Five Things I Hope to See in the New England Patriots Regular Season Finale

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While some teams take the opportunity to rest players during the final week of the regular season, that's not always an option, as there could still be playoff seeding at stake. That's the situation the New England Patriots find themselves in this Sunday. Needing a win to ensure themselves of at least the #2 seed, and with an outside shot at the #1 seed, the Patriots will be out in full force against the New York Jets. It's important for teams to be playing good football as they enter the postseason, or at least practicing some good habits. Here are five things I'd like to see from the Patriots in Sunday's regular season finale.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Chris Hogan Involved
Hogan has appeared in all 15 games this year, but has been targeted just 44 times, his lowest mark since his rookie season in 2013 when he recorded just 17. In his previous two seasons with the Patriots, Hogan has been targeted 116 times combined; including 59 targets in just 9 games last year. Last week was the first time since joining New England that Hogan wasn't targeted all game. It was also the fourth time this season where he failed to catch a pass. To put it in perspective, in the previous two seasons, Hogan failed to catch a pass in just one game.

Now, Hogan is a complementary piece in this offense. He takes a back seat to guys like Julian Edelman, James White, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon while he was here. Now, with Gordon gone and Gronkowski not producing like Pats fans have grown accustomed to, Hogan's role in this offense becomes even more important.

Against the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday, Tom Brady completed just 7 passes to wide receivers; 6 of those went to Edelman. Maybe Hogan's not getting open as consistently as in previous seasons, but we've seen plays this year where he has been open, and Brady just hasn't looked his way. As a guy who runs the intermediate routes in this offense, he needs an extra second or two to get open. However, with Brady so concerned with getting the ball out quickly, it's not giving Hogan enough time to finish his routes and get open.

I'm not expecting or even asking for a huge game from Hogan against the New York Jets.  However, I'd like to see Brady at least look his way, especially as we head into the playoffs.  Something to the tune of 4-6 targets, so that defenses actually have to respect and pay attention to him.  Hogan has been outstanding in the playoffs the past two seasons, with 26 catches, 484 yards and 4 touchdowns. If the Patriots hope for similar production this postseason, they need to get him involved, starting this Sunday.

Red Zone Efficiency
An area that for years has been a strength for New England's offense has not been up to par this year. Whether you are looking at the number of points per red zone appearance, or number of touchdowns per red zone appearance, they have consistently had a top 10, or top 5 red zone offense in the league. That hasn't been the case this year, as New England is middle of the pack in red zone metrics.

Since the beginning of the Brady and Belichick era, numerous teams have failed to beat the Patriots because of their inability to score a touchdown in the red zone. While opponent's have been kicking field goals, the Patriots have been scoring touchdowns. That hasn't been the case this year. As a matter of fact, New England's two most recent losses can be attributed to red zone struggles.

In terms of red zone trips that ended in touchdowns, against Miami, they were 3 for 6, and against Pittsburgh, they were 0 for 3. They settled for field goals on those other occasions, or came away empty handed. Those percentages are not going to win you a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl. On Sunday, I'd like to see the Patriots finish more than half of their red zone trips in the red zone.

Pressure on Sam Darnold
The Jets offensive line has done a pretty good job of protecting its quarterback this year. As a team, they've allowed just 33 sacks, which is tied for the eighth fewest in the league. However, Darnold has been sacked 26 times in 12 games this season, and has been sacked 3 times or more in 5 of those 12 games. There's opportunities there.

While the Patriots defense as a whole has performed better at home than on the road, one area where they have been significantly better away from Gillette Stadium is pressuring the quarterback. The Patriots have the second fewest amount of sacks in the league, with just 26. However, 17 of those have come on the road. Meaning they have sacked the quarterback just 9 times in 7 home games this year.

Now the sack numbers don't tell the whole story in terms of pressuring the quarterback, but it helps paint a picture. Anybody who watches this team knows that pass rush is an area of weakness for this defense, and has been for years now. With both Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa out for Sunday's game, Darnold's options will be limited. He may have to hold onto the ball for an extra second or two, which could make all the difference for guys like Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise.

Good Run Defense
If you have watched the Patriots this year, then you know that they have a hard time stopping the run. In terms of rushing yards allowed, the numbers show that New England is middle of the pack, at 13th in the league. However, the eye test tells another story. At times, they have felt like one of the worst in the league. When you look at yards allowed per attempt, the team is second worst in the league allowing just under 5 yards per carry.

When New England allows more than 100 yards on the ground, they are 3-5. They have allowed opponents to rush for 150 yards or more 5 times this year. On the other hand, they are a perfect 7-0 when keeping teams under 100 yards. While 100 yards seems like a magic number, I'm more concerned with the yards per carry.

The last time the Patriots met the Jets, New York rushed for just 74 yards. However, they averaged nearly 5 yards per carry as they ran the ball just 15 times. That number is unacceptable, especially against the Jets rushing attack. The Jets are one of just three teams in the NFL averaging less than 4 yards per carry on the year.

Last week, Buffalo ran for 72 yards on 18 carries, a healthy 4 yards per carry; but their running backs ran for just 42 yards on 13 carries. Anytime you can hold a team to under 4 yards per carry, that's a successful game. That's what I'm looking for this Sunday. With the Jets leading rusher in Isaiah Crowell out, that shouldn't be an issue for New England.

No Injuries
With the Patriots needing a win to ensure themselves of a first-round playoff bye, Sunday's game certainly has some meaning. However, more important than anything else is avoiding any major injuries. Many of you may remember the regular season finale of the 2009-10 season. At 10-5, the Patriots had a playoff berth clinched. The only thing up in the air was if they would finish as the #3 or #4 seed; so they weren't really playing for much.

The team rested some, but not all of its starters. As luck would have it, Wes Welker - who led the league in receptions and was second in yards that season - shredded his knee in the first quarter on a non-contact play. The Pats wound up getting stomped on Wildcard Weekend by the Baltimore Ravens, in a game where the offense was stuck in mud.

That's the exact type of scenario I'd like to avoid on Sunday. So, if that means Brady needs to throw a few passes into the dirt to avoid getting hit, so be it. If Edelman wants to avoid reaching out for a ball to avoid taking a big hit, I'm fine with it. Winning on Sunday is important, but health is priority number one. I'd rather have a fully healthy team on Wildcard Weekend, then a team missing some key players in the Divisional Round.

Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Five Things I Hope to See in the New England Patriots Regular Season Finale
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