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Chief Thoughts: The state of the Patriots four weeks into the regular season

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Defense wins championships.

Green Bay Packers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

That was a great game. No, really it was. What looked like another classic New England Patriots beat down flipped after a Tom Brady interception and turned into a grueling defensive battle. There are going to be a lot of hot takes after this week. Let’s cut through the bull and get to what I think your takeaways really should be from this week.

State of the Offense

Remember when people thought I was alarmist about the offensive line? And remember when I said the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins were a terrible measuring stick and that the Buffalo Bills would prove what a disaster the Patriots’ offensive line currently is? Yeah. Well. That happened.

The biggest issue with this offense is not Tom Brady. It’s not the receivers. It’s the offensive line. That doesn’t absolve those parties of their issues — we will get to them in a bit. But the single biggest reason New England could not pass or run was that the offensive line could not run block or pass protect worth a damn. That’s not to minimize the issues with the receivers or Brady, but the critical weakness for this team is its offensive line.

The Bills’ D-line is good, but the Patriots will play at least three other defensive lines that are as good and better this year. If the offensive line does not play significantly better, you can scratch this team off the books for the championship. And this is not just an issue of the Patriots losing Isiah Wynn. Sure, Marshall Newhouse was every bit the dumpster fire I knew he would be — yes, I am still laughing at the people who thought he’d be okay — but the problems goes deeper than that.

Ted Karras has been a significant downgrade relative to David Andrews. Marcus Cannon’s slow regression from his 2016 high continues ever downward. Going into this week, I thought Shaq Mason had the three worst starts of his career and now he can extend that record to four. This team must perform better offensively in the trenches or it will not survive against playoff competition. Shoot, it probably won’t survive against some non-playoff teams. It’s as simple as that.

That being said, I do think it’s possible the line gets better. Every single player except Newhouse has proven capable of playing better than they did Sunday against comparable or even superior competition. There is zero reason to think they cannot play better than they are, albeit, playing better than they did Sunday is not going to be difficult.

Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman are banged up. The Bills have a good front seven but their strength is in their coverage abilities. It’s not shocking to me that the Patriots struggled to get open with their two best offensive players injured and the O-line giving Brady nanoseconds to get rid of the ball. That’s not to absolve the skill players. Gordon and Edelman both played poorly and struggled against man coverage. But even though the Patriots will face better pass rushers this might be the best coverage team they face all season.

Let’s get to Josh McDaniels, who got out-coached on Sunday even though it’s hard to delineate to what extent when the offense is so banged up and the players who are healthy are executing so poorly. I mean I can sit here and blame McDaniels for running here and not passing there but the Bills’ players were just dominating the Patriots offense. The Bills played man coverage and dared New England’s receivers to beat them. They couldn’t. The Patriots offense is not star-driven; it needs McDaniels to give it an edge. He clearly did not provide that against Buffalo.

And speaking of Tom Brady: even in the context of bad play calls and coaching, he struggled. That being said, I’m not going to read too much into this game because I think Brady had little to work with. His receivers were blanketed and his offensive line was poor. Yes, he missed some plays he normally makes and his skittishness in the pocket led to a terrible pick. I’m not ignoring this. But Brady benefits from the same excuses that McDaniels had. The job of the quarterback is to lift the team. Brady couldn’t. But it’s hard to blame one man for failing to lift a mountain.

The offense did him zero favors. Brady is a master of situational football. I think there was a clear understanding that if the Patriots could avoid turnovers they were going to be able to win the game. Think about it. Take away that gross interception he threw, kick a field goal instead, and that game is a lot more comfortable. I’m not absolving Brady but I won’t kill him for the same reason I didn’t sing his praises when he dominated Miami. Both of those games are probably going to be end up being outliers.

The only significant thing I will say about Brady is that this is not his team right now. I am used to thinking that no matter what happens Brady and the offense will bring the team back. I don’t think that anymore. I think that about Patrick Mahomes and his offense. I texted a friend earlier today that unless the Chiefs were down three touchdowns I didn’t need to hear about it. I don’t think that way about Tom Brady and this offense anymore. I didn’t last year and I doubt I will this year. This is a defensively led team for the time being, and unless the Patriots get fortunate with injuries, that will probably be the case all season.

I also think we should acknowledge the Bills. I think as fans, our gut reaction is to turn our criticism inward but the other side gets paid to play football too. The Bills defense came into the game as one of the best in football and they left the game with their reputation untarnished. I think the Bills are the Chicago Bears of the AFC. They field a championship defense, with an above average coaching staff, that will never ever win a championship because of the quarterback they chose to draft.

I do think Sean McDermott was a little salty after the game. It’s difficult to blame him. His emotional state of mind could not have been good. That being said, thinking Jonathan Jones deserved to be ejected is ridiculous. He tackled a runner in a game of inches. Shoot, even infamous Patriot hater Tony Dungy was defending Jones on that play. At the point that Dungy is defending the Patriots, you need to take a serious look at your allegation. It absolutely deserved to get flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact but the referees smartly took it no further.

You know Stephen Gostkowski is going to cost the Patriots a playoff seed and/or a playoff game. You know it in your bones. He’s not bad enough that you would move past him mid-season, I mean who else are you possibly going to get, but the Patriots will be looking for a kicker to draft next year unless his performance evens out over the season.

At the end of the day this was a divisional road win against a probable playoff team. The Patriots didn’t suffer any major injuries. The offense might have performed worse than I expected but nothing that happened was that surprising. The defense was going to have to do the heavy lifting in this game and it did. The Patriots are 4-0 after winning a divisional road game against a probable playoff team. They didn’t have a major injury. If we can’t find some joy in that as fans you’re not going to find a lot of joy in the NFL.

On the Matter of Antonio Brown

Let’s talk Antonio Brown for the last time. I’m not going to address any off-field issues. This is strictly football. I tend to find Tom Curran’s analysis suspect but there is no denying that he is plugged into Foxborough. When he reported that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady disagreed with Robert Kraft’s decision to cut Antonio Brown I trusted that report was accurate. The primary question I had was how the report made it to the light of day to begin with?

It’s not insignificant when a credible report surfaces that an owner flexed over the wishes of his head coach and his franchise quarterback. That’s not something you hear every day, it’s not something you hear from the disciplined Patriots, and it’s especially not something you hear when the person being cut was doing the sort of things Brown was doing. Well, I think this game gave us our answer.

Brady and Belichick understood how vulnerable this offense was. The paper concerns I have been bringing up the last two weeks? Brady and Belichick knew they were more than paper. This leaked because someone on the football side wanted Kraft to take the blame for the football decision. And let’s be clear. Cutting Brown will probably end up being a bad football decision. The offense absolutely could use him and Kraft removed him from the table without the league forcing him to do so. Brown’s ability to get open on short routes would have been extremely useful and it would also have freed Gordon and Edelman up against weaker coverage. Instead, the Patriots are probably going to end up paying Brown to sit on his couch. The math is just bad from a football perspective.

I stand by my analysis. Even if this deal did not work out it was the right move because the process was right. Just because you don’t get the ideal outcome in poker doesn’t mean you made the wrong move. The upside of Brown was worth the attempt. He easily would have been the difference between a nail-biter and a comfortable but close win last week. But man did the Patriots get the raw end of the gamble.

Remember when I said there was no downside to the Brown deal? I was wrong. I thought the Patriots would only cut Brown in such a way that they could easily recoup the cap space. That does not look like it will be the case. Furthermore, I didn’t think Brown’s behavior would be so catastrophic that it would make the owner of the franchise overrule his legendary quarterback and head coach. I clearly underestimated the extent of Brown’s issues and overestimated the ease at which I thought the Patriots could escape the guarantees.

The good thing is that we know the Patriots offense can be a lot better than it was against the Bills. When the offense was healthy the Patriots effortlessly dropped 30+ on a solid Steelers defense. They did that without Antonio Brown. It’s extremely possible they could do the same thing to the Chiefs’ defense and this defense is definitely good enough to slow down, albeit not stop, Kansas City.

If, and I know this is far from a guarantee, the Patriots are healthy down the stretch it’s very possible they can win a championship without Brown. Furthermore, Brown’s behavior was so erratic, it would have been a significant surprise if he survived the season. Even if Kraft had not put his foot down this quickly, he still possibly might have done something to get cut or suspended by the league. There was a chance he was not going to be a difference maker in the playoffs because he probably wasn’t going to make it to the playoffs.

If your only framework is a football perspective, I would say it’s never smart to take decision-making powers from the greatest coach and quarterback in the history of the NFL. If they want to keep that guy, you keep him. The smartest football decision would have probably been to run Brown into the ground for as long as he lasted. But Kraft is the owner. If he doesn’t want someone playing in his uniform, he has the right to make that call. I also don’t think he approached that decision from a pure football framework. I wouldn’t criticize him for choosing another framework to make that decision.

State of the Defense

Josh Allen is not a franchise quarterback. I said that when he was drafted. I said that last season. And I said that before the Patriots stole his soul at New Era Field on Sunday. None of that changes the fact that this New England defense is legitimate. The Bills offense has been slightly above the league average and the Patriots defense embarrassed it.

I know fans, including myself, found the game difficult but I’m convinced that Belichick loved it. He loves that this is a defensive led team and that he gets credit as their de-facto coordinator. He likes games that are about defensive and special teams playmaking, although I’m sure he’d love games where the Patriots are firing on both sides even more.

I thought Jamie Collins would play well enough to earn Pro Bowl honors and I pegged him as the Patriots’ breakout star. But did I expect him to be a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year? Not even a little. Do I expect him to cool off significantly as the season progresses? Yes, because the quality of quarterback play the Patriots face will improve. And his current statistics are just that stupid for a linebacker.

His last interception had a lot more to do with a crappy throw than it did with Collins being a playmaker. Same goes for one of his sacks — that was coverage, not him. Folk shouldn’t get carried away. Still, we’re a quarter of the way through the season and he has been excellent. I’m probably most impressed by the fact that he took over Dont’a Hightower’s role with the green dot and the defense did not skip a beat. Gotta be really happy with that.

Stephon Gilmore has regressed. Luckily, he was a first-team All-Pro so it doesn’t mean much. This was to be expected. Unless you are a Hall of Fame talent, playing at a first-team All-Pro level for more than a year at a time is improbable. That’s not to say Gilmore cannot get better as the season goes on, but the NFL hasn’t had a corner string together two shutdown seasons since the days of Darrelle Revis. It wouldn’t shock me if Gilmore’s play lags behind last year all season. Obviously, he is still good and will continue to be a major reason why the team wins. He just hasn’t, in my opinion, been a shutdown corner.

I said the fact that J.C. Jackson wasn’t a starter was proof of how deep the Patriots’ cornerback depth was and Jackson proved it. Yeah, he forgot how to tackle a time or two, but — newsflash! — you don’t pay corners to tackle. I had Jackson pegged as a ballhawk since his preseason debut so you can only imagine how funny it was to read that one of the biggest critiques of his college game was his inability to find the football. Sure, turnovers are probably the most contextual and unreliable defensive statistic, but they are also the most consequential. His second interception was a thing of beauty. And that doesn’t even include the punt block.

The Patriots’ linebacker group is every bit as deep as their corner group. Hightower being down would have been catastrophic in some seasons. This year, it hardly registered on my list of concerns. Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts are an excellent group of players, which is not something that probably would have been said a couple of years ago when Collins was underperforming in Cleveland and fans were shouting expletives at Roberts and Van Noy.

The Patriots’ defensive performance as a whole is made all the more impressive based on how terrible the offense was. Let’s be clear, this was different than Super Bowl 53. In that game, New England consistently moved the ball but just couldn’t score. This time, the Patriots went three-and-out like it was going out of style and struggled to move the ball all game. You could tell the defense was getting winded but they still hung in for four quarters.

This defense really is impressive but I’m not remotely convinced it can do anything more than hold the Chiefs to somewhere between 25 and 30 points. Everything I said about the defense is true but it still has been feasting on bad quarterback play. It’s a great sign that they are able to feast to this extent, but the Kansas City offense will benefit from the best quarterback, coordinator, and supporting cast in the league.

Do not expect the defense to carry this team to a championship like the Denver Broncos’ did in 2015. The Patriots have the No Fly Zone, and better linebackers, but they don’t have close to the level of pass rushers the Broncos did. Yeah, they have benefited from some good blitzes and coverage sacks but the down-to-down pressure just isn’t there and I doubt it will be all season. Run defense has been good though. Yeah, they gave some big ones against Buffalo, but overall I have been impressed. It’s sort of the inverse of the pass rush.

State of Bill Belichick

You can always tell when Bill is in a good mood because he gets candid in a way he normally is not.

“They didn’t bring the gunners back in so we just rushed off the edge... I think they put them in after that.”

“I’d say, yeah I’d say they are good football team.” — in the tone of someone actively weighing the whether they deserved the compliment and deciding finally that they did.

“I never thought that the ball was gonna fall out of the air. Jamie practically fair caught that,” — When discussing Collins’ game winning interception.

Less quotable statements included Belichick complimenting the Bills’ returner and noting that the only real defensive adjustment they made following Allen’s exit was the pass rush. There was not a single question about Antonio Brown but a reporter did manage to sneak in a question about whether they would bring in competition for Gostkowski. Belichick was fairly breezy about his response.

State of Sony Michel

Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you. The Patriots’ scheme does him zero favors. The run-blocking is terrible. Jakob Johnson is clearly a downgrade from James Develin... Michel is actually doing a much better job generating against stacked boxes than he did last year, though, his average for the game against Buffalo was a snooze-worthy 3.7, but given what he had to work with I actually think it’s impressive. We will see. I’ve never seen the Georgia Sony and unless the run-blocking and scheme improves I never will.

A huge part of my prediction on Michel being worth a first-round draft pick was how well he performed in space. I thought that when you combined that with developing him as a pass catcher he could be a lethal dual-threat in the vein of Alvin Kamara. The Patriots haven’t shown any interest in doing that. I’m assuming because he either can’t or because James White is that much better? Regardless of the answer it sure wasn’t worth a first if that is all the Patriots end up getting.

This has honestly been a terrible year for running backs. Look at Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley. Look at Michel and Melvin Gordon. The San Francisco 49ers paid two running backs nice salaries and they have been superseded by nobodies. Yeah Ezekiel Elliott got paid, but his team’s domination has not been reliant on him.

I’m such a big fan of running back play but the I think the stats guys are on the right side of this argument. The dynamism of running backs is too dependent on other factors and their production is too easily replaced from somewhere else. If they were more durable or consistent than other positions maybe you could justify it, but they are more injury-prone too. It’s just not smart.

That tangent has little to do with Michel in the here and now, though. It’s not really about him. It’s about the run-blocking and the play-calling making him less predictable. That’s not really in his hands.

State of the AFC

Two weeks ago, I said the conference was the Patriots and Chiefs. No one else. I still feel that way. Look, we’re only a quarter of the way into the season. Teams get hot and go on runs all the time. Teams lose games they should win. It happens. But through the first quarter of the season the rest of the AFC doesn’t look that good. That being said, the Chiefs and Patriots both looked mortal on Sunday.

It’s a crazy thing to say from a day when the Chiefs scored 34 and the Patriots’ defense only gave up one touchdown, but it is true. The Kansas City defense was exploited. New England’s offense was humiliated. Both teams’ wins had as much to do with their opponents shooting themselves in the foot as anything they did.

I’m nervous about the offense. I am. But if the Patriots defense really can slow Patrick Mahomes down, I think Tom Brady scores on the Chiefs’ defense. The team’s corners and linebackers are going to be a problem most of the season. If the O-line can get fixed, I like the Patriots’ chance on their own turf. Then I remember the Chiefs’ second-best player hasn’t even played the last three weeks and their offense just scored 34 points without Mahomes throwing a single touchdown. So who knows. Too far away to really tell right now.

State of the NFC

The NFC continues to be littered by good but not great teams. I warned people not to sleep on the Philadelphia Eagles. They dropped 34 points on a formerly stout defense and their vulnerable secondary was able to make the crucial play to steal a game against a good Green Bay Packers team. With Dallas’ loss to the Saints, the NFC East is now wide open.

Speaking of the Saints and Cowboys: that New Orleans defense is legit. Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Drew Brees are superstars so it’s natural that the offense gets the focus, but the defense carried that team last year. They have done the same the last two weeks, which is a sign of excellent coaching. The Saints could have fallen apart and instead they are rallying to keep themselves competitive until Brees returns. Shutting down Dallas’ offense was probably the most impressive defensive performance of the season given where the Cowboys ranked heading into the game.

Final Thoughts

I’ll end with this. Small sample bias. The Rams defense went from destroying the Browns to letting the freaking Buccaneers drop a fifty burger on them. The Browns went from getting abused by the Rams’ defense to dropping a forty burger on the Ravens. The Lions tied the Arizona Cardinals but went toe-to-toe with the Chiefs. The Eagles’ banged-up offense dropped 34 on the Packers despite the Green Bay defense dominating games for three straight weeks. The Giants defense, easily the least talented in football, mowed over the Redskins. The only real constant is the Chiefs offense.

The NFL is one of the greatest sports in the world because it’s unpredictable. Yeah, the Patriots offense was way better than it looked feasting on the Jets and Dolphins but I doubt they are really as bad as they were last Sunday. The Patriots don’t face another real test until they play the Browns in three weeks. By then we will have all convinced ourselves the offense is fixed and the Patriots really do have the new “Legion of Boom.”

I fully expect the Patriots will mow over three teams picking in the top-10 next year. Then we will, of course, break into hysterics when they face a real team again and aren’t utterly dominant. It’s football. It’s fun. Let’s enjoy the ride.