With one-fourth of the season in their rearview, the Patriots have cruised along with four wins and zero losses.
It really didn’t have to be like this. They could have had a drop-off from last year, an exhausting odyssey through NFL competition both on-field and off. Letting go of most of their defensive backfield while laying off draft picks of need could have been seen as signs of, hey, let’s feel satisfied with a fourth Lombardi Trophy. Let’s rebuild. But, nope.
Instead, while playoff foes Baltimore (1-4) and Seattle (2-3) strive for .500 football, and the Colts fight to stay above that line, the Patriots cruise along at 4-0.
New England opened up at home with a 28-21 takedown of a gritty Steelers team. They then traveled up to Buffalo – this year’s Rex Ryan entry into the Patriots’ annual King of the Mountain contest – and settled for a 40-32 victory where they took off most of the fourth quarter. They played rude hosts to the Jaguars (51-17) and toppled the Cowboys 30-6. The most important aspect of these wins involved the overall learning experience.
Pretty Sneaky, Sis: In the future, New England should have Tom Brady sneak the ball on fourth and short. It remains their best option. We saw too many instances where LeGarrette Blount runs (vs. Dallas) or Brady bombs (vs. Buffalo) failed to convert. The thing is, now they know, and they didn’t have to lose a game to learn a lesson.
Lippy The Lineman, Hardy Har-Har: (and if you get this reference, I’m impressed.) Defensive lineman/tone-deaf hump Greg Hardy, who suffers from elephantiasis of the ego, did New England a favor by playing as well as advertised and exposing weaknesses along the line. Left tackle Nate Solder did little to prevent Hardy from harassing Brady, but any complaints that may have come up about him this week are lost due to his placement on IR. Now, there’s renewed appreciation of how much this team needs him anchoring that spot. His replacement Marcus Cannon failed to fare any better.
Hey, it’s adjustment time. It’s not like they can go out and buy a top-tier left tackle this week. Instead, they’ll set up their linemen for success, helping out up front when necessary and having Brady get rid of the ball like it’s a flaming bag of Hardy. Definitely adds to their degree of difficulty, though.
At Their Beck And Collins: Sure, I thought Jamie Collins could help this team when the Pats drafted him. A quick review of his combine numbers reveals a 4.64 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical leap, and an 11-foot, 7-inch broad jump. (For comparison, stand with your feet together and jump. Now look forward several feet to where 11-7 is. Laugh.) But this guy can do anything, just about anywhere on the field. In four games, he has 32 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. After two full seasons, he’s gone from a commendable athlete to a leader, and that I did not see that coming.
To Aaron Is Human: So… What’s up with Aaron Dobson, do you think? Seems like he’s run out of excuses. He’s not hurt. He’s not a rookie. There’s no other receiver on the roster with his body type, so it’s not like he should be sharing reps. Back in August 2011, we discussed Chad Ochocinco and the JG Scale, which came down to this: receivers (and I meant free agents, but it counts with rookies, too) either pick up the offense quickly (Jabar Gaffney) or not at all (Joey Galloway).
A seventh-round pick named Julian Edelman can start Game One of his rookie season and contribute. Chad Jackson, a second-round pick, can struggle with the offense and catch 13 passes for his two-year Pats career. The fact that Keshawn Martin can come over from Houston and nab five passes in two games after catching six all year for the Texans does not bode well for Dobson. Brady likes Martin. Interesting to see what will happen there. We’re rooting for him, but it doesn’t look good.
Onto a more optimistic outlook.
Feeling Good, Lewis: Know whom else Brady likes? This Dion Lewis fella. He can start-stop like a squirrel on a tree, or duck and dive like an otter on an ice floe. We had some hope for him this summer, but he has delivered far more than expected. He’s got a high school sophomore build at 5-8, 195 pounds, and has taken on the bulk of the halfback workload, with 36 carries for 180 yards (5.0 avg) and 23 receptions for 238 yards. And he got cut by Cleveland and the Colts, for Heaven’s sake.
I know fans of other teams must get tired of hearing about guys who start their careers elsewhere and end up reaching another level in Foxboro (The Mike Vrabel Rule? The Wes Welker Corollary?), but Lewis has staked his place atop the list for 2015.
Hoo, Man, That Was Rough: Very sorry to see Michael Hoomanawanui get traded, but it’s understandable given the current roster makeup. Between Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, and Michael Williams, the Pats boast over 800 pounds of tight end. Plenty of blocking to be had here, and enough receiving to make even a solid fan favorite like Hoo-man seem expendable. In four games, Gronkowski has 20 grabs for 375 yards (18.8 avg) and four touchdowns. Looking forward to watching the non-Gronks get more involved with the offense and the downfield rumbling that could ensue.
I did not make this up: there’s now a twitter hashtag and urban dictionary definition for “RiGronkulous.” We live in a wonderful era.
Lots Of Hicks In Indy: In exchange for Hoomanawanui, New England brought in defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, adding to the team’s list of DL’s who have disappointed other teams (Alan Branch also resides on that list). At roughly the size of a bank vault at 6-5, 324 pounds, Hicks won’t run down backs or get to the QB that often, but – even though he didn’t register a tackle – he contributed in Dallas by clogging lanes and freeing up linebackers to make plays. If he gets on board like Branch seems to have done, this could become a positive trade for the Patriots.
Sheard And Sheard Alike: Look how far we’ve gotten in this column without even talking about Jabaal Sheard. Four sacks in four games? Sure. Stout against the run? We’ll take it. Potentially giving Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich occasional breathers? Why not? Sheard seems to have lived up to expectations in Foxboro and could provide more help given greater playing time.
Another Cleveland castaway. Weird.
Ghost Is The Machine: I’ve used this pun before. Like the album after it’s named, it still holds up, because Stephen Gostkowski continues to make kicks. This past Sunday he set a personal record with a 57-yarder in Dallas.
Seems simple enough. Trot onto the field, mark off some steps, give your holder a nod, and boot away. Yeah. Went to the Patriots Hall of Fame museum a few years ago and tried a kick. Almost pulled my hamstring while sending the ball knee-high into the wall. Bad look. In a year where kickers seem to have the accuracy
Two Questions About The League
One: What the hell is up with Houston? You’d figure a defense with J. J. Watt, JaDeveon Clowney, and Vince Wilfork would be able to get something done. Watt has four sacks in five games, a mere mortal number, while Clowney has zero. I mean, it makes sense that the offense isn’t exactly Air Coryell, but for them to sit at 1-4 with a loss to the Colts filled with about as much enthusiasm as a pediatric dentist’s waiting room? Did not expect that.
At this point, anybody agreeing to appear on “Hard Knocks” must not be paying attention.
Two: How long will it take for the NFL to outlaw pick plays? New England showcased the effectiveness of so-called “rub” or “pick” plays in the second half at Dallas, with a Danny Amendola screen freeing up Edelman for a long TD. (CSNNE.com’s Phil Perry does a nice job describing the play here.) All of a sudden it seems like New England is getting credit (or, as usual blame) for conceiving this play. It works, and it frustrates defenses, and officials aren’t always sure how to call it, so look for the NFL to take a hard look at it soon. But don’t forget that other teams do it, and have done it for years.
Case in point: Denver’s Wes Welker taking out New England’s Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship two seasons ago (clip here). Welker never even looked for the ball. No call, and it’s not even close.
Second Quarter Preview
At the Colts Sunday night, hosting the Jets the following Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins on Thursday (10/29), then hosting the Nacotchtanks (see, Dan Snyder? Not that hard).
The Colts, Dolphins, and Redskins have six wins between them, with the Indyhorsies riding high at 3-2. All three wins have come against the AFC South, which is a bit like reigning as thumb-wrestling champion in a league of six-year-olds. Just adorable.
The Jets game looks like the toughest, with a focused 3-1 squad coached by a guy who manages to stay under the radar. The Patriots could go 3-1 over the second quarter, but barring any major setbacks, 4-0 looks more likely.
Seriously, predicting games for New England feels like working as a weatherman in San Diego. Occasional storms, but sunny skies most of the way.
Chris Warner can be tweeted: @cwarn89