Trouble in Paradise?

New England Patriots vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America

I just want to make something clear REAL quick.  The definition of “trouble” for New England is unequivocally different than anywhere else.  Since Tom Brady started his first game for the New England Patriots in 2001, the team has only missed the playoffs twice, and in one of those years (2008), Brady was injured in Week 1, and did not play the rest of the season.  That’s 15 playoff appearances in 17 seasons.

Another way of looking at it? In that same amount of time, the Buffalo Bills have made the playoffs once, and lost their only playoff game in the Wild Card round.

Nevertheless, after losing 34-10 to the Tennessee Titans, things are not going as good as they should, and I think it needs to be talked about.

Shades of 2005

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TRvkOjtei8

What is really beginning to stand out to me about this New England team is how bad their loses are.  Sure, an L is an L, but just consider this: in the three games New England has lost this season, they have been by 11, 16, and 24 respectively.  All by double-digits.

The last time the New England Patriots lost at least three (3) games in the regular season by double-digits was 2005.

“New England has been to three Super Bowls the past 4 seasons.  They were also one game away from the Super Bowl in 2015.  They lost their long-time defensive coordinator this offseason, and without a last minute intervention, the team would have lost Josh McDaniels to the Indianapolis Colts; key players moved on to other teams this offseason as well.

This could very well be 2005 all over again.”

– me, via Hold My Drink Sports

I’ve written about the parallels between this season and 2005 before, and this is yet another point of comparison.

The Pats started 4-4 in 2005, versus 6-2 this season.  That team had to replace both of their coordinators from the previous season, versus this team, which only had to replace defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.  That team had a 28-year-old Tom Brady, this team has a 41-year-old Tom Brady.  In 2005, the defense was the strength of the team, this year, it’s the offense.

I think it’s safe to say that in 2005, the Patriots could only go as far as their defense took them, and it 2018, the Patriots will only go as far as the offense will take them.  And therein lays the issue.

Offensive Woes

New England Patriots v Detroit Lions
Credit: Getty Images North America

I understand the irony in saying a team that produced 35+ points in four straight weeks at one point this season has offensive issues, but hear me out.  For this team, this season, who would you say the number 1 option is?

No seriously, think about it.

Is it Gronk? Because since Week 1, he’s had only 22 catches for 325 yards, and ZERO TDs in 6 games.  He has also missed 3 of the past 4 games due to back injuries.

Is it Jules? Edelman has 40 catches for 436 yards (2 TDs) in 6 games this season.  He is 32, and is coming off of an ACL tear (although he looked really good against the Titans).

Is it Josh Gordon? Since being traded to New England after Week 2, Gordon has 26 catches for 477 yards (2 TDs) in 7 games.  He is working into a new system during the season, and his 7 games for New England are the most he has played in a season since 2013.  All the talent in the world, it’s just extremely difficult to get acclimated mid-season (but he has done great so far).

James White? Well it might be.  He was not good today versus the Titans (6 touches for 26 yards), but White has 66 catches for 562 yards (6 TDs), in addition to 231 rushing yards (4 TDs), and was just recently mentioned as an MVP candidate.

I think this is a talented offensive unit, but everyone except White has missed time.  Gordon’s first game with team was not until Week 4.  Edelman missed 4 games (and left yesterday with an ankle injury).  Gronk has missed 3 games, as has rookie RB Sony Michel.

Gronk/Edelman/Gordon/Michel/White have only all played together for 2 games this season; in those 2 games, New England scored a total of 81 points, and won each time.

With the injuries of Gronk and Michel, and Gordon and Edelman getting acclimated, under the current circumstances, the lack of a consistent top option may be the worst New England has seen since 2006.

Wes Welker and Randy Moss Photos - 3 of 5
Credit: Elsa/Getty Images North America

In 2007-2009, Randy Moss and Wes Welker were here.

Moss was traded during the 2010 season, but that was Gronk’s rookie campaign, and he and Aaron Hernandez (sorry) quickly became vital parts of the offense (oh, and Brady won an MVP).

As Welker (and Hernandez) left after 2012, Julian Edelman quickly rose to the occasion to help Gronk, with Danny Amendola joining in on the fun.

Gronk and Edelman have had their share of injuries (especially in 2015), but when at least one is healthy and playing, this team is usually dominant on offense.  When you get both healthy… oh boy.

But in 2018, Gronk has been hurt, and Jules has been getting back to his former self (and lets hope this ankle injury is not a setback); they have only played 2 games together this season.

Maybe I am overreacting, but to me, this team will go as far as the offense carries them.  That has been the case for many years, but when the offense does not have a reliable number one option, and can see setbacks like this week, it hurts the team.  After the bye week, Gronk should be back (and hopefully 100%), and New England will have 6 games to get all their ducks in a row.  I have faith in number 12, but this might be his biggest challenge since 2006.

Ending Strong

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots
Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America

New England’s remaining schedule:

Week 12: New England Patriots (7-3) vs. New York Jets (3-7)

Week 13: Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1) vs. New England Patriots (7-3)

Week 14: New England Patriots (7-3) vs. Miami Dolphins (5-5)

Week 15: New England Patriots (7-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1)

Week 16: Buffalo Bills (3-7) vs. New England Patriots (7-3)

Week 17: New York Jets (3-7) vs. New England Patriots (7-3)

New England has four games remaining versus the AFC East.  The Patriots are currently 2-0 versus their division, and have won at least 4 games within the division every year the AFC East has existed (since 2002).  They have finished 4-2 within the division 7 times, 5-1 within the division 7 times, and 6-0 within the division 2 times (2007 and 2012).

If history is to repeat itself, the Pats are set to win, at worst, 2 more games this season, and a division title is all but guaranteed.

The biggest games left on the docket are against Minnesota and Pittsburgh.

Not counting this week (which makes them look even better), Minnesota has allowed 22.7 PPG, and they have the 11th ranked passing defense, and 4th ranked rushing defense (in terms of YPG) in the NFL.  With Kirk Cousins at the helm, Minnesota looks set for another playoff berth, looking to redeem themselves after being blown out in the NFC Championship Game just a year ago.

Pittsburgh, even without Le’Veon Bell, is clicking on all cylinders.  After staring 1-2-1, the Steelers have won 5 straight, and look like they are set to win their division yet again.  James Conner looks like an admirable replacement for Bell, Big Ben and Antonio Brown look as good as ever, and my favorite fantasy wide receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, is a stud.  Expect a great game, just like last year.

If New England can beat Pittsburgh, it would be huge for their chances of clinching a bye week.  New England has beaten Kansas City and Houston this season, the teams that look like they will win their respective divisions.  It may be too much to overcome Kansas City (9-1) this season, but if they end the season with the same record, New England holds the tiebreaker.  A win versus Pittsburgh would give the Patriots the tiebreaker versus any likely AFC divisional winner.

Given the fact New England is just 2-3 on the road, this is huge if the Patriots would like to go back to the Super Bowl.  The Patriots have never made the Super Bowl without a first-round bye, and the team has earned a first-round bye each of the past 8 seasons.

Winning their remaining 6 games, ESPECIALLY against the Steelers, is vital to making it 9 seasons in a row; if not, the path becomes daunting.

Final Thoughts

New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts
Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America

I am not expressing any huge concerns just yet, but I am slightly worried.  If Gronk is healthy after the bye week, and begins to play like the Gronk we have all come to know, this whole article will be pointless, because the offense will look as good as it ever has.  But unfortunately, as we know, that is a BIG if.  Gordon will have another week of practice with Brady, hopefully Edelman is okay, and hopefully Michel stays healthy.  If they can all get some games under their belts TOGETHER, I think we will be fine.

The ceiling of this offense is the ceiling of this team (which I believe is high), but reaching that ceiling has proved to be a challenge, due to many changing parts and injuries.

As I alluded to, getting a bye week in the postseason is huge.  Just consider this: Tom Brady is 19-3 (86.36%) at home in his career in the playoffs.

Brady has played the first game of a postseason at home 15 times; he is 13-2 (86.67%) in those games.

Brady has played the first game of a postseason at home in the divisional round 12 times, and he is 11-1 (91.67%) in those games.

If New England wants to do anything this postseason, they need to assure as many games as possible are at home.  Winning the division guarantees one game will be at home.  Earning a top-2 seed earns New England a bye week, and one home game.  Earning a bye week is paramount.  Easiest way to do that: win out.  At that point, Pittsburgh cannot surpass you, and only Kansas City or the Chargers (but not both) can be ahead of you in the final standings.

If New England loses even one more game, they no longer control their destiny to a top-2 seed (Pittsburgh and KC/LAC have the inside track, with Houston looming), and losing to Pittsburgh all but wraps up any hope of a bye week.

Controlling their destiny is huge, but the team will only go as far as their offense.  When it’s clicking, they can beat the Kansas City Chiefs.  When it’s not, they lose to the Tennessee Titans by 24, only putting up 10 points in the process.

All eyes will be on how this team looks coming out of the bye week against the Jets.  Until then, plenty of questions will be asked.  Lets hope everyone gets healthy and comfortable with each other… otherwise, this might be 2005.


Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)