The weirdest plot twist in the 2021 Patriots season? Easy. Their bye week made them worse. What the hell happened to this team after it bullied the Bills 14-10 in the rain, snow and wind of Western New York?
Did they lose their edge? Think they’d arrived? Did they feel "sorry for" themselves because their bye week not only came late but was bookended by Monday and Saturday games which meant their "vacation" was cut two days short?
Sunday’s dismantling by the Dolphins sends the Patriots into the playoffs having lost three of four since their bye. Their only win was the 50-10 thrashing of worst-in-the-league Jacksonville which, we theorized, may have put some wind back in their sails. It didn’t.
It’s too simplistic to say the Patriots skidded at the end because they played better teams and were never really as good as we thought when they got to 9-4.
No, they skidded because the way they played changed. We all saw it. The penalties, blocked punts, burned timeouts, operator error by Mac Jones, missed tackles, dropped picks and general befuddlement on the field and sidelines was the polar opposite of the way they played during their seven-game win streak.
During that run, they were a smart, consistent, efficient, sensible team that -- while not highly talented -- was highly competent on offense, defense and special teams. If one unit lagged a little, the other would pick them up. Week after week.
In their first 30 minutes after the bye, they played in a way we hadn’t seen in more than two months, digging themselves into an embarrassing 20-0 hole against the Colts. And then they went out and did it again Sunday in Miami, undoing every bit of momentum they may have regained during the Jaguar pummeling.
We never overrated them. They were properly rated: a No. 1 seed that found itself there not because of talent but because of efficiency. And in a conference where more talented teams in Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee, Los Angeles, Cincinnati or Baltimore couldn’t get a toehold because of injuries, inconsistency or simple rawness, efficiency was the coin of the realm.
And then the Patriots' focus, edge and efficiency vanished. In a very un-Belichickian way. Unless one considers that it actually vanished in similar fashion in 2015, 2019 and the asterisk year of 2020 when everything was screwy anyway.
But I don’t think any of those teams -- 2019 included -- did a Jekyll-and-Hyde that rivals what we’ve seen in the past month.
They’re mangling learned-on-the-first day stuff. The poise, composure and competitiveness we lauded in Jones has been too often replaced by a kid who looks every bit a rookie in terms of catastrophic "just can’t have that" throws and pre-snap disorganization. And the pleading expression on his face when things go wrong? It has a little too much Bobby Hurley, circa 1990 in it for me to ignore.
All of it -- faces included -- can be cleaned up. And likely will be. But that doesn’t change the reality that Jones nosedived down the stretch. My suspicion is that he slammed into the proverbial rookie wall.
Consider his past 18 months. A national championship in his first full year as starter at Alabama followed by a high-stakes draft process in which he was one of the most scrutinized prospects, drafted into a dynasty, getting competent in an offense that took other drafted QBs a couple years to figure out, beating out Cam, starting from Day 1, competing against Tom Brady, reeling off a seven-game winning streak and rising to where he was being hailed as the best quarterback taken?
Maybe when he finally got a couple of days to take a breath during that bye, his body and brain were saying, "You need more than a couple days rest, son." I’m no psychologist, nutritionist or trainer but Young Mac is off at the end of his rookie year in a way that he should have been off at the beginning.
This doesn’t all land at his feet, of course. Everyone from Jake Bailey to Matt Judon has tailed off. The Patriots defense ended the regular season as they began it -- getting shredded by Tua Tagovailoa at the start of the game and coming out of halftime then failing to bottle him up at the end of the game in "gotta have it" situations.
Because of Jones’ inexperience and the fact the offense is more balanced than dynamic, this year’s team was going to need its defense to be the adult in the room. And they were for a long time. But some of their most reliable defenders have been on the scene for some of the most deflating plays since the bye.
It was Devin McCourty and Donta Hightower in the hole when Jonathan Taylor ran through to seal the Colts game. McCourty dropped a pick Sunday right before the Dolphins ran a fake punt that wound up working thanks to a BS call.
Lawrence Guy lined up over the center on a punt. That’s a penalty. Judon lost contain and picked up a penalty. Tua ran by Kyle Van Noy on the game-sealing first-down run. J.C. Jackson looked to have fallen asleep in covering Jaylen Waddle on the Dolphins' first score.
When the Patriots were winning 54-13, 27-24, 24-6, 45-7, 25-0 and 36-13 that stuff wasn’t happening. And that’s why they were routinely winning by 30 points. Just because the competition’s a little stiffer, the Patriots are melting? I don’t buy that. The Patriots' inner-struggle is presenting a bigger challenge than the teams they’re lining up against.
Five weeks ago, the Patriots went into Buffalo as the No. 1 seed and validated that standing by walking over the usurpers from Western New York. Saturday, they’ll walk back into Buffalo staring at their cleats wondering how it came to this.
At least they’ll get a chance to find themselves in the place where they somehow got lost.