With the Patriots season set to resume this week, here are some thoughts as we await the team’s next contest down in New Jersey against the Jets this weekend.
1) With the Patriots set to begin on their final six games of the season after a week off, it’s hard not to feel like this coming week will be a pivotal one for a team that’s in need of trying to turn things up a notch as they try and make their playoff push.
A trip down to MetLife Stadium is what’s on deck for New England, with an AFC East battle looming against the last-place Jets, who are sitting at 3-7 and were also on a bye this week. But despite their record, Sunday’s game likely won’t be an easy one. Recent history has seen tight battles between the two clubs in each of the last three seasons, with a touchdown or less having been the difference in those contests:
LAST THREE ROAD MEETINGS vs JETS:
10/15/2017 – Patriots 24, Jets 17 Win
11/27/2016 – Patriots 22, Jets 17 Win
12/27/2015 – Patriots 20, Jets 26 Loss
The Patriots have been on the right side of two out of the last three of those road meetings, including each of the last two seasons. The logical thinking coming off a bye, the Patriots should be healthier and should have the advantage since they’re also the better team. But if history is any indication, this will likely be more difficult than fans may think and it’s also somewhat of a litmus test when it comes to forming an opinion about who they’ll potentially be over the final six weeks of the season.
It will be their first match-up against rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, who has had an up and down season as a starter in his first season in New York. His worst performance came in their most recent game down in Miami where he finished without a touchdown and threw a season-high 4 interceptions, with many saying he looked tired and run down before the team headed into the break. One would have to believe he spent his own bye week trying to correct a lot of his mistakes while also preparing for a game that he likely considers to be the biggest of his rookie season.
While the Patriots have had their success against young quarterbacks, it seems like recent match-ups have been a little more difficult than many might have expected. Fans only have to look as far as this season against the likes of Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes or Mitchell Trubisky. In each of those contests, they’ve been victories but certainly not easy ones.
Needless to say, as much as we like to joke about the Jets, with this team still trying to get into a rhythm and play better consistently, this Sunday may not be a guaranteed win. We’ll find out this week if the bye did them any good from a health standpoint and whether or not they’re any better off as they try and finish strong with just over a month left to play for the 2018 season.
Gronkowski’s had to fight for every reception this season.
2) While the discussion about Tom Brady following their loss in Tennessee has centered around his skills having potentially diminished, that seems far less concerning than what’s happened with Rob Gronkowski this season.
Despite his slow start, Gronkowski had been putting up relatively respectable numbers prior to when injuries finally caught up with him. Most of his problems came during the first four weeks of the season as teams were able to clamp down on the offense while the Patriots were without Julian Edelman, especially prior to the arrival of Josh Gordon. Gronkowski drew double and even triple coverage at times as his surrounding cast struggled to get open, clearly leading to frustration after comments we heard from his brother and other reports that trickled out over that span.
Overall, Gronkowski has 29 catches for 448 yards and a touchdown, which puts him behind where he was through 10 games last year after he totaled 41 receptions for 620-yards and 5 touchdowns to this point in 2017.
Gronkowski hasn’t played since the team’s Monday night win over the Bills back on 10/29, having missed each of the last two weeks against the Packers and Titans. In each of those games, he looked tired and beat down, lacking explosiveness and the power we’re used to seeing. Injuries have hampered him as he’s been dealing with back and ankle issues, but all indications seem to point to the veteran tight end being back out there this weekend. However, for the first time, there actually seems to be a little bit of doubt about whether or not he’ll return to form. He’s obviously taken a beating over his career and the early part of the season certainly appears to have taken its toll on him. As a result, it’s going to be interesting to see if he’s truly able to bounce back, or if he might actually be the player whose career might be coming to an end a little sooner than most fans might have expected. Hopefully he’s got a little more left in him, because this team will need him to be at his best in January (and hopefully February) if they hope to make another run.
3) Mike Reiss of ESPN pointed out on Sunday that veteran tight end Dwayne Allen was spotted on crutches this week, which may be a bigger deal than some might think.
Allen’s biggest contributions since joining the team last season has been his consistency from a blocking perspective, which Allen quietly deserves some credit for the success the team has enjoyed in their ground game.
Paired with Gronkowski, Allen has been an unsung hero in an area that he doesn’t get any credit for on the stat sheet and any prolonged absence might end up being one additional problem that could hurt the team down the stretch. Couple Allen’s loss with the injuries they’ve endured on their offensive line and it’s an area that fans can’t help but be a little worried about as the Patriots continue trying to jumpstart things offensively.
Allen’s injury was a little ironic given that he had logged receptions in each of the last two games, marking his first receptions since back in September when he caught a pass for a 4-yard loss against the Dolphins. Reports before the bye seemed to indicate that he’ll miss a few weeks with an apparent knee injury, adding another obstacle this team will have to try and overcome during the final six weeks.
Brady had a rough outing in Tennessee in his last start.
4) Kudos to Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston during the bye week after Curran took some time to try and add some context to a game that had the critics against Brady out in droves after an obviously frustrating performance. He broke down every one of Brady’s throws, trying to find out the real reason behind the quarterback’s disappointing outing.
There’s no question that the Patriots loss to the Titans was one of the worst of the season for not just the team, but especially for Brady. There were moments in that game where Brady was clearly rattled, with former Patriot Mike Vrabel and his coaching staff cooking up a game plan that their players executed to a tee in one of the most lopsided losses of the season.
In that game, the Titans brought pressure up the middle and got to Brady with such frequency that the veteran quarterback had a hard time doing much offensively, which included some questionable throws and moments where the mechanics he normally works so hard to maintain were nowhere to be found.
But what Curran pointed out was the fact that the pressure from Tennessee and the coverage was such that there was little for Brady to work with, which gave him little margin for error. That’s why the mistakes he made were so magnified but also why there needs to be a little more perspective when it comes to the criticism.
While he’s not without blame, Brady remains the least of this team’s problems and can more than quiet the doubters with better play over the final stretch. After a full week of self-scouting along with some much-needed rest, hopefully, that will be exactly what we’ll see the next time he takes the field.
Brady’s taken some big hits so far this season.
5) Staying on the topic of Brady, seeing what happened to Alex Smith on Sunday for the Redskins is a reminder of how things can change in an instant for an NFL quarterback.
The play that took Smith out was simply a play where he got his leg caught underneath him as he was going down, with Smith reportedly suffering a fractured fibula and tibia in what was a gruesome injury where his foot was turned in the wrong direction after it happened. He was carted off the field and reportedly had emergency surgery, which will obviously end his season.
Ironically, the play looked eerily similar to Joe Theisman’s career-ending injury, which strangely enough, happened 33 years to the day Theisman’s occurred. The veteran broadcaster saw the injury and wished Smith well on Twitter, with Theisman Tweeting, “Alex’s leg is exactly like mine 33yrs ago” and “I feel so bad for him.”
Brady’s been fortunate since suffering a fairly gruesome injury of his own in the opener against the Chiefs in 2008, which saw his knee bend at a really bad angle after being hit low by Bernard Pollard following a completion on their first drive. That hit ended his season before it ever got started, but has luckily been his only injury-related absence during his career.
Save for his four-game suspension from DeflateGate, and Brady’s been a pretty dependable player. Brady had played in 112 consecutive regular season games prior to his suspension, good for 9th all time of the longest regular-season streaks of any quarterback in the league. Brett Favre holds the all-time record at 297 games (9/27/1992-12/5/2010), followed by Eli Manning (210 games – 11/21/2004-11/23/2017), Peyton Manning (208 games – 9/6/1998-1/2/2011), Phillip Rivers (202 games – the current active QB leader, whose streak started on 9/11/2006), Matt Ryan (140 games – another active streak that started on 12/20/2009). Joe Flacco (122 games, 9/7/2008- 11/22/2015) and Matthew Stafford (121 games – also an active streak). Ahead of Brady with 116 regular season starts in the #8 spot is Ron Jaworski (from 9/18/1977-11/25/1984).
Durability has been one of Brady’s staples and one of the things he prides himself on, but we’ve already seen him get taken down and folded in half on multiple occasions this season, including the beating he took two weeks ago. While he was fortunate enough to escape without incident, what happened to Smith is a reminder that things can turn sour in an instant and one can only hope that Brady’s career can end on a high note, instead of the way Smith’s career may turn out should this injury prevent him from taking the field next season.
Bortles and the Jaguars couldn’t close Pittsburgh out Sunday.
6) It’s been enjoyable to see the Jaguars get dropped back to reality after they beat the Patriots back in Week 2, but it would have been nice if they could have made themselves useful with the Steelers in town on Sunday. Instead, Jacksonville snatched defeat from the hands of victory in a frustrating loss in front of their home crowd.
The Jaguars took a 16-6 lead into the fourth quarter and all signs seemed to point to a potential upset, but Jacksonville simply couldn’t close the deal. Instead, Jaguars fans were treated to watching the Steelers score 14 points in the final quarter of play, shutting out Jacksonville’s anemic offense in the last 15 minutes to come away with a 20-16 win.
Jacksonville’s offense went three-and-out in each of their final four possessions and then turned it over on their fifth with :05 left to play to close out the game after Blake Bortles was sacked by T.J. Watt and fumbled away the football. It was the culmination of a year that started out with a 2-0 start after their win over New England, only to go 1-7 since that afternoon, including having lost their last six in a row after Sunday’s defeat.
Meanwhile, the win puts the Steelers ahead of the Patriots for the second playoff seed, with every fan in New England likely rooting hard for the 9-1 Los Angeles Rams tonight, hoping they can beat the 9-1 Kansas City Chiefs. New England already faces an uphill battle to earn a bye should they make another playoff push, with their surprising loss against the Titans two weeks ago potentially being a pivotal defeat that could hurt their chances. Unfortunately, they’ll now need a little help and will have to hope the Rams will be one of two teams that can stop Patrick Mahomes and company over these final six weeks as the Patriots continue fighting to get themselves back in the mix for a top seed.