The Patriots missed postseason football by one game. What went wrong?

The+New+England+Patriots+logo.

Illustration by Cherilyn Kim

The New England Patriots logo.

By Aidan Crooke

On Jan. 8, the Patriots had their final chance to punch their ticket to the playoffs against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, New York. The Pats’ season relied on beating the Bills and riding into the playoffs as a dark horse candidate for Super Bowl LVII. The first kickoff, however, showed that the Patriots weren’t ready for the Super Bowl in their current state.

After week two, I assessed the Patriots’ offensive situation going into their matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. At that time, Mac Jones was the team’s offensive leader, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick still had a “phantom” offensive coordinator, and no one thought that Bailey Zappe would step up and spark a quarterback controversy around Thanksgiving—I, like many, hadn’t heard of Zappe before he came in for Jones after an injury against Baltimore that same week.

To say this season wasn’t the expected outcome in the post-Brady era of Patriots football would be an understatement. This season’s roster lent the rest of the NFL an unprecedented comfortability around the previously-feared Patriots.

The Pats had a schedule against teams widely viewed as major offensive threats—the Miami Dolphins, Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ravens. The end result? The Patriots would avenge their loss against the Dolphins in Foxborough during Week 17, but they couldn’t beat the powerhouse Bengals or the middling Raiders. The Patriots lost each game by a four-to-six-point margin, so they weren’t rolling over during their games but were not as invincible as the league once thought.

The Patriots’ baffling final play against the Raiders in Week 15 was a clearly missed opportunity. In what was supposed to be a typical lateral-heavy play to better their odds of getting a win, Jakobi Meyers threw back a lateral aiming for Mac Jones, only to end up in the hands of former Patriot and current Raider Chandler Jones, sealing a Patriots loss in the desert. 

The easy decision would have been to play for overtime and hopefully win the coin toss, but the Patriots decided to go big or go home on that final play—gambling with what should have been a “gimme” win. 

Jones was the initiator for that game-sealing play against the Raiders, and his inability to make progress in his second year demonstrated cause for concern in the front office. His performance against the Raiders was a damning example of this—Jones threw for 112 yards with a 41.9 completion percentage. His abysmal quarterback rating of 52.1 was the second-lowest QB rating he’s achieved this season: his lowest came against the Chicago Bears in Week 7 when he threw just 13 yards and an interception before getting benched for Zappe. Jones’ final QB rating in that game? 16.7. 

The Patriots’ missing the postseason isn’t all on Jones, though. Four out of their nine losses ended within a touchdown with one overtime loss against the Green Bay Packers in Week 4 after failed stops from the defense and empty offensive possessions. 

Another factor to the Patriots’ offense of not performing to expectations was their third down conversion rate. In 2022, the Patriots only managed to convert 34.88 percent on third down, ranking 27th according to TeamRankings. Compared to similar teams in the league standings, Tampa Bay would rank 19th in third-down conversions at 38.64 percent—nearly a four percent difference while still sporting the same season record as the Patriots at 8-9.

So if you’re Pats CEO Robert Kraft and Belichick, how can you resolve these issues? We’re beginning to see answers from the front office with the hiring of former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien as the Patriots’ new offensive coordinator and QB coach. The front office also brought in Adrian Klemm, who was the offensive line coach at the University of Oregon. Mac Jones has some help if he remains in New England and could even get a new passing option in TCU’s Wide Receiver Quentin Johnston, who is slated to go to the Patriots with the 19th pick in CBS’ 2023 NFL mock draft.

This isn’t O’Brien’s first run in New England—he was previously on the coaching staff between 2007 and 2011 and helped guide the Patriots to two AFC championships and Super Bowl appearances, both of which resulted in upset losses to the New York Giants and an averted perfect season. 

If you wanted to describe this Patriots season, the best word is “unpredictable.” What is certain is that the new era of Patriots football will certainly be a bit more vulnerable to underperforming compared to the glory days of Brady and Belichick.