By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- You hear it all the time in sports -- if only it hadn't been for this, things would be different. It's often a loser's lament.
It was, essentially, the story surrounding the 2021 Patriots through six weeks. If only Damien Harris didn't fumble vs. Miami. If only Nick Folk's field goal vs. Tampa went six inches to the right. If only they had gone for it on fourth down vs. Dallas or defended better on third-and-25 or if Mac didn't throw that pick-six. If only Trent Brown was healthy. If only this, that, or the other thing, the Patriots could be 5-1.
There was some truth to that line of thinking, obviously, but still, as we all know, you are what your record says you are. And reality showed that the Patriots did fumble, the defense did break down, the execution and play-calling was a little off. And so they were 2-4.
What's happened since has made them the rare case of a team actually proving those alternate-reality what-if scenarios to have been prophetic. They've won six straight games, turning their season around, becoming virtual locks to make the playoffs, and having a legitimate shot to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
And while the reasons for that winning streak are plentiful, sometimes it really is as simple as making plays when the other team doesn't.
To wit: The Titans screwed up early, committing two penalties on a punt after going three-and-out to start the game. Instead of the Patriots starting at their own 31-yard line, the Patriots started at the Titans' 37-yard line after the rekick and the return. That's 32 yards of field position for the better-executing team.
Then, on a third-and-10, LaBrandian Boldtomlinson made a play. He stayed in bounds, tiptoeing up the left sideline to find his way to the sticks for a fresh set of downs.
Good design and good blocking? Sure. But the reason the chains moved was because Bolden made a play.
Then, on a jump ball that he really didn't have a ton of business catching, Kendrick Bourne climbed up and over Kevin Byard to real in the rainbow from Mac Jones before toe-tapping and falling out of bounds.
Bourne made a play. Bolden made a play. The Patriots led 7-0.
Contrast that with a play that was there to be made but nevertheless was botched by Ryan Tannehill midway through the second quarter. With Chester Rogers toasting Myles Bryant, it looked like the Titans were poised to take a lead. But Tannehill decided to throw his pass to Skipjack's.
Felt like a big one. That it was followed by Randy Bullock's second doink in a nine-minute span added to the theme.
Of course, you could say this was nitpicky. After all, Jones missed a just-as-wide-open Hunter Henry in similar fashion. Yes, obviously, games are determined by more than a small handful of plays.
But over the course of the 60 minutes, from early playmaking to the forced fumbles to the underrated fumble recoveries all the way down to the kicker, the Patriots simply executed far better than their counterparts on Sunday. That's why the lopsided final score was no accident.
Let's hit some leftover thoughts from that 36-13 win.
--We always do the Mac Jones dance. He actually had his fair share of not-so-nice throws in this one, but luck was on his side and he avoided any ugly picks. In fact, he set a new career high in passing yards with 310 while posting his second-best single-game passer rating with a 123.2.
The bad ones were obvious -- the slipped screen pass, the Henry miss, the near-interception -- and don't require deep analysis. So I'll spotlight one throw I really liked: First-and-10 at the Tennessee 37-yard line, early second quarter. Nothing dazzling, just an uber-confident throw over a linebacker, directly to Jonnu Smith, for a gain of 16:
It was, really, a simple throw. For me it was the confidence and comfort on display that stood out, something that's obviously grown as the year has gone on. Considering he started his career by taking about 6,000 hits every Sunday, his ability to weather that and get to this place is mighty impressive.
--People love to say that you can't hit anybody anymore, that the NFL lost all physicality, that it's basically flag football, etc., etc., etc. The Patriots defense does occasionally offer a firm counterargument.
I give you: Kyle Dugger on Cody Hollister:
Next I give you: Adrian Phillips on Dontrell Hilliard.
Of course, the second one being wiped away by a new-age roughing the passer penalty does kind of prove the point of the complainers. However ... the point here is that the Patriots can thump.
--Stephen Gostkowski becoming a random local guy is a pretty great development.
He's halfway to becoming the Casey Affleck character from SNL.
--I'll be honest: I did not know that Janoris Jenkins had changed his name to Jackrabbit. I do follow the NFL but sometimes a story slips past you. I suppose that's appropriate, given the name itself.
--Hunter Henry has seven touchdown catches this year. Kendrick Bourne now has five. Nelson Agholor has three.
Last year, in the full season, the team leader in touchdown receptions had ... three. Rex Burkhead. Three touchdowns. (In 10 games played no less.)
Quarterback play factored in, sure. But the fact that the three leaders this year are all newcomers is no coincidence.
--This is good.
Granted, he wasn't really "in coverage" on Sunday's pick. But at this point, if you're denying the fact that Jackson has some sort of magnetic spell on the football, then you're spitting into the wind, partner.
--If you think Matthew Judon gets excited on the field, you should see how excited he gets when he gets asked about his jacket. Fast-forward this video to the 10-minute mark:
Guy likes his jacket. Got to respect it.
--The game was more or less over when this happened, so I didn't notice until the replay. But Trent Brown bouncing around like a pinball on Damien Harris' touchdown run looked like fun. For him, anyway.
--We've been closing on some big-picture looks as of late, so let's keep the trend alive. The Ravens beat the Browns in one of the most exciting boring football games ever played on Sunday night, thus keeping Baltimore in the top spot in the AFC. I don't think that really matters, for two reasons:
1. It's the end of Week 12.
2. Nobody in the AFC is that good.
The second point is the larger one. It's why the Patriots have an equal chance of making the Super Bowl as they do of winning zero playoff games. The top of the AFC, such as it is, seems to be loaded with good but flawed teams.
They all have a shameful loss or two. New England lost at home to Miami and New Orleans. Baltimore got absolutely blown out at home by the Bengals and lost on the road to Miami. The Titans have lost to the Jets and Texans (!!!). The Bills have lost to the Jaguars (!!) and Steelers. The Chiefs -- who have lost to the Ravens, Chagers, Bills and Titans -- don't have the embarrassing one.
They've all had moments that make you doubt their championship candidacy, moments that make you channel your inner Michael Bluth and say ... them?
But, well, one of them has to make it.
At this point, you'd still have to be an optimist to think the first-round bye is in play for the Patriots, mostly because of the degree of difficulty in their next three games. With a Colts sandwich wrapped in a Buffalo Bills bun -- and with one of those buns being toasted on a Monday night in Buffalo, where fans are going to create an absolutely psychotic atmosphere -- it's a tough stretch for the Patriots. There are some positives built in, like the extra day this week to ready for Monday night, and the bye that follows that before their Saturday night game in Indy, which then gives them an extra day to prep for their home date with Buffalo. They are all winnable games ... but also, they're all losable games.
We'll see how the Patriots come out of it. Even if they go 1-2 though, they'll still be in line to go 11-6 if they can take care of business against the mighty Jags and Dolphins. And obviously, they now have the opportunity to finish even better than that.
If you talked out loud about any of this in late October, you would've been laughed out of the room. Rightfully so. This was implausible.
But the Patriots stood true to their word and their belief that they weren't a 2-4 team. And here they are. The next six weeks will be fascinating.
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