Dave Choate: As much as I don't want to, I have to marvel at Tom Brady. How long can he keep playing at this high of a level, and are you at all worried about the beating he's taking this year?
Rich Hill: We’re absolutely nervous about all the hits and the fact that they already took a toll on his non-throwing shoulder. Fortunately, the offensive line just had their best game of the season against the New York Jets so we’re also all crossing our fingers that they’ve turned a corner. If the offensive line (especially the tackles) can hold up their end of the bargain, then the offense will be okay- but with the offense focusing on deeper passes, the tackles’ inability to protect Brady has been a real glaring issue.
As for Brady’s longevity, so long as he stays healthy he should be able to play at this level for the next three-five years. That’s not a certainty, of course, but he’s shown little sign of physical deterioration and so much of his game is cerebral from a pre-snap perspective and that can’t be taken from him. The Patriots have also been very intentional about how they’re surrounding Brady with talent. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels continues to draw up strong game plans and he’ll continue to find ways to keep Brady productive even when the quarterback can’t hit the deep ball, and Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola are as strong of a top four you’ll find in the league- and that’s ignoring a potential return for Julian Edelman in 2018. No longer are the Patriots asking Brady to elevate nobodies into stars, and that’s important for his production in the twilight of his career.
Dave Choate: I have a vested interest in the Falcons winning this game--shocker--and so I wish to stop Rob Gronkowski from wreaking havoc. The Falcons can put De'Vondre Campbell on him, and I think that's the best possible matchup they can muster, but is there anything Atlanta can do that you've seen work?
...Anything at all?
Rich Hill: Sure, the “blueprint” to remove Gronkowski from the passing game has been the same for a while: use a linebacker or pass rusher to hit him at the line of scrimmage to prevent a free release and drop into underneath coverage, while a strong safety covers tightly over the top. Hit at the line. Bracket coverage. That works and it doesn’t take too many defensive resources, especially since linebackers drop into the middle of the field regularly anyways. I’m sure the Patriots are expecting a combination of Campbell and Keanu Neal to limit Gronkowski.
Of course that’s easier said than done, as Gronkowski is still one of the most productive receivers in the league. Teams are usually unable to give Gronkowski double coverage all game because that either allows the running back to run free out of the backfield as a receiver, or neuters the pass rush to give Brady a ton of time in the pocket. Simply put, Brady will win if he’s not pressured. And so when teams try to throw a curve ball in their coverage of Gronkowski, Brady will find that and exploit it, even if it’s just five passes per game.
Dave Choate: This offensive line seems to be scuffling. The Falcons have blown hot and cold in terms of pass rushing productivity in 2017, but where should they attack for maximum success Sunday night, and is this line more susceptible to speed or power?
Rich Hill: This offensive line is susceptible to everything. Left tackle Nate Solder has not been bending well and regularly loses to speed rushers and those with inside counter moves. Left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews don’t have enough strength to withstand bull rushers all game. Right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon are pretty good, but Mason can lose against stunts and Cannon can be beaten by speed rushers. So everyone has their weaknesses against the pass rush, with the left side struggling in particular.
The line was able to succeed against the Jets because New York relies so much on their defensive tackles Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams for their pass rush and they don’t have consistent edge rushers. Very few other teams have that same roster build.
Dave Choate: Alright, time to talk about the defense. Why has this unit looked so awful thus far in 2017, and can a struggling Falcons offense get back on track against them, particularly through the air?
Rich Hill: The Patriots lost three of their top four edge defenders from 2016, along with a starting cornerback. Naturally, it’s been the linebackers that have been the worst part of the defense, followed closely by the roller coaster performance from megamillions cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower missed a couple weeks with an injury and that greatly affected the New England run defense, leading to some poor overall defensive performances. The linebackers seem to have settled down over the past two weeks with Hightower’s return and they actually had a good game last week.
As for the Patriots pass defense, the Falcons are in luck. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Patriots will be without Gilmore and Eric Rowe, two of the top three cornerbacks and two of the bigger defensive backs on the team. Gilmore missed last week with a concussion and an ankle injury leading to the Patriots playing special teamer Johnson Bademosi at cornerback. Bademosi actually did a really good job, but the Falcons and Julio Jones are very different from the Jets and their receivers. Bademosi will likely have to cover Jones because the Patriots won’t ask the shorter Malcolm Butler to take on the task and that could be very interesting- and heavily in the Falcons favor.
Final note: the Patriots have allowed every quarterback they’ve faced to throw for 300 or more passing yards this season. I would buy shares of Matt Ryan right now if I could.
Dave Choate: This is the most vulnerable the Patriots have looked in recent memory, but I look at the AFC East and can't see any team overtaking New England. Where does this team finish in 2017?
Rich Hill: First in the AFC East and first in the AFC. Is that too bold? I don’t think it is. The Patriots are again in the driver’s seat of the AFC East with the Dolphins and the Jets ranking in the bottom five of DVOA. The Bills are surprising teams right now, but they are also the Buffalo Bills and we can schedule their week 12 implosion as readily as we can predict that Bill Belichick will figure out the Patriots defense in the second half of the season. It’s clockwork.
As for the AFC as a whole, the Chiefs have lost two straight and Andy Reid’s teams have always struggled to finish strong, while the Steelers have always struggled to beat the Patriots. I would expect all three teams to finish between 11-5 and 13-3, but even if the Patriots don’t get the #1 seed, I would feel confident projecting the Patriots to finish on top of both come the playoffs.