In our First Quarter Review, we figured New England would have some trouble with the Jets, but should take care of their other three opponents without much drama.
The Patriots outlasted the over-thinking Colts in Indianapolis, 34-27. Then they hung tough against the aforementioned Jets, 30-23, in a game that had more drops than a bottle of Visine. They cut the Dolphins’ win streak at two with a decisive 36-7 outcome. Despite their latest victory – a 27-10 handling of the Washington Powhatans – the Patriots may feel as though the let one into the loss column after Dion Lewis’ season-ending knee injury and Sebastian Vollmer’s apparent concussion.
So, I guess we buried the lede: your New England Patriots are 8-0. Back in the last century, some Pats fans began the season hoping the team stayed above .500. They haven’t had a losing year since Bill Belichick’s (and Tom Brady’s) first in 2000. Back then, you could call your friends on a pay phone to see if they wanted to go see Almost Famous, and you’d commiserate on how you couldn’t get that damn “Thong Song” by Sisqo out of your head.
It was a long time ago, is what we’re saying. If you’re not enjoying each and every game, you’re missing out on some fun stuff.
In any case, some thoughts on the previous four…
The Third Man: Now it looks like James White will play the role of third-down back. Good for White, but too bad for Lewis, who worked hard to get back from injury and anonymity, playing 26 games for the Eagles in two seasons (36 rushes, three catches) and zero in a week-long stint for the Colts last year. For the team, he provided a dynamic pass-catching option who bounced off and around tacklers like a hamster in a gyroball. He was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 10.8 yard per catch – most of which came after the reception.
Jojo, Our Love Can Grow: Sure, he appeared a bit shaky a few weeks ago (several drops in his season debut vs. the Jets), but it seems that Brandon LaFell has gotten closer to being his old self. LaFell had four catches for 47 yards against Miami and seemed to break through this week playing the Washington Tribe with five catches for 102 yards, including a 48-yard, lofted Brady pass that looked like a backyard Nerf-ball punt.
Stuck In The Middle With You: Stealers Wheel? Hunh. Did not know that. Anyhoo, another positive to take away from the game against the Washington Piscataways was how the defense performed without their best athlete, middle linebacker/human grasshopper Jamie Collins. (You can watch and wonder how he blocks an extra point kick here, and be sure to note the look on Adam Vinatieri’s face.) The Pats are better with Collins, of course – backup linebacker Jonathan Freeny gets pushed around like a shopping cart on Black Friday – but holding any team to three pre-garbage-time points looks pretty good.
Thin Blue Line: New England’s starting offensive line has seen more comings and goings in eight games than an entire season of “The Walking Dead.” Starting left tackle Nate Solder? Out for the year. Potential starting guard Ryan Wendell? Out for the year. This past game vs. the Washington Conoys, Sebastian Vollmer had to leave with a head injury. On and on it went, to the point where last year’s starting center Bryan Stork (just back from injury himself) played right tackle, while recent practice-squad guy Cameron Fleming ended up at left tackle, a position he had never played in a game before.
On the positive side (nothing but rainbows and sunbeams here at BSMW), rookies Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason should be back at full strength soon, and undrafted rookie David Andrews has played every offensive snap this season. Adding 2013 rookie free agent Josh Kline to the mix shows a strong injection of youth into the offensive front.
It’s Delicious, It’s Delightful, It’s D-Line-ly: The Patriots currently hold the number three spot in rushing defense, allowing under 90 yards per game. Part of that has to do with opponents seeking to overcome early deficits through the air (NE gives up a middle-of-the-pack 4.1 yards per carry), but the worries over run defense have been largely quieted. Kudos to leviathan Akiem Hicks and monolith Alan Branch, and surprise praise to rookie Malcom Brown, who has made great, lumbering strides over the first half (17 tackles, one sack).
Interior pass-rusher Dominique Easley has been hectoring opposing QBs consistently. And, oh, yeah: defensive end Chandler Jones leads the league in sacks with 9.5. The team could also get end Jabaal Sheard back soon, adding more versatility to their pass D.
You Can Dance If You Want To: Oh, memories. Speaking of which, remember when Coach Belichick started collecting safeties like they were Star Wars action figures? They now have eight on the roster, and they have plans for every one. As Rich Hill of SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit said in his mid-season review, New England has used five or more defensive backs on 84.3 percent of their plays. Devin McCourty has been his usual, rangy self, while Patrick Chung has shown great prowess supporting the run defense (expected) and covering opposing receivers (less so). Duron Harmon has demonstrated how much a year of experience can cut down reaction time. Rookie Jordan Richards has chipped in with nine tackles. Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson, and Brandon King have bolstered special teams.
Guess if you’re going to stock up on one position, safety’s a solid investment.
End All, Be All: Jeepers, we haven’t even brought up Rob Gronkowski yet? Halfway through the 2015 season, Gronk has 44 catches, on pace for two fewer than his career-best 90 in 2011. He’s also averaging 15.8 yards per catch, the highest rate of his six-year career. In relation to other tight ends, Gronk’s 61 career touchdown grabs (seven this year) put him fourth all-time for his position, one behind Shannon Sharpe’s 62 over 14 seasons. Tony Gonzalez’s 111 (17 seasons) and Antonio Gates’ 101 (13 seasons and counting) lead the league.
When you think of pass-catching tight ends, Shannon Sharpe comes to mind. Gronk’s on pace to match his TD output in less than half the time. And Gronk can block.
Stephen Prospered In His Time: He hasn’t made sainthood yet, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski has had an amazing run. The Ghost has gone 19 for 19 on field goals in eight games, including a 52-yarder vs. Miami and a 57-yarder at Dallas. He became the leading scorer in Patriots history during the Miami game when his 35-yarder helped him surpass Adam Vinatieri’s 1,158 points. He has made 87.6 percent of his field goal attempts in his career and remains on pace to best that in 2015.
Anyone else second-guess drafting him in the fourth round in 2006? Looking at our annual Round-by-Round Review of New England drafts, it’s an easy argument that Gostkowski remains their best fourth-rounder this century, even considering their recent successes with O-line selections (Stork and Fleming in 2014, Mason and Jackson in 2015).
Nobody Does It Better: So, 2,709 yards passing at a 68.6 percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns, and just two interceptions, Mr. Brady? Yeah. Ho-hum. Glad the NFL spent millions of dollars investigating a possible equipment violation that had no impact on his performance.
While we’re on the topic of the NFL …
One Question About The League
Hardy’s Hardware: For anyone who has defended Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, let’s remember he assaulted his girlfriend and threw her onto a bed covered in assault weapons. When it comes to defending a good player’s behavior, we could easily talk about The Tight End Who Shall Not Be Named posing in a mirror with his Glock. When that photo came out, most Patriots fans chalked it up to youth and stupidity (the tight end was only 19 at the time it was taken), figured it was a one-time thing, and he would change his ways.
Nope, and nope times infinity. Now, considering what we know about Hardy, how does the NFL avoid stepping in here and forcing him to, at the very least, see a therapist? The man has shown little public remorse, tweeting a half-hearted apology only after photos of his victim’s bruises came out. He has lost his temper with an assistant coach, to the point of a physical confrontation and offered no public apology afterward. He has even tweeted that his “prejudicial treatment” arose from discrimination.
Imagine if this happened at work. An assistant manager calls an impromptu meeting after a mistake by your department (Dallas had just given up a kickoff return TD). An employee from another department bursts in, slaps the clipboard out of the assistant’s hand, and shoves him. Then he gets into a shouting match with a co-worker. Something’s got to happen there, right? Some kind of discipline, if not an outright firing?
I mean, this person won’t hear his boss call him one of the “real leaders” of the group who has “respect” from his co-workers and “inspires” others with his actions. Right?
On her show “Garbage Time,” Katie Nolan shared these raw, emotional comments on Hardy, calling him a “garbage human.” Agree with her or not, we all have to understand that he needs help, and neither the Cowboys nor the league’s leaders are giving it to him. We can only hope that Greg Hardy doesn’t hurt anyone with his actions. Too often, hoping won’t do the trick.
And Dallas fans? Stop defending him. You’re going to end up feeling awful about it.
Third Quarter Preview
The Patriots travel to the Giants’ home next Sunday for a 4:25 EST game. They host the Bills the following Monday night (Nov. 23), then have to prep for a quick turnaround at Denver on Sunday night (Nov. 29). They wrap up the quarter hosting the Eagles on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 4:25.
Ugh. Giants. New York is 5-4 and has looked awful at times, but of course when they play the Patriots, Eli Manning turns on that Manchurian Candidate switch and becomes an enemy of the New England people. Could be a lot of offense: Patriots ranked number two overall, while the Giants’ defense is giving up 308 passing yards per game, second most in the league. Meanwhile, Eli went from a near-epic performance in New Orleans two weeks ago (350 yards passing, six TDs, zero INTs) to a more down-to-earth showing last week vs. Tampa Bay (213 yards, two TDs, two INTs).
I mean, really. Who knows?
While Buffalo coach Rex Ryan has made it clear the Patriots game is the only one he really cares about, that shouldn’t be enough to get the Bills a win in Foxboro. Denver, despite their recent loss in Indy, looks tough, with a solid defense and an aging QB whose throwing motion looks like he’s trying to slap a piñata but somehow gets the ball there most of the time. Besides, no one seems to do well at Mile High (or, officially, Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. Nice ring to it. I’m hoping for Chili’s Campus at Fuddrucker’s Promenade at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, but hey, I’m a dreamer).
The Eagles look decent at 4-4, but the Denver tilt looks like the toughest game on the docket. Just like we said last quarter, the Pats could go 3-1 but – if their O-line gets healthy and their best defenders can stay on the field – they have a shot at 4-0. Another winning season for New England. What a great century.
Chris Warner tweets about a lot of what he’s posted here: @cwarn89