By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Carolina Panthers nearly went 16-0 last season. They ended up dropping a Week 16 game in Atlanta, but they finished the season 15-1 and earned a trip to the Super Bowl. This year, they’re 1-5 and sitting in last place.
The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl four years ago. Since then, they’re 26-28 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs. They didn’t reach the postseason last year and they’re currently 3-3 on the year.
The San Francisco 49ers made it to that Super Bowl against the Ravens. Since then, they’re 26-28 as well, with a 2-1 postseason record. Like the Panthers, the 49ers are also 1-5 and in last place.
The New York Giants are 31-39 with zero playoff appearances since winning their second Super Bowl in four years back in 2011. The Colts are 55-47 with a 3-4 postseason record since last reaching the Super Bowl in 2009.
The point of all of this is simple: Sustaining success for long periods of time in the NFL is incredibly difficult and remarkably rare. Even the Denver Broncos, currently in the 1 or 1A slot of the AFC’s most potent teams over the past five seasons, went through a six-year lean stretch with a 44-52 record from 2006-11.
And yet, there are the Patriots. Always. They were back at it on Sunday, turning a potential nail-biter vs. the Bengals into a laugher of a blowout to improve to 5-1 on the season. They’ve done it all different ways — timely defensive surges, big performances from first-time starting QBs, Tom Brady being Tom Brady, etc. — but they’re well on their way toward continuing what they’ve been doing for 15 years: Winning. Consistently.
Since 2001, they’re 187-59. They have finished a season with a single-digit win total just once in that span, and they have gone 22-9 in the playoffs, winning four Super Bowls.
All that winning has left some people mystified. Some loons attribute it to cheating, mostly because they can’t conjure up an explanation for how this one team always manages to remain ahead of the curve and atop the league.
But maybe it’s a lot simpler than any complex cheating strategies might require. And maybe it was Rob Gronkowski of all people who managed to eloquently lay all of this out in fine detail after Sunday’s victory. Following his own seven-catch, 162-yard, one-touchdown performance, Gronkowski said this about his teammates:
“We’re super competitive. All of the players I feel like that Coach Bill Belichick goes and gets are like super competitive players, which is great because it brings the best out of everyone then. You see guys like Julian, Danny, Chris Hogan throughout practice, the linemen, the defense, the safeties, all of the players there – everyone goes hard every single time. It’s not like someone’s slacking. It’s not like someone’s just going through the motions. Everyone’s trying to get better every single time, and I don’t want to be that guy they’re looking at saying ‘Man, everyone else is going hard. Look at Rob. He’s just slacking, going through the motions.’ No, I like to be a part of it. Work hard, play hard. The way you practice definitely shows in the games, too, for sure.”
Maybe “The Patriot Way” really is that simple. It has to do with the people Bill Belichick targets to bring in to the fold. It’s why they may have passed on some better-known, high-talent draft picks in favor of some guys who weren’t on anyone’s board. Sometimes, it works out magnificently, like with Devin McCourty for example, and other times the result is a swing and a miss (Tavon Wilson, for one).
But on the whole, Belichick’s philosophy extends beyond the football field and beyond the draft board and beyond the free-agent pool and it goes to a simple question: Will you compete every single snap, every single day? The answer in New England has more often than not been a yes, and the result has been a self-policed locker room and, of course, unparalleled success.
That’s the big picture, but let’s take a peek at some specifics from Sunday’s 35-17 Patriots win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
–Maybe it’s wrong, but I come out of Sunday’s game with a problem regarding officiating in the NFL.
For one, the entire game pivoted on Dont’a Hightower’s safety. But that play wouldn’t have happened if not for a holding penalty on Cedric Ogbuehi for this subtle grab of Rob Ninkovich’s jersey:
The play was more an example of Ogbuehi getting leverage on Ninkovich than it was anything else. Plus, both the referee and umpire couldn’t have actually seen that minor hold unless they have X-ray vision. Yet the flag flew, negating a 15-yard pickup and a first down and bringing up the second-and-18 on which Dont’a Hightower burst through the middle of the Cincinnati line for the game-changing safety.
All of this being established, there’s no doubt that calls go every which way every single Sunday. It’s how teams respond to some of those bad calls that often determines winners and losers. And so there should be no doubt that the Patriots deserved to win. The Bengals are not exactly known for their mental fortitude and focus. But, overall, the officials were too involved in this game, and not in the right way at all. And that’s become the norm, really, around the league.
–I want to talk to you fine folks about a lovely ball. A spectacular ball, even, some would say. It was on the first drive of the game, Brady’s first of the year at Gillette, and it came on a third-and-9 from the New England 36-yard line.
First, Brady escaped pressure from the outside and stepped up in the pocket:
He sprinted toward the line and probably thought about running, but he saw Gronkwoski streaking up the left sideline with a step on Karlos Dansby, and Brady threw on the run …
… and hit Gronkowski in stride, right in the bread basket.
That’s a beautiful ball, folks. A beautiful baby ball.
–I hate to do this to you, but … I’ve got two more wonderful passes I’d like to spotlight. This was more than just a great pass, it was a great play all-around. Brady knew Gronkowski would be single-covered by Vontaze Burfict, who can’t cover anyone, let alone Gronkowski. Brady stared to the left to draw the safety away from Gronkowski while waiting for his tight end to get open on a simple out and up route.
Brady knew exactly when and where Groknowski would be getting open, and so immediately upon looking right he threw a pass right over Burfict’s head:
One more #NiceBall for you fine folks. Second quarter, first-and-10. Chris Hogan runs a deep in-cut. Brady puts the perfect touch on the ball to get it just over the head of Dansby.
–Do you know who had a problem with officiating? His name is Adam “Pacman” Jones. The difference between him and me is that for one, I didn’t yell at the officials like this:
He really lost it, too, walking away, flailing his arms, screaming “bull (poop).”
But secondly, I also had a case. Pacman? Not so much:
That’s the Bengals, though. Believe the officials are out to get you, let it consume you, lose the football game.
Two plays later (after the Bengals had to call out a timeout in the wake of Pacman’s meltdown), Gronkowski said something to Jones, who went low to try to take out the hulking tight end and paid a heavy price for it. Burfict then got in Gronkowski’s face and gave him a little shove.
Brady went right back to Gronkowski on the next play, and this time he was jawing with Dre Kirkpatrick after getting tackled. Burfict was again the middle of it, and for some reason, the officials decided to throw a flag for taunting when Gronkowski was a good five yards away from the action:
(The Bengals in red there had left the sidelines to join the mini-fracas.)
Gronkowski probably earned the taunting penalty by yapping at Kirkpatrick, but Burfict getting no penalty for flying in from 15 yards away to point in Gronkowski’s face and yell and start a brouhaha ought to have canceled it out. Apparently Ron Torbert’s crew isn’t familiar with the Cincinnati Bengals.
–Bill Belichick wasn’t all that entertained by Gronkowski’s penalty. But Jim Garoppolo was amused.
–What wasn’t funny was this knee attack by Burfict on Martellus Bennett:
This is a guy, mind you, who just returned two weeks ago from a suspension for a dirty hit to the head of the NFL’s best receiver, so he ought to be sent back to his living room for a few weeks after trying to end Bennett’s season for no reason at all.
–I was a bit surprised, even knowing what I know about the Bengals, to walk into their locker room and find the mood to be light. The defensive players — having just given up 33 points — were loose, having some casual conversations in their area while sharing some chuckles. Andy Dalton looked pretty miffed, but if you had been dropped into that locker room not having seen the game, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether that team had just won by 21 points or lost by 21 points.
–In the “Football Is A Brutal, Brutal Game” Department, there was a play when Giovani Bernard ran to the right side of the line late in the fourth quarter. From Bernard’s blind side came Alan Branch and Dont’a Hightower, both running at full steam. They clobbered the poor man with the football.
That is 620 pounds of full-grown man walloping this poor fella across the face. I’m not sure why anybody wants to be a running back these days.
–Stephen Gostkowski missed a PAT, which is bad. But I’m just marveling at some of his kickoffs these days. I mean, look at this:
That drive began on the 16-yard line.
He later dropped a kickoff on the 5-yard line. Cincinnati started on its own 15.
It’s been a really useful tool for Belichick to have, employing a kicker who can perfectly loft that kickoff down by the goal line to help win the battle for field position. And Gostkowski — as well as the coverage team — has really been excellent in that regard.
–I have two more officiating problems. First, when a cornerback jams a receiver, as Logan Ryan did to A.J. Green, a penalty for illegal use of hands to the face should only be called if the cornerback really did make contact with the receiver’s facemask. The replay in the stadium showed a better angle than the broadcast, but you can still see that Ryan punched Green in the chest.
The penalty was called because Green’s head snapped back. But that’s just whiplash, and whiplash isn’t in the rulebook. That penalty came on a third-down incompletion, thus giving the Bengals a free first down on the drive that ended in the goal-line stand.
But it wasn’t the worst automatic first down of the day. That distinction was earned on a third-and-18 for the Patriots late in the second quarter. Dre Kirkpatrick most certainly contacted Chris Hogan up the right sideline. He did. But, A) it was a hand to the back of the receiver, and B) the pass had zero chance of being complete, as there was a safety coming over as well.
Nevertheless, illegal contact, five yards, automatic first down. I think the NFL has to do something about that. Bailing out an offense on a third-and-18 for a non-violent infraction on a play that had no chance is just not true to what football is all about. You know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying.
Anyhoo, the Patriots being the Patriots, they took advantage, turning what should have been a punt into a 75-yard touchdown drive to take a 10-7 lead. All thanks to the strange NFL rulebook.
–I gave credit to Gillette’s DJ, T.J. Connelly, for his masterful infusion of Adele into the stadium experience, and I have to say, blasting “Gangsta’s Paradise” following the goal-line stand was a worthy decision as well. Goal-line stands are, by definition, gangster.
By the way, Chris Long ran up the field after that fourth-down stop like his hair was on fire.
That dude freaking loves being a Patriot.
–Malcolm Butler is a very, very good cornerback in the NFL. But he somehow seems to be ego-free. He said after the game that it was “an honor” to be able to play against A.J. Green.
Butler had a pretty nice day out there, earning a 95.9 grade (out of 100) from Pro Football Focus and breaking up this pass in the end zone:
He did give up a touchdown to Brandon LaFell, but Butler gave a ton of credit to LaFell and the Bengals on that play.
“Actually, that was a good route. He released outside so I’m thinking he’s going outside and he went back inside,” Butler said. “That was a great play by LaFell like I said once before, earlier this week, he looked crispy. So that was a crispy route right there.”
–Raise your hand if you not only expected Eric Rowe to play but also expected him to break up a pass in the end zone intended for A.J. Green.
Anyone? Class? Anyone?
–Stats don’t often tell much of the story. You’ll remember Mark Anderson tallying 10 sacks back in 2011 but none of them having much of an impact, to the point where just now I had to Google his name to make sure I had it correct. So when you look and see that Jabaal Sheard had two tackles and a half-sack, you probably think he had a pretty quiet game.
But often, it’s the timing of the play that can mean much more than the stats. And Sheard’s sack — shared with Hightower — was truly the play that iced the victory. The Bengals trailed by 11 with 4:23 left to play and were definitely in four-down territory. But taking a nine-yard loss on a third-and-13 has a way of canceling those plans. So the Bengals punted, and with that the game was over but for the large lady singing.
–We’re ending this story on a very serious note: Rob Gronkowski’s butt dance.
He’s lucky he didn’t get thrown out of the game. That was suggestive as all heck.