By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s little need to try to put lipstick on that one. It was, in too many ways, an ugly affair. The Patriots should have been able to handle a 3-7 Jets team with greater ease, and that’s the bottom line.
At the same time, the general dissatisfaction that comes with a five-point victory on the road against a divisional opponent is yet another reminder of the high standards the Patriots have set over the past 15 years. I distinctly remember the radio broadcast booth being full of resounding cheers in 2001, when the Patriots made a Week 12 visit to the Jets at the Meadowlands. The Patriots managed to sneak away with a one-point win, and though that year’s Jets team was a whole lot better than this year’s Jets team, the difference in response is nevertheless striking.
But if we could leave those feelings aside for the time being, here are the facts. The Patriots are 9-2. They currently occupy the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They have a two-game cushion in their division. They’re 6-0 on the road. Their plus-96 point differential is best in the AFC and second-best in the NFL. The defense, despite the hemming and hawing, ranks third in the NFL in points allowed. The offense ranks sixth in point scored, despite the forced four-game absence of the Hall of Fame quarterback to begin the year. Zooming out a bit, they’ve now won nine or more games in 16 consecutive seasons. No other team has more than 12 winning seasons, period, during that time.
So yes, the most recent memory of the Patriots involves them needing to drive for two scores in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter against a moribund Jets team. But overall, things are on track. Their weaknesses may be well-exposed, and the reality is that they may not be the juggernaut that so many people around here want them to be. But they are, objectively, quite good, and at least 20 other NFL franchises would pay a hefty price to be able to switch places with the Patriots right now.
That’s the big picture. Now let’s go small picture, with all of the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ much-too-close 22-17 win over the Jets.
–There’s a trend that’s now well-established with Malcolm Butler. And I’m not sure he can even do anything about it. The cornerback is without a doubt a gnat to opposing receivers. He’s physical, he’s relentless, and he’s sure as hell about what he’s doing. He’s almost always in position to make a play.
It’s just, somewhat often, he doesn’t make that play — despite doing seemingly everything right.
It happened on the 40-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa up the right side of the field in the first quarter:
It happened in the end zone on Enunwa’s touchdown in the back corner:
It’s reminiscent of last year, when Butler was giving up big plays by matters of inches.
And even reminiscent of last week:
It’s not a crisis, certainly, to have a player consistently in position to break up passes but every so often allowing a reception anyway. And with the 5-foot-11 Butler, one has to believe that if he were 6-foot-1, he’d be breaking up all of these passes.
Butler does break up his fair share of passes, as his 11 defensed passes puts him just outside the top 10 in the NFL in that category. And he also, you know, won the Super Bowl with one of the most absurd plays in the history of the sport. It’s just noteworthy that he’s been the victim of so many perfect throw-perfect catch combinations in a short period of time.
–Tom Brady was, quite obviously, off his game. He whizzed the first pass of the game over James White’s head at about 100 mph, which made me think he was just hopped up on Mountain Dew to start the game. But it became a trend throughout the contest. He again missed high on a pass to Chris Hogan on a third-and-5 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Later in the fourth, he lobbed a ball out of bounds when trying to connect with Dion Lewis up the left sideline.
Given all that he had to say about his knee injury, the lack of confidence in his plant leg’s strength clearly had an effect on the quarterback.
And yet, he finished the game with 30 completions. Only two quarterbacks completed more passes this week. He threw for 286 yards; only two other winning quarterbacks this week threw for more. And he threw two touchdowns while once again avoiding interceptions, bringing his season totals to 18 touchdowns and one interception.
He also went 10-for-15 for 132 yards and a touchdown in the final two drives of the game. He was nails.
It’s remarkable, really, what a “bad day” looks like for Brady. The Brock Osweilers and Blake Bortleses and Ryan Tannehills of the world would love to have a bad day like that.
–Dion Lewis is incredible. Though he ended up coming up a few feet short of a first down after a replay review, he temporarily managed to turn this situation into a first down:
That’s silly. And having both Lewis and James White in the same backfield on third downs is going to eventually lead to some game-busting plays in January. Mark it down, folks.
–On the list of bad mistakes, we have to include the Patriots’ actions after that Lewis play. They went to the huddle, and they broke the huddle with 10 seconds left on the play clock. Brady had to call timeout when the play clock hit :01, which allowed the Jets to challenge the spot on Lewis’ play.
In live speed, Lewis was very clearly short of the first down marker. The Patriots should have realized this, rushed to the line, and run a QB sneak or anything to cement that first-down pickup. Instead, they lollygagged to the line, burned a timeout (which would have been useful at the end of the half, when they needed another one), lost the first down and had to punt on the opening possession. Shortly thereafter, the Patriots trailed 3-0.
That wasn’t championship football from the Patriots out of the gate.
–Maybe one rung down on the impressiveness scale was LeGarrette Blount’s ability to turn this into a first-down run:
That was the play where Brady turned into a lead blocker. He could have gotten his clock cleaned by either Marcus Gilchrist or Jordan Jenkins or Sheldon Richardson, but all three Jets opted to not take a free shot on the quarterback. Heck, Darrelle Revis accentuated the play by putting his arm around Brady like old chums are wont to do.
I noted last week that the 49ers likewise passed up opportunities to get in free shots on Brady when they had the opportunity. I’m not sure if players are showing their appreciation for Brady going all-out in his fight against commissioner Roger Goodell, or if they just don’t want to be the one to put a career-ending hit on Brady. Whatever the case may be, players are clearly being deferential to the 39-year-old this year.
–“Hey, remember when you said that my team gets caught cheating a lot and that you have no sympathy for me? Ha, classic. Anyways. Thanks for being unable to cover my rookie wide receiver. Nice to see you. Good catching up. You’re welcome, by the way, for that Super Bowl ring. OK see you soon.”
–All right, Bill. We get it. You own scissors.
We get it. Stop cutting your clothes. You’re a wealthy man. There are tailors for this type of thing. And many different types of hats, too.
Put down the scissors.
–Belichick left himself open for a couple of criticisms in this one. First, he opted to decline a holding penalty on a third down on the Jets’ opening possession. Some people saw this decision as an indication that he didn’t trust his defense to come up with a stop on a third-and-18. But really, it’s not quite that simple.
For one, forcing an opponent to attempt a 51-yard field goal is not always the worst option. It’s a 50-50 proposition, and a missed field goal results in possession near midfield.
Secondly, defending against a third-and-18 often makes it rather easy for an offense to regain those 10 lost yards with an underneath route. And running another play opens up the possibility of defensive holding or pass interference, both of which result in automatic first downs. So Belichick opted for the 50-50 shot of a missed 51-yard field goal, and it didn’t work out for him.
Afterwards, Belichick expressed regret only in the result, not in the process of the decision-making.
“That could have gone either way, probably,” Belichick said. “I mean, it’s a 51-yard field goal, so … .”
Also, if Belichick truly didn’t “trust his defense,” he wouldn’t have allowed Brady to throw the go-ahead touchdown with nearly two full minutes left to play in the game. The Patriots could have instead run the ball inside three times, forcing the Jets to burn their final two timeouts while draining the clock down to less than a minute. Stephen Gostkowski could have hit the go-ahead chip shot with something like 65 seconds left to play if Belichick really didn’t “trust his defense.” So if you hear that storyline at all this week, perhaps seek shelter, because the hot take bombs are a-falling.
–The defense also sealed the victory by forcing a turnover just two plays into the Jets’ potential game-winning drive.
And the defense turned the game around early in the second quarter, when Malcolm Butler forced a fumble and recovered it himself. That forced turnover led to the first Patriots touchdown of the day. Chris Long’s forced fumble and Trey Flowers’ fumble recovery in the final drive sealed the win. The defense may look bad at times, but that shouldn’t cloud the game-changing plays it made in crucial moments.
–Where Belichick really did err — by his own admission — was in mishandling the clock late in the second quarter. The point of football, obviously, is to score more points than the opponent. And it’s always best to have more chances to score than it is to have fewer chances to score. And Belichick’s decision to not use the final timeout with 32 seconds left in the second and instead kind of hope for the best proved to have cost the Patriots a shot or two at scoring a touchdown before halftime.
That, in particular, is a bit of a troubling trend for the Patriots. The “dreaded double score” was so often their bread and butter, and Tom Brady’s offense often used the two-minute drill at the end of first halves to inject some life into the offense whenever it was flat-lining. Yet over the past two years, the Patriots have seemed content to head into halftime with things remaining as is, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Granted, in this case, Gostkowski still needs to hit a 41-yard field goal on a field with artificial turf and no real wind to speak of. But still, the Patriots have been making it a routine to really not look spectacular before halftime.
–We’re going to relate everything that happens defensively this season to the Jamie Collins trade. We’re just going to. And so, when Kyle Van Noy is standing in zone coverage while locked up with a receiver …
… and then lets that receiver break free …
… all while the quarterback was staring directly at that receiver the entire time …
… and thus giving up nine yards … we’re going to wonder how much better Collins might have handled the play.
We’ll likewise do the same when Van Noy gets roasted up the left sideline on a go route by C.J. Spiller.
(Spiller is on his third team this season. He had five receptions for 43 total yards.)
That play didn’t prove costly, thanks to a very, very bad underthrow by Fitzpatrick. But it nevertheless goes in the memory bank.
–Here’s an interesting way to deliver the State of the New York Jets, from the Sports Xchange game recap: “The 4:25 kickoff was the first non-1 p.m. Sunday home kickoff for the Jets since Sept. 22, 2013. In addition, the Jets have not played on Sunday night since Nov. 11, 2011 — a stretch in which the Patriots played on Sunday night 12 times.”
Somebody tell Woody Johnson that his team stinks. That is, if he’s not too busy catching up on all of his favorite podcasts.
–One fascinating phenomenon that I’ve touched on several times over the years is the fact that Tom Brady can’t throw an incompletion without a parade of people rushing to yell that it was a bad pass by the quarterback. It’s weird. Completing a pass in the NFL is difficult. Brady’s done it better and more consistently than most everyone who’s ever tried to do it. But sometimes, he throws an incompletion.
And when he does, the people come out to eagerly state the obvious: Brady threw an incompletion. It happened when he couldn’t connect with Rob Gronkowski on a bomb up the middle of the field early. Realistically, the play failed likely because Gronkowski was not operating at his normal full speed. It was a pass that traveled more than 50 yards in the air, and there were two Jets in coverage, so Brady had to err on the side of going long. It missed Gronkowski’s hands by this much:
And later, Brady took a quick drop and then threw a semi-deep ball to a spot 20 yards downfield from his receiver:
The would-be touchdown pass failed to connect. It missed by this much:
And despite the obvious intricacies that go into completing a long pass, and despite the fact that even the smallest hiccup by either the quarterback or receiver can lead to an incompletion, we had to go full Hot Take Debate on who was to blame for the grand failure of epic proportions.
I don’t like that, if I’m being honest.
–Hey. I wrote last week that despite the insistence from the Dan Shaughnessys and Michael Felgers of the world, the AFC East is actually one of the strongest divisions in the NFL. Fact, not opinion. And this weekend, the AFC went out and did as well as possible, collectively going 3-1. (The loss was inevitable, barring a tie, given the Patriots-Jets matchup.) The Dolphins beat the 49ers, and the Bills beat the Jaguars, neither of which is necessarily reason to celebrate greatness. But still, consider that the NFC West went 0-4, and the AFC South went 1-3 in all inter-divisional games, and recall that the AFC East has the third-best collective point differential in the NFL, and be reminded that the AFC East is not as terrible as some people proclaim it to be.
–Gambling on sports is, almost always, a bad idea. But gambling over the past two weeks had to have been painful for anybody who picked the Patriots.
They were 13.5-point favorites last week in San Francisco; they won by 13, thanks to a missed PAT by Gostkowski and the decision to take a knee at the 4-yard line instead of going for an emphatic final score. This week, they were 8.5-point favorites; they won by five, after a missed Gostkowski field goal, an overturned two-point conversion, and another set of kneeldowns inside the opponent’s 5-yard line to end the game.
Lines vary, of course, but anyone who lived that life should probably just stop gambling. It’s not a worthwhile endeavor.
–Speaking of that James White overturned two-point conversion, I’ve got a problem with it. The problem is this: You can only say that this football didn’t cross the plane of the goal line before going out of bounds if you apply logic to the situation.
The replay angle we saw many times did appear to show White stepping out of bounds before the ball crossed the goal line:
While it looks like the ball didn’t cross the plane, that camera view is not necessarily a perfect one. Take a look from this angle — White looks like he got the ball inside the pylon, doesn’t he?
The point is, for one, conflicting views tend to lead to officials determining that replays are inconclusive. But secondly, this is a call that is never made. As one of the millions who watches 10-12 hours per week of this silly sport, I can say I’ve never seen a score taken away because the ball carrier did not get the ball inside the pylon despite getting his body inside the pylon. That is to say, I’ve seen runners kick the pylon, or just get their ankles inside the pylon, (or fumble at the 1-yard line and have the ball obviously travel through the end zone but still somehow get credited for fumbling out of bounds short of the goal line), and I’ve never seen points taken off the board for that reason.
Watch this touchdown from David Johnson last season. The score counted because he got his feet — not the ball — inside the pylon. It was never reviewed by the replay official.
Watch this Matthew Stafford run from 2014, coincidentally at MetLife Stadium. He didn’t have the points taken off the board, because he got his feet in the end zone. This one did go to replay, but the call on the field of a touchdown was upheld.
Basically, in any play involving ambiguity regarding the ball’s placement with regard to the pylon, the NFL (as far as I know) always gives the benefit of the doubt to the ball carrier. White didn’t get that same courtesy.
You could, I suppose, drum up some conspiracy about playing at the Jets’ home, given the NFL headquarters sit just a few miles away in Manhattan. I wouldn’t go that far. I just found it an odd time for this call to be made for the first instance of my lifetime.
It proved to be inconsequential, because of Long’s strip sack. But if the Patriots had lost on this play, it might have been the most discussed football topic on this Monday.
(I also saw people saying White was not smart because of this play. In fact, he didn’t just hop out of bounds on his own. He was shoved in the back. I also saw people saying he needs to have the ball in the other hand. That’s incorrect; you hold the ball on the boundary side of the field. Alas.)
–AS AN UPDATE: Hey, a friendly Twitter user informed me that by the rules, the football doesn’t even have to cross the plane of the goal line if the runner’s body makes it into the end zone.
From the rules: “Runner A1 takes handoff and runs down the sideline toward the goal line with the ball in his outside arm. He crosses the goal line plane standing with the ball to the outside of the pylon. Ruling: Touchdown. Part of the ball crossing over or inside the pylon only applies to an airborne runner who lands out of bounds.”
White wasn’t airborne, right? He was technically airborne, in that he was running, but he wasn’t diving or leaping or jumping. Ergo, the points should have stayed on the board. How about that?
I also suppose this rule (Section 2, Article 1) would apply: “A touchdown is scored when: The ball is on, above, or behind the plane of the opponents’ goal line (extended) and is in possession of a runner who has advanced from the field of play into the end zone.”
–In addition to tying Peyton Manning for most QB wins of all time with 200, Tom Brady became the sixth quarterback to reach the 60,000-yard mark in his career. In doing so, he joined Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Dan Marino. To me, what stands out there is that Brady and Favre are the only QBs on that list who spent the bulk of their careers playing in cold-weather cities. But Favre reached 71,838 yards in 298 career starts; Brady is at 60,229 yards in 230 starts. And Favre did have the benefit of playing two teams in his division that played in domes. Brady’s never had that luxury, spending his Novembers and Decembers making trips to Buffalo and New Jersey, while playing his home games in icy Foxboro.
Stats can always be manipulated a number of ways, and Brady will almost assuredly never surpass the records of Manning and Brees, in large part due to the design of the offenses of Indianapolis and New Orleans, respectively, which were utilized to take advantage of the perfect conditions of playing indoors. It’s just another added degree of difficulty for Brady, which makes the statistical accolades all the more impressive.
–Here’s a long-running pet peeve of mine. The NFL wastes so much time and energy belaboring the point of “player safety.” Players literally can’t put a finger on a quarterback’s helmet, and “defenseless receivers” are not eligible to be hit in the shoulder. Yet if you’re a ball carrier and multiple players are holding your legs, then a defender has free reign to turn his body into a missile and try to knock your head off. Like this:
But, you know, player safety, and all of that.
(Don’t let your kids be running backs.)
–Though the Patriots proved that no victory can be penciled in before a kickoff, we can rightfully assume that they will beat the Rams next week. After that, a visit from the Ravens on a Monday night will be a really good test for this Patriots team. The Ravens are playing some really good football, and we all remember that two years ago they really came within a hair of beating the eventual Super Bowl champs in their home in that divisional playoff game. If not for a Belichick lineman shuffle, an impossible fumble recovery by Julian Edelman, and a touchdown bomb thrown by Edelman, those Ravens would have been waltzing into an AFC Championship Game against the hapless Colts. (And also, DeflateGate would have never happened. Lord.)
So at least there’s the positive of knowing that a real, meaningful, fascinating football game lies ahead in the near future for the Patriots.