Five takeaways from a night that saw the Patriots raise a banner — then get torn down from their perch in a 42-27 home loss to the Chiefs …
When Tom Brady has struggled in the past, it has typically been the result of teams bringing pressure and forcing the quarterback to feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Thursday night, Brady didn’t get a lot of heat until the Chiefs could pin their ears back in the latter part of the final period. He had time to throw most of the night. He was able to hold his ground and survey the field. Yet he had one of his worst games in recent history.
Brady’s offense racked up more than 200 yards in the first 21 minutes of play, yet the quarterback finished 16-of-36 for 267 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown, and his passer rating wound up at 70.0. That’s his 38th-worst rating in 238 career starts, and it’s the fourth time in the last 11 years that Brady’s passer rating has been 70 or worse without him throwing an interception.
From his very first throw (when he missed a wide open Dwayne Allen), Brady never looked locked in. He never got into a rhythm with Rob Gronkowski (two catches for 33 yards on six targets) or Chris Hogan (one catch for eight yards on five targets), and as things got increasingly difficult the absence of Julian Edelman became more apparent with each time Brady heaved the ball deep or tried to make a play vertically down the field. The task over the next 10 days seems to be finding a way to get back to playing its style offensively – even if it has to do so without the same players.
As hype built around the Patriots over the spring and summer, a piece of the conversation often seemed to focus on New England’s perceived depth up and down the roster. Even as training camp began, and projections were being made, more than one pundit commented on how much talent the Pats would likely need to cut.
Just one game in, though, those assertions already appear as absurd as the talk of going 19-0.
When a head injury knocked Danny Amendola out of Thursday’s opener on the heels of Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell being relegated to injured reserve, the Patriots’ receiving corps was suddenly down to just Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and newcomer Phillip Dorsett as they took the field looking to rally back in the fourth quarter. Even Matthew Slater, normally the emergency option, was sidelined for the contest.
Yet the lack of wideouts isn’t nearly as alarming as the defensive deficiencies that surfaced when Dont’a Hightower’s right knee got rolled up on. It was most apparent when Cassius Marsh, ideally a special teams contributor who was acquired over the last week in a trade with Seattle, was toasted by running back Kareem Marsh on a 78-yard touchdown pass – but Marsh wasn’t the only member of the Patriots’ defensive personnel that looked overmatched. Last year, Matt Patricia’s group was the NFL’s toughest team to score against in large part because it was able to figure a way to plug guys like Kyle Van Noy into spots that maximized their abilities.
Perhaps the defensive coordinator will in time determine how to get the most from this group. Based on Thursday, though, there’s a lot to figure out.
BIG PLAYS WERE KILLERS
How different was the performance of the Patriots’ defense Thursday night than the one that helped win the Super Bowl a season ago? In the entire 2016 regular season, the Patriots gave up five plays of 40 yards or more – four throws and a rush. No team in football gave up fewer.
Thursday night the Chiefs had three such plays in the final 25 minutes of play, two going for touchdowns, and another 58-yard scamper setting up Charcandrick West’s 21-yard backbreaker that could’ve gone for a lot longer had the goal line not got in the way. On the first of those, a blown-coverage bomb to Tyreek Hill, it looked as though the Chiefs saw something earlier in the way the Patriots were devoting safety coverage to tight end Travis Kelce, and picked their spot to exploit it. If that’s the case, consider it evidence that the Patriots were not only outplayed, but outcoached.
In addition to those three big-play series, the Chiefs’ also had scoring drives of 90 and 92 yards that were assembled more incrementally, and in the end they racked up 537 yards from scrimmage. Even with one possession ending after fumbling on the first play, and another coming in garbage time at the end of the contest, Kansas City averaged 38.4 yards on its 14 possessions. Last year’s Pats finished eighth in the NFL by yielding just 28.8 yards per defensive possession.
GILLISLEE WAS GOOD
The offensive highlight for the Patriots was the play of Mike Gillislee, who forced his way into the end zone four times (one of which was negated by a penalty), and immediately validated himself as a worthy replacement for LeGarrette Blount and his 18 touchdowns.
Gillislee has more explosiveness than Blount, but he doesn’t appear to be giving away much near the goal line. His burst got him to paydirt on the Patriots’ first series, then he earned his second score by meeting his would-be tackler at the 2-yard line, dropping his pads, and driving the defender back as the pair both fell over the goal line. Over three years in Buffalo, Gillislee scored 11 touchdowns. Assuming the Pats can figure out how to utilize their weapons around him relatively soon, he should have little trouble eclipsing that in a single season with New England if he stays healthy.
TOO MANY MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Brady and Bill Belichick both agreed that the effort and attitude weren’t good enough to win, but the Patriots nearly took a 14-0 lead after six minutes, did lead 17-7 late in the second quarter, and were ahead by six points at the start of the fourth quarter. For all their problems, they had a chance to win, and had it not been for a few missed opportunities they might’ve managed to mask their issues with the final score.
It would’ve been a spectacular catch, but Rob Gronkowski could have held on to a pass while diving in the end zone and put the Pats ahead two scores early. They failed to convert on two fourth-down conversion attempts, one of them in the end zone. They failed to pick up a third-and-1 on the KC eight, settling for a field goal. Later they settled for three points again after going backward from a goal-to-go situation.
The Chiefs committed 15 penalties, costing them 139 yards. Kansas City coughed up the only turnover in the game. And as the Chiefs marched to the end zone near the end of the second quarter, Patrick Chung let a would-be interception slip through his hands, allowing the Chiefs to convert on third down. Brady said afterward that his team needed to improve its attitude, among other things. Attitude often dictates preparation, and Thursday night the Patriots simply weren’t ready when the moment presented itself.