A PATRIOTIC STATE OF THE UNION: DON’T BLAME THE OFFICIALS…
The New England Patriots have lost two games in a row.
They just lost at Foxborough for the first time in 21 games.
In their own division, the division they’ve won for 10 straight seasons, the Buffalo Bills of all people are breathing down their neck.
Any hope of home-field advantage throughout the play-offs relies on MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson slowing down.
Is this it?
Is this the beginning of the end? Ask the internet over the past week and you’d think it was time to bench Brady, promote Steve Belichick and his mullet to head-coach and blow the whole thing up. However, if you are lucky enough to be a Patriots fan, I wouldn’t worry that much, you’ve been here before right?
As Tom Brady has continued to battle against Father Time over the past few years, occasional hiccups have led to countless think pieces about how his declining play or a shaky defence will bring about the end of the dynasty, and sparked Bill Belichick to delight us all with the now infamous ‘on to Cincinnati’ mantra, in fact, as I write this, Brady has posted a charming ‘On to Cincinnati’ picture on Instagram. I’m trying to avoid a hyperbolic reaction because when it’s all said and done, I would not be surprised to see New England saunter to yet another AFC Championship Game. Despite the recent history I do think we saw some elements against Houston and Kansas City that we perhaps haven’t seen in any of the other ‘the end is nigh! Oh never mind the Patriots won the Super Bowl again’ seasons.
Try as Patriots fans might, you cannot just blindly point at the officiating, something else is afoot. Something that plighted them during the Houston loss and was evident again this week.
Lets start at NRG Stadium…
Houston, we have a problem
Brady has always had an incredible cerebral connection with his wide-receivers and amongst this current crop, only his old friend Edelman, and to a lesser extent James White, have shown an ability to consistently understand how Brady is reading any given coverage and adjust their routes accordingly. I understand that N’Keal Harry is a rookie, but against Houston he just couldn’t get out of his own way, and on a crucial third-and-4, backed up in their own territory late in the first quarter, Harry ran a slant and was physically beaten to the ball by Texans corner Bradley Roby. As the rookie receiver slowed and practically gave up on the route completely, the ball arrived, Roby stepped up for the interception. That kind of mental lapse and a perceived lack of effort is hardly befitting of the ‘Patriot Way’.
For the record, the rookie (who has played in very few games this season) wasn’t the only receiver to be on the end of Brady’s (now lip-read for the masses) rant at his pass-catchers during the game against the Texans. Philip Dorsett was also guilty of a series of miscommunications with TB12. One of which, for me, epitomises the Patriots that we’re seeing offensively this season. At the end of the first half, the Patriots had the ball and a classic two-minute Brady drive seemed as inevitable as the sunrise. However, with 58 seconds left on the clock and the Patriots nearing the half-way line Brady dialled up a deep-shot to Dorsett down the sideline, only issue being, Dorsett was nowhere to be seen. The quarterback was clearly expecting a streak/go route from the speedy former-Colt receiver, but instead, Dorsett turns on a deep curl and the ball lands 10 yards away from anybody. With most other quarterbacks, an errant throw like that would be their responsibility but given Brady’s reaction and the daggers coming Dorsett’s way from the sideline, he had done something wrong. Whether it was failing to alter his route according to the coverage presented or whether he completely misheard his assignment, this isn’t something you expect from the Patriots’ receivers this late into the season.
Meanwhile, Meyers, an undrafted rookie free agent, who came out of the pre-season with some promise was responsible for another stalled drive in the first half as Brady evaded the pass-rush, motioned for Meyers to turn up-field, the rookie obliged but ran straight into the defender and the pass sailed harmlessly out of bounds. Even Sanu, who the Patriots traded a 2nd round-pick for in the hopes of fixing their ailing offence, dropped a pass he should have had on a 4th-and-inches during the third quarter. All of these issues mean you’re seeing Brady force the ball more and more to Edelman. This almost led to another interception against the Texans as he floated a ball to his favourite target despite the double-coverage. The same double-coverage that Kansas City bracketed Edelman with this week.
Houston we have the same problem... Again
It would be a bit selective to completely gloss over some of the slightly suspect officiating at Foxborough on Sunday Night, but you could also argue that Belichick’s challenge flag on the spot of a ball following a Chief’s successful third down play early in the second half was an uncharacteristically naive attempt to force a stop and gain momentum for his side. Losing this challenge would later prove to be very costly.
The Chiefs blanketed Edelman with double-coverage for most of the game and no other Patriot receiver could consistently beat their one-on-one man coverage, and even if they did, Chiefs Defensive Coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Brady, giving this underperforming receiver corps even less time to get open.
Admittedly, Edelman did get wide open for a touchdown in the first half but that was courtesy of some McDaniels magical misdirection in the form of a unique HB stretch flea-flicker. These gadget plays are great and a staple of the Patriots’ impressive coaching staff, but when that is the ONLY way you can generate scoring drives, something is amiss.
As Tony Romo pointed out on the broadcast, the Patriots did eventually figure out ways to exploit the safety doubling Edelman, but it still wasn’t enough to consistently move the chains. Harry didn’t make the same mistakes he did against the Texans and was unlucky to have a legitimate touchdown chalked off by the officials. However, immediately following that play, New England had an opportunity to successfully end the drive with seven points, but the receiver issues reared their ugly head again as Brady found Meyers in the end-zone who dropped a would-be touchdown. Later, with the game on the line, Brady was left having to target tight end Matt LaCosse, who only has 101 receiving yards on the season. I imagine Belichick spent some of Sunday evening longingly staring across the field at Travis Kelce and reminiscing about the Gronkowski games of yesteryear.
Just pound the ball?
This issue with receivers isn’t new, cast your mind back just 12 months and as the offence struggled through parts of the regular season, Belichick and the Patriots were forced to turn to the running game, so why not do that again? Well, they no longer have two great blocking TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen and one of the best run-blocking full-backs in the NFL, James Develin, is on injured-reserve. With those players available and high-level OL play, Brady was able to lean on the run-game last season, but the offensive line hasn’t been the same this year. They appear to be perennially banged-up and rife with issues that not even the legendary Dante Scarnecchia (the only OL coach most people can name) can work around.
So perhaps there is a legitimate reason for Patriots fans to worry this time around? Is this a problem they won’t be able to overcome? Or perhaps they’ll walk their division, get home-field advantage and we shall see them at the big dance once again in Miami on February 2nd. If I was a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet against them making the Super Bowl. I also wouldn’t bet ON them to beat the Bengals this weekend. Make of that what you will, but for now, the Patriots are *sigh* ‘on to Cincinnati’.
NFL & CFB ANALYST
Despite being an NFL fan for 10 years, yet to fall in love with one particular team, applications remain open… Sucker for a safety, so naturally partial to Tyrann Mathieu, Derwin James and Jamal Adams.
For reasons unknown, a Wisconsin Badgers fan. Find him on twitter @BillyMortonnn
Image credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports