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Five Questions with Pats Pulpit

Ahead of the Chargers Divisional Round matchup with the New England Patriots, I spoke with Bernd Buchmasser about what to expect from the powerhouse Patriots.

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

1: On paper, this looks like the weakest Patriots team for a few years - but they still managed to get a first round bye! That’s testament to just how dominant the Patriots have been, but is that a statement you’d necessarily agree with? Is this Patriots team more fallible than in years past?

Let’s go back 10 years: in 2008 and with Tom Brady sidelined due to an ACL tear, the Patriots went 11-5 but lost their division on a tiebreaker and ultimately missed the playoffs. This year, they went 11-5 during the regular season and are the second seed in the AFC. What I’m is that New England managing to get a first-round bye despite their worst record since 2009 is as much a testament to their own performance — they are, after all, just one Miami Hail Mary play away from being the top seed — as it is of the overall inconsistency of the AFC in 2018.

That being said, I certainly agree that the Patriots look more vulnerable this year when compared to some of their past editions. While defense and special teams have settled late during the regular season, and New England now features Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked secondary left in the playoffs (ahead of the Chargers’), for example, the offense very much remains a work in progress and is still searching both its identity and a certain level of consistency.

The main reason for that appears to be personnel turnover. Not only did New England lose its top two wide receivers and starting running back from a year ago, it also saw plenty of in-season turnover — from Julian Edelman’s suspension to Josh Gordon joining the team and leaving it again, to Rob Gronkowski’s struggles and Sony Michel’s and Rex Burkhead’s injury issues. The hope is that the team will finally find some stability heading into the playoffs.

2: I was devastated to see the news that Josh Gordon may have relapsed again. That’s probably him done as a member of the Patriots, but how big a miss will that be for New England on Sunday?

There is no denying that the Patriots are worse without Gordon on the field. While he never reached 2014 levels during his 11 games with the club this year, he was still a capable and consistent weapon — one that could win contested catches and challenge defenses in a way New England’s other offensive weapons couldn’t.

In the two games since Gordon’s departure, the Patriots used Chris Hogan in his old spot as the number two wide receiver alongside Julian Edelman. While an experienced player that shares a certain chemistry with Tom Brady, Hogan is like a poor man’s version of Gordon: he’s neither that fast nor that physical nor has the same outstanding hands. He is a solid role player, sure, but is no big play threat like Gordon.

In that sense, Gordon will be a big miss. Then again, the Patriots are masters of adapting and through the two games without Gordon they did just that with Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett taking on bigger roles in the offense. Are they as good as the ex-Brown? No, but they can still get the job done.

3: Much has been made of the idea that Rob Gronkowski might be past his prime at the age of 29. What’s the deal there, and what kind of impact do you expect him to have on Sunday’s game?

Earlier this week, we posted an article on Pats Pulpit titled ”Don’t expect Rob Gronkowski to have a big game against the Chargers.” The rationale behind it is as follows:

  1. The Chargers have a really good defense against tight ends and rank first in the league when measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic (Gronkowski, for comparisons, ranks 12th among tight ends)
  2. Gronkowski, who has caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, is having a down year compared to the lofty standards he sat between 2011 and 2017.

So what does this mean for Sunday? Obviously that the Patriots shouldn’t put all their eggs in the Gronkowski basket. While he might still have some positive plays, he does not appear to be the player any more — at least in 2018 — to consistently put pressure on defenses. He did it for stretches this year, against the Texans, Chiefs and Dolphins, but simply failed to string good plays together as a pass receiver.

The reason for that can only be guessed without word from the organization, but I think that the ankle and back injuries he has been nursing for most of the year are still limiting him. While he could go off against L.A. with two weeks rest (especially on play-action passes down the seam against the Chargers’ cover 3 defense), it appears much more likely that he has to take a backseat to other options in the offense on Sunday.

4: To me, it seems like Bill Belichick is the master of picking up players off the street and turning them into valuable contributors for the team. Are there any players that you could see having a major impact on the game that perhaps don’t get the love they deserve from the national media?

The first player that came to my mind when reading this question was special teamer Albert McClellan. He was picked up after the Baltimore Ravens released him midway through the regular season and became a fixture on special teams — a player that regularly makes big plays whether it is tackles or blocks (he had two punt blocks in week 14 against the Miami Dolphins). With the Chargers having one of the NFL’s most dangerous returman in the fold, McClellan could play a big role.

On the defensive side of the football, I’m going with J.C. Jackson. An undrafted rookie free agent, Jackson has grown every week and is now the Patriots’ top perimeter cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore. While he still makes his fair share of rookie mistakes, the 23-year old has proven himself a ballhawk that has a natural feel to locate the football, as well as a physical press-man cornerback. It would not be a surprise to see New England use him one-on-one versus Mike Williams with a safety (possible Devin McCourty) shaded to his side over the top.

Now that we have talked special teams and defense we should also go to offense, and my choice here is Trent Brown. Normally, I would take a skill position player but as Tom Brady’s blind side protector, Brown will play as big a role against the Chargers’ talented pass rush as any other man on the team. If the in-draft trade acquisition from the 49ers can continue his excellent season and in turn keep whoever lines up on the opposite side of him away from his quarterback, New England’s chances of winning should improve drastically.

5: Personally, I think the Patriots will have the most success against the Chargers defense by playing power football, utilizing heavy sets and letting James Develin lead the way. Do you think that a gameplan that takes the ball out of Brady’s hands for the majority of the game is something that the Patriots would be comfortable with, or are we more likely to see Tom putting on a passing clinic?

I agree that the running backs will play a big role in the game, but their roles might go beyond traditional running of the football. Just take a look at last year’s game between the Patriots and the Chargers when James White and Rex Burkhead combined to catch 12 passes for 153 yards as New England used the short passing game as sort of an extension to the running attack. It worked very well in 2017, and might do the same thing this week.

But with that in mind, I have to point out that the Patriot are very well a team that is as good as any in the NFL at finding and exploiting mismatches. If New England sees a defensive alignment like the one the Chargers used highly effectively versus Baltimore last week I have little doubt they will run power on them: Sony Michel and James Develin in the backfield, with Rob Gronkowski — still an excellent blocker — and Dwayne Allen helping up front. The Patriots, as opposed to the Ravens, have a much more traditional running attack but one that can counter speed with power.

And once a presence on the ground is established Brady might try a few shots deep off play-action. Primarily, however, I think the Patriots will use a power running game and a short passing attack to put pressure on the Chargers’ defense and get the football quickly out against an outstanding pass rush.

(Bonus Question, if you’re up for it!): Could we get a score prediction for the game?

I have been wrong plenty of times in my life, so maybe this will help Chargers fans. Anyway, I’m going 24-17 Patriots — because I simply can’t pick against a Brady-Belichick led team in the playoffs. Especially in Foxboro. And off a bye.