Things to consider while respecting how Bill Belichick still controls the movement of all celestial bodies in the cosmos:
--This is one where you take the W, be grateful the Patriots get the extra days to prepare for Tennessee, and don't sweat the details. Forget all the negative plays. Don't concern yourself with the eight-play drives that ended in punts or the nine- and 10-play drives that resulted in field goals. It's a Pass/Fail test. There are no style points here. No judge's scores for Artistic Merit. The football gods have given a name to all the sloppiness. They call it Thursday Night Football. All the holding calls and special teams penalties and pass interferences and missed blocking assignments come from the fact no one is mentally or physically ready for these games. TNF is the day at office after the company Holiday Party. It's elementary school the morning after Halloween. You simply cannot hold anyone to the same standards of efficiency and behavior you normally would. Just take your 25-0 humiliation of a four-win team in their own stadium and enjoy your weekend of watching other teams in the bonkers AFC playoff race lose.
--And make no mistake, a humiliation it was. I know a guy who once shart himself at his job and had to run past female co-workers with his uncleanable pants in his hands (true story), and he had less reason to embarrassed than the Falcons today. This was the 13th shutout by the Patriots defense in the Belichick Epoch, and perhaps the most complete. Atlanta hadn't failed to get points in the red zone all season, and the Pats skunked them twice. They only gave up 165 total yards. Only 40 on the ground. With 12 QB Hits, four sacks and four picks. And the only reason those numbers weren't worse is because Atlanta ran out of quarterbacks to intercept. If wherever AJ McCarron was watching the game from his stint on IR, if he tossed a red Solo into the trash, Devin McCourty would've been there to catch it.
--More on the Pats D as we go forward. Lots more. Gobs and gobs more. But just to look at the big picture first, the Pats have won five in a row. This win puts them ahead of Pittsburgh for 5th place in the playoff seeding. During the winning streak, they've outscored opponents 175-50, or an average score of 35-10. Since the Browns scored on their opening drive last week, they've scored 70 unanswered points. Streaks like this of a length like this simply do not happen in Roger Goodell's little utopia of competitive balance. Enjoy this, because it may only pass this way but once.
--It occurred to me as the night began, the last time Mac Jones had played in Mercedes-Benz, he was winning the SEC championship over Florida, throwing for 418 yards with five touchdowns. The last time Belichick coached in the place, he was grilling the official over how long it would take to close the hole after the flyover. It helps to be familiar with your surroundings, I guess. Note too that you can read an in-depth description of "Close the Hole After the Flyover" when my book on tips to satisfy your partner in the bedroom is finally published. I'll keep you posted.
--Mac Jones was Mac Jonesian. Efficient. Taking what the Dean Pees defense gave him. Throwing guys open. Working the flats and curls effectively. He was 22 for 26 (84.1%), which brings his season completion percentage over 70%. One of the few times he did put a lot of air yards on the ball he tried to hit Jonnu Smith who was in the middle of a rugby scrum. But more often than not, he was moving the chains with regularity, only to have the drive short-circuited by a negative play. Either a penalty or a breakdown in the protection. Some of which might have been miscommunications on his end, because on at least a couple of the three sacks he took, the blocking was rolled one way and he didn't seem to sense the pressure would be coming from the other. Again though, those are Thursday night problems. The fact is he played well enough to keep Atlanta playing catch-up and let his defense and special teams control the ball.
--Pardon the non-sequitor: I can't ever hear or use Dean Pees name without remembering the time when he was the Pats D-coordinator, and after a bad game where he was being self-critical, the local headline read "Dean Pees Hard on Himself." Grade school must've been impossible for his entire family tree. Moving on ...
--I've watched Nelson Agholor's touchdown 10 times, and the only explanation I have for him being that wide open in the middle of an NFL defense is that Atlanta's two inside linebackers thought they had the same assignment. It was a balanced run look, with Damien Harris behind Jakob Johnson in 12 personnel, with Hunter Henry as an inline Y-tight end and Agholor and Jakobi Meyers split wide, with Meyers motioning out into a vertical route. Henry and Agholor (the X, up on the line) ran a Hi-Lo arches concept, while both backs ran flares to either side. Brandon Copeland, the edge defender on Johnson's side stayed with him into the flat, while both ILBs came down on Harris. If either of them cut under Agholor, Harris was probably the checkdown read. Instead, he was left so alone he could've put a handprint on the ball and named it Wilson.
--More important than the passing game this last few weeks has been the overall identity this offense has taken on, and it is one that will dispense corporal punishment for 60 minutes. It's hard to believe this is the same team that had negative rushing yards in the Tampa game, because they are dominating these smaller defenses that have been built to stop spread teams. And the superior physicality of this unit has only gotten more pronounced since Trent Brown has been back. I admit that I was not sold on him once his calf strain stretched out into a Clay Buccholz-like stint on IR, but he's been a (no pun intended, but I'm not searching for a synonym) addition. Troy Aikman was right to single out Henry for setting the edge on this one, but watch the way Brown bounces out on AJ Terrell, who at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds is big by cornerback standards, but just ends up getting pulled into Brown's orbit by the gravitational pull of his mass:
--Despite some big runs being called back due to penalties, they rushed for 134 yards. Since that Tampa game, the lowest total they've had in a game was 120. Harris averaged 5.6 per carry last night and Rhamondre Stevenson was at 5.8. And this was mostly running behind the fullback, as opposed to the extra tackle looks we saw a lot of last week (Michael Onwenu, who I still argue is their best offensive lineman, only saw five snaps in this one). When you can take the field virtually every week knowing you'll have a size and strength advantage in the run game, then as defenses load up to stop you, hit them with a hyper-accurate quarterback who can spread the ball around (seven of Jones' receivers had between 14 and 42 yards), then Josh McDaniels can control the game clock like a Time Lord. All they need to do is cut way down on the drive-killing negative plays that create 3rd & longs, and they can beat anyone.
--Oh right. I promised a lot on the defense. As they say in radio, time to pay off that tease. On that side of the ball too, they're being more physically imposing week after week. If they were a WWII squadron, they'd have stickers of starting QBs wearing hats on the sideline all over side of their fuselages. And Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Christian Barmore would be Aces. I've lost count of how many they've knocked out of games so far, but it feels like every one since the Dallas game. And Dak Prescott took a pounding in overtime in that one too. Matt Ryan came out due to ineffectiveness, but he was just barely holding up from the onslaught. To keep beating this metaphor to death, he was the Japanese fleet during "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," with no chance against the enemy's superiority in numbers, weapons, and tactics.
--Looking at the tactics first, on the first Atlanta possession, the Pats went base Nickel, with 30-fronts (three down linemen), with Devon Godchaux at nose and Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise, Jr at 5-technique. Then they loaded on the edges with both Judon and Dont'a Hightower up on the line and Adrian Phillips in a tight slot. Then Barmore came in on 3rd down. His playing time has increased steadily over the course of the season, but was down slightly last night. Though there's nothing to read into that, since everyone's snaps were reduced. The only ones who really played close to every down were McCourty and Phillips, no doubt by design to counter the effects of Ginger Stalin's inhumane scheduling.
--If one guy really stood out - and obviously they all did, but by definition you can't all stand out - it was Kyle Dugger. While he wasn't exclusively on Kyle Pitts, and sometimes it was JC Jackson and other times it was Phillips, he drew the short straw primarily. Picture Belichick calling him into his office at the beginning of the week, throwing a dossier down on the desk with Pitts' photo paper clipped to the inside and saying, "This is man is your assignment. Familiarize yourself with him. He's considered extremely dangerous and a tremendous adversary. We are all counting on you, Dugger." Then offering him a drink, which Dugger then declines because he's got to get to work getting inside Pitts' head. Also, did I mention Belichick has the accent of a British aristocrat and wears a tailored suit in this fantasy? It just seems to work better.
--Anyhoo … from the opening set of downs, Dugger sent the message that he'd learned all his opponent's moves and was prepared to thwart him at every turn, with perfectly positioned trail technique and the kind of pass breakup they teach at the Defensive Back Academy:
In all, Pitts finished with three catches on five targets and just 29 yards. All without the Pats seeming to roll coverages to him with brackets and dropping an extra safety on him. Not much, anyway. This was primarily Kyle on Kyle crime. And our Kyle is playing the best football of his still very early career. And not just in passes defensed. On the subsequent drive, he hammered Mike Davis for the stop after a catch over Judon. Then broke down Russell Gage in the open field to hold him to one yard. A couple of drives later he drilled Qadree Ollison to hold him to a yard. While he didn't have the sexy splash plays like the sacks and picks, Dugger was all over the field and led the team in tackles. As the suddenly British Belichick in my head (because I'm sleep deprived and rapidly losing it) says "Good show, old boy! Care for a drink to celebrate?"
--Just after that Dugger hit on Ollison came maybe my favorite moment page out of the defensive playbook. Now is the time of year where they just keep adding chapters and verses, and I can't imagine Matty Ice had the first clue what to do with this. After playing fairly standard fronts all night, on this 3rd & 9, Steve Belichick decides to put two down lineman to one side, with Wise outside the tackle and Barmore bladed toward the guard's outside shoulder. And on the backside, Judon with his hand on the ground in a Wide-9 alignment. And Van Noy over the center, moving around to make it unclear if he's coming or what gap he's going to hit if he does. Watch Ryan take 10 full seconds off the play clock trying to make head or tails out of what he's seeing. Van Noy does come, but the protection in the middle holds up. But Kaleb McGary (a 1st round pick in 2019) can't get to Judon and Ryan is roadkill.
--But for impact plays, it's hard to outdo that 4th & inches stop. The Falcons go with an overloaded line. So the Belichick's counter but putting all three DTs in tight, bunched on Atlanta's interior linemen. Godchaux draws the playside double team and fills his gap. Guy takes on the backside guard. While Carl Davis blows center Matt Hennessy two yards into the backfield and finishes him off along with Phillips flying in off the edge. Just a pure exercise in power and execution. And establishing your dominance over an inferior foe:
--But I feel like I haven't said enough about Van Noy. A game like this is exactly why people like me were hiring caterers and renting tents and bouncy castles for the kids and sending out Save the Date cards when he returned to New England. First, there were visions of him and Hightower running double A-gap blitzes - with a twist, no less - to force turnovers:
And more specifically, for moments like that drive that ended with Atlanta missing the field goal. He simply took over the game at that point. A sack on 2nd & 2 when he didn't take the cheese on an inside dive fake, read the designed rollout, stayed home, and finished the play. Next he led the pursuit on an outside stretch run that held Mike Davis to no gain. Then on 3rd down, he and Guy fired in together on Davis in pass protection. Davis chose Guy, KVN got in the air to make Ryan pull the ball down, and still smothered him to turn a makeable field goal into a 45-yarder.
A penalty later, and they would come away with nothing and like it. And I almost forgot this little bit of showing blitz and then dropping into the middle zone at the snap:
And just as an added bonus, Van Noy is doing all this despite the fact his pockets are weighed down with all that Dolphins Cash. I guess they had no use for a guy who can do these things in the very same system Brian Flores is running.
--Nick Folk is extremely good. That's the paragraph.
--Still, as messy and unwatchable as Thursday Night Football can be, at least it spares America from "Young Sheldon."
--Speaking of TV, I will watch anything Kyle Chandler is in. And not just because he's super dreamy; though there is that. But I think I'm going to hold off on "Mayor of Kingstown" until they do the inevitable crossover event with "Mare of Easttown." Maybe call it "King of East Mayortown," where a depressed, functioning alcoholic cop in a dreary small town investigates Chandler on suspicion he has killer good looks. Spoiler: He's guilty as charged.
--I'm also requesting a song about Adrian Phillips intercepting Feleipe Franks. Written by Phillip Phillips. Performed by him and Wilson Phillips. See what I mean about these Thursday night games bringing out the worst in everyone? That line is garbage. I'm not ready for this short turnaround either.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "You're so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!" - Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, "Full Metal Jacket"
--My favorite part of this one - other than the win, obviously - was how Mac Jones conducted himself. He ends the 3rd quarter on another long field goal by his senior citizen kicker to make it a 13-0 lead, and was miserable about leaving points on the board. Rather than feel good about himself for the way he completed a 1st down to Jakobi Meyers with Duron Harmon blitzing in his face, or because of perfect touch passes like this one:
… the kid is striving for perfection. Even when McDaniels and Brian Hoyer are having to give him a good talking to on the sidelines because a QB keeper failed to convert in the final minutes of a 19-0 game, you realize it's better that he's too hard on himself (see the Dean Pees item above) than having some dead eyed, Low-T, Droopy Dog type leading your offense. Give me that guy for whom "almost perfect" is never good enough. That's worked out here in the past. And I love how it's working now.
--We're onto the weekend. On a personal note, I'm off to Morgantown, for the Texas-WVU game, since this is No. 1 Son's senior year so I probably won't be visiting there again except for graduation in the spring. If anyone needs me, I'll be the one in the tailgate scene crushing beers and singing "Country Roads" with groups of strangers and looking for Patriots prospects. Then we're onto facing the top seed in the AFC playoffs. What a ride this season is.