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Focusing On Bad Opponents Is Missing Forest For Trees And Other Leftover Patriots Thoughts

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots are the NFL's only 5-0 team. They've outscored opponents 155-34. Some people find this to be very impressive. Others remain unconvinced that the Patriots are in fact a great team.

That is based on the fact that through five weeks, the Patriots have faced five very bad teams. Their opponents are a combined 5-18, with three of those opponents remaining winless to this point of the year. Throw in the grisly parade of bad quarterbacking that has waltzed in front of Bill Belichick's team, and it is fair to note that the Patriots' complete and total dominance thus far comes with a raised eyebrow or two. Against better competition, surely the Patriots will look slightly more human.

That much is understandable. But to focus solely on the lack of competition is to entirely miss the point of what is taking place.

Consider this: Right now if we want to assess the Patriots -- and particularly their defense -- we can't use any teams from 2019. We can't use teams from last year, or even the last decade. We can't look at the best teams of the Bill Belichick era, either.

If we want to find a point of comparison, we have to ... look to the greatest teams of all time. We have to look at the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2002 Buccaneers or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the Steel Curtain of the 1970s. Those are the only points of comparison we can muster, because no other teams have ever been in the stratosphere of the 2019 Patriots (through five weeks, of course).

Don't take my word for it, either. The NFL is doing it:

Those defenses are all remembered for being varying levels of impenetrable for entire seasons. They have gone down in history for their dominance.

They have not gone down in history for their quality of opponent.

Can you name, off the top of your head, five quarterbacks faced by the '85 Bears? It's unlikely. And though that team did manhandle Joe Montana, it also lost to the only other top-level QB faced that year, when Dan Marino threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-24 Miami win on Monday Night Football.

Other than that, the Bears got a heavy dose of quarterbacks like Randy Wright (career passer rating: 61.4), Jim Zorn (67.3), David Archer (61.9), Mike Pagel (63.3) and final-year-of-his-career Joe Thiesmann (59.6 rating in '85). The Bears faced Steve DeBerg twice (74.2 career rating) and Eric Hipple twice (68.7 career rating). In the playoffs, the Bears beat CFL quarterback Dieter Brock (he of one total NFL season) in the championship game and the duo of Tony Eason and Steve Grogan in the Super Bowl. Understanding that Grogan is a beloved figure around these parts, he still only has a career passer rating of 69.6.

Despite that cavalcade of ghastly quarterbacking, the '85 Bears remains the gold standard of NFL defense.

If there were to be a challenger to that throne, it would be the 2000 Ravens. The best quarterbacks faced by those Ravens were Brad Johnson (82.5 career rating), Steve McNair (82.8) and Mark Brunell (84.0).

Those Ravens also lost games to Kordell Stewart (70.7), Jay Fiedler (77.1) and the aforementioned Johnson.

Those Ravens faced quarterbacks like Spergon Wynn (39.5 rating), Ryan Leaf (50.0), Akili Smith (52.8), Doug Pederson (62.3 rating), final-year-of-his-career Troy Aikman (64.3 rating that year), Kent Graham (69.0), Jake Plummer (74.6), Vinny Testaverde (in one of the four years in which he led the league in interceptions), Tim Couch (75.1), and Scott Mitchell (75.3).

Yes, Tim Couch was one of the better quarterbacks to oppose the 2000 Ravens.

In the playoffs, they beat a duo of Gus Frerotte (74.2) and Jarious Jackson (46.4) in the wild-card round, and they beat McNair in the divisional round. The Ravens knocked Rich Gannon out of the championship game, forcing Oakland to turn to Bobby Hoying (64.3), who predicatably completed 50 percent of his passes while throwing two picks. And in Super Bowl XXXV, the mighty Ravens dominated poor Kerry Collins (73.8).

And yet, rightfully so, the 2000 Ravens' defense is remembered as one of -- if not the -- best defenses in the history of the sport.

That is precisely why is not quite as important to spend too much time lamenting the fact that the Patriots have only faced Ben Roethlisberger (94.0), a duo of Ryan Fitzpatrick (80.7) and Josh Rosen (65.2), Luke Falk (62.4), a duo of Josh Allen (70.4) and Matt Barkley (67.6), and Colt McCoy (78.4). Ultimately, that won't matter. What will matter is if the Patriots can ride this type of defensive play all the way to another Super Bowl victory. If so, that's all that will be remembered.

Now, to put history on the back burner for a bit, let's dive into the leftover thoughts from a 33-7 thumping of a dead-in-the-water Redskins, shall we?

--I like Twitter. It's fine. It's OK. But Twitter should really be shut down for the first hour or so of every Patriots game. Obviously, the Patriots didn't get off to the hottest start, what with falling behind 7-0 and then missing a PAT to carry a one-point deficit into the second quarter. But the instant pandemonium that erupts on Twitter every time this happens is frankly getting a bit exhausting. It's as if every single week represents the first Patriots game many Patriots observers have ever watched.

I only wish I could compile every sky-is-falling tweet sent in my direction in the first half of a "bad" Patriots performance that ends with a Patriots blowout. It would make for humorous reading.

--That being said: Woof, that was an ugly first half. 

--Years from now, we may not remember too much about this football game. But we will remember it for two reasons.

We shall remember it as The Dont'a Hightower Game, because, to use a football term, holy crap.

We got a good indication that Hightower's motor was purring pretty good when he pursued Chris Thompson from behind for a loss of a yard on the third play of the game.

Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower (GIF from

It was evident again in a two-play sequence to start the second quarter. First, on a second-and-1, Hightower exploded through the line to tackle Wendell Smallwood for a loss of a yard.

Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower (GIF from

Then on the ensuing third-and-2, Hightower came flying like a bat out of hell directly at poor Colt McCoy.

Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower (GIF from

McCoy looked relieved to have survived. He was very bad after that. (He was also very bad before that, but we need not get bogged down by the details.)

Hightower offered an incredible quote to The Atheltic's Jeff Howe: "I'm not trying to hype up any of that s--- about Hightower being back, fresh legs and all that s---. I just had a good game today. That's it."

Right on, man.

--We'll also remember it as the game where the Redskins played this "defense" on Ryan Izzo.

Again, to repeat a technical football term: Holy crap.

--Oh! It was ALSO the game that the Redskins played this defense on Julian Edelman:


Some teams just look at Julian Edelman and see someone they don't have to worry about it. It's quite insane at this point.

--If you want to find some reasons for optimism in the offense, it can easily be found in the number 5. That's the number of combined receptions for Sony Michel, Ryan Izzo, and Matt LaCosse. All three of those players have been draped in invisibility cloaks for varied amounts of time when running routes for Tom Brady, but the QB sought them out with nine combined targets on Sunday. Michel caught three passes for 32 yards, which could be the first steps toward developing a much-needed second threat.

Michel looked natural while catching, adjusting upfield and juking a defender to turn a short gain into an 11-yard pickup:

Sony Michel
Sony Michel (GIF from

Izzo also showed some nice hands adjusting to a pass up the right sideline for a gain of 29 yards off a play fake to Michel in the first quarter.

Ryan Izzo
Ryan Izzo (GIF from

Encouraging signs all around for those looking for a more well-rounded offense.

--That being said, I do wonder if the fairy tale of Dante Scarnecchia making this offensive line hold up through 19 games might be fading. The second half was obviously much better, what with the 100-plus rushing yards and the one sack allowed. But protection was a major issue in the first half, and one does have to wonder how that might look against a real NFL team that doesn't sorta kinda quit at halftime before firing its head coach a few hours later.

--I want to show you screen shots from three successive plays on the third Washington drive of the game. 

Here they are.


First-and-10 (Screen shot from
First-and-10 (Screen shot from


Second-and-17 (Screen shot from


Third-and-17 (Screen shot from
Third-and-17 (Screen shot from

Not great for Washington. Not at all what you're looking to do on offense.

--It's just not a blowout without some FEROCIOUS plays. And folks, have we got some ferocity for you.

The first was a good old-fashioned FEROCIOUS STIFF ARM, which frankly we don't see often enough these days.

Josh Gordon
Josh Gordon (GIF from


The other was a classic FEROCIOUS JUKE authored by -- who else? -- Jimmy White:

James White
James White (GIF from

The juke was so ferocious that CBS didn't show a replay, out of respect to the victim's family.

(Per company policy, we won't be publishing that victim's name here.)

--Everyone's all hopped up on Tom Brady, but not ME, the ultimate FOOTBALL KNOWER, who had Brady down for a major DEMERIT on this play.

Jokes aside, that would have been nice. But the 42-year-old just threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns (with a red zone pick off a poor decision, too). Are people impressed by that anymore or do I have to stop mentioning it? I, for one, never anticipated that I'd be analyzing Tom Brady performances in 2019, so I'll continue to bang that drum.

--On that note, here are the best seasons in NFL history for a 42-year-old quarterback:

Warren Moon, 1998
145/258 (56.2%), 1,632 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs, 76.6 passer rating, 4-6 record

Tom Brady, 2019
118/187 (63.1%), 1,409 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs, 99.4 rating, 5-0 record

Brady's only played five games, by the way.

That's cheating, too, because Moon didn't turn 42 years old until Nov. 18 in that 1998 season, so he only played ONE game as a 42-year-old.

What I'm trying to say is that what you're seeing from Brady -- red-zone picks be damned -- is incredible and unprecedented. If you're not appreciating it then you're a wackadoodle. (Sorry for the harsh language, but it was necessary.)

--Brady also got his butt whooped on Sunday. Fella is taking some hits. On a day when Patrick Mahomes hobbled away from a loss, and when the Steelers were down to their third string rookie QB in overtime, when the Bears played a backup QB in London (and lost), and when New Orleans played another game with its backup QB, it's at least worth noting that Brady has started 312 of a possible 327 games since becoming the Patriots' starting quarterback in 2001, when you were maybe 11 years old. It's crazy.

(It should be 316 out of 331 games but sometimes fake scandals will get the best of you.)

--Oh, also: Don't let it slip by that Brady's touchdown pass to Brandon Bolden was a dime-and-a-half. As someone who wrote a 7,000-word love letter to Russell Wilson's touchdown from Thursday night, it's only right that I take some time to marvel at the arm strength and the precision of Brady while moving to his right and dropping this pass into a bucket 30 yards away.

Brady To Bolden
Brady To Bolden (GIF from

And that's to Bolden, a running back who's now caught precisely four passes from Brady in his past three seasons with the Patriots. So it's not as if they have a chemistry that makes that pass any easier.

--Julian Edelman is a professional wide receiver.

Lest there be any doubt.

--Truck stick!

Brandon Bolden
(GIF from


--I mean, it was a great day for the defense overall, and a great day for Hightower. But would it have killed him to get a little pick-six here to spice things up?

Dont'a Hightower
(GIF from

What a disappointment it was for this defense to not match the scoring output of the opponent. Shame.

--Speaking of defense, I'm thinking about trotting out the nickname Tum Tum Collins for the man who currently has 4.5 sacks, 27 tackles, three interceptions, a touchdown, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Jamie Collins
Jamie Collins celebrates after a strip sack on Colt McCoy. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The man simply loves to eat quarterbacks.

--Quick question: Shouldn't Josh Bailey have been kicking off all year? Was a pride thing with Stephen Gostkowski? Because it doesn't make tremendous sense -- to a bozo like me, anyway -- to have the 35-year-old who's battling a hip issue to be booming kickoffs and running down the field in pursuit. Does it?

--Quick theory: I believe that Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo could switch jersey numbers each week, and people might never catch on. Prove me wrong.

--This was funny.

--If that whole thousand-word intro about facing bad quarterbacks wasn't enough for you, I was also curious to see how the Patriots' opponents have done against other NFL teams. The results are interesting.

Steelers vs. Patriots: 3 points
Steelers vs. four other opponents: 24 points per game

Dolphins vs. Patriots: 0 points
Dolphins vs. three other opponents: 9 points per game

Jets vs. Patriots: 0 offensive points
Jets vs. three other opponents: 5 offensive points per game (Gross!)

Bills vs. Patriots: 10 points
Bills vs. four other opponents:  20 points per game

Redskins vs. Patriots: 7 points
Redskins vs. four other opponents: 16.5 points per game

Again, nobody is confusing any of those offenses for great ones. But the stark contrast of how they've played against the Patriots compared to everyone else does really stand out. (Except for the Jets. They stink.)

--Good news, too! Daniel Jones and the 25th-ranked scoring offense of the New York Giants is heading into Foxboro with only three days to prepare. Rookie quarterbacks always thrive in Foxboro, especially ones coming off a 55 percent passing day in a home loss. Should be ... well, it should be more of the same.

Maybe the Patriots will spot the Giants a touchdown, much like they did vs. the Redskins, just to keep it at least a little interesting for the national audience.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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