If you had listened to any of the sports talk shows in New England over the first few weeks of the NFL season, you would’ve heard a lot of panic. People freaking out because the Patriots weren’t scoring 40 points a game against perceived stiff teams such as the Bills and Jets (Ok, maybe the J-E-T-S are a REAL bad team). People freaking out because Danny Amendola got hurt…again…and Wes Welker was catching touchdowns in Denver. People freaking out because Tom Brady looked…human? Blah, blah, blah. How is everyone feeling now after the big road win at Atlanta? Yeah, they almost didn’t close it out, and now Atlanta is 1-3. But the game was just about locked up with about 5 minutes left. And don’t let the record fool you, Atlanta is a good team. (Aside: The Giants and Steelers are both 0-4, much to my delight. But because their respective divisions are so putrid, you can’t even rule them out of the playoff chase. Not that you can rule any team out after only 4 games, but in the NFL, the odds are generally not very good at making the playoffs with that kind of record a quarter of the way through the schedule).
Some general thoughts on the first quarter of the season:
*Welker/Amendola. I was the first person to ask why they had to nickel-and-dime Welker out of town and sign the injury-prone Amendola. I bet they could’ve afforded both. Welker was durable and awesome in his time here and really didn’t show any signs of slowing down. 2 years at 12 million was doable for the Pats. And Welker has been awesome in Denver, even when everyone expected his numbers to come down because of the amount of weapons Peyton has in Denver. Guess in that offense there really is enough balls for everyone. Good for him. Happy he is doing well. But objectively we should see what everything looks like long-term. Amendola has talent and is younger. Maybe he stops getting hurt and the next several years are actually better than Welker’s next several. Who knows? Give it time. But one of the benefits of Amendola and Gronkowski being hurt (and Hernandez being in jail I suppose too), and Welker being gone is…
*…Rookie receivers. In the past, Brady has locked onto certain receivers and everyone knows the ball is going to them…security blankets, if you will. If a new guy (veteran OR rookie) doesn’t get the offense immediately, well, he always had Wes, Gronk, Deion, etc. that he can force the ball to. Can’t do that now. Brady is now being forced to develop chemistry with the young guys. Yes, I know even if Brady locked in on a guy in the past, he got it there most of the time anyway. And he has had some solid options out of the backfield such as Woodhead and Vereen (when he is healthy, that is). But when Gronk was out, it seemed he really only wanted to throw to Welker or Hernandez, or sometimes Lloyd, because the WR options were limited. Now he doesn’t have that one guy (unless you count Edelman, and I don’t), so he has to throw to whoever. These three rookies, plus the rookie TE have talent, you can see it. They just need to keep developing in the offense (and hold onto the ball). It isn’t like the crew in 2006 that people like to compare it to, with all the veteran retreads (Caldwell, Gabriel, Gaffney), a washed up and unhealthy Troy Brown, a bust in Chad Jackson and a fringe NFL’er in Bam Childress. Thompkins, despite the infuriating drops he still has, has come along fastest. Dobson is progressing, Boyce may start getting some more time (and even if he doesn’t, bringing him in for that one deep pattern instead of Slater is a massive improvement). Sudfeld has been a disappointment thus far, but maybe the injury has held him back a bit. And no, even after the great preseason I did not expect him to light up the NFL. I expected him to have more than ZERO catches at this point. Give it time here.
*Wilfork. His injury will hurt, but is not insurmountable. There is a lack of depth at DT on the team, but I think they can mix and match to get by. And Vince hasn’t exactly been Vince this year, for whatever reason. The way the league is these days, I am more worried about good DB’s going down than a DT. The recent Pats teams have been great against the run and I always expect them to be, no matter who gets hurt. I looked yesterday and saw that there were 19 QB’s on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards. 19!! That number will wane of course, and projections after 1/4th of a season are pretty useless, but still, it sheds some light on where the game is. Throw, not run. They’ll figure out a way to mask his loss.
*Brady. He’ll be back to the Tom of old soon. As soon as the chemistry with the kids develops. As soon as Gronk and Amendola return. As soon as he gets his head out of his arse…er, I mean…ok, let’s face it, he hasn’t been all that accurate this year. Let’s not blame the receivers for everything. They have had some stupid drops and probably have run more than one wrong route. But he is not totally absolved of blame I am sure, once the coaches run through the game tapes. And the two fumbles on center exchanges? Inconceivable. Should not happen. It’s not like he and Wendell haven’t worked together before. I’m thinking Tom is thinking he needs to be so fine that he is a little overanxious and backs out too early. He needs to let things continue to progress and before you know it he will be up among the QB leaders again.
*The defense. OK, they have played somewhat of a weak schedule so far. But you have to like the pieces in place and what they have shown so far. No one has said that these guys will ever be a #1 defense, but it looks like they could be top-10. The secondary has been the biggest surprise, especially since it has pretty much the same guys as last year. Maybe having Talib from Day One this year has been the key. But everyone back there seems a lot better than they have been in the past. The pass rush seems a little improved, and it’s not just Chandler Jones. The run D seems as stout as ever, and Spikes isn’t even really playing much. Losing Vince will hurt, but there are a lot of positive developments here so far.
*Outlook. Still on track for a great record and a division title. Miami may be better than I initially gave them credit for, but still not on their bandwagon. Once some of the injured come back, the offense in particular should be smoother. Can’t really predict future injuries though and how they affect the team as a whole. The D will get stiffer tests as well. But I expected big things from this team from the beginning and that hasn’t changed. A Super Bowl contender? Time will tell. But it sure looks like Denver and Seattle may be the teams to beat at the quarter pole. Still plenty of season left though…