Monday, December 28, 2015

Patriots Fall To Jets in OT, 26-20

The Patriots staged another second-half comeback, only to lose in overtime, 26-20, to the hated Jets. The loss leaves them needing one more win to secure the #1 seed in the AFC, and vaults the Jets into a likely playoff berth. The regular season comes to a close next Sunday in Miami, where the reeling Dolphins stand in the way of a "home for the playoffs" outcome for the Pats.

No doubt people will be talking about the Patriots decision to kick the ball away in overtime. There were plenty of other reasons they lost; but that curious choice will be questioned even more vigorously than "fourth and two" was in 2009. Here is a breakdown of what happened.

The Situation

The Patriots scored a game-tying touchdown with 1:55 left in regulation, and the defense held firm at the 50 yard-line, sending the game to overtime. The Pats won the coin toss, but decided to kick the ball rather than receive the kickoff. This choice also meant the Jets got not only the ball but they could choose to have the wind at their backs for the overtime period.

After the game, head coach Bill Belichick stated unequivocally that this was not a mistake by special teams captain Matthew Slater. Belichick himself made the call, telling Slater to kick the ball to the Jets if the Patriots won the toss. (And note: the wind direction made no difference in the outcome.)

The Strategy 

Given the new overtime rules, the Patriots would have gotten a possession if the Jets had not scored a touchdown on their opening drive. So Belichick obviously thought his defense could hold the Jets to zero points or a field goal attempt. And in so thinking, it is actually to his advantage to kick the ball away.

The reasoning is that if the Jets don't score or get a field goal, it gives the Patriots more information about what they have to do to extend the game or win it. Knowing the Jets kicked a field goal, for example, means the Patriots can treat the entire drive as "four-down territory." And if the Jets don't score, then the Patriots know they only have to get in field goal range to win the game, potentially.

The Mistake

In my analysis of the situation, Belichick made one crucial mistake: he overestimated his defense. The defense did indeed play better in the second half, forcing three punts and a turnover in six Jets' possessions. However, the eyeball test told me something different about their potential to stop the Jets in overtime.

Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick missed at least five long passes in the game, where his receivers had beaten the safeties on deep routes. If Fitzpatrick hit just two of those passes, the Jets would have won the game in a rout; and the Patriots were lucky he'd missed them. Belichick should have been more realistic about how well his defense had performed and realized his team would be in danger of losing with just one bad play from the safeties.

In the end, it was actually two bad plays from the safeties that sealed the Patriots fate. In overtime, Fitzpatrick completed a short pass to the left flat, and safety Tavon Wilson took a bad angle, allowing the receiver to run 50 yards after the catch. Two plays later, safety Duron Harmon was late on a pass to Brandon Marshall, and the Jets had the ball at the Patriots six yard-line. One play later, it was all over.

For background, note that both of the Patriots usual starting safeties, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, missed the game with injuries. And without those defensive starters, the Patriots had already given up four passes of 20+ yards in the game.

Knowing that the Patriots were down two starters, that they'd given up multiple long pass plays already, and that missed connections by the Jets could have made the game a runaway win for New York, Belichick should have taken the ball instead of kicking it away.

It isn't usual that he makes the wrong call. But he did in this situation. No matter what the odds said about their likelihood of winning, the eye-test was more important that the stats on this day.

The Rest of the Game

Safety play was awful, as noted already. And the defensive line did a terrible job in the first half, giving up 6.1 yards per rush, and getting zero pressure on Fitzpatrick. They did make good adjustments at the half, but in the end they still never got much heat on the Jets QB (one sack, four QB hits in the entire game). Jabaal Sheard made three big plays (run stuff, sack, forced fumble), but he also gave up inside contain on runs right up the gut in the first half.

The two best corners did a decent job, but the rest of them were cannon fodder.  Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan gave up some passes, but mostly held the Jets receivers in check. Or was it that the Jets just attacked Leonard Johnson, Justin Coleman, and Jordan Richards? Yep -- that sounds more like what happened: come to the line, figure out who those guys were covering, and throw it to them.

The three main linebackers were all in, and Jamie Collins was the standout as usual. He led the team with eight tackles, forced a fumble, and returned a fumble for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a chance at a comeback. Before his touchdown, the team was lethargic and looked like they were headed for a 35-17 beatdown. Dont'a Hightower played okay, though several times he missed the chance to stop runs before they got started. 

The offense was in such bad shape that the Pats resorted to trick plays. Once they did a flea-flicker, with Brandon Bolden taking a handoff and then pitching it back to Brady, who missed Gronk on a deep cross. Two plays later they used the Wildcat (to no good effect). And they went for it on fourth down three times, signaling that they just couldn't line up and beat the Jets.

(Note: they went 1-10 on third-down conversions, but 3-3 on fourth down. Maybe they should have gone for it on fourth down even more often.)

With an injury to Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots have only one offensive line starter from game 1: rookie Tre' Jackson. And it shows. On a bunch of pass plays, the Pats QB couldn't even get set before he had to throw the ball, usually to poor effect. The running game averaged less than three-yards a carry, they gave up two sacks and five QB hits (even with super-quick releases).

Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't blameless, either. His interception was a terrible throw, behind a double-covered Rob Gronkowski, and it killed the opening possession of the second half. And about 5-6 throws were either too low or behind receivers, which didn't help.

The receivers once again were unable to get quick separation, forcing Brady to hold the ball longer than expected. The first few minutes of the second half was the only time the passing game looked in sync, and once the Jets adjusted to the Pats halftime adjustments, it was a slog from then on.

Gronkowski did his usual damage (4 catches for 86 yards), and Keshawn Martin (7-68) and the running backs (10-58 total, with one touchdown) were the most helpful after Gronk. Martin gets open on crossing routes more often than the digs and cuts that the starters usually run, so they should feature him more on those patterns.

As for the running game, forget about it. They mostly can't run out of running formations, using deception with runs out of the shotgun to make yards. Newcomer Stephen Jackson will have to learn the pass protections so his presence in the huddle isn't a tip-off that it's a running play.

On special teams, Slater had a few nice plays on punt coverage, and punter Ryan Allen did a great job pinning the Jets back in their own end.

The coaching was curious at the end of the first half, yet again. They had 1:57 left and two timeouts; yet they were satisfied to go to the locker room down by seven points. They did the same a few weeks back against the Eagles Broncos, and both times any extra points they could have gotten would have come in handy late in those games.

So where does that leave us? 12-3 means they have to win next week to assure themselves of the #1 seed in the AFC. They beat Miami 36-7 in October, but division games can be tricky, especially late in the year (see yesterday for proof). But in the end, they have to get healthier. The O-line is going to be a problem for the rest of the year, but they need Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman back to make any noise in the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Jets had three running backs who had more rushing yards than any Patriots running back. Bilal Powell had 56 yards; Chris Ivory had 38 yards; and Stephan Ridley had 36 yards. The Patriots leading rusher was Brandon Bolden, with 30 yards.

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Rob Gronkowski had two fourth-down catches on the drive that tied the game late. Clutch.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Fourth-and-two was defensible. But the safety play was so bad yesterday, there's no defending kicking the ball away in overtime."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-3!

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