I’ve got a buddy who’s from Buffalo. (Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s true.) On the morning of the New Year, he sent out this piece on Buffalo fans greeting the team at the airport in two-degree weather.
Every New England fan should watch that, and remember.
In 2002, the Patriots ended their season with a hard-fought 27-24 overtime win over Miami at Foxboro to finish 9-7. Their playoff hopes still alive, they had to wait and see how the Jets would do against the Packers. With Green Bay’s post-season fate intact, they did nothing to deter New York, who ran away with a 42-17 win and, via tiebreaker, the AFC East title. That, my friends, was the last time a Tom Brady-led team missed the playoffs. (New England came up short in 2008 after Matt Cassel led them to 11-5.)
Three years before that – 1999 – was the last time Buffalo made the post-season.
Did Brady look great during Sunday’s 26-6 win over the Jets that secured the top seed in the AFC? Nope. Should fans have some thoughts about what New England needs to improve upon during their bye week? Sure. But to begin the new year with gripes about a 13-3 team when fans of a rival 9-7 squad had to depend on the Bengals – the Bengals, for the love of God – to prolong their team’s season, then felt compelled to risk frostbite just to watch players disembark from a plane? Come on.
Or, to paraphrase an appropriately profane tweet from Barstool’s Jerry Thornton: what the heck is it with everyone that they can’t appreciate a bye and home field advantage?
When New England last missed the playoffs, Cassel was their best punter. Not too long before that, a 9-7 record would have made Patriots fan happy. Often, fans thought of that mark as a preseason goal, to get on the right track, maybe even make the playoffs and maintain hope for the future. A 9-7 season meant that, shoot, double-digit wins could happen next year.
I think what I’m saying applies to fandom and life in general: you can choose to be miserable, or you can choose to embrace the good and – like a father bringing his daughter to Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in frigid cold – you can start the new year off right.
Some more specific thoughts on a game that we may have forgotten the importance of…
Team Brady: The QB had a lackluster game overall, hitting on fewer than half of his passes (18 of 37) for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Scoring became a team effort, with a strong rushing game (147 yards total) setting up major advantages in first downs (28 to New York’s 14) and time of possession (25:11 to 34:49). Not bad, especially on a day that would have made Jack London head inside for cocoa.
We should keep in mind some plays that could have altered those stats for the positive. After New England’s opening drive – a 13-play, 75-yard campaign that belied how the rest of the quarter would go for New England’s offense – Brady tried to prolong the team’s second possession by throwing to Brandin Cooks three times. On the first, Brady missed him, but a defensive holding penalty awarded the Patriots a first down. On the second pass, Cooks stopped running on what could have been a score. Cooks dropped the third, a short offering that could have helped make third down manageable. Thrid down, Brady got sacked, punt, blah.
More on Cooks in a minute, but had he kept running on that potential touchdown, and if, say, Phillip Dorsett had been able to wrap his hands around a 30-yard parabola at 8:37 of the second quarter, we’re talking two completions that might give us a different view of Brady’s day. We’re not making excuses, here; we’re looking for reasons.
Another reason the QB might not seem so sharp involves a comparison to 2016, as the top five Patriots receivers last year were: Julian Edelman (98), James White (60), Martellus Bennett (55), Chris Hogan (38), Malcolm Mitchell (32). Take Bennett off that list and replace him with Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and we’re still left with four of last year’s top five missing this game vs. Buffalo, with Edelman and Mitchell having missed all of this year, and Hogan having dealt with an injury since leaves were still green. Also missing Sunday? Running back Rex Burkhead and his 30 catches in 10 games played. So, before we put Brady in moth balls, maybe consider his league-leading 4,577 passing yards have come during a significantly challenging year.
I can’t believe I feel like I have to defend the quarterback of the conference’s top-seeded team. This bye week will do us all some good.
Cooks Champagne: Not sure if corks popped at the Cooks household, but a five-catch, 79-yard, one-touchdown game to top off a 65-catch, 1,082-yard, seven-touchdown season on a top-seeded squad could be cause for celebration. As Boston.com’s Chad Finn noted in his Patriots thoughts column, this game was a microcosm of Cooks’ time in New England: productive, but inconsistent. As mentioned above, Cooks stopped running on one route and played defense against himself on another, but man can he run. He showed off his speed bisecting the field for a deep 37-yard cross. The receiver also displayed some caginess on his touchdown, running his route parallel to Danny Amendola’s, causing a Keystone Kops-like collision of defenders that allowed Cooks to break wide open in the end zone for a 14-3 lead with 4:14 left in the first half.
Two legitimate concerns with Cooks: one involves his tendency to soften routes. The best example of this happened in the third quarter on a third-and-goal attempt from New York’s three-yard line, when a simple out route saw the receiver fade three yards deeper into the end zone. As CBS’ Tony Romo pointed out in the broadcast (strong work by him on Sunday, by the way – more on that below), a sharper cut along the goal line would have prevented the defender from catching up, allowing Brady to zip the pass instead of float it out of Cooks’ reach. New England had to settle for a field goal and a 24-3 lead with 1:29 remaining in the third.
The other concern is a trait that Cooks seems to share with a couple of other pass-catchers (Dorsett, tight end Jacob Hollister): a seeming lack of determination to go after the football. Yes, New England fans love Edelman and Gronk for their productivity, but that comes from an attitude where each of those guys seeks out the football like it’s the Golden Idol. Whether it’s diving amongst three defenders in the Super Bowl or relieving a defensive back of a potential interception (at the 1:10 mark of this Gronk reel at Buffalo), those dudes stay relentless.
I don’t know. It’s possible that Cooks, Dorsett, Hollister, Dwayne Allen or Kenny Britt will have a surprising, strong showing in the playoffs. We should pay close attention to see who gets aggressive.
De Do D-Lew, De Da Da Da: Words are hard to find when describing the performance of Dion Lewis, whose 93 yards rushing, 40 yards receiving, and two touchdowns garnered him his very own highlight reel for the second week in a row. This one contains so many spectacular moves that I found it laugh-inducing, like when I saw Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen and thought Is this happening how in the hell is this happening? and just went with it. Lewis had most of the workload put on him due to the absence of Burkhead and White. He performed with such talent and aggressiveness that at times I felt sorry for Jets defenders. They looked like men wearing flip-flops on a frozen pond trying to corral a snowshoe hare.
As the game wore on, Lewis developed a wait-and-see mode (aka the LeVeon Bell method) of running the ball, hesitating behind the line before bursting forward for sizable gains. A great example of this happened with 3:23 left in the third quarter, shown at the 3:28 mark of the highlights (actually 3:26, but I couldn’t resist). Lewis looks for an opening in the middle and pops through the line, running over safety Rontez Miles for an additional five yards and a first down. The running back/energy pack has provided a late-season go-to for New England’s offense and should provide some serious headaches for an as yet unspecified defensive coordinator in two weeks.
Holy Mason: I’m not saying right guard Shaq Mason is Moses, but he certainly opened up a safe passage for Lewis to follow. If you watch some of those hesitation runs, you’ll see Lewis hide in Mason’s hip pocket for an extra beat or two, then pop through the seam to pick up ground. Another standout day from New England’s best O-lineman.
An Above Average Guy: When Patriots coach Bill Belichick brought in defensive lineman Lawrence Guy, it seemed that the former Raven would work as a rotational player. Instead, Guy and Malcom Brown have grown together this season as stout defenders. New England held Jet running back Bilal Powell to 46 yards rushing on 13 carries, a meh 3.5-yard average that managed to look great in comparison to backup rusher Elijah McGuire’s four carries for minus-six yards. Guy had five tackles on the day, Brown two. Strong game up the middle for the defense, which benefited linebacker Marquis Flowers (four tackles). Interesting to see which linebackers play where once Kyle Van Noy gets back into the regular rotation. Good to know that Guy and Brown provide that solid base.
Safe Lee Secured: After the Patriots had nailed down a 21-3 lead at the half, accompanied by toe-numbing weather, the game got pretty lackluster. With 10:28 left in the fourth quarter, New England allowed a field goal but still held a 24-6 lead, the outcome hardly in doubt. Still, the home team seemed like they needed something to change the tone of the game. After special teams virtuoso Matthew Slater caught the first of three straight Ryan Allen punts to reach inside the Jets’ five-yard line, New York’s Bryce Petty faced a third and seven. Defensive end Eric Lee wrangled the QB four yards deep in the end zone and rode him to the turf for a safety, a 26-6 lead, and a bow on the self-appointed gift of the top seed in the conference. (You can see the play starting at the 6:10 mark of the game’s highlight reel.)
Lee still needs to provide more consistency on the edge, but he should remain in the defensive rotation moving forward. And with whom might he be rotating, you ask?
Harrison Fords A River Of Doubt: What, we wondered, does new Patriot James Harrison have left? Certainly something, as his double-sack finale showed. The edge player pursued Petty on the two last plays of the day, strip-sacking the QB on the penultimate down, then slipping through a double-team to wrap him up on the game-ender. Harrison provides a combo of containment on the outside and tenacity in the pass rush that few current Patriots have. He also drops back into coverage, though at times that seems like calling a tow truck to deliver a pizza: doable, but getting away from particular strengths. Early in the third quarter, Harrison did sprint out of his drop-back position to chop down long-limbed receiver Robby Anderson, limiting him to a two-yard gain on third and five. Pretty good start, I’d say.
Dirty Dozen: No, the Jets do not have an eye-popping offense. Yes, they did manage some big plays on Sunday. New England’s defense can boast two outcomes: holding New York without a touchdown, and preventing the visitors from converting a single third down. The Jets went zero for 12 on the day, in part due to a pass break-up from Stephon Gilmore and sacks from Flowers and Lee. Room to improve? Sure. And New England has an extra week with which to do it.
Save It For Slater: Sooner or later, your legs give way, you hit the ground. Another quick nod to the work of Slater and Allen, whose expertise on New England’s final three punts must have warmed Belichick’s insides more thoroughly than a mug of hot cocoa. Slater caught the first of the triad at the four-yard line with 13:38 left in the game. On the second, with 6:50 remaining, Slater recovered from a downfield block and snagged the ball on a bounce, also at the four. The third, at the 3:02 mark, seemed to demonstrate practice making Allen perfect, as it dribbled out of bounds at the three. There’s an old-school expression called the “coffin corner” for when a punt buries the opponent deep in their own territory. It’s not used that often anymore because punters often lack the talent to direct the ball with precision. Allen did his best to help bring the term back.
Bye week review next week. Relax and enjoy some football, Patriots fans. Once again, your team will be playing weeks deep in the new year.
Calling BS: A bit of a gripe with CBS’ pregame coverage on the Patriots, including a montage of overturned touchdown calls by the Jets, Steelers, and Bills, summarized by a clip of Bills running back LeSean McCoy saying, “(The officials) always find a way to get it right for the Patriots.” I understand focusing on the close calls that benefitted New England, but that last quote seemed unnecessary at best. Boomer Esiason offered some perspective when he pointed out that the Jesse James scoring attempt in Pittsburgh was “clearly incomplete” by today’s rules.
Bill Cowher offered a simplification of the rules, deleting the “surviving the ground” component, which would make games move more quickly and keep fans more involved. Then Cowher, aka Pete Puma in human form, said that the rules were “deflating that, so to speak.” Really, Bill? Deflating? That’s the word you had to go with? Not “defeating,” or “detracting from,” or myriad other phrases that would provide better descriptions? You disappoint me.
Isn’t It Romo-Nantz-tic? A solid day from the broadcast duo of Romo and Jim Nantz, however. A couple of lesser bits I’ll get out of the way first. Romo predicted 30 to 35 carries for Powell, who ended up with 13, though New England’s sizable lead helped determine that. Nantz had a few hiccups, including his apparent desire to associate Harrison’s being on the field with three big gains for New York, in effect wanting to blame the defender. Romo rightly pointed out that the Jets had run all three plays away from Harrison’s side.
• Nantz also said a silly thing after the Patriots’ second scoring drive, the Cooks TD at 4:14 of the second. He noted New England scored, “though the biggest play was a 42-yard pass interference call,” along with a defensive holding call on third and 10. “Otherwise,” he said, “it would’ve been three and out.” Well, you know what, Jim? If safety Devin McCourty had come up with an interception, then the Jets wouldn’t have added a field goal to make it 24-6 with 10:28 left in the game. Or if Cooks had run after that Brady bomb for a score, it would have been 28-3 at the half. Who gives a guano?
• One last nitpick on Nantz: he mixes up reverses and end-arounds (or maybe it’s “ends-around,” I don’t know). An end-around is when the QB hands off to a receiver; a reverse is when the QB hands off to a running back, who in turn hands off to a receiver. There. Thank you for letting me get that out into the world.
• Two replays I would have liked to see: at the two-minute warning of the first half, Dorsett made a diving catch. He’d missed that earlier pass, which made it seem necessary to verify what looked like a tough grab. As CBS went straight to commercial, I wasn’t even sure if the reception would count. About 90 seconds later, Cooks had a 12-yard reverse (that’s where the running back flipped him the ball, Jim) with Brady blocking linebacker Darren Lee. As a Patriots watcher, I’m perfectly fine with the fact that Brady blocks only about once a season; however, due to its rarity, the play deserved a second look.
Okay, on to the good graphics, mentions, etc. Buckle up, because CBS stayed on top of things Sunday. Let’s start with some strong stats:
• A fact I never would have known, shown on an early graphic: Brady’s 486 career TDs (at game’s start) matched the total of the Jets’ top four QBs combined.
• At the 10-minute mark of the second quarter, this beaut: since New England’s opening scoring drive, the Jets had 110 yards to the Patriots’ 13. Yikes.
• Fun fact about Lewis: he became the first Patriot to have a receiving and rushing touchdown in two straight games since Larry Garron in 1964, or around the time Tom E. Curran started on the Patriots beat.
• Nice stat mention by Nantz that the Patriots scored within the final two minutes of the first half for the 12th time in 16 games.
Now for some notable camera angles and replays:
• Best angle of the day came via the overhead cam during New England’s kickoff with 9:30 in the first. Viewers got a great sense of urgency during the play, moving downfield right behind the kickoff team. If you get a chance to see this again, keep an eye on number 31, Jonathan Jones. He eludes blockers as he weaves through the first line of Bills to get in on the tackle.
• CBS did what they and other networks often neglect to do: put a camera along the plane of the goal line. This view behind and above the referee made Lewis’ touchdown run easy to determine, as we could tell that the nose of the football crossed the line. More like that, please, CBS and anyone else who’s listening.
• Immediate, telling replay on cornerback Buster Skrine holding Cooks at 5:53 of the first quarter. CBS had the play lined up and rolling, going to split screen with the official as he announced the ruling. Nice touch, there.
• Fast and illustrative replay on the third-and-one run by Lewis at the 7:05 mark of the second quarter. The running back got hit twice in the backfield, yet managed to squeeze through and stretch for the first down.
Two great bits by Romo. One, just as I was wondering how Cooks got so wide open on his touchdown catch, Romo pointed out that Skrine and Mo Claiborne ran into each other. Two, Romo’s understanding of Brady’s seeming inaccuracy: “Some of these throws today that look like Brady’s missing on, he’s thrown them in a very, very – you know – protective spot.”
As usual, strong work by Tracy Wolfson in conditions that would make ice cream shiver. After halftime, Wolfson reported that she had asked Jets coach Todd Bowles about whether they would use quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the second half. Wolfson made it clear that Bowles’ answer was a definitive no. (Friendly reminder that the Jets drafted Hackenberg in the 2016 second round. That same year, the Patriots drafted Jacoby Brissett in the third round. Brissett started this season for the Colts. Meanwhile, anyone reading this has played at least as much NFL football as Hackenberg. Good times!)
And now for these commercial messages…
Go Lie Down: I thought Macy’s mattress ad with the dogs looked really cute until I realized that the mattresses had dogs running all over them. I mean, I love dogs, but who wants to buy those mattresses now? You want to put your face where a dog’s feet have been? Maybe next week Macy’s will have an ad for underwear featuring a colony of chinchillas. They’re adorable, but no thank you.
You’re My Obsession: No, not Animotion, but Animoji, courtesy of the iPhone X. This commercial shows how fun it is to look at yourself as an emoji singing. We’ve reached a point in the “Age of Communication” where not only do we avoid talking face-to-face, we now have to substitute our real faces with pink-maned unicorns (which, by the way, is leagues better than passing oneself off as a warbling turd emoji).
Yeah, I’m getting old. Sure, if I were a teenager, I’d probably have a phone in my hand through 90 percent of my waking life. Just let me rant for a sec: There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation with an actual human, or even sitting in silence for a few minutes. It used to happen all the time, kids! We were fine with it!
Fidelity (Not The Reason To Love This Ad): I’ve always been a fan of the Song Title (Parenthetical) dynamic, which is only part of the reason I enjoy Fidelity’s new “Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)” ad. I have no idea how this song relates to investing – the hypothetical increase of funds through smart financial choices, perhaps? – but I love the idea of someone my age who loved this song in high school just bringing it to the table.
How about the timbales? Can we go with the timbale part?
I’m sorry, no: the ad will end before the timbales kick in.
Too bad. I love those timbales.
Who’s Going To Direct: Man, enough with those DirecTV ads that promote the notion that there are people who favor cable over satellite, much in the same way there are people who enjoy hitting their heads, getting stuck in turnstiles, etc. These commercials seem like what would happen if an advertiser set up a contest between John Waters and David Lynch to see who could make an audience more uncomfortable. I mean, seriously: paper cuts on your tongue? That’s monstrous.
And the worst part is, because there’s no specific cable company mentioned or shown on the screen, viewers associate all the cringeworthy acts with DirecTV. It’s like trying to make fun of someone you’re sitting next to in the cafeteria by saying, “This is you,” then getting up on the table and acting like a nitwit in front of the whole school. No one’s going to think, wow, what a total burn. You’re the one who will look like a nincompoop. Get it in gear, DirecTV.
Watch Out: Before Sunday, if you’d asked me what I thought about the Seamaster Aqua Terra by Omega, I might have tried to bluff my way through an answer by describing a jet ski. But, no, it’s a watch. I mean, any commercial starring Alessandra Ambrosio dressed in smart casual clothes aboard a yacht could sell just about anything, from fried fish sandwiches to expensive watches (the sedona-gold-plated, diamond-encrusted version Alessandra’s wearing costs $13,000). If I had that kind of money, I’d buy it. But if I had that kind of money, I’d be out on that yacht instead of at home watching commercials.
My watch band broke in November. I have not worn it since that one failed attempt to fix it with Gorilla Glue. My phone keeps time just fine, though not having to wear a watch makes me feel less important, somehow. Maybe I should give Alessandra a call.
Have a marvelous 2018, my lovelies. Let’s all enjoy the fact that the season continues. Back with a quick bye week/divisional opponent update next Thursday.
Chris Warner made no resolutions, though he shall endeavor to eat more salads. He also thinks Sedona Gold would be a great character name. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.