Oct 5, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after a touchdown by tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
At the mid-season bye week the New England Patriots are taking a week off from playing the games and it is the perfect time to take a look back and a look forward to the second half of the 2014 season. If the playoffs began right now, the Patriots would be the number one seed in the AFC with their 7-2 record and tie-breaking victory over the Denver Broncos. A major part of that turnaround has been the play of quarterback Tom Brady and the offense. However, with Miami and Buffalo at 5-3 heading into this weekend, the Patriots have a long road and a tough schedule to get through to get to the playoffs and win the AFC East again.
After years of NFC dominance as the strongest conference, all sign point to the AFC appearing to be the tough road. San Francisco is at .500 and Seattle is not much better with free agency defections, injuries, inconsistencies, and the dreaded post-Super Bowl fatigue. Arizona leads the AFC West but has hardly dominated. New Orleans leads the NFC South struggling to stay at .500. Dallas looked like the cream of the NFC East until injuries slowed them and allowed Philadelphia to sneak ahead. Now the Eagles have to stay afloat without quarterback Nick Foles. The strongest teams in the NFC are in the North , where Green Bay and Detroit battle for supremacy.
In the AFC, the Patriots and Broncos stand as the top two teams, but Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts stand ready to stake a claim as the best team in football. The NFC North has all four teams over .500 with Cincinnati faltering, Baltimore fighting injuries, but the Browns are growing up and the Steelers are riding Ben Roethlisberger’s record-breaking hot streak. The Patriots recall how tough Kansas City can be and they still have the Chargers in the AFC West knocking on the door for a playoff spot as well, as they fight for position for a Wild Card spot with the Bills and Dolphins.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; A New England Patriots fan holds a sign for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (not pictured) during the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 43-21. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) signals teammates during the fourth quarter of New England
The Patriots have ridden the strong arm of quarterback Tom Brady leading the offense as they have reeled off five straight victories to go from a disappointing 2-2 to 7-2 and the best record in the AFC. Along the way, the return to health of Rob Gronkowski and Brady. To go back to the game film, it is obvious that Brady’s ankle/calf/knee/foot/leg injury earlier this season affected him more than originally believed (whatever the injury really was, no one is going to know what it was and how serious it was until much later as is typical with Brady injuries).
After barely being able to find his way to the field in week one due to the injury and missing a Thursday practice before the Dolphins game in week one, Brady struggled in that game and the subsequent three games. Yes, the offensive line was barely adequate early on, but it has not been great even with their regular starters in place. Brady’s lack of mobility (unable to slide away from pressure) and arm strength (not able to step into throws and plant). If Brady struggles, it is usually a physical issue and more often than not it is found out after the fact.
Last year against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game, exactly how healthy was Brady? He had missed a practice with “illness” that week, remember. He also separated his left shoulder in week sixteen in 2011 against Miami. The New England “pretty boy” laced up his Uggs (do Uggs have laces?) and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl regardless. Of course, when he was sacked by Justin Tuck early in the second half of the Super Bowl he obviously re-injured the shoulder. The numbers bear it out: Before the sack: 20 of 24 for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Post-sack: 7 of 17 for 75 yards and an interception. Yes, Gronkowski was at half strength too that game with an ankle injury that would require surgery, but Brady’s struggles came when injured.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) congratulates special teams Julian Edelman (11) on scoring a touchdown on a run back return during the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Brady had a subsequent ankle injury this season after the win over the Bengals. Was that the “calf injury” again? Buffalo was a heck of a performance but New York on Thursday was easily his weakest performances in October. So the struggles in September? Was it the offensive line? The receivers jelling? It does not seem likely. It seems more like Brady making more time for himself with improved mobility and turning sacks into big plays.
Areas for improvement on offense include:
- Getting the starting five offensive linemen into a cohesive unit able to protect the quarterback better and create more space for the running game. Protecting Brady is a priority still;
- Establish that running game into a legitimate part of the offense and make those six games below 100 yards rushing out of nine games total an outlier and not the regular part of the offense. Without starter Stevan Ridley that is even more challenging;
- Get tight end Tim Wright involved more in the offense. The tight end is a red zone weapon but needs to be a more regular part of the offensive attack to keep defenses off-balance.
- Keep spreading the wealth: after nine games Brady has targeted Gronkowski 75 times, Brandon LaFell 63 times, Julian Edelman 79 times, and Shane Vereen 49 times.
- Find that final weapon: is it Wright? Will it be Danny Amendola finally stepping up as the third receiver and adding a couple big catches in addition to his special teams work? Does running back James White emerge? How about Brian Tyms or dare anyone suggest Aaron Dobson? The offense needs just one more weapon to emerge to make the offense into a dynamo.
The Patriots have turned around their season after a horrible September and are on-track to put themselves in position to top the AFC once again. With the offense clicking and a chance to improve further in the second-half, the Patriots have to keep that upward momentum going forward in the second half. With just one team on the schedule with a sub-.500 record (the Jets in week sixteen, the team needs to continue to make strides and position themselves for a strong January.