By Staff Writer Thomas Griffin.
Despite their rockiest season in the past decade, the Patriots are somehow, once again, bound for the Super Bowl.
Representing a weak year for either the opposing AFC teams or the Shield itself, a late-season offensive restructuring was enough to turn an otherwise benign 11-5 Patriots team into a Super Bowl contender. Sure, they made the big game, but many questions still surround this particular roster’s odds of winning it all.
On the offense, Brady’s throwing accuracy had been scarily off its mark. Edelman and Gronk’s gloves seemed to have been laced with Vaseline on a weekly basis, allowing hit-in-the-hands passes from Brady to slip through and into the waiting arms of opposing defensive backs. The rather undisciplined offensive line couldn’t decide whether they would rather act like brick walls or turnstiles in pass blocking, forcing a rather stiff and immobile Brady to scramble more than he, and us by proxy, are comfortable with.
The combined Michel-White-Burkhead-Patterson rushing attack had always been there, but were put into play simply to make Tom’s third-and-short checkdowns more manageable. The traditional McDaniels-run system could still generate enough total offense to keep the lights on, but the cracks were starting to form in the foundation of a championship-caliber offense.
The defense, under newly pseudo-appointed defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brian Flores, lacked any sort of identifiable culture deep into the season. There were certainly some standout stars such as Stephon Gilmore, Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, and the McCourty twins, but nothing about the way they played spelt consistency. In the same season where they held the rotund Andy Reid’s high-powered barbeque birthday party Chiefs offense to nine points in an entire half, they also chose to lie down in fetal position against a Detroit Lions squad projected to do absolutely nothing with their 2018 season. For this defense, the name of the game throughout the year had been showing up to play. How many times had they accomplished that? Eleven. How many times had they failed? Five. These are favorable, but not fantastic odds.
Then came playoffs. For two fantastic games, the Patriots looked like a completely different team. Instead of giving Brady autonomous control of the three-step-drop, 8-yard-pass, scientifically optimized passing offense, the east-coast juggernaut adopted an ironically west-coast approach to moving the rock – dual-threat, run-oriented, downfield-blocking mayhem. Gronk made the transition from the most prolific receiving tight end in the league to the most prolific blocking tight end in the league.
The offensive line shaped up and learned how to run over a defense’s front seven with relative ease, giving stars like Sony Michel all the daylight they could ever want. They would meticulously eat up both clock and yardage and wait patiently for defensive backs to mentally break, allowing Brady to line up merciless volleys of ten-yard seam routes or longer. Need a bit of variation? Try fastest-handoff-in-the-east jet sweeps to Cordarrelle Patterson, Rex Burkhead, and even Julian Edelman. It’s hard for defenses to make a stop if they can never be sure of what’s to come their way.
For the defense, it’s… more of the same. The defensive adjustments can more so be likened to an overnight transformation, abandoning the bend-not-break mantra for one that doesn’t even permit bending. The Pats’ front seven became the shutdown unit necessary to give the two most powerful AFC offenses – the aforementioned Chiefs as well as the Los Angeles (still sounds wrong) Chargers – their worst performances of the season. It may seem like everything is in the Patriots’ favor for a sixth ring… except for momentum.
For as talented, organized, and prepared as this roster may be, they have been nothing if not inconsistent at best. To go from keeping Patrick Mahomes’ offense scoreless and entering halftime in the AFC Championship 14-0 to allowing nearly 21 unanswered points and saving all their comeback energy for the last 5 minutes of play speaks volumes about their ability to finish games strong, rather than just start them. The Los Angeles (again, still sounds wrong) Rams have what the Chargers and Chiefs don’t – a defense, a capable anti-pass secondary, and the ability to make absolutely any changes to their defensive front to at least make the opposing offense’s job harder.
The new Pats offense, while effective so far, experienced what only compares to a ship’s first launching into the bay – sure it floats, but it’s far from stormy seas.
Once it’s pitted against the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, a few failed drives may take the wind out of New England sails, turning the game around entirely.
For any fans eager to watch the chaos of the big game unfold in real time, Super Bowl Sunday is scheduled for February 3rd at 6:30pm.
Photo Courtesy: Maddie Meyer