By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The situation was this: Five minutes into an effective and potent opening drive, James White came up two yards short of the line to gain after catching a pass in the left flat on a third-and-5. Color analyst Trent Green said that “there was no hesitation on the Patriots’ sideline to pull the kicking unit back.”READ MORE: Pedestrian Seriously Injured In Hit-And-Run Crash In Somerville
The message from Bill Belichick’s coaching staff was clear. Even though the Patriots struggled to generate any points in the first quarter, and even though opening drives were a particular sore spot for this team, there would be no settling for any field goals in a spot like this. The Patriots were going for it.
So, after a timeout due to a Chargers injury, Cam Newton broke the huddle. The Patriots lined up in 21 personnel, with tight end Ryan Izzo on the left side of the line, and fullback Jakob Johnson and tailback Damien Harris lined up to the left of Newton. The quarterback took a shotgun snap and briefly scanned his options on a designed run that looked like it was supposed to be run off the left end. But Newton saw Joey Bosa with some decent positioning on Jermaine Eluemunor, so the QB cut it back inside, finding a shred of daylight between Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Cam saw the 6-foot-4, 329-pound frame of Linval Joseph standing directly on the 10-yard line — the line needed to move the sticks. As he described after the game, Newton made sure to “just be the hammer and not the nail” and picked up the necessary yardage — barely.
It surely didn’t tickle, but it got the job done.
When Belichick decided to keep his field goal unit on the sideline, he was opening up a portal to multiple timelines. Perhaps in one alternate timeline, the Patriots kick the field goal, the game is a bit more competitive, and the Patriots’ offense struggles to build much confidence. Perhaps in another, the Chargers come up with the stop, ride that emotion to a go-ahead score the other way, and maybe even win the game. (Probably not, though). As evidenced by the fact that people in this region still regularly discuss a fourth-and-2 decision from 11 years ago in Indianapolis, such calls are serious business in New England.
We’ll never know the path that both teams might have gone down had this fourth-and-2 attempt failed. But we do know the end result was indeed the darkest timeline for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Perhaps this is some extremely high-level, high-concept, PhD-type understanding of the sport of football. Or maybe I just happened to rewatch “Remedial Chaos Theory” over the weekend. Who can say for sure?
What is certain, though, is that Belichick put his faith in Cam, and Cam absorbed a significant level of punishment to reward the coach for that belief.
“That was big. It’s up to us as an offense to not blink,” Newton said. “For us to have that confidence from our coaches, you know, it just speaks volumes. And if they believe in us that much, we gotta uphold our end of the bargain.”
Newton upheld it, and then some. On a second-and-goal from the 5-yard line, he ran toward the left pylon, scored a touchdown, and put forth a basketball-inspired celebration.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 6, 2020
Then a replay review showed that he had stepped out of bounds before crossing the goal line. So he lined up under center and hopped over the line, this time scoring a good touchdown and repeating that Euro step lay-in.
Cam drops the Euro step on the CBS cam. pic.twitter.com/rKQ68wwCXK
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) December 6, 2020
The ultra rare double Euro on the same touchdown. You almost never see it. (Incidentally, Cam had a double celebration in Seattle this year, too, and he didn’t even get to catch his breath that time.)
It’s hard, obviously, to sit back after a 45-0 win and point to one moment or decision as the moment that shaped reality. And it’s entirely possible (and likely, even) that if the fourth-and-2 had come up short, the final score still would have shown a lopsided victory for the Patriots.
Regardless, this was a key moment in a critical spot for Cam Newton and the offense. Belichick trusted the offense to get it done. Josh McDaniels trusted to keep the ball in Newton’s hands and letting the O-line get to work. For a team that’s been short on offensive rhythm and confidence, a moment like that can be a spark plug.
We don’t know what it will mean for future games, but we do know it helped kick-start a 45-0 butt whooping on Sunday. Let’s hit a leftover thought or two (or 20).
–The Patriots said in their game notes that this was the third time the team has scored two special teams touchdowns in the same game. It noted the previous instances came in 2018 in Chicago (Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Van Noy blocked punt return) and 2010 in Miami (Brandon Tate kickoff return, Kyle Arrington blocked field goal return).
That’s all well and good, but it’s a missed opportunity to reference the GOAT Patriots special teams performance, with that of course being the 2001 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh. You had the legendary 55-yard Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown, which came after the Steelers were penalized for having a player go out of bounds on the initial punt. (Ed Hochuli spotted the ball on the wrong hash. Bill Cowher was so mad. Classic!)
And you had the famed Brandon Mitchell blocked field goal/Troy Brown scoop and lateral/Antwan Harris return for a TD.
That really has nothing to do with Sunday’s game but. Well. It’s kind of crazy to talk about two games like that, with the same coach, separated by so many years.
–It stands out a little more when you consider the Chargers were incapable of consistently sending 11 football players onto the field for punt returns.
The Patriots lined up to punt 5 times in this game. The #Chargers had the wrong number of players on the field for 3 of those plays. On one series, they lined for a punt with 12, got flagged and gave up the first down, then lined up with 10 four snaps later. pic.twitter.com/DOum0vObiZ
— Daniel Popper (@danielrpopper) December 7, 2020
I mean. There are Pop Warner teams that are better organized.
–Damien Harris probably didn’t get his name on the marquee after this one, but the kid is still good. A casual 80 yards on 16 carries looks good on the sheet. I particularly liked this run, where he turned a loss into positive yardage:
That one came on the opening drive, setting up the aforementioned third-and-5 that preceded the fourth-and-2 call. Had Harris gone down in the backfield, things change. Had he been stood up at the 18-yard line, things change. But he dropped a shoulder, churned the legs, and bowled ahead to the 15-yard line.
A little play, maybe. But also, quite a big one.
–Gunner was, unsurprisingly, entertaining in his postgame press conference. While he was not in Full Gunner Gear, aka this outfit …
Gunner Olszewski said teammate Jakobi Meyers was more hyped up for his first career catch than he was. Olszewski said because he handles the ball a lot on punt returns, he didn’t think as much about the first catch. pic.twitter.com/1gQ94ebtCm
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 11, 2019
… he was his usual “kid from Texas named Gunner” self.
As for last week’s blindside block that took his punt return touchdown away?
“It ain’t our fault the first one got called back. The game’s getting soft.”
As for this one, when he realized that no flags were on the field, he made sure to get on Anfernee Jennings a little bit to remind him of last week’s penalty.
“I took a little double peek and I was messing with Anfernee and I was like, ‘Man, I’m glad you weren’t on the field.'”
It doesn’t sound like he’ll be having any sappy conversations with his dad about the moment, either.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s the road to The Show. Like I grew up, my dad was playing baseball in the minor leagues. He never made it to The Show. I get on him now, you know. I made it to The Show. And now that I did something out there today, I’ll be sure to remind him of that.
Coming from a defensive and special teams background, Gunner was asked if he’s ever scored an offensive touchdown in his life.
“Uhh … shoot, probably not. I don’t think so. I mean when I played like Little League football, I played running back, so that I have. But yeah, that’s probably my first offensive touchdown.”
When Damien Harris crashed his postgame video session, Olszewski smiled and told him to bounce.
“That’s my dog. You know, we both … we went to Alabama. I went to a DII school, but we’re both built by ‘Bama.”
Damien Harris really needed to give Gunner a hug, so he had to interrupt his press conference pic.twitter.com/cJ8b5f9swV
— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) December 7, 2020READ MORE: Shot Of Hope: Worcester Pharmacist Proud To 'Restore A Sense Of Normalcy'
And for the magical moment of scoring his first NFL touchdown?
“Honestly my first thought was, I gotta go cover a kick now. So I better get my breath, and I gotta go cover on a kickoff.”
As for covering those kickoffs? He wanted to make sure his special teams tackle made it into everybody’s postgame stories, too.
“And the tackle. I had a tackle, too. Julian [Edelman] always talked about a game where he had a punt return and a tackle.”
Gunner Olszewski: Football player.
–The game for Cam as a passer was unremarkable. He threw for 69 yards and a touchdown. It was what it was.
But in terms of encouraging signs, I thought his ability to see a rushing Joey Bosa out of his peripheral vision on this play was something that’s been sorely missing from his game all year long.
Newton not only picked up the rusher but protected the ball, moving it out of Bosa’s reach before climbing the pocket and scampering for 14 yards.
Whether the absence of that pocket awareness was a result of so much time missed due to injury or something else, it’s unclear. But if he can continue to build on that, the passing game should get a notable boost. (Sacks are bad, in case you weren’t aware.)
–He did fumble the shotgun snap three plays later, absolutely murdering the drive in the process. So it remains a work in progress.
–Is it well known how enormous Cam Newton’s lead is for rushing touchdowns for quarterbacks? Because golllllly, it is enormous.
After two touchdowns on Sunday, Newton now has 69 in his career. The all-time leaderboard looks like this:
1. Cam Newton, 69
2. Steve Young, 43
3. Jack Kemp, 40
Michael Vick rushed for 36 touchdowns. Randall Cunningham had 35. Kordell Stewart had 38. Steve McNair had 37, and Daunte Culpepper had 34. Newton has sixty-nine, and at 31 years old, he figures capable of adding on to that enormous lead, just in case the likes of Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and any other young gun tries to steal the throne. (With 23 already, the big-bodied Allen might actually be the biggest threat.)
–Newton paid the price for his second one, too.
That looks like it sucks. Not gonna lie.
–Whenever Chase Winovich spoke to reporters this summer and early fall, he always made sure to keep certain areas of his personal improvement as a secret. He didn’t want to broadcast any weaknesses past or present, as he didn’t really want to give opposing offensive linemen any intel at all when it came to blocking him.
But after his interception, I had to ask Winovich to peel back the curtain just a little bit to share if he’s spent any time working on the JUGS machine. Because that Justin Herbert pass was coming in extra toasty.
“Yeah it was coming in hot. He was firing a rocket, for sure,” Winovich said. “No, I just … I just made a play. Shoutout to the coaches during warmups and stuff, throwing me some rockets. I’ve actually caught a couple of Brian Hoyer’s hardest that he can throw footballs. That definitely helped me prepare.”
The INT was, really, ridiculous.
Point break.@wino INT!!
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 6, 2020
“I’m thankful I caught it,” Winovich said.
No JUGS machine needed.
–In the “Who Cares?” department, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Rob Gronkowski had shoved a defensive back the way N’Keal Harry did just before catching his touchdown.
Heavy right hand from N’Keal Harry on Chris Harris. Touchdown.
“That was a play that was all about physicality and using my body,” Harry said after the game. “It was vital for that play.” pic.twitter.com/mjtTsWQ9x9
— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 7, 2020
The shove was so strong that you could hear it on the broadcast. That is a clubbing.
It wasn’t called in this instance, because, again, who cares? But my mind went immediately to all of the times that Rob Gronkowski got flagged for offensive pass interference for simply … running? Being big? Never was quite sure what it was. But if he gave that kind of shove to anyone while wearing a Patriots uniform, I would anticipate that Roger Goodell and the U.S. Senate would have gotten involved.
I guess that little meandering thought brings us to the explosive revelation that NFL officiating is … not … consistent! Oh me oh my. We’re flipping the earth on its head today, people.
–As for good calls, I think the officials got it right when they called an illegal hands to the face penalty here:
Just seems like that was a case of illegal hands to the face. Just my politics!
–Field goal blocks are just cool. You never really expect them to happen. And then you hear that THUD, and if you’re a normal person, you can’t help but laugh. The thud is hilarious.
This replay sadly doesn’t have the thud, but it does show the beauty of a clean field goal block.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 7, 2020
–The Chargers are a mess. Yes, I promise, that is my last bit of explosive news to break here. And while I understand you want your rookies to get as much game experience as possible, was it really necessary to keep Herbert in until the bitter end? The kid got absolutely blown up by Josh Uche on his penultimate snap of the game:
Of all the negligence on display from Anthony Lynn and Co. on Sunday, I’d rank that one right near the top.
(Not being able to count to 11 multiple times still probably wins the competition, though.)
–This story started with the darkest timeline. It’s only right to end on the same note.
That pretty much sums up the Los Angeles Chargers, doesn’t it?
Let’s do it again Thursday, shall we?MORE NEWS: Freight Train Engineer Shot With Pellet Gun In Wareham