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Are the Patriots on the Verge of a Breakout?

New England no longer has the luxury of leaning on the greatest quarterback of all time. But on Sunday, the Pats proved they can hang with an AFC contender.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At last, the Patriots’ persistence paid off. New England entered its Week 8 contest against the Chargers one game below .500, with three wins against two of the worst teams in football (Jets twice, Texans) and a pair of hard-fought, one-possession defeats to contenders (Buccaneers, Cowboys). The Patriots were finally rewarded for their efforts Sunday at SoFi Stadium, beating an upstart Los Angeles squad, 27-24, in a game that at times had the feel and intensity of a playoff matchup.

In classic Bill Belichick fashion, the coach thought the Patriots could have performed better in many areas, and listed numerous opportunities he considered squandered. Still, he was happy with the result.

“All in all,” Belichick said Sunday, “we made the plays that we needed to make in the fourth quarter, which is something that we hadn’t done as well earlier in the year. It’s good to see that. It’s good to come out here and get a win.”

New England is now 4-4 following back-to-back wins that took polar opposite routes. Last week, the Patriots steamrolled the Jets, sweeping the season series with a comfortable 41-point victory. Sunday’s victory was ugly. The Chargers have looked like a potential playoff contender with quarterback Justin Herbert, a budding superstar, and came into the day as 4.5-point favorites. Sunday became a battle of resolve. At different points in the contest, New England leaned on each of its three phases to come away with what could be a breakthrough win.

“We’re at .500. Everything [is] out in front of us,” said Patriots outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who registered 1.5 sacks Sunday. “We just got to go out there and execute. … We know what type of team we have. We just gotta go out there and prove it.”

The Patriots produced game-changing defensive plays against the Chargers, one of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses. Safety Adrian Phillips—the one-time All-Pro who spent the first six seasons of his career with the Chargers—recorded two interceptions against his former team, including a pick-six early in the fourth quarter that gave the Patriots a 24-17 lead.

The takeaway kick-started a string of series that sealed New England’s win. Following Phillips’s interception, the Chargers went three-and-out, paving the way for a 14-play, 54-yard drive by the Patriots offense. Quarterback Mac Jones made critical passes, hitting receivers Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, and N’Keal Harry for solid gains, while running back Damien Harris picked up yards on the ground. Every Patriots ball carrier stayed in-bounds, bleeding the clock as the Chargers were forced to exhaust their timeouts before Nick Folk kicked a 30-yard field goal with 2:19 remaining to extend the lead to 10.

“It’s always great to see the offense move the ball and score points,” said Belichick, flashing a smile. “I love it.”

The Patriots’ late-game run doesn’t mask that their overall performance left plenty of room for improvement. Early on, the Chargers’ passing game converted third downs against Belichick’s defense. Chargers backup running back Justin Jackson busted a 75-yard run, evading several New England defenders and keying a touchdown drive. Holding calls against the Patriots negated a Harris touchdown run in the third quarter as well as another big run that would have set New England up in the red zone. Jones misfired on a potential short touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne, and the same drive stalled at Los Angeles’s 1-yard line after failing to convert on fourth-and-goal. Bourne himself fumbled after a third-quarter catch inside the Chargers’ 30-yard line. Judon got flagged for running into the punter but was luckily bailed out by a penalty against Los Angeles on the play that offset the miscue.

“Certainly there are some things that we could have done better,” Belichick said. “We left some plays on the field, some penalties and non-penalties. We could have coached better, could have played better. We could have taken advantage of a couple of opportunities that we missed on.”

And Jones’s performance was far from perfect. The rookie quarterback opened the game 6-for-9, spreading the ball out to several different targets with good timing and rhythm. But then he embarked on a 2-for-13 stretch to close out the first half. The former Alabama star entered Sunday leading all first-year passers in completion rate, in large part because he is a conservative signal-caller. Yet, even within the short passing game on Sunday, Jones labored. His accuracy too often failed him, and he finished the game completing 18 of 35 passes for 218 yards. His average depth of target was an encouraging 9.2 (his highest ADOT since a 12.0 output Week 3 against New Orleans), however he completed a career-low 51.4 percent of his passes. Asked whether he’s seen ongoing improvement out of Jones, Belichick urged patience.

“Every game is a new game,” Belichick said. “Each one is a different experience, different defense, different players, different game plan. Week by week, [Jones] can stack them together. He has done a good job of that. Each week is a challenge. … He prepares. He works hard. He definitely knows what to do. Some things he needs to see and experience. There’s really no substitute for that other than getting out there and doing it.”

Jones admitted that he “definitely didn’t have my best day at all,” crediting his teammates for their support. “I think the overall message is just keep playing,” he said. “It’s not always going to be perfect. For me, sometimes, that’s really hard because I want it to be better than that, because I feel like it falls on my hands a lot because that’s what the quarterback is, which is a good thing. But I can definitely play better, and I’ll put that on me. Everyone around me did a great job; special teams, defense played great. I think we just played together and didn’t quit. The effort was there. The guys around me played well, so that’s all there is to it.”

Jones did have a few encouraging moments—he launched a 44-yard completion to Nelson Agholor in the first quarter, and scrambled twice for 9 yards (including a first down). His teammates showed up in spurts, too. And after the Chargers found early success moving the ball, the Patriots pass rush began finding ways to disrupt Herbert.

Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley said that during his team’s bye, he wanted to address his squad’s ineffectiveness on early downs and stop depending on Herbert to pull off magic in third-and-long situations. On Sunday, however, it seemed to be more of the same. Patriots defenders batted passes down, constricted pockets, and sacked Herbert on occasion, knocking the Chargers offense off schedule. L.A. went three-and-out three times. It went 4-for-12 on third down, averaging 8 yards needed to gain.

Herbert, who suffered his worst pro outing as a rookie against the Patriots last season, was slowed down by New England once again, completing 18 of 35 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks. He was sacked three times, and New England registered six total hits on him. Pocket congestion affected his accuracy, which wasn’t consistent for a second straight game.

“We was rushing our butts off,” said Judon, exhaustedly. “Herbert has great arm talent, and he can get it anywhere. But it’s hard when you got people in your face and the pocket collapsing.”

The Patriots defense was able to alter field positioning. The Chargers’ average starting field position was their own 21-yard line, and four of their 12 drives on Sunday started inside their own 20. When those series stalled, New England’s punt-return units made a tangible impact. Gunner Olszewski managed 20 yards or more on three of his four punt returns, setting up New England’s offense with outstanding field position throughout the game. Even when the Patriots weren’t starting near opponent territory, they were grinding out drives, keeping the ball away from the Chargers offense. New England out-possessed L.A. by nearly 20 minutes, much of which can be credited to the defense’s performance.

“We know who we have on our defense and we know the standard that we should play with,” Judon said. “We gave up some chunk plays; we’ve got to cut those chunk plays out. But when we do that—and we execute and we play like that—we get picks and crush their pocket, make them throw from a well, it’s gonna be tough to beat us.”

This Patriots team no longer has the luxury of relying on the greatest quarterback of all time to shepherd the franchise to victories. But the same stubborn, physical mentality that defined the past two decades of New England football has returned this season. Patriots players take ownership in such an identity, and that toughness can sometimes be the difference between losses and victories for teams that can only afford to play desperate, scrappy football. Phillips explained that at the end of the season, teams who can’t navigate the slim margins between fringe contender and pretender always feel regret over a few plays from the past year that could have been the difference between a successful or lost season.

“Great teams win close games,” Phillips said. “And we need to keep stringing these along. Early in the season, we were losing those, it was a mistake here. There are a few mistakes. But we knew that if we wanted to take the season where we want to take it, you have to win those close games.”

The Patriots were not perfect Sunday. However, there’s a budding confidence among New England’s players that suggests they believe going into Los Angeles and coming away with such a grueling victory can signal that they aren’t fading from the fight to make the AFC playoffs. They might be ready to finally step in the ring. With matchups against the Browns, Titans, and Bills on the horizon, it might be perfect timing.

“It was the biggest game of the year for us,” Harris said. “The whole team, we feel like if we just keep working hard week in and week out, we show up every day and we prepare the right way and we come out and play our style of football, we know we’re a good team. We can play with anybody.”