See? One win. That’s all it took, really. One win in New Orleans to bring us back to a closer semblance of reality, a better understanding of where the Patriots sit as the end of September nears. Quarterback Tom Brady looked a lot more like his old self, the defense made some plays, and the Patriots took a 20-3 lead after one quarter to cruise to a 36-20 final.
Oh, yes, there was some ugliness. Some of it came in the form of injuries, as we’ll list below (spoiler alert: if you caught a pass for the visiting team, there was a decent chance the injury bug bit you at some point). Some of said hide-your-eyes-ness came in the form of a defense that continues to give up big plays, a preseason trend that lacked the decency to remain in the preseason. But, overall, this was a much-needed victory against a team in a similar situation that featured one of the NFL’s best QBs at home.
As a coach of mine once said after we avoided getting shut out in the first half with a lucky touchdown in the frantic aftermath of a muffed field goal attempt, “I’ll take it.”
Some notes on the most fun Patriots game since February…
Well, It’s About Tom: As much as we knew the New England offense would go through an adjustment period with Julian Edelman out for the year, this game helped us get a peek into how 2017 might turn out. Brady put in some solid work, hitting on 30 of 39 passes (77 percent) for 446 yards and three touchdowns. All three of those TDs came in the first quarter, the only time in Brady’s career he’s tossed for a triad so early in a game. Yes, we saw times of disconnect, where receivers had to dive for passes that seemed off by a foot or two, but if you consider that Brady found nine different receivers on the day, not one of them named Edelman or Danny Amendola, you can see what a strong performance this was.
No, No, NO: Brady’s worst pass of the day was also the game’s strangest play: a pop-up to the right sideline that got gathered in by safety Marcus Williams and returned to the two-yard line. While New England fans were busy screaming a Fred Willard quote at the television, the reason for the quick snap and pass became clear, as replay showed Saints linebacker Manti Te’o late running to the sideline for a 12-men-on-the-field penalty. No interception. The Saints got another pick on the same drive, but that also got called back due to a holding penalty. New England mercifully punted the ball away midway through the third, still leading 30-13.
Gronk’s Back (Seemed Okay): The QB’s best pass of the day came on a floater to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who galloped across the field and smartly veered up the sideline to break free from rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone. Brady, whose sense of calm on that play made him seem like an embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” stepped up in the pocket, pump-faked, stood there like he was staring down a horde of velociraptors, and somehow managed to loft that beauty to Gronk, who ran in for the touchdown after shaking off a defender on his ankle like a veteran mailman dealing with a jack russell. (You can see the highlight here.) Including that 53-yard score, Gronk had 116 yards on six catches Sunday and proved invaluable on third down, using his kiosk-sized body to wall off defenders and pick up necessary yardage. As Tony Romo said during the CBS broadcast, “Well, Rob Gronkowski’s back!”
And he was. Until…
Joy And Pain Are Like Sunshine And Dwayne: Gronk’s apparent groin injury in the third quarter put the spotlight on Dwayne Allen. Now, Allen seems like a thoroughly decent tight end, but this past summer’s narrative that Allen will replace free agent Martellus Bennett will get proven wrong if Gronk misses significant time. As tight ends, Bennett is to Allen what an 18-wheeler is to a pickup: we call them the same things, but one of those can carry a much bigger load. A couple of plays after Gronk caught the ball and cruised for 21 yards late in the third quarter, seeming to get hurt while tackled by two defenders, Brady sought out Allen for a short pass but failed to connect. As I wrote in my notes, “Inc. to D. Allen – he’s not a guy who gets open.”
Here’s a prediction: if Gronk misses more than a couple of games, rookie tight end Jacob Hollister will end up with more receptions than Allen this year. At the very least, his role seems due to expand in light of how many receivers have gotten dinged up this season.
Riding In On A White Horse: Running back James White came to the rescue once again, catching eight passes for 85 yards, including a sweet 23-yard screen pass late in the second quarter where he seemed to run through the defense like a ghost deer through a copse of trees. That screen helped set up New England’s last-second field goal of the half. Early in the fourth quarter, White ran up the seam and clutched onto Brady’s 24-yard offering, the second straight reception for White after a five-yard drive-opener. Brady spread the ball around to Brandin Cooks for 15 yards and Phillip Dorsett for 38 down to the Saints’ three-yard line. That drive resulted in a field goal and a 36-13 lead, taking 5:30 off the game clock, a nice way to start off the fourth.
On that drive, Dorsett (three catches for 68 yards, one rush for seven) may have injured himself. Chris Hogan (three catches, 78 yards, one TD) was nursing some kind of leg injury that had him limping since the two-interceptions-that-weren’t offensive drive of the third quarter. Running back Rex Burkhead (three catches, 41 yards, opening-drive TD) sat most of the game after suffering a first-half rib injury. With all this potential attrition, players like Dion Lewis (one reception, 11 yards; four rushes, 14 yards) could see more reps, while Cooks (two catches for 37 yards) has to increase his production. That said, White will continue to fill out his role as the go-to guy. No one has earned it more.
Signed, Sealed, And Lost In The Post: Oh, Stephen Gostkowski. You’re dealing with more issues than a Reader’s Digest hoarder. I’m sure Patriots fans have little interest in having their touchdown cheers upstaged by the sound of an extra-point kick doinking off the upright. This happened after New England’s opening touchdown, a pretty 19-yard glider from Brady that Burkhead reeled in ahead of linebacker Anzalone. Would’ve been nice to cap that off with a PAT, but no. How do we know this has become a thing? Because Gostkowski went 3-for-3 on field goals with no apparent issues and has hit 100 percent of his 3-pointers this season (5-for-5).
In a year where many things seem out of their control (read: injuries), New England will want to make sure that they can tack on the period at the end of each touchdown sentence. A missed extra point doomed the team in the 2015 AFC Championship. It nearly did the same in the Super Bowl, if not for some forethought from Coach Bill Belichick and crew (due in large part to the previous year’s 2-point failure. Do yourself a favor and check out “Do Your Job, Part II.” It’s all in there). Gostkowski missed three PATs last season, not including the playoffs. He’s bound to miss another this season. (CBS pointed out that he has missed seven of his past 63 extra-point kicks). Fans can only hope that, like this past Sunday, it won’t matter much.
I Get A Kick Out Of You: On the positive side of the kicking game, their field goal in the waning seconds of the first half gave a great view into how New England does things. On third down at New Orleans’ 17 with zero timeouts, Brady loped to the 10 and got tackled with 16 seconds left. Knowing the situation, he immediately rose to his feet and sprinted off the field, waving his hand in the air like he had an imaginary lasso. Watching the clock (15, 14, 13 seconds), I said, “They’re not going to get this kick off.”
Oh, me of little faith. With special teams coach Joe Judge whipping a big white towel in circles over his head like a drunk rhythmic gymnast (the same signal Brady gave, only with a notable accessory), the kicking team sprinted into position, held fast for the requisite moment (a team-wide marvel of composure amidst the chaos), got the snap off at the two-second mark, and delivered the field goal with no time on the clock. So, kudos to long snapper Joe Cardona, holder/punter Ryan Allen, Gostkowski, and the eight others (including defensive lineman Lawrence Guy, swiping at his chest to make the “eligible receiver” signal to the refs), who held fast to increase the lead to three scores (30-13) at the half.
Fun rundown of the play here by Bob Socci of 98.5 The SportsHub, including Coach Judge’s link to a similar play from 10 years ago. You can watch that kick here, but the video is missing the 10 seconds of transition that make it remarkable.
It’s Not Gil-Less: In last week’s column, I questioned how well cornerback Stephon Gilmore plays with others. After watching him at New Orleans, I have another question: what kind of heart does he have? I’m referencing one particular play, a third-and-9 completion to Brandon Coleman for 42 yards with 9:47 left in the second quarter. Gilmore got knocked down near the line of scrimmage, which, hey, happens. But then he did something I had trouble watching: he stayed there. He seemed to be looking around for a call from the referee, which never came. So, instead of getting up and trying to help out downfield, Gilmore sat and watched the play happen. Not a strong look from a number-one corner.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees won’t be submitting this performance for his Hall of Fame credentials. He ended up completing 27 of 45 passes (60 percent) for 356 yards and two touchdowns, the latter of which came with five minutes left for the contest’s final score. Gilmore ended up with two tackles, which seems about right for a cornerback that QBs generally try to avoid. The Patriots’ defensive backfield should be fine, rumors around Malcolm Butler notwithstanding. Gimore should be fine; it would just be nice to see more hustle in general.
Wise To The Occasion: Speaking of hustle, how about this Deatrich Wise fella? The rookie D-lineman, whom I picked as a potential Patriots draftee in the Long-Limbed Defensive End category after his East-West Shrine Game appearance, made a mark in this game (probably more than one, actually) with two tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, and a timely sack to end the Saints’ opening third-quarter drive. On that play, Wise motored around tackle Andrus Peat with the might and balance of a rhino sprinting on the inside lane. According to the snap count offered by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, Wise played only 28 of a possible 65 snaps, making his final stats all the more impressive. As his experience grows, so should his time on the field.
Boy, between Wise and three-year defensive end Trey Flowers, Pats fans should start following Arkansas football. Go Hogs!
Back-up Backers: Some more new names to add to the defensive pile. Former Seahawk Cassius Marsh had an important quarterback hurry on fourth down, ending a possible Saints scoring drive with 2:23 left in the first half. He had no tackles on the day but did pressure Brees later in the game and had a special teams stop. Linebacker Harvey Langi had a crushing tackle on a second-quarter kickoff and also provided some D help on limited snaps (six), including keeping contain on a one-yard run in the second quarter that allowed Flowers and second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts space to make the play. With Dont’a Hightower out and veteran David Harris getting on the field for only one more defensive play than I did, new guys have got to contribute more often to help out Roberts (eight tackles) and Kyle Van Noy (four).
The Develin Side: Last week, I was critical of Mike Gillislee’s attempt to convert a fourth-down run because he failed to stick with fullback James Develin and got stopped short. Well, you’re welcome, Pats fans, because apparently Gillislee spent the week listening to me. This, of course, is the only logical explanation for his proper path on his first quarter touchdown run (at the 4:47 mark of this highlight reel) where he stuck to Develin more closely than an ill-advised hip tattoo. Into the end zone (over Gronk’s block), 27-13, Patriots.
Gillislee rushed 18 times for 69 yards (3.8 avg.), but more importantly, he pounded the ball late as the Patriots kept possession, helping to take up exactly four minutes with four runs, two of which (13-yarder on first down, 2-yarder on third and one) gained first downs. Yes, we all miss LeGarrette Blount, but with four touchdowns in two games, Gillislee has earned his share of goodwill.
Mr. Jones, You’re Beautiful: Nice work by defensive back Jonathan Jones on Sunday, breaking up two passes, one of which happened while swatting the football out of Ted Ginn’s hands in the end zone midway through the second quarter. Two plays later, Saints kicker Wil Lutz missed a 49-yard field goal attempt, hitting the upright. (Can we say he pulled a Gostkowski, or is that too much?) Jones came in for injured corner Eric Rowe and acquitted himself nicely, adding two tackles on the day to make his presence felt.
Injuries will happen in the NFL, but the Patriots have historically set themselves apart with their ability to field players who can effectively fill short-term roles. The best examples of this came in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when the team overcame record-setting numbers of starter games lost to injury and won championships. In 2003, linebacker Matt Chatham replaced snaps lost by Mike Vrabel and ended up with a career-best 38 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Running back Mike Cloud played in five games, scoring five TDs. Fullback Larry Centers played nine games, catching 19 passes for 106 yards and a TD. In 2004, journeymen like Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat stepped up in place of Ty Law.
This is looking like one of those years where injury plays a role. How big that role will be – and how we remember this season – will be determined by how well the backups can fill their roles for as long as necessary.
When In Romo: What a pleasant experience to have Tony Romo calling games with Jim Nance on CBS. I didn’t dislike Phil Simms as much as some viewers, but – if you go back to last year’s columns – you’ll see that this space contained its share of commentator blunders. No big goof-ups to speak of this week, so we’ll stick with the positives.
• Romo can predict plays and explain them as well as anyone. He also has some fun. On Gronk’s catch with 2:34 left in the first quarter (a crucial 11-yarder on third and seven), Romo said, “It’s the same out (pattern) he ran earlier,” adding, “I’m 6-foot-9, 395 pounds, and you try and run with me on the next one.”
Now, if announcers will just start pointing out how often Gronk gets bumped, held, and interfered with, that’ll be great. Michael Hurley of Boston’s CBSlocal.com illustrates some of the more egregious non-calls vs. Gronk in this column.
• Speaking of which, Romo corrected the officials on a holding call on Gronk (hooray!) noting that it was safety/Gronk-chew-toy Kenny Vaccaro on the infraction, not Marcus Williams as the refs called.
• Romo also had numerous strong reads on Patriots linebackers dropping back into coverage, even noting near the end of the game how New England uncharacteristically blitzed all five on the line to alter opposing teams’ analytics. He also pointed out that White’s early fourth-quarter reception for 24 yards was the same play Kansas City successfully ran at New England last week, an informative detail.
• Nice work from Tracy Wolfson on the sideline, including a review of her talk with New Orleans coach Sean Payton (“they will stay aggressive”), sparing us the actual, inherently-awkward interview, for which I thank her and CBS. Plus, Wolfson’s update on the concussion protocol for Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who was cleared to play in the third quarter, demonstrated how she stayed on top of injuries (with reports on Dorsett and Hogan).
• One last note on Romo’s comfort level in only his second game: in an exchange with Wolfson in regards to the Brady-Brees training regimens, Romo said, “Well, as you can tell, Tracy, I’ve only got three percent body fat.” Self-deprecation is key, and he knows how to use it.
• Some strong stats from CBS throughout, including: Brady’s 82 career road wins (now 83), second only to Peyton Manning’s 85; as said before, Gostkowski has missed seven of his last 63 PATs (if I had a wide-eyed emoji face on my keyboard, it would go here); and Gillislee is the first Patriot to rush for four touchdowns in the first two games.
• Mentioned this last week, but it still feels new: the networks’ playing of a 30-second ad after a TD using a split-screen image of the field is a simple, graceful compromise that we should have thought of a long time ago. Stay with the game, pay some bills, keep moving along. There was a split-screen ad during an injury with three minutes left in the first quarter that gave me mixed feelings, but as long as such commercials have been reviewed as appropriate (you don’t want a pain reliever or heat rub “oh-my-aching-back” ad as the stretcher gets called over), I’m on board.
A Different Kind Of 10K Run: This defies all logic, especially in light of all our talk of injury, but Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas played his 10,000th consecutive snap on Sunday. Grab a unicorn and sing a mermaid hymn, because this has reached mythological proportions. Seriously, he never got his leg caught under a pile? Never got an errant finger to his face? Never even had a chinstrap or shoulder pad snafu that would require stepping off the field for one play? Incredible.
One Giant Leap: So, we all know the 0-2 Giants will go .500 for the rest of the season, squeak into the playoffs, and beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl as Brady keeps it close with passes to both Jacob and Cody Hollister, Develin, Allen, Demarcus Ayers, and some rando they got off the waiver wire in Week 14, right?
(I feel like if I say it now, it has less chance of actually happening. Just in case I’m wrong, let me add, Right after I win the lottery! )
JKL And Hide: There’s a show coming soon on CBS called “9JKL.” It looks like any other sitcom with a laugh track, which is to say, watching the preview makes me feel like a demon is taking a wood planer to my soul. (Hot viewing tip: if you go directly to the 1:22 mark, you’ll see the same “Central Park” bench featured in “Seinfeld.” You’ll also avoid the scene where the mother, played by Linda Lavin, looks at her son and says, “Those little balls have been inside me.” For the record, that line is not a double-entendre. Seriously, this preview makes me miss the farcical, witty repartee of “Three’s Company.”)
I have a few issues with this show, but here’s the main one: how does Mark Feuerstein continue to get leading roles? Is he super funny, or eye-gougingly handsome, or stop-what-you’re-doing watchable? Do people find his flat line delivery entertaining? He’s been the lead in two previous shows (“Good Morning, Miami,” “Royal Pains”), now three. I’ve got nothing against the guy, I just don’t get the appeal, especially when a network could go with someone new and different.
Eh. Sometimes I get angry over things I can’t control.
And now for these commercial messages…
What Time Is Your Train? The Apple Watch ad featuring a skateboarder in a train station gave me two immediate thoughts. One, that kid should wear a helmet. Two, that kid should get the hell out of that station. Seriously, isn’t there some parking lot you can go to? If I’m stuck waiting for a train, I’m having zero patience for skate rats.
Yes, I am old. And I never took to skateboarding. When I was young, skateboards were plastic planks no wider than a roast beef sub. And they should have stayed that way.
Somebody Get That: The T-Mobile “Netflix On Us” ad begins with three successive T-Mobile/Netflix chimes, and it’s annoying, especially considering how much louder the commercials sound than the actual game broadcasts. I feel like they should put some lyrics to those five quick synth beats, like, “Dirty underwear,” or something. I love Netflix, but I’ll do without the T-Mobile, thanks.
Dirtyunderwear. I’m sticking with this. Every time you hear that T-Mobile jingle, think of laundry day.
Blue Man Group: My favorite commercial of the fall season is the Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away?” offering featuring a man mistaking a getaway car for his hired ride. Extend this, and I would totally watch it as a movie.
Speaking of Netflix and bank heist movies, I recommend Shimmer Lake. I won’t say anything about it, other than it’s a small-town crime film with a Memento-framed narrative. Very entertaining.
Berry Nice: Just watching the Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle trailer and realizing that I’m actually three years younger than Halley Berry, yet if we stood next to each other, passersby would admire her for volunteering to take an aging shut-in out for a walk.
Texans Sunday at 1 p.m. (amen to that). J. J. Watt will have a day. With some help – maybe from unexpected places – Brady might have enough of a day to get the win.
Chris Warner is available to star in any sitcom, as long as his mother character doesn’t mention his nethers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89.