Well, Patriots fans, while you were watching the “Breaking Bad” finale – and by “you” I mean “we” and by “we” I mean “I” – your New England neophytes made their way to 4-0 by securing a win at Atlanta that ended up only slightly less nerve-wracking than a visit to a myopic acupuncturist.
A comeback win at Buffalo, a monkfish-ugly standoff vs. the New York Jets and a heartening tilt over Tampa have made for an interesting journey. Despite myriad injuries and adjustments, there they sit atop the AFC East.
These upcoming four games may end up as the toughest haul for New England, with an away game at Cincinnati (Oct 6), a homer with the Saints (Oct. 13), travel to the Jets (Oct. 20) and hosting the Dolphins (Oct. 27). All Sunday games, by the way, all at 1 p.m. except the 4:25 p.m. Saints contest.
If you want predictions, consult your local meteorologist. (We might as well throw a dart and repeat our previous guess at 3-1.)
Here’s what the first quarter has us thinking about…
Rock Out With Your Gronk Out: As tight end Rob Gronkowski might say these days, Yo soy siesta. And good for him for taking the rest he needs. Seriously, five operations? I had one operation 20 years ago and I still feel it. If New England can win without him, why give him anything less than what it takes for him to feel comfortable?
The same with receiver Danny Amendola, who hurt his groin in a wince-worthy manner. (The only time I want to hear the phrase “off the bone” is in a reference to barbecue.) In the comeback win at Buffalo, Amendola showed a level of communication with Brady that other new receivers have yet to achieve. When he gets back, the team gets better. In the meanwhile: Take. Your. Time.
Pats Must Tackle Issue Of Depth: Really? Vince Wilfork goes on the list now? Yeesh. A torn Achilles puts Big Vince out of commission for 2013. Looks like the defense will have to figure out how to survive the season without their best lineman. This takes away some confidence from a team that had rediscovered its pride in holding down opposing offenses. We’ll be keeping an eye on how well the next four opponents run the ball in October.
Aaron The Side Of Caution: Of course, after showing an increasing amount of promise over the past two games, rookie receiver Aaron Dobson goes to the list of injured after a nasty blow to the head/neck area in Atlanta. New England – a team with fewer options than a prison cafeteria – is, again, going to have to get creative with their receiving corps.
A couple of suggestions? Rookie Quentin Sims had some success with the Pats this preseason, albeit as Tim Tebow’s go-to guy. He made the practice squad on September 2 but got cut about a week later and remains available. Sims offers a bigger target at 6-3, 208, and has shown the ability to go up and get the football. Also, let’s remember that rookie Mark Harrison (Rutgers! Woohoo!) is eligible to come off the non-football injury list this month. Harrison’s a house at 6-3, 231, and he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. If he can show he’s picked up a fair amount of the offense since getting signed as an undrafted free agent in April, he could find a spot on the active roster.
Tampa Tantrum: How do you think fans of floundering Tampa Bay feel watching former Bucs Aquib Talib and LeGarrette Blount contributing to a 4-0 team? Simply put, Talib makes plays in the defensive backfield that no one else can, knocking the ball away and adding a physical presence necessary to keep larger receivers in check. Meanwhile, Blount adds 250 pounds of backup and a surprising amount of shiftiness to help salt games away. (By the way, I will forever believe he got that first down on 3rd and one in Atlanta).
So on behalf of Pats fans everywhere, thank you, Coach Greg Schiano (also Rutgers, woohoo)! Now, let’s discuss some of those receivers you have down there…
Tom-Thom Club: In the first two games it seemed that Tom Brady looked to undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins far too often, with about the same rate of payoff as a slot machine in a Reno gas station. We have learned a couple of things in the past few games, namely that a) Thompkins can get open on a regular basis and b) practice makes … well, not perfect, but better and better. Looking forward to giving another progress report by mid-season after these two have tallied another four weeks together.
Speaking of Thompkins and other undrafted rookies…
Draft Dodgers? We’ve alluded to this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. With New England’s (and, it can be said, the NFL’s) mediocre record of drafting in the second to fifth rounds, how about trading those slots for first-rounders and future picks and selecting talent only in the first, sixth and seventh rounds? With several rookies on the team this year from the seventh round and undrafted class, it’s possible to build a solid “middle class” from those ranks with higher quality potential coming from free agents and one or two first-rounders each season.
Certainly they couldn’t do it every year, as some rookie classes lack necessary depth (I’m looking at you, 2006), but the Patriots’ ability to find contributors late (or even after) the draft and their recent miscues choosing earlier point to the potential payoff of moving up to the first round as often as possible.
Too off the grid? Maybe. But considering their picks in the second round have been less than a 50-50 proposition, the Pats should consider a new tactic. (For a round-by-round rundown of New England’s draft picks since 2000, please see our column from this past February.)
When Things Look Bad, Don’t Lose Your Edelman: What if New England had decided to part ways with Julian Edelman this season? What if they’d taken a close look at his injury history and his career catches (a high of 37 in 2009, his rookie season; a total of 32 in three years since) and thought, hey, we can go somewhere else for that kind of production?
With Gronkowski, Amendola and Shane Vereen out, Edelman has become Brady’s go-to guy. He now has 34 receptions in four games and remains one of the league’s most dangerous punt returners. Edelman’s numbers should decline with the return of some of the aforementioned pass-catchers, but without him, the – You know what? Let’s not even think about it. Moving on…
Cinco For Ninko: A contract potentially worth $5 million a year? What to go, Rob Ninkovich, and way to go, Patriots for holding on to a smart, strong, versatile defender for the foreseeable future. Ninko has 21 tackles in four games (on pace for 84) and has 20 sacks in his five-plus seasons in New England. While the Pats pass rush has been about as visible as a sun-averse Mormon in a fog bank, they have been able to get enough pressure to match their improved coverage downfield. Ninkovich has been a big part of that, and we expect he’ll continue to do so.
Hold On A SEC: With Wilfork out, the Pats may have to bulk up behind the line, meaning that former SEC linebackers Jerod Mayo (Tennesse), Brandon Spikes (Florida) and Dont’a Hightower (Alabama) would see more time on the field together. Seeing as Spikes has the change-of-direction skills of a wrecking ball while Hightower possesses the lateral quickness of a bulldozer, firming up their run support could lead to vulnerability vs. the passing game.
Getting Third Down Back: While watching the Saints Monday night, we were reminded of the positive effect of a dynamic, pass-catching back like Darren Sproles. As frustrating as New England’s offense has been to watch at times, imagine what Brady’s going through. Even if we forget about the tight ends and wide receivers he’s missing from last year, think about the impact that Danny Woodhead (now a Charger), Vereen or even Leon Washington could have.
This team is 4-0 despite Brady lacking a true check-down guy since Game One at Buffalo. Maybe we should excuse him if he makes faces once in a while.
On to October. It’s a good month for football.
Chris Warner can be emailed at [email protected] or tweeted @cwarn89