Optimism for the Patriots shouldn’t waver regardless of what happened in last Thursday’s season opener.
And even if the unthinkable happens on Sunday, starting off 0-2 is hardly the end of the road for one’s Super Bowl aspirations in the NFL.
Since the playoffs expanded to its current format in 1990, 27 teams have responded from losing their first two games to find themselves in the postseason. Three of the teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl, including the Patriots in 2001.
Back then, New England was in the 0-2 hole thanks in part to Drew Bledsoe. Then the highest paid player in the game, Bledsoe had completed 40 of 66 passes through two games. He threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns, but also had two interceptions on the season before he was leveled by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis late in Week Two’s 10-3 loss. You know the rest.
Tom Brady himself has never lost his first two starts of the season. Last Thursday’s 42-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was only the third season-opening loss of his career, for that matter.
Under Brady, the Patriots are 42-6 following a loss. No one knows better than him that a similar effort to the one put forth vs. the Chiefs won’t get it done on Sunday.
“Obviously, what we did the other night is not enough by any means in any particular phase of the game, at any position,” Brady said. “We got outscored by 21 points and were outgained by 200 yards in the fourth quarter. There’s a lot of things that need some adjusting. Hopefully we can identify those things as quickly as possible and gain confidence in what we’re doing.”
There’s a quarterback who resembled a No. 1 overall pick on the erstwhile turf at Gillette Stadium last week, but it sure wasn’t Brady himself, the former 199th overall selection. Alex Smith, the top pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, has had himself a very good, but far from great career to date. Playing against the Patriots last week, Smith posted the fourth-highest passer rating of his career (148.6) and threw for the second highest yardage total of his career (368), enough to earn AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Coincidentally, another solid-yet-unspectacular former No. 1 overall pick was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. That would be Sam Bradford, now with the Minnesota Vikings, who shredded the New Orleans Saints for 346 yards on 27 of 32 passing and three touchdowns.
The Saints just happen to be this week’s opponent for the Patriots, another reason not to press the panic button. New Orleans allowed the second-most yards in Week One across the league (in front of only the Patriots) in its 29-19 loss to Minnesota.
There are all kinds of reasons to believe the Saints’ performance on defense vs. the Vikings was anything but aberrational. New Orleans ranked 31st out of 32 teams against the pass in 2015 before finishing dead last a season ago.
Still, the first glimpse at the Patriots offense minus Julian Edelman wasn’t pretty. Are some of Brady’s other weapons ready to step up in his absence?
“I think I’m doing pretty well,” newly-acquired wide receiver Philip Dorsett said. The former Colt was acquired on Sept. 2 in exchange for Jacoby Brissett; Dorsett played in 18 of 81 offensive snaps vs. the Chiefs and was targeted just once, registering no stats.
“It’s a lot of studying,” Dorsett said. “It’s a lot of stuff they throw at you because I missed OTAs, mini-camp and all that. I think I’m getting there; there’s still some stuff that’s giving me a little trouble, but it’s just me being so far behind. I think I’m doing well with what they’re throwing at me.”
Brandin Cooks is coming off of his debut with the Patriots as well, where he caught three passes for 88 yards on seven targets. As soon as the final whistle blew on Thursday, he said he could feel the sense of urgency to right the ship set in immediately.
“I felt the sense of urgency right after that last game, to just get going and getting on the same page,” Cooks said.
Adding intrigue to Cooks’ tale this week is that he’ll be facing the team that traded him to New England in the off-season.
“I’m just looking at it as another game,” he said. Cooks spent the first three years of his career with the Saints. “I feel like when you start to get hyped up too much, you start to psyche yourself out.”
One thing Brady didn’t lack on Thursday night was time to throw, whether to Cooks or another target. Brady was sacked three times, but twice during the team’s bizarre final offensive drive when trailing by 15. The Patriots seemingly tried to make up the entire deficit at once on three consecutive plays, something which surely can’t and won’t happen again in New Orleans.
Hard as it is to remember amid the final score, the opener was trending towards a becoming a blowout in the Patriots’ favor early on. On the heels of Kareem Hunt’s fumble on the first play from scrimmage for the Chiefs, if Mike Gillislee converts on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 10-yard line, it’s minimum 10-0 New England – possibly 14-0. Could the Chiefs have operated as they did facing a two score deficit that early on? It’s highly unlikely.
Brady is dead last in completion percentage among quarterbacks that threw at least one pass in Week One (16 for 36, 44.4 percent). It was the second lowest percentage of his career in games he’s thrown at least 20 passes.
Surely, that can’t and won’t continue. Brady hasn’t completed fewer than even 60 percent of his passes in back-to-back games since 2015 and has never completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in back-to-back games.
Reasons for optimism on the defensive side of the ball, admittedly, are harder to come by after a performance like last week’s. But Dont’a Hightower (sprained MCL) is yet to be ruled out of Sunday afternoon’s contest for the Patriots. Tyreek Hill’s 75-yard touchdown reception over Stephon Gilmore seems more a miscommunication than a mechanical issue. Pro Football Focus tends to agree; the advanced stats website still ranked Gilmore as the eighth-best cornerback in Week One across the league.
Apparently, the general public is yet to turn its back on the Patriots as Super Bowl favorites either. New England remains the odds-on favorite at 9 to 2 to win Super Bowl LII even after its loss to Kansas City, according to Bovada.
Even if something goes awry on Sunday on the Bayou, don’t go breaking the glass for an emergency quite yet. The Saints may be desperate themselves, but hardly any team in sports can work its way out of seemingly dire straits quite like the Patriots.