When looking back at the 2021 season, Aug. 31 has proven to be one of the more pivotal days for this iteration of the New England Patriots.
It was then where Bill Belichick stunned the NFL by deciding to cut the previous year’s starter in Cam Newton and effectively handed the keys of the organization over to rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Given that Newton had spent the bulk of the summer working with the first-team offense, that changing of the guard, while inevitable, was quite a last-second reveal.
As Jones rapidly ascended to QB1, measuring sticks were dusted off, predictions and hot takes abound, and questions about how far Bill Belichick would be able to take a rookie-led team engulfed Foxborough.
Had someone told you then that Jones and the Patriots would proceed to win 10 games, contend for the division title, and make the playoffs, but ultimately lose in the opening round, most of the region would nod their heads with satisfaction, if not delight.
However, what that looks like on paper and how things ultimately unfolded proved to be two different things.
Sure, the realistic expectation when Jones was named the starter was for New England was for the young quarterback to show promise, while the team contends. While those boxes were largely checked, the Patriots’ late-season collapse over the final weeks of the year — which crescendoed with a bludgeoning at the hands of the Buffalo Bills — leaves a sour taste in what otherwise was a productive year based on our initial expectation.
As the Patriots hit the Week 14 bye, they not only stood in the first place of the AFC East, but they were also the No. 1 seed in the entire AFC. That’s where the expectations for this team were correctly elevated to possibly embarking on a deep playoff run, which is an endeavor that they fell remarkably short of.
The bye proved to be a momentum killer for New England, who limped to a 1-3 record to end the regular season and saw them fall out of the top seed and first place in the division. Sluggish starts on offense, uninspired play defensively, and uncharacteristically foolish sequences on special teams plagued the team down the stretch and reared its head in Saturday’s loss to Buffalo.
Following the bye, the Patriots were outscored 52-7 in the first quarter with that lone score coming in their Week 17 rout of the Jaguars, who were the worst team in the NFL in 2021. If you were to eliminate that game against Jacksonville, the Patriots defense played 111 total series post-bye that did not include kneel-downs. 101 of those drives (91%) ended with a first down, touchdown, or field goal attempt. Just 10 drives (9%) ended with a punt or turnover (h/t Tucker Boynton).
Of course, this playoff loss to Buffalo was the most jarring. The 47 points scored by the Bills were the most ever scored against Bill Belichick in the playoffs, Josh Allen threw more touchdowns (5) than incompletions (4), and Buffalo became the first team in the Super Bowl era to not punt or attempt a field goal in a playoff game as they scored touchdowns on all seven of their drives (excluding kneel-downs).
Given how New England failed to show up in that playoff loss and played down the stretch, it’s difficult to look at the positives. Yes, this team did exceed what our initial expectations were for them back in the summer, but once they showed us in-season what their ceiling was, it’s also fair to say that the 2021 campaign ended in disappointing fashion.