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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 14: Patriots vs. Steelers

Things to consider as millions of Swifties Google "what is time magazine" and ESPN wonders if they can re-flex Patriots-Chiefs back onto Monday Night Football:

--Winning this one is a especially gratifying for a lot of reasons. I appreciate it on a deep, personal level because when you get to be in my situation, where the kids are grown and out of the house, the holiday season becomes a time of great nostalgia. You find yourself hanging their favorite ornaments and putting out the decorations they made as school projects. Reflection on all the special moments when they opened the perfect gift they wanted. Cherishing the times we'd read Twas the Night Before Christmas before bed. Remembering with joy in your heart all the times Bill Belichick would coach circles around Mike Tomlin. Last night even had a moment where the Steelers' lost the radio connect to Mitch Trubisky's helmet, and it felt like 2015 all over again. Just without Tomlin accusing Belichick of jamming his signal with some secret spy device. (Yet.) So thanks are in order to the Patriots for bringing back at lot of fond memories to these Old Balls. 

--But it was important on more than just a personal, sentimental level. This win speaks volumes, through a megaphone, about the character of this team. As frustrating as it's been for all of us to watch them find new and unique ways to blow winnable games, it's been infinitely more so for them. Putting in months of hard work with nothing to show for it will tear any group of human beings apart. Pressure makes diamonds, but it also makes rubble, and all that. A lesser group of men with a less stable coaching situation would've formed a circular firing squad weeks ago. Guys would be blaming each other, giving anonymous quotes to the media about how the coach has lost the locker room. Veterans would start to mentally check out and start making business decisions about trying to stay healthy for free agency. There's been none of that. Just professionalism and loyalty to the man who built this empire:

Leadership is one of those abstract concepts that is impossible to define, but in no uncertain terms you know it when you witness it. And a 2-10 team playing its collective ass off for a supposedly embattled, maligned coach who's supposedly standing in his own professional grave is as good a definition as you'll ever need. Bear this in mind when you hear some media jackal demanding Belichick be tossed out onto the One Patriots Place pavement in disgrace because his Grinchy heart has been two sizes too small all these years.

--And while I'm sure Jabrill Peppers' sentiments are shared by everybody, I'm glad he's the one who said it. Because he's been one of the guys on this roster who has truly stepped up the most all season. I didn't even mind the mic'd up comment after the Giants game:

Because it was one of those jokes you crack in a moment of frustration and had the added benefit of being objectively true. More importantly, he has been balling out all season. He and Kyle Dugger have formed a solid, loyal, dependable Praetorian Guard at the third level such that one of the best defenses in the league was able to absorb the loss of Devin McCourty. They, along with Ju'Whuan Bentley each played all 71 snaps of this one and made enough plays to hold onto the lead as the offense - which we'll obviously get to so just hold yer wad - got its tires stuck in snow. 

--On his interception, Peppers at first came in alongside Bentley into a 3-3 stack look, with Mack Wilson showing an A-Gap blitz, which caused Trubisky to motion Jaylen Warren for protection, and Jalen Mills as the single high safety. At the snap, Dugger came off the edge, Josh Uche on the other side dropped into flat/curl coverage, and everyone else fell back into a Tampa-2. Pat Freiermuth ran a Cover-1 beater seam route, and what looked like a mismatch between him and Uche was simply Uche passing him off to Peppers. Trubisky was as confused and ill-prepared as an Ivy League president testifying before Congress. And handled it about as well:

--I talked a fair amount about the defensive line last week, and should do so again. Because at times like this I don't mind repeating myself. Because once again, Davon Godchaux at the nose and Christian Barmore and Lawrence Guy turned the middle of the defensive front into the Tip O'Neill Tunnel on a Monday morning with an accident in the center lane. Their 2-gapping limited Najee Harris to just 29 yards on 12 carries. So Pittbsburgh was left with two choices: Attack the perimeter or throw out their weapons and come quietly. They chose the former. And no stop was better than the one on their first possession of the 2nd half when they tried a double reverse to Warren, which Deatrich Wise, Jr had the cheat code for. He read it all the way and blew it up, as Myles Bryant fired in for the tackle and a 7-yard loss. With both run options no longer options, Tomlin had no choice but to put his faith in Trubisky. And it worked out about as well as the words "faith in Trubisky" ever have.

--But all these aforementioned Patriots defenders aside, to me no one has improved like Anfernee Jennings. He's gotten his chance after Matthew Judon went down and has made the most of it. Like Constanza's girlfriend when she understudied Bette Midler in Rochelle, Rochelle, except nobody's being accused of Gilloolying Judon. Jennings has already blown way passed his career high in snaps. And while he's not going to generate a ton of Chris Berman "WHOOP!" noises in the highlight packages, he's established himself as that solid edge-setter you need if you intend to avoid getting carved up like a spiral ham. Watch the way he ragdolled Darnell Washington on this TFL:

Jennings still has another year on his rookie deal, but if he doesn't get the coveted second contract the way Wise did, I'll be stunned.

--OK, I've waited way too long to get to Bailey Zappe. But don't think of it as burying the lede so much as building the anticipation up to a fever pitch. Like all the scene of humans talking in Godzilla Minus One before you get to see the fully grown monster. Enough with the character development and reading subtitles. Let's watch Zappe stomp on shit:

I mean, let's not put too fine a point on that one, as it was the simplest of pitches and catches. But let's congratulate Hunter Henry for clearing out the area for Ezekiel Elliot with the Pats first properly executed rub route this decade. Seriously, they should've closed schools throughout New England so families could celebrate together. 

--The much more impressive read and throw on that drive was the bomb to Juju Smith-Schuster that suddenly put them into that Undiscovered Country we call the red zone. Out of a tight 3-man bunch, Tyquan Thornton on the outside ran a Flat, Henry from the tight end spot ran an Out, occupying the shallow defenders. While Smith-Schuster stemmed off his deep route into a Fade to avoid Minkah Fitzpatrick coming over from his centerfield spot. Zappe read him all the way and trusted his receiver to win the jump ball. And for once this season, a Pats QB turned out to be right:

--His second touchdown was the sort of on-the-money, no nonsense, no weirdly high-arcing, air-under-the-ball lob wedge we kept seeing but fortunately never became accustomed to from Mac Jones. It was a laser-guided sniper shot that followed the Patriots red area Rules of Engagement which are "low on the goal line, high on the back line." Where either Henry would come down with it or it would hit some guy holding a camera:

--But truly Zappe's finest moment of the night - of his career so far, was Henry's second touchdown. Staring down Smith-Schuster on a Bubble screen to freeze the cornerback to that side, holding the ball long enough for a Mesh concept to develop between Mike Gesicki and Elliot out of the backfield, which occupied three middle defenders, and the whole time looking for Henry on a Flag route. Perfectly delivered:

I mentioned nostalgia at the beginning of this? How about those fond, happy memories of a quarterback with three touchdown passes in the first half, instead of in a month or more? You can have your scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. A halftime stat line of 14-for-21, 196 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs made this the most wonderful time of the year. 

--If nothing else, Zappe succeeded in not embarrassing us all in front of Al Michaels. The one saving grace of last week's shutout was a least it didn't happen in the presence of a national treasure. Giving Michaels a quality game to call by itself is cause for a celebration:

--It was not all raindrops on roses though. With a chance to bury Pittsburgh in the second half, the Patriots got the ball six times and produced five punts and an interception. No possession was longer than 7 snaps, and only one took more than 3 minutes off the clock. That interception was the obvious low point for Zappe. A play action in which he not only had Elliot wide open on a Sit route, but Gesicki came out on a delayed route after chipping TJ Watt and was undefended on the backside. This was another example of Zappe staring down Smith-Schuster, but in the bad way:

Though it's only natural we should expect a learning curve. Bill O'Brien took off Zappe's training wheels and he delivered. No more counter productive over dependence on screens and checkdowns. They let him earn a few Air Miles on deep shots, and he responded. Given the fact that his entire wide receiving corps consisted of Smith-Schuster, Thornton, Jalen Reagor and Ty Montgomery, I think we can say he aced the midterm in spite of his 2nd half. 

--Again, it goes back to this defense, that held up even as the other side of the ball couldn't move the chains and or drain the clock. For the game they held Pittsburgh to just 3-for-14 on 3rd down conversions and 1-3 on 4ths. And even when the Steelers managed a drive that lasted 7:09, it only went for 32 yards, never crossed midfield, and ended in a punt that went for a touchback. If this offense was anything close to what we saw in the 1st half - or what it was in the first two weeks against Philly and Miami - this team would be in playoff contention instead of all of us checking the draft order.

--I've done a disservice by waiting until now to mention the heroic work Elliot did. It's hard to believe Belichick's gamble to go with just two running backs on the active roster all year has worked out as long as it has. And losing Rhamondre Stevenson, who's been nothing less than the best player on this offense for two years should've been fatal. But Elliot took the whole load on his mighty shoulders. With 22 carries for 68 yards, 7 receptions on 8 targets and 72 yards and the touchdown. And spent the rest of time picking up blitzes and so on, 52 total snaps. I still can't believe he was available as late in the summer as the Pats got him. But I shudder to think how bad this would all be if he hadn't signed here.

--My favorite Christmas song so far this year is "Sarcastic Cheers," by Steelers Fans. That gave me the holly, jolly feeling I've been needing, and I intend to listen to it on constant replay all season long.

--I thought I'd appreciate the fact they've done away with the December commercial cliche of the white SUV in the driveway with a preposterously impractical red ribbon on the roof. But they've been replaced with ads for phones made of Adamantium or Vibranium or Unobtainium or some damn space age polymer. I'm not looking for a phone that will stop a bullet or survive a thermonuclear blast. I'd just like the screen not to crack when I drop it off the side of the toilet.

--Also, whoever decided to put Zoe Saldana into a giant, puffy, snowball-shaped down jacket, quit your job, leave the ad business and never return. Clearly knowing what will grab the attention of a predominantly male audience is not your thing.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It's a… miracle. It's really a sort of a miracle." - Frank Cross, Scrooged

--As if merely winning this game wasn't enough, it turns out there's even something for the fans of tanking the season:

So we may not only have kept our coach and found our quarterback, we might get all the help we need at the top of the draft?

Giphy Images.

I believe. Bless us all, everyone.