The New England Patriots are in first place in the AFC East.
Since 2001, very few sentences have been used more naturally than this declaration. It just seems to feel right; whether you love it, or hate it. It’s sweet in New England, but sour everywhere else. Much to the chagrin of the three other teams (and fan bases) in the division, it is almost always a fact.
Despite all the jersey-burning, complaining and referee-cursing going on around them on Sunday, the Patriots defeated the New York Jets 24-17 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. While Jets fans continue to blame the ‘call’ (more on that, in a moment), the fact is that the Pats victory was the result of their rallying from a 14-0 deficit and making the big plays at the key moments. The Jets, on the other hand, were unable to keep their opponent down. It’s been the most significant difference between the two franchises for almost two decades.
This week, the Patriots look forward to tuning out the distractions (as well as the salty whining of Jets fans) as they welcome an old friend to Foxboro. On Sunday night, the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons bring their 3-2 record to Gillette Stadium to take on the Patriots in a rematch of Super Bowl LI.
The Falcons started the season red hot, winning their first three, including impressive wins over the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. They have dropped two in a row to AFC East opponents, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins. However, make no mistake. The Falcons still have a lethal offense, and will provide an offensive threat to a Patriots defense that is still noticeably struggling. As a result, Sunday night’s matchup has the makings of a potential classic.
As the Patriots prepare for what may be their toughest test to date, let’s gaze into our Belichickian Crystal Ball and take a look at the week ahead for the Pats.
“I’m Telling You for the Last Time”
The Austin Seferian-Jenkins touchdown turned (or should I say, overturned) touchback on Sunday, has been a hot topic among NFL journalists, analysts and fans. Jets fans are insanely crying collusion among the Patriots and the NFL. However, instead of directing their vitriol toward the ruling, it should be aimed at the rule itself. Quite simply, the officials made the correct call on a ridiculous rule.
With 8:31 to play, Seferian-Jenkins was advancing into the end zone when Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler and other Pats defenders jarred the ball loose. The on-field officials initially ruled the play a touchdown, and the Jets had apparently narrowed the Pats lead to 24-21. However, all scoring plays are always reviewed…and that’s when the fun started.
Upon further review in the booth, it was determined that Seferian-Jenkins never maintained “full possession” of the ball, and the would-be touchdown was ruled a touchback.
While it can be agreed that it doesn’t make much sense, the rule specifically states that any loose ball that crosses the pylon and goes out of bounds – even if it’s close to being secured by the player – results in a touchback, as reported by NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran. Although the ball wasn’t “fumbled” in the traditional sense (which would be a ball bouncing on the ground) it wasn’t secured. Thus, the ruling on the field was overturned. As a wise man once said, “It is what it is.” It’s time to move on.
So…why is this significant for the Patriots as they prepare for the upcoming week? It’s very simple. The Pats were fortunate to benefit from a ruling on a rule that probably should not exist. They will most likely not have that luxury against the Falcons. The lesson here is that the Patriots need to do more to protect their field against the high-flying Falcons offense.
“What’s Past is Prologue”
28-3. The Falcons led with 2:08 left in the third quarter. The Falcons social media department had sent out a tweet, reminding its fan base that only one more quarter of football separated them from a Super Bowl LI title.
We all know the rest of the story…
Pats fans remember with delight.
Falcons fans are forever haunted.
After all was said and done, the Patriots had secured their fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history, with an improbable 34-28 victory in overtime.
Although the Patriots are a team that does not dwell on the past, it should not be a surprise that they will be watching film of that historic come-from-behind victory as they prepare for this week’s showdown with Atlanta. They won’t be doing so to relive the glory, but to learn from their mistakes. 36 players on the Patriots’ 53-man roster at the time of Super Bowl LI remain on this year’s team. The Falcons built a 28-3 lead for a reason. They dominated the Patriots on both sides of the ball for the majority of the game. Head coach Bill Belichick and staff know that they cannot afford to spot a team like Atlanta that kind of lead on Sunday. Therefore, look for the coaching staff to teach that lesson to those that were not here, and strongly remind those that were.
Patriots safety, and one of the team’s defensive captains, Duron Harmon recognized this fact and had this to say:
“The teams aren’t exactly the same, but the good thing is you can go back and watch the film and learn from it and see offensively how they were trying to attack us. Although they have a different offensive coordinator, the head coach is the same, and the plays they had success on, I’m pretty sure they’ll want to do those again.”
“Wake the Sleeping Giant”
Well…ok…the Patriots defense cannot exactly be likened to a giant. However, they are much better than they have shown through the first six games. Allowing big plays has been the biggest issue for the defensive unit in 2017. This season, the defense has allowed 31 total plays of 20 yards or more. It is on pace for 83 on the year. Last year, the Pats allowed only 56 in total.
The plight of the defense has been blamed on poor communication. This has improved in recent weeks, but much more is needed. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has a myriad of offensive weapons. Wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, tight end Austin Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman could make life difficult for the Pats defense if they do not tighten the ship. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia knows that lessening, and hopefully eliminating, big plays will provide a much-needed stabilizer for his defensive unit.
The Patriots might get a bit of a boost this week, as linebacker Shea McClellin is eligible to begin practicing, after a stint on injured reserve. He could be a valuable asset in practice and help to train the linebacking corps to get out of the block quicker. Overall, the linebackers have been slow in coverage. As a result, they have had difficulty covering running backs out of the backfield. This could be particularly troublesome if the Falcons decide to use Freeman as a primary weapon. Look for the Pats to mix coverages this week, as a possible antidote to their lack of speed.
Despite these shortcomings, the primary issue, which the defense must address this week, is its lack of a pass rush. While the Patriots have 16 sacks (an average 16th in the league) they just haven’t been able to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback. Opposing signal callers have had more than five seconds, on average, to locate a target and throw the football. This has put tremendous strain on the secondary who, in turn, struggles to remain in coverage longer than anticipated. This has led to some big completions, especially on third down. For the season, the Patriots have stopped their opponent only 43 percent of the time on third down, which is one of the worst percentages in the NFL. The Patriots must look for a way to generate consistent pressure on Matt Ryan if they want to avoid a torching of their secondary on Sunday night. They do have the talent at defensive end in Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, Jr. to pressure Ryan effectively. Sunday night would be the perfect time to awaken that talent on a consistent basis.
“It’s Tom Brady, though.”
Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel tried to warn his team during Super Bowl LI. Atlanta was set to celebrate, but Gabriel uttered those fateful words before the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history was about to unfold. The Falcons had a nearly insurmountable lead, but the Patriots had Tom Brady as their quarterback. The rest is history.
While it’s nearly a forgone conclusion that Brady will always provide his team with a chance to win, the offense has not been the juggernaut that everyone expected prior to the season. It is true that the offense took a major hit with the loss of Julian Edelman to injury. However, the offensive inconsistency has stemmed most prominently from poor play by the offensive line.
The number of hits Brady has taken overall this year is alarming. In six games, Brady has been hit 37 times and is reportedly dealing with a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder. If Brady continues to take the abuse he’s taken, there’s the chance he will risk serious injury. As great of condition as he is in, a banged-up Brady would certainly not be at his best in the postseason. That’s a risk the Patriots cannot afford to take.
This week, look for the Pats establish the running game in greater quantity. Through six games, the Patriots have ran the ball on 40 percent of their plays, which is below the 44 percent from last season. Even with Rex Burkhead still recovering from a rib injury, Mike Gillislee and Dion Lewis have the potential to be one of the better tandems in the league. The two have completely different styles, but each are effective, and complement the other. Lewis has been seemingly set free during the past two games. It has paid off with his two best performances of the season.
It will be important for the Pats to not abandon the run on Sunday, especially against a speedy Falcons defense. At times, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has seemed to move away from the run when the team falls behind. In fact, it has become predictable. This has led to Brady having to force the ball into tight coverage, or even being unable to find an opening at all. Establishing the run more consistently will not only help with protecting Brady, but will help the overall production of the offense.
And, as always…if the Patriots find themselves in need of a potential game winning drive, I think the team likes their chances.
After all…as Gabriel said in the Super Bowl…’it’s Tom Brady.’
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer and covers the NFL for cover32.com.