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Chief Thoughts: The state of the Patriots heading into their Week 12 game against the Cowboys

A hard earned W.

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The New England Patriots won a tough road game against a competitive Philadelphia Eagles team last Sunday. There are plenty of negative long-term trends worth addressing, and we will get to them. But as Keynes would say, we are all dead in the long run. Two weeks ago, the 1-7 Falcons beat the 7-1 Saints. When the Saints are going to be in the thick of the playoffs, the Falcons are going to be firing their head coach and engaging in a soft rebuild.

Winning, however you can, is what matters. The Patriots got a road win against a competitive Eagles team in tough conditions and the playoffs will continue to go through New England.

State of the Game

Both quarterbacks struggled to overcome tough winds, tough defenses, and even tougher offensive supporting casts. In many ways the Eagles and Patriot offenses are struggling with the exact same issues. Injuries along the offensive line and a dearth of talent at the skill positions. The pass rush was ferocious from both sides, although Tom Brady did a much better job of avoiding sacks with his quick release when he was under just as much pressure as Carson Wentz.

Both defenses played their heart out but the Patriots would have the edge. Despite an ugly start to the game the team’s defense was able to rally and dominate for the rest of the match. A perfectly timed trick play by Josh McDaniels ended up being the difference-maker in a game that was as close as it gets. If Nelson Aghalor make a difficult but makeable catch the Eagles could have either tied the game or gone for a game-winning two point conversion.

State of the Defense

The Patriots limited an Eagles offense ranked 11th in DVOA to 10 points. That is impressive. If they can put forth a similar performance against a Dallas Cowboys offense ranked first in DVOA they will take a major step toward earning the commendation of being historic. As it stands, I remain entrenched in my previous position. The Patriots defense is very good but not historic. It cannot carry a bad offense to a Super Bowl victory. The offense has to pick up if it plans on lifting a seventh Lombardi trophy.

So far the Patriots defense has played exactly one team ranked in the top ten of offensive DVOA and they gave up 30 points. I’m willing to look past that to an extent. The Ravens are running a unique scheme and past historic defenses have generally had a stinker or two on their resume. But only one or two. The Patriots used up one. They probably cannot afford more than one more. The most encouraging aspect of the game in Philadelphia from a defensive perspective was keeping the Eagles’ rushing attack to less than 100 yards.

Coming off consecutive games where the run defense struggled it is certainly encouraging to see the team can be tough against a solid rushing attack.

State of the Offense

As said the above, the offense has to perform better to win a Super Bowl in my opinion. That shouldn’t be perceived as a hot take, I think most folk would strongly agree. Josh McDaniels said the turning point last season came when he asked himself what the offense did best and then built a scheme around that strength. He decided they were pretty damn good at rushing the football and they rode that identity to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

What does this offense do best? It’s certainly not running the football. The Patriots’ running game has been moribund for weeks. Is it a hurry-up offense? Marlon Humphrey is one of the Ravens’ best defensive players and he described New England’s hurry-up as “unstoppable” in a post-game interview after the Ravens’ decisive win. That was probably the best the offense has looked against a quality opponent all season but it seems contrarian to build an offensive identity that erodes the strengths of a defensive-led team. I’m also not sure you can build an offensive identity around the hurry-up offense.

In truth, I do not think that the secret to unlocking the Patriots offense is a schematic identity. I’m not saying that won’t help. I’m saying it’s not the core issue of the offense. The core issue is that the offensive personnel just isn’t playing well. It seems like every game we are witness to skill players running the wrong routes, linemen inconsistently blocking, running backs who make poor decisions or drop balls, and a quarterback who is failing to execute the throws he used to complete with mechanical efficiency. The run on 3rd and 11 was a damning indictment of the team’s offensive players. It was the play-call of a coaching staff that has lost faith in its offense.

The media has placed their attention on Tom Brady’s post-game pessimism for good reason. He looked resigned and defeated. A far cry from his positive reaction to a similar defensive slug fest with the Bills earlier that year. But I would argue Bill Belichick’s optimistic presser was actually more concerning. Belichick is a harsh and demanding coach, rare to praise and quick to criticize. The way he kept going out of his way to single out rare moments of offensive success was bizarre and probably speaks to the downtrodden spirit of the offense.

At the end of the day, players have to start running the right routes, making the right throws, not drop the ball, and block better. There is no schematic adjustment that is going to make this offense perform measurably better. Players just have to play better football.

I believe that the offense can be better. The Patriots currently rank 12th in offensive DVOA, right outside of the top ten. The statistics are telling us that there is juice to work with here. New England just has to find a way to harness it more consistently. As long as the defense can keep games below 25 points, the Patriots should be competitive in every game they play. The benefit of having a good defense is that the burden on the offense is not as high. The Patriots don’t have to score 30+ points a game like they have reliably done in the past because the defense has only allowed 30 points in a game once this entire season.

I’m not going to lie and say I’m not deeply troubled by the offense. I am. But there are six weeks of regular season play left. That is an eternity in football. We can judge this team’s playoffs prospects once it actually reaches the postseason. Until then, I am going to trust that the greatest dynasty in sports will use the next six weeks to make itself as competitive as possible.

State of the Players

I understand what defenders of Marshall Newhouse are trying to say. They are saying we should not kill a player for being something he cannot be. They are acknowledging there was no one with a decent probability of being better available. I am sure he is a good human being and I respect him for fighting his ass off in a difficult situation. It’s a credit to the human being. But let’s call a spade a spade.

He’s comparatively better than other street free agents? The Taliban is comparatively better than Al-Qaeda but you don’t see people take day trips through Kandahar. Newhouse is a game-wrecking weakness that would sink the entire season if a replacement was not available. Pray to whatever god or forces you believe in because this team will not win a Lombardi Trophy with him on the field.

Is there anything more Belichick than having the best rookie you’ve drafted in years be a punter?

Sony Michel has never displayed the elite traits he demonstrated at Georgia. That doesn’t mean he is a bad running back — he showed decisiveness and vision during his historic playoff run and the speed at which the Patriots began to rely on him speaks to his skill in pass protection. The fact that the Patriots were able to ride him to a championship ensures he was worth the pick at 31. None of those things change the fact that he’s been a disappointment this season. Irrespective of the terrible run blocking, Michel has not produced on his own nor as he been a major asset as a pass catcher.

I was not concerned that N’Keal Harry wasn’t active for the Ravens game; he probably entered Week 9 sitting sixth on the deep-firld target chart behind Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett II, Benjamin Watson, and Jakobi Meyers. I did not see that as a major cause for concern for a rookie who has yet to play a regular season game and missed parts of training camp. I would have been disappointed if he were not active for the Eagles game, though. It would have indicated that despite weeks of practice he hasn’t surpassed Meyers on the depth chart. I’m not really concerned about draft pedigree but the undrafted rookie is sitting on 176 yards and zero touchdowns. He doesn’t offer much after the catch and is not a very good run blocker. He’s been a nice surprise as a UDFA but I’d hope New England’s first-round pick would have more value than that.

Luckily, he was active. His stat line was pedestrian but he flashed the ability to produce after the catch which is crucial. Would it be nice if Harry was able to step in and dominant as a rookie? Sure. But based on the language coming out of Foxborough I would not expect that to happen. Nor does that mean Harry won’t be a great pick. Rob Gronkowski was a Hall of Fame talent who participated in every game of the season and he did not manage a 100-yard game until the final week of the season.

Now obviously comparing a tight end and a wide receiver is not an apple-to-apple comparison, and Gronk also had 10 touchdowns on the season that year, but it illustrates that the developmental cycle of league greats can take time. My hope is that Harry can be a valuable rotational piece through the end of the season. If he doesn’t manage at least that it would be very disappointing, albeit far from the end of the world or a definitive condemnation of his career.

I commented that my biggest concern about Gunner Olszewski being placed on injured reserve was that it would lead to an injury to a more important player. Hours later it was reported Sanu was not practicing. If you recall, Sanu looked gimpy after a punt return with the Eagles. Yikes.

Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower lead the NFL in pressures from off-the-ball linebackers. Hightower has also been stout against the run. Collins has been a turnover machine. Kyle Van Noy tied his previous career high in sacks with six weeks left in the season. Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley would be mediocre starters on most teams. There might be a better linebacker group than what the Patriots have, but you’d have to point them out to me.

I actually thought Stephon Gilmore started out the year slowly by his standards but he’s been fantastic the last month. I wish he had better hands though. He’s dropped a couple of surefire interceptions this year. In news that will shock no one the, Patriots have the best cornerback group in the NFL.

Danny Shelton had a big day against the Eagles. The Patriots will need more from him. The team’s defensive linemen performance in a prospective Ravens rematch could easily be the decisive factor in the game.

Tom Brady had a bad game last week. So did Deshaun Watson. So did Carson Wentz. So did Jared Goff. So did Patrick Mahomes. All quarterbacks in their twenties. All quarterbacks with MVP-caliber seasons under their belt. I guarantee you Brady would look better with better support. We can complain that he throws balls away and doesn’t stand tall in the pocket but the alternative could easily be Phillip Rivers throwing four picks in a game. When every receiver on your roster except for Julian Edelman makes the Eagles secondary look like lock-down man corners you have a serious problem.

But the reports of Brady’s regression are spot on. I said he regressed early last season, and while I understand people were skeptical, you’re just burying your head in the sand if you deny it now. Brady cannot rely on athleticism or absurd arm talent. His game is predicated on superior decision-making, collection under pressure, and his ability to make short throws with mechanical efficiency. He’s done none of these things this season. Brady is not the primary the reason the offense is struggling but he has to be better at the things he can control. He can’t be screwing up screen passes against the Baltimore Ravens. It’s not fair, but Brady has to ride harder with the horses he has. He has no other choice.

Isaiah Wynn coming back is massive. Yes, expecting the entire offense to supercharge because of what is functionally a rookie tackle is unrealistic, but offensive lines are often the result of their weakest link. I would always prefer five slightly above-average linemen than four good ones and one that sucks because you can still trash a quarterback’s day just picking on the one terrible tackle. I therefore expect Wynn to make a significant difference, but there is a lot more that needs to be fixed for this offense to take off.

The reason Edelman has so many targets is largely because he is the only guy reliably getting open. I love what he brings to the table, but he’s not Demaryius Thomas or DeAndre Hopkins. He was spectacular during the playoffs last year but outside of that he’s never been a guy that could carry on offense on his back through a season. He’s playing through rib and shoulder injuries and doing a great job but someone has got to step up to help him or he’s gonna break.

State of Antonio Brown

It is my opinion that the campaign of Instagram likes from New England’s big stars on Antonio Brown’s posts are a message to ownership that they would be happy to welcome AB back. This message was probably received but it won’t matter. Brown is not walking through the doors at Gillette Stadium. This offense needs Brown. This offense will not get Antonio Brown... Probably.

State of the Enemy

I think there have been three big tests this season. The Bills, the Ravens, and the Eagles. The Patriots are two of three. They need to be three of four. The Cowboys are going to be another big test on Sunday. Defensively, they have not played well for weeks and it should be an opportunity for the Patriots offense to get back on track. Offensively, the Cowboys are the top-ranked team in DVOA and will provide a massive challenge for the Patriots’ defense. The positive news is that the Cowboys offense currently runs through their receivers which should play to New England’s defensive strength.

The Cowboys are three deep with quality receivers and this match up will be a big opportunity for the Patriots’ corners to prove their supremacy in the league. Ezekiel Elliott provides a major problem for the defense as both a rusher and a receiver. Expect to see the Cowboys test whether the Patriots run defense can consistently stop the run or whether the Eagles game was simply a high point in an up-and-down season for the rush defense. This is probably the Patriots’ second toughest game left on the schedule. Cross your fingers. It’s gonna be an interesting ride.

State of the League

I don’t understand this love affair with the Ravens offense. They are significantly less impressive than the Chiefs’ offense was just one year ago. Newsflash: the playoffs are not won in November and the way a team looks now compared to then is often night and day. Right around this time last year the Saints and Rams were dropping 40- and 50-burgers on opposing defenses. The Saints never scored more than 23 points in the playoffs and the Rams scored 3 points in the Super Bowl.

Do I think Baltimore should be the odds-on favorite to make the Super Bowl? Yes. If the Patriots played the Ravens this weekend, I would pick the Ravens to win. They are playing fantastic football. But we got a ton of football left between now and then. The Ravens may end up being an unstoppable juggernaut but they have not done anything close to earning that narrative yet. Step back from the ledge.

I actually like Myles Garrett but the indefinite suspension was absolutely the right move by the league.

Dak Prescott is the perfect reinforcement for my argument that Tom Brady would play much better with a better supporting cast. A large reason Prescott is playing better is because the supporting cast around him was upgraded significantly. That’s not a shot at him, he deserves credit for returning to his rookie form. I think a smart way to judge a franchise quarterback is how he plays when he has a strong cast around him. Is he above average or is he a part of the MVP conversation? Prescott is definitely part of the MVP conversation. That suggests he may actually be worth an extension. But I’m confident that if you gave Prescott Brady’s cast the media narrative would be that he is toast. Poor Tom.