We're finally (almost) here. The final injury reports of the week have been submitted, and before you know it, Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be on their way to Gillette Stadium.
Let's answer your questions ahead of the Patriots' showdown with the Bucs, in what might be the last time Brady plays in Foxboro.
Brother Dan, it's a great question. I think the betting public has become emotional, in some respects. That's the only explanation for such an overwhelming number of bets to be coming in on Tampa's side here.
It makes sense, to an extent. Think of the narrative: Tom Brady is pissed off, he wants his pound of flesh, he operates at optimum levels when he's been slighted, and everything that's happened since 2017 -- as far as he's concerned -- is one big slight.
That all may be true, but there are other factors at play beyond Brady's emotional state that will determine the final score. And some of those factors favor the Patriots. Not all. The Bucs have the more talented team. That's a big one. Obviously. But some. And I believe there are enough to help keep it close.
For instance, Gio Bernard has already been ruled out for this game. Rob Gronkowski will be a game-time decision. Both players are critical to the operation in Tampa. Bernard notched 10 targets from Brady against LA, and Gronkowski is still Brady's favorite red-zone target.
Richard Sherman is going to be in uniform after telling reporters earlier this week it would be "foolish" to expect him to be able to play at a high level Sunday. The only reason he's in uniform is because the Bucs have become desperate at corner with two of their top options, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, out. Up front, the Bucs have the lowest sack percentage in the NFL.
Defensively, the Bucs have had trouble stopping people. Offensively, they'll go up against arguably the best defensive game-planner in the sport's history. That doesn't mean the Patriots will win. But it's in the realm of possibility. And more money should be coming in on the Patriots than there is at the moment. According to Yahoo!, 92 percent of wagers against the spread are on Tampa to cover.
I think they'll play him the same way they tried to play Peyton Manning. It's the ultimate sign of respect for Brady. It also might be what's best for Belichick's football team: Force Brady to take easy yardage on the ground by handing off; try to stop the run with one fewer defender and take that extra defender and put him deep.
The Patriots could try to do what they do typically on that side of the ball. They could try to play man coverage and take away open throwing windows associated with zone looks. But that opens them up to trying to win one-on-one matchups they aren't equipped to win.
Brady might be expecting man-to-man, because it's what the Patriots defense has been all about for years. They've played more Cover 1 (man-to-man with one deep safety) than most of the league this year. But if that's what Brady's expecting, that might provide an added benefit for Belichick to drop two safeties deep and play zone. Nothing annoys Brady like having to bail on a game plan early because a defense is doing something it hasn't done until he showed up. He often finds the right answers eventually, but if it takes him a quarter or two, that's a massive victory for an opposing defense.
Mr. Wood, I get it. Forget Brady Fatigue. Sounds like you may already have Jones fatigue. And given some of the young promising players who've been added to the roster over the course of the last couple of years, it's worth checking in on them to see how they're doing.
Christian Barmore has been a presence, primarily in passing situations. About two-thirds of his 93 snaps through three games have been spent against the pass, and he's totaled eight pressures. Ronnie Perkins is part of one of the deepest position groups on the roster and could be slated for a red-shirt type of season, unless there are enough injuries for him to warrant being activated.
Rhamondre Stevenson is a player worth keeping an eye on with James White now injured. They're different players. Stevenson is a house of a human being who isn't afraid to inflict punishment on defenders between the tackles. But he has ample skills as a receiver, and with White unavailable, the team is going to have to find a consistent passing-game back with whom it is comfortable.
That may be JJ Taylor. (He's been active since Stevenson fumbled and blew a pass-protection assignment in Week 1 and was benched.) It may be Stevenson. It may be Brandon Bolden, as it was in Week 3 when White went down. But White's injury could make this a ready-or-not situation for either Stevenson or Taylor. One will have to step up with White out. Damien Harris could also see more work in passing situations, though the team won't want to run him into the ground and compromise his ability on first and second downs.
With Brady coming into town, how the team replaces White has flown way under the radar. Any other week, it might be the most critical issue facing the team.
They'll always be a game-plan team. They like to prove they can play a tough, physical brand of football. But they like to win more. They won't actively pursue the first if it muddies their path to the second. That's why, to me, it would make more sense to let the offense chuck it against an undermanned secondary. Ramming their heads into the wall formed by Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and others doesn't make much sense this week. Will be fun to see what Bill Belichick decides.
The Patriots want to be competitive. Trading arguably their best defender as they attempt to maximize their opportunities in 2021 wouldn't make much sense. Particularly since Gilmore is in the final year of his deal and would be viewed as a rental.
CJ Henderson, a top-10 pick last year with several years remaining on his rookie contract, fetched the Jags an average tight end and a third-round pick. Even if Gilmore brought back a second-round pick for the Patriots, not sure Belichick would pull the trigger. They need help in the secondary, though their numbers against opposing passing games have been impressive through three games.
The answer is they view Mike Onwenu as a long-term guard. And that's valuable to them. Is it as valuable as a good tackle? There are plenty of valid arguments that would say no. Unequivocally. But having consistency along the interior means a great deal to the Patriots. And unless there's an emergency situation, they're not going to break that up. That's the thinking.
I'd say with Tom Brady (at the end of his Patriots tenure) and Cam Newton, the team didn't have a reliable make-a-play-in-traffic pass-catcher. The tight end room was barren. The receiver room was inexperienced and unproven.
They have better options now. The production down there should be better. But it's been only three games with a rookie quarterback. Once Jones becomes more comfortable testing the tight windows associated with the red zone -- and once the Patriots become more comfortable putting the ball in Jones' hands there -- the production should improve.
He's been OK. The issue for the Patriots has been they haven't -- outside of their win against the Jets -- been able to get themselves into favorable running situations. If they're protecting a lead, he'll be out there to help the team pound the football via its rushing attack. Two thirds of his snaps have resulted in running plays. But if they're chasing on the scoreboard, it's hard to argue he should be on the field. He's just not enough of a threat in the passing game.
As far as Mason goes, what I've been told is teams who like to use a fullback in their scheme typically like to employ two. Why? Because -- as we saw two seasons ago when linebacker Elandon Roberts had to play fullback -- fullbacks tend to get hurt. You want an insurance option. At this point, that's Mason.
That's a lot of changes, Pat. I don't think it's a horrible idea. But Wynn has been playing left tackle, when healthy, since he's been drafted. Asking him to bump inside and make it look good isn't an impossible ask. But I think it's an unnecessary one.
If Brown is healthy, the starting-five combination of Brown, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn could be among the best in football. We just haven't seen it this year. Wynn should improve as the season progresses. He was better in Week 3 against the Saints than he was in Weeks 1 and 2.
The talent level among their pass-catchers may end up being an issue. It's better than it was a season ago. But relative to the rest of the league, it's far from an intimidating group.
If the Patriots can solve their protection issues, then the focus will shift to the receivers if the passing game continues to stagnate. But right now -- outside of Jonnu Smith's Week 3 dud -- it's hard to know how well the pass-catchers are performing. Jones simply hasn't had enough time to find them down the field consistently.
That may be a ways away, Dave. Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers are all under contract for 2022. Unless there's an injury, or a trade involving one or more of that group, it'd be surprising to me to see the Patriots invest heavily in that position. If it's so bad by the end of 2021 that it's clear a move has to be made, let's revisit.
But, again, I'm not even sure we could say the wideout spot has been a huge issue this year. Bourne and Meyers were the team's two best players against New Orleans, arguably. And until the offensive line irons out its issues, it's hard to put the lack of passing-game production on those on the outside.
Good question, Scott. Let's take a quick look at the remainder of the Patriots schedule... If I had to pick them now, I would feel comfortable giving the Patriots seven more wins. But a handful of those games are games that should be viewed as going either way, so long as the Patriots continue to improve as time passes. And I'd expect them to improve as time passes.
So will they end up with the 11 wins I gave them prior to the start of the season? Probably not. But is there still a path to them rattling off 10? I could see it. It's early yet.
I like the Joe Burrow comp for Mac Jones. They had similar college career arcs. Burrow is a little more athletic. But they win in similar ways -- oftentimes at the line of scrimmage before the ball is even snapped.
The differences? The Patriots have a much better coaching situation. I'd say the Bengals have a better pass-catcher situation. So they're not on the same path. But as far as the quarterbacks? Maybe what the Bengals have done -- using some heavy play-action concepts and allowing Burrow to work out of empty sets -- would work for Jones. We've already seen the Patriots do some of this with varied results.
I'd be injured in a heartbeat. But thank you.
If they didn't trade Gilmore last year while they tried to make a run, they won't be trading him this year while they try to make a run. That's my opinion. Had they been dominant through the first month? Maybe they'd think about it. They need him now.
I'm not sure, Kevin. He's not exactly what they could use at the moment, which is a pass-protection wizard. That's where they'll likely miss White the most. Mack hasn't taken a snap as a pass-protector since 2019, and when he did, he wasn't incredibly effective.
He's savvy, but I like my chances.
I'm going to say no. But I imagine there are plenty of folks who wore neck rolls in high school who are reading your question and doing a lot of nodding right now.
For someone who covers football for a living, no. In my opinion. Give me all the buildup, all the hype.
But Sunday is just around the corner. Hope everyone will tune into our coverage on NBC10 Boston starting at 6 p.m. Pregame Live kicks off on NBC Sports Boston at 6:30 p.m. See you then.