Phil Perry

Bailey Zappe showcased his best trait in Patriots' surprising win

There's been one clear difference between Zappe and Mac Jones this season.

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PITTSBURGH -- Bailey Zappe left the visitor's locker room at Acrisure Stadium, headed to the Amazon Prime set for an interview soon after Thursday's win, and he barked.

The undersized quarterback out of Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky -- the one with the arm evaluators considered borderline NFL-caliber, the one released before the start of the season -- barked like a dog in celebration of his team's third win of the year.

The backup-turned-starter was clearly feeling himself.

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A little confidence can go a long way in football, and Zappe has long had it in spades. He's been open about preparing as a starter since getting to the league, not simply embracing his role as clipboard-holder for Mac Jones. He told NBC Sports Boston recently that he believed he showed a great deal of patience waiting for an opportunity to start this season as the team's season circled the drain.

And according to "Thursday Night Football" reporter Kaylee Hartung, after getting cut, Zappe told his college offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, "Trust me, I've got this. Eventually, I'll be the starter."

Confidence. It's been the biggest difference between the two Patriots quarterbacks who have taken the field over the last several weeks. Jones and Zappe aren't all that dissimilar from a physical-skill-set standpoint. But their contrasting mindsets have been on display for the world to see.

Zappe's ability to stay calm in the face of pressure and occasionally elude it -- evidenced Thursday by a third-and-10 scramble for a first down on the team's first scoring drive in Pittsburgh -- has been a welcome change for a Patriots offensive line that has struggled in protection. His willingness to push the ball down the field -- which he did to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Hunter Henry early against the Steelers -- has been indicative of his plucky approach, too.

"I think in some cases, you see guys come in and play it safe and real conservative because they don't want to mess up," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "But I think the way he's playing, it's good for him to show everybody out there what he's capable of, and it's good for the team, obviously."

"Zap was balling tonight, man," running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "He commands our attention in that huddle. He was out there making the checks, making the points. Just had so much confidence, and the offense definitely feels that."

The 37-yard contested completion to Smith-Schuster on the opening drive of the game was one sign that Zappe came into the game with a little bit of swagger. He made a check at the line, saw that Smith-Schuster was checked in one-on-one coverage, and he took a shot.

After the game, Zappe indicated that while his own preparation is one of his sources of self-belief, his belief in the other players in his huddle also gives him the confidence to trust they'll plays like the one Smith-Schuster made -- or the one Hunter Henry made when Zappe found him for the second of two Henry touchdowns on the night, with a safety coming within inches of breaking up the pass.

"It comes from those guys," Zappe said of his on-the-field confidence. "They help me out a lot. They deserve today. So to be able to have this moment, have it with these guys, to be able to go out there and have a game that we had was awesome."

Where things go from here for Zappe is anyone's guess. Though his canine-inspired celebration after the game was memorable, his second-half performance was not. The Patriots seemed content to sit on their 21-10 halftime lead, and Zappe finished the second half with 44 yards passing, an interception and a sack.

But his first 30 minutes, if he can recapture it on a more consistent basis down the stretch, could help him make his case as the team's No. 2 of the future. For now, he's New England's limited-but-confident starter of the present. And on Thursday night, that was enough.

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