Should The New England Patriots Be Panicking?

The fans of the New England Patriots, and most independent observers are sounding alarm bells about the team’s 2012 chances. Tom Brady says that maybe they’ve spoiled everyone, that there’s this much consternation about the team’s long-term Super Bowl hopes. Who’s right? Or is the truth somewhere in between. Let’s break down the Patriots’ seven games thus far and see what stands out, and then assess their road ahead.

Week 1: won at Tennessee 34-13: It was a dominating performance, with a new-look running game being shown off as Stevan Ridley ran for 162 yards and the defense shut down Titan running back Chris Johnson. The latter had to be taken with a grain of salt though, as Johnson struggled against everyone for the first few weeks.

Week 2: lost to Arizona 20-18: This was part of a 4-0 start for Arizona, so the loss per se doesn’t look as bad then as it did now. Brady threw the ball well (28/46 for 316 yards), Ridley was reasonably effective running the ball and the defense prevented the now-injured Cardinal running back Beanie Wells from getting anything going.

But all was wiped out by a complete failure on the part of the offensive line—Brady was sacked seven times and hit six more. While New England missed a field goal at the end that could have won it, it was a fluke they had the chance—Arizona had fumbled while running out the clock.

Week 3: lost at Baltimore 31-30: The defense blew leads of 13-0 early and 30-21 late, setting the tone for what would be the most oft-criticized feature of this team in recent weeks. Brady carved up the Raven’ secondary, getting the ball outside to Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker with frequency. But he didn’t get the run support on this night. Joe Flacco did—the strong showing by the Baltimore quarterback was supplemented by a 101-yard night from running back Ray Rice.

This game is remembered as being the penultimate straw for the replacement refs (Green Bay-Seattle one night later finished the job), but it should also be remembered the New England defense really did nothing right, especially late in the game. The defensive pass rush—or lack thereof—was too much to overcome.

Week 4: won at Buffalo 52-28: Not only did Ridley run over the Buffalo defense for 106 yards, but another quick little running back out of the SEC named Brandon Bolden got in the mix, going for 137 (Bolden is from Ole Miss, Ridley from LSU). New England piled up 247 yards on the ground and on defense they intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. This was also the first big game for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 104 yards receiving and the offensive line gave Brady solid protection.

Week 5: beat Denver 31-21: Another dominating day for the running game, with 251 rush yards, 151 of them by Ridley. What New England did not do well was protect Brady—they surrendered four sacks and five QB hits—or protect their lead.

A 31-14 game after three quarters was quickly cut to ten and Denver’s own mistakes ended two drives that could have really made it interesting. The lack of pressure of Peyton Manning was nearly deadly, as the Bronco QB hung a 31/44 for 337 yards/0 interceptions stat line on the board.

Week 6: lost at Seattle 24-23: This is the game the media is overreacting to. Last I checked, Seattle’s a good team with a tough, physical defense that plays well at home. Losing to them by one hardly counted as a reason to count the Patriots out (or if it does, that count out San Francisco for losing at Minnesota, Baltimore for losing at Philly and the New York Giants for losing at home to Dallas and Houston for being completely embarrassed at home by Green Bay. At which point no one is left).

It is fair to be concerned about the secondary in this spot though. The New England defense took away the running game, built a 23-10 lead and forced Russell Wilson to throw. The Seahawk quarterback responded, with a 16/27 for 293 yards/0 interceptions game. Other than defensive end Chandler Jones, no one got any pressure. In the meantime, the Pats couldn’t run the ball and Brady ended up throwing 58 times. Here’s a hint—when you throw nearly 60 times a game you’re going to have problems in the red zone and protecting leads, and the Pats had both.

Week 7: beat the NY Jets 29-26 in OT: It was kind of a ho-hum game for New England on offense. They ran the ball decently and Brady had an okay game. Mark Sanchez added to the legitimate concern that exists over the secondary, as he threw for 328 yards. But on Sunday the Patriots got pressure—four sacks and four QB hits and it was a sack and fumble that ended the game in overtime.

A few other points that stand out on a game-by-game review—in spite what may be written about Wes Welker’s problems over his contract and with the front office and the occasional benching, he’s a very active part of the pass offense and is having another good year.

The pass protection has improved in recent weeks. And on the negative side, you have to be bothered by the fact that the games against Baltimore, Denver and the NY Jets saw the opposing quarterbacks really heavy up in targeting one receiver (Torrey Smith, Demaryius Thomas and Jerome Kerley) and the secondary was still unable to stop them or at least force the ball to be spread out.

So how much should New England fans be panicking? In my view, not at all. There are concerns to be sure—the secondary’s inability to get interceptions or hold leads is an obvious problem. The pass rush is still too sporadic, a problem whose connection to the core concern is obvious. But these are problems that New England had last year and they still made the Super Bowl. When you watch them play this time around, you often see decent defense for three quarters or so. Last year you never saw it.

And the offense is markedly better. Brady might not be stuffing the stat sheet and thrilling Fantasy owners, but he’s yet to play a bad game (save maybe Arizona when the protection collapsed) and the running game has become a real threat. New England is a better team than they were a year ago, and while 4-3 is not ideal, it’s still enough to lead the AFC East.

Where New England fans can be concerned is that this team probably needs to get a first-round bye—at least the #2 seed in the AFC—if they’re going to reach the Super Bowl. Baltimore is 5-2 and holds the tiebreaker, while Houston is 6-1. The Patriots play the Texans at home in December and can cut into the gap and possibly alter the overall tiebreaker dynamic if they, Houston and Baltimore all end up in a dead heat. At this point, I think any conversation about the #1 playoff seed can be restricted to these three teams.

The schedule offers New England some immediate opportunities to make some hay. They play St. Louis in London this coming week, and after a bye its home games with Buffalo and Indianapolis. A three-game win streak is very realistic, and with the next road games against the Jets and Dolphins, it’s easy to see the Pats going 5-0. At the very least, they need to win four of those five, because then its back-to-back prime-time games with Houston and San Francisco, both at home.

If the Patriots conclude this stretch at 10-4, they should be in position to at least grab a bye and possibly the #1 overall seed. With Baltimore’s injuries, its possible 9-5 could still be enough to get in at #2, because the final two weeks are chippies at Jacksonville and at home against Miami.

The close losses New England has suffered have eliminated the margin for error, at least in terms of completing for an AFC playoff bye. But the position in the AFC East is solid and the fundamental trajectory of their team is better than it was in 2011. And last I checked, that team came within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl. So take the finger off the panic button Pats fans.