Welcome to the Unconventional Review, which comes in lieu of the Unconventional Preview during the Patriots’ bye week when, as you might have noticed, there is no game to preview.
I suppose it’s a bummer when a team goes into the bye fresh off of its first loss of the season . . . but hey, it’s the first loss of the season. Context, people: The Patriots head into their hard-earned midseason respite with an 8-1 record – only Jimmy Garoppolo’s Niners remain undefeated – and still in possession of the top spot in the race for homefield advantage in the playoffs.
Yes, the 37-20 loss to the Ravens last Sunday night was an eye-opener in some regard – the run defense is more vulnerable than the feeble early schedule indicated, having allowed 369 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games. And that offensive line is going to need left tackle Isaiah Wynn, eligible to return in Week 12 against the Cowboys, to be a stalwart right away.
But this remains a team that with a few reasonable repairs and a Bill Belichick-coached team’s trademark late-season improvement has very real chance to become the first franchise to win three Super Bowls in four seasons since . . . well, since this same quarterback and coach did it in 2001, ’03 and ’04 back at the beginning of this crazy-successful ride.
With the Patriots carrying a lightly scuffed 8-1 record into the break, it’s time to step back, take a breath from this mostly impressive season, and look back at some of the key players and performances so far.
No need to kick it off, Bailey. We’ve got this. Even kickers get a break this week, especially those whose real gig is as a punter. On to the Unconventional Review, nine games down, perhaps 10 to go …
Three players we’re talking about other than Tom Brady
Sony Michel: It’s not all his fault, of course. Some of it is, during what has been a sophomore slump for the 2018 first-round pick (He went four spots ahead of former Georgia teammate Nick Chubb, who would be such a better fit here if he’d promise to hold onto the football.) He’s averaging just 3.3 yards per carry after gaining 4.5 yards per pop as a rookie. He has 482 yards and six touchdowns, or as many TDs as he had during the Patriots’ three-game postseason run to another Lombardi Trophy last year. He has not been quickly decisive when a hole doesn’t immediately present itself, too often going east-west when the situation calls for north-south. He needs to be better … but man, we at least have to acknowledge that his degree-of-difficulty has gotten harder this season. The dominant offensive line from a year ago is just a memory. David Andrews is out for the season, Trent Brown is protecting Derek Carr in Oakland, and Shaq Mason has been a shell of his usual self. Only left guard Joe Thuney has played every game. And it may not even be a lineman that is missed most by Michel. Fullback James Develin, a 251-pound stick of dynamite in the running game, is out with a concerning neck/back injury. And the best all-around tight end ever to play the game is now hamming it up on television for a living. You know, I’m starting to think Rob Gronkowski is not coming back after all. Maybe this is too optimistic, but if the Patriots can avoid further attrition on the line and in the running-game personnel (Jakob Johnson, we hardly knew ya), I trust Dante Scarnecchia to get this repaired. But it’s on Michel to be better no matter who he is running behind. Go north, young man.
Mohamed Sanu: Finally, a piece to the receiving corps that fits immediately, isn’t going to undermine his own success with social media meltdowns, and has the usually hard-earned approval of Tom Brady. Any chance they can clone him, “Living With Yourself” style? Sanu, acquired before the trading deadline from the Falcons for a second-round pick, has proven worth the steep price in his short time here, with 12 catches in two games, including 10 against the Ravens. And man, do they need him to be good. It’s hard to believe that this is the same season that we were talking about how much depth and accomplished talent the Patriots had in their receiving corps. But here we are at the break, and Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown, and Demaryius Thomas are all ex-Patriots, with a total of 24 catches among them this season. Julian Edelman, despite a crushing fumble against the Ravens, has been exceptional as usual, but he’s still dealing with a rib injury suffered in Week 3 against the Jets, and the Patriots’ second-most reliable receiver has been Phillip Dorsett, a role player who has just 23 catches. This hasn’t quite reached 2006 levels at receiver, when Jabar Gaffney was signed off the street and immediately became just about the most dependable member of the corps, but there has been too much turnover and turmoil. Brady has been salty since Brown texted his way out of town, and his reluctance to praise Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Henry has been noticeable. He needed a reliable veteran receiver after the Brown debacle and Gordon’s fade pattern, which has led him to Seattle. Sanu, thank goodness, is that guy.
Dont’a Hightower: Really, any of “The Boogeymen” are worthy of salutations here, most notably linebackers Jamie Collins (6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 8 quarterback hits) and Kyle Van Noy (4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 9 QB hits). But I’m going with Hightower, the 29-year-old eight-year veteran here, for a couple of reasons. While perhaps he hasn’t been quite as dazzling as Collins – who at $3 million has to be the biggest bargain in the NFL this season – and even Van Noy, he has made his share of big plays (two sacks, a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, five QB hits). Beyond that, he remains the glue to it all, with versatility, intelligence, and just the right inspirational edge to him when necessary. Hightower has made enormous, game-altering plays in the Patriots’ last three Super Bowl victories, and if they’re going to win a seventh this year, he’ll probably be right there in the middle of some pivotal defensive sequence. It’s about time Patriots fans start thinking of him with the same reverence as they did a certain other No. 54, Tedy Bruschi.
Grievance of the week
The 1985 Chicago Bears, for my money the greatest defense in NFL history, allowed 38 points to Dan Marino and the Dolphins in suffering their lone loss of that season. In the first week of that season, they allowed 28 points to Steve DeBerg (three TD passes) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Contrary to reputation, they did not shut out every opponent they played that year.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, probably the best defense of the past 20 years, allowed 36 points to Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2. They were phenomenal as that season went on, never allowing more than 23 points (to the Titans; those Eddie George/Ray Lewis showdowns were epic), but contrary to reputation they did not fold, spindle and mutilate every single opponent on their schedule.
No, the Ravens did not reveal the Patriots defense to be frauds, and anyone who is suggesting that is just trying to annoy you because they have nothing more original to say. The Ravens played a superb offensive game. Lamar Jackson is unlike any other player the Patriots will face this year – even mobile QBs like Deshaun Watson don’t move quite like he does. He’s beatable down the road – the throwing mechanics are a work in progress – but I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like him, ever.
But that brilliant performance by the Ravens doesn’t erase the fact that the Patriots still have allowed just 70 points on defense through nine games, or barely more than a touchdown per game. They deserve credit for taking apart opponent after opponent, week after week, usually in an overwhelming and highly entertaining manner. This defense may not rate as historically great when the season is done. But it could, and don’t say it won’t after one tough game. Even the best have their off-days once in a while.
Prediction for second half, or is this team capable of winning a third Super Bowl in four years?
Well, there are ifs, as there always are. If the line can mesh upon Wynn’s return … if Brady, who quietly leads the league in completions and attempts, can remain upright and pliable … If Sanu and Julian Edelman are enough at receiver … If the run defense can patch up its holes of the last two weeks … If they can lock up the No. 1 seed and the all-important homefield advantage, well, of course the Patriots can win the Super Bowl again. It’s never easy, and this year’s path – with the Ravens, Chiefs, and Colts all compelling potential opponents – is especially daunting. But for whatever the flaws, whatever the ifs, this still looks like the best team in the NFL. Miami in February beckons. Predicted final regular season record: 14-2.