Christmas came early for New England Patriots fans. A victory over the Buffalo Bills not only sealed the Patriots’ 11th consecutive division title but it also gave the game’s viewers the best performance in weeks. I believed the Patriots would win this game and they delivered. My excitement does not mean that everything is sunshine and daisies, but there is significantly more positive things to talk about than negative. Let’s get started.
State of the Game
The Patriots played one of the toughest defenses in the league and came out looking sharp. This was not the New Orlean Saints dropping a nuclear bomb on the San Francisco 49ers’ defense but it was about as good as you could expect from an offense that has produced poorly almost the entire season. The offensive line did an excellent job of protecting Tom Brady — there was context to that but we will get to it in a moment — and the result was a laser-focused Brady who was able to do what he does best: exercise superior decision-making while making accurate short and intermediate throws.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Patriots were able to exploit the Bills’ uneven run defense. This was one of those rare rushing victories where the majority of the credit goes to the running backs. A lot of the production came after contact, a welcome change of pace. I really think the Bills’ thought process was that if they stack the box they could stop the run and that their talented secondary would take care of the rest. The Patriots’ ability to produce on the ground against those stacked boxes was critical and it helped open up the passing game against a superior coverage team.
Credit also goes to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who did an excellent job of keeping the Bills off balance, something that many of the Buffalo players directly acknowledged after the game. The Bills never seemed to get a good response to the Patriots’ 21-personnel. At just before the half, the Patriots had the exact same number of passing and rushing attempts. They were effective through the air and on the ground.
This offensive resurgence was key because the Patriots secondary had one of their worst games of the season. Stephon Gilmore gave up a long touchdown pass, Dawson Knox embarrassed Patrick Chung, and the cornerbacks struggled to contain the shifty Cole Beasley. New England’s secondary is one of the best in the NFL and has generally been the strength of the team, but hat was not the case Saturday. Fortunately, the front seven stepped up: it rushed well and was stout against the run. The Bills are not exactly a powerhouse offense, but they are solid, and anytime you can hold an NFL team to 17 points in today’s game it is impressive.
The Steelers’ demolition to start the year was probably the Patriots’ best game of the season, but this was a close second.
State of the Defense
No shifts in fundamental insights. The Patriots possess superior special teams and defense. The pickup of Justin Bethel was a sneaky fantastic signing that continues to show how effective Bill Belichick the general manager can be when it comes to free agent signings. I don’t have a lot to say here that won’t just be repetitive. This defense and special teams combination should make the Patriots competitive in the playoffs.
That being said, the defense has some notable weaknesses. It struggles to get pressure when rushing four. Sure, the Patriots could break the mold of historic defenses by dominating without any elite defensive linemen but it would a surprise. The Patriots also struggle to cover tight ends. That’s no small issue. Their top two competitors for the AFC title run their passing offenses through the tight end position. The final issue is their difficulty covering burners and shifty slot receivers. The issue with covering burners is new and the direct result of the injury to Jonathan Jones. He’s not the best Patriots cornerback but he is the best against speed. His health is going to be crucial.
I’m not saying any of those weaknesses are fatal. They are still the best defense in football. And it’s worth noting that the rushing defense, their most significant weakness during the season, has looked better in recent weeks. The landmark defenses of league lore always discovered a second gear during the playoffs. The ‘85 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2013 Seahawks, and 2015 Broncos were all top-ranked defenses but their ability to elevate their play during the postseason is what made them historic. It’s not impossible the Patriots do the same. I think this defense has proven that absent terrible referees they have the capacity to carry the team against playoff competition.
The State of the Offense
To say I was pessimistic about the offense heading into Saturday would be an understatement. It was only six days ago that the terrible Cincinnati Bengals defense made the Patriots look out of sync, after all. Tom Brady rarely passed beyond the line of scrimmage yet the Bengals still managed to get two sacks and six hits. It was the offensive line’s best performance in weeks but considering that a) that’s not great b) they played a bad defense and c) Brady got the ball out quickly all game it’s hard to be too impressed.
Brady had averaged less than five yards a throw for the fourth consecutive week. The Patriots couldn’t seem to muster more than one good touchdown drive a game that didn’t rely on turnovers from special teams or defense. Sure, the running game looked solid but even bad offenses have had success running on the atrocious Bengals rushing defense. The score did not accurately reflect the Patriots’ offensive struggles and was more of a reflection of their defense’s dominance.
Yes, I thought the Patriots would win Saturday but I was sure the offense would look poor. Instead, however, the unit played its second best game of the season and looked sharp against top competition.
The Patriots played exactly the game they wanted to play: balanced, sustained drives that took time off the clock and points on the board. The encouraging part of the performance was how complete it was. The pass protection was strong, receivers got open, the running backs generated yards after contact and through the air, Brady was smart and accurate with the football, and McDaniels’ scheme had the Bills on the ropes. All against one of the best defenses in the league. Saturday showed enough of everything that there is a legitimate reason to be hopeful heading into the playoffs.
That being said, we should not overreact to a single good week anymore than we should overreact to a couple of bad ones. It’s not a coincidence that the Patriots’ rushing success has come in back-to-back weeks against teams with suspect run defenses. The optimistic view is that the success on the ground is not purely the product of the competition. The running backs produced after contact and Elandon Roberts continues to develop as a fullback. I thought the power-blocking early in the game was good. On the other hand, the run-blocking started to struggle as the game went on. The offensive line and tight ends did not perform particularly well against the Bills across most of the game. It’s hard to believe the rushing attack will perform well against an above-average defense if the run blocking from the tight ends and offensive linemen cannot improve.
The strength of the Bills’ pass defense has been their coverage not their pass rush. How will Brady perform if his pass protection falters against better competition? It’s not a coincidence that his best game in weeks coincided with his best pass protection in months. I think Brady can compensate for a weak receiving corps when he’s got protection but he’s struggled under pressure all season. He cannot overcome both.
Still if we are going to penalize the pass protection and rushing attack for the quality of their competition, then Brady and the receivers deserve plenty of credit for the way they handled the Bills’ coverage. From James White, to Burkhead Rex, to N’Keal Harry, to Jakobi Myers and Matt LaCrosse; multiple players stepped up for important plays. It wasn’t just Julian Edelman, though as usual, he was superior. The Bills are a cerebral and coverage-based defense and Brady and his weapons proved they had the mind and mettle to compete and win against them.
This game doesn’t fundamentally change anything. The Patriots will still rely on their defense and special teams in the playoffs. But if the offense manages to execute at the level it did Saturday during the playoffs, the team might have legitimate championship potential. That’s a heck of an if but at least there is more proof they could do it where there was little before.
State of the Players and Coaches
Shaq Mason: Back-to-back weeks where Shaq Mason has been a legit contributor in the run game. I strongly hope this is a sign that the guard, signed to a pretty significant contract extension last offseason, is working his way back to health. I didn’t really love the run blocking of the offensive line as a whole but I thought Mason had a strong game.
Marcus Cannon: His injury, depending on the severity, may be the difference in the playoffs. If I were the Patriots I would sit Cannon next week regardless and get him closer to full strength for the divisional round. Miami has no pass rushers so Marshall Newhouse should be tolerable. He honestly looked good in pass protection on Saturday, but I trust that performance to carry over into the playoffs about as much as I trust my chances of winning the lottery.
Elandon Roberts: Roberts is neither a great linebacker nor a great fullback. But for a sixth-round draft pick, it is pretty damn impressive how much he’s contributed at both positions. Roberts’ selection as a team captain was a surprise to many but the attitude he displayed during and after the football game gives a glimpse into why he was selected. Having the attitude of “running through a motherf---ers’ face” will not get you far in most walks of life. In football, it can turn a sixth-rounder into a millionaire. I’m not sure how much Roberts is worth, I do not think it’s a ton, but someone is going to give him a free agency contract and it’s going to make Roberts richer than most who had their name called in the sixth round of the draft.
Sony Michel: Michel had his best game of the season and it was not particularly close. He ran into stacked boxes with poor run blocking and averaged 4.6 yards a pop. His ability to produce after contact played a huge role in the Patriots’ victory as the Bills were forced to keep an extra man in the box to try and slow him down, while the Patriots kept taking advantage of it in the passing game. Michel has had two playoff runs in his career (one collegiate and one professional) and both times he played his best football during that stretch. It’s not close to a guarantee that he will do so again. 14 games are a better indicator of who he is than a single game 15. But if Michel is able to elevate his game in the postseason for a third consecutive year it will go a long way toward building his legend and earning the Patriots a championship.
N’Keal Harry: I loved his toughness in this game. I noted during his draft analysis that he wasn’t a developed run blocker but he was a fierce one. Harry has a fantastic combination of size and strength, after all, and it would therefore not be the least bit surprising if he turned into one of the better run blocking wide receivers in the NFL. He needs to develop his technique but I think it is just a matter of time. Is that anywhere near as valuable as his development as a receiver? No. But it counts. I actually see shades of Cordarrelle Patterson in how the Patriots use Harry. They are both big and strong runners who struggle to create separation, though Patterson has much better jets once he got rolling. I would be disappointed if Patterson-caliber production is all Harry manages but there are signs he will be better. He’s already a better route runner than Patterson was and he’s flashed more as a red zone threat than Patterson did during his one-year tenure in New England. Not insignificant given how many fewer snaps those flashes came on.
Kyle Van Noy: Van Noy forced the pressure on Dion Dawkins, a pretty solid tackle, that forced the fourth down incompletion to essentially end the game. Unfortunately, I think he’s a lock to go to Miami after the season. He’s earned a real contract and I doubt the Patriots can afford him.
Rex Burkhead: Burkhead had a nice touchdown run and flashed his versatility in the passing game. Running backs fumble sometimes. It happens. Burkhead is not on James White’s level as a pass catcher but he’s a legit dual-threat back. Honestly, the running we saw out of Michel combined with Burkhead’s pass catching skills — good not exceptional — was what I hoped Michel would be when the Patriots drafted him last year.
J.C. Jackson: It’s funny how pre-draft analysis translates into post-draft play. I remember reading up on J.C. Jackson during the preseason last year and being really surprised that Lance Zierlein thought he struggled to come down with the football. On the basis of his preseason play I had assumed he was a natural ball hawk. But it was preseason so it was hard to take it too seriously. I think Jackson has proven the preseason was more fire than smoke. He currently sits with five interceptions on the season, an impressive number. Many were skeptical of my assertion that he was comparable to Jason McCourty but I think the season has shown that prediction was accurate. There really hasn’t been any noticeable drop-off in coverage since McCourty was injured. Jackson has taken the sophomore leap. He did struggle against Cole Beasley but I think it just goes to show where he has to grow. He doesn’t excel against shifty receivers.
Tom Brady: I got a little flack for blaming some of his poor play on injuries but subsequent reports have made it clear that he was nursing a legitimate injury against the Bengals. Yes, Brady has regressed from his peak. It’s obvious. From the decline in accuracy to his inability to handle pressure effectively. But the main reason he looks like a subpar quarterback is his offensive cast, scheme, and injury. I’ve beaten that drum all season and his strong performance against the Bills further reinforced my belief. Brady is not done yet.
Stephon Gilmore: I thought there were decent odds Gilmore would regress. Cornerback play is historically subject to higher levels of variance than other positions’. I was wrong. Gilmore has not only replicated his level of play from last year, he has surpassed it. That being said, John Brown’s performance against Gilmore — the only receiver who has had some success against him this year — reveals Gilmore’s Achilles heel: he struggles against small burners. I think that weakness cost him a very small chance at the Defensive Player of the Year award when he gave up that 53-yard touchdown. If Gilmore was going to break convention — the award has gone to a pass rusher essentially ever year the last 20 years — he was going to have to be nearly perfect. He’s still the best corner in the league but getting lit up by “Smoke” probably smoked his chances.
Devin McCourty: McCourty has been awesome this year but it’s worth pointing out that he took responsibility for Gilmore getting crushed. He said in the postgame interview he made an aggressive call based on the offensive alignment and it backfired. He thought he was taking advantage of something the Bills had shown on film and instead Gilmore got smoked. In McCourty’s own words they just agreed to never make that call again and they moved on. That happens. You will remember in “Do Your Job II” that Ernie Adams wanted to exploit a perceived issue with Julio Jones, but nothing came of it.
Julian Edelman: Edelman may be dealing with a major injury but you would not have been able to tell Saturday. His toughness in the face of multiple injuries is extremely impressive. He is not anywhere near as good as Michael Thomas but he may be just as important to the Patriots’ offense as the future Hall of Famer is to the Saints’.
Patrick Chung: Between his regression, age and offseason indictment one wonders if Chung will be on the team next year. On the other hand, the Patriots save very little by cutting him — only $2 million by cutting him, per Spotrac. Not sure the cap savings is worth it.
Mohamed Sanu: Standing my ground on thinking Sanu will play better. It’s been an abysmal trade so far but fingers crossed. Technically the Patriots could cut Sanu at no cost next year but they will have sacrificed a second-round pick for essentially nothing so it’s hard to believe they will do that.
Bill Belichick: I thought Belichick’s postgame press conference last week was one of the most telling in recent memory. He was surprisingly transparent about what he seemed to expect the Patriots’ playoff strategy to become: don’t turn the ball over, run the football, get turnovers, play great complementary football between special teams and defense. He didn’t even mention the passing game. When asked about how the offense seems to primarily score, he waxed optimistic on the offense scoring one touchdown and the running game averaging over five yards a carry. The more critical Belichick becomes during wins the more convinced I am that they are fine. The converse is also true. When Belichick tries to blow up mediocre performances it’s a warning sign that the team is in trouble. Fortunately, the Patriots offense rallied Saturday and instilled some measure of hope in Belichick’s road map for victory.
State of the Season
Barring a massive turnaround, the Patriots’ defense and special teams will have to be the tip of the spear in any championship run. Are they good enough to do that once? Sure. Can they do it on the road? Can they do it three consecutive times? I’m skeptical. This is the best defense the Patriots have had in a decade but I still think they need a legitimate complement from the offense.
Fortunately, there are some signs of life for the offense and shoot, that is why they play the game. For all the chaos the Patriots have had to endure this season, the odds are strong that they will end the regular season with a bye. Football is chaos. Getting to jump to a divisional home game is something most franchises would kill for.
I might doubt the Patriots chances, I might be increasingly convinced the end of the dynasty is fast approaching, but the Patriots will get more than enough chances to prove the doubters wrong. History is dictated by results not analyst projections. And if the Patriots offense really has turned a corner then watch out. They would be one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs.
State of the League
Watching people swoon over John Harbaugh’s defense makes me want to tear my hair out. Seriously, all the Ravens are doing is replicating what the Patriots have done for years now. Build the secondary and bank on your ability to manufacture a pass rush through scheme. The Ravens aren’t remotely revolutionary. They are smart. They are adaptive. But PFF articles trumpeting the claim that the Ravens defense is “revolutionizing football” is painfully erroneous. Credit the Ravens for strong defensive performances despite having bad pass rushers, but the only person who deserves credit for revolutionizing that style of defense heading into 2020 is Bill Belichick.
Lamar Jackson is not the best quarterback in the NFL but he is going to win the MVP and I’m okay with it. Honestly, this reminds me a little bit of Matt Ryan in 2016 who Brady beat in most advanced statistics but still had some powerful statistics backing him up. Lamar Jackson broke Michael Vick’s rushing record and has the most touchdowns in the NFL. His team is going to be the first seed in the AFC and he’s quarterbacked it through some big victories. I think Russell Wilson would have won if he had kept pace with Jackson but he’s cooled off since midseason and I think that’s all but iced the reward for the Ravens’ QB.
The Ravens registered 12 Pro Bowlers this season, tied for the most ever. Baltimore has always had one of the best front offices in the NFL and this only further serves to cement their consistent high level success.
Baltimore bludgeoned the Browns and secured the first overall seed in the AFC. They deserve it. Great team and great coaching. They are every bit as dangerous as the Chiefs were last year. It’s going to take something from the Patriots we haven’t seen all season to beat them in the playoffs — assuming of course, the Patriots play them at all.
The Browns will not fire their coach and I’m not sure whether that was good or bad. There is no denying the consistent upheaval of the coaching staff has done nothing positive for the franchise. A coaching staff needs stability. But it also has to earn it. I can’t claim to be very impressed by Freddie Kitchens. Sure, a large part of the problem was the result of the media’s unrealistic expectations. I heard experts predicting Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. would be on par to Tom Brady and Randy Moss, and that the Browns would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Those expectations were always ludicrous. But the truth is that the Browns do have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. If the Patriots coaching staff controlled the Browns they might not have won the division — the Ravens are superior this year — but they would almost certainly be in the wildcard ahead of the Steelers. Instead they are on the outside looking in and possessed of more questions than answers. Their pass rushing star was suspended for the entire season, their franchise quarterback has regressed, they led the league in penalties at various points, and they have looked like a bad football team far more often than they looked like a good one. Kitchens and his staff have their work cut out for them.
Credit to the Bills for putting together a heck of a roster that could, even now, cause heartache for the Patriots. Buffalo will make the postseason and deserves to be there. I think the biggest takeaway from the game is Josh McDaniels out scheming Sean McDermott. That was critical for a win against a Bills team that more often than not has the coaching advantage on the defensive side. I understand why Bills fans aren’t interested in taking a moral victory lap — they are too good to be doing that type of thing. I think the players have the right attitude. But it’s worth acknowledging the difference between the two teams is close and the Bills’ star players are a lot younger than the Patriots.
Josh Allen is not a good quarterback but I can see the tools that attracted the Bills to him. He had some beautiful deep throws, flashed strong athleticism, and was consistently difficult for guys to bring down. I don’t know how much faith I have in the kid to develop into a franchise talent — his accuracy issues are such an albatross — but I don’t think he was a significant part of why they lost. He never turned the ball over and had several big plays. He deserves credit for that.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pumped for the 49er-Seahawks showdown this week. Championship teams, divisional rivals, last game of the season, and the team that wins gets the first seed and the team that loses gets the fifth. That game might be better than most of the games that take place on wild card weekend. Maybe even the entire playoffs. My money is on the 49ers.
State of the Enemy
It’s not that I am looking past Miami. I’m not. Despite all of the tanking hype the Dolphins have put together a pretty typical season for a team picking in the top five. It’s not impossible they win. The margin for error in the NFL is slim. But honestly I’d be shocked if they won. They aren’t a good team, the Patriots are playing for a bye, and they are playing at home. I expect the Patriots to win by at least a touchdown. I don’t think there will be any valuable analysis to be garnered from this game. A Patriots win, even a decisive one, will be expected against the Dolphins. Looking for significance from a game that mismatched seems improbable. And if the Dolphins win an upset by some miracle? What would there be to say? The Patriots have already proven they are vulnerable. A loss like that would simply make clear they aren’t a legitimate challenger in this year’s race. Either way I wouldn’t want to waste much breath talking about it.
This will be my last column for the year and my last column of the regular season. As I mentioned, I don’t plan on spending time analyzing the Miami outcome. I’m going to be out of the country and I won’t want to spend any time writing about the Miami Dolphins when I could be on the beach instead. This is the first year I’ve put together a weekly column for (almost) the entire Patriot season and I just wanted to express my gratitude for the people who took the time to read and comment. Writing is a cathartic exercise but the only reason it’s been enjoyable to engage in week after week is because of the kick ass community we have here. I’ve taken the time to lurk on other websites like ours and I can say the following with authentic confidence: there is no other community with the Pulpit’s combination of intelligence, class and fun.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Years!