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Patriots Progress Report 2017 – Fourth Quarter

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There’s no question that the New England Patriots finished out the 2017 regular season strong.

The final four weeks saw the Pats put up a 3-1 record – including winning their final three in a row. It was more than enough to put them at the top of their division. Not only did they win the East, but they’re the top seed in the AFC, currently looking forward to a first-round playoff bye.

In the season’s final four games, New England found their way to victory even when certain parts of the team weren’t necessarily performing at an optimal level. This is a squad that never really put it all together in the final month, yet here they are, a championship favorite.

Even with an uneven performance in recent weeks, the Patriots still look poised to make some noise. Let’s look back at how they got here. After all, this feature is about what has been, not what is yet to come.

On to the Progress Report.

Offense – B+

This might seem a little harsh for a team that averaged over 27 points per game over this stretch, but the truth is that the Patriots haven’t looked all that strong on the offensive side. Some of that inconsistency has to be laid at the feet of Tom Brady, who offered up one strong performance, two meh games and easily his worst outing of the season in this stretch. He has averaged just 236 yards passing per game to go with six TDs and four picks. He’s still winning, but without the statistical flair we’ve seen in the past. Rob Gronkowski remains one of the game’s greatest weapons, piling up 14 catches for 235 yards and a TD in just two games over this stretch. Brandin Cooks has 12 catches and a score in the past four. Dion Lewis has more than picked up the slack; he has been a revelation at running back, putting up the best performance of his career. Over the season’s last month, he rushed for nearly 300 yards while catching 17 passes for an additional 127 and scoring five total TDs (three rushing, two receiving). If Brady gets right, this offense will be a freight train again.

Defense – B+

Again, this could be seen as damning with faint praise. After all, this is a unit that gave up just 66 points over the season’s final four games – an average of just 16.5 per contest. That’s an impressive number, although it’s buoyed considerably by the late-season smackdowns of the Bills and Jets. Still, it’s a unit that has come a long way since its brutal performance in 2017’s opening weeks. It’s not a group that features a lot in the way of star power, but there have been some players who have found ways to step up. Cornerback Stephen Gilmore has shown himself capable of covering the league’s best receivers, though he can still get burned by bad decisions from time to time. Linebacker Marquis Flowers, quiet for much of the year, exploded for 14 tackles and 3.5 sacks in the season’s final two games. Trey Flowers and Malcolm Brown remain a force on the defensive line, a position group that has turned itself into something more than the sum of its parts.

Special Teams – A-

It feels almost redundant to continue singing the praises of Stephen Gostkowski, but the guy just keeps performing at an elite level. Not only did he make all eight of his field goal tries over the past four (though he did miss one of his 11 PAT attempts), but he’s also demonstrated a wonderful ability to force kickoff returns that greatly impact field position. He’s one of the best. Punter Ryan Allen is coming into his own, averaging 45 per punt and landing half of his attempts inside the 20. The return game has been solid – Dion Lewis remains a strong returner on kickoffs, while Danny Amendola continues to be effective and workmanlike as a punt return man. Coverage on both kickoffs and punts remains a strong suit, thanks to the leadership of special teams studs like Matthew Slater.

Coaching – A-

Honestly, this one should probably always be an A, but I dinged them a little for the Week 14 to an obviously inferior Dolphins team. Still, New England remains one of the best-coached teams in the NFL. Bill Belichick has it down – he knows precisely what he needs to do to maximize his situation. And he’s got a pair of quality coordinators in Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, guys that he trusts to do their jobs (though he might be saying good-bye to one or both of them with all the head coaching vacancies popping up). They play hard and they play smart – hallmarks of good coaching. As always, in Belichick we trust.

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