Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 12: Patriots vs. Vikings

Things to consider while recognizing that our forebears didn't escape religious oppression, brave a treacherous ocean crossing, risk starvation, and carve out a foothold on the shore of a vast expanse of wilderness, just so 398 years later we still wouldn't know how to define a touchdown:

--I'm a big believer that the relativity of time is not just a theory; it's the law. I don't just mean in the Einsteinian sense about what e equals and what happens when you approach light speed. But that different times have different value. So for instance, Monday at 11am is not worth nearly as much as Saturday's 11am, and so on. And few times are as valuable as the day after Thanksgiving. I'm not only writing this from a fog that is equal parts lack of sleep, processed sugar, tryptophan and wine, I also have a son home from college. So I was determined to halfass this thing and get back to enjoying my day. Since I first stepped aboard this pirate ship in 2004, I've missed all of one KJR, and that was in 2008, so I think I'm entitled. Not every week needs to be bloody Led Zeppelin IV. Cut me some slack. But given the events of this game, I feel like it deserves at least a 3/4-assing. Maybe an 80%-assing. If it's not good enough for your liking, then take your complaint to Dave Portnoy. Maybe he'll fire me. Which would be bad, but it at least would spare me watching the  guys from Scrubs make bedroom eyes with each other over a wireless company for the next month. 

--Last night I finally figured out what this 2022 Patriots team is. It's a group that takes whatever your defining quality is, and amplifies it. Either good or bad, they turn you into an exaggerated version of yourself. Like the beggar woman from Beauty and the Beast who turned out to be a powerful enchantress and cursed everyone into whatever their major trait was. So the guy with a name like a light who carried a candlestick around became a candlestick. The pompous fussbudget with "cog" in his name became a clock. The maid became a featherduster, and so on. That's what the Patriots do to you. So for instance, the Jets have a good pass rush, and so they turn them into the '85 Bears. Zach Wilson has poor judgment, so they make him look like he's never seen a football defense before. Kirk Cousins is a fairly mobile quarterback with a talented receiver in Justin Jefferson, the Pats turn them into Randall Cunningham throwing to Randy Moss. And given that this power is never more on display then when they turn every running quarterback into Michael Vick and they've got Josh Allen coming up, they might want to spend the next week figuring out how to reverse the spell. 

--And it goes both ways. Jonathan Jones has become a quality ballhawking cover corner, if somewhat limited. So last night he was at times extremely good and extremely overmatched. Facing the toughest assignment in the league, largely in man coverage, he was either brilliant, like the pass broken up in solo coverage on Jefferson to kill the Vikings second drive and the game's only turnover, when he lurked over the top of KJ Osborn's route from his spot at the numbers in a Cover-4 for the pick and return:

But then he lost Jefferson on a drag route crossing the goal line for Minnesota's first touchdown. Which was immediately proceeded and eventually followed with simply egregious facemask penalties. Jonathan Jones' night wasn't so much like that guy who either hits a home run or strikes out. It was more like a season I remember Jim Rice having where he either hit a moon shot into the upper deck, or grounded into a double play. There were moments of feasting, but it was mostly famine.

--You can at least understand Jonathan Jones' struggling. Drawing the Jefferson assignment (Note to self: Write the script for a reboot in which George and Weezy use the dry cleaner business as a front for their real jobs as trained government assassins. Working title: The Jefferson Assignment. Money in the bank.) is a tall order for him. Literally, given the size advantage he's giving away. But there's no one else Belichick could've put on Minnesota's - and the NFL's - WR1. The biggest mistake of the game by New England has no such excuse baked in. And that was Pierre Strong Jr. running into the kicker. In the 4th quarter. Of a tie game. Extending a drive. That ended with the eventual game-winner. Not that anyone would be in the mood to forgive him for being a rookie anyway, but even that wouldn't work as an excuse, since coaches don't wait until your second season to introduce their "Running into the Kicker: A Thing to be Avoided" lesson. It's not the Calculus that follows Algebra. It's right there on the syllabus they hand out on Day 1 of rookie camp. And you could see it coming, even before the snap, as he shifted from lining up opposite the gunner to tight to the formation and was selling out on the punt block. Afterward, he took responsibility and said he needs to learn from it. Let's see if he gets the chance. Chris Harper's Muff at Denver in 2015 was immediately followed by Chris Harper's passkey no longer working One Patriots Place. We lost a good man at Harper's Muff. I'm not sure Strong will survive, no matter what Darwin says. Despite his desire to learn, that was not so much "a Teachable Moment" as it was "an Unpardonable Sin." 

--And there we have yet again, another example of a dominant trait becoming exaggerated. In this case, it's the 2022 Pats' proclivity for unforced errors and costly mental mistakes. For a franchise that has done these things less than anyone in the league for 22 years, this group has truly been an outlier. Dumbassery is no longer a bug with these guys, it's a feature. It's gone beyond an occasional vice. Or even a habit. It's an addiction. Jonathan Jones' facemasks. Strong's total brainshart. Hunter Henry ignoring the advice of everyone in New England yelling "Get out of bounds!" and cutting inside to pick up one meaningless extra yard, at the cost of one precious time out. Plus a neutral zone infraction, almost a Too Many Men in the Huddle, and all the various and sundry self-owns that have plagued this season of this franchise since preseason. It's who they are. 

--Yet another exaggerated extreme: Special teams. They started out dominating Minnesota's units. Nick Folk is drawing the kickoff duty now that Jake Bailey is out. And with all his old man kicks dropping at the goal line, the coverage was phenomenal. With Marcus Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Jabrill Peppers and Brendan Schooler making stops short of the 25. But then they give up a return touchdown just as they were in a position to put the game out of reach. (More on that one momentarily.) And late in the game, when they absolutely needed to flip the field, they get a 29 yard punt. Michael Palardy is a rescue Belichick adopted out of the Punter Shelter, so I don't want to pin too much blame on him. The larger point is that the good guys are doing the things they could always count on the bad guys to do for two decades. Routinely

--The damned shame of all of this is these breakdowns cost them, not just their best offensive performance of the season, but the best game of Mac Jones' career to date. This is how I expected him to look all season back when he was doing That Trendy Dance - the one guys my age have to Google because trendy dances stop trending with you once you hit about 40 - at the Pro Bowl. He was decisive. Got the ball out before the Vikings rush could apply pressure. (As an aside: "Applying pressure with the Vikings Rush" is one of my signature maneuvers in the bedroom.) And it wasn't all dump offs and check downs and bottoms up (that last one doesn't mean anything, but I felt like the sentence needed a Rule of 3 and didn't have one). He took advantage of the clean pockets he was getting to drive the ball upfield with accuracy. Most notably this 9-route by DeVante Parker, who shook press coverage by Duke Shelley by first giving him a jab step to sell the slant, then getting free release by attacking his outside shoulder. Which Jones read and delivered a sniper round on target:

Credit Matt Patricia for keeping Minnesota off balance by breaking some of the under center runs/shotgun passes tendencies he'd fallen prey to. He mixed in enough handoffs out of gun and 5- or 7-step drops as to be less predictable than he'd been when he had opposing linebackers yelling out his calls before the snap. Right from the opening drive, which was their best possession of the season. And in doing so, took advantage of Jones' play action skills. On the touchdown the officials actually gave Henry credit for, he sold the fake to a defense that was buying it like it was Sam Bankman-Fried crypto, while Henry came out of a stance with a run block look and was completely unaccounted for. Three slipped tackles later he was putting them up by seven:

And Patricia finally got their screen game running the way we're accustomed to. Too many times this year these screens have been slow to develop. The linebackers and strong safeties have been flowing the intended receiver even before the ball is in the air. And he ends up like getting torn apart like the scarce toy on sale at a Walmart Doorbusters Sale. But some of these were executed to perfection. For instance, Rhamondre Stevenson following a wall of his interior linemen and receivers for 40 yards and some hope of tying this one up:

--Not uncoincidentally, the best game the offensive line has had all year led to Jones' best game. Make no mistake, this was a huge bounce back game from what has been the worst unit on the roster all season. All five - L to R Trent Brown, Cole Strange, James Ferentz, Michael Onwenu and Yodny Cajuste - played 100% of the snaps. Not that they were flawless. With the Pats at the Minnesota 30 facing a 3rd & 7 in a 4-down situation, Mac adjusted his protection, physically moved Stevenson like a chess piece to where he wanted him in blitz pickup, came under center to speak directly to Ferentz and went back to the gun with :01 on the play clock. Only to have Brown try to cut block Danielle Hunter and end up on the ground as Hunter killed the drive with a sack.

--But overall, this was what the Year 2 bounce was supposed to look like. And building off last week's impressive numbers against the Jets (three points notwithstanding), this is hopefully not the "Dead Cat Bounce" economists talk about, but true progress. Coordinator and quarterback finally figuring out what works and what needs to be scrapped. 

--Maybe they can also figure out why Jakobi Meyers opted to hit the ground on the final completion with no time outs or what Nelson Agholor was seeing to make him opt to slow down and engage with Chandon Sullivan instead of running the flag route Jones was expecting:

But to be fair, when you're power ranking the plays that cost them the game, those one didn't crack the Top 20.

--This one is way up in that poll. Fresh off Strong committing rookie career suicide and Jefferson burning Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty for 17 to get Minnesota into the red zone, they dialed up a deep vertical switch concept, designed to stress the back end of the coverage and create a rub in the middle:

The "replacement rules" for passing off receivers are complex and varied and my gravy-soaked brain can't pretend to understand them. But it appears from the animation that Jonathan Jones was supposed to sit underneath looking for digs and crosses, while Jack Jones was playing trail technique until the mesh point, then was supposed to stay to his side, while passing Jefferson off on McCourty and JoJones. Then again, Jalen Mills stayed with Adam Thielen the whole time, so maybe both corners were supposed to be in man. So my head might be firmly jammed all the way up my prison wallet on this one. It just looks like Jack Jones caught defending no one, and that ended up being ballgame.

--Now let's pay off that tease about the kick return touchdown. Because not only was McCourty blocked in the back, but Kyle Dugger was held. So clearly in fact, that Tony Dungy and Jason Garrett each caught it. And by no means were they looking for calls that would benefit the Patriots. Still, they shared a good laugh at it. But from where the rest of us were sitting, the non-calls were as funny as a promo for Young Rock.

--But those misses barely scratch the surface of the tip of the bad officiating iceberg that sank the Patriots ship. Going back to Henry's non-touchdown touchdown, I get that the rules are such that until you've gotten the ball home, waited three days to call it, go out with it again, ask it's parents for permission to marry it and pop the question, the officials always have the latitude to rule it an incompletion. But Henry's right hand never left the ball. He pinned it firmly against his shoulder with his fingers wrapped around it. And that's not my admitted bias talking:

And how do you interpret any rule in a way that allows for this?

On that same non-facemask facemask, Hunter Henry was pulled to the ground. Or as Garrett and Dungy put it, "got their feet tangled up." While also thinking the facemask Hunter got away with was a hoot. Dungy loves to wax nostalgic about how Belichick was such a kind mentor and how much he appreciates his tutelage. But under the surface, he still regards the man as he would a talking serpent.

--Still, NBC's worst sin was subjecting us to a heartfelt tribute to John Madden from Belichick. There was enough raw emotion going on between the holiday and the game to expect us to endure that level of soul-bearing. From one great to another. If I wanted my feelings on overload in my half-drunk stupor, I'd have put on the last 10 minutes of Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Nobody did pathos like the incomparable John Candy. Except Belichick.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: 

Adrian: "But it was Thanksgiving." 

Rocky: "It was Thanksgiving."

Adrian: "It was Thanksgiving."

Rocky: "Yeah, to you. But to me, it's Thursday, right?" 


--It's been estimated the original Vikings landed in Newfoundland in 1000. And if Leif Ericson had Justin Jefferson in his boat, he'd have made it to Malibu Beach by the spring of 1001.

--If I were a broadcasting legend like Madden - and by the grace of God I will be soon - my Thanksgiving gimmick wouldn't be the Turkducken or the six-legged bird. I'm a white meat man. So I'd go with the three-breasted turkey. And my catchphrase would be "I wish I had three hands." That's the kind of wholesome holiday family entertainment America needs.

--OK, so I'd consider that a lot more than a halfass effort. I'd say I gave you easily a cheek plus about 75% of the other. If that's still not enough, I don't know what to tell you. You should be eating leftovers and taking advantage of our incredible Black Friday sales anyway.

Holy cats, this ended up being almost 2,700 words. I can't help myself. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed. To dream of a world where Henry got that touchdown call.