Patriots

Bean: The AFC East is tanking

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Bean: The AFC East is tanking

Normally, you would accuse the team that just signed Jay Cutler of tanking. Not in the AFC East!

With Friday’s moves from the Bills -- they traded Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby in separate deals for a second-rounder, a third-rounder, Jordan Matthews and E.J. Gaines -- means they can now join the Jets as AFC East teams that are just completely mailing it in this season. 

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Really, it’s not an awful strategy. The Bills were not going to win the division or even push for a wild card spot, so they gave up on one of the most talented players in the league in Watkins. The fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft will now try to rescue Jared Goff in Los Angeles. Matthews is a good player who’s put up good numbers, but he isn’t the potential franchise player that Watkins is. 

After Friday’s trades, the Bills now have multiple picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. Plus, trading away their good players to other teams ensures that the Patriots won’t poach them the way they have with Chris Hogan, Stephon Gillmore and Mike Gillislee of late.  

At least the Bills waited until the preseason began to throw in the towel on 2017. The Jets pretty much punted out of the gate, subtracting Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Nick Mangold, David Harris and Darrelle Revis from a 5-11 team. They didn’t solve their quarterback dilemma, but then again neither did the Bills. 

The AFC East has been a four-team division since 2002, but it’s largely been a one-team division given that the Pats have won it in 13 of the 14 seasons in which Tom Brady has been healthy (14 of 15 dating back to when the Colts were in the division). 

So the Pats and everyone else have been used to one team dominating. Yet the Jets and Bills have been able to give New England some actual games, with Buffalo beating the Pats in Week 4 of last season and the Jets beating them in overtime in Week 16 in 2015. Expect no such games this season. 

Instead, it’s up to a Dolphins team that made the playoffs without great quarterback play to provide perhaps the only watchable divisional games for the Patriots. Then again, the Pats blew that team out for a half with their backup quarterback, held on to win that game with their third-string quarterback making his NFL debut and then stomped them by 21 points in their other meeting last season. 

That team could very well have Jay Cutler, whom the Patriots destroy, under center when the teams meet this season. 

The Dolphins are at least trying, so give them credit there. Then again, you might as well give the Jets and Bills credit while you’re at it. The whole thing isn’t too different from the Celtics opting not to cash in all their assets for veteran stars right now. The Celtics are waiting out the end of Cleveland’s run in the East. The teams in New York are seemingly waiting to build their teams to be ready for the end of the Brady era.

For now, however, they’re basically giving the Pats the division. Then again, that’s nothing new. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.