The health of key players will determine whether the Patriots can defend their Super Bowl title
After 17 weeks of NFL football, the playoff picture has been set and the playoffs will get underway this coming Saturday. There are many interesting storylines surrounding each of the 12 teams involved in 2015-16 post season. Today we will be focusing on the #2 seed in the AFC, the New England Patriots, who were winners of the AFC East division for the 7th straight year with a 12-4 record. Can the Patriots repeat as Super Bowl champions? Will all of their injuries contribute to their potential downfall? Let’s take a look.
Offense: Julian Edelman, WR; Sebastian Vollmer, LT
Obviously quarterback Tom Brady is the Patriots best and most valuable player, but the recent absences of Edelman and Vollmer have shown how important these guys are to the Patriots offense. Edelman and Vollmer, who are both expected to be back for the Patriots first playoff game, need to be playing at 100% health for the Patriots to have a chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions.
Before he broke his foot in week 10 vs the Giants, Edelman was the bread and butter of the Patriots passing attack. He was leading the team in catches by a significant margin and, like the previous two seasons, he was the key to the offense’s ability to sustain drives by converting on third down.
With Edelman in the lineup the first eight games, the Patriots converted 49% of their 3rd downs, which was the best conversion rate in the league. After his injury at the beginning of their ninth, the Patriots converted 34% of their 3rd downs, which was the 28th best conversion rate in the league. With him the Patriots went 8-0 and averaged 35 points per game, without him they went 4-4 while averaging 24 points per game.
Similar to Edelman, Vollmer’s absence has dramatically affected the offense and the offensive line has been badly exposed. The offensive line isn’t great when Vollmer is playing, but when he goes out it becomes a complete disaster. Vollmer had to move to left tackle after Nate Solder got hurt and he’s struggled a bit there. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has him ranked as only the 45th best tackle in the league, but that is still much better than the players that had to slot in for him when he has been hurt in the last two games of the season.
The two replacements protecting Tom Brady’s blind side have been Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. Fleming was a call up from the practice squad and he is ranked as the 66th best tackle out of 82 by PFF. LaAdrian Waddle was picked up after being released by the Detroit Lions and he has the worst PFF ranking among tackles in the NFL. With JJ Watt, Carlos Dunlap, Justin Houston, and Tamba Hali as potential opponents in the divisional round for the Patriots, it is key to have Vollmer healthy.
Defense: Malcolm Butler, CB; Chandler Jones, DE
Butler has had an outstanding season playing in all 16 games and successfully filling the shoes of all-pro corner Darrelle Revis. PFF has Butler ranked as the 22nd best corner in football, three slots better than Darrelle Revis, who is ranked as the 25th best corner. Butler needs to continue his great play in the post season, especially with either Jeremy Maclin, Deandre Hopkins, or AJ Green coming to Foxborough in the divisional round.
Chandler Jones had a breakout season this year, recording career highs with 12.5 sacks (good for 5th in the league) and four forced fumbles. His breakout season was a big reason why the Patriots ended up finishing with the second most sacks in the league. With this being the case, he needs to continue this level of play or exceed it in the playoffs. Jones has been a postseason disappointment so far: In his seven career playoff games he only has one sack and ten tackles. These are mediocre pass rush numbers and Jones is much better than that; he has to go out and show it in the playoffs.
Best Win and Worst Loss
Best Win: 27-6 over the Houston Texans (week 14)
The circumstances made this win the best of the season for the Patriots. They were on the road, on the heels of two straight losses, dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball, and facing a decent Houston team, whose defense was playing great. They ended up going into Houston and completely dominating the game. The Patriots defense put on their best performance of the season, sacking Brian Hoyer five times and hitting him 10. Logan Ryan, with safety help from Devin McCourty, limited star receiver Deandre Hopkins to 3 catches for 52 yards. The defense, as a whole, allowed Houston only seven first downs. Offensively, they had the ball for 11 more minutes than the Texans and methodically put up 27 points and 313 yards.
Worst Loss: 35-28 to the Philadelphia Eagles (week 13)
This was as bad of a loss as you will ever see from the Patriots. They made multiple errors to lose to an inferior opponent at home. Uncharacteristically, one of these errors was made by head coach Bill Belichick. After scoring a touchdown to go up 14-0 early in the game, on the ensuing kick off Belichick for whatever reason uses his backup safety to try an onside kick. This gave the Eagles great field position and led to a touchdown, which put them right back in the game. Then the special teams unit, usually great for the Patriots, was awful. They allowed a blocked punt to be returned for a touchdown and then a punt return for a touchdown. Tom Brady also made a horrific mistake, throwing a pass into double coverage on the Eagles one yard line. The pass was intercepted and run back 99 yards for a touchdown. Those are four touchdowns the Patriots basically handed the Eagles. If they just played fundamentally sound football like they usually do, the Patriots would have beaten the Eagles easily and would probably have the #1 seed right now.
Previous Matchups With Playoff Teams
Week 1: 28-21 Win vs (6) Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 9: 27-10 Win vs (4) Washington Redskins
Week 12: 30-24 Loss in OT at (1) Denver Broncos
Week 14 27-6 Win at (4) Houston Texans
The positive takeaway from this for the Patriots is actually the loss at Denver. Denver, who is the biggest challenger to the Patriots, had to go to overtime to win at home against a depleted Patriots team. New England was missing Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Jamie Collins, Justin Coleman, and Michael Williams, and then lost Dont’a Hightower left after the first drive. These are all either stars or key depth players. The only key player Denver was missing was Demarcus Ware. All of these players are expected to be back and healthy for the playoffs, so if there is a rematch I will take the Patriots.
Performance Leading Up to Playoffs
The Patriots performance leading up to the playoffs has been poor. After starting the season 10-0, they have finished the year 2-4 with wins at Houston and at home vs the lowly Titans. The Patriots didn’t finish out the year strong, but with all of their injuries and their history of figuring things out in the playoffs, the performance leading up to it shouldn’t be a concern.
Especially since recent history proves that success at the end of the regular season is not correlated with playoff success. For example: the 2008 Cardinals finished the year 2-4 and they made the Super Bowl, and the 2009 Saints lost their last 3 games and then won the Super Bowl. Examples for the other side include the 2012 Denver Broncos, who won their last 11 games and the 2010 Patriots, who won their 8 games. Both of these teams were the “hot team” heading into the playoffs and they were both eliminated in the divisional round.
Level of Contender: Strong Contender
I think the Patriots are the clear favorites to come out of the AFC if Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer are healthy. With those two healthy, their offense becomes one of the top two offenses in the league. Combine that with a top ten defense, which will also get healthier over the bye week and I think the Patriots will beat anyone in the AFC. If those two aren’t fully healthy, they are still right there in the mix with Denver, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.
Edited by John Ray.
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