Patriots

Tom E. Curran: Patriots keep on struggling with their personnel problems

Tom E. Curran: Patriots keep on struggling with their personnel problems

HOUSTON — The last time the Patriots were in NRG Stadium, most of the country was pulling on its best shoes to dance on the graves of Tom Brady and the Patriots dynasty after the first 30 minutes.

A couple hours later, the Patriots had pulled off perhaps the greatest comeback in pro sports history. They followed up that win in Super Bowl 51 with two more Super Bowl appearances and another Super Bowl win and the dancing shoes were once more tucked in the closet.

Sunday night, America had a chance to dig those shoes out once again. And this time, there was no miraculous comeback you’ll tell grandchildren about. Just a slow fade to a 28-22 defeat that wasn’t really that close.

The Patriots are 10-2 and — with four games left — there’s no doubt they’re headed for the postseason. But the loss drops them behind Baltimore (also 10-2) thanks to the Patriots loss to the Ravens a month ago.

Even with the team so ravaged by the flu they had to scramble another plane to transport their sickest players to Houston, the Patriots’ mastery over the Texans made this game seem like the one they’d kick it in offensively.

They ran the ball better than they had all season the week before. Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu were back on the field. Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry had flowers thrown at their feet for playing adequately against Dallas.

The Texans linebackers even played right into New England’s hands by dressing up in SWAT team outfits before the game to show they were ready for combat or whatever.

And, during the opening drive when Tom Brady twice found Julian Edelman open on third downs, it looked like it was all going to fall into place.

Then the Texans decided to double Edelman everywhere and Brady was left ducking for cover, throwing into tight coverage or flinging the ball to empty spots he thought his guys would be.

On this night, the Patriots defense didn’t ride over the ridge to save the day. Brady got picked on the Patriots' second drive when Harry got discarded by cornerback Bradley Roby on a simple slant route. The 6-3, 225-pound first-rounder, who is quickly finding out this isn’t the Pac-12 anymore, was non-competitive on the route and Roby undercut it with ease.

Three plays later, the Texans were in the end zone after the first of three Deshaun Watson touchdown passes. A 13-play, 88-yard drive capped by another easy flip by Watson for a touchdown put the Patriots offense where it can least afford to be. Down 14-3 and in catch-up mode.

Maybe the sickness played a role Sunday night, maybe it didn’t. But it wasn’t health that stopped the Patriots offense. It was personnel. With Edelman getting doubled, Sanu at less than 100 percent and Harry banished to the sidelines after the interception, Brady was reliant on Dorsett and Meyers with a splash of tight ends Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson and a sprinkling of James White.

It wasn’t nearly enough. The Patriots aren’t fast on offense, which makes them easy to defend 1-on-1 and leaves Brady throwing into tiny windows or forcing the ball to Edelman, the one wideout he trusts is going to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there. They don’t make a ton of contested catches where their physicality wins out.

When guys get truly open — like Edelman on a 44-yard gain on a first-and-30 play — it’s because of a defensive breakdown.

There are drops — Sanu had one on fourth and inches, LaCosse had one in the red zone. There are crossed signals. And the frustration Brady’s feeling because of all of it leads you to conclude that this 2019 offense might get a little bit better, but that it will never really get good.

It’s been like this since the second half of the third game of the season. A week after the Patriots annihilated the Dolphins and we — I swear to God we did this — debated whether this offense was better than the 2007 offense, New England went 2-for-8 on third down in the second half of a win over the Jets.

And, aside from a half of effectiveness here and there, they’ve been in the same morass ever since. Inconsistent on third down. Spotty running game. Completely unable to find anything they can hang their hats on in the red zone.

Josh McDaniels didn’t get dumb over the summer. Brady didn’t get old after Week 2. The offense was built on a shaky foundation. Guys they wanted in free agency didn’t come. The guys they got in free agency didn’t work out. The troubled guys they signed (Antonio Brown) or had dropped in their laps at the end of camp (Josh Gordon) who could have spackled over the cracks didn’t stick.

The “Josh and Tom will figure it out” approach that worked last year hasn’t worked this year in large part because there isn’t a Hall of Fame tight end wandering around out there to scare anyone.

And after each game there’s a Brady shrug-a-thon because even a relentless optimist like him can’t bring himself to say, “We’ll figure it out.”

“Like I said, we’re battling, we’re trying as hard as we can,” Brady said when asked if there was enough talent to get where the team wants to go. “It all remains to be seen. You can make a bunch of predictions and so forth but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about going out there and doing it.”

The Patriots had their worst game of the season defensively. They weren’t horrific, just average against a talented offense. They got outschemed on two touchdowns, flat-out beaten on another when the game was still in the balance. But unlike other years — unlike the last time the Patriots played in this stadium — there was no expectation that the offense would shake off the cobwebs and mount anything substantial.

It’s weird to see a Patriots team with a still very capable Brady be wholly unreliable. But that’s where the Patriots are right now.

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Patriots vs. Bengals Injury Report: Julian Edelman misses practice, Tom Brady limited

Patriots vs. Bengals Injury Report: Julian Edelman misses practice, Tom Brady limited

The New England Patriots had several important players on their Wednesday injury report.

Veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman was the only Patriots player who didn't practice. He's nursing knee/shoulder injuries. The Athletic's Jeff Howe reported Edelman's absence was for "load management." Edelman wasn't the only wideout listed -- N'Keal Harry (hip) was a full participant and Mohamed Sanu (ankle) was limited.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was a full practice participant but is listed on the injury report with a right elbow issue. He anticipated this scenario during his press conference after Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. 

New England's Week 15 opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals, who have seven players on their injury report ahead of Sunday's matchup at Paul Brown Stadium. Three of quarterback Andy Dalton's top weapons on offense -- wide receivers John Ross III (limited) and A.J. Green (did not practice), and tight end Tyler Eifert (limited) -- are listed. Injuries to key players is among the many reasons why the Bengals have a league-worst 1-12 record.

Here are the first Week 15 injury reports for both teams.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-3)

DID NOT PRACTICE
Julian Edelman, WR, Knee/Shoulder

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
JaWhaun Bentley, LB, Knee
Byron Cowart, DL, Concussion
Ted Karras, OL, Knee
Jason McCourty, CB, Groin
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Ankle
Danny Shelton, DL, Shoulder

FULL PARTICIPATION
Tom Brady, QB, RIght Elbow
N'Keal Harry, WR, Hip

CINCINNATI BENGALS (1-12)

DID NOT PRACTICE
Geno Atkins, DT, Non-injury related
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Non-injury related
A.J. Green, WR, Ankle

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
Tyler Eifert, TE, Non-injury related
Sam Hubbard, DE, Knee
John Ross III, WR, Foot
Renell Wren, DT, Hip

Pats sign trick-shot kicker to practice squad>>>

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Matt Cassel: How Bill Belichick will handle 'Spygate 2.0' behind the scenes

Matt Cassel: How Bill Belichick will handle 'Spygate 2.0' behind the scenes

When “Spygate” originally went down, we as New England Patriots players were unaware of anything that was going on. 

The story became national news pretty quickly. You'd turn on the television and hear everyone calling us cheaters and saying, “This is the reason why they’ve accomplished what they’ve accomplished.” 

It was so blown out of proportion, and it was all speculation at that point.

We were going into our second week of the 2007 season, and Bill Belichick addressed the team to discuss the elephant in the room.

He said, “Look, this is what’s going on, but it’s nothing you guys need to be concerned with. It’s a league issue, and you guys have nothing to do with it."

It was a general statement just notifying the team: "You’re going to be asked about it. I’ll handle the questioning on it."

The fact of the matter was, he wanted to get back to status quo. He reminded us that we had a game that week, and that we had to focus on that.

After that, it was business as usual. “Spygate” wasn’t this overarching theme he addressed constantly throughout the week. Once he said his peace in that first meeting, we were on to the San Diego Chargers (our next opponent), and then the week proceeded as usual.

I think this week's circumstances are completely different from when that development first broke in 2007. 

The players and football staff have no understanding of anything the production team is doing. ... We never saw those guys.

This situation is something in which the film crew for the Patriots' in-house production team was doing their show, "Do Your Job," on an individual scout.

The players and football staff have no understanding of anything the production team is doing on week-to-week basis. We never saw those guys unless they requested an interview with us like any other media outlet.

They weren’t at practice, they were never in meetings. There’s just no communication between them and the players and coaching staff, unless they're doing a story on one of us.

So, this is outside even the realm of football, really.

It's a mishap by the Patriots' production group in that they forgot or didn't acknowledge the rules, and because of the history, everybody immediately draws the conclusion that Bill had something to do with it and this team is somehow benefiting from this. 

That's false -- especially when you're talking about the Cincinnati Bengals, who have won one game all year. That's what makes it more comical when you consider the circumstances.

My guess is Bill won't make more than one quick statement to the team about this.

He'll say, “Look, none of you guys have anything to do with it. Even as a team and a coaching staff, we have nothing to do with this. You let me address it in the media, and if you don’t have any common knowledge of it -- which none of us do -- then there’s really no reason to comment on it.” 

That’s it. Then it’s back to business, back to the work week and back to getting ready for the Bengals. I don’t think it will be brought up any more than that.

Editor's note: Matt Cassel had a 14-year NFL career that included four seasons with the New England Patriots (2005-2008). He's joining the NBC Sports Boston team for this season. You can find him on game days as part of our Pregame Live and Postgame Live coverage, as well as every week on Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk podcast and NBCSportsBoston.com.

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