The New England Patriots are under .500 in October for the first time in nearly 20 years, and they’ll be hosting the reigning NFC champions in an effort to flip the script.
With no Tom Brady, New England is 2-3 with two nail-biting losses to Seattle and Denver. San Francisco is the team’s next opponent from out west, and they just so happen to have Brady’s former successor, Jimmy Garappolo, leading the way.
PatriotMaven is breaking down the three most important matchups before every game all season long, with Sunday’s game against the 49ers next up on the slate.
George Kittle vs. Kyle Dugger
The last time the Patriots went up against a top-tier tight end, they threw the kitchen sink at him and kept him off the stat sheet for most of the night – save for a few key chunk plays.
Dugger, Joejuan Williams, Jason McCourty and Ja'Wuan Bentley were all used to bottle up Travis Kelce during New England’s Week 4 matchup with Kansas City. Kelce was limited to just three catches on seven targets, and he was kept out of the end zone despite scoring five touchdowns in his other five games so far this season.
Still, Kelce had receptions that went for 24 and 45 yards, and the Chiefs put up points on both of those drives.
Kittle is one of the only other tight ends in the league who can call Kelce his equal, and some would argue the 49ers actually boast the better of the two.
Coach Bill Belichick will have to decide who he’s going to throw at Kittle to slow him down, and he might not have the option of using linebackers like he did against Kelce thanks to Kittle’s elite speed and release.
Dugger took the field for just 29% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps against the Chiefs, but saw that figure jump up to 42% last week against the Broncos. Williams, on the other hand, did not play a single snap on defense against Denver.
Dugger won’t be alone in his battle against Kittle, as he should have some occasional help from veteran safeties like Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips.
But on the plays where he does draw the matchup with the All-Pro tight end, the outcome of the game could rest in his hands.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Bill Belichick
If it were up to Belichick, Garoppolo might just be the Patriots’ starting quarterback right now.
A few years and Super Bowl appearances later, Garoppolo is the franchise signal-caller for a team nearly 3,000 miles away.
Garoppolo will face off against his former team for the first time since getting dealt to the 49ers at the 2017 trade deadline. In the three seasons since the deal, Garoppolo is 21-7 with a 46-to-23 INT-to-TD ratio and 6,991 yards.
The former Patriot has his weaknesses, however, and if anyone can exploit them, it’s his old coach and future Hall of Famer, Belichick.
Garoppolo was the most efficient deep ball passer in the NFL last year, boasting a league-best 58.1 percent completion percentage and 102.6 passer rating on long throws in 2019. Belichick is likely to force Garoppolo to go short by taking away the deep options, and an inexperienced quarterback like Garoppolo could easily fall into that trap.
The combination of an efficient passer such as Garoppolo and an offensive-minded head coach such as Kyle Shanahan is going to be a handful for any defense, but if anyone can gameplan around them and take away what works best, it’s Belichick.
N’Keal Harry vs. Deebo Samuel
Harry and Samuel won’t ever match up 1-on-1 on the field, but their performances will speak volumes about the 2019 NFL Draft class.
The Patriots made Harry the second wide receiver off the board when they picked him 32nd overall back in April of last year. Samuel was the next wideout taken at No. 36, and Tennessee’s A.J. Brown, Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf and Washington’s Terry McLaurin were among the next receivers selected.
The narrative as of late is that the Patriots reached on Harry, passing on far superior receivers for a player with far less upside. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but Harry’s legacy is not set in stone yet.
From Week 17 of last season to Week 2 this year, Harry averaged eight targets per game. His eight receptions for 72 yards nearly put the Patriots in a position to upset the Seahawks in Week 2, and he hauled in a highlight reel goal line touchdown against the Chiefs in Week 4 despite a lot of contact and a high degree of difficulty.
Those bright spots have admittedly been few and far between, while Samuel has been far more consistent so far in his NFL career.
Samuel, who also poses a significant threat as a ball-carrier, has racked up 1,088 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage off of 85 touches through 18 games. Harry, on the other hand, has recorded 322 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage on 36 touches in 12 games.
The jury is still out on Harry, and if Patriot Nation is going to get on board with him moving forward, he’ll need to outplay his former draft mate come Sunday.
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