The margin of victory has been razor thin the last couple of weeks but the New England Patriots were clearly the better team both against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. I remain, to use an excellent description from the comments last week, a rosy-eyed pessimist about the team. I still think there are potentially catastrophic issues that need to be worked on, but this is the best I have felt about the Patriots all season.
When they approached their five-week death march I had them going 3-2 with wins against the Texans, Eagles, and Ravens and losses to the Cowboys and Chiefs. The Ravens’ demolition was jarring and it meant New England had to make up ground somewhere else. The Patriots got it out of the way early by shutting down one of the league’s top offenses in Week 12 and embarrassing the Cowboys on special teams.
There is plenty to talk about. Let’s get started.
State of the Game
The game against Dallas played out exactly how I expected it would play out if the Patriots won. Their cornerbacks would prove their dominance and the defense/special teams would make a big play to set up a scoring drive. That’s essentially what happened. The Cowboys offense is one of the best in the NFL, but the Patriots’ defensive personnel matched up well on paper. If your offense runs through your receivers, in the typical NFL fashion, this is going to be a difficult defense to beat.
Coverage doesn’t generally show up on television. The cameras are centered on the quarterback and the pass rush. There is nothing sexy about throwing the ball away or checking down because none of your intended receivers are open, but that plays a bigger role in dictating wins and losses than sacks. There was little available for Dak Prescott and the tough weather sometimes resulted incompletions even when his receivers got open.
Did the weather cut both ways? Sure it did. It’s probable the New England offense would have looked sharper in better conditions, but the bad weather was still clearly a net benefit for them. They are used to playing in terrible conditions and bad weather tends to favor teams that lean on their defense. That’s not to undermine the Patriots’ impressive efforts but it needs to be acknowledged.
The defining moment of the game was the blocked punt that was converted into a touchdown. Without that play, the entire game takes a different perspective. The defense and special teams have not just been good, though, they have been play-making units that are responsible for the Patriots’ last two wins.
State of the Offense
The offense showed encouraging signs. That’s good. But the production was still disappointing. That’s bad. There were extenuating circumstances to help explain the lack of production, however.
The Patriots were reliant on a beat-up Julian Edelman and two rookie receivers to power the offense. Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett II may not be dynamic, but they are both better than N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Myers. The Patriots’ reliance on the rookies led to predictably mixed results. Furthermore, the offense played in bad weather conditions. If we are going to take credit away from the defense for benefiting from the weather we obviously have to give credit to the offense for playing in those same conditions. New England’s receivers dropped seven (!) balls during the game. Obviously that’s not all attributable to the weather but it’s difficult to believe it did not play a role.
Finally, the Patriots offense had several members who were sick — most significantly right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was only able to play part of the game and was obviously limited while doing so.
All of those things matter. None of those things negate the fact that the Patriots haven’t scored more than 20 points in three weeks. The rushing attack looked the best it had all season, I thought Tom Brady looked the best he had for weeks, but it’s not like the Cowboys boast an impressive defense. The offense remains a major work in progress. Nothing I saw fundamentally changed anything that I thought from last week, though I do feel the arrow might be pointed in the right direction.
This still feels like an offense woefully dependent on special teams and defense to produce anything meaningful. If your offense cannot stand on its own two feet, it’s not much of an offense. I’m hopeful things get better but there is no sugarcoating the fact the Patriots’ production has been bad the last couple of weeks.
State of the Defense
The defense has been lights out. Can they keep it up? We will see. To be honest, I won’t buy the defense being historic until they accomplish something historic. The Chicago Bears were the best defense in football last year and you will never think of them in five years because they did not win anything with it. The Broncos’ 2015 defense only became legend after the playoffs: they weren’t even the number one scoring defense entering the post season. None of that analysis takes away from how excellent New England has been on this side of the ball. The Patriots’ has not only been the best defense in football but it has done so while carrying a moribund offense on its backs.
State of the Enemy
I think the Texans are a tough but very beatable foe. Their defense is ravaged by injury and nothing I’ve seen from their offense says it will be significantly better than Dallas’. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, though. Deshaun Watson is streaky. Catch him on an off-night and you might question his status as a franchise quarterback in this league. Catch him when he’s on fire and he will burn the building down. The Texans’ passing attack is very reliant on DeAndre Hopkins which is just fine for the Patriots because they have the best man corner in the game in Stephon Gilmore. Unfortunately, Houston also added back Will Fuller which significantly adds to the lethality of their passing attack. He’s hardly a second Hopkins but he can stretch defenses effectively.
On the other hand, the Texans have featured a punishing rushing attack at various points this season, which could spell trouble for the Patriots’ solid but unimpressive run defense. I think this will be a positive opportunity for the offense to get back on track and make up for a defense that might be due for a little regression after benefiting from poor weather and superior execution the last two weeks. The Texans’ cornerbacks are okay but not great. Their pass rush has taken brutal losses with the trade of Jadeveon Clowney and the loss of J.J. Watt to injured reserve. Whitney Mercilus is a good player but he makes a much better third than primary pass rusher. New England’s offensive line will have a nice reprieve between facing Demarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn from Dallas and Chris Jones and Frank Clark from the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots should be able to at least score in the low 20s, and with this defense they should not need more than that.
State of the Players
I got some crap in the comments for lacking consistency in my criticism of Isaiah Isaiah Wynn. And you know what? It’s a good point, so let’s provide a fair assessment. Wynn sucked in pass protection. He sucked. He gave up multiple pressures, a strip sack and a false start. That is not just not good. It is bad. Why am I high on Wynn in spite of this performance? Let me count the ways:
1.) He demonstrated better pass protection against the Steelers than Marshall Newhouse has all season. That tells me that Wynn’s upside as a pass blocker is significantly greater than Newhouse’s.
2.) The weather was clearly hampering both teams’ offensive linemen.
3.) The run blocking was demonstrably improved. Sony Michel’s best runs came toward the left. He looked like he did last year for the first time all season. This defense doesn’t have great passing weapons, so it has to run effectively in addition to throwing the ball. Seeing Wynn’s performance as a run blocker was encouraging.
4.) He’s a functional rookie. The probability of him getting better is significantly higher than Newhouse suddenly turning over a new leaf.
5.) He was playing his first game since coming off an injury designation. It may take him a couple of games to get a feel for it.
Long story short; he can’t be that bad in pass protection next week but I’d be shocked if he isn’t a significant upgrade over Newhouse down the stretch.
Tom Brady had one of his best games in weeks. The scoreboard was clearly the result of players dropping balls, tough conditions, and rough pass protection. He made several great throws that should put to rest any significant concerns regarding his arm strength. He seemed calmer in the pocket and his decision making, while not perfect, was strong. I don’t think that’s a Patriot take either. That seems to be the dominant narrative coming out of the game from the big media folk as well.
Simply put, if Brady continues to play more like he did against Dallas and the offense around him continues to improve my faith in the team’s prospects increases significantly. This isn’t to say I think Brady is playing like some elite quarterback completely held back by his cast. I don’t buy that. I’ve honestly been a little concerned with how he’s played at times and he was a significant part of the problem last week. It’s also worth noting the Dallas defense has made a lot of quarterbacks look solid. So we need to see more. All that being said; Brady was not part of the problem against Dallas and I have faith he will be part of the solution heading into the tail end of the season.
Jakobi Meyers had some nasty drops. He also got open more often than anyone not named Julian Edelman and converted several crucial third downs. Brady offered his most significant praise of the rookie to date after the game. I don’t know if that means anything, but he certainly said very little positive about Myers before this game. He also flashed a little after the catch. I still don’t think that will be a regular part of his game but he had one really nice after-the-catch-play where he broke a tackle and then a second one where he had a little shake for a first down. Honestly, one third down conversion looked eerily similiar to the shake you see from Edelman, though in this case Meyers juked himself too he and stumbled down for the first. My comparison for him entering the season was a slower Malcolm Mitchell and I still think we could get that by the end of this season and the playoffs.
N’Keal Harry had an absolutely dirty catch. He also had two terrible drops. Such is the life of a rookie. I’ve said before that I think the likelihood of Harry developing into a significant weapon this season is low but if he can help address the Patriots’ woeful red zone issues I’ll consider it a major win. Fingers crossed.
James White. Where did he go? It seems he’s been MIA the last couple of weeks. I’ll trust he will get back on track because the Patriots sure need him too.
Julian Edelman is such a beast. He’s injured but he still plays at a high level. He had some nasty drops against the Cowboys, but so did every receiver on that football field. I’m not too worried. Like Tom Brady, I thought he actually played better than he did against the Eagles even if the stats did not bear that out.
Sony Michel looked the best he had all season and it coincided with the closest thing he’s had to mediocre run blocking. Look, Dallas doesn’t have a great rush defense but I will take it. I thought Michel had a couple nice plays independent of the line too, which this offense is going to need a lot more of moving forward. The big thing I noticed was that he seemed to hit and clear the holes with more juice. Is he getting healthier? Way too small a sample size to judge.
Marcus Cannon was acknowledged by Bill Belichick as being so sick he could barely get his jersey on. He gets a pass for that game and major credit for resiliency.
The Patriots thought a flu wracked Cannon was better than Marshall Newhouse. I agree.
What about Shaq Mason? Okay, the weather conditions were bad. We’ve discussed that in depth. But he was one of the the best run-blocking guard in the NFL last year and really progressed in pass protection. This year he has struggled in both. I’ve repeatedly suggested he’s playing injured but there hasn’t been a single report this season to suggest that’s true beyond the ankle injury that kept him out of the Week 8 game against Cleveland. Look, progress in the NFL is not linear. Players can have an All-Pro season and then be just above mediocre the next year. It’s also not a coincidence that regression tends to coincide with players getting paid big contracts, something Mason just got paid last year. I do tend to believe that good players will even out in the end and so I am going to put my money down on him playing his best football down the stretch.
Reporter to Stephon Gilmore: “You shut down one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. What does that say about you?”
Stephon Gilmore to reporter: “You just said it.”
What. A. Stud.
State of the League
Let’s talk about the Baltimore Ravens. I’ve seen a lot of bad takes on their team and I want to correct the record. The first bad take is that the Ravens cannot win in the playoffs with a run-first quarterback. Of course they can. Their offensive line is the most dominant trench group in the AFC. They have multiple quality tight ends in a league bereft of quality tight end coverage players. The Patriots made the Super Bowl scoring 41 and 37 points with a ground and pound offense whose best receiver was a tight end just last year. The idea that the Ravens’ offense is guaranteed to fall apart against playoff-caliber defenses is ridiculous. The Rams’ and the Patriots’ defenses are two of the best in the NFL and Baltimore scored 45 and 30 (out of 37 total) points against them. And you think the Ravens rushing attack is gonna get weaker in the frigid cold of the playoffs? Give me a break.
Then there is the belief that the Ravens’ offense is some unstoppable machine. I think that take is equally bad. Are the Ravens impressive? Absolutely. But the NFL has seen a lot of very impressive offenses in their time and many of them were more impressive than the Ravens. Shoot, the 2018 Saints, Rams and Chiefs offenses were arguably all more impressive and that was just one year ago. Coincidentally, none of those teams won the Super Bowl. The Ravens’ offense could easily be enough to power the team to a championship, but a victory is far from resting under lock and key.
Another bad take I’ve heard is that the Ravens’ dominance should be discounted because it will be unsustainable. First off, we don’t know that for sure, even though I agree it’s incredibly unlikely Lamar Jackson can continue to do what he does and not eventually break. But, reality check: everything in the NFL is unsustainable. If Jackson is good enough for one year to win a Super Bowl it will immediately make him better than 90% of the quarterbacks that have rode through the NFL. The Patriots are constantly morphing and redefining themselves. That’s the only way they have been able to have success. But does the fact that the Patriots transitioned from high-flying passing offenses, into punishing ground attacks, into suffocating defenses make any of those teams less meaningful or special? Of course not.
The last take is the idea that the Ravens are the 2019 Chiefs. A sophomore quarterback tearing up the league with an MVP season doomed to defeat in the playoffs. I don’t buy that. The Ravens defense is not great but it is significantly better than the Chiefs’ from last year. Next to the Patriots they have the best secondary in the entire NFL. In my opinion, that makes them even more dangerous. Their offense may not be as good as Kansas City’s was, but their balance makes them even more dangerous. And let’s not pretend the Chiefs weren’t inches from making the Super Bowl themselves. Does that mean the Ravens are destined to win? Hell no.
With that being said, some more notes on the State of the NFL:
- It’s been fun to watch the Browns and Titans drag themselves back to a thin chance at relevancy.
- Don’t sleep on the Chiefs. Their biggest problem is injuries on offense. Do they still have a terrible run defense? Yes. But their pass defense is actually pretty good and if they can combine that with a healthy offense they could quickly find themselves the team to beat. The Ravens would seem to match up great with the Chiefs given their long span of terrible run defenses but don’t be so sure. The reason the Chiefs blew the doors off the Ravens earlier in the year is that they jumped out to a lead and forced the Ravens to pass far more often than they would like. Until a coach figures out a schematic response to stop Baltimore, the best pathway toward beating them is going to jumping out to a quick lead. I don’t know any team better at potentially doing that than one boasting a combination of Patrick Mahomes, loaded offensive personnel (when healthy), and heavily-scripted plays by Andy Reid.
- Damn, the 49ers are good. They would easily have the best defense in the NFL if it wasn’t for the Patriots. I think their tackle situation is a huge concern heading into the playoffs but they have put together an absolutely dominant defensive line — and the Eagles are a great example of how a great D-line can help carry a team deep into the playoffs. The big difference between the 49ers and the Eagles? The 49ers have a good secondary too. Every year a team in the bottom 10 seems to explode out of nowhere. In 2017, it was the Eagles who went from winning three games the previous year to being Super Bowl champions. The 49ers were the worst team in the NFL last year. This year they are going to be the NFC favorite to win the championship. Once again, the Patriots’ consistency is truly awe inspiring.
- How the mighty have fallen. I have very little faith in the Rams being anything but good at best for the next two years. They are going to go two straight years without a first-round draft pick and their cap space is going to be devoured by extremely expensive players. I don’t see how the Jalen Ramsey trade is worth it if they miss the playoffs the next two years, and that seems very possible right now. Time will tell. Narratives switch quickly in the NFL.
- The Titans are the most sneaky dangerous team in the NFL right now. Their offensive line has played much better the last couple of weeks and Derrick Henry has been the beneficiary. They have a good defense and their quarterback play, while not great, is significantly better than it was earlier in the season. If they make the playoffs I doubt they will be favored against any team they play. And they shouldn’t be. I give the Titans almost no chance of making the Super Bowl, but stealing a game against a better team in the playoffs? I could see that.
- Aaron Rodgers has put up two duds in the three weeks. I don’t think that means he’s still not a top-five quarterback. He is. But it just bothers me that he never seems to get the criticism Brady has to contend with. The only reason the daggers aren’t out on the Patriots’ right now is that they did it last year and New England won the Superbowl. Rodgers hasn’t been to, never mind won, the Super Bowl in nine years. Where are the daggers for him? Oh well. Sports media often stinks. I shouldn’t be wishing that odor on Rodgers out of spite but the hypocrisy sure does grind my gears.
- What’s more humiliating for Arthur Blank: Walking down to the field at 28-3 or letting Kyle Shanahan walk out the door for Dan Quinn? Woof.
All aboard the Wynn express. Offense still stinks but glimmers of hope do exist. Ravens are awesome but beatable. Defense and special teams are pure awesome but there can be no slowing down. They have to continue to be great for the franchise to have any chance. Tom Brady is generally playing well in spite of his supporting cast but he will need to play better for the team to win a ring. We’re unto the beatable Texans!