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The post-Tom Brady Patriots are still figuring out who they are

Coach Bill Belichick speaks to quarterback Mac Jones before the Patriots' season-opening defeat at Miami. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the New England Patriots celebrated and savored a wind-swept victory over the Buffalo Bills last December, it seemed they were back to being the Patriots. They were on a seven-game winning streak. They had the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs in their sights. A Super Bowl meeting with Tom Brady seemed possible. Coach Bill Belichick again was an unquestioned NFL mastermind, and the franchise appeared to have put Brady’s exit into its rearview mirror, with young quarterback Mac Jones thriving.

But since then, the steps along the path back toward contending have been wobbly. The Patriots emerged from the bye week that followed the Buffalo triumph and lost at Indianapolis. The Bills then dominated them twice, the second time in a playoff loss that ended New England’s 2021 season on a decidedly sour note.

Issues have continued into the early stages of this season, with Belichick’s decisions about his coaching staff drawing scrutiny and Jones’s progress being questioned. The Patriots have gotten off to an uneven start, and they’ll take a 1-1 record into Sunday’s meeting with the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.

“We can say what we want to be,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said after Wednesday’s practice. “But who we are is what we put out on the field. So each time we get out there, I think we have to have that mentality of building our identity, building who we are and putting those days together that at some point this season we can hang our hat and say, ‘This is who we are. This is what we’re going to bring every week.’ In this league, you have to go do that.”

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The Patriots are trying to find their way, which was until recently an unfamiliar state for the team that fans across the NFL spent two decades loving or loathing with intense fervor while owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady were the mainstays of six Super Bowl championships.

It has been a mixed bag since Brady’s free agent departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. The Patriots went 7-9 and missed the playoffs that year, with Cam Newton at quarterback. Then came a free agent spending spree before last season, along with the good fortune of being able to select Jones with the 15th choice in last year’s draft. The team started slowly last season but was 9-4 after the 14-10 victory over the Bills on Dec. 6, a game in which Jones attempted only three passes.

It unraveled from there. The 47-17 defeat to the Bills in the opening round of the AFC playoffs was particularly dispiriting to fans.

The Patriots lost their offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who became the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in the offseason. Then Belichick created a mini-commotion before the season by failing to clarify publicly how he’d divide the offensive play-calling duties between two former NFL head coaches back on his staff as assistants, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

Jones, through two games, has two touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 83.2, down from last season’s mark of 92.5. Former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, now an analyst for ESPN, said on the network’s pregame show Sunday that the Patriots “did this to yourself” and urged the team’s coaches to keep the approach simpler for Jones. The Patriots won Sunday at Pittsburgh, rebounding from a season-opening loss at Miami.

“There’s things that you want to have back,” Jones said Wednesday. “But if you win the game, you can sit there and complain about plays you wish you had back, but at the end of the day, you won. And that’s what’s important. So it’s not about always winning super pretty all the time. It’s about winning. That’s all I care about. That’s all I’ve ever cared about. All the other stuff takes care of itself.”

Jones was asked whether he believes he is improving.

“I’d say we improved from Week 1 to Week 2,” he said. “It’s not all me. It’s everybody. We’ve all improved and got better. We’ve got a lot of games, and we’ve got a big one this week. That’s all you can judge yourself on is your last game. We won our last game. So that’s all that matters, and then the next week is the next week. That’s all you can focus on. I’m not sure about the stats and stuff. I don’t really look at them.”

Belichick said he thinks Jones has “gotten better at a lot of things,” and Patriots veterans continue to praise the young quarterback and his approach.

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“He would be crazy if he built his career off what people write and say about him, because … there’s not that many people that played that position at a high level and can do that consistently,” McCourty said. “I think no matter what in this league, you come out, you play as a rookie, you have success as a rookie, you go out there and you do good things. It [stinks] to say but everyone is waiting to write bad things about you. That’s just how everything works. But I think he knows that in this building, every guy in that locker room believes in him. Everybody in that locker room sees him as not just our quarterback but a captain of this team, a leader of this team.”

Said center David Andrews: “A sign of a mature team, a good team is when it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball, who’s excelling, who’s getting carries, who’s getting catches, whatever, right? … Just win. That’s all that matters.”

The task within the AFC East suddenly is daunting. The Bills, regarded as this season’s Super Bowl favorite by many observers, are off to a dominant start. The Dolphins also are 2-0 and relevant again, behind a newly revved-up passing game led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The Patriots must show they can keep pace in a division in which finishing annually in first place once was a given.

“No matter what, we all come in here with the same mind-set: How can we go out there on Sunday and win a football game?” McCourty said. “That’s been the Patriot Way since I got here. No game is going to be exactly the same. It’s not always going to be 30 points on offense and defense holding them to 10 points. I don’t know how we’re going to win. But I know as a team, that’s something we’ve got to figure out.”

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