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Chief Thoughts: The state of the Patriots heading into their Week 14 game against the Chiefs

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Related: Will the Chiefs take advantage of the vulnerable Patriots?

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

One of the more annoying elements of the New England Patriots’ loss against the Houston Texans is that my game prediction was mostly correct. The defense would be regress and the offense would have its best game in weeks and score over 20 points. Well, I was right. The defense regressed and the Patriots had their best offensive outing in weeks scoring over 20 points. The only problem was that they didn’t win. A swing and a miss on that part.

Scoreboards are not always indicative of the game, though. Sometimes big point differentials disguise competitive games and small point differentials can trick you into thinking a game was close. Such is the case this week. The scoreboard indicates a competitive game. It was not. The Texans dominated for most of the contest and the Patriots wracked up stats in garbage time.

There is a lot to talk about as we enter Week 14, none of it very good, but at the end of the day the Patriots are still on pace for a first-round playoff bye. The loss in Houston stinks — it really does — but New England has a record a lot of teams would love to have. Something to keep in mind as we grind through the negative takes this week.

State of Game

The Patriot offense gave its best collective impression of Kirk Cousins and it was eerily good: bad play when it mattered, great production in garbage time. From the moment the Texans scored their first touchdown to make the game 7-3 you never felt the Patriots were in control. You trusted they had a chance to win because the scoring differential was not that extreme. But the play on the field never inspired any confidence.

As I mentioned last week, Deshaun Watson is a very streaky quarterback. When he’s off you question if he’s franchise material. When he’s on he is one of the best in the NFL. He was superior Sunday night. The Texans offense played aggressive, executed at a high level, and came prepared to outfox the Patriots as evidenced by their touchdown off a trick play. They did a wonderful job targeting New England’s linebackers in coverage and benefited from Jonathan Jones having an off-night. Offensively, they never let up the gas.

But as well as their offense executed, the defensive game plan was equally impressive. Take out James White and Julian Edelman — and beat us with someone else! The plan worked as the Patriots couldn’t find someone else. The Texans defense did a good job confusing Tom Brady up front and the cornerbacks played excellent coverage. As many frustrating things as I have to say about the Patriots, there is no denying Houston played a great ball game and deserves credit.

Also, the refs were bad. Not the worst. But they had some pretty awful blinders on for the Texans offensive line. They got away with some really obvious holds. That would be fine but they didn’t let the Patriots get away with the same. I don’t mind not calling holding but you damn well better apply it equally. The referees last Sunday did not.

State of the Defense

Let’s get this out of the way quick. New England’s defense is fine. It came off back-to-back stellar games and was due for regression. It had the flu. The Texans were due for progression after being beat down by Baltimore and they executed at a very high level. I guess I’m not as frustrated about the defense because they are what they are and what they are is pretty good.

The Patriots have a strong defense. They just cannot be expected to carry bad offenses against good offenses week-in and week-out, tough. Can they do it any given Sunday? Sure. Do they have the talent and coaching to potentially set on fire and deliver the team a Super Bowl? Maybe. I doubt it. But it’s not like it is inconceivable.

The Patriots defense can also wreck bad teams. It can make mediocre teams look bad. It can make a team with a mediocre offense very competitive against good teams. I don’t think that it is capable of more than that week-to-week. The Patriots have faced three top 10 offenses and given up 28 points or more in two of the games. They need some complementary offense.

I think it’s worth pointing that if you get rid of Tom Brady’s awful first-quarter interception, the Patriots defense may have only let up 21 points in this game. That’s enough to win. Albeit, the chances of the Patriots scoring 22 without the Texans playing hyper soft prevent late are very small and they don’t do that without a big lead. I’m not saying they don’t deserve blame. I’m not saying they didn’t screw up. I’m saying they have carried the team all season and I have faith they will be better this week. As far as the defense is concerned you’re unto the Kansas City Chiefs and fingers crossed the offense shows up with you.

State of the Offense

Okay. Here we go. It’s kind of hard to address this without addressing specific players but I will do the best I can to paint with broad strokes and address the individual performances in the next section.

The issue with the offense is that almost everything is an issue with the offense. Everyone is inconsistent. The skill players. The quarterback. The protection. The coaching. Everyone.

But just because everyone is to blame does not mean everyone shares blame equally. The proportion of blame is not the same for everyone. So in order of the biggest portion of responsibility I’d say the order goes to the skill players, the offensive line, the play calling, and the quarterback. Attempting to delineate cause and effect in football is freaking hard and requires making assumptions and guesswork that inevitably leads to error. I’m not going to suggest I am the end-all be-all on this. I’m not. But these are my thoughts on the state of the offense and why we can’t seem to get where we want to be.

On WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show, Brady defended his receivers by saying they were doing the best they could. The depressing thing is that I think he’s right, with one exception: the Patriots’ skill players are composed of players that are good but not elite, raw, or just not that good.

I love Julian Edelman but he’s not Michael Thomas. I love James White but he’s not Alvin Kamara. Even mediocre defenses can make those guys the focal point of a defensive plan and significantly limit them. Who does that leave you with? Mediocre and raw weapons. Brady begged for folks to step up in the game and no one could. I think Jakobi Meyers and, surprisingly, Matt LaCosse showed a little juice but far from enough.

I know one of the contrarian takes out there is that “guys got open” and that the receivers were fine but those takes are exactly that. Contrarian. No one is arguing that the Patriot receivers were completely blanketed on 100% of the snaps. No one is. What they are observing is that the receivers were very well defended far more often than not, leaving few options for Brady and very little margin for error. You cannot name a single team with top-10 offensive production with worse skill player talent than the Patriots. The outside receiver and tight end play is at worst usually awful and at best occasionally mediocre.

A common argument I’ve heard is the Patriots don’t lack talent they just have a failure to execute. They can do the right thing they just keep doing the wrong thing. Like a five-star recruit that isn’t producing in college. To me this is obfuscation. It’s word play.

True or false: Are the receivers playing well? No. Then that’s the problem no matter what you want to call it.

They are called skill players for a reason. At a certain point talent must translate into skill on the field. If you want to say the Patriots have the talent to win that’s fine. Guys like Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Isaiah Wynn are all capable of playing better than they are now. I truly believe that. I’m not going to argue and says that’s unreasonable. But this isn’t the beginning of the season. This is the final quarter. They are running of time to figure this out. They either figure it out late or they don’t. You can call it lack of talent, lack of execution, call it whatever you want. The bottom line is that it’s not good.

Four straight weeks of facing teams with poorly graded coverage units and four straight weeks of those same defensive units looking superior in coverage. How many times do the Patriots need to enter games against teams with supposedly bad corners and watch those corners blanket their receivers? How many times do you have to see receivers drop balls, fail to pick up on Brady signals, and run the wrong route? At a certain point you need to call a spade a spade and admit that these receivers just aren’t playing well.

I reject the narrative that the weakness at the skill position is not the primary issue with this team. Yes, it’s a far cry from the only issue but it’s still the single largest percentage of the problem. That’s not to say the skill position is completely hopeless. I’m never going to say that. I always refer back to the 2006 Indianapolis Colts who had one of the worst run defenses in football all season, yet became iron against the rush in the playoffs. I’m not going to say they can’t or won’t play better.

But to date they are what their production is: bad.

The second biggest issue last Sunday was the offensive line. “Hold up!” I can hear you say. Brady had an average of 3+ seconds to throw and the rushing attack looked good. How on Earth can you claim the offensive line was the problem? You know what they say, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Here is a statistic for you. The Patriots offensive line gave up the highest number of disruptions of the entire season to date last week. 19 to be exact. Three sacks. Seven quarterback hits. Nine pressures. That. Is. Bad. The blitz by Bradley Roby? At first I thought that was Brady not diagnosing the blitz. Wrong. That was Isaiah Wynn failing to pick up the blitz. And that’s not a shot at Wynn. It was a great play design and he is a rookie. It happens. But the result was that the drive ended. Joe Thuney got his ass kicked; Marcus Cannon did too. It was ugly all around.

The Texans were beating the crap out of Brady early in the game when it mattered and let up when it got away. That’s pretty damn concerning considering the Texans didn’t have a reputation for a good pass rush coming into the game. But hey that’s a common theme. The Patriots’ offensive personnel is making teams look better than they looked before.

That brings us to Josh McDaniels. In my opinion, the lions’ share of the blame goes to an offense that was not executing. Case in point was the fourth-and-one. First, it should not have even been a fourth-and-one because if Sanu runs the right route that’s a conversion on third down. Second, the play call worked but Sanu, who we were told had vices for hands, dropped the ball.

BuT WhAt ABOut the QuaRTErBacK sNEAk? Shut up. For the love of all that is good be quiet. The Texans stacked the line to prevent the sneak and the Patriots had just put James Ferentz in for Ted Karras at center. If Brady had checked into the sneak, or the sneak had been the call, the exact same 20/20 play callers would have said that was stupid because the Texans had clearly taken it away and it was doomed to failure. The idea that you have to run the football on every fourth-and-short is a bad one. Shoot, the Ravens have the best rushing attack in the NFL and they call passes on fourth down all the time.

That’s not to say McDaniels isn’t part of the problem. If I see Brady roll out to the right one more time in the red zone I might just toss my television out the window. They have done that all season and it has worked exactly zero times. I asked in the game thread if that had ever worked. McDermott was kind enough to answer but unfortunately his example was over a decade old. I don’t think McDaniels is coaching lights out but it’s a lot easier for me to believe that the top-five offensive coordinator who slew the Legion of Boom is being let down by his nobody cast than it is to assume he’s completely lost his mojo. Rushing up the gut into two run-stopping defensive tackles over and over again gets old real quick. Route concepts that sometimes match up poorly with the personnel is not ideal. The guy ain’t perfect. But McDaniels is not the real issue, the personnel is.

Finally we have the quarterback. McDaniels and Brady are in similar camps. People see poor results and immediately want to put the blame on the coordinator or quarterback. But that’s just not the reality of the situation. That ugly pick? On N’Keal Harry. I like everyone else blamed Brady in the game thread but it’s obvious now that the primary blame for the pick is on Harry. Brady chucking the ball forty feet from Phillip Dorsett? Brady missing him in the end zone? Both of those are on Dorsett, who ran the wrong route.

Yes I am a huge Brady fan. That does not mean I cannot check my bias at the door. I was the first person on the Pulpit arguing that Brady had regressed and that he was no longer elite. I got a lot of pushback at the time, not unfair given the small sample size, but it’s become clear over nearly two years that this analysis was accurate. But regression does not mean a cliff. Going from first-team All-Pro to second-team All-Pro is regression, but it is still great.

In my opinion, Brady is still a top-12 quarterback. He’s good enough to win a Super Bowl. The reason the offense sucks is not because Brady sucks. It’s because the people around him are not playing very well and he’s not good enough to carry a team on his back anymore. That is not to say Brady is perfect. He’s made mistakes. He’s had bad games. That’s what you expect from a quarterback who is no longer elite. But if you gave Brady the Kansas City Chiefs’ weapons do you honestly believe this offense wouldn’t be ranked in the top-five? I have zero doubt it would. What you are seeing is what happens when a non-elite quarterback has a bad to mediocre supporting cast.

Welcome to the rest of the NFL, New England Patriots fans.

That was a lot of negative. Let’s end on something positive. For two weeks straight the rushing attack has looked good. Isaiah Wynn is a big part of that. He’s looked really solid as a run blocker and a significant upgrade over Marshall Newhouse. That’s pretty important considering this week’s opponent is terrible against the run. That should provide at least one legitimate avenue of attack for the Patriots next week. A rushing offense complements the defense. If the Patriots can have some long successful drives to pair with their defense they could be really dangerous in the playoffs.

State of the Players

Mohammed Sanu: The Patriots overpaid for Sanu unless they pick in the bottom-four. I just don’t see how trading a second-round pick for guy who couldn’t eclipse 1,000 yards opposite two Hall of Fame receivers constitutes to good value otherwise. The Patriots will make the playoffs but there is a lot of ground between pick 64 and the pick for just making the playoffs. I think a lot of guys are gonna be bitter New England will not have that pick come draft day.

That being said I completely understand why the trade was made. The Patriots were trying to capitalize on a very good defense and get Tom Brady some help after they let Josh Gordon go. It’s really hard to argue with that. Not to mention the Patriots’ desperation would have made negotiations difficult and the fact that they probably paid a premium with numerous teams hunting for receiver help. I think it’s okay to say they overpaid and at the same time respect why the trade was made. I do think Sanu can and will play better. I think he had a bad drop, is hampered by an injury, and learning from behind. I don’t expect that trade to feel as bad as it does right now by the end of the season.

Phillip Dorsett II: He is exactly what I have always said he is. A not very good receiver who had a couple of well-timed games. That will be fine if he can have a couple of well-timed games this year too but the whole Dorsett is underrated narrative should be dead by now. Good riddance.

Julian Edelman: The guy might be playing the best football of his career. He’s producing in spite of being the focus of every defensive game plan. He’s not Michael Thomas. He’s not elite. He’s not getting into the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t change the fact that he is very good and tough as hell. Going to weep when the man retires.

Joe Thuney: Man. The most consistent member of the offensive line this season was arguably the worst offensive lineman on the field against the Texans. That sucks. Especially when it came against a pretty mediocre Texans pass rush. This offense is just so inconsistent and Thuney’s performance last Sunday really drives that home.

Isaiah Wynn: He was better in pass protection than last week but he’s still not great. Whatever. He’s better in pass protection than Newhouse and he might be the best run blocker on the team the last two weeks. So far he is exactly what I expected. An improvement but not a game-changing one.

Jakobi Meyers: He is is going to be a solid to good NFL player. I truly believe that. But he’s not there yet. Zero shame. The guy is an undrafted rookie.

N’Keal Harry: Jeez. I predicted he wouldn’t be a significant weapon for the team but I didn’t expect him to be a total liability. He’s not there yet. I have a lot of concerns about Harry’s bust potential as I alluded to in my article when New England drafted him, but given how much time he’s missed I will hold off on getting too passionate about my concerns. You have to be patient with these guys. Unless you just get stupid lucky these guys take time to develop.

Tom Brady: No issue with him yelling. Leaders are supposed to rally the troops. I don’t buy into the tantrum argument. When I get worried is when Brady chucks YOLO-balls and goes to the sideline and stews. Challenging your teammates? I want that.

State of the Slot Receiver

You could make an argument that the Patriots’ top-four receivers should all spend the majority of the time in the slot. That’s not a great allocation of resources. Edelman is best in the slot, Meyers is best in the slot. I think there is a very compelling argument Harry should be in the slot. Sanu played outside but his style of game also lends itself to the slot. Point being: the Patriots have four slot receivers and not a single quality outside receiver. That’s not good.

The Patriots desperately need Sanu to get healthy because there is no one else on this roster who I think has any decent probability of producing on the outside besides him.

State of the League

The Baltimore-49ers game was great game if you are a fan of football. If you are a Patriots fan the 49ers game was mostly a disappointment.

The positive take way is that the the 49ers’ defense successfully held down the Ravens’ juggernaut offense. They definitely proved what many people think about Baltimore. If you can slow down the run you can slow down the offense. Lamar Jackson has proven more than capable of dropping bombs on weak defenses but he has yet to notch a signature game playing pocket quarterback against a quality defense. That does not mean he cannot or will not develop into a better passer. If he becomes even a top-12 passing quarterback his rushing gifts will make him a top-five quarterback in the league. But he’s not there yet. When the 49ers put the clamps on the run Jackson was simply not able to make up the difference with his arm. This is crucial because the 49ers are actually a below-average rushing defense. Despite having the the second best defense in football they only rank 19th against the run. The 49ers knew they had to stop the run coming in, and while they struggled early, they were able to adjust to their game plan and hold the Ravens’ offense to a below average performance. It’s possible the Patriots can do the same.

But for the most part I left that game discouraged for a variety of reasons. First, the reason the Ravens’ rushing attack is so dominant is because of their offensive linemen and tight ends. Yes, Lamar Jackson’s elusiveness is a big problem but the bigger problem is the fact that the Ravens are dominant in the trenches. The 49ers may not be a great rushing defense this season but they have a stellar defensive line. They match up well against the Ravens from a personnel perspective. I’m not so sure how well the Patriots’ defensive linemen, far from a weakness in and of itself but easily the weakest position group on defense, will match up. They will need to play a lot better than they did against Baltimore last time, that is for sure.

Another reason I was discouraged was because of the Ravens defense. The 49ers are the sixth best offense in the league and the Ravens held them to 17 points. As I mentioned last week, one of the reasons I think the Ravens are a bigger threat than the Patriots is because they have a defense to pair with their offense. The number one offense in the league and the number 10 defense in the league is the kind of split championship teams are made of. The Ravens’ offense is not as impressive as the Chiefs’ last year but they don’t have to be when their defense is significantly better.

The final reason I was discouraged was that this means the Patriots lost home field. Is it possible another team could still act spoiler? Sure. The Buffalo Bills might this week. But I think the odds of the Ravens ending the season without another loss are better than the Patriots’.

Did the 49ers self sabotage? Sure. Did the Ravens get multiple shaky calls in their favor? You bet. Did they only squeak out a win on a last-second field goal as time expired? Yes. None of that changes the fact they just beat the odds-on favorite to become the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. New England has its work cut out.

I said last week the Titans are the most sneaky dangerous team in the AFC and they proved that with a dominant performance over the Colts. I also would like to point out that Harold Landry is currently sitting with eight sacks on the season and has a 73.8 grade from PFF. I am still a little salty the Patriots did not draft him, I won’t lie.

The Browns and Jets both took dirt naps. So much for the faint hope of relevance.

The Chiefs are lying in the weeds. Top-five pass defense and an offense that has the potential to be the best in the AFC and has shown it at various points. I don’t think they should be preferred over the Ravens but if they beat the Patriots in their own house this weekend they deserve to be considered the second most dangerous team in the AFC. Their run defense sure is bad, though. I think it will have to get better for them to win the Super Bowl.

Thank God the Patriots don’t play in the NFC. There isn’t a chance in hell they would have a bye and they probably wouldn’t be favored against five of the six teams to make it to the big dance.

Closing Thoughts

The Patriots’ outside receivers and tight ends are bad. The pass protection is poor. Those are the two most important reasons why the offense is struggling. I’m not saying the scheme doesn’t have issues or that Tom Brady doesn’t have issues. But those problems are are not nearly as important as the fundamental weakness at the skill position to date. The Patriots have too many receivers who play their best ball in the slot and no one that can really play great ball outside of it. Can the Patriots fix it? We will see. They looked crappy in December last year and they turned it around. It’s not unprecedented. But as Bill Belichick would be the first to say, that was last year, this is this year. It was remarkable they could do it once. It would be close to a miracle if they can do it again.

Love the defense but remain unconvinced as to its greatness. The AFC doesn’t have a lot of quality but it is top heavy. The Ravens will be the Super Bowl pick by a ton of teams heading into the playoffs. And honestly, that seems fair. They have checked a ton of boxes beyond being a great passing offense. I do think there is a scheme solution that could legitimately break the Ravens like the Patriots broke the Rams. They aren’t an offense like the Chiefs from last year. The Chiefs were a blend of incredible talent and clever fundamental scheming. You were never going to find a schematic approach to break the Chiefs offense. But until someone figures out the Ravens there is no reason to think they can’t continue to dominate offensively.

I honestly have some more big picture takes I’d like to share but I’d rather save them for after the Chiefs game. I want to make sure it’s not recency bias of one loss shaping these opinion. I’ve got to admit my emotions ran extremely high during that game. It’s rare to see a Patriots team that feels helpless but that’s what it felt like. I don’t think I’ve felt that way about the team in the last two years except for the game against the Steelers.

I hope I won’t have to feel that way this weekend but my gut is warning me to set my expectations low. Unto Kansas City we go!