The NFL season is officially 25% complete. New England has been 100% successful. With four wins and zero losses, this team has exceeded expectations – well, mine anyway. Games may have been ugly and low-scoring (by recent Patriots offensive standards), but a win is a win.
The team seems to be in a state of continuous transition on both sides of the ball. Players are being rotated in, out and around more than NASCAR tires in a pit stop.
Clockwise from top: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan. Center: Tom Brady. Waiting to ride: Rob Gronkowski.
On the offensive side of the ball we’ve seen Welker out, Amendola in. Amendola out, Edelman in. Rookies Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce all in. The tight end position has featured Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui and Mulligan while waiting for the return of Gronk. And then there’s the running back carousel. Ridley, thought to be the feature back, has been supplanted by Vereen (now out for eight games), Blount and Bolden (returned after missing two games).
The defensive side of the ball has seen more consistency, but the Falcons game dealt the Pats a potentially huge blow with the loss of Vince Wilfork to an Achilles tear. Rookie Joe Vellano stepped up admirably, but it remains to be seen what level of play he can sustain.
I’ve been one of the few critical voices regarding Bill Belichick as a head coach due to the Pats lack of hardware, given all the talent he’s had over the past five seasons. Sure, they’ve been a great regular season team, but that has not translated in the big games. However, up to this point in the season, Bill Belichick should be in the running for coach of the year.
Getting back to a strong, consistent run game has given Brady more time to get his rookie receiving core up to speed and NFL standards, and Belichick’s finally found the right defensive personnel to execute pass coverage without having to loosen up on their tight run D. The linebackers have done an excellent job in pass coverage and the D line has been getting to the quarterback without resorting to all out blitzes. Cornerback play has stopped looking like it belongs in high school and safeties continue to play smart.
Perhaps the lack of superstar egos in the clubhouse has contributed to the team chemistry, but whatever’s going on in that locker room is clearly providing a true team atmosphere. Players are picking each other up and seem to be giving just a little more effort when the chips are down.
I’m starting to think Peter King’s Superbowl prediction may not be as ridiculous as I’ve deemed it. If the injury bug can be stilled for a few weeks, this roster has a real chance to gel into an exciting team on both sides of the ball. The receiving core has made vast improvements each week and the defense continues to make plays when they’re needed. Even the 23 points to Falcons wasn’t as bad as it looked. Twenty-three points to a team with a HOF tight end (still playing at an amazingly high level), two all-pro receivers, a sneaky-fast running back and a stud QB playing at their house is nothing to sneeze at. Especially considering the inability to recover a late onside kick and some truly exceptional catches by Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez – where the defense had the play covered perfectly. Plus they stopped the Falcons four consecutive downs twice, including the game-sealing series with a minute to go (something they haven’t been able to do against any team the last five years).
2nd Quarter Preview
The second quarter of the season has the Pats up against the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Saints at home, the Jets in New York and the Dolphins at home. With four wins already in the bag, the Patriots would do good to end the 2nd quarter with a 2 – 2 record. Ideally, the two wins would be against the division rivals, but I definitely see the Saints as being a little more than the Pats can handle at this point with their surprising defensive play so far.
The Bengals game poses a real problem. I will actually be in attendance at the game (strike one for NE), I’ll be wearing my jersey (strike two) and the Bengals are Jekyll and Hyde at the moment. If this game was in New England, I wouldn’t give the Bengals as much of a chance, but it’s in Cincinnati (strike three). My stupid superstitions aside (like I have any real effect on the game), the Patriots have a better than average shot at winning this game, which would go a long way toward easing the pressure of having to beat a surprisingly good Dolphins team.
If the Patriots stick to and execute their season gameplan on both sides of the ball, they could go into halftime with a 7 – 1 record (4 – 0 in the AFC East). This would be a remarkable feat. However, I suspect they’ll be 6 – 2 or even 5 – 3 at the break (3 – 1 in the division). Still, given the personnel carousel, this too would be pretty darn respectable and leaves them in a good position for making a playoff run.
One thing I’ll say for certain: this team is drilling away at my pessimistic foundation. Even I’m starting to believe in what this team can achieve.