With the 2014 Patriots season now — let’s see, 43.75 percent complete, or roughly the same percentage that Rex Ryan has of keeping his job after this season — there are a few conclusions we can be comfortable drawing.
Not a lot, but a few, given their current standing of leading the AFC East by two games with a 5-2 record.
I’ll give you five:
1. Tom Brady, who semi-kidded before the season that he will retire when he sucks, apparently will have no cause to fulfill that vow anytime soon. After a slow start that led the particularly unbalanced and hysterical among us to wonder whether 2013 Walter Payton award winner Jimmy Garoppolo’s time had come, has been his usual all-time great self lately, with nine touchdowns in the last three games, all wins. The next time he struggles, let’s not all race to be the first to declare it the beginning — or even the middle — of the end. His peak has passed, and he’ll slip someday, but taking the leap from the recognition of his slight decline to pronouncing him D-U-N is a fine way to look like a damned fool.
2. If there’s one Patriots defender so far who should be lauded for his big-play skills, it is not Darrelle Revis but Chandler Jones, though I suppose the relationship is somewhat symbiotic. Jones had a crucial first-half strip sack of Bills quarterback Kyle Orton last week to thwart a drive when Buffalo was still in the game. Last night, he had a huge sack of Geno Smith on third-and-5 in the third quarter when the Jets were moving the ball again. Jones has 4.5 sacks this year after tallying 11.5 in 2013, his second NFL season. It’s imperative that he maintain his pace — last year he had just one in the final seven games, including the postseason. If he does, it’s the last step to stardom — and then perhaps Bill Belichick will get some credit for stealing him with the 21st pick in the 2012 draft.
3. Danny Amendola does indeed have a pulse. That was one hell of catch for what ended up being the winning touchdown — and yes, I was a little surprised Brady threw it to him there as well. Though I suppose Brady, who was rolling out, didn’t have a lot of time or options, it’s an encouraging sign. And Amendola’s work on kickoff returns left you wondering one thing: What took so long to try him there? It’s not like Patrick Chung was the second coming of Rick Upchurch.
4. Shane Vereen is a terrific offensive player, versatile and dynamic, but we’re really getting ahead of ourselves here if we suggest the post-Stevan Ridley running back situation has been settled. Vereen had an outstanding game last night, with five receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns and 43 rushing yards on 11 carries. But that latter set of numbers does little to assuage any concerns about how the Patriots will run the ball when they actually have to do so. Vereen is a part of that solution, but Brandon Boldin (just one snap last night), James White (inactive last night) and practice squad promotee Jonas Gray are going to have to contribute at some point. It’s asking a lot of Vereen, who played 48 snaps last night, to be a between-the-tackles feature back.
5. As talented as Ridley is, anyone who argued that his absence for the rest of the season because of a knee injury suffered in the Buffalo game is more problematic than Jerod Mayo’s absence because of his season-ending knee injury has to be seriously reconsidering that stance. The Patriots can piece together a competent running game without Ridley. Probably better than competent. But there’s not a linebacker on the roster who can replace Mayo or replicate his skill-set — not just as an instinctive and intelligent run-stopper, but in terms of diagnosing what the opposing offense is trying to do and making sure the other 10 defenders are in the right spot. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are talented young players, but they’re being asked to play out of position and perhaps take on too much responsibility. The Jets piled up 218 yards on the ground last night. I’d bet that number would be reduced significantly had Mayo been out there. Instead, Chris Ivory ran through the heart of the defense with such ferocity that you wonder if perhaps he was Marshawn Lynch in disguise.
The Jets’ ability to run through the Patriots defense last night actually supplies some context on where Bill Belichick’s squad stands right now. Remember, the first time the teams met last year — also in Week 7, and also after Mayo had been lost for the year the previous week — the Jets gashed the Patriots for 177 rushing yards in a 30-27 OT victory at their place. The loss dropped the Patriots to 5-2. Heck, just like last night, Chris Jones played a significant role in the outcome with a play on the field-goal unit.
The rest of the season worked out OK — they ended up 12-4 and made it to the AFC Championship Game for third straight season. This Patriots edition, barring any more crushing injuries — has anyone explained what was up with Gronk’s weird sluggishness last night? — has a reasonable chance to get at least that far.
Despite the 2-2 start, they’re already pulling away in the division — a division, by the way, that is not loaded with quality teams but features three familiar opponents who almost always give the Patriots a dogged fight. They have time to sort out the running game, to try to find a suitable replacement (or replacements) for Mayo, to allow young players to develop, Brandon Browner to catch his breath, and the offensive line to continue to find continuity.
Sure, there are daunting days immediately ahead — their next six games are against Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Detroit, Green Bay and San Diego. Now that is a gauntlet.
But no one in their own division is catching them, and the two potentially superior teams in the AFC — the Chargers and Broncos — are in the same division.
The Patriots have some problems to solve. The also have the time to solve them. And at — what was that number again? — 43.75 percent of the way through this season, you have to like their chances of being right back in that familiar place at the end, as one of the few teams with a real hope of winning it all.