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Patriots face a tall task in star-studded American Football Conference


Caricature of Mac Jones of the New England Patriots.

For four quarters and a few minutes of overtime on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills dueled it out in a game that will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest to ever be played. The two teams went at it like a couple of heavyweight boxers, exchanging blow after blow, haymaker after haymaker. The Chiefs were trying to go to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game and establish themselves as the new kings of the AFC. On the other side, the Bills were trying to advance to the NFL’s conference championship round for the second year in a row, and bring salvation to their rabid, long-suffering fanbase in Western New York.
One could argue the two quarterbacks of the Chiefs and Bills, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, are the prototypes for great signal-callers in the modern NFL. Big. Mobile. Explosive. And on Sunday, they laid absolute siege to the opposing defenses. Mahomes threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning strike to star tight end Travis Kelce in overtime. Not to be outdone, Allen played what may have been the greatest playoff game ever by a losing quarterback, throwing for 329 yards and four touchdowns, with 201 of those yards and all four scores to wide receiver Gabriel Davis. Allen, after a relatively slow start to his career, has become a phenom, with his combination of size, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, arm talent and ability to scramble outside the pocket and pick up first downs with his legs. These skills were on display when he absolutely dissected the New England Patriots in the wild-card round. Wait, the Patriots? Remember them? The team that was 9–4 in early December, had the number one seed in the AFC and looked like world-beaters? Had they maintained that pace, perhaps they could have been playing on Divisional Weekend and I would be writing this column about them after a resounding victory.
But, alas, that would not be the case. The Patriots lost three out of four following their bye week, ending the year at 10–7, and having to go to Buffalo to play the Bills on wild-card weekend. That went poorly, to say the least. They got Buffaloed by Allen and the Bills, losing 47–17, giving up over 480 total yards, letting Allen torch them for five touchdowns, and most embarrassingly, letting the Bills score touchdowns on seven straight drives. It was one of the worst, if not the worst, playoff losses of the Bill Belichick era. But, lost in the general humiliation of that game, the Patriots’ rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, actually played rather well. He did throw two interceptions, one of which was tipped at the line of scrimmage, the other of which was actually quite well-thrown, but the intended receiver, Nelson Agholor, didn’t make a particularly valiant effort to catch it, and Buffalo safety Micah Hyde did.
Altogether, the young Jones actually had a pretty solid rookie year, throwing for over 3,800 yards with 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, best among all rookie quarterbacks. But the events of this weekend do bring into question just how good Jones needs to be to get past teams like Buffalo and Kansas City, and what his absolute ceiling is as an NFL quarterback. Let’s say, Jones, at his peak, is only about 80 percent as good as Mahomes or Allen. Is that good enough to beat the Chiefs or Bills on the road? This is to say nothing of the other up-and-coming quarterbacks in the AFC, such as Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or the LA Chargers’ Justin Herbert. The Patriots will just have to wait and see how far Jones can take them.

About the Contributor
Jack Sherman, Sports Writer