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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 12: Patriots vs. Cardinals

Things to consider while finishing off your Thanksgiving weekend in prayerful gratitude for the new Big Dick Nick:

--If last week's game against Houston proved there is no one this Patriots team is incapable of losing to, this win demonstrated they can pull out games they don't really deserve to win. Games where the W makes almost no logical or statistical sense. This was an old school win right out of the early days of the dynasty, where they got dominated in one phase of the game, used up every millimeter of their margin for error, but made just exactly the right amount of plays in the other phases to come out on top. Where they got huge contributions from often overlooked veterans and roster bubble guys that had you reaching for your phone to look them up because you didn't know they were even on the roster. This time, with the obscure likes of Akeem Spence and Myles Bryant in the roles once occupied by one play legends like Antwan Harris and Fred Coleman. Where they played just enough complimentary football as a team to send an opponent home wondering how they let the game get away from them.

--And the Cardinals will keep on wondering because it defies explanation. In every respect they should've had this one. In today's NFL - the game that came to Bill Polian in a peyote-fueled fever dream in a sweat lodge in 2003 - you simply don't hold a team to 69 net passing yards, outgain them 298 to 179, and run 74 plays to their 53 plays and lose. Have Dr. Strange run those numbers through 14,000,605 possible outcomes and he's going to come out of his trance saying you won 14,000,604 times. This was the one exception.

--And the reason is simply the Pats made more have-to-have it plays than Arizona. Mostly on defense and special teams. Ending with a 36 year old kicker who was out of work 14 months ago bisecting the goalpost with a perfect 50 yard kick, but by no means beginning there. And I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I say the biggest was the goal line stand just before the half.  And as I get into that, let me single out the player of the game for the Pats, Adam Butler. If he ever gets invited to his kid's Career Day at school, this is the game he should tell the class about, because it was the best he's had in his four very solid seasons in New England.

--For starters, he had four tackles, a QB hit (in which he split a double team with a textbook swim move), a sack, two TFL's and deflected a pass that was intercepted to set up a touchdown drive. More specifically, on the play before the 4th & goal stop, he showed blitz but then dropped into coverage. As the ball came to (checks the spelling) KeeSean Johnson and Jason McCourty wrapped him up, Butler had stayed with the play, hustled back to the goal line and along with Bryant, helped McCourty force him to the ground. Without his effort, the 4th down never happens and the Cardinals take a 17-7 lead into the half with the ball to start the 3rd quarter.

--On the final stop itself, Lawrence Guy ate up a double team from the C-G combo of Mason Cole and Justin Pugh, but the hero to me was Spence, who threw off a JR Sweezy block from the play side A-gap which plowed the road for Ju'Whaun Bentley to come flying in for the hit on Kenyan Drake. If you had a 300 lb defensive tackle with a linebacker's number (52) making the biggest play of the year in his first game of the season, congrats. The Prize Patrol will be at your house with your giant novelty check. 

--Frankly, I didn't see any of this coming from the Patriots defense. Not after last week. No two quarterbacks are ever the same, but you'd be hard pressed (and if you've ever been hard pressed, you know how painful that can be) to name any two with more similar skill sets than Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray. Both thrive on extending plays and completing passes on second reaction. And after watching Watson stress the Pats rush and carve the secondary like he was wielding Hattori Hanzo steel, the last thing I expected was to see them hold the Cardinals to 4.3 yards per play and just 4.1 YPA on the ground, both season lows for Arizona.

--After the game, Bill Belichick praised Steve Belichick's play calls, which is the first public mention he's ever made that his son is calling the shots. Even though the headset and the moving lips were a dead giveaway, this is still a big acknowledgement. And the plays in question were a combination of a lot of things they didn't do at all last week. First, the defensive front set the edges against the Cardinals outside zone game. The ran a lot of scrape exchanges, where the defensive end keys on the running back and either the corner or the outside linebacker spies the quarterback and guards against the keeper. Which sounds simple enough but takes more discipline than most defensive players - who are bred and raised like fighting dogs to see the ball and attack it - can muster. Second, Belichick the Younger was more aggressive than he's been in a while, calling a variety of blitzes, from Cover-0s to zone blitzes like the one that had Butler dropping into the hot route area near the goal line. They pressured, but it was a controlled pressure that kept Murray bottled up instead of getting outside and causing the coverage to break down the way Watson did. One of those zero blitzes had Josh Uche coming free to flush Murray from the pocket for no gain. And on the subsequent 3rd & 11 he let Chase Winovich move around the formation before he stunted behind Butler and pressured Murray to rush a throw that was nearly picked. In all, he let his guys off the leash more than he has. And a defense that has looked positively My Pillowish at times, got less squishy squishy and more attacky attacky, which we've come to expect this time of the season.

--While we're talking about Winovich, let's acknowledge the fact that he's paying attention. Jimmy Garoppolo helped win a game by flopping on him, he turns the table. Or tries to, at least. 

--In coverage, the secondary stuck almost exclusively to man, occasionally with two deep but primarily with Devin McCourty as the single high safety. Kyle Dugger not only saw his most playing time of the year, he had his best game. After being a bit of a liability in coverage on Jordan Akins last week, he was assigned to Maxx Williams yesterday and more than held up his end of the bargain. He also saw some of Dan Arnold, blanketing him in the end zone along with Devin McCourty to force a throwaway. He continues to be a great presence as a run force defender. On the same drive as the one I just mentioned, he fought through a Williams block to penetrate on a Christian Kirk jet sweep, reroute the ballcarrier and allow Bentley to finish him off for a loss. On a  1st & goal he saved a touchdown with a form tackle on Drake that almost jarred the ball loose. In all he saw 73% of the snaps and I'd be stunned if that number doesn't continue to go up.

--The marquee matchup of Stephon Gilmore vs DeAndre Hopkins had a little more action than Tyson-Jones, but with the same result: A draw. Hopkins finished with five catches for 55 yards, though to be fair 13 of those came with the Pats in a rare zone when he beat Terez Hall. Still he draw a hold from Gilmore in the end zone on what should've forced a field goal try and instead set up that 4th quarter touchdown. Plus you had what I think is a first in all my experience: A DPI nullifying an OPI on the same play. Gilmore interfering with Hopkins interference. So that's why I'm calling it a draw. 

--Overall it seemed like Kliff Kingsbury was holding back a little. I expected more motions. More bodies in the backfield instead of just the occasional tight end lined up as an H-back. More zone runs. Maybe it's because the Belichicks took that away or if he just decided to dial it back for this one. But it felt less like the full Air Raid Offense and more of a basic Civil Defense Drill. 

--I'll say this though: Whether they're playing well or being fed into a defense shredder, no unit in the league can give up completions on desperate lob throws that hang in the air forever like these Patriots can. Even tipped balls seem to find their target an incomprehensible amount of the time.

--The other key element was the special teams. If this was the newspaper your dad reads I'd say "they were indeed special," but nobody comes here for that kind of lazy content. In addition to Big Dick Nick's heroism, Jake Bailey flipped the field a couple of times, most notably with a lob wedge with enough backspin on it to bounce off the goal line to the 3. Justin Bethel might be a better kick coverage guy than Matthew Slater, and that's not something I say casually because Slater is a HoFer in my eyes. And you got two huge returns, one on a kickoff from Donte Moncrief and the other on a punt from Gunner Olszewski. Only the fact that the officials for some reason are obligated to throw flags any time they see a great punt return and figure out why later was this ruled illegal:

Unfortunately the NFL's social media secret police made the Tweet come down, but someone posted footage of Belichick shoving the photos in the officials face during the time out to plead the case that this was a garbage call. There's nothing "blindside" about squaring up to a guy, holding your ground and hitting him, numbers to numbers. It's outlawing football. But I guess when you take a punt return all the way they have to call something, and Anfernee Jennings was a perfect fall guy.

--Of course it wouldn't have mattered had the Patriots simply been able to put it in the end zone on a drive that started at Arizona's 39. But that's too big an ask this season. The offense in general but the passing game in particular is a total crapshoot from week to week. It's the Yankee Swap Offense. You don't know what it will be until you open it. One week it's an iPod, the next it's a hand-knitted oven mitt

--How much of this is on Cam Newton is kind of an eye-of-the-beholder thing. On the one hand, you can point to the fact that while the Patriots had their top cornerback on Hopkins, arguably the best wideout in the game, the Cardinals had the luxury of putting their CB1 on Jakobi Meyers. That's not a knock on Meyers, who is unquestionably New England's top receiving threat. It's an indictment of a depth chart that has Jakobi Meyers as its top receiving threat. On the other hand, this is the NFL in 2020. And Newton is an incredibly gifted athlete. He could be throwing to a randomly selected sample of Weight Watchers customers and post a better stat line than 9-18, 84 yards, 4.7 YPA, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 23.6 passer rating. He's the randomized gift within the Yankee Swap. And yesterday he was an old shirt stuffed into a plastic bag

--Belichick was asked about whether an 84 yard performance was enough to get him to consider a change at quarterback and he pointed out Newton had 350 yards last week. A fair point. But it doesn't explain away Newton's struggles with accuracy and timing. He's missing open receivers, such as the possession after Olszewski's punt return. 3rd & goal from the 4 he motioned his receivers to a 3X1 and had Damiere Byrd coming free on a cross. The very route you're hoping to get with the 3-man bunch. And he overthrew him. Badly. And had to settle for a field goal on a drive that started on the opponent's half of the field. There was no pressure. No designed rollout or magic tricks of any kind. Just a pitch and catch from a short distance and they couldn't connect. 

--I'll give Newton a semi-pass on the first interception, just because there seemed to be a communication problem up front. James White and Michael Onwenu both picked up the same corner blitz by Haason Reddick, allowing Jordan Hicks to come in clean. But the 4th quarter pick was inexcusable. Just staring down Byrd as Dre Kirkpatrick was reading the route perfectly and putting the ball where his receiver had no chance.

Even on that final, game winning drive he had a well set up screen to White and made him have to leap for the ball, messed up the rhythm of the play and it got blown up. I don't want to put too fine a point on it because he had been doing a great job of taking care of the ball for the past month or so. But there's an unpredictability to it every time the ball comes out of his hands. Even on the short and intermediate stuff and crossing routes where he's been most comfortable throwing it throughout his career. It can't have the coaching staff teeming with confidence. 

--While we're talking about consistency, never let it be said you can't depend on N'Keal Harry to make impact plays. Every, single week he is in there, being a factor and impacting the game. Just not in a good way. Sure, he didn't have any catches. But he picked up yet another big holding call. He was -2 rushing on one attempt. Then he pulled off the Bad Play Trifecta by dropping a slant pass. On the next play he whiffed badly on a block of Marcus Golden, who dropped Damien Harris for a loss of 8. Then on the subsequent 3rd & 14 he tried to sit down on the route a good six or eight yards shy of the marker while Newton pleaded with him to get up field before finally launching the incompletion. Last week I got out of the business of defending this guy or pleading patience. Now that I've broken bad on Harry, I can see how much fun his true critics have been having. I've been missing out.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "'Elliot?' You're gonna name the kid Elliot? No, you can't name the kid Elliot. Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste. You're not gonna name the kid Elliot. You gotta give him a real name. Give him a name. Like 'Nick.' Yeah, Nick. Nick's a real name. Nick's your buddy. Nick's the kind of guy you can trust. The kind of guy you can drink a beer with. The kind of guy who doesn't mind if you puke in his car. Nick!" - Gib, "The Sure Thing"

--Part of the reason to stay the course with Newton, besides the fact he just beat a decent team, is that he does give the Pats offense options. The McOffense as it's currently constituted is built around him and it's worth playing it out. Take for instance the 4th & goal touchdown by White where they left Kylie Fitts unblocked and he came in on Newton, which allowed Onwenu to come up on Hicks. 

That play sort of set up the 3rd & 13 conversion that won the game. It was 11 personnel with White as the lone back. They again ran the run option, this time leaving Reddick unblocked. He bit on the hand off to White, which was sold by Joe Thuney pulling that direction, freeing Justin Herron to bounce up to the second level to seal off Golden. Newton fought for the 1st down. Isaiah Simmons helped with a stupid helmet-to-helmet. The entire Patriots offensive line rallied around their guy and were out for blood. It was a well designed play. Perfectly executed.  And there was no way they were going to lose after that. Granted, seeing the occasional 80 yard touchdown bomb like all the other teams seem to get would be nice. But this year we can't have nice things so take what you have and be thankful.

--By the way, Simmons pleading his case to the TV cameras after that was priceless. Did he think those of us at home get a vote on it? If we did, Jennings penalty would've swept the electoral college. 

--Until the Cardinals missed that field goal, the 4th quarter consisted of a Cardinals TD drive that went 16 plays in 7:19 and featured about 15 penalties, followed by Newton's interception. It was to quarters what "The Masked Singer" is to music. 

--I've discovered something about myself. I have psychic abilities. I believe I can sense whether a kick will be good or not before it happens. I can't explain it. But I just knew Folk was going to make his kick. And I'm always right about these things, going back to Steven Gostkowski's postseason misses. Granted, it would be more useful to be able to sense natural disasters or help police find missing people. But all you can do is make the most of the powers you've been given.

--I just wish Newton's passing game was so predictable. But I have no clue.

--So now the Patriots get to fly to LA then spend a week in a hotel there to play two games four days apart. LA. A city in total lockdown. Or, fly back and forth 6,000 miles, twice. This year still hasn't run out of ways to kick them in the nuts.