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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 14: Patriots vs. Cardinals

Things to consider while wishing the fondest of Happy Anniversaries to The Snowplow Game (more on that later):

--Right off the bat let's just admit this was no artistic masterpiece worthy of hanging in a museum and having some trust fund baby throw soup at it. The Cardinals are a shambolic mess who lost their franchise quarterback on the opening drive. The Patriots continue to make inexcusable unforced errors. And Matt Patricia still treats the playbook like it's IKEA instructions he can't figure out and he keeps losing the Allen wrench. But if that's your focus today, you're doing this all wrong and need to seriously consider professional help. After they lost to the Packers in overtime, I gave this team credit and said sometimes there are moral victories. But I still prefer this kind of immoral victory, which count in the standings.

--The larger truth is that in a have-to-have-it situation, the Pats just went on the road and grabbed a W where they were taking a knee in the opponents' red zone with 2:00 to go. And in doing so, they established a beach head in the playoff race. Maybe it's just because I'm old enough to remember when we celebrated 3-0 wins by 5-4 teams during a strike year like they were history in the making (to the point a piece of old lawn equipment hangs in the rafters at the Hall at Patriots Place like it's the Wright Brothers plane), but I believe this is a win worth feeling great about.

--In one of these KJRs recently I said this 2022 version of the Patriots turns every opponent into an exaggerated version of what they already are, like the Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast putting a spell on everyone in the castle (for committing the sin of working for a dick, but whatever). But a simpler comp occurred to me. They're the guy at the carnival who draws caricatures. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball. If you've got a pronounced feature, good or bad, they'll present you with an outsized version of whatever it is. So if you've got a good running quarterback, they'll make him look virtually unstoppable. And if you're having issues in your pass protection, they'll make your offensive line look like you're trying to pick up the rush with five armless store mannequins. 

--So huge credit goes to Steve Belichick, for having to do a 180-degree pivot from the game plan he had in place to stop Kyler Murray and come up with one for Colt McCoy on the fly. Two very different schemes for two polar opposite styles of QB. So instead of loading up the front-7 to fill gaps and play containment on the edges, he flooded McCoy's passing lanes with extra defensive backs and relied on his 4-man rush to exploit the Cardinals weaknesses along the line and feed McCoy lethal doses of Matthew Judon and Josh Uche. It started out very good and just got better as the night wore on. 

Judon simply did Judon things. What he did through the first 12 or so games last year, and then has done this season without any dropoff. Firing every weapon in an arsenal of pass rush moves. He killed the second Arizona drive with a loop from the outside to the B gap behind Lawrence Guy. Later it was overpowering Josh Jones - a 6-foot-7, 320 pound, 25 year old tackle - with a bullrush from the side opposite an Uche sack. In between, he came in unaccompanied by any blocker, where he was on McCoy before he could even finish his 7-step drop for a 13-yard loss. Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison have the rings, so they remain the best free agent signings of the Dynasty era. But Judon is entering the chat.

--There simply has been no one more improved year-to-year than Uche. Certainly over the last couple of months, as he had zero sacks through five games and has 10 in his last six. Including three multi-sacks games in the last five weeks. That coveted Year 2 Bounce I was counting on last season turned out to be a Year 2.35 Bounce. But now that it's here, it's more than welcome. He's seemingly developed a different move for every dropback, like a defensive end Advent Calendar, where behind every little cardboard door is another surprise treat of yummy QB pressure goodness. Changing speeds on Josh Jones while fighting through a hold on one sack:

And mirroring Judon's aforementioned bullrush from the left edge against Kelvin Beachum on another:

Last week Cameron Jordan compared Uche's ability to get low under a blockers pads, with speed, to Von Miller's. To repeat, that's a Pro Bowl DE talking, not me. But after this prime time performance, somehow the comparison sounds way less bonkers.

--An ancillary benefit of all that effectiveness on the edge - apart, you know, from the demoralizing loss of down and distance - is it draws the offense's attention away from the middle. And no one's benefiting from that more than Daniel Ekuale. While blocking schemes have made shoring up their flanks, he's been exploiting vulnerable points in their lines with probing raids. Uche made a 4thd down stop on Arizona's final possession that was created by Ekuale's inside penetration against Cody Ford. Earlier, he did this to Ford:

And for the record, Ford v. Ekuale is the long-anticipated sequel Hollywood finally has to get around to making. 

--I'm semi-embarrassed it's taken me this long to mention the man's name because, until Judon and Uche started holding their OLB meetings in Conference Room McCoy, I thought the best player on the field for either team was Marcus Jones. And I said this before he got his interception:

No, I wasn't kidding. And only slightly drunk. Like .10 at most. He didn't get his usual opportunities in the return game because Kliff Kingsbury has a fetish for turning it over on downs instead letting his punter earn a living. But he picked up 12 yards the one time he was targeted. And saw more playing time on defense than he has all season, by an order of magnitude. In fact, his 67 defensive snaps led the team. He repeatedly drew the DeAndre Hopkins assignment. For instance, on one down, as Steve Belichick was going with more 7-defensive back looks and Deatrich Wise, Jr. was subbed out for Myles Bryant just prior to the snap, Marcus Jones was alone on Hopkins and step-for-step on his hip on a Go route that McCoy had no chance of completing. Then of course there was the pick, where he kept his eyes in the backfield on off coverage and saw the tipped ball all the way:

But to me his best play came with the game tied 13-all midway through the 3rd. McCoy's pass was tipped by Jahlani Tavai, who got his hand on a couple of throws, and was almost caught by Trey McBride for what would've been a 1st down in the Pats red zone. The reason McBride didn't haul it in was Jones had the wherewithal to grab him - legally, once the ball was deflected - by the shoulder pads and break up the play. That's the kind of situational awareness that is rare among veterans, and damned near impossible to find in a rookie who's spent most of the season on special teams. He was drafted for his wheels. But it's encouraging to know there's a smart operator in the driver's seat. And it'll be interesting to see if all this playing time means they'll put him on team's top receivers with the likes of Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Miami coming up.

--At the risk of being catty, does this count as Hopkins first TD while facing New England?

--There were minefields on the Russian Front that saw fewer casualties than that turf in Arizona. 

--And on that note, if I owned an NFL team (and only cruel fate has denied me to this point), that flat bed cart they carry injured guys off with would be shaped like a shield. It's embarrassing that the Vikings don't do it at the very least.

--Seriously, the 1st half seemed to take forever for all the injury timeouts. By the time they got to halftime, I'd grown out my beard and fingernails like OCD Howard Hughes. The least they could've done is shown us a little of that Tone Loc show for our troubles. I just wanted to see if he had any songs besides "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina." If he had time for a third, it would probably be a "Wild Thing/FCM" dance mix, since they're essentially the same exact song. Tone ought to keep pumping that well dry as long as America has a thirst for it. Play the hits. Both of them.

--Speaking of One Hit Wonders, it's apparent by now that between his stints in San Francisco, New England, Las Vegas, and New England Part II, that Trent Brown had one good season in him. And 2018 was his "867-5309."

--I'm tempted to be kind because he's been sick and maybe should've been on his mom's couch having Lipton's Cup O' Soup and warm, flat ginger ale like I used to get. (Cold, effervescent ginger ale would, of course kill a person.) But he's been playing this way all season, healthy or not. He commits his obligatory false start on the first possession. After Arizona's first touchdown, the Pats get the ball with 3:00 to play in the half, and almost immediately Brown gets dismantled by Markus Golden for a 4-yard loss. A few plays later, the Cardinals make no effort to disguise they're coming with a blitz, Mac Jones audibles to Max Protect, and still Brown gets shredded by Zach Allen for the sack and they're forced to punt. Brown also drew a flag for ineligible man upfield. But that play was such a batter-dipped, deep fried, extra crispy, hot and spicy turd of a play, pretty much everyone else was upfield with him. He just drew the flag due to his gravitational pull. Everything else I mentioned is all on him.

--I'll get to the positives in a second. I promise; I need them. But there are still way too many wasted downs. Either due to Patricia's play design or execution so poor it looks like they just made it up in the huddle, they keep killing themselves with negative plays. That mess I just mentioned. The draw play handoff to Kevin Harris that bounced off his shoulder pads like he was the last person in the building expecting to be getting the ball. A delay of game penalty because Mac Jones has to wait for Patricia and Joe Judge's Play Planning Committee to vote on the call. Followed by a time out to prevent another delay of game. Followed by Mac once again speaking for all of us:

That's him. Voicing the frustration of all of us. Screaming the same sentiments we are from our sofas. The vox populi. Keep speaking truth to power. That's my quarterback.

--I'd just advise Jones to tread lightly. Yes, he's right to complain. But Patricia strikes me as the kind of coach who'd draw mustaches on guys while they sleep on the plane.

--Now, at long last the good stuff. Finally some success in the red zone. A nice play design, with the Pats linemen all in 2-point stances in a 2x2 pass look. Instead, Brown comes up to the second level to seal off the back side LB, Cole Strange throws a kick out block on Myjai Sanders as David Andrews runs the nose tackle out of the building. Meanwhile Kendrick Bourne on Budda Baker next to Hunter Henry on Ben Niemann are the tip of the spear, and Kevin Harris rewards them for their effort:

Great play. Executed to perfection. Like they had exactly the call for the defense they were getting. Just like old times. 

--And here are those same blockers again. Brown setting the edge, Strange pushing Tristan Hill backwards, and Bourne and Henry on the same two defenders as the Harris TD. This time getting Pierre Strong into the open field so he could engage his Warp Drive:

This is obviously a program that prefers to bring its rookie running backs along slowly. But having already lost, in order: James White, Ty Montgomery, Damien Harris and last night their most productive offensive player, Rhamondre Stevenson, they were left with no choice. And to not only win with the rookies but have them make significant contributions is a benefit that will go way beyond one win. Big though it is. 

--And credit to all involved for not only remembering Henry is still eligible to catch passes, but scheming up ways to get him stressing defenses once again. None better than this Four Verticals as a Cover-1 beater, in which Jones froze the single high safety Jalen Thompson, giving room for Henry to run up the seam:

--So there are flashes. I've finally joined the ranks of those being hard on OC Matty P. And much of it is justified. The 3rd down failures speak for themselves. But finally we got some throws that went beyond the line to gain instead of 5 yards short and hoping the receiver can break a half dozen tackles. We had a first play of the game that went to DeVante Parker on a slant for a 1st down. And a first play of the 2nd half that went for 15 to Bourne as part of a Curl-Flat concept between him and Tyquan Thornton, the sort of route combo that has been our bread and butter around here. It's good to see it. And good to acknowledge it. Hopefully going forward they can reduce the negative plays and unforced errors, and build on the progress they're showing. Though I've been saying that since August.

--One play the officials definitely decided they didn't need to review was the non-fumble by Nelson Agholor. They correctly determined you can't fumble what you can't catch.

--Watching Matthew Slater call audibles on the return team, shifting bodies from "Blue!" to "Red!" across the formation because the punter was moving a step or two in either direction was a look into a world the rest of us can never comprehend. And part of what makes him the best at it in franchise history. That is not something I say lightly, since we all remember Troy Brown and Larry Izzo. Here's another thing I'm not saying lightly: Brendan Schooler will be doing this as long as Slater has. He's having a better rookie season than even Slater did. The two of them arrived at the return man at the same time and dropped him for zero yards at the end of a 48-yard punt down to the Cardinals 6. And it was like a torch being passed to a new generation. A thing of beauty.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "KEVIN!" - Kate McCallister, Home Alone

--Now to pay off that tease from the beginning. A few years back I was doing a presentation about my first book (perfect for everyone on your list, and available in paperback and hardcover online and wherever fine books are sold), and during the Q&A at the end I had the following exchange:

Guy: "Do you know the name of the guy who drove the snowplow?"

Me: "I shouldn't, but I do. He was Mark Henderson."

Guy: "Do you know where he was from?"

Me: "Yes. He was on work release from Walpole Prison." 

Guy: "Do you know why he was in jail?"

Me: "OK, now there you've got me." 

Guy: "He broke into MY house."

True story. And one of the great brushes with greatness of my life.

--I stand by my prediction from the beginning of the season that the Pats would end up with double digit wins and make the playoffs. They'll need to go 3-1 the rest of the way to make it happen. And for that they'll need all the help they can get. Fortunately, I can't think of greater help than getting to face Josh McDaniels with this defense.