There’s a notion, and it’s cultivated by the man himself, that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick never answers questions with any depth.
Not everything is “on to Cincinnati.” Sometimes Belichick finds a topic he wants to discuss. It’s understandable why he decided to go on and on about a Devin McCourty interception against the Atlanta Falcons. It was the play that sums up why the Patriots might suddenly be a contender again.
If we knew Belichick’s inner thoughts — he’s never going to share that much — it feels like he’d be absolutely thrilled to be coaching this Patriots defense, which embodies everything he believes in when it comes to team football. And if there’s one play to sum up this defense, which has helped turn the Patriots from a 2-3 team trying to find an identity to a 7-4 squad that suddenly looks as good as anyone in the AFC, it was McCourty’s interception.
Belichick explained after the game that a pick stunt was called with Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley and both got pressure on Matt Ryan. Patriots safety Kyle Dugger got a good jam on the line of Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, which made Ryan pause. Versatile defender Matthew Judon didn’t rush, he dropped into coverage, cutting off another outlet for Ryan.
“Which is just another luxury we have when we have pass rushers who also can provide coverage that changes the rushers we have available,” Belichick explained.
Ryan had to hurry. He tossed one up for grabs under pressure, Devin McCourty cruised under the pass and picked it off.
That one play was a clinic in team defense to Belichick.
“You can give credit to whoever you want on that play,” Belichick said. “Ultimately, Devin’s the one with the guy in the stat book, but the flip side of that is the receivers are covered, the quarterback holds the ball unless somebody gets a sack. Again, it’s good team defense. That’s really what it comes down to.
“If you get 10 good things and one bad one, it’s still not a good play.”
When we talk about the Patriots improving because they’re so well coached, and how pieces that might not fit with other teams are perfect for them, it’s all there in that play. As Belichick said, if one defender makes a mistake, the offense can make a play. With this Patriots defense lately, nobody makes the mistake. The Patriots got a shutout win over the Falcons in Week 11, and look like a classic New England team.
When the Patriots were 2-3 after barely beating the Houston Texans and rookie quarterback Davis Mills, the only reason to believe in a turnaround was Belichick. He’s the greatest coach ever. He’s adding to his resume this season.
It’s not the first time a Patriots season has gone this way. They often use September to work things out. This is the first time they’ve done it with a rookie quarterback though. Mac Jones is coming along because the coaches are putting him in positions to succeed. He’s getting a lot of support from the running game. And it helps to have a defense that might be the best in the NFL.
“That’s something you always have in the back of your mind,” Jones said after the Falcons win. “Just as a quarterback, you know you have a really good defense.”
Every team in the NFL seems up and down this season. Nobody has been reliable. There is one team that has an improving offense and a defense that leads the NFL in points allowed. Belichick is doing it again, with the kind of team that fits his image quite well.
Here are the power rankings following Week 11 of the NFL season:
32. Detroit Lions (0-9-1, Last Week: 31)
When you’re still chasing your first win in mid-November, it’s not a time to get conservative. Lions coach Dan Campbell has been aggressive on fourth down most of this season, then on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter Sunday, trailing 13-7, Campbell opted to kick the field goal. The game ended in a 13-10 loss. Not every decision to take the points is bad, but this one hurts because the Lions should have known their offense wasn’t going to give them many chances.
31. Houston Texans (2-8, LW: 31)
The Texans had 190 yards, which included 2.2 yards per rushing attempt and no play longer than 13 yards, and won at a first-place Titans team. That happens when you force five turnovers. I’m not sure the Texans are any better than we thought before Week 11, but it was a nice win.
30. New York Jets (2-8, LW: 30)
The Jets got 141 yards from rookie receiver Elijah Moore, who continues to improve. Finding building blocks like Moore will be the top priority for the Jets the rest of the season.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8, LW: 29)
K’Lavon Chaisson has 24 tackles, four quarterback hits and one sack this season. On Sunday, the biggest impact he had on the game was a roughing the passer penalty that set up a 49ers touchdown. Chaisson was the 20th overall pick in 2020 and has two sacks in 26 games. But, with all things Jaguars, you have to wonder if the coaching staff knows how to use him before writing him off.
28. Atlanta Falcons (4-6, LW: 25)
Mike Davis came into the season as the Falcons’ unquestioned starter at running back, and he hasn’t delivered. He has 86 yards on 29 carries over Atlanta’s last five games. On Thursday night, when the Falcons needed some spark on offense, he had one yard on three carries. Davis had a good season with Carolina last season and his struggles this season have been surprising.
27. New York Giants (3-7, LW: 27)
Should the Giants keep anyone? Among general manager Dave Gettleman, coach Joe Judge, quarterback Daniel Jones and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, which of them would Giants fans actually endorse coming back in 2022?
26. Chicago Bears (3-7, LW: 24)
It’s too bad the Bears gave up a drive that lost Sunday’s game, because Andy Dalton and Marquise Goodwin had a heck of a moment. Dalton came off the bench when Justin Fields was hurt, and threw a deep, clutch fourth-down touchdown to Goodwin, who has dealt with plenty of off-field heartache. It was still a great moment, just not one that led to a win.
25. Miami Dolphins (4-7, LW: 28)
The Dolphins’ next three games, and they’re all at home: vs. Panthers, vs. Giants, vs. Jets. It’s not that crazy to think the Dolphins, who started 1-7, could be 7-7 by mid-December.
24. Seattle Seahawks (3-7, LW: 21)
The Seahawks look lost. They’re not using Russell Wilson like they should, again. Pete Carroll is frustrated and can’t hide it. You have to start wondering if we’re seeing the last weeks of the Carroll-Wilson tandem in Seattle.
23. Washington Football Team (4-6, LW: 26)
Terry McLaurin had to take note of Courtland Sutton’s four-year, $60.8 million contract. Nothing against Sutton, but McLaurin is the far superior player. Given that McLaurin might be Washington’s second-best player (we’ll still give No. 1 to the injured Chase Young), McLaurin will get whatever he wants.
22. Carolina Panthers (5-6, LW: 20)
Cam Newton played well in his first game back in Charlotte, and the Panthers still lost. If the Panthers want to be a playoff team, you can’t lose games like Washington at home. There’s plenty of time to make up for that but the Panthers can’t keep dropping winnable games.
21. Denver Broncos (5-5, LW: 23)
The Broncos’ next two games are against the Chargers and at the Chiefs. We’ll know very soon if the Broncos are still in the mix this season or we can forget about them until what would be a very interesting offseason.
20. Las Vegas Raiders (5-5, LW: 17)
As the Raiders fade, it seems clear Rich Bisaccia has little chance to keep the head-coaching job on a permanent basis. I don’t know why Mike Mayock would be back as general manager — go back and look at the Raiders’ drafts with him as GM. Not everything that has gone wrong with the Raiders is their fault, and theoretically there’s still time to turn things back around, but it’s starting to look like another lost season.
19. New Orleans Saints (5-5, LW: 11)
The Saints decided to not really use Taysom Hill after starting quarterback Jameis Winston was done for the season, but still gave Hill a contract extension that will reportedly pay between $40 million and $95 million depending which position he plays, with $22.5 million guaranteed. There are some salary-cap gymnastics going on there, but no, I don’t get the move either.
18. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6, LW: 22)
The Eagles have taken off, winning three of four (the loss was on a game-ending field goal to the Chargers) since embracing the run game. The stretch has put Jalen Hurts in a position to get at least another season as the Eagles’ starter, though he’ll still have to play well over the final six games.
17. San Francisco 49ers (5-5, LW: 19)
Nick Bosa has 10 sacks coming off a torn ACL. He’d need something crazy to beat Dak Prescott for comeback player of the year, but he’s having a remarkable season.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1, LW: 18)
The good news from a heartbreaking loss at the Chargers: The shorthanded Steelers battled, and their offense looked as good as it has all season. It’s still a crushing loss, especially in a crowded wild-card race, but there are positives to take from it.
15. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4, LW: 16)
Joe Mixon had 123 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, and has 953 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns this season. He’s already set a career-best for touchdowns in a season and will likely pass his career best of 1,464 yards from scrimmage if he stays healthy.
14. Cleveland Browns (6-5, LW: 14)
At this point, it’s clear the Browns offense is what it is. They can run it well with Nick Chubb, which is fine if they’re in a low-scoring game and don’t need the passing game to be a central part of what they do. It can even be a championship formula. Not much can go wrong, though.
13. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4, LW: 12)
No matter that the Chargers tried to give away a win, they got a win and every one will matter in the playoff race. They got an enormous break when the Steelers miscommunicated on a blitz and left Mike Williams wide open for what would be the game-winning score, but credit Justin Herbert for recognizing it and delivering the ball for the touchdown.
12. Minnesota Vikings (5-5, LW: 15)
Justin Jefferson on Sunday: eight catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns. Finally the Vikings realize that their first priority in the offense needs to be getting Jefferson touches.
11. Indianapolis Colts (6-5, LW: 13)
Imagine if the Colts had won that home overtime game against the Titans back in Week 8. They’d be tied for first place and the tiebreaker would be up in the air. Instead, they’re still two back and Tennessee owns the tiebreaker. Even after a great Sunday for the Colts, they’d still need a miracle to win the division.
10. Tennessee Titans (8-3, LW: 3)
Well, it was pretty clear the Titans weren’t as good as their 8-2 record last week. But losing to Houston? Ouch. They were due for a weird, bad-luck loss, and this was it. They’re not as good as 8-2 and not as bad as falling behind 19-0 at home to the Texans. They’re still going to win the division, but nobody will be picking them to make a playoff run. The offense just isn’t good enough without Derrick Henry.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-4, LW: 5)
The Bills have lost three of five. They look good analytically, which is probably why everyone gave them a pass for the ugly Jaguars loss, but their resume is looking thinner and thinner. Maybe this is a bad stretch and they’ll turn it on like last season, but the Patriots look like the better team lately.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4, LW: 9)
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was under intense scrutiny as his defense struggled through its first seven games. Since then, the Chiefs have given up 17, 7, 14 and 9 points. They kept the Cowboys out of the end zone on Sunday. What a turnaround.
7. Los Angeles Rams (7-3, LW: 6)
The Rams-Packers game this week is a great matchup. The Rams have looked suspect against the best teams on their schedule, outside of beating the Buccaneers, and another quality win would reestablish them as a true contender.
6. New England Patriots (7-4, LW: 10)
The Patriots play the Bills on Dec. 6 in a Monday night game, and then again on Dec. 26. It would have seemed crazy to think a month ago that those two games would decide the AFC East, but the momentum has shifted entirely to New England.
5. Dallas Cowboys (7-3, LW: 4)
The Cowboys had some key injuries but they still need to get into the end zone once. Dak Prescott was bad, though it didn’t help that Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones was in his lap most downs. This is two horrid performances by the Dallas offense its last three games, and that’s troubling going forward.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3, LW: 7)
Rob Gronkowski came back and had 71 yards on six catches. Antonio Brown will presumably be back soon. A fully healthy Bucs team could be the reliable Super Bowl favorite we’re looking for.
3. Baltimore Ravens (7-3, LW: 8)
Tyler Huntley was an undrafted quarterback with 18 career passes and 54 yards before Sunday. Lamar Jackson wasn’t scratched until Sunday morning. And the Ravens still found a way to win with Huntley, even after giving up the lead in the final two minutes. No matter which players they lose, the Ravens just keep winning. John Harbaugh will be in the Hall of Fame someday.
2. Green Bay Packers (8-3, LW: 1)
Losing on the last play to the Vikings, after a replay review of Darnell Savage’s interception overturned what would have been a game-changing play, is no reason for panic. The Packers are still a very good team, just one with another loss on their record. The showdown with the Rams will tell us more about them.
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2, LW: 2)
Winning two of three without Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and Chase Edmonds is the reason Kliff Kingsbury is the easy coach of the year frontrunner at this point in the season. The Cardinals will need to keep up this pace for Kingsbury to win the award, but there’s no reason to believe they won’t with their offensive stars getting healthy.