Things to consider while identifying this mysterious figure. It's my soul out there:
--In this, the darkest of all timelines, when we found ourselves in the worst of all parallel dimensions in which a Patriots season ends with a meaningless game, in an empty stadium, with cheerleaders leading no cheers, Minutemen in masks, in an irrelevant bubble where no one's paying attention and facing the most uncertain future of our lifetimes, if there's one constant we can depend upon, across the multiverse. It is that, at the very, very least, the New York Jets will always have it worse than us. Thanks, schedule makers, for starting our new year off with them.
--In the long and celebrated history of Knee Jerk Reactions, I've never once faced a season ending with a meaningless game and I don't know how to process it. There's no part of me that thinks this is going to give the franchise some sort of momentum going into the offseason. If anything, this was the first preseason game of 2021. And will be forgotten just as quickly as those are. And I'm not going to be looking at what anything that happened means in the Big Picture. We're about to cross the Rainbow Bridge into an offseason realm of mystery and wonder where anything can happen, and that adventure will deserve many, many posts to come. So for now I'm just going to keep this one about this game and the save the rest for the weeks and months to come. We'll cross that Bifrost when we come to it.
--So I'm not going to put too fine a point on this one. We don't do moral victories here. Like I said last week, I prefer the good old fashioned immoral ones. But even in what was a lost season by the standards of this franchise, it's important to appreciate that this team never packed it in. Never let up. Never gave up.
Never run around and desert you. Never quit playing to the whistle. It's got to be a weird experience to go from making the playoffs for your entire career and find yourself having to prepare for games that will have no impact on the season. We've seen it ruin the morale of other successful franchises and watch as they halfass their way through the last game. To their credit these guys stayed professional and wholeassed to the end.
--That said, they were lucky the Jets came along at the right time. Three of the Pats four touchdowns were from receivers left unaccounted for. Both Jets turnovers were unforced errors, one that led to a touchdown and the other in the red zone. And this was an Adam Gase offense that ranked last in the league in virtually every category. So I'm not about to equate this to beating the 2001 Rams.
--But that said, this was a Pats team that was down to the bottom of its roster at almost every position. That dressed one linebacker. That had Adrian Phillips at ILB until he got hurt, then move Kyle Dugger there for the rest of the game. That relied on Rashod Berry, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant and Terrance Brooks for significant playing time. That was down to two of the five offensive linemen they expected to start the season with. And that dressed three running backs and a fullback. And still managed to play as complete a game as we've seen since that blowout win at the Chargers over a month ago.
--Still, before I get into the hows and whys, I'll thank you for caring enough to read this far. I switched to Red Zone a couple of times during the time outs and it was jarring to switch back. It reminded me of times when the Pats would be playing a wild, sold out game in late September and I'd flip to a Red Sox game when they were hopelessly out of the pennant race and Fenway would be half empty and dead quiet to the point you could hear the hot dog vendors yelling and guys behind the backstop blowing their nose. Going directly from say, the Browns-Steelers game to Pats-Jets was like surfacing too fast while scuba diving. The change in atmosphere could give you the Bends. I found it was best to decompress with some Lions-Vikings, just to acclimate yourself to the lower pressure. Hopefully there won't be a next time, but remember this safety tip for future reference.
--This was Cam Newton's 2020 in a microcosm. He made some impressive plays with his size, speed and toughness. That 49-yard run was a masterclass in getting enough defenders to hesitate by selling the handoff that he opened a lane, tucked and ran it, slipping tackles as he went. He made some stellar throws. None better than the 3rd & 18 in the 2nd quarter where he stepped up in front of the backside pressure and delivered an arrow right into Jakobi Meyers' 10-ring for 18.1 yard and the conversion. He followed that up with a checkdown to Damiere Byrd for six. A couple of screens to James White that he turned into 1st downs and we had an honest-to-God drive going. But then he missed White open in the short flat. Threw one behind Byrd on a corner route where he had a step on Lamar Jackson that was almost picked. Then on 3rd & 10 he failed to read the blitz, Frankie Luvu hurdled White's pickup and he took a sack that knocked them out of field goal range. That was the middle slice of toast in a club sandwich of three drives that crossed midfield but ended in punts thanks to inaccuracy and indecision. The drive before ended when he missed Byrd on a 3rd & 5 while trying to throw on the run. The one after stalled when Newton had a pass knocked down at the line while trying to check it down to White without ever looking to Meyers who was wide open on the backside. Then on 3rd & 10 he was chased out of the pocket and threw it away. Stop me if you've heard any of this before.
--That's the thing that will always be my biggest disappointment of the Cam Newton Era. (Assuming it's over. There was some talk in the postgame that Adam Schefter's report wasn't really a report, it was speculation or whatever. But I'm going with "report." Schefty doesn't mess these things up like he's some kind of Charley Casserly.) It's his inability to make throws on the run. If nothing else, I thought he'd bring one element to the passing game here that it's lacked: A guy who can strain a defense by escaping the pocket, either through designed rollouts or by creating second reaction plays when the play as called is well defended. I've lost count of how many times we've seen opposing quarterbacks do just that to the Patriots. Where Chase Winovich or Josh Uche will have a QB in a full out sprint only to see him hit a receiver at the boundary 15 yards upfield for a toetap 1st down. We saw it again yesterday with Sam Darnold, with rollouts to both sides of the field. On the Jets third possession when he rolled left to buy time for Denzel Mims to break back in front of Williams. And to his right on that weird play where it looked like the intended target was Bryant before Jamison Crowder stepped in front of him to make the catch. The point being that we're seeing these moving pocket-type quarterbacks all across the league now. But the one guy I thought would bring that element to New England for the first time ever is simply incapable of making those throws.
--But as an aside before we move on, Bryant has to come back to that pass and fight for it. He sat and waited for it like it was a pop up and the Infield Fly Rule was in effect. He then followed that up with a Defenseless Receiver penalty after Chris Herndon's subsequent touchdown. I'm just sorry for the artists over at Bad Lip Reading that Belichick was masked up on the sideline because what he was yelling at Bryant would've been comedy gold. This season has been harder on them than on anyone.
--There are two things I need to experience before I shuffle off this mortal coil. One is to call the Infield Fly Rule. And the other is to wave off Icing. I just have always wondered what it would feel like to wield that kind of power. Does Make-a-Wish have an age limit?
--Is it really an exaggeration to say that of the five people we saw attempt passes for the Patriots this year, that Jakobi Meyers throws the best ball?
Sorry, Newton, Stidham, Hoyer and Edelman, but there's a reason he had a perfect passer rating and 25% as many touchdowns on the season as our QB1. And what make it even more impressive is he's the only one in the group who didn't have Jakobi Meyers to throw to. Though maybe Newton has found a future because he looked good on that route. Maybe Tom Brady threw 40 TDs, but he's not making that play.
--OK, that's enough of the preliminaries. Let's finally get down to the history we saw made yesterday. After months of anticipation, Devin Asiasi plunged his broadsword into the field turf and announced with authority that he is ready to conquer the NFL. It's been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. And as he takes his first mighty steps, the lions in their dens tremble at the sound of his approach.
--First he had that 13 yard reception, which gave him 13 yards on the year, moving him ahead of fellow rookie Dalton Keene (10) into the No. 2 spot on the Pats Tight End Receiving Yards list. Then not to be outdone, Keene answered back with a 6-yard catch of his own, and the battle was on. Until finally Asiasi ended it with this.
That was another of the plays where the Jets had a complete breakdown and left a receiver uncovered. Just a simple seam route with a mesh concept underneath (Meyers and Byrd crossing) that drew the coverage and the linebackers caught looking for Sony Michel and Jakob Johnson to come out of the backfield. With only a single high safety left to defend him, Asiasi wisely stemmed his route into the corner and Newton did not miss him. Again, that's the Jets doing Jets things. But that shouldn't stop the rookie from picking up a "Best Breakout Performance" ESPY for this. Let the war to be the heir of the throne of Ryan Izzo begin.
--One of the most pleasant developments of the season has been Michel's play since he came off IR. He seems quicker. Whereas in his first couple of seasons he seemed like one of those backs who's much better running behind a fullback, he's done exceptionally well out of 11-personnel. He's getting around the edge better than ever before. And he's become a pass catching threat.
I was actually surprised he finished the season with seven receptions (for 114 yards, a 16.3 average) because it felt like more. I sincerely think he is growing into more of a Rex Burkhead role. More of a versatile back that you can't just key on as someone who's going to run between the tackles and load the box on him. He averaged 5.7 YPA on the season, which paired nicely with Damien Harris' 5.0, and I think that's a combination that can take us to Flavortown for years to come.
--Defensively, I thought Steve Belichick mixed it up well to cover up his lack of linebackers. Ju'Whaun Bentley played practically every snap. And in addition to filling in around him with Phillips and Dugger, we saw a lot of 3-4 fronts, with a rotation of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. at the ends and Byron Cowart and Akeem Spence swapping out at the 0-tech nose. Then on passing downs going with two down linemen in over/under fronts and playing dime behind them.
--The best decision Belichick the Younger made was letting Winovich off the chain. He's at his absolute best when he's allowed to run games and just go full Viking Berserker on people. His first sack came on a stunt off the edge where he came behind Guy and Cowart up the middle. His second sack came when he quick-twitched Greg Van Routen. Then on the final possession he broke Darnold in half by running a tackle-end cross (a "TEX") with Butler and got there just as the ball was released. This was one of those games where Winovich was allowed to stay on the field for all three downs. And much of his work was done on Mekhi Becton's side of the line, who is already one of the best tackles in football. While he can be somewhat limited in the run game, the defense simply plays better when they can keep Winovich on the field. Let's hope that's his role next year.
--Speaking of Becton, I thought they handled him well. On at least one occasion I saw Dugger take him on mano y mano on a pin-pull, shed the block and make the tackle. They made a goal line stop that was run behind him (with Guy coming from the backside vs. George Fant). But for the most part I saw him ragdolling rushes from Wise and moving along the LOS in the Jets zone blocking schemes like a 300 lb guard, not the planetoid he is. Becton is going to be D'Brickashaw: The Next Generation and I'm looking forward to a decade of battles with him.
--In coverage, we saw a lot of Cover-3, with a single high safety and the corners dropping to the deep outside zones. Particularly with JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones, but also with the subs and the subs' subs. Butler had a sack in the 3rd quarter that began with Michael Jackson (Common first name, common last name. I won't do it) lined up on Vyncint Smith, before dropping back to take away the deep 1/3 that made Darnold hold the ball long enough for Butler's rip move to Van Routen's inside and finish the play. I think Jones' interception also came from that coverage, with Darnold never seeing him coming from the outside and thinking he had the whole corner to work with:
Seeing ghosts is bad. Not seeing the corner whose assignment is 33% of the end zone is much, much worse. They don't sell EMFs to detect defensive backs.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
"It's gone. It's done."
"It's over now, Mr. Frodo."
- "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
--Whether he's staying or going, I did appreciate Newton's sentiments toward the end of the game. Waving to the Militia guys. Smiling with his teammates. Pretending to throw a ball into the stands. I know it's not for everyone. I have a buddy who was texting me furious that Newton did the Sizzling Bacon thing on the ground after sliding for a 1st. His theory being that at the end of a failed season, you shouldn't be having fun. Or something. But I don't agree. You had football taken away from you for months. Your life's dream was lying in smoldering ruins all Spring and half the Summer. You got it all back and gave it your best effort with a group of guys that appreciate you. I don't think walking around with a miserable look on your puss is a job requirement at the end of a year when it didn't work out. That said, maybe it's for the best that there was nobody in the stands for these eight home games. It would would've been The Purge after a while.
--I'm ashamed to say I've sat through an entire season of NFL football from my couch and I still don't know how to Sonic.
--Oh, what the hell. Let's really lean into the awfulness that is all of this, just to pick at the wound some more:
Which is great. Nobody deserves it more. Hopefully that $250K will help him pay off the moving van driver he chucked rocks at.
--And just to wipe out the image of Antonio Brown somehow still being Brady's inexplicably close friend, here's a meaningless palate cleanser for your eyes:
OK, Nike. Fun's over. Time to get working on free agency and the draft. That is, unless the Jets hire you as their next VP of Football Operations.
--Finally, I want to thank you again for reading. I've been doing KJRs each and every game since I first joined Barstool back in 2004 or so. Ironically enough, the only game I've missed was the one Jay Feely referenced yesterday that he won with an overtime kick in 2008, with Matt Cassel and Brett Favre as the quarterbacks. Because I was at that game and didn't get home til 4 a.m. or so. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure a KJR was in the writing sample I first sent to Dave so he would hire me for what was then a non-paying job and is now my livelihood. And this is an important part of the job. I get a lot of reaction to this column. Almost all of it good. And it's sincerely appreciated. Especially this year when most of them have felt like passing a stone. Like this Dynasty I've been covering, I'm primed for the offseason and ready to come back next September for a return to dominance. No. Days. Off.