What with the bye week finally here, New England at 7-2, and myriad Patriots taking their leave of Foxboro (note to Kenbrell Thompkins: next time you’re in Miami, take me with you), we at Boston Sports Media Watch figured we’d ask some local pundits their thoughts on what to expect for the next several games. Thanks to all of them for contributing.
What improvements do the Patriots need to make to stay competitive in the second half? Do you think they can make those improvements?
Shalise Manza Young, The Boston Globe: I think they’ll be competitive in the second half even if they stay just as they are right now, but it isn’t the regular season they need to improve for, in my opinion. I think the offense needs to find more consistency, particularly in red zone and on third down, which we are starting to see now that Gronk is healthy, and the defense needs to find a way to fix its problem against the run (we know why that problem has cropped up, but it can’t continue). Sopoaga will help; stopping the run is his speciality, and it isn’t for Chris Jones.
Chris Price, WEEI.com: They need to improve their offensive consistency – that third-quarter dip (with the exception of the game against the Dolphins) is an odd statistical quirk that I can never remember a New England team having. Weird thing is that for the most part, it’s on both sides of the ball – offense and defense have both stumbled in the third quarter. Most of the time they have been able to right the ship in the fourth and it doesn’t come back to haunt them, but it undoubtedly cost them that Jets game. They can get by if they’re playing a lesser team, but they can’t afford not to be able to play four quarters of football against teams like the Broncos and into the postseason if they want to go deep into January. Not sure how you go about fixing that – they have to make a point of bringing energy on a consistent basis for all 60 minutes maybe. But it needs to be remedied.
They also have to find some way to cobble together a more sustainable run defense. Not saying it’s going to ultimately be its Achilles’ heel, especially in a pass-first league, but good teams are still going to be able to run the ball down the stretch and into the playoffs, and the Patriots have to find a way to cobble together some sort of defensive package that can at least slow down some of that against some of the better offensive teams in the league that aren’t one dimensional. I believe they have quality parts, but it’s just a matter of finding the proper rotation, personnel and scheme. Whether or not Isaac Sopoaga is a big part of that, I’m not sure. (He certainly looked impressive in his first outing against the Steelers, but it remains to be seen if he can hold up at that spot over the rest of the season.) Maybe you find an expanded role for Brandon Spikes. And Chris Jones and Joe Vellano will continue to be key parts of the defensive front, along with Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots blog: More consistency on offense, run defense and tightening up penalties (7 over the last 3 games) and coverage units on special teams are the three things that come to mind. I think they’ll be fine on offense, as the return of running back Shane Vereen will be a boost, and wouldn’t expect the struggles to continue on special teams. I’m a little less confident on the run defense, but perhaps the trade-deadline acquisition of Isaac Sopoaga is the difference for them.
Chad Finn, Boston.com: Losing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo has affected the run defense just as tangibly as anyone who respected their abilities would have expected. The Patriots now have the fourth-worst run defense in the league in terms of yardage allowed (128.2 ypg). Only Pittsburgh (131.2) and Jacksonville (161.8) are worse, and the Jaguars are so brutal Roger Goodell is trying to relegate them to the Canadian Football League. (True story.) Isaac Sopoaga should help as he gets more acclimated, and we know what Brandon Spikes can do. It would help if Dont’a Hightower became more instinctive and consistent. Otherwise, there’s not much to worry about other than overall health and the continued progress of the young receivers.
Chris Warner, BSMW: The returns of Gronk and Danny Amendola accentuated the importance of a healthy roster. As more players come back (Vereen, Aqib Talib, now Steve Gregory) and new players get experience in lieu of those on IR (Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork), this team might end up more balanced than they have yet this season. On defense, I’d look for more aggressive schemes and fewer one-on-one battles where the newbies might falter. On offense, keep in mind that, in Game One at Buffalo this year, Vereen caught seven passes for 58 yards. In eight games since, Stevan Ridley (9 for 50) and Brandon Bolden (17 for 107) have combined for 26 catches for 157 yards. Bringing Vereen into the picture will provide an option that the Patriots have lacked since his injury.
How do you see the next seven games panning out?
Shalise Manza Young: As things are right now, December looks a lot easier for the Patriots than it did in the preseason. Baltimore is a mess, Houston is having problems – heading into the season, those looked like pivotal road games and would likely impact AFC playoff seeding. Now? Not so much. I predicted an 11-5 record for them in our season preview, but it could be 12-4. Again – and I know I’ve gotten grief for this in the past – as nice as 12-4 is, it doesn’t mean a thing if they’re one-and-done in the postseason. Of course you need to have a good enough regular season to get into the playoffs, but after that, it doesn’t really matter. That’s why I say they need to tighten up the run defense and get that offensive consistency for the postseason, because that’s when they’ll need it most.
Chris Price: I think they lose two or three more games, which would put them at 12-4 at best and 11-5 at worst, and likely have them in the conversation for either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. There are some potential potholes over the final seven games, including the Broncos (I think that has the potential to be a fantastic contest), as well as the Panthers (that’s a sneaky good team where Carolina could take advantage of New England if the Patriots pull that third-quarter check-out). The other two that could be a problem are the road games in Baltimore and Houston. These two teams are nowhere near where they last season, but potential for danger is still there.
(For what it’s worth, I think the return of Shane Vereen is not being discussed enough – he’s a dynamic offensive presence with an ability to put pressure on opposing defense in a way that no other skill position player on the roster can. I know that Sunday represented the first time that Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Stevan Ridley were all on the field as close to 100 percent healthwise as possible, but I’m really interested to see what they can do as a group when Vereen gets back on the field.)
Mike Reiss: It’s easy to appreciate the mental toughness and resiliency this team has shown. I think the thing I look forward to over the final seven games is seeing how the return of cornerback Aqib Talib impacts the defense, and how the coaches strategize specifically with him in mind. The first five-and-a-half games he played were as impressive as I’ve seen a Patriots cornerback play. Steve Smith … Wes Welker … Andre Johnson … the first three games coming off the bye feature some big-time receivers. Can Talib do the same thing he did against Jimmy Graham? They’ll be in most every game and I expect them to be in the championship hunt.
Chad Finn: I think most Patriots fans are of the same mind-set right now. They’re looking ahead to the Denver game – it’s impossible not to, for all of the story lines that need no rehash (pre-hash?) here, while also being aware that Carolina is playing too well to look past coming out of the bye. Overall, though, it looks like a pretty tolerable schedule. It would be nice if they had the Texans or Ravens at home – neither team is what it was last year, obviously. The Browns are improving, but they’re not beating a Patriots offense that even faintly resembles the one we saw against the Steelers. The Dolphins franchise may have folded by the time they meet again. The Bills will be the 12th win and the final warmup before the Patriots host a game in the Divisional Round.
Chris Warner: Denver scares me, though the way their defense is playing I feel like certain teams have a shot against them. I can see Carolina ending up as rude hosts, especially given the efficacy of their running game – plus, the Pats have had their issues with running QBs, and Cam Newton fits that bill all too well. The thing is, as long as the Patriots make the playoffs, I’m not all that concerned about their regular-season record. If they can get into the post-season with good health and enough experience amongst the youngsters to instill some confidence and consistency, then who cares if they’re 14-2 or 11-5? I said it before and I’ll repeat: I think they go 2-2 over their next four games, then finish the season strong.
Any wacky predictions for the second half?
Chris Price: I think that with the amount of injuries this team has suffered, we could be headed for one of those goofy switches before the end of the season, like when Julian Edelman or Troy Brown shows up as a defensive back. I also believe that LeGarrette Blount is going to break off a great kick return before the end of the season. Not saying he’s going to take it all the way back, but it’s going to be one of those “Holy crap” moments we recall a few years from now.
Mike Reiss: Maybe a deja vu of this? LOL.
Chad Finn: Besides the upcoming trade for Richie Incognito AND Jonathan Martin, you mean? The weirdest thing – or at least unexpected – has already happened: Belichick absolved Stevan Ridley of a fumble. I think he got a mulligan from the coach on that one because Belichick was surprised Troy Polamalu was within 20 yards of the ball, and assumed Ridley was equally stunned.
Chris Warner: After reading the list of 83 receivers he has thrown to in his career, Brady starts to hassle Coach Josh McDaniels to put in trick plays in an attempt to reach 90 by the end of the season. So look out, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Isaac Sopoaga (as Mike alluded to above), and Nate Solder (a previous, unsuccessful target this season); keep your eyes and ears open, LaQuan Williams, Mark Harrison and Cierre Wood: your number might get called.
Predictions for November, December and beyond? Let us know in the comments section below.