2018-01-12 / Sports

I’ll take the field

Associate Sports Editor

I’m not your typical Patriots honk.

Yes, I am a fan. Yes, I do believe that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the greatest ever at their respective positions. Yes, I do feel the Patriots are the Super Bowl favorite heading into this weekend’s divisional round.

But will I choose the Patriots or the field? I’ll take the field.

The general feeling in Patriot Land right now is that despite the recent bombshell article from ESPN last week that chronicled the tension in the Patriots locker room, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be as good as ever and will cruise to another Super Bowl win.

At the end of the day, this is the most vulnerable team that the Patriots have fielded since the 2009 season, when the Ravens rolled to a 33-14 win over New England in the wild card round thanks to an 87-yard touchdown on the first play by Ray Rice that set the tone for the rest of the day.

The Patriot honks out there can look at the 13-3 record all they want, as well as the all the stats and game logs that demonstrate your typical New England dominance. Like it or not, this inconsistent Patriots team has stats that are hollow and deceiving.

The offensive line has been poor this year, giving up the eighth most sacks this season and making Tom Brady a frequent flyer on the injury report. Brady’s passer rating in the final five games was 83, and he just does not look healthy or comfortable.

The only healthy targets for Brady heading into the postseason are Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks. I have no foil for Gronkowski admittedly, but it has become clear that Cooks is not a good fit in this system, and is a one trick pony reminiscent of Mike Wallace during his Steeler days. Cooks had three, maybe four big games this year, but like the rest of the offense was wildly inconsistent and unpredictable.

The running backs have also battled injury, and it is unclear heading into this weekend how the snaps will be divided.

Make no mistake about it, the Patriots are uncharacteristically vulnerable and very beatable on offense at this point. I guess the Julian Edelman injury was as big of a deal as it seemed back in August.

A lot of Patriots fans out there are still living in the prior decade, preaching, “In Bill we trust,” and “next man up.” Sometimes, even the great Bill Belichick doesn’t have the answer, or the “next man” to win it all.

Although the NFL has become a passing league where the linebacker position has been diminished, the Dont’a Hightower injury has been a brutal loss.

You know you’re in trouble when you’re counting down the days that Kyle Van Noy returns to the lineup, and it shows in that the Patriots finished 20th against the run despite finishing second in 2016. Take a look at the game against LA’s Melvin Gordon, or Miami’s Kenyan Drake. Not good.

The Patriots also finished in the middle of the pack in passing defense.

Malcolm Butler has been a train wreck this year, getting beat on a consistent basis while also committing far more penalties than we’re used to seeing. Newcomer Stephon Gilmore has also looked to be an awkward fit at times … it’s not a good sign when your top two cornerbacks were benched at different points in the season due to poor play. I guess Butler won’t be getting that big contract he hoped for this upcoming offseason, and Gilmore won’t live up to the one he signed this past spring.

The defense isn’t quite as bad as it was from 2009 to 2012, but it has routinely given up the big, untimely play. Sometimes all it takes is one costly error to lose an entire postseason game.

Long story short — the Patriots’ greatest advantage this postseason is experience. Experience, as well as coaching, is what ultimately led the Patriots to their historic comeback in Super Bowl 51.

The difference though? Last year’s team, the same one that was down 25 points in the third quarter, was more talented and healthier than this one.

The Patriots enter Saturday’s matchup against the Titans with a banged up, inconsistent offense. As well as a shaky at best defense.

Luckily for the Pats, Biddeford High School would probably be able to beat Tennessee, who benefitted from an injured Travis Kelce in the wild card round. The Patriots will blow past the Titans, but I struggle to see them topping their next two opponents.

The Patriots may be the singular favorite this postseason … but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Associate Sports Editor Alex Sponseller can be reached at asponseller@journaltribune.com or 282-1535 ext. 323. Follow the Journal Tribune Sports Department on Twitter @JournalTsports.

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