Patriots

Patriots vs. Texans Instant Overreactions: Getting back AFC's No. 1 seed will be tough

Patriots vs. Texans Instant Overreactions: Getting back AFC's No. 1 seed will be tough

The New England Patriots suffered more than just a loss Sunday night to the Houston Texans.

The defending Super Bowl champions' 28-22 defeat at NRG Stadium has allowed the Baltimore Ravens to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race entering Week 14. Getting it back could prove quite difficult for New England over the last four games of the regular season.

Let's take a look at four instant overreactions from the Patriots' loss and assess their merit.

1. Patriots' offense is a very real problem
Verdict
: Not an overreaction

There's a plethora of issues facing the Patriots on offense right now. Here's a quick list:

  • WRs can't get open
  • Brady's chemistry with the young WRs is not good
  • Establishing the run game has been challenging all season
  • Red zone offense
  • 3rd down
  • Lack of production from tight ends

The Patriots have scored an average of just 18 points per game over the last four weeks, and that's not going to beat many teams, especially when more than two thirds of the league averages 20-plus points per game.

Brady isn't blameless for this mess, either. He's completed just 54.8 percent of his passes for 1,017 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions over that four-game stretch.

New England's defense has played at an elite level most of the season, but it cannot be relied on to bail out the offense every time it plays a quality opponent. Adjustments need to be made ASAP to get this offense playoff-ready before January.

2. Patriots won't get the No. 1 seed back
Verdict
: Not an overreaction

The Patriots and Ravens have identical 10-2 records entering Week 14, but Baltimore is the No. 1 seed because it owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Ravens' Week 9 win over the Patriots could ultimately be the difference in the race for the No. 1 seed because Baltimore has a softer remaining schedule than New England. 

Here's a comparison:
--Patriots: Week 14 vs. Chiefs, Week 15 at Bengals, Week 16 vs. Bills, Week 17 vs. Dolphins
--Ravens: Week 14 at Bills, Week 15 vs. Jets, Week 16 at Browns, Week 17 vs. Steelers

The Patriots probably will need to win out and have the Ravens lose at least one game to regain the top seed. Maybe the Bills give the Ravens fits, but it's hard to see Baltimore losing another game in the regular season given their remaining schedule.

New England has to play a Kansas City Chiefs team in Week 14 that's coming off a dominant 40-9 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is well-equipped to score against the Patriots' elite defense after putting up 71 points in a pair of losses in 2018. A Week 16 matchup versus the Bills won't be easy, either. Remember: the Bills barely lost to the Patriots 17-10 in Week 4.

The Patriots no longer control their own destiny in the AFC playoff race, and they need an unlikely slip up from the red-hot Ravens to have any chance at homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Sunday night's snowstorm in New England provided a great reminder of why homefield is important to the Patriots. You'd rather face Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in these conditions:

3. The Texans exposed the Pats' pass D
Verdict
: Overreaction

The Texans had four passing touchdowns Sunday, matching the number the Patriots had allowed through their first 11 games. It was a great performance by Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who also tallied a touchdown reception, but it's only one game. New England's pass defense entered Week 13 giving up the second-fewest passing yards per game, along with the best opposing QB rating. The Patriots defense still leads the league with 20 interception (six more than the next-best team) and a league-low eight passing touchdowns allowed. Veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and the secondary is loaded with exceptional talent, depth and experience. If Mahomes shreds the Patriots secondary next week, the concerns will be valid. But right now, New England's pass defense remains the league's top unit.

4. Texans are a legit AFC contender
Verdict
: Overreaction

The Texans played exceptionally well Sunday night and deserve a lot of credit for beating the Patriots in the manner they did. But let's not get carried away. Houston's only impressive win before Week 13 was a road victory over the Chiefs. This is the same Texans team that has one playoff win over the last six seasons. Houston is still only one game up on the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead, and those two division rivals still have two head-to-head matchups remaining. 

We need to see Watson lead the Texans to at least the AFC Divisional Round before we view Houston as a serious contender to win the conference.

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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.