When the NFL released its 2020 regular season schedule in spring, the New England Patriots’ bye week was in Week 6 — in between home games against the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. That game versus the Broncos, however, had to be pushed back after a fourth member of the Patriots organization tested positive for the Coronavirus. As a result, New England’s bye has now come one week ahead of its original schedule.
With the bye weekend now in the books, however, let’s turn our attention to what lies ahead for the team and preview the Patriots’ post-bye portion of the regular season.
The first half of the a season
New England did not just lose starting quarterback Tom Brady to free agency in March, the team also had to see other core members in all three phases depart either through the open market (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Nate Ebner) or via the NFL’s newly created Coronavirus opt-out clause (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon). Accordingly, the team that took the field on opening day looked a lot different than the Patriots squads of years past.
The first four games of the season were therefore an expected up-and-down, with New England still trying to find its identity on both offense and defense:
Week 1 vs Miami Dolphins: W 21-11
Week 2 at Seattle Seahawks: L 35-30
Week 3 vs Las Vegas Raiders: W 36-20
Week 4 at Kansas City Chiefs: L 26-10
The 2-2 team, which is currently in second place in the AFC East behind the 4-1 Buffalo Bills, has had some strong moments — from the running game dominating against Miami and Las Vegas, to the defense playing lights-out for most of the Chiefs game — but consistency has been an issue still. Considering this, the following rankings are rather unsurprising:
Patriots by the numbers: Weeks 1-4
|Offense||22nd (24.3)||15th (0.08)||6th (50.4%)||17th (2.3%)|
|Defense||11th (23.0)||12th (0.05)||30th (51.9%)||23rd (6.8%)|
While the sample size of New England’s rankings is rather small — the team has only played four games after last weekend’s postponement — the message the numbers send is a clear one: the Patriots are still lacking consistency, despite some encouraging building blocks to work with.
The upcoming opponents
The Patriots’ opponents so far this season have a combined record of 14-6 (.700). The remaining opponents that are still on the team’s schedule, meanwhile, are .455 with a record of 20-24:
Week 6 vs Denver Broncos (1-3)
Week 7 vs San Francisco 49ers (2-3)
Week 8 at Buffalo Bills (4-1)
Week 9 at New York Jets (0-5)
Week 10 vs Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
Week 11 at Houston Texans (1-4)
Week 12 vs Arizona Cardinals (3-2)
Week 13 at Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)
Week 14 at Los Angeles Rams (4-1)
Week 15 at Miami Dolphins (2-3)
Week 16 vs Buffalo Bills (4-1)
Week 17 vs New York Jets (0-5)
Three games stand out among the Patriots’ remaining 12 because they could have major implications on the team’s division and the AFC’s playoff picture: the two contests against the division-leading Buffalo Bills, who just lost their first game of the season against the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday night, as well as the Week 10 matchup versus the Baltimore Ravens.
For stretches, New England played some solid football before its bye week. That said, the team still has some areas that need to be improved over the upcoming games and heading into the home stretch of the season.
Passing game: The Patriots’ aerial attack naturally suffered when quarterback Cam Newton was diagnosed with Covid-19 just three days ahead of the Week 4 game in Kansas City, but even when he was on the field it was up and down. The team moved the football well in Week 2 against the Seahawks, and had its moments on opening day, but it also struggled against the Raiders. For New England to play playoff-caliber football on the offensive side of the ball, effectively moving down on the back of the passing game is a must.
Ball security: While last Monday’s game hurt the team’s turnover rankings — backup quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham combined to give the ball away four times — the team was still averaging a turnover per game heading into the contest. The Patriots put an emphasis on limiting avoidable mistakes to a minimum, and taking care of the football is the easiest way to approach this. New England’s offense needs to get better in this area.
Early down defense: The Week 2 game in Seattle hurts the Patriots’ overall defensive numbers a bit, but some trends are still developing regardless of that one contest. One of them is related to New England’s early down defense. While the unit is one of the best in the NFL on third downs — ranking third and fourth, respectively, in EPA (-0.221) and success rate (41.9%) — it has not been able to find the same success on nearly downs: the Patriots’ defense, in part because of some inconsistency against the run, is ranked 22nd (0.089) and 30th (53.9%) in the two categories in first and second down situations.
Situational offense: Carried by a strong rushing attack, New England’s offense is entering the post-bye portion of its schedule as one of the better in the NFL. That said, one of the areas that still an be improved is the situation aspect of moving the football. This is especially true on third downs and in the red zone: the Patriots are ranked just 16th with a third down conversion rate of 43.8 percent (21 of 48), and are tied for 22nd with a red zone success rate of 55.6% (10 of 18).
Place kicking: The Patriots’ field goal and extra point kicking operations have had some issues going all the way back to last year (and possibly even as far as the 2015 AFC Championship in Denver), and they are also off to a slow start in 2020. Nick Folk, who won the training camp competition against fifth-round rookie Justin Rohrwasser, has made five of seven field goal attempts so far this season as well as 10 of 11 point-after tries. His combined success rate of 83.3 percent has him ranked just tied for 26th league-wide.
The big storylines
How will the Coronavirus situation develop? The biggest story in the NFL this season is obviously also the biggest story in the United States: Covid-19 and its continued impact on everyday life. While the NFL works a lot differently than the nation as a whole when handling the virus — from 24/7 medical support to every-day testing — it still has had an impact, most notably in Tennessee and New England. How the situation will continue to develop after four positive tests since earlier this month could very well decide the Patriots’ fate this year.
Will the defense build on its Week 4 momentum? Through three quarters and despite some bad play at the (backup) quarterback position, the Patriots’ defense looked outstanding against the Chiefs last Monday and much like the unit that led the league in scoring last year. Will it be able to return to those levels coming out of its bye? That will be something worth keeping an eye on, especially considering how the offense remains a work in progress at this stage.
Are more rookie contributions on the horizon? Some of the Patriots’ first-year players have already carved out big roles on the team — from Michael Onwenu starting two games at guard, to Kyle Dugger becoming a valuable rotational safety, to J.J. Taylor seeing some action at running back. The team will likely want more from its rookies, however, especially at the tight end and linebacker positions: tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have not moved the needle so far, while linebacker Josh Uche is on injured reserve and Anfernee Jennings only a rotational-at-best contributor.
Can the receiving corps improve? Speaking of the Patriots’ tight end position, the team’s downfield receiving corps as a whole has left some to be desired. While N’Keal Harry is making strides and tied for the team-lead in receptions (18) and touchdowns (1), he has not yet established himself as a true number one wide receiver. The same has to be said for veterans Julian Edelman and Damiere Byrd. Gunner Olszewski, meanwhile, has missed some time due to injury before slowly being reintegrated last week. Given the state of the tight end position — Ryan Izzo is the number one but hardly a difference-maker — New England needs its wide receivers or rookie tight ends to step up.
Will the Patriots be active ahead of the trade deadline? We are only 17 days away from one of the biggest dates on the NFL calendar, the trade deadline. Last year, the Patriots were quite active by sending defensive end Michael Bennett to the Dallas Cowboys and bringing in wide receiver Mohamed Sanu from the Atlanta Falcons — a trade that did not work out in New England’s favor. Will the club again turn to the veteran market to add some help, especially at positions such as wideout or off-the-ball linebacker? The next few games might give us a clue, and the team a better assessment of its overall talent.