The regular season is nearly over, and with one game remaining, we now have a pretty good idea of what this New England Patriots team is capable of and what challenges it will face heading into the playoffs. Here are five thoughts on the state of the Patriots heading into Week 17's finale against the Miami Dolphins.
1. Defense disrespected again
By all accounts, this year's New England Patriots defense should go down as one of the greatest in NFL history. Through 15 games the unit has allowed 13.2 points and 268.3 yards per game, both best in the league, and according to Football Outsiders, the team's defensive DVOA — an advanced metric that aims to account for all aspects of a team's performance — is the fifth best of any team since 1985.
You can go up and down the lineup and find great players who turned in outstanding performances, and yet, early in the season the narrative emerged that the Patriots were just kicking over a series of tin can offenses, and when it came time to honor the league's best, only cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Dont'a Hightower were honored as Pro Bowlers.
While they will never admit it publicly, the fact that just two Patriots defenders were named to the Pro Bowl will no doubt be taken as a slight. Devin McCourty and Jamie Collins were both clear snubs and you could make a strong case for Kyle Van Noy and Jonathan Jones as well.
This Patriots defense is great. Historically great. And yet, this unit somehow still isn't getting the respect it likely deserves from outside of New England. While that might be disappointing for fans, it's probably better this way. This unit has always played best when it has a chip on its shoulder, and after last year's dominant performance in the Super Bowl, the defenders had no problem letting everyone know exactly what they thought about all the talk that they weren't good enough.
So if they still feel like they have doubters that need to be proven wrong, that can only be a good thing when the playoffs roll around in January.
2. Playoff picture
The New England Patriots are in good shape heading into the playoffs. The Patriots (12-3) have already clinched the AFC East title, and with a win over the Miami Dolphins (4-11) would clinch a first round bye and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
The Patriots can also clinch home field advantage if the Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) lose to the Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) in their finale, but should the Patriots get upset at home by the Dolphins, the Chiefs could still jump them for the first round bye with a win.
Assuming New England does take care of business, it will mark the 10th consecutive season with a first round bye for the Patriots, marking an entire decade without ever having to play on Wild Card weekend.
3. Ageless wonder
Tom Brady has been so good for so long that we've all taken for granted just how incredible it is that he's still playing at such a high level at age 42. With home field advantage up for grabs going into Week 17, Brady should play on Sunday, and with that he will become the first quarterback in NFL history to play a full 16-game season at age 42 or older.
Though Brady's numbers this season are down, he's still been good enough to lead the Patriots to a 12-3 record. His 3,836 passing yards are ninth in the league, his 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions ratio is respectable, and his passer rating (88.0) is roughly in the middle of the pack among NFL quarterbacks this season.
Compared to every other quarterback who has played at age 42 or older, Brady's numbers are the best by a mile. The previous best 42+ season belonged to Warren Moon, who started 10 games for the Seattle Seahawks at age 42 in 1998. His numbers plunged by nearly half from his Pro Bowl age-41 season the year before, throwing for 1,632 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions against a 56.2 completion percentage, and he only went 4-6 on the year. None of the other five quarterbacks to play at age 42 or older did anything significant, making Brady's 2019 season truly remarkable historically even if it has been pedestrian by his standards.
4. Edelman's career year
We always talk about Brady's incredible longevity, but Julian Edelman has quietly put together arguably the best season of his career at a time when you would expect his play to start declining.
Through 15 games, the 33-year-old slot receiver has made 97 catches for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns. If he isn't held out on Sunday, then it would mark just the third time in 10 seasons that Edelman has played all 16 games, and if he maintains his current season averages, he would either approach or exceed his career highs in every major receiving stat.
Edelman's performances are even more impressive when you consider that he's only two years removed from a torn ACL, and that this year he is effectively the team's only top-line receiving weapon. None of that was good enough for him to earn his first Pro Bowl bid, however, even though his numbers are better than Pro Bowl selections Jarvis Landry (81 catches, 1,092 yards, 5 TDs) and Tyreek Hill (54 catches, 799 yards, 7 TDs).
5. Spygate 2.0 update
Earlier this week, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk had an update on the league's investigation into the Patriots' latest video taping controversy. Essentially, the league has begun interviewing members of the Patriots' organization to determine if the Kraft Sports Productions video crew that filmed the Cincinnati Bengals sideline for a documentary had any connection with the team's football operations.
"League investigators also collected devices from certain individuals, for the purposes of attempting to establish a connection to the team’s football operations," Florio wrote. "As one source explained it, there’s a sense that investigators want to make that connection, and a perception that they are showing frustration when unable to tie the video crew to the football employees."
None of this comes as a surprise given the Patriots' history and the league's handling of the whole Deflategate fiasco, but if the league tries to find proof but can't, then there's no reason to expect a league punishment anywhere near the level of the original Spygate.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.