Patriots offense wasn’t great, but here’s a cause for optimism

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots enters the field prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 29, 2019 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots enters the field prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on September 29, 2019 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots had a terrible offensive outing against the Buffalo Bills, but there’s a major caveat that should cheer fans up moving forward.

Let’s not sugarcoat things – the New England Patriots offense was a mess last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

Quarterback Tom Brady completed less than half of his passes and had more picks (one) than touchdowns (zero). His average pass completion traveled less than four yards. His quarterback rating was just 45.9, the sixth-lowest total of his 20-year career.

The “running backs” averaged 3.2 yards per rush. Sony Michel’s early-season struggles continued, with the second-year back mustering just 63 yards on 17 tries. Brandon Bolden, James White, and Phillip Dorsett each had one rushing attempt apiece, and none of them got very far with them (nine yards was the max).

The Patriots receiving group, which had been so dominant and so consistent through the first three weeks of the season, took a major step backwards in New York. Dorsett caught just two of his nine targets against the Bills after catching 13 of 14 passes over the previous three games. Josh Gordon was barely better, reeling in three of his seven targets for less than 50 yards. Julian Edelman, playing through a chest injury, had multiple passes bounce off his hands and was largely nonexistent.

All in all, it was a highly forgettable day for Josh McDaniels’ offense up in Buffalo. At least the defense and the special teams picked up the slack, powering the Pats to a 16-10 win and keeping the team undefeated on the season.

So is it time to panic up in New England?

Sure, the team is off to its first 4-0 start in four years, and three consecutive wins over their division rivals puts them squarely in the driver’s seat for what would be their 11th-straight AFC East crown. But with the offense looking so disjointed Sunday, can the team possibly hope to make it all the way back to their fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance?

Yes… and here’s why.

First of all, this was one game. Just as it’s important not to declare any team a surefire Super Bowl favorite after just one game, it’s equally important not to run around shouting ‘the sky is falling’ after just one game, either. McDaniels’ offense had been averaging over 35 points per game over the first three weeks, so clearly this 16-point outing isn’t major cause for an overreaction.

Moreover – and more importantly – this Buffalo Bills defense very well could be the best unit the Patriots offense sees until the Super Bowl.

Not including the teams that were on bye in Week 4, the Patriots and the Bills rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in yards allowed on defense this season. Buffalo is also No. 5 in points allowed – a category the Patriots D leads, by the way.

The point is that Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, the Bills head coach and defensive coordinator, have done a masterful job since both men took over their posts back in 2017. They’ve overseen a defense that has steadily risen in the ranks of most defensive categories every week this season. After playing the Patriots, Buffalo went from No. 8 to No. 5 in rushing defense; they also went from No. 8 to No. 4 in passing defense, as well.

Consider the Patriots’ remaining opponents on the schedule this year. New England plays (in order) the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, and Miami Dolphins.

Of that group, only the Bills, Jets, Cowboys, and Browns rank in the top half of the league in terms of total yards allowed defensively. Looking at the top half of teams in the league in terms of points allowed defensively, that list expands to include the Texans. If we combine both metrics, we’re looking at just five teams of the Patriots’ 12 remaining opponents who should present even a modicum of a challenge for New England’s offense.

Two of those five teams have already fallen to the Pats: the Jets and the Bills. New England also gets two of the other three squads, the Browns and the Cowboys, at home in Foxborough. That leaves just the Week 13 road date with the Texans as the only major defensive test for this offense outside of the cozy confines of Gillette Stadium, where Brady is an astonishing 137-21 all-time against NFL adversaries.

The Patriots will no doubt have to put up some points to beat some of the more offensively-minded teams remaining on their schedule, whether or not those games take place at home (the Week 14 contest against Kansas City immediately jumps out). But it’s important to note that McDaniels’ unit presumably might not need to win a track meet against those teams like they would have had to do in other years… that’s the benefit of playing with a historically-dominant defense on your side.

The Patriots needed 43 and then 37 points to beat the Chiefs twice last year. It’s not crazy to think that thanks to their defense in 2019, New England might be able to get by with something like just 20 or 24 points this time around against Kansas City.

None of this is to say that Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady, and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive players can afford to rest on their laurels the rest of the regular season. The unit desperately needs to jumpstart their dormant run game, the offensive line needs to get healthier and better at run-blocking, and the passing game can still get a whole lot crisper and more efficient.

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But let’s be fair: the Buffalo Bills might have the league’s best defense outside of Foxborough. Offenses are going to struggle to put up yards and points against that group all season long, so when you consider the context of New England’s offensive struggles this past Sunday – on the road and against this particular opponent – the outlook for that side of the Patriots operation seems a lot less dire in the grand scheme of things.