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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Patriots breeze out of the Windy City with a W

There’s a lot to unpack out of this one.

Some might say this is a game for which you would just light the tape on fire and never speak of it again in spite of the victory. For sure, the 38-31 win over the Bears was anything but pretty, but make no mistake, it was still a good win. It was not clean. There were some big gaffes, but the Patriots made big plays in all three phases of the game.

Here are a few thoughts:

• Sony Michel was clearly a major part of the Patriots’ game plan for Sunday. Even with Chicago holding the ball for a large portion of the first quarter thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson’s fumble on a kickoff return, Michel was making a serious impact. He chewed up the Chicago defense in the first drive of the game as the Patriots featured the run and the short passing game. But everything had to change when Michel left the game with what could be a very serious knee injury (MRI still to come). The Patriots adjusted beautifully, thanks largely to James White. White stepped in, as he always does, playing 70% of the offensive snaps, which was by far a season high. In fact, it was closer to 80% after Michel’s injury. Through the air and on the ground, White proved he’s more than a niche back. Kenjon Barner offered support, but it truly was White’s show. He now has 8 total touchdowns through the first seven games of the season, and while the Patriots will surely bring in some backfield help, expect White to get the lion’s share of the playing time.

• Tom Brady is looking like the Tom Brady we have come to expect once again. Since the meltdown in Detroit dropped the team’s record to 1-2, Brady has a rating of 103.5, completing 70.7% of his passes and averaging 308 yards per game and 8.2 yards per attempt. He has 12 total touchdowns to his credit in that four-game span (10 passing, 2 rushing), and while the 5 interceptions he’s thrown are problematic, three of them – the last three, actually – were the result of drops by the receivers. Yesterday, it was fullback James Develin failing to catch a pass cleanly, which allowed the defender to come in and take it away. Clearly, that’s something that needs cleaning up, but with the offense averaging nearly 36 points per game, Brady is clearly the solution and not a part of the problem.

• The Patriots’ offensive line did a pretty outstanding job against the Bears’ front-7. While Khalil Mack was hampered with an injury that had him questionable all week, he’s far from the only one who can do damage on the Chicago defense. Brady was sacked just once, turtling when a screen was blown up instead of trying to force something and taking a big hit. The line allowed just three hits on Brady all day. The Patriots remain among the league’s best in fewest sacks allowed, fewest QB hits allowed, and sack percentage.

• Josh Gordon’s big-play ability was on display Sunday afternoon. His huge 55-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter set up the Patriot’s decisive score, and he also had a big 20-yard catch on a play during which he was interfered with and still made a terrific catch with the defender wrapped around his waist. He did have one drop on what could have been a big-gainer trying to corral a low throw that wouldn’t have been nearly as low had he worked his way back to the ball instead of sitting and waiting for it when he found the hole in the zone. Still, it’s a small thing to nitpick when the guy has made numerous positive contributions and has really helped transform a struggling offense.

• Chris Hogan is now in a more comfortable position for the offense and is doing what he does best – exposing holes in the opposition’s defense. When he’s not a focal point of the offense, Hogan can be very effective, as he has the athleticism to break the big play. He’s just not talented enough to take on and beat top corners. Get him in a favorable matchup and good things can happen. This week and last week are testaments to that. Hogan found space in the zone and didn’t have anyone within 4 yards of him on his catches, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. His ability to play in multiple spots on the field has moved him ahead of Philip Dorsett, who is strictly an outside receiver. Dorsett is obviously squarely behind Gordon, who plays the same position.

• Turnovers continue to be baffling. The Patriots, a year after being among the worst in takeaways, have transformed that aspect of the defense into a strength, recording multiple takeaways for the sixth time this season. Both were tremendous plays – JC Jackson’s rip-away interception on a bad decision by Mitchel Trubisky and Jonathan Jones’ one-handed pick on an underthrown ball. Realistically, the Patriots should have had two more, however, and failed interceptions on the end zone by Elandon Roberts and Stephon Gilmore proved costly. Instead of ending scoring drives, the Patriots surrendered points after those. These are the plays the defense needs to make if the Patriots are going to make a realistic run at a championship. On the other side, the Patriots have committed at least one turnover in each of its first seven games this season and have 14 on the year. It’s hard to fault Michel for his fumble (although I recognize I’m writing for an audience who once criticized Stevan Ridley for not holding onto the ball when he was knocked unconscious), but Cordarrelle Patterson’s fumble was a case of carelessness. Brady’s pick was discussed above. While there are excuses for some of the turnovers, overall, it’s a trend the Patriots surely want to reverse.

• Quarterbacks on the run continue to befuddle the Patriots, and it’s been the guys you wouldn’t really think of as running quarterbacks. Blake Bortles beat the Patriots with his legs several times in the loss to Jacksonville and Trubisky did the same, ripping off some huge runs. The worst was an amazingly embarrassing touchdown on a play where Adrian Clayborn overpursued, missed the tackle, and lost containment, leaving Trubisky free and clear to run back across the field to the end zone. Clayborn has created some good pressure at times and recorded a sack in this game that should have been huge (it wasn’t thanks to Brady’s interception), but too often he loses the edge and allows the quarterback to get free. He’s not alone as Deatrich Wise Jr. has had his bad moments in this area, too, and when the play breaks down, it often seems the Patriots don’t have either the awareness or the team speed to prevent the big gain.

• While the Patriots have done well overall on opposing wide receivers, the pass defense has continued to struggle with backs and tight ends. The 160 yards per game yielded to opposing wideouts is more than adequate, but the Patriots are among the worst in passing yards allowed to backs. Tarik Cohen was the latest example as no one on the Patriots’ defense could match his speed, and the Patriots tried, even putting corners on him. Trey Burton was open over the middle of the field all game long. On average, there wasn’t a defender within 4.7 yards of him, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and it seemed like a lot more. While Michel’s injury will inevitably create chatter about the need to trade for a running back, the Patriots need to address the speed problem at the linebacker level.

• The last play of the game was obviously a critical one for the defense because it ended the game, but in addition, it illustrated great execution, something that has often eluded the Patriots. As beat writers pointed out, several players talked about how they’re coached on the play – don’t leave your feet (except the one guy in the formation whose job is to jump for the ball; in this case, Gordon) and make the tackle. The Patriots were well-positioned on the play and left no doubt that Kevin White was going to be short of the goal line with a solid gang tackle. Yeah, OK, they gave up a 54-yard pass. The Bears needed 55 to extend the game. The Patriots were willing to cede the meaningless yardage to ensure a win.

• This was a big game for the Patriots’ special teams units, which have been struggling outside of placekicking. Patterson’s fumble was an obvious negative, but his 95-yard return for a touchdown really showcased why the Patriots brought him in. He provides an element the team has not had in recent memory. He is averaging 33.3 yards per return and the team overall is averaging 30.9 yards per return. In 2017, the Patriots averaged 22.2 yards per return. Dion Lewis led the team at 24.8 yards per kick. The last time the Patriots averaged more than 25 yards on returns during the Belichick era? 2018 (25.2). The last time they averaged 30? Never. Specific to this game, Patterson’s return swung the momentum of the game back to the Patriots, who had fallen into a hole after the obviously unfortunate pair of fumbles set the Bears up with scoring drives. The blocked punt was not only well-executed, but a well-timed decision to go after it. Dont’a Hightower, for as much criticism as he’s gotten for having “lost a step,” continues to make impacts. Kyle Van Noy was the one who ultimately made the scoop and score, but there were two or three Patriots who realistically had a shot at the recovery. The Patriots’ kick coverage was also solid. A stop of Benny Cunningham on the Bears’ 16 in the fourth quarter was a big play at that point in the game and would have been considered a big part of the Patriots’ ability to ice it late if not for Kyle Fuller pulling a pass away from James Develin for the interception on the Patriots’ next drive.

(Photo: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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The Clydesdale gallops toward a milestone

“He’s like a Clydesdale out there. A big old horse.”
– Julian Edelman on Tom Brady, 2016

After picking up two yards on three carries, including a four-yard dive over the goal line for a pivotal fourth-quarter score last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady inched his way closer to another milestone in his illustrious career.

The 41-year-old Brady is now just 17 yards away from reaching 1,000 yards for his career.

Obviously has not been known for his running ability, well, basically ever.

Even so, Brady’s made an impact on the Patriots’ offense with the ball in his hands. A master of the quarterback sneak, he has accumulated 195 first downs on the ground. That’s more than guys like Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and LeGarrette Blount had in New England and just five fewer than Curtis Martin.

The 19 touchdowns are a whopping 13th all-time on the Patriots’ rushing touchdown list, more than Patriots Hall of Famers like Faulk and Babe Parilli.

Sure, this is all a little tongue in cheek.

Or a lot.

But while we’re talking about it, let’s look at some of the history of Tom Brady’s best runs.

Obviously, the one coming to most people’s mind this week with the Patriots traveling to Chicago to play the Bears is the time he fooled Brain Urlacher.

But one of the truly oft-forgotten gems of Tom Brady running lore is his six-yard touchdown “scamper” against Oakland in the AFC Championship Game during his first Super Bowl run. It was the Patriot’s only touchdown of the game, and without it, the Patriots are never in a position to give Adam Vinatieri a chance to tie and later win that game. Brady falling into the snow while trying to spike the football just adds to the special nature of the play.

Sorry. I couldn’t find the video to embed (thanks, NFL), but you can watch it here.

And, look, beyond that, there aren’t a ton of highlight-reel runs. He had a good one against the Dolphins once that pops up now and again. But, really, it’s a lot of no-nonsense, get in there and get dirty to get the yard needed. But that’s OK, because most of the time, Brady gets that yard.

This season marks the first year since 2015 that he has scored multiple touchdowns on the ground and he has now recorded five such seasons. It should be noted that the Patriots have never won a Super Bowl during a season in which Tom Brady has run for multiple scores.

So what were Tom Brady’s longest touchdown runs? Well, 12 of them were from a yard out, leaving a pretty limited menu of “long” runs.

His longest was December 26, 2002 against Tennessee, a forgettable game in a pretty forgettable year after winning the Super Bowl the year prior. Brady ran it in from 10 yards out to cut the deficit to 14-7. It was the Patriots’ only score in a 24-7 blowout.

Brady’s four-yard jaunt last week was actually tied for his second-longest regular season touchdown run. He also ran for four yards and a score on September 30, 2012, in a 52-28 blowout of the Bills. The Patriots were actually trailing and Brady’s touchdown tied the game in the third quarter.

Brady also has three 3-yard runs and scored from two yards out once.

He has also scored multiple rushing touchdowns in a game twice – Christmas Eve of 2011 against Miami, 27-24 win, and October 28, 2007, in a 52-7 blowout against Washington

He also has six rushing touchdowns in the playoffs to his credit (The Patriots are 5-1 in games in which Brady runs for a score):
• The aforementioned touchdown against Oakland in the AFC title game
• A one-yard score against Indianapolis in a 20-3 Divisional Round win during the 2005 season
• A one-yard dive against Baltimore in a 23-20 win in the AFC Championship Game during the 2011 season
• A five-yard score against Denver in New England’s 26-16 loss in the AFC Championship Game to end the 2013 season
• A four-yard run in the Patriots’ 35-31 win over Baltimore in the 2014 Divisional Round
• A one-yard run against Kansas City in the Patriots’ 27-20 win Divisional Round win during the 2015 season.

So here’s to the Clydesdale. May he keep galloping for a yard or two at a time for years to come.

(Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Coming through in the clutch: third down

Despite their early-season struggles offensively, the Patriots have been pretty successful in picking up first downs on third down this season. Their 43.8% conversion rate is 8th in the NFL, and nearly 2 points higher than last year’s rate of 41.9%.

As a team, the Patriots have converted 53% of their third downs when running the football. Who’s been the best at carrying the ball to a first down on third down?

Sony Michel: 8 carries, 5 first downs (63% conversion rate)
Tom Brady: 3 carries, 3 first downs (100% conversion rate)
James White: 4 carries, 1 first down (25% conversion rate)
Rex Burkhead: 2 carries, 1 first down (50% conversion rate)*
Cordarrelle Patterson: 1 carry, 0 first downs (0% conversion rate)
Brian Hoyer: 1 carry, 0 first downs (0% conversion rate)
(* on Injured Reserve)

Sony Michel is the obvious leader in the clubhouse here as injuries have shredded the backfield depth and turned him into a bell cow. Tom Brady’s numbers would make one assume he’s been sneaking but he’s got a 10-yard scamper and the big rushing touchdown against Kansas City on his resume here.

The Patriots have not been as terrific through the air (35%, which is not all that surprising given the fact that the receiving corps had been incredibly depleted during the team’s early stretch of games. So who have been the biggest contributors and who needs to step up their game when Tom Brady looks their way on third down? Let’s take a look.

Rob Gronkowski: 10 targets, 6 first downs (60% conversion rate)
James White: 11 targets, 5 first downs (45% conversion rate)
Josh Gordon: 3 targets, 2 first downs (67% conversion rate)
Cordarrelle Patterson: 5 targets, 2 first downs (40% conversion rate)
Chris Hogan: 7 targets, 2 first downs (29% conversion rate)
Julian Edelman: 4 targets, 1 first down (25% conversion rate)
Phillip Dorsett: 7 targets, 1 first down (14% conversion rate)
Rex Burkhead: 1 target, 0 first downs (0% conversion rate)*
Brady also had three incomplete passes that were not attributed to any specific receiver.
(* on Injured Reserve)

Rob Gronkowski and James White obviously have focal points for the offense in the past and that was augmented by the personnel challenges presented early in the season. Edelman has been targeted twice on third down in each of the last two games. It will be interesting to see if he grows into an outlet for Brady as he has been in the past in this situation.

Patriots’ road woes shouldn’t continue in Chicago

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense have not looked very good on the road at all this season. But there’s a lot of reason to expect that to change.

Before we do anything else, let’s take a look back at the season thus far to give us some context.

The Patriots are 4-0 at home in 2018 and 0-2 on the road. Their average points scored at Gillette Stadium is literally three touchdowns and a field goal better than on the road (39 points per game at home, 15 points per game on the road).

Yards per game? 444 at home and just 255.5 when away. Yards per play? 6.1 at home and 4.7 on the road.

Tom Brady has a passer rating of 88.6 in away games, which pales in comparison to his 102.1 mark at home. When his commute is shorter, he’s averaging 308 passing yards a game. When the visitor, he’s averaged 183.5 yards.

It’s obviously a smaller sample size for Brady when looking at his road stats at this point, but one thing can’t be denied – the Patriots’ two worst games of the season from an offensive perspective have been on the road. And with the Patriots, as Tom Brady and the offense goes, so the team usually goes.

Against Jacksonville, New England was outclassed all over the field with Blake Bortles throwing for almost 400 yards and four touchdowns, but offensively, it was a total slog. Brady finished the game with a 102 passer rating, but it was deceptive. The Patriots ran 17 plays for 70 yards (4.1 yards per play) and had a missed field goal and punted twice over its first three drives before putting together a 16-play, 83-yard drive that resulted in a field goal (woof) in the first half. Brady had 66 of his 234 yards and one of his touchdowns on a garbage-time drive that pulled his team within 11 with less than four minutes left in the game. Before that point, he had 168 yards and one touchdown on 21 of 32 passing (5.3 yards per attempt). He didn’t throw a pick but did give up a fumble on a strip sack. Ugly.

A lackluster game against one of the league’s best defenses was somewhat understandable, but a shellacking the next week at the hands of the Detroit Lions was jarring. There was no misconception to be had with the stats in this one. Receivers couldn’t get open. The line couldn’t block to open up the run game. Brady threw for fewer than 135 yards for the first time since that bizarre Miami game in week 17 of the 2015 season. He threw an “I give up” interception that was intended (I guess) for Phillip Dorsett.

So what’s different this time around? Well, a lot. And most of it comes down to personnel.

In the Jacksonville game, the Patriots started Dorsett and Jacob Hollister at wide receiver and LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle. Dorsett and Chris Hogan took 90% of the snaps in that game. Sony Michel played 13 of 61 snaps. Against Detroit, Dorsett and Hogan started at receiver. Hogan played every offensive snap and had just three catches for 31 yards. Dorsett played 94 percent and didn’t catch a ball. Sony Michel saw a larger snap share, appearing for 23 plays, but his usage was telegraphed as on 14 of those 23 plays, the ball was handed off to him.

The Patriots’ seeming resurgence coincided with two things – Michel finally getting his legs under him and the addition of Josh Gordon and the reinstatement of Julian Edelman after his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing substances.

Michel’s emergence has provided the balance that was missing from the Patriots’ attack and has made the play-action passing game far more effective. The latter has been a huge factor in re-engaging Rob Gronkowski in the passing game and ridding him of some of the double- (and even triple-) teams that he faced early in the season.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Gordon (although he played limited snaps against Miami) and Edelman, in addition to the obvious addition of talent, have allowed the Patriots to open their playbook.

In the first three weeks of the season when the Patriots effectively had Dorsett, Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson as their three legitimate wide receivers, the Patriots operated out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three receivers) 42% of the time, 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers) on 32% of plays, and 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, and two receivers) on 12% of their snaps. 44% of the Patriots’ plays were run from two-receiver sets, which eliminates several parts of the Patriots’ offensive playbook like rub routes, some deep crosses, and running multiple slants at different levels. Three receiver sets also increase Brady’s ability to use motion to identify coverages and create mismatches he can exploit.

In weeks 4 through 6, the Patriots have utilized 11 personnel 56% of the time. They have fielded two wideouts on 32% of the offensive snaps. In the first three weeks, the Patriots completed a successful pass on 47% of plays out of 11 personnel and a 5.9 yards per attempt average. The past three weeks? 58%, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt.

Wide receivers are catching 62% of passes thrown to them, averaging 9.7 yards per attempt the past three weeks out of three wide receiver sets. During the early-season struggles, receivers caught just 52% of their passes out of this personnel grouping with a 7.3 YPA average. Patriots tight ends, namely Gronkowski, have seen far more opportunities and success. In weeks 1 through 3, tight ends saw just eight passes from 11 personnel and 7.9 YPA. The following three weeks, there were twice as many such throws, with 10.1 YPA.

It is one thing to expect Brady to do more with less in terms of talent when it comes to offensive weapons (and Brady has illustrated an ability to get the most out of a number of unheralded receivers) but it’s something entirely different to expect a level of excellence when the sheer personnel numbers limit the way you can run your offense. This is reflected in Brady’s overall numbers.

Essentially handcuffed with a shortened playbook early in the season, Brady went 1-2 with a 64% completion percentage, 214.7 yards per game, 6.4 yards per attempt and a 92.6 rating. Six of Brady’s eight sacks were also over this span. With the personnel that allows for more creativity in the playcalling and diversity in what you’re able to show the defense, Brady had a 71.1% completion percentage, 318.3 yards per game, 8.4 yards per attempt, and a 102 passer rating.

When the Patriots fly to the Windy City to face the Bears, it will be a very different offense than the one that struggled mightily on the road to start the year.

(Photo: Nancy Lane/Boston Herald)

Patriots Tuesday morning reset

It’s safe to say what ailed the Patriots’ offense early in the season is now behind them. With point totals of 38, 38, and 43 in regulation games the last three weeks, it’s clear the Patriots are finally starting to put it together. But after a big win against previously undefeated Kansas City, another test comes on the road. Chicago is young, talented, and hungry, especially coming off a tough loss. With maybe the game’s best pass rusher, can the Patriots keep Brady clean and keep the offense moving? Was Brock Osweiler’s performance against the Bears last week an aberration or a sign that there are chinks in the armor? Can the Patriots defense hold its ground against another young, talented, strong-armed quarterback?

Incentives
Checking in on the status of Tom Brady’s $1 million bonuses (for finishing the season in the top 5 of 5 categories).

• Passer rating – 12th (98.2)
Brady was 13th last week at 96.1.

• Completion percentage – 10th (67.8%)
Brady was 9th last week at 67.6%.

• Yards per attempt – T-15th (7.5)
Brady was 26th last week at 7.0.

Touchdown passes – T-6th (13)
Brady was tied for 3rd last week at 12.

Passing yards – 21st (266.5)
Brady was 22nd last week at 251.8.

For reference, in 2017:
• His passer rating would be 8th in the league
• His completion percentage would be 2nd
• His yards per attempt would be tied for 11th
• His projected TD total of 35 (based on current pace) would be 1st
• His yards per game would be 8th.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense

QB – Tom Brady, 5th
WR – Chris Hogan, 89th
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 61st
WR – Cordarrelle Patterson, 55th
WR – Josh Gordon, 38th
WR – Julian Edelman 60th
RB – James White, 21st
RB – Sony Michel, 38th
FB – James Develin, 6th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 4th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 47th
LT – Trent Brown, 46th
LG – Joe Thuney, 11th
C – David Andrews, 10th
RG – Shaq Mason, 1st
RT – Marcus Cannon, 53rd

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 92nd
DT – Lawrence Guy, 5th
DT – Adam Butler, 87th
DT – Danny Shelton, 32nd
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 5th
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 69th
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 28th
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 38th
LB – Donta Hightower, 27th
LB – Elandon Roberts, 44th
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 10th
CB – Jonathan Jones, 28th
CB – Jason McCourty, 6th
S – Devin McCourty, 32nd
S – Patrick Chung, 51st
S – Duron Harmon, 58th


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for a 16-game season.
(Julian Edelman is not included due to his small sample size)

Tom Brady
387 for 571 (67.6%), 4,264 yards, 35 TD (6.1%), 16 INT (2.8%), 98.2 passer rating
• Brady is on pace for two more completions on 10 fewer attempts than 2017.
• Brady is on pace for his highest completion percentage since the 2007 season.
• Brady’s yardage would be his lowest output since 2005 when he passed for 4,110 yards.
• Brady’s 35 touchdowns would be fifth most in his career, as would his touchdown percentage.
• Brady’s 16 interceptions would be by far a career high. His interception percentage would be the third-highest of his career, behind 2001 (2.9%), and 2004 (3.0%).

Rob Gronkowski
69 catches, 1,080 yards, 3 TD
• Gronk gets 1.1 million incentives for 70+ catches, 1,085 receiving yards, 9+ touchdowns, 80% playing time. He is on pace to achieve one of those – playing time (91.02%).
• Gronk also had 69 catches in 2017 for 1084 yards. Also … Gronk’s favorite number.
• Three touchdowns would be tied for his lowest output.

James White
99 catches, 861 yards, 11 TD; 77 carries, 397 yards, 3 TD
• The catches, yardage, and touchdowns would all destroy the previous receiving records for Patriots running backs – 77 catches and 684 yards by Tony Collins in 1986, 7 touchdowns by Larry Garron in 1964.
• The 1,258 yards from scrimmage would be 16th among Patriots running backs all time.
• The 397 yards would be White’s highest output on the ground since he became a regular contributor to the offense in 2015.

Sony Michel
243 carries, 1,067 yards, 11 TD; 8 catches, 48 yards
• With 1,067 rushing yards, Michel’s season would rank 4th among Patriots rookie running backs, passing Tony Collins and sitting only behind Robert Edwards, John Stephens, and Curtis Martin.
• 11 touchdowns would be 2nd in rushing scores by a Patriots rookie running back behind only Curtis Martin.

Phillip Dorsett
51 catches, 507 yards, 5 TD
• The catches and touchdowns would be career-highs and the yardage would be his highest output since 2016 (528 yards).

Cordarrelle Patterson
29 catches, 304 yards, 5 TD
• The 5 touchdowns would be the most of his career. The catches and yardage would be about on par with what he produced last season in Oakland.

Chris Hogan
40 catches, 589 yards, 5 TD
• While observed as a down year for Hogan, he’s on pace to be right around where he has been his entire career statistics-wise. The yardage would be the second-highest total of his career. The 5 touchdowns would tie 2017 for his career high. 40 catches would be his most since 2014 in Buffalo (41).

Josh Gordon
27 catches, 376 yards, 5 TD
• Limited sample size to work with, and given his increased usage these numbers will probably rise.


Sizing up the competition

• Tom Brady’s weekly passer rating and the opponents’ total passer rating against for the season:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 115.3
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 81.2
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 104.2
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 72.2
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 97.0
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 91.0
Chicago’s defense allows an opponent’s passer rating of 85.2.

• When thinking about the Bears, the pass rush is the first thing to come to mind. Led my Kalil Mack, Chicago has recorded a sack on 9.1% of opposing quarterbacks’ dropbacks. That number is even better at home at 11.9. Tom Brady and the Patriots have one of the best sack percentages in football at 3.6% and their 8 sacks allowed is tied for second least in the league.

• Chicago is also stout against the run, tied for 7th in yards per carry (3.9) and 4th in yards per game (83.4). They are the only team in the NFL that has not yet yielded a touchdown on the ground and they’ve allowed just one run of 20 yards or more. The Patriots are essentially league average in rushing but have 7 rushing touchdowns through six games. Since hitting his stride, Sony Michel has averaged 105 yards and 4 touchdowns in the past three games, picking up 4.7 yards per carry.

• Chicago’s pass defense is statistically average in most areas except one – interceptions. Only the Miami Dolphins have picked off more passes than Chicago. Tom Brady has thrown some uncharacteristic interceptions this season and also has been victimized by some drops that turned into picks. The Patriots will have to maintain focus on preserving the football. The Bears are susceptible to the big play, having given up six passes of 40+ yards. The Patriots’ offense has not been predicated on the big play, but Sunday’s game against Kansas City illustrated that it can be a weapon for them.

• Offensively, Mitch Trubisky has illustrated his talent at times and seems to be hitting his stride. After a pedestrian first three games with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, he has posted back-to-back 300+ yard games with 9 touchdowns and a single pick, including 6 touchdown throws against Tampa Bay. While not a runner, he is also mobile and can make plays out of the pocket, something the Patriots have struggled with at times in 2018.

• Chicago’s offensive line has done well keeping Trubisky clean. He has been hit just 19 times in 2018. The line has also been fairly effective in opening up holes for the running game. The Patriots are tied for last in terms of sacking the quarterback, though they have managed to apply pressure enough to force bad throws, some of which have resulted in turnovers. New England’s rush defense has been adequate for most of the year, but can be overpowered.

• Running back Tarik Cohen is a player to watch for the Bears. Effective as a runner, he’s more of a Swiss army knife, contributing to the passing game and special teams as a returning. His 259 receiving yards out of the backfield are fifth in the league and his 12.3 yards per catch are better than the likes of Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, James White, and Christia McCaffrey. New England has given up 344 yards to running backs through the air and got roasted by Kareem Hunt last week.

• On the other side, Chicago has allowed only 128 yards through the air to opposing running backs through five games. James White is third among running backs in receiving yards and leads the league with 4 touchdown receptions.

• Tom Brady has faced the Bears four times in his career and has a 4-0 record against them, averaging almost 330 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, and a 109.4 passer rating.

• Rob Gronkowski has 4 touchdowns in two contests against Chicago. The Bears have allowed 4 touchdowns to tight ends through 5 games this season.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Brady brings them back … again

Whew.

Where to start with this one? It was clearly a terrific game between the two best teams in the AFC right now. That said, both teams have obvious deficiencies, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, that make them vulnerable. So I guess that’s where we’ll start – with the Patriots defense.

• One of my big questions heading into this one is which Patriots defense would show up – the one that made Blake Bortles look like Steve Young or the one that made Ryan Tannehill look like Sean Young? The Patriots went into Sunday night having allowed 14 passes of 20+ yards and just one of 40+. They gave up four 20+ passes and two of those were touchdowns of 75 and 67 yards. New England had also only given up two runs of 20+ yards. They gave up a pair of those, too. All told, the Patriots gave up 13 plays of 10 yards or more. They gave up chunks all over the field. Tyreek Hill had a monstrous second half. The Patriots clearly had no one fast enough to cover him and Andy Reid and his staff eventually found ways to free him by getting him isolated on guys like Devin McCourty, who struggled mightily in coverage. The fact that there was never an attempt to jam him was partially due to the Chiefs’ scheme and partially due to the Patriots’ respect for his quickness, however, it would seem as if you might want to get a body on him near the line of scrimmage in an attempt to throw off timing and get him off his route. The obvious drawback is if you miss, you’re toast, but it didn’t seem as if the Patriots were able to contain him while playing off of him.

• The defense actually looked halfway decent in the first half. Kansas City moved the ball and had their chances, but the Patriots did well in finding ways to stall drives and force field goals, which proved monumental later in the game. They did get lucky with Kareem Hunt nearly Cassius Marshing Dont’a Hightower up the seam, but overall appeared to make Patrick Mahomes uncomfortable and forced him into some bad decisions. The second half was another story. The Patriots were again victimized by a team with terrific speed and a huge kick return down to the three-yard line really put things in a precarious position for the Patriots, who coughed up the lead on another play where McCourty lost Hill.

• A positive would be the Patriots continue to force turnovers. Hightower baited Mahomes into an interception early and a batted ball intercepted by Duron Harmon ended the half and a potential scoring drive that could have made the game look a lot different with Kansas City receiving the second-half kickoff. So far through six games, the Patriots have forced 12 turnovers after recording just 18 takeaways through 16 games last year.

• Offensively, people are saying the Patriots look like they are clicking on all cylinders. But really, they’re not – and that’s not a criticism. Julian Edelman has looked pretty good but is obviously still getting used to game speed. Josh Gordon is still getting acclimated to the offense. Sony Michel just played the fifth game of his NFL career. (More on those last two guys below) There’s room for improvement throughout, yet the Patriots have averaged 39.6 points per game over their last three games.

• This was a really gutsy performance by Tom Brady. Brady was incredibly efficient in the first half, completing 11 of 15 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. He seemed to skid a little when the playcalling shifted to some low percentage throws but he turned into vintage Tom Brady when the Patriots needed it late in the game. He hit Chris Hogan for an epically huge 42-yard pass on third down, followed by another big throw to the former lacrosse player who showed up in a big spot. He finished that drive off with a touchdown dive where he was lucky that the defender released him after what looked like it would be a sure sack. Then, late in the game, Tom Brady did Tom Brady, marching his team down the field to kick a winning field goal. On the Patriots’ last two drives, Brady was 7 for 9 for 171 yards. Some terrific playcalling and better execution. All that said, I have to call him out on that fumble. That was just a terrible play where he tried to do too much. He rolled out, and when he saw it wasn’t there, he should have thrown it into the third row.

• It has not been perfect and there are clearly some routes and concepts that Josh Gordon and Tom Brady are still working on, but the level of involvement Gordon has had in the offense of late is a telling sign not only of how hard he’s been working but also how much the coaching staff and Brady trust him at this point. Julian Edelman was the only Patriots receiver on the field for more snaps than Gordon and Brady targetted Gordon more than any other receiver. A missed connection in the end zone on a throw that was behind Gordon intentionally because of the placement of defenders is the kind of thing that needs improvement, but the improvement has been noticeable and more will come. Gordon has also not been afraid to make tough catches in traffic and has been hard to bring down. He also nearly had a touchdown in the second quarter, even after he was interfered with. It would have been a heck of a catch. Still, he drew a 36-yard penalty, which set up Sony Michel’s second score. To say the least, he’s been a benefit to this offense.

• Sony Michel continues to play like a first-round draft pick. In his first two games when he wasn’t making much hay, many people instantly started the Laurence Maroney comparisons, but there’s been a key difference between the two. In the first two games of his career, Michel’s offensive line wasn’t opening holes for him. When he had an opening, he usually hit it. Now, as the line has performed better, he has been identifying his lanes and hitting them hard. Maroney, on the other hand, had a problem identifying the hole and danced in the backfield, which was infuriating to watch. Michel has been running hard and has been one of the most productive backs in the league the past three weeks. If there’s one thing I’ll say it’s that I think they need to get him a little more involved in the passing game as teams will eventually begin to catch on to the fact that something like 80% of the time he’s on the field, it’s a running play.

• Speaking of running, James White continues to be such a valuable part of the offense. In addition to his obvious role in the passing offense, he’s been much more involved in the running game lately too. That’s partially out of necessity with the injuries to Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead, but the fact that he has been effective has added another element to the offense. He’s on pace for 397 rushing yards, which doesn’t seem like much. But he has just 580 for his career. Oh, and he’s on pace for 99 catches and 861 receiving yards.

• There was talk about Gronk not showing up in this game until late, but he was very much a part of the gameplan. Gronk played 77 of the Patriots’ 78 snaps. He was a major part of the blocking schemes that got Michel and White big chunks of yardage. And when he was needed most, he was there in the passing game. Gronk is a great tight end because he does it all, including the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

(Photo: Mike Jones/USA TODAY Sports)

Containing the Chiefs

Big plays.

It’s what the Kansas City Chiefs love and what the New England Patriots have to stop if they want to win on Sunday night.

While the past two games played by these two teams have been different, they were both largely the same result due to the same thing. The big play ability of Kansas City’s offensive skill players.

Kansas City has consistently put up long scoring drives against the Patriots defense, often thanks to the big play. Over the last two games against the Patriots, the average length of a Kansas City scoring drive is 68.25 yards and the Chiefs have recorded nine scoring drives of more than 70 yards. Four of those drives involved three or fewer plays.

This year’s team is equipped to do the same. Kansas City, ranked second in the league in scoring offense with 35 points per game, is unsurprisingly among the league leaders in big plays. In the passing game, the Chiefs are third in throws of 20+ yards and tied for fifth in passes of 40+ yards. Mahomes is one of the best in the league when it comes to completed air yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. They’re also tied for fifth in runs of 20+ yards and are one of just a handful of teams to have a 40+ yard run.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is the Patriots defense is not the same unit it was in 2017. New England as a unit was 18th in giving up 20+ yard passing plays and 21st in 40+ yard passes surrendered. This season, New England has been much better against the big pass, currently tied for seventh in preventing 20+ yard throws, and has given up just a single 40+ yard passing play. They have also surrendered just two runs of 20 or more yards.

This game could go a long way in determining which team’s early-season success has been inflated by early-season schedules.

The combined win-loss record of Kansas City’s opponents is 11-13-1 as several teams on their early slate have underachieved. The Chargers, Steelers, 49ers, and Broncos rank 21st, 25th, 29th, and 23rd in scoring defense. They did beat Jacksonville, which is notable, scoring 23 points on offense.

New England has also had an easier time of it, with an opponents’ record of 11-14. New England’s relative success on defense has come against Houston, Jacksonville, Detroit, Miami, and Indianapolis, ranked 16th, 25th, 10th, 27th, and 12th, respectively, in scoring offense.

Personnel-wise, Kansas City has the most dynamic offensive group the Patriots have seen.

First-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads the league in touchdown passes (14), is second in touchdown percentage, is tied for fifth in interception percentage and yards per attempt, and ranks fifth in passer rating. Tyreek Hil and Sammy Watkins are fast, elusive receivers who can be used in a number of ways. Kareem Hunt is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards and tied for sixth with four touchdowns. Travis Kelce is second in the league in receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end.

For their part, the Patriots are a mixed bag. They are tied for third in most passing touchdowns allowed and rank 21st in defensive touchdown percentage but are third in yards allowed per attempt, eighth in interception percentage, and 10th in opponents’ passer rating. Against Hill and Watkins will be Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, who rank 10th and third, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ positional rankings and, according to NESN’s Zach Cox, have combined to allow 10 catches on 24 targets for 99 yards and no touchdowns with five breakups in the last two games. The Patriots have allowed the ninth-most rushing yards to running backs this season, but have yielded just one rushing touchdown through five games. New England has allowed four touchdowns to tight ends, which is tied for the most in the league but has given up just 286 yards, which is middle of the road. Three of those touchdowns and 149 of those yards came against the Colts last week. Before that, the Patriots had allowed 137 yards and one touchdown to tight ends through four games. Which defense will show up against Kelce will be a big factor in this game.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Protecting Brady

One of the biggest narratives regarding Tom Brady’s advanced age during the offseason was the Patriots’ need to run the ball more in order to protect their signal caller.

Yours truly was not one to subscribe to that mentality. As long as you have the best player in football out there on a football field, let him play football. The Patriots thus far have agreed.

While running the ball a tad more than a season before, the Patriots have kept with their pattern of historically running the ball 40% of the time. Bill Belichick will tell you that a team doesn’t plan a number of run plays and pass plays in a game or season, and he’s right, but if things go the way they should, they tend to settle toward a norm. That’s the case here:

Run play percentage
2018: 42.6%
2017: 40.2%
2016: 43:6%
2015: 35%
2014: 39.8%
2013: 42.1%
2012: 43%
2011: 41.1%
2010: 45.3%

The 2015 season is the real outlier because, as you may recall, the offensive line was so banged up Bryan Stork, who began the year as the starting center, ended up playing some right tackle, James Develin was on IR all season, and running back depth was hit so hard by injury that by the end of the year, the corpse of Steven Jackson was carrying the ball for New England.

The Patriots’ pass protection was much maligned in 2017 by fans worried about the next big hit that could end Brady’s season – or career. In all, Brady took 35 sacks and 84 hits, both of which were very much middle-of-the-road. Despite all the hand-wringing last season about the performance of the line, fans also went crazy when the Patriots let Nate Solder go to the New York Giants, paying him $62 million over four years with $34.8 million guaranteed. Solder somehow went from being terrible to being the most valuable part of the team seemingly overnight. It was amazing. The Patriots drafted tackle Isaiah Wynn with their first pick in the draft and traded for tackle Trent Brown. Wynn went down in the preseason with an Achilles’ tear, making Brown the starter at left tackle by default.

So without Solder and without running the ball more, Brady is totally getting creamed, right?

Well, no.

In fact, Brady has taken all of six sacks this season. That’s tied for the least sacks allowed by an offensive line. The Patriots’ 3.2% sack percentage is also best in the league. Brady has taken 25 hits, which also ranks a respectable 12th overall.

Percentage-wise, the line is performing as well as it has in recent memory:

Sack percentage
2018: 3.2%
2017: 5.1%
2016: 4.6%
2015: 5.5%
2014: 4%
2013: 5.9%
2012: 3.7%
2011: 4.6%
2010: 5.2%

It’s especially impressive when you look at the sack percentages of the teams they’ve played. Detroit is second, getting to the quarterback 10.1% of the time. Indianapolis is sixth at 7.9%. Houston is 11th (6.7%), and Jacksonville is 14th (6.3%). Miami is the only Patriots opponent in the bottom half of the league in sack percentage.

Brady took two sacks in each of the first three games. The offensive line has pitched shutouts the last two, albeit against opponents with missing pieces to their defensive front. Still, things appear to be heading in the right direction with a Kansas City team that has 15 sacks in five games coming to town.

According to Jeff Howe of The Athletic, through five weeks, no one on the line has allowed more than one sack. Brown hasn’t been perfect as he’s allowed seven hits on Brady, but considering the level of defender he’s faced with the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Robert Quinn, he’s acquitted himself fairly well. The interior of Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason have allowed two sacks and seven hits through five games. Andrews is ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 9 center in the league, while Mason and Thuney are 10th and 14th among guards. Marcus Cannon, who has missed time with lingering leg issues, has had his good and bad moments, but overall has not been a liability, and once again performed well in his showdown with the league’s sack leader J.J. Watt.

Brady’s quick release (he’s averaging 2.59 seconds from snap to throw) and the return of Julian Edelman obviously benefit the line, but overall, the unit has played well. For the Patriots to make a run at another championship, they’ll have to continue to do so.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Examining Brady vs. Brees

It’s a favorite hobby of sports fans – comparing your favorite athlete to another, trying to determine which of the greats is greater.

Patriots fans and Colts/Broncos fans spent many hours debating whether Brady or Manning was better. But in honor of Drew Brees surpassing Peyton Manning’s career passing yards mark, let’s take a look at Brady vs. Brees and compare the two no doubt, slam dunk Hall of Famers.

The overall numbers are remarkable, and also remarkably similar.

Tom Brady
258 games
Career record: 199-57-0
5,750 completions on 8,984 attempts, 64% completion percentage, 67,418 yards, 500 TD, 166 INT, 7.5 yards per attempt, 7.1 adjusted net yards per attempt, 97.5 passer rating

Drew Brees
254 games
Career record: 146-107-0
6,370 completions on 9,484 attempts, 67.2% completion percentage, 72,103 yards, 499 TD, 228 INT, 7.6 yards per attempt, 7.0 adjusted net yards per attempt, 97.3 passer rating

Brees overall has higher yardage volume, due primarily to the fact that he has attempted exactly 500 more passes over his career. Their efficiency in terms of passing is strikingly similar – 7.5 yards per attempt for Brady, 7.6 yards per attempt for Brees. Even with adjusted net yards per attempt (herein: ANYA), which factors in sacks and adds weight to touchdowns and interceptions, it’s still shockingly close with Brady having an edge of 0.1 yards per attempt. Their career passer ratings? Almost identical.

You can also argue that both really hit their strides in their late 20s, so let’s take a look at how they’ve performed starting with their age 27 seasons. I’ve picked 27 because that’s when Brees ended up on New Orleans and he really became a star.

Since Brady turned 27 two years before Brees, the volume stats don’t give a great picture, so we’ll focus on the ratio/average/rating stats here. They remain amazingly on par with one another.

Tom Brady
22.8 completions on 35.4 attempts, 64% completion percentage, 272.3 yards per game, 7.7 yards per attempt, 7.4 ANYA, 2.1 TD per game, 0.6 INT per game, 100.0 passer rating

Drew Brees
26.9 completions on 39.8 attempts, 68.3% completion percentage, 306.4 yards per game, 7.8 yards per attempt, 7.3 ANYA, 2.1 TD per game, 0.9 INT per game, 100.2 passer rating

So if these two are so similar, why has Brady always been discussed as if he’s in a different echelon than Brees? Part of it is because of Brees’ surroundings. Fair or not, Brees is dismissed as a “dome quarterback,” whose stats are inflated by the fact that he has played the majority of his career in a controlled environment. In addition to playing in a dome at home, having one divisional foe with a dome at the very least guarantees nine games in ideal conditions every year. Throw on top of that two other divisional opponents whose average weather in December doesn’t dip below 50, and that he started his career in San Diego where it is always beautiful, it skews the perception and suggests to some that he would not have such lofty statistics playing in less than ideal conditions as often. So let’s see if the statistics bear out this theory. Since the comparison represents just a six-game difference, I think it’s close enough to compare them side by side, but I still put more weight toward ratio/average statistics than volume.

Drew Brees indoors (career)
130 games
3,491 completions on 5,044 attempts, 69.2% completion percentage, 310.5 yards per game, 8.0 yards per attempt, 291 TD, 120 INT, 102.4 passer rating

Drew Brees outdoors (career)
124 games
2,879 completions on 4,440 attempts, 64.8% completion percentage, 255.9 yards per game, 7.1 yards per attempt, 208 TD, 108 INT, 91.4 passer rating

At first blush, yes, there looks to be a discrepancy here, but keeping some things in perspective. First off, 58 of the 124 games were in San Diego, including his first two years as a starter, which were not terrific (combined 28 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in 27 games). Passing was also more difficult in the league prior to 2004 when the league put an emphasis on illegal contact and Brees’ numbers reflect what most, including Brady, experienced once that emphasis was put in place. Rules have only gotten stricter (or laxer, depending on how you want to look at it) to open up the passing game.

So if we want a more accurate look at whether Brees really wilts outside of the confines of a dome, I think we have to take a look strictly at his numbers in New Orleans. Don’t throw out his San Diego years, but remember the context in which they were achieved. With that in mind…

Drew Brees outdoors (with New Orleans)
66 games
1,864 completions on 2,740 attempts, 68% completion percentage, 310.7 yards per game, 7.5 yards per attempt, 136 TD, 61 INT, 96.7 passer rating

So is Brees better in a dome? Sure, but not markedly so. But even with that, Brees he has played all of 11 games in his career in weather colder than 40 degrees. Brady has played 56. So there is a legitimate question as to how he would do, and it’s one that can’t really be answered. However, acknowledging this is a small sample size, he has a 93.4 passer rating in those games. Tom Brady’s is 95. Of course, it can also be noted that Tom Brady has a 99.2 career quarterback rating when there is precipitation (21 games), compared to Brees’ 86.0 mark (8 games).

So Brady must have an edge in the playoffs, right? Well, no. At least not statistically.

Tom Brady (postseason)
37 games
Career record: 27-10
24.9 completions on 39.6 attempts, 62.8% completion percentage, 276.4 yards per game, 1.9 TD per game, 0.8 INT per game, 7 yards per attempt, 6.4 ANYA, 90.9 passer rating

Drew Brees
13 games
Career record: 7-6
27.2 completions on 41.3 attempts, 65.9 completion percentage, 323.8 yards per game, 2.2 TD per game, 0.7 INT per game, 7.8 yards per attempt, 7.6 ANYA, 100.7 passer rating

Now, it should be noted that there is a case to be made that Brady has played 37 playoff games. Eight were Super Bowls. Of the remaining games at non-neutral sites, 23 have been at home in New England in January, which certainly can make for some less than favorable conditions. Drew Brees has played in one Super Bowl and beyond that, exactly half (six) of his postseason games have been at home. The Saints are 5-1 in those games. They are 1-5 in road playoff games. Brees was hardly the reason why the Saints lost some of those games, but his 83.2 rating at Chicago in 28-degree weather (a loss), 75.7 rating at Philadelphia in 25-degree weather (a win) give a glimpse into how hard it is to operate in those conditions, no matter how good you are and help give some added context as to why some of Tom Brady’s postseason numbers are not as glamorous as some might expect.

Ultimately, what it comes down to between these two is one thing – winning. Tom Brady simply has done more of it. It may be unfair because both of these two would themselves tell you wins are a team stat, but in a league where the most important position on the team gets the bulk of the credit and blame for wins and losses, as a famous coach once said (or maybe more than once), it is what it is.

The bottom line is in a comparable number of regular season games, Brady has more than three seasons’ worth more wins. Brady has almost as many Super Bowl wins as Brees has playoff wins. Brady has lost almost as many playoff games as Drew Brees has played. They’ve each had a comparable number of game-winning drives and fourth quarter comebacks in the regular season, but come to the playoffs, it’s Brady who has led 11 game-winning drives to Brees’ three and eight fourth-quarter comebacks to Brees’ one. Has every loss been Brees’ fault? Of course not. But then again, he hasn’t been the reason for every win. The same rules apply to all quarterbacks. All have experienced some tough luck losses and lucky wins. Both can point to last year’s playoffs to illustrate that.

Fair or unfair as it might be, this is where the true difference is.

Either way, one thing is clear – we are witnessing two no doubt, slam dunk Hall of Famers who, even as they head closer and closer to social security, are still among the league’s best.

That might be their most impressive feat yet.

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