It’s an unfamiliar word for football fans in New England: failure. After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, an already mediocre season (by Patriots standards) got worse and the playoff picture became even more concerning. The yearly expectation of Super Bowl or bust puts the stakes at almost impossible heights in New England, but year in and year out the Patriots defy the odds and find a way to make a serious run at a title. We, the fans, are conditioned to expect miraculous comebacks and never count the team out regardless of scenario. I would be willing to bet most of Patriot nation was watching the final drive of the Steelers game on Sunday expecting Brady to take the team down the field in less than 3 mins and score a TD to tie the game. I know I was. Unfortunately, this year is different for the Pats, and we should adjust our expectations now to avoid (more) disappointment later.
There is a laundry list of things that separate this year’s team from previous incarnations of Belichick’s squad, but the underlying theme is the same in all of them: focus and discipline.
The one thing that has always separated Bill Belichick-run teams from everyone else in football has been fundamentally sound, error-free football. Belichick’s teams rarely shoot themselves in the foot and often avoid damaging penalties at inopportune times. Enter the 2018 Patriots who don’t follow any of the usual markers of the Belichick reign. Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh is the freshest and most glaring example of change in 2018. The officials were (admittedly) calling the game tighter than normal, leading to more penalties, yet the worst yellow flags for the Pats were self-inflicted and mostly pre-snap. The Pats had a total of 14 penalties costing them 106 yards, 5 were pre-snap (4 false starts and 1 delay of game). Give Pittsburgh fans credit, the stadium was rocking in the 4th quarter, but rarely do you see a Belichick coached team have 2 terrible false start penalties in a close game in the 4th quarter, even on the road. It’s all about mental focus.
One of the more telling stats about focus and discipline is the team’s 3-5 road record. Mentally fragile or weak teams let road environments get in their heads and force them off their game. Belichick prides himself in preparation, but this year the team seems wholly unprepared on the road (see false starts in yesterday’s 4th quarter and the Miami miracle – hell, the entire Miami game). When the going gets tough and the game gets tight on the road, the Pats seem to tighten-up and make the type of mistakes we expect to see from a Hue Jackson coached team.
On the offensive-side of the ball, the Pats have been wildly inconsistent. It comes down to the receivers. One of the most talked about stories this season has been the apparent rapid decline of Rob Gronkowski, whether because his body has been worn down over the years or because he is currently injured. He’s made a nice catch here and there, but mostly has been an invisible piece of the offense. Another piece for me appears to be effort from the other receivers. On paper, Edelman is having a normal season by his standards, but the last few weeks he’s failed the eye-test at times with some critical dropped passes that he would normally catch. Josh Gordon gets a lot of attention for a big, spectacular catch here and there, but overall he has a catch percentage of 58.8%, which is not what you want to see out of one of your top receivers who has Brady as his QB. I think all three receivers are suffering from a lack of focus at times during games.
When analyzing the team, the QB needs to get some attention. Brady overall is having an fairly normal year by his standards, but has been picked off 9 times already, tied for the most in a season for him since 2013 with 2 games remaining. One major piece to consider is that Brady is being put in a position to force more throws this year because the defense can’t keep the opponent off the scoreboard. It doesn’t excuse all the mistakes, like the awful INT in Sunday’s Pittsburgh game (100% on Brady), but does account for the uptick of risk in his game.
The defense has also been horribly inconsistent this year. Holding the high-powered Steeler offense to 17 points on Sunday was one of their better performances of the year. The weapons in the passing game for Pittsburgh are legit, so allowing more rushing yards to limit the passing game is a smart game plan. Previous games have resulted in an unusually high amount of blown coverages and missed tackles leading to massive days for their opponents. Stopping the run, a Belichick (Patricia) staple, has been beyond a struggle in 2018. In 8 of their 14 games this season the Pats have allowed 100+ rushing yards, including 5 games allowing 150+ yards on the ground. For perspective, the Pats allowed 3 games with 150+ rushing yards in 2017, 1 in 2016, and 2 in 2015 (regular season only). In fact, you have to go back to 2013 for the last time the Pats gave up 5 or more games of 150+ rushing yards and there are still 2 games remaining in 2018.
Historically, Belichick-coached teams turn it on in the 2nd half of the season, peaking in December leading into the playoffs. We have come to expect early season sloppiness trusting that things turn around later in the season. So far in December 2018 the Pats are 1-2, with two crucial, ugly losses. These two losses you might expect in September, not in the stretch run when the playoffs and a bye are at stake. They moved from fighting for the #1 seed to hanging on to the #3.
The struggles are clear, but why? Did the Patriots not bring in enough talent to compete? Are players not performing up to expectation? Is the loss of Matt Patricia more important than previously thought? I think the answer is yes to all, at least in part. The Pats have talent on both sides of the ball, but it isn’t enough. Their defense is easy to exploit by opposing offenses and their offense is forced to come-from-behind and play well outside their comfort zone most weeks. Now slipping to the #3 playoff spot forces the Pats to play on Wild Card weekend and likely go on the road for the Divisional round if they are lucky enough to get a win at all.
There’s always a chance for a strong run in the postseason with Brady and Belichick, we’re conditioned to always believe, but at this point, a deep run in 2018 would take a true miracle.