The Morning After: Are the New England Patriots... good?
They got their swag back in an ugly road win. As Matthew Judon says, "Let’s win the dirty games!" But is Mac Jones trending up? Can the Patriots really catch up to Buffalo? We asked the players...
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The next scene is almost always ignored completely. When a draft pick is so universally mocked, the general public doesn’t care what happens next.
Everyone sure got their laughs in the night of April 28. The New England Patriots were declared a laughingstock for drafting an offensive guard named “Cole Strange” with the 29th overall pick. Because how is a Chattanooga Moc going to close the gap between the Patriots and the new bully in the AFC East that just pounded them 33-21 and 47-17? This was Grade-A proof that Bill Belichick was losing it. Raise your hand if you even knew what in the hell a Moc was.
The decision essentially turned skeptics into doubters. New England was finished.
So, there Strange stood inside the visitor’s locker room on Sept. 18 after his second pro game. Honestly, this 24-year-old looks like a man plucked straight from the mountains of Tennessee. He’s rocking a mustache and a badass Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt and I couldn’t believe he also listens to the best country singer alive: Colter Wall.
The Patriots eked out a 17-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers that was not particularly enjoyable to watch. Neither offense appears ready to spar with the heavy hitters in the AFC. But alert your vision to the trenches — play-in and play-out — and you would’ve seen an ultra, uh, strange sight: this rookie guard absolutely stonewalling one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. One on one, Strange neutralized Steelers’ All-Pro Cam Heyward.
As his teammates clear the locker room, Strange is reminded all about draft weekend. Does any of that ire, that mockery, that total freakout bother him? “No!” he shouts. “I don’t give a shit.”
Surely, it did back then, right? When the Patriots took him? His voice is louder this time.
“No! F--k no! I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ I didn’t give a shit.”
Because this felt like a perfect fit. Immediately.
“The coaches, the guys on the team, it’s all about culture and winning and just playing ball and working your ass off. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I love it.”
That’s been a way of life in New England for two decades. No team has won more.
But with Tom Brady departing in 2020, Belichick officially handpicking his successor (Mac Jones) in 2021 and an uninspiring season opener to this 2022 season, it was fair for all of us to ask one simple question: Are the Patriots finished? The ink was justifiably being put to paper on the obituary of this franchise. Especially with the Buffalo Bills’ hype exploding to an unprecedented level and especially with the Dolphins loading up. Not only is Brady off winning Super Bowls with another franchise, but Belichick was showing far too many signs of football senility. The only person who seemed to draw any logic, any shred of normalcy at all from the decision to hand power to two disastrous head coaches (Joe Judge and Matt Patricia) was seemingly Belichick himself. These two — really? Just give them the orange and baby blue tuxedos already.
Nor did New England add any weaponry of note.
Let’s tap the brakes on re-announcing this team as a contender. Sunday’s win was not pretty. But are they good? The longest-tenured Patriot, special teams ace Matthew Slater, laughs. “Time will tell,” he says. The Patriots did win with a formula they plan to stick to and they’re making zero apologies. Sunday’s win clearly resuscitated life into their season. From the 70-year-old coach to the 24-year-old QB and everyone in-between, there was a distinct confidence permeating through the team afterward.
Maybe a sign of hope in September is what the Patriots needed.
“We have a lot of belief in ourselves but we don’t need to talk about it,” Slater says. “People ask questions like that — and I understand why they ask them — but we’re going to keep staying true to our process. Keep grinding. The thing about this league is that it always sorts itself. … Obituaries have been written a lot about this team. Look, when you have the type of success that we had, people can’t wait to see you fall. That’s the reality.”
Their goal is to win exactly as Strange described.
Slater, who has played 233 games and counting here, believes the bones of this franchise are strong. A win like this serves as a source of calcium for those bones, too.