Even by Patriots standards, it’s hard to recall the last time the team looked this good in all three phases of the game in back-to-back weeks.
We knew heading in to the high-altitude road trip that both the Broncos and Raiders were clearly inferior opponents. Given the circumstances of a historical lack of successes in Denver and the unknown factor of playing in Mexico City, however, it wasn’t hard to imagine a scenario where perhaps New England stumbled a bit in either location.
Instead, each game was over almost as soon as it began. Tom Brady threw six touchdowns against zero interceptions on the trip and the Patriots put up a season-high 41 points in Denver to go along with 33 more against Oakland to outscore the hapless AFC West duo, 74-24, over the two games. The Broncos gained the fewest yards of offense (339) against the New England defense this season. The Raiders didn’t score until the fourth quarter. Rex Burkhead blocked a punt. Dion Lewis returned a kick for a touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski made a career-high 62-yard field goal.
Virtually everything that could go right did, and then some, for New England. The Patriots are peaking at the right time yet again as the rest of the field collapses around it.
Which makes it all the more difficult to find flaws that may exist within the foundation of the Patriots. Call it nitpicking, but there are still several ways the team can kick it into a higher gear – even as New England’s remaining six games, the Pittsburgh Steelers aside, are against its woeful AFC East brethren. The Patriots still get to face the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills twice each and the New York Jets once.
Defensively, the front seven of the Patriots remains a work-in-progress with linebacker Dont’a Hightower out for the season. Currently last in the NFL against the run in terms of yards per play (5.0 yards), the first three games without Hightower have seen the team give up an average of 5.4 yards per play on the ground. It hasn’t helped matters that defensive tackle Malcom Brown has been missing as well, though he’s expected to return this week.
One culprit in the team’s lackluster rush defense had been defensive end Cassius Marsh, who was released by New England on Tuesday. Marsh failed to set the edge on Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard run for the Chargers against the Patriots in Week 7, was inactive vs. the Broncos and played only two snaps vs. the Raiders – in which runs of 25 and 7 yards were gained by Oakland to Marsh’s side.
Marsh also hadn’t helped much rushing the passer, recording just one sack on the season, which is why New England signed Eric Lee from the practice squad of the Buffalo Bills.
“It’s just the feeling of we felt like that was the best move to make for the football team,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his Wednesday morning press conference of the decision to move on from Marsh.
Lee signed with the Houston Texans after going undrafted in 2016 out of South Florida and spent the entirety of his first season on the practice squad. He failed to make Houston’s 53-man roster this season and was subsequently claimed by the Bills, where he was active for just one game on Oct. 1 before ultimately returning to the practice squad.
Who knows if Lee will see the field at any point for the Patriots. He’s a player Belichick had a lengthy look at in the team’s joint practices with the Texans in West Virginia this summer, and surely it can’t hurt to have another body to help a New England pass rush that has only 17 sacks in 10 games – tied for 26th in the league.
“He kind of played outside linebacker for Houston, defensive end in their sub package, so there’s some relevance there for us, similar to the position that was vacated,” Belichick said of Lee. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The Patriots have only two sacks as a team in their last four games; Adam Butler brought down Matt Ryan in Week 7 and Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers combined to bring down Derek Carr last week. Flowers has a total of four sacks on the season now to lead the team and also has 18 quarterback hits, which is tied for eighth in the NFL.
But beyond the steadiness of Flowers, not much is happening in terms of getting after the quarterback. Rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. (three sacks) continues to flash promise but doesn’t have a sack since Week 5.
With the improved play in the secondary, what’s happened up front is hardly a fatal flaw for the Patriots. The offensive lines of the Dolphins, Bills and Jets fall right in line with their quarterbacks: mediocre. Advanced stats website FootballOutsiders.com notes the Dolphins offensive line has the second-worst adjusted sack rate out of 32 teams in the NFL, allowing Jay Cutler and/or Matt Moore to be sacked on 10.3 percent of their drop backs. The Bills, featuring Tyrod Taylor and/or Nathan Peterman and his five first half interceptions last week, are 22nd at 7.5 percent and the Jets, featuring Josh McCown, are 25th at 8.1 percent.
The pass rush can continue to take its time to round into form. The Patriots have a three-game lead in the AFC East, and a win on Sunday (coupled with a Bills loss) could push it to a four-game lead with only five games to go. New England is currently a 16.5-point favorite over Miami for Sunday’s game in Foxboro at 1 p.m.
The division is an afterthought for the Patriots. All that truly remains is securing a first-round bye and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC, both of which New England remains on track for.
Last week, the similarities between this year’s team and the 2014 Super Bowl-winning group became apparent. In reality, this year is no different than pretty much any year since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady teamed up: The Patriots are playing their best football at the right time.