5 Reasons the Patriots Have Legitimate Cause for Concern Heading into Playoffs
The New England Patriots have been AFC East champions for the last month, and have mostly been playing for seeding as well as to make a statement.
The statement they made on Sunday against Jacksonville could best be described as, well I'm not quite sure how to describe that really.
In a game against perhaps the worst team in the NFL, New England still needed to come from behind in order to pick up the victory, and even then had to sweat out a potential Jacksonville comeback attempt.
Was it a blip in the radar or a harbinger of things to come? New England does still have a shot at home field advantage in the AFC assuming that they beat Miami in Foxborough next week (which they should be able to do) and get losses from Houston (very likely in Indianapolis for what will be an emotional game for the Colts) and Denver (stranger things have happened than losing to the Chiefs at home), but that doesn't mean that this team doesn't have its own holes and concerns.
Here's a list of a few of New England's big concerns heading into the postseason.
Tom Brady Turning into Tom Turnover
One thing the Patriots offense hasn't been able to do well in recent games is take care of the football.
A large part of that has been Tom Brady, who has thrown five interceptions in the month of December.
Coming into the month, Brady had only thrown three interceptions for the entire season and was known as much for his efficiency this year as his prolific numbers.
A bad performance against San Francisco can be attributed to a good game plan by the 49ers, but it did show that Brady might have some trouble dealing with a defense of that caliber.
But throwing two picks against the Jaguars? That's a scary thought. What happened to the Brady that only two weeks ago destroyed Houston? What happened to the Brady that will potentially go undefeated against his own division?
It could be a harbinger of things to come once the defenses he faces are better than Jacksonville's and more likely to go all-out in their game plans to stop the Patriots.
How Healthy Will Gronk Be?
This is one of the most important questions New England has going forward.
How healthy will Rob Gronkowski be once he returns to the lineup?
Will he make an impactful return, or will it be similar to his Super Bowl performance where it was clear that he was hobbling and he was used primarily as a decoy?
How far New England goes in the playoffs is dependent on that question.
Pass Rush Not Getting to the Quarterback as Often as They Should
The Patriots pass rush has vacillated all year from being a no-show to being all-world.
But recently, they've no-showed, which does put more pressure on the aforementioned secondary.
If you can't get to the quarterback, he can pick apart any secondary in front of him. Especially one as weak as New England's has been all season.
The Patriots pass rush will have to kick it back to the high gear we saw earlier in the season in order for them to reclaim the dominance over the AFC we all thought was inevitable when they destroyed the Texans.
So how much do the Patriots trust Stephen Gostkowski?
It's been a rocky season for him, and I'm being generous with that description. Every kick feels like an adventure.
That's exactly what you don't want in the playoffs, especially since it was a missed field goal that put New England into the Super Bowl last season.
Is there a chance Gostkowski could be the difference between a fourth Lombardi Trophy and another off-season of misery?
Would you bet your season on him at this point?
Elite Quarterbacks Can Pass on This Team Very Well
Here's a breakdown of New England's secondary in a nutshell.
If they're getting turnovers, all is well.
If they're not, they're getting torched, especially by elite quarterbacks.
New England beat Jacksonville primarily due to three interceptions by Chad Henne. However the reason the game was such a contest for the Patriots is because of everything else Henne was able to do against the Patriots offense, passing for 348 yards and a touchdown.
Henne isn't the only quarterback to light up the Patriots secondary. Thus far this season we have seen Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick torch the Pats secondary with ease.
Three of those quarterbacks came out winners, while the other was Ryan Fitzpatrick. There's also a good chance that New England will have to play one of those quarterbacks on their road to a fourth Lombardi Trophy.
They were able to force Peyton Manning into a few turnovers when they played Denver in Week 5, resulting in a 10-point New England victory.
But this Broncos' team hasn't lost a game since then, and has played a lot differently. Add to that the fact that Denver will likely be hosting the Patriots in the playoffs, whereas their first meeting came in Foxborough.
New England's secondary must step up in order for the Patriots to win it all. It's a passer's league, and so far the only elite quarterback that hasn't had the pleasure of torching the Patriots secondary has been Tom Brady himself.