What’s happening in New England is enough to make the Chargers and other AFC playoff contenders queasy.
The retooled Patriots, just a season-and-a-half after Tom Brady left them, have grown into a sturdy team.
A few days ago, Bill Belichick tipped all of us off.
When asked about the varied game plans he crafts, the Hoodie mentioned Sun Tzu.
“Look at the great generals, you exploit your strengths and attack weaknesses,” he said, invoking the centuries-old Art of War.
You don’t bring up Sun Tzu, unless your team is more hammer than nail.
The Patriots (6-4) responded Sunday by overwhelming the Browns (5-5) for their fourth consecutive victory and most impressive showing in a few years.
Chalk up the 45-7 route to both Patriots fronts bringing more power than Cleveland’s, and rookie Mac Jones throwing Brady-type strikes. (Really, I did.)
Also: a former San Diegan named Hunter Henry honored his former mentor Antonio Gates, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson ran for difficult yards and New England’s defense dealt with erratic Baker Mayfield and Cleveland’s offense a long afternoon.
With the AFC East-leading Bills (6-3) holding serve, it still appears the two Buffalo-New England matchups next month will be needed to clarify the race. Meantime, in Tennessee, where two former Patriots lead the franchise’s braintrust, the Titans (8-2) maintained first in the AFC race for the top seed and the wild card-round bye.
If nothing else, New England’s fast return to playoff contention under Belichick is puncturing the hot-air balloons that critics floated after Brady led the Tampa Bay Bucs to a Super Bowl victory nine months ago. It was the quarterback’s first NFL season away from Belichick. See, some critics clucked. It was Brady, not Belichick, who was responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty.
Belichick responded in April by drafting Jones.
The Alabama alum, accurate and decisive, is improving fast. He has outproduced all four of the QBs drafted ahead of his selection of him at No. 15.
Last month he showed well opposite Brady and Dak Prescott in close defeats against NFC heavyweights Tampa Bay and Dallas. Three games ago, he had no turnovers in New England’s road victory against Team Spanos as a touchdown underdog.
From the pocket, Jones was much better Sunday than Mayfield, a fourth-year starter. He was 13 for 15 with two touchdowns in leading New England to a 24-7 halftime lead. In Cleveland’s first three possessions, Patriots defenders got two hands on four Mayfield passes, intercepting one to set up a touchdown.
So it appears Belichick may have found a promising successor to Brady. It wouldn’t be surprising if Belichick has in fact landed a quarterback who’ll have a better career than Mayfield, a former No. 1 overall draftee who is Cleveland’s best QB in several years.
Many of Belichick’s heavy offseason investments in veteran free agents are also bearing fruit. Edge rusher Matthew Judon had another strong game Sunday, as did receiver Kendrick Bourne and Henry.
San Diego is where Henry began his NFL career in 2016. He lockered next to Gates, who gave him pointers. On the field, the veteran drew coverage away from the rookie, who had eight touchdown receptions for the final San Diego Chargers team. When Belichick signed him, Henry chose to wear No. 85 in honor of Gates.
Lately, Henry and his rookie QB have done a decent impersonation of Gates teaming up with Philip Rivers.
Two games ago, when Henry posted up a Carolina defender and Jones zipped a perfect low strike for a touchdown, Belichick praised their attention to detail.
“Those guys are starting to develop a little bit of a chemistry between them,” said the coach, who included the play on his weekly film review with the team’s website. “That type of a play is a result of a lot of hard work on the practice field.”
Several completions this year to Henry came after Jones, eliminating any chance of a sack, he threw before Henry began his break.
Sunday, the ball was out 1.74 seconds after the snap; Henry, running an out route, caught it for six points. He caught all four of his targets from him Sunday, raising his completion rate to 76 percent.
The Patriots lack great speed on offense, but are playing fast. They’re always physical.
Even without Brady, they don’t stay down for long.