New Englanders take to losing about as well as fish take to land: beyond your occasional mudskipper or lungfish, it does not tend to work out well. After two losses in a row, you’d think the Patriots had fallen out of playoff contention.
In our Second-Quarter Review, we predicted 3-1 at the worst, noting that the Broncos looked like the toughest opponent in that four-game slate. Denver proved it, despite some late-regulation heroics by Hall-of-Fame shoo-in Tom Brady and potential HOF kicker Stephen Gostkowski to bring the game to overtime. Execution by the home team brought the Patriots their first loss of the year. After a humbling loss to the once 4-7 Eagles featuring more screw-ups than a warehouse full of ceiling lights, New England went 2-2 for the quarter and sit at 10-2 on the year.
The Patriots began this four-game slate with a near-nauseating 27-26 triumph over the Giants, a thriller so taut it could have made Dennis Lehane faint. Gostkowski nailed a 54-yarder with one second left. (Highlight here.) Just a tense, frustrating, memorable game to watch.
Dwelling on that frustrating note, New England scored just 20 points vs. Buffalo, their lowest output of the season, but the visitors couldn’t muster enough to overcome a stout defense in the Patriots’ 20-13 win November 23. In their first full game without Julian Edelman, Brady looked to Danny Amendola, who delivered nine catches for 117 yards. But no one else stepped up. Foreboding, one could say.
As far as the loss to the Eagles? I mean, really: if you were going to concoct an upset, you’d go by the book written last Sunday, with special teams snafus, questionable coaching choices, silly penalties, and more ball drops than a slippery Christmas tree. And yet… the Patriots scored 14 in the fourth and made it exciting. Maybe this was their Kansas City game from last year. I mean, they can’t lose another game in quite that way, can they? Right?
According to boston.com columnist Chad Finn and any reasonable interpretation of history, no, they can’t.
Anyway, on to the notes…
Gillette: The Best A Team Can Get. The Eagles came into Foxboro looking lost, having given up 90 points in two weeks. Well, beating the defending champs can cure whatever ails a team. Now they’re a contender in the adorably inept NFC East. There’s the lesson for the Patriots and their fans: opposing coaches and players can save a season with a win vs. New England. Those calling for Chip Kelly’s firing as late as Sunday afternoon probably switched topics to how he out-coached Bill Belichick. We hear the expression, “you have to overlook this team’s record,” and we have to apply it to every club that gets a chance to knock off the defending champs.
Is Pass-Dropping Contagious? Because They’ve Caught That: The Patriots allowed Brady’s final three passes to slip through their hands against Philly, taking away any chance at an improbable comeback. Watching the Pats pass-catchers (maybe not the best name for them) has felt like watching Timmy Lupus in left field: you hope for the best, but expect the worst. Even Amendola succumbed to the trend Sunday, dropping two passes. It’s one thing to miss Edelman and Gronk. It’s another when backups can’t make much of their opportunities.
YACkety-YAC: With injuries to Dion Lewis (out since Nov. 8, yet still ranks fourth on the team in receptions), Edelman (out since Nov. 15, yet still leads the team in receptions), and Amendola (back just this week), the Patriots have missed their coveted Yards After Catch, where a five-yard pass to the flat becomes a first-down pickup. The team looked to add to their yardage with the signings of slot receiver Damaris Johnson and running back Trey Williams. (We actually mentioned Williams as a potential late-round pick on our mid-April Patriots mock draft.) Johnson displayed some nifty speed on an end-around play, and – given the difficulties receiver Keshawn Martin has had taking on a greater workload – we could see more of him in the next few weeks.
Speaking of difficulties…
Ship Chandler. Ship Him Far Away: Now, that’s not fair. Tight end Scott Chandler is a big target who, when paired with Rob Gronkowski, provides a viable red zone threat. Without Gronk? Well, that’s the issue. He’s a gigantic ‘tweener, really, as a tight end who doesn’t block all that well and a receiver who drops a pass or two every game. Despite measuring 6-7, 260 pounds, Chandler doesn’t create space for himself as well as one would think, and he often gets out-fought for footballs vs. smaller defenders. He’s a solid complement; he’s just not the guy.
What’s My Line? These days, Brady seems to get knocked down more than that guy in the Chumbawumba song. The same QB lauded for getting rid of the ball faster than any other in the first half of the season now has to wait an extra half-second for receivers to get open. Call it the Edelman effect, and put some blame at the feet (the heavy, slow-to-react feet) of the offensive line. New England needs to figure out their best O-line combination and make it work. Anyone else thinking of putting undefeated rookie David Andrews back at center and trying Bryan Stork at guard, where rookies Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason have had some trouble? That seems like it would work, but the best blocks I ever threw had brightly colored letters on them, so what the hell do I know?
Okay, okay. So who hasn’t been disappointing?
Going In The White Direction: Notice how running back James White a) catches the ball when it’s thrown to him, and b) runs with said ball for the aforementioned YAC? (Here he is scoring a TD vs. the Bills after doing something called “breaking a tackle,” which hasn’t happened around these parts in a while.) White’s 10 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown this past Sunday show how important he has become to the offense, as he only had 12 receptions for 95 yards and one TD in the previous nine games where he was active. With the way receivers with names that don’t rhyme with “Ham-and-cola” have been playing, look for White to get his hands on plenty more throws.
No Ifs, Ands, Or Butler: The Pats came into the season with a built-in excuse for failing to live up to expectations when they let go of most of their defensive backfield. Iconic Super Bowl photo subject and free drink recipient-for-life Malcolm Butler has had a number of strong performances this year, while Logan Ryan has provided some pleasant surprises along the way. The defensive backfield has fallen short of great, but they’ve made some solid plays. They also could get Justin Coleman back onto the active roster soon, although according to this recent piece on Mike Reiss’ Patriots blog, there’s no timetable yet.
Don’t’a’s Circles Of Hell: Imagine trying to stop the run without your best run-stopping linebacker. Such is the deal with Don’t’a Hightower missing from the lineup. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit called attention to a Kevin Duffy (of MassLive) tweet that said, at Denver, New England gave up less than three yards per carry with Hightower on the field and eight per carry once he got hurt. Math never served as my strong point, but even I can see the significant difference there. With Hightower out and with linebacker Jamie Collins still recovering from a mutant zombie virus (note: possible misdiagnosis there), James Freeney has had to step up.
And when Freeney steps up, he gets blocked.
Point Of No Return: There comes a point when the term “next man up” just runs out of gas, and the Pats may have reached it. One example of how one player’s absence affects a team has shown up in New England’s kick returns, where Keshawn Martin averaged 17 yards in his four runbacks. Taking a knee in the end zone each time meant three more yards for the team. Martin had the job in part because Amendola, who’s averaging 21.5 yards, has to focus more on his receiving duties with Edelman out.
The answer? Maybe newly-signed running back Williams could help out as a kick returner, as he averaged over 24 yards per return at Texas A&M.
You’re Wondering Now, What To Do: Ah, the Specials, for this week’s misnamed special teams. Should we go into detail about this past Sunday’s blocked punt, or punt return, or pooch kick, or the previous Sunday’s muffed punt in Denver? No? Okay, then. Let’s wrap this thing up.
Fourth Quarter Preview
New England travels to Houston to take on the Texans next Sunday night, then host the Titans in their last home game of the season December 20 at 1 p.m. (Oh, how we love 1 p.m. games.) They wrap up with two AFC East trips, at the Jets Dec. 27 and at the Dolphins Jan. 3. Besides the Tennessee game (which, I mean, they have to win, right?), the three remaining tilts fall under the “best effort against the best” category. Games New England should win, but you never know.
No coaching staff understands the Patriots better than Houston’s between their head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator George Godsey, linebacker coach Mike Vrabel. Ridiculous amount of knowledge there. They are also playing at home (where New England has never played all that well) with first-place AFC South standings at stake. The Pats should win this one, but there looks like a lot of potential for ugly to happen.
As far as ending the season within the division at New York and at Miami, we’re looking at two more tough games, with the Jets looking especially spry lately. Again, if the Patriots play well, they’ve got a clear shot at 4-0. Any mishaps like the past couple of weeks, though, and any of games against non-Nashville-based squads could go the wrong way.
In the end, we’re looking at a double-digit win team who should a) make the playoffs, b) win the division, and c) open with a home playoff game. That’s the worst-case scenario. Best case? They win out, get a first-round bye, welcome Edelman and Gronk back (along with Hightower and Coleman) and field the most complete team they’ve seen in months.