There are two ways of looking at the Pats not just being 1-2 but being 1-2 after a fairly narrow win against a dreadful-looking Texans team and thorough ass-kickings by the Jags and Lions. This is the most obvious:
For the second straight week, New England’s offense fell flat. The Pats managed just one touchdown against a Detroit defense that had given up 39 points per game over the first two weeks of the season, and Tom Brady completed just 14 of 26 passes for a measly 133 yards. After trading Brandin Cooks to Los Angeles this spring and losing Julian Edelman for four games due to a PED suspension, the Patriots entered the season with one of the thinnest receiver depth charts in the league. And through their first three games, the limitations of their unique offensive scheme have been evident.
New England relies on a combination of running backs and Rob Gronkowski to carry a bulk of its receiving load, using various personnel packages to exploit matchups and create separation in the open field. With no reliable vertical threats or receivers who can consistently make contested catches, this offense runs on Brady’s precision, and his calibration has been off these past two weeks. On a first-and-10 from the Lions’ 12-yard line early in Sunday’s third quarter, running back Rex Burkhead lined up in the slot on the right, with New England in an empty formation. The Pats got the matchup they wanted—Burkhead against backup linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin—and Burkhead quickly got open on a fade to the corner of the end zone. Brady overthrew him by a good 3 yards. Those types of plays are the backbone of this Patriots’ offense, and if Brady continues to miss those, this group is going to struggle.
But don’t expect that to happen. Sure, Brady is 41 years old, and at his age there’s always the possibility that a sudden decline is right around the corner, but we’ve been here before. Through three games this season, Brady is completing 64 percent of his passes and averaging 6.4 yards per attempt. In 2014, when the Patriots were 2-2 and coming off a blowout loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football, Brady was completing just 59.1 percent of his passes and averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. Rumblings about his decline started soon after. Then he went on to finish the season with more than 4,100 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, leading the Patriots to a 12-4 record and a Super Bowl win. There are some concerning aspects to Brady’s game right now; he’s completing 36.8 percent of his passes while pressured, and only Tyrod Taylor has been worse among qualified QBs. But this seems similar to the slow starts Brady and the offense have had over the years.
Phillip Dorsett tied Rob Gronkowski for the team lead with five targets Sunday, but he finished with no receptions. On Brady’s final pass of the game, he was looking for Dorsett deep down the right sideline. Cornerback Darius Slay ran step for step with Dorsett down the field, and eventually the ball fell to the turf. That play was indicative of how futile the offense has looked so far this season, but more than likely, this is a minor blip that will be forgotten by December. Playoff competition at the top of the AFC is virtually nonexistent, and the situation will have to get much worse in New England before any fear starts to creep in.
The alternative is the “things that cannot go on forever will stop” approach:
There are two ways to approach the Patriots’ Sunday night loss to the Lions and 1-2 start. We can either chuckle at all of the “Patriots are doomed” predictions from past Septembers and assume that this is just another hiccup, or we can look at a team with a makeshift wide receiver corps, one of the league’s slowest defenses and obvious organizational tensions and admit that these are not the same old Patriots. Start with the premise that the Patriots are an ordinary-at-best team, and lots of other things start to make sense: the Jaguars’ offensive explosion last week, the sudden improvement of a Lions team that looked ready to quit against the Jets in the opener, the relative ease with which the Giants beat a Texans team that played the Patriots close in Week 1, and so on. Based on current evidence, “Patriots are doomed” isn’t the snarky, silly take; it’s the “same old Patriots” take that needs justifying.
My answer is the least satisfying one: the truth lies SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE. I think the Patriots offense will be fine, especially after Edleman gets back. And the conference really helps; the Chiefs have a phenomenal offense but a shit defense and in the playoffs Andy Reid the bad game manager starts to really undermine Andy Reid the brilliant Monday-to-Saturday coach, the Ravens still have Flacco, the Bengals still have Dalton, the Jaguars still have Bortles, etc. Division-wise, I still don’t believe in the Dolphins. And even slightly post-peak Brady and Belichick deserve the benefit of the doubt and more.
Still, one expects more of the Pats than “the QB and coach should overcome a thin roster to win a shitty division.” If they and the Rams met on a neutral field this week, how many points would you need to take the Pats? For me, I’d say at least 7. Their defense was one of the worst in the league last year and doesn’t look a lot better this year. Letting Cooks go looks bad and the decision to blow a first rounder on a running back looks really bad as of now. And honesty compels me to note that Tannehill has actually looked very good through three games. And it’s worth remembering that while they made it to the Super Bowl last year, their path to getting beaten by a replacement-level journeyman backup at QB was through EXOTIC SMASHMOUTH (R.I.P) and a Jags team that outplayed them through large parts of the game and probably would have won had they not turtled in the 4th quarter. I’d still pick them to win the division despite the two-game deficit and anything can happen in the AFC playoffs, but 1)this this the most vulnerable they’ve been with Brady in a long time, and 2)they definitely seem a real step below the elite NFL teams,
To shift sports slightly, David Roth’s tribute to David Wright is great. As it happens, the first game I saw at Shea after moving to New York was this sparsely attended game, and the couple from Park Slop in the seats next to me were raving about the rookie even before he hit the first of two homers. It’s poignant that the greatest position player in Mets history was robbed by injuries of a likely Hall of Fame career and was associated with a team that went through two horrible collapses (that had less than nothing to do with him.) But he was a great player and great face of the franchise, and the sheer level of grueling work he put in so he could have one last moment on the field is amazing. Kudos to him. And go Rockies and Brewers!