This week against the Redskins was not supposed to be a tough game for the Patriots. This is not to say that they should have breezed through as was expected last week against the Colts, but it certainly was not the type of game in which Brady should have had to engage in a shootout with the likes of Rex Grossman.
Yet once again, the astonishingly bad New England secondary made things a little too easy for Rex and his receivers. Their secondary is so bad that 5'7" 150 lb receiver Brandon Banks pulled off a 49 yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss on a trick play to start the second quarter. The mere fact that an offensive coordinator is willing to call that type of play so early in a game only goes to show how little respect their defensive backfield demands.
The Patriots had their own struggles on offense at times, though the Redskins pass defense is much better than they are given credit for; ranking 9th in the league by only allowing 208.8 yards per game before their meeting with the Pats.
Unlike last week, there is a lot to learn from the Patriots' win; most especially as they look ahead to an unpredictable game against the Broncos in Denver next Sunday. Here are five things we learned about the Week 14 Patriots:
1. Yes, Tom Brady does have to be nearly perfect. Unfortunately folks, this is a fact for most teams that build themselves around a big-time, Super Bowl winning quarterback, (see: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning). The days in which Brady could rely on his defense to not only pick up his slack, but win games for them, are over. His defensive line does enough to make the other quarterback nervous, and that is a step in the right direction. But when the Patriots get to the play offs and have to play an elite pass defense, they are in major trouble if Brady does not win the shootout, and by win I mean completely dominate.
Three of the teams that will also go to the postseason out of the AFC - Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore - have pass defenses that are ranked top five in the league. The Patriots are still last. The big advantage for the Patriots is that those teams will be starting TJ Yates, a banged up Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco while they start Tom Brady. There is no other option than for Brady to be dominant when he has the ball in his hand. He has the weapons he needs, including the best tight end in the NFL right now and the receiver that is still leading the league in receiving yards. They can absolutely carry themselves through the playoffs on that, because Brady is still better against a good pass defense than TJ Yates should be against a bad one.
2. The Patriot defensive line could be their X factor. Time and again the defensive line comes up with major goal line stands and solid quarterback pressure, despite the minimal to non-existent help from their secondary. Andre Carter has established himself as one of the elite pass rushers in 2011, collecting another sack today on Grossman. The dependable Vince Wilfork continues to prove why he's the best nose tackle in the game, coming up with his third turnover recovery of the season today on a fumble in the end zone that he came up with for a touchdown. Defensive end Brandon Deaderick has become more and more productive, exemplified by his sack, tackle for a loss and quarterback hit in this week's game.
There are guys every week that step up as playmakers, and they are coming together nicely as a core against the rush. If there is anything that can help Brady and the offensive stifle the opposition, it's this defensive line; as long as they continue to make big plays and bail out the secondary when they allow teams to sail across the field into the red zone.
3. Rob Gronkowski is the most formidable red zone target in the league. There is no one else at the tight end position right now that is playing with the dominance that Rob Gronkowski is displaying. In fact, there has never been a tight end in the league that has ever been so dominant in the end zone, as is evidenced by his all-time best 15 touchdowns on the season. And to think, he still has three games left to play! The most amazing thing about the Gronk is that he can catch a ball in double and triple coverage. He is fearless, and his enormous size and athleticism makes him nearly impossible to tackle at times. There are literally not enough men on a defense to cover them when a third receiver gets hot, because of the coverage that both Gronkowski and Welker demand. And with the third and fourth options of Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez on the field, there is always someone to cover.
4. The Pats need to be more efficient in the red zone. That might sound a little absurd considering the Patriots put 34 points on the board, and it sort of goes along with the importance of Brady's efficiency. First of all, one of their four touchdowns was defensive. Two more of those were big passes made well outside of the red zone, one of which featured Gronkowski have to shake a couple of tackles. After their only red zone touchdown in the first quarter, the Patriots made the trip three more times. Those red zone possessions ended in two field goals and an interception. To put it bluntly: that's not good enough. It is inconceivable that three times Brady had the ball on or inside the Washington five yard line and could not figure out a way to convert those possessions into touchdowns. Against an elite team, those wasted opportunities could and most likely would cost them the game.
5. They are a team that still seems to always find a way to win. They aren't exactly on the Tebow level quite yet, but that's purely because they don't have to be. The Patriots defense made it awfully hard on Grossman at the end of the game as he attempted again and again to tie the score and keep the game alive. The fact that Santana Moss lost his cool enough to forward lateral the ball to Jerod Mayo on third down isn't just luck, it's demonstrative of how flustered the Redskins offense was at that point. That turnover was totally preventable, and it cost the Redskins their fourth down attempt. This team will often be tested in smiliar ways since the defensive backs cannot effectively control the pace of the passing game between the 20's, and it's encouraging to see them continuing to step up.