One week after facing one of the best defenses in the league, the Patriots are charged with stopping one of the best offenses in the league—featuring a tight end that is aiming to break records set by Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots defense has met every challenge this year, but will the offense have enough firepower to match the Saints? Only time, and perhaps Gronkowski's forearm, will tell.
Here is a complete recap of last weekend in the world of the Patriots.
AFC East Results
|New England Patriots||4-1||.800||Lost 1|
|Miami Dolphins||3-2||.600||Lost 2|
|New York Jets||3-2||.600||Won 1|
|Buffalo Bills||2-3||.400||Lost 1|
Buffalo Bills vs. Cleveland Browns Recap
The Bills didn't just lose the game, they lost their season. Any hopes of competing for the AFC East crown were dashed when starting quarterback E.J. Manuel went down with a knee injury that is expected to keep him off the field for four to six weeks.
Thad Lewis—who was on the Bills practice squad at this time last week—will lead the Bills offense in Manuel's stead.
New York Jets vs. Atlanta Falcons Recap
Geno Smith has had an eventful rookie season. After losing a 27-14 lead to the Falcons, Smith led the Jets on his second game-winning drive of the year with less than two minutes on the clock.
Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson have become a duo to be feared on the Jets defensive line, which has covered up for some deficiencies in the Jets' defensive backfield.
After Nick Folk booted home the winning field goal with time expiring, the Jets now sit one game behind New England Patriots for the lead in the AFC East.
Miami Dolphins vs. Baltimore Ravens Recap
Ryan Tannehill is going to need a massage. After six more sacks, Tannehill is getting beat up behind the likes of Jonathan Martin and the other Dolphins offensive linemen.
Even with those negative plays, the Dolphins were nearly able to send this game to overtime, with rookie Caleb Sturgis missing on a 57-yard kick at the end of the game.
Analysis: At 12-8 overall, the AFC East certainly has exceeded the expectations of NFL pundits that predicted another easy path to the playoffs for the New England Patriots.
A game up and 2-0 in the division puts the Patriots in the driver's seat of the playoffs race, but the Jets and Dolphins are nipping at their heels.
|Vince Wilfork||Ankle||Injured Reserve|
|Shane Vereen||Wrist||Short Term IR|
|Matthew Slater||Wrist||1-3 Weeks|
Analysis: The Patriots seemed to avoid any major injuries in Cincinnati, which hasn't been the case lately. You could hear the collective gasp from Patriots fans in Paul Brown stadium when Tommy Kelly went down, but their fears were assuaged when he re-entered the game.
Matthew Slater and Rob Gronkowski both saw time on the practice field last week, so they have a chance to contribute against New Orleans this Sunday. Gronkowski expects to play, per Pro Football Talk.
Story To Watch
Doug Kyed of NESN.com wrote yesterday that "players layers like Aaron Dobson, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden should continue to improve as they fill in for the injured starters."
Tom Brady, however, would certainly like to see Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and others back in uniform. He had the following to say to the Dennis & Callahan show Monday morning.
We’ve missed Danny for most of the season. We’ve missed Gronk for most of the season. We missed Shane for most of the season... So, those are some pretty good players that we depended on going into the season to play a big role. And the fact of the matter is they haven’t been out there. Those other guys are forced to do more and they’ve done a great job with it. We need to all get on the same page and we really haven’t had a practice where we’ve had our whole offense out there yet. We gotta do that first of all and see what we can really do.
...Part of it is establishing what we do well and trying to figure out the things that we can end up doing in critical situations when we need it the most, that we have confidence in... We’re still trying to find those things and hopefully once some guys get healthy, that will give us a little margin for error because we’ll have some real physical mismatches out there. Until that happens, we’re going to have to continue doing what we can to grind it out and be as consistent as we can be.
What Needs to Improve
Vince Wilfork isn't walking through that door. Tommy Kelly held his own against Cincinnati. Chris Jones wasn't bad. Joe Vellano, however, didn't exactly have a great day. In reference to Vellano, Doug Kyed of NESN.com had another gem.
If the interior line play doesn't improve against the run, the Patriots might have to look for outside help at the position.
2. Guard Play
Logan Mankins—once the unquestioned best player on the Patriots offensive line—needs to get his game back on track. He hasn't been as consistent as he was in the past, and he seems to have lost a little pop in his run-blocking duties.
On the opposite side of center Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly hasn't been much better. If Marcus Cannon continues to improve, I wouldn't be surprised to see him increase his workload as the year progresses.
If the guards aren't able to open up some holes inside, the play-action passing game—long a staple in New England—will suffer.
3. Brady's Vision
Tom Brady's favorite receiver has long been the open receiver. However, Brady has missed open receivers with increasing regularity this year, instead opting to try and fit throws into tighter windows.
Against Cincinnati, one play stuck out in particular. Brady eschewed an easy throw to a wide-open James Develin in order to throw to a covered Danny Amendola.
If Brady becomes too focused on Amendola and Julian Edelman, he is going to continue to miss out on chances down the field.
The Patriots are starting to get healthy—on offense anyway—but there is still one big piece missing. Adding Rob Gronkowski to the mix in this offense makes everyone better. According to Pro Football Talk, that just might be the case this week.
Linebackers are forced deeper into the seam, giving more space to Edelman and Amendola underneath. Safeties can't double receivers as easily, leaving more room for Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson to operate.