By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The 2018 New England Patriots may have found their 2014 Trent Dilfer. And this one comes from what would normally considered a friendly source.
Michael Lombardi — who worked with Bill Belichick in Cleveland, was an assistant on Bill Belichick’s New England staff in 2014 and 2015, and who wrote a book with a foreword written by Belichick this year — said on his podcast exactly what Dilfer said four seasons ago: The Patriots aren’t good.
With the Patriots now sitting at 2-3 in their five road games, Lombardi said the road issues are most concerning.
“They’re 2-3 on the road. The last time they were sub-.500 was in 2013. They’re just not a good road team,” Lombardi stated. “I think [Tom] Brady averages under seven yards per pass completion on the road. Yards per attempt he’s under seven. He’s been sacked 10 times on the road. They can’t establish any kind of run game.”
Lombardi also cited a lack of “explosive plays” hurting the Patriots, something that hasn’t really been impacted with or without the presence of Rob Gronkowski.
“They struggle to make explosive plays. Josh Gordon doesn’t look as fast as he once was; I think he’s been covered up. And, you know, whether they have Gronk or don’t have Gronk, I think it’s really problematic for them,” Lombardi said. “I mean, when you’re 3-for-15 on third down, like the Patriots were, you’re not going to win any games.”
Lombardi of course spotlighted the Patriots’ defense as a problem, as well.
“Corey Davis – here’s a guy who’s had one play over 25 yards all season,” Lombardi said. “The guy rarely makes big plays down the field, and he had seven for 125 in the game. I mean, that’s not good. That’s not good. And they weren’t able to ever get control of the game. Whenever the Titans needed to make a play, they made a play.”
Ultimately, Lombardi has a hard time envisioning the Patriots winning a playoff game on the road.
“It manifests itself on the road. I’ve said this many times on this podcast. You evaluate your team as a general manager based on how you play on the road. And I just don’t see the Patriots going into Kansas City and winning a game. I think they’re going to have a hard time winning a game no matter where they have to go,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a challenge all the time for them because I think teams can take away Brady. He didn’t play well against Tennessee, he felt a lot of pressure, so it’s a tough one. They did not look good. Tennessee dominated that game. Actually that score might not have been close. And that’s the third double-digit loss on the road.”
Lombardi’s criticism is, quite obviously, rather blunt. But unlike Dilfer’s premature proclamation in September of 2014, it’s not necessarily wrong.
Certainly, if the Patriots repeat their performance from the Tennessee game come January, then they’re cooked. Nobody would dispute that. And the 2-3 record on the road does indeed look quite bad at this point in time.
However, it is worth noting that in their five road games, the Patriots have faced No. 1 (Buffalo), No. 3 (Jacksonville), No. 4 (Chicago) and No. 6 (Tennessee) ranked defenses in the NFL. (Detroit, the other opponent, ranks 19th.) While an exceptional team would overcome that slate of opponents, it’s not as if the Patriots’ offensive struggles on the road have come against a series of porous defensive units.
The Patriots also won in Chicago, against a Bears team that currently leads the NFC North.
With road games scheduled against the Jets and Dolphins approaching, some of those Patriots road numbers — including the win-loss record — are sure to be corrected a bit.
Plus, focusing only on the road games does overlook the capabilities that the Patriots’ offense has shown at home. They’re averaging over 35 points per game at home, where they are 5-0.
It also must be noted that the Patriots’ three road losses have come against teams that most likely will all miss the postseason. In fact, the combined record of the three teams that have beaten the Patriots is 11-16 — a .407 winning percentage. Against all other teams that aren’t the Patriots, those three teams are 8-16.
But the teams that the Patriots have beaten are a combined 37-29-1 — a .552 winning percentage. Against all non-New England teams, those seven teams own a combined 37-22-1 record, which is good for a .617 winning percentage.
While ideally, a good team would be excellent no matter the opponent, it’s undeniable that the Patriots have played better when facing better competition.
On the other hand, the Patriots’ stats across the board are thoroughly unimpressive. They’re in the middle of the pack or worse in most every category — except points scored, where they rank seventh. They’re even struggling in a number of special teams areas, which is a sure sign that something is not quite right with this patriots team.
So, ultimately, yes, Lombardi is correct in saying “this is not a good Patriots team.” But it’s important to note his verbiage. He didn’t say this is not a good team; he said this is not a good Patriots team. There’s just a certain standard that has been set in New England, where supreme excellence is expected at most times. The Patriots, this season, are not supremely excellent. At 7-3, they have the sixth-best record in the NFL, and the fourth-best record in the AFC. Things have not come too easily too often for this team in 2018.
It’s not that the Patriots are not a good team. It’s just that if the Patriots are to reach a Super Bowl — and, you know, actually win the thing — then they won’t have the advantage this year of being head-and-shoulders better than almost all of the NFL’s competition.
Still, no matter where you stand, it’s far too early to make any long-term prognostications regarding this team’s ultimate fate. With a home date vs. Minnesota and a potential AFC title game preview in Pittsburgh still to come, we’re going to learn a lot more about the 2018 Patriots before January rolls around. And it’s not until January and February that most evaluations of Patriots teams are fully completed.