New England Patriots in transition period with Brady?

Tom Brady begins to wind down a brilliant career with the New England Patriots.

NFL: New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — It’s no secret that New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady’s Hall of Fame career is rapidly drawing to a close. The 37-year-old continues to battle father time in a titanic struggle, which could be a blessing in disguise for the Patriots.

The Patriots came away with an easy looking 30-7 win over the Adrian Peterson-less Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, but it was never that one-sided between the hash marks. That, coupled with a performance to the visibly superior Dolphins, raises questions about New England’s status as a true Super Bowl contender.

But the Patriots may just be working out the kinks of a transition from a Brady-centric offense to a more balanced one. While New England has always been in the middle of the pack in terms of pass play percentage, the offense was always driven by Brady.

Brady, who began his career as a caretaker when taking over for Drew Bledsoe, may be forced to finish that way for a variety of reasons. His arm strength and viable receiving targets have decreased dramatically. Rob Gronkowski has been limited in snaps, but he remains Brady’s top target and should be the Gronk of old by midseason. Will that be enough?

Most of the media gave Brady a pass for last year, citing the amount of rookie receivers running wrong routes and dropping footballs. What if it was just a declining performance for a 36-year-old quarterback? Is that allowed?

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) looks on during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) looks on during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

More importantly, the Patriots thumped Minnesota behind a ferocious defensive effort, and that will be what takes New England back to its glory days.

Also the defense finally appears to have enough pieces to match the productivity of the early 2000s squads. Darrelle Revis, who everyone believed had a bad season last year yet is totally untrue, remains one of the most dangerous defensive weapons in football. Revis came up with his first interception as a Patriot in the second quarter. So far this season, quarterbacks are 3-of-11 for 40 yards, a touchdown and an interception when throwing in Revis’ direction.

Revis, along with linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, ensures the Patriots have an elite player at each level of the defense. Devin McCourty has blossomed into one of the best safeties in the league, and young players Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower are about to become superstars.

Brady had 56 attempts against Miami in the Week 1 defeat, including many in the second half with the game close. This number is a little inflated by the 21 attempts in the fourth quarter with New England trailing, but even 35 attempts plus a more relatively normal number is too many at this point in his career. That formula will not work anymore.

The offense should continue to be driven by running backs Stevan Ridley (25 carries, 101 yards) and Shane Vereen (six carries, 40 yards), who each did work Sunday against a halfway decent Vikings defense. The duo, which had just 15 carries against Miami, will be crucial to any long-term success the Patriots have.

Brady still has incredible intelligence and knows where the ball needs to go, but down the field accuracy has likely eroded by now. Against Minnesota, Brady only threw three balls deeper than 15 yards — one was incomplete, the other two resulted in penalties. Against Miami in Week 1, Brady was 2-for-17 for 65 yards on throws that traveled 15 yards or more.

It was all going swimmingly for the Vikings until Matt Cassel began doing Matt Cassel things. The Vikings scored on a beautifully constructed drive to take a 7-0 lead before forcing a three-and-out. On a second-and-16 from deep in his own territory, Cassel threw a javelin into double coverage, which McCourty almost returned for a touchdown. From that point on, it was mostly all New England as the Vikings made mistake after mistake.

The Patriots also got a touchdown on a blocked field goal to go up 17-7 right before halftime, another 10-point swing that effectively ended the game. New England won the turnover battle, 4-0, plus recovered a fumble of its own. The scoreline would have been even worse if the visitors didn’t commit 15 penalties.

Brady didn’t have to be superhuman. The Patriots punted five times in 10 real drives (not counting the final one), and kicked field goals on three others.

The Patriots defense was depleted by the time it got to face Denver in the AFC championship game last year. If that unit can remain healthy and deliver more performances like it did Sunday, a strong running game and a potential play-making, game manager might be all that’s required to make another Super Bowl after all. In 2014, that’s exactly what they have under center.

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