Based on its achievements and accolades, the Patriots offense should be both awesome and eclectic.
Beyond a generally reliable offensive line, this is what they have in their huddle on a given play: A physical freak of a receiver who falls somewhere between Terry Glenn and Randy Moss on the skill scale; a tough-as-gristle slot receiver who has not been slowed whatsoever by the scar on his knee; a rookie running back who was a first-round pick for obvious reasons; a tight end who at his best is a little bit of Kellen Winslow Sr. and a lot of Mark Bavaro; a third-down back who could end up with 100 catches; another receiver who played lacrosse (bet you never heard that); and the greatest quarterback to ever take a snap who also happens to be a 1,000-yard rusher (small type: for his career, and until his next 3-yard loss).
What they also have is an offense that despite all of its talent is still figuring out the most effective and efficient ways of deploying it, three-quarters of the way through the season. Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, Sony Michel. Rob Gronkowski, James White, Chris Hogan (really, he played lacrosse), and Tom Brady have been pretty good in sum, but it still feels like the parts should add up to more, and probably will as they get deeper into December.
Considering the caliber of the opponent — the Vikings defense entered Sunday’s game tied for fourth in the league in rushing defense and fifth in pass defense — the Patriots have to feel pretty good about their offensive performance. It was a solid B, maybe even a B-plus.
They totaled 471 yards, averaging 6.6 yards per play, and they did it with nice balance: Brady found nine receivers on his way to 311 passing yards, and seven ball carriers — including James Develin, whose two short-yardage touchdowns doubled his previous career total — picked up 160 yards. That’s good. Heck, make it a B-plus for sure.
Still, it feels like there could and should be more, or at least there was more there for the taking. The Patriots scored 24 points. That’s adequate on a day in which the defense delivered its most ferocious performance of the season. But it was the fewest on Sunday of any of the six AFC teams currently in position to make the playoffs (Chiefs, Texans, Chargers, Steelers, and Ravens).
The Patriots settled for a 20-yard field goal at one point, and Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yarder later. While they converted 50 percent of their third downs, they ran into some familiar struggles in the first half.
Part of the, I don’t know, call it quasi-unevenness of the offense is that the individuals who make up that collection of accomplished and skilled personnel are at different phases of their careers.
Gordon has shaken off enough rust to become relied upon, which is encouraging if not totally comforting, given his history. Edelman’s return from his knee injury has been remarkable — it seems as if he’s contributing in more ways than ever. Michel has three or four plays a game where he looks like he’s one broken tackle from going the distance. (Now let’s see him break that tackle more often.) Gronkowski might have had the worst game of his career Sunday — three catches, three penalties — and he does not exactly look pliable. White is everything Kevin Faulk was at his best, and maybe a little more. Hogan contributed two important catches, and we can’t forget valuable misfit toy Cordarelle Patterson, either. No one would accuse Brady of losing arm strength or accuracy if they watched him on Sunday.
The NFL, with its game-per-week structure, and just 16 of them at that, tends to lend itself to rash judgments. There’s plenty of rightful praise being heaped on the Patriots defense today, not only because it played admirably Sunday, but also because its progress has been clear in these two weeks after the bye. It is improving at a rate that suggests its peak will come at a perfect time.
The offense, which ranks seventh in the NFL in both yards per game (331) and points per game (27.6), has not progressed in anything resembling a linear way, which makes it harder to foresee what it will be when the games matter most. This is kind of a loaded observation because it includes the Titans debacle before the bye, but it is also fact: They’re averaging just 20.3 points over their last three games.
I’m not especially worried about it. This Patriots team, winners of eight of nine and the only one in the NFL with victories over three eight-win teams (Chiefs, Texans, Bears), is a genuine Super Bowl contender. It’s just that it’s strange to see an offense with this much talent leave points on the field.
They did already beat the currently top-seeded Chiefs in one shootout this year. They’re probably going to have to do it again come January, and a reminder or two in the coming weeks that they’re capable of doing so would be welcome.
Beating the Dolphins with relative ease in Miami Sunday would be encouraging. But dropping 40-plus on the Steelers in two weeks? Now that would have us believing that it’s all coming together at the right time, just as the best Bill Belichick teams usually seem to do.