Heading into Sunday’s match-up against the Chargers, the Patriots find themselves in somewhat of a unique situation compared to past seasons.
Normally, by this time of the year, most fans typically have had a good idea of what kind of team New England is heading into the postseason.
This season? Not so much.
In the past, the Patriots have traditionally started their postseason charge armed with a strong December run as the team has typically settled in and started stringing together some strong performances by playing their best football. They’re usually clicking on all cylinders and showing they’re capable of beating anyone, with Bill Belichick’s group usually coming into form and leaving behind whatever early-season flaws they might have shown while getting stronger as the weeks went on.
But that hasn’t happened this season. Instead, with a number one seed in play, New England lost 2 out of their final four games, both of which came on the road against the Dolphins and Steelers. The good news is, other playoff-bound teams also faltered down the stretch, helping them miraculously end up with the #2 seed despite an 11-5 record.
As a result, they found themselves with another bye and another home playoff game. Should the Colts win on Saturday out in Kansas City, the Patriots would then host the AFC Championship Game with a shot at going to Atlanta.
Business as usual, right?
It sure seems that way. However, the biggest difference with this season is, we really have no idea what’s going to happen this time around.
In the past, Tom Brady’s been playing at a championship level and the offense had usually figured things out at this point of the season. This year, that hasn’t been the case. They’ve been inconsistent at best and Brady’s had to make do with a hampered Rob Gronkowski, an inconsistent Chris Hogan, and an unusually drop-prone Julian Edelman, while also losing newcomer Josh Gordon to the same issues that plagued him previously before the Patriots took a chance on him. Critics have also started whispering about Brady, not realizing it’s been a variety of personnel problems that has kept the quarterback from putting up his normal totals.
Given all those problems, it’s been an unusual year offensively to say the least. They’ve been fortunate to have rookie Sony Michel have one of the best rushing seasons by a rookie in recent memory, which by the time this year is over could be one of the most important parts of the story they’re about to write. Michel’s production has quietly been one of the key parts of New England’s success, even though they’ve spent most of the year seemingly trying to figure things out week-to-week.
It’s been a tough year for Brady and the offense. (USA TODAY Images)
But otherwise, each week has been a mystery. We’ve had no idea whether they’d struggle to score, or if they’d spend the afternoon marching up and down the field at will.
They finished on a high note when the offense came alive against the Jets, with Brady throwing four touchdowns as New England put up 38 points. But that same woeful Jets group certainly didn’t seem to play with any urgency to close out their season and saw their coach get fired thanks to their abysmal 4-12 record. As a result, fans have no idea if the win was a sign of things to come, or if it was just the Patriots putting a beating on a bad football team.
On the other side of the football, the defense has actually been a bright spot over these final three regular season games. Despite the loss in Pittsburgh, New England’s defense held the Steelers to just 17 points, followed by 12 points to the Buffalo Bills and 3 points in the season finale against the Jets two weeks ago. They’ve also been forcing turnovers, totaling 8 takeaways over that same span. They forced and recovered 3 fumbles against the Jets, forced another fumble and recovery against the Bills along with 2 interceptions and also picked off Pittsburgh twice.
That’s how you can only hope the defense is playing at this time of year and it will likely be one of the biggest keys in determining how far they’ll go.
The defense has played well down the stretch. (USA TODAY Images)
Against the Chargers, it could go either way. Given their history against that football team and Philip Rivers, the logical belief would be that the Patriots will take care of business against a club they’ve previously had success against, especially in the postseason. They’re 2-0 in recent memory, beating them in the Divisional round in 2007 24-21 and then again in 2008 in the AFC Championship 21-12.
Obviously what happened 10 years ago won’t have anything to do with what happens on Sunday, but it generally sets the comfort level for those who know little about Rivers and Company, who quietly finished with a better record than New England. The Chargers finished the season at 12-4, winning five of their final six games, including beating Pittsburgh and Kansas City on the road. They’re also 7-1 on the road, with no fear of coming to New England and pulling off an upset.
As for the Patriots, they’re unbeaten at home this season and it’s where they’ve played their best football. At home, Brady’s completed 69% of his passes compared to a paltry 63% on the road. The defense has also looked completely different, looking championship-caliber in front of the home crowd at Gillette Stadium and shaky when they’ve been away from it.
But still, no one can really feel like they truly know how Sunday’s game will go. New England could go out there and look like they normally do in January, or this could be the year where they’re ripe for Rivers to finally get some redemption after being thwarted by this team for so many seasons.
We’d like to think we know how it will go down but even after 16 games, we still really have no idea.
That’s been the story during this long and unpredictable 2018 season and it remains the strange reality fans we’re all still faced with. Either way, we’ll find out the answer when it all begins on Sunday afternoon.