By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
BOSTON (CBS) — The full-strength Patriots offense was a marvel to watch at the start of the 2015 season. With a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, Tom Brady distributed the ball with ruthless efficiency while Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Dion Lewis made big plays with the ball in their hands. Brady got rid of the ball in impeccably short time, eliminating any effectiveness a pass rush might have. The offense looked damn near unstoppable with all the pieces intact.READ MORE: Wind Figures To Be Major Factor For Patriots-Bills Monday Night Matchup
But the harsh reality of the NFL has kicked in big-time in recent weeks with the Patriots, who are seeing a remarkably long stretch of good luck with health crumble as they grind their way through the season. Edelman will miss his first extended stretch of games since becoming Brady’s go-to receiver, while the offensive line has suffered multiple casualties that have it struggling with continuity and a relative lack of talent.
The cracks began to show Monday night as the Patriots earned a hard-fought 20-13 victory in a vintage Rex Ryan defensive performance. The Bills gashed the O-line and brought constant pressure on Brady all night, hitting him 10 times and sacking him once. They mixed up their looks and achieved several uncovered blitzes to force quick decisions, throwaways, and errant passes. And they impressively followed through on Stephon Gilmore’s promise to take Gronkowski out of the game, holding Gronk to just two catches on seven targets for 37 yards in easily his worst game of the season.
Rex Ryan’s defense made Brady earn every yard and every point on Monday night. It was a great test to prepare the offense for the even bigger challenge they face this Sunday night: the Denver Broncos’ top-ranked defense.
Assuming the Patriots offense continues their uneven play as they adjust to life without Edelman, and that the vaunted Denver D lives up to its league-best ranking, the Pats won’t be able to win the game on Brady’s shoulders. They will need to win largely on defense…but as odd as this may sound, that’s a good thing.
No, it’s not good that the Patriots offense is badly banged up. It’s not good that they may struggle to grind out scores for the rest of the season. But it’s good that they are facing this kind of challenge after steamrolling the competition in the early weeks, because it likely won’t be that easy in the postseason.
In a somewhat weird, twisted way, it’s actually a good thing that the Patriots will have to win with a more balanced approach…Here are two big reasons why.
1. They can win on defense now
From about 2009 through 2013, the Patriots could only win one way: with Brady throwing the ball up and down the field and overwhelming defenses with points. It looked as if they could have that in their arsenal this season, before losing Edelman and Lewis and major pieces of the offensive line. Now, scoring will be a grind for the Patriots, especially as they go up against the league’s elite defenses.
But the big difference between those teams and this season is that the Patriots defense looks championship-caliber. In previous seasons, they couldn’t get pressure or cover well. This season, they enter Week 12 tops in the NFL with just 18.2 points allowed per game, perhaps Belichick’s favorite defensive stat, and have dominated against the run (second in the league with 88.8 yards allowed per game). Denver is virtually tied with them with 18.2 points allowed per game.
Bill Belichick’s defensive signature has always been to take away opponents’ best options, force them to be one-dimensional and make them do what they don’t want to do, and the Patriots have consistently done that at a high level this season. Chandler Jones has a case for Defensive Player of the Year with 10.5 sacks and consistent disruptive play off the edge, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are becoming one of the league’s most dynamic linebacker duos, and Belichick’s gamble on Malcolm Butler looks to be paying off as No. 21 continues to play like a legitimate No. 1 cornerback.
Situational pass rushers like Dominique Easley and Jabaal Sheard have also wreaked havoc on opposing QBs, another big reason why the Patriots pass rush has emerged as one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the league. And they’ve done it at a high level even in the past three games without Collins, arguably their best defensive player.
Assuming some semblance of good health – and that includes getting Collins back from his mystery illness – the Patriots defense could be a big matchup problem for opponents. And it could be the boost Brady and Belichick need to earn ring No. 5.
2. Brady can ultimately make big plays when they need itREAD MORE: Holiday Tipping - Who Should Get One, And How Much? Advice From An Etiquette Expert
To say “The Patriots can’t win on offense” isn’t to claim that Brady can’t make enough plays to win. They just can’t control games for 60 minutes with their offense like they have done so much in the past. Their ability to move the chains and keep the clock ticking late in games with possession weapons like Edelman and Lewis isn’t nearly as strong as it was at the beginning of the season.
But despite the tough battle that the Patriots face against the Broncos defense Sunday night, or another strong defense down the road in the playoffs (Carolina in Super Bowl 50, anyone?), Brady remains the most reliable quarterback in the league to make big throws and score when the team needs it most. Even when the offense has faced adversity and pressure from opposing defenses this season, Brady has driven the Patriots into the end zone in big spots. See the end of the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys, or the fourth quarter against the Jets.
Brady will not scorch the Earth like he did to start the season, especially with turnstiles like Marcus Cannon playing tackle. But he is a strong bet to take over when the game is in his hands. Of course it would be ideal for the Patriots to score at will and play stifling defense, but the D has proven able to keep games close when the offense struggles and Brady has proven time and time again what he can do if you give him that one final chance to put you away.
Forcing Brady to scrounge for points could help him and the rest of the offense down the road when they face similar difficulty – because at this point, it appears that the Patriots will need to get through more than just one or two strong defenses to win another Super Bowl.
Cam Newton may be able to elevate himself in crunch time and has a great defense behind him, but he’s still relatively unproven. Aaron Rodgers is supremely talented, but the Packers have also struggled mightily on offense and may not have the defense to consistently keep games tight. Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, or Brock Osweiler simply do not strike the kind of fear that Brady can in his opponents.
Brady may not dominate on offense anymore, but he’s still a guy who could get the job done when games boil down to the last possession.
Balance Of Power
As far as I see it, there are two teams in the NFL that look like they have a balance of offense and defense on par with the Patriots, and they’re both in the NFC: Carolina and Arizona. So obviously, the Patriots only need to worry about one of those teams if they can make it to Santa Clara. But the obvious huge advantages the Pats have over both teams are at coach and quarterback, and not to mention a wealth of playoff experience on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots may not be able to blow teams off the field anymore. But they still have the smartest, most reliable quarterback in the league, a tough, aggressive defense, and a coach who will not make the same costly mistakes his opponents make. The sun’s not shining on Foxboro like it did to start the season, but the Pats are still 10-0 and should inspire total confidence that they can find ways to win like they have for a decade-plus. And as far as the balance needed to win a championship, they may still have the best mix in the league.
The Broncos have the defense, but can’t measure up at coach or quarterback. The Bengals have a good QB and loads of talent on both sides of the ball, but their coach will ultimately have them unprepared. The Steelers certainly have the quarterback, but will Mike Tomlin stack up against Belichick when it really matters? The Colts…Heh, the Colts.
The Patriots offense is going to be a grind from here until the start of the playoffs, at the earliest. They are flawed – but so are their chief AFC rivals. This time, the Patriots have a defense that can keep them in games. And they still have a QB who can wring just enough big plays out of the offense to put the team in position to win.
The Patriots can still win plenty of games this season and get back to the Super Bowl. They’ll just have to do it in different, more gut-wrenching ways.MORE NEWS: New York City Announces First-In-The-Nation Vaccine Mandate For Private Companies
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Read more from Matt here. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.