Opinion: Patriots are back to being the Patriots

  • New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (right) celebrates with quarterback Mac Jones (left) after his touchdown during the second half of a game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 28 in Foxborough, Mass. Mary Schwalm / AP

The Washington Post
Published: 12/15/2021 7:08:40 PM
Modified: 12/15/2021 7:08:05 PM

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Like it or not, the New England Patriots are back. And if they, in the second post-Tom Brady year, manage to turn their reinvigorated play into a memorable return-to-glory season that ends with familiar January and February celebrations, it will be time to add, “That’s why we practice in this (stuff)!” to the array of Patriots Dynasty mantras, alongside “do your job” and “no days off.”

That is the phrase that coach Bill Belichick invoked last week while addressing his players in the Patriots’ jubilant postgame locker room in Orchard Park, N.Y., as they savored their triumph over the Buffalo Bills on a miserably blustery and windy Monday night. That 14-10 victory extended the Patriots’ winning streak to seven games following their 2-4 start. It cemented their status as a top Super Bowl contender in the AFC and, perhaps most importantly, it reinforced that the Patriot Way remains in effect as the team returns this week from its bye to play another meaningful game Saturday night in Indianapolis.

“I think for us, our belief around here has always been, from week to week, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the football game,” veteran special teams standout Matthew Slater said last week. “However the game declares, whatever the conditions may be, we’re going to adapt and do what we need to do to win the football game. I think what you’ve seen over the years — and especially this year — is a group of guys who believe that, who have faith in our coaching staff to put us in positions to win. And certainly … you can’t do that without buy-in from your players.”

Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had rookie quarterback Mac Jones throw only three passes in the win over the Bills while the Patriots, in winds gusting to 50 mph, ran the ball 46 times and relied on their dominant defense. It was a testament to all that the Patriots have been — and perhaps still are — from the coaching mastery of Belichick to the ability of the players on a versatile roster to implement what he devises.

“When our guys realized that was going to be the best way for us to go out and win the football game, they bought into it,” Slater said.

Brady has gotten the better of things so far – and decisively so – following his breakup with Belichick and the Patriots. He left New England via free agency in March 2020 as a six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and then became a seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots and their fans suffered through a 7-9 season with Cam Newton at quarterback. They lost to Brady and the Buccaneers in early October this season in Brady’s highly anticipated return game, followed by a private postgame meeting between Belichick and Brady.

But if the best revenge following a complicated parting is to live well, that’s what Belichick and the Patriots are doing now. Belichick retooled the roster with an un-Patriot-like spending spree in free agency this past offseason, necessitated by last season’s woes and some unsuccessful draft picks in recent years.

That, too, changed this year. The Patriots’ 2021 draft class is strong. Belichick stayed put, without trading up, and still got Jones at No. 15. He landed defensive tackle Christian Barmore in the second round and running back Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth.

It has taken some time for Belichick to blend all of the new pieces and for things to fall into place. The Patriots were an unsettling 2-4 after a 35-29 overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys at home Oct. 17. They haven’t lost since.

“I think this whole team has that mind-set of being 2-4,” said defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, one of the free agent newcomers. “Everybody was writing us off. Not everybody was on the bandwagon.”

And now? Said Godchaux, demonstrating that he quickly has learned how to fit right in: “That doesn’t mean nothing. Nine games is not going to get you in the Super Bowl. Winning nine games probably won’t even get you in the playoffs. ... We’ve just got to keep it going.”

The Patriots have held opponents to 73 points over the seven games of their winning streak. The defense has established itself as one of the league’s best. Pass rusher Matthew Judon, among the free agent additions, has 12.5 sacks, and cornerback J.C. Jackson has seven interceptions.

On offense, Jones has done whatever he has been asked to do while benefiting from being surrounded by a reliable offensive line and an upgraded group of playmakers at running back, tight end and wide receiver. There was no hint of any complaint by Jones following the three-pass outing; he said he was happy to do what was necessary to win.

Jones has made a seamless transition from playing for Belichick’s coaching pal, Nick Saban, in college at Alabama to playing for Belichick.

“I think they are very similar in that they demand everything to be perfect, and they know what it takes to win,” Jones said. “I’ve been blessed to play for great coaches and been a part of great teams. And I think we have a really good team here with great chemistry and not only a great head coach but great assistant coaches, too.”

The Patriots enjoyed the victory at Buffalo. Team owner Robert Kraft greeted players at the locker room afterward, and following Belichick’s postgame remarks to the players, he turned things over to Slater, who told his teammates: “Tonight, though, is one of those nights, fellas, that you’ll remember 10, 15, 20 years from now. You won’t remember the cold. You’ll remember the way we responded. It ain’t going to come to us easy, fellas. We’re going to have to fight and claw and scrap.”

Two days later in Foxborough, Slater was asked about his postgame speech and said: “The stakes, the environment and then the weather – I mean, I know we don’t talk about the weather and, ‘The weather is the weather.’ But, you know, I’ve played, what, 200 games? There’s like five of them that were like that. So you remember the ones that were bad. … So to go and overcome that, overcome the crowd and then, first and foremost, overcome the Buffalo Bills, that’s something special.”

So maybe it will turn out that last season was dynasty interrupted rather than dynasty ended. Belichick’s greatness again is being celebrated. A dream Super Bowl matchup with Brady in February seems possible. But no one in Foxborough is looking that far ahead, of course. There is business at hand. It’s on to Indianapolis.

“I think it’s just finding out what you can improve on,” Jones said. “The last part of the season is the most important part. And nothing that you did before that matters. … You can’t reinvent the wheel. You do what you do. You just try to improve on the things that you didn’t do as well.”

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