With the Patriots set to play the 49ers on Sunday, here are some final thoughts as we await kickoff.
1) One of the things that stood out last Sunday night against the Seahawks was the fact that Tom Brady did two things he hadn’t done all season, which was throw an intercetpion, but more importantly he made the critical mistake of putting Rob Gronkowski in harms way on a play that saw the veteran tight end take what he called the hardest hit of his career.
Brady likely spent this week feeling pretty guilty and he honestly should, as it was his bad judgement that left Gronkowski an easy target after he was lined up perfectly in the sights of Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who absolutely drilled him in the chest at full speed in what was a perfectly legal hit.
Looking back at previous throws down the middle from Brady to Gronkowski this season, it had seemed like Brady had taken great care in trying to lead him away from the defender and keeping him from being in that position.
Here’s a quick look at each deep throw from Brady to Gronkowski, showing the tight end and the proximity of the defenders.
Week 5 at Cleveland:
Week 6 vs Cincinnati (1 of 2):
Week 6 vs Cincinnati (2-of-2):
Week 7 at Pittsburgh (1-of-2):
Week 7 at Pittsburgh (2-of-2):
Week 8 at Buffalo:
Week 10 vs Seattle:
If you look down through each one of those stills you’ll notice that Sunday night was the first time Brady threw to Gronkowksi with a safety right in front of him, and the end result was obviously the hit that will keep him out of action this week. If you look above you’ll also notice that Martellus Bennett is all alone and was actually the better option on that play.
Mistakes obviously happen and this error was certainly significant. Hopefully it’s one Brady learns from, because it’s safe to say that he owes Gronkowski after that one.
2) Looking at the standings, this has definitely been one of the strangest NFL seasons in recent memory when it comes to the increased parity around the league this year and the number of surprises we’ve seen in terms of both teams who have both emerged and regressed this season.
Some of the bigger surprises are the 7-2 Oakland Raiders, and even the 5-5 Tennessee Titans, who started off 1-3 and have gone 4-2 since, including blowing out Green Bay 47-25 last Sunday to drop the Packers below .500.
On the other side of the spectrum are the disappointments, which include Carolina (4-6), Green Bay (4-5), and Arizona (4-4-1). The good news for each of those teams is that each Division is still in play, with each of those teams still very much in contention with just under half a season left.
The resurgence of the AFC West is interesting. Out of eight Divisions, it’s the only one highly competitive enough to have three teams with winning percentages of .700 or better. It’s still surprising to see Oakland sitting there tied with the Chiefs for the best record in that Division at 7-2, with the Broncos right behind them at 7-3. When it comes to who New England could be in contention with in the Conference for the #1 seed, that appears the likely group to keep an eye on, although Houston currently sits at 6-3 and with a relatively easy schedule still ahead of them are also surprisingly potentially in the mix at this point in the season.
But from there, the NFL as a whole seems to be a bit of a mess. Four Divisions have just one team with a winning record (AFC North, AFC South, NFC South, and NFC West), while two more have just two teams above .500 (AFC East and NFC North).
Overall the league has 15 teams who are currently above .500, and 12 fall into the middle of the pack at two or less games below .500.
Only the Bears (2-7), 49ers (1-8) Jaguars (2-7) and Browns (0-10) have 2 or less wins.
One of the topics of discussions that’s come up has been the issue with the drop in television ratings in prime time games, but the parity among normally lesser teams this season might be one of the problems. On paper, games like the 4-5 Packers against the 5-3-1 Redskins Sunday night likely matters very little to most fans outside of each of those cities since Green Bay is struggling and the Redskins aren’t much of a draw these days. Meanwhile on Monday night, a battle between two franchises that are playing good football in Houston (6-3) and Oakland (7-2) doesn’t hold much intrigue due to a lack of marquee names with J.J. Watt out of the line-up and no real notable ones in Oakland. Yet those are two teams with two of the best records in the league.
It’s great to see the turnaround among teams who have been struggling in recent years, and it’s a still a win-win scenario because for those who aren’t fans of the commissioner and the greedy entity that is the NFL, we get to see them lose money from a lack of ratings while those same cities locally are able to enjoy watching their teams remain very much in the thick of things.
At the end of the day, it’s better for teams to thrive locally, not drive national numbers and besides, teams can’t even get to the point where they’re able to do that until they’re able to start winning. Fortunately we’re starting to see some success from teams who haven’t been relevant in a while, which should really be the bigger story.
Garoppolo lasted less than two games before getting injured in Week 2. (USA TODAY Images)
3) Listening to Belichick’s comments this week pertaining to Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady, one can only hope his goal was to raise the stock of Garoppolo from a trade standpoint after he praised Garoppolo and claimed there wasn’t much of a drop off between the two players.
If the future Hall of Fame coach was playing the game of trying to ensure the return will be high should they opt to move Garoppolo after this season, then there’s a reason to go along with that notion. But if that’s what he really believes based on what we’ve already witnessed since Brady returned, it’s a little hard to understand how he would be able to justify it.
“If you’re missing the quarterback then, you know, you can still get it and certainly we have a good quarterback in Jimmy [Garoppolo] and Jimmy can go out there and run everything that Tom can run,” said Belichick, who oddly enough was responding to a question about Brady’s toughness and his consistency of being in the line-up on Thursday. “We’ve seen that, so I’m not saying that he’s not capable or qualified to do it. He is, and he does a great job of it and when we put Jimmy in there it’s really seamless. Unless you were actually looking at the position, if you just could block out that position and say which guy was in there at quarterback, I don’t know if you would know a lot of times.”
Since going down with his injury against Miami, Garoppolo has gone back to his role as the number two quarterback and is back to being Brady’s understudy. With the exception of their match-up in Buffalo against the Bills where he came into the game with 4:29 left to play, it’s been all Brady. The odd thing is, after seeing Garoppolo back to just being Brady’s back-up, he no longer looked like the same player who got off to a quick start against Miami after efficiently running the offense and throwing three touchdowns. Instead, in his mop-up duty in an appearance against the Bills, he looked a lot like the player he had always been before the season as he handed the ball off twice and on what would have been his one pass attempt, was slammed to the turf after he was sacked.
It was a little surreal seeing him in that role, and a little strange seeing him come full-circle from where he started the season. Honestly, it’s too bad that he suffered the injury because it seemed like he was on his way to a breakout performance that day and it would have been fun to see how he fared over the other two games. Instead, his run ended far too early and he never made it back before Brady returned.
Meanwhile, despite taking an onslaught of hits over his career, only two have knocked Brady out of a game and one happened to be bad enough to end his season. The first came in the AFC Championship back in 2002 in Pittsburgh after he got his ankle rolled up on against the Steelers, which saw Drew Bledsoe come in and close it out. The other was the hit he took in 2008 from Bernard Pollard, which ended his season.
Garoppolo was gone in just his second NFL start, and given how much Belichick has emphasized durability, anyone questioning whether he would pick Garoppolo over Brady should have reason to breathe a little easier when taking that into account.
Belichick also praised Brady’s constant work to keep himself physically ready, which is something that he said is essentially something that he sees day-in, day-out by the veteran.
“Yeah, it definitely stands out. Tom [Brady] works very hard on his physical conditioning, recovery, rest, and so forth,” said Belichick this week. “It’s really 24-7, 365 days a year. Every day here’s here, I don’t know if it’s 365 days a year, but every day I see him, he’s doing those things. He’s not just in here to put in time. He’s in here to work on his training, work on his conditioning, work on his recovery, get treatment, do whatever he can do to physically maintain or improve where he’s at. So absolutely, it’s a daily – multiple times a day – it’s a daily thing for Tom.”
Make no mistake, Garoppolo’s a terrific player with a bright future in front of him and his day will eventually come. Whether or not that will be as a member of the Patriots is the bigger question, and it will likely be one of the storylines that will get a lot of play during this offseason.
4) Having Chris Hogan out of Sunday’s game is definitely the right move, as the veteran receiver didn’t seem like himself last week while dealing with a back injury. The normally explosive receiver had a pretty quiet evening while playing just 31-of-66 snaps (47%) and was targeted three times while finishing with zero receptions.
That’s a little surprising given how well he and Brady have connected up to this point, with Hogan emerging as one of the deep threats in New England’s offense. But it tells you that he’s clearly not himself and the Patriots are fortunate that they still have quality depth at the position even in his absence.
One player who may benefit from his absence is Malcolm Mitchell, who has quieted down a bit after his quick start in recent weeks, but this could be a good opportunity for Brady to get some work in. They also obviously still have Danny Amendola, who only played in 26 snaps last week but did have a key reception in the match-up and he’ll likely see an increased workload Sunday in San Francisco with Hogan sidelined.
Either way, it will be interesting to see what kind of day each of these players has this Sunday.
Brady hasn’t had much luck out in Kansas City over his career. (USA TODAY Images)
5) If ever there was a season where home-field advantage was so important in the postseason, you would have to think this might be it given how the AFC West is shaping up right now.
With the Raiders and Chiefs both sitting at 7-2 and the Broncos at 7-3, each of those venues fall into the category of difficult places to win on the road, with the latter two being the most difficult when it comes to the Patriots. Everyone knows about New England’s struggles in Denver, but lost in the mix is how much trouble they’ve had against the Chiefs in their house. They’re 1-2 in their last three games out there, with their last win coming back in 2004. But at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots have won every meeting against them since 2000.
Peter Schrager of Fox Sports named Kansas City as the one AFC team that could beat out New England for the Super Bowl, but he pointed out the fact that home field advantage would be big for them.
“The Chiefs do not lose at home,” he said via KansasCity.com. “They are on a 10-game winning streak in Arrowhead, which is the longest active streak in the entire league.”
Schrager also said if the Chiefs do end up with home-field advantage through the playoffs, they’ll get past New England for a trip to the Super Bowl.
“The Chiefs are simply built to beat the Patriots,” Schrager said.
The Patriots didn’t fare too well in Denver back in January and given what we’ve seen in past meetings, hopefully a trip to Kansas City also won’t be in their future.
6) Duron Harmon spoke to WEEI this week and one of the things he noted about the problems on defense was the fact that the issues we saw last week are at least ones that won’t cripple them for the remainder of the season.
Harmon cited a “lack of technique and communication” as the primary issues defensively, which are both fixable issues.
“I would definitely say [there’s] no confidence issue,” Harmon told WEEI this week. “I mean over the last couple of years we’ve seen that we can play at a high-level, it’s just technique and just communication, that’s been the biggest problem with our breakdowns. The good thing about that is, those are all fixable.”
This isn’t a team lacking in athletes or speed, but it doesn’t help if those same players aren’t in position to make plays. There were several notable moments where you saw guys pointing or a player change direction to get back to his spot moments before the ball arrived, leaving him a few steps too late in getting there.
People also seem to forget that the Seahawks aren’t exactly a team lacking in talent themselves offensively, with receivers like Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, all of which are talented and dangerous players to try and account for.
Overall, it was a tough night, as the defense finished with forcing just two punts while allowing a season-high 31 points, dropping the Patriots from having been ranked 3rd in the NFL in points-per-game down to 6th.
But one of the biggest issues has just been the lack of pass rush, which makes it more difficult to cover if the quarterback has more time to throw. Harmon admitted that they haven’t had an opportunity to get everything working together at the same time, and he’s hopeful it’s something that will improve heading into the remainder of the season.
For now Harmon feels this is a team that isn’t lacking in ability nor are they lacking confidence. It’s just a matter of trying to get back to playing the way they know they can and improving their communication.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” said Harmon. “Not only to we pride ourselves in being good football players, but we pride ourselves in being snart football players, being able to communicate, being able to do the little things really well to set us apart from other people.”
“It wasn’t great last week, we didn’t communicate the way that we needed to. But at the end of the day, luckily we have more weeks to play, we have more time to work those communications so we don’t have to do that again.”
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary