2014 NFL Week 13: Patriots-Packers Analysis

Defensive highs and lows

The final boxscore paints an ugly picture, and would point to this game being closer than it really was. Yet despite yielding a gaudy 368 yards in the air and 130 on the ground, a once formidable Patriot defense did nothing if not hunker down once backed up in its own territory. Allowing a final tally of only 26 points, and most significantly forcing a currently unrivaled Packer offensive machine to a 0-4 mark in the red zone certainly represents a triumph in this aspect of the game. Greater talent and added reinforcements for the defense in 2014 no longer made the usual–giving up plenty of yards but sufficiently bottling up the opposing offense enough for Brady & Co. to leap ahead–acceptable. Yet in the context of facing a furiously hot Packers team, with perhaps the most balance and dynamism on the offensive side of the ball, forcing four field goals en route to a sub-30 point performance lifted at least some blame from the New England D. However, Aaron Rodgers’s 45-yard strike to Jordy Nelson with 14 seconds left in the half proved destructive. The lapse in late-half discipline obviously falls squarely on the pass defense, and notably disrupted the team’s progression into the second half of play. A hallmark of Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ game plan has been to finish the opening half strongly, so as to fluidly continue momentum into the second half in which the team often starts with the ball (Belichick nearly always defers possession to the second half). Yet by allowing this devastating late touchdown score–to stretch the deficit to nine–such a crucial transition could not occur. The Pats failed to carry momentum into the break, and subsequently flamed out on their first possession of the third quarter without a first down.

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rodgers’s vital adjustment 

Secondary to the much anticipated Brady vs. Rodgers showdown, the Patriot secondary (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) and top Packer wideouts (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) matchup was initially won by the former group. The New England cornerbacks controlled the explosive Green Bay receivers for the majority of the first half, even deterring the typical amount of targets from their quarterback. Yet Rodgers adapted to this situation, and maintained offensive efficiency, albeit with many drives culminating in mere field goals, while shifting the route of his passes to lesser known recipients. Rodgers acclimated himself perfectly, connecting with an array of new targets headed by rookie third-string WR Davante Adams, who ended the game with a career-high 121 yards. Rodgers had already led the Packers to 13 points before completing his first pass to either of his top receivers, the first to Cobb at the 11:22 mark of the second quarter. This, in turn, necessitated a change in the organization of the Patriot defense. As the game progressed into the second quarter and second half, Rodgers’s ability to sustain offensive potency diluted the defensive pressure placed on Nelson and Cobb, spreading it to other parts of receiver coverage. Consequently, the powerful duo became more freed up, ultimately attaining a combined 138 yards despite early struggles, all working towards Green Bay dictating the flow of the game.

An abandoned offensive dimension 

Encountering a porous 30th-ranked run defense, the Patriots at first seemed inclined to develop an effective rushing attack for the third consecutive game. Three running plays in the first four offensive drives indicated at least some focus on establishing this facet of the offense, especially when the first third down situation called for LeGarrette Blount instead of Brady (which resulted in a failure to convert). But even though Blount gained 58 of the team’s total 84 yards on the ground, the Patriots did not adequately exploit this potential advantage. Offensive balance has not only keyed the previous seven-game win streak, but has facilitated Brady’s mid-season renaissance. For several long stretches during offensive drives, and particularly in the first half when the team permanently fell behind, the Pats elected to exclusively pass the ball. It was as if New England felt it was already in a late fourth-quarter hole–and not in an early game situation, where it failed to devote enough patience to establish a ground attack against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

Life after loss

Although the heavyweight tilt concluded in a loss, several factors work towards New England’s favor moving forward. Despite the aforementioned lack of a true rushing attack, a clinical job done by the opposing, future MVP quarterback, and the top receiver (Julian Edelman) hampered by injury for much of the day, the Patriots contested the game well. Losing by only five points in one of the toughest road environments proved not so much a demoralizing result, as indicated by the upbeat character of Patriot players following the game. And since New England did not necessarily play to its full capacity on Sunday, and suffered a loss but was not pummeled, such a defeat often works positively once evaluated in retrospect. For whatever reason, entering the postseason with a long win streak and long-built momentum doesn’t always bode well. If the Patriots finish the regular season powerfully, this Week 13 loss could easily serve as a blessing in disguise and stabilize this playoff-bound team’s sense of momentum.

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

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2014 NFL Season Opener: Patriots-Dolphins Analysis

Patriots On Offense

After a very promising first 30 minutes of action, the course of the offense’s performance throughout the contest could only be described as a tale of two halves. Firstly, the response to a Miami punt-block and subsequent opening-game touchdown was very resounding. Notably, the impact of mercurial star tight end Rob Gronkowski–severely hampered by injury in the previous season–became evident long before his TD grab at the 8:37 mark in the second quarter. Despite a few years away from his true breakout campaign, Gronk nevertheless garnered plenty of attention from Dolphin pass coverage, opening up valuable space for the other recipients of Tom Brady’s darts (which turned wobbly later on in the contest) in the first half of the game. Beneficiaries namely included Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, and even Shane Vereen out of the backfield, as well as the rushing attack to a lesser but still considerable extent. After utilizing short to medium passes for progress downfield for most of the first half, Brady finally slung a deep ball with 11:31 left in the second quarter, a pass with just enough air under it to neatly fall in the hands of Edelman. This explosive play–of which the Pats had few and far between–jumpstarted what would ultimately turn into the team’s second touchdown drive, but Brady mysteriously chose not to challenge Miami’s secondary in the remaining relevant junctures in the game (before the insurmountable deficit towards the end).

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Yet a 17 unanswered point-streak and 10-point advantage constructed in the first half figured insignificantly in the final outcome, as in the latter 30 minutes of play, the Fins defensive effort–particularly the overwhelming pass rush–drowned out any rapport Brady built with his receiver corps in the first 30. Furiously-pressing defensive end Cameron Wake and company grabbed a stranglehold on the battle at the line of scrimmage, but it was the now-punchless and helpless Patriots offensive line that harshly disrupted the rhythm of both Brady and the entire offense more so. The key to countering the New England attack has always centered on the amount of time Brady has to throw the ball, so one can only speculate how Logan Mankins (freshly and inexplicably shipped to Tampa Bay weeks prior to the season’s start) could have mitigated the Fins’ QB pressure. As a result of the line’s instability, Brady had much poorer placement on several of his throws in a half that his offense was brutally shut out, a reaction to a pressurized pocket that the Patriots can only hope to be anomalous for him with respect to the remainder of the season.

Patriots On Defense

The final Dolphin touchdown drive was the unequivocal coup de grace, but beforehand, it would be unreasonable to think that the Patriots defense should shoulder the responsibility for the first two times Miami crossed the goal line. A shocking blocked punt 75 seconds into the game saw the Fins start their first drive 15 yards away from seven points, and a strip-sack by the aforementioned, terrorizing edge-rusher Wake gifted QB Ryan Tannehill and his offense the ball at the opposing 34-yard line (9:14 mark in the third quarter). Both of these momentous plays gave the recently-augmented Patriots D horrible positioning–an aspect of the game the unit simply cannot control.

Perhaps one cause for concern pertains to the eerie similarity of this year’s defensive squad–supposedly a revamped one that would get the team over the proverbial hump, and possibly rank among the league’s finest–to those in the recent past: once again, the tendency on this side of the pigskin is yielding plenty of yardage but clamping down effectively once backed up in its own half of the field, and limiting the opposition to field goal tries while opportunistically manufacturing turnovers (in fact occurring on two consecutive Miami drives in the second half). This of course can prove effective when coupled with an excellent offensive personnel, but the Pats defensive group appears capable of much more, and should aid rather than burden an aging leader of the offense in Tom Brady on the other side of the ball.

The play of Darrelle Revis:

However much buzz surrounded the matchup between the newly-minted Patriot Revis and a rebound season waiting-to-happen in WR Mike Wallace, and how the former would stay true to his character, establish his suffocating “island” in the secondary, and cruelly render the latter ineffectual, it just didn’t happen. Wallace, in his second year as a Dolphin, ended up with a flashy stat line of seven receptions for 81 yards and a score. On a few of his catches, Wallace did shed Revis off himself along the progression of his route, but the result of this WR-CB clash was more of Revis not living up to his billing than anything else. It may just be part of an acclimation process to a new defensive structure, and it’s worth noting many regard his opposition as one of the swiftest in the league, but Revis often failed to stick with his marker, granting Wallace more freedom than one would expect in this contest.

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Miami’s game-sealing drive:

Critical third-down conversions would ultimately put the Dolphins ahead 30-20 in the fourth quarter–as part of a drive in which 6:01 elapsed, and that clinched their opening-season victory–but even more notably, the drive highlighted the influential play of Miami’s run game. Knowshon Moreno paved the way with an overpowering 134 yards on 24 carries, and along with another 59 yards on the ground from Lamar Miller, the Fins rushing attack dictated tempo throughout 60 minutes of play, a notion that materialized only in retrospect of the entire game’s action. By instituting a formidable ground game that continually ruptured through the Pats’ unit hovering around the line of scrimmage, Moreno and Miller attracted increased defensive attention to create two important by-products: shifting New England’s focus off Tannehill and thus giving him more comfort in the pocket, and decreasing the number of opportunities for the Pats offense by simply keeping it off the field.The Dolphin offensive line deserves much praise as well in this area, and in addition to allowing more time for its quarterback to throw, perhaps has begun the process of proving its many detractors wrong.

AFC Championship 2014: Analysis

Manning (left) out-dueled Brady (right) in the 15th edition of their storied rivalry. (Photos by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Manning (left) out-dueled Brady (right) in the 15th edition of their storied rivalry. (Photos by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Task for the Pats D

There’s no question that the Broncos will amass more offensive yards and first downs than New England. The key for the Patriots defense–and what has been essential to its underrated, effective play–is to minimize the damage done by Peyton Manning and company.

And through Denver’s first two possessions, the defense did just: yielding alarming chunks of yardage through the passing game, and even allowing the Broncos to enter Patriot territory, but then stiffening up when most needed and forcing punts. In Denver’s third drive, the Patriots D once again did its part: stuffed a Broncos drive, seemingly destined for the end zone, at its own 9-yard line. And though Denver grabbed the upper side of the scoreboard with an chip-shot field goal, the proverbial “win” goes to the Pats D: the difference between allowing field goals and touchdowns will undoubtedly determine the victor of this contest.

Achieving Offensive Fluidity

After two opening, stagnant possessions, the Patriots finally develop rhythm and productive plays, a process of settling down perhaps aided by a relatively clement whether in Denver right now. Tom Brady finds a way to spread the football around the field–to his right, left, and across the middle–and help his team finally move the chains. Although the drive makes no mark on the scoreboard, the Patriots show they can effectively move the football.

Denver’s 3rd Drive Couldn’t Go Worse for Pats

The Broncos’ third drive proves devastating in multiple ways. The greatest of which occurs when all-important cornerback Aqib Talib leaves two-thirds way through the second quarter with an injury, presumably aggravating what has plagued him throughout the season.

The Patriots also have an opportunity to stall Denver’s drive after forcing a 3rd-and-10, but a Knoshown Moreno draw play completely fools the defense and gained another set of downs.

And of course, the Broncos offense tacks on another seven points, extending their lead to ten, and looking as powerful as ever.

Brady’s Response 

Tom Brady immediately serves up quite the emphatic reply to being placed into a troublesome situation, rifling a strike to Aaron Dobson for 27 yards in the middle part of the field. A pass to Shane Vereen in the flat left that totals 13 yards and another completion across the middle to fullback Michael Hoomanawanui for 15 yards follow. This further demonstrates how the Pats have settled into this game offensively through Brady’s decision to spread his pass attempts in all parts of the playing field. A Brady sack halts the drive, but the Patriots finally accomplish an important thing: scoring by ways of a Stephen Gostkowski field goal prior to halftime.

First-half look:

-LaGarrette Blount has posted 6 yards on 5 rushes, and what seemed like a potential game-changer has been nullified

-although holding the high-powered Broncos offensive to only 13 points, the Patriots defense has not applied any pressure to Peyton Manning, allowing the quarterback to feel comfortable in the pocket and consequently yielding loads of yards through the air

-as a result of the time Manning has had in the pocket as mentioned in the last note, the Denver quarterback has created fantastic rapport with his receivers–if this high level of chemistry continues in the 2nd half, the Broncos will unquestionably win this game; the task will be even taller for the Pats secondary in hindering this development, as Talib looks doubtful to return to the game

HALFTIME: Denver 13 New England 3

Demaryius Thomas's (88) TD grab on Denver's first drive of the half opened up a 17-point lead. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Demaryius Thomas’s (88) TD grab on Denver’s first drive of the half opened up a 17-point lead. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Balanced and Commanding: Broncos Half-Opening Drive

It takes 13 plays for the Broncos to march 80 yards down the field, in a span of about seven minutes, to take full control of this game. While Manning maintains his near-perfect performance, notching 52 passing yards on 6 completions out of 7 attempts, the Denver rushing attack plays an important role too: Moreno and Monte Ball combine for 28 yards, one key first down, and a couple of effective early-down runs.

Lost Points

Now facing a 20-3 deficit, a determined drive led by Tom Brady ends catastrophically and ironically: what the Patriots have failed to do all day–pressure and sack the opposing quarterback–is what the Broncos use to stall New England’s march downfield, sacking Brady on 4th down.

Broncos D-lineman Terrance Knighton's sack of Brady caused a turnover on downs. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Broncos D-lineman Terrance Knighton’s sack of Brady caused a turnover on downs. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The wasted possession–the last for the Pats in the 3rd quarter–becomes even more gut-wrenching considering that it featured a surprising emergence of the running game (22 yards on 3 carries at one point, before a -1 yard rush by Ridley that eventually led to the failed fourth-down attempt), and two spirited third-down conversions by Brady.

Defense Mitigates the Damages Again

While Manning has carved up the opposition, the Patriots defense has done its part. Furthermore, considering it has faced the best offense in the NFL, and doing so without one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Aqib Talib for the most part, the D may have done the best job it could do today.

This becomes apparent once again in Denver’s second drive that started in the 3rd quarter and entered the 4th: the Pats defense held its own deep in their own territory, stalling Manning and his offense at the one-yard line, and consequently only yielding a field goal.

A Touchdown at Last 

If the Patriots were to succeed on only their second possession of the half, and commence the comeback trail, Tom Brady would have to look farther down the field for his throws and overall, play sharper than ever. After passing for 54 yards on three passes, converting on a 4th-down play soon after, and ultimately throwing a touchdown to Julian Edelman, Brady does just that.

The Final 10 Minutes & End-Game Thoughts 

It’s easy to pin the brunt of the blame on the Patriots defense.

Allowing Manning to pass his way into New England territory to set up a 54-yard field goal that Matt Prater knocked down with ease made a potential comeback even more difficult, now requiring two touchdowns–both with 2-point conversions–to just tie the game. On the following offensive drive, this proved fatal as although Brady managed to cross the goal line, Shane Vereen was stuffed on the 2-point attempt that kept it a two-possession game.

And of course later, the defense failed to stop the strong-willed Denver offense–spearheaded by Manning–and thus couldn’t give Brady another chance with the football as time ran out.

By the time the game clock struck 0:00, the Pats defense had surrendered 400 yards through the air, another 107 on the ground, 27 first downs, forced only one punt, and allowed the Broncos to remain on the field for more than 35 minutes.

Yet despite all of this, the only number that truly matters in evaluating the Patriots defense was the points posted by the opposing offense: in this case, 26. That’s 26 points for perhaps the most explosive and potent offense in the history of the NFL, led by a quarterback in Peyton Manning who had the greatest season of any quarterbacks in the league’s history, but was held to only two touchdowns today.

The defense was never the key to winning this game–especially when its best cover-corner left the game in the 2nd quarter–but it did more than its part in keeping the Pats in the game by forcing more field goals than giving up touchdowns.

Rather, the “key” to this game, was how the offenses would match up. Scoring only three points through three quarters of play, the Patriots offense did anything but effectively match up with the opposition, with much of the onus inevitably falling on quarterback Tom Brady. While there’s only so much you can blame Brady for–forced to deal with endless injuries and losses to his receiving corps throughout the season–the future hall-of-famer had to play exceptionally throughout the entirety of the game. Simply put, he failed to do so in Denver on Sunday, and therefore deserves much of the fault for the loss.

FINAL: Denver 26 New England 16

Explaining New England’s Unsuccessful, Final Offensive Drive

(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports) Rain served as one of the many factors for New England's inability to produce a touchdown at the end of the game.

Rain served as one of the many factors for New England’s inability to produce a touchdown at the end of the game. (Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

Rain

Mother Nature came to the aid of a desperate Cincinnati team when it was needed most, hampering an already lethargic Patriots passing game. As the Bengals punted away to New England for the final offensive drive of the game, the rain finally began to pour down. Interestingly enough, it was prognosticated that there would be rainfall all day, yet it only came down—and caused trouble—when the Patriots had possession. The abrupt arrival of showers sent the network covering the game—CBS—scrambling for a new camera angle, but most importantly, interfered with Tom Brady’s grip on the ball. The quarterback’s release had already been inconsistent throughout the game, but with the added slickness to the football, made every one of his throws look excessively sloppy. Brady completed one of eight passes in the final 1:48 of the game, with the effect of rain most evident on his final throw (which resulted in an interception): Brady threw towards Aaron Dobson, who had good positioning on the sideline, but because of poor gripping could not place enough power on his throw, which came up short of his receiver.

Disconnect

It has unquestionably made strides since New England’s first few games, but Tom Brady’s rapport with his wide receiving corps is still faulty, and far from perfected. Of course, when throwing to players not initially intended to be consistently on the receiving end, there’s only so much blame one can place on the quarterback. Yet the distressing body language from Brady—from pure frustration with his receivers—still emerged at times against the Bengals today, and one can only imagine how long this disconnect can be overcome before really proving detrimental. On Brady’s second-to-last throw, he lofted a ball down the left sideline, intended for Kenbrell Thompkins, who had actually cut into the middle of the field and consequently sprung open. The football awkwardly sailed to the left side of the end zone, with the closest Patriot more than ten yards, and further proving how Brady and his receivers remain not on the right page (either Brady or Thompkins did not read the called play correctly).

Play-calling

Bolden's 12-yard scamper gave the Patriots a momentary sense of hope.

Bolden’s 12-yard scamper gave the Patriots a momentary sense of hope. (AP Photo/Tom Uhlman)

This extends before the final offensive drive, but there comes a time after multiple, failed short passing attempts, that a deep ball or two become necessary to stimulate the offense and act in more urgent manner. How can starting the final offensive drive—in the perfect example of a “two-minute drill—be justified with three consecutive short-pass throws? Keep in mind that the Patriots had one timeout remaining, and none of these throws had any intention of allowing the receiver to step out-of-bounds to save valuable time. And once a pass was finally completed to the New England 41-yard line, for a paltry six yards, setting up a 4th-and-4, the Patriots (and presumably of Bill Belichick’s thinking) elected not to call a timeout. The game essentially came down to this one, chaotic, crowd-inciting play, where the logical choice would be to settle things down, and allow Brady and Belichick to effectively orient themselves in a 4th-down situation. Instead, the clock continued to trickle down to below the one-minute mark, and New England was fortunately saved—and granted a new set of downs—by a Bengal player crossing the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped. After a shrewd running-play call that moved the ball twelve yards down the field (and to Cincinnati’s 42-yard line), the Patriots caught another break in the form of a late-hit on Brady, that placed the football fifteen yards further into Bengal territory. The next passing play resulted in an interception on a deep pass, but even then, over the course of their final nine offensive plays, the Patriots failed to attempt a single pass into the end zone. The need for urgency was clearly absent, especially when New England crossed over into Cincinnati’s side of the field: of the three plays within throwing distance of the end zone, none came close of landing in this elusive part of the field. Whether the onus deserves to go on the shoulders of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, or even Josh McDaniels, the choice of offensive plays on Sunday—and especially on the last drive—could have been much better.

Patriots Preseason: Analysis of First-Team Offense

Ridley (center) and Brady (right) led the way for the Patriots offense in the 1st quarter.

Ridley (center) and Brady (right) led the way for the Patriots offense in the 1st quarter.

Among the many things being watched in Friday night’s Patriots-Eagles preseason matchup, New England’s restructured offensive unit was on display for a total of two drives. The first, lasting 3:12, only featured the rushing attack, and the second, totaling 4:28, emphasized Tom Brady and passing game.

The first play from scrimmage turned in a more promising result than could have ever been imagined. The running game, anchored by Stevan Ridley fresh off a 1,200-yard season, immediately made its mark: Ridley scampered up the middle for a 62-yard run, quickly establishing the Pats in the red zone. It then took five more plays on the ground to cover the remaining 18 yards, culminating in Ridley barreling into the end zone on a 2nd-down play.

You can’t highlight the importance of the running game enough for the Patriots: with Brady attempting to acclimate himself to new faces on the receiving end, players like Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarette Blount, and Brandon Bolden will be counted on to have bigger roles than ever in 2013. Crossing 80 yards in 6 plays, while all on the ground, is quite the positive start to the process of putting the abundance of worries to rest.

But as much as the 1st drive entailed the raising of spirits, it was the 2nd time on offense that the Patriots’ performance was more encouraging. It was inevitable that Tom Brady would have to spread the football around more than usual. Yet the efficiency–and fluidity–with which Brady collaborated with his receivers should come as unprecedented.

In what seemed an endless array of dump-off passes, Brady strung together 7 straight completions after an initial incomplete pass. He averaged less than 10 yards on each of those passes, with five of them totaling 7 or less yards. But don’t be fooled if you’re not one for methodical progress down the field–Belicheck and the Pats want it this way, and most importantly it got plenty of targets involved.

Ridley gave a preview of his potential for this year in Philly.

Ridley gave a preview of his potential for this year in Philly.

Four different wide receivers reeled in Brady’s passes, with his recipients consisting of both old and new, recognizable and more obscure players. An effective mix like that–comprised of Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Shane Vereen–is what the Patriots are desperately seeking, which becomes even more noteworthy by the fact that Julian Edelman and Josh Boyce had yet to touch the football.

The touchdown pass from Brady to Vereen to top off the drive was a bright omen as well. With Ridley solidifying his position as the “bulldozing, between-the-tackles” runner in the backfield, the agile back in Vereen provides the perfect complement to the rushing attack–a circumstance well-demonstrated against the Eagles. If Vereen’s presence can supply a much-needed, reliable passing option for Brady out of the backfield, it makes the unsettled transition into the 13’s season that much easier for the Patriots quarterback.

Though only a preseason game, and a mere 16 snaps, the refurbished Patriots first-team offense showed plenty of promise in only a span of two possessions.

Patriots 2013: A Turbulent Offseason and the Road Ahead

As the New England Patriots stand less than ten weeks away from their 2013 season opener, the offseason has strangely been a mixture of the “same old, same old”, and some worrisome new developments.

There’s no doubting the Patriots, under the leadership of the one of the best quarterback-head coach combinations in history, will cruise to the AFC East title. The lackluster division has retained the usual mediocrity on all fronts but Miami’s, as the Dolphins have made an uncharacteristically bold statement during this year’s free agency period.

Regardless of any newfound competition, Tom Brady remains one of the premier players in the NFL today, while Bill Belichick’s mastermind status on the sideline is not fading away anytime soon. In other words, the two franchise faces will engineer success with whatever tools they have at their disposal.

Yet however much their wisdom and experience with the game can yield triumph, the magnitude of what they can’t control—which has reached an apex in the past months—will unquestionably make its scarring mark in the upcoming 2013-14 campaign.

The brewing difficulties, yet to be fully experienced, first initiated with star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s endless string of injuries. The polarizing figure on and off the field first sustained injuries during the last season, forcing his absence from key New England games, and therefore playing a vital part in why the Patriots could not return to the Super Bowl while not actually playing at all.

While in the process of recovery, the amount of debilities his body has suffered only grew. The rehabilitation effort certainly had lapses in itself, but Gronkowski wasn’t making it any easier on his body to recuperate (roughhousing behavior is not necessarily the best medicine to someone who’s aching all over).

So as the scheduled surgery dates continued to mount, it seemed more and more definite that the league’s best tight end would miss time heading into next season. The exact total of time Gronkowski will stay put on the sideline is ambiguous at this point, as his healing is entirely dependent on how he conducts himself during this period—preferably in a non-abrasive, calm manner.

Then, as many New Englanders perceived it, the unthinkable occurred: the adored slot receiver Wes Welker, bypassed by the Pats to an extent, bolted westward to join forces with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Along with the assured exit of the underwhelming Brandon Lloyd, the receiving corps was looking slim to say the least: passing options in general for Brady were essentially limited to Julian Edleman and Aaron Hernandez after Danny Woodhead’s departure.

Signing Danny Amendola (the analysis of which I’ll get to later) was of utmost necessity after Welker walked out of Foxboro: he filled the void the previous slot receiver left, as well as gave some comfort to an uneasy Patriots fanbase.

And when Belichick and the Pats stockpiled wide receivers during the NFL draft—Aaron Dobson from Marshall and Josh Boyce from TCU—the outlook on the approaching season did not look as grim.

Hernandez's arrest left the Patriots stunned and disgraced.

Hernandez’s arrest left the Patriots disgraced.

Then came June 18th.

It was just part of an investigation pertaining to a crime that occurred less than a mile away from his house—that’s all. Nothing to worry about. It should resolve itself in a couple of days.

When reports surfaced that the other dynamic, Patriots tight end—Aaron Hernandez—was being simply asked questions about a dead body found nearby his North Attleboro mansion, the last thing anybody could think of was that he had a connection to a murder. Not that he was the perpetrator himself, but that he had any link whatsoever to the killing.

But the consensus belief and assumption towards this matter could not have been more erroneous.

Over the buildup of one lengthy, deflating, infuriating—from the perspective of a Pats’ fan specifically—week, the world gradually found the once-heralded football star Aaron Hernandez to be a criminal. Not only was he arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd a few days ago, but along the path of the investigation regarding this case, plenty of other “dirty laundry” arose.

Dating back from his college days at the University of Florida, Hernandez had continually partaken in misdemeanors ranging from dangerous night club disputes to incidents involving guns. Whatever the crimes were—as well as those just being discovered now—cannot be pardoned or even diminished in any form due to his upbringing in a gang environment, or the brazen attitude he acquired after a luxurious contract. It’s as simple as that “he threw his life away”.

And this kind of string of ill-minded decisions, from a player he cooperated with and helped, is something Bill Belichick will not tolerate, even if a true verdict has not been handed down in this case yet.

So back to the gridiron aspect of this frustrating event. The Patriots will not start with either part of their (once) potent tight end duo, which would seem incomprehensible just half a year ago. Here are the passing attack pieces Brady will be forced to extract the most out of next year, in order of importance:

  1. Danny Amendola
  2. Julian Edelman
  3. Jake Ballard
  4. Shane Vereen
  5. Donald Jones
  6. Stevan Ridley
  7. Andre Holmes
  8. Brandon Bolden

In all candidness, it is not a stellar group by any calculations. Clearly, the Patriots brass must add more pieces to the passing mix, perhaps some veteran free agents that will attempt to sustain the passing game fluidity Tom Brady’s accustomed to orchestrating.

Before I weigh into how the current receivers/backfield options will perform this upcoming season, take a look at how statistics do not favor the Patriots transferring their passing efficiency into next year after losing so many pieces (at least in the early-going, while Gronkowski is still held out because of injury).

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing yard totals that return for the start of 2013—9%

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing TDs that return for the start of 2013—12%

Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing completions that return for the start of 2013—9%

It would not be nonsensical to think that Brady, a sure-bet hall-of-famer, will gradually assimilate to his new targets; because of the essential communication/chemistry he creates with his receivers, as well as his overall quarterbacking ability to make the most of his options and make his ball-recipients look great, such a premise would not be outlandish.

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Brady must build good rapport with his new targets to ensure early-season success.

But as Brady and his Patriots progressed from one season to the next in their history, the common factor between each campaign was familiarity. Old faces stayed put for the most part, and if there were some alterations in the roster, they would never be as groundbreaking and numerous as those seen going into this next season.

Brady will undoubtedly require some time to familiarize himself with the new teammates running routes for him—players lesser in quality than the Welker’s, Gronkowski’s, and Hernandez’s he went to battle with last year.

So upon looking at New England’s first games of the 13’ season, don’t be surprised for a slight dropoff in stability, as well as times of uncertainty and difficulty.

Week 1 & 2: AFC East Intros

@Buffalo

-as inconceivable as it may sound, the upstart, Manuel-led Bills may stun a disoriented Pats team still trying to settle down from being in limbo

vs. New York (J)

-a defeat at home against the despised Jets would be as shocking as it would be impossible

Week 3 & 4: The true test

With back-to-back road games against playoff contenders in the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots will without question find where they stand after losing so many integral offensive components. Coming away with just 1 win from this mini-road trip would be termed a success for New England, and perhaps hope that the team can stall just a little longer until Gronkowski returns.

Even though their opponents won’t present the fiercest of defensive challenges, these two road games (the 3rd and 4th game of the season) will truly serve as a checkpoint of sorts—a measuring stick that will foretell success or lack thereof for the remainder of the season.

Passing game options- analysis

Amendola-

I don’t think the Patriots could have better bounced back in the period following Welker’s departure. It was more of a panic move, but just based on Amendola’s thoughts coming into New England, he seems a tad more grateful and “devoted to the cause” than the Pats’ last slot receiver—excited to catch passes from Brady, be part of a great organization, and play in a sports-enthused area of the map. If you recall, following the Boston marathon bombings, Amendola pledged he’d give monetary donations to aid the victims for every one of his catches. Not to be meant as an insult, but do you think Welker would do something like that? A benevolent action such as this one—that immediately conveys one’s respect—is not part of a player contract or obligation at all. It’s just something done out of the heart, which means Amendola might—might—just have a stronger connection with the fanbase, and not nonchalantly cruise through his playing days.

Amendola is also significantly undervalued. A collarbone injury playing for the Rams cut short an efficient season, where he showed signs of promise as a dynamic, swift slot catcher. Obviously, he won’t completely fulfill or surpass Welker’s contributions while in New England, but don’t write off Amendola too easily.

Edelman-

Julian Edelman is another Welker prototype, whose impact stretches beyond the passing game, and into special teams. Most importantly, he serves as Brady’s most reliable link from last season to the start of the impending season. If he allows Brady to have comfort in him, and become a trustful weapon, that would only ease the process for the Patriots quarterback who’ll be in need of plenty more assistance this year.

Ridley's role has increased tremendously headed into the 2013 season.

Ridley’s role has increased tremendously headed into the 2013 season.

Rushing Attack: The Rise

The proficient rushing game was regarded as just a bonus last season: the corps amounted for an impressive 2184 total rushing yards, as there was one 1000+ yard-runner and three players that surpassed the 275-yard mark.

But this time around, the likes of Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden will be heavily counted on to keep the pressure off Brady’s back. Furthermore, if the trio builds upon their success from 2012, they will in fact carry this team through the regular season.

Health and discipline will be vital to any promising output this group provides. The former California Bear Shane Vereen, a speedy back looking to make up for the loss of Danny Woodhead this year, missed time last year due to injury. Assuming Vereen remains mostly in good condition in 2013, he could serve as a potent and electric compliment to Ridley’s style of running.

Brandon Bolden challenged number-one back Ridley for carries, but his 12’ campaign was hampered by a four-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs. The chance that happens is slim to none, as Coach Belichick surely instilled in the youngster that it’s not the way to go, so expect Bolden’s bruising style to favorably impact the Patriots offense.

And of course, I can’t discuss the rise of a once-dormant New England rushing attack without mentioning the ascendency of Steven Ridley. Last year, the former LSU Tiger finally got his opportunity at the number-1 running back position—and he exceeded expectations by any measure. To run for 1263 yards in a pass-first offensive system, while occupying the RB 1 slot for that matter, is just mind-boggling. Ridley is certainly on course to be a top running back in this league, and if his development can efficiently coincide with Patriot success, there might not be anything else you could ask for outside of Tom Brady.