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A 6-point plan for a Patriots postseason return

The game plan for the Patriots over the second half of the season is simple enough from a big picture perspective.

They need to forge a path toward another playoff berth.

The Jets are first up Sunday, but then the Vikings follow next Thursday night in Minnesota, before the Bills hit Foxboro the following Thursday.

That’s three games in 12 days, before the Patriots attack the rest of the gauntlet starting with two games out west (Cardinals, Raiders) and finishing with the Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills.

To this point, Bill Belichick’s team is about where most figured, sitting at 5-4, just outside the playoffs.

If they have any hopes of being one of the AFC’s playoff teams, they have to continue to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat (Cardinals, Raiders) and find a way to steal a few wins from the others.

What has to change for them to accomplish the mission? What are the specific areas on both sides of the ball that will ultimately decide the season?

Here’s the formula:

Find the right offensive line combination

The O-line has been a trouble spot for much of the season. Patriot quarterbacks, be it Mac Jones (15), Brian Hoyer (1), or Bailey Zappe (6), have been sacked 22 times, one of the highest totals in the league.

That’s not going to cut it. And it’s not just sacks, it’s pressure allowed, as well.

Most of the trouble has come from left guard, with rookie Cole Strange getting benched in back-to-back games, and right tackle, where Isaiah Wynn has been a disaster, leading the team with eight penalties.

Offensive line coach Matt Patricia needs to find a better starting combination. The fate of the offense hinges on it.

The return of center David Andrews, who has missed the last two games with a concussion, will help.

But Patricia and assistant Billy Yates need to find a more effective starting five. Keeping Wynn on the left side at guard, where he’s more comfortable and has played the last few games, might be part of the solution, even if Strange has to sit.

Figuring out the most impactful place for Michael Onwenu, be it right guard, where he’s been outstanding, or moving him over to right tackle, where he played and had a stellar rookie season, is another option to consider.

Marcus Cannon (when he returns from IR) or Yodny Cajuste are possibilities, but it would seem wise to explore having Onwenu play right tackle, with James Ferentz at right guard.

Patricia just needs to find the best alignment. If the line doesn’t improve, it’s hard imagining Mac Jones or the offense improving.

Get the old Mac back

The Jones we’ve seen in 2022 has barely resembled the 2021 version.

Last year, he played with confidence, poise and smarts en route to having one of the best seasons for a rookie quarterback. He processed and delivered with remarkable accuracy and speed.

Of course, he was carefully managed by then offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who fostered great performances from his rookie.

With a new offensive system, a new playcaller (Patricia), and a new quarterback coach (Joe Judge), Jones hasn’t been able to do the same.

He’s now one the worst-rated quarterbacks in the league.

Whatever it takes, Belichick & Co. need to get some semblance of the old Mac back. Because right now, Jones is playing scared, as in scared to make a mistake. He’s unsure and untrusting of the play call and protection. Perhaps going back to a quick short-passing game will help get some of his confidence back.

Belichick basically has to undo the damage that’s been done, and get Jones back on the right track.

More wideout involvement

The lack of production from receivers not named Jakobi Meyers has been stunning, especially of late.

With DeVante Parker getting hurt during the opening series against the Jets, and missing essentially two games, the Patriots have gotten next to nothing from Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor and rookie Tyquan Thornton.

Against the Colts, running back Rhamondre Stevenson was the most targeted receiver amid the 30 pass attempts made by Jones.

In the last three games, dating back to the Saints, Bourne (three catches on five targets for 11 yards) Agholor (one catch on two targets for two yards) and Thornton (three catches on 11 targets for 37 yards) have been non-factors.

Bourne has gone from being one of the most productive receivers last season to nearly invisible. He is their most explosive player, and yet, play caller Patricia has done little to tap into that explosiveness.

If the Patriots are going to predominantly utilize three-receiver sets, it might be a good idea to use them more, as opposed to continuing with them as window dressing.

Pass rush consistency

The Patriots haven’t had any trouble generating a pass rush.

They can partly thank their opponents for that.

Going forward, they need to be as effective against some of the better teams and better offensive lines. That will go a long way toward determining whether the Patriots can stand up to the Bills, Dolphins, Vikings, etc. and give the secondary a chance to defend their elite receiving corps.

Thus far, Matthew Judon has been a beast, leading the league with 11.5 sacks. He can’t fade down the stretch like he did last season.

Deatrich Wise, meanwhile, needs to stay the course, while Josh Uche needs to have more games like he did against the Colts.

Getting Christian Barmore back should also help generate more pressure up the middle. Bottom line, if the pass rush disappears over the second half, the Pats are going nowhere.

Improve turnover differential

At the midway point, the Patriots are second in the NFL with 17 takeaways, which means they’re coming away with nearly two per game. Only Philadelphia has produced more with 18.

The 11 interceptions and six fumble recoveries have been the great equalizer, making up for the 17 turnovers they’ve committed.

So while it behooves the Pats to continue being good ballhawks and fumble producers on defense and special teams, they also need to cut down the turnovers committed by the offense.

Be less predictable on offense

It was somewhat stunning to hear Belichick admit that several opposing players, be it from the Colts or Jets, knew the play-calls ahead of time.

No matter the play caller, the Patriots can’t have opposing linebackers calling out their plays before they’re run, or jumping screens and zone run plays.

Whether Indy’s Shaquille Leonard or New York’s C.J. Mosley picked up on some tells at the line, or whether it’s just obvious what’s coming next based on studying their habits, that has to change.

Even if it’s not unusual for opposing players to pick up on tendencies, the Pats still have to stop being so predictable.

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