Bill Belichick once again turns the Patriots into an unlikely contender

In a brutally low scoring game, New England Patriots returnee Marcus Jones ran a punt back 84 yards for a touchdown with five seconds left. And Bill Belichick’s team earned a 10-3 win over Robert Saleh’s New York Jets.

Perhaps the Jets knew how well Jones returned in college and seemed content to poke the ball wide on the previous two punts. But for some reason, New York gave Jones a chance at the last minute. And he made the best of it.

Landing. Game over. New England only had to toast to kill the remaining seconds.

“It doesn’t matter to me if we lose by one or a hundred,” Saleh said. “They are all gut punches. it’s a loss Yes, it’s a shitty way to lose. You feel like from a defensive standpoint you’re trading shots with both teams and someone could just take a play and take it into overtime. They made a game and we didn’t.”

Somehow, the Patriots should be happy with what they did in their Week 11 win over the Jets. Yes, the game was just as much a snoozer as the score shows, with the exception of that last game. That doesn’t mean the Patriots haven’t accomplished a few things in the process.

In fact, Belichick appears to be threatening to do what he always does: make a second-half push for the playoffs. Even without a ton of talent in this roster, Belichick appears to be turning his team, now 6-4 and winners of five of their last six games, into a contender.

Quarterback Mac Jones looked the best he hadn’t all year despite rough play calls from Matt Patricia. And the defense looked as good as they looked all year, despite Jets quarterback Zach Wilson’s fairly controlled play. Make no mistake, Wilson looked like he was watching a horror movie while attempting to read Belichick’s defense. But instead of forcing the ball down and giving up the ball, Wilson consistently checked down.

It was the opposite of a quarterback duel. Rather than engage in a shootout between passersby, it was a chicken game to see which QB would flinch first. Which QB would throw a game-winning interception? Or cough up a brutal fumble? Wilson almost had two or three turnovers, but only almost. He didn’t put any on the stat sheet, so the Patriots needed points from their special teams to finish this one.

Jones finished the game 23 of 26 for 246 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions with six sacks. Wilson was 9-of-22 for 77 yards with three carries for 26 yards. He picked up three sacks and had no touchdowns.

The game seemed like a farce at times. The Jets, for example, managed to generate just six first downs. They had total offense for two years in the second half. They poked 10 times. And that ignores all re-kicks. Due to penalties, the Jets have had to attempt a punt in three straight games. (And then they had to try another punt twice later in the game.)

It was as exciting as it sounded.

“It was dog—,” Saleh said of his team’s performance in the second half.

But back to the good: New England’s search for its identity. The Patriots’ defense was as sensational as the goal line showed. No, the Jets aren’t among the best offensive players in the NFL, but they were averaging 21.8 points per game going into this game. It was an achievement for New England to completely eliminate any semblance of offense to New York. Edge rusher Matthew Judon led the way with two sacks. He’s already set a new career record at 13.5 this season and should be a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year awards.

“If we play well on defense it would be frustrating to go on offense but I wouldn’t know,” said Judon. “They got out there trying to get their stuff done, but our defense … was up to the task.”

But that’s what we expected from the defense of New England. They had to shut down Wilson — maybe with even more sales thrown into the mix. What I didn’t expect was QB Jones’ clean display against the New York defence.

This is a defense that elicited two interceptions from Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen in Week 9. And before that, the Jets forced Jones to an interception.

It was clear that if Jones was to win back the support of the Patriots organization, he had to start playing smart, turnoverless football — even against the NFL’s best defenses. He did that on Sunday. He also had the efficiency of his rookie season with an 85% completion rate.

“We moved the ball well today,” said Jones. “That’s a fact. And we have to be able to move the ball through that edge [from the 30-yard line into the end zone].”

“Of course we want to score more than three points. It’s not good enough so we need to look at it and see what we can do better. It’s kind of the same story. We will find out, but it takes time and implementation.”

Of course, Jones should take a step forward in this offense. He should continue to develop as a downfield passer. But that didn’t happen. And something worse happened: he became vulnerable to sales. He fell back, with just two touchdowns, to his five interceptions in the first four weeks of the season. For Jones to progress, he had to at least get back to his level of play from his rookie season. And he did that against the Jets. And honestly, his playcaller Matt Patricia kept fighting.

On the one hand, he implemented a successful formation: the full house. Patricia brought his tight ends (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) into the backfield with a running back. That helped open the running game and game action game. Smith managed a 26-yard reception from this formation. Damien Harris hit a 30-yard carry. These two games were the longest of the game of scrimmage. And that made life easier for Jones.

On the other hand, Patricia performed a shotgun handover in fourth- and third-place finishes in the third quarter with an outer-zone-style locking scheme that New England had struggled to implement since training camp. Why did he expect it to work on one of the most crucial downs of the season? Everyone’s guess.

Then there was the problematic offensive sequence near the two-minute warning when the Patriots got an eight-yard pickup on the first down. Second and second, they ran a QB sneak usually reserved for situations when the offense needs a yard. And they have a yard. So, in third and first place, they certainly executed another QB sneak, right? TO THE RIGHT?! NOT CORRECT! They suffered a two-yard loss on a run by Rhamondre Stevenson. And they had to prick.

“We moved the ball. We had some good games, but not enough and not enough consistency, ”said Belichick about the offensive in general. “We couldn’t get the ball into the end zone. We couldn’t get the ball close enough and often enough for our chances. We had too many negative games: saving penalties, sacks. And that was a combination of things. I just have to do a better job up front.

Warts aside, the Patriots might finally have something. In an NFL struggling to rack up points league-wide, New England may have found a recipe for success that works. There is still uncertainty. But when the Patriots want a real test, they get it: the Minnesota Vikings. Let’s see if Belichick’s identity works on Thanksgiving night against one of the NFL’s truly elite teams.

Before joining FOX Sports as an AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna covered the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media for seven years. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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