosiveness as a ball carrier that Jones brings to the offense, and I'd love to see a simplified downfield route tree moving forward. However, Marcus was adamant that he wants to play corner when I spoke to him for a feature last week, and I'll defer to him on this one. He wants to be on defense, so that remains his full-time position. Jones is a pretty darn good corner, too.
Q: Would having a real offensive coordinator be enough to help the team? - @_1conic_
It's not everything, no. At the end of the day, you need talented players as well, and the Patriots are a true elite wide receiver and a few pieces away on the offensive line before they have the personnel. But better coordination would go a long way to getting this group back on track. The Pats receivers have lost all sense of route detail (spacing, timing, technique), their third-down scheming is rudimentary, there doesn't seem to be a well-orchestrated plan to handle blitzes, and it too often feels like they're calling random plays rather than sequencing together offense. A lot of little things are adding up to big issues. If this offense is better at the details, we will see significant signs of improvement. I firmly believe that.
Q: I think they need a new OC. Where do you see Patricia and Judge next year in roles for the Patriots in 2023? - @shorn2222
If I had to venture a guess, Patricia would land back in his 2021 role, mostly special projects and taking on some responsibilities left behind by Ernie Adams on game day, or, as the team called it, Senior Football Advisor. I'd be okay with that. As for Judge, I'd imagine he'll still have a position on the staff, likely on offense. Maybe tight ends coach if Nick Caley leaves. There's a possibility that he could return to special teams, but the feeling here is that Judge would rather coach offense than the kicking game because it's better for his resume.
Q: What do you think is the bigger priority between getting a new OT and a WR1? - @Gamer4allreal
The age-old argument of what comes first: pass protection or receiver talent. The Bengals were at this decision-making crossroads a few years ago when they had to choose between WR Ja'Marr Chase and OT Penei Sewell. They chose Chase, which might've been heavily influenced by the quarterback, and it's hard to argue with the results. They're both priorities that the Patriots can sufficiently address in the offseason. There isn't an excuse to ignore one or the other. That said, it's about getting the best players in the building. Don't reach on a position because it's a need. Trust your scouting, and take the best player on the board. Ultimately, I think that's what the Bengals did with Chase, and they were a few plays away from winning a Super Bowl (and are 11-4 this season).
Q: Five-point plan to turn this around next offseason? - @EntryLevelDave
I'll have a more detailed answer to this question once we officially are in the offseason. Here's a quick synopsis of what I'd like to see the Patriots do: 1. Hire an experienced offensive coordinator (BOB is my first choice), 2. Hire an experienced offensive line coach, 3. Make a trade for a star receiver, 4. Fix the offensive line with a right tackle in free agency (McGlinchey) and a top-100 pick at left tackle, and 5. Add a true outside cornerback with some size. It sounds like a lot, but with their cap situation, it's doable in one offseason.
Q: Besides play-caller, what do you think is causing the significant woes in the offense? - @BradyCarried
If you asked me this question a few weeks ago, I'd say offensive line/poor pass protection. However, over the last two weeks, they've been more competitive in that area. Now, I'd say receiver execution and attention to detail, which points to coordination but not necessarily play-calling. They're a sloppy route-running team right now, and the timing is often out of whack with their passing offense. I haven't seen a Patriots offense run routes this poorly before. They're rounding into breaks, taking their sweet time to get into the route pattern, and the spacing hasn't been good.
Q: Hi Evan! Hope you enjoyed a lovely Christmas. Have you got any updates on Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, please? - Clare Cooper
Hi Clare, merry Christmas to you as well. I don't have a concrete update on the Pats tight end duo since the team won't practice until Wednesday. But I take it as a good sign that we haven't heard a negative report on Henry, while I saw Jonnu in good spirits in the post-game locker room (relatively, they lost). The hope is that they avoided significant injuries, but we'll know more when we head out to practice later in the week.
Q: if Kraft demands staff/approach changes after publicly demanding improvement a year ago, and Belichick refuses, who blinks first? - @AndrewTurner
I don't think Belichick will refuse. My understanding is that Belichick is very aware that the offense is underperforming. It would be impossible not to see it. I can't promise that a complete overhaul is coming. But I'd be stunned if the structure on offense is the same next year. You get the sense that the Patriots were buying time with the Patricia experiment. Rather than rushing into an OC marriage that they weren't fully sold on after McDaniels's departure, they decided to go with a bridge year and reassess after the 2022 season. Based on the results this year, it's hard to imagine that they'll stay status quo.