By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s over. It’s finally over.
The often interminable stretch that is the NFL regular season has finally ceased to exist, taking with it the Jets and the Texans and the Buccaneers and the Broncos and the Raiders and all the other teams that proved to perhaps be quite good at some things but certainly not excellent at playing football.
That sentiment is, of course, a luxury of living in New England, where for the better part of two decades, no season has ever really begun until January. Folks in most NFL cities around the country don’t have the same luxury, but when the greatest coach and the greatest quarterback combine forces, the net result is a mostly predictable regular season damn near every single year.
Entering the 2017 season, the Patriots were given the highest over-under for win total from the past decade at 12.5. They lost Julian Edelman in August, they lost Dont’a Hightower in October, they went all year without Malcolm Mitchell and Shea McClellin, they lost their two top picks to injured reserve before the season began, they dealt with the absurd stripping of their 2016 first-round pick and their 2017 fourth-round pick, they executed a moderately controversial midseason trade of their backup quarterback, they got embarrassed on their home turf twice in the first four weeks of the season, and yet — AND STILL — here they are sitting at 13-3. (Their quarterback is also 40 years old, in case you had not caught the news.)
If this wasn’t the season where the Patriots stumbled back to the pack with a mediocre 10-6 record, then when will that time ever come?
Despite the complaints about the monotonous regular season, what the Patriots have done this year really is remarkable. They’ve been carried at times by the offense, and other times by the defense. Special teams has subtly remained a critically important part of the operation. Coaching decisions have been on point, with no mortar kicks or Steven Jackson games popping up in December. Players who weren’t necessarily stars — like Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, and Kyle Van Noy — became significant contributors. Newcomer Brandin Cooks compiled a 1,082-yard, seven-touchdown season, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore rebounded from a nightmare start to put forth a largely solid season.
Of course, a 13-win season in New England will be discarded as a terrible waste of a campaign if the team doesn’t reach (and, really, win) the Super Bowl. Those high expectations around here are a double-edged sword.
But that just speaks to the standard set by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They won’t do it forever, but for the time being, they’re as good as they’ve ever been. That’s worth at least some reflection here during the Patriots’ annual playoff bye week.
Oh! And there was also a game on Sunday. A real one — it counted in the standings and everything! So here are all of the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 26-6 win over the hapless New York Jetterbockers.
–After allowing six points against the Jets, the Patriots finished the season allowing 18.5 points per game. That’s the fifth-best mark in the NFL. Literally nobody saw that coming after they allowed 32 points per game through the first month of the season.
–Guys. Gals. Guys and gals. Who the heck is this???
Looks like the love child of Brady and Edelman. Or like an artist’s CGI rendering of what Brady would look like if he actually agreed to sit down for some promotional stills for broadcasts. Certainly doesn’t look like Brady.
–We all say “Oh, the Jets have nothing to play for, so it’s hard for them to really give an inspired effort in this game.” But I bet it affects the other team, too. The Patriots looked awfully uninspired for most of Sunday afternoon, and in watching the game, it was hard to fault them entirely.
For one, it was pretty cold. The broadcast might have mentioned that once or twice. (Folks, you have got to love that playful ribbing of Tracy Wolfson, who was out in the cold!) But it’s probably challenging to conjure up deep emotions when your opponent is dropping every pass, missing receivers by 10 feet, and leaving open this much space on fourth-and-2:
I mean. If you’re the Patriots, the best you can do in that situation is just grind through it. That’s what they did.
–You knew the Jets were in for a long day when Bryce Petty couldn’t even put his frickin’ helmet on.
Bryce, my man. You have to take your hat off. What are you, six? Goodness gracious, me oh my. Go home, Bryce Petty!
–Speaking of Petty, he managed to throw an incompletion on a ball that traveled maybe 7 inches in the air.
(The Patriots recoverd that loose ball but it was, of course, an incomplete forward pass. If Brady had thrown that “incompletion” and had the Jets recovered, you can bet we’d all be subjected to weeks of analysts discussing why the complicated rules of this complex sport aren’t fair and must be changed.)
(Why did Nantz call that a trick play? It most certainly is not a trick play.)
–One of my favorite sports in all the land is logging on to Twitter when Tom Brady is playing football in a football game, sending millions of worry warts into full-blown meltdowns that the football player is still playing football. Relax, people. Tom’s going to be OK. He’s been playing this game for a while.
Plus, in this particular game, Brady was fine with sacking himself when needed. He knew there was no reason to die against the Jets, and lo and behold, he’s still breathing.
–As a fan of football, I don’t necessarily like the way that NFL officials dole out huge pass interference penalties with the same swiftness that NFL team doctors hand out painkillers. But it is a fact of life. Brandin Cooks in the past two weeks has proven skilled at capitalizing on it.
Against Buffalo in Week 16, he forgot about catching the ball and instead focused solely on drawing a 44-yard pass interference penalty on Micah Hyde. He succeeded. And on Sunday against the Jets, he slowed up on a deep pass and sold some slight contact from Marcus Maye on the receiver’s right arm:
I mean, yeah, Maye interfered with Cooks. But it might have gone uncalled if Cooks weren’t so committed to the cause. I’m just saying now: Prepare yourself for at least one deep ball/possible PI in the playoffs that goes uncalled. I feel like officials might not like this NBA-ification and try to overcompensate with some strict officiating. It’s a possibility.
–That was a really unfortunate stretch for Maye, by the way. He took the PI penalty, then had the ball hit him in the facemask, then collided with a teammate, then injured his ankle. I’m not cruel, so I won’t go through this sequence of events frame by frame. Nope. I will not. But I WILL show the ball hitting him in the face because that’s always funny.
And hey, Chad Hansen feels your pain!
(Both of those balls were tipped at the last second. I’m just being dink. I know sports are hard. Please just give me this. Thank you.)
–What was your favorite Jets play of the day? Mine was when all of the Jets jumped offside.
All of them.
–I believe we’ve all run out of things to say about Dion Lewis. Nevertheless, I will try. The man is just truly special. He’ll never amass enough stats to be considered an all-time great or anything like that, but I will say this: You’d be hard-pressed to find too many running backs more exciting to watch on any given snap than the 5-foot-8 fella wearing No. 33 for the Patriots. The speed, vision, power and elusiveness makes me think “Barry Sanders” much more often than I ever anticipated. (No, he’s not Barry. But for 7-second bursts? Lewis is that good.)
He was elusive as all heck on Sunday, most notably with this #FEROCIOUSJUKE that left poor Buster Skrine cold and alone.
That one was pretty outstanding.
There was also the one play where Lewis completely stopped running behind the line of scrimmage, relaxed his whole body while actually taking a step backward, took a peek around, then turned the engine back on to burst through a hole and run right through the chest of Rontez Miles for five extra yards after the initial point of contact by the bigger and supposedly stronger safety:
Oh! And there was the play in the third when he ran through this mess of human bodies …
… and broke free somehow for 17 yards.
The man is just otherworldly. And the world is lucky to have finally witnessed what a healthy season from Dion Lewis can look like. We’ve been through a lot; we deserved that.
(So did Lewis.)
Statistically, his numbers don’t fly off the page, because he was seldom used early in the year. Nevertheless, he’s proven capable of being a horse in the final third of the season. In the last six games, he’s rushed for 510 yards and three touchdowns on 98 carries (a 5.2-yard average) and he’s caught 18 passes for 128 yards and two more touchdowns. He’s also returned 11 kicks for 201 yards in that span.
As Rex Burkhead and James White have gone down to injury, and as Mike Gillislee has faded away, Dion Lewis has been a rock for the Patriots.
Come the divisional round, Lewis will one of the Patriots’ most important players in getting the Patriots where they need to go.
–I enjoyed Tom Brady’s personal twist on the Zero Humans Defense. It’s just usually there’s a Patriots human in the frame, you know?
–Punting talk doesn’t exactly sizzle like a steak, BUT, Ryan Allen had only THREE touchbacks this year. In the words of Brian Fellow, THAT’S CRAZY!
(He got 24 punts inside the 20-yard line, if you’re curious.)
–Granted, the Patriots probably could have beaten the Jets even if Belichick had his players sit around and play video games all week. But, I did find one postgame comment from Devin McCourty noteworthy in terms of how Belichick prepared his team to play in the arctic conditions.
“It was definitely cold and as much as I hate to admit it, practicing outside during the week definitely helped,” McCourty said. “We hated every part of being out there and practicing but I think everybody came out there today and was all, ‘This isn’t as bad as Thursday practice.’ Mentally I think that already gives you a nod when you go into the game like, ‘It is what it is.’ It was worse Thursday. We got through that.”
It may seem elementary for a coach to practice outside in the freezing cold when the game will be played in such conditions on Sunday, but remember that Belichick moved practice to the stadium field so that players could really get a feel for what to expect. Even those of us who have lived in this climate our whole lives have struggled to adept in this cold stretch, so that was some undeniably useful preparation time.
It was just the latest case of Belichick properly preparing his team to play. From the week spent in high altitude to prepare for Mexico City, to whatever he did to help the team’s mental toughness during a ridiculous five road games-in six weeks stretch, Belichick has put forth a very sharp season at the helm of the Patriots.
He won’t get Coach of the Year, because that award tends to go to the hottest new coaching prospect or whichever coach salvaged a bad team (in this case, Sean McVay on both accounts). But the fact that Belichick can coach, prepare his team AND build a roster this well at age 65, especially after a rocky start and after losing team MVP-type players on both sides of the ball? It should not go unnoticed.
–Speaking of Bill Belichick, his sideline message sent a message loud and clear to the rest of the NFL: It’s playoff time, and now you’re all in big, big trouble.
Playoffs start Jan. 13.