USA Today Sports

Sunday 7: Plenty of reasons to feel good about Patriots heading into final 6 games

Ryan Hannable
November 18, 2018 - 4:11 am

1. Much has been made of the Patriots’ blowout loss last Sunday in Tennessee, but for as bad as it was, there were plenty of factors working against them. First, consider who was missing in the game. It wasn’t just Rob Gronkowski, the offense was also missing its best offensive lineman in Shaq Mason. It could get by against the 17th-ranked Packers defense at home, but the No. 1 ranked scoring defense on the road was a much bigger task. Also, consider the state of the team going into the game. It had been going at it for 10 straight weeks, plus training camp and the preseason without any real extended break. That is a long time, and easy to get both mentally and physically fatigued. Lastly, consider the opponent. Extra emotion can go a long way in the NFL and look at the three Patriots losses. Week 2: Jacksonville seeking revenge on last year’s AFC title game loss, Week 3: Matt Patricia going up against his former team, Week 10: All the former New England players/coaches going up against their former team. Yes, the blowout loss happened at a time that is very unusual for the Patriots, but there were also a number of unusual factors working against them. The loss really shouldn’t be as concerning as many are making it out to be.

2. To that same point, the Patriots are still in the mix for the No. 1 seed. Their schedule does them a lot of favors the rest of the year with only two games outside the AFC East — home against the Vikings and at Pittsburgh. The Week 15 game against the Steelers is by far the most difficult, but the Patriots have had the Steelers’ number over the years. If they win that game, they will certainly have the edge over them in the standings. And then while Kansas City is two games ahead of the Patriots, it has some tough games coming up including Monday night at the Rams, and then taking on the Chargers and Seahawks before the year is done. Two losses by the Chiefs and the Patriots winning out would give New England the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Certainly far from a guarantee, but easier than most believe.

3. Of the first 10 games, exactly half of the Patriots games have been night games. Going back to the preseason, nine of the last 14 have been night games. Speaking with Scott Zolak on this week’s Patriots All-Access, Tom Brady said those can take its toll on a team. “I think the point is the night of the game, it is nice to get a good night’s sleep and you feel Monday is a productive day,” he said. “A lot of these days, Monday, you’re slogging through the day. You’re pretty tired. You’re worn out.” The Patriots are done with night games for the remainder of the season, which is certainly a positive.

4. It also appears like Gronkowski will make his return next Sunday against the Jets. If that is the case, it would be his first game in 27 days. While the Patriots may not need him in that game and he could get an extra week of rest, it is getting to the point where too much time off may be entering the conversation. Even though he’s practicing, nothing replicates gameday and going against another team live on the field. All indications were Gronkowski could have played last week in Tennessee (he did travel after all), and it was more about buying him some extra time to try and get the back and ankle feeling as good as possible for the stretch run.

5. There’s been some looking back at the first round of the NFL draft from this year and the Patriots’ selections of Isaiah Wynn and No. 23 and Sony Michel at No. 31. It’s way too early to judge, but with Wynn being out for the year and players like Leighton Vander Esch, Jaire Alexander and Rashaan Evans having productive rookie seasons, that pick has been criticized a bit. While the two players taken after Wynn — wide receiver D.J. Moore and tight end Hayden Hurst — have had subpar rookie years, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who was taken three picks after Wynn, has had a solid one in Atlanta. With all the Patriots’ struggles at wide out, Ridley may have been a nice guy to have. At running back, Nick Chubb, Michel’s teammate at Georgia, was selected No. 35 overall and is out-performing Michel so far this year. That will be something to monitor in the coming years.

6. One line from Brady’s press conference last week caught our eye. He was noting the quarterback position has been the only position on offense that hasn’t had to deal with a number of players going in and out due to injury. “There’s been a lot of moving parts this year for one reason or another with the receivers, tight ends, running backs, a little bit with the o-line, not so much with the quarterback position,” he said. It seems there's a bit of frustration with the offense not really having an identity yet and that comes with not having the full complement of players on the field at the same time.

7. Get ready for a lot of references to the season not really starting until after Thanksgiving this week, as that is something Bill Belichick consistently reminds his team. And for this year it’s true. When the Patriots return from the bye and get set to play their final six games, nothing that happened in Weeks 1-10 really matters. If they play well, they will be rewarded with a top seed in the AFC. If they don’t play well, they could be looking at a game on wild card weekend. It really is totally in the team’s control. “Coach [Bill Belichick] always says football doesn't start until after Thanksgiving, so you've got to play your best football when it comes around,” James White said last week. “We have a lot of division games. I think guys will come back fired up and ready to go and have a lot of energy because it's the most important part of the season.”

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