Point/Counterpoint: Ranking Patriots' opponents in this challenging four-game stretch

Point/Counterpoint: Ranking Patriots' opponents in this challenging four-game stretch

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. This week, they debate the Patriots schedule. Which of their next four games is the toughest? They've ranked them here in order from strongest to weakest.


EAGLES: On the road. Talented team. They turned the corner after getting smashed in back-to-back weeks by the Vikings and Cowboys. They’ve now won two in a row (at Buffalo, 31-12 and home with the Bears, 22-14). They’ve run for 364 over their past two games and are going to go right at the Patriots to see if they’ve spruced up their run defense over the bye. Philly’s also coming off a bye. Carson Wentz has been quietly efficient and tight ends have been finding success against the Patriots. Zach Ertz is the best one they’ve faced.

TEXANS: They have two tough ones in a row before the face the Patriots (Ravens and Colts). But they’ve won four of five and Deshaun Watson can be a handful. If the Patriots can get the pressure on him that they’ve been getting all season, they’ll be able to hold the Houston offense mostly in check. But when Watson is well-protected he’s as dangerous as any quarterback in the league.

CHIEFS: The one thing that would concern me here is if it gets into a shootout. The Patriots hadn’t shown a clockwork offense until the Ravens game. Did they find something that will spawn a more consistent approach especially on third down and in the red zone? And how does the back end hold up against the unfair speed combo of Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman? At Gillette? They should take care of business.

COWBOYS: Bill Belichick vs. Jason Garrett? I’ll take the Patriots in this one fairly handily. The Cowboys will also be coming off a game at Detroit before heading to Foxboro, so I wouldn’t underrate the chance to pick the brains of the Lions coaching staff and see how Dallas reacts to what Detroit does as being a key subplot to this one.


CHIEFS: Patrick Mahomes. The combination of their team speed, the quarterback's arm and Andy Reid's scheme will be a handful for anyone the Chiefs see the rest of the way. Patriots included. Kansas City also seems to be adjusting to its new defensive identity under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who's assisted by former Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly. That's not a very good unit, but it might be a serviceable one by the time it gets to Foxboro. It'll be interesting to see Isaiah Wynn and Frank Clark match up. It might not be the preview of the AFC title game we all expected. But, given where the Chiefs record is, it might be a preview of the divisional round.

TEXANS: The Patriots will be on the road against the player who is probably, at the midway point of the season, the runner-up for league MVP. Deshaun Watson has been pressured at a rate higher than all but five quarterbacks in the league, yet he's sixth in yards per attempt, fourth in quarterback rating and fourth in completion percentage. Only Russell Wilson has been better. The Texans will be without JJ Watt, and their offensive line is still a mess. But if they're healthy at the receiver position -- as lock-down as the Patriots have been on that spot all year -- their second and third options could give the Patriots headaches. 

COWBOYS: Jason Garrett is still the boss in Dallas, but the offense has been handed over to Kellen Moore and the results have been impressive. Dak Prescott truly looks like one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league (third in yards per attempt, 8.71), and the Cowboys are no longer totally reliant on their running game. In fact, they've been an explosive play waiting to happen. They're first in explosive run rate this year, per Sharp Football Stats, and fifth in explosive pass rate. That's a dangerous combination. The Patriots shut those down with regularity (No. 1 in the NFL in limiting explosive plays), but if they're forced to bring additional forces into the box to try to slow down Elliott, they may make themselves vulnerable deep against Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.

EAGLES: The Patriots should be able to take care of business following their bye. Philly's about to be in a situation where they have to start recently re-signed receiver Jordan Matthews. They don't scare anyone at that position. Zach Ertz should be doubled. And as long as Miles Sanders is bottled up in the passing game, the Patriots will be OK. The Eagles running game has been potent, but if the Patriots score early on Philadelphia's generous secondary, that should force Doug Pederson to chase points and eventually abandon his ground game. Against 11 personnel, which the Patriots ran for the entirety of their last game, the Eagles allow over 7.0 yards per pass attempt, a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and 5.0 yards per carry. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

The New England Patriots have some key players set to enter free agency this offseason. Obviously, Tom Brady will take most of the attention, but the team has some important special teams players set to hit the open market as well.

Notably, Matthew Slater and Stephen Gostkowski will be available. And Nate Ebner will be as well.

Ebner, an eight-year pro who was drafted in the sixth round in 2012, has been a big-time special teams ace for the Patriots. In 2018, he ranked second in the league in special teams tackles with 15. He provided another eight last season and continued to be a key cog in that aspect of the game.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Ahead of his free agency, Ebner opened up about wanting to stay with the Patriots as he looks to continue his NFL career.

“I mean, that would be the best thing, I think, when you consider my entire career has been here,” Ebner said per NESN's Zack Cox. “I understand how things go. I’ve got some true friendships here.

“I understand how things work — that would be great. But right now, it’s out of my hands, so we’ll see what happens and I’ll just take it as it goes. We’ll see.”

It wouldn't be surprising to see Ebner return to the Patriots. After all, Bill Belichick places a lot of value on special teams performance. Given that Ebner should come relatively cheap -- he signed a two-year, $5 million deal last time he was set to hit free agency -- it's well within the realm of possibility that the team could find a way to keep him.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and if the Patriots use up most of their cap space signing Brady and some offensive weapons to surround him, Ebner might not fit. But if Ebner's first choice is remaining in New England, it seems likely that the team will at least entertain the idea of bringing him back.

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

NFL owners are pushing for a big change that would be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The league reportedly will propose expanding the postseason to add a seventh playoff team in each conference.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter detailed, the league would now have six games on Wild Card weekend under the new proposal, three in each conference, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will get a playoff bye.

Also in the proposal is a 17-game regular season and a shortened preseason to three games. The changes would be implemented for the 2020 season if the new CBA is ratified by the owners and NFL Players Association.

If adopted, this is certainly a massive change and one that could have a big impact on the New England Patriots. 

The Patriots have mastered the art of qualifying for a bye in their two-decade-long dynasty. In fact, this past postseason was the first time New England didn't have a first-round bye since the 2009-10 postseason. The Patriots finished as the No. 3 seed and promptly lost to the Tennessee Titans at home, marking their earliest playoff exit since the '10 postseason.

Thus, the elimination of one of the byes could have a significant impact on the Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach before the 2000 season, the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl nine times. In each of those seasons, they've had a first-round bye.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have been the AFC's No. 2 seed on six occasions. They advanced to the Super Bowl and won three times in those six instances, and it's fair to wonder if they would've had a similar chance to advance had they needed to play another game, even if it was against a seventh-seeded team.

In the past seven Super Bowls overall, no team has made it to the big game without a first-round bye. The 2013 Ravens were the last team to play Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl.

So, needless to say, the No. 1 seed in each conference will now have a major advantage, and the Patriots are going to have to fight harder to earn it. They're certainly capable of earning the No. 1 seed. They were the No. 1 as recently as the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 52.

The road to the Super Bowl will become a little more difficult without that No. 1 seed if the new format is approved. Only once in the Patriots history have they reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team and that was 35 years ago in the 1985 season. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage will carry even more importance, but they'll have to outduel some powerful up-and-coming AFC teams if they want to earn it in the near future.

For a team with the NFL's toughest projected strength of schedule in 2020, that will be no easy task.