Well, after the Patriots’ 26-10 handing of the Rams – the team’s 10th win of the season and quarterback Tom Brady’s record-setting 201st for his career – I figured the locals would have a more positive response. It seems like the tone has calmed a bit (and they may have gotten distracted by a Red Sox trade), but initially many New England fans and media members reacted like they’d just watched a Sunday matinee of My Girl.
Maybe they got railroaded by a preview that made them think this would be a lighthearted, nostalgia-based romp. Maybe, instead, they felt forced to face some issues that surfaced unexpectedly. In any case, a rash of negativity seemed to break out.
Yes, Los Angeles dropped passes. Sure, New England could have scored more. Still, by halftime, the Patriots held the ball for almost 22 minutes and had 17 points, while the Rams had the ball for just over eight minutes and had 25 yards. This game was essentially over at the beginning of the second quarter, when Brady lofted a back-shoulder pass in the left corner of the end zone to Chris Hogan, who reached back with his Go-Go-Gadget arms to snare it and touched down with his Baryshnikov toes to score it.
New England had this game wrapped up in 17 minutes, but we’re complaining?
After the game, when asked about the 2001 team (present for a 15-year anniversary halftime celebration), Coach Bill Belichick said something that we all need to remember about the ways that team won: “…not necessarily with a lot of style points, but with enough game points at the end.”
For context, let’s leave 2001’s ragtag bunch of castoffs behind and take a look at the best Patriots team ever, the 2004 squad. Meeters – even exceeders – of high expectations, winners of back-to-back championships. Let’s go back specifically to the night of November 14, a home game vs. Buffalo. The Pats were 8-1, the Bills, 3-6. New England had a 20-0 lead at the half. They scored only three Adam Vinatieri field goals in the second half while allowing a punt return touchdown, resulting in a final tally of 29-6.
I remember two things about this game: one, Troy Brown picked off Drew Bledsoe. Two, it was fun to watch, relaxing because the end result was never in doubt. I certainly do not recall fans and the media hyperventilating over a lack of offensive production or margin of victory.
Take another look at the 2001 team reunion at Foxboro. Look at the players’ faces, the genuine, unabashed joy in celebrating a special win. Now remember that the Patriots have won three more since, all with the same QB, who is still playing. Consider enjoying this while it’s happening instead of looking back in a few years and realizing, “Oh, yeah, Brady set the QB victories record after 16 winning seasons in a row. That was cool.”
You know what? Without tight end Rob Gronkowski, maybe New England won’t win the Super Bowl this season. Maybe they’ll have a lot of trouble with Oakland in the playoffs, or falter at Denver like last year. So, fans will have to settle for at least 10 wins, again. They’ll be forced to watch their team make the playoffs, again. On the other side of this coin, you have the Browns, who did not lose this past week only because they had a bye. Cleveland has not won a football game in almost a full calendar year: December 13, 2015, a 24-10 victory over San Francisco.
It’s football, Patriots fans, in this franchise’s prime. Let’s try to enjoy it.
Leggin’ It, LeGarrette: Oh, to weigh 250 pounds and flash the ability to scoot outside on a defense. LeGarrette Blount had a productive day against a solid front seven, highlighted by his 43-yard touchdown gallop on fourth and one where he had the safety spinning like Mary Poppins on a rooftop. L.A.’s defense held Blount to only 45 yards on his other 17 carries, a mere 2.6 yards per, but continuing to run him helped play-action remain effective throughout the game. Blount has 957 yards and 13 TDs on the year, demonstrating the team’s increased reliance on him compared to 2015, where he rushed for 703 yards and six TDs in 12 games.
You Have To Learn To Pace Yourself: How about that pressure from the defense? After weeks of rushing three or even two D-linemen and settling back into zones, New England seemed to send everybody and the neighbor’s dog, though this fine analysis by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss spells out the home team’s preference for confusion over quantity. The Pats’ mixed-up pressure resulted in four sacks, two interceptions, and a 14-of-32 completion rate from rookie Jared Goff. Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard got himself off the side of a milk carton and into the action, coming up with four tackles and a whack on Goff’s arm that resulted in linebacker Kyle Van Noy’s first career interception. Even linebacker Shea McClellin got into the fray with six tackles and his first sack since 2014 with the Chicago Bears.
I mean, sure, Los Angeles is about as offensive as a video of puppies in a field (oh, God, please watch this. Seriously, please), but some solid signs of potential showed up Sunday.
Offenses Find Him Van-Noy-ing: Besides the interception, Van Noy had four tackles, including a solid pop on a crossing pattern over the middle. The veteran, whose career as a Lion seemed less stable than the heroine of an Asian TV drama, has found structure and production in Foxboro. Most impressively, he has shown equal ability in rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage. Nice when a trade works out.
Converting On Third Danny: Covering receiver Danny Amendola with a zone defense is like trying to swat a fly with a pitchfork. He has a knack for finding open spaces and getting necessary yards. He’s a clutch guy, as seen when two of his three receptions converted third downs in the second quarter (17 yards on third and 11, three yards on third and three). Amendola sprained his ankle on a punt return late in the game, an unfortunate end to a quietly productive day.
Pass Me A Bottle, Mr. Jones: Hoo, boy. Cyrus Jones is going to drive fans to drink, if he hasn’t already. The rookie punt-returner/leading-cause-of-angina became Clouseau Jones once again, muffing a punt midway through the first quarter that got him relieved of his duties and, sad to say, indirectly led to Amendola’s injury.
Catching punts is tricky because, while a passed ball travels along a smooth, predictable parabola, a punted ball shows a sharper, less predictable drop. But we’re not talking about a guy who’s new to the game, here. Jones was the best punt returner in the nation at Alabama last season. He fielded 42 punts in 2015 alone, returning four for touchdowns while compiling a 12.6-yard average. On his muff, he looked hesitant and, instead of getting underneath the ball, seemed to reach toward it with all the enthusiasm of Flash Gordon extending his hand into the Wood Beast stump.
Disappointing day for Jones, who had zero tackles on defense and zero yards on two returns. With Amendola hurt, New England coaches need to consider bringing in Julian Edelman (No, thank you) or bringing up Alabama receiver DeAndrew White from the practice squad.
Hold Me Now: Some of the disappointment in the offense’s output stemmed from some terribly timed holding penalties. Guard Joe Thuney and tight end Martellus Bennett each had a call in the first half that negated big gains and halted possessions. After scoring on their first drive, New England forced a three-and-out and took over on their own 35. Brady completed a 12-yard pass to Edelman but, instead of getting a fresh set of downs near midfield, the Pats ended up with first and 20 at their own 25 due to Thuney’s misdeed. Four downs later, the Pats punted. In the fourth quarter, Bennett held on an eight-yard run by Blount that would have gained a first down at the Ram 18-yard line; however, his second holding penalty of the day made it second and 16 at the 36, eventually forcing New England to settle for a field goal.
These are plays where, even if the Patriots had gained zero yards, they still would have been in decent position to convert (second and 10, third and six). Something to think about for next week.
Friendly Ghost: Nice to see Stephen Gostkowski have a perfect day. Your AFC Special Teams Player of the Week went four-for-four on field goals, including three kicks 45 yards and over. Fans have to feel pretty good for the man, who was in the midst of his worst statistical year kicking field goals since 2010 and his worst year ever on extra points (he missed one XP in 2006, going 43 of 44, and no other regular-season misses until this year). Does this constitute a turnaround? We shall see next week, and the week after that, and so on, and so on.
Ice, Ice, Brady: My new nickname for Brady is the Ice Sculptor. He just keeps chipping away until he gets to the work of art within, you know? The numbers weren’t spectacular (33 of 46 for 269 yards, one TD), but – during a week where he faced a better-than-average pass rush and had to adjust to life without Gronk – he spread the wealth around to seven different receivers and maintained ball possession at a rate of 37:57 to 22:03. After years of searching, he has found his golden ticket in Malcolm Mitchell, a rookie who seems to understand the team’s passing principles and has managed to find a groove in the past few weeks (Mitchell caught eight balls for 82 yards Sunday).
And now Brady has 201 wins. Since 2000, the Buffalo Bills franchise has 110 wins. In that time, Buffalo has started 15 different quarterbacks. Again: let’s think about enjoying this time and taking challenges as they come instead of worrying about what might happen in a month or two.
Like I Could Give Two Fox: Sign me up for a few more games on Fox next year. I found the tandem of Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch entertaining and informative. Burkhardt had consistency and steadiness that I’ve found missing from some CBS broadcasts, while Lynch’s enthusiasm and easily-applied first-hand knowledge of the game shone through. With 52 seconds left in the first quarter, Lynch was overly critical of Rams receiver Brian Quick’s inability to catch a ball that was thrown so far behind him it may have landed in Wrentham, but I suppose we should expect a former safety to point his sharpest criticism at receivers (and, often, L.A.’s misnamed “pass-catchers” deserved it).
Lynch has a brief-yet-in-depth view of life at Gillette after spending the preseason there before his retirement in 2008, so I’m looking forward to the next Fox broadcast with him, whenever that might be.
Sunday Morning Is Every Day: Speaking of Fox, a pleasant surprise to have Nirvana playing as the broadcast went to commercial after Hogan’s touchdown. However, it didn’t take long to realize that the song “Lithium” may have been inappropriate. Make no mistake, I appreciate it a lot and play it often (here’s a gritty, on-point version with St. Vincent at Nirvana’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction), but considering the league’s issues with drug use and depression, maybe not the best, most-informed selection.
This reminded me of Apple’s use of “Gigantic” for the iPhone. Again, amazing song that I’ve been listening to for years (and, I must admit, crushing hard on Kim Deal since the late ’80s), but I don’t think the Apple folks really took into account what the song is about. Check out the lyrics here. (Hint: when she sings, “What a hunk of love,” I don’t think she’s talking about Elvis.
Day Tripper: The Pixies also show up, in a sense, on a Samsung commercial that plays a Nada Surf cover of the Pixies song “Where Is My Mind.” One of the best ads of the season, this little vignette features a group of kids using their Galaxy S7 to capture and enhance a summer day’s adventure into the city. Great demonstration of how a song can evoke positive emotions regarding a product. This is the exact opposite of what I feel when watching that insipid “You Don’t Own Me” Toyota Corolla commercial. (I will not link to this.)
“You Don’t Own Me” is a weird message. Is the car leased? Is the ad supposed to foster an idea of independence, watching a bunch of self-involved nitwits driving around town in their Corollas? Is Toyota maybe over-valuing this vehicle a tad? Seems like the Corolla slogan should be, “If you’re looking for something between a Yaris and a Camry, we’ve got the car for you!”
It’s A Shame About Ravens: On the one hand, thank you, Baltimore, for beating Miami and giving New England some space at the top of the AFC East. On the other hand, yeesh. The Ravens’ 38-6 culling of the Dolphins makes next week’s tilt with the Charm Citizens look like a tough matchup. Can the Patriots get pressure on QB Joe Flacco? Can New England’s offensive line give Brady enough time? Lots of questions going into this one.
But I’m sure, even if the Patriots lose, no one will overreact. Right?
Sully Should Have Landed Them On The Hudson: Holy moly, did the Jets crash. On November 27 vs. the Patriots, they looked like a team that was kinda/sorta finding its way. Ryan Fitzpatrick made a couple of precise throws for touchdowns and avoided any interceptions (though he did essentially end New York’s chances with a costly fumble courtesy of Chris Long’s strip sack). Up to the end, New York’s team appeared excited and engaged. A mere eight days later, the Jets lost to the Colts in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 41-10 score indicated. Colts QB Andrew Luck had enough time to drop back, check the fridge, make himself a baloney sandwich (with pickles!), eat said sandwich, and then complete a pass to a wide open Dwayne Allen for a walk-in touchdown. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick went five of 12 passing with one interception before being benched for rookie QB/Guy Smiley Impersonator Bryce Petty, who looked, um, promising? I guess?
Strange how NFL dynamics transition from week to week.
2001: A Time Odyssey: If you give Super Bowl 36 another look-see (and you can watch the entire game here), it will amaze you how much the rules of football have changed. For whatever reason, the referees made the decision to let New England’s defense play rough. Seriously, if that February 2002 game had been officiated with 2016 rules, the Rams would have racked up about 150 yards on Patriots penalties and a few New England defenders would have gotten thrown out for targeting and/or unnecessary roughness. Patriots defensive backs clutched and grabbed St. Louis receivers like they were clinging to kayaks in a Class Four rapid.
If a St. Louis fans approached me and said that his or her number-one gripe was New England’s defense going full-contact like Chuck Daly’s Pistons on the Chicago Bulls, I’d have to agree. (Well, that, and the fact that Coach Mike Martz only let Marshall Faulk carry the ball 17 times.) Fifteen years ago, man. Whew.
A Cleat Must Be Hard To Fit In The NFL’s Mouth: Difficult to look at the “My Cause, My Cleats” program and ignore the hypocrisy of the NFL. The league encouraged players to wear cleats with logos and slogans of various causes for Week 13, which is wonderful. Keep in mind, however, that, for one, the NFL would not let the Browns or Titans participate the following Sunday (Week 13 was their bye) until public outcry influenced them to allow it; and two, this is the same league that fined a player last year for wearing purple cleats to increase awareness of domestic violence. But now the NFL totally cares, you guys!
I would bet my lunch money on Pizza Day (rectangular slice of cheese pizza, eight-ounce milk, Scooter Pie), that NFL Commissioner/oleaginous golf caddy Roger Goodell had nothing to do with this – that someone convinced him to give it a shot while making it seem like he came up with the idea.
How can a front office full of seemingly intelligent people continue to misjudge the public on such a consistent basis? If the NFL is serious, they’ll promote Cleat Causes every week. Why not? Let players register their causes with the league (you can’t just sarcastically make up a charity, like the “Kneepads For Roger” Foundation) and continue promoting it over the course of the season. Not complicated. But the NFL won’t do that, because they’re not serious about players’ concerns.
Dead To Rights: My “The Walking Dead” annoyance this week? They’re following the comic too closely. In the past, the show writers used to use the book as a general guideline, taking characters and settings from it but typically veering away from those plotlines (the best example of this arises in volume one, which shows the early demise of what became a prominent character in the TV series). Now, it seems that they have consistently stuck to the comic’s storylines, which, if you’re like me and have read them, makes the show predictable and a little tiresome.
No spoilers, but I will say this: if you thought the Saviors were tough to deal with, just wait until next season when the Whisperers come along.
Favorite Nickname For A Zombie I Just Made Up: Stinkers. Because they would totally smell, right? “Hey, look out for those stinkers, wouldja?” Sounds right.
OK, Then: Your OK Go video of the week is “This Too Shall Pass,” a wonderful example of a Rube Goldberg machine. I used to draw up Goldberg-type inventions when I was a child (as, you guessed it, my social schedule allowed a certain amount of “me” time), and this video brought back some fun memories.
On to Baltimore for Monday night. Should be a good one. Let’s hope for 202.
Chris Warner is just like you, man. Just trying to navigate this crazy trip aboard spaceship Earth. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; he tweets @cwarn89.