It was a loss that could have crippled the Patriots’ playoff hopes. The last-second hook-and-lateral taken to the house for a 69-yard touchdown and a 34-33 Dolphins win over the Patriots sparked reactions like this throughout New England (NSFW):
(I could watch that clip on a loop for all eternity, by the way)
Fortunately for the Patriots, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts dealt the Houston Texans a loss as well and the Pittsburgh Steelers appear in full meltdown mode after a rough loss to the Oakland Raiders, their third straight defeat. With that, the Patriots maintained their hold on the second seed – in fact, the Patriots’ odds of earning a first-round bye actually increased – though Kansas City’s overtime win against Baltimore left the Patriots’ hopes for home-field advantage throughout hanging by a very thin thread. The odds of grabbing the second seed jumped from 49% to 67%, according to PlayoffStatus.com, while the odds of capturing the No. 1 seed slid from 19% to 3%.
How the team will react to another bad loss on the road is anyone’s guess as they now head on the road against the reeling Steelers. The Patriots have played well there in the past, but most Patriots teams are better on the road than this one and hadn’t just been handed maybe the most humiliating loss of the past two decades.
Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)
QB – Tom Brady, 5th
WR – Chris Hogan, 106th
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 65th
WR – Josh Gordon, 28th
WR – Julian Edelman 34th
RB – James White, 22nd
RB – Sony Michel, 27th
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 6th
TE – Dwayne Allen, 58th
LT – Trent Brown, 32nd
LG – Joe Thuney, 8th
C – David Andrews, 9th
RG – Shaq Mason, 2nd
RT – Marcus Cannon, 24th
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 73rd
DT – Malcom Brown, 103rd
DT – Lawrence Guy, 9th
DT – Adam Butler, 98th
DT – Danny Shelton, 43rd
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 8th
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 91st
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 31st
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 28th
LB – Donta Hightower, 31st
LB – Elandon Roberts, 54th
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 2nd
CB – Jonathan Jones, 64th
CB – Jason McCourty, 12th
S – Devin McCourty, 14th
S – Patrick Chung, 52nd
S – Duron Harmon, 55th
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for the season.
385 for 587 (65.6%), 4,554 yards, 28 TD (4.8%), 10 INT (1.7%), 98.2 passer rating
• Brady is on pace to essentially match 2017’s totals – 385 for 581 (66.3), 4,577 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT. Throw in his two rushing touchdowns and Brady is on pace to account for 30+ touchdowns for the seventh time since 2010. The years he didn’t were 2013 (“Tom’s age and contract situation”) and 2016 (missed four games for Deflategate).
53 catches, 784 yards, 4 TD
• Rob Gronkowski looked the best he had in a long time and exploited some soft zones on pace to his first 100-yard game since week 1. He also scored a touchdown. Gronk’s 2018 has been mired by injury, but if he were to get right now, the timing couldn’t be better.
94 catches, 830 yards, 7 TD; 98 carries, 421 yards, 5 TD
• White has gone from the main weapon in the Patriots’ arsenal to a game plan and game flow specific target, and that’s not a bad thing. That means balance is returning to the Patriots’ offense and that is when they are most dangerous. White is still within shouting distance of Matt Forte’s record for receptions by a running back (102), and his projected catches, yardage, and touchdowns would still 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.
202 carries, 869 yards, 6 TD; 9 catches, 62 yards
• Michel faltered against a Dolphins defensive front that he dominated in week 4, his second relative dud since torching the New York Jets. He did have a long run come back because James Develin got his hand in the facemask of a defender while freeing him. Rex Burkhead’s insertion back into the rotation hasn’t seemed to sap many of Michel’s carries, but some consistency from Michel would be nice.
30 catches, 492 yards, 2 TD
• Hogan was targeted just once against Miami, but it should have been a touchdown. He was wide open in the end zone and Brady missed him. He remains a situational threat and that’s about it.
49 catches, 884 yards, 5 TD
• Gordon isn’t as fast as he once was, but he is a yards-after-catch monster due not only to his size but his ability to catch the ball away from his body and maintain stride. With a quarterback like Brady, that skill set has been on full display. Gordon has 39 catches this year – 31 of which have been first downs or touchdowns. That’s 79.5%.
33 catches, 315 yards, 2 TD
• Dorsett is buried on the Patriots’ depth chart, losing snaps to even Cordarrelle Patterson at this point. He’ll probably be dropped from this list next week.
69 catches, 764 yards, 5 TD
• Against Miami, Edelman bounced back from his most inefficient game of the year, proving the flop against Minnesota was a blip on the screen rather than a trend. He remains one of Brady’s top options in the passing game.
21 catches, 276 yards, 4 TD; 47 carries, 199 yards, 1 TD
The Patriots and Josh McDaniels continue to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson involved in the offense, exploiting his unique skillset. He’ll never be a good example of a prototypical receiver, but his versatility makes him a headache for opposing defenses. We’ve seen him to basically everything this year and, including returns, he has scored 5 touchdowns, his highest total since his first year in the league with Minnesota.
Tom Brady vs. the world
How Tom Brady’s passer rating matches up against opponents’ season averages
(Green = above opponent’s average; Red = below opponent’s average)
Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 92.1
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 83.4
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 106.6
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 92.4
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 97.6
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 93.0
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 73.4
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 85.2
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 95.9
Week 10 vs. Tennesee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 91.9
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 86.4
Week 13 vs. Minnesota: 102.5; Minnesota’s season: 86.7
Week 14: at Miami: 112.4; Miami’s season: 92.4
Sizing up the competition
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that is reeling right now. Coming off of their third straight loss, Pittsburgh is perilously close to losing their hold on the NFC North to the Baltimore Ravens. The loss to the Oakland Raiders last week was crushing. Ben Roethlisberger had to leave the game for a time with an injury, the running game without injured James Conner was amazingly bad, and Derek Carr torched the defense for 322 yards with Jared Cook, the corpse of Jordy Nelson, and Seth Roberts.
This is the time when a team either digs deep or starts thinking about digging their toes in the sand on some tropical beach this offseason.
Ben Roethlisberger has faced a fair amount of heat this season both for his play and for his perceived inability to accept his culpability in the team’s struggles while blaming teammates. Whether that’s true or not, Roethlisberger, playing with a rib injury that apparently required some manner of serious pain medication, didn’t allow the Raiders to march 75 yards to the end zone in the game’s waning minutes, nor did he fall on his keister while attempting what would have been the game-tying field goal from 40 yards out.
Roethlisberger and his duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are incredibly potent. In five games against the Patriots, Brown has been electric including a 9 catch, 133-yard performance in 2015 and 7 catches for 106 yards in 2016. In 2017, Brown looked poised for another big game before getting injured. Smith-Schuster has had 100+ yards in three of his last four games and had 6 catches for 114 yards against the Patriots in 2017. The good news for the Patriots is Stephon Gilmore has been playing at an All-Pro level this year and Jason McCourty has also been very good, although he struggled with Kenny Stills for most of the day last week against Miami.
Vance McDonald and Jesse James could offer challenges in coverage for the Patriots. James was one who made the controversial non-catch in last year’s matchup that helped spur a rule change. Though neither are particularly dynamic in this offense, the Patriots have had their struggles against tight ends at times this season. That said, they held Miami’s tight ends without a catch on one target and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph only had 3 catches for 38 yards two weeks ago.
James Conner has been battling a leg injury and doesn’t seem likely to play, though he hasn’t been ruled out to this point. The Pittsburgh running game had been sputtering a bit even with Conner – he failed to record more than 65 yards after rumbling for 100+ in four straight games – but the Steelers churned out just 40 yards against Oakland’s 31st-ranked run defense without him. Conner had taken 200 of the Steelers’ 257 carries heading into last week’s game and the effort from Jaylen Samuels and old friend Stevan Ridley showed why as they labored for 32 yards on 16 carries. That said, the Patriots just gave up 189 yards and 9 yards per carry to the Dolphins, including 60 yards and 2 touchdowns on two carries to Brandon Bolden.
Which defense shows up for the Steelers? Pittsburgh does not do much to force turnovers and going against a Patriots team that has given up the ball just once in the last six games – Tom Brady has thrown just one interception on his last 227 throws (0.4%) – the trend is likely to remain the same. But what remains to be seen is whether the Steelers’ current funk is real or just a hiccup.
Through 13 games, the Steelers have given up more than 450 yards three times and more than 350 yards six times. They’ve also held opponents to under 300 yards five times. The secondary has gotten torched (322 yards vs. KC, 392 yards vs. Tampa Bay, 355 yards vs. Baltimore, 299 yards vs. Oakland) and has been terrific (150 yards and 163 yards vs. Cleveland, 147 yards vs. Carolina, 64 yards vs. Jacksonville). With the number of options the Patriots have at their disposal in the passing game, this game could be another struggle for Pittsburgh as McDaniels and Brady exploit favorable matchups. Pittsburgh will need to get at Tom Brady in order to protect the secondary and not allow Brady to go through his progressions. While he has been good this season, Brady has been more willing to throw a ball away and live for the next play at times. Pittsburgh’s sack percentage is best in the league. They are led by TJ Watt, but Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, and Stephon Tuitt have all played a role in what has been a very successful unit when it comes to hitting the quarterback. Pittsburgh’s run defense is among the best and the Patriots’ rushing offense has been inconsistent. Run blocking was poor for the Patriots against Miami and didn’t give Sony Michel a ton of room to work with.
Like with Miami, the conversation on how the team has fared in their opponent’s building is worth mentioning. Overall, Tom Brady is 8-2 in the regular season (the Patriots are 11-2 overall against Pittsburgh with Brady at the helm). He’s completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,124 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions for a passer rating of 111.8 against the Steelers in those 10 regular season games. Tom Brady’s Patriots are 4-2 against the Steelers at Heinz Field during the regular season. Brady has 1,704 yards on 67.7% passing with 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, good for a 97.8 rating. Including the playoffs, he is 6-2, completing 67.6% percent of his passes for 2,026 yards, 12 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, a 99.5 rating.
(Photo: USA Today)