The Patriots suffered a major loss to one of their top receivers last week as tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered a high ankle sprain that is expected to keep him out 4-6 weeks. Losing Hernandez forced the Patriots to scrap their game plan very early in the game and it was definitely one of the reason why the Patriots suffered a major upset loss at home at the hands of the Cardinals. Without Hernandez, the Patriots had to go from being a two-tight end base team to a three-wide receiver base team because, for as many tight ends as they have on their roster, they didn’t have another one who could function as the move tight end like Hernandez did.
This week, the Patriots have signed Kellen Winslow to be that move tight end. Winslow is a poor blocker and he’s obviously not on the level as Hernandez as a pass catcher, but he’s closer to Hernandez than anyone they have. He’s exceeded 730 receiving yards in all 5 seasons as a pro in which he’s played all 16 games, despite never having the best group of quarterback throwing to him, and he’s played in all 16 games in 5 of the last 6 seasons. However, long term durability issues led to the 29 year old being traded by the Buccaneers to the Seahawks for a mere 7th round pick and then Seattle cutting him as part of final cuts. Still, he’s got some talent as a pass catcher and he will allow the Patriots to use more two-tight end looks this week than they did last week.
However, they will still be unable to feature the two-tight end look, which means we’re going to be seeing a lot more three-wide receiver looks than normal. Because of that, the Patriots have brought back a familiar face, signing wide receiver Deion Branch, who was cut in final cuts. In three-wide receiver sets, the Patriots will use Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Julian Edelman, who has always played well when needed.
However, they really lacked depth behind those 2 as Matt Slater is primarily on the roster for his special teams value and 2011 4th round pick Greg Salas, acquired from St. Louis for a late round pick before the season started, is apparently not game ready as they cut him and added him to the practice squad in favor of signing Branch to the active roster. He doesn’t have a whole lot left in the tank, but he’s knows the playbook like the back of his hand and he has the kind of chemistry with Tom Brady where they could complete passes with their eyes closed.
Obviously, Hernandez’s loss hurts, but no team adapts better than the Patriots do. In 2010, they traded Randy Moss, then a key of their offense, and went to more two-tight end looks with two rookie tight ends by the name of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This week, they’re just doing the opposite. They did a poor job of adapting mid game last week, which is part of why they lost, but no one adapts better on a week to week basis than Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Given that and given Tom Brady’s history when people are doubting him (In his career off a loss, he’s 28-8 SU, 24-12 ATS, off an upset loss he’s 17-4 SU, 15-6 ATS, as an underdog he’s 24-16 SU, 27-12 ATS (13-4 ATS since 2003), as an underdog off a loss he’s 11-1 SU, 11-1 ATS, and as an underdog off an upset loss 6-1 SU, 6-1 ATS), I really like the Patriots to win this week. They’re being undervalued off of last week’s loss and probably are actually more likely to win after their loss last week, given their history. On top of that, the Ravens are a bit overrated. Clearly missing Terrell Suggs and other offseason losses, the Ravens have given an uncharacteristic 808 yards in 2 games, 27th in the league, and Joe Flacco had a poor showing last week after a “breakout” week 1 performance.