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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 8: Patriots vs. Bills

Things to consider while debating whether to speak only in the sign language of the Tuskan Sand People so I don't have to find English words to describe how terrible all this is:

--There's no putting a glossy, shiny polish on this turd. We're seven games into the first season after the change at quarterback that the rest of the country has been harboring erotic fantasies about, and all their sick, depraved warnings of what it would be like are coming true. Not only are these 2020 Patriots struggling, they have to be nearly perfect in every phase of the game just to see the slightest positive results. They no longer have any margin for error. A drive with a 99% success rate might end in a field goal, and that feels like a moral victory. Whereas even as recently as last year, those felt like a letdown. Like they'd left points off the board. Now there are no points to leave. 

--Worst of all though, is that they have become one of the teams this franchise could always count on to beat themselves. They now find ways to lose. They lack five things that have been the load-bearing columns upon which the Dynasty was built: clutch plays, situational awareness, smart decisions, toughness and discipline. Their inability to get into the end zone from the one at the end of the Seattle game. On two red zone trips in Kansas City, Brian Hoyer takes a sack with no time outs and fumbles. Their defense getting pushed around by Denver and San Francisco. Yesterday it was three pre-snap penalties negating big plays, Bill Belichick's inexplicable decision to try the onside kick, Chase Winovich spending the game in the Malcolm Butler Memorial Time Out Chair after arguing with Belichick last week, and Cam Newton gets the ball punched out of his hand in chip shot field goal range by a guy who looks like James Cordon.

--This deep into the season, with these mental breakdowns happening so often, we can no longer consider them a bug; they're a feature. You can't unplug the season, wait 10 seconds and plug it back in. You can't store it in rice overnight and see if it comes back. Blowing on the cartridge won't work. You can't crtl+alt+delete this or, as someone suggested to me, set it to Wumbo. You judge a team by what they do. And this team, as it's currently constituted, is a team that costs itself victories with its own dumbassery. 

--I don't want to put the whole game on Cam Newton's fumble. The guy was leading scoring drives throwing to the skill position equivalent of the half pieces at the bottom of the Tostitos Scoops bag that won't hold salsa. But leadership is more than working hard (he checks that box), being a good teammate (check) and holding yourself accountable (check). No one was sipping tea on the deck of the Carpathia saying, "You gotta hand it to Capt. Smith. He really did own up to that iceberg collision thing." Leadership is about doing the right thing in the biggest moments. And carrying the ball through heavy traffic like it's an empty red Solo cup and you're heading for a refill is the opposite of that. 

--The damnedest thing about this loss, apart from the loss, is that they had figured so many things. Finally the offense had come together in a coherent way. Now that Michael Onwenu has established himself and with all the interior lineman back, the Pats' offensive line was the one area where they had a clear edge over the Bills front-7. And Josh McDaniels had the whole unit in a rhythm taking advantage of their ... um, advantage. Those own-goal penalties that were producing 3rd & 18s and 3rd & 19s were cleaned up and they were consistently in manageable down-and-distances. We saw the return of the run option and Newton as the primary ball carrier in traditional power runs. A checkdown to James White with a stiff arm of AJ Klein and a Ryan Izzo block upfield went for 28 yards. We got Damien Harris running effectively out of 21-personnel behind Jakob Johnson. Even before they started finishing touchdown drives. When the score was still 14-6, Buffalo shifted the end in for a loaded box and a gap advantage, Newton checked with an "Alert! Alert!" to a different call, and Harris still picked up the first on an I power run. Then they started working the edge with pitches to Rex Burkhead and even a fake Jet sweep handoff to Burkhead to the same side as the motion and he picked up nine. 

--But their best moments came as the game went on. Burkhead converted a 3rd & 10 on a draw play against a 5-man blitz where he shook Matt Milano with a spin move the likes of which hasn't been seen in these parts since I was tearing up the dance floors of the Boston club scene, then powered through Jordan Poyer to move the chains. Then came Harris' touchdown, which was sprung by a point-of-attack double team by Isaiah Wynn and Joe Thuney, a Shaq Mason pull on Darryl Johnson, and Jakob Johnson slamming through Andre Smith like special forces breaching the door on a terrorists' den. 

--By the next drive, they had Buffalo demoralized. Newton proved there's nothing wrong with his shoulder when he fired a laser-guided round to Damiere Byrd on an over route that was all arm. Followed by an in cut by Byrd that went for nine. Then they attacked the middle of the Bills front at will. Harris for 13 behind Mason clearing out Trumaine Edwards. Harris for 18 out of an offset I in which Johnson came from the backside on Edwards. Harris for seven on a wham play that put the ball at the five. Followed by Newton finishing the drive with a keeper behind Ryan Izzo blocking down on the edge and a Thuney kickout block on AJ Klein. Followed by a Public Service Announcement:

This is exactly how I pictured it when it first became clear Newton was here to be the QB1. Not just as a cheap Option B on a veteran minimum salary, but to transform the McOffense into something entirely new. A run game with built-in redundancies to keep it operating at full capacity in all conditions. Based on physically dominating opponents. Forcing defenses built specifically to slow spread offenses to overcompensate by loading up the box, and then beating them outside the numbers and deep with your strong-armed quarterback. And for a few drives there, it was working. If Newton had simply covered the ball with both hands, got down and settled for a field goal, that Bills defense was not going to make a stop in overtime. They were defeated. Until they weren't. 

--On a personal note, I can and have gotten used to empty stands. In fact, I hardly notice it any more. But can't get used to a game at Orchard Park without the Billdo.

Is it too much to ask that they at least throw out a cardboard cutout of a dildo, just for the sake of tradition?

--I get how beer advertising has never been about how good the beer tastes. It's about selling a lifestyle. But Modelo is barking up the wrongest possible tree saying it's "brewed for those with a fighting spirit." Look around. We lost ours about eight months of lockdown ago. I'm looking for the one "brewed for those who have given up and just want to numb the pain of their miserable, pointless existence. Jerry."

--I'll get to the defense because we have much to discuss. But I can't go another paragraph without talking about the onside kick. (Or onsides kick? It's one of those expressions we've been using our whole lives and still can't keep straight. Like "supposively.") It's a fact of life that geniuses tend to do weirdo things that make no sense to the rest of us. Pythagorus was the first great vegetarian, but hated beans so much he wouldn't even let his followers touch them and ended up dying when he was attacked and refused to save himself by escaping through a bean field. Ben Franklin sat in his window every day naked, calling it an "air bath." Demosthenes practiced speeches underground with mouth full of rocks. Newton - Isaac, not our Newton - bragged about the benefits of celibacy and died a virgin. So I can accept wacky choices as part of the creative process. But if Adam Gase or Matt Patricia or someone tried the onside in that situation they'd be getting killed for it. And at least they'd have the excuse of desperation, like when Sean Payton tried it out of nowhere at the Super Bowl. When you're a heavy underdog, sometimes you need a miracle and you make your own breaks. This was not that situation. At all. They'd just put together their first touchdown drive in forever. Buffalo's previous possession was a 3 & out. If momentum is a thing, they seemed to have had it. But the quickest way to give it back would be to hand Buffalo the ball on the Patriots side of the field, which they did. Even if they practiced the hell out of it, how often was it successful? And why, with practice time so scarce this year, are you squandering reps on such a low percentage play? The usual explanation for a play like that is they spotted something on the Bills film that told them it would work. But the live feed of the actual kick showed a front line very much ready for it. I'd say that if they really felt the need to try something - and I can't say enough I don't think they needed to anything  - maybe try one where you lob it over the front line and hope some fatty can't get his chubby sausage fingers around it. But I won't say that because any time they've gotten cute like that it's never worked. Just boom it into the end zone and play tackle football and leave the trickerization to the coaches whose careers have the stench of death on them. 

--Which, while I'm being critical, is exactly the kind of coach who kicks a field goal with on 3rd & 1 with 0:12 left in the half. Belichick probably had a PTSD flashback to Hoyer standing there, helplessly trying to run a play on 5th down while the sand ran out of the hourglass. But right now he can't decide whether to be too aggressive or too timid. That's not a comforting thought.

--Another thing they've done this year that we haven't seen in the recent past is shoddy tackling. The most basic, critical, fundamental and emphasized skill that this defense has prided itself on, and over the last month it's been done with the quality of that toy you saw on the Facebook ad that arrives four months later with Chinese writing all over the shipping label and is nothing like the thing you paid 30 bucks for and has no return slip. (I'm speaking from experience here, obviously. Those ads are the modern equivalent of the ones in the back of my old Spider-Man comics for X-ray Specs and Sea Monkeys. Consider yourself warned.) Adrian Phillips got juked into the Shadow Realm by Josh Allen on Buffalo's first TD drive. Ju'Whaun Bentley missed a few, including a slip & fall on Zack Moss' touchdown that would've gotten him a nice settlement if he had Jimmy McGill representing him. Then you had breakdowns like Tashawn Bower at DE diving inside, leaving his entire half of the field exposed for Moss to get around the edge for 17 down to the Patriots two on their final touchdown. The lack of tackling and edge-setting have trended worse as the season has gone on, where these things have traditionally improved with coaching and practice. And it's hard to watch.

--Again, there were bright spots. Beginning with Josh Uche. And possibly ending with Josh Uche, with nothing but Josh Uche in between; I'll have to think about it. But seeing his first action, it was obvious why he was getting so much preseason hype, from me and from others. Granted the ship has probably sailed on that Rookie DPOTY Peter King was predicting, but he looks like a real find. Playing primarily on obvious passing downs - often getting those reps that would ordinarily go to Winovich - mostly on the line at the RDE/Will LB spot, he first showed up on an early 3rd & 17 when he flushed Allen from the pocket and pressured him to ground it. 

He was part of the 6-man blitz (along with Shalique Calhoun, Terrance Brooks, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise and Phillips. I think. CBS chose not to show a replay.) that forced the JC Jackson interception. At one point Allen was keeping the ball an in that open range territory where running QBs tend to shred the Patriots D for chunk yardage. But Uche squared up to him, broke him down and dropped him where they met to force a punt. He played just over 20% of the snaps, and if he doesn't get more playing time next week, then everything I believe I understand is wrong. 

--It was a bold defensive game plan to say the least. They came out in a base 3-4 nickel, but with one and sometimes two of the linebacker roles going to Phillips and Brooks. With Wise as a hand-in-the-turf end, John Simon as the Will and various guys as the traditional nose tackle, mainly Byron Cowart, who had a good game and impacted a lot of plays beyond his stat line of 2 solo, 2 assists, 1 TFL. 

--Steve Belichick went small, including a lot of dime and I swear some formations where there were no linebackers at all. Playing mainly zone, taking away the deep balls while flooding the intermediate areas. Just conceding the size disadvantage and daring Denver to beat them on the ground. Which almost worked, for what that's worth. But it's not what this team is or how it's built. This is a man defense that plays as much Cover-1 and Cover-0 as anybody, generates coverage sacks and plays aggressively. With stout interior linebackers to limit the damage you can do between the tackles. Relying on six and possibly seven DBs (I have to go back and isolate the plays where I couldn't find a single off-the-ball LB) is not something we're accustomed to. If this defense has an identity, that is not it. Maybe it's because Bentley was getting beat or because Anfernee Jennings was exposed somewhat in the 49ers game. But going forward the film is going to show opposing coordinators this defense is going to roll out a lot of safeties and 210 lb corners like Joejuan Williams. Which, while not an invitation to run on them, it's at least a Save the Date card. Stay tuned for that.

--As bad as this one ended, I would still rather watch that Newton fumble on a continuous loop replay for the next 24 hours without sleep, food or wate than sit through five minutes of that CBS show where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl gives the "Silicon Valley" guy her kidney.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "And in this sort of race, there's no silver medal for finishing second." - Sean Connery (RIP) as Prof. Henry Jones, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

--Jakobi Meyers plays with maximum effort. He's a quality route runner. He made a great move getting off the LOS against Taron Johnson on that crossing route that converted the 3rd & 4 on the final drive. There's every reason to feel good about him. But as a third or fourth option. A role player in a spread attack, not at a 10 targets per game primary receiver. I'm trying not to spend every waking moment obsessively comparing this team to Tom Brady's, but when your WR1 and WR2 are Meyers and Byrd and Tampa's receiving corps is overflowing like the bucket of chicken in the $20 KFC meal, how can I not?

--Which reminds me of the one thing that can make this situation worse. Brady on Monday Night Football. Against one of the worst teams in the league. One that he carries and eternal grudge against. FML.

--I feel like Carrie on stage at Prom, covered in pig's blood while her mom's voice is in her head shrieking "They're gonna laaaugh at yooouuu! They're gonna laaaugh at yooouuu!" Is this what it's been like for 31 other fanbases all these years? I do. Not. Like.