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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 16: Patriots vs. Bengals

Things to consider as Belsnickel determines the 2022 Patriots have been impish and definitely not admirable:

--You're no doubt asking why I'd be working on Christmas like this. After all, couldn't this wait? Well the answer is simple. I do it for the kids. Somewhere out there is a young child, make that an entire family, waking up on Christmas Day, their hearts bursting with the glee and excitement of the holiday spirit. Janey, Tommy, Pete and little Zuzu (who no longer has a smidge of temperature), who can't begin to open presents until they first get my reactions to Matt Patricia's play calling and how Steve Belichick deployed his linebackers. It's for those families, sitting by the fire scrolling mom's phone wanting to know what I think about the pass protection and blitz packages that I take time away from my own loved ones and try to make sense of this game through a thick fog induced by rum and eggnog. Bless us, everyone. 

--That said, kids, expect your pal Old Balls to be a lot less Jolly Ol' Saint Nick and a lot more Krampus. You might want to let the little ones open one gift while you're reading this because it's not going to be for younger audiences. Viewer discretion is advised. 

--I mean, where does one even begin the postmortem on this one? Do you first look at the Gollum 1st half, where it felt like they were down five touchdowns but somehow it was only 22-0? Or the Smeagol 2nd half, when they dominated one of the better teams in the league? Do you talk first about the schizophrenic offense, the schizoid defense, or the neurotic special teams? I suppose you bundle them all and give this team credit for hanging tough after that great cosmic nurple they got last week losing in Las Vegas the way they did instead of imploding. And for hitting halftime having done zero things right over the first two quarters and flipping the game on its head they way they did is admirable. Then again, it would be nice if "hanging tough" and "admirable" appear nowhere in the NFL's playoff tiebreaker formula. But losses do. And going by the only metric that counts, they're now 1-4 since Thanksgiving, after they'd gone 5-1 prior to that. So both yesterday and in a big picture sense looking back over the whole season, this team suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. And we have to decide which of those split identities to give the most attention to.

--I'll begin with the 1st half Gollum offense, just because I am so over this failed experiment with Patricia. Over. It. As in dreading to have to write about it twice more before this season comes to a merciful close. If Oppenheimer was as bad at building bombs as Patricia is at designing a football offense, we would've egged the houses at Hiroshima and TP'ed the trees in Nagasaki. Each of his first two possessions began with a pair of Rhamondre Stevenson runs that everyone in America - certainly all 11 on Cincinnati's side of the line - knew were coming. His idea of mixing things up is running Stevenson out the gun or from under center. So naturally both series were 3 & outs. He finally produced a 1st down on the next possession by going to Jonnu Smith in the flat for 9 yards on 1st down. And got creative on the drive after Devin McCourty's interception by dialing up a Jet Sweep to Kendrick Bourne that went for 29. But for seemingly the 15th time in 15 tries, the game started with a series of drives stuck in a snowbank, spinning their wheels and going nowhere. I wish Matty P. produced 3 & outs at this rate when he was the defensive coordinator. 

--If it were up to me, I would've had Air Kraft One fly down to Alabama and parachute Bill O'Brien in by halftime.

--When they finally did gain some traction later on, the bulk of the credit belonged to Bourne. With no play he made more KJR-worthy than this MOFO (middle of the field open) read between the Cover-2 safeties and him making the catch in the middle of a crowded intersection:

Unless it was his touchdown catch, which was exactly the kind of play in the corner/at the boundary that this year's team seems to miss on every single week while surrendering at least one to the opposing offense:

--All of which just adds to the frustration. Because it's impossible to see these catches and ask where Bourne has been all season. Presumably he got put in the Time Out chair in preseason for being late or something. And it's unconscionable that he's continued to have to settle for his meager amount of snaps this deep into the season when Nelson Agholor (one catch last week on six targets, zero yesterday) keeps getting rolled out there game after unproductive game.

--To make matters worse, the Pats refused to allow Mac to try a 55-yard Hail Mary at the end of the Raiders game because Belichick said he didn't think he could throw it that far. Only to see him land a 48-yard strike to Jakobi Meyers by way of Scotty Washington while escaping a zombie horde in the backfield and barely getting his feet under him:

--Which brings me back to Patricia. Not OC Patricia, but offensive line coach Patricia. The unit he's in charge of is fairly capable of giving Jones a clean pocket against a standard 4-man rush. But is no blitz pickup whatsoever. Even when a team like Cincy shows their hand in pre-snap, you can see the extra rushers coming, they can't put enough hats on hats. Or get the ball out quickly to an outlet receiver in the blitzing defender's vacated zone. All season long you could pause the play to see Jones at the top of his drop, searching for his safety valve only to find no heads turned back looking for the ball. The passing attack is designed like they think pass rushers have to do the "One Mississippi" thing before crossing the line. The only question is why opponents don't simply go zero blitz every down at this point. 

--On the other side of the ball, it looked to me like the plan going in was to play single high safety, mostly with McCourty though sometimes he dropped into the box and Kyle Dugger played the post, with soft man coverage on the outside. Joe Burrow appreciated the gifts - all 28 1st half completions of them - and probably already had his Thank You cards all written by the time he hit the locker room. After the half, I think they adjusted to a lot more split safety zones and a more aggressive pass rush. While again, confusing the Bengals by having Matthew Judon drop into curl/flat coverages on occasion, like on his forced fumble:

--As quickly as Marcus Jones has accelerated his development over the last month or so (he took 90% of the snaps after taking 100% last week), he simply doesn't have the size to match up against a 6-foot-4, 220 pound specimen like Tee Higgins. He's competitive as hell. And has quickly begun to master the veteran art of keeping his eyes in the backfield, playing the quarterback while sitting in zone coverage:

--Now that I look back at this KJR, I realize I'm emphasizing the positives way too much. Because there is no reason whatsoever to feel good about this loss. All the same issues that have dogged us all year are still there. They can't convert on 3rd down, while you see Cincinnati face a 3rd & 17 in the red zone, you just know to a moral certainty they're going to pick up 18 on the play, and they do. Subsequently, every time they cross the opponent's 20 yard line, they find themselves fighting the Battle of Passhendaele, trading lives for inches. 

--By the same token, the 2022 Pats have exceeded even the 2020 team's ability to find ways to lose. A touchdown on that final drive would've given them the most unlikely W of the post-Brady era. And kept their slim playoff hopes on life support for another week. But Patricia made bleeding the clock and forcing the Bengals to burn their time outs his biggest priority. So instead of attacking the edges or, heaven forbid, trusting Mac Jones, we got Rhamondre Stevenson (13 carries, 30 yards, 2.3 YPA) up the middle. And … disaster.

Yet again it feels like we spent 20 years enjoying the fruits of a deal we made with the devil. And now the King of Lies is collecting what we owe him.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote (tie):

"That thing looked like the Manson Family Christmas Special." - Elliot Loudermilk, Scrooged

"Oh, blast it! Poop flirt, rattle crap, camel flirt! You blunder frattle beak struckle brat! Of a womp sack butt bottom fodder!" - The Old Man, A Christmas Story

--Sorry this one is shorter than usual. But this is just going to have to be a one-size-fits-all kind of gift. And you kids will just have to share. Merry Christmas, all. If that's still possible at 7-8. Now go play with your toys.