Patriots

Super Bowl still possible, but no longer likely for depleted Patriots

Super Bowl still possible, but no longer likely for depleted Patriots

The Patriots are now just another crab in the AFC bucket. 

With Dont'a Hightower joining Julian Edelman in the “done for the season” category, the Patriots are without two players on their “Just Can’t Lose” list.

This means recalculating is in order. It’s going to be a fight.

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Success has been such a foregone conclusion for the Patriots that the process is an afterthought. Let other cities worry about whether or not there’ll be playoff football in January. That’s not even been on the table around here. Playing in the Conference Championship -- as the Patriots have done every season since 2011 and 11 times since 2001 -- is a birthright. The only drama is whether the season ends there or in the Super Bowl.

Not now. 

It’s taken half the season for the Patriots offense to adjust to post-Edelman life and in the process, Tom Brady’s been whacked around like a well-hydrated piñata. As for the defense, every issue they’ve had has related to communication and brainpower, not talent. The biggest brain in their front-seven belonged to Hightower. He’s gone now. Before Halloween. It feels like 2017 was born under a bad sign. 

Kevin Garnett memorably screamed at the Garden rafters in 2008 that, “Anything’s possible!!!” The same applies to the 2017 Patriots when -- just two months ago -- there appeared to be just one outcome if fate favored them.  

Can the Patriots get to Minnesota in February? Yes.

Is it a likelihood as it appeared throughout the offseason? No.

But it’s no more likely for the Chiefs, Raiders, Bills, Raiders to get there either. The whole mess of them are fighting on level ground.

The Patriots still have their advantages, namely Brady, Bill Belichick, two coordinators who’ve been at it for almost a decade and a team that’s shown time and again it can deal with personnel setbacks and adversity.

But it’s not done with a snap of the fingers. There’s a mourning period for the expectations they had. And then there’s the week-to-week process of figuring out how to proceed. Does David Harris get plunked into the middle of the defense? The team has resisted like hell even putting him on the field. Was the ascending play of Kyle Van Noy a by-product of him “getting it” or was it linked to having Hightower next to him, which helped Van Noy think less and react more? Is there an answer on another team’s roster that the Patriots can grab before the trade deadline?

The reality is, just as this defense went from eye-poppingly bad to pretty damn good in one week’s time, there’s about to be some backsliding. You don’t lose a player like Hightower without that happening.

And that’s why -- despite his brittleness -- the Patriots re-signed him in the offseason. He’s an absolutely pivotal player for them, as their last two Super Bowl wins demonstrated. There will be all kinds of cluck-clucking today about whether the Patriots made a mistake in bringing him back or paying him what they did and, while it fills the time, it’s a disingenuous, dishonest conversation starter.

The Patriots brought him back for less than we all forecasted he would make because of the injury history. He was more important to them than he was to the Jets or the Steelers -- his main suitors. What were they supposed to do, nickel-and-dime him even more two months after his strip-sack of Matt Ryan led to the team’s fifth Super Bowl win? Let him go? GTFOOH.

In Belichick’s offseason interview with CNBC’s Suzy Welch he said, “On a personal level, the one thing that I've definitely learned is you've got to count on your most dependable people." It might not be your most talented person, but you count on your most dependable people. There have been times when I've put let's say too much responsibility on people that weren't dependable and they didn't come through. And so whose fault's that? Mine."

As Belichick has also said, you cannot take insurance out on players. They get hurt. Linebackers, tight ends and wide receivers get hurt a lot because they are playing high speed collision positions. So whether it’s Hightower, Gronk, Edelman, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty or Danny Amendola – the Patriots most dependable non-Brady players – you ride with them.

Does “dependable” mean durable? Or is it a stew of being able to stay healthy and -- when on the field -- do the right thing, make others better and have rare talent? It’s the latter, obviously. And that’s what Hightower does.

There’s nine games left and the Patriots are 5-2. All things considered, they are probably no worse off than any other team in the AFC. It’s just that they aren’t significantly better off as they almost always are.

Welcome to the way the rest of the league lives.

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Belichick remembers Glenn: 'A good person with good intentions'

Terry Glenn, the Patriots' top draft pick in 1996, died early Monday morning in a one-car accident in Irving, Texas. He was 43. 

Bill Belichick coached Glenn as an assistant with the Patriots during Glenn's rookie season. He was later Glenn's head coach in 2000 and 2001. Belichick traded Glenn to the Packers before the 2002 season after a tumultuous run in New England that involved legal trouble, injuries and clashes with the coaching staff.

During a conference call with reporters soon after the news of Glenn's death was published, Belichick remembered Glenn for his natural physical ability and "a good heart."

"I was pretty close with Terry," Belichick said, "and his rookie season was my first year here in '96, and so I had a lot of interaction with him and other people that were involved in his life and his upbringing separate from the Patriots. Terry's a very smart individual. Had a lot of, obviously, a lot of physical skill and talent. Could do a lot of things on the football field very naturally. And I think he was deep down inside a good person with good intentions and, you know, a good heart. Obviously it's very unfortunate. Very unfortunate passing. I mean, it's a sad day. Sad news."

According to reports, Glenn was with his fiancee at the time of the accident. She's being treated at a local hospital for unspecified injuries.