For a long time, the outcome of each New England Patriots football game this season felt nearly inevitable. Core players would crumble, but the winning continued, with the often-repeated Bill Belichick-ism, “do your job,” keeping his football empire in order.
They kept winning after running back Dion Lewis was lost for the year in early November and after left tackle Nate Solder’s season ended after Week 5. They’ve also won three more games since wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a foot injury in Week 10.
Edelman is still on track to return for the playoffs, according to ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter, and he’ll get an extra week to recover because of the Patriots’ first-round bye week. That’s nice.
But after their offense sputtered and New England lost its second straight game to end the regular season, a haunting and potentially postseason-derailing question looms.
Can Edelman alone resurrect a suddenly stagnant offense? The Patriots’ recent offensive plunge extends far beyond the reach of one man, even if Edelman is a core piece.
The critical injury blows go past him, too, with a crippled backfield that is unable to support quarterback Tom Brady. Lewis is long gone after tearing his ACL, and LeGarrette Blount was a suitable replacement until a hip injury landed him on the injured reserve list.
Add it all up, and the Patriots offense has gone from juggernaut to joke fast.
The thud on a rocky bottom came Sunday when they did more than just lose to the Miami Dolphins. As Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit noted, they lost to a six-win team while doing something a Patriots offense has done only twice since 2003:
The Patriots’ 196 yards of total offense against Miami fell well below their per-game average of 386.3 prior to Week 17. They were bulldozed by the league’s 26th-ranked defense.
Fight the urge to shrug that off as a one-week stumble, because lying to yourself is never wise. Remember those blissful first 10 games for the Patriots in which they didn’t lose? The outcomes of games since then have often been much less enjoyable.
During that 10-game winning streak, the Patriots were averaging 32.3 points per game. The stretch of unblemished dominance included four games in which New England won by at least two touchdowns—and two in which they lit up the scoreboard for 40-plus points.
Once their weekly winning ended, the Patriots offense started to do its best impression of Wile E. Coyote in his classic scene: falling into a canyon.
Over the past six weeks, the Patriots have averaged 23.7 points per game, including Week 17 when they scored a season-low 10 points. For merely mortal offenses, that would still be solid production. Had they moved along at that pace all season, the Patriots would currently have an 11th-ranked scoring offense.
But a drop of 8.6 points per game is significant, particularly when it culminates with the team's worst offensive output since Week 7 of 2010, as NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison observed:
If we zoom in even closer, the results get scarier.
The aforementioned injuries to Lewis and Blount have forced the Patriots to smash many emergency glass cases while running to sign healthy bodies. As a result, worn-down veteran Steven Jackson led a backfield that produced 2.7 yards per carry during Sunday’s loss, and over the past two games the Patriots have averaged that same number.
The absence of a serviceable rushing offense has given the Patriots plenty of long third-down conversion attempts to navigate. Consequently, they have experienced little success when the offense needs to stay on the field. New England has converted just five of its 24 third-down attempts since Week 16.
When a defense has little reason to respect the opposition’s backfield, pass-rushers can tee off on the quarterback. That is less than ideal when your offensive line has also been limping both literally and figuratively.
The Dolphins showed us this basic football math: no rushing offense + weak offensive line = please get up, Brady.
Brady told Adam Kurkjian of the Boston Herald he was "pretty sore" after that hit from Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
"But I'll be all right," he added.
Brady was only sacked twice Sunday. But he was still pressured relentlessly, even while attempting just five passes in the first half (a career low in games he has started).
The 38-year-old’s body has taken enough punishing blows, and the constant duress he’s fought through has stung in more ways than one. When the Patriots were undefeated, he logged six games with 300-plus passing yards. Since the streak ended, his per-game passing average has dipped to 241.7.
The return of Edelman will help to boost Brady’s passing production. But Edelman doesn’t play running back, and he’s not an offensive lineman either.
He’s one man who plays one position. That could become a problem if others keep struggling to do their jobs.