LOS ANGELES -- The Patriots showed up at SoFi Stadium for a midterm exam Sunday.
Pass and they would be in the mix to finish near the top of the class. No guarantees. Just in the mix. Fail and it might not be curtains on the year, but it would be a steep uphill climb the rest of the way. Stressful. Not what you're looking for.
In beating the Chargers on Sunday, 27-24, the Patriots didn't necessarily pass with flying colors. It wasn't an immaculate performance. But at 4-4, after beating one of the conference's most talented rosters, in a wide-open AFC, they are most definitely in the postseason mix.
The Patriots have been saying openly for weeks that they were better than their record would indicate. Now, in getting back to .500, validation.
"Everything's out in front of us," Matt Judon said. "Everything's out in front of us. We just gotta go out there and execute. I keep telling ya'll, we know what type of team we have. We just gotta go out there and prove it."
"I definitely didn't have my best day at all," Mac Jones said. "I think everyone around me had a great day; that's what football is all about. I have to find ways to improve in that aspect of just being consistent and making the throws I know I can make."
Jones made some impressive throws on the day, though. His 44-yard big-hitter to Nelson Agholor early was a dime. He hit a wide-open Hunter Henry for an explosive gain off a play-action pass to put the Patriots in position for points. He took a shot during a clock-killing, end-of-game drive and hit Jakobi Meyers in stride. He hit Meyers earlier in the game, on a third-and-8 play, that had to be squeezed into a tight window.
There also were a number of misses, though, which weighs this grade down.
His first throw of the game to Jakob Johnson was off. Same thing on another throw to the flat, to Damien Harris, on the opening drive. He nearly threw a pick in the end zone in the second quarter. He missed a fade to Meyers on fourth-and-one at the one. He plunked one off Henry's thigh at the goal line. He missed Bourne and Agholor deep. He threw an out-route to Meyers before Meyers was turned around.
It looked as though Jones had been sped up. Was it the sack he took late in the first quarter that rattled him? Was it that Joey Bosa was lurking off the edge? Was it that the Chargers effectively changed their pre- and post-snap looks on a regular basis to confuse Jones and make him second-guess his reads? He acknowledged after the game he was too fast to get through his process.
"Definitely quick on some stuff, and it that’s just me,” he said, “Whatever may have happened, I just got it out too quick. I can improve on that. I'll find ways to know when I need to get it out and know when I don't, so that's just part of it.
"It just starts with the word patience, just reminding myself to have patience and know when to hold it and know when to get rid of it."
Running back: B
Damien Harris had two explosive runs called back due to holding calls, one of which would’ve gone for a touchdown. That’s not on him.
He ran hard, as did Rhamondre Stevenson, and this grade is reflective of that. Had the play-calling gone differently, that also might’ve given this grade a bump. Having first-and-goal from the four-yard line and only running once, against the league’s worst run defense, was curious.
Brandon Bolden checked in with a good second-and-long run, and though he was stuffed on a third-and-1, that’s not on him. Leaving one of LA’s best players, Derwin James, unblocked is a good way to have a play ruined -- no matter who’s carrying the football.
Wide receiver: C
This mark might’ve ended up in the honors range had Jones been able to give his wideouts a chance on a couple of the one-on-one shots he took down the field that sailed out of bounds.
It was an interesting cat-and-mouse game that played out between the Patriots offense and Chargers defense over the course of the game. L.A. likes to use two-high safeties, but they didn’t always stay in two-high looks. When safeties were high and stayed there, that meant an opportunity to run. When one safety came down into the box -- thereby helping to defend the run or the intermediate pass -- that meant single coverage on the outside and the chance for a big play.
The Patriots hit on one early, the dime to Agholor. Jones hit comebacks to Bourne and N’Keal Harry on the outside. But there were two or three completions that might’ve been left on the field. No fault of this group.
The killer here was Bourne’s fumble. And, like when a back coughs one up, he was benched for a bit. He came back for the two-point conversion that was executed successfully, but Harry got more run after Bourne’s turnover. As a group, they pulled down 13 catches for 165 yards.
Tight end: C+
Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Jakob Johnson (the fullback whose performance gets included with this group on a weekly basis) were key in helping provide the Patriots with the muscle they needed to run the ball 39 times Sunday. But as pass-catchers there wasn’t much doing here.
The group combined for four catches for 48 yards on seven targets. There was one odd target sent to Henry at the goal line that Jones threw before Henry made his break. Typically that’s a good thing. The issue? Henry’s break came well after Jones was expecting.
The result was a fastball off Henry’s hip. Was that on Henry? Was it one of those moments Jones felt was his fault for working too quickly? Some combination of both? Henry had an explosive 33-yard gain that went for naught when the Patriots couldn’t score from the 4-yard line on four chances.
Offensive line: C+
The Patriots ran for just 3.6 yards per carry against a defense that allowed an average of 5.4, last in the NFL, coming into the game.
They picked up more than four yards per carry for the vast majority of the game, but a handful of short runs on the clock-killing drive late in the fourth quarter bumped the overall average down.
They weren’t as dominant up front as I anticipated. Still, 39 carries. Only one sack allowed. Jones was only hit four times total (five if you include Jerry Tillery’s after-the-whistle bump that David Andrews called "BS"). Against an athletic defense with a variety of pass-rushers, that’s a solid day.
But two holding calls dropped this grade, as well as some after-the-whistle shenanigans with Nasir Adderley that apparently forced the Patriots to burn their final timeout because they couldn’t get back to the line in time to run a play.
Special teams: B+
There’s something about Gunner Olszewski -- the Texas kid who played Division II college ball in Minnesota -- when he gets to L.A.
After lighting up the Chargers special teams units a year ago, he was back at it again Sunday. He had four punt returns for 80 total yards and one kick return for 26. Olszewski had three punt returns of 20 yards of more, which was the first time that feat had been accomplished by a Patriots player since Troy Brown on Sept. 11, 2000.
Nick Folk made all four of his field-goal tries, including one from 46 and one from 48, to continue his remarkably steady performance despite dealing with a left knee injury.
Jake Bailey had one sideways punt that went for 38 yards and landed at the L.A. 28-yard line. But he also had two booming kicks that fell inside the 15-yard line of the Chargers. One was dropped at the 14 with no return. The other fell at the five and was returned to the 17.
Defensive line: B+
Did the Chargers run right at Deatrich Wise on their two longest runs of the day? Did Carl Davis react late to ball-carrier Austin Ekeler on the second, and almost tackle a teammate? Was Christian Barmore on the field as a 12th man in the fourth quarter to force the Patriots to burn a timeout? Yes, yes and yes.
Still, this group was impactful in making Justin Herbert have one of his worst games as a pro. The formula was to get Herbert off his spot. When kept clean this season, Herbert looked like a Hall of Famer. When pressured, he was below-average, which is what has made this year different than last year for the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Barmore was a key piece to making Herbert look below-average at times Sunday. On a second-quarter third-down play, as part of just a three-man rush, he paired with Judon for a stunt on the right side of the line to take advantage of backup right guard Michael Schofield. Incomplete. Punt. Barmore was into the backfield and potentially forced Herbert to hesitate -- he pumped and tried to reload and fire -- leading to Adrian Phillips' first interception.
On the second? Barmore and practice-squad call-up Daniel Ekuale both bull-rushed their blockers -- Barmore handled two -- into Herbert's space.
Barmore drew a hold near the goal line, and he fought through another later to pick up a sack. He played more than any interior defensive lineman (38 snaps) and looks like one of the team's best defenders. Not bad for a rookie hitting the midpoint of his first season.
Lawrence Guy had a sack. Wise batted a pass at the line. Though this unit had its slip-ups, overall they did what they needed to do to mess with Herbert and help their coverage players against L.A.'s explosive passing attack.
The Patriots sure do know how to expose a weakness, don’t they? Not only was Barmore able to work against a backup consistently, but the same was true for Judon, who saw right tackle Storm Norton on a consistent basis. There was not a more stark one-on-one mismatch in the game.
Judon finished with 1.5 sacks and eight additional pressures. Josh Uche had a disruptive rush and stuffed a screen at the line of scrimmage. Kyle Van Noy batted a pass at the line and was in good coverage on Phillips’ first interception. Dont’a Hightower had a run stuff (during which he launched right guard Matt Feiler four yards into the backfield) and drew a holding penalty.
Preventing this grade from getting into the “A” was a missed tackle by Hightower on Justin Jackson’s 75-yard run, and a missed opportunity at a sack or quarterback hit by Jamie Collins. But Herbert being uncomfortable in the pocket was a huge reason for why the Patriots won this game. And Judon was often the source of that discomfort.
Was this the stuff dreams are made of, Adrian Phillips? To come back and play the franchise where your career started? A franchise that didn’t do everything in its power to hold onto you? “You know,” Phillips said before pausing. “Yeah.”
Both picks were fantastic catches. The first required a quick reaction and strong hands, and it set up a field goal. The second was another athletic contortionist job. His sticky hands showed up again, and he had the presence of mind to rise to his feet quickly and scamper in for a game-changing score.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley called out Jared Cook after the game to a degree, saying he was supposed to be in the flat as a check-down option. He wasn’t.
Devin McCourty made a couple of breakups, one came deep down the field with J.C. Jackson on the scene and in good coverage. Myles Bryant had a breakup as well on Keenan Allen on third down. Any chance that one rattled Allen enough that he was thinking about getting hit on a late-game third-down drop on a target over the middle?
Looked like Kyle Dugger might have overrun an explosive 28-yard run by Austin Ekeler. Jalen Mills had trouble on L.A.'s last frantic drive when he gave up a third-and-long completion to keep the drive going and then couldn’t defend the late touchdown to Josh Palmer. But otherwise, this was a big-time performance from this group.