After a 2-4 start to the 2021 season, the New England Patriots have become one of the NFL’s hottest teams in short order. After a tough overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, they have since won four straight, outscoring opponents 3:1 in that span. Now sitting at 6-4, and only a half-game back of the Buffalo Bills, New England once again has postseason aspirations. As we look back at the building of this current roster, along with their season up to tonight’s clash with the Atlanta Falcons, how good are they exactly?
The Patriots entered this most recent offseason with a league-high amount of cap space. Safe to say, Bill Belichick was expected to improve a roster that went 7-9 a year ago. Which he did so almost immediately. On day one of free agency alone, he brought in Jonnu Smith, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agohlor on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to Hunter Henry all of one day later. While Agahlor and Smith have not found a consistent stride in Foxborough just yet, Bourne and Henry have been superb. Entering tonight, Henry is averaging a touchdown a game over his last seven. While Bourne leads the team in total yards and yards per game receiving-wise.
Moving on to the defense, most Patriots fans could agree that pass rush and run defense have consistently been a problem in recent years. In what felt like a surprise move, Belichick gave Matt Judon the proverbial bag on day one of free agency for leaving the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore’s loss has quickly turned into New England’s gain. As “Red Sleeves” is on pace for a career year, currently at 9.5 sacks which ties his career-high in 2019. Other signees like Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, and a returning Kyle Van Noy have all been ok, but nothing like Judon. There is a fair argument to be made that he is the best player in New England.
This doesn’t even include a number of core players on expiring contracts that returned. Such as David Andrews, Nick Folk, James White, and Deatrich Wise Jr. Not even mention key special teamers Justin Bethel and Cody Davis as well. In total Belichick spent the most amount of guaranteed money in NFL history this offseason. Safe to say the early returns are good.
Over the last number of years, a couple of fair criticism of the Patriots have been age and drafting. Just last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots had the fifth oldest roster in the league (snap-weighted). Their draft record over from 2015 to 2018 likely factors into that statistic. While a number of quality mainstays such as Shaq Mason and Ja’Whaun Bentley have panned out, far more did not.
The good news is that the Patriots have had some better draft returns as of late. In 2019, they picked up Chase Winovich, Damien Harris, and current First-Team All-Pro punter Jake Bailey. While first-rounder N’Keal Harry hasn’t produced as expected, the Patriots must still like him, or else they would have cut bait by now. 2020 then was an improvement on 2019. Division II standout Kyle Dugger is having an excellent sophomore campaign. His coverage ability has improved and has three picks. Along with Dugger were a couple of other solid contributors in Josh Uche and Michael Onwenu.
Now we hit this year’s draft, which early on could be best since the legendary 2010 Draft. Outside of a rough two-game stretch against the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers, Mac Jones has been excellent under center for the Patriots. Next, Belichick pulled off the heist of taking Jones’ Alabama teammate Christian Barmore in the second round, trading up to do so. In addition to running back Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma. The former Sooner just put up a career game against the Cleveland Browns, even after falling into the Belichick Shadow Realm™ early in the season. Along with Belichick, other front office members who deserve credit are Dave Zeigler, Elliott Wolf, Matt Groh, along with numerous others.
Righting the Ship
The frustrating thing about the Patriots’ early-season problems is that they all felt correctable. A late Harris fumble cost the Patriots a likely win against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. A number of brutal turnovers, including three Jones interceptions two weeks later against the New Orleans Saints, were very costly. Add in the close losses as well to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cowboys as well. The main thing, however, is no one cost them those games other than themselves. All four of those games were winnable and either the players or coaches (Josh McDaniels) didn’t do enough.
After the Dallas loss, the Patriots had the luxury of playing the New York Jets and promptly throttled them. Sure it was the Jets, but they were good in “all three phases”, which could not be said for the prior six games. Then they picked up an impressive win on the road against the Chargers, and then the Panthers the next week. While the offense was not spectacular and talks of Jones plateauing locally increased, that all changed last Sunday.
Entering Week 11, the Browns were the third-best defense in the league, large in part due to their ability to stop the run. After an albeit impressive opening drive by Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland offense, they got absolutely boat raced. The Patriots proceeded to put up 45 unanswered points and put the Browns in the proverbial Steiner Recliner on defense. Holding them to an abysmal 1-11 on third down, and 217 total yards on the day.
Crunching the Numbers
It is one thing to feel good about this four-game winning streak the Patriots are currently on. In regards to the rest of the league, where do they stack up? As of right now, there are only four teams that have a top 10 scoring offense and defense. The Patriots are one of them along with the Bills, Cowboys, and Arizona Cardinals. They also are the best scoring defense this season on the road (14.5 points per), while also being the fifth-best scoring offense at home (29 points per).
In terms of yardage, the Patriots currently hang around in the middle of the league on defense. Currently sitting at 18th total, 13th against the pass, and 14th against the run. Not the best, but the scoring numbers have made up for that so far. Offensively however things look slightly better. the Patriots sit 10th in total yardage on offense, ninth in passing yardage, and 10th in rushing yardage. Some room for improvement of course, but an improvement over last year.
While point differential can easily be a misleading statistic, the wide majority of teams in the top 10 to this point are considered decent at the absolute worst. While Buffalo is long gone here, New England holds a share of the No. 2 spot with Arizona with a plus-98 differential. Finally, if you subscribe to the theory of, “Good teams win, great teams cover”, this statistic bodes well. New England is tied for the fifth-best record in the league against the spread at 6-4. Only the Green Bay Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals, and Tennessee Titans are better ATS. This is according to Vegas Insider.
The Road Ahead
After the Atlanta game tonight, the Patriots have another stretch of tough games. Heading into their Week 14 bye, they will host Tennessee, followed by a Monday Night Football outing in Buffalo. Even without Derrick Henry, the Titans continue to roll on, winning six straight games after their loss to the Jets. While the Bills have sputtered in two of the last three weeks, they will no doubt be a tough out as well
Coming out of the bye, New England has a Saturday matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. This being their first trip to Indy since 2015, in what should be a big game for the hosts. Afterward is the second matchup with the Bills in Foxborough. Ending out the season for the Patriots are the Jacksonville Jaguars, followed by the dreaded yearly trip to Miami, Florida. According to Tankathon, they have the 12th hardest remaining schedule in the league, ahead of Buffalo by one spot. Hard to pick individual games down the road, but picking up three of these next five would be gigantic. Especially considering that Buffalo is only a half-game up in the AFC East.
How Good Are the Patriots?
The short answer is yes, the Patriots are a good team. Despite a start where they let three or four wins slip away, they have rebounded nicely in these last four weeks. A record-breaking free-agent class on top of back-to-back drafts that brought in a number of key core players has made a world of difference. Not to mention finding “the guy” in Jones just around a year after Tom Brady said his goodbyes as well. If they can finish out this regular season strong, a playoff birth feels more likely than not. From that point out, the Patriots would be playing with house money.
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyPTST
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