Photograph: Brian Fluharty/USA Today Sports
It was a long season-and-a-half for the New England Patriots, and the post-Tom Brady era looked bleak. The emergent Bills appeared built to claim the AFC East for years to come while New England, with their rookie quarterback, were set up for a tedious rebuild. But before Pats fans had much time to process what it would be like to lose and lose often, the team started winning. And winning some more. Thursday night’s 25-0 slaughter of the Atlanta Falcons was New England’s fifth win in a row. And thanks to Buffalo’s recent fall from grace, guess who’s back atop the division? (Feel free to imagine a sly-looking Bill Belichick while you read the rest of this article.)
It’s Belichick’s defense that has turned the 7-4 Pats into legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The unit has held its last three opponents (including the Browns and Panthers) to 13 total points. The defense is deep. It is fast. It is physical.
Linebackers Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower are dominant. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger consistently break up passes and make bruising tackles at safety. Undrafted cornerback JC Jackson has been a revelation, especially given the scrutiny he faced as Stephon Gilmore’s replacement. On Thursday night, Jackson held the Falcons to just one catch on three targets for seven yards. No way was this version of the Pats’ defense giving up to 28 points to this version of the Falcons offense. Matt Ryan looked as shell-shocked and beaten down as we’ve ever seen him.
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Mac Jones has matured under center as the season has gone on, and he’s certainly having the most successful year among the rookie quarterbacks. But Jones is still good for a throw or two per game he wishes he could have back and lacks some of the explosive playmaking abilities of the best NFL quarterbacks. Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees did a…