The worst part about living in London right now is not that it freaking rains every day. It’s that I’m 3,289 miles from Gillette Stadium as the Pats march towards their…what are we approaching now…title number five? I lose count sometimes. I know, I can be a condescending New England fan. Get over it if you didn’t know that already.
But as I stayed up well into the early hours with the other nocturnal animals out there, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with some of what transpired during the Patriots’ 34-16 win over the Texans. I knew I was going to have to endure a night of watching Brock Osweiler flick passes indiscriminately–I was just hoping that his horrific quarterback play would mean I could call it a night a bit earlier than expected. You know, by, say, the second half. Greenwich Mean Time is five hours ahead, after all.
Yet even as Osweiler threw some beautiful passes into the hands of Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon (and, to his credit, Will Fuller too), the Patriots didn’t bring their A-game on Saturday night. The offense, in Tom Brady’s words, was out of rhythm, as New England went just 5-14 on third down while Brady posted his third lowest Total QBR of the season. It also didn’t help that the Patriots committed five penalties and turned the ball over three times, allowing a mediocre Houston team to keep the game within one-score until early in the fourth quarter. Good thing Dion Lewis came through with the game of his life. He became the first player in postseason history to score a rushing, receiving, and return touchdown in the same game. Major props to him after having ACL surgery last year.
I still have plenty of more thoughts to share about last night’s game. I’m more interested, though, in looking at what some other people are saying and determining whether they are right or wrong. In other words, let’s fact-check a few experts.
NFL.com’s Judy Batista: “Patriots advance– but look out of sorts, vulnerable”
Fact. Fact. Fiction.
Yes, the Patriots advanced to their sixth consecutive AFC Championship game. Yes, they did look out of sorts, particularly offensively. Vulnerable? Eh.
Houston may not be a good team, but they do have a very good defense. The Texans came into last night’s game third in opponent yards per play and fifth against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. I even said in my divisional round preview that it wasn’t unreasonable to think that Houston could force Brady and the Pats offense into a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes, which ended up happening. But the key word there is uncharacteristic. Simply put, New England had a rare shaky performance. Big deal. Remember: They just broke the NFL record as a team for throwing the fewest interceptions in a regular season. Sufficed it to say, it’s unlikely that Brady will throw two interceptions on a weekly basis. Plus, I didn’t hear anyone saying the Patriots were vulnerable after they dismantled Miami in Week 17, or when they hung 30 points on Baltimore in Week 14. I’ll take the overall sample size over one game every day of the week. And hey, we did ultimately cover as 16-point favorites!
SI’s Greg Bedard: “Pats’ flawed win over Texans won’t please Belichick– and that may help them next week”
As much as last night’s win didn’t go as planned, it actually is a blessing. I feel the Patriots have played their best during the Brady/Belichick era when they have an edge to them, which usually comes after a disappointing performance or when the entire country is doubting them. You need evidence?
- 2001: Pats shock the world by pulling three upsets in the playoffs, the most notable of which came against the Rams as 14 point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI.
- 2003: New England loses 31-0 to Buffalo in the season opener and people are saying Belichick has lost the locker room. They would lose just once in their following eighteen games that season.
- 2007: Patriots legacy challenged after Spygate scandal in Week 1 against the Jets. Proceed to become the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season.
- 2014: New England gets embarrassed on Monday Night football against the Chiefs– Let’s face it, they’re not good anymore! Patriots end up hoisting fourth Lombardi trophy by season’s end.
- 2016: Brady comes back after Deflategate suspension and breaks NFL record for highest touchdown-to-interception ratio.
I could go on further, but how about we think back to when the Patriots have suffered their most shocking losses as well? It usually has occurred when everyone assumed New England would have little trouble winning (e.g. Giants in Super Bowl XLII, Jets playoff loss in 2010, loss to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship).
I think the odds of the Patriots being upset in one of their next two potential games is lower after struggling against the Texans. Despite winning by nearly three touchdowns, this game seems to have left a sour taste in the New England locker room. That will serve them well as Belichick prepares them for tougher challenges ahead.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss: “Patriots will need better performance in AFC Championship game”
Nonetheless, there is no ignoring the fact that New England will finally face some real competition, first when they meet either Pittsburgh or Kansas City in next week’s AFC Championship, then when they–hopefully–play a formidable NFC team in Super Bowl LI. However, let me make a couple things clear. First, the Patriots can’t control who is on their schedule. Also, I hate it when people criticize a team like New England for playing a weak schedule when they led the NFL in point differential by a wide margin. It’s not like the Patriots struggled to beat many of the mediocre teams they played.
Yet the fact is that no matter who the Patriots face the rest of the way, they won’t run into another Brock Osweiler. The defense, which seems to have improved so greatly during the second half of the season, will still need to show that they are better than the unit that got exposed by Russell Wilson–the best quarterback the Patriots have seen in 2016–back when New England last lost to Seattle in mid-November. Moreover, the offense will also have to prove that they can overcome the loss of Rob Gronkowski when it truly matters. The Patriots have ultimately fallen short every year they haven’t had Gronk’s services when it’s mattered most.
But here’s the good news. Believe it or not, the Texans team that the Patriots just beat might have been the best defense left remaining. Pittsburgh is the only other team left that finished in the top ten of defensive DVOA, and yet they have struggled mightily to stop the Patriots in past years. Kansas City has some playmakers, but is there anything to suggest that a potential playoff rematch with the Chiefs, who New England beat pretty soundly in last year’s Divisional round, would be any different? If anything, this year’s Patriots team is much better.
Whoever comes out of the NFC will have an offense eminently capable of testing whether the Patriots’ defense is for real. But none of those teams has a defense that projects to offer much resistance to Brady and company, either. With a plethora of weapons on the outside, a dynamic three-headed monster at running back, and an improved offensive line, would you bet against the guy who could be making his seventh Super Bowl appearance? Didn’t think so, no matter what you might have saw this past Saturday night.