Five takeaways from a 38-3 throttling of the Jets that secured a first-round playoff bye for the Patriots…
All’s well that ends well
Minutes after the regular season came to its conclusion, Bill Belichick was asked to reflect on what his team showed over its first 16 games. And he couldn’t have summed it up any better.
“There were some good things, and there were some things that could’ve been better – but in the end we are where we are,” said the coach. “Essentially we won next week because we won today.”
It might’ve seemed like a roller coaster at times, complete with a few sudden dips and a series of sharp turns (especially in December), but when all was said and done, the Patriots put themselves in precisely the place many expected them to be, and that they’ve been for nine straight years. Finishing the regular season with a record of 11-5, New England will bypass the AFC’s wild-card weekend, return to the field next for the divisional round, and need only to win one game at home to reach an eighth consecutive AFC championship game.
There are still questions about just how good this team is, particularly when it’s compared to teams of Patriots past. But Belichick is right. The Patriots are where they are, regardless of all the ebbs and flows along the way, and even regardless of the disappointments that defined the early part of December. Before that belief-challenging loss at Miami and the frustrating failure at Pittsburgh, the Patriots were slotted in as a top-two seed and steering toward a first-round bye. Then, when the gun sounded on the regular season, they found themselves … as a top-two seed that will enjoy a first-round bye.
They overcame those two losses by taking care of business at Gillette Stadium, first by pounding the Bills with their running game, then by pummeling the Jets on Sunday. Knowing what was at stake, the Patriots outscored those two AFC East rivals by a combined margin of 62-15, and capped the year as the NFL’s only team to go undefeated at home.
As it turned out, they needed every one of those wins to get here. Any hiccup at the end, or even at the beginning – when they won the tiebreaker over the Texans by winning the opener – and the Pats’ playoff prospects would look a lot different than they do. But as January awaits, they’ve at the very least given themselves an opportunity to do something special.
“Eleven and five is nothing to be sad about,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “We fought pretty hard and put ourselves in a decent position here. Now we need to go take advantage of it.”
The offense clicks
The Patriots offense had eclipsed 30 points just once in the preceding six games – that production the beneficiary of the short fields created by blocking a couple of punts in Miami. But in the process of putting up 38 against New York on Sunday, New England’s offense made encouraging progress on a number of fronts.
Over the previous three weeks, the Patriots had been worse than all but four teams league-wide in the category of converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, finding paydirt on just four of 11 chances. The Jets are no pushover in that part of the field, either, entering Week 17 as the NFL’s sixth-stingiest red-zone defense. But Sunday the Pats got five tries in that part of the field and turned four of them into touchdowns, all via Brady’s right arm.
Third downs are another situational area in which the Pats have had difficulties lately, converting just 25 percent of chances against the Bills a week earlier, and sitting in the middle of the pack at less than 40 percent over the three previous weeks. In that category, the Jets entered at No. 2 in the NFL. Yet the Pats hit on four of their first six chances while seizing control in the first half, and were at a 50 percent conversion rate before Brian Hoyer’s third-down kneel down in the final minutes.
The biggest encouragement, though, came in the way Brady spread the ball around and got production from a variety of sources in the passing game. Forgotten for much of the season, Chris Hogan was targeted 11 times and made six catches. Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett added five catches each, while James White was the target of five throws and caught for. Rob Gronkowski caught both passes thrown to him (plus another big gain that was negated by penalty), and Rex Burkhead and James Develin added catches as well.
In its second game without Josh Gordon, and with Cordarelle Patterson inactive because of injury, the Pats effectively dressed three receivers – and still Brady responded from one of his worst performances in years with his highest passer rating of the season (133.8). He finished 24 of 33 for 250 yards and four touchdowns, each of those scores being tossed to a different recipient. White, Burkhead, Dorsett, and Edelman all found the end zone, with the throws to Burkhead and Dorsett both rating among the quarterback’s best plays of the day.
And on top of all that success through the air, the Pats followed up last week’s 273 rushing yards by gaining 134 on 27 hauls (4.97 per carry) before Hoyer came in and thrice dropped to a knee. Ultimately, 10 Patriots handled the ball, and six of them did so at least six times.
“To be a good offense, everyone’s got to touch it,” Brady said. “Everyone’s got to have to be involved in the offense. Run it, throw it, throw it to everybody – the backs, the receivers, the tight ends. Everyone blocks in our offense. That’s what makes it tough to defend. If they’ve got to defend everything, I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Thriving on turnovers
Early in the second quarter, Trey Flowers punched the ball free from the hands of running back Elijah McGuire, and five plays later the Patriots turned that extra possession into a touchdown. In the third quarter the defense did the scoring themselves, Adam Butler separating the ball from Sam Darnold before Kyle Van Noy scooped it and scooted 46 yards to the end zone. That was the linebacker’s second touchdown of the season, and New England’s fourth non-offensive TD as a team.
Those two recoveries not only enabled the Patriots to put Sunday’s game away early, but they, along with another fumble forced by Jonathan Jones on the Jets’ final play of the day, also highlighted the propensity for creating turnovers that has become a strength of their defense. Only twice this season did New England’s defense fail to force a turnover (at Tennessee and at Miami), and Sunday marked the 11th time they had at least two takeaways in a contest. That’s the most a Patriots team has done that since 2012, and tied for the fourth-most of the Belichick era.
Overall, the 28 turnovers they created were the most since 2013, and featured 18 interceptions to go with 10 fumble recoveries. They also blocked three punts this season, and forced another 10 turnovers on downs. So while the knocks on the Pats’ defense may be that it doesn’t have enough speed, or that despite four sacks of Darnold they finished the season with one of the three lowest sack totals in the league (30), the numbers say that even if they don’t have obvious playmakers the Patriots have a defense that makes plays.
And entering the stage of the calendar when a play or two can tilt the fortunes of a season, that’s an encouraging feature.
Defense caps a strong second half
It was hard for Patriots fans to feel good about their team’s defense after the Dolphins scored five touchdowns on Dec. 12, the last, of course, coming via a 69-yard hook-and-lateral. But those five Miami scores represent half of all the touchdowns a surging Patriots defense has allowed since leaving Tennessee on Nov. 11.
The Pats kept the Jets out of the end zone on Sunday, the second time this season they kept their opponent from scoring a touchdown. Four other times they’ve limited their foes to one TD, with three of those coming since the bye week, a six-contest stretch in which the Patriots kept five teams to 17 points or less.
In total, the Patriots allowed 89 points over their last six games, equating to an average of 14.8 points per, even with that aberration during the Dolphins loss. With the Jets’ 239 yards of offense Sunday, New England finished the post-bye portion of the schedule yielding an average of 322 yards per tilt. Entering Sunday, the Ravens led the NFL this season by allowing 17.5 points per game, and the Cowboys were averaging 322 yards per game, good for sixth in the entire NFL.
So, those statistics say, for the better part of two months the Patriots have been among the best defenses in football. The competition may not have been the stiffest, with two rookie quarterbacks and a backup QB on the slate, but the numbers are validated by the impressive play of several individuals over that span.
Flowers has been a beast along the defensive line. Van Noy has become a reliable, versatile, playmaking defender. Stephon Gilmore has been an elite cornerback all season. Lawrence Guy has been good up front. Dont’a Hightower has remained healthy. Jason McCourty has improved throughout the season, and J.C. Jackson has stepped up at cornerback, too. The safety play remains solid with the veterans in the back, and while there are still some inconsistencies and question marks at other spots among the front seven, the numbers become more believable when considering the progress that’s been made by the personnel.
This Patriots defense may not be good enough to win games by itself. But it’s no longer a liability, either.
And a number thing…
A few numbers of note as the regular season wraps up:
- Brady finished his age-41 season with 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 97.7 passer rating. His 4,355 yards were 222 fewer than last year’s MVP campaign, when he had three more TDs and three fewer interceptions. That said, Brady’s regular season numbers were better than he delivered in 2013 (at age 36) and on par with 2014 (at age 37).
- Sony Michel finished his rookie season with 931 yards rushing, despite missing all of the preseason, and three regular-season games.
- White wound up with 87 catches and 12 touchdowns, both of which were team highs. With 69 yards Sunday, his season total was 1,176 yards from scrimmage.
- Edelman led the Patriots in receiving yards, even though he was serving a suspension for the first four games of the season. In a dozen games he posted 74 catches for 850 yards and six touchdowns.
- Gronkowski totaled 682 yards on 47 catches. His three touchdowns were tied for sixth on the team – one ahead of Van Noy, and one behind fullback James Develin. The only other seasons in which Gronkowski has scored fewer than eight touchdowns were years he played no more than eight games. This year he played 13.
- Hogan finished with 35 catches and 532 yards on 55 targets, as many wondered where his role had gone within the Patriots’ offense. Last year he finished with 34 catches and 439 yards on 59 targets.
- With his sack Sunday, Flowers set a new career-high with 7.5 sacks. He’s now posted 7, 6.5, and 7.5 in his three full seasons.
- The Patriots scored 436 points, the 12th straight season in which they’ve surpassed 400 points. It’s five points fewer than they scored en route to winning the Super Bowl in the 2016 season.
- The Patriots allowed 325 points. That’s the most the team has allowed since 2013.
- New England outscored its opponents by 111 points during the regular season, the 13th consecutive season they’ve scored at least 100 points more than they’ve given up. For comparison’s sake, the closest scoring margin comparison between this Pats team and one from the past is 2003, when the Patriots outscored their enemies by 110 points, and won the Super Bowl.