Why the New England Patriots will win the AFC title this season

Matt Johnson

When the New England Patriots walked off the field with a Monday Night Football victory over the Buffalo Bills, it put them atop the AFC East and put them in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage in the playoffs. But the unique game plan also raised doubts about the Patriots’ ability to win the AFC when the postseason arrived.

New England dominated the Bills to close out Week 13, winning time of possession and doing whatever they wanted on the ground. It was the latest example of Bill Belichick adopting a new game plan each week, finding a way to win by whatever means necessary.

But on a primetime stage, quarterback Mac Jones completed just 2-of-3 pass attempts for 19 yards. In a conference with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, many wondered if the Patriots’ offense is good enough to keep up with some of the most electric offenses in the NFL.

As we’ll examine below, there should be no doubt that New England is capable of winning the AFC and earning a trip to Super Bowl LVI.

New England Patriots defense can match up with anyone

NFL: Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s true that becoming AFC champions requires knocking off great quarterbacks, that’s the nature of the playoffs. While the AFC quarterbacks aren’t playing at their peak levels of performance thus far in 2021, many naturally expect the likes of Herbert, Mahomes and Allen to turn it around quickly.

But expecting those quarterbacks to be instantly fixed for the postseason is asking a lot. We’re no longer talking about small sample sizes for many of these players. The likes of Mahomes, Jackson and Allen are all playing far below expectations for a significant stretch of the season.

Player:Pass Yards per gameTD – INTSacksCompletion %YPAQB RatingPFF grade
J. Allen (Wk 9-13)248.89 – 71166.1%7.488.565.7 (15th)
P. Mahomes (Wk 5-13)270.811 – 81661.4%6.481.063.6 (20th)
J. Herbert (Wk 6-13)281.614 – 81666.2%7.493.169.1 (13th)
L. Jackson (Wk 6-13)224.38 – 102461.6%6.472.945.5 (28th)

There are legitimate reasons each of these MVP-caliber quarterbacks are struggling, many of which aren’t tied specifically to them. But those combinations of factors are still real and if they haven’t been fixed by December, nothing should lead to the assumption everything will be golden against the best coach in NFL history.

Belichick earned his historic reputation for taking away what an opponent does best. It’s even easier for him this season because the Patriots spent heavily in NFL free agency, adding talent to a defense that desperately needed it. After spending the first few weeks of the season teaching players how to work within the changing game plans and figuring out how each fits into the collective masterpiece, everything is coming together.

Even a cursory look over the New England Patriots defensive stats since Week 6 shows you how dominant this group is right now.

  • QBs vs. New England Patriots defense (Week 6-13): 188.6 pass yards/game, 9-14 TD-INT, 19 sacks, 58.1% completion, 5.9 ypa, 65.0 passer rating

It is important to note, opponents are running the ball effectively against the Patriots. Since Oct. 31, New England is allowing opposing teams to average 124.8 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per rush. Though, 270 of the 749 yards allowed in that six-game stretch came in a 36-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans. If that one game is eliminated, teams average just 95.8 rushing yards per game with one touchdown in five contests.

There are other areas where this defense stands out.

  • Fourth quarter ppg: 2.7, 1st in NFL
  • Second half ppg: 6.3, 1st in NFL
  • Opponents’ points per play: 0.25, Fewest in NFL
  • Opponents’ red-zone attempts per game: 2.7, 6th in NFL
  • Opponents’ third-down conversion rate: 35.76%, 7th in NFL (27.5% since Week 5)

A big reason for New England’s success as of late is the defensive front. Matthew Judon, the best free-agent signing this offseason, is responsible for 59 total pressures, 33 hurries and 14 sacks this season. He is one of the best pass rushers in football right now and his presence makes life easier for Jamie Collins (88.8 PFF pass-rush grade), Ja’Whaun Bentley (five QB knockdowns), Kyle Van Noy (four sacks) and Christian Barmore (seven hurries).

As for the secondary, it’s largely being led by safety Adrian Phillips (44.8 passer rating allowed), cornerback J.C. Jackson (seven interceptions), defensive back Kyle Dugger (72.9 coverage grade, 27 stops) and captain Devin McCourty.

Right now, this is the best defense in the NFL and key guys and Belichick’s plan is coming together. New England already caused problems for Allen (20.4 QBR in Week 13) and Herbert (20.7 QBR, 2 INTs). Given the problems Jackson and Mahomes are having, Belichick and the New England Patriots defense should have all the confidence in the world against them.

Physicality can carry New England Patriots offense

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (left) hands the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson (right) against the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Skepticism surrounding the Patriots’ passing attack is understandable. Despite the windy elements on Monday Night Football, attempting only three passes does say something about a play caller’s level of confidence in his quarterback. We’ve also seen Belichick and McDaniels really put limits on what Jones is doing this year.

But running the football is in New England’s DNA this season. This is what Belichick and McDaniels wanted their offense to be tailored around since the 2020 season. But it’s all coming together now because the right pieces are finally in place.

On the edges, getting Trent Brown back changed everything. The 6-foot-8 right tackle is meant to play in a Patriots’ uniform, especially considering how he is performing in New England vs. Las Vegas. Entering the bye, Brown rated as Pro Football Focus’ 11th-best tackle as a run blocker. Teammate Isaiah Wynn is 18th, giving New England two of the best run-blocking tackles in the NFL. When Belichick wants to add a sixth lineman, Michael Onwenu (90.4 RBLK grade) comes in off the bench.

The Patriots are just as dominant on the interior. Shaq Mason is one of the best guards in football and he is joined by center David Andrews and guard Ted Karras. Together, the five linemen create a wall that can push defensive linemen around and they open up holes for the ballcarrier.

Personnel also plays an important role for the Patriots. New England uses 21 personnel on 21% of its snaps, per Sharp Football, the third-highest rate in the NFL. Notably, the Patriots run it 69% of the time with 21 personnel and that’s because fullback Jakob Johnson is outstanding at wiping out linebackers.

Across the seven-game win streak entering the bye, New England dominated on the ground.

  • New England Patriots rushing stats (Week 7-13) 155.1 rush yards/game, 4.5 ypc, 10 touchdowns

Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are taking advantage of it all. Harris is averaging 5.2 yards per rush with seven touchdowns since Week 6. Meanwhile, Stevenson is PFF’s highest-graded rookie running back and the 227-pound bruiser has racked up 317 yards after first contact this season.

Teams know the Patriots want to run the football and still can’t stop it. New England made its intentions clear in Week 13, stacking the box and committing to the run game. Buffalo, the same defense that allowed 264 rushing yards to the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 21, surrendered 222 rushing yards to the Patriots.

Don’t expect the Chargers to Chiefs to fare much better. Opponents average 141.2 rushing yards per game against Los Angeles this season with 17 touchdowns and a 4.6 ypr. As for Kansas City, this same defense allowed Denver Broncos rookie Javonte Williams to rack up 178 scrimmage yards, including 102 on the ground.

The New England Patriots don’t need to win shootouts. This team is built around creating low-scoring games and dominating its opponents in the trenches. No healthy AFC contender has shown it has the toughness or physicality to win this style of football against New England.

As long as a game is close, which seems very likely, New England can keep running the football. McDaniels can also depend on the play-action, trusting a quarterback with a 108.3 passer rating on play-action attempts since Week 7. That same quarterback has the fourth-best completion rate (69.4%) and second-highest passer rating (106.1) during that stretch.

Like it or not, the New England Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC.

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