It’s that time of year again, folks. No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the yearly tradition of the New England Patriots being slept on in the AFC after a few poor showings. This movie of the Patriots being doubted to only go on and hoist another Lombardi Trophy has been on repeat for years now, and history says we’re in its newest rendition.
We saw it as recently as the 2018 season when they lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins (the Miami Miracle game) and the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road to essentially knock themselves out of the top seed in the conference. Talking heads across America were quick to dance on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s graves, as there was “no way” they could possibly walk into Kansas City and beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead, right? Wrong. They were able to knock off league MVP Patrick Mahomes and the juggernaut K.C. offense in overtime of the AFC Championship to advance to their ninth Super Bowl appearance since Brady became the starter. After that, they held the Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII and won their seventh title in franchise history, to the chagrin of the rest of the league.
Looking at 2019, it does feel like a similar storyline is unfolding, but with a few different characters. Instead of Patrick Mahomes on an MVP pace while leading his Chiefs squad through the AFC with ease, it’s Lamar Jackson poised to win the MVP while the Ravens have been slicing through the conference.
See the full NFL Playoff Picture here.
Before we go any further, we’ll give a tip of the cap to my colleague Jordan Dajani, who hasfor the No. 1 seeded Ravens to be considered the favorites in the conference. After all, Baltimore did beat New England rather handily earlier this season, and Jackson’s leap in Year 2 has been something to behold. They’re unquestionably a worthy adversary to New England, but let’s not crown them and kick the Pats off the throne before the truly meaningful games are played.
You made that mistake last year with Kansas City.
With that said, let’s look at this Patriots team, which is — to be fair — not as talented offensively in its current state as the one that was able to win Super Bowl LIII a year ago, but they may not have to be. Of course, the main difference is the loss of Rob Gronkowski and New England’s failure — to this point — of truly replacing him in their offense at tight end or anywhere else. First round receiver N’Keal Harry has the physical gifts and pass-catching talent to adopt some of Gronkowski’s route tree, but he hasn’t been able to fully grasp the offense to this point as he’s still rather fresh coming off IR just a few weeks ago.
Over the course of this season, the Patriots have become a bit too pass-happy. Brady’s on pace to throw more than he’s ever had to do in his carer and, as a franchise, that’s not exactly what you want to see from your 42-year-old quarterback, even if he is the best ever.
What New England needs to focus in on for more productive offensive efficiency is highlighting their backfield, and there’s precedent that they will do just that. Sony Michel hasn’t taken as huge of a jump in Year 2 as many would have hoped, but has increased his productivity as of late, rushing for 4.33 yards per carry over New England’s previous two games. The Patriots have been reluctant at times to keep feeding Michel as the game goes on this season, but if last postseason is any indication they are not afraid to look at him in the big moments. Over the course of last year’s Super Bowl run, Michel rushed for 336 yards over three games on a 4.73 yards per carry clip to go along with six touchdowns.
Not having starting fullback James Develin, who has been out all season, does hurt the running game, but it has seen a resurgence as of late with linebacker Elandon Roberts adapting to his new role as a fullback. Not only that, but New England’s rushing attack has been noticeably improved with the returning of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
James White — who could have easily been the MVP of Super Bowl LI — is also a key component that New England will look to activate once the games turn into a pressure cooker. They’ve already started to do so as recently as Week 13 against the Texans, where he was one of the lone trusted safety valves for Brady, catching eight of his 11 targets for 98 yards and two scores.
If I were to ever catch the ear of either Bill Belichick or Josh McDaniels, I would suggest possibly deploying the “pony” backfield that they’ve used in the past a bit more. Essentially it would use a running back on either side of Brady in the backfield and exploit mismatches as TB12 sees fit. With Michel, White, Rex Burkhead and even Brandon Bolden in the fold, they do have the personnel to work it, and it could be quite a tactic to get these shifty backs onto Baltimore linebackers in a potential AFC Championship scenario.
Of course, this is just once piece of the offensive pie, as the Patriots need to see an uptick from their pass catchers. Given their inexperience, it’s tough to rely on Harry or Jakobi Meyers as anything more than bonus contributors, but Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett and, naturally, Julian Edelman are solid enough weapons to get the job done. Despite the loss, Edelman and Sanu were able to gash the Baltimore defense in Week 9 for 20 catches, 170 yards and a touchdown. Many simply look at the 37-20 score and call it a blowout, but there were plenty of moments in that game where the Patriots were in it. After absorbing the 10-0 wave in the opening quarter, the Ravens only outscored New England 27-20.
Meanwhile, the defense has really been the calling card of the 2019 New England Patriots. Across the board they’ve been an elite unit when it comes to creating turnovers, preventing scoring and posting low total yards allowed, and are No. 1 in DVOA heading into Week 14. Thanks to corner Stephon Gilmore, they can essentially eliminate — or greatly diminish — a team’s top receiver, and the rest of the secondary, led by safety Devin McCourty, has been top notch. One area where they do struggle is against the run, which will be an area that will need hyper-coaching from Bill Belichick and company when the moment comes.
Speaking of Bill Belichick, he’s one of the major trump cards in all of this as he represents arguably the biggest mismatch throughout. The Hoodie will undoubtedly dissect a game plan that exposes some of Jackson’s weaknesses. With the Ravens quarterback, the plan for Belichick if/when he sees him again could be to attempt to keep him contained in the pocket, clog up his running lanes and force him to beat them with his arm against this all-world secondary. If there’s one area that Jackson has struggled with this year, it’s been throwing the deep pass. His deep ball completion percentage is 32%, ranking 25th in the league. When pressured, Jackson is also iffy as a passer, completing 30.1% of his throws, which ranks 26th in the league. That could be a mismatch that Belichick tries to highlight in a playoff setting.
Of course, we do have to look at the road that the Patriots may need to go down in the postseason. Currently, they are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and have a first-round bye. They have the Chiefs, Bengals, Bills and Dolphins to go in the regular season. As long as they go 3-1 over the stretch and don’t allow K.C. or another club to overtake them in the conference standings, they’ll at least be hosting a game at Gillette, which has been very favorable to them in the postseason. If the Texans hang on to the tiebreaker over Kansas City and are the No. 3 seed, you could make the case that Ravens facing the Chiefs in a potential divisional round matchup is a more difficult task than hosting Houston. If Kansas City upsets Baltimore, the Pats are hosting the AFC Championship anyways.
To be clear, you always play for the top seed, but it’s an intriguing circumstance if it follows through as I illustrated above and could be yet another “big break” that seemingly falls the Patriots way on a yearly basis.
Look, I’m not here to really bash the Ravens. In fact, I’m extremely impressed with them. As someone who made it a point to draft Lamar Jackson in all my fantasy leagues this year, I felt a leap like this coming for this offense. Defensively, the Marcus Peters trade is arguably the best deadline deal all year.
Still, this is the Patriots we’re talking about. It’s Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and a top tier defense that’s stewing in Foxborough at the moment. As I implored earlier, don’t fall for the trap of falling in love with the runaway MVP and latest AFC juggernaut. History tells us that you’ll get burned crowing them too early and dismissing New England before January.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” is the old saying, right?
Don’t be insane.