There was Julian Edelman last week, clad in black sneakers -- the sneakers are key -- on what appeared to be a casual stroll on Boston's Newbury Street. That he was walking -- without a cast, walking boot or anything else suggesting the bone broken in his foot he suffered less than a month ago was causing him agony -- set off a wave of hope among Patriots fans that Edelman might return sooner than expected, which is currently forecast for around the start of the playoffs in January.
That the armchair prognosis ignored the critical fact that Edelman wasn't cutting or running on Boston's toniest block is beside the point. Edelman's rate of recovery is merely serving as a barometer of the very real concern that the Patriots' most formidable foe this season will not be the Broncos or Bengals or this week's opponent, but the attrition of their own roster.
Under normal conditions, a forecast that calls for an injured player's return by the playoffs would be a formality in New England. The Patriots are going to the playoffs -- nobody in the AFC East is going to catch them. The much larger issue looming is whether the Patriots can get back into one of the top two seeds in the AFC -- they are currently the third seed behind the Bengals and Broncos -- which would give them a bye in the first round. The Patriots have had byes in each of their four championship seasons. The extra rest, given their lengthy injury report, feels crucial for the two targets Tom Brady will lean on the most.
Things have been so good for so long in Foxborough that a two-game losing streak counts as cause for examination. The Patriots have not had a three-game losing streak since 2002 -- Brady's second season as a starter -- an astonishing run of consistency that points directly to what may be Bill Belichick's greatest attribute as a coach: his uncanny ability to adjust to his circumstances. But after the shocking loss to the Eagles last Sunday, and the series of miscues, hits on Brady and dropped passes that contributed to it, the Patriots appear to be more vulnerable than usual, a turn of events that is startling in its swiftness.
When the Patriots beat the Giantsin Week 10, they were 9-0. But Edelman limped off the field in that game, and things haven't been the same since. At the midpoint of the season, the Patriots had a formidable trio of weapons for Tom Brady in Dion Lewis, Rob Gronkowski and Edelman. Lewis was the first to go, felled by a knee injury in Week 9. Then Edelman was hurt. Still, the Patriots were able to beat the Bills to go to 10-0, although receiver Danny Amendolasuffered a knee injury in that game. When Gronkowski was carted off the field in Denver in Week 12 -- with a knee injury that, in a stroke of good fortune, will not end his season -- the Patriots were left with a handful of targets with whom Brady has limited chemistry and timing. Compounding the problem is the near constant shuffling that injuries have forced on the offensive line, where the Patriots have used nine different starting combinations through 12 games.
The fallout has been obvious. While the Patriots still have the league's top-ranked scoring offense (31.2 points per game) and passing offense (315.8 yards per game), there has been a noticeable dip in recent weeks. In the three games the Patriots have had to play without Edelman, they are averaging 9.7 fewer points, and their third-down conversion rate has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points -- they ranked tops in the league in that category through the team's first nine games and just 26th over that three-game span. None of this should come as a surprise: Lewis, Edelman and Gronkowski have accounted for 50.9 percent of all the Patriots' passing yards.
As a result, the Patriots have had to lean on different targets, and the results have been predictably uneven. The Patriots had seven drops against the Eagles, according to NFL Media research, including three consecutive drops on their final drive. They have 26 drops this season, tied for second-most in the NFL.
Even more alarming, especially considering that the Houston Texans employ J.J. Watt -- to whom Belichick offered the highest possible praise by putting him in the same sentence as Lawrence Taylor -- is the pounding Brady has taken. Brady has been sacked eight times and hit 32 times in the last three games, more than any other quarterback has been hit in that span. It doesn't take much to piece together what is happening: The offensive line is struggling in protection, Brady has to hold the ball a split-second longer because of the unfamiliar targets, and the end result is more hits and reduced efficiency. The loss of Gronkowski, in particular, took a toll last week. Brady's completion rate was just 51.8 percent, well off the 65.2 percent he was at before Gronkowski was added to the injury log. That's no surprise. Since he was drafted, you could make a good argument that Gronkowski -- who returned to the practice field, albeit in limited capacity, Thursday -- is the most important non-quarterback in the league.
"You have to have people open on time and in rhythm to be able to get the ball out on time," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. "There are other times where you certainly need to hold up the protection a little bit cleaner, a little bit longer to try to execute a specific type of play."
None of this means the Patriots are doomed, of course. The Bengals and Broncos play each other Dec. 28, which means one of them will have at least one more loss. The Broncos also play in Pittsburgh on Dec. 20. The Bengals host Pittsburgh this weekend. Edelman is expected to return in time for the playoffs, although his effectiveness will be worth watching. Gronkowski returned to practice Thursday, wearing a brace on his right leg.
But the first adjustment Belichick will be forced to make to keep hopes alive for a first-round bye is to help the offensive line block the likes of Watt, who spearheads a group that has, since Week 9, been the top passing defense and the second-best scoring defense in the league. Watt may be compromised, though. He broke his left hand in practice Wednesday and wore a cast on Thursday, when he did not practice. He said he will play in the game Sunday, although it remains to be seen if the injury affects his ability to ward off offensive linemen and grab quarterbacks.
Watt has 13.5 sacks (most in the NFL) and 42 quarterback hits, both more than he had at this time last season, which ended in him being named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Still, the Buffalo Billscontained him, limiting Watt to just four tackles and no quarterback hits or sacks despite having backups starting at right guard and tackle. The Bills double-teamed Watt, and Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy said he could sense Watt's frustration building during the game.
The difference this week is a sense that the Patriots are vulnerable, that opponents have a very narrow opening created by a MASH-like injury situation to topple a team that, just two weeks ago, seemed unbeatable.
These moments don't come along often. The last time it did, in fact, was last season, when the Patriots were trounced by the Chiefs amid offensive-line woes and substandard play by Brady. It proved to be the pivot point for a championship run. Don't bet against the Patriots having another one of those just yet.
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 14:
With only the final quarter of the season left to go, there are three other games on the weekend schedule with significant playoff implications.
1) Coming off a big upset win last week, the Eagles turn around for another tough test. The Bills' defense has just 18 sacks, but one question that has to concern the Eagles is whether they can protect Sam Bradford against the pass rush. What they can't afford is a lot of short drives that force their defense on the field repeatedly against the Bills' powerful running attack. A highly-motivatedLeSean McCoy leads the Bills' run game, which currently ranks fourth in the league, and that is a potentially bad matchup for an Eagles defense that is 27th against the run and has repeatedly worn down during long days on the field (the Eagles' offense is last in the league in time of possession). The Bills are currently one game out of an AFC wild-card spot, and the Eagles are tied for first place in the NFC East.
2) The Bengals may be the best team in the AFC. Their scoring offense and defense are both ranked in the top four, yet the buzz this week is about the danger of the Steelers' explosive offense and how the Bengals may try to corral it. The Steelers have scored at least 30 points and gained at least 450 yards in each of their last four consecutive games, and their downfield passing game is deadly. The question, then, is whether the Bengals can get to Ben Roethlisberger with their pass rush before he has time to unload. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have combined for 17.5 sacks and 52 quarterback hits, and the Bengals are allowing just 16.3 points per game. If the Steelers can contain Dunlap and Atkins, this game could be a shootout, with the Steelers trying to keep their wild-card hopes alive and the Bengals hoping to remain the AFC's top seed.
3) The Packers' offense has noticeably sputtered, particularly in the last two months. They are on pace to have their worst offense, statistically, in the eight-year-long Aaron Rodgers era. Rodgers' completion rate is just 61 percent, which would be the worst of his career as a starter. The Cowboys would gladly take Green Bay's problems -- they're averaging just 17 points per game without Tony Romo, and have won just one game (last week against Washington) without him. Now backup Matt Cassel faces a new challenge: The Packers' scoring defense is currently ranked higher than its scoring offense. The Cowboys' defense has kept the team in games, and it will try to keep Rodgers in the pocket. Still, even a not-right Packers offense has far more firepower and playmaking ability than an offense led by Cassel, and it's hard to imagine the Cowboys can keep alive their improbable playoff hopesafter a date with the Packers, who currently lead the NFC North.