By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
FOXBORO, Mass. -- Last year, the Patriots sucked on the road. Devin McCourty's words, not mine.
But to start 2019, they're the new Road Warriors.
They'll need to keep it up as they head to MetLife Stadium, a site that's historically produced some tough, competitive games between the Pats and Jets. Thanks to a much better start on the road than 2018, they have reason to be confident that they can maintain what's been a historic start.
The biggest difference on the road has come on defense. In 2018 the Patriots started 0-2 on the road after losses in Jacksonville and Detroit, two games in which virtually nobody in any phase of the game played well. Despite getting on track with a road win at the Chicago Bears later in the season, it took a special teams touchdown to make the difference. Overall, the Pats languished early on the road with an ugly minus-20 point differential and 1,347 total yards of offense allowed in their first three games.
In 2019, it's been a different story. The Patriots are 3-0 away from Foxboro and have allowed 17 total points against 92 scored, a ridiculous plus-75 differential. Even more absurd is the plus-10 turnover advantage, compared to an even zero in the first three road games of 2018.
Attributing their strong start to weak competition isn't fair. The 2018 Jaguars (5-11) and Lions (6-10) didn't turn out to be legitimate teams, either. The Patriots didn't show up in those games and it caused the typical early-season hysterics. They're certainly showing up this season, especially defensively, and they're doing it throughout the game.
McCourty credited the Pats' hot start on the road to starting fast within the individual games. In their first three road contests of 2018, the Patriots defense allowed a touchdown pass, field goal, and punt. In 2019, their first drives have ended in a Dolphins punt, a McCourty interception on Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and a Redskins punt. They've set the tone for dominating defensive efforts from start to finish.
"Playing for four quarters is something we’ve been talking about since training camp when we went on the road against Detroit and Tennessee of starting our mentality early of playing well on the road because we saw how much that hurt us last year of just not doing it," McCourty said Thursday. "But, I think in this league, it’s not about being 3-0. It’s about how do you get to 4-0? How do you do it the next week? How do you prepare and play well again on the road? Just because you’ve done it doesn’t matter.
"Last year, we sucked on the road. We had to go to an AFC Championship game on the road. All that mattered was how we played in that one game. So, I think that’s the mentality we have to keep throughout the season."
Patriots' First 3 Road Games, 2018-2019
The competition certainly isn't going to get any easier. The Patriots have road dates with the Ravens, Eagles, and Texans, and they'll look to avoid a letdown when they travel to Cincinnati in Week 15. Losing to the Jets on Monday Night Football, even with quarterback Sam Darnold returning and key defensive pieces back in their lineup, would be another disappointment.
But a major difference between the 2019 Patriots defense on the road and the unit we saw a year ago is that they're better prepared and are worrying only about what they can control. It's led to better chemistry on the field, and a stunning level of playmaking rarely seen in Bill Belichick's tenure.
“We do our best throughout the week to take advantage and know our gameplan, and then whether it’s Sunday, Monday, Thursday, whenever, just going out and executing," said linebacker Dont'a Hightower. "It starts early in the week and it’s something we can continue to build on. Hopefully that’ll register [Monday night].”
Historically, letdowns haven't been out of the realm of possibility. The Pats are a solid 4-2 in six games at Metlife Stadium since the infamous "Butt Fumble" game in 2012, but the average margin of victory for both teams combined has been just six points. The Pats won 27-13 last season, even as they compiled an uninspiring 3-5 record on the road. But history tells us that these games are typically tight. It helps that the Patriots had a little more time to recharge and get ready.
"I mean, we’ve had 11 days and we’ve had four practices, so I feel like we’re ready to go," said Tom Brady on Saturday. "It’s been a tough week. Guys are grinding through it and trying to go out there and have a great night. They’re going to test us, very physical. Played well at home against Dallas last week, so it’s going to be a big challenge."
It's possible you get a close one on Monday night, mainly due to the up-and-down nature of the Patriots offense so far. Despite scoring 30 points against the Jets in Week 3, 20 of them came within the first 17 minutes of the game. After their third touchdown, the Patriots punted four straight times before scoring a field goal and another TD. From there, they punted three times and threw a pick-six. Losing Julian Edelman to a chest injury contributed to the sputtering.
In Buffalo, the offense struggled to the tune of just nine points and 224 total yards as a unit. In D.C., they could only muster 12 points in the first half before finding the end zone three times in the second. Consistency is key, especially if the Pats want to keep winning on the road. They have yet to find that on offense as compared to the defense.
But the 2019 Patriots may simply be a team that the defense carries most of the time. And that's OK. The object is to win games however you can, and this year's Patriots look poised to do it by getting defensive stops and turnovers to make life easier for everyone else. As the AFC falls apart around them, they also look poised to lock up the AFC's No. 1 seed unusually early.
A major piece of that has been their marked improvement outside of Gillette Stadium. It's time to pass another road test in East Rutherford, and perhaps the toughest one yet. It's becoming harder to doubt this defense with what they've shown so far. And they're hoping the best is yet to come.
“I just want to win, bro," said Hightower. "I don’t care if it’s on the road or wherever it is. First game, second game, third game, just continue to build that continuity. Thats kind of where we’re at right now.”
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].