Things to consider while acknowledging the Patriots are still alive but my resolution to be kinder and more patient didn't survive first contact with 2023:
--And so here we find ourselves. A day into a new year. One game to go in a season that has felt like one long, interminable, continuous loop of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, and improbably, implausibly, impossibly, the 2022 Patriots are still in playoff contention. In fact, if they win next week they're in. Granted, they have to go on the road to beat a team that's been their own personal Fermat's Last Theorem, and that they haven't been competitive against at any game in recent years that wasn't played in the kind of wind tunnel where they test German sports cars. But still, that fact alone feels like a triumph in this bizarrely dysfunctional season.
--Of course this being the 2022 Pats, they had to torment us all along the way to this W. This year's edition isn't a team to be embraced as much as it's to be endured. These games aren't enjoyed; they're stomached. Like passing a kidney stone, you just hope your tolerance level matches the pain long enough for some sweet relief at the end of the game/your urethra. You can be forgiven if about 2/3 of the way through this one, you just wanted to put this season in hospice care and pray for a painless, dignified end. One that doesn't involve a crazy lateral or red zone fumble. But once again, their vital signs showed improvement. They woke from the coma. And were able to regain the strength to act as a normal, functioning, NFL team long enough to keep their playoff hopes alive for one more week at least. Which I guess is all we could reasonably hope for.
--How they accomplished it might be one of the most interesting things they've done all season, especially on defense. Even without Tua Tagovailoa, this Dolphins offense is a nightmare matchup for this team, especially being as thin at cornerback as they were. It would've been fascinating to see either Marcus Jones or Jack Jones matched up against Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle, just from a size/speed perspective. Without them, the field was a Stratego board where every piece Miami moved had more points. But still the Patriots were able to contain them as well as they ever had.
--Like most of you, New Year's Day is not when I'm at my most clear-eyed and lucid. And as far as my foggy brain could tell, Steve Belichick went with his most zone-heavy concepts he's deployed all year. Going almost exclusively with three, though sometimes four, safeties in their base nickel. And playing Cover-2 Cone in which they bracketed Hill, and played single coverage pattern match zone on everyone else. That requires a lot of coordination, all your defenders understanding the replacement rules for passing off routes from the trailing corner to the robber and deep safeties. That final drive in which they made Skylar Thompson look like 2013 Peyton Manning notwithstanding, they worked the scheme as well as any they have all season.
--And there's no better example than Kyle Dugger's pick-6, in which he lined up over the left-side B-gap showing blitz, before dropping into the deep middle zone at the snap. Devin McCourty had seam-curl-flat responsibility on that side, and passed Trent Sherfield off to him, with Jabrill Peppers trailing Hill. Dugger sat on Sherfield's route and broke on the ball just as it was released:
Which incredibly was Dugger's third touchdown of the season. His second interception return to go with a scoop and score fumble recovery. Meaning he now has more TDs than any offensive player save for Rhamondre Stevenson, Damien Harris and Jakobi Meyers. He definitely has both feet down in the "Overdue for a Pro Bowl spot" part of his career.
--Speaking of getting two feet down, there's not a lot to say about Jonathan Jones's interception. Standard four-man rush. The ball came out before the pressure got there. Jones was giving Hill a cushion and Hill was giving him the ball as he is so prone to do. It was just a beautiful display of timing, reaction, and quick hands on his part. And therefore worth another watch:
--McCourty's reaction on a ball that was basically placed in his hands via drone delivery was not so beautiful. So I'll not post the replay here. Out of respect for him on what could be his final game at Gillette, so at tarnish this pristine KJR. Just mark the centerfielder error as E-8 in your scorebook and move on.
--I mentioned them playing a few downs with four safeties, which is technically true. But a lot of that involved Peppers being on the field, but pressed into a hybrid S/CB role. Kind of a shorter version of 2014 Brandon Browner. And he acquitted himself well for a guy who struggled for playing time for much of the year. As recently as the Las Vegas game as a matter of fact, where he had less than a dozen snaps. But he played a season high 45 in this one. And would've gotten credit for forcing Mostert's fumble, if the rules made any sense. (Seriously, explain to me why the rule book has to have 30 pages on what's reviewable and what isn't? If Bill Belichick has a timeout available and a red bean bag in his sock, what's it to anyone if he wants to use them to correct a bogus "forward progress" call, an offsides, catch along the sideline, or who in that handsome gay couple let the strange cat into their kitchen?) Given the fact we might be missing all three cornerback Joneses next week, the season could be riding on Peppers playing outside the numbers all day in Buffalo.
--On a related note, when we do get all three Joneses together playing corner at the same time, I'm going to go nuts having to differentiate them all by first and last names for an entire season. So for 2023 can we just give them one collective name? Like we did with Hanson?
--In the front-7, Steve Belichick stuck mainly with 30-fronts using a fairly even rotation of the usual suspects: Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, Carl Davis and Davon Godchaux shuffling through the assignments. With Ju'Whaun Bentley behind them, quarterbacking. On at least one occasion, he came down prior to the snap and shifted Guy and Godchaux from an over to an under front, further demonstrating how he's grown into the Dont'a Hightower role he looked like he was destined for as a rookie. In terms of presnap recognition, anticipation, and physicality. All of which he had on display to plant a bomb in this screen pass:
Jahlani Tavai also saw a ton of reps, primarily off the edge opposite Matthew Judon, but also on the second level with Bentley up on the line. And for the entire front, no one had a better day than Barmore. Along with Wise, he helped create Davis's sack near the end of the half. Registered FOUR QB hits. And choreographed the most savage sack dance of the season:
Never forget that it wasn't all that long ago the No Fun League banned such things, for the good of America. Hopefully our youth won't be corrupted by the sight of a 310 pound professional rageaholic dancing like a Mary Poppins cartoon penguin in order to mock his buddy from college.
--Before we move on to the other side of the ball, there's one sequence I think will get overlooked but arguably saved the game and therefore the season. With the game tied about halfway through the 2nd quarter, Miami put together a drive. A couple of checkdown passes to Raheem Mostert produced 1st downs, including a 26-yard catch and run in which he split Dugger and Bentley, evaded capture from Jones, and trucked Phillips, to get to the Pats 36. On 1st down, Jeff Wilson followed a pulling tight end but Dugger came down from his Big Nickel spot to plug the gap and hold him to two yards. On 2nd & 8, Bentley and Anfernee Jennings were on the outside. Jennings fought off a fullback lead block from Alec Ingold to set the edge, while Raekwon McMillan blew up a block from Liam Eichenberg to hold Wilson to a yard. Facing a 3rd & 7 now, Teddy Bridgewater took a deep shot that had no chance of being caught. The subsequent field goal try was now 51 yards, toward the tricky end of Gillette, and went barely wide. If Dugger and then McMillan don't make those two mission critical stops, that kick is probably good, and there is a very, very different tone to this Knee Jerk. It's a tiresome cliche to say every game comes down to executing a handful of plays, but that makes it no less true.
--And those plays were made all the more important by the fact this was one of those games where the Patriots special teams couldn't get out of their own way. I recognize they're missing a lot of key players on all four units, but what used to be a major source of pride was a major liability yesterday. And something that's becoming a pattern here. I take a back seat to no man when it comes to crushing on Brendan Schooler, but he kept a touchdown drive alive by running into the punter. Michael Palardy wouldn't quit putting punts into the end zone, until he had a whole field to work with and served up a 38-yarder with an 11-yard return to the 41. And there was no blocking to be found in the return game. The pessimist in me is having an internal debate over whether this will be a huge problem next week in Buffalo, or not a problem at all, since we can never force the Bills to punt anyway.
--Matt Patricia. Ah yes, Matt Patricia. Matty P the OC. What more can be said at this point that hasn't already been about every other career defensive coach who tries to coordinate an offense for the first time in his life at age 48? Who takes over a highly effective scheme with decades of proven success and switches it up like he's playing with My First Offense by Fisher Price?
--First of all, he did script a touchdown drive on the first possession, saving all the 3rd & outs for the 2nd and 3rd quarters this time. He did it by starting with a controlled passing game, featuring a lot of short motions to stack alignments and bringing receivers across the formation to let Mac Jones identify Miami's zone coverages. Focused primarily on swing passes and screens, then eventually opening it up to deep throws. Few if any better than the one where Tyquan Thornton got past Eric Rowe. (And if you remember him on Alshon Jeffrey in Super Bowl LII, it feels good to have the "Got Past Eric Rowe" shoe on the other foot for a change.)
--And Thornton's touchdown (as someone whose sons rarely saw the end zone, this feels good to say too) was one of those pick plays the Pats always get victimized by, but have never been able to pull off without a blizzard of yellow flags blowing all over them. But this was brilliantly drawn up by Patricia, and executed to perfection. Hunter Henry actually looked like he was selling the run, despite there being no play action, just a quick hit back shoulder throw with plenty of separation:
--From there though, we were served up heaping helpings of Patricia's signature dish: Predictability Stew. With plenty of help from Mac as his sous chef. When he wasn't badly missing with overthrows on deep balls, Jones was badly missing on short throws to the flat. Like the bubble screen he short hopped to Henry with no defender within five yards of him. Still, when Jones was connecting, way too often it looked like Miami knew what was coming, as teams have since the August fauxball games. A 3rd & long that turns into a dumpoff to Henry in traffic for six yards and a punt. A screen to Jakobi Meyers on 1st & 10 from the Pats 37 that might as well have been called in the Dolphins huddle. To be fair, by the end this game represented some improvement over what we've seen. But that's just relative to how bad it's been. Like a kid improving his grade with some C-'s. Which I'll get to in a second.
--Whatever credit I give to Patricia and this whole failed experiment to make him the voice in Mac's helmet, there's no excusing what's gone on all year with Kendrick Bourne. Particularly yesterday. He went from six catches on nine targets for 100 yards and a touchdown - plus a 29-yard rush - last week to one catch on two targets against Miami. And even then he barely saw the field until the 3rd quarter. And gets pulled after committing a false start. Meanwhile Nelson Agholor, who's been such a non-entity he's got one catch for three yards over the last three games combined, is getting all the snaps. It's worse than just making no sense. It's an outrage. Bourne may have been late showing up to a workout or something in camp like rumors suggested. But I missed the reports about him committing war crimes. And even if that was the case, I'd rather see Putin lined up outside the numbers at this point than Agholor. Maybe Jones would target him once a month or so.
--Disclaimer: Neither I nor anyone at Barstool Sports Inc. endorses war crimes. We signed the Geneva Convention and we adhere to all its principles. We welcome any investigation of how we treat our POWs by the Swiss protecting powers.
--OK, now back to saying good things about OC Patricia. This was a great design. Jones said in his postgame presser that this wheel route is one that they've been using consistently, but mixed it up by lining Meyers up in the backfield. Here, with Thornton hesitating with a jab step to hold his corner and Meyers crossing the face of Kader Kohou as Jones hits him with a laser in a triangle of defenders:
--And here was something the Dolphins were not ready for. On the goal line, no less, which we haven't seen more than a handful of times. Meyers started in the backfield, Jones audibled to a spread, Miami couldn't adjust, and with no one but Duke Riley on Meyers, it was a simple pitch and catch. Which Meyers paid a price for:
--One thing CBS and the league can spare us is the five minute infomercial for how great the concussion policy is doing. Ian Eagle and Charles Davis sounded like they were anchoring a news show on North Korean TV. "Thanks to the infinite wisdom of our Dear Leader, all people are free from concussions and CTE has been eliminated for all citizens. In cooperation with proud workers from the Players Association, our illustrious concussion protocols have made the economy the envy of the world, increased agriculture, written 100 operas and shot 18 holes-in-one in a single round of golf." Tell that to DeVante Parker. Save the shameless shilling for So Help Me Todd promos.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive." - Miracle Max, The Princess Bride
--So enjoy the win. Don't do what I've spent a 1,000 words or so doing, and that's bellyaching about it. Even though this is still a team capable of making you nervous while up nine at the 2:00 warning, they're still a borderline playoff team. For now. I complain because this particular team has been frustratingly exhausting. Because they could be in such better shape than they are now, if it weren't for so many mental errors and a lack of situational awareness. Because I don't want to be thought of as someone with a magnetic personality and a smile that lights up a room because those are the ones in every true crime show that wind up getting killed. But mainly because this was supposed to be a season where this franchise would take another step forward toward the championship contention we're all accustomed to. Instead, they're fighting for their life. But the important thing should be they still have a life. Could be worse.