Stop if you have heard this before: Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots are surging late in the season.

After a 2-4 start to their campaign, the six-time Super Bowl champions have won five-straight games, one shy of the Tennessee Titans’ league-leading streak.

Their most recent win was a 25-0 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football and moved them level with the Buffalo Bills for the division lead in the AFC North. All of a sudden, a team that had been forgotten in the past is roaring back to life and is now officially the team to beat in the NFL.

Pats are Back

Most people around the league assumed that New England would never reclaim the glory that it enjoyed with Tom Brady, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after they went 7-9 in their first season without their longtime quarterback. These sentiments were furthered when they released Cam Newton, putting the offense in the hands of rookie Mac Jones.

Although Jones’ production at Alabama was undeniable, he was seen as a low-floor type of player that would be best as a game manager; typically, rookie QBs struggle to read the game and get rid of the ball quickly, which made it seem as if Jones and the Patriots were at least a couple of years away from playoff contention.

Through 11 games, however, Jones has shown quick improvement and a knack for getting the ball out of his hands-on time. His stats this season are 2,540 yards— the seventh-highest mark in the league— 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He is also third in completion percentage at 70.2%, trailing only Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott.

A Defensive Masterclass

As much as the offense has seemed to improve from last season, the defense has been leaps and bounds better— not only are they only allowing 16.1 points per game, but across the last five weeks, that number has fallen to just 10. Bill Belichick has always been viewed as a defensive mastermind, and although he may have lost some of his credibility last year when Brady won the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, he is reminding the world of exactly how he earned his reputation.

Matthew Judon has been particularly impressive since coming over from the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, amassing a career-high 10.5 sacks with six games remaining on the schedule. 

In addition, no team has been as effective at rattling opposing quarterbacks as the Patriots, leading the league with 18 interceptions and tying for second with 21 total turnovers. This has also manifested itself in a surprising way, with All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore departing midseason for the Carolina Panthers, leaving J.C. Jackson (six interceptions) to do the majority of the work in coverage.

The Playoff Push

The skeleton of this Patriots team is not too different from the one that existed when Tom Brady stepped in as a little-known backup from Michigan. Mac Jones is unlikely to win any future games, especially in the playoffs, with individual heroics, but he has shown that he can be trusted to convert in key situations. 

A majority of New England’s fortunes lies with the defense, which has been electric thus far. Given that they will likely have to face one of Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, or Derrick Henry in the postseason, assuming that they make it, they are still yet to make their money this season.

If Buffalo loses on Sunday, the Pats will move into sole control of the AFC East and, potentially, the second seed in the entire conference. There is still plenty to come, but right now, the New England Patriots are the team to beat in the NFL.

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