Admit it — if you’re an NFL fan, you’ve at one time or another counted out the New England Patriots based exclusively on things you’ve seen between Labour Day and Halloween.
In the days since the Sunday-evening pounding of the Atlanta Falcons, I’ve seen and heard more than several NFL pundits attempt to find reasons why the Patriots’ might not be suiting up at the Vikings’ new stadium in Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52 in February.
While you can certainly point to red flags surrounding New England through their first four games — the LeGarrette Blount departure left a big hole in the running game, the defence was giving up big plays and not getting to opposing quarterbacks — there’s also more than enough of a “credit line” in the Bank of NFL Trust that suggests dismissing the Patriots would be inadvisable.
Yea, the Patriots squeaked by the Buccaneers and the Jets in Weeks 5 and 6 (despite getting a huge break in the latter with that controversial “fumbled touchdown” call) before finally looking Super Bowl-worthy for an entire 60 minutes versus Atlanta.
But lost in the narrative of “Hey, the Patriots are back and for real” is the fact that they’ve been excellent defensively in all three of those recent wins.
Through four games, their defence was only 26 of 46 (.565) in stopping their opponents on third down with a minus-three turnover differential. Since then, they’re 24 of 39 (.615) on third-down stops but still are minus-one on turnovers. That’s the sign of an improving if not fixed defensive scheme, given turnovers are often two parts the bounce of the ball, and one part actual skill.
There are things that won’t hold up from the Falcons win, certainly — for instance, they averaged more than five yards per carry running the ball. What’s more, they still haven’t had true consistency from either their new deep threat, Brandin Cooks, or Rob Gronkowski, who they had to win three playoff games without last season.
No Julian Edelman and no Dont’a Hightower for the rest of the season? Hardly ideal, but this team almost seems capable of enduring anything as long as it doesn’t involve the names Brady or Belichick. It doesn’t hurt that they won’t have to go to Denver for an AFC Championship game, as that’s about the only thing the Patriots haven’t accomplished.
And then there is the AFC East. I suspect we may have a very different read on whether the division is actually good or not by Sunday evening. One-third of the Patriots’ rivals showed us last night that — after getting pounded 40–0 by Baltimore — they’re a lot closer to a 4-12 team than the 4-2 team they were before the game started. The Ravens may not score 40 points combined the next three weekends after losing Joe Flacco to a headshot from Kiko Alonso, and yet you could easily see Miami being shut out a third time this season.
Buffalo hosts the Oakland Raiders, a matchup which seemd a lot more appealing for the Bills before Derek Carr’s magnificent return last Thursday against the Chiefs. The New York Jets host Atlanta, and while we all should be impressed the team hasn’t played along with the seemingly obvious plan to lose often and draft high, eventually water finds its level, and the Jets just aren’t built for speed, endurance or much else.
Look, I’ve always believed you give the Patriots full credit for their utter dominance, not just in the NFL but the AFC East. When Brady’s been healthy, they’ve won 13 straight division titles since 2003, and even the year they didn’t win they just barely missed the playoffs while going 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
But if you don’t give at least partial credit for the Patriots’ run (15-20 percent is my standard rate) to the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, you’re not doing the AFC East power dynamic enough justice. The revolving doors at quarterback and coach for all three of those franchises are the most obvious and indisputable factors working in the Patriots’ favour. But those represent just a fraction of the head-shaking personnel decisions and attempts at quick fixes that have all no doubt added up to laughs galore at the Patriots’ head office.
Something to share with friends and family – since the start of the 2003 NFL season, there have been 78 playoff games, counting Super Bowls, involving teams from the AFC. The Patriots have played in 34 of those games, with a 25-9 win-loss record. The rest of the AFC East teams combined? They’ve played in 11 of them (none for the Bills, naturally) and are 5-6.
While physics and nature have yet to explain how Mark Sanchez led the Jets to four road playoff wins in two years, including the memorable one in Foxboro, you get the point. The Patriots getting the lay-ups that the Steelers, Broncos, Colts, Chiefs and Ravens haven’t gotten in the last decade has certainly been helpful.
So if you didn’t waver on the Patriots, congratulations. If you want back on the bandwagon, for wagering purposes or otherwise, I’m sure the Patriots are happy to have you. Bostonians are so inclusive when it comes to outsiders to begin with.
It’s simple, really — each NFL season will have its trends and ups and downs for all teams, but is there another quarterback you’re visualizing under centre for an AFC team at Super Bowl 52? Alex Smith isn’t doing it for me right now. Not yet for Deshaun Watson, but that day may soon come. Big Ben? The better opportunity was last season.
There’s always that chance I’m wrong, but more often than not, believing in the Patriots, against any evidence at hand, is usually the best course of action.