Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots dropped the first game of their 2015 season Sunday night, falling 30-24 in overtime to the Denver Broncos.
The loss was, if nothing else, unexpected — Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler was making his second career start and trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Sunday marked the fourth straight week the Patriots have failed to eclipse 30 points after averaging 35.6 through Week 8. What’s more alarming is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s outfit is trending down against lesser defensive competition.
To be sure, Denver touts one of the league’s elite defensive units, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and entering the matchup having allowed the fewest total yards this season of any team. Just four of the team’s 11 opponents have scored more than 20 points, so the fact that the Patriots didn’t amass a ton of points — or yards — is hardly surprising. The Patriots also have failed to produce imposing offensive figures against Buffalo, New York and Washington in the past month — teams that rank 16th, 17th and 21st in Football Outsiders’ metric.
With Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski nursing injuries, Tom Brady is shouldering most of the offensive weight in New England.
Brady’s numbers the past month have been bleak, to say the least. Three of his four interceptions this season occurred in the past four weeks, and his average passer rating has dropped by nearly 50 points. After completing better than 61 percent of his passes in each of his first eight games, he hasn’t completed better than 55 percent in the past two weeks.
None of this is to say that Brady has been lackluster — he’s often mentioned in the most valuable player discussion, after all — but stripped of his top slot receivers and without a formidable tailback behind him, he’s running low on firepower.
Gronkowski is arguably the most disadvantageous defensive matchup in the league, and the Patriots are 30-6 when he hauls in a touchdown reception. This happens quite frequently: He logged the 63rd touchdown reception of his career Sunday.
This is why, when he was carted off the field, the Patriots proceeded to implode offensively. Even though the injury isn’t expected to be as severe as initial reports indicated, the Patriots can’t afford to lose another weapon — the team’s most dominant, in fact — and hope to maintain their title hopes.
Should Gronkowski and Amendola be unable to play next Sunday, Brady would be working without more than 60 percent of the team’s receiving yards, 56 percent of the team’s targets, and 68 percent of the team’s touchdown receptions.
In overall offense, the Patriots are averaging 0.6 fewer yards per play over the past month than they did in the first seven games. Against Denver, they put up just 4.9 yards per play, which was the team’s lowest average in nearly a year.
There’s plenty of time for the Patriots to rebound and recalibrate the offense — and New England plays just two teams with winning records over the final five weeks of the season. But offensive changes need to happen quickly, or Belichick and Co. will be chasing title aspirations that are far more dream than reality.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.