Patriots

3 big Patriots thoughts after incredible NFL playoff weekend

If the wild-card loss to Buffalo wasn't enough, Josh Allen's epic Sunday night performance showed again how big a problem the Patriots have in their division.

Deebo Samuel 49ers Patriots
San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
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Patriots fans who took in this weekend’s Divisional Round playoff games got a tremendous treat. That’s not just because of the schadenfreude they got to enjoy watching the Bills lose a gut-wrencher to the Chiefs in overtime after that wild-card punishment.

Now, this weekend’s games four games were a masterclass of NFL entertainment from start to finish, with unpredictability and pure, unbridled talent bursting forth at every turn.

Two all-time great quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers — got ousted. The Cincinnati Bengals bounced the top-seeded Tennessee Titans from the playoffs. Then, to top it off, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes put on one of the greatest quarterback duels every witnessed in the NFL before Mahomes got the last laugh in extra time.

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The weekend also reminded everyone of what the Patriots aren’t and what they need to do to get their next shot at a Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots need an “anytime” playmaker.

Note the fact that “No. 1” receiver wasn’t used here.

Sure, the idea of having a prototypical beastly wideout like nearly 230-pound Titan A.J. Brown or big-play monster Ja’Marr Chase of the Bengals on the outside is arguably the dream for any NFL team.

But getting too stuck on the measureables, 40 times or traditional route-running is how you end up picking N’Keal Harry over Deebo Samuel. Instead, ask yourself this question: can this guy win his matchup or make a play when we absolutely need him to?

Cooper Kupp didn’t need incredible speed or size to put up more than 1,900 receiving yards in a season or torch the Bucs for two game-clinching plays on the Rams’ final possession on Sunday.

Samuel doesn’t have to be a traditional wide receiver to be the best player on his team. In fact, his ability to make plays from literally anywhere on the field (including when everyone knows he’s getting the ball) is why Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers will play in the NFC Championship next weekend.

It doesn’t matter that Tyreek Hill is (generously) 5-foot-10 because he is both faster and quicker than literally everyone.

The Patriots don’t have anything like any of those players on their team right now. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne are nice complementary players, but no one is drawing up game plans around them.

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More than any year in the recent past, New England learned great schemes and execution don’t always matter when the other team simply has better players. Bill Belichick needs to address that talent gap immediately, and it starts with getting someone, anyone his offense can trust to win his matchup anywhere on the field.

Bill Belichick’s genius isn’t enough anymore.

As rough as things got at the end of the season for the Patriots, you can’t deny they were a good team.

Defensively, both the standard numbers (second in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed) and advanced numbers (fourth in DVOA and estimated points allowed per play) back that up. Similarly, their offense was sixth in points scored, ninth in DVOA, and 10th in EPA/play.

Belichick went against the grain with his throwback style this season, focusing heavily on fundamentals as well as establishing and stopping the run on both sides of the ball, and it bought them a seven-game winning streak and a spot in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback at the helm.

Though the Patriots struggled at the end of the season, they still had a wealth of experience and the greatest coach of all time in their corner to guide them through the choppy playoff waters he’s navigated so often before.

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Apparently, the days of that making a difference are done.

The coach’s schemes were simply broken by teams that beat them at their own game with better talent and modern philosophies his team couldn’t counter. Zigging when other teams zagged worked during the grind of the regular season but didn’t in the postseason, even when their bully-ball style seemed better suited to playoff football than other squads.

This offseason poses critical questions about how Belichick will adapt his personnel and bring in more game-breaking talents after re-tooling so heavily in free agency last season.

For example, the Patriots badly need more Christian Barmore-type players that can wreck passing games rather than more Lawrence Guys or Davon Godchauxs that mainly stop the run. They need rangy, speedy linebackers that can cover to complement big thumpers like a Dont’a Hightower or Ja’Whaun Bentley. They need another true outside cornerback that allows Jalen Mills to play elsewhere. And yes, obviously, they need more explosiveness at wide receiver.

It’ll be easier for Belichick to bridge gaps in talent when his team has more of it. Right now, the Patriots aren’t close enough to the top teams in the AFC for that to happen.

New England has a Josh Allen-sized problem and (currently) no way to solve it.

Sure, the Patriots’ and Chiefs’ defenses aren’t exactly the Steel Curtain or the ’85 Bears. But watching Josh Allen utterly dismantle both of them in consecutive weeks should have fans in New England trembling.

This isn’t a simple matter of Allen just styling on bad defenses while still playing YOLO football. This is now two straight seasons of elite quarterback play and an increasing penchant for playoff dominance from one of the most talented quarterbacks in football.

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Dread it. Run from it. Josh Allen has fully arrived.

Think of it this way: if Tom Brady really did retire this season and Aaron Rodgers called it quits after his 2021 odyssey, it would be hard not to look at Allen as a top-3 quarterback in football right now. He’s 25 years old and might only just be entering the beginning stages of his prime. That’s terrifying.

It’s not just about the Patriots not being able to stop Allen on the defensive side of the ball, either. The team’s need to restructure its personnel to include more speed and better pass-rush ability is obvious.

New England also doesn’t have a quarterback or an offense right now capable of keeping pace with the Bills’ offensive firepower. The team doesn’t have explosive playmakers outside of Damien Harris or (maybe) Kendrick Bourne. Also, as good a rookie season as Mac Jones had, he will likely never be able to conjure the pure magic Allen or Patrick Mahomes can.

It was one thing for the Patriots to knock off the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Mahomes in the playoffs with Tom Brady at the helm. Unless Jones can prove he’s on that level (and Belichick can give him what he needs to succeed), New England could end up stuck behind a decade-plus of Allen, Mahomes, and Justin Herbert at the top of the conference every year.

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