Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 17: Patriots vs. Jaguars

Things to consider while appreciating Belichick for keeping his first resolution, to drop a 50-burger on anyone who dares cross his path:

--This is going to be one of those different KJRs in which I don't have anything to say about the broadcast because I was at the game. Which is something I rarely do. But both kids are home from school and wanted to go and it was an easy Christmas present, The thing is, bringing the Irish Rose and the kids to Gillette always falls somewhere on the spectrum between a fun opportunity to put the ThornTones band back together and the Griswold's trip to WallyWorld. The last time we went was very much the latter, because it was Week 17 of 2019. Therefore, Tom Brady's final regular season game in a Patriots uniform. The one where all they needed was to hold onto their lead at the end of the 4th quarter and earn a playoff bye. Instead, the best defense in the league let Fitzmagic happen in this endless, torturous game-losing drive by the Dolphins. And we spent the postgame tailgate in a fugue state. Staring into the middle distance. Speaking only when spoken to. Answering with monosyllable responses. It was a waking nightmare. And turned out to just be the preamble to the following week's Wild Card one & done loss to Tennessee. So this game was the karmic retribution I and my family needed. 

--And what a difference two years makes. That 2019 team "fell" to 12-4 with that loss. This current one just clinched a playoff spot by getting to 10-6 with 11-6 very much in play and the AFC title not completely out of the realm of possibility. This was Best Case Scenario material before the season. The stuff summer dreams are made of when you're lying on a pool float with a beer sweating in the cup holder and imagining the possibilities. During training camp whenever I was asked where I thought this team was headed, I always said I expected double digit wins and maybe a playoff spot. And it was hard to hear my explanation over the sounds of eyebrows being raised like I was a crazy man. Yet here we are. 

--In the kind of turnaround that even in the best of situations normally takes years, Belichick flipped his roster in just one offseason. He saw an anomaly coming in the free agent market, freed up as much cash as he could, spent it wisely and upgraded his personnel. Then crushed the draft with three rookies who all had major impacts in this win. And the franchise quarterback he's built his offense around just Kool-Aid Manned the rookie wall into rubble. Mac Jones was by far the better rookie quarterback on the field yesterday. Talk all you want about Trevor Lawrence's upside and the bright future that lies ahead for him and you'll get no argument from me. But what we are witnessing with Jones - and I'm including his whole body of work so far, including his misfires in December - is his floor. He will only get better from here. Meanwhile Lawrence has yet to come within a lightyear of the 22-of-30, 227 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT, 128.1 passer rating line Jones just dropped in his team before Belichick showed mercy and called off the dogs.

--So, MOOD:

--Before we get into it, I rarely go to the games because I miss too much and it's just way easier to watch from the couch taking notes. And I just want to recommend that if you go to one, try to do what I did, which is to sit next to someone who is live streaming the other games in real time on his phone using some kind of app that allows him to show you, say, the Bills comeback against Atlanta and Antonio Brown going full Ned Braden on everyone:

Whatever app this young man was using, it has the added bonus of being completely illegal, meaning it steals money from Roger Goodell. Whoever this anonymous copyright violator is, his father must be an incredibly handsome and charming Silver Fox who raised his children right. That's my guess. 

--A quick note about the crowd, there were some empty seats in the upper reaches of the Bob Uecker seats. Owing mainly to the dire predictions of miserable weather that turned out to be way off, but still there were elements to be battled:

But also the calendar was a factor. Even a subdued, Omicrockin' New Year's brings a certain amount of overindulging. And turning around to do it all over again the very next day with an NFL Sunday is a tall order for the average person's constitution. I'm proud to have been among the hearty souls who have the strength and endurance to handle it. And as far as sitting up so high? It's not about getting the cheaper seats. It's about being the kind of man Rudyard Kipling wrote of, who can walk with kings and yet never lose the common touch. Author. Comic. Blogger. Hero??? You used that word, not me. But I won't argue with you. Moving right along … 

--Even conceding that this was Jacksonville and they are objectively terrible to the point the Pats didn't even have the usual January weather advantage over a Florida opponent and still the Jags couldn't play a competitive quarter of tackle football, this was the 2021 Patriots most complete game to date. On both sides of the ball. With versatile, malleable, multi-purpose attacks that can be transmogrified and 3-D printed into whatever shape best suits the opponent, the game plan, and the situation. 

--Offensively, they went away from the two- and three-tight end Jumbo packages with the tight splits and inside power runs behind a fullback we saw so much of the last three games. Michael Onwenu saw a lot more playing time than he has since Trent Brown came off IR, but it was a part of a guard rotation instead of his eligible receiver blocking tight end role. Jakob Johnson played about a third of their snaps. While Rhamondre Stevenson got a lot of carries out of a conventional, contemporary three-receiver pro set, and responded with his best career game by any standard. With 107 yards on 19 attempts, a 5.63 YPA, and two touchdowns. 

--On Josh McDaniels' big RISK board, he kept using Stevenson to attack the underdefended countries on the edge of Jacksonville's territories. And the rookie was like a cannon going up against a single soldier, rarely needing a second roll to conquer the land. Like this run behind Johnson, a crack toss run with Gunner Olszewski coming off the slot to hit Andre Cisco and spring the rookie for his second TD:

--Just let's remind ourselves that Antonio Brown wasn't the only NFL player to parade around without his jersey on. But I guess these circumstances were a little different:

Damien Harris still seems like he's on a pitch count as he gets over his hammy issues. But watching these two guys goofing around with Sooners fans is a reminder of how pliable this run scheme is when they have him, Stevenson and Brandon Bolden all healthy. And how this offensive line - which had a phenomenal day and was probably the best single unit on the field for either team - can morph from a getting off the blocks to run Dives and Powers to inside/outside zones from one down to the next. I mean, watch the lanes they gave Harris on his second touchdowns. They moved with the defenders and controlled them to the point every D-lineman was at a different level of depth, and it was simply a matter of Harris deciding which cutback lane he liked best:

He chose wisely. 

--The one guy this was not good for is N'Keal Harry. When you've established yourself as the run blocking wide receiver specialist and they run the ball effectively with you as a healthy scratch, now might be the ideal time to update your LinkedIn profile. Maybe this was just a gameplan specific benching. But my gut is telling me the coaches saw the same thing we did last week. Harry dropping a perfectly delivered spiral, then halfassing his effort on a tipped ball interception, and that was their last straw with this guy. It seems logical given that they instead dressed Kristian Wilkerson for just the third time all year, and then kept him on the field for 87% of their offensive snaps. And seeing his first career targets, Wilkerson came up bigly. 

--The thing is, Wilkerson had a hell of a summer of practices. Coming out of OTAs, he looked like a lock to make the team. He was consistently shaking coverage and gaining separation. But then progressively dropped off until he was a camp cut and then resigned. What we saw yesterday was that ability to run himself open against tight coverage. Something that is not a part of Harry's game and likely never will be. Like this one, where he came out of the back side slot to scrape along the back line as Jones ran a designed rollout off of Ghost sweep action:

--Or this one, where he shook all 11 defenders. Which is to say he ran a Go while Jones used his dreamy eyes to stare down Kendrick Bourne's WR Screen and draw Tyson Campbell down into the flat, leaving Wilkerson undefended:

--I'll include this too, just as a reminder that Wilkerson is very much still a work in progress. But also to demonstrate Jones was able to deliver on more that just the Seams and Curls he feasted on most of the day:

--Defensively, it was exactly the kind of booster shot in the arm they needed after going puntless against the Bills last week, regardless of how objectively atrocious Jacksonville may be. They clearly were not worried about Lawrence beating them with his legs. There was no effort to bottle him up in the pocket like there was with Josh Allen. From the opening play it was Pitter Patter, Let's Get at 'er, up front, with twists and stunts that had rushers coming free. Dont'a Hightower hasn't been at his most Dont'a Hightowerful in recent memory. But on his sack, he came on a delayed blitz as soon as Ju'Whan Bentley engaged both guard Tyler Shatley and the blocking back, Dare Ogunbowale. This is what it looks like when a veteran team leader is setting a tone:

--And later, Christian Barmore ran a lot of games alongside Chase Winovich, who got his most playing time in forever with Matthew Judon limited. Barmore was one of the lone bright spots in that debacle last week. And he continues to be their most valuable, impactful interior defender. Here he flat out split a double team by Jawaan Taylor and Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms, with Winovich coming in late behind him:

--In the secondary, it was great once again to see the back end of the defense, which dictates just about every aspect of what the unit as a whole is doing, but the TV coverage pretty much treats it like it's the news from East Timor. At least until there's a total breakdown. The networks love nothing more than a good free safety humiliation. What I saw from up above was a lot of post-snap rotation out of a Cover-2 shell, typically either Kyle Dugger or Adrian Phillips coming up to take away the crossers in a Cover-2 Lurk look. Though after the game Dugger described it this way:

You typical Cover-3 Buzz involves one safety coming down, the other staying back as the post, and the outside corners taking the outside thirds of the field. That's a scheme they used a lot to put zip ties on Sean McVay's wrists throughout Super Bowl LIII. So this is a wrinkle on that wrinkle. And they put Lawrence's brain into an Escape Room it could not get out of in the 60 minutes allotted. Like on Dugger's interception, where he had the middle zone with JC Jackson on Marvin Jones, Kyle Van Noy with outside leverage and Phillips three yards away on Laviska Shenault. Lawrence was looking at a 3rd & 14 and the Patriots coverage essentially forced him to force a bad throw into a group of four defenders. Bonus, watch Jackson's exclamation point block on Jones during Dugger's return:

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Ocelot Spleens! Jaguar's Earlobes! Wolf Nipple Chips, get 'em while they're hot!!!" - Coliseum vendor, "Monty Python's The Life of Brian." 

--I've gone a little highlight happy, so I'll ease up on that. Instead let me just say good on Myles Bryant, who was tortured by Buffalo last week had a nice bounce back game as he continues to see major playing time at slot corner. 

--But the depth/roster bubble defender who's come the furthest in terms of increased playing time is Danny Ekuale, who saw more snaps in the interior tackle rotation than Davon Godchaux and even Lawrence Guy. Though that could be thanks to the way the game played out. When you score touchdowns on each of your first five possessions, you have the luxury of sending your run-stuffing D-linemen home early 

--Remember, it's always important to save your receipts. Especially the big, long, CVS-sized ones:

--Finally, whenever we get "Why did Belichick run up the score?" talk, you know the world is getting back to the way it was meant to be. 

--Now let the "Should they rest Mac Jones for the playoffs" talk begin. One year without hearing that was way too long.