A week removed from the Patriots’ disappointing end to their 2019 season comes with perspective.
Since the loss, Tom Brady offered a reflective Instagram post (see below), special teams coordinator (and WR coach) Joe Judge left to become head coach of the New York Giants, and rumors have Brady leaving to play for the Los Angeles Chargers have already been discussed at a nauseating state. Not to mention, Josh McDaniels could be the Browns’ next head coach.
But for those who want the most realistic answers, as opposed to the most exciting (and absurd), listen up.
It doesn’t take a football expert to realize the major problem with this season’s Patriots squad.
It was the offense.
Looking further, there were three problems with the unit, and this is where I put the blame:
Lack of talent in pass-catching group (WR, TE) — 60%
Offensive line/blocking – Inconsistency, retirement/injuries (Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews, James Develin) — 25%
Tom Brady’s decline due to age — 15%
Yes, Brady — who will turn 43 in August — is in a decline, but it’s more of a dip likened to slowly sliding down a small, snow-covered hill slowly — something you’d let your toddler do. It’s not a steep cliff, per se. Not yet.
His NFL MVP year in 2017 may be his last prime year, but of course, that was his last year with top-tier weapons in last-year-of-his-prime Rob Gronkowski and speedy deep threat Brandin Cooks.
Brady made due in 2018, even going score for score with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs (on the road) in the AFC title game, with an over-the-hill Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett as his outside receivers.
Then came this season.
The coming and going of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas are well-documented.
Although the Patriots could have used the latter two, Brown is the only one who truly would have transformed this offense. Despite mostly living and dying in the middle of the field post-Randy Moss, Brady was in desperate need of a receiver that could create separation and become a threat on the outside. Brown is versatile enough to line up all over the field, and win anywhere, but he failed to stay in line.
Had Brown been there, teams would have thought twice about playing man coverage across the board, but instead, New England’s pass catchers ranked 32nd (dead last) in average separation per pass play, and were second in the league in drops (34).
Mohammed Sanu — acquired from the Falcons for a second-round pick — and rookie N’Keal Harry — 2019 first-round pick — certainly attributed to those stats. Judging by his speed, Sanu’s days of being starting receiver seem over, and Harry failed to grasp New England’s playbook, or a rapport with Brady, after missing the first half of the season.
New England was also in need of any semblance of pass-catching and run-blocking at the tight end position. They got virtually none in 39-year-old Ben Watson and backup-level Matt LaCosse.
The offensive line also struggled at times before Isaiah Wynn returned from injury to put a struggling Marshall Newhouse to the bench. But struggles could also be attributed to a horrible down year from Shaq Mason after he had improved his pass blocking in 2018. The loss of David Andrews at center also hurt, and Marcus Cannon showed his age at times. Only Joe Thuney (who is now a free agent) played consistently well.
The run blocking also failed to find it’s footing with the losses of Andrews, Gronkowski and full back James Develin leading the way. The unit did find a rythmn in late December, just like last season. Sony Michel seems unworthy of a first-round pick, but he does have a knack for coming through and running hard in December and January. That counts for something.
But what now? The Patriots are scheduled to have roughly $49 million in cap space, and 12 picks in the draft.
Tom Brady should be back on a masked one-year deal that has one or two future years that serve only to mitigate Brady’s cap hit in 2020. But yes, Brady will be back, and he should.
The Patriots made their bed when they traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick because Brady outlasted him.
Now, with little ammo to move up to select a top-tier passer in the draft, and only soon-to-be second-year man Jarrett Stidham on the roster, there is no real replacement for Brady on the horizon.
Even the slew of available or semi-available quarterbacks this offseason — Cam Newton, Phillip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, — is nothing to be optimistic about, if New England is indeed hoping to continue as a consistent Super Bowl contender with no major rebuilding phase.
Re-signing Brady is the best for both the GOAT and Bill Belichick’s team.
New England is in need of an aggressive re-tooling this offseason, but it can be done. Pass catchers like A.J. Green, Amari Cooper, Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper are expected to hit free agency, and pass catchers such as O.J. Howard, Brandin Cooks and maybe even Odell Beckham Jr. may be available via trade.
Barring something unusual in Belichick’s usual draft strategy, New England’s higher-than-usual slot of the No. 23 pick in the first round will not stay as is. The Patriots are more liable to trade down, or trade away the pick for help on offense — Odell Beckham Jr. should be their main target.
On top of several high-profile moves that can be made, 34-year-old Danny Amendola hits free agency as a possible reliable target for Brady. Amendola has shown flashes in Miami and Detroit the last two seasons, and could look to return to New England for one last run.
Then there’s Gronkowski. Although he probably won’t return, the chance is always there.
Still, Brady will have to cooperate to help New England here. He’ll first have to be willing to take slightly less money than he deserves. A deal that nets him around $25 million a year should be reasonable. He deserves more, but has to take less money if he indeed wants help in the form of pass-catching personnel.
Second, he’ll have to sign his deal before March 18th to avoid New England taking on an additional $13.5 million cap hit due to his last deal signed last offseason.
Brady’s recent Instagram post (I know, speculation), Robert Kraft’s love for him, and Bill Belichick’s lack of other options at quarterback should make this deal work.
New England could also lose Thuney and several defensive pieces — Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Jason McCourty, Danny Shelton — could be on the move. New England should at least look to retain McCourty and special teams ace Matthew Slater for perhaps one more season each.
The defense did its part in 2019, and that was likely their peak, with this veteran group. Chase Winovich can perhaps fill Van Noy’s role and New England’s cornerback situation — Stephon Gilmore (No. 1 CB), J.C. Jackson (No. 2 CB) and Jonathan Jones (slot) should hit its position group peak in 2020, but the unit as a whole will take a dip.
The offense will need to step up. They’ll need additional personnel to do that, and perhaps familiarity at offensive coordinator. If McDaniels leaves for Cleveland, former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea should be brought in after his one-year stint as Miami’s offensive coordinator.
The plan is in place for the Patriots to get back to their usual ways in 2020. Despite the horrid end to their season, the end is not yet here. But it’s close.
But as Brady said, he “still has more to prove.” He’s just going to need some help.
Your move, Patriots.
NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW
Fresh off one of the more exciting (and possibly telling) Wild Card rounds in years, the NFL’s divisional round poses intrigue in its own right.
The AFC champion will feature a quarterback not named Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisbeger for the firs time in 17 years. Soon-to-be-named 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, and college-standout-turned-pro Deshaun Watson represent the changing of the guard, and probably future of the position and the AFC.
The NFC features a matchup between two of the best quarterbacks of the past decade in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins face off in the Kyle Shanahan Bowl, which doubles as a contest between the two most complete remaining teams outside of Baltimore.
There’s a lot to uncover. Here’s a preview — and prediction — for each game.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (No. 6 seed. 11-6) AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (No. 1 seed, 13-3) — Saturday 4:35pm ET, NBC
Kirk Cousins defied the odds in picking up the biggest win of his career last week in New Orleans. The Vikings, a talented team in their own right, took care of what may be the second-most talented bunch of the NFC, with Minnesota being the third. The first? That would be the 49ers.
The abundance of first-round picks along the defensive line over the years was topped off by the monster acquisitions of Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa this offseason. Those two on the edge, paired with the underrated DeForest Buckner in the interior makes for the best defensive line in football. Expect this group to get after Cousins.
On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo has been much better in the second half of the season than he was in the first (probably because of his ACL tear in 2018), and that should continue here, albeit a talented Minnesota defense. Hitting on both midseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders and rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel at receiver has been huge, and having George Kittle is even bigger. Kittle is the both the best pass-catching and blocking tight end in football, and even Minnesota’s Harrison Smith will have trouble corralling him.
San Francisco will work best both working the running game and play-action throws into the mix, to fend off a Minnesota pass rush of Everson Griffen and Daniele Hunter, that got after Drew Brees last week.
Former All-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes has struggled some the past two seasons, so if Minnesota opts to use him on Sanders, the latter should have some success using his quickness against the larger Rhodes.
Minnesota will find ways to fend off San Francisco’s pass rush by running Dalvin Cook like they did last week in New Orleans. They should have some success. But Kyle Shanahan’s team will score, and Minnesota will look to Kirk Cousins to match. Richard Sherman battling Adam Thielen will be great theatre, but it’s Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph — along with Cousins — that will have to win the game for Minnesota.
The Vikings play well once more, but Jimmy G’s 49ers are up to the task. San Francisco wins a close contest via long-sustaining drives late and one key turnover forced by the pass rush.
Prediction: 49ers 30, Vikings 24
TENNESSEE TITANS (No. 6 seed. 10-7) AT BALTIMORE RAVENS (No. 1 seed, 14-2) — Saturday 8:15pm ET, CBS
After bowling over the Patriots’ top-ranked defense for 184 yards and a score — on 34 carries! — Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher this season, has now garnered 1,080 yards on the ground in just the last seven games.
Ryan Tannehill’s performance last week — 8 for 15, 72 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — left much to be desired. Even if Henry is to continue his dominant ways versus Baltimore, Tannehill will have to play better to offset what should be a ready-for-action explosion of Lamar Jackson’s offense.
The Ravens haven’t played a meaningful game since before Christmas, and should be chomping at the bit to shake off the possible rust. The health of Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews will play a major role in just how potent Baltimore’s attack is. So will the discipline and remaining spunk in the Titans’ defensive tank.
Jurrell Casey will do his best to clog up the middle lanes, but next-line-of-defense playmakers like rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans, and EDGE defender Harold Landry will need to be at their best in hopes of somewhat corralling Lamar.
Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccarro have also spent a lot of time cheating up to the line of scrimmage to help with their rush defense. They should continue that this week, while also being mindful of the short-middle in the passing game. A muddled middle with a way of slowing down the rushing attack would force Lamar to throw outside the numbers to the likes of Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead.
Technically, Tennessee has a defense that could theoretically slow down the soon-to-be NFL MVP, but listing that here is not the same as them executing.
And Baltimore’s aggressive defensive backfield consisting of Earl Thomas, Marlon Humprhey and Marcus Peters will come in to play here, probably to the detriment of Tannehill.
If the Titans can chew the clock and score touchdowns behind Henry and the occasional Tannehill play-action pass, while also holding Baltimore to under 24 points, then they have a shot.
But that seems too much to ask.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Titans 16
HOUSTON TEXANS (No. 4 seed. 11-6) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (No. 2 seed, 12-4) — Sunday 3:05pm ET, CBS
In a game in which only Patriots and Bears fans (check out the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft) may attest to being exciting, two of the most supernatural QBs will go at it in Kansas City.
Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
Both are liable to carry their team to 30-plus point performances. But Patrick Mahomes really doesn’t have to, at least not by himself. Deep threat Tyreek Hill and ‘Y’ receiver/tight end Travis Kelce supply him with one of the best one-two punches on offense. And on defense, Kansas City’s unit has adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes after a rocky start.
Watson has help in DeAndre Hopkins, but he’ll need fellow former first-round pick Will Fuller to acompany him on the outside. Fuller is an immaculate deep threat, if not much else. And his presence will help ease attention on Hopkins, who could see double teams, and Kenny Stills, who would maybe see Tyrann Mathieu in the slot — Mathieu has allowed a league-low 40.7 passer rating in the slot since Week 10, according to Pro Football Focus.
Houston will need to pressure Mahomes to even have a shot at winning, and although they finished the year 26th in that category (31 sacks), J.J. Watt’s return should give them more confidence there.
Houston’s defense has some major holes, but Bradley Roby isn’t one of them. The former first-round pick from Denver has played with controlled aggression, and has basically taken over for Marcus Peters as perhaps the best aggressive-style cornerback (in terms of taking chances) the past month. Will they opt to use him on Sammy Watkins, with a possible shift to man coverage on Kelce on key downs? And even then, Hill is liable to beat them deep.
Mahomes has not looked as sharp since returning from injury midseason, but he’s slowly gotten better as he has healed. But the Chiefs have been okay behind a suddenly-superb defense that should be able to stop any full-throttle plans by Houston to run out the clock with Carlos Hyde. So even though the Texans won in Kansas City (31-24) back in October behind 192 rushing yards, they are unlikely to repeat that here. Kansas City will force Houston into a shootout where they will tee off on Watson with their pass rush. And judging by Buffalo’s seven sacks versus them last week, they’ll be able to do that.
Kansas City wins behind a few big plays on offense, and a 5-sack performance on Watson. If there is to be one blowout this week, this is the game.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Texans 17
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (No. 4 seed. 12-5) AT GREEN BAY PACKERS (No. 2 seed, 13-3) — Sunday 6:40pm ET, FOX
On Sunday night, two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks will square off in the postseason for the first time since Russell Wilson and the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks came back to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in an overtime contest in Seattle that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
Although much has changed since then, it will be Wilson versus Rodgers once more, but this time in Lambeau Field.
The weather in Green Bay on Sunday is supposed to hover around 20 degrees, with partly sunny weather, but that’s after Green Bay is expecting to hire over 700 shovelers on Sunday morning to clear out what could be as much as 10 inches of snow for the night before. Regardless, it will be cold.
The frigid weather would benefit a fully-healthy Seattle, who’s top back — Chris Carson — rushed for 1,230 yards this season. But Carson and his next two backups, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise are all out, leaving the Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch, whom they picked up before Week 17.
Looking over at Lynch on the Seattle sideline may give Rodgers enough jolt to remember the NFC title game that got away form him in Seattle. He’ll want this one. But the Packers have struggled at times on offense this season behind rookie head coach Matt LeFleur’s scheme. In Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones, the Packers have two top-tier weapons, but there’s not much after that, giving Seattle an easier time to game plan. The Seahawks’ best bet is to neutralize Jones on the ground, and then to hope for a fine performance from Jadeveon Clowney on the edge. Clowney has been inconsistent in his first season in Seattle, but at times has taken over games, showcasing why they brought him in.
Green Bay’s improved defense should be able to hold Seattle’s rushing attack down, meaning Wilson will likely run for his life throughout the game, considering Green Bay’s improved pass rush with the Smith’s — Zadarius and Preston.
But this is where Wilson thrives, when all the chips are down. Although rookie sensation D.K. Metcalf may struggle to separate versus Green Bay’s No. 1 cornerback, Jaire Alexander, Tyler Lockett should be able to find some success working out of the slot, even against 36-year-old stalwart Tramon Williams, who has been awesome this season.
The play of Seattle’s offensive line will be key here, but Wilson will extend plays on his own anyhow. He always does.
Hoping to avenge a loss that haunts him, and with the weather and home crowd backing him, this should be a game where Rodgers leads Green Bay to victory. Especially considering Seattle’s injury situation and incomplete roster.
But this feels like the last win in a heroic season for Russell Wilson, who has carried teams better than any other quarterback the past few seasons, and has been specifically good this season, even with somewhat of a December swoon. Wilson gets it done, and surprisingly gets a little help from his defense, and missed opportunities by the Packers’ offense.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Packers 17
CFP NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler predicts double digit underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft after this game, detailing just how much talent will be on the field.
That stat doesn’t include redshirt senior Joe Burrow, who has maxed out his college eligibility to his final game, which could give him the perfect send-off — a National Championship.
The Heisman Trophy winner will look toward main target Justin Jefferson early and often, which should result in points. Although Clemson is heavily talented, LSU is the better team. Clemson should figure out a way to slow LSU, which is something that no team has done this season, but the Tigers will adjust and retaliate.
But the thing about Clemson is, they’re not scared. They have the experience, as shown by their comeback win over Ohio State in their CFP Semifinal victory. True Sophomore Trevor Lawrence is undefeated as a starter (25-0) and Clemson enters the contest not only as the defending National champions, but as a team with an 29-game winning streak.
Even against a more talented LSU squad that features a litany of pro talent on defense, Lawrence will find ways to score. Expect the game to be a back-and-forth affair with both teams scoring in the final minutes.
I have a feeling that Burrow’s season for the ages ends in him slaying Clemson, before heading to the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this spring.
Prediction: LSU 35, Clemson 31