CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
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The NFL is a league of quick-snap judgments. That’s the case for the players on the field and the fans and pundits analyzing their performances. To play off Newton (that’s Sir Isaac, not Cam), every action in the NFL has an equal and opposite overreaction.
The Patriots enjoyed a cathartic win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday with a dominant 36-20 victory at the Superdome. But let’s not overreact. The Patriots didn’t magically fix all of the issues that cropped up in their deflating 42-27 meltdown in the season opener against Kansas City on Sept. 7. Talk of the Patriots’ demise was greatly exaggerated following that game and some alarming remarks by quarterback Tom Brady. But it would also be an exaggeration to declare that the Patriots’ problems on offense and defense were all solved against the Saints.
The Patriots remain a work in progress.
Outside of the obvious injury concerns, none bigger than the health of Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a groin injury on Sunday, the Patriots still have areas of concern that are going to require improvement if they’re to lift the seven pounds of sterling silver known as the Lombardi Trophy for a sixth time.
The injury-decimated wide receiver corps must speed-read to get on the same page with Brady, and Patriots pass-catchers have to win one-on-one battles without the clever window dressing of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doing it for them.
The defense needs to address big plays and get what was supposed to be one of the best cornerback tandems in the league clicking. Malcolm Butler didn’t start on Sunday and Stephon Gilmore didn’t finish a play again. Gilmore got knocked down on a pick play in the second quarter and didn’t exactly display alacrity in getting up to get back in the play. His man, Brandon Coleman, went uncovered for a 42-yard catch.
The Patriots dealt with the dangerous and decorated Drew Brees better than they did Alex Smith and his 80 percent completion rate. The defense offered a classic bend-but-don’t-break effort against Brees and a diminished Saints supporting cast. Playing without Dont’a Hightower, they surrendered 429 yards and some big plays — six pass plays of 20 yards or more — but only two touchdowns.
These issues didn’t remotely endanger the Patriots Sunday, but they will if they’re not remedied. The Big Easy was an appropriate setting for the Patriots’ bounceback victory because the Saints offered little resistance, particularly to the Danny Amendola-less offense. The Saints’ inept, inexperienced, and undisciplined defense staggered around like a Bourbon Street imbiber trying to stumble back to his or her hotel.
It would have been disconcerting if the Patriots didn’t light them up a week after New Orleans made Sam Bradford look like the second coming of Joe Montana, surrendering 29 points and 470 yards to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Saints proved the perfect anodyne for what ailed the Patriots, but that doesn’t mean they’re cured. Brady, who was 30 of 39 for 447 yards and three touchdowns to join Warren Moon as the only over-40 NFL quarterbacks to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns in a game, acknowledged that.
“Offensively, I thought we left some points out there. But it was a pretty solid effort, and it’s something to build on,” Brady said in his weekly interview with “Kirk & Callahan” on WEEI-AM.
Netting touchdowns on their first three drives, scoring 30 points in the first half, and accumulating the sixth-highest total offense (555 yards) in franchise history deserves plaudits. But you have to compensate for the competition. The Patriots are still trying to establish their offensive identity without Brady BFF Julian Edelman and with New England neophytes such as Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Phillip Dorsett, and Dwayne Allen.
Their next two opponents, the Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers, aren’t going to make it so easy. The Texans won’t be readily duped by McDaniels and Foxborough’s resident fitness guru/franchise QB. They have former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, now Houston’s defensive coordinator, and former Patriots DC Romeo Crennel masterminding their defense. They also got a preview of the Patriots offense in joint practices in West Virginia and a preseason game.
Last season in the divisional round, the Texans held Brady to the lowest completion percentage of his playoff career (47.4) and picked him off twice — without J.J. Watt. The Patriots scored 34 points, but they benefitted from a 98-yard kickoff return TD from Dion Lewis and scored another touchdown when a Brock Osweiler interception served up first and goal at the Houston 6.
“It’s a challenging defense, really fundamentally sound. They’ve got great coaches. They’ll be prepared,” Brady said on WEEI. “ . . . I think ultimately, it’s just going to come down to our communication and our execution, which was a lot better [Sunday] which resulted in much better production, much more efficiency, and more points than the previous week.
“So, we’ve got to be able to play well. We’ve got to be able to execute against a really tough, solid defense and move the ball and score some points.”
At least we know the Patriots took something positive out of their dispiriting loss to the Chiefs on Super Bowl banner night — Kansas City’s offensive plays. The Patriots cribbed some strategy from the Chiefs, motioning speedy wide receivers Cooks and Dorsett through the backfield for jet sweeps, fake sweeps, and swing passes out of the backfield, a la Tyreek Hill.
In the second quarter Sunday, that led to a 27-yard gain for Chris Hogan out of a three-wide-receiver set. The Patriots motioned Dorsett into the backfield from the slot and sent him out for a swing pass. That drew the attention of Saints cornerback P.J. Williams, who bit on Dorsett and let Hogan go right by him.
In the fourth quarter, on a drive that yielded a 27-yard field goal, the Patriots copied the 78-yard touchdown pass KC’s Smith threw to Kareem Hunt. Dion Lewis lined up in the slot and motioned a fake fly sweep. Brady hit White out of the backfield for 24 yards.
Just as there was hyperbole after the Patriots’ opening debacle, let’s not overstate the significance of dismantling the struggling Saints.
It was the opponent and the win the Patriots needed. It doesn’t mean they’ve found all the answers.
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