FOXBOROUGH — In the holiday spirit, I present a jolly, generous, and sanguine view of the Patriots’ season with two games remaining before the real season — the one that defines each edition of the team — commences. Chasing Lombardi Trophy No. 7, the Patriots are actually in a better position at this point than they were last season, when they bucked predictions, finger-wagged naysayers, and won their sixth Super Bowl.
It might not feel that way, but it’s true. At this juncture last season, Week 16, the Patriots’ best football was yet to come. They believe the same is true now, but they’re starting from a more advantageous position. Last year’s Patriots finished 11-5, had two solid units, and eked out a first-round bye. They’ve already won 11 games this season. They possess the league’s stingiest defense and an offense that looked as salvageable as last season’s late-bloomers against Cincinnati.
The Patriots are in a better position for the All-Important Bye than they were last year at this time. Remember? They were coming off a two-game losing streak. Josh Gordon, who had become a vital part of the offense, had been banished by the NFL again. The Sons of Bill Belichick needed the Houston Texans to drop a game or they were boxed out of a bye. This time, they determine their own destiny. Win out at home against the usual AFC East chum, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins, and one of the two AFC first-round byes belongs to them.
Undoubtedly, the Patriots have issues, but the biggest problem in evaluating them is that they don’t get gauged relative to the competition. They get evaluated relative to ghosts of Patriots past from a dynastic run that has showcased remarkable consistency and staying power in a league rigged to shove teams off the mountaintop. This is the ultimate first-world football problem.
No, this isn’t a classic Patriots team. It’s certainly not a vintage Tom Brady-conducted offense. But the same could be said on both fronts last year. That team got it together and got hot at the right time.
These Patriots, 3-3 following an 8-0 start, can do the same, and they’re backed by the luxury of a dominant defense. The real question is whether they can win games in varied fashions like last year’s team did in the postseason? We know they can win a low-scoring tractor pull or overwhelm teams with suffocating defense and superior special teams.
But can they win a shootout in the 30s like last season’s AFC title game? Can they win a game where they’re forced to come back from a second-half double-digit deficit? Can they win a game against a fellow contender without benefiting from turnovers or favorable field position? Or is their path to victory as narrow and one-directional as a North End side street?
The Patriots need an offensive awakening. There was stirring against the Bengals with a 34-point performance that included 27 points from the offense — its highest output since Week 7 — but that was against the worst team in the league. The playoff-bound Bills, who are second to the Patriots in fewest points allowed per game (15.9), present a much more formidable challenge and accurate measuring stick.
Underwhelming most of the season, New England’s offense is hoping to imitate last year’s unit, which delivered a pair of identity-forming performances to close the regular season, coincidentally starting with a Week 16 game at Gillette Stadium against the Bills.
From Week 8 on, the Patriots have generated just 16 touchdowns, including two defensive scores. That touchdown total ranks 27th in the NFL. Only Pittsburgh, Denver, Jacksonville, Washington, and sorry Cincinnati have scored fewer touchdowns since Week 8, according to STATS LLC.
Those numbers highlight and punctuate what has been an unsettling and uncertain season on the offensive side with Brady trying to pull rabbits out of a hat and watching his completion percentage and the all-time touchdown pass mark vanish instead.
Still, it might be surprising to know that the Patriots’ points output entering the final two games is remarkably similar to last season. Entering a 24-12 win over the Bills in 2018, the Patriots were seventh in the league in points per game at 26.7. They enter Saturday’s game eighth in points per game at 26.6.
The yardage numbers, third-down conversion rate, and red-zone efficiency are all down from this time last year. But if the Patriots can coax more out of rookie receiver N’Keal Harry and in-season addition Mohamed Sanu, and get their running game going — a year-long lament — they’ll evolve as last year’s unit did.
The Patriots believe their best offensive football is ahead of them.
“Yeah, it’s still out there,” said running back James White. “That’s the beauty of football. You’re never going to be perfect, but you just keep chasing that perfection. That’s what we’re still trying to do as an offense.”
There is no Rob Gronkowski to ride to the rescue. Brady’s bestie, Julian Edelman, is hurting. Brady’s injured elbow is inhibiting his accuracy — although not as much as the pop-gun passing attack Belichick surrounded him with.
Let’s acknowledge all that.
But it also looked a little dire last season. Many wrote the Patriots off after their second two-game losing streak and a loss to a Pittsburgh club they’ve perennially owned. Even the season-closing wins against the Bills and Jets were dismissed as hollow victories (slowly raises hand) when it turned out they were the opposite.
Plus, this defense gives the Patriots a safety net they couldn’t count on last season.
At this point last year, the Patriots were 23rd in the NFL in total defense (372.7 yards per game) and tied for 13th in average points allowed (22.1). This year’s Patriots are first in total defense (268.4 yards) and first in average points allowed (12.9). It’s only 10.9 points per game if you count only points surrendered by the defensive unit (153).
Yes, the defense’s performances against the three AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes, were far less remarkable and impregnable. Sobering stuff. But seeing them a second time in the playoffs could even the odds a bit, benefiting the Patriots.
These Patriots aren’t perfect. They aren’t without flaws, blemishes, and blind spots. But 11 wins is nothing to sneeze at, and they’re not done.
“When you win 11 games in this league it’s hard. It’s tough,” said safety Duron Harmon. “Think about last year, we won 11 games in Week 17. Obviously, we’re improving. We’re getting better. But there is still room for improvement.
“As long as we utilize these games and these practices as moments to see how much we can get better and just keep grinding, we’ll be all right.”
Essentially, the playoffs begin for the Patriots on Saturday. They start their Super Bowl run from a better starting point than last year.
Their best football should be ahead of them, and so should their annual date in the AFC Championship game.