FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Warner on Mac: Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner is attending Monday night’s AFC East showdown between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium (8:15, ESPN), providing analysis for Westwood One’s radio call of the game.
Warner’s presence provides an ideal opportunity to share his insight on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
“I really like him,” Warner said. “I’m a firm believer that if you know what you’re looking at, and know where to get your eyes quickly, and you can make different kinds of throws, you can always be successful as long as your skill set is good enough at whatever level you’re playing.
“You saw it for 20 years with Tom [Brady]. He knew what to look at. He knew how to get the ball out of his hands. He knew exactly where to throw it. And that’s exactly what I see with this young kid.”
Jones, the 15th overall pick in the 2021 draft out of Alabama, is 268-of-381 for 2,850 yards, with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season.
“Sometimes he might get to his check-down a little too fast, but he’s a rookie,” Warner said. “Even if it’s getting a check-down for 4 [yards], and passing up a play for 12, you can live with that. … People want to compare him to who Tom Brady was in ’01. He’s doing more for this team, and playing better than Tom Brady did in ’01.
“To me, that’s the compliment you’re looking for. Is he Tom Brady? No. Is he one of the best guys in the league? No. But … what he’s doing at such an early stage, and playing within himself and understanding he can win that way, that’s impressive. There are guys that have been in the league a long time that don’t see the field and understand their reads like he does.”
Warner is curious to see how Jones grows over time.
“We’ve seen him make some really good throws, but I don’t know what his upside is. I’ve always believed at some point that you have to consistently make these off-platform throws, or throws when guys are in your face and you’re in different places, and some guys can physically do that and some guys can’t,” he said. “That … kind of determines, to me, how good a guy like Mac can be. Will he get to the point that he becomes a Tom Brady, who can carry a team with his right arm? That’s yet to be seen.”
2. Dugger’s void: Possibly because he is so soft-spoken, Patriots second-year safety Kyle Dugger doesn’t generate a lot of media attention despite his growing impact on the defense (team-high 75 tackles). So it was no surprise the significance of his placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week — and the growing likelihood of his absence Monday night — seemed underplayed to me over the last five days. The Patriots are one of only two teams in the NFL to have three primary safeties (Devin McCourty, Dugger, Adrian Phillips) average more than 80% playing time, which reflects how the three-safety package is their base personnel (Washington is the other). The drop off after that trio — with Myles Bryant likely the next safety up, and then Joejuan Williams bumping to the third corner spot in Bryant’s place — seems major. Especially against a pass-first team like the Bills.
3. Rare stakes: How unusual is Monday’s Patriots-Bills game based on what’s at stake? Primarily because of the Patriots’ prior two-decade domination in the AFC East, this is just the third Patriots game in December or later under coach Bill Belichick where the winner is guaranteed to take over first place in the division. The Patriots won the previous two — 2001 vs. the Miami Dolphins and 2010 vs. the New York Jets.
4. Van Noy’s disruption: Kyle Van Noy leads all NFL linebackers in pass breakups (13) and completion percentage allowed (57%) as the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That reflects how he’s had a solid season in his return to the Patriots. Van Noy plays, and sometimes talks, with an edge — with one example coming last week when he said of his 2020 season in Miami: “I think something a lot of people don’t realize is that I’ve gone somewhere else and played at a high level, even though people don’t think I did.”
5. UDFA traits: CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn highlighted the Patriots’ success with undrafted free agents during last Sunday’s Patriots-Titans broadcast (e.g. cornerback J.C. Jackson), relaying four traits he said came up in his preparation for the game. What do the Patriots look for in UDFAs? According to Washburn, the top four traits are speed, quickness, competitiveness and instincts.
6. Low-scoring battle?: The Patriots and Bills are the top two scoring defenses in the NFL, which makes Monday’s game the sixth prime-time matchup in Week 13 or later to feature the league’s top two scoring defenses (since the 1970 merger). It’s the first since the 49ers-Seahawks matchup in Week 16 of the 2012 season. Linebacker Matthew Judon used the word “transform” when asked what defines the Patriots’ defense — in the sense that it can morph into different forms based on how offenses are attacking.
7. Henry-Knox connection: With seven touchdown receptions apiece, Hunter Henry (Patriots) and Dawson Knox (Bills) are tied for most in the NFL among tight ends this season. They will share the same field on Monday night, but it won’t be the first time they have done so this year. They attended the offseason “TE University” organized by George Kittle. “He’s from Nashville, so that was right there in his neck of the woods,” Henry said. “Great dude, and it’s awesome to his success.”
8. Brown’s injury: The Patriots offensive line is at its best when veteran Trent Brown is at right tackle, but his right calf ailment remains an issue. He’s battling through it, acknowledging last week, “Some days are better than others. It’s all right.” Brown wasn’t his usual dominating self in the win against the Titans, which could have been injury-related.
9. Protecting Nordin: The Patriots seemed to strategically time their decision to waive undrafted kicker Quinn Nordin last week so he wouldn’t be claimed, and they could bring him back on the practice squad to develop him as their possible future option. They couldn’t have certainty it would happen, but waiting until Wednesday when most teams were deep into their preparations on a game week increased the likelihood Nordin would slide through. Smart business.
10. Did You Know: With one more victory, the Patriots will clinch their 35th season with a winning record since the 1970 merger. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (37) have more, followed by the Patriots, Dallas Cowboys (33), Minnesota Vikings (31), Dolphins (31) and Denver Broncos (29).