While the Patriots are 11-3 on the year and in the driver’s seat to be the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a first-round bye, there is not much hope for a long run, especially compared to previous seasons.
The offense is arguably the worst in the Tom Brady era, and the success this season has been mostly because of the defense and special teams. There is a fear this will not be sustainable in the postseason when facing good teams. After all, the Patriots do not have a “signature win,” besides beating Buffalo on the road in Week 4.
All their losses have come against the best teams in the AFC — the Ravens, Chiefs and Ravens — and there isn’t much optimism it will be any different in the playoffs.
With that being said, it’s worth looking back to last year when the team was 9-5 and then won its final two regular-season games led by the running game and rode that to a sixth Super Bowl title.
While it won’t be as easy as last year, it’s still possible. Here are five ways how.
1. Ride running game like 2018
Some momentum was gained in this regard in the win over the Bengals when the team ran for a season-high 175 yards and got contributions from a few different players. Sony Michel had one of his best games of the year, totaling 89 yards on 19 carries and Rex Burkhead had 53 yards rushing and a touchdown on six carries. With that being said, it came against the Bengals, who have the worst run defense in the entire league, so the Patriots probably should have done that. But, with Isaiah Wynn back in the mix and fully healthy, along with Ted Karras trending that way, the Patriots may be able to continue the success on the ground. Also, more running plays take time off the clock and play into the strength of the team -- the defense. This keeps games lower scoring and that likely is the best way to win.
2. Defense plays better against good teams
The knock for the defense has been it hasn’t performed consistently, especially when facing the better teams in the league. The unit allowed 37, 28 and 23 points respectively against the Ravens, Texans and Chiefs. It is worth pointing out the unit performed better in the second half of all of those games, including holding the Chiefs to just three second half points. The key is winning the turnover battle, as against those teams the Patriots only won the turnover battle once (vs. Chiefs). If the defense can play at the same level as it does against most other teams, the Patriots truly can beat anyone come January.
3. N’Keal Harry becomes major factor
While it’s been baby steps, Harry has become more involved in the Patriots offense in each game since his debut against the Eagles four weeks ago. The first-round pick had his best game last Sunday against the Bengals when he played 58 percent of the snaps, recorded two catches for 15 yards and a touchdown, as well as adding 22 yards on two rushes. For the first time all year, it seemed there was a point made to get Harry involved, and that is what needs to happen down the stretch for the passing game to get any better. While there have been positives, he still hasn’t had more than 18 yards in a single game and that isn’t going to get it done. If Harry can make a few big plays — either long catches, or breaking tackles for big gains — better things will be coming for the Patriots offense.
4. More from Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers
One of the reasons why the passing game has been so bad — Tom Brady completing 60 percent of his passes (tied for 29th in the league) for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt (tied for 28th) and a quarterback rating of 86.5 (21st in the league) — is the lack of production from players other than Julian Edelman and James White. Teams are doubling these two players, which means 1-on-1 matchups for the other receivers, but these players simply are not getting open. If any one of these players steps up and makes a few plays, the offense instantly becomes better.
Sometimes over the years, the Patriots have gotten lucky with a few breaks along the way to their Super Bowl wins. Who knows what will happen this year? With the way Lamar Jackson runs, he potentially could get hurt on any play. And then Patrick Mahomes injured his knee earlier in the year and then his hand against the Patriots. Injuries always seem to play some role in the postseason and who knows, maybe this year they benefit the Patriots.