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Thursday Night Preview: Can the New England Patriots Get Back on Track?

Staring up at the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, the Patriots are now 2-2 and need a big road win at Tampa Thursday night.

Before the season started, talking heads were discussing if the New England Patriots could find a way to go undefeated in 2017. With a 2-2 record after four games, the Patriots are trying to plug holes in a shoddy defense that has allowed a league-worst 1,296 passing yards.

Even after last week's loss, the Pats still sit second in our team rankings, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have climbed all the way up to fourth.

In one of the best Thursday Night Football matchups we have seen in recent memory, who can come out on top?

Quarterback Breakdown

This is not anywhere close to the start we are accustomed to for New England, but their 2-2 record is certainly no fault of Tom Brady's. Of the 32 quarterbacks with 75 or more drop backs, Brady ranks second in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.36). In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- his 49.40% mark checks in eighth. Brady has been excellent and currently leads the NFL with 1,399 passing yards.

On the other side of this matchup is Jameis Winston. He may not have the same gaudy numbers that Brady has, but he may be performing just as effectively. The Florida State product ranks fifth in Passing NEP per drop back (0.19) and he leads the league in Passing Success Rate (52.21%).

One may assume the Pats have the decided edge under center, but Winston certainly has been no slouch to start the year. One thing that could limit both teams passing attacks is that it could be a bit windy.

Running Back Play

Both teams have backfield situations that are a bit murky, so let's start with the Bucs, who have one runner coming back from suspension to make things even more confusing.

Doug Martin served the last game of his suspension in Week 4 and returns to the Bucs in a bit of an unclear situation. It will be interesting to see which version of Martin Tampa Bay gets -- among 42 rushers with 100-plus carries last year, Martin ranked second-to-last in Rushing NEP per play (-0.20), finishing just ahead of Chris Ivory (-0.21).

Meanwhile, Jacquizz Rodgers enjoyed his best game of 2017 in Week 4, using 18 touches to gain 108 yards. Among 40 running backs with 30 rushes or more this season, Rodgers is 15th in Rushing NEP per rush (-0.01).

Moving over to New England, it appears that James White is the back we want to focus on when looking at snaps rates in the backfield over the last two weeks.

Name Off Snaps Played Off Snaps Week 3-4 Off Snap Pct%
James White 75 135 55.6%
Mike Gillislee 39 135 28.9%
Dion Lewis 26 135 19.3%

White has earned the lion's share of the playing time, but primarily in the passing game -- he's only toted the rock 18 times this year. However, he's been effective in those carries, posting a Rushing NEP per play of 0.03 while ranking sixth in targets (26) at running back. Mike Gillislee, who has rushed over three times as much as White (57 carries), is sporting a Rushing NEP per play of -0.10.

With backfield situations that could see a lot of time shares this week, can either defense make a big difference in this matchup?

Defensive Matchup

Through four weeks, this game would appear to be a little bit of a mismatch defensively. The Patriots have been horrific, while the Buccaneers feature one of the league's better units.

The Patriots are having a hard time getting stops in any form, ranking 30th against both the pass and the rush, per our metrics. The Bucs have been far better, checking in 14th against the pass and 10th against the run.

In looking at Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, which displays sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent, both of these teams feature extremely poor pass rushes.

The Patriots have eight sacks to their name and rank 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate (5.3%), but the Buccaneers are the league's worst pass rush, only sacking the opposing quarterback one time while posting an Adjusted Sack Rate of 1.9%.

Historical Comparisons

According to our models, there are five contests that correlate greater than 90% of the time with this game, but the one most like this matchup was a September 2006 tilt between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers.

This one seemed to be over before it even got started -- the road Eagles raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead on their way to an easy 38-24 win in San Francisco. Donovan McNabb threw for 296 yards and 2 scores and Brian Westbrook chipped in with 117 yards on the ground with another 2 scores.

In this matchup, the road Eagles represent the Patriots, leading to an easy cover of the spread, along with the over hitting.

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