Is Patriots' Season in Trouble Despite Return to Dominant Form?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 17, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Tom Brady #12 and  Rex Burkhead #34 of the New England Patriots react after a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

At one point late during their drubbing of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the New England Patriots were down to one healthy wide receiver.

That was Brandin Cooks, who for some reason was asked to run an end-around in the dying minutes, with a 36-20 win well in hand. The Patriots began the game with only three receivers before Chris Hogan limped through much of the afternoon and Phillip Dorsett was seen riding the stationary bike to loosen up his aching knee.

The real panic-button moment came when tight end Rob Gronkowski went down with what was first feared to be his recurring back issues. But luckily, it was his groin instead and seemingly not serious.

The Patriots were running out of bandages and ice, and that sideline bike was logging some serious mileage. There was, for a moment at least, reason to wonder if the Patriots reasserting their dominance after a Week 1 letdown could come at a serious cost.

They came into the game against the Saints with an already thin pass-catching group. Wide receiver Julian Edelman is lost for the year with an ACL tear, and Danny Amendola, his replacement, was out Sunday a concussion.

Toss in running back Rex Burkhead suffering a rib injury, and it feels like there's only so much the Patriots can endure.

Or at least that would be the assumption if they were a normal team.

Because really, as long as quarterback Tom Brady is healthy, it's tough to hear those injury alarms blaring in the distance and take them too seriously. He's 40 years old, but as ESPN Stats & Information noted, Brady isn't playing like it.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Tom Brady joins Warren Moon as the only QBs age 40-or-older in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards and 3 TD in a game (@EliasSports).

Brady finished with 447 passing yards and three touchdowns Sunday, which was the highest single-game total ever by a 40-plus year old quarterback, again per ESPN Stats & Information.

He lit up a Saints defense that will go through some serious growing pains in 2017 with so many rookies and new faces. The Saints were torched by the Patriots for 555 total yards, and right now, it looks like they couldn't stop a shark cat on a Roomba.

Only two post-merger quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown 20-plus touchdown passes in their age-40 season, according to Pro Football Reference (Brett Favre and Warren Moon). And only two have recorded a 3,500-plus yard passing season at that age (Moon and Vinny Testaverde).

Brady has now thrown for 714 yards over his first two games of 2017, and remarkably, 302 of those yards came during just the first half against the Saints. He established one career high in the first quarter, and came close to putting up another one once the second quarter ended, as the Patriots' official Twitter account noted:

New England Patriots @Patriots

Tom Brady: 2nd career game with 300 yards in the first half. 1st career game with 3 TDs in the first quarter. #GoPats

In the first half alone, Brady threw six 20-plus-yard completions. He misfired only nine times in the game, a few of which were drops, and averaged a triple-take inducing 11.5 yards per attempt.

Despite some shakiness at times during a Week 1 upset loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady has now attempted 75 passes in 2017 without throwing an interception. He's thrown just nine regular-season picks since the beginning of 2015, a time when Brady also wasn't exactly young.

During that period, Brady has played 12 games without Gronkowski in the huddle (including the playoffs), and Edelman missed seven games in 2015. While losing those cornerstones for any amount of time stings, Brady won four playoff games and a Super Bowl over the last two years as both sat intermittently. 

It might be hard to resist an eye roll if head coach Bill Belichick spouts the "next man up" cliche, or the ultimate Belichickism "do your job." But the Patriots have kept marching over the years with their coach and QB's brilliance the one constant.

Some of the injury scares from Sunday might end up being nothing. Gronkowski already seems to be shrugging off his time on the sideline, telling reporters "I'm good." And Hogan told Doug Kyed of NESN that he's fine.

If any linger into Week 3 or beyond, just remember Brady set new career highs without two of his top wide receivers to begin Week 2, and that was before Hogan and Gronkowski went down.

The Patriots offense is deep, and more than fine. It has juggernaut potential, and that didn't change after a Week 1 stumble, or any Week 2 injury.


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