NFL Handicapping and Betting: What to Make of Patriots Stuggles
When it comes to the New England Patriots, this is not what we are used to seeing. Sure, they are going to run away with their division yet again. And with games against the Bills and Jets remaining, they are very well positioned for double-digit wins as usual. But this is the team that was favored to win the Super Bowl heading into the season, and they are certainly not playing like a real contender right now. They likely won't have a bye, and don't look like a team that has four wins in them when they count. Heck, a lot of days this year they haven't looked like they have one playoff win in them.
We obviously can't rule out any Belichick-Brady game in the postseason - we have learned that lesson before. But it sure feels different. Let's look at what is going on:
Tom Brady: I will never call Brady too old - he's two years younger than me, so if he's over the hill then I'm in real trouble, and I still like to pretend I'm immortal. But this year's Brady has not looked like the Brady of old. There is one name that really sums it up better than anything - Sam Darnold. The Jets' rookie starter is the only guy in the entire league who has thrown more fourth-quarter touchdowns than Brady's five. In all five losses the team has fallen well behind early on, and in all five cases Brady has stumbled while trying to lead the team back. Teams now know that if they can script themselves to an early lead against the Pats - which isn't that tough to do right now - they are in good shape. This is the same guy who pulled off the Super Bowl comeback of the century two seasons ago and has always been clutch when the chips are down. But he doesn't have that extra gear this year, and it's a problem.
It's obviously not all his fault - talent around him is an issue, as we will see later - but he doesn't seem to have the sharpness of ferociousness of execution that he has always had. I'm not saying he is done by any means - this is not late-era Manning or Favre. But entering the year I believed him when he said he planned to play beyond 45. Now I'm not at all convinced.
Running: This is more of a passing league than it has ever been, but it's the run game that keeps defenses honest and opens up passing opportunities. You can't be a great passing team without a good running game. And the Patriots don't have that on either side of the ball. They rank just 28th in yards per carry on offense and have been well below their already-modest season standard over the last three weeks. Their running woes also means that they have been lousy on third-and-short situations, which further handcuffs Brady and the passing game. And teams have no concerns about being able to run against the Pats, either. They rank a dismal 31st in the league in yards allowed per game on the season and have been just awful the last two weeks.
The offseason: It seemed odd to me that the team largely stood pat in the offseason. They saw four guys who were regular contributors on offense last year depart, and Gronk gave off every signal that he was either not capable of, or not interested in, contributing at the same level as he has. Instead of looking to make moves to replace the talent, though, it was as if they had faith that they would find the players they needed somewhere because they always have. They relied on the same guys who have always done it for the team, and they just aren't doing it - Gronk and Edelman above all others. Josh Gordon was a lucky addition, and he has been good, but beyond that this is not a team that has the tools to support their quarterback, and it shows. At the very least they significantly reduced their margin for error with the underwhelming offseason. And with an aging QB and a target on their backs the size of Massachusetts, they couldn't afford to do that.
And this isn't just an offensive issue. All they did on defense was shuffle a couple of pieces. They didn't get younger or faster or deeper. And as a result, they have much the same defense as last year, and that hasn't been good enough often enough when the offense struggles. It's hard to know if Belichick and the rest of the management lost their edge all of a sudden, if they got cocky (or cockier than usual) or if they thought they were going to be fine. Whatever it was, the truth is that the team deserves a lot of the blame for where they are now, and that's far from ideal. It would be different if injuries had absolutely ravaged them and caused them to go way off plan. But for the most part the team on the field is what was designed to be on the field. Oops.
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