If ESPN’s Chris Berman were narrating my post today, he’d be all over the Patriots “rumblin’ bumblin’ stumblin’” their way down the power rankings this week. It was easy to see coming. First, the misstep against the Ravens in Baltimore and then Sunday’s debacle in Houston. The experts are only waffling between their explanations for the drop — ‘this *really* is the end of the dynasty’, ‘Brady is in decline’, ‘Go ahead and bury the Patriots, it plays right into their hands,’ and what it will mean going forward.
The answers will come as the next four weeks play out: Chiefs - at Bengals - Bills - Dolphins. Keep in mind that even if New England was undefeated, the narrative would probably complain that the team is peaking too soon, or not winning games the right way, etc... It’s always something. Now they have the 9-3 Buffalo Bills breathing down their neck, providing the tantalizing storyline that the Patriots are in danger of [Gasp!] not winning the division.
No need for panic, however. The Patriots remain in control of the AFC East, an AFC playoff bye and, as Boomer might remind us, they still “Could. Go. All. The. Way.” Next up’s a tough one: Chiefs in Foxborough. The Patriots open as 3-point favorites. I’m picking the home team to win, issues and all.
Around the AFC East:
2nd - Tom E. Curran (NBC Sports Boston): AFC Rankings: The margin for error their defense has provided them all season was brought into full relief in Houston when they played an OK, not bad but kind of average game against Deshaun Watson and got no help at all from their offense.
3rd - NFL Nation (ESPN): The Patriots’ loss to the Texans stood out from the standpoint of Houston devoting extra resources to covering Edelman, essentially daring the team’s other pass-catchers to create separation and get open. The results were uneven. The Patriots will need more from Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers the rest of the way.
3rd - Russell S. Baxter (Fansided): Recap: The AFC East leaders combined to score just 30 points in their previous two games but managed wins over the Eagles and Cowboys. Now the Patriots headed south to take on the formidable Houston Texans in prime time. After settling for an early field goal, Bill Belichick’s team would watch the home team respond with 21 consecutive points and New England was unable to catch up. Tom Brady did manage to complete at least 50 percent of his passes (24-of-47) for 326 yards and three scores, as well as one interception. But the Pats’ heralded defensive unit, which had allowed only four TD passes in their first 11 games, gave up four scores through the air on Sunday. Next Week: Belichick’s club face a fifth straight 2018 playoff participant as they host the Chiefs for the third consecutive year. A year ago, the Patriots managed two wins over Andy Reid’s club, including a 37-31 overtime victory at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. There was also a 43-30 Sunday night home win in Week 6. Playoff hopes: With an opportunity to grab a playoff invitation with a victory, a late New England rally fell short. Now the Patriots find themselves just one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East and tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the best record in the conference. This week’s clash with the Chiefs is suddenly very pivotal.
3rd - Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports): Running back James White is a very good player, but it’s not ideal for him to be the Patriots’ second-best receiver. The Patriots’ top two receivers are slot receiver Julian Edelman, White, and nobody else is really a factor since Mohamed Sanu fell off the map. No wonder Tom Brady looks frustrated.
4th - Mike Cole (NESN): The Patriots battled the flu and a desperate Houston team in an ugly loss that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. It’s hard to bet against New England this time of year, but it’s probably worth mentioning that only two teams the Patriots have beat this year have winning records right now: Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
4th - Peter Botte (NY Post): Tom Brady and the struggling Patriots offense has been underwhelming for a few weeks, but Bill Belichick’s stifling defense also finally relented Sunday night against Houston, allowing three touchdown passes after giving up just four over the first 11 weeks. The 42-year-old Brady doesn’t appear to fully trust any offensive skill players on the team anymore other than Julian Edelman.
4th - MMQB Staff (SI): Tom Brady was decently protected all night but nobody other than Julian Edelman (six catches, 106 yards, TD) could shake their Texan shadow long enough to get anything remotely resembling space. The stout defense also looked a little shoddier on the back end than usual, giving up back-to-back Houston touchdown drives fueled by long receptions over 25 yards in the third quarter.
4th - Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News): The Patriots stumbled defensively in Houston, and until the fourth quarter, their offense couldn’t find a rhythm, either. Was it the illnesses? Was it their playing another dangerous offense in the Texans and their elite QB? Whatever the cause, there has been a regression in New England from unbeatable to very good.
5th - Lindsay Jones (The Athletic): Welcome to the annual “Are the Patriots in trouble?” winter swoon. It happened last year after an early-December loss to the Steelers, so it feels like we’re right on schedule after their Sunday night loss at Houston. But should we actually be worried this time? The offensive troubles don’t seem to be getting better, and might not be as easily fixable as just being “faster” and “quicker,” as Tom Brady implored his receivers to be during a sideline pep talk caught by NBC’s cameras.
5th - Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): The offense is limited right now, which will challenge Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady to turn things around.
5th - Dan Hanzus (NFL.com): We’ve watched the Patriots’ offense scuffle for two months now. Given the organization’s unmatched track record, many assumed the Bill Belichick-led braintrust would eventually figure it out. This is what the Patriots do. But Sunday night’s loss to the Texans makes you seriously wonder. The Pats filled up the box score and made things look respectable with three late touchdown drives against a coasting Houston defense, but a deeper look tells a much different story. As Bill Barnwell pointed out, Brady was 9-of-25 passing for 90 yards with an interception before New England went on its first touchdown drive late in the third quarter. The veteran QB ranks near the bottom of the league in a host of passing categories since Week 4, which tells us that a) Brady is in decline, or b) the structure around the legendary star is faulty. It might be both of those things.
5th - Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk): Go ahead and bury the Patriots — it plays into their hands.
5th - Doug Farrar (TouchdownWire): There’s a point late in NFL Films’ epic two-part “A Football Life” episode on Bill Belichick, in which Belichick and Tom Brady are standing on the sideline in 2009, stating flatly that this team just doesn’t have it this season. That Patriots team finished 10-6, and were eviscerated in the wild-card round of the playoffs by the Ravens, 33-14. It’s easy to imagine that conversation happening on the sideline this season. We all know how foolish it is to write this team off at any time — after all, the 2018 Patriots lost to the Dolphins and Steelers in Weeks 14 and 15 before redefining themselves as a power-running team and bullying their way to another Lombardi Trophy. It’s always possible that Belichick’s crew could turn it around again. That said, after Sunday night’s 28-22 loss to the Texans, it’s just as easy to say that this team … well, just doesn’t have it. Belichick and Brady were talking about the team’s coachability back then, which doesn’t seem to be the problem now. Now, the problem is simply a lack of offensive talent, and a defense that has been historically great through most of the season finally broke against a superior offense. New England had allowed four passing touchdowns before Sunday night; they allowed four against the Texans, including an amazing option play in which DeAndre Hopkins pitched the ball to Deshaun Watson. Watson completed 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns, often riddling a New England defense that’s not used to such things. Meanwhile, Tom Brady completed 24 of 47 passes for 326 yards, three touchdowns and one pick, with two of those touchdown passes coming in the fourth quarter. But Brady also just missed having a completion rate under 50% in two consecutive games for the first time in his career. Maybe the Patriots will find their way, as they generally seem to do. But right now? This Patriots team just doesn’t have it.
5th - Mark Maske (Washington Post): Yes, the Patriots’ reign will end at some point. That point could be now. The offense is in disarray. Reinforcements are not on the way, and Tom Brady’s frustration was on vivid display during Sunday night’s loss in Houston. But, as always, count out Brady and Bill Belichick at your own peril.
6th - Nate Davis (USA Today): Hyper focus remains on stalled offense. But did you notice vaunted defense surrendered four TD passes in Houston, doubling season total entering game?
7th - Dan Parzych (NFLSpinzone): Despite previously only having one loss heading into Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, it was no secret there were issues on offense for the New England Patriots since Tom Brady and company had been struggling to put up points in recent weeks. After barely getting by against teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, some of the struggles caught up with the Patriots on Sunday during their loss to the Texans, making it clear this team seems beatable for any opponent that happens to meet them come January. Of course, if history has anything to say about this situation, there’s clearly no reason to hit the panic button in New England since Brady has been in this position before, and usually finds a way to bounce back strong. But also, the Patriots will now be dealing with some extra pressure moving forward since Sunday’s loss to the Texans dropped the team to the No. 2 seed behind the Baltimore Ravens. When looking at what happened earlier in the year when these two AFC powerhouses squared off against one another, the last thing New England should want to do is travel to Baltimore in January with a potential Super Bowl trip on the line.
AVERAGE RANK: 4.4 (-2.2)