Ben Volin of the Boston Globe joins Felger and Mazz on 98.5 the Sports Hub to talk about Julian Edelman's latest foot injury at Patriots training camp.
What happened to the Patriots offense on Sunday can be chalked up as a bad day against a good scheme, where almost no one played well. Injuries along the offensive line hurt. Poor decisions didn't help. Drops and penalties were killers. That performance in Tennessee has been the exception rather than the rule since Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon have become regulars.
What happened to the Patriots defense on Sunday was thanks in large part to an abnormally bad day in coverage. Plus, one week after reining in Aaron Rodgers up front, they couldn't do the same against Marcus Mariota. They had trouble tackling -- even one of their best tacklers, Patrick Chung. Again. That performance was the exception based on what they'd done lately, not the rule.
What happened on special teams on Sunday? Different story. That's been happening for the better part of the season.
The Titans got out to their blistering start in part thanks to a 58-yard return from Darius Jennings. The Patriots couldn't keep contain -- Jonathan Jones and Chris Hogan both seemed to overrun the play -- and Jennings hit the sideline with burst of speed. Devin McCourty might've saved the play from being a touchdown.
Now through 10 games, the Patriots are the fourth-worst (29th) team in the NFL in terms of average yards allowed per kick return. They're giving up 26.44 yards on average every time an opponent tries to make something of a Stephen Gostkowski kickoff.
In the last five seasons, the Patriots never ranked worse than sixth in the NFL in average return yards allowed. Last year they allowed 18.88 yards per return, which was third in the league. They were third again in 2016, allowing 19.27 yards per return. From 2013-2015, they ranked sixth, fifth and second, respectively.
The Patriots are 28th in the league in opponent starting field position, according to Football Outsiders, allowing offenses to begin drives at their 30.27, on average. They were first in that category last season (24.63).
Long returns like Jennings' and the 97-yarder Chiefs rookie Tremon Smith churned out back in Week 6 skew the numbers, but the point remains: The Patriots kick coverage unit isn't all that far removed from being one of the league's best, and now it's at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Bill Belichick was asked on Tuesday if the new rules changes, implemented this offseason, have impacted his team's ability to cover on those plays.
"I think the rules have had some – they’re relevant and they’ve eliminated some things that you can do on the kickoff team that we’ve done in the past," Belichick said. "I think we’ve had our moments. At times, we’ve covered well, but as you point out, we haven’t and have probably had more breakdowns in that area than what we are used to having in previous years.
"It’s definitely an issue. It’s an area that we’ve got to continue to work in. I don’t think it’s a rule thing as much as we’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to play better. The whole operation has to be better. We have six weeks to get it to a high level and hopefully we’ll be able to do that."
Running starts for the kicking team are no longer allowed, making it harder to get down the field as quickly as years past. Rules have also changed in terms of what kickoff teams can do before the kick with motion -- something the Patriots liked to do previously to help complicate opposing blocking assignments. Also, two players must be between the numbers and the hash marks based on the new rules.
Clearly, things are different for special teams coach Joe Judge and kicking-game specialists Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Nicholas Grigsby. But the rules have changed for everyone, and the Patriots have cratered in terms of their league-wide ranking in multiple statistical categories related to the kickoff.
Belichick said it: "The whole operation has to be better."
Safe to assume that the Patriots will allot a portion of their time during this week's bye to look for a way to remedy the issue.
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The New England Patriots have won 70 percent of their games this season. They're still a very good football team. But their path to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance looks much rockier than in years past.
After Sunday's 34-10 road loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots sit third in the AFC's overall standings behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers. If the season ended right now, they would need to play on Wild Card weekend, something they haven't done since 2009.
Of course, a lot can change over the final seven weeks of the NFL season. With the Patriots heading into their bye week, let's reset the AFC playoff picture, starting with a look at the overall standings. (An asterisk denotes a division leader.)
AFC Overall Standings
1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)*
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1)*
3. New England Patriots (7-3)*
4. Houston Texans (6-3)*
5. Los Angeles Chargers (7-2)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)
In the hunt: Tennessee Titans (5-4), Miami Dolphins (5-5), Baltimore Ravens (4-5), Indianapolis Colts (4-5)
AFC Wild-Card Round Matchups (as of Nov. 13)
No. 3 Patriots vs. No. 6 Bengals
No. 4 Texans vs. No. 5 Texans
So, how could the Patriots avoid a first-round matchup against the Bengals and possibly secure the AFC's top seed? Here's a look at the remaining schedules for Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and New England:
Kansas City: at Rams (in Mexico City), BYE, at Raiders, vs. Ravens, vs. Chargers, at Seahawks, vs. Raiders
Pittsburgh: at Jaguars, at Broncos, vs. Chargers, at Raiders, vs. Patriots, at Saints, vs. Bengals
Patriots: BYE, at Jets, vs. Vikings, at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets
If the Patriots want the No. 1 seed, they'll likely need to win out -- and get some help. The Chiefs have just two games remaining against teams above .500 -- the 9-1 Rams and 7-2 Chargers -- and would need to drop two games or more to open the door for New England, which does hold the tie-breaker over Kansas City thanks to its Week 6 victory.
The Patriots have a decent shot at catching the Steelers for the No. 2 seed and at least getting a first-round bye. Pittsburgh has decently tough road matchups in Denver and Jacksonville, and a Week 15 NEw England victory over the Steelers could catapult them into the No. 2 spot.
This all assumes, of course, that the Patriots straighten out the issues that led to a 24-point loss to a middling Titans team. But as always in New England, the stakes are high: Bill Belichick's club is just 2-3 on the road this season and hasn't won an AFC Championship Game on the road since 2004.