The last five weeks of the regular season will present an interesting challenge for the New England Patriots.
Currently in the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a 9-2 record, nothing is guaranteed for a Patriots team that all of a sudden has to keep an eye on the 7-4 Miami Dolphins, who enter their Week 13 game in Baltimore having won six straight.
The Patriots will finish the regular season with a New Year’s Day showdown in Miami. It’s quite possible they’ll have locked up either a first round bye or the No. 1 seed by then. But regardless of what the playoff picture looks like entering Week 17, there’s room for improvement, and everybody — even Patriots optimists like me — knows it.
Right now, many are pointing out the team’s obvious flaws: holes in the pass defense, Rob Gronkowski’s injury uncertainty, and Stephen Gostkowski’s inconsistent kicking.
But as I continue to look ahead to potential playoff matchups, there’s one other area that I’ll have my eye on in the final five games of the regular season. That’s the offensive line.
You know what they always say. The game will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. And while fixing up the pass defense would be a nice touch, having Gronkowski completely healthy for the playoffs would be huge, and being able to rely on Gostkowski’s leg again in crucial moments would be a relief, perhaps the most critical area from here-on-out is the group that’s blocking for Tom Brady.
One member of that group — right tackle Marcus Cannon — received a five-year, $32.5 million extension this week, with $14.5 million in guarantees. Now, Cannon has had a nice season. As a whole, the Patriots’ offensive line has had a nice season. You know how I know that? I can’t recall thinking about or talking about the offensive line as much this season as I did the last two seasons.
I won’t go over-the-top with praise right now though, because there have been some shaky moments. And during the times in which there has been a vicious breakdown up front, Brady has often used his footwork to avoid being hit and he's given himself an extra second or two in the pocket to complete a pass.
There’s not much for me to complain about with New England’s offensive line at this point, but I witnessed something on Sunday that made me sweat. It was nightmare material, really, when Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack got to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and forced a game-winning fumble in the final minute of a three-point game.
On 4th-and-10 with 54 seconds left and Carolina in Oakland territory, the Raiders rushed four as Newton was in shotgun. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Mack just pushed right through the Panthers’ right tackle and stripped the ball from Newton’s hands. Mack then jumped on the football and won the game for Oakland.
If the playoffs began today, the 9-2 Raiders would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC while the 9-2 Patriots would be the No. 1 seed. The two teams could be destined for an AFC Championship showdown. And if that’s the case, then New England’s offensive line will have to look a whole lot better than it did in last year’s AFC Championship loss in Denver. The Pats didn’t have starting left tackle Nate Solder in that game, but I’m not even sure he could have saved them in that game.
The idea of someone like Mack — who has nine sacks in 11 games this season, and a total of 24 sacks in 27 games the last two seasons — attacking Brady in late January isn’t a welcoming thought. Right now, it looks like the Patriots’ offensive line would be able to handle that threat, at least enough to where it wouldn’t look as bad as it did in Denver during last year’s AFC title game.
But if Brady’s protection starts to stumble down the stretch, that will immediately become the most alarming issue threatening the Patriots’ championship hopes.
Which makes their offensive line the most important thing to watch from here on out.