Okay, I’m pretty sure we can call the Patriots good now.
Oh, we had our reservations. Heading into the game vs. the Ravens, New England had beaten three also-rans, handling the California Cupcakes (Niners and Rams) without too much trouble, but needing some last-minute heroics by Tom Brady to get past the puttering Jets. How would our favorite Foxborovians handle the mighty Ravens, winners of four of their last five, speakers of confidence, giant-slayers in Gillette?
The Patriots would out-hit, out-scheme, and (eventually) out-execute their visitors, bolting out to a 23-3 lead and holding on for a (again, eventually) satisfying win.
And those mighty Ravens we spoke of? They’re 3-10 all-time vs. New England.
Ah, Distinctly I Remember It Was In The Bleak December: Before Monday night, the Ravens had the best scoring defense in the league (tied with the Patriots). This was, clearly, the toughest test the Patriots offense was going to face up to this point in the season. Brady compiled 406 yards passing, completing 66 percent of his attempts, scoring three touchdowns. Brady is now tied for all-time wins in December (52-10) with Brett Favre (52-25).
If not for his ugly interception in the end zone where he seemed to shot-put a dead goose into double coverage, Brady looked as efficient (and, to opponents, as scary) as he has all year. Working without tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots were able to score 28 offensive points and compile almost 500 yards while converting 50 percent of their third down tries (eight of 16). Brady now has 22 touchdowns and two interceptions for the season.
Consider Brady’s three TD passes. The first was a six-yard dart to rookie Malcolm Mitchell where Brady’s passing window was roughly the size of the top of a Hi-C can. Second, a lofted beauty to tight end Martellus Bennett that rattled through the defender’s arms like a Plinko disk. Finally, Brady led Chris Hogan on this 79-yard bomberoo where Hogan bolted open like a cheetah racing a trio of disinterested gnu.
Short, medium, long. If someone’s open, Brady will give your team as good a chance as anyone to find him. Just like in the previous week, seven different receivers caught passes Monday night. The offense is better with Gronk, but, if a defense can’t focus on a monster tight end, who gets the attention?
It Takes Two To Make A Thing Go Right: Not sure anyone predicted the Patriots going up 2-0 in the first quarter, but a couple of things went right for that to happen. First, special teamer Jonathan Jones made sure Ryan Allen’s 56-yard punt stayed out of the end zone, swatting it backwards to Matthew Slater at the one. On the next play, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown surged through a fullback block (which, I assume, was a missed assignment somewhere), gobbling up running back Kenneth Dixon three yards in the end zone for the opening score.
If you watch the replay, you’ll see a D-line shift right before the snap that may have caused some confusion along the Ravens’ offensive line. In any case, an important play set up by key special teams work.
Shea? Like Butter: Linebacker Shea McClellin jumped over the Ravens’ long snapper and blocked Justin Tucker’s 34-yard field goal attempt, an act of athleticism that I had only seen once before when Pats linebacker Jamie Collins did it at Indianapolis last year. A huge play in terms of momentum shift, especially considering New England spent the better part of the next five minutes advancing 74 yards down the field to go up 9-0 on LeGarrette Blount’s franchise-record 14th TD of the season (tied with Curtis Martin).
In a similar way to Gronk, the Patriots won’t be able to replace Collins’ freakish abilities with one guy. They can, however, mix and match to certain situations and get solid, even spectacular plays out of multiple players, whether it’s McClellin’s nine tackles and blocked FG this past week or Kyle Van Noy’s interception the week before.
Heaving A Cyrus: Get receiver Griff Whalen off the inactive list and onto the field on punt returns, now. Given Cyrus Jones’ baffling inability to secure punts this season (he has muffed or fumbled five punt returns), I would choose having no punt returner over the rookie. Just make sure the other team punts it, then run to the sideline. Job done, defense. Now Tom, go out and do your thing.
I said this last week, but it’s worth repeating: Jones was the best college punt returner in the nation last year. He brought four back for TDs. He played at Alabama, a school with a stadium that seats almost 102,000 people (that’s 35,000 more than Gillette). He was on TV just about every week, with millions watching. Now, it’s like he looks up at the football and sees one of those crazy Phantasm knife spheres.
The play where he gave the ball back to Baltimore will be recorded as a muffed punt, but there was no attempted catch involved: he actually approached the rolling football and, while stepping toward it, had it bounce off his toe. (You can see the image here.) For anyone who has ever learned anything about football, his approach made no sense. And he knows it. Once the ball hits the punter’s foot and goes past the line of scrimmage, possession switches.
Besides the obvious pitfalls (like giving up the ball at your own 3-yard line), mistakes like Jones’ have a deleterious domino effect. His gaffe forced Slater back to return the Ravens’ kickoff. Now, Slater uses what I call the Proton Strategy on returns, where he seeks out the biggest cluster of activity and rams right into it. (If you watch the replay here, he seems to miss a wide-open lane to his right.) That resulted in a fumble, another Baltimore touchdown, and a reassessment of what had been a comfy 23-3 third-quarter lead.
Maybe, as Slater and others said, Jones can make his way out of this slump. We can only hope that, as he goes on that journey, he won’t lead the team astray.
Feeling Hunky-Dory ‘Bout This Thing That I Found: It seems like the defense has found its way, doesn’t it? (One might call it a Heavy D.) We had lots of complaints about a lack of pass rush and a certain tendency to surrender third-down conversions, but even against the hyper-efficient Joe Flacco, New England held tough. The Ravens converted 37 percent of their third downs, and most importantly, got held to a field goal on their final possession when Malcolm Butler shoved tight end Dennis Pitta out-of-bounds one yard short of the sticks on third down. On the possession before that, linebacker Rob Ninkovich sacked Flacco on third and four from the Patriots 12, limiting the Ravens to another field goal.
Baltimore scored two touchdowns on 25 yards of offense. Beyond that, they had three field goals and gave up a safety. That’s a solid defensive showing.
Just To Be The Man Who Walked 1,000 Yards: Congratulations and a job well done to Blount, who now has a career-best 1,029 yards on the year after carrying the ball 18 times for 72 yards vs. the Ravens (a clean 4.0 yards per carry). While Baltimore has become much more of a passing team (rushing 14 times, passing 52), New England appears to have become more balanced this season (25 rushes, 38 passes). Blount deserves credit for that, as does line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Some well-executed wham and pull blocks created creases in the Ravens front, giving Blount space to get moving and go forward.
Perhaps his best run of the night came right after the two-minute warning, on second down and two, when he flattened safety Eric Weddle like a Play-Doh pizza and rambled forward for five yards. He followed that up with the ultimate game-clincher, getting four yards on fourth and one to run out the clock. Nice to see that, when the Pats need a yard or two, they can run it and convert.
Sean John In Fashion: As Boston.com’s Chad Finn mentioned on Twitter, Pats fans have had a treat listening to the Fox and ESPN broadcasts over the past two weeks. You’ve got to feel awfully cynical about football if you refuse to get caught up in John Gruden’s and Sean McDonough’s enthusiasm. McDonough reacts to the plays with genuine excitement, as evidenced by his call of McClellin’s field goal block (“They jump the CENTER!”), yet he immediately follows up with accurate reporting (“And it’s blocked by Shea McClellin!”).
Gruden just loves football and makes solid points throughout. I especially enjoy when he gets so caught up in the action that McDonough has to finish his sentences. Two examples of this:
Gruden: “Julian Edelman has eight catches the last three weeks.”
McDonough: “Julian Edelman has eight catches in each of the last three games.”
Or this beauty:
Gruden: “(Blount’s) Fourteen touchdowns, he just tied Curtis Martin… (pause)”
McDonough: “For the single season Patriots record.”
I’ve always appreciated McDonough’s work, and he has found a knowledgable-yet-goofy (or is it goofy-yet-knowledgable?) partner in Gruden. Entertaining stuff.
O Steve Can You See? Teams must hate playing against receiver Steve Smith, but they have to respect him as a player. I also happen to get a kick out of him much of the time. He had a great moment during “The Star Spangled Banner,” sung by Fran Rogers. When Rogers went high on “Our flag was still THERE,” the camera caught Smith listening, nodding to a teammate, and saying, “All right” with appreciation. A fun pre-game moment, worth reviewing if you still have the game on DVR.
It Is What It Is: As much as I enjoyed the MNF broadcast, I was less-than-thrilled with their slogan that has apparently been around for a couple of years. Ready? Here it is:
No Other Night Is Monday Night.
Now, while no one can argue with this logic, I fail to see how that sets Monday apart from any other night in its originality. Replace “Monday” with any other day and it still works. Besides, being the only Monday of the week doesn’t make it good, you know? What is Monday supposed to evoke as an adjective?
No Other Milk Is Spoiled Milk.
What gets me is that, somewhere in a New York or Los Angeles board room, someone presented that slogan, and a room full of suits said, Yes, we are a multi-billion-dollar business and we will go with this circular statement that’s only slightly more scintillating than two-day-old steamed rice out of the fridge. You could give any person on the street two minutes, and chances are he or she would come up with something just as effective. Your Week Begins On Monday Night. Or, MNF: Save The Best For Last. For the intro, you could have Vanessa Williams do an updated 2016 version.
I guess, if you really wanted truth in advertising, it would be, Monday Night Football: Because Who Needs A Productive Tuesday?
Time Is On (My) Side: If he had another shot, I wonder if John Harbaugh would ask Tucker for an onside kick? Maybe not as much of a problem with the call as with its execution, as Tucker feigned to kick left but stopped, pranced around the ball as if he were auditioning for the Fish Slapping Dance, and switched to kick it right. This had two effects, neither of them good. First, it alerted the receiving team where the ball was going, and second, it probably threw off Tucker’s focus to the point where the ball fecklessly rolled toward Patrick Chung as if he were a croquet wicket at the senior center.
The Patriots got possession at Baltimore’s 47 with 2:01 left. Would they have tried a pass on first down at their own 25? Would they have gone for it on fourth and one from their own 45? We’ll never know.
Please, Martellus, Don’t Hurt ‘Em: In Latin, apparently, Martellus means “hammer.” An appropriate name for the tight end, who has been too legit to quit, playing through various injuries. He has not seemed like his typical smooth self, at times stumbling after receptions that he would normally carry for extra yardage. Still, the big man caught four passes for 70 yards, including the aforementioned jump-ball battle he won over linebacker Zach Orr for a touchdown. After a poor showing in San Francisco, Bennett vowed to do better, and he did. Dude seems tougher than overcooked calamari.
Some Fuel In Those Jets: Last Sunday, after surrendering a 14-0 lead in San Francisco, the New York Jets looked about as well-prepared as a raw steak at a jerky contest. Oh, to be a Niners fan this year. Oof. New York tied it at 17 in regulation, then marched down the field for the winning TD in overtime. At 4-9, the Jets are officially out of contention for the playoffs, but they might just start playing for pride (and future paychecks) at season’s end. Interesting to watch how they do hosting the Dolphins Saturday night.
On the Dolphins…
Looking For Moore: Tough to see Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill go down with a season-ending knee injury in the Dolphins’ win over the Cardinals. At 8-5, Miami has a decent shot to make the playoffs as a wild card. Backup QB Matt Moore hasn’t started a game since 2012, but he’s had some competitive games vs. the Pats. He passed for three TDs on December 24, 2011 in a close 27-24 New England win. He also helmed the Panthers during a lackluster 20-10 Patriots win in 2009, where Randy Moss played with all the passion of Danish accountant.
The Pats face the Dolphins in the final game of the regular season. Considering Miami makes New England players about as comfortable as Rottweilers in wool turtlenecks, Moore’s progress will be worth watching.
Deflategaffe: So, a team was suspected of deflating footballs and nothing came of it? Sigh. I’ll let Barstoolsports.com’s Jerry Thornton handle this.
I’m Madden As Hell And I’m Not Going To Take This Anymore: At first, Gronk’s ad for Madden NFL 2017 was a fun commercial. After he was injured, though, it kind of makes me sad. So here’s the question: is it a good idea to continue advertising using a player on IR? Does Gronk’s injury matter to those who don’t root for him or his team?
It just seems like a sharp contrast to have a fun-loving player acting silly on-camera when we know he’s done for the year with a serious injury. Kind of like watching a movie stunt if we knew the people on screen got injured in real life. The fantasy stops entertaining us when reality barges in, you know?
Walking So Close To Dead: Man, amazing how the writers of “The Walking Dead” came within inches of a thrilling, game-changing surprise in the series but seemed to wimp out at the last second.
Oh, Lucille. You got in the way of good television yet again.
Malcolm, OK Go: Your OK Go video of the week is “Upside Down & Inside Out,” which is not a tribute to Diana Ross, but is an intriguing look at the effects of zero gravity. Now that I’m older, I actually get a tad motion sick while watching it.
Exit full screen! Exit full screen!
On to Denver Sunday for a 4:25 tilt in the mountains. Should be fun.
Chris Warner still has a piece of birthday cake left in the freezer, but don’t tell his child. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet: @cwarn89