EAST RUTHERFORD -- It's looked like a competition all summer. But with two weeks remaining before the first regular-season game of the year for the Patriots, in the preseason finale against the Giants, the competition looked over.
It wasn't because of the way Cam Newton or Mac Jones played, per se. It was because of when they played. And because of with whom they played.
Newton started on Sunday night, continuing with a trend we've seen all throughout training camp and preseason, playing two series with other Patriots offensive starters. And that was it. He was pulled -- along with the rest of the Patriots starting offense -- in order to get Mac Jones and other offensive backups in the game.
Asked if he'd made a decision yet on his starting quarterback for Week 1, Patriots coach Bill Belichick responded, "No, we still have a lot of decisions to make."
But it was Newton who was out on the field with Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu. It was Jones who was out on the field with Alex Redmond, James Ferentz, Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron. Maybe Belichick simply wanted to see how his rookie quarterback would handle being pressured by some top Giants defenders. He certainly won't be accused of going out of his way to coddle a prized asset. But if Jones is in the running to be the starter, wouldn't a little more protection have made sense? He was sacked four times Sunday.
We're hypothesizing now. But fact is that Newton was almost always the first quarterback up with offensive starters in drills during practices this summer. Jones would occasionally get snaps with starters. Most days, Jones looked like the better passer between the two. But Newton would always be first up.
That's why it looked like a competition for the better part of a month.
Then Newton missed three days of practice last week in order to adhere to COVID protocols after leaving the area for what the Patriots called a team-approved medical appointment. That appeared to ratchet up the competition even further, if not give Jones an edge in said competition. Jones got every snap as a starter for three practices, including two in full pads and one joint practice against the Giants.
And the 'Bama product handled those opportunities smoothly.
He looked like a starting-caliber passer in Wednesday's work against New York, carving up the top Giants defense and making some of the most impressive downfield throws of camp.
But when Newton returned for practice on Thursday, he was re-inserted as the top dog at quarterback. He and Jones both got a shot to take the starting offense down the field once on a drive against top Giants defense. Both ended up scoring touchdowns. Though Newton had the quicker and more efficient drive, both had accurate downfield throws and both made throws that should've been interceptions.
Competition still on then, right?
Until Belichick -- or Newton, or Jones, or... anyone -- answers that question, we may be left wondering who the starting quarterback will be right until the Patriots offense takes the field for a meaningful snap for the first time in 2021.
Based on how Sunday played out, it certainly seems as though the Patriots coach is leaning in the direction of his veteran to start the season.
But complicating matters is that Jones continues to do nothing but look the part of a starting quarterback -- for the most part -- every time he's on the field.
Yes, he was sacked several times. Yes, he was flagged for a delay-of-game penalty early in his first drive.
But Jones continued to show pinpoint accuracy as a passer. He hit Kristian Wilkerson for a 21-yard gain down the middle on his second attempt of the night. He hit Isaiah Zuber between three defenders on a signature concept for the Patriots offense -- called HOSS -- for his first touchdown pass of the preseason. Jones later hit Devin Asiasi for a 30-yard gain down the seam, putting the football only where his tight end could snatch it. Moments later, Jones should've had a second touchdown throw to Zuber, but the end-zone fade was dropped.
Newton, meanwhile, didn't play all that much and didn't have the same number of opportunities to show off. He hasn't had many opportunities to show off in a while, actually. He played two series in the preseason game against the Eagles. He missed three practices. He played one snappy series in a joint practice against the Giants. He then played two series Sunday. Since the Eagles game, Newton has had 12 competitive dropbacks in 11-on-11 work.
That's not many. And if there are any clues whatsoever as to whether or not Belichick is thinking about Jones as his starter, Newton's dearth of competitive work over the last week might be one.
But on Sunday, Newton did make a good accurate throw to Jakobi Meyers for a first down on his second read. Later, he targeted Meyers deep down the middle on third and long. The pass hit the hands of a leaping Meyers only to be ripped away by linebacker Blake Martinez for an interception, which seemed more like a good defensive play on a good throw rather than the quarterback mistake that a quick look at the box score would make it out to be.
So what to make of it all?
Newton was OK. Jones was OK, with a few highlight-reel throws mixed in. The same has been true for both for most of the summer.
And for most of the summer, as long as he was available, Newton was trotted out as the team's No. 1 quarterback.
There remain two weeks of practices before the Patriots host the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 12. A lot can happen in that time. Belichick has said he hasn't made a decision yet. But if we're only to base what we think will happen on what has happened all summer, Newton looks like he'll start Week 1.
For his part, whatever role he ends up playing, Jones said he'll be preparing to be the No. 1. Even if he has to wait a while for that to happen.
"I'm focused on today," he said. "I think there's a lot of stuff I can clean up... I'm here to help in any way I can. I'm going to be ready whenever my time comes."