Sunday, January 16, 2022

Bills Destroy Patriots 47-17

The Patriots playoff run came to an abrupt halt with a crushing 47-17 defeat at the hands of division rival Buffalo. The loss knocks them out of the post-season. And the scope of the loss calls into question how far into their rebuild they really are.

This one was over early. The Bills scored on their first drive, got an end zone interception that ended a Patriots threat, and drove that possession down for another score 10 plays later. In fact, the Bills didn't punt in the entire game -- the second straight game against the Patriots without a single punt. (Last time they got a bunch of fourth-down conversions, this time they never *got* to a fourth down.)

There is a clear talent disparity between the two teams. Buffalo is young, hungry, and one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The Patriots are old, slow, seemingly less hungry, more injured, and based strictly on player talent probably shouldn't have been in the playoffs.

But despite that, the magnitude of this loss falls first on the coaching. The Bills shredded the Pats defense for two straight games, yet there weren't many adjustments or new wrinkles to slow them down. They mostly rushed four, mostly played zone, and mostly got killed on underneath routes and occasional long throws.

By the end of this game they couldn't stop the run, short passes, medium passes, or long passes. And unless I'm missing something, there isn't anything else allowed on offense.

In past years, I would blast opposing coaches who wouldn't adjust even though they got beaten year after year. One I remember distinctly was former head coach of Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio. He would use the same soft zone game after game and the Patriots would destroy that defense game after game.

In 2007 Tom Brady completed 26 of 28 passes and one of the misses was a Wes Welker drop. Yet Del Rio would never change, stubbornly trotting out his same old defense to get destroyed every single time.

That's how I see the Patriots against the Bills. Three weeks ago they did nothing to slow down the Bills offense, not forcing a single punt. And last night they trotted out the same old defense and got dominated again.

Before the game I wrote that they needed to do some zero-safety blitzes, to make Bills QB Josh Allen get rid of the ball quickly and to take away his scrambling and running lanes. They didn't even try that once. The probably didn't have the personnel to pull it off. But they could have at least given it a shot.

It isn't as if they don't have that defense in their arsenal. Belichick was showing it two weeks ago on Patriots All Access when breaking down the Dolphins game -- and showing how then defensive coordinator Brian Flores ran it in the Patriots 2018 Super Bowl win.

Seven touchdowns on seven possessions means you need to try *something*. But the Patriots never did. The Pats converted 7 of 14 third downs, but the Bills only faced 7 third downs. The Patriots went 4 of 4 on fourth down, but the Bills never even faced a fourth down.

As for the players on the field, in a loss this lopsided it was mostly all bad. Probably the best thing you can say is the young players got a taste of what playoff football is like. Maybe they'll be better prepared for the intensity the next time they are on that stage.

How bad was the defense. When your top five tacklers were in the secondary, that tells you the D-line and linebackers couldn't stop anything before it got started. I recall bad plays by most every linebacker and secondary player, and the defensive line just got pushed back and gashed over and over.

Mat Judon is obviously hurt, Ja'Whaun Bentley will always be a limited player, Dont'a Hightower looks cashed, and Kyle Van Noy had more hits in that Dunkin' Donuts commercial than in the game.

The defensive backfield would have looked a lot different if they'd kept star corner Stephon Gilmore or if Jonathan Jones hadn't gotten hurt. J.C. Jackson is up for a big payday, but his play the last two Bills games (and frankly against Miami) has exposed issues with his play.

The offense struggled to run early, gave up too much QB pressure, and the receivers had trouble getting separation. There are pieces here that can help as the Patriots build toward becoming a contender again: both young running backs, receivers Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, and Jakobi Meyers. But most of the rest of the weapons can hit the road -- including fullback Jacob Johnson, he of the stone hands, false start penalty, and missed assignment on the blocked punt against Indy.

And let's not let Mac Jones off the hook. On his first INT he never looked off the safety. And the second one was a throw right into coverage -- which was popped up and picked. He's young and still has a lot of growth ahead of him. But he was not nearly good enough to compete in this game.

As if to prove Bill Belichick's wisdom about turnovers, Jones tossed just 3 picks in the Patriots 10 wins, but he threw 12 in their 8 losses (including last night).

Where does that leave us? Trying to forget a playoff beating like we haven't seen since Super Bowl XX versus Chicago. Mac Jones did accomplish something already that Tom Brady has never done -- lost a playoff game by 30 points.

Next week I'll have the regular season awards for 2021. And probably the week after I'll have an entry about how the team can best move forward toward improving in 2022.

Otherwise, you are free to enjoy (or envy) another Brady playoff run without fear -- you won't have to see the Patriots play the Bucs this post-season.

Biggest on-going concern: At the moment it's what Belichick does with his coaching staff. His special teams coach lacks experience and that area was a huge disappointment. Joe Judge is available, maybe time to bring him back. BB's son called the defensive signals -- and we saw how that went recently. And as always there are too many home-grown assistants and not enough outside perspectives.

Non-QB MVP: Bourne with 7 catches for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is a keeper; runs precise routes, blocks well on running plays, and competes for every ball and every yard.

Statistical oddity: If Brady wins the Super Bowl this year, he would have 38 total playoff victories. That will be more than any entire FRANCHISE has in NFL history! (Note: the only team with 37 victories currently is the Patriots -- in case you were wondering if this would motivate Brady. Also, Dallas or Pittsburgh are close enough that they could have 38 by the end of this season, too -- but not Green Bay, not enough games before they'd have to play the Bucs. And in my scenario, Brady and the Bucs would beat GB.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Now I know how helpless all those teams in 2007 felt."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-8 & 0-1!

PPS. :(

Monday, January 10, 2022

Patriots Drop Season-Ender to Dolphins, 33-24

The Patriots played sloppy and from behind and couldn't get over the hump, losing 33-24 to the Dolphins in Miami. The loss means the Bills (who won anyway) are AFC East Champs and the Pats are the #6 seed in the AFC. Next up will be those aforementioned Bills, up in Buffalo, with a chance to advance on the line.

This game was emblematic of why the Patriots are not likely to go very far in the playoffs. For two decades, New England under Bill Belichick had certain features, most of which this team lacks. BB himself has said that more games are lost in the NFL than won. And the Pats myriad mistakes week after week lost them more than their fair share this year.

I planned to shellack the team for their poor play. But the more I thought about it, the more that seemed like punishing this team for the amazing success of past teams. That didn't feel fair.

It is difficult to win games in the NFL and tough to get into the playoffs. And rarely does a rookie quarterback lead a team to the post-season, but Mac Jones did just that. They improved on last year's 7-9 record with lots of free agent spending, a great draft, and steady development of their signal caller.

The epitaph of the Patriots 2021 season is yet to be written. But given their inconsistency they will undoubtedly be done sooner rather than later. They started the season 1-3 and finished the season 1-3. It was that 8-1 record in middle of the year that was so enticing, that got our hopes up so high.

Just a few weeks ago they beat Tennessee and held the first seed in the AFC. Since then, they are 2-3 and didn't force a single fumble in those five games. Two notes to keep expectations realistic: no rookie QB has ever gotten to the Super Bowl, and it's been 10 season since a team with a losing record down the stretch hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. (Trivia question: Can you name the team that finished 1-4 but still won it all that year? Answer below.)

So Mac Jones will get his playoff experience this year, one, two, or maybe three games. And then it'll be over and we'll be on to 2022. Could they catch lightning in a bottle like the 2018 team, you ask? Maybe, but probably not. That team was solid in special teams, had a great running attack, and had some guy named Brady at quarterback.

As for the Miami game, what a stinker. Center David Andrews had an "equipment issue" and had to be replaced for one snap; that snap was fumbled on the exchange. Lawrence Guy lined up improperly on a punt, giving the Dolphins new life and three free points a few plays later. The pick-six by Mac Jones on a "film study" play where Miami knew exactly what was coming.

Three, count 'em three, dropped interceptions. That's becoming a theme with these guys; lately they seem to drop more than they catch. The brutally bad personal foul on Brandon Bolden, though all he had to do was jump over the sliding punter and it would have been Pats ball at the Miami 43. You know, back when the game was still a game.

The team got gashed by the run-pass option, which is an updated version of the Wildcat. And twice when they had Miami in third-and-long, and there was no running back (so no RPO), they lost contain and Tua ran for first downs to kill them. The last of those came when they needed a stop to get one last chance late -- a chance that never came.

It's unclear whether the coaches didn't change scheme to attack the RPO or if the team just lacks the defensive speed to do so. Either way it was unacceptable, because they knew it was coming and had a week to plan.

The team probably doesn't have a Super Bowl run in them this year. They probably never did, despite the long winning streak. So enjoy every game you get. There is something fun about watching a team with nothing to lose and low expectations. IIRC that happened exactly 20 seasons ago in what turned out to be their first magical run.

Where does that leave us? The team finished the season 10-7, in the #6 seed (after the Raiders victory), and they travel to Buffalo this Saturday to take on the Bills in the season's rubber match. I wrote in the Season Preview that the Pats actually play Buffalo better in Buffalo. So it's not that bad that they are playing there; after all, they won the game up there and lost the one at home.

Biggest on-going concern: How slowly the offense seems to start. They can't afford to fall behind early next week or Buffalo could steamroll them. It's incumbent on Josh McDaniels to figure out how Buffalo's D will attack and have something ready to counter it.

Non-QB MVP: Wideout Jakobi Meyers, who had some sensational catches and ended up with 4 catches for 70 yards.

Statistical oddity: Punter Jake Bailey set team marks two years in a row. Last year he averaged a franchise-record 48.7 yards per punt. This year he tied for the franchise record by having three punts blocked. Any prediction of what record he'll tie or break next year?

Water-cooler wisdom: "Certainly not an AFC powerhouse, but once you're in the playoffs anything can happen."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-7 & 0-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: the 2021 Baltimore Ravens went 1-4 in their last five games but pulled it together to win the Super Bowl

Monday, January 3, 2022

Patriots Lay Waste to the Jaguars 50-10

The Patriots destroyed the Jaguars 50-10, in a game not even as close as that 40-point margin would indicate. That victory, combined with a loss by the Dolphins, puts the Patriots in the post-season for the first time in the post-TB12 era. They remain in second in the AFC East, due to tie-breakers, and need a loss or tie by the Bills (who play the Jets) and a win over the Dolphins to claim the division crown.

This one was a laugher from the get-go. The Pats scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, and started 27 of their 34 first-half plays in Jaguars's territory. They converted 8-of-10 third downs and gained over 100 more yards both on the ground (181 to 80) and through the air (290 to 173). It was as thorough a beating as you'll see in the NFL.

Quarterback Mac Jones played great (22 of 30, 227 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), the main running backs averaged 5 yards a carry and had 4 touchdowns, there were five receivers with multiple catches, the defense confused and feasted on a young quarterback (with 60% of his O-line starters out with COVID), and the coaches never gave the Jaguars a chance to get back into the game.

What else would you expect? All week the predictions were that this would be a get-right game for New England. The Jaguars are awful, they already fired their head coach, and they were ravaged by COVID for the game. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the Patriots steamrolled them.

But what was a surprise? There are four things that surprised me, all of which could have an impact on the team as they head toward the post-season. So rather than salivating over a game they were supposed to win, let's take a look at some developments that could help/hurt as they move into the playoffs.

First, practice squad wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson. He was elevated to the team and played in place of healthy scratch N'Keal Harry. And he played very well, hauling in four passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns. (For perspective, Harry has twice caught two touchdowns in entire seasons -- and that is the best total of his career!)

Why is this important? Because the Patriots desperately need another passing game threat. The previous week, wideout Nelson Agholor was out and Kendrick Bourne was limited after returning from a concussion. So when the Bills blanketed Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry, the Pats needed N'Keal Harry to step up and make plays.

But Harry didn't. He had one catch on six targets, dropped an easy first-down conversion, and then popped the next pass up in the air for an interception. When the playoffs start, the Patriots could not count on Harry. And if any of the receivers were hurt, they'd be in trouble against good teams.

However, if Wilkerson can at least be a threat in the post-season, chances are he'll see the other team's fourth- or fifth-best corners. If the Patriots had to depend on Harry they'd be in trouble. But at least Wilkerson showed something, something other teams can either work to defend or the Patriots can take advantage of.

I've written often in the past that the Patriots offense works best when they have a good slot receiver, a good tight end, and at least four total threats in the passing game. They don't really have a great slot guy. But if Wilkerson can do better than Harry, they would have four real arial threats.

Second, the reps at running back. Once again, Damien Harris was limited with a hamstring injury. He had just nine carries for 35 yards, though he did score two touchdowns and ran well and with power. It's possible they are going easy on him, not wanting to risk an injury before the playoffs.

Rhamondre Stevenson played very well in relief of Harris, going for 107 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns of his own. And it's great the team has a backup of his capabilities.

But Harris' hammy is concerning, because they have almost no running back depth. And as the games get colder and the conditions worsen, it was believed they would become a run-heavy team -- to control the clock and wear down other teams, as well as to take pressure off their rookie QB in his first post-season.

If Harris can't shoulder the load, that puts a ton of pressure on Stevenson. The drop-off in talent from him to Brandon Bolden is massive. J.J. Taylor returned from the COVID list two games ago but hasn't seen the field since. So the thinness at running back could well be a concern going forward.

Third, J.C. Jackson's admission. During the game broadcast, the announcers stated that J.C. Jackson confessed to not being properly focused the previous week against Buffalo. This is surprising and refreshing, as athletes rarely admit such things but it was nice to see Jackson take ownership of why he didn't play well against the Bills.

Realizing that he had missed two big INT chances in that game, Jackson studied additional film and vowed to lock things down this week. Which he did. He had a nice interception and nearly had another. And he also tied for the team lead with four tackles.

Why is this important? The Patriots will need Jackson at the top of his game if they expect to make any noise in the playoffs. With Stephon Gilmore gone, if Jackson can't lock down his man, it would force too many players to adjust on defense -- and that is bound to leave more holes in the run and pass D.

Maybe it wasn't the admission that was important, but his response. Watch him closely next week. He'll likely take on one of the top two receivers, and it'll be important to see if he can lock them down or at least reduce their impact on the game.

And fourth, yet another blocked kick. I know, a missed extra point in a 40-point victory sort of falls through the cracks. But once the playoffs begin, there won't be any patsies on the schedule. And this team will have to struggle to make it through every game.

In close games, a missed assignment on a kick can be disastrous. The blocked punt/touchdown probably cost them any realistic chance in the Colts game. And bear in mind that they are likely looking at road playoff games, where crowd noise makes communication on kicking plays even more difficult.

This is their fourth blocked kick of the season, three punts and that extra point. They've needed to shore up their special teams all year, but haven't done it yet. So when the playoffs come, keep your fingers crossed when the Pats drop into punt or field goal formations.

Where does that leave us? 10-6 and in the playoffs is great. Buffalo came from behind to take care of business, so the division remains out of the Patriots grasp for now. Believe it or not the Patriots could end up with the first seed or the last seed, depending on the results next week.

It's good to be in the tournament. But they need to take care of business in Miami next week so they aren't stuck playing Kansas City or Tennessee in the first round. Those would be really bad matchups for them.

Biggest on-going concern. For this week it's probably their overall futility in Miami. Even under BB they are just 9-11 in South Florida. In fact they lost there just last year, in a game they needed to stay in the playoff hunt. So for this week, tighten things up and get a win in Miami.

Non-QB MVP: Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who caught five of six passes thrown his way for 15.2 yards a catch and also ran twice for 17 yards. He also took some tough hits along the way.

Statistical oddity: Twice this season the Patriots have put up at least 50 points in a game. The 31 other teams have only done it *once* combined. (Trivia question: Which team notched the other game of 50-or-more points? Hint: it happened very recently. Answer below.)

Bonus oddity: Bill Belichick has never lost a game in Foxboro against a rookie quarterback. After topping the Jags and Trevor Lawrence, he is 15-0 in such games.

Water-cooler wisdom: "I bet even Kristian Wilkerson didn't have himself in his fantasy league."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-6!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Dallas Cowboys put up 56 points against Washington just last week.