After another regular season filled with doubters, under-performances, and reported turmoil in the locker room, the Patriots are sitting at 11-5 with a first round bye. This is a position any other team in the league would be envious to have, but for New England many feel as if it is the beginning of the end. Countless articles have been written this season about how Brady is regressing, or how Gronk is broken, or even that Belichick has lost his touch. If you watched the game last week, you may see that this is likely not the case.
The main thing that stood out to me in the Patriots 38-3 thrashing of the Jets is how much better Gronk looked. His stat-line wasn’t anything too impressive (2 receptions for 22 yards), but it’s vital to remember that he had one big play called back due to an offensive holding penalty. Far more important than numbers though, was his physical attributes. Gronk looked fast. The speed of Gronk has been a vital component to the New England game plan for years, as it is what allows for Gronk to be a mismatch with linebackers. This used to frequently set up a deep seam route to Gronkowski, which has yet to show up this season. For pretty much all of this year, Gronk has ran as if he was carrying a refrigerator on his back. The mobility that has always been there appeared to dissipate. However, last game I saw the old speed, which could suddenly make this Patriots offense look deadly again.
He also looked far more physical than he has all season long. A play comes to mind in their game against the Vikings where Gronk caught the ball one yard short of the first down marker with a safety in front of him. The Gronk that we all would normally expect to see trucks him over or at least falls forward for the first. This play, Gronk got tackled right away, leading to a punt. This week, different story. On his two catches and one catch that didn’t count, Gronk was trucking and stiff arming as he would if he were healthy. The signs appear to be pointing to a healthier Gronk. With a bye week to feel even better, Gronk may be back to his old self for the playoffs.
Far more talked about than Gronk though has been the chorus of voices dictating that Brady is washed up. Most of this is based on a few errant throws and his stats on the season. However, it is foolish to assume that Brady has fallen off a cliff based on these alone for a few reasons.
Firstly, stats are not often a great measure of an individual’s merit. For example, many of Brady’s interceptions have been to drops or misrun routes by receivers. Even with all of these picks, his numbers really aren’t that bad. Comparing this season to his MVP winning season last year, Brady has thrown an interception 1.9% of his passes this year and 1.4% of his passes last year. He threw for 14 more yards a game last year and finished with a passer rating 5 points lower. These are minuscule changes! Given that Gronk has been not-himself all year and the mess at WR this year, this is quite understandable.
Even if these stats were somehow perceived as damning, the better way to gauge if a quarterback is deteriorating is if their physical abilities start to fall apart. The earliest one is normally arm strength. One can think back to Peyton Manning in his last season where his yards per attempt dropped from 7.9 the year prior to 6.8. Brady last year had 7.9 and this year had 7.6. This disparity would be even greater if it took into account how much the receivers were doing to add to that total. Manning in his last season looked like a shell of his former self. Brady looks like a normal year Brady, with his minor falloff being amplified due to his age, the national hatred of New England, and boredom with the same story line of Brady being great. Given all of this, expect a determined and just-as-good-as-last-year Brady during the postseason.
With a healthy Gronk and the GOAT, I’d feel pretty good if I were Robert Kraft. With the greatest head coach of all time and a defense that has turned around their season and I’m felling even better. Combine this with the fact that the Chiefs are 2-4 against playoff teams and everyone else would have to play in Gillette (where the Pats went 8-0) and I’m feeling REALLY GOOD. In all likelihood, we’re going to see the Pats in the Super Bowl again. The real question is who are they going to play against?