In a development that fans are still getting used to, the Patriots watched from home as the NFL’s four best battled to reach the Super Bowl. The Patriots need to take some lessons from this year’s top contenders to get back where they belong. Here, I will review the aspects that made those teams so great this year, specifically those that the Patriots lacked.
Eagles – Star Receivers Can Alter The Complexion Of A Team
Jalen Hurts and the Eagles had already shown some promise last year. They executed well on both sides of the ball down the stretch and were able to play their way into a playoff spot. In the 2022 wild-card game against the Bucs, they were significantly outclassed, and their lack of weapons was very much exposed, and the resulting offensive struggles ended the game before it started.
In that game, almost their entire offensive game plan hinged on Dallas Goedert, with Devonta Smith still developing, and no other veteran option. A year after they spent their first-round (tenth) pick on the Heisman champion Smith, they made a blockbuster trade on draft day to land A.J. Brown. With Smith growing from year one to year two, the Eagles all of a sudden had a solid group of weapons, led by Smith, Brown, and Goedert.
The results were staggering, with Hurts and the offense adding significant explosiveness to an already technically sound scheme, and now that Eagles team finds themselves in a super bowl. The Patriots have a well-rounded receiver group but need a true top receiver to open up the offensive options for Mac Jones, and the improvement that the Eagles have seen this season show the possible improvements from such a change if the Patriots were to do the same this offseason.
Niners – A Rock-Solid Offensive System Can Allow Many QBs To Flourish
Lance, Garoppolo, Purdy. Whether it’s the third pick in the draft or the last pick, the innovative, bold schemes that Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Slowik have devised are friendly to quarterbacks of all types. The niners combine a number of simple and pure strengths that comprise the offense that makes them so successful.
Most importantly, they prioritize the trenches, and on offensive line, from guard to tackle, they have athletic, big, and physical players with good fundamentals. Of course, good offensive line coaching is at the back of that. They’re well-schemed in terms of play calling, and give game plans with smart, high-percentage game plans and a solid balance of pass and run. As a result, accuracy, smart decisions, and ball security is all that is really needed from a quarterback to flourish.
Of course, in addition to all this, they surround their quarterbacks with good playmakers. Whether it’s the multifaced, dynamic threats of McCaffrey and Samuel, or the dominant downfield presences of Aiyuk and Kittle, there’s a treasure trove of excellent options for their quarterbacks to throw to. These aspects that made the San Francisco offense great were things that were, quite frankly, missing for the Patriots. With no true number-one weapons, a poor offensive line, and lackluster playcalling, the Patriots put Mac Jones in about as bad of a situation as they could have possibly put him in his second year.
Chiefs – Boldness And Unconventionality Can Carry You Over The Line In The Big Moments
Of course, there’s no doubt that the Chiefs have plenty of raw strengths beyond playcalling. With a well-rounded group of weapons, an MVP-level quarterback, and an improving defense, Kansas City’s roster alone has plenty of strength, and in certain position groups, they eclipse the Patriots even in that aspect. However, in the big games, a roster alone isn’t enough. That’s where the playcalling comes in.
From shovel passes to QB scrambles to tight-end laterals, Kansas City will mix in plays that deviate from conventionality, and regardless of their effectiveness, will put defenses on notice. Defensively, they’ve been aggressive, going for blitzes and putting offenses on notice, in many ways compensating for the lack of intimidating factors elsewhere in their defense.
They also play bold situational football. They go for fourth downs when it wouldn’t be expected, will pass in obvious running situations, and overall create an air of unpredictability. They broke their 6-6 tie with the Bengals with a 4th-and-1 pass to Travis Kelce, and the play call took the Bengals by surprise given the down and distance. Bold play calls like those, innovative use of unconventional weapons like Isaiah Pacheco and aggressive, opportunistic defense carried the Chiefs through a true battle that led them to a Super Bowl berth.
Bengals – Talent And Balance Are A Contending Combination
The Bengals have an excellent, well-rounded roster. They have a promising, young QB, a three-headed monster at receiver with Chase, Higgins, and Boyd, and two excellent running backs in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. The defense is led by an excellent corner in Eli Apple, talented edge rushers in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, among others.
With so much talent, finding the right way to use it is difficult. Cincinnati, however, has figured out how to cultivate a truly balanced attack – something the Patriots desperately need to do next season. Defensively, they vary schemes consistently, and are unpredictable, while never relying on a singular player or positon group.
Offensively, while they’re a passing-centric group, simply due to the number of weapons they have on that wing, in the big moments, they can rely on their receivers and running backs – who also excel in the pass-catching game – equally. Their running back platoon has been used to splitting time since their days playing together at OU, and understand their individual strengths, roles, and contributions extremely well. Their win against Buffalo to set up the AFC Championship against Kansas City showed this extremely well, and Cincinnati was able to have almost as many rushing first downs (13) as passing firsts (14). Within their passing attack, while Chase is a true number one receiver, he’s just one cog in an attack that uses a wide variety of weapons.
The Patriots know how to distribute, and have some level of balance with their running-back duo, and a group of talented receivers. Cincinnati’s success model – young QB, great weapons, proper use of each cog – is probably the best model for the Patriots to draw inspiration from. What New England is missing is that unifying factor of each weapon knowing their role and having chemistry with Mac Jones. Bill O’Brien instilling this balance is an essential part of the Patriots’ path back to relevance.
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