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Curran: Your on-point 2021 Pats season prediction with Bucs game preview

/ by Tom E. Curran
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Warning: I’m good at this. You may look at me and think, “He’s just a well-sculpted, well-adjusted man approaching middle age with a handsome head of hair (Thanks Leonard Hair Associates!) and an enviable hat collection.”

But I’m more than an unwitting host for a chiseled jaw and spectacularly distinctive nose. I’m a seer. A soothsayer. A visionary. The Great Projector. Nosetradamus.

Who had the Bucs going 12-4 and winning the Super Bowl? Who had the Patriots going 8-8 and missing the playoffs? Chaboy! I could go on but I’d hate anyone to get the impression I was patting myself on the back.

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So gather round, gather round. Sit down criss-cross, applesauce and lemme tell you about the Patriots 2021 season in advance. We’ll go big picture then get granular on one giant game.

Final record: 11-6

How do they get there? Well, practically by osmosis. The Patriots won seven games last year with a roster that was even worse than I expected. No tight ends at all. A wideout crew that, once it lost Julian Edelman, was led by a player (Jakobi Meyers) whom the Patriots themselves didn’t even want to put on the field to start the year (one catch in the first five games).

Thank God they had Cam Newton because, even though he threw as I expected, he still ran for almost 600 yards, 52 first downs and 12 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Stephon Gilmore missed five games and didn’t seem into it for many of the ones he played. The opt outs stripped the defense and the front-seven was porous and generated just 24 sacks.

 

Now? All those spots have been upgraded. Meyers is legit. They have a thrower who can distribute. The pass rush is going to mitigate Gilmore’s absence. They still have a kickass group of backs and James White will be James White again and not Doug Mirabelli catching knuckleballs. Actually, 11-6 is on the conservative side. The Patriots in 2021 will be a playoff team and have a better shot at winning the division than people are giving them.

Reasons for optimism #1: Opposing QBs

Let’s start with opposing quarterbacks on objectively “good” teams. Tom Brady. Josh Allen twice. Ryan Tannehill. And I’m going to include Baker Mayfield too. The other quarterbacks I consider “good” are on middling-to-bad teams: Justin Herbert, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Trevor Lawrence. Then there are quarterbacks who are sub-good at this point. Sam Darnold. Zach Wilson twice. Tua twice. Carson Wentz. Tyrod Taylor.

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So that’s 11 games against either unimposing quarterbacks or talented quarterbacks on unimposing teams. What do Bill Belichick defenses usually do to average quarterbacks? They undress them. Not always. Enough stiffs have gone off over the years that we can’t say it never happens . But in 2018 and 2019, week after week, the Patriots gummed up the works on players like Prescott, Mayfield, Kirk Cousins, Matt Stafford, Jared Goff and even -- a little bit -- Patrick Mahomes. They’ll be back to doing that this year.

Reasons for optimism #2: The front seven

We’ve spent inordinate time on the quarterback, tight end and wide receiver imports (and I don’t think the wideouts are as bad as they’re being painted to be, BTW). But the most obvious difference we’ll see early in the season is the way the front-seven performs.

They stunk on two fronts last year. They couldn’t stop the run. They couldn’t rush the passer. Other than that? But with Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore and Henry Anderson added from last year and Josh Uche a totally different player in Year 2, change for the better is going to be immediate.

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In 2020, the team had 24 sacks. In 2019, they had 47. In four of their first seven games the 2020 defense allowed more than 5 YPC four times. It allowed 5.3, 6.0 and 5.7 in the final three games. That won’t happen again.

Reason for optimism #3: Coaching

Mac Jones doesn’t need to "win" games. First, he needs to learn how not to lose them. And the “First, do no harm ...” mantra medical professionals subscribe to needs to be tattooed inside Jones’ eyelids. Or at least emphasized strongly.

Jones is lucky he’s got an offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels who will not only make that point but also put Jones in positions to succeed. Over the past three seasons McDaniels has: 1) reconfigured an offense on the fly in 2018 and won a Super Bowl; 2) helped wring 11 wins out of a team with a totally outgunned array of weaponry and a leaky line; 3) implemented a high school offense with Newton that -- some days -- worked pretty well. The guy is talented.

 

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And now with all the personnel at his disposal, he can create beauty from a palette rather than having to rummage through the junk drawer to make popsicle-stick art. Plus, the Patriots are so situationally shrewd defensively and on special teams, they steal a game or three every year that way.

If things go wrong, this happened

Insufficient time together bit the offense’s posterior. For all the cartwheels over the improved tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith combined for exactly one catch in the preseason. Henry’s been sidelined and slow to return to full-go with a shoulder injury. Smith has been more available but also missed time with an ankle issue.

Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor’s hot start to camp diminished into a cascade of drops over the final dozen practices or so. He had one preseason catch and isn’t getting great separation on his shorter routes. So those are the three prime additions to the offensive toolbox that haven’t clicked yet. And we know that chemistry takes time and reps.

Even if that comes to pass, though, it will be offset a bit by the potency of the running game and the combo of Meyers and White as third-down options.

On the defensive side, the second outside corner is going to be tested. J.C. Jackson’s got one side locked down but Jalen Mills hasn’t yet impressed on the other side. He may be better suited as a slot corner. The Patriots do have options -- Jonathan Jones moving outside, rookie Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams, DeAngelo Ross elevating from practice squad -- but their best option is Gilmore and he’s not playing for six weeks.

The Tampa game

Buccaneers 23, Patriots 20 (OT)

My understanding is that the fellas down in Tampa already have this game circled, underlined, bolded and highlighted. This game matters to Tom Brady. A lot. And while they all do, Brady’s last game in Foxboro is going to be in another team’s uniform.

He said over and over that he never wanted to leave. The Patriots didn’t prevent that from happening. Neither the head coach nor the owner. So he’s coming back with a little bit of William Wallace in his heart.

And his teammates, whom Brady delivered from the throes of mediocrity, they’re going to fight for him. This will be a test of how well Belichick knows Brady. You’d think -- after 20 years together -- he’d have a good grasp. But if he knew him so well, why is Brady in pewter?

The last thing the Patriots will want is Brady throwing for 400 and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Patriots have enough on offense to ball-control the hell out of the night. Do they want to get young Mac Jones in a shootout? Probably not. Then again, Belichick and McDaniels collectively have a big enough pair to perhaps try it.

 

It will be a classic.

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