Week 4 Booms and Busts: Undefeated Patriots are missing fantasy juice

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: New England Patriots Wide Receiver Josh Gordon (10) runs with the ball after a catch during the second half of the game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills on September 29 ,2019, at New Era Field in Orchard Park, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Josh Gordon rarely had this kind of room Sunday at Buffalo. (Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Patriots are sitting pretty at 4-0. They’re either the Super Bowl favorites or the second favorite, depending on how you feel about the Chiefs. The AFC East crown already appears secure; it’s practically an online delivery item for these guys.

And yet, somehow, this current New England offense has little fantasy juice. The calculator is broken. The well is dry.

New England’s 16-10 victory over Buffalo was a game only a mother could love. Tom Brady had his worst full start in over a decade (150 yards, 3.8 YPA, 45.9 rating). The New England rushing attack plodded to 3.2 YPC, with forgotten Brandon Bolden poaching the touchdown run. The Patriots wideout group totaled nine catches for 86 yards, no scores — on a whopping 23 targets. Rex Burkhead touched the ball once.

Sony Michel had 17 carries, but 63 yards and no touchdown — that’s not a fantasy day worth relishing. James White was useful in the passing game (8-57-0), but that’s not a winning line, either. Buffalo’s offense wasn’t really clicking either, though the Bills had a sizable edge in first downs (23 to 11) and total yards (375 to 224). This was an escape win for the Patriots all the way.

To be fair, Buffalo’s defense is nasty — especially at home. And easier opponents are waiting for New England. Hello, Washington. We see you, New York Giants.

But what Patriots are fantasy managers eager to play? Josh Gordon has looked pedestrian all season, and Julian Edelman has never been a dynamic touchdown scorer. Phillip Dorsett is more handy than explosive. And Michel, White, Burkhead — you might as well play the lotto before you play Patriots backfield bingo. Often this unit will settle into semi-predictable patterns with usage, but we haven’t seen it yet.

Ben Watson is coming back, but how much can we realistically expect from a 38-year-old tight end?

Even placekicker Stephen Gostkowski is feeling the yips — he shanked another extra point. That makes five missed kicks (four of them extra points) in three weeks. By comparison, Justin Tucker has missed one extra point in his career.

The unexpected fantasy star in Foxboro has been the Patriots DST. New England racked up five sacks, four interceptions, and a blocked punt touchdown in the Buffalo win, the second time in three weeks this unit has gone bananas. It’s scored at least 10 fantasy points every week, and the defense has allowed just one touchdown all year. The good times should keep rolling against Washington next week, a team that cranks out turnovers like the neighborhood bakery.

Obviously no one is foolish enough to put the shovel to Brady and Co. Good coaching finds a way to fix holes, and we’ve seen the Patriots have September blues before (be it in wins or losses). Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, offensive line maestro Dante Scarnecchia — these guys know what they’re doing.

But if you want to put your primary Patriots on the bench for a spell, wait for the prove-it game — I can’t blame you. I’d like to see some results, too.

Will Dissly scores for Team America

The Seahawks needed a clean game and Arizona hosted them at the right time. Seattle pounded out a crisp 27-10 victory, with no turnovers, no muss, no fuss. (Seattle did have three fumbles — none by Chris Carson — but scooped up all three.)

Carson marked his territory with 145 total yards, and made 4.7 per carry. He lost a touchdown to a penalty, and was vultured by C.J. Prosise shortly after, but it was a get-back performance. And Will Dissly did what every tight end does against the Cardinals — he produced (7-57-1). Arizona’s seam coverage is simply awful, far and away the worst in the league. Dissly’s one wayward target was an end-zone pass, broken up.

I don’t know if the Bengals have the tight ends to exploit Arizona next week, but then it’s Austin Hooper (dependable, underrated) and Evan Engram (stud). Given a monthlong sample and the amplitude of the sample, I say we apply Occam’s Razor and keep throwing tight ends at the Cardinals until they show some ability to stop it. Just because it’s painfully obvious doesn’t mean it can’t be right.

Outside of one dynamic quarter against Detroit, I’ve seen nothing special from Kyler Murray. He’s taking too many sacks, and his ball placement has been suspect — he’s putting too many teammates in dangerous areas. The Air Raid offense has been a flop though one month.

Quick Hits

• Ah yes, there’s the Tampa Bay carnival we were all looking forward to. Explosive offense, leaky defense, lots of points, passes, fantasy goodies. The Bucs tree is on the narrow side, even with O.J. Howard slow out of the blocks. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are obviously every-week staples, and while Jameis Winston might not be altogether good, for our purposes, he’s good enough.

The Rams might be similar. Jared Goff has that home/road split gnawing at him, but he’s still tied to Sean McVay’s schemes and three excellent wideouts. Todd Gurley bailed out with some touchdown deodorant (two spikes), but he didn’t flash as a difference-maker Sunday. The Rams will go as far as Goff is capable of taking them.

• I can’t wait to see where Dawson Knox and Noah Fant are in two years. Heck, two months. Fant probably needs a new quarterback to really spread his wings; Knox obviously deserves more snaps. Knox has dump-trucked defenders for two weeks in a row, a walking highlight clip.

• Gardner Minshew doesn’t have elite physical gifts or ideal height, which means he needs to excel in most other areas. And maybe he’s capable of doing that. His accuracy is excellent, his pocket presence solid (and could get better), and the moment never seems to big for him. As much as I love Nick Foles as a player and person, the Jaguars need to let this Minshew story run for a while, see if there’s any upside to it. We already know what the Foles ceiling is. (Of course, these decisions aren’t needed soon, as Foles rehabs. But I think Minshew is this team’s opening day starter in 2020.)

• My friend Michael Salfino nailed it recently when discussing Kirk Cousins: the Vikings quarterback is conservative when the situation calls for risk, and he’s risky when the situation calls for discretion. Minnesota has a dynamic running back and an excellent defense, but this training-wheel offense is a one-way ticket to eight-win purgatory.

• I saw little of Houston-Carolina; Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins analysis will be Priority 1 on Monday morning. Better to say “I don’t know yet” then push forward a faux take.

• I was never worried about Nick Chubb (a RB9 rank at Baltimore hopefully fit him into your lineup) and Jarvis Landry is generally underrated, because there’s nothing sexy about his game. Baker Mayfield isn’t a “force the ball to the star” quarterback, he takes the best available option. Odell Beckham Jr. is too talented to scuffle all year, but perhaps he was better off with the Giants, where they’d cram the ball to him no matter the circumstances.

• Wayne Gallman has versatility, an unquestioned starting gig, and ties to an offense that can be league average, maybe a little bit better. That not only makes him an easy RB2 every week while Saquon Barkley rehabs, it probably pushes him to the upper half of the bucket. No matter the game script, Gallman figures to be relevant.

• Imagine what Sammy Watkins could do if he were ever tied to a star quarterback, or an offensive genius, or increased opportunity. Even with Darius Slay on the sidelines, Watkins was a mess at Detroit, fumbling, dropping a likely touchdown, and never looking like the “league winner” he was presumptuously proclaimed to be after a dynamic Week 1. Score one for common sense over recency bias; you had a sell-high window three weeks back, if you were grounded enough to take it. Watkins has been a good-not-great wideout for most of his career, despite some amazing backdrops.

• The next time I see a non-quarterback throw the ball away (or eat it) on an option pass, I’m going to start hugging strangers. Coaches have to see the downside of these gadget plays; the skill guys desperately want their moment as a quarterback, and are hell-bent on chucking the ball downfield, no matter if the trickery has worked or not. Unless the player in question has a quarterback background or some experience in this area (Julian Edelman and Mo Sanu come to mind), I say you rip the page out of the playbook.

• I’m still far from sold on the Oakland offense, even with a victory over a solid Indianapolis club. But at least the Raiders are forcing the ball to their primary guys. Josh Jacobs collected 19 touches, Darren Waller was targeted eight times, and Tyrell Williams saw seven targets (no one else had more than three targets). Jon Gruden, for whatever his flaws, knows where the bread is buttered. Projectable volume is a currency.

• Here’s wishing every Sunday could have Week 4’s schedule shape, with eight games in the initial window. Show me to the Octobox (where I can see every game on one screen) and don’t force me to an action aggregator if I’m not in the mood for one (I actually enjoy NFL Network’s version of this; DirecTV, not as much).

• The Falcons are a team with problems, but it’s all going to funnel well for Matt Ryan. The Falcons can’t stop teams or run the ball consistently, and Ryan is still working with outstanding receivers. His Sunday line was an odd one; it’s rare to see 350 or more passing yards without a touchdown or a pick. But Ryan looks like a very safe fantasy play, even if Atlanta remains on the road to nowhere.

• I was calling for Marcus Mariota’s benching a week ago, so his blowup game at Atlanta was an unqualified miss. But if we can’t project Mariota to do this consistently, he’ll be hard to own for fantasy. The Bills, Broncos, and Chargers come next; buena suerte, Mariota. And stay loose, Ryan Tannehill.

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