FOXBOROUGH – If you’d told me before the season started that the Patriots would be 6-2 entering their bye week, I’d have been surprised. Because, at that time, I fully expected them to be undefeated at this point.
I’m still surprised New England finds itself at 6-2, but for entirely different reasons.
Against the L.A. Chargers, the Patriots continued to exhibit the troubling tendencies that have characterized the first half of their 2017 campaign.
A familiar postgame theme echoed throughout the team’s locker room Sunday after the Patriots held off Los Angeles on the final play.
“Feel good about going into the bye 6-2. We’re still a long way away. Haven’t played our best football in all three phases,” acknowledged safety/co-captain Duron Harmon, “but feels good to get a win and relax for a little bit.”
“Definitely we can play better. We haven’t played our best football yet,” stated wide receiver Danny Amendola.
That’s because the offense and defense appear to be headed in opposite directions. After starting the season averaging 33 points per game, the Patriots are mustering only around 22 over the past month. Versus the Chargers, New England managed to complete less than half of its 3rd-down attempts, resulting in far too many punts and field goal attempts (10 total).
“When we get down there,” Amendola continued, “we have to score, punch it in, get six points, seven points, and give our team the best chance to win.”
Meanwhile, New England’s offensive line didn’t block the Chargers well at all – another issue that’s plagued them this season. QB Tom Brady was under duress and on the run dodging Charger pass rushers all afternoon. To make matters worse, normally sure-handed tight end/co-captain Rob Gronkowski had three uncharacteristically bad drops against Los Angeles.
“I’ve just got to go out there and just be on top of my game the whole time. Some plays here and there I do good and others I feel like I just don’t have it for that one,” he admitted later.
While the offense sputtered again Sunday, the Patriots’ defense – while far from perfect – appeared to take more steps in a positive direction, holding the Chargers to just 13 points. Special teams came to the rescue as well. Lawrence Guy appeared to get a hand on a 51-yard Nick Novak field goal attempt that sailed wide right. Then, following a Chargers penalty on the second half kickoff, Dion Lewis took the ensuing kick 71 yards, although the offense failed to capitalize when kicker Stephen Gostkowski pulled the first of three straight 43-yard field goal attempts wide left. He drilled one from that same distance, but pushed the third wide right.
On a mostly drizzly afternoon, Gostkowski offered an explanation for the misfires, but not any excuses.
“When the [weather] conditions are tough, you’ve got to be pretty spot-on perfect, and that definitely wasn’t where I was at today. I hate to miss a kick in a game, and definitely hate to miss two. I don’t know if I’ve done that too often.
“I’m ticked,” he added, “but we won. I’m not going to be a Debbie Downer. Life goes on.”
Life does, but games don’t, at least not for New England, for another two weeks. Their strategically scheduled bye comes at just the right time for all three phases – but particularly the offense and defense – to figure out what’s been amiss over the first eight games. And perhaps to give some key injured players the necessary time to convalesce.
Against Los Angeles, the Patriots saw two more regular contributors – right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) and wide receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder) leave the game prematurely.
Critics could fairly argue that, despite all that’s wrong with this club right now, the Patriots are lucky to be 6-2 at midseason because they could easily have a much worse record.
“We didn’t play our best football,” emphasized running back James White, who was a bright spot on offense, leading the unit with 85 receiving yards. “We need to get into the bye week and heal everybody up, keep trying to improve.
“We’ll come in [this week], watch this game. I’m sure we’ll watch a lot of the games we played and find things that we’ve done well and haven’t done well and find ways to improve. Get your mind off football for a little bit and come back ready to go.
It’s good to have some down time.”
“They bye week’s huge to get some [injured] guys back, rest, recover, and get ready for a couple of weeks from now,” Amendola concluded. “We have a couple of big road games in the future. We have to get ready for those.”
“We know we’re leaving a lot of points out there,” Lewis conceded. “We can still do a lot better execution-wise. Just have to clean some things up over the bye and correct some of those mistakes, because we’re definitely leaving plays on the field.
“It’s been a great start, but at the same time, we still haven’t played the way we’re capable of playing. Still la lot of room for improvement, but it’s great to go into the bye 6-2, rest up, and get ready for a tough schedule afterward.”
As Lewis alluded to, the Patriots face perhaps their toughest schedule stretch after the bye, with five road games over a six-week span, including a trip south of the border in Mexico City. If New England doesn’t figure out what’s wrong and fix it before then, it won’t be much of a surprise if they can’t match or improve their 6-2 mark in the second half of 2017.