When Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas picked off a Tom Brady pass to clinch a 20-17 win on Sunday afternoon, there were likely very few people on the New England Patriots sidelines who felt much angst. After all, the Patriots still sit at the top of the AFC East with a 10-4 record, and with only two games left to play, head coach Bill Belichick can go home feeling assured that he will be coaching come playoff time.
But while this is clearly a good feeling, there is a big question looming in the New England locker room. This question surrounds whether quarterback Brady can lead the Patriots to the 2014 Super Bowl without the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who went down to a torn ACL just last week and is clearly out for the remainder of the current season.
Against the Dolphins, the statistics of Brady looked like a guy that felt no ill effects, as he completed 34-of-55 passes for 364 yards, two touchdowns, and only threw an interception on the last play of the game. But when things are put into a different perspective, it is clear that he missed Gronkowski, and in a big way.
The quarterback averaged a mere 6.6 yards per pass attempt, seemed to not even truly look down the field for the entirety of the game, and was burnt for it with the interception coming during the part of the game when the Patriots normally shine. Furthermore, they targeted Austin Collie with the game on the line, and while a fine receiver, he stands only 6-feet tall and has never been a guy to call upon with the game on the line.
Currently, however, it can be said that New England has nobody who should truly be called upon with the game on the line, as slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola may consistently move the chains, but they don’t change games. The two were targeted 33 out of the 55 times Brady threw the ball on Sunday, and they set the trend, as not a single wide receiver over 6-feet was targeted even once.
To make things worse, the only tight end that was targeted, and subsequently made a catch, was Michael Hoomanawanui, who was targeted three times and made one catch for 13 yards and a touchdown. While the touchdown may make things a little rosier, don’t be fooled. Hoomanawanui is not a game changer at tight end, even with Brady throwing to him, and didn’t even have a 10th of the impact that Gronkowski has every time he steps on the field.
This brings us back to the major problem that Brady faced on Sunday afternoon, and subsequently, will face as the Patriots move forward into the playoffs. New England does not have a single downfield threat on their roster currently, and even a Hall of Fame quarterback cannot make 6-foot wide receivers grow five inches, and he certainly cannot turn Hoomanawanui into Gronkowski.
Every other coach in the NFL knows this and will make sure to relentlessly attack it to make sure Brady and the Patriots cannot throw the ball come playoff time. If, and when, that is accomplished, it will be impossible for New England to make it past the first round and they will look back to the fact that Brady is simply not the same without Gronkowski to explain why they didn’t win the 2014 Super Bowl.