Sunday, December 26, 2021

Bills Thrash Patriots 33-21

The Patriots lost a huge game to Buffalo, dropping the home contest 33-21. The loss vaults the Bills to the AFC East lead and drops the Patriots from second to sixth in the AFC playoff race. Next up is a winnable game against Jacksonville at Gillette, and at this point the team needs to get a win to control whether they even make they playoffs.

Two weeks ago the Pats were on top of the world. They rode a victory in Buffalo to the first seed in the AFC, and it all appeared to be in front of them: playoff bye, home games throughout, and an easier path to the Super Bowl. Now sitting with the sixth seed, the question is, how did it all come apart so quickly. The answer is simple and frustrating...

The Patriots have become the team they used to beat with regularity. For two decades they rose to good competition and just played well enough to allow bad teams to beat themselves. Over and over they used that formula to win division titles, get playoff byes, and ride their regular-season success to Super Bowls and championships.

But now it's the *Patriots* who beat themselves. Coaching blunders. Poorly timed penalties. Turnovers. Bad situational play. Special teams gaffes. Dropped passes. Dropped interceptions. Lack of adjustments. Undisciplined players. When it comes to the losing formula, the Patriots seem to have it all.

Here is a quick list of some of those very problems on display this afternoon.

At 10-7 Bills, quarterback Mac Jones threw a nice, easy pass to a wide open N'Keal Harry, who just flat out dropped it. Jones' first interception came on the next play, when the linebacker was standing directly between him and his target. N'Keal, catch the damned ball. And Mac, pull that ball down and then throw it away -- it was only second down.

Late in the first half they had Buffalo facing a fourth-and-seven. But they had been aggressive so there was a chance they'd go for it. So not knowing if they'd be getting the ball back, the Patriots called a timeout to save time -- but Buffalo still had the ball. Huh?

During that timeout, apparently no one told rookie Christian Barmore that the Bills were going to try to draw the Patriot offside to make it fourth-and-two. Barmore bit on the hard count, the penalty was assessed, the Bills got the first down, and then a touchdown.

On the next possession the Pats were driving for a score before the half. But after the referee picked up a late-hit flat, Patriots tackle Trent Brown lost his mind and cost his team 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It would have been second-and-three at their 47, but instead it was second-and-18 at their 32. Two plays later, punt.

7:30 left in the game and the Pats somehow had clawed their way back to within one score. Bills QB Josh Allen floated a pass over his receiver's head and it was right in the hands of corner JC Jackson. Who amazingly dropped the ball. Jackson has more interceptions than anyone since he entered the league, but when they really needed one to get the ball back and score, he dropped it.

(This comes a week after the Patriots dropped two potential interceptions that could have turned the Colts game in their direction. And yes, Jackson had one of those miscues, too.)

All game long the Bills killed New England with short zone passes, and the linebackers continued deep drops or were out of position play after play. And with Josh Allen making hay running from the pocket, there was never an adjustment to run blitz and get the ball out of his hands. In the old days they would have adjusted mid-drive. Now apparently halftime isn't long enough to adjust.

Their kickoffs are all over the map; but there is never a situation where you kick the ball to the 15 yard-line on purpose. But the Pats did just that, and it was returned to the 35. If you want to force a return, you kick it inside the 5, not inside the 20.

There were multiple plays where the Patriots defensive secondary was pointing, yelling, and repositioning players even as the ball was snapped. They were fortunate the Bills didn't rack them on those plays, because several times Buffalo receivers dropped easy passes for big gains.

Lastly, their situational awareness was for crap. One play ended with a late hit by the Bill, but center David Andrews rushed in to jaw it up with the defender -- and got an offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And the Patriots converted only 1 of 10 third downs, forcing them to go for it on fourth down six times!

It's tough to say what was the worst part of their performance. On offense, Mac Jones missed multiple short receivers, sometimes whiffing on throws to his *outlet* receivers. The receivers dropped some easy passes, and tight end Jonnu Smith had a critical holding call. And veteran running back Brandon Bolden looked lost at times.

On defense, the linebackers couldn't cover anyone in the short zones and didn't tackle well, either. The secondary played too much soft zone. And the pass rushers lost outside and inside contain repeatedly, allowing Allen to run wild.

Only the run defense and offense did well. But without the gale force winds of a few weeks ago, the rest of the team was exposed.

How the Patriots have gotten to this point is another article. However, unless they clean up those type of mistakes, they aren't going anywhere in the playoffs, if they even make it there.

Maybe last year was the salary cap reset, and this year was the roster reset. But they'll have to improve their talent and get rid of players who keep screwing up in little ways. Because all those little gaffes have lead to two straight losses and a season teetering on the brink.

Where does that leave us? The Patriots still have two winnable games down the stretch, next week against Jacksonville and in Miami to finish the regular season. If they run the table, the number crunchers at give them only a 23% chance of the Bills slipping up and giving them the division crown (link).

If they win the division, they'd host at least one, and possibly two playoff games. If not, chances are they'd be on the road for the post-season -- again, assuming they make it.

Biggest on-going concern: Aside from the accumulation of little issues, it's mostly health related. Receiver Nelson Agholor was out with a concussion and running back Rhamondre Stevenson was on the COVID list. Without those two, the skill positions are strained, and the Bills just double-covered the two fave targets and assumed the run wouldn't beat them.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the game yesterday was the play of the backup receivers. N'Keal Harry played in place of Agholor and he had 1 catch (on 6 targets) for 9 yards. Isaiah McKenzie replaced Buffalo's Cole Beasley and he had 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Pretty stark comparison.

Non-QB MVP: It was Damien Harris, who ran for 103 yards on 18 carries and scored all three Patriots touchdowns.  He ran tough and smart and also had some nice blitz pickup.

Statistical oddity: Mac Jones has 3 interceptions in the Patriots nine wins this year, and 9 interceptions in their six losses. Time to double-down on throwing it away and living to fight another play.

Water-cooler wisdom: "The sky isn't falling, but my opinion of the Patriots coaching staff is."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-6!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Pats Fall To Colts 27-17

The Patriots fell behind early and lost to Indy 27-17 last night. The defeat leaves them with a 9-5 record, still good for a one-game lead over the Bills in the AFC East. But with the Kansas City win last Thursday (and losses today from Tennessee and Baltimore), they sit at #2 in the AFC playoff seeding. Next up is a home date with the Bills on Sunday.

This one got away from them early and by the time their offense got on track it was too late to come back. Early on the defense looked overmatched, especially inept stopping the run. Special teams made the biggest mistake of the game, leading directly to seven points for Indy. And the offense was stale and turned the ball over twice in 4 minutes of game time, including a killer red zone pick near the end of the first half.

I hesitate to read too much into this game, for two main reasons. First, the Patriots offense traditionally starts slow the week after a bye (both regular season and playoffs). It's such a pattern that I wrote this when breaking down the schedule in September, "I expect the Pats offense to start slow (as it traditionally does) after the Bye. Put it in as the Patriots fourth loss."

Second, it's a truism in the NFL that a home team that needs a late-season game the most tends to end up winning. The Colts needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Patriots were less desperate and on the road, and it showed in the level of energy and focus, particularly in the first half.

The truly unfortunate thing is that as well as the Colts played, the Patriots could have kept the game much closer in the first half and had a real chance to win in the fourth quarter. How could they have done that, you ask? Here are five things that would have made for a closer game:
  1. On their first possession, the Patriots drove into Colts territory, then this happened: five-yard penalty on Shaq Mason (illegally downfield on a pass), then inexplicably a delay of game coming out of that penalty play, which lead to a third and long and a 15-yard sack. They had it on the Indy 47, but ended up losing 21 yards before punting from their own 32.
  2. Jacob Johnson could have actually slowed down Matthew Adams on the Patriots second punt. Instead, he missed his assignment, Adams blocked the punt, and the Colts recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. It was a bad miss by Johnson, and the Patriots third blocked punt this season -- way too many for any season.
  3. After the 2:00 warning, the Patriots faced a second-and-one at the Colts 13 yard line, with a chance to make it a 17-7 game at the half. Instead, Janu Smith committed a false start, and with second-and-six they threw the ball and Mac Jones tossed an easy interception.
  4. After the half, literally six plays later, Jones threw his second pick, another ill-advised throw, giving Indy the short field. The Pats defense held firm, and the Colts field goal attempt was wide right -- yay! Wait, not so fast, defensive offsides gave them another chance, and this time it was good :(
  5. After a Jones touchdown got the Pats on the board, they drove it again to the Indy two yard line. But on third and goal, Michael Onwenu got a false start penalty, and they couldn't convert on third-and-seven -- so they had to settle for a field goal. Note: a touchdown there and it's a one-score game; the field goal made it closer but it was still a two-possession game at that point.
  6. Bonus: not to mention dropped potential interceptions by J.C. Jackson and Jamie Collins (the easier of the two), the poor run defense on the last Colts' touchdown (67 yards!), and numerous other penalties (eight accepted for 50 yards) that cost the team time after time.
I won't go into too much detail on this one, because it was a total team loss. The entire team stunk up the joint in the first half, and when both the offense and defense woke up in the second half, penalties and the interception killed any chance to get back into it.

This was not Jones' finest hour, completing just 58% of his passes (26 of 45) with 2 TDs and those 2 killer INTs. The thinness at running back is showing; they gained just 39 yards, which is two fewer than the receivers and quarterback gained on the ground. And for all the beef up front on defense, the run D was poor, giving up gains on almost every rush (only 3 of 39 running plays went for a loss) and 226 yards on the ground.

The passing defense was great. Indy QB Carson Wentz was 5 of 12 for 57 yards and threw three interception-worthy passes, though only one was picked. (Trivia question: when was the last time a team beat the Patriots completing five or fewer passes? Hint, it was in the playoffs. Answer below.) But stopping the pass didn't help much with Jonathan Taylor running wild, including on his 67-yard touchdown to seal the game.

Coaching was not the Patriots strong suit in this one. The Colts first half strategy was clear: run blitz and if it was a pass then just go to the quarterback. But offensive coordinator McDaniels didn't take advantage of that with quick-hit passes, screens, or play action -- he called run after run into the teeth of the defense.

And on defense, it took too long to adjust to stopping Taylor. It was apparent Wentz wasn't going to win the game against the Patriots strong pass D. So where were the changes to slow down an MVP candidate back?

And as for special teams coaching: a blocked punt for touchdown, the offside to give Indy another shot at a field goal, and the bad pooch kickoff by Nick Folk at the end of the game (much too short) -- those are all really bad mistakes. It has me wondering if their two special teams assistants are too green for the job. Between them they have four years of experience. Just sayin'.

Where does that leave us? 9-5 is good but doesn't keep pace with KC's 10-4. The Patriots own tiebreakers over all the AFC contenders, so if they end up tied they'll get the coveted playoff bye (only one bye per conference this year). Now they need the Chiefs to slip up and have to run the table to make that happen.

Next Sunday they can lock up the AFC East with a win over the Bills. So same as this past week, the other team needs it more -- but different from last week, it'll be at Gillette. They need to take care of this game unless they want a dogfight for the division crown for the rest of the season.

Biggest on-going concern: The injuries at running back are becoming a problem. JJ Taylor was out with COVID, now Damien Harris has a hamstring injury -- that puts a lot of pressure on rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden.

Non-QB MVP: no player performed well enough to name an MVP.

Statistical oddity: Jones had as many completions against the Bills as he had TDs and INTs against the Colts (2 of each).

Water-cooler wisdom: "Beat Buffalo this weekend and you win the division. Worry about everything else later."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

PPS. Trivia answer: the Baltimore Ravens beat the Patriots 33-14 in January of 2010, when QB Joe Flacco went 4 of 10 for 34 yards (and an INT). Similarly to last night's game, the Ravens won with a really strong running attack.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Patriots Grind Down Bills 14-10

The Patriots bulldozed the Bills all night and came away with a 14-10 victory. The win puts them at 9-4, 1.5 games up on those same Bills for first place in the AFC East, and currently sitting with the #1 playoff position in the conference. Next up is the Bye week, followed by a Saturday night tilt in Indianapolis against the Colts.

I give the Pats full credit for the win last night. They understood the weather conditions (40-50mph winds) and adjusted accordingly, running 46 times and throwing just 3. They adjusted their blocking to get a few key chunk plays, and stayed committed to the ground game throughout.

What I don't agree with is the media coverage, calling this a brilliant coaching job or one of the best games ever coached by Bill Belichick. The better description I've read called it "unorthodox," and I think that's about right. A brilliant plan wouldn't have required a Bills missed field goal and a fourth-down play that could have cost you the game late.

I reserve "brilliant" for the 59-0 beatdown of Tennessee in the rain and snow, the 13-3 Super Bowl plan against the Rams, or the novel designs: the Bullseye (targeting Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl 36), the Amoeba (vs. Drew Bledsoe and Buffalo), or the Eligible Receiver deception used to beat the Ravens in the 2014 playoffs.

Not that I'm complaining about the win. I'll take that all week long and twice on Monday. It's just the media gushing over what seemed like a simple decision based on conditions. And I have a quibble with the plan -- they should have used five or six more play-action passes to defeat the Bills' 9- and 10-man fronts.

As for the game, the big guys up front on both sides were the real stars. The Patriots used six O-linemen for much of the game but still were able to run against those stacked fronts from Buffalo. The interior linemen were exceptionally good, and the receivers and blocking back Jacob Johnson sealed the edges and opened up just enough room to spring the backs.

222 yards on 46 carries only averages to 4.8 yards a carry. But those numbers are a lot better when you consider the Bills *knew* the run was coming and couldn't stop it often enough. Damien Harris led the team with 111 yards on 10 carries, including a 64-yard burst for the team's only touchdown. And when Harris left the game with a hamstring problem, Rhamondre Stevenson filled in capably with 78 yards on 24 tough runs.

And note: if the plan included wearing down the Bills defense it didn't accomplish that at all. If it had, their fourth quarter running stats wouldn't be six rushes for minus-2 yards (not including two Mac Jones kneel downs for minus-8 yards). The game nearly got away from the Pats as their offense finally sputtered in the fourth quarter and the Bills moved the ball seemingly at will down the stretch.

On defense, linemen Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy had great games, stuffing most runs for almost no gain and ending up with 10 and 4 tackles respectively. It's pretty uncommon for a Patriots interior lineman to total double-digit tackles, so kudos to Godchaux.

The linebackers played really well, especially Kyle Van Noy (mostly kept the Bills QB in the pocket and knocked down a key pass) and Ja'Whaun Bentley (eight tackles). Dont'a Hightower made some nice stops but also whiffed a few times and had a bad penalty that almost cost the Pats late.

The secondary did a nice job keeping everything in front of them. Given the conditions, short passes were on the menu, and safety Adrian Phillips and corner J.C. Jackson knocked down passes and forced errant throws. Though Myles Bryant came up with the game-saving pass knockdown on the Bills final play of the game.

Kicker Nick Folk was excellent, going 2 for 2 on field goals in really bad conditions, but Jake Bailey's kickoffs were short (even with the wind) and his punts were problematic, and N'Keal Harry botched a punt return and turned the ball over to the Bills. (Note: Buffalo scored their only touchdown on the next play.)

My only coaching complaint was the lack of play-action plays. Otherwise, the defensive game plan and calls were great, and the offensive adjustments were perfect.

Where does that leave us? 9-4 and riding a seven-game winning streak, the Pats are atop the AFC for the time being. They've got a week off before traveling to Indy for a Saturday game with the Colts, and then it's these same Bills again, this time in Foxboro. Life. Is. Good.

Biggest on-going concern: Injury concerns are starting to mount. Harris was gimpy, Kyle Duggar was in COVID protocol, Adrian Phillips was hurt near the end of the game, and Matthew Judon looked like he had a shoulder injury last night.

All of those might be fine in two weeks, but the concern remains until shown otherwise.

Non-QB MVP: Godchaux, who stuffed so many running plays that Butterball wants him for their turkeys next year!

Statistical oddity: This was the first NFL game of Mac Jones' career when he didn't get sacked... (LOL).

Water-cooler wisdom: "Meet the new boss! Same as the... I'll finish this later in the season."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-4!