New England should finish with 12-plus wins once again en route to the Super Bowl.
New England won the conference in 2011, but they may be even better this year. They are certainly more balanced. The run game has been overpowering, particularly over the last two games, and the young defense should continue to improve each week.
The AFC only has half a dozen legitimate teams, but the Pats are at the top of the list—and here’s why.
I swear, I'm about ready to hit someone.
In their three wins, the Patriots have outscored opponents by a total of 55 points. Three points are the difference in New England's two losses.
The first loss to Arizona was a puzzling game. New England fell behind, 20-9, but reduced the deficit to just two points. With the game on the line, Stephen Gostkowski, the most accurate kicker in Patriot’s history, missed a 42-yard attempt.
Were it not for the Seattle-Green-Bay catastrophe, the game between New England and Baltimore may have been the epitome of replacement ref “officiating.” There were 24 total penalties called, only exacerbating what was already an intense game.
These are not meant as excuses—there’s no such thing for good teams. Houston looks like one of the best teams in the NFL, but let’s not forget how close the Patriots were to also being undefeated. It would be hard to say the Texans are the “team to beat” if the defending AFC champs had the same record.
And many more wins are coming.
New England won its last eight games of the season in 2010 and 2011. Dating back to 2008, the team is 34-10 over the final 11 games of the season.
Wes Welker has seen his action increase over the last four weeks.
At this time one year ago, New England ran an offense that heavily relied on dual-tight end sets. Bill Belichick always seems to play a role in igniting league-wide trends, and he really seemed to be on to something with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The two combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Things have not started so smoothly for the pair in 2012. Hernandez’s last game was in Week 2. Gronkowski, who has had injury issues of his own, is averaging 59 yards a game—a decent number for the position, but well below his 83-yard average in 2011.
So what have Belichick and Tom Brady done in response? The same thing they always do. “This is our situation,” they seem to say. “Now how can we be the best?”
The solution has been to run an offense that moves in hyper-speed—even by their standards. Only New Orleans runs more plays per minute of possession.
New England has also introduced a more retro offense focused on getting the ball to their quick, undersized receivers on short patterns. Only 18.1 percent of Brady’s passes have been to a receiver 15 yards or more downfield (21st in the NFL). His average ball has traveled only 4.2 yards through the air (12th).
Twenty-nine percent of Brandon Lloyd’s targets have come on deep balls. Thirty-three players have a higher percentage, and he has the most frequent long-range looks on the team.
Gronkowski is going deep less as well. His deep-ball targets are down five percent from last year.
An offense focused on speed and quick releases is particularly well-suited against defenses with a dominating pass rush (i.e. Houston and J.J. Watt). Sacks are hard to come by when the linemen are tired and only have less than two seconds to pressure the quarterback.
The rapid action has allowed New England to use the pass to set up the run. With linemen sucking air, the power run game has become, at times, unstoppable. New England has the No. 3 running game in the league. They were the No. 20 ground unit last year…and they still made the Super Bowl.
Don't be deceived by the uniforms—Vince Wilfork is not fat.
New England advanced to the Super Bowl last year despite having one of the worst units in the league.
There are many ways to rank defenses, but the website AdvancedNFLStats.com does it better than most. The site has created defensive rankings based on a variety of statistics like win probability added (WPA) and expected points added (EPA). Check it out to get all the information.
In any case, New England has been the No. 11 defense through the first five weeks of the season. This is a drastic improvement from their 27th-ranked unit in 2011.
The big jump makes sense; New England has one of the youngest defenses in the league. Their Week 6 starters will have an average age of 26. With Dont’a Hightower as a starter (currently injured), that goes down to 25 years. Wilfork is the oldest regular—and he's 30.
New England has always been about the big play on defense. As long as the inexperienced secondary can do more good than bad, the Patriots are in a great position to have, gasp, a top-10 defense by season’s end.