Things to consider when wondering how soon the "Week 15 Super Bowl Champs" banner will be hanging above Lucas Oil:
--In no way should any of what I'm about to say be misconstrued. I have zero interest in trying to polish this turd. The Patriots had two weeks to gird their loins for this one. The stakes were high. This is December when they are expected to be playing at a higher level of preparedness than everybody else. To have more situational awareness. To make fewer mistakes. Play with more focus and energy. And so the lack of a suitable game plan going in, the slowness to make adjustments, the unforced mental errors and self owns, and the way the Colts showed more urgency until it was basically too late were appalling. Last week the football world was moved to tears by the on-field tribute the Broncos and Lions gave to Demaryius Thomas. And rightly so. For three quarters the Patriots played like they were paying tribute to Urban Meyer. Take everything that's about to follow in that spirit.
--That said, even the best Patriots teams of the recent past faced these kinds of games practically every year. And lost a fair share of them. Games where the opposition had this one circled in red Sharpie the minute the schedule came out and threw everything they had into it like it was the Football World Cup Final. I'm thinking of the ones where Eric Mangini got a Gatorade bath on his way to a 6-win season with the Browns. The Dolphins almost-legendary "Wildcat" game. The blowout at Tennessee in 2018. Matt Patricia's Lions. I always remember a story in Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" where he's talking about going to a ballgame when he was little and he chased after a foul ball in an empty part of the stands. And he describes how he got to it the same time as another kid, whom he could obviously tell was poor and from a lousy neighborhood. The other kid came away with the ball because, as Bouton explains, "I wanted that ball. He had to have it." Granted, the Patriots had to have this one as well. But if felt like the entire Colts organization approached this game like it was a defining moment for them.
--They certainly coached and played like it. When Frank Reich is racing to the podium to let everyone know he drew up this play just for the occasion and called it "Patriots special," this was not just another game in a crowded AFC race for Indy:
--And that was more than just a cleverly designed gadget play. Watch it again and follow the blocking not just of Jonathan Taylor, but also Jack Doyle and Ashton Dulin. This is a very good offense. As impressive as Taylor is - and he's the best currently healthy running back in the league - this is as solid a unit as there is when it comes to run blocking. In terms of skill level and toughness, but also in the way they're schemed up. It was what was most intriguing about this matchup, but also the thing I was most worried about. It turns out, with damned good reason.
--In addition to one of the best offensive lines in the league, Reich has Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox at tight end to take on edge defenders and safeties, and Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal joining Dulin, giving him an edge on the perimeters. He'll line up his two tight ends in tight splits and then sets up a defense to create mismatches. Often by sending receivers across in ghost motion to force the Front-7 to adjust into a run fit that Taylor can read and exploit. So, for example, if he's got a strong safety ready to come off the edge, he'll motion a wideout over to force the safety into coverage and the linebackers will then have to shift their gaps to account for the safety's responsibility. And now the corner who was originally on that receiver becomes the unblocked defender and a mismatch Taylor can exploit. Or, he'll use either tight end sifting across the formation to hit the backside defensive end. Or pull a guard (which is always a run-tell for the defense, only to run Taylor on the back side of the pull. And he'll do all of these things from the same or similar pre-snap looks, making it a nightmare to scheme against.
--And yet, after that second Indy possession where they gashed the Pats with inside and outside zone runs on eight straight plays, New England's defense settled down in this great "Survivor" reward challenge and began to solve the puzzle. Primarily by bringing Adrian Phillips crashing down off the edge, usually unaccounted for and unblocked, which is the technique they started using 12 years ago to turn the Wildcat from the Next Great Innovation in Football Technology into Novelty Act in a matter of weeks. Granted, there was one play after the Pats had made it 20-10 that Pascal came on a backside wham block and almost put Phillips in the ICU. But for the most part the adjustment worked, as Taylor was limited to 103 yards on 28 carries (3.7 YPA). That is, before the final hammer stroke fell. No, not this one:
I would rather have had my man parts laid out on that anvil for Vinatieri pound flat like a veal cutlet than the play I'm talking about:
--I mean this one:
Ballgame. I think this was a version of the Colts "Crunch" scheme, which is a counter to their zone concepts if they've got defenders crossing their O-linemen's faces. They'll let interior defenders hit the gaps so that they can then seal them off and Taylor reads blockers' asses to hit the hole behind them. Here, facing a 9-man box and with Devin McCourty racing down in run support, he got a standard kickout block from (I think) yet another tight end, Kylen Granson on Jamie Collins. But the play was made by Eric Fisher and Quenton Nelson getting outside leverage on the down linemen, while Kyle Van Noy fires into the backside B-gap. Taylor has a metahuman ability to accelerate as he's making his jump cut, and that's all he needed to shake McCourty and Dont'a Hightower. A 67-yard dash later and the light was snuffed from the Patriots eyes. The cause of death: An excess of talent, with a co-morbidity of play design.
--I'll get to the offensive coaching problems (believe me, I will), but on this side of the ball it seemed like an odd choice to face this particular team going with the Pats standard Big Nickel. Yes, it's been their base for years now. It's won them Super Bowls. And Kyle Dugger was playing the best ball of his career before missing the last game under the Fauci Ouchie protocols. But if I'm picking my poison, I'd gladly prefer to build up a tolerance to the iocane powder that is Carson Wentz, defend his tight ends with Phillips, play McCourty as my single high safety, and throw a Holiday Sampler Pack of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts at Taylor. Everyone needs to put a buck in the Cliche Jar next time they say "Belichick loves to take away what you do best and make you play lefthanded." Because in this one, he let an expert swordsman like Taylor fight with his right all night long. (My second "Princess Bride" reference in the same paragraph. That's my limit.) So it was only a matter of time before he put the blade in and twisted it.
--Offensively, it was clear early on that the plan coming in to run Rhamondre Stevenson out of 11- or 12-personnel, often with the tight ends playing detached from the formation in 1X3 or 2X2 looks - wasn't working. The Colts were flying to the ball like they were hopped up on goofballs. The crowd was wildly into it. Negative plays were killing drive after drive. It seemed like the perfect way to take the air out of the dome was to try what worked in Buffalo. Go big. Bring in Michael Onwenu and Jakob Johnson in Jumbo packages, take a battering ram to Indy's door in and defy them to hold it closed. At least for a series or two. If you can't be faster than them or out-X&O them, try just being the biggest guy in the prison yard and see if that works. By the time we did get that Jumbo unit on the field, it was 3rd & goal with a chance to make it a one-score game. Only to have Onwenu false start us back to the 6 yard line and an eventual field goal.
--Which brings us first to the field goal decision. I didn't agree with it at the time. But after a terrible night's haunted sleep and the luxury of looking back at it through clouded, bloodshot hindsight, I still don't agree. If you get it, it's a 6 point game. If you don't, it's still a two score game, but you've got Indy deep in their own end. I'm not saying it cost them the game and Taylor's touchdown made it a moot point. And I get there's a logical case to be made for making it a 10-point game with just under 9:00 to play. But Omni Consumer Products' Robochick was programmed only to respond "We did what we thought was best for our team" and will take the secrets of that decision to the grave. So we'll never know.
--Which brings us back to Onwenu's costly blunder. And Brandon King jumping offsides to give Mike Badgley a do-over of a missed field goal. A false start by Jonnu Smith on 2nd & 1. And another false start by Isaiah Wynn, who is like two presnap penalties away from being invited on "Hoarders." At least Jakobi Meyers' hold that negated a Jonnu Smith Jet sweep to the goal line was him trying to make a play. These others are all examples of the sort of sloppy, extended-training-camp plays we saw in September but had mostly been cleaned up. Which is what makes this loss such a kick to the groin.
--But obviously the biggest, most game-changing, and least forgivable bungle was the blocked punt. It looked to me like the missed block was on Jakob Johnson, but I'll use my three years of high school German to say "Es tut mir leid" to him because reporters are saying it was Jahlani Tavai. Which is unacceptable first, because like King, special teams are all he does for a living, so they both have no excuses. But mostly because this is Tavai's second offense of the season. If he simply falls down and makes Matthew Adams have to step over him on the way to Jake Bailey, the punt gets off and the Patriots go into the half only down 10-0. Maybe that's unfair and I never talk about the 40 punts Tavai didn't let get blocked this year. But I don't know how he dresses the rest of the season.
--I've come a long way without discussing the offensive skill guys. And for that I'll use my 12 years of public school English to say, "I'm sorry." What can you say about Mac Jones performance that isn't blatantly obvious? The second interception he threw is possibly the worst of his career so far. Yes, Darius Leonard came up from the backside of the play, but he didn't come that far. In fact, he was never really not in coverage on the seam/curl zone. Jones just didn't sense his presence, which has been blessedly rare this year:
That was actually his first red zone pick of his rookie season, so some slack deserves to be cut. But it's like we've heard other Patriots quarterbacks say, they're always getting preached that you will never walk off the field on 4th down with the kicking team coming on and say, "That incompletion just cost us the game." Or even in most cases, "that sack." But turnovers are deadly weapons, so don't use them on yourself.
--The other interception was more a combo platter of him staring down Brandon Bolden on his Flare route, and a great read/reaction by Bobby Okereke:
Still, unacceptable. Especially given that Jones not only had last weekend off, but spent the week before as a professional ball hander-offer, so should've been more dialed in on this one. The Pats were in a perfect position to bookend the halftime with a couple of scores and make it a game like those halcyon days of yesteryear. And both possessions ended with INTs. Followed then by that nine play drive that ended with an incompletion on 4th & 1 where Hunter Henry was running a Flat route but never got his head around to Jones tossed it into No Man's Land over Nelson Agholor. So … not good, I guess?
--That said, some adversity can be a good thing in any young player. In the way that say, it's important for a cornerback's long term growth and development to see how he'll respond to getting burned a few times, you get a chance to see what a young quarterback is made of once he's cocked it up a few times. And it's fair to say Jones aced that test. He didn't turtle. He didn't start seeing ghosts. There was no reason to get Brian Hoyer's arm loose. Jones bounced back with three straight scoring drives. His E.T.-and-Elliot like emotional connection with Henry continues to thrive, particularly in the red zone. This pass was one of their best, the ball in the air before Henry made his break or Leonard had any chance to react:
Maybe it's just my vision-corrected eyeballs telling me this, but it seems to me like Henry has been even more effective when he's coming off the line as a Y-tight end. Like that play above or the Dig route that went for 25 on the last drive of the half:
--But I'm being completely remiss (and I don't even want to be miss once, never mind remissing) for not mentioning the best play of N'Keal Harry's career. The Pats employed a lot of short motion from Meyers to give Jones a sense of the coverage, and on this one they did it to stack him with Kendrick Bourne. The two then ran a Levels concept of in-cut routes, shallow (Meyers) and deep (Bourne) with Henry at medium depth behind the linebackers. That left Harry iso'd on the back side of the formation against Isaiah Rodgers. Harry ran a Stretch release off the line, first with a step to the outside and then stemming off his route into a post:
This is what we dreamed of when we were scanning YouTube for clips of Harry when the Pats drafted him in 2019. And here it is in animated form, just in case it's another three seasons before we see it again:
--Having seen the replay, I'm not all that worked up about Jones missing Harry on that ill-fated fleaflicker. Yes, he got past the defender who bit on the fake, but not until late in the play. And that thing took longer to develop than Dan Connolly's kickoff return. And if Connolly was moving any slower he'd have been reclaimed by nature. That play was just another reason to believe that a big part of the problem with this team was messed up timing from the week off. Let's hope so, since it's less far likely they'll get a week off in the postseason after this.
--If the Pats had pulled off the W, this week's quote would've been simply, "'Harry. … Harry.' - George Bailey, "It's a Wonderful Life." Instead, I'll go with a different Christmas Classic:
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Mr. Parker: "Oh, for cripes sake, open up the damper will ya? Who the hell turned it all the way down? AGAIN! Oh, blast it! Poop flirt, rattle crap, camel flirt! You blunder frattle beak struckle brat! Of a womp sack butt bottom fodder! Smick melly whop walker! Drop dumb fratten housestickle viper!"
Ralphie: "In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."
-"A Christmas Story"
--On that note, here's the fight between Dugger and Pittman, from a different angle.
I hope the league office is reviewing the tape and discipline will be handed down. Just as long as they don't tell the Old Man.
--This is one of the most over-officiating officiating crews in the league. And in no way am I saying the Patriots didn't deserve every call that went against them. But by God, when both Nelson Agholor and Harry get knocked out by blatant blows to the head in the act of trying to haul in passes and there are no calls, what are we even issuing yellow towels for? They might as well save the material in case there's a shortage due to the supply chain crisis.
--The way he got taken out of Taylor's touchdown notwithstanding, that was a great game from Collins in his first extended action of the season. I concede he dropped in interception he should've had. But just when you think this superlative athletic talent couldn't be more underachieving, he does this and totally redeems himself:
And added a lot of run stops that held Taylor to manageable gains until the team as a whole couldn't hold back the tide any longer. It's always a mixed bag with Collins. But if they can get his best out of him with any consistency, he will make impact plays that decide games for the good. The way he did over the first half of 2019.
--So now it's all about Sunday against the Bills. Our first T-shirt & Hat game in a couple years. Win, and the Pats are division champs with a playoff home game once again. Any chance they can get Adam Vinatieri to show up and fire a musket?