JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2021 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
ESPN New England Patriots writer Mike Reiss on the Patriots as they enter Sunday's Week 17 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Question: The Patriots are 9-6, having won seven consecutive games before back-to-back losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills. What's the state of the Patriots entering Sunday?
Answer: Two layers. For the team itself – players, coaches – there's a lot of disappointment over the last two games. They had the latest bye week possible (Week 14), and they won seven straight games heading into the bye. They came out of the bye and have not played the same level of football that they were playing for stretches of their seven-game win streak. So, they're trying to drill down to determine why and to get back on track. They haven't lost hope. [Head coach] Bill Belichick, after the loss to the Bills Sunday, actually struck a fairly optimistic tone of, "Hey, there's a lot more football to be played and we still control a lot of what's head of us." If they win two games, they're in the playoffs. That part is all positive. It's a little unusual to hear Bill highlight a silver lining. But that's where we are with that. From the fans' side … if you asked Patriots fans heading into this season, "You are 9-6 with two games to go and you're in good shape to qualify for the playoffs … what do you think of that?" … I would say most of them would be ecstatic. "You're telling me we have that with a rookie quarterback? After what we watched last year with a passing offense that really struggled?" They would take it. But then if you asked the same question heading into the bye this year, a lot of those people would be disappointed because the expectations got raised externally over what might be possible after that seven-game win streak.
Q: Did the winning streak raise expectations too much? Are they as good as that?
A: So many of their games – and a lot of games around the league – are decided on a really small handful of plays. Even in the games they lost early in the season when they were 2-4 … if you had reversed a couple of plays in most of those games – they would have been 4-2 or 5-1. They just started making those plays in the win streak. They tightened things up in the win streak. They started taking care of the football better. They started creating more turnovers. All those things were a noticeable difference in the win streak from early in the year – and then their play in the clutch was better. But they weren't flawless. They weren't winning going away. They were winning playing smart, complementary football.
Q: So much focus this season on rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Assess his first season.
A: Mac has exceeded expectations – even coming off two games that have some people saying, 'Maybe he's hit a rookie wall.' Big picture … I don't think anyone would have been surprised if Mac Jones would have ridden the bench this year – a la [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes in 2017: "Take a year, learn, get stronger behind the scenes and we'll come out in 2022 and see what we got." He was so impressive with his consistency back in the spring and then in training camp to beat out [veteran] Cam Newton. If it was even, you figured they were going to go with Cam. That was impressive to even win the job, so already he's exceeding expectations. We're starting to see more rookie moments in the last two games, but his ability to operate this offense at the level they've done it at this stage in his career … I never have seen it in my experience covering the team. [Hall of Fame quarterback] Kurt Warner said it in a recent piece: "Mac is doing more this year the way they are running the offense than Tom Brady did back in 2001 in his first year as a starter." That perspective is super important.
Q: When the Patriots are good, what are they offensively?
A: When they're good, they are a hard-charging running team that sets up play-action passing opportunities for Mac. And they take care of the football. The offensive line is a big part of that; they can be very good when they're on their game – and they distribute the ball to a variety of players based on what the defense gives them.
Q: Break down their defense.
A: The defense is a little bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde type situation. I'll go with the [defensive end] Matthew Judon response. When I asked him a couple weeks ago what defines this defense, he said: "You know what? We have the ability to transform ourselves based on what you're trying to do to us. You wanna come out heavy and run? We can go heavy and stop you. You wanna spread us out and try to throw? We can defend that, too." That's when they're at their best, but the last two weeks we've seen some chinks in that armor: 226 years rushing allowed to [Colts running back] Jonathan Taylor – and against the Bills this past week, [quarterback] Josh Allen just carving them up through the air. It's sort of "to be determined" with this defense, but when they're at their best, that's what they can do.
Q.What's a successful season for this team at this point?
A: (Laughing) I had this discussion with my dad on the ride home after the loss to the Bills Sunday. Sometimes I like his perspective; he has the years of wisdom. This is what Mr. Poppa Reiss had to say: "It will be important for the Patriots to turn around their recent play, qualify for the playoffs while playing better football and to at least get Mac Jones the taste of what playoff football is like." You have a young quarterback that you think is the guy big picture, but we know that this is a process. If I had to drill down, I like that answer. Maybe that's a lower ceiling. A higher ceiling would be get into the playoffs, play your best football and take your chances. That's sort of a multilayered way to answer it. Low ceiling, high ceiling.