There aren't many ways to put a shine on the Patriots disappointing 33-14 loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. New England was thoroughly beaten and while the two quarterbacks will get most of the attention, the defense's inability to get stops was an even bigger part of the loss. The ineffectiveness of the offense after scoring two second-quarter touchdowns was the unfortunate final piece of the puzzle, as the Patriots put together a season-low offensive output with just 260 total yards.
The end result was a lopsided scoreboard and a Patriots team that once again couldn't turn the tide when the game didn't unfold in their favor.
"The Bears did a good job," said head coach Bill Belichick following the loss. "Totally controlled the game in all three phases. We have obviously a lot of work to do here and need to perform a lot better than that. Need to compete better than that and perform better than that. It's not any one thing. Just collectively it's all of us, and we just have to all perform better. Simple as that."
This was supposed to be the soft part of the schedule where, like 2021, the Patriots could feast on a run of average to below-average teams and position themselves for a playoff push after Thanksgiving, but the narrative is quickly shifting, at least when it comes to their next opponent, the 5-2 New York Jets. The Jets are on a four-game win streak and already have a two-game lead on the Patriots in the standings.
It's hard to call a late October game a must-win, but for the Patriots the schedule only gets tougher from here and if they don't turn things around immediately the season could continue to spiral away from them.
Here are five things to focus on to get the team back on track.
Pick a QB and stick with him
There has been no greater distraction in recent weeks than Mac Jones' playing status. There were various reports leading into the Bears game leaving the pundits and analysts to wonder what the plan was. Is Mac healthy? Was a rotation planned? Was Mac pulled? Why didn't he go back in? Does Zappe deserve a further shot? These are the kinds of questions that have been flying over the last few weeks and after the team appeared unfocused and unready to compete against Chicago a refocusing step could be to reestablish who the starter is.
My view is that it has to be Mac Jones. As long as he's healthy and capable the team should recommit to Mac. If he struggles let him try to work through it. There's been too much time and resources invested in Mac to flippantly pull the plug after an injury. They have to give him a chance to prove himself and to re-take command of the team.
Monday night was a tough night for the second-year quarterback. It unfolded like a nightmare return, but the second half showed that Zappe isn't going to be a savior. This was Mac's team all offseason and a small vote of confidence after the way things have unfolded could go a long way to bringing him back to playing winning football. Or at least knowing for sure what Mac is going to be in his second season.
Third down fixes
One of the most jarring statistics from the loss was Chicago's 11-of-18 performance on third down. Sometimes when you lose your defense just gets rolled on first and second down and they never really even give themselves the chance to get off the field. That wasn't the case for the Patriots on Monday night for the most part. They got to third down plenty of times but were just unable to finish off Fields.
They failed in a variety of ways. Short yardage. Letting Fields buy time with his legs to make easy completions was one problem, but so was letting Fields just pick up the first downs with his legs. None were worse than a late first-half scramble by Fields that picked up 20 yards on a 3rd-and-14, or then allowing 17 yards on 3rd-and-16 just a few plays later. That kind of bad situational football was jarring and the defense was lucky to only give up a field goal there.
Short yardage was a problem as well, as it didn't really seem to matter what the third down distances were, the Bears owned the down. The Patriots would get stops to force three-straight field goals from the late first half into the early second half, but with a limited offense that was where Chicago pulled away despite being held out of the end zone. New England must get back to finishing on the money down.
Mobile QB answers?
Credit the Bears for expanding Justin Fields' designed runs in this game. It was striking how little they seemed to use the talented runner earlier in the season, but they didn't make the same mistake against the Patriots, who again were left searching for answers to stop a mobile QB. The Bears likely took a long look at how badly Lamar Jackson had gashed the Patriots defense a few weeks ago and their plan worked accordingly.
The result was the Bears posting the seventh-most rushing yards allowed by the Patriots in the last 20 years, a disturbing trend that has gotten worse in recent years and this comes as New England stares down the barrel of facing Josh Allen twice a year.
"I think he just had running lanes," said Matthew Judon of the defense's struggles to contain Fields. "He kept the drives going on third down. We gave him third-and-long and it seems like he would just find a running lane and pick it up with his feet or make a throw. I think he was just keeping the chains moving. I think we kind of had no answers for him. We have to look at the film and get that corrected."
On paper, the safety-heavy scheme seems like a smart approach to defending offenses that purposely involve their quarterback in the rushing attack. But the results continue to be spotty and this is the second time in five weeks the defense has looked confounded by a team that designs runs for their quarterback. Just about every QB in the league has some degree of mobility and the Patriots can expect to keep getting hit with this approach until they come up with a way to stop it, or at least slow it down.
Return to the run
After three-straight games of 145-plus rushing yards, the Patriots have been held under 100 yards in the last two games. Damien Harris returned against Chicago but still appeared to be limited, getting just three carries in the game. It's easy to just sit back and say, "Run it!" but the reality is certainly more complicated, especially when facing a deficit like they were for most of the night against the Bears. What's for sure is that the Patriots are at their best when they're having success on the ground and that's something that will be an enormous aid to whoever is playing quarterback.
The scouting reports and analytics said that the Browns and Bears were two of the worst run defenses in the league, yet both held the Pats rushing attack in check. The Patriots have to get back on track on the ground if they're going to be the best versions of themselves. An added week to get healthy should be a good thing for Harris and a more liberal rotation should hopefully be a good thing for Stevenson.
Break the cycle
The Patriots have become formulaic over the last three seasons. When they get off to a good start, play clean football and are able to dictate the terms of the game they'll beat just about anybody. If it's a really bad team the Pats might even blow them off the field. But it's a fickle path and one that seems to be easily derailed by a slow start, an untimely turnover or a significant points deficit.
There's no doubt the Patriots have some of those clean games with a good start left in them this year and that will be worth some additional wins this year. But for the Patriots to get back to the place where they can overcome some bad football or some bad bounces and still go toe-to-toe with the elite teams in the league, they have to find a new gear, they have to take a new step that they've been eyeing for over a year now but have been unable to make.
Locking in on the NYJ
The Jets are not quite the same pushovers that the Patriots have been able to easily handle over the last three seasons despite the ongoing changes and challenges in New England. The dominance over New York has been one holdover from the old days. But things have gotten complicated for the Jets. Last weekend they lost breakout rookie running back Breece Hall as well as starting offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, two significant blows to the kind of winning football that they've been playing.
But with that said, the Jets have a lot in common with the Patriots and have been winning on the performances of their defense and special teams as much as anything while their own second-year quarterback Zach Wilson gets up to speed. Hall was a game-changer and his loss can't be understated, but this is a confident team that will be looking to make a statement by knocking off New England for the first time in seven years.
Luckily for the Patriots, no other team in the league can bring a sense of focus and clarity like their hated rivals in green, while a road trip away from the fickle fans in Foxboro could also be just what the team needs to get their quarterback situation figured out. But the clock is already ticking on what will be the biggest game of the season to this point.
"We don't have time to sulk or feel sorry for ourselves," said Devin McCourty following the loss on Monday night. "The Jets will be ahead on the film. They'll be watching us, so we need to do the same thing. We need to turn the page and start preparing. We go down to New Jersey, we could easily come back with another loss. That team is a good football team. They're rolling right now. We need to get ahead and focus on next week. We need to let tonight be what tonight is. If you want to watch the film, watch the film tonight and we need to move on by tomorrow morning and try to catch up to where the Jets are, because right now, they're ahead of us.