New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) on the field against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

For a second there, it looked like the New England Patriots were about to pull off the upset of the year, and really pick up some momentum to close their otherwise-disappointing 2023 season on a high note. Late in the second half they had a 10-7 lead on the Kansas City Chiefs, but things quickly turned form there.

Kansas City executed a textbook two-minute drill, taking a 14-10 lead at halftime. That touchdown was the first of four consecutive scoring drives for the Chiefs, who put up 20 unanswered points on their way to a 27-17 win on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.


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It was the second week in a row the Patriots struggled in the second half. Last week against the Steelers they were blanked after the break, but still managed to hold on for the win. Against a much more explosive Chiefs team this week, that wasn’t the case as the second half has suddenly become the latest boogeyman for a team that has been haunted by a number of issues throughout the season.

Between all of that, it really was a game of ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ for the Patriots. Let’s go through it all in this week’s takeaways…

  • A tale of two Zappes

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots attempts a pass during the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots attempts a pass during the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Once again, it was a tale of two halves for Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe. After looking excellent through the first 30 minutes, he looked like a completely different player coming out of the locker room.

    Zappe started Sunday’s game playing as well as he ever has in his NFL career. This week’s first half replaced last week’s first half in that regard, as he completed 17-of-19 passes for 141 yards with an excellent throw to Hunter Henry for a play-action touchdown on 4th & 2. He looked confident and in command, and seemed to have the Patriots in position to hang with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

    However, that feeling didn’t last long. On the first play of the second half he tossed an interception on a play where he threw blindly up the sideline while facing pressure. From there he continued to spray the ball and was strip-sacked as well (although the Patriots recovered). Over the final 30 minutes he was 6-of-12 for 39 yards with the pick.

    This issue isn’t new for Zappe – he’s struggled in the second half all season. It’s tough to tell whether that’s an issue of him getting too comfortable, losing focus, the play-calling changing, or opponents adjusting. In reality, it’s probably a combination of all of those reasons.

    At times on Sunday he certainly started to look sped up as he dealt with pressure from the Chiefs’ defensive front. In total he was sacked four times and hit six more. After the game, Zappe told reporters there were some blitzes he struggled to identify.

    Whatever the reason, Zappe needs to work through it. He’s showing in the first half of these games he can lead an offense, but no team is going to give him a chance to do that full time until he proves he can do it for a full 60 minutes.

  • Big receivers make big plays

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes the touchdown catch against Kansas City Chiefs safety Mike Edwards (21) in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes the touchdown catch against Kansas City Chiefs safety Mike Edwards (21) in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    When Bailey Zappe did have it going in the first half he mainly looked towards the Patriots’ two biggest targets – wide receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Hunter Henry. That duo accounted for 12 of the Patriots’ 23 receptions, and 110 of the team’s 180 receiving yards.

    On multiple occasions, Parker used his length to create windows for Zappe to throw the ball over the middle away from defenders. He also bailed Zappe out in the second quarter, fighting back through two defenders to a ball that was short, due to Zappe throwing off his back foot under pressure.

    Parker finished the game with five catches for 44 yards. His chemistry with Zappe remains apparent.

    As for Henry, the Chiefs couldn’t stick with him. He got open over the middle time and time again, with Zappe finding him regularly. He caught seven of his nine targets for 66 yards – both team-highs – and caught Zappe’s lone touchdown. However he took a beating doing so, and left the game early due to injury. His status is one to monitor moving forwards.

  • Running to nowhere

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: Chamarri Conner #27, Charles Omenihu #90, and Nick Bolton #32 all of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: Chamarri Conner #27, Charles Omenihu #90, and Nick Bolton #32 all of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    In November the Patriots’ rushing attack was playing as well as it had all season. Teams seem to be keying in on the run more and more now, and the results are reflecting that.

    On Sunday the Patriots ran for just 3.3 yards per carry. That’s their fourth-lowest total of the year, just up 0.1 yards from last week’s number. The Patriots seemed to anticipate that added attention to the run game, with their 16 carries a new season-low. For the second week in a row Ezekiel Elliott handled the majority of the workload with 11 carries for 25 yards.

    Of course, injuries on the offensive line didn’t help the cause. Trent Brown didn’t play in this game, and Cole Strange left early with a knee injury. The Chiefs won the push up front, leaving the Patriots without much room to run.

    The Patriots already figured out how to reenergize their run game once this season. They’ll likely need to do it again down the stretch.

    One bright spot for the run game? Second-year back Kevin Harris. Harris has spent the entire season on the Patriots’ practice squad. He was elevated for the first time last week following Rhamondre Steveson’s ankle injury, but didn’t play. This week not only did he get into the game, but on his second carry of the year ran 18 yards for a touchdown on a day rushing yards were tough to come by. That’s a testament to his ability to stay ready, even when not in the game plan. Outside of Harris’ touchdown run, the Patriots averaged 2.67 yards per carry.

  • Late game lack of tempo

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    While it may have been a longshot, the Patriots did have a chance to win this game late. After Harris’ touchdown and a stop by the defense the Patriots got the ball back – although with 99 yards to go after a strong punt – down 10 with 4:00 left on the clock and one timeout left.

    Realistically the Patriots could have tried to push the ball, then onside kicked to set up a game-tying score. Instead they ran the ball on the first two plays, huddling up in between each. Four minutes remaining quickly ticked down to 2:39, when the Patriots turned the ball over on downs.

    Despite that the Patriots got the ball back as the Chiefs made the unusual decision to kneel on fourth down, giving the ball back to New England with 35 seconds to play. Again, the Patriots sat on the ball, running one play to kill the clock.

    After the game, Bill Belichick cited injuries on the offensive line as the main reason the team wasn’t more aggressive in the fourth quarter. “At that point we had lost three starters. Worried about the pass protection. Worried about being able to execute in that situation,” he said, referencing an earlier drive when the Patriots punted on a 4th & 3 from their own 42 with 14:50 to go in a then-17-point game. It stands to reason that logic would carry over to the later fourth quarter drives as well.

    Even so, it’s not the first time the Patriots have been overly-conservative in the fourth quarter of a close game this year. They did so in the fourth quarter of a tied game against the Giants as well.

    That approach is being noticed by the players. After the game Ezekiel Elliott said he would have like to see the team play with more tempo in the second half, before adding “that’s not up to me.”

  • Defensive front shines again

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots sacks Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots sacks Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    On to the defense, where it was another strong game for the Patriots’ defensive front. They held the Chiefs to just 2.2 yards per carry, and did a relatively good job containing Patrick Mahomes.

    That effort was led by Christian Barmore, the third-year defensive tackle who continues to run away as the team MVP for the year. Barmore hit Mahomes twice, and picked up a sack. He also had the pressure that led to the interception from rookie Marte Mapu – the first of his career. That interception notably came with Mapu playing at the second level. A linebacker in college, the Patriots have mainly played Mapu at safety to this point, but got results when moving him up into the box. We’ll look to see if he gets more chances in that role down the stretch.

    The other player that stood out from the front in this game was linebacker Mack Wilson. Wilson had a sack, as well as a pass breakup. Now in his second year in the Patriots’ system he’s starting to show his true sideline-so-sideline ability, which has helped the Patriots tremendously against adlib quarterbacks like Mahomes.

  • Keeping Kelce in check

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts after catching a first down during the third quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs reacts after catching a first down during the third quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Coming into this game it seemed pretty clear that the Patriots were going to try their best to lock down tight end Travis Kelce, and force Patrick Mahomes to win throwing the ball elsewhere. The first part worked – Kelce was limited to just five catches for 28 yards, with his 5.6 yards per catch being his second-lowest of the season. He also dropped a touchdown with closing contact from Kyle Dugger.

    However, the team got beat elsewhere. In particular rookie Rashee Rice continued his emergence as Mahomes’ new top secondary target. A second-round pick out of SMU, Rice caught all nine of his targets for 91 yards and a score. He led all players in the game in both receptions and receiving yards.

  • J.C. Jackson sits

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney (19) is tackled by New England Patriots cornerback Alex Austin (28) at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney (19) is tackled by New England Patriots cornerback Alex Austin (28) at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s been a year of mysterious personnel moves for the Patriots, with the latest coming on Sunday. Despite not appearing on the injury report and being active for the game, cornerback J.C. Jackson did not play. He was not on the sideline for most of the game, and may not have been on the field for warm-ups (which happen after inactives are released).

    After the game, Bill Belichick confirmed Jackson “wasn’t available” but didn’t get into any detail beyond that. Rookie Alex Austin, who was signed by the team in early November, told reporters after the game he found out he’d be starting in Jackson’s place prior to the game.

    It was a mixed performance by Austin in relief. He had a couple of good coverage plays on Rice, but was called for two costly penalties including a hold that wiped out a second half Jabrill Peppers fumble recovery.

    As for Jackson, his play has slipped in recent weeks prior to his benching. Given there is no guaranteed money on his contract behind this year, his long-term status with the team is worth monitoring.

  • Special teams, the good

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Jalen Reagor (83) returns the ball during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Jalen Reagor (83) returns the ball during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Yes, we have a positive special teams takeaway this week! That goes to returner Jalen Reagor, who took over the role after Ty Montgomery was cut this week. Reagor was credited with a 40-yard kick return, and had another 46-yard return on the opening kickoff wiped out by a penalty (we’ll get to that).

    Overall, the Patriots have had one of the worst kickoff return units to this point in the season. It was nice to see Reagor give them a spark, and he should return to that role again next week.

  • Special teams, the bad

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Chad Ryland (37) tries for a field goal during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Chad Ryland (37) tries for a field goal during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Jalen Reagor’s returns were two good plays, but it was hardly a perfect special teams day for the Patriots. Brenden Schooler committed his fifth penalty of the year on the opening kickoff, and now has more penalties on his own than the entire rosters of the Eagles (3) and Chargers (4).

    Rookie Chad Ryland missed another field goal, this time from 41 yards. He was 1-for-2 on the game. There was also another near punt block, but Bryce Baringer managed to get the ball off.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].

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