Like it or not, it's a new era of Patriots football.
Those assuming that a first-round quarterback, a litany of high-priced free agents and an accomplished coaching staff would be enough to quickly get the Patriots back into contention were hit with a wake-up call in Sunday's 28-13 loss to the Saints.
"It's a reality check," said Patriots corner Jonathan Jones.
Eventually all the new pieces may come together and form a playoff-caliber club. New England's 1-2 start to 2021 doesn't eliminate all hope in that regard. But they're a long way off. And the expectations that have been long associated with the Patriots don't yet apply to this group.
"It's coming down to the point in the season, you gotta do it," Devin McCourty said. "We talk about a lot of different things. Each week we kind of live off what the Patriots have done in the past. Fast starts and all of that. But for this team, we gotta go do those things. We gotta stop talking about it and get it done."
With Tom Brady and the Buccaneers slated to visit the Patriots next weekend, there will be seven days to revisit what made the Patriots of yore. Mac Jones is aware of that standard. And while he'll have a chance to confront it live and in person a week from Sunday, he understands he has a lot of work to do between now and then to better live up to the standard.
"Obviously no one likes to lose here," Jones said, "and the Patriots have done nothing but win for a long time, and we have to get back to that. It just happens through everyday grind, everyday work, and not focusing on the results. Play each play, one day at a time. If we can do that I think we'll see progress and we'll just go from there."
Will they be ready by the time Brady returns to Foxboro? Will they be able to focus with all the hoopla that will surround this week?
"We're not good enough to get lost in headlines," McCourty said.
Let's get to the grades ...
Though he knows it'll never be perfect, Mac Jones said earlier this month that he wants to "close the gap on perfect" with his work in practice.
The gap will be large this upcoming week.
He got skittish on his first sack and may have conceded that he was going down before he really had to. He threw over the middle while taking a big hit, which led to his first pick. He overthrew Nelson Agholor despite having plenty of protection. He overthrew Kendrick Bourne down the sideline in the fourth quarter. He ran backwards away from pressure, turning a short loss into a 13-yard sack.
That said ... he was bothered on nearly every dropback in the first half. He was hit 11 times total in the game. On one two-drive stretch in the second quarter, he was hit on half a dozen occasions -- the last of which led to his first interception. When the Patriots spread things out late in the first half, he picked up yards in bunches on throws to Jakobi Meyers (17 yards), Kendrick Bourne (31) and Agholor (13). The ball came out quickly and accurately, and when he wasn't harassed, he looked to be in command.
"We have to keep him upright," Hunter Henry said later. "When he's upright, he's making some good throws. We have to be better."
Jones did a good job of keeping himself upright on his touch pass down the sideline to Bourne for a touchdown. With a free rusher -- two headed at right tackle Justin Herron -- breathing on Jones, the rookie stopped mid-drop and floated one up to Bourne for a jump-ball, catch-and-tip-toe-the-sideline score.
Running back: C-
Not much doing here. As a group, they averaged fewer than 2.0 yards per carry (11 attempts, 21 yards). With James White out, Brandon Bolden became more of a go-to player, yet his three carries down deep in Saints territory went for a total of -1 yards. Damien Harris ran for seven yards on the first carry of the game, but the team then got away from the run for a time and he carried just five times (six attempts, 14 yards) the rest of the way.
The Saints defense is one of the best in football, but this good? The combination of the matchup and the score of the game -- with the Patriots down three scores early in the second half -- likely led to an abandonment of the run. On top of the lack of production on the ground, Harris had a shaky pass-protection rep in the first quarter that helped lead to a sack.
The grade for this group may continue to suffer moving forward if White is out for an extended period of time, and it appears as though he will. He was carted off with a hip injury in the second quarter. "You hate it," Andrews said when asked for his reaction to White's injury. "For a guy like that, who really does give his all for this team, day in and day out ... the world could use some more James Whites.”
Wide receiver: B
Best position group of the day. And it's not really close.
When the Patriots spread things out and let Mac Jones work out of the shotgun with some empty sets -- particularly in the second half -- they were able to string together some positive plays. Kendrick Bourne might've been the most effective player on the field for the Patriots with his six grabs for 96 yards and a remarkably-coordinated touchdown catch. That he turned his head to find the football early, stayed in bounds, shook off a defender, and got into the end zone made it pretty easily the most impressive play of the day for the Patriots offense. He also helped create an explosive play by breaking a tackle around midfield and scooting ahead for 31 yards.
Jakobi Meyers chipped in with nine catches of his own for 94 yards. Nelson Agholor and Mac Jones struggled to connect down the field (two receptions, 17 yards), but Agholor appeared to have a step on his defender on the first play of the fourth quarter and Jones simply overshot him. Agholor was the intended target on Jones' third interception -- when the game was essentially in hand -- and there was a clear miscommunication there as to how Agholor should have finished his route.
Tight end: F
When the Patriots gave Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry a combined $56 million dollars in guaranteed money this offseason, they were expecting game-changers. They were expecting a duo that could give opposing defensive coordinators fits with their varied skill sets. They were expecting their passing offense to be given a jolt. What they got, as a result of the play of their tight ends in a loss to the Saints, were boos from the Gillette Stadium crowd.
Three drops by Jonnu Smith, including a drop-six (it was a pick-six, but can't put the responsibility for that one on Mac Jones), were the most obvious offenses. Smith's juggling drop that was intercepted, coming on the first play of the second half with the Patriots hoping to chip away at the New Orleans lead, was a back-breaker. But both Smith (hold) and Hunter Henry (false start) were flagged for penalties -- Henry's coming on a fourth-and-one snap deep in Saints territory. And they combined for just five catches for 40 yards despite Mac Jones dropping back to pass a whopping 51 times.
Offensive line: F
Was every Mac Jones hit a result of porous blocking up front? No. Jones had a say in a handful of those. But 11 quarterback hits is 11 quarterback hits.
Communication was lacking when the Saints walked up multiple bodies to the line of scrimmage in the passing game -- for instance, there was a free rusher on top of Jones during his touchdown throw when the Saints walked an extra rusher over to right tackle Justin Herron. And though the running game wasn't deployed all that often with the game still in doubt in the first half, when the Patriots did try to run it, the results after a seven-yard run from Damien Harris early in the first quarter were abysmal.
Jones was the team's leading rusher, and the backs combined for just 21 yards on 11 carries. This unit needs Trent Brown back. But the issues, for the third straight week, weren't limited to the right side of the line. The hit put on Jones that led to his first interception came when a Saints "game" at the line of scrimmage put both David Andrews and Shaq Mason -- New England's two best linemen -- in a bind.
Special teams: D
This was an out-of-character performance for this unit. They allowed a 25-yard punt return by Deonte Harris early in the game -- made possible in part by a missed tackle from Cody Davis -- and then refused to kick to him for the remainder of the contest. The only problem? Staying away from Harris led to some miscues.
Looked like the Patriots tried to get the Saints to jump offsides on one fourth-down snap, but they were called for a false start on snapper Joe Cardona. They had a punt blocked by Andrew Dowell. Jake Bailey kicked a kickoff out of bounds for his second such penalty in as many weeks. Bailey also punted into the Saints' end zone twice for touchbacks. Perhaps that was the plan with the dangerous Harris back there, but he punted just five touchbacks in all of 2020. He has three already this season.
Nick Folk made his kicks, which kept this from being a failing grade, but Chase Winovich was called for a hold on a punt return and it looked like Cardona snapped one high on Folk's 45-yard attempt early in the game. Tough day overall for this unit.
Defensive line: C-
This group was having itself a day ... until the final Saints drive of the game. When they needed a stop, for the second time in three weeks, they couldn't get one. New Orleans drove the field in 13 plays, picking up 75 yards on that series, but it was the 10 carries for 56 yards the Saints posted that has to sting this unit.
Alvin Kamara ran for 11 on first down, with the Saints in obvious bleed-the-clock mode. Later it was Taysom Hill for 14 yards. On a third-and-one snap, Hill plunged into the end zone for three yards out to effectively end the game. Lawrence Guy and Davon Godchaux each picked up a couple run stuffs. Deatrich Wise split a sack with Matt Judon and had a stuff of his own. Godchaux came through with a couple of pressures, and Christian Barmore showed up as a pass-rusher as well.
But when this unit needed to stand tall at the end of the game -- against an offensive line that had backups in at center, right guard and left tackle -- they couldn't.
Part of the failure to stop the run at the end of the game has to fall on this group as well. There also appeared to be a communication breakdown at the second level when Jameis Winston found Alvin Kamara for an easy score on an angle route in the first quarter.
"Disappointing," Kyle Van Noy said. "They played a good game. We didn't. They came ready on all three phases and we didn't. They out-executed us. We gotta get back to work and get after it."
This group showed up early, though. Ja'Whaun Bentley had a pass breakup and a run stuff early on. Matt Judon came through with a sack in the second quarter that backed up the Saints, who eventually missed a field goal on the drive. He had another in the fourth. He later split a sack with Deatrich Wise.
Chase Winovich had a pressure and a quarterback hit in getting a little more action with the Patriots apparently monitoring the workloads of Judon (knee) and Kyle Van Noy (throat) at times. Poorly as the run defense fared late in the game, they allowed just 3.7 yards per carry to Kamara (24 carries for 89 yards) and 3.7 yards per carry to the Saints as a team with Winston scrambles factored in.
They didn't get torched over the top. They didn't allow Jameis Winston to go off for chunks of yardage. The Saints finished with just 128 yards through the air on 13-of 21 attempts. But, as was the case with the defensive line, in big spots, this group couldn't get the stops it needed.
On a third-and-seven play on the final scoring drive for New Orleans, Winston attacked Jalen Mills and found Deonte Harris for an easy first down. The Patriots defense was unable to slow down the Saints the rest of the way.
"That killed us. That's the game of football," McCourty said. "You can play decent and get going in the second half like we did, but it comes down to one drive and we needed to get a stop."
In the second quarter, deep in the red zone, with Kyle Dugger all over Winston, Winston lobbed up a prayer to the back of the end zone and Marquez Callaway out-jumped Jonathan Jones (who was flagged for holding on the play) for the score. On a third-and-one that should have led to a Saints field goal (it missed), JC Jackson played well off the line of scrimmage and was targeted on a slant that went for 13 yards.
On Winston's first touchdown pass, it was hard to know if Kyle Dugger or Kyle Van Noy (or someone else) should've stuck with Alvin Kamara. Either way, it was too easy for the Saints, and it put the Patriots in a hole early.