Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Patriots Random Thoughts (November 22, 2011)

So, what we learned through ten games, including last night's 34-3 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, is that the Patriots have as good of a shot as any team in the wide open AFC to represent the conference at Super Bowl XLVI.  Their defense still is vulnerable, especially in the secondary, and their offense still lacks a consistent deep threat in the passing game, which a good defense could exploit, but with no juggernaut in the AFC there is an opportunity for this team to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.

The defense is getting better.  The competition has not been the best over the last few weeks - I shudder to think what Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees would do with the likes of Sergio Brown and Ross Ventrone getting serious playing time in the New England secondary - but since losing 34-31 to the Buffalo Bills back on September 25, they have not allowed more than 25 points in a game.  That may not jump out as a sign that the Patriots defense is rolling like it did back in 2003 and 2004 but they are improving and this recent stretch includes holding Tony Romo and the Cowboys, a team that has averaged 26 points per game other than their October 16 loss in Foxboro, to 16 points.

On offense, the Patriots have continued to score a lot of points.  They are averaging 29.3 points per game and with Tom Brady running the show, the Patriots are a threat to score nearly every time they touch the ball.  The lack of a deep threat is something that a good defense like Pittsburgh or Baltimore could take advantage of but with a variety of weapons, including Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, Brady can pick apart any defense.

Are the Patriots perfect?  No.  They are far from being the dominant team that they were in '03, '04, and '07.  What is in their favor is that none of the other AFC contenders are dominant either.  This is the kind of year that a team with flaws can still win the conference because all the contenders are flawed.  It really will come down to what team can hide their flaws the best in January.

Can the Patriots be that team?  Only time will tell...

Considering the Patriots recent run of mediocrity in the draft, last year's selection of Rob Gronkowski with the 42 overall pick was hardly cause for celebration.  After watching the Patriots take busts like Laurence Maroney, Terrence Wheatley, and Brandon Meriweather at the top of the draft the last few years, Gronkowski did not register with me outside of seeing Bill Belichick attempting to fill a need at tight end.

Less than two years into his NFL career, Gronkowski has proven to be one of the wisest choices in Belichick's time with the Patriots.  He is a 6-7, 250-pound freak of nature who has provided Tom Brady with a dangerous weapon in the passing game.  The Gronk is also an accomplished run blocker and as an added bonus, he provides a unique outlook on football and life (follow him on Twitter @RobGronkowski) that is rarely seen in the lockerroom at Gillette Stadium.

For example, when asked last night about his 19-yard touchdown in the third quarter that ended with him nailing a 360-degree spinning landing that forced the team's medical crew to check if he had a concussion, Gronkowski said  "Yeah, they kept asking me, and I started throwing out my own math problems ... I was like, 'Dude, I can count to 10,' and I started counting to 10 ... That's pretty easy though, so they kept letting me play."  For those of us who are accustomed to Patriots never talking about injuries, it is refreshing to listen to Gronkowski.

To have a weapon like Gronkowski, and his fellow second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez, is a luxury for Brady and it is a major reason why he is still playing quarterback at an elite level.  He already has 20 career touchdown receptions and his large presence in the redzone provides Brady with a reliable target while also creating opportunities for his teammates.  It is possible that the decision to draft Gronkowski could make the difference for the Patriots if they are to win the Super Bowl because he makes the offense so dynamic...
Julian Edelman, a 7th Round draft pick in 2009, was a quarterback at Kent State University and has found a niche with the Patriots as a punt returner and as a reserve slot receiver.

Due to all the injuries to the Patriots secondary, Edelman has also started to play defensive back.  Last night afforded Edelman the opportunity to star in both of his roles as he had a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown and he also made one tackle and drew a holding penalty while playing defense.

Coaching players to serve in multiple roles has been a hallmark of Bill Belichick's time with the Patriots.  Many fans will remember linebacker Mike Vrabel serving as a goal line tight end and in a preview of Edelman's current role, Troy Brown played some defensive back to go along with his other jobs as a receiver and punt returner.

With the secondary being in dire need of help, Belichick's decision to make Edelman a two-way player could be very important...

Up until this point, the story about rookie offenisve lineman Marcus Cannon has focused on his recovery from cancer treatments while he tries to make it in the NFL.  That story could be changing in a hurry.

Quality depth on the Patriots offensive line could be an issue as the schedule heads toward December with Dan Koppen having been out for the season since Week 1 and Sebastian Vollmer fighting a back injury.  The Pats' 1st Round pick, Nate Solder, has been terrific filling in at tackle, guard, and even occassionally at tight end but it is the team's other rookie lineman who could make an impact over the final few weeks...

Enjoy 12-4 and the second seed in the AFC...

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