The New England Patriots have an early home finale this regular season, welcoming the floundering Tennessee Titans in a game that has me less worried about the scoreboard and more worried about injuries. Is there anything worse than losing an important player in a blowout? That’s what I really don’t want to see, and given how this season has gone, each of these last three games will terrify me.
In the last 10 games the Pats have put nine guys on IR. So do the math. Yup, scary.
The Pats should very likely clinch a bye this weekend, assuming the Steelers beat the Broncos, but ensuring the AFC championship is in New England is paramount, so the Pats need to keep riding their horses until that #1 seed is locked up.
And let’s be honest, the offense hasn’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders. Especially since Edelman went out, they’ve been up and down and often un-clutch. So nothing would be better with Edelman waiting in the wings to return, to finally see the offense take a big step forward.
Here’s the gameplan…
We have to start at the running back position with LeGarrette Blount being the latest injury victim to have his season end on IR. The Pats signed Montee Ball to their practice squad and met with Steven Jackson on Thursday, and I’d be down with putting them both on the active roster for these last three games to see what they can bring in the playoffs.
It’s just not realistic to think the Pats can close out playoff games handing off to Brandon Bolden and James White. Generally I think the running back position is one that is pretty manageable when it comes to plug-and-play, and with three games left the Pats do have enough time to find someone they can lean on for early downs and short yardage situations, but they have to start on it this weekend.
The Pats also signed Leonard Hankerson this week after he was released by the Falcons with an IR settlement. Prior to that he had 26 catches for 327 yards and four touchdowns for Atlanta. Hankerson has good size (6′2″) and should give the Pats another big outside option aside from Brandon LaFell, essentially filling the role Aaron Dobson vacated. For the same reason as the running back position, and the recent average play of LaFell and Scott Chandler, there’s no reason not to throw Hankerson into the mix.
Things are really looking up with Julian Edelman participating in a full pads practice this week. It makes me think he could very well be close to 100% in the playoffs and that is huge news. We know he, Amendola and Gronk will be the straws stirring the drink, but I think the Patriots still need to figure out who will be the reliable options that go with them.
If Hankerson clicks it will open up the four-receiver portion of the playbook once again, and that’s a great tool to have for the playoffs and one they didn’t have last year.
Against the Titans I think it’s all about putting the ball in the hands of the new and unproven as much as possible. Keshawn Martin showed real strides last week before muffing that punt. I’d love to see him build upon that performance.
The Pats offensive line seems like they’re starting to gel. That’s a great sign. It’s just that there are still a lot of questions at running back and how the lower-level weapons will fit into the attack when it’s all on the line. Those are the things that need to be figured out starting this week, and I’d prefer to do it in a way that reduces the risk to Brady, Gronk and Amendola.
Outside of Dion Lewis, no player loss this season has bugged me more than Dominique Easley. Most of all I just wanted our pass rush at maximum firepower in the playoffs for once and without Easley it’s not going to be that.
Still, Akiem Hicks should be fine in Easley’s role and though he doesn’t have Easley’s explosion, it’s not like we’re going back to the days of having an ineffective Vince Wilfork trying to get pressure up the gut on third and long.
The developments that make me feel a little better is (hopefully) the return of Dont’a Hightower this weekend and how Jerod Mayo is starting to look like his old self. If the Pats trust Mayo to play a bigger role it will only free Hightower and Jamie Collins up to do more damage. That alone will help offset the loss of Easley.
Then there’s the Devin McCourty injury which, given the depth at safety, is manageable. Duron Harmon slips into the free safety role while Patrick Chung remains the strong safety, but the questions come when we look at the multiple safety packages where McCourty and Harmon were the deep safeties. Does that mean Chung has to play deep safety again (eeeek)? Or how do Wilson/Ebner/Richards fit? It will be interesting and hopefully everyone gets a chance to get some experience.
This directly fits into the big key for this game – taking away Delaney Walker. That should immediately reveal much of how the Patriots plan to replace McCourty and how Chung’s role might change from his usual tight end cover duties.
Otherwise there’s a lot to be excited about with this defense going into the playoffs if they can somehow avoid another major injury which seems impossible at this point given how the season has gone.
One big player I’ll be focusing on is Chandler Jones. In my film review of the Texans game he looked lethargic. He hasn’t had a sack in four games and failed to register a solo tackle against the Texans for just the second time this season. As I said earlier this season, I think the Pats Super Bowl hopes depend on Jones. Now I’ll walk that back a bit if Jabaal Sheard can continue to be as dominant as he’s been the last couple games, but they still really need Chandler to be much better than he was in Houston.
Five Areas of Emphasis
1. Nobody Get Hurt!!!!! – Okay, this is a stupid area of emphasis because it’s really just up to the Football Gods, but I’m so sick of putting someone on IR every week. This has been such a strange season, where it feels like we’re constantly in a state of “just get healthy”, but once one guy comes back someone else goes down. Thus it’s hard to really know the Patriots offensive identity. So please, let’s just be done with the injuries this year.
2. Feed the New Guys – This is as much about protecting Brady, Gronk and Amendola as it is finding who we can trust to come through in the big moments in the playoffs. So continue to put the ball in the hands of Martin, LaFell and whoever they suit up at running back. Who knows, maybe we’ll find a gem ala Jabar Gaffney circa 2006 who can chip in with some key plays in the playoffs.
3. Linebackers Back – Just what does this defense look like with a full strength Jerod Mayo playing alongside experienced veterans Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins? We don’t really know, but it’s certainly exciting to think about and this game could be our first taste of it. The versatility of Collins and Hightower to play on the line of scrimmage with Mayo at MLB taking away the flat all seem like the perfect storm for an unstoppable trio.
4. Special Teams Be Special – Special Teams have had some critical mistakes the last few games and that’s so uncharacteristic of the Patriots and something that absolutely cannot happen in the playoffs. Right now nothing scares me more than a turnover at a critical moment by the special teams in January. They need to restore everyone’s confidence with not just a safe performance, but one that shows why they were the best special teams unit in the league before things started going south against the Eagles.
5. Win – This is the most slamdunk game of the season and the Pats don’t often miss on those. We all know the playoff scenarios and it’s obviously far preferable to keep our fate in our own hands. This just isn’t a game the Pats can lose at this time of year. Most of all it would be nice to get a total team win, setting up the last major showdown of the season with a hungry and surging Jets team.
Prediction: Patriots 42, Titans 6