PATS INSIDER

Curran: These Boogeymen seem to have staying power

PATS INSIDER

It was fun while it lasted, I’ll be the first to admit that. When the Patriots started the 2019 season on a defensive rampage, I dutifully chronicled the carnage even though I suspected they might be paper tigers.

Through the first two months of that year, the Patriots were on an historic pace as they marched to 8-0. They had three shutouts, they only allowed four teams to reach double figures and nobody scored more than 14 points.

On Halloween of that year -- a few days before the Patriots would play the Ravens in Baltimore -- I wrote this about those men of Boogie.

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If the point is to prevent points and the Patriots are on their way to doing it better than any team ever did in a 16-game season, where’s the debate?

Through eight games, the Patriots as a team have allowed 61 points. But 21 of those came on returns (a pick-six, fumble return and a muffed punt). So, the defense has only allowed 40 points. They are allowing 5 PPG.

By comparison, the 2000 Ravens set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 151 (there were two pick-sixes on the Baltimore offense). That’s an average of 9.5 PPG. Through eight weeks, those Ravens allowed 82 points. That’s a little more than 10 PPG.

 

If the Patriots allow 110 points (13.75 PPG) or fewer over their final eight games, they will set the record.

Through eight games, opposing offenses have launched 99 drives (not including end-of-half kneel-downs). Eight have finished with points. Four have ended with touchdowns.

The Patriots have ended six opponents’ drives with touchdowns of their own (two pick-sixes, two punt block TDs, two scoop-and-scores).

The Patriots defense is more likely to score a touchdown at the end of an opponent’s drive than the opposing offense.

Opposing offenses are 15-for-96 on third down (15.6 percent). The Vikings last year led the NFL at 30 percent opponent conversions. Minnesota’s 25.25 in 2017 was the lowest of the century.

The Patriots have 31 sacks and 19 interceptions and are allowing 234 YPG. The Ravens in 2019 led the NFL in YPG allowed with 292.9. The 2000 Ravens allowed 247 YPG.

The Patriots have allowed one red-zone touchdown in the first half of the season. They’ve only allowed seven drives inside their 20.

Three days after noting the Patriots at least had the statistical right to be mentioned in the same breath as the 2000 Ravens, the 2019 Ravens ripped their face off in prime time.

Baltimore scored the game’s first 17 points, running 22 offensive plays for 196 total yards while the Patriots ran 10 plays and gained 13 yards in the first 17 minutes. Baltimore ran for 210 yards, Lamar Jackson was 17 for 23 for 163.

The Patriots went 4-5 from that Sunday night through the end of their season -- a Wild Card Round loss to the Titans at Gillette when Derrick Henry ran 34 times for 182 yards.

Even as the self-appointed “Boogeymen” were building their brand, there was suspicion they weren’t as scary as they seemed. I cataloged the “laughable” competition before the Ravens game.

The Patriots have faced four first-year head coaches and six quarterbacks in their first or second seasons. The eight teams they’ve played have combined for 15 wins. The combined .259 winning percentage of their opponents is the lowest strength of schedule in the league this season by far … They. Haven’t. Played. Anybody. … an injured Ben Roethlisberger, a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen combo, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield is not exactly a gauntlet of greats. Although six of them are first-round selections, they’ve all -- Roethlisberger included -- looked like tee-ballers hitting against Aroldis Chapman.

 

Days before the Ravens game, Former Patriot Rodney Harrison was fairly explicit in his assessment for NBC as well.

"Now they’re into the meat and bones of the schedule with Baltimore, Philly, Houston, Kansas City, Dallas, that will tell how good a defense they really are. To put them in the all-time great category after eight weeks after the garbage they’ve faced? I mean, we can say they’re playing extremely well but let’s wait for the next month."

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The next month didn’t go so good. The defense wasn’t bad. The McCourtys, Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones and Patrick Chung were on the back end. Kyle Van Noy, Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins were the linebackers. Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and John Simon were up front and Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler and Ja’Whaun Bentley were in the mix as well. Hell, the same defense beat the hell out of the Rams in the Super Bowl the year before.

But those Patriots weren’t a balanced football team. Even with Tom Brady running the show, the offense grew so punchless the whole team got out of whack.

In the final nine games, Brady completed more than 56 percent of his passes once. In seven of the Patriots’ final nine games, Brady averaged less than 6.1 YPA. He averaged less than 5 YPA four times. The offensive line was ... not good. And the talent dropoff after Julian Edelman and James White was precipitous. Every week, the Patriots either fell behind -- 21-3 to Houston; 23-3 to Kansas City -- or found themselves in a death struggle with developing teams like the Bills and Dolphins.  In the final game of the regular season when the Patriots needed a win, they couldn’t overcome the nothing-to-play-for Dolphins and the Boogeymen got beat late by Ryan Fitzpatrick and DaVante Parker, 27-24.

So. What’s the point of that Memory Lane Stroll? Trying to figure out whether we’re whistling past the graveyard with this year’s team. Are the 2021 Patriots who we think they are? Or are they an apparition like the 2019 Boogeymen? Here are three reasons to believe they are the real article.

 

Quality of competition

In getting to 9-4 and the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots have pantsed some bad teams. They’ve also beaten and/or shown out against some really good ones. To me, the landmark win of the Patriots season was the 27-24 road win against the Chargers. The Chargers had everybody that day: Herbert, Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Jared Cook, Bosa, Derwin James, Chris Harris. The Patriots were not at their best -- it was one of Mac Jones’ least impressive outings -- but it was a resourceful, three-phases win over a talented team on the road.

The offense is balanced which -- even though it doesn’t have an all-time talent like Brady or Edelman on it -- is way harder to defend. And the offensive line can play whichever game you like, run or pass.

Tom E. Curran on this year's Patriots

That win followed an impressive loss two weeks earlier against Dallas. A game which followed two weeks after another optimism-inspiring loss to the Bucs. Play the hardass all you want about there being no such thing as moral victories. The losses to Tampa and Dallas -- like the loss to Kansas City all the way back in 2014 -- put fuel in the Patriots tank.

The Patriots have beaten five truly bad teams -- the Jets twice, the Panthers, Texans and Falcons. They’ve beaten a limping Titans team without Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown and a Browns team without Nick Chubb.

The Bills and Chargers wins stand apart. As do the losses to the Bucs and Dallas. When the 2019 team got in against the Texans and Chiefs late in the year, they got waxed. These Patriots aren’t like that.

Quality of the AFC

Let’s be honest, the Patriots have arrived at the top of the conference so soon in their rebuild because some of the conference elite is flagging. The Ravens (14-2), Chiefs (12-4) and Texans (10-6) were the best teams in the conference in 2019 all with dynamic quarterback play. Buffalo (10-6) and Tennessee (9-7) were the other playoff entrants that year.

The Chiefs' high-water mark may have been 2018 and 2019. Now, they are trying to find themselves a little like the 2018 Patriots were down the stretch. It’s not a coincidence to me that all those teams except the Ravens have spilled huge money into their franchise quarterbacks -- Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson, Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill.

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Lamar Jackson’s deal is coming soon. That investment changes the way a team is built. It also subtly changes -- in my opinion -- the way a team operates on Sundays. The onus is on the franchise quarterback to carry their team. Expressed and implied. Sometimes, balance is a casualty of that. And "trying to do too much" is an outgrowth.

 

These Patriots are complete

Which brings me to my final point. The Patriots have allowed 36 points in their past five games. Yes, their defense has bludgeoned some bad quarterbacks just like the 2019 Patriots did. But this year’s offense more than pulls its weight. In 2019, Julian Edelman and James White combined for 1,762 receiving yards, 172 catches and 11 touchdown receptions. After those two? Phillip Dorsett, Rex Burkhead, Jakobi Meyers and Mohamed Sanu had 28, 27, 26 and 26 catches respectively.

Sony Michel had 912 hard-to-gain yards on 247 carries (3.7 YPC). Burkhead was next at 302. This year’s offense has Meyers at 59 catches for 623, Kendrick Bourne with 42 for 623, Hunter Henry (he’s a tight end; the 2019 Patriots barely used those) with 35 for 395, Nelson Agholor and Brandon Bolden with 32 and Jonnu Smith with 36. Damien Harris has run 164 times for 754 yards (4.6 YPC) and Rhamondre Stevenson’s got 429 on 100.

The offense is balanced which -- even though it doesn’t have an all-time talent like Brady or Edelman on it -- is way harder to defend. And the offensive line can play whichever game you like, run or pass.

Defensively, they generate pressure more easily. The 2019 team had 47 sacks -- which is a lot -- and this year’s team has 32 so far. But, again, the quality of opponent was horrible in 2019 compared to now and the scores when the Patriots streaked to 8-0 made for feeding frenzies. There was no singular pass-rusher in 2019 used the way Matthew Judon is now. And there was no interior pocket crusher like Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux have become. This defense is better than that one that -- for a while -- trended historic.

To sum it up? If you are leery of the 2021 Patriots because you can remember a similar scenario in 2019, don’t be scared. The Boogeymen probably won’t get you this year.

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