Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 13: Patriots vs. Bills
Things to consider while respecting Josh McDaniels appreciation for the first page of the Madden playbook:
--Simply put, in a lifetime squandered watching NFL football, I've never seen anything like this game. It almost defies comparison. The broadcast crew referenced the legendary Snow Plow game from 1982, which might work because there very little passing since it was played on a surface that could've hosted the NHL Winter Classic. But it doesn't quite fit. /Sticking with this lifetime, it calls to mind the Week 5 game in 2013 at Cincinnati that was played in a tropical storm where the rain was coming down sideways. Schematically, it reminds me of the last game in 2015 when they went down to Miami and insisted on running the ball behind that legendary bellcow running back, a 32-year-old Steven Jackson and then pull Brady in the 4th quarter after just 21 attempts. The problem with comparing this game to either of those two is the very minor detail that those were disastrous losses, each of which eventually led to road losses at Denver in the conference championship. This was a statement win in a game we've all had yellow highlighted since the schedule was announced.
--And a statement it was. Like with either of the two freakish weather games I just referenced, you can throw out all the game stats. This was a Pass/Fail test. Win and you've got something like a 46% chance of securing the 1-seed and a playoff bye. Lose, and you'd have had about an 8% chance. More to the point, the Pats would've fallen in a wild playoff race all the way down to the 5th spot. This was about winning by any means necessary. And the means Bill Belichick and McDaniels chose was to hammer the center of the Bills undersized defense that was built to compete with spread attacks like Kansas City's with the Mjolnir of Damien Harris and the Stormbreaker of Rhamondre Stevenson. There was no attempt to deceive the Bills or get them off balance. They simply lined up in their biggest personnel packages, made clear their intentions, put a hat on every hat and defied Leslie Frazier's 2nd-ranked unit to stop them. And bludgeoned it into submission. The statement in this win was that "If we play this way, you can't stop it."
--So while it was by no means an artistic success, it was a fascinating throwback style of play you just never see in any sport any more. It was as if an NBA team started running Norman Dale's Hickory High offense, with five bounce passes before you shoot. It was an MLB team bunting runners over in the first inning like Connie Mack would have. It was the Ladies Auxiliary's reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor:
--And just from a pure football perspective, it was oddly fascinating. Like it could've been played in period uniforms from a 1904 game between Yale and Princeton. About two-thirds of their snaps came with six offensive linemen. This team is so stacked up front that Michael Onwenu, their highest graded O-lineman of the last two years according to Pro Football Focus, can now be brought in as an eligible tackle. And I defy any defense in the league that has the personnel to line up and defeat that in this world of base nickels and two defensive tackle fronts.
--I'll credit Do Your Pod producer and former center Nick Fasoli for pointing this out to me. In the normal course of line play, your splits will be about six inches or so, with a little wider separation on obvious passing downs. In these Tank sets the Pats were running, they were lining up toe-to-toe. Often with the three tackles and double inline Y-tight ends, with no separation at all. Just forming tight ranks with no one outside the hashes, never mind split out beyond the numbers. It was a Spartan phalanx. And just as effective when it comes to gaining ground and conquering enemy territory.
--When they weren't going with the full out, three-tackle, two-tight end personnel groups, they treated Buffalo to a lot of Jumbo packages, with N'Keal Harry opposite one tight end and running crack-toss plays. Obviously the most notable being the one Damien Harris broke. Harry cracks down on AJ Epensa on the play side, while Isaiah Wynn runs edge corner Levi Wallace out to the sidelines. Both Ted Karras and Shaq Mason bounce up to the second level to seal off Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, respectively. David Andrews has Ed Oliver head up on him and lets him into the backside A-gap and out of the play altogether. That just leaves Jakob Johnson to throw a lead block on Tyrel Dodson and Harris can make one cutback to whatever they call daylight on a December night in Buffalo:
--Here's that play from a slightly different angle and some perspective on a part of Harris' skillset that goes criminally underappreciated:
--Then after that worked, they ran essentially the same point-of-attack blocking scheme for Brandon Bolden on the 2-point conversion, only with a bunch formation on the backside to draw defenders instead of a fullback lead. And split the blocks from Harry and Wynn to keep it outside and went in untouched:
--When it wasn't either of those backs, it was Stevenson. Most often behind a pull from the playside guard as well as Johnson. A few times McDaniels even ran these crack-tosses to the boundary side, with minimal results. It was far more effective to the field side, like this one behind Mason:
--Though by no means was it perfect. I said we can ignore all the numbers and I'm a man of my word. But take away Harris' 64-yarder and the per-carry average was not great. Lining up in an obvious power run alignment can have its disadvantages. There were an alarming number of negative plays. There was that two-play sequence in the 3rd quarter where Matt Milano - who's always been the bane of this offense's existence - started reading the hole vacated by Karras pulls and dropped Stevenson for losses on back-to-back plays. But I believe that given the conditions, Belichick saw it as a game that would be decided by turnovers and special teams. And if his team held onto the ball, there was no path to victory for Buffalo. And he was right.
--And while we're on the dual subject of turnovers and special teams, I'm painting My Cleats, My Cause to read "DON'T PUT N'KEAL HARRY ON PUNT RETURN." Seriously, if it wasn't for him, this game would've been the Major Weather Event Game equivalent of a blowout. How many times do we have to see a guy NOT try to field a punt still stand by and let it hit him? If you don't want the thing, fine. Run off the field, hop the wall, go up into the exit and get in the beer line for all anybody cares. Just don't stumble around trying to make up your mind. Or to see how close you can come without touching it. You're trying to avoid the fricking thing, not give it a Reiki massage. So avoid it already. Credit to Harry for all his effort and effectiveness in the run game. Sincerely, he made a difference. But some guys simply don't possess that innate sense of how to make the necessary plays that win games. If the coaches had pulled him off the field and told him to go wait on AirKraft One in that moment, I'd have sent them a nice Edible Arrangement.
--Here's your obligatory Mac Jones highlight. Just remember he has more wins than all the QBs drafted ahead of him, combined.
And while I intend to keep my promise about the stats, let me just quickly interject to mention his completion rate of 2-of-3, 66.7% lowered his career completion percentage, which was 70.3% coming in. I think he'll recover though.
--I've waited way too long to get to the other side of the ball. So let me start with the best player on the field for either side last night: Davon Godchaux. He was simply immense, in every definition of the term. Lined up mostly in 0-tech nose or shaded against center Mitch Morse, he wreaked havoc on the Bills interior line, though with a lot of help from Lawrence Guy in what was by far his most extensive action of the season, with 45 of the Pats 58 defensive snaps. This is what he was signed for. What he showed all those times he faced the Pats when he was with Miami. The ability to eat space, plug multiple gaps, and at times move the line of scrimmage from the middle. Also, when necessary, he kept Allen from escaping the pocket. Christian Barmore remains the gold standard of this defensive line. He pressured Josh Allen into a throwaway on 3rd & 17 to get Buffalo off the field with a nice swim move around Morse (only to have Harry's muff on the punt almost cost us the game). But this was the game for Godchaux to take a lot of Barmore's reps, and he delivered.
--This one is just for me. And some friends who might be reading this. From that 2015 game when Chris Harper muffed a punt to lose a game in Denver. "We lost a lot of good men at Harper's Muff." You're welcome, fellas. I like to think that one never gets old.
--Adding some size to help Godchaux and Guy was Daniel Ekuale, who had seen a few downs in one of the Jets games, but other than that has just been laboring in obscurity on the practice squad. So you have to respect the man for having a Conor McGregor strut all chambered and ready to fire if he has a big moment on national TV. And he did not squander it.
--Besides Godchaux, another guy who's played sparingly this year who turnt up in a major way was Myles Bryant. Pretty much a dime package defender this year, he subbed in for Kyle Dugger and barely came off the field. He made a handful of tackles, I think at least three of them were solo. He was very much a part of the zone coverage they mostly employed, typically aligning next to Devin McCourty, then staying back as the single high safety while McCourty came down into the tackle box or the Robber defender. In the red zone, he was the post safety, such as 2nd down play that proceeded Buffalo's shanked field goal, Allen changed the play at the line, and Adrian Phllips switched the coverage, motioning Bryant back into the deep middle. The switchy/changey made Allen hold the ball long enough to get taken out by - stop me if you've heard this before - a Matthew Judon sack. It's remarkable to think Bryant was able to sub in so ably for Dugger given that he's 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, and the guy he was filling in for is a 6-2, 220 lb hybrid Big Nickel safety/linebacker.
--And it goes without saying that this was Bryant's finest moment. The most difficult thing to teach defensive backs to do is give up the easy 4th down interception and settle for giving their offense the ball up at the line of scrimmage. It means making them unlearn the behavior that's been embedded in their subconscious since they first lined up on defense. It's like asking a hunting dog not to chase water fowl. But Bryant did the right, and surprisingly rare, thing:
--That said, how about the plums it takes for Belichick and Belichick the Younger to make that 0-blitz call in that situation? I'll be interested to see the numbers when they're available, but if you told me they sent an extra rusher five times the whole game, I'd tell you that number sounds high. But with the game on the line, they go with just three defensive backs against three route runners and rush everybody else. It's the kind of call that will get you dragged to the stockade in the village square and pelted with rocks and garbage if it doesn't work. But this particular blitz kept the Pats in the top spot in the conference. So good on them.
--One more thing about Bryant. If that play where he shoved Allen out of bounds - from where he was, which was very obviously in bounds - is Unnecessary Roughness, I demand to know what the NFL considers Necessary Roughness. Allen was carrying the ball. He was approaching the line to gain. He left his feet. And Bryant pushed him with about half the force of a Tokyo subway official shoving commuters into a car to make sure the train is full. Seriously just tell him what to do in that situation and I'm sure he'll do it. The NBAification of pro football continues unabated.
--Overall, Steve Belichick did a good job of mixing up their coverages and keeping Allen confused by the differences between his pre-snap reads and what he was actually seeing once the ball was in his giant hands. For most of the 1st half, it was a lot of Man looks that ended up being Cover-1 zone. Then once the Pats got him used to that, there were entire drives where they flipped the toggle switch back to Man. JC Jackson on Stefon Diggs, Jalen Mills on Emmanuel Sanders, Bryant on Cole Beasley and with Dugger out, Phillips drawing the tight end assignment. Which consisted of two huge PBUs while in solo coverage on Dawson Knox. Both the one in the end zone that was aided by a Dont'a Hightower pressure off the edge, but also this bit of timing that had the accurate timing of the Atomic Clock:
--There was that one brilliant 26-yard throw and catch into the wind between Allen and Diggs. But other than that, I was a good bounce back game for Jackson after Diggs disintegrated him last year.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Echo Base Officer: "Your Tauntaun will freeze to death before you reach the first marker!"
Han Solo: "Then I'll see you in Hell!"
-"Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back"
--I'm still trying to get a handle on Sean McDermott. Don't get me wrong, I think the man can coach tackle football. But his anger management issues and resting Rage Face make me seriously wonder if he's got the temperament to last for long in this game. First he makes the terrible decision to challenge a Mac Jones QB sneak that no angle short of one of his linebackers wearing a police body cam was going to capture. Seriously, that was like asking the replay official to find a needle in a stack of needles. But then after the ruling didn't get reversed, he continued to berate the referee like … what? He was going to change his mind? "Well, since you want it that badly … OK." You've got to learn to pick your fights before you give yourself an aneurysm there, Chief.
--Nick Folk continues to defy description. After watch Jake Bailey put a Judge Smails slice into the bench area for 15 yards and then his coach opt to go for two after the touchdown, he comes in and nails two huge field goal attempts into the teeth of a three-club wind. If you'll pardon me mixing way too many sports metaphors for my own good, his second kick was the kind of backdoor slider you throw when you're totally in the groove on the mound at Wiffle Ball. It's impossible to wrap my brain about the fact he was this team's fourth option at the position in 2019. And now he gives them the edge on special teams every single week.
--So now the best, hottest team in the NFL over the last two months gets to finally take a week off and enjoy the best record in the conference. Harris and Phillips, who both seem to be OK after having to leave the game, get to heal up. Jones gets to take a breather after making as many starts as he did his senior year at Alabama. While the Bills have to go to Tampa Bay and give Tom Brady the chance to do to them what he did to them for 20 years up here.
--What an incredible season this has become. Part of me doesn't even want the week off because this ride we're on is so insane. But after a game like this one, we need the break. Another game like it could be the death of me.
--Finally, I do miss the Billdo. And it would've been amazing to it blowing across the stadium like a sex toy with superpowers. But I guess it was just a Brady thing.