Alex Scheer, Across The Board
After the New England Patriots blew out the Miami Dolphins 43-0, the predictive circles started asking two questions: “Are these Patriots the best team Belichick has ever fielded?” And “Can this team finish better than the 2007 Patriots?”
Let’s stop right there.
We are two games into the season. Not nine, not twelve. No, just two. Yes, the Patriots have outscored their opponents by 73 points in the first two weeks, but we really need to consider the opponents and dissect them a little more, starting with the Steelers.
All eyes were tuned in to watch the Steelers spoil an emotional night in Foxboro. The Patriots were raising their sixth banner, Tom Brady was taking the first snaps of his 20th season, all sorts of pomp and circumstance was making Gillette Stadium party hard on the heels as the Patriots began their title defense. It’s often overlooked, but history was on the side of the home team. Since Tom Brady has been in New England, he has only lost to the Steelers three times, all of those coming on the road. The Pittsburgh offense was playing its first true game without former stars Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell, both players now in the AFC East, the former now rostered with the Patriots. Tom Brady doesn’t lose. Especially not to a Steelers team trying to find their offensive identity. Chalk this up as an almost guaranteed victory for the home team.
Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins may have had more riding on it if the Dolphins hadn’t been making so many moves that left football fans everywhere scratching their heads. Sure, they have picked up quite a few first round picks the next few years, but it almost seems like they are doing everything they can to blow the whole thing up and get a do over, starting with the 2020 NFL Draft. This team is bad, like potential 0-16 bad. Between Ryan “Fitzmagic” Fitzpatrick not having the same season start he did in Tampa Bay, and losing players to injury and trades, this team is definitely one of the bottom four teams in the NFL. However, for whatever reason, five out of the last six trips to Miami have not been kind to the Patriots. Last second wins, crazy play victories (Gronkowski had NO reason being on the field, come on Belichick), warm weather, whatever it is, the Dolphins have had the Patriots number in Florida. This game was different. This Miami offense is anemic, the defense has more holes than Swiss cheese, and there was going to be no stopping the Patriots as they marched up and down the field, almost at will.
While this team has the composition that could rival any of the best teams in the history of the NFL, there are some key things to hone in on that could be potential weaknesses to their second 16-0 season. First off, Tom Brady is getting older. I've said it before, Tom Brady continually stands the test of time, and he always seems to look younger every single year. (Hey Tom, whatever you’re eating, send some to my house please?) While he is on pace to reach his best yardage total since 2012, and his best passing touchdown number since 2007, this team is going to have to rely more on the run game.
The running game has yet to really impress (considering the competition thus far), but this is classic New England. That being said, the Pats relied on the ground game a little more each year, and with weapons like James White and Sony Michel, this ground attack could be good, as White is a great pass catching back and the hero in OT of Super Bowl LI. Sony Michel was pretty good in his rookie campaign, but people weren’t talking about him like they were Zeke, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon or Kareem Hunt. Don’t expect guys like Michel, White, Develin or Burkhead to completely take over a game... they are all cogs in a well oiled machine that will need to start answering the call more and more.
While Tom Brady has a shiny new toy in Antonio Brown, the cloud of controversy gets thicker with the recent sexual assault allegations brought against him by his former trainer, and more allegations of refusal to make payments for work done, not to mention the wild ride on his journey from Pittsburgh to New England... Whatever happens, the Patriots have to have a back up plan in case Brown is suspended/facing other legal repercussions. Cue Josh Gordon!
Gordon came to the Patriots via trade with the Browns last season and was unable to complete and entire season due to failing the NFL’s drug use policy. The last time Josh Gordon played a full NFL season? 2012, his rookie year. The NFL has given him multiple opportunities to “get right” if you will, and it's far more probable than not that the NFL wouldn’t be willing to reinstate him yet again should he fail another drug test. His career would be over, at least in the NFL.
Julian Edelman is a safe bet, right? Edelman served a 4 game suspension last season after failing a drug test during his recovery from a torn ACL in 2017. Edelman is probably the safest option, as the veteran wide receiver has only had one issue in his entire career, and it was during aforementioned recovery. If he fails a second at any point in the season? Bye, bye Edelman. Leaving receiving duties up to Philip Dorsett, a solid option, UDR Jakobi Meyers, who had a great pre-season but not much else (in fairness, he’s been targeted once and hauled in the pass), and then Braxton Berrios and Matthew Slater, both names the organization clearly trust, but not exactly the high flying named of the star-studded trio of Brown, Edelman and Gordon. While I don’t expect Edelman to be at risk, he has to make sure he is doing everything possible to prevent any issues that could disrupt his season.
The 2007 Patriots weren’t riddled with injury. This year, the patriots are already dealing with offensive line injuries (Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, and Marcus Cannon) and receiver injuries (Rookie N’keal Harry) among others who are experiencing some injury issues. Only three starters from the 2007 team experienced significant injuries, Rosevelt Colvin (Week 13), Stephen Neal (returned and started 8 games, including Super Bowl XLII) and Richard Seymour (started season on the PUP list). These injuries hardly affected the 2007 Patriots, as they weren’t long lasting, minus Colvin, and he was lost towards the end of the year.
With every magical seasonal, there are always lucky breaks, or well-timed penalties that have an impact on a game. The Patriots have been on both ends of those penalties, and the 2007 Patriots were no different. If all of their opponents were healthy (Philip Rivers in the AFC Championship game, or Donovan McNabb in the regular season matchup against the Eagles), or had an opponent not had a late penalty (talking to you, Baltimore) the Patriots may have finished 14-2 or 13-3, a still impressive and consistent record for the now 20 year dynasty. Now it’s 2019, the game is evolving and offenses are adjusting to the speed of the newer defenses. Yes, Tyreek Hill is currently out with an injury, but the Patriots don’t play Kansas City until Week 14, so expect them to be (close to) full strength. The Patriots have 10 winnable games to start the season before their matchup with Dallas, and an offense that’s found new life under first year play caller Kellen Moore. The Patriots also travel to Baltimore to take on the explosive Ravens offense and a defense that can swarm to the ball quickly. There would need to be some extremely lucky breaks for the Patriots to run the table again, with 3-4 loseable games down the stretch: Ravens, Cowboys, Texans, and the Chiefs.
Now. This isn’t to say this 2019 iteration of the six time champions cant run the table. There is loads of talent on both sides of the ball, and if this defense can maintain this level of play, there is a halfway decent chance they can do it again. Never count out Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who time and time again beat the odds and sit atop of the NFL, making Max Kellerman backtrack and causing Steven A Smith a mini heart attack.(*insert “We’re Still Here!” moniker*) However, the odds are not with them to recreate the regular season magic from 12 years ago...and that's not a bad thing. New England may not want to go 16-0, settling for 12-4, or 13-3 bodes far better for them and allows them to learn from mistakes before falling in the Super Bowl to an opponent who had no business being there. Expect the same mind boggling Brady magic, but do yourself a favor. Don’t start chanting 16-0. It’s just too early, and the odds have never been greater.
At the time this article was written, it had not been announced that Antonio Brown would not be prosecuted for the sexual assault allegations, due to Pennsylvania Statue of Limitations. The original article will not be updated to reflect this change.