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Chief Thoughts: Patriots got jobbed but still share the blame for not cashing in on opportunities

Related: Pats Pulpit Podcast Episode 178: The Patriots are on to Cincinnati- can they finally fix the offense?

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I now self-identify as a New Orleans Saint. Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs was one of the worst episode of refereeing I have ever seen in my life. The Patriots got robbed. There is no debating it. There is no denying it. The Patriots were robbed. They played well enough to beat the Chiefs but they could not play well enough to beat the Chiefs and the referees.

But the hard truth, and the truth that manifests itself as the vomiting inducing rage begins to subside, is that the Patriots continue to have fundamental flaws that could prevent them from winning a title and there does not appear to be a fix for those issues in sight. The problem with the Patriots is not that they are a terrible team. The problem with the Patriots is that they aren’t a championship team. They have a very good defense. They can make plays on special teams. They have good coaching. But their offense is terrible. That’s not a bad team. It’s just not a great one.

I thought the Patriots would lose against the Chiefs but was hopeful to see something in the loss to give confidence that New England could make some noise in the playoffs. On one hand, I feel like the team showed enough to think it’s possible it can win a playoff game at home. On the other, however, I’m starting to lose faith that the offense can be fixed.

Plenty to talk about. Let’s get started.

State of the Game

The Chiefs sold out against the run and hoped their talent in the passing game would win out against the Patriots’ aerial attack. They were right. New England’s offensive line got beaten black and blue in pass protection and was unable to get the ball rolling on the ground. The Patriots defense proved their mettle by slowing down the Chiefs offense but were, unsurprisingly, unable to overcome a horrendous Patriot offense and some bad refereeing.

Also, not all picks are created equal. When the Patriots got an interception at the Kansas City 40, the Chiefs defense stiffened and held the Patriots to zip. Tom Brady turned the ball over right outside his own end zone and the Chiefs capitalized with a touchdown. The Patriots played like crap in the first half and it showed in the lopsided scoring differential of 20-7. Still, Nate Ebner’s blocked punt and that one interception gave the Patriots offense enough opportunity to steal the game, had it not been for the referees.

The margin for victory is razor thin in the NFL. Unless you are a historic team the chances of overcoming 14 points stolen by the referees against playoff competition are very low. For a flawed 2019 Patriots, the challenge was insurmountable. But as furious as I might be with the hacks dressed up as zebras you cannot deny the Patriots left a lot on the field. It’s frustrating and everyone shares in the blame. There were plenty of things the Patriots could have, and usually would, do better. This team therefore feels a like the offensive version of 2009 when the coaching staff could just not get the team to play defense at the level it needed to play.

And credit to the Chiefs, whose dominant offensive performance in the second quarter put them in a position to win and whose defense played tough when it needed too. I know it’s sour grapes but it still bothers me to give them too much credit when they were bailed out so many times by the referee. But the realist in me understands there is no denying they made some big plays. They were the 30th ranked rushing defense in the NFL coming into the game and they locked down the Patriots rushing attack like they were borderline elite.

I’d like to say that had more to do with the Chiefs than it does the Patriots but let’s be honest, it mostly had to do with the Patriots. We’re long past the point where opposing defenses get major kudos for locking this offense down. There I go again. Sour grapes.

State of the Season

Writing off a team that is almost assuredly going to make the postseason is premature. You never know what will happen. The key is getting to the dance and it would take a catastrophic collapse for the Patriots not to get a ticket. That being said it’s difficult to see the Patriots going the distance. Last year, they lost to some terrible teams but also beat most of the playoff teams in the NFL. Most of their struggles occurred on the road but they also beat the NFC North division champions and the league’s number one defense in their own stadium. It was fair to wonder if the Patriots were good enough to go on the road and beat the record-setting Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium but you were confident that the team would be competitive.

This year, however, you would struggle to find a single signature win to hang your hat on. They beat the Browns which was encouraging before Cleveland made it clear it was only the third best team in a division featuring a quarterback best known for duck hunting. Then they beat the Eagles who promptly lost to Miami. Then they beat the Cowboys, the league’s top ranked offense in DVOA at that point and one that has not won a game since. The only “good” team they have beaten are the Bills at the beginning of the season, and that team has Josh Allen at quarterback and is benefitting from the same soft schedule the Patriots benefited from early on.

The first three teams I mentioned all have losing records and they are three of the top four teams the Patriots have beaten. The Browns having a losing record. The Eagles have a losing record. The Cowboys have a losing record. The only team with a winning record they have beaten all season are the Bills. Simply put, the Patriots’ problems this year are the inverse of last year. They can beat up on the bad teams but have lost to 75% of the good teams they have played: New England have now lost to the presumptive leaders of every division in the AFC. Ouch.

The Patriots honestly remind me of a slightly better version of the Steelers. They have too much defensive talent and coaching not to be decent but they are so fundamentally flawed on offense that it seems difficult to construct a realistic scenario where they win a Super Bowl.

I think the best-case scenario for this team is to win out, win a divisional game at home, and ride into what will probably be a decisive loss on the road. And if it weren’t the Patriots, we would be thrilled with that. If I wasn’t convinced that they are going into a nasty offseason that will hallow out an already talent-deprived team, I wouldn’t be so frustrated. If Tom Brady wasn’t 42 and I knew the team would get five more seasons out of the greatest of all time I probably wouldn’t feel as upset about it.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe the Patriots can’t possibly turn it around like some talking heads suggest. This the freaking Patriots. Do you really want to count them out in January? But I’m not enough of a homer that I can’t recognize the the odds are currently stacked against them.

State of Tom Brady

I will beat this horse until it is a bloody paste, and then I beat it again. Tom Brady is not responsible for this offense’s poor production. He has not regressed from last year. Brady’s only sin is no longer being the GOAT who used to be able to carry the corpse of the Patriots offense into the top ten year after year.

Is Brady elite? Hell no.

Is Brady bad? No.

Is Brady good? Yes.

I don’t know what people expect from an offense with terrible pass protection, bad run blocking, zero above average outside threats or tight ends, and running backs that cannot produce on their own. This offense is Tom Brady, a receiving back, a slot receiver, and one or two Josh McDaniels trick plays. That’s it.

Ask yourself how would Jimmy Garoppolo perform if you put him in this offense? Would that fix the problem? No. What if you gave Tom Brady the receiving duo of Emmanuel Sanders and George Kittle? Would that fix the offense? You bet your butt it would make it a heck of a lot better. You think Lamar Jackson has success with this offensive line? You think Aaron Rodgers has success with these weapons when he cannot even find success with better weapons on his own team? Give me a break.

My concern about Brady this year is not that he’s bad. My concern is that every passing year increases the chances he will finally become bad and the Patriots have wasted the last good season of the most clutch quarterback in the history with a craptastic supporting cast.

This team has a personnel problem. That personnel problem does not extend to the quarterback position. Not yet at least.

State of the General Manager

In my opinion, Bill Belichick the Head Coach’s worst enemy is not Belichick the GM — Belichick the GM’s worst enemy has been Belichick the Drafter. The Patriots had a strong string of drafting success from 2009-2013 but have struggled since then. Belichick is one of the best general managers in the league, but he has built that reputation more on his canny free agent signings and stupendous trades than his talent on draft day. He deserves credit for having to swing with minimal draft capital most seasons. But keep in mind, the Patriots’ draft capital ranked in the top 10 and the top 17 the last two years: they’ve had enough capital that you would expect something significant to show for it.

I think that undermines some of the argument that his biggest issue is the lack of capital, albeit, we do not yet know how the 2018-2019 draft classes are going to mature.

With the Patriots’ clear talent gap becoming an albatross for the year, however, is it legitimate to hold Belichick responsible for the crisis on the offense? Yes, but mostly no. One of the things that makes Belichick so good is his ability to identify and rectify mistakes. In 2018, the Patriots decided they had to run the ball better which was not an issue a lot of people thought about exiting the defensive thrashing of Super Bowl 52, but the rushing attack eventually became the center pole for the team’s championship run.

I’d argue Belichick did attack the offense aggressively. He’s spent three first-round draft picks on offense over the last two years. Rumor is that he attempted to trade for Odell Beckham. He drafted a wide receiver with his first-round pick this year. He signed a slew of outside receivers culminating in Antonio Brown. Josh Gordon had done great work before his indefinite suspension. What happened? None of the free agents panned out. Antonio Brown went nuclear. Gordon got himself traded. Isaiah Wynn and N’Keal Harry have been made of glass. Sony Michel has been a bust this year from a capital-to-production standpoint.

So does Belichick the GM deserve some of the blame? Sure. He could have drafted more successfully. No one forced him to draft a cornerback projects and busts while multiple tight ends and receivers were available or within striking distance. No one forced him to draft guys like Duke Dawson when everyone else on the planet knows there are better options on the table. I mean, there is a big difference between drafting a Ja’Whaun Bentley in the fifth round that some folks don’t think should be drafted, and drafting him 32nd in the second round.

It’s not exactly like N’Keal Harry was the universal scouting selection after Marquise Brown. You can argue Sony Michel was a draftnik favorite to go close to where the Patriots selected him, and you would be right, but amateur draft analysts getting paid pennies on the dollar are not an empire of professional high paid scouts. You’re damn right the Patriots should be held to a higher standard. It’s not like the argument against picking running backs at the top of the draft is avant-garde. I don’t think it is unfair to say that the Patriots might have a process problem with the draft because they’ve had pretty mediocre results for years. It’s impressive what the Patriots have done in rounds four to seven — the talent that can represent a good pick there is not the same as a talent that represents a good value in round three to five.

The Patriots haven’t drafted a single Pro Bowler since 2013. That’s great when guys like Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, and Devin McCourty continue to ball out but it becomes a huge problem when guys like Brady regress and Gronkowski retires. Someone has to be waiting in the wings. Signing the likes of Stephon Gilmore and trading for guys like Jason McCourty help a ton, but at a certain point salary cap demands essentially require teams to have productive players on rookie contracts to be competitive — and the Patriots have next to none.

But at the same time, a lot of this is just bad luck. Wynn had one major injury in college. If you took off the board anyone with a single major injury there wouldn’t be much of a draft board left. It’s not Belichick’s fault Wynn has barely seen the field. The same goes for Harry, who had no medical red flags entering the draft and has barely seen the field because of injuries. Belichick also had a first-round pick stolen from him by the league. It’s fine to say he completely ignored the tight end position but if Antonio Brown and Harry had panned out would it matter? This doesn’t have to be a tight end-centered offense to be productive, it just needs to find a way to be productive. We’re getting closer to knowing Sony Michel was a bad move but it’s still too early to judge any of the last two years of drafting.

In my opinion, the current woes are the direct result of bad luck, league interference, and yes, mediocre draft production for many years running. Belichick deserves some blame but don’t pretend he was ignorant of the problem on offense or didn’t try several different things to address it. Unfortunately, many of those things just did not work.

State of the Offense

Nothing about last week changed my mind about this offense. It remains a unit utterly dependent on playmaking from its special teams and defense. If the Patriots cannot generate turnovers on short fields, this offense simply does not have a chance of being competitive. I know a lot of people want to be encouraged by last week, and I was in terms of the defense, but I don’t think you should be encouraged by the offense. It looks increasingly likely that the league’s best defense having a historic playoff run is the only chance this team has of making a serious playoff push.

State of the Defense

I think the defense made a case that on any given Sunday it can carry this team against a championship caliber team.

Do I think it could do that three games in a row? No.

Do I think it can do that for one playoff game at home? Yes.

Kansas City has one of the best offenses in the NFL and the Patriot defense dominated them for three of four quarters. The defense and special teams generated three turnovers, should have scored six points, and limited the Chiefs to 24 points. That was extremely impressive.

I don’t think it’s close to guarantee the Patriots will do that in January. They got their butts beaten by the Texans and Ravens. That could just as easily happen again. But I think it’s at least a realistic possibility that the defense plays well enough to get this team back to the AFC Championship Game, even though I really doubt it can get any further than that without a major turnaround on offense.

State of the Media

The only comment I am going to make about the recent “cheating” scandal is that I know, somehow, someway, Marshall Newhouse is responsible. (EDIT: This bit was a lot funnier before Phantom stole it in the comments on another article /angrily shakes fist)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I get why some people think Bill Belichick’s media sessions can border on petulant. There is a way to answer media questions in a way that betrays nothing and doesn’t go off message. Patriots fans would know. The team captains do it every single week. Guys like Devin McCourty and Tom Brady are tight-lipped but they are rarely rude. I don’t blame people who make a living doing journalism being less than thrilled to the way Belichick responds to reasonable questions 31 other coaches and his own players answer every week. I mean he’s the greatest of all time, so he can do whatever the heck he wants, but I get it. Though, to be sure, he is damn amusing sometimes. And there are some moments of strategic dismissal — “We’re on to Cincinnati” comes to mind — that will be legendary in football for years.

There is blood in the Foxborough waters for the first time in years and the sharks won’t bite because they are too afraid of getting burned (at least when it comes to on-the-field predictions, we can ignore SpyGate 2.0). I’d make an argument that the pronouncement of the Patriots’ demise is borderline fitting this year, and yet because the media jumped the shark last year, very few people are willing to make the bold predictions that might actually be justified this time around. It’s a testament to the Patriots mystique and record of success.

Anyone who can cool down the media hot takes is a legendary force indeed.

State of JoeT8 Guarantees

Joe is one of my favorite members of the community, and in spite of his short time here, has added a tremendous amount of quality conversation to this board. So with love I must insist that if Joe never makes another guarantee again, it would still be too soon.

State of the Players

Sony Michel: He’s not garbage. He’s not a terrible back. He’s a slightly above-mediocre back. Even behind a good offensive line, you can’t take away his record-tying playoff run. Plenty of other running backs have entered behind good offensive lines and never been that productive. But in two years, he’s generated little on his own outside the playoffs, offered little in the passing game, and offered only minimal home-run potential. It’s hard to call a player the Patriots rode into the Super Bowl a bust. I think he’s probably worth the pick for that alone. But he’s certainly not living up to his billing as a first-round selection so far this year. Say what you will about running backs in the first but when Todd Gurley wasn’t a superstar the Rams were bad and now that he’s started to produce again the Rams haven’t lost a game.

Mohamed Sanu: The Patriots overpaid for a healthy Sanu but they are really overpaying for an unhealthy one. I have not given up on him yet. I still think he can generate some real value for the team even if it will probably never match the value it gave up for him.

Isaiah Wynn: He is still better than Marshall Newhouse, but he’s still not that good either. Of course, that goes for the entire offensive line. Not good.

N’Keal Harry: Harry needs to be a big slot receiver. Nice yards-after-catch on the non-touchdown, which makes you wonder where New England might be if he hadn’t missed all season but there you go.

J.C. Jackson: My man! Haters said Jason McCourty was significantly better than you but your progress this year tells me otherwise.

Jonathan Jones: Another meh game. Has he simply regressed toward the mean? That’s not to remotely say he’s been bad, outside of two weeks ago where he was, but he’s certainly not Pro Football Focus’ top-graded corner anymore. Funny how playing better competition causes that.

Phillip Dorsett: To his credit, he might have forced the defensive pass interference that allowed the Patriots to win the game. On the other hand, he still disappears all the time. Glad the community seems to understand he will never be a consistent difference-maker, but credit where credit is due when he does make the play. He’s not a bad player by any means, he’s just an okay player on a team that desperately needs one more good one.

State of the League

Thank God the Patriots aren’t in the NFC. I’m honestly not sure the Patriots are better than a single NFC playoff team that isn’t coming out of the NFC East. Shoot, even the Rams have life and they probably won’t make the playoffs. If you were ever going to make a case for for basing playoff seeding purely on records having three teams in the NFC West and NFC North being better than the best team in the NFC East. Or, you know, the AFC South for the vast majority of the last decade.

I said the Rams were dirt-napped but after beating the Seahawks they have risen from the dead like a zombie in “28 Days Later”: hungry, fast, and full of rage. I still think their shot to make the playoffs is a long one but they gave themselves a chance. Respect.

Ryan Tannehill has turned the Titans into a juggernaut. This is the world of football. Absolutely freaking bizarre. Wes on the Around the NFL podcast asked if the Titans were better than the Patriots and while I wanted to be offended, I couldn’t muster the outrage. Tannehill and Derrick Henry are playing like they are among the best players at their respective positions at the moment, and the Titans defense is nothing to sneeze at. Of course, it’s the NFL so in three weeks Tannehill will regress to the mean and Henry will no longer be a difference-maker. But for now, Tennessee fans, I hope you are enjoying yourself. This is the best your team has looked since you went on a six-game winning streak back in 2015 and Marcus Mariota looked like he might actually be a franchise quarterback.

Sorry guys, but Odell Beckham Jr. is never going to be a New England Patriot. The idea of John Dorsey trading him for a first-round pick is believable enough for me but why on Earth would he trade him to a conference rival? Of course I am using the term “rival” loosely because the Browns stink, but they are trying to become a Super Bowl contender. Giving an All-Pro receiver to the franchise that has dominated their conference for years seems a bad way to accomplish that. (Fingers crossed I am wrong about everything I just said and it happens though)

I am going to laugh my butt off when Jameis Winston’s late season play cons the Buccaneers into extending him.

Ron Rivera openly questioning how much Cam Newton has left in the take is telling. I doubt Rivera would imply that unless there was real meat to it: the two were reportedly on good terms, despite some rumors of conflict a year or so back, and Cam posted a strongly supportive message when he was relieved of duty.

Speaking of Rivera, I completely understand why he was released but I think he will find another coaching gig soon. He seems like a good person, his players seem to like him a lot, and though his career had some low valleys he’s had some nice peaks as well.

I think Raiders should draft a quarterback. I think Derek Carr is a solid quarterback. I think he’s a good human being. I don’t think it is his fault his offense sucks anymore than it’s Tom Brady’s fault his does too. But I don’t think Carr gets you to the Super Bowl. His record in winter weather is pathetic and there are too many good franchises that force you to play in the cold in the AFC. I do think if the situation were perfect that Carr has enough juice to win the big game but how often do those perfect situations ever occur? Do you really want to build your team around that guy? I wouldn’t.

Drew Brees still has it. And by it I mean a functioning offensive line and offensive playmakers to throw at. My love of Brees shall not keep me from throwing shade. He’s a worse quarterback than Brady, he just has a much better cast around him. I do hope the Saints make it to the Super Bowl out of the NFC, though.

The Ravens’ juggernaut has slowed in recent weeks giving rise to the phantom of the 2018 Saints-Rams who similarly seemed to peak offensively in November. I think only time will really tell that, but back-to-back weeks of being stymied by good defenses suggests that a schematic answer to the Ravens scheme may be in the works. I’m not convinced that’s true, or that it matters given how well Baltimore’s defense has started to pick up the slack. But if you wanted a little hope that the team can be limited, the last couple of weeks are a good sign. I still think they are the best team in the conference, but I don’t know that the difference in any given game seems so insurmountable.