Is there a difference between a “must-win” and a “can’t lose”? I think there is. Admittedly, I haven’t had much time to reflect on it, blessed as I’ve been to cover the New England Patriots at the start of the 21st century. But I’m thinking of it with the slowly-sagging Patriots approaching this matchup with the Saints.
If they win, the needle doesn’t really move. They’re still 2-3 with a Jakobi Meyers Revenge game next week in Vegas, then the Bills and Miami (down there) before one with the surprisingly frisky Commanders and trip to Germany to play the Colts. A win doesn’t erase the angry scribble over everyone’s head. It helps it fade a little.
A loss? Dropping to 1-4 after last week’s Debacle in Dallas in a home game against a team that lost 26-9 last week to Baker Mayfield and the Bucs? Swooning to 10-17 in their last 27? Man the lifeboats. We’re looking at a sad sack franchise.
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MORE PATRIOTS COVERAGE
This game isn’t as much about Xs and Os as it is about how well the Patriots can perform when they need -- one time, ONE TIME!!! -- 60 minutes of competence to save their season against a team that really shouldn’t be able to beat them.
First, the Patriots can’t come out and do their usual, “Let’s see how deep a hole we can dig before we pry our cranium from out posterior!”
Here’s how their last 10 games have gone.
To avoid this, that means no third down defensive holding penalties away from the play on third-and-8. No lining up in the neutral zone. No false starts or holds or missed blocks that turn first-and-10 into second-and-13. No picks. No sacks. No fumbles.
In five of their last seven games, the Patriots haven’t scored in the first 15 minutes. They’ve got 20 first-quarter points in that span. Their opponents have 51. They held the Jets, Cardinals and Tua-less Dolphins scoreless.
This may feel uncomfortable at first. But it’s for the best. Because if there are no mistakes, the Patriots -- I swear to God, I still believe this -- can easily win more games than they lose this season.
If they can’t break that habit, they are going to get that Schleprock, “Here we go again…” feeling.
Which brings us to this week’s tip for survival directed at Mac Jones. Be careful, son. But don’t be scared.
Last week, Jones had the “I went to school in my underwear” dream come to life. He was a mess. He tried to do things he’s not physically equipped to do. He’s not fast enough to be running around near his own goal line trying to make a play. He doesn’t have enough arm to throw it across the field once, never mind twice. He tried to go swashbuckler and his swash buckled. Which threw him into a panic. He ooooozed “Please, take me out…” and Bill Belichick did.
That’s gonna leave a mark. No matter how much page turning the team tried to do this week, the mental book is going to keep falling open to the Dallas game. But if Jones is just out there taking care of the ball, playing safe and throwing it sideways on third-and-5, that’s probably not going to be enough to win. He’s going to have to put the ball in harm’s way and trust himself and his receivers.
Enter Belichick. What kind of leash does Jones get? If, for instance, Jones has a ricochet pic that isn’t his fault, is Bill going to be zero tolerance and yank Jones in favor of Bailey Zappe?
Is Belichick truly in Jones’ corner, understanding Jones is the only quarterback on the roster capable of getting the team to the postseason? Or does he take the easy opportunity to scapegoat Jones, who -- while deserving of every bit of scrutiny for the picks, the fumbles and the lack of velocity -- has been kneecapped by his head coach with roster and coaching staff blunders since before he got to the league (remember, the Patriots splurged on Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith a month before Jones was drafted).
If Jones is actively ruining the Patriots' chances to win as he did last week, by all means, bring on Bailey. If he makes a mistake in the course of an otherwise productive game and still gets the hook? That will say a lot about where things are headed.
Jones addressed questions about his confidence and coming back this week. But Desmond Ridder, the Falcons starting quarterback who scuffled last week, was more direct when asked how he will deal with the possibility of getting yanked.
“That’s playing in fear and that’s not something I want to do or would advise anyone to do is to play in fear, or to play like someone’s looking over your back,” Ridder said. “For me, it’s just about going out there and playing every play as a new play and going out there trying to play the play as best as you can, try to get the best result out of each play, and not play with that fear.
“When you start to play with that fear you start to second-guess things … When you get into that game of 'Oh, is he going to bench me? Oh, is he going to do this?' That’s when you start to get into a lot of crappy play and a lot of fear.”
I’m pessimistic. Look at the way the Patriots have played since halftime of the Jets game. It’s been six quarters of suck. They either find a way each week to blow their foot completely off with mistakes or they leave it bullet-riddled and survive because they played the Jets. And this week, they take the field without their two best defensive players.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Saints aren’t potent enough to exploit them. It won’t be pretty. It won’t wipe away the angry scribble. But it’ll have to do.