Why Red Hot New England Patriots Are a Playoff Matchup Nightmare
Any time you compare an offense to the 2007 Patriots, it's probably a good thing.
They were thrown off that pace by Miami, and their offense was far from dominant in their gritty win over the Miami Dolphins, but the ingredients are still there for this team to make a deep postseason run.
We will learn more about whether that will happen in the next two games, but it's safe to say that they will pose problems for whichever team plays at Gillette Stadium in January.
Despite all the numbers, though, the offense is noticeably more efficient now than it was earlier in the year, when the offense stalled out like an old stick-shift.
How have things changed?
The easy answer is, things haven't changed, they've just gotten more consistent in their execution.
They are difficult to defend because they can attack so many ways—the running game, the short passing game, screen plays, spread formations, no-huddle and more, they are one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL.
The most notable difference between this year's offense and last year's is in the running game. They've established now that they can run the ball when defenses know they are going to run it, which was not a given even despite the team's solid rushing statistics.
The Patriots needed a long drive to milk the clock against the Seattle Seahawks, but their running game was not up to the challenge. Some of that may have had to do with playcalling, but regardless, the Patriots were unsuccessful running the ball against a top run defense on the road.
Against Seattle, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-2 at Seattle's 17-yard line following two four-yard runs by Stevan Ridley.
The aim was to run it right up the middle, and although the Patriots faced an eight-man front with a cornerback cheating into the box, they ran it anyway.
They soon found all the gaps clogged by Seattle defenders, and Ridley had to bounce the run to the outside where cornerback Richard Sherman was waiting for him.
Ridley is fully capable of bouncing runs to the outside, as we have seen this year quite often, but this late-game shortcoming raised questions about New England's ability to run it when the opponent knows it's coming.
They were in a similar situation against the Dolphins, and this time, they came through with flying colors against an equally tough run defense.
Here, they faced an eight-man front with a corner cheating into the box on 1st-and-10 as they continued to try to milk the clock.
Center Ryan Wendell and guard Nick McDonald both got great blocks to spring Ridley to the second level, where he fell forward after taking a hit and picked up 11 yards all told.
There were a few runs like this on the final drive, and almost all of them were made possible because of the blocking up front.
The running game has also been a tremendous help for quarterback Tom Brady, who is playing some of the best football of his career right now with a league-low 0.9 interception percentage. He threw his first interception in 204 pass attempts on Sunday.
His passer rating on play-action passes is 117.5, against 100.8 on standard passes. The threat of the run has helped open things up over the middle, where the Patriots offense has done some of their best work with their two tight ends and wide receiver Wes Welker.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez doesn't sneak by the coverage unnoticed very often, but that's exactly what happened on a 3rd-and-1 play-action pass in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots came out in the 12 personnel grouping of one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. With the two tight ends stacked on the offense's right, the formation gives the illusion of a running play, and the Dolphins defense seems to agree, as they have nearly all their defenders at the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line, including Hernandez, sells the run so well that the entire defense stays at the line of scrimmage while the fake unfolds.
Hernandez gets past safety Chris Clemons and scampers his way down to the four-yard line.
That example helps transition into the superlative effort the Patriots are getting from their skill position talent in the passing game. Wes Welker is quietly on pace for another 100-reception season, and already has over 1,000 receiving yards with his 468 yards after catch ranked second-highest in the league.
Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have both been in and out of the lineup, but Welker has continued to produce regardless of the circumstances and once again leads the league in receptions. Speaking of the tight ends, the offense has functioned this well without them in the lineup, so imagine how good it will look if/when both are at full health in the postseason (yet another reason why the bye is so important).
Hernandez missed time earlier this season with a high ankle sprain; he missed another a month after aggravating that same injury when he was back in the lineup a little sooner than he (or his ankle) was ready for. Now, he and Brady are working to get their timing back.
There were a pair of missed connections on Sunday, with the quarterback and the tight end taking the blame for one apiece.
With Hernandez back in the lineup now, there's plenty of time to get that perfect timing back—not that it needs all that much repair, after Hernandez went off with eight receptions for 97 yards on Sunday, but there's always room for improvement.
There's one factor that remains unspoken—and they like it better that way—and that's the offensive line. Brady was under a little more duress than he may be used to on Sunday, and the running game may have struggled to move the ball at times, but for the most part his pocket has been clean and the holes have been gaping.
That, despite a lot of moving parts this season. Logan Mankins has missed time with an ailing hip, Sebastian Vollmer has missed time with a nagging back injury and Dan Connolly came out of Sunday's game with a back injury of his own. At one point, New England's offensive line had Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald at left and right guard, respectively.
Without Mankins and Connolly, the only starter on the offensive line to carry over from the 2011 season is tackle Nate Solder, and he's playing left tackle this year as opposed to filling in at right tackle last year.
That's a testament to the fine work of Dante Scarnecchia, who always seems to have his offensive linemen ready to play, regardless of where they sit on the depth chart.
What's been the biggest component of New England's offensive success?
The Patriots are a matchup nightmare not because of any one element in their offense, but because of how all those elements work together to create one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL. They hit a slight hiccup against the Dolphins, and have two tall tasks ahead of them in the Texans and 49ers. The way they have played this season, though, there's no reason to believe they're not up to the challenge.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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