By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Professor
Hey class, you ever hear the one about the time the Patriots fell behind their opponent by at least two scores in the first quarter, looked completely incompetent on both sides of the ball in the process but bounced back to not only with the game but completely blow the doors off in doing so?
Yep, you’ve heard that one before. You hear it every week. The Pats ended their regular season on Sunday with a rousing, 49-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills but even though the final score was totally lopsided and the Pats entire point tally was unanswered, the game didn’t engender a whole lot of confidence headed into the playoffs. For the third consecutive week, it took a double digit deficit to wake the Pats from their Sunday afternoon nap and against Buffalo, it was the steepest of the three (10 two weeks ago in Denver, 17 last week against Miami and 21 on Sunday). Going back to their Week 11 win over Kansas City, the Pats have trailed in the first half every week except for one, the win in Week 13 against the Colts (though it should be noted that in that game, the Pats were an onside kick away from potentially blowing a 28-point lead to a then winless team). This inability to put a full, 60-minute game together hasn’t wound up being a problem during the regular season against mediocre competition (the best record of any team the Pats have beaten this year is 8-8). But now that the post-season is here, with potential games against the fellow iron of the AFC in Pittsburgh and Baltimore looming, can this team really afford to fall behind 21-0 in the first quarter and count on being able to make a few scheme and personnel adjustments, come back and win?
That’s something we’ll have to find out. On Sunday, after getting steamrolled by the Bills in the first quarter to the tune of an eight-play, 80-yard TD drive, a 10-play, 70-yard TD drive and a six-play, 82-yard TD drive, the Pats remembered they had a game to play and subsequently wiped the Bills off the Gillette Stadium turf. Tom Brady became the third QB to surpass 5,000 yards passing in a single season (the second in the last two weeks), finishing with 5,133, Rob Gronkowski set a new league record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end (1,327) while extending his record for TD receptions in a season by a tight end to 17 and Bill Belichick became the first coach in league history to win at least 13 regular season games in five different seasons. All of these records are wonderful and the Pats certainly looked immense at times over the final three quarters, even on defense (four INTs, two sacks, 217 yards allowed in the final three quarters, 61 yards passing allowed in the second half). But despite the overall dominance from quarters two through four, something still smelled a little bit funny. Luckily for the Pats, they have an extra week to figure out how to fumigate before their playoff run commences. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, brought to you by Lysol, Febreze or any other stink eater you can think of.
Brady was just as guilty of failing to wake up on time as the rest of his teammates, missing his first three passes then taking a sack on his fourth dropback. It took him a few throws not only to get the right timing down with any of his targets but to get his accuracy where it needed to be, as he was firing throws into the ground in the early going. But naturally, since he’s, well, Tom Brady, when he picked it up, he really picked it up. After beginning the day 1-of-8, he completed 11 passes in a row and finished the day with a tidy line of 23-of-35 for 338 yards and three TDs (113.8 passer rating). He did toss his first pick in four weeks but it was off a deflection at the tail end of the first half and wound up not causing any damage. Perhaps best of all, though, was that Brady showed zero ill-effects from his non-throwing shoulder injury which caused him to be limited in practice all week and made for so much hand wringing by the local media. And along the way, he threw his 300th career TD pass, tying him with John Elway for fifth all-time. The Pats defense obviously needs to make some strides between now and the night of January 14, when they play their first playoff game against either the Broncos, the Steelers or the Bengals. But isn’t it comforting to know that Brady is running the show on the other side of the ball? The answer, without a shred of doubt, is yes.
Running Backs: B+
Not to toot one’s own horn, but did anyone see who was out there getting the majority of the reps at tailback? Yep, it was our newest binky, Stevan Ridley. Ridley took the most snaps of any Pats runner by a wide margin and made that decision pay off, rolling up 81 yards on just 15 carries and looking fast, quick and super tough in doing so. He did fumble once, getting the ball punched out of his arms from behind, though luckily, it bounced out of bounds. Ridley continues to look like the future at the position (with all due respect to fellow rookie Shane Vereen, who just hasn’t been able to get on the field enough). He has such good instincts that when he learns to refine his running style at all, he could be a major force. Another piece of good news pertains to the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who looked as good on Sunday as he has in over two months. Benny took a screen pass from Brady in the third quarter, put his head down and didn’t stop until he’d picked up 53 huge yards, looking fast and lithe in the process. He added two more TDs, giving him 11 on the season, and for the first time in weeks, was decisive and powerful in those short yardage situations (the first TD plunge was a textbook, picture perfect launching of himself over the pile and into the end zone). The Pats again chose to throw more than they ran but proved for the second consecutive week that they are onto something in the running game. Ride Ridley, spell him with Benny, particularly in short yardage, and watch the production (138 yards on 29 attempts, 4.8 YPA on Sunday) happen.
Wide Receivers: C
Just calling this section “Wes Welker” as opposed to Wide Receivers was certainly taken into consideration given that not only was Welker the only Pat in this position group to make a catch, he was the only member of the corps to have more than one ball thrown his way (Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood got 62 combined reps, had no catches among them and were targeted a grand total of one time). Welker, who seemed to have a bit of a hard time getting on the same page with Brady from time to time, managed six catches for 51 yards and got the snot beat out of him on a couple of plays, only to bounce right back up and jog back to the huddle every time, just like always. The fact that Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien know they can count on the tight ends to be options 1B and 1C in the passing game mitigates the fact that there is pretty much nothing there at the wide receiver position. Branch is completely unpredictable, Underwood is a glorified practice squader and Ochocinco is one of the biggest busts in Pats history. With that in mind, as many Pats fans must think on a weekly basis, thank god for Welker.
Tight Ends: A
Aaron Hernandez not making the Pro Bowl is reason No. 3,276 why the Pro Bowl is a joke, the biggest embarrassment of all the major, professional sports all-star games. Just days after being snubbed in favor of the Chargers Antonio Gates, who is grandfathered in at this point, A-Herb had his second monstrous game in three weeks, catching seven passes for 138 yards and TD and adding 26 rushing yards on two carries (making him the Pats second leading rusher on the day), those plays clearly a byproduct of his exceptional skill in running with the ball after the catch. Given his size and quickness as well as his skills in the open field, it’s hard to see how anyone can cover him; linebackers aren’t quick enough, safeties aren’t skilled enough, corners aren’t big or strong enough. Perhaps that’s why on his TD, a 39-yard sideline route on which he high-stepped into the end zone, there were no Buffalo defenders within 20 yards of him. A-Herb finishes the regular season with 79 catches for 910 yards and seven TDs, all while playing in the giant, cyborg shadow of Gronk, who only had the greatest season a tight end has ever had. We already discussed the cyborg’s exploits but just to recap, eight catches, 108 yards, two more TDs, played every snap, threw a couple of crucial blocks in the running game, and was so humbled after the game when he learned Belichick and O’Brien had specifically called the game’s final pass play – a 22-yard flare from Brian Hoyer – so he could get the receiving yardage record, he sounded like a high schooler. Gronk pretty much looked as much like the T-1,000,000 as he has all year. 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs. Absolutely amazing.
Offensive Line: C+
Matt Light returned to the starting lineup after missing last week with an ankle injury but even his presence couldn’t keep the line from starting off as slowly as the rest of the team. Brady got beat up on Sunday, taking four sacks and getting hit three more times and while he came out healthy and in one piece, that’s a little but too much abuse for Week 17 with a bye and at least one home playoff game already sewed up. With no Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell lined up at left guard and acquitted himself fairly well. Nate Solder got to see more time as the third tight end thanks to Light’s return and that always helps the running game. He also split time at right tackle with fellow rookie Marcus Cannon, who has seen better days. If Mankins is healthy enough to go in the Divisional Round and the Pats have the line they’ve played with for the most part all year (Light, Mankins, Dan Connolly/Wendell, Brian Waters, Solder/Sebastian Vollmer), there shouldn’t be much of a reason to worry. But that continuity is huge, as evidenced by the lack of it these past two weeks.
Defensive Line: B-
It feels like the gimmick of giving two grades to the defensive groups got stale fast so this one and the next two will represent some attempts at an average. You can pretty much chalk up a giant F for the D-line in the first quarter, when they were all dominated by the Bills offensive front both in defending the run and trying to get any semblance of a pass rush. But when the tide turned, it really turned. Mark Anderson wreaked havoc, getting in Bill QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face with regularity and rolling up his 10th sack and even looking stout against the run. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Anderson didn’t come off the field for the Bills final nine drives of the game, understandable given Buffalo’s need to throw on nearly every play and Anderson’s role as the team’s top pass rusher. He played 61 snaps, the most of any defender who isn’t a defensive back or named Jerod Mayo and looked like just what the Pats need in the absence of Andre Carter. Of course, Anderson’s playing time going forward will hinge on what kind of offense the opponent is playing; remember, after exploding against Denver two weeks ago while the Broncos were in catch-up mode, he barely played last week against the Dolphins. Elsewhere on the D-line, Kyle Love had another pretty good game, with a sack, another hit on Fitzpatrick and a nice stop of running back C.J. Spiller behind the line, while Vince Wilfork was mostly invisible (two tackles, neither solo). And Shaun Ellis followed up his strongest game of the year against Miami with a total no-show on Sunday. This group needs to step up and make things happen going forward given the massive limitations in the secondary. This has been the case all season though, and the results, to be kind, have been mixed.
Dane Fletcher got off to a brutal start, missing a couple of tackles in particularly ugly fashion before bouncing back to have a pretty decent game. It was sort of a microcosm of the entire defense, the linebackers in particular, who lost Rob Ninkovich three series into the game with a hip injury, but recovered relatively well from both a sluggish start and Ninkovich’s absence. Mayo of course played every down and alternated between looking overmatched and overrated with making the occasional nice play, including a picture perfect pass breakup of what looked like a easy completion on a second half sideline throw from Fitzpatrick to one of his tight ends. And Brandon Spikes finally returned from a sprained knee that’s had him out of action since early November, getting a handful of reps (some of them in the Pats nickel package) and making three tackles. When Spikes got hurt, he was the best linebacker on the team. If he’s healthy, Ninkovich’s injury isn’t too serious and Tracy White, who’s missed two games with an abdominal strain, comes back for the playoffs, the Pats may just have themselves a legit strength and advantage at this position. Can you believe it?
Defensive Backs: C
In the first quarter, Fitzpatrick was 13-of-16 for 165 yards and two TDs. Antwuan Molden gave up a hideous, 47-yard pass interference penalty at the goal line on a ball that was overthrown and Devin McCourty was again so awful that he was moved to safety. But that’s OK, the Pats made their adjustments and those, combined with the benching of star receiver Steve Johnson (uncoverable to the tune of four catches, 40 yards and a TD in that first quarter) for getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty thanks to flashing an undershirt that said, “Happy New Year,” saved the Pats secondary. It didn’t hurt either that Sterling Moore, who got a lot of run in the second half thanks to a miserable effort by Kyle Arrington, made two stunning picks, both of which featured perfect reads, great timing and highlight reel catches. Moore ran the second of the two back for a TD and looked like he was more than capable of playing some serious reps at corner in the playoffs. And Julian Edelman moved into the slot in place of an ineffective Nate Jones following the Bills third TD march and didn’t come out of the game until he’d played 41 consecutive snaps. Edelman made five tackles in his longest stint on defense of the season and proved again that he may well have a future both with the Pats and in the NFL as a defensive back. Sunday also marked the return of Patrick Chung, who not only played for the first time since Nov. 9, he played the entire game. Chung played well, making a couple of big hits, running a textbook safety blitz on which he missed sacking Fitzpatrick by a spilt second but still caused a hurried, incomplete pass. As bad as the Pats have been at corner all year, they’ve been worse at safety, making Chung’s return and solid play reason for at least a temporary sigh of relief. As for McCourty, he looked OK out there roaming, assisting on tackles and not getting burned for one 40+ gain after another. He also came up with a pick off a deflection late in the game and returned it 38 yards while showcasing his amazing speed (and while we’re here, why don’t the Pats use this guy to return kicks? He’s perfect for that role). Molden had a pick too, though he didn’t play particularly well, which leads one to wonder what the rotation of defensive backs will look like come the Divisional Round. On Sunday, after the first quarter, Jones and James Ihedigbo were the odd men out (meaning Ihedigbo didn’t get to suffer his weekly injury thanks to the lack of snaps). Given how few looks have worked back there all season, here’s hoping that’s the way things line up on January 14.
Special Teams: B
The Pats defense actually made a stop on the Bills first possession of the game but the punt team fell victim to a fake – a direct snap to the upback who strolled through an 18-wheeler sized hole for an easy first down – which led to the Bills early onslaught. But other than that slipup, things were reasonably solid in this phase of the game. The Bills have a great return game (they ran back a punt for a TD just last week) but the Pats held it in check, allowing just five yards on one punt return and an average of 21 on two kick returns. Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals, one of which was borderline bomby (47 yards). And our man Zoltan, whose omission from the Pro Bowl roster was still another reason that game is such a farce, answered his snub with an average of 48.5 yards on two punts.
Just to get any negatives out of the way early, these slow starts are starting to cast shadows on more than just the players. The Pats were clearly playing for something on Sunday, a point everyone, starting with Belichick, didn’t miss a chance to stress during the week. So then how is it even remotely possible that they come out so flat when the game starts? Belichick’s coaching job this season has to be among his best ever; the fact that he won 13 games and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed with this defense is transcendent. But what can he do to get his players to play a full game? Again, you can get away with weeks and weeks of extended dry spells whether in the first quarter or the fourth during the regular season against the likes of the Redskins or Bills or Colts. And maybe you can get away with it in the playoffs too (note: you probably can’t and if you don’t believe that, take a good look at both of the Pats last two playoff losses, particularly the one against Baltimore two years ago).
To really put the cherry on top of his stellar coaching sundae, Belichick needs to preside over an effort that doesn’t take 15-20 minutes to get going. It’s been made clear more than once this season that the Pats are perfectly fine with coming out, letting the other team get in a few solid jabs at them while they feel everything out, then pouncing. That philosophy has been stretched pretty thin at this point, though. The Pats have been outscored 38-14 in the first half of their last two games. It’s one thing to give the opponent a little time to show its hand, it’s another to fall behind by three scores while running just five offensive plays.
Belichick and his staff get this week’s grade because their incredible aptitude for making the exactly right adjustments to all of these deficits. While the Bills were shorthanded in the second half, holding a QB to 61 passing yards after letting the same QB pass for 246 yards in the previous half is an impressive feat. And on offense, the timing of moving to the no-huddle is perfect every week with Sunday no exception. From an in-game perspective, there’s no one better, as evidenced by how easily the Pats coaching staff runs circles around its opposite number on a weekly basis. But as great as this group is at changing things up when they need to be changed, how about a week in which they don’t have to? You know, like a week where the game plan is working from the opening kickoff and the Pats are the ones running out to a big lead. Now’s as good a time as any.