Eight weeks are in the books for the New England Patriots, and they stand at an even 4-4 on the season. When it comes to a potential postseason berth, Bill Belichick's team is currently on the outside looking in of the but firmly "on the bubble," so the prospects of playing into January are technically still on the table.
However, it's largely been a rocky start in Foxborough. The club began the year 1-3 and in that time saw Mac Jones suffer a high ankle sprain, which sent it down the Bailey Zappe rabbit hole and nearly into a full-blown QB controversy. The Patriots have been able to win three of their past four to bring them back to .500 on the year and have a couple of winnable games on the horizon, which should continue to give them a respectable record in the immediate.
Before we look to the second half, however, we're going to take stock of what we've seen thus far from New England and hand out our midseason grades.
Maybe more important than actually winning football games in 2022 is the continued development of Mac Jones. But through eight weeks, it feels like the quarterback is heading in the wrong direction. Yes, a high ankle sprain put him on the shelf, but the quarterback's smoothness in the pocket that we saw during his rookie season just hasn't been there. Part of it could be struggles along the offensive line or a lack of trust with what's in front of him in terms of the game plan, but there's no denying that Jones is regressing and needs to turn the tides quickly. Of 35 qualified quarterbacks, Jones' passer rating (73.1) ranks 32nd in the NFL, and his 3-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio ranks 34th. Whether it's Jones or Bailey Zappe, neither quarterback has been the reason the Patriots have won any of their games this season, putting them in the "D" grade range.
The offensive line has had its moments, but the transition for Isaiah Wynn going from left tackle to right tackle has been an abject failure. He leads the league in penalties and is tied for the eighth-most sacks allowed, which has since thrust Marcus Cannon into that spot. As for the wideouts, Jakobi Meyers has been the bright spot and a trusted weapon on critical downs. On third and fourth down this season, he's hauled in 11 of his 17 targets for 152 yards and a touchdown while moving the chains 10 times. Neither Hunter Henry nor Jonnu Smith has been much of a factor at the tight end spot.
The backfield is really where the Patriots have made their bones on offense. They have largely leaned on Rhamondre Stevenson, who has started to emerge as a do-it-all back both as a pure runner and a receiver. Just last week in the win against New York, he accounted for 143 of the team's 288 yards of total offense. Unlike the quarterback position, you can point to that game and say that Stevenson was a main reason for the victory. He could be in for a big second half.
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The defense has been what has kept New England from falling into an abyss. It is a top-10 unit overall in DVOA and has been great against the pass. Matt Judon has been an anchor coming off the edge and is tied for the league lead with 8.5 sacks. That said, his impact goes beyond those sack totals. Just last week, Judon had zero sacks in the win over New York, but his pressure forced Zach Wilson into two interceptions.
Peep Mr. Red Sleeves.
Judon is a 25-1 long shot to win Defensive Player of the Year, but he's certainly been New England's defensive MVP through the first half. Of course, the success stretches beyond just Judon, as this entire unit has shown the ability to smother opposing clubs, including a shutout win over the Lions in Week 5 and a win over the Browns in Week 6 where it held them to just 15 points and limited Nick Chubb to just 56 yards on the ground.
The secondary has been stout, which has been thanks to a loaded safety group headlined by Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, and others. Even with Dugger injured, New England has seen the likes of Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers play at a high level.
The biggest weakness of the Patriots defense has been stopping mobile quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson had his way with this defense in Week 3, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown while throwing for 218 and four more scores. Then, Justin Fields did similar damage in Chicago's blowout win in Week 7 during which he ran for 82 yards and a touchdown. Facing players with the ability to make plays with their legs, New England's subpar linebacker group was exposed.
Special teams: B
New England continues to be one of the top clubs in the NFL on special teams, ranking seventh in the league in DVOA in that area of the game. Nick Folk has been as reliable as you could ask for in the kicking game, netting 15 of his 17 field goals on the year and all 18 of his extra points. Belichick even recently said that Folk is "probably the smartest" kicker he's ever coached and could even one day find himself in Canton in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Folk has proven to be a key cog in New England's special teams unit, the punting game hasn't been as successful. Jake Bailey has statistically been one of the worst punters in the NFL throughout the first half. He has seen 11 of his punts land inside the 20, however, and did have a solid performance last week against the Jets. In that game, he had two punts land inside the 20, and New York started drives no further than its 25-yard line after his punts, so he may be turning a corner.
In the punt return game, Myles Bryant started the year in that role but struggled with ball security at times. That opened the door for rookie Marcus Jones to take over. He has given the return game a much higher ceiling overall.
The biggest thing that drags down this grade was the debacle that was the quarterback situation. Belichick seemed to straddle the fence a bit between Jones and Zappe as Jones was recovering from his high ankle sprain. He never solidified that Jones was the starter no matter what, seemingly leaving the possibility open for Zappe to take the job.
Then, in the Monday night game against Chicago, Belichick played both quarterbacks, which he claimed was by design. In reality, it looked like a benching for Jones, who threw a pick on the third drive of the night and never saw the field again. Zappe didn't play much better overall, and it sounded like no player -- outside of maybe Jones -- was aware of the dual-QB plan for that game. Naturally, the Patriots were shelled, 33-14, and may have damaged Jones' development in the process.
To go a bit more in-depth on one game, there were also some questionable decisions made in what was a winnable game against the Packers in Week 4. In overtime, Belichick elected to punt the ball back to Aaron Rodgers after getting the ball to the Green Bay 46-yard line and faced with a fourth-and-5 situation. Given that the Patriots were sporting a third-string quarterback and that they were able to run the ball successfully, Belichick should have looked at that as four-down territory, ran the ball on the prior third-down attempt to make the fourth down play more manageable, and went for the win. Instead, Rodgers proceeded to march down the field to set up the game-winning field goal.
In a season where a postseason berth may come down to a single game, that was one that felt like it slipped through their hands after coaching scared late.
One last thing: While it hasn't been perfect, the offensive play-calling has been solid under de facto offensive coordinator Matt Patricia, which was a major storyline coming into the year.
If a .500 record is average, then an overall grade of a C seems fitting. New England has enjoyed some promising moments but has also gone through its fair share of issues through the first half. Personally, the playoffs seem like an afterthought at the moment with the quarterback situation in the state it's currently in. Over the second half of the season, Jones will need to reaffirm the belief that he can be the franchise quarterback this team can build around. Otherwise, the Patriots will be back to the drawing board at the game's most important position.