It’s still likely the Patriots win the AFC East and they could even make a deep run in the playoffs, but they’ll need to pull out close victory after close victory in order to do so. After so many offseason subtractions on offense and two big season-ending injuries on defense, neither unit is likely going to be “elite” this season.
There are few teams in the NFL that possess the balance the Patriots have, though, which is why they sit at 5-2 on the season. But since the offense obviously took a step back from teams of years’ past and the defense no longer has the same upside they had coming into the season, every game may be a grind.
So far, New England has withstood that grind. The Patriots have won four games by one score. Their game against the lowly Buccaneers was the only blowout of the season, and the game was actually a little closer than the 23-3 score may suggest.
That game seems like a long time ago, too. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo were still healthy, which certainly helped the Patriots limit their opponents to three points. We’ll never know how good that defensive unit would have been if all the pieces stayed healthy, which is unfortunate.
The defense will still be able to keep the Patriots in games, but they aren’t going to make them out of reach. On Sunday, the Patriots’ defense allowed 23 points, with 13 of those coming in the second half. They will improve, though. Tommy Kelly has yet to return and Aqib Talib could be back as soon as this week.
The Patriots have to find a way to stop the never-ending game of injury musical chairs, though. When Danny Amendola was healthy, Stevan Ridley and Rob Gronkowski were not. When Gronkowski is healthy, Amendola, Talib and Kelly are not. That’s why there should be no guarantee that, at one point, the Patriots will have their current health, plus Amendola, Talib, Kelly and Shane Vereen.
But even if they do get all of those pieces back, neither unit will likely be playing at a Top-10 level. It will be balance, rather than dominance that will have to push the Patriots during the regular season and into the playoffs.
Tom Brady will have to improve with the pieces he has left, too. Losing players like Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead in one offseason would be brutal for any signal caller. But Brady’s issues seem to be deeper than just having less talented targets on the field.
Brady has been forced to throw downfield more this season, and he’s struggled, completing just 35 percent of his attempts over 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Getting Vereen back should be key, but many (myself included) thought the Patriots quarterback would improve tenfold by getting Gronkowski back. That hasn’t been the case, so it’s impossible to safely assume Brady will be able to go back to his 2012 level this year.
So the Patriots are going to have to keep grinding wins out. And that means Brady’s going to have to step up his game late, as he did against the Saints. He nearly mounted another comeback on Sunday against the Jets, but all the Patriots could manage was a field goal in the fourth quarter. Every game is going to come down to little plays throughout the 60 minutes of action. New England’s season will ride on those moments, like Brady’s pick-six, Gronkowski losing a ball in the lights and some missed tackles on defense.