Week 13 marked the start of the end of the Patriots season. It's the first game of the final quarter. It's the home stretch. It's when they lost Rob Gronkowski and gained Sealver Siliga. It's where Tom Brady fell back to the mortal realm and where LeGarrette Blount ascended to legend.
Welcome to the playoffs, where the heroes are made up and the regular season doesn't matter. That's right, the regular season is like the impact of losing Wes Welker- pretty much nonexistent.
The loss of Gronk has brought about the rise of Julian Edelman, whose 50 targets in the last quarter of the season marks the greatest amount since Wes Welker's 50 targets in quarter 3 of 2012 (where the coincidentally lost Gronk for games 11 and 12). The last time 50 was exceeded was by Welker in quarter 1 of 2011, who notched 57 (coinciding with the loss of Aaron Hernandez in games 3 and 4).
Brady's modus operandi is to focus on his slot guy once the tight end goes missing, and he's been sticking to his script. Of course, this means that every single other team has recognized this fact and will scheme to remove Edelman from the playbook. Of course, Edelman's 345 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 targets is scarily similar to Welker's 328 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 targets (and close to Welker's 356 yards and 2 TDs on 46 targets in 2012Q2)- so Brady's going to force it to him no matter what.
Which leads us to projection one: Brady's completion percentage is about to increase by a hair, but his YPA is going to fall.
Whenever Brady loses his seam pushing targets, he defaults to checkdown mode. He stops looking for the deeper passes and instead will run the safe play for maybe 4-5 yards to the outlet receiver. That's all well in good, if it can keep the defense at bay, but those plays start to dry up as the game wears on. Defenses don't view the rarely targeted Michael Hoomanawanui as a threat. Brady didn't even look at Kenbrell Thompkins last week. That leaves Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen as the potential targets- and that allows defenses to clog the middle of the field.
The fallout from that clutter? The defense isn't spread out. Linebackers jam the middle of the field, allowing them to remain in position if the Patriots opt to run the ball. And when the Patriots are unable to run the ball, they become one dimensional, fall behind, and it makes it even easier for the opposition to defend. Jam Edelman. Game over.
Of course, there's a player who seems to laugh at the notion, which is projection two: LeGarrette Blount is going to run the show.
While the Patriots run game saw a visual increase with the return of Gronkowski (3 touchdowns over the first six games, 11 in the six games with Gronk), the expected fall once he was injured never happened. In fact, the Patriots were averaging 4.52 yards per carry to start the season. It fell to 4.45 YPC once Gronk returned, and it's spiked to 5.21 since he's been lost.
That's counter-intuitive, and that's been Blount. While the overall run game has improved over the final quarter of the season (Stevan Ridley's improved his YPC by nearly half a yard), no one's been better than Blount. His 6.0 YPC isn't a fluke- He's broken 11 tackles in the final quarter of the season, and he's averaged 3.07 yards after initial contact (per Pro Football Focus).
Read that again. If Blount was given the ball every single down, and was hit at the line of scrimmage, his average production would result in a touchdown every single drive. He can't be stopped. His power is matched only by his deceiving breakaway speed. Blount has ten plays where he's gained 10 or more yards in the final quarter of the season, which is two more than the 8 he had through 12 weeks. He's improving and that's what makes him dangerous.
Not only is Blount one of the most effective big backs of all time, but he's also an homage to the Super Bowl teams that the Patriots haven't been able to defeat. Bill Belichick will be the first to admit that he doesn't know everything and he's more than willing to adapt superior tactics into his scheme. Blount is a clear throwback to the Giants Brandon Jacobs and gives the Patriots the closer they've needed since Corey Dillon left the stadium.
Look for the Patriots to try and establish the run game to open up lanes for the Patriots receivers to break into the open field. As crazy as it would have sounded back in April, the Patriots championship hopes lie on the shoulders of Blount and his ability to run in the open field. Who'd have thought?
And when the Patriots need to stop the run, they have found their consistency after floundering the middle of the season.
Projection three: Sealver Siliga will be the Patriots defensive MVP.
Q1: With Vince Wilfork, the Patriots allowed 4.08 yards per carry.
Q2-3: Without Wilfork or Siliga, the Patriots allowed 4.64 yards per carry.
Q4: With Siliga, the Patriots have allowed 4.39 yards per carry.
He's not Wilfork. But he's the best they've got. Perhaps the most important value of Siliga is the consistency he's provided in the trenches; he's not just allowing those around him to make plays, he's come up huge with big plays of his own. Out of defensive tackles with 100+ snaps (Siliga has 221 per PFF), Siliga ranks 7th in terms of defensive stops per snap. With regards to overall disruption (including QB hurries, hits, and sacks), Siliga ranks 9th (Tommy Kelly ranks 6th!).
For those wanting comparisons, there were 97 qualifying DTs. Kelly was 6th, Siliga 9th, Joe Vellano 40th, Chris Jones 62nd, Vince Wilfork 88th, Isaac Sopoaga 90th. It's one thing to understand Wilfork's value to the defense, but seeing Siliga produce individual stats, while allowing those around him to perform, has been a thing of beauty. In fact, I'd say with confidence that Siliga has been a better player than Wilfork was to start the season. Adding Siliga to the rotation next season should give Wilfork his much needed rest to allow him to remain effective for every game.
Siliga has been a steal for the Patriots, who needed a tremendous upgrade in the middle of the field. In the playoffs, the Patriots will have to face Giovanni Bernard, Donald Brown, Jamaal Charles, Ryan Matthews, or Knowshon Moreno- all dangerous players in their own right. If Siliga can stay strong and force the opposition to remain one-dimensional, then he'll be the defensive MVP.
So those are the nuggets from the final quarter of the season. Brady's troubling reliance on Edelman, Blount's dominant emergence, and Siliga's huge play. If the Patriots have spent their bye week honing in all the three factors, then they'll be all the better when the visiting team comes to Gillette.