Reinforcements and history suggest it's not time to panic yet for lifeless New England Patriots

Jay Asser 25/09/2018
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We’ve been down this road before. Not once, but multiple times.

The New England Patriots are having a rough September, and after consecutive losses through the first three weeks of the season, familiar questions are being asked again.

Is the dynasty over? Has Bill Belichick lost his touch? Has Father Time finally caught Tom Brady?

There is a day when all those things will be true, and that day has never been closer than it is right now. But based on New England’s history and track record alone, writing their obituary at this point would be nothing short of premature.

The Patriots are no strangers to slow starts. In 2012, they also dropped two of their first three contests, only to finish 12-4 and reach the AFC Championship Game. In 2014, they were embarrassed in primetime by the Kansas City Chiefs and fell to 2-2 before finishing with a 12-4 mark and winning the Super Bowl. And last year, they looked like a train wreck in their season-opening defeat to Kansas City, yet went 12-4 again and almost won the Super Bowl.

New England’s current situation feels a little different than those three occasions because of how flat they’ve been on both sides of the ball and how utterly they’ve been dominated. Their 26-10 to the Detroit Lions on Sunday was a rerun of last week’s curb-stomping to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and it marked the first time they’ve dropped back-to-back games by double digits since 2002 – a year they failed to make the playoffs.

It’s extremely uncharacteristic of a Belichick-coached team to fare that badly in consecutive games – before Sunday, the Patriots were 45-6 following a regular-season loss since 2003.

And as concerning as the results have been, the way New England have looked has been even more troubling. The defence showed no fight as they allowed the Jaguars and Lions to methodically march down the field seemingly possession after possession, while the offence has felt very vanilla, lacking any sort of ingenuity or creativity. The Patriots, who are usually as disciplined as it gets, were even penalised for having 12 men on the field at one point on Sunday.

Simply put, they’ve not felt like the New England Patriots.

There’s a difference between not executing and not even being in position to execute in the first place. The latter has applied to the Patriots so far. They can certainly play better, but this may be more about talent – or lack thereof – than anything.

But reinforcements are on the way to help alleviate that exact issue.

Defensive end Trey Flowers and safety Patrick Chung – two of the team’s most important players on that side of the ball – will return sooner than later from concussions.

Flowers is arguably the Patriots’ best defensive player and someone who can single-handedly change the complexion of their pass rush, which has been nonexistent the past two weeks in his absence. Chung, meanwhile, is a Swiss Army knife and someone who brings much-needed versatility to the unit.

On offence, two weapons will be added to Brady’s arsenal – a familiar face who can help get the passing game back on track, and a newcomer who can inject some dynamism.

After he serves the final game of his four-game suspension, Julian Edelman will resume his role in the slot to give Brady a reliable receiver to lean on, while Josh Gordon has the potential to be a poor man’s Randy Moss and stretch the field vertically, which will in turn open up the Patriots’ horizontal attack.

Just in terms of the talent New England will add over the coming weeks, it’s hard not to imagine significant improvement in the areas that have so far plagued them.

But with the Patriots, you always have to account for in-season development and adjustments. It’s not controversial to say Belichick uses the early part of the schedule as an extended preseason, with the idea of building up his team so they’re peaking at the right time.

Throw in the fact that the AFC East remains weak and for the taking, and New England’s margin of error remains wide.

There’s a reason why the Patriots have been so good at this for so long – the same reason why they shouldn’t be written off yet.

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Minnesota Vikings not without flaws and other things learned in Week 3

Jay Asser 24/09/2018
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No one could have seen one of the biggest upsets in recent memory coming, as the Buffalo Bills ran over the Minnesota Vikings with a convincing 27-6 win.

Minnesota’s stout defence was expected to tear rookie Josh Allen to shreds, but it was the other way around as the quarterback’s mobility and arm talent was on display all game.

Allen finished with 196 yards and a touchdown through the air for a passer rating of 111.2, but his legs were arguably more impressive as he picked up 39 yards on 10 rushes, often leaving the pocket to create something out of nothing. He even had a head-turning hurdle that was more befitting for a running back.

Overall, it was a head-scratching performance by a Vikings side that looked like one of the very best teams in the league through the first two weeks. While this may have been a one-off game by the defence, there are real concerns over how much protection the offensive line can afford Kirk Cousins right now.

With a short turnaround coming as Minnesota now prepare to face the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday, another ugly effort could be coming against Aaron Donald and Co. That meeting will tell us a lot more about where the Vikings currently standing in the NFC.

Here’s what else we learned in Week 3.

INJURY TO INSULT

The San Francisco 49ers were torched by the Kansas City Chiefs attack in their 38-27 defeat, but the bigger loss was losing Jimmy Garoppolo for what could be the season.

The quarterback is feared to have torn his ACL after his knee buckled on a fourth-quarter scramble, which would prematurely end what was supposed to be his first full year with the 49ers.

It would be a blow San Francisco aren’t equipped to endure, at least when it comes to their playoff hopes. Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system is capable of still squeezing out points, but back-up quarterback C.J. Beathard is hardly a reliable hand to keep the offence humming.

In seven games last year, Beathard completed just 54.9 per cent of his passes, while tossing four touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 69.2.

The 49ers probably weren’t going to challenge for the Super Bowl this year anyways, but they now lose a season of development for Garoppolo with Shanahan. It’s a heartbreaking scenario for a pairing that came into the season with so much anticipation and excitement.

ROSEN ERA BEGINS

After two-plus games of lifeless offence, the Arizona Cardinals finally turned to rookie Josh Rosen to replace starting quarterback Sam Bradford on Sunday.

Rosen came on in relief with 4:31 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Cardinals’ 16-14 loss after Bradford threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

Arizona weren’t afraid to throw their young gunslinger straight into the fire, and although Rosen wasn’t able to lead a comeback, it was telling the Cardinals had enough confidence in him to bring him on in less than ideal circumstances.

Afterward, head coach Steve Wilks was noncommittal on who he’ll start next week against the Seattle Seahawks, but it’s fairly clear that Arizona’s ceiling is limited with Bradford under centre.

The franchise may have wanted to be patient with Rosen, but it’s not as if he’s an unpolished product who is major project. Rosen was one of the most NFL-ready quarterback in this year’s draft class and while he’ll undoubtedly go through his ups and downs as a rookie full-time starter, it will also expedite his learning process.

ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER MATTHEWS PENALTY

For the third straight week, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was flagged for a roughing the passer call, with his sack of Washington’s Alex Smith on Sunday being taken off the board.

Afterward, Matthews said the league is “getting soft” because they’re flagging players “who play the game hard” like he does.

While the penalty on Sunday may have seemed harsh and controversial, it was the right call. Matthews brought down Smith in a way that saw him put most of his weight into the quarterback as he was hitting the ground. That’s not to say it was intentional, but by the letter of the law, the officiating crew got it right.

The hit could be interpreted differently by different people, but Matthews isn’t doing anyone any favours by calling the league “soft” as if he’s Donald Trump.

The NFL have rightly taken criticism for how dangerous the sport is and how little they’ve done to protect players over the years, but one thing that the league has gotten right of late is tweaking rules to improve safety, such as the helmet rule they implemented this offseason.

Yes, it will require defensive players to somewhat alter their approach and mindset, but that will ultimately improve the health of the game in the long run.

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Tampa Bay red-hot offence poised to keep rolling against struggling Pittsburgh

Jay Asser 23/09/2018
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It may only be a matter of time before Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers cool off, but with the way the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing, Tampa Bay’s run could extend another week.

The Monday night match-up pits two teams who are seemingly heading in opposite directions, with the Buccaneers having so far surprised during a flawless start to the season, while Pittsburgh have faced turmoil on and off the field.

For Tampa Bay, Fitzpatrick has filled in seamlessly for Jameis Winston, who will complete his three-game suspension this week. Even when Winston returns, however, Fitzpatrick has done more than enough to keep hold of the starting job, posting eye-popping numbers through the first two weeks.

The veteran leads the league in passing yards (819), yards per attempt (13.43) and passer rating (151.5), while the Buccaneers attack tops all teams in yards per game (482.5) and ranks second in points (37.5).

Tampa Bay have had no semblance of a ground game, ranking last in the league in yards per attempt (2.7), but the pass-catching weapons at Fitzpatrick’s disposal have made the offence explosive. Between wide receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin, as well as tight end O.J. Howard, Fitzpatrick has been able to attack downfield with great success.

Tampa Bay will be licking their chops heading into the meeting with Pittsburgh, who are allowing the most deep passing yards in the league this season with 250 allowed on passes traveling at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Steelers’ secondary needs reinforcements and one could be arriving on Monday in the form of former Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

After suffering a hamstring injury in Week 1 against Cleveland, Haden wasn’t on the field when Pittsburgh were picked apart by the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. He appears on track to play against Tampa Bay though, following full practices on Thursday and Friday.

FRUSTRATION SETTING IT

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The absence of running back Le’Veon Bell had already created some tension in the Steelers’ locker room, but the team’s chemistry has taken another hit with the exasperation shown by Antonio Brown over the past week.

The star wide receiver was seen having a heated discussion with the coaching staff on the sidelines in the loss to the Chiefs, and then failed to show up for work on Monday while implying on Twitter that he would welcome a trade.

It’s not as if Brown isn’t being used as he led all players in targets (33) after two weeks, but he’s yet to crack the century mark in receiving yards for a game and has one touchdown so far.

JuJu Smith-Schuster leads Pittsburgh in receiving with 240 yards and has the same amount of receptions as Brown (18), while having six fewer targets (27).

Ben Roethlisberger’s play hasn’t helped matters as the Steelers quarterback has struggled to hit on deep passes. Despite attempting 17 throws of at least 20 yards, Roethlisberger has completed just three for 75 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

On his connection with Brown, Roethlisberger said: “He’s been garnering a lot of attention for a long time now. I think it’s early in the season. In the first game, we had some elements that didn’t let me get him the ball to him as much as I should have.

“Last week they put a lot of guys on him. But other guys were open too. I’m not worried about A.B. He’ll be just fine.”

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