This is how the other half lives – feasting on victory one week, starving for success the next.
It’s actually kind of exciting, not to mention a long-lost feeling for New England football fans.
For years, every Sunday seemed like Thanksgiving in New England, as the Patriots gobbled up more victories more frequently and by bigger margins than any team in history.
New Englanders lost all touch with reality during these heady days. The biggest problem last year, for example, was when the team was accused of running up the score.
Nice problem to have, isn’t it?
Spoiled Patriots fans feasted at this endless buffet of success while the teeming, dirt-faced hordes that pass for the rest of the NFL scratched and clawed for every last meager scrap of victory.
But scratching and clawing sounds a lot like the 2008 season in New England, doesn’t it? In fact, it sounds like almost every team in the parity-obsessed NFL, where fans never know what they’re gonna get when their team steps on the field each Sunday.
Patriots fans were reacquainted with pro football reality during eight strange days in October that began with an embarrassing nationally-televised 30-10 loss at San Diego and ended with Monday night’s primetime 41-7 punishment of the AFC West-leading Broncos.
The season looked like a lost cause last week, even to the Cold, Hard Football Facts. This week, anything seems possible.
The problems for pigskin “pundits” today is trying to pin down the Patriots. It’s no easy feat now that New England has joined the rest of the pigskin proletariat. But here are a few trends to consider during what’s become a typical feast-or-famine NFL season for the Patriots.
Feast – New England’s 41-7 win over Denver (4-3) was more than just an impressive victory for the Patriots. It was the single most impressive victory by any NFL team this year. The Eagles, Panthers and Giants all boast wins of 34 points or more this year. But all those wins came against lousy teams – the Rams, Chiefs and Seahawks, respectively. Only the Patriots boast such a big win over a Quality Team (which the Cold, Hard Football Facts define simply as any team that currently has a winning record).
To put the 34-point smackdown into perspective, consider that the 2007 Patriots – the single most dominant NFL team since the 1942 Bears – enjoyed just two 34-point-plus wins during their march to the record books. So the Patriots have proved that they can still dominate against good (but flawed) opponents.
Famine – The Patriots (4-2) still have their toughest games ahead of them. Denver is the only Quality Team New England has faced through the first six games. The future holds a game at always dangerous Indy (3-3), a visit from the AFC North-leading Steelers (5-1), a visit from the NFC West-leading Cardinals (4-2), who boast the NFL’s No. 1 offense (29.5 PPG), a trip to Miami (2-4) to face the Dolphins who pasted the Patriots, 38-13, in Foxboro, and two games against the AFC East-leading Bills (5-1), including what looks like a tough season finale in Buffalo.
Considering the fact the Patriots suffered bad losses to teams with losing records (Miami, San Diego), it’s unlikely New England will win consistently against this slate.
Feast – Matt Cassel is no Tom Brady. He never will be. And he took over a team more talented than the one Brady inherited in 2001. But Cassel has acquitted himself fairly well through his first five full games as an NFL starter. Here’s how the two quarterbacks stack up after their first five NFL starts:
Cassel: 97 of 148 (65.5%) for 943 yards, 6.37 YPA, 5 TD, 4 INT, 83.25 passer rating
Brady: 99 of 159 (62.3%) for 1,023 yards, 6.43 YPA, 7 TD, 4 INT, 84.97 passer rating
Again, Cassel is no Brady. But after five starts in the NFL, the two don’t look a whole lot different. In fact, the two even had the same record through five starts: 3-2.
Famine – Despite the performance Monday night, holding the high-powered Broncos offense to just 7 points, the Patriots still have a lot of defensive issues.
The Patriots are in the bottom half of the league in defensive passer rating (87.3), perhaps the most important defensive indicator, 22nd in the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index (a measure of the front seven’s success) and 25th against the run, allowing 4.51 yards per attempt.
Those aren’t deep-into-January numbers.
Feast – The Patriots cranked out a stunning 257 yards on the ground against the Broncos, the team’s most productive effort in 23 years. They did it on 38 carries, for an average of 6.8 YPA, a dominant level of production by any measure. And they did it on a day in which their No. 1 back (Laurence Maroney) was placed on IR, No. 2 back (Sammy Morris) was lost with a knee injury and No. 4 back (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), who had never carried the ball in an NFL game, shouldered nearly the entire load in the second half (13 for 65, 5.0 YPA, and 1 TD).
The Broncos field a terrible run defense, allowing 5.41 yards per attempt this year (31st). But the historic nature of New England’s production, the ease with which they ran the ball, and the fact the Patriots did it with a makeshift backfield, bode well for the rest of the season.
Famine – Injuries are a part of life in the NFL and every team suffers them, but they seem to take an unusually high toll on the Patriots each and every year. In fact, injuries in the secondary probably cost the team a Super Bowl in 2006. The 2008 season is bringing more of the same. The offensive backfield has been eviscerated, between Brady, Maroney, Morris and LaMont Jordan (a scratch Monday night) all out for part of all of the year. The offensive line seems like a piecemeal effort week to week. And Rodney Harrison was lost for the season Monday night, leaving James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather the starting safeties, while pass-rushing specialist Jarvis Green has missed time, too.
In the likely event that the Patriots fail to win the Super Bowl, injuries will be the primary reason why. So enjoy the buffet of victory when it comes, and ride out the bad weeks the best you can.
And remember that it could be much worse. Despite the air of disaster that has surrounded the Patriots, they’re just one of just five AFC teams with a winning record as we reach the end of October. If the playoffs began today, the Brady-less Bunch would be planning a wild-card road trip to Pittsburgh – which has usually meant good news for New England.
If this is how the other half lives, maybe it’s not too bad.
Kerry Byrne is the creator of Cold,Hard Football Facts and a weekly contributor to WEEI.com.