6 Reasons New England Patriots Could Fall Short of Super Bowl This Season
Doing so was anything but easy, though, as New England had to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback and were the recipients of some late-game luck—or a questionable call, depending on how you view it.
Let's not overlook the fact the Steelers played the entire second half without superstar receiver Antonio Brown.
Yes, the Patriots were fortunate to get out of Pittsburgh with a win. However, they now control their own destiny regarding home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. If New England wins out and then sees the Steelers again in the postseason, they will do so in Foxborough.
This doesn't mean the Patriots have a cake walk in front of them, though. They may be the best team in the conference right now, but they're still flawed. There are many road bumps that could derail their race to Super Bowl LII.
We're going to examine the top six reasons why the Patriots might not reach the big one.
Lack of Quarterback Depth
The Patriots are going to go as far as quarterback Tom Brady can take them this season. Should he suffer an injury and miss an extended period of time, New England can likely kiss its Super Bowl hopes goodbye.
In the offseason, this might not have seemed to be the case. New England had the most coveted backup in the league in Jimmy Garoppolo and a third-stringer in Jacoby Brissett who had shown he could win in the NFL.
This isn't to say Hoyer isn't a quality backup; he is. However, he's only been back with the organization since midseason, and he isn't the type of quarterback who will elevate the level of talent around him.
The playbook would be more limited with Hoyer under center, and he isn't a guy the Patriots can count on to make big plays on his own.
Brady has remained on the field throughout the season, but he's still a 40-year-old quarterback playing behind an up-and-down offensive line.
New England is also reliant on him. Unlike the Philadelphia Eagles—a more complete team that can survive without starter Carson Wentz—the Patriots are done if Brady is.
Inconsistent Offensive Line Play
Perhaps the biggest reason why the lack of quarterback depth is an issue is that New England's offensive line has become a liability. After allowing just 15 sacks in 12 games last season, the line has allowed 31 so far this year.
If you've watched the Patriots over the last couple weeks, you know sacks don't tell the whole story. Brady is being battered at an alarming rate, and he has been forced into uncharacteristic mistakes.
Take his interception against the Steelers as an example. Brady was under heavy pressure when he tried to force the ball out. However, he couldn't fully complete the throwing motion because of said pressure, and he essentially short-armed it right into the hands of linebacker Vince Williams.
There have been stretches where the line has played well—it allowed just one sack per game for the first three weeks coming out of the bye. However, it's been very bad at times too. Over the last three weeks, Brady has been sacked seven times and pressured into throwing four interceptions.
Even if Brady remains healthy throughout the postseason, he cannot possibly play his best when he's constantly under pressure. Against a team such as Pittsburgh or the Jacksonville Jaguars, line play could cost the Patriots a game.
Lack of a 2nd Pass-Catching Tight End
The Patriots have one of the NFL's biggest weapons in tight end Rob Gronkowski. The problem is they don't have another tight end on the roster who is going to threaten in the passing game.
Now, this might not seem like a huge deal because New England does have Gronk. We've seen, though, how much the offense can stall when he is unable to play.
When Gronkowski was injured against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady didn't complete a pass to a tight end. When he was suspended against the Dolphins, Dwayne Allen caught two passes for just 10 yards.
The Patriots brought in Allen via trade in the offseason. They also signed undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister to bolster the position. Yet Gronkowski is the only tight end who is a consistent threat in the passing game.
This leaves the Patriots with a lot to worry about should Gronkowski—who has a history of injuries—miss time down the stretch or in the postseason. The lack of a second pass-catching tight end (to be fair, Allen was that with the Colts) also limits what New England can do schematically.
Opposing defenses simply don't have to worry too much about covering the other guy when Gronkowski is on the field in two-tight-end sets. Unless, of course, this is all part of some master plan by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and Allen and Hollister are unleashed on unsuspecting defenses in the playoffs.
Yes, the defense technically won the game against Pittsburgh. It has also played extremely well during stretches. However, there's no getting around the fact this defense has been as inconsistent as any we've seen from the Patriots in recent memory.
Over the first month of the season, it allowed a whopping 32.0 points per game. Over the next eight games, New England allowed fewer than 12.0 points per game. During that good stretch, we didn't see many of the big plays against broken coverage we saw early in the season.
The big plays have come back against the Patriots defense over the last couple weeks; New England surrendered 51 points in Weeks 14 and 15.
Run defense has been a particularly big problem recently. In the loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots allowed Kenyan Drake to rumble for 114 yards on 25 carries. Le'Veon Bell racked up 117 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries for the Steelers on Sunday.
This inconsistency is an issue because the Patriots cannot count on having a lock-down defense each week in the postseason. An afternoon or evening of poor defending could crop up at any time and spoil New England's postseason fun.
Lackluster Pass Rush
Part of the issue on defense has been a lack of a top-tier pass rush. Statistically, the Patriots aren't terrible—they have 32 sacks on the season—but there isn't a dominant sack artist on the roster. The reality is many of New England's sacks have been the result of scheming and creative blitz packages.
As a whole, the Patriots pass rush isn't much better than it was a year ago, when the team tied for 16th in the NFL with 34 sacks.
While the Patriots did sack Jay Cutler twice in Miami, they didn't pressure him with much regularity. They sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice on Sunday, but when the Steelers were trying to mount their game-winning drive with less than a minute remaining, the pressure was nowhere to be found.
Ultimately, the Patriots were lucky that Jesse James' potential game-winning catch was overturned and ruled incomplete. They were also lucky Roethlisberger hurried the third-down pass that was picked off by Duron Harmon to seal the win.
"The ball bounces weird ways," Brady said, via the team's official website. "It bounced our way today."
The ball bounced New England's way on Sunday, but it might not in the postseason if the Patriots cannot do a better job of getting to the quarterback.
Quality AFC Competition
Some years, it feels like the AFC consists of the Patriots, maybe one other team, and then everyone else. That isn't the case this season. The Patriots may have to deal with teams such as the Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Chiefs have already beaten the Patriots once—and in impressive fashion. The Jaguars have the best defense in the NFL and could make life miserable for Brady and his offensive line. The Steelers will likely have Brown back in the lineup by the postseason.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Brown is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a partially torn calf muscle but should return for the playoffs.
These are three teams capable of coming into Foxborough and knocking off the Patriots. We shouldn't forget about the Baltimore Ravens either, who are never intimidated by the prospect of visiting Gillette Stadium.
Right now, only the Steelers and Jaguars are guaranteed to make the playoffs, but there are several teams that could end up in the dance and able to give New England trouble.