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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 17: Patriots vs. Dolphins


Things to consider after surprising my family with tickets for Christmas and realizing how Mr. Parker would've felt if Ralphie really DID shoot his eye out:

--This, is me. You're probably wondering how I got here. Well …  

--The damned thing of it is, with about three and a half minutes to go in the game, I had this Knee Jerk all written in my head. It was going to be an epic rant of pure, arrogant, weapons grade Massholery. Fueled by tailgating with “Adventure Time”-inspired Bacon Pancakes and my brother cooking seafood because he likes to ceremoniously eat the opposition and breakfast beers. All about a tenth straight playoff bye week. Being one home game away from an unimaginable ninth straight AFC championship game. About Tom Brady's 250th career win. How this team will have their stumbles somewhere along the season but when the smell the playoffs they enter the codes for God Mode and become invincible. Then that final drive happened. And from the stands to the car to home, I've been stumbling around in a fugue, still trying to process what the hell happened.

--To have this defense unable to close out a game with a 75 yard field and a four point lead is just unprocessable. It was Mariano Rivera blowing a save with a two run lead. It was Pedro getting shelled by a 100 loss Tampa team. It was last year's Miami Miracle, only played out in torturous slow motion, like the William Dafoe “There was a FIRE FIGHT!!!” scene from “Boondock Saints,” and even more embarrassing and painful to watch.

--The kicker is, the Dolphins didn't do anything special on that final drive. They did what they'd been doing throughout the game, which is beating the Patriots man coverage. Ryan Fitzpatrick was faced with matchups you wouldn't think he could win across the formation all game. And rather than try to find some way around it, the Dolphins had him steer into the skid. DeVante Parker had the best game anyone has had against Stephon Gilmore since September of 2017. And no play on the season might have done more damage than that 24 yard fade he elevated to snatch before Gilmore even had time to react. Albert Wilson beat JC Jackson to convert a 3rd & 6. Then Isaiah Ford picked up a 1st on Jackson. Mike Gesicki beat Pat Chung on a post route isolated on the side of the formation opposite a trip set. And that was it. Nothing elaborate. They simply spread the Patriots out and trusted their quarterback to make the right reads and throws. More on that later.

--The most troubling part is that's more or less what Miami did all game. Granted, there were gadget plays mixed in there. There always is this time of year when teams are out of the playoffs and have nothing to lose so they try to burn through their inventory of unused plays. It seems to be especially true of coaches who have history with Belichick for some reason. With those guys, the usual December level of chicanery goes from “Grandpa pulling a coin out from behind your ear” to “Level: Hack Magician on a Cruise Ship.” So we got the double reverses. The double pass screen that caught the whole left side of the field undefended. And the fake punt, which fooled no one. Least of all my kid who saw the punter lined up about six yards behind center and called the pass before the ball was snapped. I'd love to say those plays are what cost the Patriots this game, because it would bring me some comfort knowing you have to resort to trickerization to beat them. But that would be a lie. And I want my relationship with the abstract reader I'm pretending to be talking to to be based on trust. Because it's the right thing to do, and not just so you'll sleep with me. Though there is that, too.

--The simple, inconvenient truth is that the Dolphins – a team that in the Fall was playing so badly you kept waiting for them to break kayfabe or get indicted by the FBI for fixing games – just won in Foxboro playing for nothing but pride while the Pats were treating it like a playoff game. And they won because they played better throughout. I can't put a shine on that particular sneaker.

--I think the defense will be fine. More than fine. Fitzpatrick has games like this, where he puts a poncho over his nice Ivy League suit and goes full Fitzpatrick Bateman on everybody. Hell, he did it just last week to Cincinnati. He also has a genius for timing these games at the end of a contract, which is how he's used his Harvard business degree to make more money than any QB who's played to his level ever has. I can very much see The Boogeymen carrying this team to Baltimore for the title game, and then we'll take it from there.

--They had a few curious calls. They went to the State Worker D (one down lineman, the rest of the front standing around) more as the game wore on and it generated pressure, but Fitzpatrick escaped more tackles in the backfield than he took. There was one fire zone blitz that involved Adam Butler dropping into coverage on Wilson. And if it wasn't for Wilson muffing a perfect pass, it would've gone for about 25. They got burned on a deep ball on a zero blitz. But with the exception of a lot of Jonathan Jones dropping back as a sort of Cover-2 safety (which didn't work), they were doing the aggressive things that made them one of the best defenses in decades. They just kept getting beaten to the ball. I have no other way to describe it.

--The much greater concern to me is the offense. (Which is the least surprising thing I've said since “breakfast beers” while at a game where I had a designated driver.) Getting back to what I was saying about trusting your quarterback, there wasn't a man, woman or child in that stadium not wearing a headset on the Patriots sideline who could make sense of what they did at the end of the half. Running the clock out in a tie game with three timeouts left is something they would never have considered doing in any of the last 18 years. That situation was set up perfectly for some cheap points going into the locker room and then bookending halftime with another scoring drive to start the 3rd. We've seen it so many times you could look out on the field see Troy Brown catching a slant and getting down to call time. Deion Branch stepping out of bounds to stop the clock. Chris Hogan toe-tapping a sideline route. Kick the field goal, take the 3. Grab some orange wedges on the way into the tunnel. Instead they let the Dolphins run it down to under a minute, ran a draw and then a dive and went into the half with all three timeouts like they're gift cards you can redeem later.

--The only logical explanation is that Belichick simply doesn't have faith they can put on a quick strike drive. That he doesn't trust that he's got the personnel to run a route with an 8- to 12-yard break timed up with a 5- or 7-step drop and run himself open. Or that Brady will get the ball to him. Or a combination of both. They're relying on passes to the flat, hitch-curl combos and mesh concepts and hoping for yards after the catch. That's how they got Elandon Roberts in the end zone. (After the stadium announcer had to declare No. 52 an eligible receiver about 20 times, because football is dumb.) And it's why he say “to hell with” starting a drive at the 25 with just under two minutes left,and kick the can down the road to the second half, where he can start a drive at the 25 with 30 minutes left. Because as constituted, his team is not capable of quick strike scoring drives. This was his acknowledgment of that fact.

--Of course these Reactions would be much more Knee and a lot less Jerk if Brady doesn't throw that pick-6. Then I'd be all about his 250th win being 25% better than Peyton Manning's 200 and how 10 year old in New England don't know there's a Wild Card round in the playoffs. Dear God, I was going to be insufferable. But he did throw it and so I have no choice but to live reality on reality's terms.

--The interception happened almost directly in front of us and have no idea what Brady was reading because Eric Rowe was clearly breaking on Edelman's stop route. 

It was play action which I think was meant to go back side to N'Keal Harry, but he released it before reading the backside coverage, even without pressure. If he'd thrown it to Sony Michel or at his feet or hit one of the Minutemen in the musket we'd be getting ready to host Houston in two weeks. It is what it is (copyright Jerry Thornton, 2019, all rights reserved). I'd never say he's seeing ghosts. But maybe on that one he picked up something on his EVP that they always use on the ghost hunting shows where they stay in an abandoned insane asylum and every five minutes someone squeals “Did you hear that???” and goes running towards the nothingness with a shaky cam.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:

Finn: “How do you think he wins all the time?”

Poe: “He cheats! I'm kidding. You're 250 years old. Of course you're better than us!”

-“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

--As far as positives on offense, Phillip Dorsett showed that, while he's never going to win a 50/50 battle for a ball or out-physical anybody, he's a capable route runner who can pull off the man-beater routes like double moves and so on. He'll disappear for far too long, but he's a home run hitter whom defenses will occasionally sleep on and get open deep. He's all we've got in that department at the moment so hopefully that deep post he stemmed off for 50 yards is something we can build on.

--Another is the run game which, while not exactly Baltimore's is at least respectable. I'd like to see them get more into Sony Michel lining up behind Roberts in 21-personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) and Rex Burkehead in 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) and 12 (you get the picture) groupings and either run it or play action the bejeebers out of both. James White needs more than the five touches he got. But the way they're going to win in January is going to involve a legitimate, clock-controlling, 1st down producing ground game. And watching Roberts run through a muthafucka face (Note: I am not calling Eric Rowe a cuss word; I'm just quoting and don't want any trouble) and drive him deep into the end zone, I think they're more than able to do it like they did it in last year's postseason.

--Negatively speaking – and I have been ever since the game ended, believe me – I'm sorry to say that we've established what Mohamed Sanu is capable of. And this is it. A couple of 1st downs. A shallow cross here and there. But not nearly the Alpha we thought he'd be when they spent a second round pick to get him and he caught 10 passes against Baltimore. I'm afraid he's at his ceiling. And it's the one at Bag End.

--On another note, Ben Watson is a fine person and works hard and has had a great career. But he should on the cover of an AARP pamphlet like, “So You're Thinking About Unretiring.” I can't say if he produces more negative plays than positive ones, but guys who have been in the league for 15 years and got a 48 on their Wonderlic shouldn't be taking other people's 1st downs off the board with stupid OPI calls. And it's starting to feel like he negates a big play once a week now. The lesson here is that if you're going to go back to work after you've hung it up, fine. It's good to stay busy. But go work Mother's Hours at a craft store like my sister-in-law or wear an orange apron and help people find the right kind of cordless screwdriver for their DIY project. Pro football is not the thing for a 38-year-old who wants to keep busy in his golden years.  

--A few years ago, this business of former Belichick guys beating him was a curiosity. Then it became a coincidence. Now it's a full blown trend. Which isn't the best feeling with Mike Vrabel bringing the Titans into Gillette. I'm all about staying focused on Saturday night, but I know I won't be able to help looking suspiciously at the Pats sideline, wondering which teams Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick will be beating him with next year.

--I am disappointed by this loss, but not deterred. Saddened, but with spirit unbowed. I regret that this was the first time I've ever taken my whole family and they had to  witness this, but I am resolute. The path to Miami just got way steeper. And with all due respect to Mylie Cyrus, I do care how fast they get there and all that matters is the trophy that's waiting on the other side. The climb itself can kiss my pasty Irish ass. And now there's no choice but to say something we haven't heard around here since the aughts: