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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Feb 27 - 02:00 PM | Thu Feb 29 - 11:55 AM

What's at Stake in Patriots Season Finale vs. Jets?

The Patriots enter their 2023 season finale against the New York Jets with plenty of intrigue.

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The Patriots loss to the Bills on New Year's Eve followed a familiar script of the 2023 season: giveaways set an early tone while a resilient defensive effort keeps things close enough for an offense that most often could not deliver the clutch points needed in the end to overcome the mistakes.

"There's an old saying, 'you can't win until you keep from losing' around here," said captain David Andrews after the loss. "That first half... you can't do that. You can't turn the ball over four times. The best team in the world, it's hard to win when you turn the ball over four times."

While Bailey Zappe continued to show promise by making plays with his legs and making off-platform throws, the Patriots offense looked much like it has all season long. 32nd in points, 28th in yards, 30th in offensive EPA and tied for third-worst in turnover differential, there aren't many silver linings to take from the 2023 offensive output no matter who was in the starting lineup.

Defensively, it hasn't been quite as precipitous a dropoff, as a historically stout run defense that ranks 1st in yards per attempt and second in defensive rushing EPA, has been a key factor in keeping games close and slowing down opposing offenses. However, the pass defense has missed Matthew Judon and promising rookie Christian Gonzalez, as they come in at 19th in defensive pass EPA and 14th in passing yards allowed, and have been gouged at inopportune times with big passing plays from the opposition like Buffalo's 51-yarder on their opening drive of the third quarter that helped the Bills pull away.

Now, the Patriots will face a New York Jets team that they have beaten 15 straight times, though New England is already assured of their first last-place finish in the AFC East since 2000. The Patriots have continued their dominance over the Jets through thick and most recently thin, but this final matchup has an entirely new twist with draft positioning emerging as a significant priority.

According to Tankathon, a website that tracks draft positioning in real-time, the Patriots currently hold the third-overall pick, but are in a three-way tie in the loss column with the Commanders and Cardinals. The tie breaker goes to overall strength of schedule, where even random Week 18 games like Atlanta vs. New Orleans will have an impact on where the Patriots will be picking. It's complicated math where even with a win over the Jets, the Patriots could still land in the coveted second slot if a handful of other games fall just right.

Without diving into an AP Stats class, it's hard to project how it will all play out, so that leaves us with the performances in the finale that will be most intriguing to watch. Since the team was officially eliminated from playoff contention, a major focus has been the development of younger players sure to be on the roster for 2024's training camp, and there have been quite a few new faces showing up.

Rookie Alex Austin joined the team in early November and has done enough in that short time to find himself playing three-quarters of the snaps against the Bills while making the first interception of his career. The Pats have lost three different significant contributors at cornerback this season, but the emergence of Austin, along with the continued development of Shaun Wade, have helped groom some useful depth heading into the spring and summer. They'll have their hands full with explosive receiver Garrett Wilson.

According to Next Gen Stats, Austin allowed just three catches on six targets for 14 yards against the Bills, as he joins a robust Patriots rookie class that has logged a ton of experience even if many of them have taken their fair share of lumps this season.

Another rookie, Keion White, also continues to ascend with increased opportunities, he was a force against Josh Allen on Sunday and is a physical player who should only get better with improved and varied technique. Fourth-year player Anfernee Jennings has made a strong case for a new contract with the team after playing a key role in New England's dominance against the run.

Two other players, Pop Douglas and Christian Barmore, have emerged with star potential here over the final weeks of the season. Both play vital roles and will be among the most exciting players to anticipate seeing in training camp next summer. Douglas could solidify his place as the most productive Patriots rookie pass catcher in 20 years, while Barmore's three-down effectiveness has helped him hit a new level.

The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 at Highmark Stadium on Sunday, December 31, 2023.

That collection of new standouts is not alone, as rookies along the offensive line have logged a lot of valuable experience, while the core group of veteran defenders that includes Ja'Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, Jonathan Jones, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy, continue to play at a high level.

There's plenty of work to be done on the offensive side of the ball, but there remains a promising and refreshed defensive core that should be one reason for optimism as we move forward into 2024. All will have one final chance to put a strong season-capping performance on tape in Week 18.

Despite the Patriots dominance over the Jets dating back to 2017, many of the games have been more competitive than New England's lengthy win streak might indicate. The Jets are projected to start Trevor Siemian at quarterback and the veteran journeyman will face a tough challenge from a New England defense that has shown no quit.

Similarly, the Jets defense, which comes in third in overall defensive EPA, will challenge Zappe and the Patriots offense, as the game is most likely to boil down to the key issue that has haunted New England, as well as the Jets, in most of their respective losses: turnovers.

Certainly, the draft position will be the key takeaway from Sunday's result, and should the Patriots land in the second overall slot it will be a valuable consolation prize from an otherwise frustrating and forgettable season. Even if they fall further down the board, the Patriots will still be in a position to select a foundational player at the top of the draft though. That leaves a final opportunity for those players who have made the most of their increased chances down the stretch to show the team why they should be part of the 2024 plan to turn things around.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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