If these Patriots were a recent college graduate, we would say they’re still finding themselves, figuring out what they want to do and who they hope to be in the real world while being coddled. The 2016 Patriots remain a work in progress as they approach the NFL’s unforgiving real world, the playoffs. That was obvious after an uneven and uninspired 30-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Quarterback Tom Brady had a happy homecoming playing the beloved team of his youth at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., located less than 25 miles from Brady’s childhood home in San Mateo. Brady was brilliant in his Bay Area backyard, channeling some of the mobility and magic of boyhood idol Joe Montana on his way to a four-touchdown day.
Locked in a 13-10 contest deep into the third quarter, Brady gave the Patriots some breathing room and the defense clamped down on the feckless 49ers with three straight three-and-outs.
The 8-2 Patriots are going to finish with a winning record for a 16th consecutive season. Their remarkable and metronomic excellence provides us a luxury that doesn’t exist in other NFL locales — the parsing and grading of wins, the overlaying of their composition against the big picture of what will be required to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
Finding fault in victory is the ultimate first-world football problem. But it’s the Super Bowl-or-bust milieu the Patriots have created.
One of the core tenets of coach Bill Belichick, along with “do your job,” is that the season doesn’t really start until Thanksgiving. It’s Belichick’s way of imparting to his team that the best teams elevate their games and separate themselves down the stretch. They ramp up to hit the playoffs at peak execution and efficiency. The way the Patriots have performed against Seattle and San Francisco the last two weeks isn’t indicative of a team that’s peaking. It looks like a team that is plateauing.
Everyone in Fort Foxborough had better hope the Patriots’ best football is in front of them, starting Sunday against the New York Jets. The Patriots might be staring at a two-game losing streak if they played the way they did for large chunks Sunday against a team not suffering from the severe talent deficiency of the 49ers.
It’s easy for New England to be lulled into a false sense of security facing the 49ers; J-E-T-S, joke, joke, joke; and Los Angeles Rams of the world.
For example, the five sacks the Patriots generated against San Francisco looked like an encouraging sign that the flagging pass rush has awakened.
But the performance was a bit deceiving. One of the sacks came when Malcolm Butler chased down Colin Kaepernick on a scramble at the line of scrimmage. Another came when Rob Ninkovich reached out and stripped Kaepernick at the line of scrimmage as he ran. Both are examples of good, fundamental, disciplined defense, but not an indication that the Patriots’ issues turning up the heat on opposing QBs have been solved.
The other three sacks came on a blitz by Patrick Chung that was criminally ignored by Carlos Hyde; a blitz by Dont’a Hightower, who ran through running back DuJuan Harris; and a neat four-man rush by newcomer Kyle Van Noy. All came in the first half.
The Patriots are going to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, collect 13 or 14 wins and a first-round bye. That’s a given with the power couple of Brady and Belichick, even if the coach is banishing and benching key defensive players at an alarming rate.
Belichick did take time Monday to edify us on why Jabaal Sheard wasn’t part of the Patriots’ travel party.
“Jabaal was inactive, so that’s why he wasn’t in San Francisco,” said Belichick.
All righty then.
Like detailed explanations, contender-caliber opponents providing clues about the Patriots’ championship capacity have been sparse this season. All we really have to go on was the heart-pounding showdown with the Seahawks and the eye test.
So, are you more confident about the Patriots’ Super Bowl pedigree now than you were after the first four games, watching the team shut out the Houston Texans and knowing that Brady was coming back aflame from his Deflategate suspension?
Are you more confident about their chances of winning another championship now than after the first four games of Brady’s return, when the Patriots won every game by double digits and averaged 34 points?
It might be nitpicky. But it’s hard to argue after the last two games that the Patriots are reaching their full potential.
The Patriots are allowing only 18 points per game, third fewest in the NFL. But they allowed 31 to Russell Wilson, the only quarterback they’ve faced this season with more than one playoff win to his name. The only other quarterback with a postseason win they’ve faced is Carson Palmer. (Insert your own pithy putdown.)
Going through the season playing third-cornerback Russian roulette and struggling to unleash your pass rush is OK against Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, and Rams rookie Jared Goff.
But it could be an issue against the Ravens and Broncos in December and any team in January and February.
Given the current state of the NFL, it’s entirely possible the Patriots might not be confronted with a franchise-caliber quarterback in the playoffs.
The problem is that in the postseason. all it takes is one slip-up, one lackluster performance, and you’re stopped maddeningly short of your final destination.
The Patriots have the misfortune of being judged by their past accomplishments, four gleaming Lombardi Trophies.
They are their own measuring stick.
As we approach Thanksgiving, the Patriots have proven that beating ordinary, injured, and inept teams is no problem.
But as the real season looms, they still have some real work to do.