The rhetoric about the New England Patriots going undefeated this season is gaining steam. We’re told that the anger the organization in general and Tom Brady in particular feel about the whole Deflategate saga is fueling the Patriots the way Spygate did in 2007, when they went 16-0. That may be true—in fact, I’m sure it is true—but can we cool it on the 16-0 talk? This team still has holes that make such a run unlikely.
Let’s start with the secondary. Reviewing the grades at Pro Football Focus, a source relied on by 19 NFL teams and where every player is graded on every play, the Patriots have significant issues with their defensive backs. Patrick Chung and Tarell Brown have been liabilities. Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl hero last February, has real promise as a long-term starter at corner, but has also had his ups and downs in the first three weeks. Devin McCourty is the only rock of consistency.
How about we move to the run defense? The Patriots’ defensive front gets mostly poor grades against the run, including Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones on the edge of the 4-3 scheme. The linebackers, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower aren’t doing the job against the run.
Moving over to the other side of the line of scrimmage, that young offensive line is going through growing pains. While Sebastian Vollmer is having a great year, the rest of the group is up and down.
These are a lot of flaws if we’re even discussing another Super Bowl trophy, much less an undefeated season. The sheer greatness of Tom Brady covers a lot of flaws—he gets rid of the football quickly and with precision to protect that young offensive line. Putting up all those points prevents opposing offenses from running the ball and really exploiting the defensive problems. The greatness of Bill Belichick finds ways to get edges for the defense and steal stops that talent alone wouldn’t otherwise do.
All of those are reasons we can pencil New England in for another ho-hum 12 wins, an AFC East title and being one contender to win the Super Bowl. They are not sufficient to elevate the Patriots head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league and certainly not enough to talk about running the table. As great as Brady is, you can’t throw a team to victory every single week.
I like the Patriots—while the Redskins are my primary team, New England is what I call my oasis of sanity in the football world. Can I suggest an alternate focus for Patriot fans—take the period on the schedule between now and the end of November to focus on just letting the rest of the team surrounding Brady to develop and grow, while continuing to get separation from the rest of the AFC East.
This period on the schedule includes road games with the Cowboys & Colts (neither looking as tough as they did at the start of the season) and more potent road tests at the Giants and the Broncos. The visit to Denver is a Sunday Night on November 29. If New England comes out of that game at 11-0, then let’s talk about the undefeated season.
Simply pointing to the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is not enough. They were great from 2005-13 (save for ’08 when Brady was hurt), but they often struggled defensively and didn’t win a Super Bowl in that timeframe. Last year, with Darrelle Revis on the corner, they did. Whether this edition of the defense improves sufficiently is going to determine if this is “only” another really good Patriots edition or if it’s going to win a Super Bowl.
The scam that was Deflategate spared New England from any complacency that might have set in after finally getting their fourth Super Bowl ring for Brady and Belichick. Let that be enough for now, and put the undefeated talk on the backburner.