Things to consider now that you've addressed the biggest crisis of the year so far: What kind of placement does the Tom Brady ornament deserve? (Answer: Back of the tree, near the window. This Christmas belongs to Bird, Papi, Teddy Ballgame and Kristi Yamaguchi and Peggy Fleming. It's a 2020 thing.):
--Finally. It's been so long, I'd forgotten what this feels like. And wondered if we'd ever get to experience it again. But then the Patriots complete that unnecessary touchdown pass that accomplishes nothing but serves some greater, long term purpose we simple Muggles can't envision and the sense memory kicks in. And it's there that I remember the simple joys of a "Bill Belichick Has No Class, Running Up the Score Like That" game. My favorite kind of Patriots win.
--But my guess is this was Belichick's favorite kind of win for a different reason. Remember some of his classic - and supposedly classless - blowout wins of the past like that 59-0 game over Tennessee when his team had five touchdown passes in the 1st half? Back then the talk was whether he could ever win without Brady putting up Arena League numbers. If he was really ever a good enough tackle football coach to win through some other means, like ball control, defense and special teams. Well yesterday was your answer. His starting quarterback threw for 69 yards in a 45-0 win. That's the equivalent of pitching a perfect game without a fastball. And it had to make the old defensive coordinator/special teams coach's heart grown three sizes that day.
--Just as important as a massive road win as this team tries to claw their way into the playoffs was the statement this made about the future. This game was a teaser trailer for the 2021 Patriots. In all three phases they got major contributions from first- and second-year players. They put the world on notice to enjoy 2020 while it lasts, because with the young talent on this roster developing (and a huge amount of cap space available), the foundation of Dynasty II: New England Drift is being built. And this same was the sound of impending doom for everyone who believed it was over.
--There were many ways this was accomplished. But let's begin with yet another of his favorite things. Raindrops on footballs. Whiskers on centers. And reducing a promising rookie quarterback to ashes.
--Justin Herbert is a mortal lock to win Offensive ROTY, nothing gives this coach more joy than giving a guy like that his "Welcome to Pro Football" moment. That rite of passage where the tribal elder takes the lad away from his own coach's warm, protective embrace out into the NFL wilderness and leaves him there to fend for himself.
--To me it looked like what The Sons of the Son of Belichick did was constantly shifting their look presnap and giving Herbert two different set of calculations to do. Often it would involve either bringing a linebacker up or dropping the Mike off the line back to the second level. So giving Herbert a look at both a 4-man "Over" front (a "40") or a 5-man "Under" (a "50"), forcing him to account for two entirely different fronts and choose between mulitple protection schemes. (Not to get too into the weeds of Over vs. Under, because there are different keys to them, like the 1-technique defensive tackle is always to the strong side of the formation on an Under, whereas he'll be in the backside A-gap in an Over. The cheat sheet on this one just reads: "Over 40, Under 50." Just like my Tinder preferences.) Then from there they further stressed LA's passing game with complex blitz packages, stunts and games up front. In coverage, they seemed to flip from man to zone to matchup zone from one play to the next. And basically reached into a young, learning and growing quarterback's brain, pulled out his hippocampus and twisted it into a balloon animal. Steve Belichick just kept playing "Follow the Queen" and taking the kid's money.
--Maybe the best example of this was the Chargers first possession of the 2nd half. The key to which was the Pats top defensive rookies and sophomores. One one down, Anfernee Jennings dropped off the line to the linebacker level as the line shifted to an Over. On 3rd & 2, they lined up with one down lineman, and at the snap Josh Uche went from showing blitz to covering the underneath zone. On 2nd & 7, the coverage was changed up to put Jennings and Kyle Dugger doubling Keenan Allen and stopping him short of a 1st. On 3rd & 3, LA called for a designed rollout. Chase Winovich was on the backside and held his ground to guard against the reverse. But once he identified Herbert throwing back against the grain, Winovich jumped Jalen Guyton's route for the interception.
That's one sequence, but it was happening throughout the game. Major contributions coming from guys taken in the last two drafts who are getting more and more playing time and looking like the core of the next defense of this team.
--And while Dugger has clearly planted his flag and claimed his territory as a solid run force defender, none of the rookies has stood out the way Uche has now that his reps are increasing week by week. He played half the snaps yesterday, his most so far. And he made impact plays on most of his reps. Even when he didn't get to Herbert, he was bearing down on him constantly and forcing him to rush throws. On the Chargers second possession, he blitzed the A-gap, forcing the ball out which was broken up by Stephon Gilmore on Mike Williams. On their third drive, he came off the edge on 3rd & 9 as Wino stunted behind Adam Butler, forcing a checkdown and a punt. He ended their fourth with a rip move on the edge against Storm Norton that forced an incompletion. On their fifth, he quick twitched Forrest Lamp on the interior for a throwaway. When it was 35-0 Uche had a 3rd & 7 where he shot the B-gap as Jennings bent around the outside for an incompletion. He was relentless. We were told his film at Michigan showed he could be moved anywhere and generate pressure from all over the formation. And he's proving the tape didn't lie.
--While he's been around a few years, I'll add Butler into this mix as well. He's really emerged over the last month or so as a 1-gap penetrator. And yesterday added a sack, a tackle for loss and another pass batted down at the line to what's already been the best stretch of his career. Akeem Spence has fit in well in that old Danny Shelton role as a space eater to play alongside Lawrence Guy (who also added a sack, plowing right through Kalen Ballage). And between those interior tackles and the movable part-type roving linebackers, we're beginning to see all the gears inside the machine begin to mesh together. It's taken some time. Time that was lost in the offseason, early on when guys were hurt and the two weeks without practice. But it's starting to function the way the engineers in the lab coats in the Patriots testing facility designed it to.
--And I can't pretend I don't love this:
--By the way, I've never had a problem with the way my mother raised me. Until this moment. Until I realize how much better my life would've turned out if she'd named me Storm Thornton. Sure, as some point every Thornton gets called "Thunder" by a coach or two, but it never stuck. I'm convinced if I'd gone through life as Storm Thornton, there would be no stopping me. In that way Homer Simpsons life became awesome after he changed his name to "Max Power" after reading it on a hair dryer. Thanks for dooming me to an existence of mediocrity, Irene.
--There is nothing that empowers the Boston-based anti-Patriots jihadists like a bad showing by their special teams. That's when the smartypants GM Bill critics come out in full force screaming about how ridiculous it is he'll waste draft picks on career special teamers like Matthew Slater, Joe Cardona and Jake Bailey or spend money on a guy like Justin Bethel. Mediots who'd rather they just fair catch every punt rather than put a Julian Edelman at risk or eat up a roster spot with a Gunner Olszewski. Their theory I guess being that you can just round up a random collection of orcs, put them in helmets and send them into battle on punts and kicks. While this dark wizard is wasting all his time and energy breeding Fighting Uruk-hai. Well ask the Chargers how they feel about the importance of dedicated, gifted and highly trained special teamers right now. It's a part of the game. Those plays matter. Field position counts. In fact, it has a direct correlation to points. Those points go up on the scoreboard and are part of the permanent record, just like all the others. And this game is a perfect example of what can happen when you dominate in this one phase. Maybe the best example since the 2001 AFC championship game, when the Pats scored one offensive touchdown but blew Pittsburgh out of the building thanks to Troy Brown's punt return TD and a blocked kick that Brown lateraled to Antwan Harris for another score.
--These plays counted. First, Olszewski following blocks by Slater right in front of him, Donte Moncrief at the second level and Bethel way up field:
And Cody Davis coming off the edge along with Bethel to block a field goal. A rush that was preceded by a shift at the line just prior to the snap. A shift I have to assume came directly out of film study and finding weaknesses in the Chargers protection:
--Plus we got Bethel catching one of Bailey's punts in the air and shoveling it back to Davis like Larry Bird (see front and center of my Christmas tree at eye level) grabbing a ball out of bounds and shovel-passing it to Dennis Johnson for the lay-in. So yes, special teams matter. Just someone explain to me how Joe Judge was the loss this coaching staff was never going to recover from again?
--Offensively, this was the Josh McDaniels game plan I've been hoping for. This unit is built to run over defenses until they prove cannot be run over. At times this year he's gotten away from that long before anybody proved anything. And in the middle of games we've seen him rely on magic tricks, pyrotechnics and waving his flash-bang wand with double passes and the like. Instead of just making the defense disappear, which the people paid to see.
--Uchenna Nwosu is the Chargers only linebacker over 240 pounds. And he's smaller than Cam Newton. Sure, maybe you can throw against a team like that, but why would you if you don't have to? At some point it becomes taking your Dodge Ram on the Autobahn. It's street legal and all, but it's built for hauling and off-roading. Both of which we metaphorically got.
--Though yesterday's McOffense was not without its wrinkles, which I thought were inventive and pretty damned clever. Taking them chronologically, on the opening drive McDaniels lined Damien Harris right behind Jakob Johnson in a standard Power I. But not behind center; behind the right tackle. If I've ever seen that before it didn't register with me. But it gave Harris an extra step for a pitch to the outside as Michael Onwenu ran Nick Vigil off for a 1st down. He aligned them the same way facing a 4th & 2 on the same drive, this time behind the left tackle. And Newton kept it for the conversion. Beyond that we got two direct snaps to Harris out of the Wildcat with Newton motioning out wide, both of which were effective. And some of the best option runs we've seen. One on that same possession where James White got Joey Bosa to bite on his fake dive while Newton went around his vacated side for 14. And another in the 3rd when Newton held the ball on Sony Michel's belly button seemingly forever before keeping it and turning Michel into a blocker to pick up five on 3rd & 1. These are all prime examples of establishing what you do well and then creating options of it, then options off of the options.
--A lot of those options seemed to come from quick huddles that got them to the line with plenty of time for Newton to look over the formations and make adjustments. If not the usual audibles we're used to, checking from run to pass, at least checking from run to a different kind of run, including him keeping it. At this point in his career Newton has seen the tackle box packed every way coachkind can devise, so it makes all the sense in the world to get him under center with all the time he needs to dissect it.
--And seriously, I could live with the offense like this the rest of the season. I don't necessarily need a deep passing game as long as they keep moving the chains and avoiding turnovers. That's the Storm Thornton Way.
--Or maybe I have no choice. Because there were still misses. Lots of passing yards that never materialized. Either through Jakobi Meyer's drop on Newton's best throw in weeks. Or Newton returning the favor by giving Meyers no chance on a ball to the end zone and overthrowing him on a deep corner route. Then there was the near interception where he badly underthrew Damiere Byrd in double coverage, but Nassir Adderley and Michael Davis were courteous enough to Interception Break Up (IBU) each other. But since they were and the team was up 35-0 at the time, I'm not about to nitpick a little thing like a quarterback's complete inability to complete deep passes. Like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa lying to Congress, right now I'm here just to give a positive message to the kids and my English isn't so good.
--And while I'm being positive, let's give credit where it's due to someone who hasn't given us much reason to give credit: N'Keal Harry.
This is the kind of thing we've been waiting for. Not to exceed my limit of NBA metaphors, but goes right down into the low post, bangs bodies with Chris Harris Jr, uses his size advantage to make himself basically undefendable and finishes the play. If I'm being honest, I'm more of a "low on the goal line, high in the back of the end zone" kind of guy because we've seen what happens all too often when a receiver has to reach for a ball like that. But I'm not going to complain about positive results. And like with that defensive video above, you have to love how Harry's teammates go nuts around him. He's basically been running randomly around secondaries like Forky for weeks, seemingly with no direction or purpose. So with any luck this will be some kind of career-changing event for him.
--Then again, it's not fair to compare Harry to all the other wideouts in the 2019 rookie class. I mean, not everyone can be Gunner.
This year, with the McOffense Transforming into a Super Duty pickup the way it has, it's gotten so I can't even remember what the route combinations used to look like or what they were called. But this one looks familiar. A 3-man bunch where Harry slides out for a possible bubble screen, Meyers sits down under the coverage, and Jarrett Stidham gives them just enough of a look to get the safety on that side to bite. Both Olszewski and Stidham read the middle of the field open (MOFO) so the only route is a Cover-2 beating skinny post. The fact that throwing deep up by 38 points will aggravate the football Karens is secondary to the fact this is a glimpse into our glorious future. I truly believe that.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Paine: "The guy thinks he's a real badass."
Gunner: "Actually, I'm a horror show."
The Brit: "This geezer's a bloody joke."
Gunner: "Life's a joke, SHITFACE!"
--SoFi Stadium lighting up the scoreboard with a "MAKE SOME NOISE" video in an empty house is one of the most Chargers things I've ever seen. Who was that intended for? The A/V crew sitting at the sound board? And aren't they the ones operating the video board as well? Was that a reminder, like when I tell Alexa to set an alarm for 5 a.m. to get me up to a ridiculous wake up song the Irish Rose actually likes?
--While I'm talking about SoFi, when Herbert's helmet radio wasn't working and Tyrod Taylor was offering his and all that, is that still the home team cheating? Or was that only when it happened to the Steelers at Gillette? Or, have the Pats invented a miniature, portable version of their secret jamming device? This might sound like crazy talk, but maybe when you're playing in like a $4 billion venue, you could send an intern down to Radio Shack with the 20 bucks in petty cash it'll take to get a receiving device that functions. But what do I know? Mike Tomlin is the NFL's radio guy, the way Kinch was on "Hogan's Heroes."
--All too often when the Patriots don't get the marquee matchup, we get the dregs of broadcasting society. And it's not like me to say positive things about the teams we get, but I'll take Kevin Harlan and Trent Green anytime. Even when they made the mistake about James White's parents, you know it was just one of those "Anyone could've made the mistake" things and not carelessness or stupidity. And they owned it. Harlan deserves to get better games.
--I guess we're onto Los Angeles. A city where, as my buddy Barstool legend Uncle Buck points out, the Patriots haven't given up a point since 1992.