FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Those who play football in New England agree to abide by certain tenets, or else. They must do their jobs. They must not worry about what they cannot control. They must not bring undue attention upon themselves.
Earlier this season, foreign sentiments spilled from the mouths of Patriots players, and they echoed across the region. Losers of three of their first four games — and four of their first six — the Patriots were, players professed, better than their record indicated. In Coach Bill Belichick’s realm, proffering excuses is tantamount to snitching. But this was not that. This was foreshadowing.
In this unpredictable season, where even the lowliest of teams have flattened division leaders, there is a measure of comfort — in the A.F.C., though, it’s called distress — to be found in the Patriots’ return to prominence. They thrashed whoever remained of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday for their sixth consecutive victory, forcing four turnovers and posting a second-half shutout in a 36-13 win that vaulted New England into that most familiar of stations, first place in the A.F.C. East.
As a reminder, the Patriots (8-4) ruled that division for 11 consecutive years. Their superiority ended last season, when Buffalo capitalized on Tom Brady’s departure for Tampa Bay to win its first A.F.C. East title in 25 years. After all that waiting, Buffalo’s reign might last only one season.
New England reinvented itself in a frenetic off-season to emerge as a threat in both its division and conference. As other teams in the N.F.L. wobble week to week — Buffalo lost to Jacksonville, Baltimore lost at Miami, Tennessee lost to the Jets and played Sunday without offensive stars like Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones — the Patriots do what they have done for the better part of two decades: win.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
Through 12 weeks, the Patriots own the best point-differential in the league (plus-146). During their winning streak, they have outscored the opposition, 211-63, and forced 17 turnovers. A healthy offensive line has created seams for the running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and afforded the rookie quarterback Mac Jones time and confidence in the pocket to throw.
With Tennessee (8-4) stuffing a Patriots running offense that had powered the team’s winning streak — New England entered Sunday having run the ball more on first and second down (58 percent) than any team but Philadelphia over the last five games, according to Sharp Football Analysis — Mac Jones threw early and often, showing decisiveness and precision in completing passes to seven receivers without committing a turnover. He went 23 of 32 for 310 yards and two touchdowns, both to Kendrick Bourne, who followed a beautiful Jakobi Meyers block to tiptoe down the sideline on a 41-yard, third-quarter score.
Aside from his overthrowing an open Hunter Henry on what would have been a third-quarter touchdown, Mac Jones’s lone obvious error Sunday came when he popped up after a run and signaled for a first down — that he didn’t earn.
“Just a rookie mistake,” he said.
The Patriots were moved to draft Jones at No. 15 overall, in part, because of what happened the last time Tennessee visited Foxborough. In the wild-card round two seasons ago, the Titans upset the Patriots, hastening the end of the Brady era and exposing New England’s rotting core. If New England’s stable infrastructure — owned, coached and quarterbacked by the same people for nearly two decades — scaffolded its dynasty, then its draft management sustained it.
But an inability to maximize picks — as cheap talent foremost, but also as trade assets for established players — had diluted a roster that, by then, not even Brady could elevate. Leaving behind a slow, aging team for a young, ascending one, Brady won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. As he celebrated his seventh title, the Patriots plotted their renaissance.
With loads of cap space, they engaged in a pastime often favored by desperate, or less cunning, teams — that is to say, not New England — and stocked their roster with free agents, investing more than $160 million. One of the Patriots’ shrewdest moves involved a player who was released before the season: Re-signing last year’s starter, Cam Newton, ahead of the spending mayhem gave them a credible quarterback to entice the edge rusher Matt Judon, who has 11.5 sacks; tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry; and receivers Nelson Agholor and Bourne. Another addition, defensive back Jalen Mills, recovered a fumble on Sunday.
The Patriots overpaid for them, but their arrivals — coupled with what for now appears to be strong returns from the last two drafts — have eased Mac Jones’s transition to New England and its frosty late-fall environs. He didn’t wear a glove on Sunday as snow flurries swirled and the wind chill hovered near 32 degrees, saying that he had practiced in similar conditions. And besides, he added, it’s going to get colder still.
As soon, perhaps, as next Monday night, when New England visits Buffalo in the teams’ first of two December meetings. It will be a chance for the Patriots to continue rounding into the team they want to be, even if their coach wouldn’t allow as much afterward.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Belichick said, deadpan, adding, “Eight games isn’t enough to clinch anything or win anything.”
With six games left, the Patriots are, now, as good as their record suggests. And, they hope, even better.
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