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Despite TNF Victory, New England Patriots Still Far from Super Bowl Contenders

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 6, 2017

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after getting knocked down by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense during the first quarter of an NFL football game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack)
Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

Tom Brady is a modern marvel, but he can't do everything for the New England Patriots. Sometimes it feels like the 40-year-old quarterback can do anything, but even if Brady plays at a high level, the current rendition of Bill Belichick's squad isn't capable of another Super Bowl run. 

Coaches will always take a poorly played victory over an outstanding performance in a loss. Belichick must be concerned, though. 

A sloppily played 19-14 victory Thursday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only accentuated the Patriots' negatives instead of building anything positive. 

Once thought of as the NFL's best, New England's roster has been exposed in five weeks of play, starting with the offensive line, extending into the skill positions and permeating throughout the entire defense. 

The D received so much attention because of its poor play—and rightfully sobut the offensive line's performance has been downright abysmal. 

Brady is a master of subtle pocket movement. He's not the most athletic quarterback, but he's quite mobile, which can be seen in the way he navigates his protection. Furthermore, the veteran signal-caller usually displays a propensity to get the ball out quickly. This combination often made the Patriots offensive line look superior to the opponent's pass rush. 

Offensive tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon proved to be particularly stout. Their performances helped propel New England to its fifth Super Bowl victory. 

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However, the same starting five from last seasonwhen the team surrendered only 24 sacks—is still in place yet playing much worse. 

With three sacks surrendered Thursday, Brady has already been brought to the ground 16 times, once more than he was in 12 regular-season games last year. 

Solder, in particular, looked out of sorts. Two penalties were called against the left tackle, and the 29-year-old blocker struggled to mirror edge-rushers. 

Another poor performance isn't anything new. Pressure got to Brady during the first four contests, too, per PFF NE Patriots: 

PFF NE Patriots @PFF_Patriots

Total pressures allowed by Patriots OL: Shaq Mason 6 David Andrews 11 Joe Thuney 11 Nate Solder 13 Marcus Cannon 15 (3 games)


Even a grand maestro like Brady can't operate when continually pressured. The veteran operates with surgical precision when allotted enough time in the pocket and weapons that create separation. Sometimes, the future Hall of Fame inductee doesn't even need a receiver to be open in the traditional sense. His touch throwing the spheroid borders on supernatural. 

Mistakes occur when pressure ensues. Brady can be rattled and forced into turnovers. In fact, he committed two Thursday. An errant pass led to an interception early in the contest. A strip-sack occurred in the second half. 

When Brady is kept clean, he needs those around him to turn into playmakers. 

The Patriots lacked mismatches against the Buccaneers without tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman in the lineup. Gronkowski turned into a surprise scratch because of a lingering thigh injury, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport

Instead, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan picked up the slack. These three targets combined for 21 receptions, 236 yards and a touchdown. 

None of those three scare defenses. Cooks has the potential to do so, but he still doesn't appear to be on the same page with Brady and dropped a pair of passes. 

Tight end altogether disappeared from the scheme in Gronkowski's absence. Rookie Jacob Hollister forced a defensive penalty, but he didn't catch a pass. Neither did Dwayne Allen. 

Gronk's importance to the offense can't be understated. The fact Brady basically avoided the position without him in the lineup shows how much the team missed the four-time All-Pro performer. 

Even with Gronk, Brady has been forced to throw into tighter windows this season, per NFL.com's Matt Harmon: 

Matt Harmon @MattHarmon_BYB

Noted in the #NextGenStats All-Pro piece that Brady was throwing into tight windows more. Back down to 13.5% tonight https://t.co/EbSNb60urQ https://t.co/QsJpBm3DNj

Despite being short-handed at the skill positions, the NFL's top-rated offense still managed 402 yards. 

Meanwhile, the defense must be driving Belichick mad. Granted, everyone already thought the Patriots head coach already had a little mad scientist in him, but this year's unit is awful. 

The league's worst defensive squad allowed 409 more yards to Jameis Winston and his crew. Two things became obvious during the performance. 

First, the Patriots are soft along the defensive line. 

Once Doug Martin entered the contest, he easily gained chunks of yardage and finished with 74 rushing yards on only 13 carries. Whether it's Malcom Brown, Alan Branch or Adam Butler along the interior, New England lacks a true physical presence, and Vince Wilfork isn't walking through that door. He's too busy barbecuing.

Winston managed 334 passing yards despite an off night and had the Buccaneers in a position to win late in the contest. Tampa Bay's quarterback became the fifth signal-caller in five games this season to throw for 300 or more yards against the Patriots secondary. 

Last week, communication issues plagued the group. As a response, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia decided to play softer coverages in an attempt to prevent big plays—which it did. 

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (left) and head coach Bill Belichick (right)
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (left) and head coach Bill Belichick (right)Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Buccaneers found themselves in Patriots territory eight times and came away with only 14 points. Granted, kicker Nick Folk's 0-of-3 nightmare helped. Still, New England needed some type of confidence-building performance, and the bend-but-down-break approach worked better for the team's defensive backs. 

"Pretty much everything," Belichick said when asked what areas the defense improved upon compared to the previous four weeks, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss

Patricia's defense might have performed even better if not for multiple bone-headed mistakes. New England gifted Tampa Bay with three first downs with penalties after stopping it.

As for not delivering on preseason expectations, the 2-2 Buccaneers are in the same boat as the 3-2 Patriots (pun intended). 

Dirk Koetter's squad became a chic pick to take over the NFC South and make the playoffs. Instead, the team is just trying to keep its head above water. Winston has yet to provide an efficient performance. DeSean Jackson seemingly isn't happy with his usage. Meanwhile, the defense is dealing with multiple injuries and isn't operating at a level necessary to succeed.

Whereas the Bucs have virtually no track record of fixing glaring weaknesses in-season, the Patriots do. They've made Super Bowl runs seem commonplace because their two key components haven't left. Brady and Belichick steer the organization toward its true north. But they can't keep the Pats as a Super Bowl contender forever. 

At some point, the Patriots dynasty will end. This inevitability may occur sooner rather than later if the issues around Tom Brady aren't fixed. 

      

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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