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The Patriots Just Laid Their December Egg. What Does That Teach Us?

New England is still a force to be reckoned with in the AFC race, but Sunday’s loss to the Texans showed that the team faces some issues that it hasn’t in recent years

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The New England Patriots—who are still led by the greatest head coach and quarterback of all time—lose a December game in ugly fashion. Fans and sportswriters scramble to declare this the end of the Brady-Belichick era and crown a new king of the NFL. (Think Patrick Mahomes last season, or Matt Ryan in 2016.) After a week of hand-wringing, the Pats get back on track, stomp their way through the AFC playoffs, and make it back to the Super Bowl. We hear this same song so often around this time of year it might as well be in the Christmas carol rotation. And after Sunday’s 28-22 loss to the Texans, the 2019 version has arrived.

By now, it should be obvious that dumping dirt on Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots dynasty is a fool’s errand. Even when New England suffers these late-season lapses, things are rarely as bad as they look. So before digging into the annual autopsy, here’s one crucial question to consider: How, if at all, is this year’s panic different?

Let’s start with the elements of this Pats team that aren’t worth fretting over. First up is the passing attack. Ahead of Sunday night’s game, NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya reported that during a production meeting earlier in the week, Brady said consistency and reliability are the most important aspects of a successful passing game. Both are currently missing from New England’s offense. Of Brady’s five-receiver rotation, two players (Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry) are rookies and another (Mohamed Sanu) arrived in a trade just more than a month ago. Against the Texans, Harry failed to get separation on a second-quarter slant that cornerback Bradley Roby undercut, picked off, and returned to the New England 6-yard line. Later, with the Pats trailing 14-3 midway through the third, Sanu dropped a pass on fourth-and-1 and gave the ball back to Houston near midfield.

Cameras caught Brady laying into his teammates on the sideline more than once on Sunday. New England has struggled to find reliable pass catchers this season, and its future Hall of Fame QB hasn’t been shy about letting people know. But this isn’t a new problem. After losing Josh Gordon to another suspension last season, the Pats were forced to rely on Julian Edelman and emergency no. 2 receiver Phillip Dorsett as their top wideouts. They still won the Super Bowl. Not having a Rob Gronkowski–sized safety net this time around hurts, but the Pats have made deep playoff pushes without him before. The situation isn’t ideal, but some combination of Edelman, Dorsett, James White, Rex Burkhead, and a random big play from one of their newer receivers should be enough for Brady and coordinator Josh McDaniels to make due in a pinch.

In regard to Brady, I’ll let someone else write his career obituary. His past five seasons have been a living embodiment of that overused Undertaker GIF. Every time he seems buried, Brady shoots up a hand and chokes the life from the latest batch of “this is the end” takes. There’s no denying that Brady has shown some signs of decline in his age-42 season. The GOAT was fantastic in New England’s first three games this year (which included blowout wins over the Dolphins and Jets), but he’s been much shakier since. From Week 4 on, Brady has completed 59.2 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and six interceptions, and averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt. He currently ranks 17th in QBR—one spot below Ryan Tannehill and barely ahead of Jameis Winston.

New England’s passing game was awful in the first half against Houston. Brady completed just seven of his 19 throws for 82 yards. It’s only the second time in the past six seasons that he’s hit on seven or fewer passes with 15 or more attempts in a half—the other happened last week against Dallas. Vintage Tom Brady has been largely absent this year, but even a lesser version should be able to guide this team deep into the playoffs. Brady looked considerably sharper in the second half of Sunday’s loss, and we’ve seen him get hot too many times for anyone to write him off now. Belichick has made a career of knowing when to cut bait with veteran players, but when it comes to Brady, I’d rather be a year too late than a year too early.

Despite Brady’s step back this season, the Pats have remained a Super Bowl contender by relying on their defense, and Sunday’s loss shouldn’t shake anyone’s faith in that approach. Even NFL players fall victim to the curse of winter weather; the flu bug that swept through New England’s locker room this week was so bad that the Pats took two separate team planes to Houston to help contain the sickness. Most of those stricken ended up playing on Sunday, but key defenders like Stephon Gilmore, Jamie Collins, Patrick Chung, and Dont’a Hightower were all likely playing in a diminished capacity. Checking DeAndre Hopkins is hard enough when you don’t want to curl up in bed with a bowl of chicken soup and some ginger ale. And that may help explain why Hopkins roasted Gilmore multiple times on Sunday.

The Patriots’ man-heavy coverage schemes should be better when they’re not dealing with Houston’s terrifying receiving corps and 100-degree fevers, but there were aspects of New England’s defensive performance against Houston that actually could present problems moving forward. At full strength, the Pats secondary can stifle just about any group of wideouts, but New England’s hulking linebackers can be a liability in coverage. Versatile players like Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are ideal for Belichick’s unpredictable scheme because they have the size to rush the passer and the ability to play off the ball, but that group struggles to deal with shifty pass-catching backs in space. Duke Johnson burned Van Noy in the flat on a 14-yard touchdown in the first quarter and later followed that up by drawing a critical pass-interference flag on linebacker Elandon Roberts that set up a Texans touchdown early in the fourth.

The Pats’ issues dealing with running backs in space aren’t unique to this season—Belichick has schemed his way through them before—but the most obvious concern about the offense certainly is. In recent years, New England has been able to rely on its bruising running game as the weather turns in December. Over the Patriots’ final five games last season—including the playoffs—they averaged 177.8 yards per game on the ground. Running back Sony Michel averaged 100.6 yards per game and 4.88 yards per carry over that stretch, while finding the end zone seven times. This season, Michel has scored a total of six rushing touchdowns in 12 games. New England’s running game has fallen off significantly, and Michel’s strange decline has been a big part of that drop-off. Among the 33 backs with at least 100 carries this season, only David Montgomery and Devonta Freeman have averaged fewer yards after contact than Michel (2.33). By Pro Football Focus’s elusive rating, which measures a back’s ability to force missed tackles, only 36-year-old Frank Gore has been worse.

Michel has looked far less dynamic after undergoing knee surgery in June, but New England’s offensive line also hasn’t been nearly as effective as it has been in recent years. The Patriots have played most of the season without left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who returned to the lineup in Week 12 against the Cowboys after missing eight games with a toe injury. Backup center Ted Karras has been forced to assume the starting role for much of the year after David Andrews was hospitalized with blood clots this preseason and placed on IR. Karras went down with a knee injury early in the third quarter on Sunday, which means that third-string center James Ferentz could be starting for the foreseeable future. All that turnover at a key position on the line eventually begins to take a toll; New England likely won’t be able to rely on its punishing running game down the stretch, which means Brady and the struggling passing attack will face even more pressure. The Patriots have achieved playoff brilliance over the years because they typically have solutions to every possible problem; at this point, it looks like this year’s team may not have the same set of options.

Patriots fatalists will also probably point out that after Sunday’s loss, the Ravens have the inside track to home-field advantage in the AFC, and if Brady and Belichick get the no. 2 seed, they may have to face Mahomes and the Chiefs in the divisional round. But we’re less than a year removed from the Pats walking into Arrowhead Stadium and slaying the MVP on his own turf in the AFC championship game. Most of the doomsday scenarios that people will conjure about the Patriots have already been an obstacle in the past, and this team has hopped right over them. There’s no denying that this Pats team is flawed—and flawed in some ways that recent iterations haven’t been. With Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rolling and Mahomes lurking, the road to the Super Bowl will be arduous and likely won’t run through Foxborough. But we’ve all seen this movie too many times before. Count the Patriots out at your own peril. You’ll probably regret that you did.