Behind Enemy Lines: Patriots

Patriots Insider's Jon Scott checks in to give us the scoop on the hottest team in the NFL. How has their offense thrived without Randy Moss? Why is Tom Brady the clear leader to be named MVP? That and much more in Part 1 of this three-part series.

Bill Huber: So, Mr. Scott, have you made your travel plans for Arlington for that first weekend in February? We'll get into some of the particulars below and in our matchups piece late in the week, but this team looks like the class of the NFL. Agreed? Or is there some fatal flaw that will show its ugly head at some point in January?

Jon Scott: The Patriots are on a tear right now, that much is certain. They've become the darling pick of Vegas now that they've obliterated the Jets and Bears after humbling the Steelers and squeaking by the Chargers, Colts and Ravens.

If there's one flaw, it's the defense, which has been either very hot or abysmally cold. In particular, the Patriots' pass defense, which until Thanksgiving's win over the Lions was the worst in the NFL. A good quarterback will be able to expose that secondary. It hasn't changed much since pre-Thanksgiving.

Bill: I know a lot of eyebrows were raised when the Patriots dumped Randy Moss on the Vikings. We all know Moss is a lousy guy to have around, but the Patriots clearly were contenders, and if they had lived that long with Moss, what was another couple of months? Well, I guess Bill Belichick knew what he was doing.


Tom Brady has thrived without Randy Moss.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Jon: Teams had a way to shut down the Patriots when Moss was on the field in a multiple-receiver set. New England tried various ways to get the ball to Moss, putting him in motion, using him on screens, having him go deep.

But regardless of how they tried, Moss became little more than a decoy. It appears Moss realized that was going to be his fate in a contract season, so he wanted to get paid before his numbers dropped or get traded to a team where he could put up better stats. So, Moss forced his way out.

There's an interesting take on how teams fared with Moss and after Moss. The Titans, Vikings and the Patriots played better without Moss than they did with him. It's not Moss' fault; clearly, he can make plays. His production is directly related to how the offensive coordinator utilizes him. New England realized early that they had a different set of options without Moss. They needed another veteran receiver to make it happen, but they figured out a way to neutralize opposing defenders who would normally focus on limiting Moss' production. So, New England had a choice: live with Moss for one season, knowing they wouldn't sign him to a big-money contract to be little more than a decoy, or move forward with their new offensive game plan to utilize multiple-receiver and tight end sets. The Pats chose the path without Moss.

Bill: Without Moss, the Patriots have turned to more than just Wes Welker. It's been nobodies like Danny Woodhead, retreads like Deion Branch and, impressively, their rookie tight ends, who have combined for 72 catches and 11 touchdowns. What can you tell us about the guys that have picked up the slack and how the offense has changed without Moss. And is that change for the better?

Jon: The Patriots have recast their offense into a tight end-based system that puts the rookies, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, into key roles. NFL Network described the new system as hard to defend because all of the parts are so interchangeable. If you go look at the tape, you can see how versatile the new lineup has become.

New England can put Woodhead, Welker or even Hernandez in the backfield to run a play designed to create mismatches. Where most defenses use a linebacker to defend the back in the backfield, New England gets Woodhead, Welker or Hernandez matched up on slower, less cover-ready defenders with that type of formation. New England can also use the lineup to run, with Woodhead turning in some amazing performances from a short pass or hand-off.

Bill: Had the Packers not thrown their season away at Detroit, I think most people figured Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers would help decide the MVP race. Has this been Brady's best season, considering he had to adapt on offense at midseason with the Moss deal?


Tom Brady had the Patriots dashing through the snow at Chicago.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Jon: You can make a case that Brady is having the best season of his career this year. While most people focus on total yards as the measuring statistic, Brady's success is finding ways to get the ball into the end zone. New England leads the NFL in points scored. Brady finds ways to get touchdowns when it looks like the team will have to settle for a field goal or, worse, punt.

Certainly, Rodgers deserves credit for getting the Packers into a position to compete for the division, but Rodgers hasn't quite turned into the miracle worker Brady has become with a group of average Joes. Take away Brady's weapons and he finds new ways to get the ball downfield. Take away his best offensive linemen, and he makes up for the drop-off by getting rid of the ball faster or checking out of negative plays. It seems that as skilled as Rodgers is, he needs his line intact or his receivers on the field to be productive.

Here's another reason why a Brady-led offense is so dangerous. He's converting nearly 90 percent of his drives in no man's land (between midfield and the opponent's 30-yard line), according to research by The Big Lead's Jason Lisk.

"The Patriots gained a first down or directly scored a touchdown on 68 of 76 (89.5 percent) series of downs that began in this "No Man's Land," Lisk wrote.

The play against the Bears in which Branch scored on a go route just before the half was Brady and Branch being on the same page. Belichick admitted after it was Brady's decision on what to do with the ball, and Brady – realizing there were just 4 seconds left – motioned to Branch to go deep when everyone (including the CBS broadcast crew) thought they were running out the clock. It's just one more example of why Brady is the leading candidate for MVP.

Bill: Belichick also looks like he'll win coach of the year. I thought Mike McCarthy had a chance for that until last week. From the outside, this looks like his best coaching job, considering the offense doesn't have a real big-time threat (no offense to Welker) and the average age on defense must be 15.

Jon: You can make a case for a lot of coaches who are having good years, but yes, this looks like one of Belichick's best. He has his team in the playoffs with an 11-2 record, playing four rookies on a defense that once ranked dead last in total yards. Rookies and undrafted free agents are playing key roles on both sides of the ball.

Bill: On paper, the Patriots' defense looks vulnerable. What about in reality?

Jon: If there's one aspect that teams can exploit, it's the Patriots' defense. When opponents find a way to stop New England on offense, they can take the resulting possession and run with it. The Patriots are the worst team in the league in stopping opponents on third down. Even with the performances the last two weeks, New England's opponents manage a first down 48 percent of the time (down from 51 percent).


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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