.....and it finally happened. Tom Brady, the face of the Patriots' offense, the one player we have never seen nor never thought would get injured, is done for the year. And as fans in the northeast try to come to the realization that the Matt Cassel era has begun, the Bills and the Jets realize they just caught the biggest of breaks. What had been a two team race for second has turned into a three team race for first.
IMPACT ON THE DIVISION
The Patriots have had an iron grip on the division since 2003, and this year figured to be no different. The Jets and Bills both made off-season moves with the thought of a Wild Card birth. Now those moves could give either team a division title. What makes this injury somewhat troublesome for New England (aside from the loss of arguably the best QB in the league) is that New England must go to New Jersey next week and face a Jets team that can smell blood in the water. The following week the Pats play another divisional opponent, the Dolphins, who looked relatively impressive in their 20-14 loss to the Jets as Pennington threw for two scores and 251 yards.
While Matt Cassel did see most of the snaps with the first team in the pre-season, the team still game planned and approached the season with the belief number 12 was going to be under center all season long. Now Cassel and the coaching staff have just one week in which develop a new identity and game plan for the Jets. With the Jets playing just two playoff teams outside of the Patriots (Chargers and Titans), there is a chance they could reach the 10-12 win plateau, and the Pats can ill-afford to give New Jersey momentum and an early division lead. Working in favor of the Patriots is that Brett Favre is still not yet completely settled into the Jets offense after coming over from Green Bay part way through the pre-season, and that the small margin of victory over the Fins maybe more indicative of a mediocre Jets team than it is of a vastly improved Miami team.
The team that will probably surface as the Pats’ main competitor this season will be the Bills who looked very impressive in their 34-10 stomping of a receiver starved Seattle Seahawks team. The Bills were in the hunt for the playoffs last year until they dropped three straight to end the season. But, with Trent Edwards more experienced, the offensive line improved (Jason Peters ending his holdout) and the additions on defense, the Bills are another possible 10 win team, and 10 wins could be all that is necessary to win the AFC East. The Pats and Bills face off in Buffalo to finish off the season......a game that could decide who wins the division.
The East, for the first time since 2002, will be a race that could come down to what happens in week 17.
IMPACT ON THE PATRIOTS
After watching Tom Brady gingerly limp his way off the field, there was an even more shocking sight.......the New England Patriots playing they way they did in 2001 and 2003.....screens, quick passes into the flat, running backs being involved in both facets of the offense. It was a reminder of how this team won before the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker showed up.
No, this is not the delusional ranting of a New England fan who thinks that the start of the Matt Cassel era will resemble the start of the Tom Brady era. However, while we all acknowledge Matt Cassel is not Tom Brady, we must also acknowledge that Matt Cassel does not need to play like Tom Brady.
With Brady out and the inexperienced Cassel in, expect the Pats offense to look more like it did under Charlie Weiss with screens, more intermediate and shorter routes, and a greater emphasis on the running game. The keys to the offense will be to limit the number of possessions the opposing team gets as well as keep Cassel and the offense in short yardage situations on 2nd and 3rd downs. As we saw against KC after Cassel came in, the Pats will still go to 4 and 5 wide sets, but will now have to pick their spots on when to stretch the defense.
There were questions about the Patriots’ defense coming into this season. The secondary has a host of new faces, there was the prospect that a rookie would be starting at line backer, and the question of whether the defense was masked last season by a great offense that made opposing teams one dimensional in the second half. Without Brady the offense lacks its big play capabilities as well as the ability to score in bunches, meaning the Pats cannot afford to get down early and must control the tempo of the game.
To achieve any of this and have success this season, the Pats will need to jump start their running game......and they have plenty of bodies to try just that. Maroney, Faulk, Morris, Jordan and Evans round out a deep unit that has the potential to be a dominant force. With Brady out there will be a greater emphasis on the running game......18 pass attempts in the final 3 plus quarters against KC is a sign of things to come.
It is tough to gage the performances of Cassel and the team given their weak opponent and the circumstances of watching the team leader lay on the ground. And while we saw Cassel struggle in the pre-season and at times against the Chiefs (4 drives that went 3 and out), there are reasons to be optimistic. Cassel, in his 4th season with the Pats, knows the offense and knows the personnel. He took most of the reps in the pre-season when Brady was out with a foot injury and is familiar with his receivers. Two of those receivers, Welker and Moss, are talented play makers who will help Cassel’s transition into being a full time starter. Further, while the defense has some new faces and questions to answer, they have talent and experience on all 3 units.
The Pats, given their light schedule, are still a playoff contender that could win 10-12 games. However, with divisional opponents in the very near future, the Hoodie and his coaching staff have little margin for error in preparing this team for life without Tom Brady.