Parallels between this year’s New England Patriots and the 2007 version were all the rage throughout the off-season and carried over into training camp.
Hopes of a perfect season were immediately dashed in week one’s 42-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and the team’s subsequent struggles – particularly on the defensive side of the ball – illustrated just how gross of a miscalculation it was for 19-0 being in play at all.
But since a 2-2 start, the Patriots have strung together five consecutive wins to pull away from the pack in the AFC East as the division, predictably, implodes on itself for the zillionth year in a row.
The “sky is falling” mentality after New England’s 2-2 start mirrors what happened in 2014, as does the critic-silencing winning streak that’s followed.
Going beyond the inevitable roster turnover – only 18 of the 44 Patriots players to take a snap in Super Bowl XLIX vs. the Seattle Seahawks have taken one this season for the team – this doesn’t quite jibe with 2014.
A failure to click offensively lowlighted New England’s slow start that year. Tom Brady was completing less than 60 percent of his passes (59.1) and had a painfully mediocre passer rating of 79.1 through four games. Throw in the fact that the Patriots had just spent a second-round draft pick on Jimmy Garoppolo and, absurd as it seems now, a case could be made that the Brady era in Foxboro was on life support.
Conversely, Brady had virtually no role in New England’s shaky 2-2 start in 2017. All he did was lead the league in passing yards through four weeks (he still does through Week 10) and throw for 10 touchdowns against no interceptions.
Not that Brady has regressed to the mean, but prior to this week’s 41-16 romp in Denver, the Patriots hadn’t exactly blown doors off an opponent on their current winning streak. Not only were New England’s wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers all by two scores or fewer, they marked the first run of four consecutive games where the Patriots failed to top 30 points since 2001, Brady’s first year as a starter.
Though the unit remains anything but airtight, the turnaround of New England’s defense has enabled the Patriots to climb back to atop the hierarchy in the AFC this time around.
New England still sits at the bottom of the league in both total defense (408.3 yards per game) and passing defense (287.2) and not much better against the run (26th out of 32 teams, 121.1 yards per game).
Rather, it’s the return to the Patriots’ “bend don’t break” hallmark that’s secured five straight wins. Teams are still racking up yardage before hitting the red zone, but New England is now 14th in the league in scoring defense at 21.7 points per game. It’s especially remarkable when you consider the team yielded 32 points per contest through the first four weeks of the season; the Patriots were ahead of only the woeful Indianapolis Colts in points per game through Week 4.
The bye week did nothing to derail New England defensively, nor did playing in a historically troublesome stadium for the group in Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spoke in his weekly press conference to how the Patriots used the bye week to examine how things have progressed as the season’s gone along and to make sure there would be no slippage against the Broncos.
“For us it was a chance to look back and what we need to do going forward and tried to go out last week and play at another high level,” Patricia said. “I think the guys, like I said earlier in the year, [know] this is a process. We go through a process every year of trying to develop and get better each week and that’s really our main goal.”
Consistency remains from the 2014 defense with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon in the safeties group, as well as tackle Alan Branch, but that’s about it.
(Malcolm Butler, if you recall, wasn’t exactly a core member of the defense until the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX).
Longtime Patriots such as Vince Wilfork or Rob Ninkovich, not to mention one-year mercenaries in Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner, have all retired or are currently out of football. Promising young stars Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins have since been traded, and Dont’a Hightower is out for the season with a torn pectoral injury.
The answer to whether or not 2017 can play out like 2014 begins and ends with Brady and the offense, which looks different in its own right from three seasons ago.
Personnel changes and shortcomings are prevalent in all three phases of the game for the Patriots, as even today special teams captain Matthew Slater reportedly departed Colorado for Foxboro with a hamstring injury.
But in surveying the rest of the landscape, particularly in the AFC, it may not matter.
Just look at the current AFC playoff picture. The Buffalo Bills (5-4) are coming off a 47-10 loss at home, announced a change at quarterback…and yet if the postseason were to begin today, would be the No. 6 seed in the AFC. The Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) have been playing some great defense but are quarterbacked by Blake Bortles, who is 27th in the NFL in passer rating. That’s only three spots ahead of Brian Hoyer, who lost his job in San Francisco and is now back in New England behind Brady on the depth chart. The Jags are your No. 5 seed in the AFC.
As long as the nerve center of Brady and Belichick remains the same, it’s going to take the very best shot of another team to unseat the Patriots.
The style points aren’t there yet, but after taking on water in September, it’s beginning to look a lot like normal in Foxboro.