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CLEVELAND — It is sometimes said that when a team has two quarterbacks, it really has none. But what if one played a major role in a 10-win season as a first-round rookie, and the other (a fourth-round rookie) stepped in to replace him when injuries struck early the next season and is 2-0 in those games?

That’s the situation the New England Patriots are facing with Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe — far from the “2 equals 0” category and more the type of “problem” any team would like to have.

Thus, how coach Bill Belichick proceeds — with Jones seemingly closer to a return after sustaining a severe high left ankle sprain on Sept. 25 — adds a layer of intrigue as preparations shift toward hosting the Chicago Bears next Monday night (8:15 ET. ESPN).

Will it be the “Return of the Mac”?

Or “Don’t worry, be Zappe”?

At the least, Zappe’s capable performance in Sunday’s 38-15 win over the Cleveland Browns (24-of-34 for 309 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions) gives Belichick something to think about from a timeline standpoint.

He can give Jones more time, and Jones can comfortably take that time to get himself as close to 100% as possible, without the team’s season slipping away. The Patriots are 3-3 and playing some of their best football over the past two weeks.

Belichick isn’t into hypotheticals, but here’s an example of one that could be in play: Jones assesses himself at around 75-85% and wants to give it a shot against the Bears. That would change the dynamics of Jones’ status from a medical decision to a football decision, with Belichick assessing whether a less-than-100% Jones is the better option than the healthier Zappe.

Belichick might have indirectly provided a hint of the direction he would lean when he said of Zappe after Sunday’s win: “He has pretty good instincts, but there is a lot for him to learn. There are things [Sunday] that he learned from and he was able to take advantage of and make a couple plays. It’s all performance. It’s not turning the ball over or a strip sack.”

A strip sack was one of Zappe’s notable miscues Sunday, but overall, he has taken care of the football, which had been a trouble spot with Jones in the team’s 1-2 start.

“Hats off to him these past couple weeks, coming in and doing a helluva job. I couldn’t be more proud,” tight end Jonnu Smith said. “He is still a rookie, so we won’t say Zappe is the GOAT, but he definitely has impressed.”

“A lot of poise, a lot of composure,” added starting center David Andrews. “He is doing what’s asked of him.”

Zappe has also benefited from playing with a lead, and some rather large windows in which to throw. The Patriots have also simplified their approach, with what seems to be a noticeably lower degree of difficulty.

Because of that, it remains unknown whether he could carry the offense to a victory should a more difficult scenario present itself.

That’s often the case for backup quarterbacks, and the way Zappe has stepped into a challenging spot has earned respect from teammates nonetheless.

“You rewind a month ago, and nobody is talking about him being a contributor to our team,” captain Matthew Slater said. “That is the National Football League, you never know when your moment is going to come. You hope that you prepare enough and are able to take advantage of it; I think that man is doing just that.”

How much longer will it last?

This week could provide the answer.


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