The Patriots Are Suddenly in a Familiar Position That Should Terrify the Rest of the AFC Thanks to a Few Old Faces Finally Rounding Into Form and a New One Rapidly Developing into a Dominant Force

Facing a familiar foe in the form of New York Jets flameout Sam Darnold, the New England Patriots put forth perhaps their most impressive defensive performance of the season in a decisive 24-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers that helped Bill Belichick move within one victory of going .500 in the post-Tom Brady era.

Although rookie quarterback Mac Jones delivered his second straight underwhelming performance, that ultimately didn’t matter. Neither did Stephon Gilmore securing his revenge pick. And even though their highest-paid receiver didn’t record a single target (Nelson Agholor can’t complain about his game check), the Patriots still defeated Matt Rhule’s squad by 18 points.

Instead, Belichick’s team took care of business on the road (a consistent theme this season) by completely shutting down a struggling offense that clearly needs a new signal-caller. After all, Darnold did just about everything possible to prove he shouldn’t have a long-term future with the Panthers, including throwing three interceptions.

Of course, New England’s coaching staff deserves credit for crafting a sound defensive game plan that kept Carolina in check. More importantly, though, the players executed on the field, which prevented Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson from inflicting significant damage.

In fact, since getting shredded by Dak Prescott in Week 6, the Patriots have performed significantly better on that side of the ball. And with a few old faces back to making splash plays and a new one quickly emerging as a dominant force, the six-time Super Bowl champions suddenly find themselves in the familiar position of being in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy.

After a slow start to the season that raised valid questions about his playing time, Kyle Van Noy has become more of an impact player. Back in New England after a one-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, the versatile linebacker has totaled 11 tackles, four passes defended, and a fumble recovery in his last four games. Van Noy broke up two ill-fated attempts by Darnold, one of which came on a well-executed pass-rush stunt.

However, the creator of the “Boogeyman” moniker didn’t come close to matching what Jamie Collins did in Carolina.

The physically gifted linebacker recorded a thunderous tackle for loss, broke up a pass, forced a fumble, and snagged an incredibly impressive interception while leaping up in the air near the line of scrimmage.

Oh, Collins accomplished that on only 16 defensive snaps.

While the 32-year-old doesn’t possess quite the same level of athleticism he did during his first go-around with the Patriots, he still has enough to make plays that remind you why he earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2015. Adding Collins, who tips the scales at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, back to the mix has given New England more experience and playmaking potential on defense.

With Van Noy, Collins, and fellow veteran linebacker Dont’a Hightower stepping up, the Patriots have held their last three opponents to a combined 43 points. But as much as it’s helped to have that trio trending in the right direction, a new face warrants attention, too.

First-year defensive tackle Christian Barmore simply overpowered a Panthers offensive line that lost two starters to injury during the game. The rookie second-round pick batted down two passes, applied pressure on Darnold on several occasions, and also held up well against the run. Overall, he showcased the full range of skills that helped him earn defensive MVP honors in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship.

Barmore’s rapid development has undoubtedly added a new dimension to New England’s defense. Outside of prized free-agent addition Matt Judon, no one showed the ability to consistently get after the quarterback through the first few weeks of the season. However, the talented 22-year-old out of Alabama has rewarded the coaching staff’s faith by making a major impact on a down-to-down basis.

Ironically, Belichick built the foundation of the NFL’s most successful dynasty through the trenches. And after winning Super Bowls and plenty of big games with a homegrown defensive line comprised of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren, it looks like Barmore will anchor the front seven for years to come.

Thanks in large part to the 6-foot-4, 310-pound lineman’s ascension, the Patriots have gone from dwelling near the bottom of the AFC East to threatening to overtake the Buffalo Bills for the top spot in the division.

That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the conference.

Although they looked likely to miss the postseason just a few weeks ago, the Patriots have a chance to earn a Wild Card spot, or even win the AFC East outright. Considering the Bills just lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, it’s safe to say nobody should pencil Josh Allen and Co. in as back-to-back division winners quite yet.

Meanwhile, New England continues to stack success, with young players like Barmore, offensive tackle Michael Onwenu, running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, and safety Kyle Dugger cementing their cases as key building blocks. Plus, even though Jones showed some struggles against the Chargers and the Panthers, his team still left Carolina and Los Angeles with well-earned victories. And if the Patriots iron out some protection issues, their rookie quarterback should enjoy more successful days at the office.

Ultimately, it’ll take contributions from familiar faces and rapidly improving recent additions to make the playoffs. But with the way Bill Belichick’s team is trending, the rest of the AFC should be terrified at the idea of an on-the-rise Patriots squad competing in January.

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