October 29, 2008 1:55 PM
Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
After ranking New England 18th in my power rankings this week when the consensus of the group had the Patriots ranked No. 7, I took a lot of heat from SportsNation. OK, you've had your turn. Now I get to explain my vote.
The Patriots did defeat the revitalized Rams, 23-16, in New England on Sunday and completely dismantled the Broncos on "Monday Night Football" in Week 7. New England is now 5-2 and tied with Buffalo atop the AFC East. That cannot be denied and that's what starts many of the arguments against me: How could I rate a first-place team with just two losses so low?
Here's why: In my mind, the most important aspects of playing winning football in the league this year is quarterback play, the ability to run the football, winning the turnover battle and getting after opposing quarterbacks. New England is struggling in all of those areas.
How many starting quarterbacks in this league would you rather have than Matt Cassel? My answer: 29, with San Francisco, Kansas City and Detroit the only three franchises worse off than New England. Some would argue cases could be made that Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland and Baltimore are just as bad or worse than New England, but I'm not buying it. But still, add them in and at best, only 25 teams in the league have a better starting quarterback than the Patriots. Cassel is showing improvement, but he still has made everyone around him worse rather than better. Far worse.
New England's running game has been good statistically. It is sixth in the league in yards per game and has done it despite having a revolving door at running back. However, eliminate the 257 yards on the ground that New England put on Denver's pillow-soft run defense that allows 5.4 yards per carry and nearly 155 yards per game, the Patriots' rushing attack all of a sudden appears very mediocre. And honestly, which of these ball carriers really keeps opposing defensive coordinators up late at night?
How about the turnover battle? New England is plus-3. OK, that is better than being minus-3, but it also isn't anything to write home about. Because Cassel has been so incredibly timid in releasing the ball deep downfield and the overall conservative nature of this offense, the Patriots are not prone to turnovers and makes plus-3 an underwhelming number.
New England is tied for 17th in the NFL with 14 sacks in seven games. The Patriots' edge pressure has not been up to par with what is needed -- and what they used to get -- from their 3-4 outside linebackers. Of course it hurts that New England has not been playing with massive leads and able just to get after the passer like it did a year ago, but it is -- once again -- very ordinary in this department as well.
Before this two-game winning streak, New England was embarrassed in San Diego. While the Pats edged the 49ers in Week 5, they also had two weeks to prepare for that game. Don't forget before that game, the Patriots were thoroughly abused at home by the Dolphins and their Wildcat running attack. The Patriots' two losses have come against teams with a combined 6-9 record and their wins against teams who are a combined 13-23. It cannot be argued that the Patriots have even faced an upper-echelon team. The Jets and Broncos are the only two teams they have played that currently have a winning record and both are just 4-3. That isn't the slightest bit impressive to me.
Considering the status of the AFC, and with an all-time great head coach in Bill Belichick leading the Tom Brady-less parade, I will concede that the playoffs are not out of the question or that the Patriots could even win a game in the postseason. They are improving and I am sure my power rankings going forward will reflect that. But right now, the Patriots haven't done enough to distinguish themselves from teams like Baltimore, San Diego and Cleveland, the three teams I have immediately ahead of them, or Jacksonville, which I have directly behind them.
Now ask yourself this question: If the Cincinnati Bengals or San Francisco 49ers had the exact same season to date as New England, would you question whether they are presently the 18th best team in the NFL? Exactly.