Hey there. Have a good Christmas? Hope so. New England got a couple of presents on Christmas Eve, including a would-be Bills touchdown reception by Charles Clay that “survived the ground” about as well as an unlucky skydiver. That got overlooked when an ensuing catch by Kelvin Benjamin got called a TD but was overturned by the tip of a blade of synthetic grass. Then the home team received a missed field goal by a Bills kicker who’s usually as reliable as Santa’s reindeer.
But, you know what? The Patriots pulled away with three straight touchdowns for a 37-16 decision, which makes it tough to look at any one play as a major turning point. Yes, Buffalo could’ve taken the lead going into the half, but it looked like it would have taken more than a four-point advantage to pry this one away from the Patriots.
This game became reminiscent of another slow Patriots start, the 2011 regular season finale vs., coincidentally, Buffalo. In that one, the Bills took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. New England cut that deficit to 21-14 by halftime, then tallied another 35 straight points in the second half for a 49-21 win. Going into that contest, few would have thought the home team would have let Ryan Fitzpatrick lead Buffalo on three sustained touchdown drives in the first 15 minutes. Still, once the Patriots settled down, they gave themselves the chance to prove their dominance. And, just like this past Sunday, New England demonstrated they were better. (You can see highlights of the more recent Buffalo game here.)
Maybe that says something about the quality of teams in the NFL these days. New England has established itself as one of the best in the league in 2017. How would they fare against last year’s squad that featured both tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman? How would the 2017 team do vs. 2014’s unit, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the defensive backfield? And – gulp for effect, here – could this year’s defense handle LeGarrette Blount? Hard to say.
Enough with the hypotheticals. Here the Patriots stand with a 12-3 record and an inside track on the top seed in the AFC. With a win over the Jets next Sunday at 1 p.m., they top the conference.
So, yeah, not a bad holiday.
All Is Tom, All Is Bright: Okay, not the best game overall by Tom Brady, who roughed out a first half hitting 12 of 19 passes for 119 yards, one touchdown and one sharp-inhale-through-gritted-teeth-ugly interception. Brady missed some targets, throwing behind Gronkowski a couple of times and overthrowing speedster Brandin Cooks deep. After halftime the QB turned it around like a record baby (right round), hitting on nine straight passes. The ninth came in the form of a 13-yard screen pass to human/battlebot hybrid Dion Lewis, who scooted through the defense for a 30-16 lead with 9:27 left in the game.
Yes, that first half seemed more touch-and-go than a game of tag, but Second Half Brady led his team to 24 unanswered points. For the afternoon, the QB hit 21 of his 28 passes (75 percent) for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and that one interception we can totally forget about for now.
God Rest Ye Many Gentlemen: Most impressive about Brady’s performance remains his ability to find myriad receivers. Nine different Patriots caught footballs on Sunday, including running back Mike Gillislee with his first reception of the year on a well-executed, 15-yard screen pass. Receiver Phillip Dorsett slipped one tackle and turned a seven-yard flat pass into a 24-yard gain. Kenny Britt snared a 16-yard throw on a crossing pattern. And tight end Dwayne Allen took a short pass along the sideline and galloped for 22 yards.
As receiver Chris Hogan and running backs James White and Rex Burkhead sit out with various injuries and Malcolm Mitchell waits on IR, Brady has gotten more familiar with the second- and third-stringers, which might come in handy come January.
ConGronkulations: Gronkowski ended up with five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown, and he made a larger impact than the numbers told. A pass interference penalty committed against him with 1:19 left in the third quarter set up Gillislee’s one-yard power run and a 23-16 lead that seemed to tilt the game decidedly in the home team’s direction. Gronk’s touchdown catch – a one-hander where he seemed to have a Jai-Alai cesta for an arm – tied the game at 10 with 7:06 remaining in the second quarter. The big tight end also had a great day blocking, as, for example he drove his defender out of the play on Lewis’ five-yard TD with just under four minutes left in the game.
All About The Benjamin: Buffalo has a freakishly large pass-catcher of their own in Benjamin, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound explosion of limbs who made New England’s defensive backfield seem like a little brother caught in a game of keep away. Benjamin caught five passes for 70 yards and came within a millimeter of getting his foot down in the end zone and/or a nanosecond of possessing the football for a highlight-reel scoring catch of his own. (That play still made the highlight reel, just not for the right reason.) While Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore seemed to be in the right place, he often found himself walled off from the football or literally held at arm’s length. A strong game from Benjamin, one that seems foreboding for the Patriots’ playoff prospects vs. larger receivers.
Although It’s Been Said, Many Times, Many Ways, Merry Christmas, D. Lew: Describing Lewis’ runs requires more prepositions than singing “to grandmother’s house we go” lyrics. Whether it’s by, under, around, or through, Lewis can do it. He rushed for 129 yards on 24 attempts, a 5.4 average. On several different occasions he seemed to run into a cluster of defenders and stop, only to emerge from the other side of the pile for an extra four yards. The Patriots’ final scoring possession best summarized the running back’s day, as New England handed off to him six times out of eight downs. Once, he popped through the line and skittered along the left sideline for 16 yards. Later, on third and two, he burst off left tackle for 14 yards. Finally, he pulled a mini-Tarzan up the middle, burrowing like Edgar Rice to emerge in the end zone for the home team’s final tally.
Oh, yeah: he also had five catches for 24 yards. So, you know, pretty good day. Good enough for his very own four-minute highlight reel.
Wrapped Up And Tyrod In A Bow: Bills QB Tyrod Taylor had a thoroughly decent game (21 of 38 for 55 percent, 281 yards, no TDs upon review), although it seems that his immediate reaction to pressure consists of looking to run. He did rush three times for 16 yards, picking up a couple of first downs, but his tendency to scramble early did him in as often as not. Once New England got a lead, extra pressure came, including from cornerback Malcolm Butler (sack and forced fumble) and speedy linebacker Marquis Flowers, who ended up with 2.5 sacks on the day. The Patriots defense totaled six sacks Sunday (why, that’s five more than Santa!) and kept enough pressure on Taylor to keep him moving and guessing.
The best example of this happened with 11:30 left in the second quarter, as Buffalo went for it on fourth and two at New England’s six-yard line. Instead of keeping his eyes forward, Taylor felt a defender on his back and darted to his right. At the last second, Taylor tried to throw the pass away, but Flowers tracked him down at the sideline for a six-yard loss.
In A Minute There Is Time For Decisions And Revisions: For I have known them all already, known them all. We’ll see how much experience matters, as it looks like James Harrison has become the latest (and oldest) veteran to take a shot with New England, pointing to a sense of dissatisfaction with the aforementioned pass rush. The Pats could certainly use some depth at the edge position; we shall see how much help Harrison can provide. (Nice write-up by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss here.)
My take (which is worth what you paid for it): Harrison gets in some solid reps and even flashes vs. the Jets, but offers limited contributions in the playoffs. Maybe a Michael-Floyd-type one-off? Interesting to find out what he can do.
It Gained Upon A Mid-Line Clear: Boy, even with Flowers’ contributions, the linebacking corps at Foxboro needs some work. They did seem to improve as the game went along, as the toss sweeps that worked early didn’t gain as much yardage in the second half. LeSean McCoy racked up 71 yards on 17 attempts, a 4.2 average; however, if you take away a how’d-he-do-that 18-yard gain where McCoy seemed to jump time and get clear of the defense for extra yards, that 53 yards for 16 attempts knocks down the average to 3.3. (I know, I know: you can’t do that. But I just did. It’s a Christmas miracle!)
Second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts plays tough vs. the run but seems to lose track of running backs for catch-and-run production (one could say he covers about as well as plastic wrap over an open oil drum – lotta potential leakage, there). Jordan Richards? I’m not sure what his role is, exactly. Maybe the return of Kyle Van Noy will help settle down the group; something needs to happen for this defense to remain competitive vs. more elite offenses.
Kudos to defensive linemen Malcom Brown (six tackles and a sack) and Lawrence Guy (one stop for loss on fullback Mike Tolbert) for playing big up front and doing their part in the run game.
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot, And Days Of Old O-Line: Impressive day by the offensive linemen, who often gave Brady enough time to make a list and check it twice. The QB endured two sacks on the day, one of which happened due to solid coverage downfield. The line’s prowess helped Brady get on track in the second half. Their final touchdown drive said it all: the fact that New England could gain 54 yards rushing in eight plays, when their desire to keep it on the ground was about as secret as my daughter’s desire for a Barbie Dolphin Magic Ocean View Boat, showed how well the line executed. Guard Shaq Mason pulled on more runs than a cheap pair of stockings, clearing the way for 194 yards rushing (not including Brian Hoyer’s glorious kneel downs).
Romo If You Want To: Another solid job by the CBS crew, Tony Romo and Jim Nantz. A couple of nitpicks before we get to the good stuff:
• After New England’s first field goal, CBS went with the dreaded Score–Commercial–Kickoff–Commercial lineup, which I thought they had done commendable work limiting this season. Sorry to see it re-emerge, even if only the once.
• It’s always fun to watch Romo play Nostradamus, but he’s been a bit off in his play predictions over the past couple of weeks. Or it could be that I’m paying more attention to his predictions and noticing when he ends up incorrect. Not a big deal, but he needs to temper his excitement a bit and offer more “here’s a possibility” analysis instead of “here’s the play.”
CBS seemed to miss and/or come up short on replays this past week. Some examples included:
• The broadcast went to commercial right after Lewis’ fourth-down rushing attempt where he seemed to reach the ball over the necessary line. The spot looked bad from home; a quick replay before commercial would have confirmed it. (Officials reviewed the play and correctly awarded the Pats a first down.)
• At the end of the third quarter, Benjamin had what I’d call a “major out-heighting” over Gilmore for a high pass along the sideline. I know “heighting” isn’t a verb, but for this particular play it should be: the big receiver just reached up and picked that apple off the branch as Gilmore stopped and watched. An unusual play that required at least a second look.
• In general, far too few replays on the Patriots’ final scoring drive (aka The Lewis Drive), as slowed-down views from the end zone would have provided information on how the home team managed to open lanes vs. a defense that knew the run was coming. Plus, very few runners in the NFL provide as much entertainment as Lewis. That dude’s impressive.
Okay, want to get to the good stuff? Let’s do it…
• Romo made a prescient comment on Buffalo’s energy level at the beginning of the game. They sure seemed to have that edge over New England early. (Now, if Romo had said something like, “Christ, Jim, this is just like when Buffalo came here in 2011!” then I would have been extremely impressed.)
• Romo had a funny bit after Buffalo got caught with too many men on the field. Wayy too many. “Fifteen is too much. Fourteen is questionable,” etc.
Now for some well-done replays, including:
• Concise coverage of the Travaris Cadet injury, i.e., one replay and done. We could see that his ankle joint didn’t seem connected. We didn’t need to see it again. Always agree with that choice.
• Nice replay on Buffalo’s opening drive of the second half: Deonte Thompson got wide open in the back corner of the end zone, but Taylor didn’t see him.
• At 1:51 of the third, a great view of Micah Hyde bringing down Gronk, resembling a lioness trying to fell an elephant. After Gronk takes a healthy stride, his heels hit Hyde so hard in the chest they actually lift the defender up. The type of look that can give the home viewer an appreciation for the fact that nothing comes easy in football.
• A perfect replay on the Butler blitz, sack, and strip with 7:42 left. Butler peels the ball out of Taylor’s hands like the skin off a grapefruit.
Looking to buy stuff in 2018? We’ve got some commercials…
Keeping Wrinkles At Bega: I’ve never thought more seriously about looking into New York Life as I have after Lou Bega did his ad for them. I trust him. Not just for his sunny demeanor and calming voice, but for his ability to mock the aging process. What kind of face cream does this guy use? What does he eat? Forget the TB12 diet – I’m trying out the LB No. 5 regimen.
Space Emperor: Two GEICO ads of note: the space pilot forgetting his keys and the lost Emperor penguins. How fun would it be to have that advertising account? If any campaign got annoying or ineffective, you could just cancel it and go on to the next thing. I’ll bet there are college courses based on the gecko and the cave men.
Fun TV Nerd Note: the actor who plays the space pilot also appears in my favorite ad of the year, the “Call of Duty” commercial/short film about getting the gang back together called “Reassemble!”
Pro Or Con? Oh, yeah. The Pro Bowl. Anyone? No? Funny how they use Brady’s image on that promotion, because the QB hasn’t been to the Pro Bowl since it took place in Hawaii, which seems like it happened around the same time Hawaii became a state.
Fun Pro Bowl Nerd Note: Brady last played in the Pro Bowl in 2005. He has been selected every year since 2009, having missed 2008 due to injury.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: We noted before that “jet” comes from French “jeter,” to throw. By the 16th Century, it came to mean “to jut out.” Later, it became a song by Paul McCartney and Wings.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: York is a place in England blah, blah, blah, so let’s focus on East Rutherford, New Jersey. That’s a lot of English names, one would think, but Rutherford (also Rutherfurd) comes from a Scotland clan going back almost 1,000 years. Apparently in 1894 the citizens of Boiling Springs Township, NJ weren’t too fond of that name, so they went with East Rutherford.
Funny they’d change it: the people of that area seem so content.
Okay, folks, we’re heading into a new year with all sorts of possibilities. One of those involves New England going 13-3 and wrapping up the top seed in the conference with a win over the Jets. Which New York team will show up: the one hell-bent on revenge after losing at home, or the one thinking about how warm it gets in Florida this time of year? We’ll find out Sunday.
It has been a crazy 2017. We shall see what the next one has in store. Happy New Year, everyone.
Chris Warner has to remember to use that Barnes & Noble coupon on a venti latte before it expires. You can bring that up with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89.