For the 2017 New England Patriots, eight games are in the books; with eight games remaining. At 6-2, a place in the NFL playoffs is a reasonable expectation. However, the Pats have never been a team to look too far ahead. They take it one game at a time. If you don’t believe them, simply ask their coach. (Good luck with that.)
On Sunday, the Patriots travel west to take on a familiar nemesis, the Denver Broncos. The Broncos enter this contest sporting a surprising 3-5 record, and still smarting from a 51-23 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. However, do not let their record fool you. There is plenty of ‘buck’ left in these Broncos, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots will be hard at work preparing for an always difficult adversary. After all, the Broncos are not the only team in this pairing that is seeking improvement.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the week ahead for your New England Patriots.
The ‘Bye’ Week
While the Patriots had the week off from game action, this was certainly not an off-week for the coaching staff or the front office. On Monday, October 30, the Patriots traded quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round choice in the 2018 NFL draft. Only two days later, on November 1, they welcomed back Brian Hoyer, who signed a three-year contract to become the backup to starter Tom Brady.
With no disrespect to Hoyer, who has proven to be a serviceable backup in the NFL, the Patriots seem reticent to bid a less-than-fond farewell to an ideal quarterback situation by trading Garoppolo. Jimmy G was thought, by many, to be Brady’s heir-apparent. His quick release and sound decision-making made him the ideal Belichickian-disciple. This is a point that apparently was not lost on the head coach, himself.
Describing it as “some form of decision that has been looming for the last couple of years,” Belichick made it clear that the team had exhausted all opportunities to keep Garoppolo.
“It’s definitely not something we wanted to walk away from,” he said. “I felt like we rode it out as long as we could. Over a period of time, we explored every option possible to try to sustain it. But at this point, felt like we had to make a decision.”
In a rare display of praise for one of his own active players, Belichick praised Garoppolo’s accomplishments and wished him well, in the process.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jimmy. I couldn’t ask for him to give us any more than he has given us. The 49ers are getting a good player, they are getting a good person, and they’re getting a great teammate, and they are getting a good quarterback. And Jimmy is getting a good coach. His career is moving forward. He’s a talented individual. He was a great person to coach. I met with him weekly. But as his career moves forward, we have to look at our team, both this year and beyond.”
Luckily for the Patriots, they still have Tom Brady under center, and Bill Belichick on the sidelines. As long as that tandem is in place, contention for a title is almost a given in Foxboro…even if life beyond Brady is now a bit less certain.
A Time to Heal?
As Peter Cetera and Chicago once sang, “everybody needs a little time away.” This could not be more appropriate for the Patriots walking wounded. The ‘bye week’ came at the perfect time for those who are nursing injuries. Among those that surely welcomed the opportunity to rest are OL Nate Solder, OL Marcus Cannon, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Eric Rowe and DL Malcolm Brown.
However, the injury that is creating the most anxiety in Patriots Nation would be that which was suffered by receiver Chris Hogan. According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Media, Hogan does not need surgery on his shoulder, which he injured on October 29 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
With that said, Hogan is expected to miss a few weeks while he rests and rehabs. Rapoport notes that the team may possibly reevaluate his status this week.
The Patriots are not simply relying on healing injuries to cure what has been a sub-par defense in the first half of the season. They are making adjustments to game-planning, as well as roster additions.
On Tuesday, the Pats signed veteran defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois. Jean-Francois, who was recently released by the Green Bay Packers, has recorded 166 tackles and 12 sacks in 115 career games. He should provide a veteran presence among the Patriots front seven, which has allowed 5.1 rushing years per attempt.
The new faces and (hopefully) refreshed bodies of the existing Pats will be a welcome sight in Foxboro this week. as we are about to see, the challenge that awaits might be more than meets the eye.
Rocky Mountain High or Low?
Over the last few years, the Broncos and Patriots have had their fair share of battles. the memories of such battles have not always been happy memories for Patriots fans. If Tom Brady has been the NFL’s Superman, then Sports Authority Field at Mile High might just be his Kryptonite. Brady is 6-6 against the Broncos in the regular season and 1-3 against Denver in the postseason. The Broncos are the only team against which Brady has a losing record, and he has struggled in the Denver air of Mile High.
Despite the history, the Patriots are coming in at seven point favorites. Brady’s ability to pick apart the Denver defense is a key reason for that. The Denver pass rush (led by Von Miller) as well as their run defense, are still as stout as ever. However, the Broncos pass defense has been beatable. Ever the opportunist, expect Brady to take advantage of that.
Broncos head coach, Vance Joseph, has announced that the team will start quarterback Brock Osweiler on Sunday night. While Osweiler does have a home victory against the Pats on his resume, last week’s poor showing against the Eagles seems to indicate that it will once again be difficult for the Broncos to score. Although the Patriots defense hasn’t quite lived up to expectation, it has (as of late) improved. The absence of linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be felt, especially on the road. As they did against the Chargers, looks for linemen Kyle Van Noy and David Harris to be the anchors on the Pats front seven. If New England can force multiple turnovers, then the Patriots should be able to dictate the pace of the game and leave with a victory.
Despite being heavily favored, the hype will not go to New England’s head. They know, all too well, the struggles that a defense like Denver’s can create. Their coach won’t let them forget. Their quarterback won’t let them forget. There is a job to be done. Denver is the venue. It’s the second half of the season. It’s time to put it all together.
-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.