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!

Monday, November 29, 2021

Patriots Take Out Titans 36-13

It wasn't the blowout the score would indicate, but the Patriots shutout the Titans in the second half en route to a 36-13 victory. The win put them atop the AFC East and moved them to the #2 playoff seed in the AFC. Next up is a crucial division tilt in Buffalo, the first of two games with the Bills over three weeks.

Sunday's game was 16-13 after a bruising and closely contested first half. But the Pats defense rose to the occasion in the second 30 minutes, and the offense rode three second half turnovers to a 23-point win.

This game felt a lot like the Atlanta game, only against a better team. Without star back Derrick Henry, the Patriots simply made sure they didn't get beaten through the air and assumed they wouldn't lose the game on the ground. And even though the Titans ran for 270 yards, they threw for just 93 yards, and of course they weren't close to winning in the second half.

Corner JC Jackson was amazing in the game; shutting down receivers, catching a running back from behind and forcing a fumble, and intercepting a ball in the end zone to thwart the Titans only threatened score in the second half. And fellow corner Jalen Mills had his best game with the Patriots: two tackles, two passes defended, and he recovered the fumble caused by Jackson.

The team has been searching for Jonathan Jones' replacement for a few weeks now, and if Mills continues playing like that he could be just that.

Safeties Kyle Duggar and Adrian Phillips continue their excellent play, with eight and seven tackles, respectively.  But it wasn't all good at this position; veteran Devin McCourty took bad angles on two running plays that went for huge chunks of yardage. He did bat the ball that Jackson intercepted, but those positional mistakes were inexcusable for a veteran of his status.

Linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley look like a new man this year. He led the team with 10 tackles, had a sack and two forced fumbles, and makes more plays each week than he had in the two prior seasons.

I mostly chalk up Bentley's improvement to playing next to Matt Judon (six tackles, a sack, and two QB hits yesterday), Kyle Van Noy (five tackles, three passes defended, and a forced fumble), and Dont'a Hightower (4 tackles and a pass defended). No way Bentley got *that* much better that quick.

In this game, the defensive line didn't play particularly well. They gave up a huge amount of rushing yards and didn't generate much pressure up the middle. Most of the QB harassment came from the edge or blitzes, though the huge Tennessee offensive line might have had something to do with this.

I will give them credit for another goal line stand. When the Titans had a first-and-goal at the 5 yard line, they stuffed runs for 1 yards, 2 yards, played good disciplined D on a short pass, and then got the aforementioned interception. 

Overall the Patriots defense leads the NFL in fewest points per game (15.8), most interceptions (19), fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (6 all season), is tied for the lead league with three pick-sixes, has allowed the second-lowest opposing quarterback rating (70.2), and is second in number of passes defended (64). Not bad for a team that traded away their best corner before the season started.

Quarterback Mac Jones' first game in the snow wasn't his best. He was high on a lot of throws, missing badly on what should have been an easy touchdown to Hunter Henry. Also, he should have been picked off once or twice, but the Titans defense couldn't hold onto the ball.

He ended the day with gaudy stats: 23 of 32 (71.9%) a season-high 310 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 123.2 QB rating. But don't be fooled; he has some work to do to acclimate to the cold. Fortunately for him, there's plenty of cold coming ::brrrr::

The O-line was great again, mostly keeping Jones clean and opening the way for 105 yards on just 24 totes (4.4 yards per carry). I'm starting to think Rhamondre Stevenson is a better back than Damien Harris, though Harris knows the offense better so he's likely to continue getting more playing time. Stevenson seems to get yards when nothing appears to be available more often than Harris.

Among the receivers, Kendrick Bourne was the star, with two tough runs for touchdowns. And perhaps the scariest thing for the rest of the league is that six players had more than one catch. That kind of offensive diversity is a hallmark of the Patriots championship teams -- though some of them couldn't claim *six* legit targets!

If special teams is your bag, you would have loved the Patriots performance. They forced returns on kickoffs and got short returns and penalties to pin back the Titans. The reborn Nick Folk booted made five of six field goals, including a 53 yarder. (His only miss was from 52.) And it was no mistake that the Patriots average starting field position was their 41, while the Titans was their 24.

Where does that leave us? First six games: 2-4. Last six games: 6-0! 8-4 isn't a bad place to be, and second in the conference is even better. The next three games will tell the real tale of the season. Mobile QBs give the Patriots trouble, and they are about to face Josh Allen and Carson Wentz, both very mobile signal-callers.

The main question with the Bills is whether they can run the ball. With the Colts it's whether they are for real. We'll know in one month!

Biggest on-going concern: How the secondary will hold up against teams with multiple good receivers. They've looked great of late, but they are thin at corner and it could go badly when they play teams like Buffalo or Kansas City with multiple speed receivers.

(Despite media hand-wringing, it is *not* the run defense. Tennessee was missing their featured back yesterday -- but their offensive line, blocking back, blocking receivers, tight ends, and coaches were still there.)

Non-QB MVP: Jackson, though it was a close call with Bentley.

Statistical Oddity: Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have given up over 265 yards on the ground just twice: yesterday and against the Broncos in November of 2013. They won both games. (Trivia question: Can you name the quarterback who lost that game in 2013? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "If the media is right about Belichick's drafting, then he must be the greatest coach in the history of the *world* to turn things around this fast."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-4!

PPS. Trivia Answer:














None other than Peyton Manning quarterbacked the Broncos in that game -- wilting as the Patriots stormed back from 24-0 down to win in overtime. I remember because I was there, chanting: "Pey-Ton! Pey-Ton!"

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!

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Patriots Lose Squeaker to Bucs & TB12, 19-17

The Patriots played better but it wasn't enough to top the Super Bowl champs in Tom Brady's return to Gillette. The 19-17 loss drops them to 1-3 and into a three-way tie for second/last place in the AFC East. Next up is a trip to Houston to take on the reeling Texans.

It seems apparent to me at this point that the Patriots were looking past the Saints toward this showdown. And of course, it went as expected. Their game plan, in-game adjustments, and performance under pressure were all much better against the Bucs than the Saints.

Given the lateness of this entry, I'll just cover a few topics.

1. Should have gone for it on 4th-and-3

Live, at the stadium, in real time, before they kicked the ball, I said this to the folks around me. Apparently the analytics say that attempting the field goal gave the team a 42% chance of winning, whereas going for it held just a 34.5% chance of a victory.

But the analytics don't take a few things into account:
  • A rainy and windy night makes the kick much tougher
  • The previous two drives: 10 points and a whopping 9.5 yards per play
  • Even if the kick was good, TB (and TB12) would have had 50 seconds and two timeouts to go about 45 yards and try a field goal to win it anyway.
In Super Bowl 49, Belichick famously did not call timeout with the Seahawks threatening to run it in for a winning touchdown. He did this because he sensed confusion on the Seattle sideline and thought a timeout would have helped them. In that case, even though the conventional wisdom was to take the timeout, as head coach his job was to decide if that was right for the game situation.

IMO, he blew this one. Some theorize that he was protecting the young quarterback, allowing either himself or his kicker to take the blame if the field goal was no good. But that's bogus in my book. The game flow and situation said it was best to go for it. And it was actually important because there is a massive difference between a 1-3 and a 2-2 record.

2. Mac Jones won the QB battle

Jones played well in the face of yet more pressure. The O-line allowed 12 quarterback hits and four sacks, and yet Jones completed 77.5% of his passes and got two touchdowns and just one interception (under pressure, naturally). He also audibled to the right play several times and twice he avoided the rush when blitzers came untouched up the middle.

Also impressive was his ability to overcome not one, but two, holding calls on the same drive. They forced him to convert a first-and-20 and also a second-and-20 later in the drive. He was poised, took the plays he could make, and converted both to keep possession.

Brady didn't play great, but of course, just like when he was here, he came up with the plays he needed to win.

3. Matthew Judon can blow stuff up

Judon is a beast against the pass. He had two quarterback hits, one sack, two tackles for a loss, and drew a key penalty on a 50-yard pass by the Bucs. He does lose outside contain against the run, but I hope that doesn't get him in the doghouse because he is so effective against the pass.

4. Josh McDaniels is still mediocre, IMO

Once McDaniels realized the Patriots couldn't run he finally adjusted with play-action on early downs. The problem is it took him way too long to make that adjustment. In the first half they ran the ball on first down 6 times for -14 yards (including a penalty). McDaniels needs to figure out these things faster and adjust quicker.

Once he went play-action the Patriots basically shredded the Tampa defense with short passes most of the rest of the game. In the stands we were calling for that after the first two or three drives -- not sure why we can see what the offensive coordinator can't.

I give him credit for the two trick plays and eventually abandoning the run. But if he'd gone pass-heavy one drive earlier it might have gotten the points they needed to win.

5. The offensive line flat out stinks

As a team the Patriots had 8 rushes for -1 yard. And a wide receiver got 4 yards on an end around, so the rest of the runs totaled -5 yards. Please pause for a moment to consider just how hard it is to end up with negative rushing yards. Especially in a league that stacks defenses to stop the pass.

As if that wasn't enough, they gave up 4 sacks and 12 quarterback hits, and it would have been much worse if Jones hadn't thrown the ball so quickly. Trent Brown's injury doesn't explain it all. Center David Andrews isn't playing well, Brown's replacement tandem have been horrifyingly bad, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn stacks one dreadful game after another.

Does anyone have Dante Scarnecchia's cell number on speed dial? Remember that when he retired the first time the O-line was fine the next year and imploded the year after. That prompted BB to call Scar out of retirement. Well, this is the second year since his second retirement, and it looks like the same pattern.

(And note; Wynn and left guard Michael Onwenu are on the COVID list, so this isn't likely to get better this Sunday against Houston.)

6. Problems with the little things

The team is still making basic mistakes they should have corrected by now. Poorly timed penalties (Matthew Slater, O-line holds), yet another time out because they only had 10 men on defense, a penalty because they had 12 men on defense, and they lost the turnover battle 2-0.

Belichick teams are famous for avoiding these pitfalls. And they can't make any more excuses about the missing/extra players on defense. Someone needs to be punished for this; it can't keep happening.

7. I didn't see the television coverage, but...

Who has their "tongue out Steve Belichick" costume on order for Halloween?

Where does that leave us? 1-3 and hoping to catch fire and get a sniff of a playoff run. The pity is they should have won against Miami and could have beaten the Bucs, which would have given them a 3-1 record and a share of the division lead. Even if they had split those games, 2-2 sounds a lot more hopeful than 1-3.

Unfortunately their offensive line is in even deeper trouble, with COVID taking a toll this week. The Texans aren't good, but at this point no game looks like an easy win.

Biggest on-going concern: The Offensive Line is now the biggest problem on the team. Penalties and turnovers are big. But if they don't improve up front, Mac Jones might not make it through the season.

Non-QB MVP: Judon, a man among boys.

Statistical oddity: In addition to beating all 32 teams, Tom Brady's victory over Belichick marks the 100th head coach he has topped in his NFL career. (Trivia question: who was the NFL head coach Brady beat in his first NFL start? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "This loss was expected; the one to the Dolphins will haunt them later in the year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
The first game Tom Brady won as a starter in the NFL came over none other than Jim "Playoffs?!?!" Mora, a 44-13 drubbing of his Colts.