Nothing will ever sink a dagger deep enough to kill Bill Parcells’ pithy, "You are what your record says you are ..." quote from his time with the Patriots.
Too memorable. Too glib. And generally pretty accurate. But not always. The early-season Patriots are an exception.
When the Patriots fell to 2-4 after their overtime loss to Dallas, several players piped up to say the team was better than their record. Two games later, they’ve been proven right.
It was easy to snort at the Patriots cradle-to-grave demolition of the Jets. And it was easy to bottom-line them when they lost to the Cowboys and at the buzzer to Tampa. And it was easy to be uneasy about their win at Houston after they fell behind 22-9 and had to scratch and claw to beat a horrible team.
But now that the Patriots have gone cross-country and beaten the well-rested, previously 4-2 Chargers, all the context those other games were providing has been validated.
Moral victories exist. They are losses that, rather than make you question whether you’re on the right path, actually signal progress. If the Patriots were lost or overmatched against the Bucs and Cowboys, if they scuffled around and had their hands full with the Jets, they wouldn’t have been in the same mental space they were at SoFi on Sunday.
There was ample chance to go into the tank against the Chargers if that was in the Patriots DNA. Mac Jones played like an average rookie quarterback would rather than the five-year starter he’d been playing like. The defense gave up explosive plays in the passing game and on the ground.
Josh McDaniels had a tough day with the playcalls, lowlighted by a four-play sequence in the second quarter from the Chargers' 4-yard line when Kendrick Bourne couldn’t haul in a high bullet from Jones on first down, Damien Harris picked up three against the most porous run defense in the league and Jones then threw two disgusting fades on third and fourth down.
Bourne had a third-quarter fumble on a third-and-14 that cost the Patriots points and got him put on ice for the rest of the game. There were interspersed explosive plays by the Chargers.
But good teams -- even good teams with average or sub-.500 records -- come back from those. This was the Patriots; best win since last season’s takedown of the Ravens. Coincidentally, that win also raised the Patriots to 4-4. But the 2020 season was built on sand. With their array of offensive players, a quarterback who couldn’t throw and all the defensive opt outs, the Patriots were paddling a leaky dinghy around the harbor and pretending they were seaworthy.
Probably the most encouraging thing about the Patriots win is how much more convincingly they could have beaten the Chargers. There’s a lot of meat left on the improvement bone whether it’s Jones playing better, eliminating the explosive plays, McDaniels getting into a permanent groove with all the new pieces, etc.
The Patriots had the ball for 10 drives on Sunday. Three of those drives failed to cross midfield. The other seven all went inside the Chargers 40. And this was on a Bad Mac day. Meanwhile, the Chargers had 12 drives. Four crossed the 50.
As it turned out, the Patriots actually had margin for error in this matchup and -- while they made plenty of missteps -- they still didn’t use up all of that margin.
We had nice debates last week about whether or not the Patriots and Chargers were on the same level. My contention was that they were. Both teams were 7-9 last year. The Chargers’ impressive wins were counterbalanced by the narrow distance for the Patriots between 3-4 and 6-1. The other side was that the Patriots were what their record said they were. That those “moral victories” were hollow.
Turned out, all the evidence the Patriots submitted in their previous four games was admissible. They were a good team with a bad record. Now they have nine games to climb.
"All three phases ..."
Want to pinpoint when the 2021 Patriots wedged their way deep into Bill Belichick’s heart? For now, I’ll go with the way they closed the first half.
Trailing 14-7, they got the ball on their own 25 after a Keenan Allen touchdown catch. Jones converts a third-and-4 with a 6-yard scramble (and gets a 15-yard flag tagged on). Hunter Henry gets 33 on a beautifully-designed throwback from Jones. Then the Patriots bog down and they get no points.
The defense got the ball back ASAFP with a three-and-out and a Chargers punt from their end zone. Gunner Olszewski returns it 22 yards. The offense settles for a field goal but the defense forces another three-and-out punctuated by a Lawrence Guy sack. Offense gets nothing.
Defense comes up with the ball again as Adrian Phillips picks off a Justin Herbert pass that clonged off the hands of Ekeler. The offense gets a 10-yard drive-starter to Bourne then stalls. Supertoe Nick Folk drills a 48-yarder to make it 14-13.
Relentless defense and special teams work while the offense is struggling. That’s that complementary football that makes Bill warm.
The AFC is there for the taking
If this win was the Patriots' biggest since last year against the Ravens, what was the biggest before that? Since I’m defining “biggest” in terms of sparking real optimism that the team is going somewhere, I’d say this win was bigger than that Ravens game. And that you have to go back all the way to Week 2 of 2019 to find a time when a performance caused a “they’re good, they’re going to keep getting better and they’re going to end up in a good place” vibe for me.
That was when the Patriots beat Miami, 43-0. After that, the Antonio Brown idiocy unfolded, the Patriots fattened up on a succession of bad quarterbacks and the offense started to -- despite the results -- show signs of slippage.
The AFC landscape is part of the reason this win seems so important. It’s wide open. The Patriots have two games against the Bills and matchups with the Browns, Colts and Titans ahead of them. As one of only three teams that have only lost one conference game (Cincy and Tennessee are the others), the Patriots are in a great spot despite their .500 record.
Who's up, who's down
Some “Ups” from Sunday?
Christian Barmore. Myles Bryant. Adrian Phillips. Nick Folk. Matt Judon. N’Keal Harry. Nelson Agholor.
Kendrick Bourne. Isaiah Wynn. Josh McDaniels. Bill Belichick’s challenge. Jalen Mills.