Despite Injuries, Patriots Already September's Biggest Winners in the NFL

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystSeptember 22, 2016

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 24: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on from the sideline in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are the most annoying team in the National Football League.

At least they are to fans of teams in Cleveland and Buffalo and Los Angeles—cities where bumbling front offices and inept coaching staffs seemingly can't go one week without shooting themselves in the foot.

Where those franchises pitch and lurch from one bad decision to the next, the Patriots somehow always make the right move. Where those teams are all about taking one step forward and then two steps back, the Pats are forever onward and upward.

And where for those teams losing has become a way of life, the Patriots are the biggest winners of September despite an injury-ravaged roster.

AFC East Standings
New England Patriots2-05445--
New York Jets1-159541
Buffalo Bills0-238502
Miami Dolphins0-234432
Entering Week 3

If you were a casual fan of the NFL and took a quick glance at the AFC East standings, you might well assume it was just business as usual in Beantown. Through two weeks the Patriots sit right where they usually do—on top of the division, a game up on the New York Jets and two up on the winless Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

But it's been far from business as usual in Boston in 2016. The Patriots' four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback has yet to take the field this season due to his four-game Deflategate suspension.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski
Patriots TE Rob GronkowskiJim Rogash/Getty Images

New England's superstar tight end hasn't played yet due to a balky hamstring. Arguably their best defensive lineman is both injured and suspended. And the team's most talented tailback had knee surgery before the season.

For any other NFL club, that attrition would be a death knell, a season-killer. Yet the Patriots have shaken it off like it's more annoyance than apocalypse.

They've been able to compensate for the loss of Rob Gronkowski with tight end Martellus Bennett, who they acquired in the offseason via a trade with the Chicago Bears. Bennett hauled in five catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over Miami, telling reporters that he's having a blast.

"I'm just having a lot of fun right now with these guys, I love my teammates, I love the coaches, I love this environment and these fans," Bennett said. "For me that's all it's really about. Just going out and doing the things I love to do—and have fun doing it."

Amazing what winning (or even just the expectation of winning) can do for a player's attitude.

The torn triceps and four-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension that have combined to sideline veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich have barely made a ripple on the defense, thanks to the presence of Chris Long.

Long, who the Patriots picked up off the scrap heap after the Rams released him, has pitched in five tackles and a sack in two games. Teammate Danny Amendola, who played with Long in St. Louis, said on WEEI's Ordway, Merloni & Fauria (h/t Zack Cox of NESN) he was confident a move to New England would fix all that ailed the 31-year-old:

We've played in St. Louis, and I'll tell you what, we weren't a very good football team for a long time. I always tell him I am eager to see the Patriot Way evolve in him and how he molds as a player. When he was looking to come here or go to another place, I had a lot of conversation about I wish he would come here for at least the end portion of (his) career or at least a year to see how it's run, because I know where (he) had been in the eight years and I know what it was like playing in St. Louis.

Amazing what winning (or even just the expectation of winning) can do for a player's productivity.

With running back Dion Lewis on the shelf, the Pats have done what the Pats do—move on to the next guy(s) on the depth chart. With LeGarrette Blount serving as the between-the-tackles bruiser and James White as the pass-catching scatback, the Patriots have cobbled together a run game that ranks seventh in the league at 133.5 yards per game.

That's one heck of a job of cobbling.

Of course, when it comes to cobbling, the ground game pales next to New England's ninth-ranked passing attack—a passing attack led by a quarterback who had never started an NFL game before taking the field against the Arizona Cardinals in the Sunday night opener in Arizona.

Jimmy Garoppolo Stats
* First in the NFL per ESPN

From the moment Jimmy Garoppolo took his first snap against the Cardinals to the moment he was knocked out of last week's win with an injured shoulder, the third-year pro was better than the Patriots had dared dream. Garoppolo completed 70 percent of his passes, tossed four touchdowns without an interception and posted a passer rating of over 115.

He was poised. He was accurate. He was outstanding. Garoppolo's 91.1 QBR is tops in the NFL two weeks into the season.

Garoppolo's play dropped jaws across the league, but New England safety Devin McCourty told reporters after Garoppolo led the team to a road win over a Super Bowl contender in Arizona that the people inside the Patriots locker room weren't surprised.

"There was no doubt in this locker room that Jimmy could go out there and play," McCourty said. "I'm happy he went out there, did it, and everyone can shut up now and watch the guy get better and grow and us keep improving as a team in the early part of the season."

Of course they weren't. They expect things to go well—expect to win. No matter what.

At this point, QB-needy teams across the NFL are lining up in anticipation of offering Garoppolo $10 million-plus a season to be their starter after the 2017 season. Either that or offering the Patriots a high draft pick so they won't have to wait that long to acquire his services.

Garoppolo's Cinderella run did hit a snag—or more appropriately, the snag hit him. Garoppolo now has a sprained AC joint compliments of a shot from Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso. Per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, Garoppolo has been a limited participant in practice this week, but the odds that he'll take the field Thursday against the Houston Texans aren't good.

Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Patriots QB Jimmy GaroppoloCharles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press

Yes, Garoppolo's sprained AC joint (an injury that may well sideline him until Tom Brady returns in Week 5) was an unfortunate turn of events. But it doesn't matter in the big picturefor player or team.

For Garoppolo personally, it may be a blessing. The game-and-a-half or so he played was as close to flawless as he's going to get. His stock is at its zenith. If Garoppolo gives in to pressure from the team (according to a report from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald), plays hurt and struggles, his value in a trade or free-agent deal can only decrease from here.

For the Patriots, rolling out a hobbled and ineffective Garoppolo would be getting greedy. They are playing with house money at this point. As Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle tweeted Wednesday evening, the Patriots know it:

Aaron Wilson @AaronWilson_NFL

Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo listed as doubtful with shoulder injury

If the Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots get blown out by the Texans on Thursday night, the team will still leave Week 3 at worst tied for first place in the AFC East. It's a possibility given the short week head coach Bill Belichick has to get the rookie ready for his first NFL start, although Belichick's mentor Bill Parcells told Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB that if anyone can get Brissett ready, it's his protege.

"I am glad that he is with Bill Belichick," Parcells said. "Because I know that gives him the best chance for success. I'm not going into an expose about that. I'm just telling you I'm glad he is there, and I think Bill gives him an excellent opportunity to be successful."

Then, in a worst-case scenario, Darth Hoodie will have 10 days to prepare his latest Padawan to play a reeling Bills team that will probably be 0-3 and has one win in Gillette Stadium in 14 tries—a Week 17 victory in 2014 against the Pats' JV team.

Even if the Bills manage to eke a similar win out against a similarly depleted New England team, it won't matter. The AFC East "race" is over.

In Week 5, Brady returns—an angry Brady, steaming over his forced sabbatical, the Kylo Ren of NFL quarterbacks.

Can you tell I just saw The Force Awakens for the first time?

By then, the Patriots will likely have Gronkowski back. Ninkovich is eligible to return from the suspension that gave his arm time to heal the same week as Brady.

At worst, the Patriots will head to Cleveland in Week 5 a game back of the Jets—and that's only if Gang Green can win in Kansas City this week and at home against Seattle the next.

That's about as likely as the Jets' maintaining that mythical one-game edge any longer than that, given that they then finish a murderous stretch with trips to Pittsburgh and Arizona before they've even played their division rival once.

All the Patriots needed to do while Brady was out was tread water and not fall too far off the pace. Instead, they're setting the pace in a division with two bad teams and a good one with a schedule that was apparently drawn up by the Marquis de Sade.

Credit Belichick, who has made masterful coaching jobs look routine at this point. Credit New England's players for thriving in adversity rather than crumbling under it. Credit Garoppolo for shining in the spotlight rather than shrinking in it. Credit new additions like Bennett and Long for buying in 100 percent.

Credit the "Patriot Way," annoying though that phrase may be to fans whose team's "way" is drafting a quarterback first overall who can't beat out Case Keenum in camp or passing on a quarterback at No. 2 who looks very much like the real deal.

Whatever the reason, the Patriots started out the season doing what they do best—what they do better than any team in the NFL.

They started the season winning. And they aren't about to stop now.


Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.


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