Sport Are slumping Patriots down and out or still formidable?

13:40  13 december  2019
13:40  13 december  2019 Source:   yardbarker.com

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Yardbarker NFL writers Mike Tunison and Chris Mueller address the hottest issues in the league every week. This week's topic: Are the Patriots vulnerable?

Mueller: The previously unthinkable is plausible. It may be time to count out  Touchdown Tom and the Patriots, who finally look mortal. Full disclosure: I thought this was just a phase that would pass. That was 17 days ago. It has not passed.

New England (10-3) is so bad offensively that it can’t even take advantage of bad defenses. Houston is so poor in the secondary that it was torched by Denver rookie QB Drew Lock for 309 yards and three touchdowns in Week 14. The Texans rank in the bottom third of every significant statistical category against the pass. Yet in Week 13 against Houston, Brady had under 100 yards passing with five minutes left in the third quarter. In New England's Week 14 loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City, 25th in total defense, harassed and harangued him into a terrible performance. In his past six games, Brady has completed more than 55 percent of his passes once.

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Against the Chiefs, New England may have fallen victim to bad calls and uncharacteristically poor coaching by Bill Belichick, who left them without challenges when it needed them most. The missed call on N’Keal Harry’s touchdown that wasn’t would usually be moot; a typical Brady-led offense would punch the ball in for six points with little difficulty. It’s obvious that this version of the Patriots can’t take those situations for granted.

And there’s no help on the way. Rob Gronkowski isn’t walking through that door. Brady hasn't looked like a good quarterback since he beat Cleveland in Week 8 (20-for-36, 259 yards). He still has the fire, and the advanced analytics crowd will tell you that the majority of his throws are still sharp. Maybe that's case, but his skill-position players are awful, save Julian Edelman (90 catches, 1,010), who is the team's leading receiver by nearly 500 yards.

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The Week 15 loss at home to the Chiefs, snapping the Patriots' 21-game home losing streak, could cost New England the No. 1 seed. If the Ravens win out, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Baltimore. That would spell almost certain doom for New England, which desperately needs home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to advance to the Super Bowl in Miami.

Normally I’m anything but alarmist about the Patriots, but this looks more and more like an incomplete team, one that might post a gaudy record but has an unfixable, fatal flaw.

a group of people jumping in the air: By leaps and bounds, Julian Edelman is the Patriots' leading receiver with 90 catches for 1,010 yards.© Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports By leaps and bounds, Julian Edelman is the Patriots' leading receiver with 90 catches for 1,010 yards.

Tunison: There's no doubt the Patriots' offense has faltered, and the results have been evident for longer than the current stretch in which they've lost three of their past five. In the first three weeks of the season, Brady posted an aggregate passer rating of 116.5 (current league average 91.2) and an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. In the subsequent 10 weeks, the rating dipped to 78.4 and the yards per attempt average was 6.1. We're not talking about a brief slump, it's sustained struggle.

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Brady's QBR (51.9, 18th in the league) is the lowest since 2006, the first season the stat was tracked. (Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, a potential Brady playoff foe, is No. 1.) 2006, of course, was the season the Patriots were finally bested by the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. You think the Pats' receiving corps is bad now? Back then, Reche Caldwell was his top target, followed by tight end Ben Watson. At least it was 2006 Ben Watson instead of the 39-year-old version on the team in 2019. Edelman is better than any single target they had on that '06 team, though depth is still a problem. Plus, of course, the 29-year-old Brady has some physical advantages over the 42-year-old iteration.

Here's the thing, though: The Patriots that season still got to the AFC Championship Game, where they blew an 18-point lead to the eventual champion Colts in Indianapolis. There might be no easy solution. It's crazy talk for anyone to think Antonio Brown will be re-signed.

Nevertheless, I'm sufficiently beaten down by the Patriots that I have to believe they can find a way to eke out critical wins until they absolutely cannot. Since 2011, there's only been one season in which the Patriots didn't either win the Super Bowl or lose to the eventual champs, and that was 2013 when they were merely eliminated by the Super Bowl loser, the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. So I have faith, perhaps more blind than most years, that they'll figure out some style of play that carries them through this skid. This isn't the most rational argument, but unfortunately, the Pats have burrowed deep into my psyche, like they have with most NFL fans.

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a group of football players on the field: If they make the playoffs, the Titans and Derrick Henry might steamroll the Patriots' defense, which is pedestrian against the run. © Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports If they make the playoffs, the Titans and Derrick Henry might steamroll the Patriots' defense, which is pedestrian against the run.

Mueller: Dynasties usually end with a whimper, and maybe the Patriots, despite their exceptional, unprecedented dominance, will do the same. I’m with you on the being beaten-down part, but if this team had solutions to its problems, the Patriots would have implemented them. As it is, they’re currently being investigated by the NFL after the Bengals accused a team employee of taping their sidelines. Some believe it's another example of the Patriots skirting the rules to get an edge. Against the woebegone Bengals (1-12)? Yikes. That would be the clearest sign yet that things are not under control in Foxborough.

It feels more and more like New England has only its reputation left, formidable though it may be. The offense gets all the attention for its struggles, but after not giving up more than 14 points in a game in the first half of the season, New England also looks fallible now on defense. In the Ravens' 37-20 win over the Patriots, Lamar Jackson flummoxed them. Houston's Deshaun Watson (3 TD passes) picked the Patriots apart, and dinged-up Patrick Mahomes (26-for-40, 283 yards) had enough to beat them. Those teams probably all will make the playoffs.

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And if the Titans can steamroll their way in, who’s to say that Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry won’t run right over the Patriots? If New England can’t count on its defense, how will the Patriots win? They struggle rushing (23th in the league in rushing), and they are merely pedestrian at stopping the run (15th). They can’t reliably control the football and help their defense stay fresh, and speaking of that unit, they’ve only forced six turnovers in the past five games, after taking the ball away 25 times in their first eight.

Belichick can scheme all he wants, but his scheming only bought them a half against Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, and then Brady and Gronkowski turned back the clock in the second half to stave off Mahomes. That’s not happening this year. They have no room for error.

At 10-3, are the Patriots better than most teams? Sure. But the fear factor is gone, particularly against quality competition. If the fear is gone, opponents are less likely to commit unforced errors. If New England is to win its seventh Super Bowl, it must do it the hard way, and likely away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. I bet they won’t.

Tunison: You've overwhelmed me with your facts and logic, and yet I cannot budge from my suspicion that the Patriots are capable of taking the whole thing. Sure, they've probably forfeit home-field advantage to the Ravens, but most likely the Patriots are still going to be No. 2. That means a bye and a home game in the second round.

And most likely that means reaching the Super Bowl requires rematches against the Chiefs and Ravens. Granted those are both teams they've lost to in the regular season, but in the case of Baltimore especially, I think New England benefits from the rematch, as the loss at mid-season was its first look at the relatively new offensive scheme. Given one game to go to the Super Bowl, even on the road, I don't hate their chances, even against a superior opponent.

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As for the Bengals stuff, as pro wrestler Rick Rude says, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying. If the Patriots did indeed cheat, it's nice to see they haven't gotten complacent after six championships. That sort of cutthroat behavior, even against the Bengals, would smack less of desperation and more of the outright brutality we've all come to expect out of the Pats.

So, yes, this is a team that is noticeably weaker than years past, and I don't favor New England to take it all in Miami anymore. You have valid points, but I can't count out the Patriots at least making the Super Bowl. At any rate, I've enjoyed the latest annual "Are the Patriots done?" discourse. This might very well be the last.

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