In last week’s column, I said that this game against the Jets would help clarify what kind of Patriots team we had, here. However, after New England played juuust well enough to outlast New York, I’m still not so sure.
While many will point to the overturned touchdown by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as the major turning point, that play can be lumped in with several calls where the officials failed to paint themselves in glory. The Patriots also had a couple whistles go against them in the first half.
First, the Jets: Seferian-Jenkins appeared to score a touchdown with 8:31 left in the fourth quarter that would have cut the Patriots’ lead to 24-21. Cornerback Malcolm Butler jaws-of-lifed the ball loose, causing a fumble that the officials ruled Seferian-Jenkins did not recover until he was out-of-bounds. This resulted in a touchback/turnover. (You can see that highlight here.) New York got the ball back two minutes later but, after a 44-yard pass to an open Jermaine Kearse, the Jets had to settle for a field goal with 3:43 remaining.
Upon further review, so to speak, as Tom E. Curran pointed out on NBC Sports Boston, the Jets can hate the rule as much as they want, but not the call. And, for a less-reasoned review of the call (and Jets’ fans reactions to it), you can cavort in Jerry Thornton’s visceral glee over on Barstool Sports.
With 1:38 left in the second quarter, New England was driving for a would-be touchdown and came across a couple of unfavorable calls of their own. Cornerback Darryl Roberts committed an obvious, prolonged illegal contact penalty against Chris Hogan on first down that went uncalled. On the next play, linebacker Darren Lee committed a pass interference penalty on tight end Rob Gronkowski that actually looked more blatant than the one the officials called in Gronk’s favor earlier. (CBS Boston’s Michael Hurley illustrates these two examples quite well in his Leftover Thoughts column.) Two incompletions, no calls. Stephen Gostkowski attempted a 47-yard field goal and knuckled it into the bleachers.
Because the football was going back and forth between teams like a shuttlecock (the final five minutes of the half featured six changes of possession), New England went back on offense with 35 seconds left and scored, in large part due to a Tom Brady-Brandin Cooks connection where the former lofted a 42-yard, three-pointer-arc pass that the latter gathered in at the two while step-dancing along the left sideline.
So, what kind of team does New England have? One that takes advantage of others’ mistakes while still figuring out how to limit their own. A 4-2 team in first place atop the AFC East. In other words, I’m not sure.
The Patriots host the Falcons next Sunday night. Last week, Atlanta held a 17-0 lead over the Dolphins at halftime. You’ll never guess what happened next. (Spoiler: the Dolphins did not lose.)
Leader Bored: I know you’re probably tired of talking about this, but I feel like it’s a clear explanation of why this team hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations. I mean, in the first place, expectations bordered on the ridiculous – and by “bordered,” I mean they lived inside ridiculous, outside of pragmatic’s jurisdiction. But what has become clear is that Coach Bill Belichick may have overlooked his own tendencies this off-season. He has often said, “My job is not to collect talent, it’s to build a team.” A quick rundown of players who came and went shows how New England let go of team-oriented guys – leaders – for potential talent.
After Week Six of 2016, tight end Martellus Bennett had 26 catches and four touchdowns for New England. That, by the way, includes 15 receptions and one TD for the first four games with Gronk, and without Brady. Even as a new guy, even with an injured ankle that must have rattled like a Yahtzee cup, Bennett asked his teammates to hop on his back. That’s an example of the leadership that’s missing this year. Tight end Dwayne Allen still has zero catches and has put up more unstable blocks than a drunken Jenga contestant.
Last year, cornerback Logan Ryan might have gotten beaten one-on-one on occasion, but he kept an eye on the football (two interceptions, 11 passes defended). He also knew where to be in New England’s defense, meshing well with former college teammates Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. Ryan was a leader in that defensive backfield. This past Monday night, Ryan had three tackles, including a key tackle for loss, plus a pass break-up that was initially ruled a fumble in the Titans’ win. Stephon Gilmore can be a great player; we still don’t know whether he can be a great teammate.
Edge defenders (and, I mean, who doesn’t like U2?) Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich weren’t always the most productive in 2016 (four sacks each), but both provided guidance to younger players like Trey Flowers while preaching the fundamentals of the defense. Free agent Cassius Marsh has plenty of athleticism, but he lacks the experience and knowledge of the system to be a true leader. Plus, he seems to forget what “edge” means, as he often loses position and gives up free space more consistently than a Bingo card.
Lastly – and this probably isn’t fair, but it’s an illustration of what this team’s missing – receiver Julian Edelman injured his knee in August, knocking the productivity of this offense down farther than fans were willing to accept. Belichick traded backup QB Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for receiver Phillip Dorsett, with results that beg for improvement. Dorsett has caught four passes, none in the past two weeks. No one expects Dorsett to take on Edelman’s role; however, he could make himself a better, more reliable target.
We saw examples of this Sunday, when Brady looked for Dorsett three times. The end results were three incompletions, including an interception with three minutes left in the first half. On that play, Dorsett failed to turn around, while Buster Skrine kept his shoulders turned and looked the ball into his chest for the pick. Brady went back to Dorsett twice in the third quarter. On one play, the receiver pulled an Aaron Dobson, allowing Darryl Roberts to knock the ball out of his hands. He then tried to look back over his head (in the way you’d try a backwards granny shot in H-O-R-S-E) instead of turning to locate the football to let Skrine break up another pass. Contrast these plays with a remarkable, you-will-not-deny-me catch by Jet Jeremy Kerley in the first quarter (while he had corner Jonathan Jones draped over him like fresh wallpaper), and you can see the difference between reliable receivers and guys who are just kind of, you know, there.
Brady, You Bring Me Up When I’m Down: We should give Brady credit not just for his great games, but for his gutty ones, too. He slogged through a 20 for 38 performance for 257 yards and two touchdowns. Besides that artistic catch by Cooks and some strong grabs from Gronk, he got let down by his receivers a bit (really, guys? Two offensive pass interference calls?). Also, though his offensive line gave up no sacks on the day, Brady felt some heat throughout (I question the official stat of four QB pressures). New England’s final touchdown drive on their opening possession of the second half showcased vintage Brady. On third and 13, he stepped up in the pocket like the vehicle avoiding a ditch in a game of Moon Patrol to lock in on Cooks crossing 19 yards down the field (highlight here). On the touchdown to Gronkowski, Brady pulled an Astaire-like sidestep (or Timberlake-like? Probably Timberlake-like) to find room in the pocket and chuck an absolute knife to the big tight end, who spun free and gamboled into the end zone.
Numbers-wise, not a great day by Brady. Looking at the game itself and what he was able to do, it was another impressive effort in a season where such works are piling up.
When He’s Hot, He Cooks: Credit to Cooks on the day, as he recovered from a poor drop in the first quarter that would have netted New England a first down to collect six receptions for 93 yards, including that delightful 42-yarder to set up Gronk’s touchdown in the first half. New England’s early third quarter scoring drive featured peak Cooks, with the 19-yard crosser mentioned above, plus a 17-yard reception where he got open by stopping more abruptly than the series finale of “The Sopranos.” The speedy pass-catcher would have had another 17-yarder to his credit on a slant-and-run, but Hogan committed an unnecessary offensive pass interference penalty (Cooks would have broken free anyway). Important that Cooks continues to provide a consistent long- to mid-range target for Brady and company, as that can help loosen up the defense underneath.
Is the tight end open? Usually…
Brofessional Football: Great to have a healthy Gronk. The big tight end caught six passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. He also helped set up New England’s other TD by eliciting a pass interference penalty that gained 24 yards to the Jets’ one. Dion Lewis scuttled in for the score with 5:19 left in the half. No matter what safety or linebacker tried to cover Gronkowski, the man managed to play like a life-sized action figure, breaking open, walling off defenders, and springing free of tackles. Besides his scores, one of his better plays included a remarkable catch with 9:05 left in the second quarter, where the tight end reached up for the football and seemed to play keep away from linebacker Lee. Here’s to Gronk’s health, because football’s a more fun game with him in it.
Where A Three Grows: The running back triumvirate of Lewis, Mike Gillislee, and James White each did what was expected of them on Sunday, bringing a long-sought element of variety to the offense. Gillislee ran as hard as he has all year against a stout run defense, managing 44 yards on 10 attempts. After a first quarter fumble, Gillislee came back strong in the third, pounding the home team on a drive that resulted in a field goal. Gillislee had five totes for 22 yards on that drive, among them this seven-yard romp where he hopped for an extra two yards with a defender clinging to his leg. On that same drive, White converted a third-and-three on a sky-scraping 16-yard pass from Brady where the QB used a throwing motion like he was trying to land a paper airplane on the MetLife Stadium roof. White ended up with four catches for 22 yards and three rushes for 23 yards.
As a diminutive back, Lewis gets the fine china treatment from coaches. At this point, though, they must feel the need to use him more. The mighty mite ran 11 times for 52 yards (4.7 avg.), with much of those carries going up the middle. His size, quickness, and strength make tackling him seem like wrangling an angry ferret. The best run of the day came on the first play of the second half. Lewis ran into a hill of humanity at the right guard spot. He stopped, swung around to his left, and jetted to an area about three yards past the line of scrimmage. He then stutter-stepped and slid his way past Morris Claiborne, making the six-year corner look like an arthritic giraffe. Lewis had no business gaining any yards on the play, much less 11. An impressive run, and the type we may see more of this season.
The 300: Now Josh McCown joins the club of 300-plus-yard passers vs. the Patriots, a club that grows its membership every week. That’s right: all quarterbacks who have faced the Patriots this year have thrown for over 300 yards. McCown totaled 354, hitting on 31 of his 47 passes (66 percent) for two touchdowns and two interceptions. McCown has an interesting history in the league. Before this year, he had never won more than two starts in a row (he won three in a row before Sunday). He had been on eight teams in 15 seasons, making him a better example of a journeyman than Neil Schon. While his interception at the end of the first half left something to be desired (more on that below), he maneuvered well in the pocket and threw with notable accuracy throughout the game.
Not a great day for New England’s defense overall, but McCown deserves credit for his ability to run this offense.
Not Too Bademosi: Not praise, but pragmatism here. With Gilmore absent with a concussion, both Johnson Bademosi (five tackles) and Jonathan Jones (two tackles) filled in admirably at corner. Bademosi, a career special teamer, hits hard and as often as possible, while Jones uses his speed to keep up with receivers. Butler, meanwhile, had an impressive game, if not a perfect one. After lunging and missing a pass to Kerley that resulted in New York’s second touchdown, Butler settled in to his role, breaking up passes, intercepting McCown by beating Robby Anderson to the sideline, and forcing the Seferian-Jenkins fumble to save a fourth-quarter score.
This lineup reminded me of some of the, shall we say, unfamiliar names that helmed New England’s defensive backfield in 2004. This will do for now, but remember: Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat are not walking through that door, fans.
The Garden Of Earthly D-Line: Due to McCown’s success through the air, the Patriots’ defensive line may have gotten overlooked. Though they’re not known for it, they did manage to provide some pressure: the Jets’ best play of the day – Kerley’s catch at the two-yard line over Jones – came on a play where rookie D-lineman Adam Butler had McCown in his grasp but couldn’t bring him down. The defense sacked McCown four times and flushed him out of the pocket a few more – the veteran QB just handled it well by using his legs or letting the ball fly while he was on the move.
A typically successful running team, New York found about as much room to roam as a veal calf, getting held to 74 yards rushing on 24 attempts (a paltry 3.1-yard average). In fact, if you look past McCown’s three rushes for 21 yards, we see that the two starting RBs Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire totaled a mere 44 yards on 19 attempts for a 2.25 average. Credit to Malcom Brown (four tackles, one sack) and Lawrence Guy (three tackles), as well as Alan Branch, who in his return to action seemed to make a claim for his rightful real estate in the middle.
A prime example of this group showing up happened with five minutes left in the first half. After Forte gained seven yards on first down, he tried running off right tackle again but got wrapped up short of the first by Brown. On third and one, the Jets ran McGuire up the middle, but the D-line cleared paths for linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to stop him in the backfield. Neither Brown nor Guy were going anywhere on that play, while Marsh deserves praise for shooting through his gap and preventing McGuire from getting any momentum. A marked improvement from last week down in Tampa, with signs that the run defense might be getting on track.
If You Dont’a, Dont’a: Speaking of the linebackers, a positive showing from Hightower and Van Noy, who tied for the team lead with seven tackles apiece. Hightower had one sack, Van Noy two. The duo also filled their gaps well in the running game. If it’s true that this defense is a work in progress (I mean, hey, they’re still last in many categories), then Hightower and Van Noy will be the ones pushing for improvement.
Couldn’t Be Sorrier: The bar had been set high, but last Sunday’s CBS broadcast was the most poorly commentated and produced Patriots game of the 2016 season. I generally enjoy Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, but this week they seemed off, as did the producers. Some missteps:
• Fouts misidentified players on a couple of occasions. With 8:30 remaining in the first, he praised Jets DT Leonard Williams for his “tremendous job pushing back Joe Thuney there.” Only problem was that the player Williams pushed was LaAdrian Waddle. Later, Fouts called center David Andrews “David Anderson.”
• Another episode of name confusion: At the start of the game, Fouts said McCown had a perfect 17-for-17 completion rate targeting Kerley. Later, when Jermaine Kearse caught a pass, Fouts said that made 18-for-18. (For the record, Fouts was correct about Kerley and mistakenly credited Kearse.)
• Eagle had a rough start. Sixteen seconds into the game, Eagle got enthusiastic about a Jets reception, yelling, “It’s hauled in! Robbie Anderson!” though it was easy to see that Malcolm Butler had sent the football flying toward the sideline for an incompletion. With 9:05 left in the second quarter, Eagle credited Marcus Maye with the tackle on Gronk when it was actually Lee. Fouts followed suit, also misidentifying Lee. To his credit, Eagle corrected himself on the replay.
• I wanted to give Fouts praise for his breakdown of McCourty’s interception of McCown where he showed how Butler’s blitz threw off the QB’s timing, but Fouts got confused about the fullback’s and tight end’s names. He called the fullback “Lawrence Tomlinson” (it’s Lawrence Thomas; the tight end involved in the play was Eric Tomlinson).
• The worst/most entertaining snafu of the day happened with 3:20 left in the third. Gillislee ran for two yards. Two plays later, Gillislee ran it again. This exchange ensued:
Fouts: That’s Gillislee’s first carry since he fumbled in the first half.
Eagle: Well, he just had one.
Eagle: So, two in a row for Gillislee.
“Yup?” I mean, that’s some ESPN-Ocho-worthy stuff right there. Maybe even Best In Show.
As for replays, CBS lacked more than usual. To wit:
• How did Seferian-Jenkins get so wide open on the Jets’ opening touchdown? It looked like linebacker Elandon Roberts gave late pursuit, but without a replay from farther back, all we could see was the tight end all alone in the corner of the end zone.
• McCown passed out of his own end zone with Deatrich Wise bearing down on him. Fouts called it a “safety-saving pass,” but without replay we couldn’t tell how close Wise got to nabbing McCown. (On DVR, it looked pretty close, as the DE had wrapped his arms around the QB.)
• At 13:40 of the second, the Patriots did a great job of stuffing the run. No replay meant we couldn’t see how that happened. (A rewind review showed Branch keeping his spot on the line as Roberts crushed his blocker.)
• At 12:12 of the second, Danny Amendola reached down to try to keep a pass from skimming off the ground. When it was ruled incomplete, Amendola seemed to protest the ruling before heading back to the huddle. It looked close, but no replay meant no way to tell.
• While CBS provided plenty of replays of the Seferian-Jenkins fumble at the goal line, both Fouts and Eagle seemed unfamiliar with the rule of having to re-establish possession. At one point, Fouts called it the worst call he’d ever seen. Considering Fouts started playing for the Chargers in 1973, I have a hard time believing that statement. I’m sure that, over the past 44 years, he has witnessed worse calls. A proclamation like that detracts from his credibility.
Questionable? Okay. Controversial? Fine. But worst? You lost me.
And now, for these commercial messages…
Toyota Storyota: It has taken me about two full months to figure out that the Toyota CH-R commercials are all related to fairy tales. Whether it’s Rapunzel, Cinderella, or Red Riding Hood, Toyota has taken these stories and tried to make the characters modern. I don’t think it works (I’m still in shock that Rapunzel’s hair is fake), but I appreciate the consistency.
This campaign would be a real winner if Toyota could sell cars to eight-year-olds.
Let The Domino’s Fall: Domino’s Pizza has a campaign about how they’re remodeling their stores. Sounds great, but that seems akin to putting the Browns in new uniforms: fresh new look, same old product.
In my old neighborhood, the local pizza place – Denise Pizzeria – had chipped, linoleum-covered tables and a worn tile floor. The owner had long, gray hair and roughly 70 percent of his teeth. And I still think about that pizza. So, Domino’s, as a friend, I’d recommend you focus on the actual product rather than the place that sells it.
The Things That Dreams Are Made Of: Well, call me confused. Budweiser has a new commercial where they show their breweries across the nation while the song “Liberty Mother” by Goodbye June plays. I would like this song better if it didn’t sound like a young Steven Tyler on six cappuccinos, but I’m perplexed about its use. I thought the lyrics were “Why don’t you come drink with me?” which fits. Apparently, they’re actually “Won’t you come dream with me,” which doesn’t make any sense.
Seriously, if the focus of your dreams involves Budweiser, you’ve got to reassess your goals in life.
Stop, Luke, And Listen: The Geico ad that shows Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly working out has to be the least entertaining and least humorous Geico commercial since they stopped the Caveman campaign – which, let’s face it, we were all getting pretty tired of by the end. All Kuechly does is lift weights and jump for 30 seconds, which is a shame, because (as he showed in this Chunky soup commercial) he delivers lines well with a solid deadpan expression.
By the way, Geico is to football advertising what trains and utilities are to Monopoly. You just can’t get far without running into one.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Falcon” come from the Latin word “falco.” It could allude to any bird of prey used in what we call falconry. (I’m avoiding any sarcastic references to blown leads here, and I’m actually quite proud of myself.)
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: “Atlanta” has uncertain origins, but it could refer to the Greek mythological character Atalante. She was an Arcadian princess abandoned by her father on a mountain. After being raised by bears and discovered by hunters, she became known for her bear-like hunting prowess. So … go Bears? She-Bears? Sows?
I don’t know, man.
One quick, off-topic note with no pun-filled sub headline because it contains zero humor: thinking of Celtics forward Gordon Heyward and hoping for a full recovery.
Oof. So grim. Got to shake it off. Help me out here, Taytay?
Sunday night at Foxboro, the Patriots add another chapter onto their unevenly-paced work in progress. Maybe we’ll get a better sense of their character after this week.
Chris Warner went to Vermont last weekend and had too much apple pie and cheese. He looks forward to going back soon. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89.