It has felt at times this NFL season like there are no good teams, or at least no teams without glaring, potentially fatal weaknesses. The Patriots certainly have theirs—a shorthanded offense, a middling defense, occasionally disastrous special teams—but they are surely the best of the bunch, and they have Tom Brady.
New England topped Baltimore 30-23 last night, and the game was only so close because the Patriots’ return unit tried to give it away. A 20-point lead rapidly unraveled in the third, when Cyrus Jones muffed a punt, and after the Ravens scored in two plays, Matthew Slater fumbled the ensuing kickoff, leading to another score.
The Patriots’ lead was only three when Brady found Chris Hogan for 79 yards and the touchdown on the first play of the drive. It would end up the decider.
That looked easy enough, but the work was done before the snap. Hogan was not Brady’s first option, and Hogan’s primary route was to the outside. So what changed?
Both Brady and Hogan noticed, independently, that the Ravens were in a disguised coverage without a deep safety. Hogan adjusted to a go-route, and Brady knew to look for him, because the play they were running was bound to lure safety Eric Weddle away from the middle of the field. And indeed, the play-action got Weddle wrong-footed, Julian Edelman’s route drew him away from Hogan, and Hogan merely had to outrun safety Matt Elam, who was lined up unusually tight. Brady hit him in stride. Game over.
“Me and Tom are on the same page,” Hogan said. “It was something where I had the option of going to the corner or the middle of the field and we saw the same thing.”
“I still think it’s amazing to be on the same field as him,” Hogan said.
That’s a lot of moving parts on a play that appeared deceptively simple, but this is the kind of stuff at which Brady and the Patriots offense excel. Entering the game, the Ravens had allowed a completion percentage of just 35 percent on passes thrown at least 15 yards, second-stingiest in the league. Last night, on deep balls, Brady was 8-of-10 for 249 yards and two touchdowns. (Brady is 55 percent on deep balls this season, his best mark since 2006.)
Making everything even more impressive is the personnel Brady’s doing it without. Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are injured, and Martellus Bennett is banged up. The Patriots love their three-receiver sets, but last night they only had three receivers dressed. They had to burn a timeout in the first quarter when Hogan jogged off to get a hand injury checked out as a three-receiver package was called in, because they didn’t have a third receiver to line up.
Hogan’s been a revelation (he deserves as much credit as Brady for that game-cinching touchdown), and Edelman’s been a workhorse, and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, a fourth-round pick, has slotted in nicely, being on the field for 54 of 68 offensive snaps. Toss in Bennett and the RBs, especially pass-catching RB James White, and Brady has no shortage of targets.
While it’s a disservice to these players to note that the Patriots’ skill positions feel like they’re plug-and-play, that’s the highest of praise for Brady, for Bill Belichick’s personnel skills, for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and maybe especially for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who had the position from 2000-2013 and came out of retirement this year to rejoin the Pats. New England is clearly the team to beat in the NFL again this year, and even with a journeyman like Hogan playing a huge role, their success is a reflection of continuity.