In the offensive-driven NFL, the New England Patriots are trying to win the hard way.
Monday's 27-13 victory over the Kyler Murray-less Arizona Cardinals is a positive step for New England after losing its previous two games against superior competition. But a 7-6 record and tenuous grasp over the AFC's final playoff spot shows how unsteady the team's position currently is based on how half of the roster continues to perform.
Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach in professional football history. How he's built the Patriots into a consistent winner over two-plus decades during the most competitive period in NFL history is nothing short of astonishing. He's not infallible, though.
Belichick's decision not to hire a legitimate offensive coordinator has brought the expected results. The unit has regressed, and Mac Jones' development has been stunted.
Instead, the Patriots' seasonal aspirations remain intact thanks to an aggressive defense, not the play-calling of defensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach-turned-senior-football-advisor (whatever that title means) Matt Patricia.
Jones' outburst during the Patriots' previous loss to the Buffalo Bills became the outward manifestation of the frustration that had been bubbling under the surface.
"Obviously, I just kind of let my emotions get to me," Jones explained to reporters. "What I said was about throwing it deeper within the short game. I got to execute that part better. But it's the short game that we kept going to, which is working. But I felt like we needed chunk plays. I shouted that out to kind of get everyone going. That's emotional. That's football. I'm passionate about this game."
Emotions can be a positive if harnessed properly. Tom Brady is known for his sideline tirades, and they occurred quite a few times during his Patriots' tenure. Jones has yet to earn the same level of transparency, yet it's clear he's passionate and wants more from both himself and New England's offense.
"This is an emotional game, and everyone feeds off emotion," Jones said during a postgame interview on ESPN after the Cardinals game. "And I think, at times, we're too flat."
Entering Monday's contest, the Patriots ranked among the bottom half of the league by averaging 20.8 points per game. However, New England leads the league with 85 points off turnovers this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In other words, nearly a third of the team's scoring so far came via the help of the defense making big plays.
Against the Cardinals, linebacker Raekwon McMillan returned a fumble 23 yards for a score.
Points by the <a href="https://twitter.com/Patriots?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Patriots</a> defense! 💪<br><br>📺: <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NEvsAZ?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NEvsAZ</a> on ESPN<br>📱: Stream on NFL+ <a href="https://t.co/UKeBTYKCRY">https://t.co/UKeBTYKCRY</a> <a href="https://t.co/8PHgaMkuyV">pic.twitter.com/8PHgaMkuyV</a>
Furthermore, Matthew Judon and Co. are getting after opposing quarterbacks and making life difficult for all opposing offenses. With six sacks Monday, the Patriots defense now ranks third in the category, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.
To be fair, New England's defenders are far more capable of creating explosive plays. The offense? Not so much, especially with injuries to wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and DeVante Parker and running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris.
"I see an offense that's running the football well. It's a very conservative pass game—lot of screens, all kind of screens. It's how a defensive guy would call offensive plays—'let's not turn the ball over, let's get four yards a play, and let's try to burn clock,'" Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said during his team's week of preparation.
"That's what they're doing, and that's what he's going to do on Monday night. He's going to be patient. Maybe take a shot from time to time. But for the most part, it's run game, it's quick game, and it's screens."
[Insert "nailed it" GIF]
As Fantasy Points' Chris Wecht noted, Patricia called 11 screens on 39 dropbacks. According to Warren Sharp of Sharp Football, 44 percent of Jones' throws were at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 60 percent of the team's third-down pass attempts were short of the sticks.
To make matters worse, Patricia isn't even trying to build around his unit's strengths. New England claims the league's most effective play-action passing attack, yet utilized a play-fake only three times against the Cardinals, per Sharp.
"I think we need to do what we're doing better. I don't think at this point making a lot of dramatic changes; it's too hard to do that," Belichick said during his weekly interview on WEEI's The Greg Hill Show.
"If we can just do, consistently, what we're doing, I think we'll be all right. We just haven't been able to have enough consistency. It's not one thing. One time it's one thing. Next time it's something else. We just have to play and coach more consistently."
A few bright spots did appear, particularly among the offense's rookie performers.
First-year backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris carried the ball a combined 13 times for 96 yards and two scores. Strong added two catches out of the backfield for 20 more yards. Second-round speedster Tyquan Thornton collected four passes for 28 yards. As this group continues to grow and become more comfortable, the Patriots offense can be more efficient.
Even with the rookies' in-season development, the entire group is fighting an uphill battle when facing the high-flying offenses in Buffalo, Miami, Kansas City and Cincinnati—three of which New England faces during the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Patriots are also being chased by the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, who are getting outstanding play from their quarterbacks, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence, respectively. The New York Jets are right there, too, though they have some question marks of their own on offense.
New England's offense is predictable, stale and lacks explosive qualities.
"No, I think the biggest thing is not letting it affect my play and bringing the best out of the guys," Jones responded when asked by reports about his obvious frustration with the offensive scheme.
The Patriots' staff is fooling itself if the coaches actually believe the unit is currently good enough to be a legitimate playoff contender. The defense most certainly is.
But everyone watching New England's offense should react in a similar fashion as Jones has the last two weeks because it's deserving of expletive-ridden ridicule.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.