The 2018 New England Patriots, supposedly the worst version of this team in half a decade, find themselves in a familiar spot. The Patriots are headed to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight year after playing their most complete game of the season. The Patriots are notorious for playing their best football late in the season, and 2018 looks to be more of the same. After a relatively difficult regular season, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are once again peaking at the right time.
Tom Brady Is Healthy
The biggest reason for New England’s relative offensive struggles is that quarterback Tom Brady was playing through a fairly significant injury. Weeks back, ESPN’s Mike Girardi speculated that Tom Brady was playing through an MCL injury. Prior to Sunday’s game against the Chargers, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport verified the claim but also offered encouraging news for Patriots fans everywhere.
Brady suffered said injury late in a blowout Week 10 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Needless to say, playing through an MCL injury isn’t easy, especially at the advanced age of 41 years old. The offense wasn’t its’ typical self down the stretch, and Brady regularly ducked away from contact in an attempt to save his body.
Fortunately for Patriots fan, Rapoport reported that the Patriots star quarterback is as healthy as he’s been all season long. This injury initially had a two-month recovery period, which means Brady should have been completely healthy by Week 17 against the New York Jets. This timeline checks out, as Brady finished his season by throwing for 250 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. When given an extra week to rest his body, it’s no wonder Brady had arguably his best game of the season against the Los Angeles Chargers.
All The Stars Are Here
Another big reason for the Patriots late-season success is that they finally have a fully-functioning of skill position players. Everyone knew that New England would be a little rusty out of the gate. The Patriots lost Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis in the off-season, and New England naturally struggled to find replacements for those players. However, the Patriots were also without the ever-reliable Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season. On top of that, lead running back Sony Michel missed the majority of training camp and clearly wasn’t 100% for his first couple of games.
Edelman played every game since returning from suspension, but just about every other offensive weapon missed significant time. Michel missed three games with a knee injury, Rob Gronkowski hasn’t looked healthy all season, and James White saw his snaps decrease dramatically since suffering an ankle injury in Week Nine against the Green Bay Packers. The team also tried to incorporate Josh Gordon on the fly before Gordon left to focus on his mental health.
Fortunately, almost every one of those factors is now in the rearview mirror. Edelman is back and is playing as well as ever. The trusty slot receiver averaged 70.8 yards-per-game, which falls right in line with his career average. Edelman is one of the best postseason receivers of all time and added to his gaudy numbers with a nine-catch, 157-yard performance. New England unleashed White for a 15-catch, 97-yard game. A fully-healthy Sony Michel provided a dominant presence in the run game, finishing his postseason debut with 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns. While Rob Gronkowski isn’t his old self, he’s still a strong blocker capable of making a big play or two in the passing game.
Better Use of Complementary Weapons
It’s not just the big names making plays, as the Patriots have started to better utilize their depth options. Phillip Dorsett started the season as one of New England’s better receivers before disappearing with the arrival of Josh Gordon. With Gordon gone, Dorsett has seen a larger role and thrived with the opportunity. Dorsett finished the regular season on a high note, catching five receptions on five targets for 34 yards and a touchdown. The second-year built on that success by having a four-catch, 41-yard game with a touchdown in New England’s postseason opener.
Additionally, New England is figuring out the best ways to utilize Cordarrelle Patterson. Thanks to the aforementioned early-season injuries, Patterson had to spend some time as New England’s starting running back. However, now that everyone is healthy, the Patriots are back to utilizing Patterson on gadget plays designed to get him the ball in space. Nobody’s better in the open field than Patterson, and New England’s offense is significantly more explosive when Patterson’s playing.
The Patriots have had all these players, but not all at once. Now that New England’s personnel is fully healthy, the Patriots offense is finally playing up to its’ ability. New England has struggled this year, but it’s never been due to a lack of talent. Rather, most struggles were caused by either a serious amount of bad injury luck or simply not knowing how to use all their new weapons.
However, all of those issues are now in the rearview mirror. Tom Brady and the Patriots have never been healthier, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows how to coach to the teams’ strengths. This isn’t a guarantee that the Patriots will blow by the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. However, when those two teams face off, the Chiefs will see the very best of the 2018 New England Patriots.
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