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:
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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.