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.

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