It seems like just yesterday New England fans were salivating over the offensive weapons at Tom Brady’s disposal.
Sure, they opened the season 8-0 with enormous margins of victory against every opponent excluding the Bills. But when the Patriots line up with an opponent too good to beat with superior talent alone, they are going to have to follow last year’s model and grind out those tough games.
There was a time when a Brady-to-Antonio Brown connection was going to take the league by storm. Josh Gordon was making one of the most impressive comebacks in sports. Now they’re gone, with only the serviceable veteran Mohamed Sanu to fill the void.
The reliable, veteran chain-movers Julian Edelman and James White were supposed to be nice complementary check-down guys. Now they are the focal point of the offense.
The defense remains New England’s greatest strength. Despite the 37-20 loss in Baltimore, their talent and schemes on that side of the ball are the most effective in the league besides maybe the 49ers’ this season.
I think Bill Belichick has a defensive plan to deal with MVP-candidate Lamar Jackson, but didn’t want to tip his hand early with the thought of an impending playoff matchup in mind. As a result, the Patriots could only win this game if their offense beat the Ravens’ offense in a shootout, which they couldn’t. Going forward, the Patriots will abandon the shootout strategy and go with a gameplan where they go first down to first down, dominate time of possession and control the pace of the game.
If you ignore the blowout wins over bad teams, you are left with Weeks 4 and 11, which were a 16-10 win over Buffalo and the most recent 17-10 win over Philadelphia.
The Bills are now 7-3 and currently hold an AFC Wildcard bid. The Eagles are 5-5 and still in the hunt in a crowded NFC playoff picture.
The similarities in both games are uncanny. Against Buffalo, New England ran the ball 23 times for 74 yards, and against the Eagles they ran one less time for 74 yards again. Brady threw for just 150 yards against the Bills and 216 against Philadelphia, not scoring in either win.
In both games, the Patriots won the turnover battle. Brady threw one interception as New England’s lone turnover against Buffalo, and they won that turnover battle 4-1. The Patriots didn’t turn over the ball once against Philadelphia, but forced Carson Wentz to lose a fumble. The Patriots defense had five sacks in both games.
No one player on New England’s offense had a statistically great game in either of these wins. But they did something that is deeply ingrained in the Patriots’ culture: Everybody did their job.
The defense sets the edge, pressures quarterbacks and has loads of talent in the secondary with Stephon Gilmore and the McCourty brothers. They know they can keep opponents low.
The offensive side of the ball does not go big like previous Patriot teams have. The weapons are underwhelming, the offensive line has played inconsistently and Brady is 42 years old, so his arm isn’t exactly getting stronger.
But Brady is still the smartest player on the field at any given time. Playing the ball-control game and grinding out long drives with first down after first down is well within Brady’s wheelhouse. Unless Rob Gronkowski comes out of retirement (I’m not getting my hopes up), games going forward are going to look more like the Buffalo and Philadelphia games than the New York and Miami games.
With games against the Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs next on the slate, we are sure to see more of the gritty, New England football that won the Super Bowl last year.