Foxboro fans find themselves in the midst of truly happy holidays, as their Patriots have won their tenth AFC East championship in a row with a 24-12 home win over the Bills. New England has a chance to go 11-5 on the year by beating the Jets next Sunday at 1 p.m., which would also grant them a first-round playoff bye.
There. Sounds pretty good when you stick to the facts, right? When you don’t worry about events that might never happen, like having to travel to Kansas City or (Heavens forfend!) playing Baltimore in the postseason. It’s the NFL. Every Sunday feels different from the next, as much as this week sets itself apart from last week.
“Christmas! So exciting!”
“New Year’s? Hoo, boy.”
Considering their recent losses at Miami and Pittsburgh, the Patriots find themselves in better-than-expected shape heading into the post-season. A win at home against the 4-11 Jets would set them on the proper path. So, even though every season a part of me laments that New England didn’t go 16-0 again (although, as my guy Bruce made clear in his “The Most Miserable 18-1 Season In History” column, why the hell would I want that?), keep in mind that the Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, which is also the last time a Tom-Brady-led team missed them.
Find some peace, Patriots folks. It has been a great ride and continues to be so.
Run Michel, Run Michel, Run Him All The Way: Rookie running back Sony Michel rushed 18 times for 116 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Whether they involved fullback James Develin whamming defensive linemen or tight end Rob Gronkowski loping out toward in-the-box safeties, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels found creative ways to give the rookie room to roam. A nifty highlight package here. New England’s running game got five different players involved, as James White averaged over five yards per carry (eight for 41), Rex Burkhead rushed 13 times, and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson (four for 66, 16.5 avg.) and Phillip Dorsett (two for 13), found success on end-around plays. As ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss wrote, rushing the football might provide the best path through the playoffs.
All Is Tom, All Is Bright? Brady went 13 of 24 for 126 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. At times, the Patriots offense seemed to have as much rhythm as Bryan Adams’ “Reggae Christmas.” (By the way, if you want to explain the 1980s to someone who wasn’t there, show them this video and tell them that a famous Canadian pop-rock star sang a reggae song and everyone was on board.) How could the Patriots look so off? Well, maybe it’s because Buffalo has the best pass defense in the league. They allow 183 yards per game. They shut down airways like L. A. smog. They are sixth in passer rating allowed at 84.5, third in 20-plus-yard completions against with 36, and first in 40-plus-yard completions against with two. Two? (Double-checks stats.) Yup, just two.
The Jets rank 25th in passing yards allowed per game, 28th in 20-plus-yard pass plays allowed (57). If Brady struggles next Sunday yet still manages a win, we can all spend the bye week properly panicking. Happy New Year!
Hogan’s Zeroes: Is Chris Hogan upset that he had zero targets on Sunday? Maybe. Still, if you watch him celebrate White’s TD with a flying hip bump, it’s tough to look at that guy and think he’s feeling all that mad. Hogan has had a lackluster year, stat-wise, with 29 receptions in 15 games (in 2017 he tallied 34 in nine games). Coming into the Bills contest, what with Josh Gordon having to take time off from football, it seemed that Hogan would be one of a few to step up in Gordon’s place. That didn’t happen.
But, again: best pass defense in the league. This coming Sunday means another chance.
Jackson Victory Tour: Not necessarily the event Foxboroites want to remember (and if you don’t get this reference, please see Barstool.com’s Jerry Thornton’s delightful historical tome From Darkness To Dynasty), but rookie JC Jackson had himself another notable game, notching a key interception along the sideline and – perhaps most tellingly – having no tackles on the day. In this case, it means that rookie quarterback Josh Allen tended to avoid throwing toward Jackson’s receiver.
On the day, Allen hit under 50 percent of his passes (20 of 41) for 217 yards, two interceptions (kudos to Jason McCourty for the other), and a spread-beating, proof-that-gambling-is-for-masochists TD. A solid job by the defense overall, limiting Allen’s targets while also keeping his running in check (five for 30).
Ufomba Kamalu Is The Thing To Say On A Bright, Hawaiian Christmas Day: Oh, it certainly is not, but defensive lineman Ufomba Kamalu ran onto the Gillette stage and screamed for the spotlight, as the former practice squadder notched a tackle for loss. Worth keeping an eye on next week, as Kamalu and linebacker John Simon could become recent additions to bolster the roster heading into January.
Strings Of Street Lights, Even Stoplights, Blinking Bright Edelman Green: Receiver Julian Edelman caught six passes for 70 yards and a touchdown on a play that, like many a Hallmark Christmas movie, kept going long after you figured it was over. Edelman got wrestled toward the ground by safety Rafael Bush while fellow safety Jordan Poyer lunged into the fray. Edelman spun downward, landed on Bush, realized his knees hadn’t touched the ground (you can see the look on his face and the effort to keep his legs aloft in this clip), and bolted up and into the end zone.
The NFL in general and the AFC in particular seem as even this year as in any other of recent memory. A crazy play could, and I predict will, decide a playoff game or two this year. (Brave prediction, I know. I’m coming for you, Nostradamus!) Edelman’s tenaciousness could set the Patriots apart.
And on that note…
If It’s On Time, It’s Slater: Great special teams day from ace Matthew Slater, who downed two punts inside the 10-yard line and tipped a Buffalo punt. He also had a noteworthy tackle on a fourth-quarter punt where he split his assigned blockers like a machete through figgy pudding. CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar did a great job on his Twitter feed showcasing Slater highlights. A strong day from the 11-year vet.
We Three Dings Disorient All: Now, I do not have the enmity for the CBS broadcast including Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, and Bruce Arians that some critics do (Christ, Jerry, take it easy. These men have families). I do see some disadvantages to having three men in the booth, despite the presence of a pro like Gumbel taking the helm. Am I saying I have criticisms? Yes, dear reader, I am.
The booth seemed to miss Pats safety Patrick Chung getting dinged on the first play of the game, which would not have been a big deal if the cameras hadn’t done such a good job showing his apparent discomfort. While the booth trio yammered on about something-or-other, the viewer at home saw Chung stumble a bit, get himself off the field, and return, with little commentary. One other note: Gumbel’s generally consistent, but for some reason he tends to neglect giving yardage on plays. He’ll mention where the ball ends up, but not how many yards it took to get there. Disappointing, especially as compared to a guy like Al Michaels, who gets the yardage out of his mouth the second the ball carrier’s knees hit the ground.
Just a personal preference, but I’ve never been a fan of the term “outphysicaled,” one of those words that’s not really a word yet but will become one through blunt force, like how we’ve come to embrace the exact wrong usage of “literally.” I mean, you could use the prefix “out-” for anything. Outwork? Yup. Outmuscle? Sure. Entering a pie contest? Outpie everybody. Warming up some chicken soup for lunch at work? Outsoup your co-workers. Good luck, everyone.
My big issue with the three-headed, hot-air Hydra reared its ugly heads at the 9:30 mark of the third quarter after Michel careened around the left side for a big gain. Gumbel called the play as, “Nobody on this side of the line!” Fine. As the replay happened, Arians followed up with, “It looked like Manny Lawson just lost contain, or the linebacker didn’t scrape outside. That’s what it was – (Corey) Thompson.” Okay. Seemed like we were all set. Then –
“Watch the way they collapse, there.” Ah. Mr. Green had something to add. “There’s nobody to the outside. Yeah, there’s – outside contain was lost.”
And, there we go. Proof that the term “three’s a crowd” came from somewhere.
Replays I Would Have Liked To See: Another disappointment with this broadcast is that, when the announcers did make specific, informative points, the director failed to give replays to back them up. Two examples of this happened in the second half. With 0:52 left in the third quarter, Buffalo busted up a screen pass. The play may have worked as Develin looked open, but Brady seemed to feel pressure and fired the ball at the fullback’s feet. Green said, “Maybe it could’ve been there. Maybe he gave up on it too early. I don’t know.” Yeah, we don’t either, Trent. A second look at the play would help. Later, with about 8:20 left in the game, White got tackled far short of the goal-line on a sweep. Arians said he was surprised Brady didn’t “get out of it” or change the play at the line of scrimmage, as the Pats were “outflanked.” Would have appreciated some video evidence to support the claim.
A couple more. On one of Patterson’s gamboling-through-the-field sweeps, the booth mentioned Gronk blocking the defensive back to the outside. Replaying it at home, you can see the big tight end sprinting out toward the defender, but we never saw a replay to provide a better angle. With 5:07 left in the game, backup QB Brian Hoyer fired a pass in the general area of Edelman’s feet. Was it catchable? Gumbel asked Green that question, but the former QB didn’t seem to know more than we without replay.
Not the best broadcast of the season. I expect Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts to do better next week, despite what some persistent critics say.
One final note for all broadcasts: I’ve gone on the record regarding my distaste for schadenfreude, when the cameras go to a player (who, for example, fumbled the football) and get his reaction to the other team scoring off his turnover. On that same note, why do we need to see team owners celebrating? Was that part of the network contract with the league, to make the billionaires seem like regular guys? Enough. After decades of doing so, I have zero desire to watch Bob Kraft alligator-arm another high-five.
Ad Ons: Three commercials to comment on. The Starbucks “Sip a Cup of Magic” ad looks like your regular, coffee-affirms-joyous-living type of shill. The one problem arises when the actor pretends to drink from the empty cup. Always, always drives me nuts. How can I believe your caramel brûlée latte makes you happy when you are clearly not drinking anything? Can’t directors put water in there, or at least weigh the cups? Just tape a few nickels to the bottom as ballast?
I don’t know. I guess I still miss Jerry Orbach so damn much. The man had commitment, you know?
As much as I enjoyed the iPhone commercial featuring Group FaceTime with Elvis impersonators, I had to wonder exactly what demographic they were going for? Are the kids into Elvis these days, or is Group FaceTime something we olds should enjoy? Personally, I have enough awkward one-on-one FaceTime moments; not sure I need to add to that party.
The best ad of the week? “Home for the Holidays” by Toyota, which shows a boy welcoming his father home from the military with a gathering of saluting snowmen. As I re-read my description, I realize it’s much, much better on the screen, especially with Sara Bareilles singing “Winter Song” in the background. And yes, my eyeballs watered like I’d held a staring contest in a dust storm.
Netflix Note Of The Week: Nothing great to speak of on Netflix this week, as I got busy for the holiday and failed to catch up on a bunch of holiday movies. Watched Standoff with Thomas Jane, Lawrence Fishburne and young actress Ella Ballentine, who’s the best part of the movie. I’m going to go mainstream here and recommend Coco and Thor: Ragnarok. Both use music in very different, very effective ways.
Well-Versed: Go see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. My daughter loved it; I loved it. If you enjoy animation, Marvel, action, science fiction, comedy, and/or joy, just go. Really well thought out and well-executed.
Next Sunday, New England hosts the New York Jets for a chance to sew up the number-two overall seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. We’ll see how well this running game continues, and whether or not they can add some passing to it. Here’s hoping for a Happy New Year in Foxboro.
Chris Warner is still a little full. He’s also on Twitter @cwarn89.