The Washington Commanders will travel north to take on the New England Patriots. Here are five things to know about the Week 9 opponent.
1. They've been inconsistent.
The amount of surprise upsets in the league this year have made one clear: if you can't play your best all four quarters, the game will slip out from under you. Like the Commanders, the Patriots have also failed to put together consistent performances for four quarters each week.
In the Patriots' previous matchups, they've seen a solid start that turns into two-quarters of mistakes and ends scrambling to pull in winning points. In New England's 31-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, they started with a 24-yard touchdown from Mac Jones to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. But it quickly turned around when they lost their momentum and gave up three Miami touchdowns.
Offensively, they tried to bounce back but managed just one touchdown. So, while the Patriots can start a game early and may even end one with a fight, they're not a team that has proven it can finish.
This has similarly been a struggle for the Commanders, although they have shown they can hang with the league's best teams. They nearly took down the Philadelphia Eagles in both of their matchups with their NFC East rival, and had it not been for a few critical plays, they could have gotten an upset in either one or both games.
"If you can do that for four quarters against an elite team in the NFL, you should be able to do it any time that you want," said head coach Ron Rivera. "Our focus is we have nine games left to play. We'll play them one game at a time, and we'll focus in on what is coming up next."
The Commanders' next challenge is outperforming the Patriots and inching one game closer to .500.
2. They've been unable to capitalize on turnovers.
The Patriots' defense has many skills that make it a challenge for Washington.
However, if there's one thing they need help to get right, it's forcing turnovers. They're tied for 27th with just seven on the year, which is hamstringing an otherwise solid unit that is ranked 10th in yards allowed.
"We haven't gotten enough of them," said safety Jabrill Peppers. "But we don't want guys to start forcing the issue then we start lacking in other areas. Turnovers usually come in bunches. Once they start coming, it'll be a repeating thing. You can't abandon the scheme. Go try to make a play, and then they hit a play where you are supposed to be. We all know we need to generate more turnovers. That's a big deal in winning and losing in this league."
It should be noted, however, that the Patriots are improving in that area. They've forced five turnovers in the last three games, including an interception and a fumble recovery against the Dolphins that they turned into 10 points. But the Patriots also had a three-game stretch where they weren't able to get any takeaways.
The Commanders' offense can enter this game knowing it'll be a strong point of focus for the Patriots' defense, especially with Bill Belichick's history of creating problems for young quarterbacks. It'll be important for **Sam Howell** to play smart football and build on his performance against the Eagles.
3. Inconsistent special teams.
Don't overlook the New England Patriots' weakness on special teams, as it could be an advantage for Washington come Sunday.
This starts with the Patriots' punt coverage. While the New England unit is tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the most punts inside the 20-yard line, 17 of their punts have also been returned by opponents, which is tied for the third-most in the league. They've also given up 168 return yards, which ranks 24th.
This could be a prime opportunity for Jamison Crowder, who nearly had a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons, to have another big game. Crowder has proven to be one of the Commanders' most impactful offseason acquisitions because of his usage on special teams. He's ranked fifth among all returners with 158 yards on 15 attempts.
The Commanders have three returns this year of at least 20 yards. So, if the Commanders can block well enough, there should be lanes for Crowder to break through.
Check out the best photos of the Washington Commanders going through their first practice of the week as they prepare for the New England Patriots.
4. WR Kendrick Bourne's injury leaves many, many questions.
Kendrick Bourne has been on the Patriots'most consistent playmakers this season. He's a veteran player who had four touchdowns and 37 receptions for 406 yards during the first eight games of the season. But a season-ending injury for Bourne last week means a flood of questions and trial and error on New England's already struggling offense.
"Injuries are tough. I'm not going to sugarcoat it," said offensive coach Bill O'Brien. "Everybody always says next man up. I mean, that's the way it is. Of course, that's the way it is. There's no other choice. Kendrick brought a lot of energy, a lot of juice to this offense, and really attacked every day. The next guy has to step up and fill that role, and it'll probably be several guys. I don't know who those guys will be right now. It comes down to the practice field. It really does. It's a big week for the receivers."
There are a few potential options for what Washington will see this Sunday, as it seems the Patriots are using this practice week to figure out how to move forward. It could be Tyquan Thornton, or Kayshon Boutte, all of which have either been injured and lacked playing time or, in the case of Boutte, were sixth on the depth chart and, before, were unlikely to see action.
Now, it's a clean slate for the Patriots. Not only do they need to adjust their position room, but they need to get Bourne's replacement in shape to work well enough with Jones.
5. The offense has struggled to perform at the level as its defense.
By now, it's clear the Patriots defense and offense are entirely different skill levels
Despite a few injuries throughout the season, New England's defense has been a sound unit. They do give up 26 points per game, but they only give up 97 yards per game on the ground and rank 12th in third-down conversion rate.
And while the defense will prove to be a challenge for Washington to outplay, the offense has had more struggles, particularly when it comes to sustaining drives, running the ball and scoring points, as they have been held to less than 20 points in six games.
A primary grievance in New England is the inconsistent performance of Jones, who has yet to be able to complete a pass over 20 air yards since week 5. His passes don't extend the significant length and, therefore, limit advances the Patriots are making offensively, and he's thrown the second most interceptions in the league.
If Washington shows up to Gillette stadium with the same offense that put up 31 points against a talented Eagles defense, they could put themselves in solid position to get back on track.