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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ week 9 win over the Packers

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The Patriots pack away the Packers.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Taking care of business. That’s been a key element of the Patriot dynasty. It may not always be pretty but the good teams win the games they should.

A win against Buffalo was never going to bring strong positive revelations. The Bills are one of the worst teams in the NFL. Even a fully fledged domination by the Patriots was always going to be more relaxing than exhilarating. The only serious repercussions that were going to be drawn out of this game were negative. The Patriot offense struggling unexpectedly. The Patriots defense proving incapable against an historically terrible Buffalo offense. An injury to a major player.

As it stands the offense did struggle and we did have an injury to a major player. However the defense proved extremely capable against a terrible offense and the Patriots covered the spread.

Taking care of business.

The Patriots took take of the Packer in the battle of the P’s (can’t believe NFL Media lead with the battle of the GOATs over that) and established for all time which quarterback was the greatest of all time. Right? Right!?

Barf. This game was never going to quell that debate in a meaningful way and neither quarterback were particularly impressive. Far more important is the fact that the Patriots remain one game behind the Chiefs for home field advantage and that they beat a quality opponent (ignore their record) in a decisive fashion. Next week, the Patriots will have to handle a scrappy Titans team, while the Chiefs will face off against the bumbling Cardinals.

Taking care of business. Let’s assume both teams do next week.

The week after next could be extremely interesting. The Patriots will get their bye and the Chiefs will face off against the previously undefeated Rams. In two weeks, the Patriots could find themselves with the top seed in the NFL without lifting a finger. Interesting thought.

Let’s get started.

Will the Real Slim Brady Please Stand Up

Tom Brady has been solid all season but outside of an outstanding shoot out against the Chiefs I really haven’t been super impressed by him. His accuracy has been questionable. He’s flat out missed open receivers. Excruciatingly, this has happened several times in the red zone. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that his issues extend beyond his arm strength. I mean Brady has never possessed a cannon. He’s always had a good arm but never a great one. If it was just arm strength you honestly might not even be too concerned provided it did not get worse. Drew Brees has had a slowly declining arm for years and he’s currently in the running for MVP.

The big concern to me is the decline in accuracy and decision making. Both things you would think would not be an issue if he is not physically declining. The reason I thought Tom could play until he was 43 was that the deep ball was never a terribly important part of his arsenal. He could succeed in the short and intermediate game at an elite level even if his arm strength declined. He’s not doing that now. He’s missing easy throws. He is not displaying dominant decision making. Brady was hardly the sole culprit for the team’s offensive struggles but he is part of the reason.

Make all the excuses you want. The two arguments I’ve heard are that his statistics are in line with his career averages and that he continues to throw to no one. His top target this year are running back, an injured Rob Gronkowski, a week four trade, and Julian Edelman coming off a four-week suspension for PED’s. I think the Gronk excuse is fine. It’s obvious Gronk has not been Gronk. The rest falls short.

Receiving backs playing a starring role in an offense is what a lot of major NFL offenses are doing today. That week four trade is one drug addiction away from potentially being one of the best receivers in the NFL and has already had two 100+ yard games. Edelman and Brady have been playing together for ages. Julian has looked fine on his return. That’s not an excuse. The offensive line, minus a few hiccups from clearly replacement level talent, has been good. Brady has missed easy throws. Open receivers. Displayed poor accuracy when presented with juicy red zone match ups. That has nothing to do with his weapons that is just him not playing well.

I think the second argument about his statistics is accurate but also flawed. Yes, Brady stats are in line with most of his statistics from 2011-2014. The thing is those are performances that are clear statistical regressions from the last three years. There was a quote from one of the tell-all books on the Patriots that during that time period the coaching staff believed they could have a similar success with any other top-10 quarterback that they were having with Tom. That thought process died off after the 2014 season. There is not a single quarterback in the NFL I’d trade out for Tom Brady between 2014-2017. But sans some of his clutchness (the final drive against the Chiefs was an example of the dominant machine Brady has been for years now) I think that analysis would mostly hold up so far this season.

Look, this is not a Peyton Manning situation where he has fallen off a cliff. Peyton knew his arm was toast and that he was not going to be able to play past 2015. He told Belichick himself after the AFC Championship. I am not worried Brady is going to collapse on us. Brady’s problem should be fixable in theory and you kind of have to assume he will fix it given his track record.

To an extent Brady is also a victim of the expectation game, something all great quarterbacks fall victim too. I still remember the criticism of Aaron Rodgers during the 2016 season. In particular, I remember a clip of Rodgers trashing his pad after realizing he had missed a wide open receiver in the red zone. The thing is that Rodgers’ stat line was still better than that of most quarterbacks in the NFL. It just wasn’t the elite play people were expecting. Rodgers ended up kicking it into gear and playing excellent the rest of the season, including a vintage performance against the Cowboys in the divisional playoff round.

Brady himself is no foreigner to slow starts and the criticism that follows. In his interview with for the 2014 NFL Top 100, ex-Patriot Aqib Talib noted that Brady started the year very slowly. Pundits boldly declared his time was over. But as Talib observed, from week seven on, Brady was probably the best player in the NFL.

I think the media has largely ignored his decline in play because it’s not been severe, the Patriots have beaten both of the “superior quarterbacks” and the scars of the last four years go deep. People questioned Brady in 2014 and he responded with two Super Bowl victories, one Super Bowl berth, an AFC championship berth, four MVP caliber seasons, and three MVP awards (one in the regular season, two in the Super Bowl). People just aren’t that interested in questioning Tom Brady until the Patriots start losing games.

Brady is still easily a top ten quarterback. He’s still clutch. According to Pro Football Focus, he leads the NFL in big time throws on third downs. Tom Brady was superb in the fourth quarter while Rodgers struggled. He’s just not the dominant machine play in and play out that we are used to. In theory, that’s a concern because this team is not much different from the Packers. If the quarterback does not play at an elite level than any chance of a championship is mostly out the window.

Or maybe not?

Boisterous Bill

I think Belichick was giddy last night. And no, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. He gushed about Rodgers, Brady, the front seven’s performance, and Patterson after the game. I honestly think the Patriots were as nervous about this contest as I was and to come out with a win was huge. Belichick was even asked about Brady’s 1,000-yard rushing total — and he smiled. He smiled at the end of the post-game interview. I think having his defense perform against Rodgers the way it did meant a lot to him and potentially on a personal level. I know waxing about Brady’s regression may seem like a debbie downer way to kick off the post game analysis but this truly was a great win.

Rushing Assault

When the rest of the league zigs the Patriots zag. But are they really zagging? If you read most modern analyst they speak of the rushing game with borderline disdain. They talk about how good running backs can be found anywhere. How the passing attack is absolutely superior in its efficiency. The running game is antiquated, they snicker.

The Saints, Chiefs and Rams lead the top three offenses in the NFL. They also happen to have the three best running backs in the NFL. It’s not a coincidence. Great NFL offenses have highly productive runners because productive run games are essential ingredients to a modern NFL offense. There are a variety of reasons for why that is true.

One reason is that it stops opposing pass rushers from teeing off which benefits the passing attack. The total lack of respect for the Patriots rushing attack is part of the reason Tom Brady was battered more than any other quarterback had been in a decade during the 2015 AFC Championship. Another reason is that it can compensate for when a quarterback or his receivers are having a poor day. The Lions offense could look explosive at times but if the passing attack struggled at all their entire offense fell to pieces because they had no rushing attack.

Productive runners also add versatility to the offense. There is a reason the Titans mediocre offense was successful against the vaunted Jaguars defense. Jacksonville was absolutely dominant against the pass but was more vulnerable to the rushing attack that the Tennessee offense was based around. The strong rushing attack also played a big role in the Titans’ upset of the Chiefs in the 2017 AFC divisional round. An effective rusher is also important to red zone efficiency, where the efficacy of the passing attack decreases significantly based on the inability to stretch the field against defenses. An effective ground game also tends to be critical on keeping offenses on schedule in short yardage situations.

Perhaps the best reason productive runners are critical to a modern NFL offense is the play action pass. Play action has become the holy grail of the most successful offensive schemes of the last five years. Both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, the two brightest young minds in football, center their offensive schemes around play action. And it’s not just the new kids on the block. Josh McDaniels offense also heavily involves play action. One of Brady’s best passes against Buffalo came after the Bills defense, perhaps foolishly, bit on play action. Play action has been key to some of the most efficient offenses of the last few years and an effective rushing attack is critical to its implementation.

Each of the Patriots’ signature wins this season (Miami, Chiefs, Packers) has been accompanied with almost 200 rushing yards. In reality that statistic should be well in excess of 200 when you consider how the Patriots use James White’ pass-catching abilities as an extension of the running game. The Patriots have been able to defeat two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL relying significantly on their rushing assault. Let’s hope they can keep it going.

Offensive Line Health Could Be Key

Cris Collinsworth had a decent moment when he noted Trent Brown’s “vicious” blocking for Cordarrelle Patterson’s rushing touchdown. The return of Marcus Cannon was clearly felt. The lack of Shaq Mason was also felt. I said before the season that I think this offensive line has all the makings of a top-10 unit. A healthy Cannon and Mason are probably the best run-blocking tackle-guard-duo in the NFL. David Andrews and Joe Thuney are both adequate. If Brown can continue to develop his run blocking in a linear fashion, the way he has so far this year, this offensive line could be dominant at run blocking and above average in pass protection. The combination of talent is unlikely to survive the offseason but it has the potential to be the best line Tom has had in a long time — assuming guys can get healthy. A big if.

D-MONEY

I had zero faith in the Patriots defense. Good thing I don’t coach it. Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn both had strong nights. The sack total remains very unimpressive but their ability to keep contain while pressuring the passer is noteworthy. Green Bay has two excellent tackles and a stout interior. Outside of the Steelers, the Patriots will not face a more complete line the rest of the season. The entire front seven did its job for the most part and they come out looking decent against very good competition.

Devin McCourty needs a pay cut. Devin McCourty is a decent player. These statements are not mutually exclusive. Justin Houston is a good player. He is good for close to 10 sacks a year and is tough against the run. If he were to come to New England he would be superior to every player in the front seven. Is he worth $21 million dollars? Hell no. I don’t want to wax too much about the pick six from last week. It was against a quarterback who was signed off the street and who was staring down his receiver like I would stare Scarlett Johansson walking down the street in a bikini. But it was still a pick six to ice a game that was closer than it appeared. McCourty needs a pay cut next year or he needs to be traded. I strongly believe that. He’s also the emotional heart of the secondary and I am glad he is on the team. The same analysis can be applied to Chung. He may not be a top strong safety but he’s capable of making plays now and again even if he also allows plays now and again.

If it weren’t for Patrick Peterson (I really wanted the Patriots to trade for him), Stephon Gilmore would probably be the best cornerback in the NFL this season. I was a fan of signing him and thought he could play at a Pro Bowl level but he’s definitely exceeded my expectations this year. Again, what’s impressive is not just the production but who he is producing against. Gilmore has taken on the likes of Sammy Watkins, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins. He’s come out looking dominant to strong in all of those exchanges.

PFF is a decent ballpark estimator and right now every individual starter on the Patriot offense grades out at least above average. This is not a dominant defense, though. There are no dominant defenses in the NFL this year. Anything can happen on any given Sunday. This is still the same personnel that gave up 40 points to the Chiefs and 31 points to the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky. But it appears like this defense could be superior to last year’s and that is significant.

Another significant note? New England is top-5 in takeaway’s. The only thing outside of who scores more points in the game that correlates more to victory is the turnover battle. Brian Flores has his team playing more aggressively than they have in a while and it shows. Congratulations to him.

Gordon Grows

Josh Gordon has been an upgrade over the existing roster but far from his “Flash” peak. This is to be expected, though it’s still a little disappointed. Gordon has already performed better than just about any other midseason wide receiver upgrade Bill Belichick has ever brought aboard. Yes, he’s been slower than you’d like but I still think the primary barrier here is time and off field concerns. As long as Gordon can continue to keep on the straight and narrow, I feel confident he will continue to grow as a receiver even if his limited time span in the offense and athletic decline means he never reaches particularly close to his “Flash” peak this season. His toughness and aggression is what have stood out the most to me. He has replaced Gronk as Brady’s 50/50 target, and even without elite speed, he offers more than Gronk when it comes to running away with the ball.

Patterson Party

You will remember that I came away pessimistic about Cordarrelle Patterson’s chances as a breakout receiver in one of my columns this summer. However, I also noted that the man is downright gifted with the ball in his hands. We saw that yesterday against the Packers. Look, I don’t want to rely on Patterson as the feature back but his production in this game was his single best performance to date. He was productive as a returner and a running back. It’s pretty cool that Ivan Fears was so defensive of Patterson after his lukewarm debut and that Patterson delivered against Green Bay and when the team needed it the most. I don’t see Patterson as an important cog in the long run, but his versatility would make him a fun resigning if the price is right.

General Management

If I told you the Patriots were going to trade Gronk, Devin McCourty, and Dont’a Hightower in order to sign Trent Brown, Trey Flowers and Josh Gordon to extensions what would your reaction be? All three of those men are playing at a higher level and are significantly younger. I am not saying the Patriots will do that or should. Keeping Gordon should be fairly easy given he is a restricted fee agent. Keeping Flowers and Brown is going to be nigh impossible without a significant corresponding move to free up cap space. One of those big names, and big contracts, is going to have to disappear if we want to sign both of those young studs in the off season.

Around the League

The race for the AFC East is over and it’s not even halfway through the season. The closest contender is two games behind the Patriots, has lost four of its last five, and is led by a giraffe posing as a man. The next closest is three games behind and ravaged by injuries. The worst is four games behind and has an historically bad offense. Five weeks ago, the Patriots were in a must win game against Miami. Now the rest of the AFC is essentially dust. With eight games left to play it should still be possible for the Patriots fortunes to reverse once more, but let’s be honest, that just is not going to happen barring some incredibly negative injury luck.

So I have been thinking about the Rams all-in narrative and I don’t see it anymore. They still have their first two picks in the draft and will have over $35 million in cap next year. They signed Brandin Cooks, Tood Gurley and Aaron Donald to extensions but you are talking about three good to All-Pro caliber players in their prime. A one-year $ 14 million dollar deal to Ndamukong Suh with a rookie quarterback and trading a couple of thirds for some defensive backs is aggressive but hardly selling the soul of the franchise. But now they are going to have to make it work without high draft picks or elite talent on rookie deals. Their left tackle is 37 years old and their right tackle is a free agent next year. The rest of the offensive line isn’t exactly quality. Lamarcus Joyner is going to have to be paid or moved on from, Aqib Talib is 33, and Marcus Peters will have to be paid in 2020. And of course they have to pay Jared Goff in 2021. I like their shots as much as any team for winning this year but we have yet to see a team get close even remotely in the ballpark (never mind close) to accomplishing what the Patriots have while picking low for years and paying their quarterback. Something tells me the Rams won’t get it done.

In 2015, Michael Lombardi said the Patriots gave up in the Dolphins game because they were so ravaged by injury and they felt the team was good enough to win in any stadium if they were healthy. They were almost right but the death trap that is Mile High did the Patriots in. It’s the Patriots and it’s any given Sunday. Losing home field through the playoffs is not proof the Patriots won’t succeed but I can’t help but think if the Patriots are forced to march into Arrowhead it could doom them like it did in Mile High in 2015.

The media bias for Rodgers is obnoxious. Everyone talks about how Brady had a pedestrian night with no mention of the fact that Rodgers performed even worse against arguably a worse defense. I sometimes (often) get annoyed with the “media is biased” takes. Of course the media has an agenda. Every story ever written since the dawn of time had an agenda. This article has an agenda. Get over it. I have no issue with sports writers noting Brady didn’t have a stellar game but damn point the pen at the other side too please. Something tells me if the Packers won, there wouldn’t be anywhere close to as much excuse making for Tom Brady. I think Rodgers’ on-the-field ceiling, not his consistency, not his clutchness, his ceiling, probably exceeds Brady’s. He’s an incredible player. He would be in the Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow. He probably has at least one more Super Bowl victory if he had Belichick as his head coach. I respect his willingness to be bold outside of football in a way Brady simply is not. However, I would pick Tom Brady over Aaron Rodgers to build my franchise around in a heart beat. Without hesitation. He’s not just an incredibly consistent and clutch player but he is an incredible leader. The Patriots are blessed to have him.

The Patriots are going to go to Dwayne Allen in a key situation during the playoffs because no one expects it. It’s either going to be a roaring success or a complete humiliation.

Another note. The Patriot double pass was not intended for James White. Brady admitted after the post game interview he did not expect the ball to go his way and that if he had been prepared and known what to do he probably could have gotten White a touchdown. Not that it mattered as James would grab a one-yard touchdown on his own just fine soon after.

P.S. Check out this fantastic interview between Rodney Harrison and Tom Brady. I wouldn’t say it’s a revelation, a decent chunk of it will be repetitive to most of you, but I really enjoyed it personally.