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New England Patriots

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 18: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts during the game against the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Good tidings from a Sunday of mostly favorable outcomes elsewhere following two wins in five days had put the New England Patriots in first place and prompted many of them to spend the past week speaking in the true spirit of the season.

Gratitude. Selflessness. Kinship.

These were along with, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, great debates over side dishes and desserts among the themes apropos of Thanksgiving that echoed from players at the press-room podium and teammates Zooming on desktops and laptops.

Some to speak were the same Patriots who in mid-October professed to be better than what their 2-4 record said they were, while promising that a brewing off-field chemistry would soon bubble into a consistently winning formula.

A month later, their words, which could have been interpreted at the time as lip service, have instead been substantiated. The Pats have gone from two below to three games above .500, with five consecutive victories by an average margin of 25.0 points.

The chain of AFC events, including losses by Buffalo to Jacksonville and Tennessee to Houston, and a remaining schedule whose degree of difficulty is matched by possibility have conspired to create opportunity.

Titans today. At Buffalo next Monday. The bye week, finally. At Indy. Bills again, only in Foxborough. Then Jacksonville and Miami, home and away, respectively.

  • CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – NOVEMBER 07: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    Meaningful games, all. At the most meaningful time, post-Thanksgiving. A time when, as Bill Belichick always says, football season begins.

    Making them so, following a full offseason of wholesale changes and amid a season that started with four straight home losses, required walking the talking they were — and have continued — doing about unselfishness and togetherness.

    Now that it’s gotten them to this point, even if they can’t all agree about mac n cheese, the Pats are uniformly convinced that the only way forward is to continue a ham-and-egg approach.

    “It took some time,” tight end Hunter Henry says. “We didn’t start like we wanted it to, but we just kept chipping away and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do down the stretch and continue to work hard and not get lax on kind of the details of the things we’ve been doing.”

    With his seven touchdown catches and scores in six of the past eight games, Henry is one of the free-agent newcomers who’s helped the Pats develop a top-10 scoring offense. Averaging 27.3 points per game, they rank sixth.

    Meanwhile, Lawrence Guy, is among several veterans who re-signed as free agents, and has done his part to make New England’s the league’s stingiest scoring defense. Opponents average just 16.1 points per game overall.

    No longer are late-game stops, as they were early on — whether ahead or behind by a little — hard to come by. Nowadays, as evidenced by 19 scoreless series in a row, opponents simply can’t get going.

  • Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA;  New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) reacts after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    “Chemistry is built by what?” Guy asked and answered. “You work through the mistakes. You go through the ups and downs, and that’s what we did on our defense. We went through the ups and downs, ups and downs. We’re still fixing (things) and building better chemistry every week.

    “If you buy into your brotherhood, there’s nothing else that you can’t achieve.”

    As a football family that stayed together, the Pats are playing together. Within each unit, and across all three phases.

    “Everyone in our locker room respects what everyone does to help this team win,” says Nick Folk, who as a 14th-year pro is kicking for his fourth NFL organization and appreciates how even specialists are treated as equals in the Patriots’ locker room. “I think a big part of that is the mantra, ‘Do your job.’ Everyone out there is just doing their part, what that part is for that game or for that week or that year. That’s just the biggest thing.

    “We all try to do our jobs as professionally as we can, as well as we can for the betterment of this team. I think everyone respects that because I respect everyone else for doing whatever they have to do week in, week out, whether you play 70 plays or play one play. Everyone’s got their part to do. It’s kind of how it’s been here in this program for a long time.”

    And, it sounds like, it’s a big reason why the 2021 Pats have come such a long way.

  • Folk Tale

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 15: Nick Folk #6 of the New England Patriots looks on in the rain against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half at Gillette Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Folk spoke to reporters after sharing Thanksgiving and before spending Friday night and Saturday with his wife, Julianne, and the couple’s four children.

    Like many NFL families, the Folks live apart during the season. In their situation, home is the Dallas area, where the kids stick to their school routines and sports schedules while dad continues to ply a trade that for most leads to a peripatetic lifestyle.

    Case in point, Nick Folk.

    He was a Pro Bowler as a rookie with the Cowboys in 2007, but was released by Dallas just three years later. Picked up by the Jets, Folk stayed with New York from 2010-16 before joining Tampa Bay in 2017.

    Injury and inaccuracy — ironically against the Pats in his Buccaneers finale — led to his release. For the better part of the next two years, Folk was out of football. He ventured into commercial real estate, earned his MBA and continued working out at home and a nearby high school.

    Eventually, Folk joined the Arizona Hotshots of the soon-to-be-defunct Alliance of American Football. But the start-up circuit quickly shut down. In April 2019, Folk returned home and waited (hoped) for a call.

    “We kind of had a timeline, my wife and I. We were sticking to it,” Folk says of his then relative ‘tug-of-war’ between the idea of returning to the NFL and thoughts of permanently retiring to life after football. “We weren’t at the end of the rope yet.”

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Nick Folk #6 of the New England Patriots kicks a field goal in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    Still with enough slack, Folk heard from the Patriots midway through the 2019 season. With Kai Forbath struggling as the initial replacement for injured Stephen Gostkowski, Folk reported to Foxborough.

    Three games — and three field goals — in, Folk was sidelined again, undergoing an appendectomy on Thanksgiving. Fortunately, he was back within two weeks and has since held down the job, withstanding numerous challenges (and non-challenges) from veteran and college free agents and even a 2020 draft pick.

    Overall, Folk’s converted 90.4 percent (66-for-73) of his field-goal attempts in 34 game for the Pats. He set a franchise record by making 36 straight tries until a 56-yard near-miss off the left upright vs. Tampa Bay in October.

    Currently, Folk maintains a 46-kick streak inside of 50 yards. He’s also coming off his fourth 4-for-4 performances on the road this season.

    Folk’s family is scheduled to be in the stands on Sunday, but will return to Texas the following day. He doesn’t know yet if they’ll reunite during the bye in a couple of weeks. Traveling will depend on winter weather conditions.

    The season’s separation is hardly ideal, but the Folks are making do. Nick says his kids want him to keep playing and he’s clearly not anywhere near the end of his rope.

    “I’m very thankful that I’m still playing,” Folk said. “I love playing. It’s so much fun to be part of this team, part of this locker room and go out there on Sundays and try to get as many wins as we can for this great fan base.

    “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

  • Footnotes

    Oct 31, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk (6) celebrates with holder Jake Bailey (7) after a field goal against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

    — Folk’s counterpart, Randy Bullock, has kicked for three different teams against the Patriots, but never inside Gillette Stadium. Formerly a Texan, Jet and Bengal, Bullock has made all five field-goal attempts and seven extra-point tries in his 10-year NFL career vs. New England.

    — While the Patriots allowed two blocked punts in their first six games, Tennessee has gone 149 games without blocking a punt. It’s the longest such streak in the NFL, dating to Oct. 11, 2012 vs. Pittsburgh.

    — Titans punter Brett Kern, who was originally signed by Denver in 2008, is expected to appear in his 214th game. As a three-time Pro Bowler, Kern has delivered three punts of at least 61 yards at Gillette Stadium during his career.

    — Should Sunday’s game come down to a made or missed kick, consider that since 2019 the Titans have a league-high nine wins in games decided by three points or fewer. This season the Patriots are 2-2 in such games, including home losses to Miami and Tampa Bay and road wins over Houston and the Los Angeles Chargers.