In 1987, the rock group R.E.M. scored a modest hit with a track off of their album, Document, titled “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine.)” Although the song enjoyed some success in the moment, it has achieved a near-mythical level of popularity in the years since, due to its use in pop culture. When a proverbial ‘world’ seems to be coming to an end, this song is often used as its musical backdrop.
I give you New England; December, 2018.
The New England Patriots have lost two consecutive games in the month of December for the first time since 2002. The have lost five games in a season for the first time since 2009. They currently sit as the third seed in the AFC. If the NFL playoffs started today, New England would not enjoy a first-round bye.
It’s the ‘end of the world as we know it.’ …and almost no one ‘feels fine.’
As the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated their 17-10 victory over the Patriots on Sunday, Pats fans could not help but hear R.E.M’s cult-classic echoing in their ears. After suffering through a week in which the ‘Miami Miracle’ continuously looped in their minds, they now had to endure a loss to a team against which the Patriots have always enjoyed great success. To make matters worse, the losses happened in December. That is a month typically-owned by New England. At best, some call it ‘uncharacteristic.’ At worse, some call it ‘disaster.’
However, as Aristotle once said, “Virtue lies in the middle.” While there is definite cause for concern in New England, it is still a bit premature to declare the team ‘legally dead.’ In fact, there may be more reason for optimism than the situation may seemingly warrant at the moment.
How so, you ask? Let’s examine…
“This Team Can’t Win on the Road”
A loss is a loss (of course..of course), and the past two have been particularly bitter for New England. Sunday’s defeat confirmed that the Patriots would finish with a sub-.500 road record (3-5) in 2018. Considering that the Pats are a perfect 6-0 at home, one might logically conclude that the team is simply incapable of winning a meaningful game on the road. That is a bleak prognostication for a team that will almost certainly have to play at least one road game in the 2018 playoffs.
Despite the murky outlook, the Patriots may take solace in the fact that they could just as easily be 5-3 on the road, as 3-5. In their losses to Jacksonville, Detroit and Tennessee, the Pats were thoroughly outplayed in every facet of the game. There is no sugar-coating that fact. The Jaguars, Lions and Titans BEAT the Patriots. The outcome of each game was seldom within question.
Conversely, that same sentiment has not been entirely accurate for road losses four and five. While not taking anything away from the Dolphins and the Steelers, the Pats had every opportunity to win each of these contests. It took a well-executed, but miraculous, turn of events for Miami to pull out their week 14 win. Undisciplined play and atypical mistakes (most notably, a fourth-quarter interception of quarterback Tom Brady) prevented the Patriots from leaving Pittsburgh with the ‘W.’ Each time, a good football team capitalized on the Pats misfortunes, resulting in the loss. However, make no mistake about it…each game was winnable for New England.
While neither loss is excusable, the Patriots performance in these games proved that they are capable of winning games away from Foxboro. How might they do this? Simply put, the Pats need to score more points on offense and stop the run on defense. As obvious (yet daunting) as that may sound, it is a goal that is within New England’s reach.
According to TeamStatistics.com, the Patriots are averaging 33.8 points scored at home, as opposed to 21.6 away from Gillette Stadium. That is a differential of 12.2 fewer points scored in their opponents’ home base. On the contrary, the defense (which has been much-maligned this year) is allowing an average of 19.7 points at home, and 24.0 points on the road. While their opponents (on average) are scoring 4.3 more points-per-game (PPG) in their own home stadium, the differential is a far cry from the 12.2 average for their offensive counterparts. It should also be noted that the Patriots offense has been held to a mere 10 points in three of their five road losses (Detroit, Tennessee, Pittsburgh).
Defensively, the Patriots have surrendered an average of 126.8 yards per game on the ground. Miami’s Kenyan Drake and the Steelers’ Jaylen Samuels feasted on the Pats lack of ground control in each of the Patriots two recent losses. In in the confines of Gillette, the Pats run defense is tighter, yielding 102.2 yards. While it sounds easy to say ‘stop the run,’ that is exactly what they must do better away from home. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton was brought to the Pats as a presence in the middle, designed to (wait for it) stop the run. For the past two games, Shelton has been a healthy scratch. While he certainly has not been the player for which they had hoped, the Patriots may need to test the waters on Shelton, and hope that the time spent on the bench has rejuvenated his game.
On offense, the Patriots receivers seem to find the open route a bit easier, at home. The running back tandem of Sony Michel and James White are able to hit the open spots with greater ease. The offensive line opens gaps and provides more protection time for quarterback Tom Brady. It all seems so elementary. However for some reason, the Patriots have struggled mightily to muster that type of success on the road. One can bet that head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Pats offensive brain-trust will be hard at work devising a game plan that will allow them to do just that. (“Paging Mr. McDaniels…James White is on the line for you.”) The 33.8 PPG scored at home lends reasonable doubt to the argument that the Pats offense is ‘old, slow and washed up.’ Clearly, this team has the ability to put points on the board. However, they must translate some of their home success on offense to the road.
And…as always, it starts with the man under center.
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“Brady doesn’t have it anymore”
In case you have been completely cut off from civilization since this past August, Tom Brady turned 41 years old this year. At an age where nearly every other athlete has decided to hang up his cleats, Brady continues to play at a high level. To repeat that, he continues to play at a HIGH LEVEL! In a season in which Brady has supposedly fallen off of that delusional ‘cliff,’ Brady has completed 65.9 percent of his passes, which is above his career average of 64.0. He has thrown for 3979 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Those numbers will not earn him his second consecutive MVP. However, they are far from the only reason why the Pats are intensely fighting for a first-round bye. At 41, Brady’s best days are behind him. However, he is still recording serviceable numbers.
On a physical level, Brady continues to play at a younger age than his 41 years would indicate. While many quarterbacks (at or over the age of 40) have struggled to perform physically on the field, Brady continues to show that he is still capable of moving in and even out of the pocket. His arm (once compared to a ‘noodle’) and his passes (which a certain buffoon referred to as ‘knuckleballs’) have looked sharp on several enough occasions to let the stubborn know that Brady can still accomplish his mission.
That being said, Brady’s performance has not been above criticism. His interception on Sunday (which landed into the waiting hands of Steelers’ defensive back Joe Haden) was totally out of character for him. Brady rarely misfires on throws like that, especially in such clutch moments. Just one week prior, he forgot the amount of timeouts the Patriots had just ahead of halftime in Miami, possibly costing the Pats three points. He has now made two costly mistakes in back-to-back weeks. However, these miscues are more mental mistakes than an indictment on his physical prowess. While Brady does warrant criticism for these mistakes, playing the “Father Time is undefeated” card is simply idiotic and lazy analysis. (Then again, considering the source of that statement, the presence of idiocy should not be a surprise.)
Nearly every team in the NFL would still take a 41 year-old Tom Brady at the helm of their offense in the playoffs. The postseason is Brady’s time to shine. Few, if any, have ever played the game more intelligently and efficiently. He has shown that he is more than capable of leading this team to victory over a formidable opponent. His play has not been perfect, but he is not the sole problem. Most notably, the team must show more discipline. New England was flagged for an inexcusable 14 penalties that cost them 106 yards. For all who wish to criticize Brady’s performance on the final drive, remember that a holding flag on guard Shaq Mason pushed the Patriots out of the red zone. As a result, Brady came up short on his desperation attempts at the end of the game. Top targets Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon combined for three drops, which killed the rhythm and momentum of each drive.
Until proven otherwise, the Patriots and their fans may still take solace in the fact that Tom Brady is still their quarterback. Brady’s prowess in the playoffs has earned him the benefit of the doubt….especially, if the Patriots road thorough the playoffs may not be as rocky as originally thought.
“If they get the three-seed, the season is ovaaahhh”
If Tom Brady’s playoff resume has earned him the benefit of the doubt, that of New England head coach Bill Belichick may earn him a first-round bye of doubt (so to speak). In 2018, Belichick has been subject to much greater scrutiny and criticism than in recent memory. From his decisions to move on from ex-Patriots such as Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Bolden, to a seeming misevaluation of adding the talent needed to compete for a championship, the Pats ‘HC’ has certainly seen sunnier days in New England. Despite this, the Pats currently sit atop the AFC East, and are poised to win their ninth straight division title. At 9-5, the Pats have the inside track on securing, at least, the number three seed in the AFC playoffs. While some delight writing their epitaph, the majority of NFL teams would jump at the chance to experience that kind of ‘down year.’
Consistency of this type starts at the top. The Patriots, despite their struggles, are still one of the best-coached teams in the league. Yet, many fans and foes alike will make the argument that finishing as the third seed in the AFC is an assured ticket to a first-round playoff exit for the defending AFC Champions.
We are not used to seeing the Patriots play on wild-card weekend. For this team, playoff games are almost always home games. Even when the road beckons, it usually waits to summon the Pats for the stage of the AFC Championship. This year, it might be a bit different.
Some of the fear felt by New England’s fans might dissipate when remembering that the NFL (especially the AFC) is as wide-open as it has been in quite some time. Should the Patriots play on wild-card weekend, they are capable of defeating the Colts, Ravens, Titans, Browns, Steelers or Dolphins. As the number one seed, the Kansas City Chiefs have losses to the Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers and (wait for it) the New England Patriots on their season tally, thus far. The current number two seed, the Houston Texans, were defeated by the Pats in week one of the season. The Chargers are an unknown, but formidable potential opponent. However, the Patriots securing of the number three seed could prevent them from seeing the Chargers until the AFC Championship game.
In simpler terms, there is no ‘unbeatable juggernaut’ in this year’s AFC playoff picture. That includes the Patriots. They are certainly beatable. However, so is every other team in the playoff hunt. Patriots fans might not need to be so squeamish on having confidence in their team. After all, consistency starts at the top. No coach in these playoffs has greater playoff consistency than Bill Belichick.
“Lenny Bruce is not Afraid”
While Patriots fans do have cause for concern, they need not believe that the sky is falling. This New England team (which was accurately described by the Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels as ‘consistently inconsistent’) is a flawed football team. Their detractors will gladly tell you. Their quarterback is ‘too old.’ Their defense is ‘too soft.” And, maybe their fans are ‘too spoiled to know the difference.’
However, the Patriots problems have not yet passed the point of no return. There are no insurmountable obstacles. There are no glaring issues of health. At times, they have looked strong. At others, they have looked dismal. They need to be better. Past successes will not automatically determine the future of the 2018 New England Patriots. No one knows that better than the occupants of the Pats locker room. You can bet that they are being reminded of that with each passing minute
At the end of the day, the Patriots’ problems are fixable. While short on time, their clock has yet to strike midnight. It all needs to come together. It starts on Sunday, when the Pats face the Buffalo Bills. The game will not be easy; divisional opponents never are. The playoff road might include a few potholes. Though, in New England, we are all used to that (and I’m not speaking metaphorically, New England streets are famous for their potholes). It’s going to be a bit more difficult. That is certain.
It is NOT, however, the ‘end of the world as we know it.’ At least, not yet. Bill Belichick is still their head coach. Tom Brady is still their quarterback. The New England Patriots are heading back to the playoffs. That territory is not really that unfamiliar.
To that end, Patriots fans, feel free to feel fine.
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC