Great Weekend of Playoff Games Shows How Much Work Remains for Patriots

Curran: Great Divisional Round games show how much work remains for Patriots originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Was this you by 10 p.m. Sunday evening?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, greatest weekend in professional football history, who can believe it, Jimmy and Joe and Patrick and Joshy and Matt and Tommy, yup, yup, yup, they were something else.


We understand. You likely experienced traumatic playoff withdrawal. Medical professionals often use the term FOLPI (Fear of Long-term Playoff Irrelevance) as a shorthand descriptor for this phenomenon.

Our advice on how best to deal with this? Take up quilting. Also, find an expert born prior to 1977 to talk you through how to live in a Dead Zone, which is defined as a period when the worst is as bad as it gets and the best is just pretty good. The New England region last experienced one from 1987 through 2000.

That was an all-sports drought. Perhaps not coincidentally, a lot got done in the state of Massachusetts during that period. That’s a discussion for another time.  

Meanwhile, anytime you need to mainline some perspective, give this a view. It will hurt. But it may help.

How long might this last? It might be a bit.

The Patriots are in a rebuild. A lot of people don’t want to buy that, because the Patriots didn’t crater like some godawful franchises -- Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars, Lions, etc. -- but they are. The Patriots under Bill Belichick can only get so bad. The organization has smart and stable ownership, continuity at head coach/GM, a capable coaching staff and a core of players retained from the 2.0 era of their dynasty.

Honestly, 7-9 in 2020 was a miracle accomplishment with that roster. And 10-7 was -- in hindsight -- an impressive and reasonable improvement. So 2020 was the tear-down period and 2021 was the first year of getting back on their feet.

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They are coming back from a deeper hole than they did in their last rebuild which began with the 2008-2009 teardown and the 2010 restart. The difference then was they had Thomas Edward Patrick Brady and kicked ass in the drafts from 2008-2010 (and beyond). This time around, the Patriots started with a worse roster, have less drafted talent in their pipeline and don’t have a great quarterback in his prime.

Also, because of the holes on their roster at key positions like wide receiver, edge rusher and tight end, the Patriots had to buy at the top of the market at those spots last year. They don’t have much money to spend for another round of buying.

Meanwhile, a big chunk of that 2.0 core -- Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, James White to name a few -- is just about done. Also, a defense with a pronounced lack of speed and coverage ability may lose its Pro Bowl corner JC Jackson unless they either franchise him or sign him to a long-term deal with money they don’t really have.

One other thing that’s beyond the Patriots’ control? The competition is better now than it was a decade ago. The AFC has more good teams for the Patriots to fight through to get back to the top. And the best teams have -- at the moment -- a significant edge.

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We don’t really need to revisit the details of the bludgeoning Buffalo and Josh Allen applied to the Patriots defense in their last two meetings this year. Suffice to say, unless weather intervenes, the Patriots’ best answer against him will be to hold on tight and hope.

The last two times the Patriots played Kansas City (2019 and 2020), they were persistent defensively but eventually dismissed. They handled Lamar Jackson and the Ravens easily in 2020 -- a high-point win that year -- but got run over by them in 2019, a loss that started their slide that season. The last time they saw the full-strength Titans (2019 playoffs) Derrick Henry ran through their face. Justin Herbert has not been a problem. They have yet to see Joe Burrow’s Bengals.

If you’re experiencing buyer’s remorse over Mac Jones, stop. He’s fine. Even if he isn’t a threat to gain six on a third-and-5 by running over a linebacker on a quarterback draw, pick up seven on a naked bootleg by outrunning an edge rusher or throw a 50-yard missile that never gets 15 feet off the ground so a safety can’t even get close, Jones will be part of the solution for the Patriots, not part of the problem.

In my opinion, only Allen can truly do it all -- run with speed and power, throw with touch and velocity and buy time by extending plays. You feel bad the Patriots don’t have Justin Fields or Trey Lance? Well, they had to suck worse to get those players. And you have no promise they won’t end up being the next Darnold or Trubisky.

In summation, despite their 2021 improvement, the peak of the AFC – never mind the NFL – is still way up in the clouds and out of sight. What do they do about it? Keep climbing.

Tom E. Curran on where the Pats stand in the AFC.

A question we’ve kicked around is whether it’s better for the Patriots to prioritize defense to slow down these kinds of quarterbacks or get more explosive on offense to keep pace. The answer, of course, is both.

They allowed almost 600 yards of offense to the Cowboys this season. The Bills went two games without punting. The Colts salted the game away in December with a 67-yard run. The Titans ran for 270 and didn’t even have Henry.

Offensively, the Patriots are not what you call a “chunk” team. It’s first down, second down, third down, move the chains (hopefully) then do it again. The mismatches they create are not thanks to personnel but thanks to scheme. Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry are great pieces to have on a good offense. But none of them are going to make a defensive coordinator sweat because they need the attention of multiple defenders. And Jones isn’t going to wander around long enough to create those extended play chunks we see over and over again from Mahomes, Allen, etc.

In summation, despite their 2021 improvement, the peak of the AFC -- never mind the NFL -- is still way up in the clouds and out of sight. What do they do about it? Keep climbing.

What do you do about it? Quilting.

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