BOSTON (CBS) — We’re through Week 9, which means the season is officially halfway over for everyone in the league, but what do we really know about the NFL right now?
More specifically … which team is any good?
The Patriots, after a 55-31 win over Pittsburgh, are 7-2, owners of the third-best record in the conference. The Chiefs lead the way at 9-0, but their opponents are a combined 27-49 on the season, and they hardly have made a case for being the best team in football. Behind the Chiefs are the Broncos, who have their warts on defense but look to be the most prolific team in the conference.
Beyond that, who knows? The Patriots’ seven wins have come against teams with a combined record of 22-36, the Colts have fought uphill battles every week and will no doubt miss Reggie Wayne, the Bengals still employ Marvin Lewis as head coach, and the Jets are the Jets. If those six teams made the playoffs, would there be any easy way to predict what’s going to happen? Already, we’ve seen the Bengals beat the Patriots, who lost to the Jets but also beat the Jets, who got blown out by the Bengals but beat the Bills, who beat the Dolphins, who beat the Bengals but lost to the Patriots …. and so on.
The point is … that through nine weeks, there has been no point to this season. Nobody beyond the Broncos has really separated from the pack, and some weak performances in the past three weeks have even raised questions about Denver. If the playoffs were to start today, a coin flip could be the only way to properly predict an AFC representative heading to New Jersey for the Super Bowl.
Fortunately for all involved, the playoffs don’t start today, and fortunately for the Patriots, they’re heading into the cold stretch of the season, a period that has always been marked by success during the Bill Belichick era. They’ll have two tough games coming out of the bye — at Carolina, home vs. Denver — but then have a light load in December, a month in which Belichick’s Patriots, for whatever reason, are 51-10 since 2000 (including a few regular-season games that trickled into January). While a lot of things need to be figured out between now and January, there’s no doubt that the Patriots are just about exactly where they want to be as they head into their bye.
But before we enter a week’s worth of waiting for nothing, let’s run through all of the leftover thoughts from the 55-31 win.
–The Steelers are a terrible football team, no doubt, but don’t let that 2-6 record devalue what Tom Brady and the offense did on Sunday. Entering the game, the Steelers allowed just 181 passing yards per game, second-best in the NFL, before Brady carved them up for 432 yards. Pittsburgh’s D entered the game having allowed just five passing touchdowns in seven games, before Brady threw four.
So yes, the Steelers are terrible, but the passing defense was actually pretty good. Having the Steelers allow franchise records in points and yards is a feat that shouldn’t be discarded due to the win-loss record.
–If there’s one major reason to feel optimistic about the Patriots, it’s Rob Gronkowski. The big-bodied tight end was back to his old ways of catching everything in the 02035 zip code and dragging human beings behind him wherever he goes, and I wrote a little more extensively on what that means for the Patriots, which you can read here if you’d like. But essentially, the only way the Patriots become anything this year is if Gronkowski plays the dominant role he did on Sunday. He has a unique skill set and a massive frame, and there’s simply no other player quite like him.
–Gronkowski was so inspired, in fact, that he celebrated one play with an homage to two of his heroes, the Super Mario Bros.
(Seriously though, he unintentionally nailed the Mario jump. Just look at it. It’s appropriate, considering it sometimes look as though he picked up one of those stars that makes Mario invincible.)
–I’ve never been more convinced that Troy Polamalu is only considered a great safety because people like the way his hair bounces this way and that while he tries to leap over an offensive line from time to time. I know that no team exposes him quite like the Patriots do, but my goodness, this is what the first half looked like for the five-time All-Pro:
- Allowed 34-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola
- Allowed 57-yard completion to Amendola
- Jumped offside on goal line
- Penalized 15 yards for personal foul on Gronkowski’s touchdown
- Penalized 15 yards for pass interference on Aaron Dobson
He came out strong in the third quarter by forcing the Stevan Ridley fumble, but you could probably have replaced Polamalu with the starting safety from Foxborough High School and gotten better results.
–Here’s a “Wow!” moment: Sunday marked the third-best passing day of Tom Brady’s entire career. Given the way the first eight weeks of the season looked, and given the prominent roles played by rookies in the passing game, who could have ever seen that coming?
Brady has only thrown for more than his 432 yards twice — last year in a loss to San Francisco, and in Week 1 of 2011 against Miami — and he amazingly never hit the 400-yard mark in the record-setting offense in 2007. What’s most incredible is that he got these 432 yards on just 33 passing attempts, compared to 65 vs. San Francisco in 2012 and 48 vs. Miami in ’11.
There are some other entries in the Brady resume that may qualify as being closer to a “perfect game” for Brady, but this one was the most efficient game of his career.
–Here’s a look at Polamalu guessing wrong when leaving Amendola wide open for the Patriots’ first touchdown of the day:
And here’s what Belichick said of Polamalu during the week:
“I’d use the word instinctive. He’s a very instinctive player. You can say that he’s guessing, taking chances, but I’d say he’s right most of the time. most of the time, he makes the right decision. … Call it whatever you want to call it, but he knows where the ball is or where it’s going and he gets to the right place at the right time way, way, way more often than he’s wrong.”
Well, Polamalu guessed again later, allowing Amendola to again run free, this time picking up half a football field’s worth of yardage on one play.
Isn’t guessing fun?
—Ryan Clark is a guy who doesn’t mind leading with his head to injure other players’ melons. Wes Welker surely knows this, as do many others. Perhaps Clark will reconsider this strategy after Michael Hoomanawanui taught him a lesson in the second quarter, using his 260 pounds of momentum to send Clark to the turf after the safety tried to “tackle” the tight end using only his head.
–I disagreed with the personal foul penalty on Polamalu, and a flood of people were quick to tell me that Polamalu “launched.” He didn’t. He put his helmet down and drove it into the football. When the receiver has an 8-inch height advantage on you and leaps to make a catch, you only have so many moves at your disposal to try to prevent a touchdown. The fact that Polamalu made helmet-to-football contact only strengthened my belief.
Nevertheless, the penalty was called, and some good came of it. With Stephen Gostkowski allowed to kick off from midfield, this Gillette Stadium ball boy got to have his grand moment of glory on national television, in front of 68,000 fans.
Your life may be all downhill from here, kid, but you’ll always have that moment when you chased down an NFL kickoff and fielded it perfectly.
–The one thing that really stood out to me on Aaron Dobson’s 81-yard touchdown wasn’t the kid’s breakaway speed, and it wasn’t Brady’s perfect pass, and it wasn’t Dobson’s ability to catch it in stride at full speed and chug all the way into the end zone. Nope — it was Dobson’s Randy Moss-esque flip of the left arm, letting Brady know after just one step that he was running a go route and he had a step or two on the defense. It’s a pretty impressive sign of the rookie’s confidence when he’s out there giving Mr. Brady the “go ahead and hit me for a touchdown” arm wag.
–Amendola became the 50th player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady. I thought that number would be higher, considering Brady’s in his 12th full season as a starter. I was also shocked to see that nine catches set a new career high for Gronkowski. Given that Aaron Hernandez is officially ancient history, it’s safe to expect more than a few double-digit reecption games coming from Gronkowski in the next two months. (Gronk did have 10 catches in a playoff game against Denver, but for whatever reason, the playoffs don’t count when talking statistics, because … why?)
–I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stevan Ridley is this team’s most explosive play-maker. If Belichick is going to get questioned for benching the kid for fumbling earlier in the year, and if the coach is going to come under scrutiny for keeping Ridley on the bench for the first quarter last week, it’s only fair to give the coach credit for sticking with Ridley after the fumble to begin the third quarter. I didn’t really think that was a fumble, as I’m not convinced Ridley ever had possession, and Bill perceived it more as a great play by Polamalu than a bad one by Ridley.
–LeGarrette Blount joined Ridley in the rushing parade. Though he only got five carries, he was straight-up impossible to tackle, running through the tackles of the lifeless Steelers and making the blowout loss that much more painful for the men wearing white jerseys. Blount picked up 47 yards and a touchdown on just five carries, and with Shane Vereen nearing a return, you have to wonder if this team’s running back situation is the best it’s ever been during the Belichick/Brady era.
—I loved this quote from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, when he was asked how Rob Gronkowski changes the New England offense: “I’m not going to speak for those guys. I think they are capable of speaking for themselves, you know, and their performance tonight obviously speaks for itself.”
Ouch. Coach burn.
—You’ll remember that last week against Miami, Gronkowski caught a touchdown and celebrated with the spike of a man who had been kept in a cage for far too long, only to have the touchdown negated due to a penalty. Well, he let loose again this week, only to look up and see that a flag was lying on the turf.
–And this week’s award for “Really Cool Sports Photograph” goes to …
—Would somebody — anybody — please give Tom Brady a high five? The man has been begging for weeks. You all get to play football with a future Hall of Famer who is one of the best to ever play quarterback. Slapping hands with the man is the least you all could do.
Thanks, LeGarrette. Tom really needed that.