By Mark Paulette
I’m dusting off a classic from the Aaron Rodgers playbook for this week’s post, and as the self-proclaimed “voice of reason” for The Drive, I have taken it upon myself to coax New England off the ledge.
Speaking of Rodgers, before I start, let me take a moment to address the hypocrisy of the ludicrous, sacrilegious poll question that we sullied our good name by posing yesterday. The question was: would you trade Tom Brady for Aaron Rodgers? Wasn’t it just weeks ago we were talking about Rodgers’ semi-drastic production dip post-Deflategate, when Rodgers was looking wildly ineffective even BEFORE his team embarked on a four game losing streak? Do you know when the last time Tom Brady had a four game losing streak was? Check the books, the answer is never. Yes, Green Bay’s number 12 has seen his stats soar over the past few games, but that’s because the Pack went three weeks without having an actual running back on the roster. Of all people Brady can sympathize with Rodgers, for he too has found himself in situations with no run game and a porous defense. Except there’s one difference; Rodgers possesses the tools of all-pros in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb plus an emerging threat in Devante Adams, who by the way has double the receiving TDs of anyone on the Patriots roster. When Brady found himself on comparable teams that struggled running the ball and on the defensive side, he had to make due with weapons like an aging Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd, or the perpetually bug-eyed Reche Caldwell. Yet, Brady still put together 14 win seasons, made trips to AFC Championship games and never missed the playoffs.
Shall I begin the real argument? (Don’t worry, I’m not done with that poll nonsense.)
As they take the field on December 4th against the spiraling Los Angeles Rams, the New England Patriots will own the #1 seed in the American Football Conference. It is a position that has been a goal since day, one both internally within the organization as well as amongst fans throughout Patriots Nation. The Pats are in the driver’s seat; they control their own destiny.
The schedule the remainder of the way has a pair of cakewalks (week 13 vs. the Rams and week 16 vs. the Jets). Monday, Dec. 12 will be a tough matchup when Patriot-hater numero uno, John Harbaugh, brings his scrappy AFC-North leading Ravens to Foxborough. But do not fear, the Ravens average 19.8 points per game – 25th in the NFL, and quarterback, Joe Flacco, has thrown for only 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions this season.
Then the Pats head to their personal ‘House of Horrors’ in Denver on Dec. 18. Even if this were to be a loss for Brady and Co. (who have lost each of their last three trips to Denver, including a pair of AFC Championship meetings) it should in theory drop the Pats to 11-3. Meanwhile, the scheduling gods continue to favor New England, as 2nd-seeded Oakland travels to Kansas City for a Thursday night contest in week 14, while the Chiefs come into that game on the heels of a trip to 7-4 Atlanta this Sunday. The Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders then close out the season in weeks 16 and 17 taking turns beating each other to a pulp.
Week 17 would be the next potential slip for the Pats, who will find themselves in South Beach against a Dolphins team who is all the sudden in the playoff picture thanks to a six game win streak. Though as outlined above, the other contenders will most likely have taken the life out of each other by the season’s final day and the top seed in the AFC will fall to the Patriots.
With the path to the top set, let me address the elephant in the room, or rather, the 11 elephants in the room that is the Patriots defensive unit. Contrary to popular belief, this vessel has not run headfirst into an iceberg and is rapidly sinking into the abyss, though you would never know that with the amount of people jumping ship before placing confidence in the group.
The defense ranks 14th in the NFL in total defense, allowing just over 353 yards each week. Middle of the road is certainly not where a championship caliber team wants to find itself, however, there’s only one number that matters – points allowed. John Madden enlightened us all when he so eloquently articulated that the winning team will usually have more points than the losing side. That seems to be a motto this Pats’ D has taken to heart, as they allow the 3rd-fewest points per game in the NFL at 17.9 a week. They bend but don’t break. Sure, sometimes it may look like there’s no possible way they can be that flexible. They might even look like they’re subluxing or subluxating or whatever the term is for what happened to Malcolm Mitchell’s arm in the preseason. (The actual term is subluxation, meaning a partial dislocation or slight misalignment). But just like Mitchell’s arm, this defense doesn’t snap, and at the end of the day, I trust Tom Brady to score 18 points even if he’s playing with a junior high squad.
My final point, the one that turns that last line into a clever segue and connects back to the rant against Aaron Rodgers at the beginning. Tom Brady has accomplished greatness with much, much worse teams than the one he currently finds himself surrounded by. In 2010, he went 14-2 with Deion Branch (who only started nine games) and Brandon Tate as him no. 2 and 3 receivers. Yes, Aaron Hernandez and Gronk carved out roles in the offense, but not until the second half of the season. This was all with a defense that ranked 25th, aka seventh from the bottom.
In 2006, Brady somehow rallied the team to within minutes of a Super Bowl appearance. On that team, his receiving corps were Reche Caldwell –who led the way with a whopping 47.5 yards per game—a 35-year-old Troy Brown (who “oh by the way” also played some cornerback, because you know, that’s what 35-year old receivers should be doing when they’re your number one option on offense) and Doug Gabriel (that’s a real, former player) who caught 25 passes for 344 yards.
In 2011, he took the second-worst(!) defense to the Super Bowl, only to see them fall victim to…he who shall not be named. Ugh.
In 2012 and ’13 the D was 25th and 26th respectively. All I’m saying is, 14th isn’t so bad when you pair it with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Lastly, (I promise this is actually the last one, I know I said that last paragraph, but this is worth mentioning) the less-than-stellar performances against San Francisco and the Jets over the last two weeks have come without the help of Rob Gronkowski on the offensive side of the ball, as well as with a banged up Tom Brady, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and a patchwork offensive line. We saw what this team was capable of doing when healthy when they were dismantling Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Buffalo while moving the ball at will.
Let this team get healthy, let LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis shoulder some of the burden while Brady’s knee gets right. Let the grueling AFC West schedule take care of itself and let Belichick figure out a plan for a defense capable of at the very least keeping teams off the board when it matters.
Let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s all back off the ledge. This is a team renowned for playing its best football after Thanksgiving. R-E-L-A-X, and let’s talk again on February 5, 2017.
Mark Paulette is the PVC of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.