BOSTON (CBS) -- Let's for one moment decide to entertain that the suggestion by Antonio Smith that something foul was afoot on Sunday in Houston, and that evil coach Bill Belichick did indeed send his spies down to Reliant Stadium in order to learn the Texans' defensive game plan ahead of time.
The gist of Smith's complaints (you can read the whole thing here, if you'd like) is that it was "fishy" that the Patriots made adjustments, and that it was "miraculous" that Tom Brady and Co. could have figured out a way to solve the Houston defense en route to a major second half turnaround. Smith, like all the "Patriots-are-cheaters" accusers, made the comments in a guarded I'm-not-saying-they-cheated-but-I'm-also-kind-of-saying-they-cheated manner, and in case anyone thinks he has a point, consider:
-- If you do believe that Belichick has master spies in the ventilation systems of opposing stadiums, then you'd also be required to believe that he'd go out on a limb and risk his neck so that he might have help in beating the Texans, who were 2-9 entering Sunday. Doesn't seem likely. The Texans lost to the Jaguars. And the Raiders. They're not exactly a group that inspires opponents to scramble to find ways to win.
-- You'd also have to believe that Belichick felt pressured and scared to be facing Wade Phillips, who is ... Wade Phillips. Nope. Not happening.
-- The Patriots scored 34 points, which is a considerably smaller total than the 42 they put up against Houston last December, when the Texans rolled in with an 11-1 record. Five weeks later, the Patriots put up 41 more points on Houston in the playoffs. Were they spying on Houston all three times?! That's incredible. So much spying!
-- If you still believe Belichick got this super secret inside information, then you have to also believe that he kept it in his back pocket and didn't use it to his advantage until the third quarter, when his team trailed 17-7.
OK, the one moment is over, and the Smith "story" should probably die right here. It won't, because that's the way the world works, but in terms of its ranking among other Patriots scandals, I'd give this Smith accusatory non-accusation one out of 10 Manginis. I'm just curious what kind of spies that Antonio Smith believes were employed by Bill. Perhaps some ninjas like these guys?
Scary stuff right there.
Enough of that, let's jump into all the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 34-31 win over the Texans.
--I don't believe I've ever started one of these stories with a note about the kicker, but that's where we begin today. Until midway through the fourth quarter, Stephen Gostkowski's only action had been kicking extra points and missing a 55-yard field goal in the second quarter. So if it were possible to increase the degree of difficulty of drilling a 53-yard field goal, coming in relatively cold would do it.
Yet Gostkowski confidently hit a 53-yarder to tie the game, and he booted an even better ball just minutes later to give the Patriots a lead that would hold for the win. He also did it on a field that looked like Soldier Field and FedEx Field had a baby, where the turf looked to be anything but friendly to feet. The game-winner was actually so solid that it frightened these fans ... who apparently didn't see the mammoth net right in front of their faces:
Without a doubt, a game ball (perhaps the one that hit the net in front of these fans) goes to Mr. Gostkowski.
--While we're crediting -owski's, how about Rob Gronkowski? The guy is such an unstoppable force, and he changes the offense so drastically that you'd have a hard time convincing me that the Patriots would not be sitting here today as back-to-back Super Bowl champions if Gronkowski had been healthy in the 2011 playoffs and hadn't broken his arm in the opening drive of the divisional round last year.
Of course, I know that if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, then it would be Christmas every day. But in just a few short weeks, No. 87 has changed my perception about how far this team can go. (Hint: It's far.)
--Last week, I said that it was a bad look for Stevan Ridley to have the Mohawk with the snazzy buzz designs on the sideline after he fumbled, but as that took place in the middle of a game, it would have been hard for him to alter his look. But this week, with all the time in the world to prepare his "I'm inactive and chilling on the sidelines" look, he went with this:
I know that Ridley is a bit of a fashion trailblazer, what with his onesies and rainbow moon boots (I kind of want the moon boots for Christmas), and he does deserve credit for covering up the 'hawk ... but wearing a hat that way while at work doesn't send the message that he's serious about his job. Right or wrong, perceptions go a long way, especially in a place like New England, where more fans seem to be growing warmer to the idea of life without Fumblin' Steve.
--However, that's not to say the Patriots aren't a better team when Ridley is running the ball. I thought LeGarrette Blount ran the ball with authority (12 carries, 44 yards, 1 TD), but there were moments when Ridley's absence was noticeable. For example, on this second-and-7 handoff to Brandon Bolden in the first quarter, there was a seam that Ridley typically is able to find and burst through for a big gain to move the chains.
It looked to me like a play where Ridley might gain 10 yards. Bolden is a step slower and doesn't have the same vision, so he gained one yard, which left the Patriots with a third-and-6, which failed and led to a punt. It's no guarantee that Ridley would have made the big gains, and they all would have been nullified if he coughed the ball up anyway. Yet it's important for the offense that Ridley does what's necessary to get back onto the field. He's very clearly their most explosive and dangerous back.
--Julian Edelman has 70 receptions for 711 yards this season. He's caught 18 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in the last two weeks. That's more than 25 percent of his production, and it's a great sign for the offense that it's coming as the calendar turns to December and every week takes on a playoff feeling.
This catch, in particular, was bananas:
--Tom Brady is also getting better as the season goes on, as he's steadily climbed the rankings on the passing leaderboards in recent weeks. Brady averaged just 228 yards per game through the first half of the season, but in the four games since, he's averaged 361 yards per game. He's done it against a couple of pretty good pass defenses as well in Carolina and Houston, which entered Sunday No. 1 in pass defense but dropped to second by the end of the day. Barring some miracle, Brady still will finish the season with fewer than 30 TDs, but his yardage total at the end of the season will show that there's not as much of a drop-off that some numbers might suggest.
--I loved Dan Dierdorf's comment on the replay of Brady's touchdown pass to Gronkowski: "Tom only threw this because he was bored."
The protection was great on that play, to the point where the two D-linemen rushing on the right side just flat-out quit on the play when they realized their efforts were futile. One of those players was Antonio Smith, who found Logan Mankins' ability to easily block him to be rather fishy. Whitney Mercilus and Smith actually started running away from the quarterback:
--Clete Blakeman would have taken that touchdown off the board after deeming it an uncatchable pass.
--Is there a bylaw in the Pro Football Announcer's Handbook that requires all broadcasters to mention the fact that Julian Edelman played quarterback in college? Julian Edelman finished his college career when George W. Bush was still in office, but he's been a receiver (with a brief stint as an emergency defensive back) in the NFL for five years. And even when he was a QB in college, he wasn't exactly Dan Marino; the dude threw 30 TDs and 31 INTs (and that was in the MAC!), but he ran for nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was an athletic, mobile quarterback. It is not remarkable that those abilities translated to a skill position in the NFL. Let's put a moratorium on the college QB mentions, please.
--Stats in football, particularly on the defensive side, are funny. For example, Isaac Sopoaga recorded a sack early in the second quarter, and he celebrated thusly. Yet he only got the sack because every Texans receiver was covered, and Case Keenum was left standing still in the pocket for far too long. Two plays later, Logan Ryan intercepted a Keenum pass, but he only made the pick because Andre Carter drove his helmet into Keenum's throwing shoulder just before the pass was released.
It was a pretty clear picture of how misleading stats can be, yet when we look at both players at the end of the year, you can bet we'll take a peek at the sacks and INT stats.
--Speaking of that Carter hit on Keenum, I think it's safe to say this is a pretty good place to put your helmet if you're a defensive player:
--Dear Fan, I want to party with you. That is all.
--James Devlin's touchdown run was a sight to be seen, and he proved that the fullback is not dead. It's not often that a guy tries to leap into the end zone, gets rejected, gets stood up in his second and third attempts to cross the goal line and then eventually scores the touchdown anyway. Not bad for the guy's second career rushing attempt, eh?
I thought Scott Zolak nailed the radio call: "The big meathead would not be denied."
--Enjoy Tom Brady being the owner of the single-season touchdown record, because that thing is as good as toast right now. Peyton Manning threw for five touchdowns against Kansas City, bringing his season total to 41 through 12 games. In the four games left on his schedule, he needs to throw 10 to beat Brady's record, or 2.5 per week. He's averaged 3.4 TDs per game already this year, and he's got Oakland and San Diego on the schedule, two teams which have given up the 21st-most and 15th-most touchdowns, respectively, in NFL this year.
Brady's record = toast.
Drew Brees' single-season yardage record could fall too, but that mark lost its luster when Matthew Stafford became a 5,000-yard passer in 2011.
--The Patriots' run defense is obviously a lot more vulnerable than it is with Vince Wilfork occupying bodies in the middle of the defensive line. Yet credit is due to Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, the two men tasked with being as good as one Wilfork, for their admirable work in the interior. One play that stood out was a third-and-1 Houston run up the gut early in the third. Jones got a great push on left guard Wade Smith to disrupt the play, and Vellano slipped through a crack in the O-line, which was sliding left, to get into the backfield and make the stop behind the line of scrimmage.
--Brady put too much touch on his early pass that was intercepted, but when he dropped that beautiful rainbow into Edelman's arms in the third quarter, that was a work of art.
--I wrote last week that the Patriots need to remove the Shane Vereen wheel route up the left sideline from the playbook, which was a response to the running back dropping a pass on that route in two straight games. Now, I believe they need to just never run Vereen up the left sideline at all, because he dropped another one that hit his hands, this time in the end zone. The guy is immensely talented, but catching passes 20 yards downfield on the left sideline is apparently his bugaboo.
--Kyle Arrington is a fairly decent cornerback, which is a fairly impossible job to have in today's NFL. Still, he looked bad on that deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins, when he looked up for the football, couldn't find it, then tried to locate the receiver but lost him too:
I hadn't seen someone that confused in pass coverage since ... Dont'a Hightower a few minutes earlier.
--Going back to Gostkowski for a moment ... have you ever tried to kick a field goal? Go outside and try it some time. It's insane and makes no sense.
And no, I never took a physics class in my life, so that helps explain my wide-eyed bewilderment at the seemingly mundane act of kicking a football.
--Hearts likely skipped in New England when Gronkowski limped his way off the field, but it looked to me like he just caught a facemask to the calf, which probably tightened up on him afterwards.
--Case Keenum was probably bummed about the loss, but he had to have been happy that he escaped this play without being severed at the hip into two pieces:
--Antonio Smith may have made some bogus cheating allegations, but if you think he's embarrassed by them, you'd be wrong. Could a man who owns such a fashionable jacket ever feel shame?
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