The New England Patriots didn’t have the fastest start to the season. They dropped their Week 1 matchup with the Dolphins after a late red-zone fumble. Then they lost three of their next five games—including Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro—to end up 2-4 after six weeks.
But starting in Week 7, the Patriots quietly began a winning streak. They’ve now won five straight, and with Buffalo’s recent struggles, New England has taken over first place in the AFC East. In a year in which we’ve already seen top AFC teams like the Bills, Chiefs, and Titans struggle, is New England in position to make another Super Bowl run?
The fact that we can ask this as a valid question, just two years removed from Brady and in the first year with Mac Jones, is pretty crazy. But we’ve seen a lot of crazy in the NFL this year. Teams we thought would be automatic contenders like the Chiefs struggled out of the gate. At the same time, dark horse teams like the Chargers or Raiders—who hit the ground running—have started to slip in the standings. Even the Titans, leaders of the AFC, don’t look quite like the juggernaut they were with Derrick Henry since his injury.
Part of what has the Patriots in a great position right now is the success of their rookie quarterback. Week in and week out, Jones has continued to look like the best of this super-class of highly touted rookie quarterbacks. Apart from a three-interception game against New Orleans, Jones has consistently taken care of the football.
He has the second-highest completion rate (70.2%) of any NFL quarterback behind only Kyler Murray, who has missed the Cardinals’ last three games with an injury. He has the most passing yards (2,540) and passing touchdowns (14) of all first-round rookie quarterbacks, and he’s tied for the fewest interceptions (8) with Justin Fields. Jones’ last two games featured his highest completion rates of the season, and during this win streak, he’s throwing more touchdowns and taking fewer sacks than he had in his first six games.
Complementing Jones nicely in New England’s offense is the strong running game that only continues to improve. Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris have been the two strong anchors in the run game with James White likely out for the season, and their production has been excellent. New England is averaging more than 116 rushing yards per game this year, and in the last three games, they’re averaging more than 155 rushing yards per game. Both are great, physical running backs who can run well between the tackles with the ability to break off big runs.
The defensive side of the ball hasn’t been shabby, either. Linebacker Matthew Judon is having a fantastic year with 10.5 sacks already, and the entire New England defensive unit has combined for 28 sacks this year. In the secondary, defensive back J.C. Jackson has continued to look like a ballhawk. He leads the league with 15 passes defended, and his six interceptions trail only Trevon Diggs for the NFL lead there, as well.
Through 11 weeks, the Patriots have the league’s best scoring defense, allowing an average of 16.1 points per game. They are tied for fifth in the NFL in turnover margin (+6) and their 28 sacks as a team are tied for seventh-most. New England’s defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) is second-best in the NFL behind the divisional rival Bills’ defense. The strong defense, combined with Jones’ ability to sustain drives with the run game as well as protect the football, make the 2021 Patriots hard to beat.
Heading into Week 12, New England was in first place in the AFC East and they’d be the third seed in the AFC. But their active five-game win streak includes wins over the Jets and the Sam Darnold-led Panthers, and they still have much bigger tests ahead. This weekend’s game against the Titans and their post-bye week game against the Colts in a few weeks will be big tests of New England’s success and sustainability, as well as their two games against the Bills.
If they win three or even four of those games, they’ll have a good shot at grabbing the AFC’s top seed and a first-round bye—and there would be no questioning their legitimacy as a Super Bowl contender. If they drop a few games, it would be harder to be sure they could string together wins against difficult opponents in the playoffs. But in a year where top teams have struggled to find sustained success, New England could take advantage, pouncing on opportunities to win those big games and make their way to another Super Bowl.