Who didn’t love the pass-fail option when they were in college?
You could get the 100 – plus extra credit – or stumble down to a D-minus, but as long as you didn’t fall below that threshold, you were in the clear. You passed the class and you’re moving on.
The same tactic could very well be applied to this year’s version of the New England Patriots. By their own lofty standards, there’s no way the 2018 regular season could garner a grade A. But they’re in the playoffs, sitting on a first-round bye for the ninth consecutive season. How could you possibly deem their 11-5 mark a failure, even if it was the first time New England didn’t win 12 games since 2009?
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Plus, who really cares about the collective grade of the team through 16 games? The Patriots have upwards of three games left to truly earn their marks. So rather than breaking down each position group into a specific letter grade – similar to our midseason report card – the main question needs to be, “can the Patriots win with this group playing the way it is, or does it need improvement?”
Spoiler alert: every player in every position group on the roster needs to elevate their game now that the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets of the world are no longer on the docket. That’s not to say, however, that bits and pieces of the roster aren’t performing at a Super Bowl-caliber level.
An area of the roster performing at a “satisfactory” level means that the Patriots can win the Super Bowl with a similar level of production from the regular season. “Needs improvement” means that, well…this could be the only bye week New England is treated to this postseason.
Tom Brady was absolutely down a tick from his MVP season in 2017, but how much, really? He only threw for three fewer touchdowns, three more interceptions and 222 fewer yards. He completed passes at a clip 0.5 percent less successful in 2018, but it was still his fifth-most accurate season ever.
The Jets are the Jets, but Brady’s 133.8 passer rating in Week 17 – his best of the season – wasn’t so much about who he posted it against. It was that he actually looked like…himself. Healthy.
Running back: Needs improvement
It’s no secret that some of New England’s worst games of the season were contests in which James White was a nonfactor; when he had 10 or more touches, the Patriots were 9-1; in the six games he didn’t touch the ball 10 times, New England was 2-4.
Sony Michel rushed for over 100 yards four times in the regular season, and unsurprisingly, the Patriots were 4-0 in said games. New England won six of its seven games in which Michel averaged more than 4 yards-per-carry as well; conversely, it won only two of six when he didn’t.
Of potential divisional round opponents, the Houston Texans allowed the fewest yards per rush (3.4) while the Baltimore Ravens were third at 3.7. The Ravens also allowed the third-fewest receiving yards by running backs in 2018.
James Develin career rushing touchdowns, 2012-17: 1. Develin rushing touchdowns, 2018: 4. And he’s still one of the top blockers coming out of the backfield.
Wide receiver: Needs improvement
The Patriots nearly won Super Bowl LII without Julian Edelman. Don’t count on the team getting out of the divisional round if he’s a nonfactor this time around.
Fortunately, Edelman is the least of this group’s worries. Josh Gordon doesn’t work here anymore, and Tom Brady may have no choice but to entrust Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett on the off-chance Edelman can’t get open on a consistent basis.
It was great to see each player perform well in Week 17 vs. the Jets, but unlike Brady, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt for torching the Jets.
Tight end: Needs improvement
Similar to how the Patriots nearly won Super Bowl LII sans Edelman, New England actually won Super Bowl LI sans Gronk.
If this is it for Gronk, one can only hope he meant what he said that he’s “going to be all in for the rest of the year, no matter when it is.” He had only two games over 100 yards receiving in the regular season, and over the final three games, totaled four catches for 45 yards.
Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister, Gronk’s understudies, combined for just seven catches and 79 yards in the regular season.
Offensive line: Satisfactory
This group allowed Brady to be sacked 14 times fewer than in 2017, with the only significant change coming at left tackle, where Trent Brown took over for Nate Solder. Left guard Joe Thuney played every snap for the Patriots, while right guard Shaq Mason deserves consideration as a First Team All-Pro.
Defensive line: Needs improvement
In the “careful what you wish for” department, a monster postseason by Trey Flowers could price him out of the Patriots’ plans for next season – if he hasn’t already.
There’s not much else for New England to hang its hat on in terms of getting after the quarterback on the line, and while the run defense was better over the final two games of the regular season – again, against the Bills and the Jets – the Patriots still finished 29th in the league in rush yards per attempt, at 4.9 yards-per-carry.
Linebackers: Needs improvement
Once a glaring weakness, this group has made strides over the course of the regular season – namely, Kyle Van Noy has emerged as more than just a reliable figure, but a playmaking force at times. The fifth-year pro played in 16 games for the first time and had a career-high 92 tackles and 10 quarterback hits and scored the first two touchdowns of his career: one on a fumble recovery and one on a blocked punt.
Still, it’s a paper-thin depth chart beyond Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, who himself isn’t what he used to be.
Permitting Devin McCourty recovers from his concussion suffered in Week 17. The nine-year veteran missed New England’s first practice of the bye week.
Stephon Gilmore has been among the very best at his position in the game for most of the season, with quarterbacks completing only 42 percent of their passes when targeting Gilmore for a passer rating of 56.3.
Special teams: Needs improvement
Three years running, Stephen Gostkowski has missed a kick in New England’s final game of the season: a PAT in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, a PAT in Super Bowl LI and a field goal in Super Bowl LII.