Friday, November 26, 2021

Patriots Sorta-Midseason Report 2021

Hello all and a happy and safe "Wicked Long Weekend" to you! I hope you aren't unhappy that I skipped writing a breakdown of the Atlanta game. It was such a mismatch across the board, I thought there was very little to learn from it.

Before I leave that game for good though, there is one thing that should worry the rest of the NFL. The Patriots barely tried and blew out the Falcons 25-0. And what I mean by "barely tried" is that it appeared they game planned to take away rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, kept their offense very, very conservative, and waited for Atlanta to implode.

Check, check, and check. No real in-game adjustments, just kickoff the ball and let's win it on talent and in-game coaching. If the Pats are good enough to take any NFL team that lightly, especially on a short week on the road, then they are a pretty confident bunch. And they wouldn't be that confident unless the man at the top, Bill Belichick believed in them. *That* should scare the rest of the league.

So where does the team stand now, a little over halfway through the season? Well, first place in the AFC East isn't bad given that they were literally two games behind five weeks ago. Since their 2-4 start, the Patriots reeled off five straight wins to stand at 7-4. Conversely the Bills started 4-2 and have gone 2-2 since then to post a 6-4 record.

I had the Patriots slated for an 8-3 start, and honestly, one win short of my prediction isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Five-plus weeks ago I said they should sell at the trade deadline if they lost either of their next two games. But they won both and three more in a row.

How have they made this sudden turnaround? Two reasons: the offense has built chemistry, and they switched up the defense to better use their personnel.

On offense, here are three scoring averages over the first part of the year:
  • First four games = 17.8 ppg
  • Next two games = 27.0 ppg
  • Last five games = 35.0 ppg
Offense takes longer to gel than defense does, especially the New England offense. It depends on timing, pinpoint coordination on their many screens and gadget plays, and chemistry between the quarterback and receivers. The running game is simpler, though the Patriots have run a lot of inside trap plays, which also take timing and coordination

On defense, the Patriots made a change that turned their season around. They gave up 35 points in an overtime loss to Dallas, and in that game cornerback Jonathan Jones sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.

With their season teetering on the edge of ruin and a depleted secondary (already missing traded corner Stephon Gilmore), they switched from playing mostly man defense to playing mostly zone defense. And the results have been stark.

At least two opposing quarterbacks said they were confused because the Patriots played almost exclusively man-defense since 2018. And the average points dropped significantly:
  • First six games = 21.2 ppg
  • Last five games = 10.0 ppg

A lot of media outlets have said the last five games were against worse competition. But remember, those first six games included the awful Dolphins, Jets, and Texans.

This wasn't about bad competition or teams missing their offensive weapons. It was about offensive cohesion and better using the players they have on defense. What was the result?

In 2021, the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring differential, having scored 123 more points than they've given up. Under Bill Belichick they finished first in that category seven other times. Six of those years they went to the AFC Championship Game, five times they made it to the Super Bowl, and three times they won it all. (Trivia question: name the season they finished #1 in scoring differential but didn't make the conference final. Answer below.)

Just sayin', not predictin'.

What we see mostly with the Pats in 2021 is balance. A short passing game and a tough running attack that controls the ball and moves the chains. They've converted 45.8% of their third-downs, good for fifth-best in the league. And they've allowed just 35.5% conversions on defense, sixth-best in the NFL. Where have I heard "good situational football" before? Hmmmm... let me think about that :)

Quarterback Mac Jones has steadily improved through the year. He had 5 TDs and 5 INTs in the first five games, and 9 TDs and 3 INTs the last six contests. He audibles into the right play more often and had only had two or three bad decisions in the last few games.

It helps that he hasn't been getting knocked around as much. The offensive line solidified when Michael Onwenu was inserted into the lineup, and played even better when anchor tackle Trent Brown returned two weeks ago.

And those line changes have opened up a punishing running game, with Damien Harris the featured back, rookie Rhomondre Stevenson the hammer back, and veteran special teamer Brandon Bolden taking the James White spread-formation role after White was lost for the season with a hip injury.

As for the receivers, Jakobi Meyers is the clutch guy on third-down, Kendrick Bourne is the deep threat, and tight end Hunter Henry is an excellent red zone option. Henry has seven TDs on the season, the same number as all the wide receivers combined!

The defense can blitz from the outside or inside, holds the edge against the run, can play man, zone, or combinations, disguises extremely well pre-snap, and they are very opportunistic when it comes to errant throws or causing fumbles. Their 21 forced turnovers is third-best in the league.

Free agent signee linebacker Matthew Judon is perfect for this defense. He can speed rush, bull rush, holds up at the point of attack, can drop into coverage, and has an edge and an attitude needed to bring his teammates play up to his standards.

Along the defensive line, rookie defensive end Christian Barmore looks like a draft steal, and the longer the season goes the better he plays. He blows up plays as often as Judon and occupies blockers so they can't get to the linebackers. Same can be said of former Dolphins free agent Devon Godchaux, and together the two of them make a formidable pair inside.

Veteran linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy both started off slow but have picked things up of late. And Ja'Whaun Bentley is having his best year as a Patriots player, obviously benefitting from having great players around him.

Cornerback JC Jackson continues his march toward a huge free agent payday, leading the team with six interceptions and leading the NFL with 23 since he entered the league. Jalen Mills hasn't been anything special, but Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams have been serviceable filling in for Jones.

Maybe the biggest surprise was the leap in production from second-year safety Kyle Duggar, who leads the team in tackles and has three timely interceptions. Along with former Chargers safety Adrian Phillips and veteran Devin McCourty, the team has so much flexibility with their defensive backfield it's no wonder opposing quarterbacks get confused.

2021 really has been a year of "next man up." Based on previous seasons, no one would have expected significant contributions from Bolden, Meyers, Bentley, Williams, or Bryant. But with better talent around them and first-team reps in practice and on Sundays, each have grown into their roles remarkably well.

Remember: James White was a scrub playing behind Dion Lewis until Lewis got hurt (and eventually left) -- it was only when White got time with Brady and the offense that he became one of the best third-down backs of all time (Belichick's words, not mine).

Two more areas to cover quickly, first is special teams. Nick Folk has had a real rebirth here. After making just 54.5% of his field goals in 2017, he was on the street looking for work in 2018. Since signing here, he's made 66 of 73 FGs for a 90.4% success rate. And his two misses this year were a 56 yarder in the rain and a 54 yarder at the end of a blowout win in Carolina. Jake Bailey appears to be nursing an injury as his kickoffs haven't been as deep or well directed. And frankly the team has too many special teams penalties for my taste.

Those who compare this team to the 2001 Patriots miss the fact that the earlier version has bulletproof special teams. Never a misstep, solid coverage and blocking, and they created turnovers and points. It's a pretty big difference if you ask me.

Lastly, the coaching was shaky to start the year but has gotten much better of late. I noted a few times early on that OC Josh McDaniels wasn't adjusting quickly enough or getting the team off to a good start. That improved as Mac Jones' grasp of the offense and chemistry with teammates has.

As for the defensive coaching, I agree with a lot of the media speculation that Belichick himself has taken over that side of the ball. The loss to Dallas saw too many yards and points given up and very poor play situationally.

And the team still has some hiccups that I would put on overall coaching. Fumbles, false starts, timeouts coming out of TV timeouts, too many men on the field (or maybe too few), poor decisions on replay challenges, and overuse of trick plays. Those areas have gotten better but still aren't up to expectations for a Belichick team.

So where does that leave us? This Sunday's game with Tennessee has huge playoff implications. The absence of Titans running back Derek Henry makes them much easier to defend, which is advantage Patriots. The Pats "D" thrives on one-dimensional offenses. If the team wins, they will have the tie-breaker so they could potentially be in the #1 or #2 AFC playoff spot by end of day.

No on-going concern listed -- just wrote an entire entry about how things are going :D

Statistical oddity of the first 11 games: 2020-2021 marks the first back-to-back seasons a Belichick-coached Patriots team had a losing record against the NFC. Despite an overall 74% winning rate against the other conference, last year they went 1-3, this year 2-3.

In 22 seasons here, Belichick has had only four seasons under .500 against the NFC, two of them the last two years.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Raise your hand if you had the Patriots leading the division after 11 games." (Note: I would raise my hand to that... #humblebrag.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-4!

PPS. Trivia answer: The Pats finished #1 in scoring differential in 2010 but lost to Mark Sanchez and the Jets in their first playoff game. Boooooo!

Monday, November 15, 2021

Patriots Crush Browns 45-7

Another dominating performance as the New England Patriots announced their return to relevance with a 45-7 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns. With the win they kept pace with victorious Buffalo in the AFC East and they ticked up to the #6 seed in the AFC (from #7 last week). Next up is a quick-turnaround game in Atlanta this Thursday... a Falcons team that lost 45-3 yesterday.

The game was decided in the first four drives.

Cleveland came out with a good offensive plan, attacking with a great mix of run/pass and going up-tempo to stop the Patriots from substituting. It looked like they weren't going to miss their star running back Nick Chubb at all. The result was an 84-yard touchdown drive.

In response, the Pats needed a long drive to give their defense a rest and give them time to make adjustments. And they did just that. They converted three crucial third downs, overcame a holding penalty, and drove for an 87-yard touchdown drive of their own. They also took 9:39 off the clock, giving their D what they needed.

The adjustments and the rest paid immediate dividends. Two plays later, Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield threw a terrible interception to Pats safety Kyle Dugger, who returned it to the Browns five yard line. One play later, the Patriots led 14-7, and the rout had begun.

The Browns scored the first 7 points because they had a good offensive plan and executed it well. The Patriot scored the next 45 points because they had a good offensive plan and because they made better defensive and offensive adjustments during the game.

On defense, they switched between 2-gap and 1-gap on the line of scrimmage, they mixed coverages to confuse the Browns, and rallied to make tackles after the catch. And they waited for Cleveland to implode, which they did, drive after drive.

On offense, they figured out the Browns were over-pursuing, so they went with misdirection and got chunk plays over and over. They also went with quick throws to stop Cleveland's formidable pass rush, and the long drives eventually wore out the Browns D.

Quarteback Mac Jones was commanding yet efficient, completing 19 of 23 (83%) for 198 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 picks, and a 142.1 QB rating. He had some great completions to Hunter Henry and especially to Kendrick Bourne -- a great throw and even better catch for a touchdown.

But in the overall picture, his three completions for third-down conversions on the very first drive of the game were probably the most important of the game. Without those, the game might have been a slogfest. With them, it was a blowout.

Running back Rhamondre Stevenson cut, sprinted, and bulled his way to 100 yards on 20 carries, and drove two runs into the end zone. And long-time special teamer Brandon Bolden is doing great work replacing James White, running three times and catching three passes, for 32 and 38 yards, respectively.

When Damien Harris returns, this group will be well-suited and prepped for football when the weather turns cold.

Among the receivers, Kendrick Bourne had himself a day. In addition to the great TD catch, he had three end-around runs for 43 yards. Henry got himself two more touchdowns and is the best red-zone threat on the team. And wideout Jakobi Meyers finally, finally got his first touchdown, on a short throw and a nice run to paydirt.

The offensive line was buoyed by the return of Trent Brown, back from injury. They road-graded the Browns defensive, which is really designed to get to the quarterback. Along with fullback Jacob Johnson, they powered a running attack that gained 5.4 yards a carry and allowed just two sacks and two QB hits.

Early in the year people worried about all the hits Mac Jones was taking. Yesterday the Patriots delivered the punishment, hitting the Browns quarterbacks 10 times and sacking them 5 times. They were all over Mayfield, forcing a 56.2 QB rating and his longest completion was just 13 yards.

The D-line did a great job plugging holes and occupying blockers at the line of scrimmage. Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore are huge run stuffers, and they are rotating in players I've never heard of before (Carl Davis?). With linebackers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche rushing from the outside, it's a formidable combination that gets after the run and the pass.

Speaking of linebackers, Dont'a Hightower continued his improvement, notching six tackles and sharing a sack with Judon. He's not where he was a few years ago, but better now than at the beginning of the year. And Ja'Whaun Bentley led the team with seven tackles, including a big one for a loss when the game was still in doubt.

In the secondary, Dugger led with six tackles, he had the interception and also another pass defended. The rest of the secondary mostly had tight coverage, with the exception of Jalen Mills, who has struggled as he has moved up the cornerback depth chart. On the other hand, Myles Bryant has flourished with his increased playing time; might be time to get him on the field more.

Special teams weren't as great as what I've read in the media. Twice Jakobi Meyers didn't fair catch a ball and it ended up rolling for more yards (once ending up at the 1 yard line). And Jake Bailey's kickoffs aren't going into/through the end zone like they used to. Not horrible but not as great as what most of the media are portraying. And the team will benefit when return man Gunner Olszewski returns from concussion protocol.

The coaching mismatch was epic. Cleveland had a good plan coming in but didn't appear to make any adjustments. The Patriots had a good plan, too, and they adjusted. The Browns have a talented team -- so 45 unanswered points tells you all you need to know about how their coaches did yesterday.

Where does that leave us? The Pats are solidifying their position in the playoff hunt. But they don't have a large margin for error -- a loss this Thursday and they could be out of the playoffs seeding by Sunday. Still, four straight wins and a 6-4 record is pretty good given how they started the year.

Biggest on-going concern: With things rounding into form, it's probably injuries. Harris and Olszewski were out with concussions, Bailey and kicker Nick Folk are on the injury report weekly (and Bailey doesn't look right), and they are still thin at running back and corner.

Non-QB MVP: Bourne, mostly because he made more big big plays than the other candidates for this most coveted of awards.

Statistical oddity: Every time the Patriots took over inside their own ten yard line, they drove 90+ yards for a touchdown.

Bonus oddity: The Patriots and Bills scored the same number of points yesterday (45), and they also scored the same number of points in week 1 (16). Just an oddity, nothing earth-shattering.

Double bonus oddity: The Pats are now 6-0 in games I do not attend, and 0-4 in games I do attend. Anyone want to bribe me not to go to the Titans game in a few weeks? Anyone :D

Water-cooler wisdom: "If the Patriots were a stock, I'd go long on them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

Monday, November 8, 2021

Patriots "D"ominate Panthers, 24-6

The Patriots handled Carolina easily yesterday, topping them 24-6 in a game that wasn't in doubt at any point in the second half. That puts the local 11 at 5-4, just a half-game back of 5-3 Buffalo, who lost to the lowly Jaguars. Next week Cleveland comes to Gillette Stadium, with both teams needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt.

This game was over before it started because the Patriots coaches out-prepared their counterparts on the other sideline. They correctly assessed the matchups and decided the best ways to attack and defend. Their plans to attack with the running backs, run-blitz to slow down the run and then pressure Carolina QB Sam Darnold, and force the action on special teams where they had both return and coverage advantages -- those worked to perfection.

Defense was the order of the day, especially so in the second half. The Pats gave up nothing in the final 30 minutes, with Carolina punting once, turning it over on downs once, and throwing three interceptions. This second-half dominance has become a growing trend.

In the last three games, the final five opponent drives resulted in these stats: 4 punts, 2 turned over on downs, 6 interceptions, and 1 fumble, and 10 total points scored on them. They lead the league in fourth-quarter scoring differential, more than doubling their opponents scoring in the final frame: 79-35.

J.C. Jackson was the obvious star of the game, with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Lineman Devon Godchaux had five, count 'em five tackles from the inside line position (almost unheard of given how the Pats play defense), and rookie Christian Barmore knocked down two passes at the line, one of which would have been an easy Panthers touchdown.

The linebackers were much more active, with Dont'a Hightower having perhaps his best game of the year and Jamie Collins making the most of his 16 snaps with two tackles, a pass knocked down, and a ridiculous interception on a fastball thrown from about 8 feet away.

The offensive execution wasn't perfect. They started the game with offensive penalties, and by day's end they would include five pre-snap, two of which were delay of game. They allowed too much pressure on quarterback Mac Jones, with a few free rushers.

But the running backs dominated Carolina. When the Pats went heavy (with Jakob Johnson at fullback), the Panthers mostly stopped it. However, when they switched to running rookie Rhamondre Stevenson from the spread it was magical. He ended the day with 10 carries for 62 yards and 2 catches for 44 (a stellar average of 8.8 yards per touch). And longtime special teamer Branden Bolden continues to work well in James White's third down role.

The only bad news was that both Stevenson and starting back Damien Harris went out with injuries late.

On special teams, it seemed the Pats saw something during the game. They started with kickoffs out of the end zone. But midway through the first half they started having Jake Bailey take a short run-up and kick it in the field of play, forcing the Panthers to return it. It worked pretty well, with an average return of less than the 25 yards they would have gotten with touchbacks.

I'm not sure if they saw lax play by special teams, maybe some key special teamer got injured, could have been a lot of things. But they saw it and adjusted well. The only downside is they tried the same thing on their own kick returns and got Gunner Olszewski concussed and out of the game. (Here's hoping he is back by next week.)

Kicker Nick Folk has now missed two field goal attempts this year: a 56-yarder in the rain and wind against the Bucs, and a 54-yarder in garbage time yesterday. He leads the NFL in scoring and is in the top 10 in made percentage. It's been quite the career resurrection for Folk, whom the Pats picked up off the street early last season.

As for coaching, it seems the team is hitting its stride. It seems they know who their players are an how to get them in positions to succeed. Their game plans the last four weeks have been excellent from the start of each game. The only concern is the continued issues with pre-snap problems: false starts, too many players on the field, delay of game penalties, and spending timeouts to avoid those last two.

Where does that leave us? Currently the #7 seed in the AFC, the once 2-4 Patriots have played themselves back into post-season contention. Unfortunately early losses to the Dolphins and Buccaneers leave them with little margin for error, and the strongest part of their schedule coming up. But we can all agree that it's way more interesting to have them in the hunt than it was last year when they were out of it after seven games.

Next week against the Browns will be a tough one. The two things that play in New England's favor are that Cleveland had a big emotional win over a division rival and has to go on the road for the second straight week. Doesn't guarantee anything, but gives the Pats a better chance at a game they need to have.

Biggest on-going problem: Injuries to the running backs. The current formula for winning is to run the ball well, play smart on special teams, be disciplined and opportunistic on defense, and take shots in the passing game when it makes sense. If Harris and Stevenson aren't well enough to play at at least 85% that formula takes a hit.

Non-QB MVP: J.C. Jackson, the next cornerback who will leave the Patriots to get a big payday in the off-season :(

Statistical oddity: In four starts against the Patriots, QB Sam Darnold is 0-4, has completed just 52% of his passes, has 1 touchdown pass and 9 interceptions, and a QB rating of 41.2. If you recall, he was the one who "was seeing ghosts" a few years back in a game the Patriots spanked the Jets.

Bonus oddity: ESPN started tracking how QBs do when they are outside the pocket back in 2009. Since then, Darnold is the first quarterback to have zero completions and two interceptions outside the pocket in a game (he was 0-6 with two INTs).

Note: I usually don't use stats from other outlets, but I called this during the game -- see this post from the Your Patriots Facebook page as proof:

Water-cooler wisdom: "2-5 last season and they were done, 2-4 this season and it was just the beginning."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-4!

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Pats Outlast Chargers, Top Them 27-24

The Patriots made great in-game adjustments and outlasted the L.A. Chargers for a 27-24 win. The result moves them to 4-4 on the season, 1.5 games back of the Bills in the AFC East and just outside the playoffs in the AFC (#8 team, top 7 make the post-season). Next week is another road trip, this time to Carolina to take on the Panthers -- losers of four of their last five games.

This game was all about adjustments. L.A. scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives. But in the next eight Chargers possessions, the Patriots score more points (7, on a pick-six) than L.A. did (3). It was a combination of causing offensive confusion, missed opportunities and untimely penalties, and two interceptions by former Charger Adrian Phillips.

Phillips' pick-six was the difference in the game, giving the Patriots a touchdown lead that they made hold up. The secondary in general had tight coverage or no coverage. But it was enough to slow down the Chargers.

The Patriots offensive line played very well, except for two unfortunate holding calls that brought back big runs. The backs ran for decent yardage and were rarely stopped for short yardage -- and they also held onto the ball with both hands all the time; Ramondre Stevenson never giving up the ball until the official asked for it. (If only Kendrick Bourne had been as careful.)

QB Mac Jones completed passes to eight different receivers, was poised and efficient, and didn't turn the ball over. In fact, for the first time in a while he didn't really put the ball in harm's way. His completion percentage was lower than usual (51.4%) and the yards were down (218), but he looks like what the Patriots usually expect from a quarterback -- protect the football, hit the open receiver, and don't make the big mistake.

Defensively the plan was to get pressure with the front four, which mostly worked. There were a few blitzes, but the Pats seemed hesitant to give up big passing plays. In fact, two of the Chargers three longest plays were runs that broke loose, not pass plays.

Special teams went in the Patriots favor, though not as much of a blowout as last year's game. Nick Folk has been clutch all season, Jake Bailey is consistent, and the coverage and return teams were superior to L.A. all day long.

But in my opinion, this game was about the coaching. The Patriots offense struggled early and got better as the game proceeded. The defense struggled early but basically shut the Chargers down for the last 40 minutes. That comes down to adjustments and in-game coaching.

The real question going forward is if the Pats should add someone before this Tuesday's trade deadline. Two weeks ago I wrote that if New England lost either of their next two games they should be sellers at the deadline. But they won them both. So should they add someone to make a run at the playoffs?

My answer is "yes," but with one proviso. Go ahead and add a player or two if you think they can help you this year *and* next season. But not if the player won't help next year. At 4-4 they are on the edge of being in the playoffs. But even if they make the playoffs they are unlikely to win it all this year.

No rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl. And even if the Pats make a run and get to the post-season, they are likely to be a low seed, so it would mean three road wins to get to the big game.

So if they identify an offensive lineman, linebacker, or cornerback who can help this year -- and who is under contract and can help the team in 2022, too -- then go ahead and pull the trigger. (This also goes for players who you are confident you can re-sign in the off-season, if they aren't already under contract for 2022.)

But don't mortgage the future to "go for it all" this year. They've never really done that in the past, anyway, so I don't expect they would do it now. But at 4-4, with a improved O-line and running attack, some momentum on their side, and a good win in Los Angeles, why not make a run and bring in players who can help you now and in the future?

Where does that leave us? The next five games aren't easy. They can win at Carolina and they have a Thursday tilt in Atlanta that should go their way. The other three are home games against two home dates against the Browns and Titans (division leader) and a road game at the Bills (division leader).

They can't go any worse than 3-2 if they want to stay in the playoff hunt. And 4-1 would put them in control of whether they made the post-season, but that's a lot to ask against that level of competition.

But at least we are talking about it and the season isn't a washout at this point :)

Biggest ongoing problem: In relation to any playoff run, the past is the future. The biggest concern will be those close losses to the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and the terrible 1-7 Dolphins. Win any of those games and you're 5-3 and competing for the division.

Non-QB MVP: Phillips, who's first INT was a great athletic play, and who's pick-six was the difference in the game. He also defended two passes.

Statistical oddity: A sign of the Patriots offensive improvement is that they averaged 4 punts per game in their first four weeks but just 2.25 punts per game in the last four.

Water-cooler wisdom: "The P-word is starting to float around in the back of my head."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-4!

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Patriots Crush The Jets, 54-13

The Patriots absolutely pasted the Jets, scoring the game's last 23 points to run away with a 54-13 win. The victory puts the Pats just a half-game behind the division leading Bills, who are idle this week. Next up is a trip to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers.

There's praise all the way around today, but it starts with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. I'm not always his biggest fan, but he called an excellent game. Ran when he should have, used controlled passes to keep drives alive, took shot plays down the field at the right times, and employed trick plays that caught the Jets defense off-guard.

Not to mention having a great plan coming in, making good adjustments at the half, and using all his players to perfection. It looked like the days of old, the Past scoring on 9 of 10 "real" drives (not including the game-ending kneel downs). This was probably McDaniels' best game since the "old man" left for Tampa -- so kudos to him!

Praise of the offense has to start with the O-line. The Pats shifted Michael Onwenu to right tackle, a position that has been absolutely dreadful this year. He solidified that side and the group gave up five QB hits and one sack, and they also paved the way for 148 yards on the ground. And that was against a very good Jets front seven.

The passing attack was inspired for its creativity. Wideout Kendrick Bourne has found his identity (get it?), grabbing multiple passes for the fifth time in seven games this year. But having him fake a WR screen and throw a pass -- amazing. He's the second wide receiver to throw a TD pass for the Patriots this season, no idea the last time that happened in the NFL.

Additionally, Jakobi Meyers is Mr. Reliable, catching five of seven passes thrown his way, including some tough ones to keep the chains moving. And Brandon Bolden has worked his way nicely into the James White role, leading the team with six catches for 79 yards (and a touchdown). One other note: tight end Hunter Henry is becoming a big threat near the goal line -- he scored again on a tough catch in the back of the end zone.

Quarterback Mac Jones completed a season-low 67% of his passes, but not to knock him, he also had his second-highest QB rating of the year (111.7). In fact, his QB rating for the first five games was 83.4. For the last two games, it's 114.4. He commands the huddle and even ran for a few big plays in this one.

And not to be forgotten, the running game was potent. Damien Harris was over 100 yards again (106) but most impressive were his 7.6 yards per carry and his determination on two touchdown runs. J.J. Taylor got back on the field and picked up 21 yards and two TDs of his own. Brandon Bolden should stick with pass catching, however, he had two rushes for 0 yards :(

The defensive star of the game was linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. He consistently made the right reads and attacked the Jets, stopping or redirecting running backs before they could get started or dropping into coverage to make Jets QB Zach Wilson go to a different option. I only wish they had more linebacker firepower; but Josh Uche is still nursing an injury and Jamie Collins hasn't played much since he was traded back to the Pats.

Along the defensive line, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, and Davon Godchaux took turns stuffing runs before they could get started. This is key, as when teams can run on you, there's just no way to stop their offense. It might be a passing league, but most teams will run it down your throat if they can, and the Pats running defense has been suspect this year.

The secondary mostly played a competitive game, with some yards given up but mostly tight coverage. J.C. Jackson played very well, knocking away a pass, staying close to the Jets #1 receiver, and even getting an INT on a great catch along the sideline. Myles Bryant is getting some praise for a sack and a forced fumble late, but he was only okay, giving up a first-down when he lost leverage on a short pass to the flat.

And as always, safeties Kyle Duggar and Adrian Phillips were near the top of the tackle chart and made significant plays throughout the game. It wasn't perfect, there were some pass interference calls and some wide open receivers. But overall not a bad performance from a unit that was undermanned due to injuries.

One last thought: still not enough quarterback pressure from the line or the defense in general. But one step a time.

Special teams did a great job, with Nick Folk good from 39 and 50 yards. His only field goal miss was the 56-yarder in the rain against the Buccaneers. And Jake Bailey using directional kick-offs to hold the dangerous Jets returners in check. (Note: the Patriots offense was so proficient that he only punted once.) Also, not to be forgotten, returner Gunner Olszewski averaged 15 yards on two punt returns and his first kickoff return was to the 35 yard line.

The coaching staff deserves credit for three key things: (1) the offensive line shuffling, (2) having a better game plan to start the game, and (3) holding things together as the team struggled and the injuries mounted.

If the Patriots miss the playoffs they will look back on their opening day loss to the Dolphins. If they make the playoffs, they'll look back at the last two weeks when the offense turned a corner. The Pats scored 96 points the first five weeks of the season. Then they scored 83 in the last two games.

Where does that leave us? 3-4 with three really close losses is a lot better than 2-5 and a loss to the terrible Jets. But it'll all go for naught if they don't crank it up for another win in L. A. next weekend. If they can get to .500 next Sunday then they have hope. But if they fall to 3-5, they are done.

Biggest on-going concern: No longer the offensive line, it's now the health of the secondary. Jonathan Jones will miss at least three weeks, J.C. Jackson was out for some plays against the Jets, and safety Devin McCourty left the game with an injury. Think they could use someone like Stephon Gilmore right about now?

Non-QB MVP: So many to choose from, but I'm going with Bentley. Mostly because his most important plays came early, setting up the Patriots offense to dominate.

Statistical oddity: The Jets longest play of the day was 22 yards. The Patriots had ten plays of 22 yards or more.

Bonus oddity: Bill Belichick has beaten the Jets 35 times in his career, which is the same number of times he has beaten the Buffalo Bills. Those are tied for the NFL record, which BB will undoubtedly own all by himself soon, as the Pats play those two teams twice every year.

Double-bonus oddity: This season the Patriots have six interceptions against the Jets and four interceptions in their other five games.

Overtime-double-bonus oddity: The Pats are 0-4 in games I have attended this year, and 3-0 when I'm not there. (Maybe I should skip the next game I'm scheduled to go to, against Tennessee.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Win next week and the Pats could be leading the AFC East. If you think the Dolphins can beat the Bills, that is."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-4!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Patriots Lose a Wild One, 35-29 in Overtime

The Pats hung tough yet again and lost a squeaker yet again, falling to the Cowboys 35-29 in overtime. The loss drops them to 2-4, still in second place in the awful AFC East, but they are quickly falling out of any chance to contend for the play... uh, never mind. Next week the Jets visit Gillette, and here's hoping the team can get it's first home victory of the year.

Back and forth, up and down, roller coaster, what's your favorite way to describe a game with four lead changes in the last 12+ minutes? I'd say trick or treat, in honor of the season. The teams scored a total of 31 in the first 45-minutes and 33 the rest of the way. The Cowboys made a dozen mistakes (between penalties and coaching miscues), but their talent was enough to overcome those problems against an undermanned Patriots squad.

The Patriots are now 2-0 on the road and 0-4 at home. (Trivia question: What is the franchise record for home losses in a season? Answer below.) And the team is proof of how tiny the difference is between winning and losing. On the season, the Pats have given up just two more points than they scored and they are 2-4 and going nowhere. The Chargers have also given up two more points than they scored, and they are 4-2 and leading their division.

The story of this season will be their inconsistency. Yesterday they scored two TDs in the first quarter and two TDs in the fourth quarter. In the six drives between they ran 21 plays for 69 yards and zero points and had a fumble and a blocked punt. You can beat the Jets and Texans that way, but are unlikely to prevail over talented squads like the Cowboys.

But even with all that, they were a Nelson Agholor drop (first play of OT) and a gutless punt on 4th-and-3 in overtime away from maybe pulling it out. Once again, I said it in the stadium at the time, they should have gone for it on 4th-and-3 near midfield. They hadn't stopped the Cowboys since the opening drive of the second half, so punting it away was pretty much giving them the win.

If the Patriots lose either of the next two games, they should be sellers at the trade deadline (November 2). If they drop to 3-5 (or worse) with the bulk of their difficult games to come, they should trade anyone decent who won't be helping them in 2022. Given their play this season, I count 4 winnable games after October, and 7 wins won't get you into the post-season.

It obviously wasn't all bad yesterday; here are some of the better performers:

  • QB Mac Jones went 15 of 21 (71%) for 229 yards, two TDs, and one INT (on yet another tipped-ball). His QB rating was 118.9, all of which are impressive in the face of relentless pressure.
  • RBs Damien Harris (18 carries for 101 yards, 1 TD) and Rhamondre Stevenson (5 for 23, 1TD) ran well and protected the ball very well (two-hands all the time!).
  • LB Ja'Whaun Bentley was everywhere against the run, with 13 tackles and a forced-fumble at the goal line that kept the score 17-14 at the half.
  • S Kyle Duggar made impact stops against the run and got a timely interception in the end zone.
  • DE Deatrich Wise Jr. drew two holding calls early and got 6 tackles.
  • S Justin Bethel, a special teamer who was pressed into duty at safety, made several big plays (including tipping the pass that Duggar intercepted).
Who had a bad day?
  • LB Kyle Van Noy got caught in-between coverage and rushing the passer several times.
  • The O-line still gave up too much pressure: 5 QB hits, 2 sacks, and some unacceptable penalties.
  • Cornerbacks (other than JC Jackson): you can't give up 445 yards passing without breakdowns and poor play.
  • OC Josh McDaniels, who waits until runs get stuffed before calling play-action instead of anticipating it and taking advantage. Also, two full quarters without points was partially due to poor play calling.
  • The entire defensive coaching staff; too many points, too many yards, great on third-down, not good on first- and second-downs, lost contain of Prescott just about every time. And all that includes *two* Cowboys end zone turnovers that bailed them out -- or this game would have been a blowout.
Where does that leave us? The season was sorta in the balance yesterday. Now it's really in the balance. Lose either of the next two and you should sell off pieces at the trading deadline. Win them both, and maybe you played your way back into things.

Biggest on-going concern: That the coaches seem to think Tom Brady will be walking through that door. For decades they played close games as if they knew they'd pull it out at the end. But MJ10 isn't TB12, so they can't be punting on 4th-and-short, getting punts blocked, and hoping other teams will soil themselves in big moments.

Jones might well be the quarterback of the future. If so, let him try (and sometimes fail) when the games are on the line.

Non-QB MVP: Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, who did just about everything he could to keep the Patriots in the game. His opening drive gaffes were soooooo Mike McCarthy.

Statistical oddity: There are six NFL teams with five-or-more wins this season; five of them are in the NFC, pending the Bills game tonight.

Water-cooler wisdom: "I think I hear Don Meredith singing, 'Turn out the lights, the party's over.'"

Keep the faith, if you can,

- Scott

PS. 2-4!

PPS. Trivia answer: the 1990 Patriots went 0-8 at home to set a franchise for homefield futility. Interestingly they could break that record this year, as the extra game makes 0-9 possible.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Patriots *Win* a Squeaker, 25-22 over the Texans

The Patriots hung on and hung on and hung on and then dominated the fourth quarter to pull out a 25-22 win in Houston. The victory leaves them at 2-3, in second place alone behind the 3-1 Bills (their game pending tonight). Next week the red hot Cowboys come to Gillette for Dak Prescott's second tilt against the Pats.

The Texans game was sort of a story of the two halves. Houston dominated the first half, though on the scoreboard it was only 15-9. But after Mac Jones started the second half with his lone interception, the Texans drew up a flea-flicker for a touchdown that had them in command at 22-9. The Texans next five possessions ended: punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, and fumble. The Patriots next five possessions ended: punt, field goal, field goal, touchdown, and field goal.

Houston's implosion included a botched fake-ish punt, a blown timeout, a 56-yard field goal attempt by a kicker who couldn't hit on single-number-roulette, and a roughing the passer penalty that extended a Patriots drive. The Pats weren't perfect during that stretch, but they were good enough to come back against a team that seemed to insist that the visitors take it.

This game clearly was hangover game from the previous week against the Bucs. But in a game where four of the Patriots starting O-linemen were out with injuries/COVID, where they were down to two RBs at a few points, and where a starting cornerback was inactive, they pulled one out when they probably shouldn't have.

You've heard that story before -- about 50 times over the last two decades plus. But this is the first one with Mac Jones at the helm.

Once again the Patriots depended on the rookie quarterback. He went 23 of 30 (77%) for 231 yards, one TD and one (bad) INT. But maybe most important, the team made 14 first downs on pass plays (or runs by receivers), and just 5 from the running backs. (Note: on his interception, he missed a wide-open checkdown to a running back for an easy 5-7 yard gain. That's why it was a bad throw.)

He completed passes to seven receivers, and six of them had multiple catches. Also, Jones audibled to good plays several times, and in a game this close did not waste any timeouts with confusion or indecision.

The receivers by and large did a great job, both catching and blocking downfield. Hunter Henry had 6 grabs for 75 yards and a touchdown, Jakobi Meyers had 5 of his own (for 56 yards), but will regret the long pass he dropped down the sideline. And quietly Kendrick Bourne is turning into the best playmaker on offense.

The running backs were limited partially because the number of backs was limited. Damien Harris had yet another fumble, this one just before he entered the end zone for a touchdown. And that sent him to the bench for a while, but even when he came back, a chest injury limited his action for the rest of the game. They brought back Rhamondre Stevenson and who knows, maybe JJ Taylor will be back from the doghouse if the injuries continue to mount.

The Pats did run for 126 yards, but it never felt like they could do so when needed. Not surprising given the injuries along the offensive line. But with the trade of Sony Michel, fumble-itis of Harris, Stevenson, and Taylor, and season-ending injury to James White, this group is looking pretty thin at this point.

In honor of Halloween month, the defense was trick-or-treat. Houston went touchdown-touchdown-field goal to start the game, and their QB had a 156.2 rating for the first half, with a couple of long passes against seven-man defensive backfields.

The secondary got chewed up all half, though I will say I've never seen a player have 10 tackles in the first half, which safety Kyle Duggar did. Some of the throws were either perfect or lucky, but you can't write off all the problems on that. There was too much blitzing without enough pressure, and they couldn't really stop the run much, either.

What changed? They started using five- and six-man fronts in the second half, sometimes blitzing and sometimes dropping them into coverage. They let the pass rushers loose to speed up the young quarterback, and frankly the Texans had more near misses. Maybe that was just things averaging out. Everything close went Houston's way in the first half, everything close went the Pats way in the second half.

Among the defenders, both only Duggar and linebacker Matthew Judon stood out. Judon had 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, and just caused havoc for the Houston offense. Oh, and Jamie Collins came off the street to notch a huge sack in the fourth quarter; good to have him back, for the third time :)

Special teams was a blowout in favor of the Patriots. Nick Folk booted four field goals, including two 52-yarders and the game winner. The opposing kicker missed two extra points, missed a 56-yarder, and sent a kickoff out of bounds. Punter Jake Bailey averaged 47 yards net, while his counterpart averaged just 27.3 yards, and after a bad "trick play" call booted it off his own team's helmet (for 0 yards).

But the biggest mismatch was in head coaches. Bill Belichick stayed calm and kept his team in position to take advantage of any miscues. Texans head man David Culley had his team ready to go, but he wasted several timeouts, foolishly tried a 56-yard field goal, and went conservative too early in the second half.

The Patriots coaching wasn't great, but it was better than the opposition.

Where does that leave us? 2-3 keeps hope alive for a competitive season. Unfortunately the easier part of the schedule is over, so they'll have to play better in the coming weeks if they plan to finish over .500. Dallas won't be an easy game, but they have to start pulling out games where they can, any way they can.

Biggest on-going concern: Most definitely the offensive line now. The COVID absences should be back next week. But they haven't played well since Trent Brown got injured.

Non-QB MVP: Nick Folk. Two 52-yarders kept them in the game, and he finished the job with a 21-yard kick at the end.

Statistical oddity: Jakobi Meyers now has 116 receptions for 1,390 yards in his career without a touchdown catch. Those numbers are an NFL record. (The irony is he has thrown two touchdown passes in his career!)

(Note: to the best of my knowledge, Meyers is also the only player who's name I have misspelled on this blog. My apologies, Jakobi.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "If they turn things around and just miss the playoffs, will the Bucs or the Dolphins loss sting more?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-3!