Monday, November 16, 2015

Pats Comeback Outdoes Giants 27-26

In what will be one of the best games this season, the New England landed one last blow with 1-second left on the clock to turn a likely loss into a 27-26 victory. The win kept the Patriots record perfect, 9-0, putting them four games up in the AFC East on the Jets and Bills, both at 5-4. Next up is a Monday night tilt with the Bills, with a chance to put them five games behind with six games to go in the season.

(Note: this win gives Bill Belichick a 3-3 record against the Giants during his time in New England. Trivia question: name the only other NFL team that does not have a losing record against the Patriots under Bill Belichick. Answer below.)

The game had a series of big plays: an Odell Beckham Jr.'s 87-yard touchdown; a Rob Gronkowski 76-yard touchdown; two strip sacks by the Giants; an important sack by Rob Ninkovich; a strip-sack by Chandler Jones; a soul-sucking interception by the Giants in the red zone; a gut-check drive by Eli Manning for a field goal that put the Giants ahead; a Malcolm Butler knockdown in the end zone on that same drive; a fourth-and-10 conversion throw by Tom Brady; and finally to a 54-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to win it.

Special teams were crucial this week. Not only did Gostkowski win the game at the end, but four of his six kickoffs were touchbacks and his end-of-game squib kick was perfectly executed not to allow the Giants a chance to run a play after that. Punter Ryan Allen averaged 50 yards a kick (and a net of 39.8 yards), and the coverage team never allowed dangerous return man David Harris anything longer than 17 yards.

And the biggest play of the day, the one that brought the Patriots back to life, was Danny Amendola's 82-yard punt return, which would have been a touchdown if he hadn't tripped over a teammate's foot. At the time the Giants led 20-10 and the Patriots looked lifeless and dead in the water. Four plays later it was a three-point game and they had new life.

In the five drives after that return, the Patriots scored 17 points (and had two turnovers, to be fair). In the five drives prior to that return, they'd scored 3 points. That is how much that return meant to the team - it totally transformed them and got their collective heads back into the contest.

Second on the list of groups to thank is the defense. After the Patriots trailed by 10, the defense allowed only 6 more points, forcing three three-and-outs in the process. Oddly none of the individual units played great, even after the second half adjustments. But their situational play was fantastic, getting punts on three drives when New York could have put the game out of reach.

The secondary had a tough first half, allowing over 10 yards per completion and a 137.5 QB rating against them. But they mostly rallied in the second half. Malcolm Butler effectively shut down Beckham Jr. after his initial 87-yard catch, allowing just 3 completions on 11 more targets for only 17 yards. He also had a huge pass breakup when Beckham Jr. almost had what would have been a touchdown (the Giants settled for a field goal). However, Rashaan Melvin (#24 on your scorecard, but no Ty Law, that's for sure) was terrible, giving up play after play as the Giants marched down the field to take the lead late.

Safety Patrick Chung led the team with 10 tackles and he's playing the best football of his Patriots career. Devin McCourty got beaten on the Giants long touchdown pass, and even after that he gave up several sideline passes where he was out of position or late. The last few games have not been among his best.

The linebackers graded out pretty well against the run. But don't ask about their pass coverage; the Giants killed them on short crossing routes all day long. They were led by Dont'a Hightower's nine tackles. Jonathan Freeney was just one behind with eight tackles, and he also knocked down a pass in coverage. And Jerod Mayo looked overmatched at times, but they stayed with the 4-3 and he ended up with four total tackles and more playing time than he's seen all season. Hopefully that signals a return to health for the veteran, because they need him down the stretch.

On the defensive line, rookie Malcom Brown was consistently in on play after play, ending up with 7 tackles, 1 sack (7 yards), and a QB hit. The big plays were made by Rob Ninkovich, who's 13-yard sack knocked New York out of field goal range, and Chandler Jones, who had only 3 tackles but his sack caused a fumble inside the Patriots 20 yard line, saving points at the time.

Injuries to the offensive line are starting cause problems. Three players missed time yesterday, and the team dressed only six O-linemen for the second straight week, including Chris Barker, who couldn't even make their practice squad in September. The result: a Giants team that had 9 sacks in 9 games this year had 3 in this game, and added 5 QB hits, and multiple missed passes caused by pressure.

There's plenty of blame to go around. The only lineman about whom I have nothing bad to say is rookie Shaq Mason, who is a road-grader and great pull-lineman on running plays and does a decent job in pass protection. Most of the pressure yesterday came from the outside, which means a change to two tight-ends might be in order, so the outside rush guys can be chipped at the line or the TEs can stay in to help in pass blocking.

The running backs didn't help in pass protection, with LeGarrette Blount blowing a blitz pickup early and James White getting bowled over trying to pickup another blitz. Early on it appeared the Pats were going run-heavy with Blount, but he ended dup with just 66 yards on 19 carries after they had to throw more to catch up. And White helped with a third-down catch that kept a drive alive. But mostly they missed Dion Lewis again.

Quarterback Tom Brady had some bad throws under pressure, and early in the game missed some chances to audible running plays against light defensive fronts. And at the half you would have thought Manning was the one on the fast-track to an MVP, not Brady. But the Patriots helmsman turned it around when it counted. He started the fourth quarter with a fumble, and then completed 11 of 17 for 187 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 INT, and the final drive for a field goal.

The receivers had a tough time getting open in the first half, but they also came through when it counted. Amendola not only had that punt return, but he had twice as may catches (10) as any other Patriots receiver. He also converted a fourth-down on the final drive and caught the last pass of the day to get them into decent field goal range.

Gronkowski was held mostly in check but converted two first downs and had that 76-yard catch-and-run for a huge touchdown. He was decent in run blocking, though not as dominant as usual against the faster New York ends. The bad news on the receiving front was Julian Edelman leaving the game with an apparent broken foot. Edelman was a mismatch for the Giants; he had four catches in the first quarter alone. And the Patriots don't have anyone to replace him, although Amendola will try. Sadly, that leaves the team with no one to replace Amendola.

The coaching matchup was outstanding. The Giants went long-ball when they had mostly gone with short passes this season. And the biggest difference between this game and past matches is that Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's in-game adjustments put the clamps on teams as the game goes on. His defense got better as the games went on last year, and that pattern has continued this season -- giving the Patriots a chance to come back whenever they get behind.

So where does that leave us? This is the second 9-0 start in Patriots history, but they are only one game into their toughest stretch of the season. Next up is the Bills in Foxboro next Monday, and then the Broncos in Denver after a short week of preparation.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For all the high-powered receiving talent on the field, the only players who caught every pass thrown their way were both Patriots running backs. Blount caught two passes on two targets and White caught one pass on one target.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Malcolm Butler's defense of New York's best receiver earns him this coveted award. Amendola could have been the winner, but it was the defensive stops that allowed the offense the chance to get back into the game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Those damned Giants. If they aren't beating us in the Super Bowl, they are taking 10 years off my life with games like this."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: The Green Bay Packers are 2-2 against the Patriots since Bill Belichick arrived, making them the only team other than the Giants that does not have a losing record.

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