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Don’t look now, but the Patriots might be a playoff team

Matthew Judon (L) competes against Washington in 2020. Photo sourced from All-Pro Reels via Flickr.

Three games into the 2022 NFL season, it looked like the New England Patriots might’ve been dead in the water. They not only lost to the Baltimore Ravens 37–26 at home (1), but quarterback Mac Jones hobbled off the field and had to be helped to the locker room, screaming in pain. (2) Initially, it looked like Jones may have broken his leg or torn his ACL, but later tests revealed it to be just a sprained ankle. (3)

Despite the injury not being as bad as initially feared, Jones would still be out for multiple weeks. Patriots’ backup, Brian Hoyer, played one series on offense the following game in Green Bay before he got knocked out of the game with a concussion. (4) Down two quarterbacks, the Patriots were forced to go to rookie Bailey Zappe, a former 4th-round draft pick out of Western Kentucky University. (5)

Despite the Patriots losing the game in overtime when they were seen as surefire underdogs, Zappe played relatively well—completing 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards, while also tossing his first career NFL touchdown to wide receiver DeVante Parker. (6) In the Patriots’ next game at home against the Detroit Lions, Zappe once again had himself a nice outing, going 17 of 21 passes for 188 yards and another touchdown, though he also threw an unlucky interception that clanged off the hands of wide receiver Nelson Agholor. (7)

In Week 6 in Cleveland, Zappe had his best game yet, going 24 of 34 for 309 yards, two scores and no interceptions. (8) Zappe’s surprisingly high level of play had triggered a lot of talk about if he should remain New England’s starting quarterback going forward, even when Jones recovers from his injury. (9) However, one must take his success with a grain of salt; Detroit and Cleveland have two of the worst defenses in the NFL. (10)

Even still, it does put the Patriots in an interesting position. Should Jones come back and struggle? Does Bill Belichick make a gut-check call to bench the sophomore Jones for the rookie Zappe? It’s a decision he’s had to make before. In Week 3 of the 2001 season against the New York Jets, the Patriots’ veteran starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, took a vicious hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that knocked him out of the game. (11)

The Patriots were forced to turn to their backup at the time, a relatively anonymous 6th-round pick out of Michigan named Tom Brady. The rest, as they say, is history. This does not imply that Zappe is Brady—who honestly is? —but it does provide precedent for making such a dramatic move. The Patriots, with their win in Cleveland on Oct. 16, improved to 3–3, putting themselves right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.

Beyond the quarterback intrigue, the Patriots might have a better team than most people thought heading into the season. Their running game, split between power backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, has been pretty effective in gaining yards on the ground, ranking 10th in the NFL through Week 6 in rushing yards per game. (12) New England’s defense, not to be outdone, has stepped up their game, ranking seventh in fewest points allowed. (13)

The Patriots’ stop unit has once again been led by standout edge rusher Matthew Judon, who is currently tied for second in the league in sacks, with six. (14) Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. has quietly been an impact player himself, racking up five sacks. (14) In the secondary, rookie cornerback Jack Jones may have revealed himself as Foxborough’s latest lockdown cover man, as he is the highest-graded cornerback in the league, according to the advanced metrics website Pro Football Focus. (15)

The Patriots are 3–3, nothing to write home about, but are still putting themselves in a good position to make a playoff push. With a tough stretch of their season coming up after Thanksgiving against teams like Buffalo, Minnesota and Cincinnati (16), we’ll see what kind of team they are against stiffer competition.

    1. https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437631

    2. https://www.wcvb.com/article/qb-mac-jones-injury-patriots-ravens-week-3-game/41378443

    3. https://www.nfl.com/news/patriots-qb-mac-jones-suffered-pretty-severe-high-ankle-sprain#:~:text=NFL%20Network%20Insiders%20Ian%20Rapoport,clarify%20his%20timeline%20to%20return.

    4. https://www.nfl.com/news/patriots-qb-brian-hoyer-head-injury-rookie-bailey-zappe-packers

    5. https://www.espn.com/nfl/player/_/id/4250360/bailey-zappe

    6. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/202210020gnb.htm

    7. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/202210090nwe.htm

    8. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/202210160cle.htm

    9. https://www.cbsnews.com/boston/news/bailey-zappe-fever-godawful-mac-jones-takes-leftover-patriots-thoughts/

    10. https://www.covers.com/sport/football/nfl/statistics/team-defense/2022-2023

    11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=St9u238ipRE

    12. https://www.espn.com/nfl/stats/team/_/stat/rushing

    13. https://www.espn.com/nfl/stats/team/_/view/defense/table/passing/sort/totalPointsPerGame/dir/asc

    14. https://www.espn.com/nfl/stats/player/_/view/defense/table/defensive/sort/sacks/dir/desc

    15. https://www.pff.com/nfl/grades/position/cb

    16. https://www.patriots.com/schedule/

About the Contributor
Jack Sherman, Sports Writer