New England Patriots

Let’s say everything goes perfectly for Mac Jones next season.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say Jones and Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien click immediately. They get the most out of their pass-catchers. Pass protection improved. Turnovers down. Jones very good.

He’s still at best the fourth-best quarterback in the conference.

Or could it be fifth-best?

  • L-R: Patriots quarterback Mac Jones; Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (Getty Images)

    L-R: Patriots quarterback Mac Jones; Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (Getty Images)

  • The Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, and Buffalo Bills rightfully get the most attention of all AFC teams, and should generally be projected as the clear top-3 teams heading into 2023. But take even those teams out of it. The Patriots are obviously far behind those teams. Are they even close to the Jacksonville Jaguars?

    This is a new era for New England football. The Jaguars are not the doormat they often were against the Tom Brady-era Patriots, and the Patriots no longer have well you know. So you are firmly living in the past if you scoff at the Trevor Lawrence Jags or dismiss them as inferior to the Patriots. That person may not exist, so that could be a straw man. But if they do, they need to get with the times.

    Let’s start with the obvious. Lawrence was the No. 1 overall pick in Jones’ draft class, and considered the best prospect in years, and he’s starting to show why. He shepherded the Jaguars to the playoffs in his second season, after posting a 104.6 passer rating over his last nine games, throwing 15 touchdowns to just two interceptions in that span. In the Wild Card round against the Chargers, he responded to a four-interception first half with four touchdowns in the final 30-plus minutes to complete an epic comeback win, including a game-winning field goal drive at the end of the fourth quarter. The size, arm talent, and mobility pop off the screen.

    It’s fair to say that Lawrence has arrived. And it’s not an insult to say he’s simply better than Jones. So the Pats haveĀ that to overcome.

  • KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - NOVEMBER 13: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars talks to teammates during the second quarter of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

    KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – NOVEMBER 13: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars talks to teammates during the second quarter of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

  • Still, there are other ways to win football games, other than just having the best quarterback – the Chiefs’ latest Super Bowl win notwithstanding. The Patriots could improve enough to compete with the class of the conference, certainly with the Jaguars, if they improve the team around Jones.

    But the Patriots have work to do in that area, too. They have a solid group of pass-catchers, but lack the dynamic options found in Kansas City, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and now Jacksonville. The Jags had a comparable pass-catching group to the Patriots last season, but now they will add former Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley to the mix, once he’s reinstated after sitting out 2022 for a gambling-related suspension. No Patriot can say they’ve ever had a season as productive as Ridley’s 2020 campaign: 90 catches, 1,374 yards, and nine touchdowns in 15 games.

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  • The Jaguars also had the luxury of solid offensive line play in front of Lawrence during the 2022 season. That has a chance to change dramatically, with talented right tackle Jawaan Taylor on track for free agency. Taylor is a great fit for the Patriots, if they want to get aggressive on the open market, and taking him away from one of their top rivals for a playoff spot would be a nice swing for Bill Belichick.

    But the Jags could simply franchise Taylor, or re-sign him, and bring back the same starting offensive line for 2023. That’s continuity. The Patriots’ roster-building and staff over the past three seasons have had basically the opposite of continuity.

    You may ask, “Oh, the same Jaguars team that came into Foxboro in 2021 and lost 50-10, and missed the playoffs while the Patriots made it?!” Those are factual statements, but a flawed argument. This isn’t the Urban Meyer Jaguars. Doug Pederson has most certainly played his own role in the turnaround down there. If you think Pederson just sucks, don’t make me bring up that he beat Belichick in a Super Bowl sorry too late. Now just isn’t the time to question Pederson’s credentials, after the way Belichick’s coaching staff decisions torpedoed the season.

  • PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 17: Head coach Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles shakes hands with head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots after the game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 17, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 17-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    PHILADELPHIA, PA – NOVEMBER 17: Head coach Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles shakes hands with head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots after the game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 17, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 17-10. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

  • Things can change quickly from season-to-season in the NFL, as the Patriots and Jaguars’ past two seasons have illustrated. Free Agency isn’t for another few weeks. The draft is about two months away. Belichick has plenty of time to catch up to the Jags, and ideally, pass them and set his sights on the Bills in the AFC East.

    But realistically, the AFC East is still the Bills’ division to lose, so the Patriots’ target for 2023 is a wild card spot. They’re looking at snagging a seed in the 5-7 range. They’ll be competing with one out of the Jaguars and Titans, not to mention the Dolphins and Ravens and Chargers. Maybe the Jets, Raiders, and Broncos bounce back, too. Point is, it’s getting quite crowded in the AFC.

    Seeding aside, the Patriots should be worried about where they currently stand in the overall hierarchy of the AFC. Because even if 2023 all goes according to plan, it would be shocking if they were in the same class as the Chiefs, Bills, or Bengals. And Jacksonville stands in their way, possibly everyone’s way, of getting to that coveted No. 4 spot.

    They may catch up yet. But reinforcements are needed. This is the reality of the new Patriots.

  • PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 19: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks to Mac Jones #10 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    PHILADELPHIA, PA – AUGUST 19: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks to Mac Jones #10 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first half of the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 19, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 35-0. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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    Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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