Brady and the Patriots have their best shot at a title that they’ve had since their championship years. (USA TODAY Images)
This has got to be the year.
It has to be. ¬†There’s just no other way to say it.
Let’s face it, we’ve seen a lot of impressive rosters in years past, but this is one of the most complete teams Bill Belichick has ever put together.
There will be some who will disagree¬†and as much as people would love to have another player or two on either side of the football, you’d be remiss to not appreciate the amount of talent this group is stacked with.
Disagree? ¬†You can try, but when you go right down the line position-by-position, the fact of the matter is, New England is heading into the postseason with the most amount of talent and firepower on both sides of the football than they’ve had since their earlier championship seasons. ¬†There is so much depth and a strong mix of veteran leadership throughout their roster that all signs point to this being their best shot at winning in Arizona a month from now.
Here are some thoughts on each position group:
1) QUARTERBACK:¬†2004 likely feels like a lifetime ago for Tom Brady, who after winning three Super Bowls in four seasons has been close twice, only to be denied by the brother of the guy who he’s continually measured against. ¬†Just getting to Arizona won’t be enough this time around, but for the first time since 2011 Brady heads into a postseason with a fully-healthy Rob Gronkowski. The veteran tight end is playing the best football he’s played since his terrific ’11 season where he caught 17 touchdowns, which was followed up with a postseason where he added three more and had it not been for Bernard Pollard, the Patriots likely could have already won their fourth title. ¬†Now they’ve added Brandon LaFell to go with Julian Edelman, and they still have additional weapons with tight end Tim Wright and an under-utilized Shane Vereen. If used correctly, there’s definitely enough firepower to get the job done.
Brady’s been itching for a chance like this for a long time. Now he’s got all of his best players healthy and he has to know that this is probably his best shot at winning that elusive fourth ring. ¬†Without Gronkowski, he’s finished with a completion percentage of under 60% in playoffs since 2011; with Gronk, nearly 70%. They didn’t finish the season strong offensively, but with two weeks to get ready until their next game, one would have to believe we’ll see a very prepared Brady when they open the Divisional round next Saturday.
For the first time in two seasons, the Patriots have a healthy Gronk heading into the postseason. (USA TODAY Images)
2) RECEIVERS:¬†As mentioned above, Gronk will obviously be a difference maker this time around, but it’s no secret that LaFell has been an impact player for this team in 2014. ¬†In fact,¬†by the time this postseason comes to an end – especially should the Patriots come away with three wins – there’s probably a good chance LaFell’s name will be a big reason why it happened. ¬†That’s another asset Brady didn’t have during the last postseason, as Aaron Dobson was the best player to fill that role but his foot injury had him inactive in the Divisional round, and he was barely able to contribute in the AFC Championship after being limited to just 21 snaps. ¬†This time around he’s on injured reserve.
But after being a player who was just trying to earn a role back in the preseason, LaFell has turned into one of the most valuable assets in this offense. The former Panthers receiver finished his first year in New England with 74 receptions, 50 of which went for a first down. That means that 68% of his receptions moved the chains, and it’s something that has made him such a great addition to this offense.
Then there’s obviously Edelman, who has had two weeks away while he recovered from a concussion and all signs seem to point to the fact he’s also healthy heading into the postseason. ¬†Everyone knows how good he is and what he brings offensively, and having Gronkowski opens things up for both of these guys to be productive. It’s a trio that has been the lifeline for Brady this season and the three led the team in terms of receptions and receiving yards.
We’ve also seen some success between Brady and Tim Wright, who has been able to come through in big moments and the playing time Brian Tyms saw in the final game could open up an opportunity for him to contribute as well. ¬†Danny Amendola is also a player who could be a factor as he’s been a player who sometimes makes the big play when you least expect it, and he’s also healthier than he was in 2013.
It would be great to have a big-name player and a high-impact guy, but this team won three championships with lesser talent. ¬†To take it one step further, it’s even difficult¬†not to argue that the combination of Edelman and Gronk may be¬†an even more talented duo than they had during any of those three championship runs.
What does it all mean?¬† It means¬†this is a group that has enough talent to complete the job and it should be fun to see how it all plays out.
3) RUNNING BACKS:¬†The absence of Stevan Ridley, as much as people can try and downplay it, may become¬†a factor this postseason if they struggle running¬†the football. ¬†Ridley came into the 2014 season¬†looking¬†better than he did last season, and he was much more sure-handed than in years past. ¬†Prior to the injury he was running the ball well and his speed and quickness are attributes that his replacements just don’t have. ¬†The acquisition of LeGarrette Blount was a stroke of luck for the Patriots, and the emergence of Jonas Gray was fortunate, although it’s obvious that something negative must have happened that’s kept him off the field following his big performance after the Colts game. ¬†Granted oversleeping the following week didn’t help his cause, but he’s had single digit snaps since then and hasn’t been on the field for more than 19 plays (Week 15 vs Miami, just 29% of the offensive snaps).
Blount is a big, bruising back, but he’s had his fair share of problems carrying the football. ¬†He’s been stopped for a loss 10 times in his short stint since returning¬†to New England, more than any other player. ¬†Vereen hasn’t fared much better, with teams stopping him a team-leading 18 times for no gain. ¬†They’ve both had some good moments but their overall success as a regular ball carrier have been questionable and none of the three can be considered explosive by any means.
Are they adequate enough to get the job done? ¬†Absolutely. ¬†And the fact that Gray was held out of the final game might lead you to believe that they’re preparing to give him more opportunities this postseason. ¬†Adding Blount helps their cause, and he’s at least a big enough threat to help make the play-action passing game more effective. ¬†For Gray, it’s an opportunity to prove that what he did against Indianapolis wasn’t a fluke and a strong postseason performance could set him up for bigger things in 2015. ¬†With Ridley and Vereen set to be free agents after the season, it will be interesting to see how this position plays out during the weeks ahead.
4)¬†OFFENSIVE LINE:¬†If there’s an area of concern, this might be the biggest one heading into the postseason. ¬†Obviously protecting Brady is going to be the priority¬†but love them or hate them, it’s a group that’s performed well enough to win 12 games this season and they’re certainly good enough to have postseason success. ¬†There have been plenty of ups and downs this season, including what¬†we saw in Week 16 where Brady was sacked four times, as well as their struggles in the season finale. ¬†However, one big factor was the fact that Dan Connolly was inactive in both of their final games, and¬†all signs seem to point to Nate Solder being O.K. and avoiding a significant injury after missing the second half of last week’s game against the Bills with a knee injury, which is certainly good news. Despite the fact he’s been a punching bag recently in the media, Solder is still a solid player and definitely a better option ahead of Marcus Cannon at this point at left tackle. ¬†From there we’ve also seen a strong performance this year from Bryan Stork, who looks less like a rookie and more like a veteran at this point of the season.
Overall this is a group that allowed nearly half as many sacks on Brady this season with 21, compared to the 40 that were given up in 2013, five of which¬†came¬†in the final two¬†games. ¬†They’ll be relatively healthy when they start their playoff run, and one would have to expect that they won’t look as poor as they did in the last two weeks. ¬†This is the time of year where they’ll start facing better defenses, so hopefully they’ll start playing at a higher level.
The value of the return of Wilfork has gone under the radar and having him back makes the guys up front that much more dangerous. (USA TODAY Images)
5) DEFENSIVE LINE:¬†It’s hard to believe at the end of last season so many people thought this team would be O.K. if Vince Wilfork couldn’t return coming off of his Achilles injury, but seeing him out there this season was a strong reminder of just how valuable he is to this defense. ¬†This is a football team that went from 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game allowed to 13th – in just one season. ¬†One of the biggest factors is Wilfork, while another has been how well Alan Branch and Chris Jones have played up front, as well as the return of Sealver Siliga, who missed 9 games but has been healthy enough to play in over 70% of the teams’s snaps over the final two weeks. ¬†He left the game in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s finale against the Bills, but told Mike Reiss after the game that he was “healthy as a rock”, which is good news.
This is a solid group up front, and one of the deepest ones in recent memory. ¬†They can stop the run, create pressure, get after the quarterback, and they’re playing pretty good football right now. After Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down last year, it seemed to be a wake up call for Belichick, who after seeing Jones and Joe Vellano struggle during the latter half of 2013 seemed to make adding depth a priority over the offseason. Bringing in Branch and having Siliga emerge has been huge, and Wilfork’s return provides the type of leadership that will be big in the playoffs. In the postseason the competition is tougher, which will likely lead to adversity should the Patriots find themselves in a tough battle or behind. His presence is an asset that can’t go overlooked, and it’s been one of the big reasons why they’ve been so successful up front in past seasons. Now that he’s back, it’s been a great reminder of just how much he was really missed last season. Needless to say, they’re fortunate to have him, and he makes this group much more formidable heading into the playoffs.
Collins has been tremendous in his second season with the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)
6) LINEBACKERS:¬†Losing Jerod Mayo was a massive blow earlier this season, and he’s a guy who generally doesn’t get a lot of credit for the type of dirty work he did inside. ¬†The only good news for the Patriots is the fact they lost him last season, which ended up providing invaluable experience for Dont’a Hightower, who once again picked up the slack and he’s played even better this season. ¬†Hightower¬†finished second on the team in tackles, and was second on the team in QB hits with 13, including 5 on third down. He also finished with 4 sacks on third down, with that¬†total matching Rob Ninkovich for the most on the team.
The Patriots have also gotten contributions from Akeem Ayers, who has come on as of late. Ayers has been a player that we’ve seen have success getting after the quarterback since being acquired earlier this season, having totaled four sacks and five QB hits in just nine games. ¬†Teammate Jonathan Casillas also has a QB hit as well as a forced fumble, with both players being pleasant surprises in this defense.
But the biggest story this season is obviously Jamie Collins, who while many weren’t enamored with the selection of him when he was taken in the 2nd round last season, hopefully by now they’ve changed their minds. ¬†He’s shown freakish athletic ability and in only his second season has already garnered the respect of his peers in the locker room. ¬†Collins finished the season as the team’s leader in tackles with 115, along with two interceptions, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles (two recoveries), four sacks, and seven QB hits. ¬†He’s become quite the playmaker, with Belichick recently emphasizing the fact he’s a guy who can go from rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field, which is an attribute that not every player is capable of, let alone a linebacker. ¬†He was a guy who already made some key contributions in last year’s postseason, and he’ll be a key player to watch in the weeks ahead.
7) DEFENSIVE ENDS: Two names will likely decide how far the Patriots will go heading into the postseason, with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones as the two players who will be the most important keys to New England’s playoff success. ¬†The Patriots are fortunate to have Jones back considering that many initial reports regarding his hip injury had it as potentially season-ending, which would have left New England severely hamstrung in the playoffs. ¬†Instead, after sitting out six weeks, Jones is back and he looks rested and healthy, which is definitely good news for a team that still managed to win five out of their six games while he was out. ¬†He’s been terrific this season and despite his six-week absence, he still finished the season¬†tied for second on the team with six sacks and he also finished third in QB hits with 11. He also had two passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
As for Ninkovich, he’s also playing well right now and he finished the season with a team leading eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits, as well as one interception, two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. ¬†Both he and Jones are the bookends to a defense that finished with a +12 turnover differential behind just Green Bay, but one big question will be whether or not the workload Ninkovich had this season factors into his play during the playoffs. ¬†He¬†played in 100% of the team’s snaps in 12 of 16 games this season, including seven of their final eight games and he’ll likely be one of many players who benefits greatly from having time to recover over the bye. ¬†
In the end the more important thing is the Patriots have their two best pass rushers healthy, which is definitely a huge positive for them. Hopefully they’ll have success in the weeks ahead.
Revis has completely changed this secondary and he’s made everyone around him better. (USA TODAY Images)
8) SECONDARY:¬†This is arguably the strongest group you’ll ever see back there, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner solidifying a group that already had Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, both of whom have benefited greatly by having them here. ¬†Second year defensive back Logan Ryan was a mess for a portion of this season but he’s improved lately and is playing better football, as is teammate Duron Harmon. ¬†But one of the bigger surprises has been the re-emergence of Patrick Chung, who after rejoining the team looks like the player they had hoped he’d become when they originally drafted him in the second round back in 2009. ¬†Chung finished 2014 third on the team in tackles with 84, and also picked off a pass and had seven passes defensed. He’s flourished in the role they’ve created for him, and he’s become a strong addition to an already talented unit.
It’s hard to believe, but this is arguably the most talented, complete group they’ve had in the secondary during any of their championship runs and certainly much improved from last season. ¬†They finished 2014 ranked 13th in the NFL in pass defense, up from 26th in 2013, which is a tremendous improvement. ¬†Obviously¬†we know how good Revis is, and his presence has helped McCourty emerge even more so as one of the NFL’s best safeties.¬†¬†McCourty¬†picked off two passes this season and had six passes defensed and forced a fumble, and he looks like a much more comfortable player heading into this postseason.¬† Another player who deserves a lot of credit is¬†Arrington, who looks like a different player this season. Arrington didn’t finish with an interception in 2014, but he still had four passes defensed as well as two forced fumbles and one sack. He missed the final two weeks with a hamstring injury, but most reports indicate he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs.
On paper, it doesn’t get much better than this, especially considering this team is 8th in the league in points per game allowed, including holding opponents to 17 or less points during their final four games. ¬†More importantly, they’ve also shown the ability to close games out after outscoring¬†their opponents 106-62 this season in the 4th quarter.
Personnel-wise, it’s tough to imagine them ever assembling a better mix of talent. It was easy to picture how good Revis would be on his own, but he’s been even better than expected. He’s been dominant in this defense and leads the team with a staggering 14 passes defensed, twice as many as the next closest player, which is Chung with 7. More importantly, it’s amazing to see the effect he’s had and how much better he’s made the guys around him. ¬†As a result, this should be a group playing with a lot of confidence and they’ll also be aided by the fact they’ll be in front of the home crowd.
SUMMARY: Overall, while it would be great to have a big play receiver or another massive defensive end, it’s just not realistic to expect them to stock the biggest free-agent names at every position. However, when you go through each positional group, there are more than enough good players¬†on this roster across the board to get the job done. ¬†This is a team that has grown tremendously this season, and after much of the world wrote them off at 2-2, they went on a tear that saw them lose just one meaningful game over the remainder of the season.
But looking at the guys they currently have, barring any further injuries, they may never be more stacked talent-wise heading into a postseason. ¬†In the past it was always easy to look at the roster and see deficiencies, but this season after seeing the development of so many players, they don’t really have any areas that are lacking enough to feel as though a trip to Arizona and a Lombardi Trophy isn’t a realistic goal.
Belichick and Brady probably have to be aware of the potential they have with the talented group they’re taking into this postseason. They also have to know that after having locked up¬†the¬†number one seed, this is the best scenario they could have hoped for considering the state of the roster both from a health and talent standpoint and the advantage they have playing at home this time around.
Now the only thing left is to play the games. ¬†But it’s safe to say that if they can’t win it all this season with the group they have on their roster, it’s hard to imagine what other changes they could make here in the salary cap era to make this team any better.
This is their best shot, plain and simple. ¬†Now hopefully we’ll see them play like champions.