The Patriots are currently sitting at 9-5, their worst record since their 10-6 2009 season, and fans, for reasons justifiable and not, are in a panic. As a fan I have my concerns, but considering I wrote an article several months ago on why the Patriots would not win the Super Bowl this season, I can’t say I’m surprised. With the Bills and Jets coming up at home, there is no reason the Patriots should be any worse than 11-5. If they are, I’ll have more concerns.There are a multitude of reasons why this team is struggling, and acting like it’s any one reason is foolish, as the offense, defense, and special teams have all had their fair share of issues.
The offense has had a wide variety of issues lately, and they look like a far cry from the unit that outscored Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6 of this season. Since their bye week, they are averaging 23.5 pts/game as opposed to 28 pts/game before the bye. Normally, we expect to see the Patriots improving as the season goes on, not getting worse, especially when they’re getting healthier.
Part of this is due to the lack of a role played by James White these past few weeks, an issue which should have an article of its own. Considering he was essentially the top pass-catching running back earlier this season, it’s remarkable to see how invisible he’s been lately, and even when he is targeted, he seems to be off rhythm with Brady. That of course begs the question of injury. It is possible something is nagging James White and the team is just playing it safe while playing games with the injury report, which has been quite clean as of late. I can’t imagine them playing him if he’s hurt in any way, though, so it may be, as he says, a scheming thing, which should be fixed ASAP.
There is also of course, Brady, who has seemed skittish as of late, and thanks to Mike Giardi of NFL Network, we may have an interesting theory that also includes injury. On December 19, he appeared on Toucher & Rich, the morning show of Boston’s Sports Hub, and said that after examining tape from the last several weeks, he believes Brady may be playing injured, possibly an MCL tear or sprain.
Brady has been known to play through injury before so it wouldn’t shock me to see him doing something like this. He has seemed more susceptible to pressure in the past and has made some uncharacteristic throws. Now, he is 41, but it’s hard to look at some of the great throws he’s made in recent weeks and then look at some clunkers and say that he is officially too old. He’s made a few more mental mistakes than usual, but he’s still a great QB.
The other offensive issues are simpler: Gronkowski is a shell of himself, and the offensive line, once a strength, is now a false start or hold waiting to happen. Unfortunately, there is no fixing Gronkowski, as his career seems to be at an end. While he can still have a good game, he is no longer the dominant force he once was. With Gordon now gone, other receivers need to step up. Hogan needs to make plays even when the defense remember he exists and Phillip Dorsett needs to start doing his flips in the end zone again to give this offense the juice it needs. As for the offensive line, it seems like every game recently has had a huge Sony Michel run erased by a poorly timed holding penalty. They should be able to fix this, but mistakes like these have and will cost them games.
The morning of December 20 brought some news as well: that Josh Gordon would be stepping away from football to focus on his mental health. This also allows him to get ahead of the news that his indefinite suspension will more than likely be reinstated by the NFL. This is a blow to the offense, as he quickly acclimated to the offense and developed an effective chemistry with Brady. I am glad that he’s taking the time to focus on himself though. Depression and anxiety are no laughing matters and it’s clear that Josh Gordon has plenty he needs to do for himself. I wish him all the luck and this is further proof of the NFL’s draconian substance abuse policies, punishing a man for taking care of himself.
While the Patriots’ issue on defense is more isolated than on offense, it is arguably even bigger. I can pinpoint it to run defense. Watching the games, it’s getting frustrating watching this team leave wide open holes to let every back through for massive gains. I was ripping my hair out watching Old Man Frank Gore and Brandon Freaking Bolden run all over this team. Then a Steelers team without James Conner did the same.
This type of play is sloppy, and hopefully the team can work the issues out with coaching, but it hasn’t gotten any better recently, so I am not terribly hopeful. If it doesn’t get worked out, this particular issue harms other aspects of the game. It upsets the balance of time of possession, giving the offense less time to do what they can do, while also making a good secondary vulnerable when they have to adjust for the run.
There are some pluses to the defense though. The secondary, overall, has been quite good and disciplined. Stephon Gilmore has been great this year, rightfully earning a Pro Bowl nod. Jason McCourty has been overall pretty good. JC Jackson has been a pleasant surprise as an undrafted player. Jonathan Jones has made some plays. Devin McCourty is still a reliable player. Duron Harmon has made the most of his opportunities and always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. Patrick Chung, while having lost a step, is still able to do his job relatively well.
All this, while also being able to hold a pretty good Steelers offense to 17 points at home. This defense can be a lot better than it looks, but if they don’t clean up their act in the run game it won’t matter, because they’ll just keep shooting themselves in the foot.
The Patriots special teams have been a bit of a mixed bag this year. I’d still say they are strong, but kicking cost them the game in Miami, so it’s hard not to be at least somewhat critical of Gostkowksi.
Gostkowski though, who missed a field goal and an extra point at the Dolphins, is still one of the better kickers in the league. I would much rather have him than Boswell of the Steelers, among others. I can’t help but be a bit concerned though, as he has a strange knack of missing kicks in big situations, and when he does, you just know it’ll come back to haunt the team. Hopefully this won’t happen again, but kickers have seemingly been way more volatile since they changed the extra point rules and I’m always expecting a kick to go the wrong way.
Despite any issues they may have on special teams however, I can’t help but be wowed by the coaching and athleticism at display against the Steelers as they prevented a touchback on a punt with a double dive for the ball. Jonathan Jones and then Rex Burkhead both dived for the ball to keep it out of the endzone, and Matthew Slater maneuvered out of the way mid-air to avoid touching it, all while Nicholas Grigsby downed it at the 1. It was a thing of beauty and gave me faith that the special teams are still what we’re used to.
At the end of the day, the Patriots are 9-5, are pretty much guaranteed to make the playoffs, and at that point it’s any given Sunday. If the Patriots somehow figure it all out and make it to Super Bowl LIII, I won’t be surprised, because you can never count out Brady and Belichick, but if I’m being honest, I don’t see it. This hasn’t been just any other season at Gillette.There’s something different about this team, a weird aura they give off that is uncomfortable. They proclaim to be mentally tough, yet they display a lack of discipline almost weekly. There is still football to be played, though, and if this is in fact the end of the dynasty, I’m just glad I got to witness the journey.