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The leaves are changing, the weather is getting chilly, Major League Baseball is almost to the postseason and we’re wondering if the New England Patriots are finally finished. It must be fall.
The last time I did this with the Patriots, after that infamous 2014 Monday night blowout loss at the Kansas City Chiefs, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ended up reading a passage of my post on NFL Network’s “Do Your Job” special after the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Let’s say that asking “Was this the end for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ dynasty?” after that Chiefs game didn’t age well.
I’ve learned my lesson and I’m not going to bury the Patriots until the body is cold. It doesn’t look good for New England at 1-2, but we’ve seen this before. We saw it last season too, when the Patriots got worked over by the Chiefs in the opener and generally started slow. Didn’t matter, they ended up in the Super Bowl. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that whatever we see from the Patriots in September isn’t too important. It’s a testament to their coaching that they can fix what appears to be massive problems and still end up as one of the best teams in football.
However … one of these years all of the Patriots’ issues we see in September will be a sign of decline. We just don’t know when that will happen. We don’t know if it’s happening now.
The issues early this season are plentiful. Without saying this is the end of the Patriots’ dynasty or anything, let’s take a calm and rational look at why the Patriots are off to a slow start:
• The Patriots apparently thought they could put any set of receivers around Tom Brady and he would make it work. In the first half of the season opener it worked. Since then, the offense hasn’t been too dynamic. The reason the Patriots traded for Josh Gordon — a cheap gamble but a gamble nonetheless — is because they knew their receiver situation isn’t good. Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson have never been reliable receivers. Chris Hogan hasn’t taken to a bigger role. The Patriots need better talent at receiver. Julian Edelman will help when his four-game suspension is over. Maybe Gordon will too. But it still seems light. You have to wonder if they regret trading Brandin Cooks.
• The Lions took Rob Gronkowski out of the game, often with obvious double teams. They basically decided to play 9-on-10 elsewhere on the field, because they wouldn’t let Gronkowski beat them. Gronkowski is one of the best players in the NFL and he has just 66 yards in New England’s past two games. This is probably related to the receiver problem. Why not double Gronkowski? Nobody else should scare a defense.
• The Patriots are known as a passing team because of Brady, but they’re usually very good on the ground as well. That hasn’t been the case this season. Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel have both dealt with injuries. Before Monday night’s game, the Patriots ranked 20th in rushing yards, 19th in yards per carry and had zero rushing touchdowns. Burkhead and Michel are averaging 3.6 and 3.5 yards per carry, respectively. That has to improve.
• The defense ranks poorly in just about every relevant category. This happened last season too and the Patriots overcame it. That was also with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, a respected defensive coach who figured some things out after a rough start. Maybe this staff will mine the same improvement as the season goes on. However, not having a difference-making pass rusher is an issue yet again. After a good Week 1, the Patriots have one sack in two weeks. That’s why Blake Bortles and Matthew Stafford looked good against them. Pass rush not an easy problem to fix, and it’s not the Patriots’ only defensive issue.
• In the first half of Week 1, Brady had 154 yards and three touchdowns. In the 10 quarters since, Brady has 490 yards and three touchdowns. Brady is 25th in the NFL in passing yards. He had just 133 yards against a mediocre Lions defense on Sunday night. Maybe it all stems from the lack of depth at receiver, Gronkowski being taken out of the game and the running game struggling. But at some point Brady will slow down. He’s 41. No 41-year-old quarterback has ever had any significant success. Two-and-a-half quiet games isn’t a reason to believe the end has come for Brady, but we can’t ignore the possibility either.
We all know how this is likely to end up. The Patriots will get production out of someone at receiver, things will open up for Gronkowski, the running game will come alive and Brady will look fine. The Patriots will rally and win the AFC East and enter the playoffs as Super Bowl contenders. Until then, we can wonder if this is finally the year they take a big step back. It wouldn’t feel like fall without it.
Here are the power rankings after Week 3 of the NFL season:
32. Arizona Cardinals (0-3, LW: 31)
Now that the Bills have won a game, there’s little doubt this is the worst team in football. It was painful watching them blow a 14-0 lead on Sunday. It’s amazing they started Sam Bradford three times before turning to Josh Rosen, too.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-2, LW: 20)
What can you say? The 49ers were 1-10 last season before Jimmy Garoppolo started. The 49ers might not be that bad this year without Garoppolo — they lost a ton of close games last season and the roster is better than last year — but they’re going to be bad. Just a crushing blow.
30. Oakland Raiders (0-3, LW: 27)
Oakland led the Rams in the third quarter of Week 1. They led in the fourth quarter of road games against the Broncos and Dolphins. They lost all three, of course. Are they wearing down because of the age of the roster? Was it just a couple of tough road assignments in Weeks 2 and 3? Coaching issues? Small sample size? Whatever the reason, it’s a bad trend. It’s at least promising the Raiders aren’t getting blown out.
29. Houston Texans (0-3, LW: 23)
With Hue Jackson getting a win and Dirk Koetter starting the season fast, it’s possible Bill O’Brien now has the hottest seat among all NFL coaches. He can’t blame a Deshaun Watson injury for the 0-3 start.
28. Buffalo Bills (1-2, Last week: 32)
I have no idea what to make of what we saw Sunday. It’s hard to believe the team we saw get blown out the first six quarters of the season suddenly did a 180. But the Bills destroyed a very good Vikings team on the road. I’m not convinced that was more than a one-off performance at Minnesota, but who knows anymore?
27. New York Jets (1-2, LW: 25)
Lost in Baker-mania last Thursday was that Sam Darnold could have made it all moot by playing just a little better. He was 15-of-31 for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s a 38.2 rating. It was a short week against a good defense so Darnold gets a pass, but it’s worth noting.
26. Cleveland Browns (1-1-1, LW: 30)
I’ll say this one more time and let it drop: If Hue Jackson had his way, Baker Mayfield still would not have made his NFL debut. And the Browns would likely be 0-3. If the Browns have a nice season and save Jackson’s job, let’s remember that tidbit.
25. Detroit Lions (1-2, LW: 29)
Only 13 days passed between the Lions getting blown out by the Jets on the opening Monday night, and them pounding the Patriots on Sunday. We’re reminded over and over and over: Don’t ever think you have the NFL figured out, because it will change without warning.
24. New York Giants (1-2, LW: 28)
Eli Manning went 25-of-29 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against a good Texans defense. Manning, and the Giants, really needed that.
23. Dallas Cowboys (1-2, LW: 19)
We’re three games into the season and one Cowboys receiver has more than 100 yards receiving. That’s Cole Beasley, at 132. No offense to Beasley, but he shouldn’t be the No. 1 receiver for an NFL team. I refuse to put the Cowboys’ problems at Dak Prescott’s feet. The front office is completely at fault for the lack of talent at receiver or tight end, and the coaching staff hasn’t helped either.
22. Seattle Seahawks (1-2, LW: 26)
Something absolutely in the Seahawks’ favor: Their schedule is much, much easier than it looked a few weeks ago. The Seahawks probably should go 4-0 against the 49ers and Cardinals this season.
21. Indianapolis Colts (1-2, LW: 21)
I’ll give Frank Reich and his staff a lot of credit. The Colts are playing very well, despite their 1-2 record. You get the feeling that staff is getting the most out of the talent on hand. Don’t forget that Reich is a rookie head coach and his offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators were never NFL coordinators before this season.
20. Tennessee Titans (2-1, LW: 22)
The Titans’ defense has been a nice surprise. Tennessee’s offense will have to play better, and a lot of that revolves around Marcus Mariota getting healthy, but it’s easier to work on those issues at 2-1.
19. Atlanta Falcons (1-2, LW: 10)
According to NFL.com, Matt Ryan’s 148.1 rating Sunday was the highest ever in a loss during the Super Bowl era. The Falcons have taken on some injuries on defense, the most recent being safety Ricardo Allen, but the defense should be that bad. Maybe it will look better when it’s not facing Drew Brees.
18. Washington Redskins (2-1, LW: 24)
This is why the NFL is impossible to predict sometimes: How can you reconcile the horrendous Week 2 home performance against the Colts with what we saw from Washington in Week 3 against the Packers? You wouldn’t even know that was the same team in both games. Also, 33-year-old Adrian Peterson is on pace for 1,259 rushing yards. Incredible.
17. Chicago Bears (2-1, LW: 18)
I want to believe in Mitchell Trubisky. But he is still missing way too many easy passes. Maybe he always will. The offensive struggles are why the Bears aren’t higher on this list. The defense is really good, however.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1, LW: 11)
Not that Dirk Koetter is asking me about his big quarterback decision, but I’d give Ryan Fitzpatrick the Week 4 start and unless Fitzpatrick has another NFC player of the week performance (can’t rule it out, since he has two this season already), I’d go with Jameis Winston after the Week 5 bye.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1-1, LW: 17)
The play by Ben Roethlisberger near the end of Monday night’s game, avoiding the rush and throwing across his body to get the first down, was incredible. We’ve seen Roethlisberger make so many of those plays it seems routine, but it’s not.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1, LW: 12)
Let’s start with the obvious: If A.J. Green is out for any significant amount of time with a groin injury, the Bengals offense might be in trouble. Tyler Boyd is having a nice breakout and maybe John Ross does more with a bigger role, but it’s hard to see how the passing game doesn’t take a major step back without Green.
13. Denver Broncos (2-1, LW: 9)
It seems like next Monday night’s home game against the Chiefs is a crossroads. Either the Broncos will be 3-1 with a couple division wins in their pocket, or 2-2 and we’ll look at their wins — at home against the Seahawks and Raiders by four combined points — with a little more skepticism.
12. New Orleans Saints (2-1, LW: 16)
What Drew Brees did on Sunday was simply incredible. What a player. But let’s not just ignore that for the second time in three weeks, the Saints defense was terrible. It’s strange because it’s basically the same group that was very good last season.
11. Los Angeles Chargers (1-2, LW: 8)
There’s no shame in losing to the Chiefs and Rams, who are a combined 6-0 and looking fantastic. But it’s also of little comfort to the Chargers, who find themselves once again digging out of an early-season hole. The good news is receiver Mike Williams looks like the difference maker the Chargers hoped they were getting when they took him in the top 10 last year.
10. Baltimore Ravens (2-1, LW: 14)
Ravens vs. Steelers is always pretty good entertainment. Now that the Steelers picked themselves up off the mat and got a win, the Week 4 showdown should be even more interesting than usual.
9. Miami Dolphins (3-0, LW: 15)
Don’t worry Dolphins fans, your team gets a chance to prove it’s for real next week at New England. We’ll talk again after that.
8. Minnesota Vikings (1-1-1, LW: 2)
It’s hard to trivialize whatever Everson Griffen is going through by bringing it back to football. However, it’s still tough for the Vikings on the field to lose — however long it might end up being — a three-time Pro Bowl end who had 13 sacks last season. That’s not the most important thing right now but it matters in a football sense.
7. Green Bay Packers (1-1-1, LW: 7)
Mike Pettine was brought in as defensive coordinator to replace Dom Capers, who Packers fans complained about constantly. In three games the Packers have given up 23, 29 and 31 points against the Chicago, Minnesota and Washington offenses. We’ve seen those three offenses struggle mightily in other games this season. It’s not a great start for the Packers defense.
6. New England Patriots (1-2, LW: 5)
A quick note on the order this week: It’s insane to try and logically order this madness right now. I know we say “The NFL is crazy this season!” every year, but it really feels wild after the first three weeks. If you’re ranking teams you can’t make a reasonable argument to me the Dolphins, for example, are one of the five or six best teams in the NFL. The same can go for the Ravens, Bears or plenty of other 2-1 teams. I’m just going to assume the craziness of the first three weeks settles down and some normalcy returns. That’s why the Patriots are still here.
5. Carolina Panthers (2-1, LW: 13)
Christian McCaffrey had 184 yards on 28 carries Sunday. Let’s just appreciate how good McCaffrey is, and worry about him holding up with that type of usage another day.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-1, LW: 3)
It’s impossible to believe that the Blake Bortles we saw play so well against the Patriots and the Bortles that averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and led his team to six points at home against the Titans on Sunday is even the same guy. Does Bortles have an evil twin and they do some NFL version of the old “Parent Trap” movie? How could someone be this inconsistent?
3. Philadelphia Eagles (2-1, LW: 6)
For a first game back, that was just fine for Carson Wentz. He went 25-of-37 for 255 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He moved around well and the Eagles have to feel like it will only get better. “Overall I thought he did some nice things, extended some drives for us whether he was running escaping the pocket or making plays downfield,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, according to Philly.com.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0, LW: 4)
At this moment, if every NFL player became a free agent and every team had a full salary cap to use, who would command the highest contract? Keep in mind that age would be a factor. Is it possible the answer is Patrick Mahomes? It’s only a few starts, but it seems impossible to believe he’s not going to be a star for the next decade or more.
1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0, LW: 1)
Injuries are the only thing that can derail the Rams in the NFC West, and maybe in the NFC as a whole. But the injuries to cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are a big deal. Especially having to face Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs of the Vikings on Thursday.
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