By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — At one point Sunday night, in the midst of one of the drives that led to one of the multiple lead changes in the fourth quarter, something very simple yet significant struck me.
The New England Patriots are a lot of fun to watch.
Sure, if you’re a fan who’s deeply invested in the final outcomes of the games, a nail-biting finish isn’t always an ideal way to spend a Sunday evening. And some of the more narrow wins in recent years — Super Bowl XLIX, last year at the Giants, the ’14 divisional round vs. Baltimore, to name a few — may be remembered as being more stressful than anything else. And certainly, many folks may have sought to outright forget some of the narrow, soul-crushing losses.
But when you look at Sunday night, take a step back and look at the big picture — with Tom Brady watching from home, with Rob Gronkowski out due to injuries, with Rob Ninkovich suspended, with Nate Solder out, with a rookie starting on the offensive line, and with Jimmy Garoppolo making his first NFL start in a less-than-ideal setting — you have to come away impressed with the fact that no matter what, just about every single weekend since 2001, the Patriots have proven that they can show up.
They are so well-coached, so well-prepared, and so singularly focused on their jobs that all of that other stuff really does become white noise to them.
That’s not to say they win every week or that they don’t require the aid of a low snap and a bad kick from the opposing team to sneak out of some stadiums with wins under their belts. Hardly.
But if there were ever a game where the Patriots shouldn’t have competed, if there were ever a game with about a half-dozen built-in excuses, it was this one. Vegas gave them little chance from the start, with the Patriots entering the weekend as 6.5-point underdogs. Once Gronkowski was ruled out, it ballooned to 9.5 points.
This would be the time that the Patriots would fold, get shellacked on national TV, and suffer for all the country to enjoy.
But instead … they just did what they always do.
Look around the league, and you’ll find no other team has been able to say that for as long as the Patriots have.
This, more than anything, shows just how great Bill Belichick is as a head coach. He can prepare for any situation, with seemingly any group of personnel, and he can make sure his team will be competitive week in and week out for 15-plus years. He’s someone who’s allowed his players to follow the simple directive of “Do Your Job,” because they know that he’s always doing his.
OK, that’s enough big picture. Let’s dig through every last detail in the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ season-opening 23-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
–If there’s one major benefit of the Patriots starting Garoppolo instead of Brady, it’s this: BALANCE. It’s not exciting or fun or sexy or anything, but some semblance of balance is so crucial to the long-term success of the Patriots. I did some deep dives last year on the over-reliance on Tom Brady to do everything on offense, ending up with the fifth-most pass attempts and the seventh-fewest rushing attempts. It’s just not a formula for Super Bowls, no matter how talented or historically great the QB may be.
And without Brady, the offense figures to rely at least a little bit more on the running game to shoulder some of the load. That was the case in Arizona, with Garoppolo throwing 33 passes while handing it off 27 times. (Garoppolo also ran four times.) LeGarrette Blount was brutally effective, doing a mini-Marshawn by wearing down defenders over the course of the game, and also sprinting for a 13-yard gain on a third-and-11.
The Patriots relied more heavily on the run game. The lead back answered the call. This is a positive development for the Patriots.
–If there’s another fringe benefit of the headache that was DeflateGate, it is this tweet:
That’s just funny.
–Unsuspecting ball boys weren’t the only victims of Julian Edelman’s wrath. That guy played like his life depended on a victory, as he was more than willing to hurl his body in various ways at other humans, most of whom were much larger in stature than he is. He took his fair share of hits … but he also managed to dish them out:
Oof. What a vicious sport.
–A regular feature of this column is a screen shot of Rob Gronkowski dragging multiple human beings on his back as he makes his way up the field. Yet because he was not playing in this game due to a tender hammy, please allow LeGarrette Blount to fill the shoes for this week.
That is a rough way to make a living.
–I said earlier that Blount wore down defenders, and that probably bothered some people, because for whatever reason people around these parts just seem to hate everything about LeGarrette Blount. People tend to forget the fact that he’s first all time in franchise history among running backs (with at least 400 carries) in yards per carry, because, well, he looks slow and sometimes runs for no gain.
But for evidence of his effect, look no further than all-world bazillionaire cornerback Patrick Peterson. To be sure, Peterson isn’t paid his salary to make tackles; he’s paid to cover. But his “effort” on Blount’s touchdown run was pathetic.
Peterson runs toward the pile at the 1-yard line, backs up into the end zone and then pushes himself away from the pile. Pathetic. He wanted nothing to do with that Bowling Ball Blount.
And surely enough, later on, when the Cardinals desperately needed to stop the Patriots on a third-and-11, and when the Patriots were seemingly only half-trying to pick up a first down, it was Blount vs. Peterson in a mano-a-mano in the open field.
I’ll give you three guesses who won that battle.
Smell you later, Pat.
LeGarrette Blount is pretty good. Deal with it.
–NFL officials stood by idly on Thursday night as the reigning MVP had his head targeted by one of the most fierce pass rushes in the entire league. On Sunday, NFL officials threw a penalty flag because Chandler Jones was happy about recovering a fumble.
This league just can’t get out of its own way. One adult male decides to dance in celebration, and then another adult male can’t help but display his own excitement, and he does so in close proximity to the other adult male, and that’s just too much exuberance to allow on a football field. What do you fellas think this is, a game? Please. That right there is a “choreographed demonstration.”
Frankly, Jones is lucky he’s not in prison with that type of behavior.
–Apropos of nothing, the Indianapolis Colts are 8-10 since GM Ryan Grigson tattled to the league and tried to win the 2014 AFC Championship Game on a technicality. Just for record-keeping purposes, you know.
–Color me surprised to see Martellus Bennett show such a willingness to serve mostly as a blocker. That’s a guy who’s trying to get paid in the offseason, so you’d think putting up stats would be paramount to him. Yet with Gronkowski and Clay Harbor inactive, the Patriots were thin at tight end and needed help trying to contain the pass rush.
Bennett embraced the role.
“I was just trying to whoop their ass all day,” Bennett told Jeff Howe. “I just like to be the guy where when you see him you’re like, ‘Damn, here he comes again.’”
He’ll eventually want the ball. But he took one for the team on Sunday night and it played a huge factor in getting the win.
–Credit to the Patriots for deciding to play the game after getting absolutely roasted by these two fans.
I mean. Getting called a loser with the L fingers, straight out of “Clueless“? That’d send lesser teams right back to the airplane to get out of town as fast as possible. That’s the type of mental toughness you cannot teach, folks.
–I expected a bit more out of the Patriots’ defense, to be honest. While it’s true that fumbles by Garoppolo and Blount shortened the field for Arizona’s offense, I thought the defense didn’t look entirely composed at times. They chased Larry Fitzgerald around like chickens with their heads cut off, they all bounced off David Johnson on that one 45-yard run, and they failed to force Carson Palmer into making any turnovers. In Palmer’s last game, he had 350 turnovers (unofficial count), so that feels like a major missed opportunity.
–Speaking of Larry Fitz, I mean, come on with this, would you?!
It must be pretty cool to be good at something. I know I wish I knew that feeling.
–You have to love the wrinkle of Bill Belichick messing with the new touchback rule. You give that man an inch and he will take your ruler and snap it over his knee and throw it back in your stupid face.
The Patriots experimented with short kicks in the preseason, and they worked it to perfection on Sunday night. Four times, Stephen Gostkowski’s kick made it just to the goal line, forcing Arizona to try to take it out. Those drives ended up starting at the 11-yard line, 19-yard line, 21-yard line and 8-yard line. Not once did the kickoff unit allow the Cardinals to reach the 25-yard line.
It looked like it would decide the game, too, when the Cardinals took a holding penalty on their final kick return. Fitzgerald’s scamper in the open field made that a moot point, but that’s yet another weapon the Patriots now have in their back pockets.
–The Cardinals could have won the game with a decent kick, but they frankly didn’t deserve to win after the foolish decision to pass the football in the final minutes on second down. The situation was this: second-and-9 from the New England 33-yard line. Clock stopped, 1:55 left in the game. New England had just taken its first timeout. Cardinals in field-goal range. The play is simple: run it twice, force the Patriots to take their final timeouts, take the lead with a field goal, trust that your defense can prevent a first-time starting QB from driving down the field with zero timeouts, win the ballgame.
Instead, Palmer threw a pass that was intercepted out of bounds by Justin Coleman. It had a zero percent chance of being completed. And it was compounded by Earl Watford holding Chris Long, thus pushing the Cardinals back out of field-goal range and forcing them to scramble just to get back to where they were.
What is it about opponents making idiotic decisions to throw the ball against the Patriots in University of Phoenix Stadium?
–By that same token, what is it about Bill Belichick feeling comfortable letting precious seconds tick off the clock in the final minute of close games in that stadium? After the Cardinals came up four yards shy of the first-down marker on third down, Belichick let 20 seconds tick off the clock before finally taking the team’s final timeout. Those would have been precious seconds for Garoppolo and Co. if Chandler Catanzaro didn’t boot the kick wide.
–Dear Rest Of The AFC East: I’m not mad. I’m disappointed. Be better, you guys. Be better.
–Chris Long has scary eyes. I’ve been saying it all preseason, and so it wasn’t surprising to see that crazy look when the games started to count. He looks possessed, and I’d hate to have to deal with him if I were an offensive lineman. Surely, Jared Veldheer tried his best to slow down Long with a forearm jab to Long’s facemask:
But that didn’t stop him.
–All things considered — the personnel, the inexperience, the noise level, the talent of the opponent — you have to give the offensive line a passing grade on the night. It wasn’t perfect, obviously, but that could have been a whole lot uglier. It’s impossible to measure how much influence Dante Scarnecchia had, but the end result is all that matters. The O-line now has a trio of home games to operate in a much more noise-friendly environment.
–The third-and-15 pass from Garoppolo to Danny Amendola was a masterful play. I wrote about it a bit more here. But I was equally impressed with the following third-down conversion, which came on a bullet to James White.
Trailing by a point and facing a third-and-3 from the 41-yard line — on the very edge of Stephen Gostkowski’s range — White lined up wide right and ran a three-yard slant. Garoppolo looked only to White and delivered an absolute missile. Safety Tony Jefferson was all over White in coverage, and he simply could not believe he allowed the reception.
He was so apoplectic that he decided to try to rip the football out of the downed White’s arms, like a baby who had a toy taken away, and then he stomped his foot in anger.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know Jimmy Garoppolo had it in him to frustrate a member of an opposing secondary so badly late in a tight game.
–Hey, man. Looks good. Definitely.
Way to go. Send a selfie to your family. They’ll be proud.
–Speaking of regrets:
–On a real note, NFL owners hoped that the excessive penalties levied on the Patriots for the footballs being naturally deflated one night would inhibit their success. Now, after winning in Arizona, they all must be curled in the fetal position.
(Just kidding: They’re all swimming in their giant gold coin swimming pools, Scrooge McDuck-style.
But still, they’re not happy about that one thing in their life.)
–I’m thankful that Garoppolo came out on fire on Sunday night, solely because it made all the media hemming and hawing about Belichick’s handling of the preseason snaps at quarterback look even more silly. The coach played his football players in the practice football games in August, and yet you would’ve thought it was a national crisis around here.
Turns out the preseason isn’t that important. Jimmy got enough reps, I’d say.
–In case you’ve ever wondered what Bill Belichick looks like when he finds out his team is a 9.5-point underdog, here you go:
It was pretty much Christmas in September for ol’ Billy Boy. As Rich Hill’s research shows, Belichick’s had no problems getting his teams ready to play when they are major underdogs.
Don’t expect the oddsmakers to provide as fat a gift as that one any time soon.