The Patriots have historically been one of the best teams in the league at turnover margin: They force takeaways, and they rarely, if ever, turn the ball over. This year, though, is different. New England has continued to play safe with the ball ( only 9 turnovers in 11 games), but the the takeaways have been few and far between. Why is that?
For many, the first place to look would be the Jamie Collins trade. The dynamic linebacker was great at forcing turnovers last year, and he already had two interceptions in only six weeks this year. But when Collins was traded, that dried up. Elandon Roberts, his rookie replacement, has been solid fundamentally--but he's also failed to generate the same game-changing plays that Collins could be counted on for.
Without Collins, the Patriots' most electric player on defense has to be Malcolm Butler. The #1 cornerback flies around the ball and can lay big hits on receivers in the flats. Just last week, he punched the ball from Jets' Robby Anderson to force a fumble. The problem? He's often the only one playing that way--that forced fumble was the Patriots' first takeaway in over a month. Yeah, that's not a typo.
The Patriots might be doing fine right now, but they've made a lot of games against lowly opponents far too close for comfort. They were locked in a 31-10 struggle with the 1-10 49ers until the fourth quarter, and it took a last-gasp drive in the final five minutes to pull away from the 3-8 Jets. Against playoff teams, that kind of lazy play won't fly.
As it stands now, Kansas City leads the NFL in turnover margin at +14. The Raiders, who currently have the top seed in the AFC, sit at +10. Buffalo, New England's divisional rival, is at +8. The Seahawks, the only team to beat the Patriots with Tom Brady, is currently at +5. The Pats themselves? They sit at a measly +3.
The Patriots are Super Bowl contenders every year, and so far they're playing well enough to justify that label. However, if they want to advance come January, they're going to have to figure out how to take the ball away more often. They've got a tune-up this week against the LA Rams, and then it will be time to put those skills on display. If they impress against the Broncos and Ravens, they will go far in the playoffs. We'll see if they can deliver.
Photo courtesy New England Patriots
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