It’s not hard to figure out why the New England Patriots were the consensus pick to win Super Bowl LII. They went 14-1 with Tom Brady in the lineup last season, including playoffs, won a championship and added a lot of talent in the offseason.
One loss in the opener, even a bad one to the Kansas City Chiefs, doesn’t change all of that. The Patriots were fine in 2003 after they lost 31-0 to the Buffalo Bills in the opener. They won a Super Bowl that season. They were fine in 2014 after they looked old and slow in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs early in the season. They won a Super Bowl that season.
So don’t shovel dirt on New England yet. They’ll likely be fine this season. But there are some potential issues that were revealed Thursday which Bill Belichick and his staff will have to fix, or at least compensate for:
Pass rush: Alex Smith was too comfortable most of the night. He had 368 yards and four touchdowns. It might have been his best game as a pro, and he’s been around a while. Playing NFL quarterback is a lot easier when you’re rarely pressured. Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers looked good, but nobody else stood out. Dont’a Hightower is often used as a rusher, and the Patriots need to hope the knee injury he suffered Thursday night isn’t bad. Kony Ealy didn’t work out and was cut. Derek Rivers, the Patriots’ third-round pick who might have helped with the pass rush, is already on injured reserve. All of a sudden the Patriots look thin rushing the quarterback.
Receiver depth: It didn’t seem like the season-ending Julian Edelman knee injury, on its own, would be a crippling blow. But it was important. Then Malcolm Mitchell went on injured reserve, too. Danny Amendola had 100 yards on Thursday night, then the oft-injured veteran left with a concussion. New England finished with three healthy receivers, and one was Phillip Dorsett, the Colts’ first-round bust who just came over in a trade less than a week ago. You can’t lose three receivers like Edelman, Mitchell and Amendola and not feel it.
Rob Gronkowski, maybe: Gronkowski wasn’t terrible. He had a touchdown reversed on review when officials saw the ball hit the ground. And Gronk had a tough matchup against the great Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who unfortunately was carted off near the end with an Achilles tendon injury. But two catches for 33 yards for Gronkowski? That’s not normal. After an injury-filled 2016 and yet another back surgery, there at least has to be a little concern that Gronkowski won’t be quite the same. He could go for three touchdowns next week and nobody would be surprised, but how he bounces back with his long medical history at least bears watching.
The run defense: The Patriots were very good against the run last season. They allowed the third-fewest rushing yards in the NFL, gave up an NFL-low six rushing touchdowns, allowed fewer than 4 yards per carry and gave up just three 20-yard runs all season, which was best in the NFL. That’s why it was shocking to see Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt slicing through the Pats defense. Hunt set an NFL record with 246 yards from scrimmage in his debut. The Chiefs had 185 net yards rushing and averaged 6.9 yards per rush. Losing Hightower in the second half hurt. Not having linebacker Shea McClellin, who is on injured reserve, or the versatile Rob Ninkovich, who retired this past offseason, were probably bigger problems than anyone wanted to admit. It’s hard to believe what we saw from the Patriots’ run defense Thursday night is the new norm, but they have to clean it up fast and do it with a set of linebackers that for the most part hasn’t been around very long.
Maybe too many running backs?: The Patriots’ theory is typically to mix and match running backs. There are very few workhorse backs in the NFL anymore and the Patriots operate at the extreme of the committee approach. New England is incorporating two new backs, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, which might take some time. Burkhead started the game, but got only three carries. Gillislee got 15 carries for 45 yards and looked good, especially near the goal line as he scored three times, but was also stuffed on two key fourth-and-1 plays. James White is usually a receiver out of the backfield and he never had more than seven carries in a game his first three seasons; White had 10 carries Thursday night in an unexpected twist. Dion Lewis played too but only had two touches. It’s at least possible that the pie is split in so many ways that none of the four backs who played against the Chiefs are yet comfortable in their role.
The Tom Brady question: Last season Brady played 15 games, including playoffs. He completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes just once. He completed 44 percent of his passes Thursday night. He failed to throw a touchdown just twice last season. He didn’t throw one against the Chiefs. Brady had a 112.2 rating last season and was below 70 in just two games. His rating on Thursday night was 70. It’s fair to say Brady’s game against the Chiefs probably would have been his worst game last season. He looked off most of the night, especially on most of his deeper throws. Everyone is allowed to have a bad game, even the greatest quarterback ever. Against a much worse Saints defense next week, nobody would be surprised if Brady has a vintage performance. But, as you may have heard, he’s 40 now. There’s very, very little positive history for NFL quarterbacks 40 years and older. Brady is in great shape, he looked marvelous in his last two playoff games last season and there was no sign before Thursday night he was fading. And the best guess is he’s probably not going to fade much this season, if at all. But his age is a constant factor from here on out. Patriots fans will want to see Brady look like Brady next week, just to be sure.
The Patriots have bounced back from bad losses before. Their coaching staff is great at finding solutions. Also credit the Chiefs, who looked tremendous on Thursday night. New England will heal up a bit, figure out some adjustments, and simply play better than they did against Kansas City. But a team that looked practically unbeatable on paper suddenly has a few potential weaknesses.
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