For a minute there, it looked like the New England Patriots were on the verge of another lost season. They came out of the gate 1-3, were barely able to escape the Houston Texans in Week 5 and then fell to 2-4 after losing to the Cowboys in overtime in Week 6. Those first six weeks were also muddled with various mental mistakes and uncharacteristic play from how previous iterations of the Patriots have performed.
With its back against the wall, Bill Belichick's team has been able to seemingly turn a corner and go on a three-game winning streak during which they outscored their opponents, 105-43. This run also has New England back in the thick of the playoff race in the AFC and just a game behind the Buffalo Bills in the loss column for first place in the AFC East. if the season were to end today, they'd be in the postseason.
So, what happened? What's changed with this team in the midst of this winning streak that has its season back on track? As they begin the second half of the regular season, we'll take a look at what the Patriots have been able to unlock that has them back in contention.
Red zone execution
As Mac Jones continues to develop on a weekly basis, New England's offense has started to find its groove, particularly in the red zone. Through the first six weeks, the Patriots were 8 of 18 in the red zone (44.4% conversion rate). Over this three-game streak, they've gone 9 of 13 inside the 20-yard line (69.2%).
A solid amount of credit to that improvement can be given to the growing rapport Jones has with tight end Hunter Henry. He's caught a touchdown in five of his last six games and has four of those touchdowns inside the red zone. Between 0-19 yards depth of target, the Jones-Henry connection has yielded a 74.2 completion percentage for 296 yards (11.3 yards per catch) and four touchdowns this season.
This one-yard touchdown back in Week 7 against the Jets at the start of this winning streak is a solid example of how much confidence Jones has throwing in Henry's direction. The rookie released the football just as Henry was making his break upfield and had to throw it over at least two defenders to a spot where only the tight end could make a play. That's high-level ball placement from any quarterback, let alone a rookie.
Running back Damien Harris has also been a key factor in New England's red zone success, particularly when they get inside the 10-yard line. This season, he's scored six of his seven touchdowns when the Patriots have the ball inside the 10. Four of those scores have come within this winning streak.
Reduction in back-breaking turnovers
The Patriots were not only committing turnovers to begin the year, they were directly the difference between wins and losses at times. In the opener against Miami, a Harris fumble inside the 10-yard line with just over three minutes left in the game handed the win to the Dolphins. In Week 2, two of Jones' three interceptions directly led to the Saints putting points on the board. Even in the win over Houston in Week 5, Harris had another goal-line fumble that took points off the board for New England and resulted in the Patriots needing a second-half rally and a late field goal to win.
While the turnover bug hasn't fully disappeared over this winning streak, it hasn't been as detrimental. Over the last three weeks, the Patriots are averaging one giveaway per game. The offense has also shown an ability to have a short memory and not have those turnovers pile into something bigger. Last week against Carolina, immediately following each of New England's two first-half turnovers, the offense went out and conducted a 75-yard touchdown drive. We saw a little bit of that resiliency from Jones in the Dallas game just prior to this streak when he completed a 75-yard touchdown to Kendrick Bourne after throwing a pick-six on the previous possession. That bounce-back ability is a promising trait for this team as it continues into the second half.
I wrote back after New England's OT loss to Dallas that the defense needed to prove it could get off the field in crunch time. To that point, when it needed to have a stop, it was incapable of pulling one out. That loss was a good example of what had been an issue for the club to begin the year. After Jones hit Bourne on a 75-yard touchdown to retake the lead in the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense allowed Dallas to move 40 yards down the field to kick the game-tying field goal and eventually win in overtime. That drive featured a fourth-and-four conversion to move the chains and a 24-yard completion on third-and-25 that put the Cowboys in field goal range. Rookie quarterback or not, you're not going to win games if your defense can't get off the field when it counts.
Over this streak, the defense has taken a noticeable jump, particularly when it comes to creating turnovers. Over the last three weeks, the Patriots are tied for the NFL lead with 2.7 takeaways per game, which is practically a turnover higher than their 1.8 takeaways per game average for the season. In the last two games, the Patriots defense has not only been keeping opponents' scoring to a minimum and creating turnovers, but it also has put points on the board with pick-sixes in back-to-back games.
In Week 8 against the Chargers in L.A., Adrian Phillips came up with a clutch pick-six off Justin Herbert that completely changed the complexion of the game. With the Patriots trailing, 17-16, with just over 10 minutes to play, Phillips jumped in front of a throw by Herbert and returned it 26 yards for a score to give the Patriots a lead they would hold for the rest of the game. Had it been earlier in the season, the story likely would have resulted in a soul-crushing touchdown drive by the opposition that put the dagger in New England.
Found right combination along O-line
After mixing and matching pieces along the offensive line throughout the start of the season, the Patriots seemed to have found a combination that worked beginning in Week 7 against New York: LT Isaiah Wynn, LG Ted Karras, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, and RT Michael Onwenu.
That O-line combination has started for New England the past three weeks and helped the club rush for 147 yards per game (106.8 yards per game average on the season). The Patriots' sacks allowed per game average has also decreased over this stretch with this grouping allowing just two sacks and 12 pressures (four pressures per game). When given a clean pocket this season, Jones is completing 72.1% of his passes with a yards per attempt average of 7.7, so keeping the youngster upright has proven to be quite successful for the offense as a whole.
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