“Our whole season’s in front of us.” — Tom Brady, Oct. 27
About the only thing you can nitpick with Tom Brady during this past month might be his sense of time. As crazy as it seems (weren’t they just 2-2 and needing a season-saving win vs. Cincy?), the whole season is not in front of them. Rather, half the season is in the books. So let’s play hurry-up and look at six things (one for each of the wins) that stand out during the first half of the Patriots’ season.
While the next five games for the Patriots are being grouped together by most fans and pundits, New England actually has to face teams with winning records in the final 7 of 8 games—and the three games to end the season are all divisional contests. It’s never a good idea to look too far ahead on the schedule, but if you do want to look at those next 5 games, the Colts’ game is after a bye and the Lions’ game is at home, so they look like the two best bets for a win. If you assume road games at San Diego and Green Bay are the two toughest, then it makes this weekend’s game against the Broncos the swing game in that five-game stretch. As if the game needed any more hype.
The five starters who played on the offensive line replicated their performance against the Bengals yesterday. That combo of Solder-Wendell-Stork-Connolly-Vollmer has helped the offense score 94 points in the two games it was healthy for this season. But health remains a question since the interior of the line has little depth. The Logan Mankins’ trade looks pretty good right now (Mankins did give up 9 sacks in the second half of last season), but an injury would change things in a flash since Josh Kline and Jordan Devey have looked uneven in their appearances to date.
The Power of Gronk
Speaking of limited depth, the Patriots’ front 7 on defense are thin thanks to the injuries to Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo, but let’s not forget that in the AFC Championship game last season, the Patriots “held” Denver to 26 points without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and (mostly) Aqib Talib. The problem has been offense in the playoff losses. Or more specifically, the problem has been that Rob Gronkowski has been hurt in the recent Patriots’ playoff losses. With his nemesis T.J. Ward coming to town with Denver this week, fans must be hoping Ward doesn’t take the mantle from Bernard Pollard and become a Patriot-killer. While any week that Gronk doesn’t get hurt is one game closer to having him healthy in the playoffs, perhaps a Vincent Jackson acquisition before the trade deadline would at least hedge on that bet, providing the offense with an oversized receiver in the event that Gronk does get hurt.
Secret Defensive Weapon
The Patriots’ secondary is not simply putting up league best pass-defense numbers, they’re also staying healthy and boasting an enviable amount of depth. Alfonzo Dennard was inactive for yesterday’s game—he was the Patriots’ top cornerback in the AFC Championship Game last year. Logan Ryan has solidified his role as the third cornerback, and former starter Kyle Arrington was limited to only 9 plays on Sunday. While adding Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis grabbed the headlines, signing Patrick Chung for less than $1 million has provided New England the missing fourth piece in its secondary. The move has been underrated, but Chung’s familiarity with the system and success defending the run were the perfect fits next to three great pass defenders like Browner, Revis and McCourty.
Two of the Patriots’ victories this season have included those wild momentum “pile-ons” that have been intermittent in the years since Tedy Bruschi and Co. helped the Patriots win their Super Bowls. It’s the backbreaking turnover returned for a touchdown that comes right after an offensive score. Usually those “pile-ons” put the game out of reach, and this season they certainly have. Against Cincinnati, the Pats went from a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter to a 24-point lead 10 seconds later after Gronkowski caught a touchdown, and Brandon Bolden caused a kickoff return fumble that Kyle Arrington returned for a touchdown. Against Chicago, the Patriots led by 10 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, when Brady again hit Gronk for a TD. The Bears’ next play from scrimmage was a strip sack that Rob Ninkovich returned for a touchdown. Those plays basically ended the games, and allowed New England to rest its players a little bit. It seemed like those plays happened often during the Patriots’ title years (and during the perfect regular season, actually). It’s nice to see the return of them.
It’s now safe to put the Tom Brady rumors to bed. As this Grantland article pointed out, Brady’s deal becomes fully guaranteed in Week 17 of this year, and since the trade deadline is this week, he won’t be going anywhere this season. Once the deal becomes fully guaranteed, the cap implications of cutting or trading him at any point before the 2017 season would be titanic and crippling to any sort of team building. The Patriots would have to cut him by Week 17 or trade him this week to avoid such a fate—and coming off four straight wins that’s not happening. So it’s safe to say Tom Brady will be on the Patriots until at least 2017. Sorry Jimmy G. fans. He might have to play out this rookie contract as a backup and re-sign here as the starter in 2018.