1. While Tom Brady has still been terrific, his passer rating relative to league average is his lowest since 2013 and the second-lowest of his career. How has his performance this season compared to his recent standards, and how much longer do you think he can go?
We cannot definitively rule out the possibility of Tom Brady being a cyborg sent from the future to destroy all joy and happiness outside of New England, so he may never retire after all. Seriously, though: at 41, the end is certainly on the horizon and it is only getting closer. Brady himself stated multiple times in the past – and as recently as early November – that he wants to play until 45, and knowing his workout regimen and commitment to his craft it would not be that big of a a surprise to see him actually accomplish it. And while historical precedent works against him, Brady has made a Hall of Fame career out of defying expectations and beating the odds.
Something he is not beating – at least this season – are his numbers from previous seasons. While his three-season run from 2015 to 2017 is arguably the best stretch of his career (which is saying something), Brady’s numbers have declined a bit. They are only telling a part of the story, though. One reason for his comparatively mediocre output is his supporting cast: Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon were not available the first few weeks of the year, while Rob Gronkowski missed three of the last four games due to injury. And even though James White is having a spectacular season as a pass-catching running back, the depth and rotational options in the passing game have oftentimes failed to step up.
Some of Brady’s recent issues are still self-made, however. While his arm strength – despite some speculation – is looking as good as ever and he does not appear to decline physically, his decision making has been questionable at times: especially when under pressure either from the pass rush or the scoreboard, Brady is too focused on his go-to-guys and often forces passes he shouldn’t throw. While this is not a constant issue, it still is worrisome especially against defenses capable of limiting the impact of players like Edelman, Gordon and Gronkowski (if healthy).
2. The Pats are 2-3 on the road, with one win coming very narrowly in Chicago and the other win a gritty affair with the struggling Bills. Why has the team been so beatable on the road?
I am a positive person, so let’s start by talking about the two wins first. While the victory against the Bears literally came down to the last second – a Hail Mary attempt was completed about a yard short of the goal line – it was still a good one for the Patriots: the team’s performance was not great by any means but it still allowed New England to hang with and ultimately defeat one the NFC’s best teams. Same against Buffalo: while the Bills are a bad team (except when playing the Jets, it seems), the Patriots were not as dominant is they should have been. However, they still won by 19 on the road against a divisional foe. I’ll take it any time.
What I would rather not take, though, are the three losses because every one of them was ugly for its very own reason. In Jacksonville, the Patriots ran into a buzzsaw against a Jaguars team that was out to get revenge for last year’s AFC title game loss. In Detroit, the Patriots offense was shut down by former New England coordinator Matt Patricia. In Tennessee, another ex-Patriot – Mike Vrabel – had his team execute a very good game plan to perfection. All three defeats still had one thing in common, though: the Patriots started extremely slowly in the contest and found themselves in holes every single time. Unable to take the crowd out of it, and under pressure to perform the team simply failed to execute. If the Jets are able to get an early lead, it would go a long way towards securing a victory.
3. How are the Patriots’ offensive weapons looking? How has Josh Gordon fit in, is Rob Gronkowski healthy and looking like himself, and what has Sony Michel brought to the table?
Overall, the Patriots’ weapons have been a mixed bag so far this season. While showing stretches of dominance at times, the top options have been mostly inconsistent while the depth players have disappointed. As noted above, this has been a problem for New England: Brady oftentimes is too locked-in on his favorite targets – lately those have been Edelman, Gordon, White – which makes the unit more predictable and easier to defend. While the return of Gronkowski should help, other players like Chris Hogan or Phillip Dorsett still need to give Tom Brady the confidence to go their way.
Speaking of Gronkowski: while still standing out as a run blocker and pass protector, he has not looked like himself as a receiver this season most likely because of ankle and back injuries that have plagued him for the last few weeks. While he is expected to play on Sunday, it would not be a surprise to see the team limit his snaps to slowly get him back to his usual number of around 90-100% of playing time.
While Josh Gordon does not see the same amount of exposure, he still has become an integral member of the Patriots’ passing attack since joining the team via trade. Together with Julian Edelman, he forms the one-two punch at the wide receiver position and has usually been productive. He also has shown solid chemistry of playing alongside Brady and appears to have earned the quarterback’s trust fairly quickly – and sometimes this does not always yield the best results. Take the Patriots’ last game: against Tennessee, Brady targeted Gordon 12 times but connected just four times with him. That being said: with Gronkowski returning, his impact and effectiveness should increase again.
Finally, Sony Michel: the first-round rookie leads New England in rushing attempts (106), rushing yards (453), and rushing touchdowns (4) and has proven himself a capable and physical runner between the tackles. While injuries have been a concern – Michel missed the season opener and two of New England’s last three games, all because of knee issues – he has added another dimension to the Patriots’ offense: the team now has a ground game teams need to respect, which in turn might open things up for a passing game that has not yet lived up to its potential this season.
4. This is a Pats defense ranked just below the median in net yards per pass attempt allowed, rushing yards per attempt allowed, and points per drive allowed. What can you tell us about the strengths and weakness of this defense?
Two weeks ago, I would have said Stephon Gilmore and Trey Flowers are the strengths... and not much more. Since then, Gilmore has been beaten numerous times by Corey Davis, while Flowers had his most quiet game of the season. Still, both are very good players the Jets need to find a way to neutralize – either by not targeting or by using extra blockers. Other than that, the Patriots have been solid at times against the run with Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown as two sturdy defensive tackles in the middle. The team’s second and third cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones have also been really good at times in man-to-man situations. Also: linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy have had their moments against the run and the pass.
As can be seen, there is plenty of potential and talent on the Patriots defense. So what’s the problem? Consistency. The team has struggled big time to string together successful plays or sequences: it looked terrific against the Chiefs in the first half only to more or less fold in the second. It held an Aaron Rodgers-led offense to 17 points but gave up 34 to a Marcus Mariota-led one. Whether it is losing contain against mobile quarterbacks, being carved up by tight ends, displaying gap integrity – you name it. New England has had issues doing all those things consistently all year long. Maybe the bye week helped... but if not this unit certainly is a vulnerable one.
5. The AFC looks as crowded as it has in a long time. There are five other quarterbacks producing at elite levels. Four other teams have at least seven wins. If the playoffs started today, the Pats would be forced to play a Wild Card game for the first time since 2006. Does the path to the Super Bowl for this team feel significantly more difficult than it has for them in recent years? How does the current level of confidence in this team among yourself and Patriots fans compare to the past decade and a half?
Here’s one thing about Patriots fans: the highs are really high and the lows are really low – so this season has had it all. Because of that, it wouldn’t surprise me if a large group of fans is feeling worse about this team than it did about past ones. I am a bit more confident because a) Tom Brady and Bill Belichick – duh –, and b) the Patriots’ record against top teams in the league: they defeated the Chiefs, Texans, Packers and Bears, and lost against squads that are a combined 12-20. New England is playing its best football against the best competition which should help them come playoff time. Another thing when it comes to confidence: the Patriots are getting healthier, especially on offense. Gronkowski and Michel should be at full strength again soon, while top-five-guard-in-the-NFL Shaq Mason returns.
With all that in mind, I wouldn’t say that the path to the Super Bowl feels any more different than in the last few years because just like New England all the other contenders in the AFC have flaws: Kansas City lacks a competitive defense, the Steelers are too inconsistent on offense and defense, the Chargers and Texans are inexperienced. All of those teams are very, very good and capable of beating the Patriots at home or on the road – no doubt about – but as you can see, they all have their weaknesses just like New England. In the past, the AFC’s playoff picture looked pretty much the same which is why this year doesn’t feel much different.
What also adds to this feeling is that New England very much controls its own destiny when it comes to securing a first-round playoff bye: the team still plays the Steelers in week 15. And while the game takes place on the road, the Brady/Belichick Patriots have historically had Pittsburgh’s number. So, it is not unrealistic to think that the road to the title game will once again start with New England on a bye week – as has been the case every single year since the invention of the phonograph in 1877 (at least that’s what it feels like).