You’d think I’d learn. Even after paying attention to football since Jimmy Carter was president, I still find myself succumbing to the shifts. New England’s opening drive in Chicago started off with an 18-yard Sony Michel run and 13-yard Michel reception where he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage and ran for 15 yards. The visitors wrapped up their possession with a bubble screen score where Julian Edelman plinko’d his way through the defense behind blocks from tight end Dwayne Allen and receiver Chris Hogan. Certainly, that four-minute New England jaunt boded well?
And then: a fumble on a kickoff return. And then: a fumble by Michel deep in Patriots territory. The shift: from 7-0 to 7-17, where that assumed walk in the park turned into an army crawl through the mud, forcing New England to eke out a 38-31 victory.
The Patriots began the game short-handed, missing tight end Rob Gronkowski. They continued the game even more short-handed, losing Michel to a knee injury after his fumble. (Despite the injury looking like a medieval torture method, Michel has a sprained knee and could return to action in the next few weeks. ) With some adjustments, the offense scored 24 points, special teams scored 14, and the defense held on at the very end (literally, it turned out, after Kevin White reeled in the Hail Mary at the one-yard line but couldn’t escape the grasp of numerous defenders).
Now at 5-2, New England sits alone atop the AFC East and looks to host struggling Buffalo (2-5) on Monday Night Football. We’ve all seen a struggling buffalo, and it is not pretty. Let’s see if the Patriots can avoid any undue tension in this one, or if the Bills make it tighter than it appears it should be. In short, we’ll be keeping our eyes out for any shifts.
D Pressing? This game showcased New England’s three weaknesses: scrambling quarterbacks, pass-catching tight ends, fast running backs catching balls out of the backfield, and chocolate-covered almonds. (Sorry. That last one was my weakness. So good, though.) Due to its erratic nature, I call this the glass defense – neither solid nor liquid, amorphous in its makeup.
On the one hand, they had two short-field touchdowns scored against them. But, solid defenses hold teams to field goals. Still, they were in position for two different interceptions in the end zone. Conversely, clutch defenders hold onto those passes. Yet, they held Bears QB Mitch Trubisky to only 92 yards passing in the first half, with a completion percentage of 40 (eight for 20), and they ended up picking him off twice, one on a slight-of-hand grab by J. C. Jackson, the other on a on a levitation trick by Jonathan Jones. However, Trubisky rushed for 81 yards and a score on six carries, averaging 13.5 yards per tote. Irregardless, they stopped Chicago from tying the game in the final seconds.
I don’t know. You get the feeling an accurate passer with legs like Aaron Rodgers will eat this team for breakfast and have room for a treat at the end (like, say, a chocolate-covered almond). The Bears’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive looked ugly, as the visitors went for tackles with more messed-up angles than a third-grader’s popsicle-stick house. After a short incomplete pass, Trubisky hit on his next four tosses, the last an 11-yard score to tight end Trey Burton (nine catches, 126 yards). Worse, the drive took only 2:11 off the clock.
This defense could very well verge on finding solid ground. Next week should test that, as Buffalo hosts New England having lost 37-5 to Indianapolis.
Feat Of Clayborn: Pass rusher Adrian Clayborn had a bit of a breakthrough this week, notching his first sack of the year in the fourth quarter after six previous games of providing pressure but coming up just short of the big stat. I’ve noted in the past that Clayborn has a habit of flying past QBs as if they were cheap motels near LaGuardia, but in this game he seemed to make a concerted effort to stop himself when he got to the quarterback’s level. Though he slipped up a few times (his whiff of Trubisky at the 30-yard line led to the passer’s Billy-from-“Family-Circus”-path touchdown run), he generally seemed to stick to his assignment and provided more focused pressure. We shouldn’t get surprised by a strong performance out of Clayborn next week, as Buffalo has allowed a third-highest 26 sacks this year (for comparison, New England has given up the 29th most with nine).
White Time, White Place: With Gronkowski and then Michel out, running back James White came to the fore, rushing 11 times for 40 yards (3.6 avg.) and catching a team-leading eight passes for 57 yards and two TDs. He showed a lot of style in doing so. On his scoring catch with perfect boxer name Leonard Floyd in coverage, White made it look like the lanky linebacker was chasing a jackrabbit while running with an open parachute. When the Patriots were trying to run out the clock with 2:55 left, White had a nifty third-and-two run, skip-stepping to the left-side gap for the first down. White had eight rushes on New England’s final possession, picking up two first downs and running (literally, I think? Yeah, literally) 3:49 off the clock. An impressive, yet unsurprising, showing from White.
By the way, I’m in on Kenjon Barner. He ran 10 times for 36 yards and has shown the ability to turn short passes into bigger gains. I assume the Patriots will take a few looks at other running backs, as Barner has traveled in and out of Foxboro more than a CBS Sporting Club delivery truck, but I hope they hang on to him. A solid roster guy.
Out Of His Gordon: We should note the rarity of what Josh Gordon has been able to accomplish this season after joining the Patriots in September. One of New England’s most successful mid-season additions was Jabar Gaffney in 2006, who played in 11 regular-season games and caught 11 passes for 142 yards and a TD before figuring more prominently in the playoffs. In Chicago, Gordon caught four passes for 100 yards, with two of those passes real doozies: a fourth-and-one 19-yard grab with 6:33 left in the second quarter, where defender Kyle Fuller tried to tackle him in mid-air before the ball arrived yet Gordon kept the ball while losing his helmet; and a fourth-quarter gem where Gordon caught the ball in the middle of the field, pulled his leg free of Prince Amukamara, body-checked Eddie Jackson, and galloped to the one-yard line. In four games with the Patriots, Gordon has 13 receptions for 224 yards (17.2 avg.) and a touchdown. Tom Brady is officially looking for him in big spots. Here’s hoping the receiver stays healthy, in all the ways.
The Jackson Five (-Yard Penalty): Rookie corner Jackson’s day mirrored the defense’s in that it had plenty of bad with a touch of timely good mixed in. Jackson’s second of three penalties on the game, an if-you-root-for-New-England-you-disagreed hands-to-the-face call, gave Chicago a first down and led to their 17-7 lead in the second. Then, of course, Jackson added the aforementioned sports-movie-type pick, where he pulled the football out of Josh Bellamy’s belly as if they were running an option play. If the youngster can settle down and limit his penalties, he can become the most sought-after Jackson in Foxboro since Michael on the Victory Tour.
Sorry. Too soon?
Attack The Block: Talk about an invasion. What a great play by linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, blocking a Bears punt and returning it for a touchdown with 6:05 left in the third. Hightower, who had five tackles on the day, treated tight end/ersatz blocker Ben Braunecker the same way a rambunctious kid would a tower of blocks, knocking him over and getting to Pat O’Donnell’s would-be punt. As the ball spun to the ground, Van Noy bent to pick it up, only to lose his grip on it for a moment. Watching him for that full second before he plucked up the ball with one hand had the suspense of every action movie chase scene, like when Clive Owen tries to get the car started in Children of Men. By the time he got rolling, Van Noy had a full escort. If you watch the highlight, keep an eye on Brandon King sizing up O’Donnell for a how-ya-doin’ block into the end zone.
One fun aspect about the blocked punt – at least, from a Patriots perspective – is how close King got to snuffing out a punt attempt in the second quarter. With 9:55 remaining, King bolted off the right side of the Chicago line and dove for the ball, missing by only a foot or so. In the following quarter, his teammate did not miss.
(Cool note about the science fiction movie Attack the Block from 2011: it stars both a stormtrooper and Dr. Who.)
You Are Cordarrelle-y Invited Into The End Zone: Talk about up-and-down day. Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson did the worst and best things one can do on special teams: he turned over one return on a fumble, then brought one back for a touchdown. On the turnover, Patterson lost the ball on what at an initial glance looked like Chicago’s Nick Kwiatkowski managing a blind slap at it, but on further review showed Kwiatkowski getting smother-blocked by linebacker Nicholas Grigsby as Patterson made contact with Grigsby’s shoulder pads. On the big return, Patterson shot up a seam near the left sideline behind blocks by James Develin, Nate Ebner, and the aforementioned solid Barnes, Matrix-juked a defender into another dimension, and sped past the kicker as if they were both on ice but only one remembered to wear skates.
The high five and slowdown before scoring? We could do without that, especially with the team trailing in the first half. Plenty of time to celebrate in the end zone. Why make a toast before you get to the party?
Phys. Edelman: With 9:46 remaining in the half, Julian Edelman got tackled after a punt return, then started jawing with no fewer than eight Bears. Grigsby had to come and get him. Regarding Edelman, it’s not just about production (five catches, 36 yards, touchdown), it’s about tenacity. The man’s spirit animal is a mongoose. Just not sure who else among the receivers can bring that type of attitude.
And, sure, if he played for someone else, I would hate him. I’ve made this comparison before, and it works: he’s the Patriots’ Danny Ainge.
Area 41: Quarterback Tom Brady went 14 of 20 (70 percent) for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He went 11 of 16 (69 percent) for 146 yards and a touchdown in the second half. Besides an ill-advised tipped pass that went for an interception, and despite losing his top running back to injury, Our Tom remained steady. He helped lead New England to their fourth-straight game with 38 or more points for the first time in the team’s history. Yes, a couple of scores came via special teams, but considering the juggernaut of 2007, that record’s pretty impressive.
Brady has said he wants to play for five more years. I hope that doesn’t happen, if only for the sake of his health. I don’t care how much pliability a person has, it changes after 40. I can tell by the noises I make getting up from the couch.
Eh. Let’s just take each game as it comes, shall we?
Fly Like An Eagle: I got no real issues with Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts on the CBS broadcast. Fouts does have a tendency to play Master of the Obvious, explaining the actions we can see on the screen (“You see there, his hand grabbing the facemask. That’s a penalty!”) Still, nothing fancy, just overall respectable coverage and commentary. I do enjoy when Eagle gets excited during a play, especially one involving Edelman, as he starts screaming, “ADD-ul-MUN!” (See and hear: Edelman’s 77-yarder at Miami in 2016’s season finale.) Also, kudos to Eagle for saying “knee issue,” and not just “knee,” a terrible sports-talk tendency that started a few years ago. “Won’t play this week: he’s out with a knee.”
Out with a knee? Well, Christ, I’ve got two knees and I’m still walking around.
Anyway, good overall job by them. Nice work also by CBS with their dual box view during timeouts, where we watch a commercial on half the screen while seeing stadium activity on the other. Great way to keep us viewers in our seats, even if nothing is actually happening on the field.
Replays I’d Like To See: That being said, CBS did as poor a job of showing replays as any network this year. One positive: they had a well-done replay at the end of the first quarter, showing a different angle for an illustrative look at the blatant helmet-to-helmet hit on Gordon that didn’t get called for whatever reason (e.g. NFL officials have the consistency of poorly-mixed cake batter). On the whole, though, CBS missed many similar opportunities to inform viewers.
• At 8:35 of the first quarter, Edelman snared a low pass from Brady for a would-be nine-yard gain. Ruled incomplete, but both Edelman and Brady protested. Instead of a replay, we got sent down to Evan Washburn on the field to talk about the sun and field conditions. Yup. Looks sunny down there, Evan. And the field is a bit slick, you say? Hey, can you tell us if Edelman caught that pass or not?
• At 12:08 of the second, safety Duron Harmon got called for defensive holding on Tarik Cohen. Fouts said, “Harmon guilty of grabbing Cohen, keeping him from making the catch.” Hmm. Sounds like Dan got to watch a replay for that comment, while we at home did not.
• With 0:14 left in the half, New England corner Keion Crossen got called for unsportsmanlike conduct on a punt. While we assume he ran out-of-bounds, we never saw it. Note to CBS: the run-out-of-bounds thing never fails to entertain. With a high speed chase through groups of people standing around, it reminds me of the mall scene from The Blues Brothers. Lots of space in this mall.
• On the kickoff to begin the second half, Ebner got called for a facemask. Instead of a replay, we once again checked on Evan Washburn, who revealed the fact that Coach Bill Belichick seemed displeased by his team’s turnovers, while Coach Matt Nagy didn’t like his team’s dropped passes. Thank you, Evan. Note to CBS, similar to above: facemasks in slo-mo fascinate the public. When Hogan’s helmet got yanked by Eddie Jackson, it made the receiver look for a second like a Playskool figure. Jarring, must-watch TV.
• With 9:00 left in the third, Bears defender Aaron Lynch appeared to smack Patriots tackle LaAdrian Waddle in the facemask multiple times, but cameras cut away to Akiem Hicks (who, in their defense, had just made the stop). It’s almost a fight, man. Let’s check it out!
• On Chicago’s final TD drive, safety Patrick Chung got called for a hands to the face penalty that we never got to witness.
There was a replay on the Burton touchdown where Pats corner Jones appeared to claim a push off by the tight end, but from the replay angle behind the receiver we couldn’t tell if he extended his arm or Jones just slipped. In either case, it looked like the type of play Gronk gets called for more often than not.
One quick production gaffe worth mentioning: After a White TD, cameras showed receiver Phillip Dorsett settling back into the bench, but they put up a graphic about White (fifth TD catch this season, most among NFL running backs) before switching to a shot of White sitting on the bench.
Can’t Bear To Watch: Hey, CBS, thanks so much for showing the Super Bowl 20 play where William “Refrigerator” Perry scores a touchdown on the Patriots. Fun clip. Can you also talk about how Coach Mike Ditka forgot to get the ball to Walter Payton, denying one of the best running backs in the history of the game a Super Bowl score and highlight?
Hmm? Could you? It’s entertaining, because Ditka got so focused on making the Bears’ blowout a laugher that he neglected his greatest player. Hooray!
Life Is Just A Fantasy: Not to blow your doors off, but I’m going to start giving fantasy football notes with the actual fantasy that I could go back in time and tell myself a couple of things. For example: Do not play receiver Allen Robinson or defender Kahlil Mack vs. New England. The former will be ignored; the latter will not recover from his ankle injury in time to be effective.
Note: I am terrible at fantasy football.
What’s All The Hub, Bub? Listened to Bostons’ 98.5 Monday morning for about five minutes. Some discussion over whether “The Office” would be acceptable as a show in 2018. What is sports radio when it doesn’t talk sports, exactly? You might think, well, they can’t talk about sports all the time. Yet, you don’t hear 80’s stations playing Motown (unless, of course, it’s Phil Collins’ version of “Can’t Hurry Love,” or the guitar notes/bass beat of Culture Club’s “Church of the Poison Mind”).
But here’s the thing: they could, in fact, discuss sports all the time. All four major teams are playing right now. (What about the Revolution? someone yelled from the back. Fine: Four major teams and the Revs.) Tough to envision a better time to discuss Boston sports. And you can bet, if Brady were to post something on Instagram that got misinterpreted in the slightest, that would be the topic for four straight hours.
What did Brady mean by it?
“It doesn’t matter what he meant by it, it matters that he posted it!”
Does it mean he’s done?
“He’s DONE! Nicky from Swansea, you’re on!”
Some Ads, Some Subtracts
Notes on a few commercials that got my attention.
• I don’t drink anymore, but if I did, I would check out Modelo based solely on the ad with former offensive lineman Anthony Muñoz. Just a strong take from the beginning, a nod to Hispanic Heritage Month touching on home and family and keeping track of the old neighborhood. So if you drink beer, try a Modelo. That type of commercial deserves some credit.
• Yeah, Verizon, showing military family reunions might be a cynical attempt to pluck viewers’ heartstrings, but damn if those don’t get me right in the chest. Ungh. Are my allergies acting up? Also, keep those military discounts going, you corporate bastards.
• Oh, Hyundai. I feel like your car could project a young vibe, but demonstrating how Keith’s parents can track him down via his Elantra might hold you back. You’re narcing on Keith. And parents, why you gotta embarrass Keith at the bonfire party? Call him! High school bonfire parties are sacred events, man. They’re a ritualistic shedding of parental control.
You’ve ruined Keith’s teen years, Elantra.
Netflix Note of the Week: The Michael Peña vehicle Extinction works as a dystopian sci-fi movie and provides a subtle yet effective take on modern society. Reminiscent of many other films focusing on a regular guy in the future who doesn’t feel like he belongs, but the cast pulls it off. The less I say, and the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy it.
New England heads off to Buffalo in search of their second road win. Let’s see if they’re up-and-down play starts to even off at a high level.
Chris Warner would not say no to chocolate-covered walnuts, either. His Twitter handle is @cwarn89.