FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — This past Friday, Bill Belichick was asked about the growing identity of the New England Patriots. On the outside, the identity seemed clear and a bit of a throwback: The Pats play good defense, they run the ball, they manage their young quarterback and don’t ask him to carry the team.
Belichick had a simpler answer: “I’d like for our identity to be winning.”
Of course, that has been the case for Belichick and the Patriots for two decades — and it is the case again, during the six-game winning streak that has propelled New England to the top of the AFC East and in the race for the top seed in the conference. But it is what Belichick said after that savable quote that explains how the Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans, 36-13, and what makes them so dangerous. Belichick mused about games of the past when the Pats had to play with an empty backfield and throw the ball all day.
“It’s hard to just go out there and run the same play all day in this league and be successful,” Belichick said on Friday. “There are just too many other good players and too many other good coaches. There’s a way to stop everything. It’s when you have to kind of handle everything, those are really the bigger problems.”
The point was obvious: You do what you’ve got to do, and you hope you have the players and the ability to handle whatever an opponent throws at you. The best identity is winning, yes. Second-best is flexibility.
The Patriots have it. They gave up 270 rushing yards, their season-high and more than they had yielded in the last three games combined. They rushed for just 105 yards — only 23 in the first half — their fewest since the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in Week 4. They were inefficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just two of their five opportunities. They asked for big plays from Mac Jones, who finished with 310 yards, a career high for the rookie quarterback. None of that is how New England wants to play on a regular basis.
The constant: Their pass defense has been stellar — and it was again, holding Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to 11 completions for 93 yards and a 1-yard touchdown. The Pats also forced Tannehill to throw one brutal interception in the end zone early in the fourth quarter, when the Titans could’ve made it a one-score game.
“See ball, get ball,” said J.C. Jackson, who made the interception off a Devin McCourty deflection.
This game was uncharacteristic for the Patriots. Obviously, they’d rather not see the aforementioned deficiencies — particularly the gashing of the run defense — repeated. But for the rest of the league, the result in the face of some of those unsightly statistics looks like something else entirely: a mounting threat. New England bailed itself out of trouble over and over, forcing four turnovers, three of them when the Titans were already in Patriots territory. And the Pats were able to lean more on Jones and the offense, which got points on eight of 10 drives before a final kneeldown. They did what good teams have to do: win when you’re not at your best. And they were exactly what Belichick hoped they were: a group that was able to adapt to what the Titans did to find a different way to win.
“They tried to take it away,” Jones said of the running game. “We need to be able to do both at all times: throwing, running, screens.”
The Patriots have had a remarkable recovery from a 1-3 start. And in knocking off the Titans — who had been the AFC’s top seed coming into the game, although they are missing their three biggest offensive weapons, with injuries sidelining Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones — they continued their assault on expectations. The free agency spending spree that netted pass rusher Matt Judon, among others, the draft day decisions — they have changed New England dramatically and quickly. With no superstar quarterback — yet — the Patriots instead are relying on balance and a grind-it-out mentality in a wide-open conference. It is a significant personality change that has allowed them to compensate for a down day in one area with a strong performance in another. During the win streak, they are outscoring opponents 211-63, about as clear an indication of the brand of complementary football that is fetishized around here.
That is especially important now, as the Patriots head into the stretch of games that will determine their season. They play the Bills in Week 13’s Monday night game, and then, following the bye, they face the Colts and the Bills again. Buffalo doesn’t have a particularly potent rushing attack, but Indianapolis does. The Colts’ defense is in the middle of the pack, but the Bills’ unit is among the league’s best. The Pats will be challenged in different ways in the coming weeks, and if they make the playoffs. What they showed Sunday is the last thing opponents wanted to see.
New England’s identity is usefully malleable, and awfully familiar.
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