The first eight weeks turned into eight rather easy wins for the New England Patriots, that saw them face off with just two current playoff teams to date — the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, the fifth and sixth seeds in the AFC at the moment.
Following the two-month span of pure domination and clear criticism from the media regarding their “easy schedule,” the Patriots turned in a five-game stretch where they battled three division leaders inside the AFC as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, who are fighting tooth and nail for the NFC East.
With Baltimore Ravens handing the Patriots their first loss of the season back in early November, New England would then finish off the sweep of the NFC East with impressive wins in Philadelphia and then at home against Dallas in some tough weather before tripping over themselves in Houston to mark Bill O’Brien’s first win over Bill Belichick. Finally, Patriots fans saw a reoccurring lack of execution from the offense and high-way robbery from the officiating crew against the Kansas City Chiefs.
With the Patriots’ 23-16 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, New England has now lost to all three of the top teams in the AFC and will likely lose to every division winner inside the conference for the first time under Belichick, barring a colossal collapse of the Houston Texans (who did get blown out by the 5-8 Denver Broncos in Week 14, for what it’s worth).
Sitting at 10-3 and holding onto the number two seed now by a string, here’s what we have learned about the Patriots over the last five games:
1. The Patriots defense is still the league’s best
New England is 2-3 against some of the league’s best teams and people want to call its defense “overrated.” In reality, however, the unit faced very good quarterbacks and offenses the last five games and still put up some ridiculous numbers:
Over the five-game stretch for the #Patriots defense, here are the points they allowed in the second half:#Ravens: 13#Eagles: 0#Cowboys: 3#Texans: 14#Chiefs: 3— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) December 9, 2019
Allowed an average of just 20 points and 6.6 points in the second half, yet the #Patriots went 2-3.. Frustrating.
Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are all MVP-caliber players while Dak Prescott was having an MVP-type year until facing the Patriots. The New England defense held its own and allowed an average of just 20 points per game and just six points in the second half. It also didn’t allow an elite wide receiver to beat it and limited Amari Cooper to zero catches, DeAndre Hopkins to five for 64 yards and Tyreek Hill to six for 62 yards.
Despite their 2-3 stretch, the Patriots still rank atop the league in fewest points allowed per game (12.9), total yards per game (264.8), second in passing yards per game (171.8) and second in rushing yards per game (93). They are still a defensive powerhouse.
2. The Patriots offense continues to show it can’t score enough points to win on its own
The worst part of this offense is that even with an elite defense like this, it still can’t put up enough points to win games. Winning by defense and special teams is entirely possible, but right now even if the defense plays its best game of the year against teams like Baltimore, Kansas City or Houston it will still give up 24+ points just because of how explosive their respective offenses are.
The Patriots offense can barely score 20 points per game, and struggles to convert on third down, finish drives in the red area or establish any type of run game. It is going to be very tough to win in January when you have to rely on your defense to play like it did the first eight weeks and against Dallas and Philadelphia. Tom Brady and company have been awarded great field position numerous amounts of time over the last five weeks following turnovers and blocked punts, yet they still cannot finish drives:
The #Patriots offense following forced turnover since the Baltimore game:— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) December 9, 2019
Started - BAL 19: 6 plays, 25 yds, 3 pts (Holding)
BAL 20, 4 plays, 20 yds, 7 pts
PHI 22, 3 plays, 1 yd, 3 pts
DAL 29: 3 plays, 3 yds, 3 pts
KC 40: 3 plays, -1 yd, punt
KC 49: 8 plays, 14 yds, 3 pts (DPI)
If the Patriots could somehow find a way to at least control the time of possession with the defense they currently have — something we saw them do towards the end of last season all the way to the Super Bowl — they would be in much better position offensively. No one is asking or expecting this offense to be like past Patriots teams that are going to score a lot of points and put up big play after big play.
However, they shouldn’t have a problem with playing a complementary role to offense and special teams and scoring enough points to win most games. Unfortunately, players like Mohamed Sanu, former first-round draft picks Phillip Dorsett, N’Keal Harry and Sony Michel, and the offensive line are all not playing up to their capabilities at the moment.
3. The Patriots’ offensive rookies are not ready for the spotlight just yet
Chase Winovich and Jake Bailey have been awesome, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers... ehh... not so much. Harry, who missed the first eight weeks of the regular season due to an ankle injury, came into the year with high expectations after being the first ever wide receiver selected in the first round during the Bill Belichick era. Since his return to the active roster, however, Harry has played four games and has caught just five passes for 40 yards and a score.
Furthermore, he has played just nine out of the last 138 offensive snaps (6.5%) since a poor route led to a Tom Brady interception during New England’s Week 13 game in Houston. Even though I think the Patriots are not using Harry in ways that can help him be successful, he hasn’t done enough yet to show the coaching staff that he can play 70+ percent of snaps on a week-to-week basis.
Jakobi Meyers, meanwhile, has been the talk of the city because of some crucial drops on Sunday — especially the one that would have cut the Chiefs’ lead to three after a blown touchdown call in the fourth quarter. Expectations were not particularly high for Meyers after coming in and making the team as an undrafted rookie free agent, but he’s been given an opportunity the last few weeks to earn Brady’s trust. Consistent mistakes have hindered him, however, and by extension hurt the Patriots’ offense.
4. Special teams continues to put the Patriots in position to win games
Everybody seems to love praising the defense and tearing down the offense, but the job the Patriots’ special teams units have done has helped amount for the team’s success this season. Seemingly every week, the kicking game teams are getting guys in a position to pin the opponents inside their own 20-yard line, or are blocking a punt allowing for the Patriots offense to start with great field position. In fact, the NFL has seen nine blocked punts this season and the Patriots currently have four of them with two turning into touchdowns.
Rookie punter Jake Bailey has proven that he can help New England win the field position battle, by continuing to make matters difficult for opposing offenses. This was on full display a few weeks back in Philadelphia, when six of his eight punts landed inside the Eagles’ 20-yard line. Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, in-season addition Justin Bethel and the rest of the Patriots’ coverage players have done a great job getting downfield and making it difficult if not impossible for opponents to run back kicks.
Being able to kick under pressure, in tough environments and to win the field position battle is critical in the postseason. The Patriots’ special teams units have passed with flying colors the last five weeks, despite allowing a field goal attempt to be blocked versus Kansas City. They did make up for it with another blocked punt, however, showing that they can still be counted on to make the big play if need be.
5. The offensive line is still a work in progress
Pointing the finger at Tom Brady and saying that it is his fault the Patriots offense is massively underachieving this year is popular among sports talk radio hosts. However, the issue isn’t him entirely: the offensive line has been super inconsistent as well and has struggled both in the run and pass game. The return of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn from his eight-week injury absence has definitely helped, but he was never going to be the savior this offensive line needed.
With the Patriots now on their third center of the year after Ted Karras — who is already the stand-in for original starter David Andrews — suffered a knee injury in Houston and had to be replaced by James Ferentz, it has been nearly impossible for their offensive line to work collectively as a unit and build the necessary chemistry to play consistent football: right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon have previously battled injuries, and Wynn missed eight games. Only left guard Joe Thuney has been available for every contest so far this season.
The instability along the line has led to a non-existent run game and struggles in pass protection. It seems like Brady is running for his life with more and more teams continuing to bring pressure, and it’s not allowing time for New England’s receivers to get open. As the last few games showed, Patriots have some problems protecting their 42-year-old quarterback even with Wynn in the fold — and the entire O-line needs to get better and more consistent if this team wants to be playing on the first Sunday in February.