Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One: Are The Patriots Over?

The sky is falling in New England. The arm of Tom Brady suddenly seems every bit of 41 years old, with the future Hall of Famer unable to find receivers deep downfield as in years past. The Patriots have a losing record in the early season, and the obituaries are being written.

If this feels like deja vu all over again, you’re not wrong. Brady was viewed as over the hill around this time in 2014, too. And the experts were also playing taps on the Patriots dynasty. The specific reason cited for Brady’s decline back then? An inability to throw the ball deep.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick responded to the panic after a 41-14 Monday night loss to the Chiefs in 2014’s Week 4 with the mantra, “We’re on to Cincinnati.” The Patriots won that game 43-17 and their next six, too, en route to winning the Super Bowl. From that week in 2014 through the end of the 2017 season, Brady was above average in both yards per attempt and Raw Quarterback Rating on deep throws.

Eventually,1 Brady’s NFL career and the Patriots’ dynasty actually will come to an end. Though we can’t know for sure when that will happen, we should pay attention when they struggle — even if we can’t write them off quite yet. What’s happened in the past two weeks is unusual for the Pats and warrants more than just a shrug as New England prepares to host the unbeaten Dolphins, the first of three straight games in Foxborough.

The Patriots’ Elo rating sits at 1589 after their shocking 26-10 thumping at the hands of Detroit on Sunday night, which came on the heels of a 31-20 loss in Week 2 at Jacksonville. The last time New England’s number was this low was after that 2014 loss to the Chiefs. The Patriots have dropped 66.7 points since the 1656 they hit after their Week 1 victory at home against the Texans, who are still winless. That’s the fourth biggest two-week drop in Elo for the Patriots during the Belichick era.2

The worst two-game spells in the Belichick/Brady era

The biggest declines in Elo rating after two consecutive games for the Patriots, 2000-18

Pats’ Results vs.
Season Weeks Loss Win 2-Week Drop
2015 16-17 NYJ, MIA -73.0
2015 12-13 DEN, PHI -66.9
2008 2-3 MIA NYJ -66.8
2018 2-3 JAX, DET -66.7
2008 3-5 MIA SF -66.1
2009 17-18 HOU, BAL -65.3
2002 5-6 MIA, GB -64.1
2002 15-16 TEN, NYJ -64.0
2002 6-8 GB, DEN -63.8
2002 4-5 SD, MIA -56.9

Three-week stretches include a bye week for New England. Week 18 of 2009 was a playoff game.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The three times the Belichick Pats experienced a bigger two-week drop carry asterisks. The biggest occurred at the end of 2015, when the Pats closed the season with two straight losses long after clinching the division. The next biggest drop happened earlier that season, after the team was 10-0 and reached its second-highest Elo mark in the past five seasons before dropping games to Denver and Philadelphia. The third biggest drop was in 2008 after Week 1 — when Brady blew out his ACL and was replaced by Matt Cassel for rest of the season.

At a shocking 3-0, the Dolphins seem to be moving squarely in the opposite direction, setting up a rare opportunity for a team other than the Patriots to put a stranglehold on the AFC East. But Miami’s jump of 47.5 points over the past two weeks is just its 17th best since 2000. The Dolphins have been fortunate of late, being outgained from scrimmage by 105 yards against the Jets and 61 against the Raiders. The Dolphins’ 39 plays from scrimmage in the win over the Raiders are less than all but three teams since the 1970 merger.

“Are we there yet? No,” Miami QB Ryan Tannehill said after the game. “But the patterns we’re establishing are going to take us there.”

Brady will hope to get Josh Gordon on the field against Miami to rescue a passing game that’s bereft of weapons, which is allowing teams to fearlessly devote multiple defenders to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gordon once was one of the most explosive players in NFL history. But the fact that the best hope for New England’s offense is Gordon, a player who has been suspended or injured for all but 11 games since his historic 2013 campaign, seems uncharacteristically desperate for the Patriots. Julian Edelman is set to return after Week 4 following a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, but Edelman is 32 and coming off an ACL injury. If he can somehow return to form, his chain-moving ability will go a long way toward improving the Patriots’ 29th ranking in third down conversions (28.6 percent).

But let’s not forget that the Patriots have issues on the other side of the ball, too. The defense has recorded just four sacks, has allowed an alarming 4.7 yards per rushing attempt and is 30th in third-down conversion rate allowed. Finishing near the bottom on both sides of the ball in third down efficiency would be unprecedented for the Brady-Belichick Patriots.

A trademark for New England has been efficiency. In the NFL, that’s measured by converting yards into points and preventing the opponent from doing the same. This year, the Pats are middle of the pack on both offense and defense. Since 2013, they haven’t finished worse than seventh in offensive or defensive efficiency. (The offensive efficiency average across the NFL this year is 15.2 yards per point; it was 15.4 yards per point in 2017.) Red zone efficiency (13th on offense, eighth on defense), turnover differential (they’re even this year) and special teams success all play a part in boosting those numbers. These subtle strengths that have been a New England trademark are lacking thus far in 2018.

The bigger problem is the lack of quality players. Some of this is their own fault, having traded Brandin Cooks to the Rams for a first-round pick. With Brady at 41 and the window to win closing, the Patriots should be the team trading first-round picks for veteran talent, not vice versa. Cooks, meanwhile, is fifth in the NFL with 336 receiving yards, or 71 more than all of Brady’s wide receivers have managed combined.

In fairness to Brady, this situation is like someone took all the gadgets away from Bruce Wayne and then asked him to go out and still be Batman.

But this wouldn’t be the first time that Belichick the GM was saved by Belichick the Hall of Fame coach. Perhaps struggling rookie running back Sony Michel can turn into a dangerous weapon. Brady could certainly figure out a way to build a passing game around Gronkowski and someone else. Heck, some were writing Brady off at the end of last season, only to see him post arguably his best postseason ever, with 1,132 passing yards in three games and eight TD passes with zero picks. It’s easy to imagine that when the regular season is done, the Patriots are again about to host a playoff game.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

In addition to our NFL Elo prediction interactive, which updates after every game to help you keep tabs on how your team stacks up, we’re also running a prediction game in which you make picks against our model (and your fellow readers). After the dust settles each week, we like to look at where Elo made its best — and worst — picks against the field. Here’s how it did in Week 3:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 3

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 3 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET Points
ARI 55% CHI 63% CHI 16, ARI 14 +14.7
NYJ 62 CLE 51 CLE 21, NYJ 17 +11.4
ATL 66 ATL 57 NO 43, ATL 37 +9.3
LAR 64 LAR 70 LAR 35, LAC 23 +2.2
TB 54 TB 52 PIT 30, TB 27 -0.9
KC 77 KC 76 KC 38, SF 27 -2.6
PHI 83 PHI 76 PHI 20, IND 16 -5.1
HOU 59 HOU 62 NYG 27, HOU 22 -5.2
SEA 55 SEA 51 SEA 24, DAL 13 -5.2
CAR 63 CAR 56 CAR 31, CIN 21 -7.3
MIA 68 MIA 60 MIA 28, OAK 20 -7.6
BAL 68 BAL 59 BAL 27, DEN 14 -8.8
JAX 71 JAX 77 TEN 9, JAX 6 -11.2
NE 64 NE 75 DET 26, NE 10 -17.2
WSH 57 GB 60 WSH 31, GB 17 -19.5
MIN 78 MIN 90 BUF 27, MIN 6 -20.9

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Elo steamrolled through the week based on the losses from a pair of 1-1-1 teams from the NFC North.3 Minnesota was a 16½-point favorite over hapless Buffalo, and our readers agreed with Vegas, giving the Vikings a win probability of 90 percent. But the Vikings found a new way to disappoint their fans, losing in “embarrassing” fashion to the Bills. Meanwhile, Green Bay went to soggy Washington and couldn’t get anything going, losing 31-17. Elo picked up 40.4 total points over the readers on just those two games — more than half of the 73.9 total points by which Elo beat a typical reader in Week 3.

The readers weren’t shut out, though. They had more faith in Khalil Mack and upstart Chicago than Elo did, giving the Bears a 63 percent chance to beat the Cardinals, compared with Elo’s 55 percent. The readers also believed that Cleveland could finally win its first game since 2016, picking the Browns over the Jets. Those two games generated 26.1 total points for the readers.

Congrats to reader Randy Renick, who led all identified users in points for Week 2; Renick is just behind Michel Rodriguez for the season lead. And thanks to everyone who played last week. If you didn’t play, remember that it’s not too late to get in on the game, even if you missed the first few weeks of the season. Make your picks now!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Source: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/stop-us-if-youve-heard-this-one-are-the-patriots-over/

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