On the night he was drafted, Mac Jones already sounded like the perfect fit in New England.
"This is what I wanted all along," he said, eliding any thoughts on dropping to the 15th overall pick. "... I'm looking forward to taking Coach Belichick's coaching."
What we couldn't have known then was how seamlessly Jones would slide into his new job, how rapidly New England's identity would coalesce, how naturally the Patriots would rise from one season -- one season in two decades -- as an NFL afterthought.
Now we know. And the rest of the AFC should feel a shiver -- their window to be rid of the Patriots has already slammed shut.
In a 45-7 rout of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, everything old was new again. For the Patriots and for the NFL. The New England offense was incredibly efficient and balanced, converting seven of nine third-down opportunities, passing for 283 yards and rushing for 184. The defense was smothering, holding the Browns to one third-down conversion in 11 tries and 217 total yards, and getting another pick for one of the league's top intercepting defenses. Jones, coming off a few middling games that sparked speculation of a rookie wall, and a week in which he was accused of dirty play, was at his best, showing accuracy and good decision-making in completing 19 of 23 passes for three touchdowns.
It was the Patriots' fourth straight victory and their best performance of the season, considering the Browns -- who entered Week 10 with the NFL's 10th-ranked scoring defense -- are also a team with playoff aspirations. For fans in New England, it offered the comfort of a warm blanket, harkening back to how New England teams looked in the early years of the Tom Brady era. And in a wide-open AFC, the specter of the Pats is looming again. At 6-4, only the Buffalo Bills (6-3) are ahead of them in the AFC East, with both games against the Bills remaining. And after a 2-4 start, they are firmly in the wild-card picture.
It was always foolish to write off New England as headed for a protracted rebuild after Brady left. After all, Bill Belichick was still coaching. But the Patriots signaled their impatience with mediocrity as soon as free agency opened last March and they went on a spending spree to bring in names like Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Hunter Henry. And the draft class is their best in a number of years. Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick this year, had his first 100-yard game with leading running back Damien Harris out on Sunday. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore, a second-round pick, had four tackles. And Jones displayed perfect touch on passes to Henry and Jakobi Meyers, and then rifled a second-quarter pass into tight double coverage for Kendrick Bourne to cap a gut punch 99-yard touchdown drive -- the longest Jones could remember ever being involved in.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recently acknowledged Jones had endured a "little dry spell" in the victory two weeks ago against the Chargers, when the rookie did not have a touchdown pass and completed just 18 of 35 throws. And last week, in the victory over the Panthers, Jones completed just 12 of 18 passes in a defense-led game. The Patriots have proven they can move the ball on the ground consistently, but to make a serious playoff run, they will need Jones to be able to make throws. He did it on Sunday, and it is noteworthy that he did it after a week in which he was the topic of unflattering conversation for an ankle tackle against the Panthers. Belichick said Jones had done a good job of navigating all the things that have come at him in the NFL.
"All he cares about is football," said team captain Devin McCourty. "He doesn't care about any outside noise. He's just locked in. That wasn't an issue here -- the Cleveland Browns was our issue all week. As a rookie, he understands the position of playing quarterback and being a leader."
McDaniels called a superb game, neutralizing Myles Garrett by double teaming or chipping him, and running away from his side. McDaniels mixed the run and short and intermediate passes that are the offense's bedrock, with Jones excelling on touch passes in pressure situations. Jones said after the game that he and McDaniels are on the same page, something that has been obvious since training camp, when Jones was competing with Cam Newton for the starting job. The bottom line is simple: Jones runs the offense the way McDaniels likes it to be run -- whether Jones would have been this successful so quickly for any other team is an open question. He also thinks and talks the way the Patriots like their quarterbacks to think and talk.
In explaining how the Patriots went from 2-4 to a four-game run, Jones did not mention fewer turnovers or better offensive line play or vastly improved defense -- all of which are undeniably factors in the Patriots' improvement. He instead focused on practice like the best of Patriots.
"I think here we do a good job every week of preparing for what we want and it just comes down to practice, execution, becoming game reality, and when we practice well, we play well," Jones said. "When we don't practice well, usually we don't play as well. And so it's pretty much that simple and we just have to keep doing that."
On Sunday, the Patriots looked like they could play with any team in the AFC. It will be easy to take their measure in coming weeks. After they face the Falcons on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET on FOX, NFL Network, Amazon), the Pats host the Titans -- the AFC's No. 1 seed and most consistently dominant team -- and then go to Buffalo. They play the Bills again in Week 16 in Foxborough.
The last time the Patriots scratched back from a difficult start with a balanced offense, a young quarterback and one of the league's best defenses was 2001. The rest of the NFL has to hope that the past is not prologue for the seasons to come.