Some quick thoughts as we turn the page to the postseason.
1) As much as it would be nice to remain optimistic about the Patriots chances of playing in February, it’s hard to deny the fact that Sunday’s loss to Miami was definitely significant. Losing the bye was critical because New England’s success desperately hinges on the health of wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was in dire need of a week off to recuperate given how banged up he’s been. Unfortunately now, he’s not going to get it.
The other key part of this equation also falls on Tom Brady who, as much as he wants to continue to deny it, is clearly still dealing with pain in his throwing elbow after cameras caught him looking uncomfortable again on Sunday while throwing on the sideline.
Let’s not kid anyone, Edelman has been key during New England’s previous championship runs and the fact he’s as hampered as he is doesn’t bode well for their postseason hopes. With the offense struggling badly, it remains a group that still hasn’t quite come around and certainly isn’t riding any momentum heading into January.
Unlike previous years, they’re heading into the playoffs coming off of a short week and it gives them little time to fix a unit that, with the Titans up next, may struggle if this becomes a high-scoring affair against a team that blew them out in a previous meeting. Unlike the Patriots, Tennessee has been playing their best football as of late and that makes them a pretty dangerous foe heading into Saturday night’s showdown at Gillette Stadium.
2) On a side note, my family and I spent the holiday week on vacation and that led to two instances where I was unable to watch the game and instead forced to listen to the radio broadcast with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak, which was a bit eye-opening for anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to hear them. Zolak is a breath of fresh air as a color commentator, offering up terrific insight and honest analysis. More importantly, he more or less calls it how he sees it, with Zolak being quite critical of wide receiver Mohammed Sanu and he blamed Sanu’s drop on Sunday for Brady’s pick-six, as the interception came just after Sanu’s miscue, leaving Brady likely leary of looking his way. Instead, he tried to force the football to Edelman, with former Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe being far too familiar with that connection and he stepped in front and took off for the races. That doesn’t excuse Brady from the interception but listening to how the sequence played out, it definitely put a negative spotlight on Sanu, who hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations since they traded for him.
Zolak also went on to call Sanu “useless” while also mentioning that he’s “not worth” the second-round pick the Patriots gave up to Atlanta to acquire him. Add in some of the officiating issues from the previous week in Buffalo, which led to Zolak pointing out the official that continually overlooked the abuse N’Keal Harry took against the Bills’ secondary, and moments like that are ones that definitely made for some entertaining radio.
All-in-all, Zolak’s approach is pretty refreshing given how stale and “safe” a lot of on-air analysis tends to be these days. While some may disagree, it’s nice to hear him echo the thoughts that many fans may have while watching the game and listening to the broadcast. Don’t get me wrong, former broadcaster Gino Cappeletti will always be a legend in New England and in his prime was one of the best during his time as the color commentator with the late Gil Santos. However, Zolak really has been an outstanding replacement and it makes me wish there was an easier way to sync the broadcast each week, especially considering some of the people on the national networks that we’re forced to listen to over the course of the football season.
The Patriots are missing playmakers like Gronkowski around Edelman on offense this season.
3) Getting back to some additional thoughts heading into the playoffs, while I don’t think a deep playoff run or Super Bowl shot is impossible, there’s no question that the Patriots now face a remarkably uphill battle in order to pull it off.
The obvious reason is the fact they’re just not playing well offensively and have been undeniably inconsistent. This is the first season in recent memory where they’ve literally been a completely different team from week-to-week and just can’t seem to string together anything positive on the offensive side of the football from one week to the next. In years past, we’ve seen them slowly make progress and get better, but that just hasn’t happened this year as Brady continues to struggle building chemistry with the weapons they’ve provided him with this season.
Rookie N’Keal Harry continues to get a little better, with Brady going to him a little more each week but they still haven’t quite gotten completely on the same page. Jakobi Meyers has also had some good moments, but it’s been a similar story. We’ve already mentioned Sanu, who Zolak said needed to “wake up” and become someone who can start making the key plays.
Truthfully, that’s what New England is missing right now. They just don’t have enough guys who can make a big play in a key situation, which obviously has been the hallmark of this club in past years. Heading into this postseason, they don’t have additional players like Rob Gronkowski or even Chris Hogan to compliment Edelman, which is a little concerning. They’re also still having a tough time running the football, which was also one of their strengths at this time last season.
It’s not going to be easy. Honestly, they’re about to embark on what they hope is a 4-0 run to win it all with one of the toughest roads imaginable. Playing Tennessee, despite the fact they’ll face them at Gillette Stadium, is no easy task and the prospect of having to venture into Kansas City missing the key faces that helped them win there the last time is also daunting. Factor in that the next step would be having to beat the Ravens at home (if Baltimore advances) to earn a shot at a trip to Miami won’t be easy either.
Obviously, plenty of people also didn’t expect the Giants from pulling off a similar feat years ago when they ran the table and shocked the unbeaten Patriots in a game that no one here in New England likes to talk about. But Eli Manning did that with a serviceable group of receivers and an offense that happened to peak at the right time. Brady is going to have to do it with his best receiver dealing with a sore knee and a banged-up shoulder while relying on other players that he’s seemingly just not confident with. It would be great if they picked next week to start putting it all together, but we haven’t exactly been given reasons to believe that’s going to happen.
It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy. It’s hard enough to win four straight games in this league as it is, even against so-so competition. Having to take on that task facing the NFL’s best with a group that’s scrambling to find themselves may be the biggest challenge of Brady’s career and it remains to be seen whether or not they can finally figure things out.
New England’s defense couldn’t quite close out the game on Sunday against Miami.
4) The other concerning part of this equation is the fact that New England’s defense has been shaky in recent weeks and even more importantly, has struggled closing out opponents. Sunday’s loss to Miami was clearly the worst, especially given what was on the line since New England held the lead during those final moments of the contest and all they had to do was keep the Dolphins out of the end zone. Instead, they couldn’t do it.
Injuries have been an issue on that side of the football in recent weeks, which is another huge reason why losing the bye was so important. They’re now forced to spend this week trying to get healthy on a short week against a pretty good passing offense. While many will talk about Ryan Tannehill’s issues in Miami, he doesn’t look like the same player with the Titans after they’ve done a good job of helping him turn things around and it’s been one of the big reasons why Tennessee is in this position.
Meanwhile, no one probably expected Ryan Fitzpatrick to pull off what he did on Sunday, especially given how bad he played in the previous meeting. But the frustrating part of that wasn’t the fact Fitzpatrick was able to make some plays on Sunday, but rather that the defense allowed a game-winning drive where all they needed to do was keep Miami from scoring a touchdown.
Should New England find themselves in a tight game with the lead, what happened on Sunday will likely be fresh in their minds and until they prove they can close things out, it’s going to be hard for Patriots fans to not be a little nervous.
We’ll see if Saturday night will be the start of something great or just the culmination of a frustrating season. At this point, history has shown that anything can happen. Now we just have to hope that Bill Belichick and Brady still have a little magic left in them when it all begins this weekend.