Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 18: Patriots vs. Bills
Things to consider while declaring, "Today, we are all David Andrews":
--In the end, this was a mercy. The 2022 Patriots had been on life support ever since the back-to-back weeks of surreal endings against the Raiders and Bengals, and were sporting a "Do Not Resuscitate" bracelet. There's not a man, woman or child among us who saw a trip to Buffalo in Week 18 and told ourselves that's a win. So when they needed it to extend this bizarre season into the playoffs, expecting one was a fool's errand. And the other paths to get there, counting on wins by the Jets or Browns, would've only prolonged their agony. It was best to just grab the shotgun, take Ol' Yeller out back behind the barn, and send him to a place where he can be happy, with a nice yard to run around in and a shady tree he can sleep under.
--I have no doubt I'll be doing some postmortems over the next few days, figuring out exactly what the cause of death was and how it can be prevented in the future. But briefly, I stand by what I said in that Tweet. This team had no quit in them. They never stopped fighting. Even walking into the Bomb Cyclone of emotion that was Buffalo against an opponent that has been their toughest matchup across the board the last few years, they stood with toe-to-toe with the Bills and exchanged haymakers for most of the game.
--But (and as Ned Stark said, everything before "but" is bullshit), the defining characteristic of this year's team was their talent for finding preposterous ways to lose. It seems like every one of their nine losses was caused by unforced errors, self-owns, fatal mistakes, lack of situational awareness and assorted other brainsharts. They were constantly doing the Nordberg boat scene, getting shot, bumping their head, putting their hand on the hot stove, leaning on wet paint, getting a window slammed on their fingers, jamming their face into a cake, and falling overboard. They almost never just lost in the conventional, normal way of simply getting outplayed, though there was that. They had to lose comically and ridiculously.
--This time, it was obviously the two touchdowns by Nyheim Hines. The NFL has done everything in their power to eliminate kick returns short of just having the coaches play them on Madden and Twitch stream them on the scoreboard. (That day is coming, I'm sure.) But the team that invests more draft capital and cap space into core-4 special teamers than any other let Hines break off two returns on them. And I say "let," because on the first one, while Jim Nantz said he broke a tackle, I defy anyone to show me where that was:
The closest I'm able to find of any contact whatsoever is Pierre Strong reaching out and possibly getting a finger on him as he changed direction at the 25. On his second, he wasn't touched until the 35, at which point he ran right through Myles Bryant like one of the titular dead stereotypes from CBS's Ghosts (which if you haven't heard, is part of America's favorite night of laughs). The fact they suffered not one but two total breakdowns in an area they emphasize more than any team in the league is as good a shorthand as any about how fatally flawed this year's Patriots were.
--Before we go any further, this isn't a Bills blog by any stretch of the imagination. But you wouldn't be human if you didn't acknowledge just how surreal that opening play was. There are moments in sports that transcend the physical world and become metaphysical. That enough to make you believe there is a higher power controlling things. Or at least another reality, on a higher plane of existence that every so often reveals itself through the people playing the games we love. It's truly miraculous. And a reminder why, since the dawn of civilization, humans have paid money to sit in a circle and watch men do battle with one another.
--All that said, make the fucking tackle. Or how about getting someone to kick who can put it out of the end zone? When Nick Folk dribbled one out of bounds, I was actually cheering. If the Pats had scored again, I'd have had him just boot it sideways into the stands, put the Bills at the 40 and took my chances.
--The damned thing of it is, those two breakdowns ruined what could've been one of the truly memorable wins of the Belichick Epoch. With everything in Buffalo's favor. That shot of adrenaline Hines injected into their heart at the beginning. The fact the Pats hung in there after the obligatory 3 & out Matt Patricia had spent the week scripting to put together a nine play touchdown drive and make it a game. The way the defense actually forced three punts and two turnovers. The way they actually had the lead in the 3rd quarter, for that 13-second stretch between Folk's toe hitting the ball and Hines crossing the goal line. A win would've been something people talked about decades from now. Like Larry Bird dropping 47 on Portland only using his left hand. Queen at Live Aid. The Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool. Instead, it's just the ironic twist ending of the bad M. Night Shyamalan film this whole season has been.
--I've gotten my initial dig at Patricia out of the way. So it's time to use a muscle I haven't exercised much all season and give him credit. (And like that first time you ski all winter, I know I'm going to be sore tomorrow.) For long stretches, this was as good as his offense has looked all year. He combined gap runs with inside zones, such as the play where Rhamondre Stevenson topped 1,000 yards on the season, where Hunter Henry released up to the second level to seal off Matt Milano, while Michael Onwenu pulled across the formation to take out AJ Epenesa coming off the edge vacated by Henry:
--Thus established, Matty P made the most frequent and effective use of play action we've seen to date. From that first touchdown drive. Including a 3rd & 1 swing pass to Jakobi Meyers who'd come in motion that went for 20. A 17 yarder to DeVante Parker who stemmed off his route to a post against outside leverage from Duane Jackson:
And then finally on Meyers' touchdown:
Between Patricia's play calling, his use of play action, Mac Jones' flawless execution, Meyers' catch and the true miracle of Gene Skeletor actually stating on the air that he thought a Pats player got both feet down - that is an absolute first - it really did feel like something magical was in the air.
--While we're at it, where were these cameras when we needed them in Las Vegas?
--And while I'm dishing out praise to Matty P the OC, let's pile it on his plate. He allowed Jones to be aggressive, particularly when targeting Parker, who rewarded his faith. This is exactly how we envisioned it on that Saturday last spring when Belichick swung the trade with Miami, him winning the 50/50 battles that N'Keal Harry always turned into 0/100s:
--Just as significantly, Patricia plucked whatever hair he's got across his ass for Kendrick Bourne and gave him the significant reps he hasn't been getting most of the season. Including last week, after he dropped six catches for 100 yards on Cincinnati. Bourne played 36 snaps yesterday. Which was still only fourth most among their wideouts. And he made the most his opportunity, working the flat/curl parts of the Bills' secondary underneath vertical routes by Parker and Tyquan Thornton, and the deep middle with this Cover-2 beater in the middle of the field:
--Another positive for Patricia? (I should've stretched before I started all this heavy lifting.) Is that he gave Nelson Agholor the good leaving alone he deserved. It's hard to put into words what a complete waste of a perfectly good roster spot this guy has been. Since catching just five balls on 10 targets for 32 yards at Arizona, then following that up with one catch on six targets at Las Vegas, Nelson's been targeted just twice. And his one yesterday was intercepted. Was that his fault? Not exactly. Jones overthrew him. Slightly. But when you're two seasons removed from leading the league in yards per catch, a defender is over the top of you and a pass is just out of reach, you might consider going after it with more energy than the guy in an ad for Low-T meds. Especially when you're barely seeing the field as it is. I'll get into improving the roster later in the week. But for now, he's the first guy I'm handing a contractor bag to for cleaning out his locker.
--That interception was especially galling since it killed perhaps the Patriots best drive of the game. Right after the half, Bills Mafia was back into it after firing down some halftime Labatts. At one point they were so loud Jones was under center calling an audible and Damien Harris had to come down a few steps to confirm he was checking to a run. Hunter Henry had converted a 4th down with a nice choice route, running at Tremaine Edmunds to freeze him, then cutting back to the hashes. Stevenson had just picked up 16 while slipping every Bills defender like he was going through a hallway guarded by lasers. Then Jones got the bright idea of targeting a guy who has been checked out pretty much since early October. And his off target throw didn't help.
--Of course, Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty got them the ball right back. So it would be a moot point if the officials hadn't all decided to take a personal day. After leaving their penalty flags in the locker room during the 1st half, they forgot they had them when Matt Milano was manhandling Harris in the end zone like he was a Tokyo subway official filling the 5:15 train. And earlier when Ed Oliver was two steps into the backfield before the snap for the TFL. But somehow they found the flags in time to call Henry for an OPI which took away a nice gain by Meyers, one that could be called against literally every upfield blocker on every catch and run. The refs are not the reason the Pats lost. The Bills are. But until the gap between these two teams gets narrower, they need every call to go their way. Yesterday none of them did.
--Speaking of that gap, this was arguably the best job Steve Belichick has done against Josh Allen and he still produced three touchdown drives and just as many big time throws that defy description. There are those moments every time you face him where he escapes a rusher to extend a play, and you just know he's going to do something spectacular. Know it to a moral certainty. Like it's already happened and you've just hit the back arrow button to watch it again. Like the second he made Josh Uche whiff, you knew it was coming. This time it was John Brown doing an up & out behind Bryant playing a deep zone:
Later it was a double move by Stefon Diggs to beat Jonathan Jones just as Daniel Ekuale hit Allen on 3rd & 10. Only the receivers and routes change. But he does this to New England twice a season. Plus an 18 yard strike down to the 2 against zero blitz while he was in a full on backpedal that set up another score. And until they figure out a way to put a blow dart into his haunch and stop these throws from happening, they're always going to be second class citizens of the AFC East.
--Anyway, when Allen wasn't delivering kill shots on them, the Patriots defense did a respectable job of keeping them in the game. With a fair amount of pressure. Some effective corner blitzes from Kyle Dugger to go with some stunts and games up front. At the very least, they made the Bills punter have to show up to work. Last year he could've done his job via Zoom.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Adrian (from her hospital bed): "There's one thing I want you to do for me."
Rocky: "What's that?"
Adrian: "Win. Win!"
Mickey: "Well what are we waitin' fer?!!!"
--If this is the last game for Matthew Slater and McCourty, at least they went out making impactful plays. Slater forcing a turnover by throwing Taiwan Jones into the ball on punt coverage. McCourty with a red zone pick:
… a fumble recovery, a brilliant PBU in the end zone, and five tackles. For now that'll have to do. Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.
--I say this every year at this time, and will until the sun goes nova. I've been doing these KJRs since Barstool's newspaper days. A lot of time and effort goes into writing them because I want each one to be unlike the stuff every other football writer is putting out. And I'm happy to make the extra effort because of the positive feedback I get from them. Both in the comments and just from people I meet. Thanks again for sticking with me through a bizarre and often trying season. Now let's get the offseason fired up. I'm here for it.