The New England Patriots are back to .500 and firmly in the mix in the AFC playoffs, thanks in part to the efforts of these three players.
The New England Patriots contending in the AFC looked an unlikely prospect a few weeks ago after they dropped to 2-4, but they have responded in style and are very much in the mix following an impressive Week 8 victory on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers.
New England relied heavily on its defense to claim a 27-24 triumph at SoFi Stadium to improve to 4-4 on the season, consistently putting Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in third-and-long situations and producing turnovers at critical junctures to deliver a result many did not anticipate.
It is a win that alters the complexion of both the AFC East and the AFC West, with the Las Vegas Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos likely to all be extremely grateful for the Patriots’ efforts out west.
In their own division, the Patriots are still in touch with the Buffalo Bills, who improved to 5-2 with their comprehensive victory over the moribund Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots legitimately challenging the Bills for the division title still appears a long shot. Buffalo is a more talented team on both sides of the ball and has a significant edge at quarterback.
But New England is firmly in the Wild Card picture and there can be no doubt their season is a long way from over.
Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have several players to thank for that and here we identify three players who have played a substantial role in salvaging New England’s season.
Patriots players stepping up to save the season in New England
3. Damien Harris
The Patriots’ running back did not produce his most efficient performance of the season, carrying the ball 23 times for 80 yards and a touchdown, averaging 3.5 yards per attempt.
However, Harris has been the heart of the New England offense over the last three games, rushing for 287 yards and four touchdowns, emerging as a top-tier running back in his third season in the NFL.
He was ably supported on Sunday as Brandon Bolden averaged 6.5 yards on his four carries and Rhamondre Stevenson matched his tally of 26 yards.
But it is Harris who is the undisputed bell cow of the Patriots’ attack and an offense that lacks dynamic playmakers at the receiver position will likely go as far as he does in 2021.
Harris’ success to this point has allowed New England to take the pressure off Mac Jones, his vision and ability to pick up yards after contact forcing opponents to respect the run game. Jones has responded well to what has been put on his shoulders in his rookie year, yet the play of Harris has meant the Patriots haven’t had to overburden their first-round pick.
As long as Harris continues performing at this level, New England will have a shot at the postseason.