By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The roller coaster is real.
It really is crazy, the drastic shifts that can take place in this league, whether it be from one week to the next, or whether it happens sporadically over the course of a couple of months.
As the Patriots are concerned, they've gone from:
- 1-0, with a win over an AFC contender. Solid.
- 1-2, facing a "must-win" vs. a 3-0 Miami team. Dicey. Precarious.
- 7-2, coming off a thumping of Aaron Rodgers on national TV. Best team in the AFC; best team in the NFL?
And then … Sunday. There really isn't much at all to feel good about regarding Sunday's football game. Julian Edelman was excellent. The list probably begins and ends there.
Really, if you need one image to summarize this football game, this one ought to do it:
That's your game right there.
I suppose you might desire one more. So here you are:
That's also your game. Tom Brady never comes out. Up by a million, down by a million, and everywhere in between. Brady stays in the game. The only way you can get him off the field is if you threaten to poison him with a processed food item and a handful of strawberries.
But this one was just a lost cause, and the field was not a safe place to be, and everybody knew it. So Brady sat. And the Patriots lost.
Ugly. Grisly. Dreadful. Ghastly. Macabre. (Shoutout to you, Thesaurus.com!)
Let's go ahead and get into some leftover thoughts from that 34-10 butt whooping dished out by Mike Vrabel's Tennessee Titans.
--Ultimately, obviously, the Patriots will end up being OK. Everything that they did for six straight weeks, capped off with a thorough win on national TV over Green Bay, doesn't suddenly disappear because the team laid a stinker in Nashville.
I mean, hey, are we going to dive into what made this thing so bad this week? Of course we are. We must. There's plenty of material there. We have to.
But if we're being honest, we can just look back to Week 3's loss in Detroit -- a game that was worse than the one you just witnessed, if you can believe that -- and recognize that no matter how bad it looks one week, no matter how hopeless the team can look on both sides of the ball (and special teams to boot), this team has a way of making you look like a big time bozo if you decide to make grand proclamations after the bad ones. Certainly, you have to know that by now. And if you choose to go all sky-is-falling after this one, then you're just proving that you're incapable of learning and adapting to what's in front of you. (Those of us who flirted with sky-is-falling interpretations after Week 3 know this.)
That Detroit flop really does put this week into perspective. Getting embarrassed by an opponent like that is certainly not preferable, but the Patriots have already proven this season that there can be little to no carry-over to the next week, and a six-game winning streak could always loom.
So yes, it's time to explore the weaknesses and the mistakes and everything else, and we're right to wonder aloud what that all might mean come January or February. But we should keep in the back of our minds that any continuation of such putridity is fairly rare.
--To that end, after the bye, the Patriots are going to beat the Jets by six-hundred points. They'll kill the Bills again. They'll beat the Jets by seven-hundred points at Gillette. They'll probably even win in Miami. Realistically, they're looking at 11 or 12 wins. Again.
We know that 11 or 12 wins doesn't necessarily mean anything in January. But, well, just trying to contextualize everything that's about to come here.
--Are you into "firsts"? Well, technically, "first sinces"? Because we've got a couple of "first sinces" here:
--So, the Patriots have shown a number of issues as a road team, and that's not just evidenced by their 2-3 record.
Specifically, the offense just isn't functioning very well on the road. They're averaging 5.06 yards per play and 20.6 points per game in their five road games, which doesn't compare well to their 6.17 yards per play and 35.4 points per game at home.
As you might imagine, the issue has been worse in the three losses. And so it becomes clear that on days when the offense isn't functioning, the Patriots just aren't going to be a competitive football team.
That's OK, I guess, if the Patriots are going to just be an offensive team. We saw last year that ranking 29th in yards allowed couldn't stop New England from winning the AFC. Granted, we also saw that it did stop them from winning a Super Bowl, but I suppose that can be a story for a later date.
--If you want to go positive, just look at No. 11. (There aren't any more positives so we might as well get it out of the way.) He caught nine of the 12 passes thrown his way, picking up 104 yards and picking up four first downs. It was his second 100-yard game in the last three weeks. He returned one punt for 18 yards and another punt for 12 yards. And he even made an excellent pass, making a Jeter-esque jump-throw to Tom Brady. (Though, no DISRE2PECT, but I do hate saying "Jeter-esque" because Jeter had a mediocre arm but he just gets credit for the jump throw because he was on ESPN a ton back when that was a thing that meant something, and surely many other shortstops throughout history have mastered the jump throw while running to their right but "Jeter-esque" is the accepted nomenclature, and who am I to question a near-universally regarded designation?)
Good game for Edelman. He did miss four weeks to start the year, but he's made up for it with some of the beatings he's absorbed in the middle of the field. The man has earned his bye week.
--Speaking of bye weeks, I think you really want that thing coming somewhere between Week 6 and Week 8. Anything before that, and it's too early, almost like a waste. Anything after that, and you've just got bodies rolling off the field every five snaps. Just look at the Patriots' offensive line at one point on Sunday, when it was:
LT: LaAdrian Waddle
LG: Joe Thuney
C: David Andrews
RG: Ted Karras
RT: Marcus Cannon (who was playing hurt)
Shaq Mason was out with a calf injury. Trent Brown was off the field for a bit as he battled an illness. Rob Gronkowski was not playing due to back and ankle problems. Dwayne Allen got hurt during this one. It's just, 10 weeks without a break, it can take a toll. The Patriots should spend the next eight days floating in the Dead Sea.
--Dion Lewis probably lost a lot of fans in New England with his postgame comments. I get it. I'm not going to sit here and tsk tsk anybody for feeling feelings. Feelings (whoa, oh, oh) are what drives sports, to a large extent.
But I'd just like to add that those of us who don't play professional sports for a living, and those of us who don't play the most punished position in the most violent sport at a height of 5-foot-8, we don't really understand the mentality and mind-set that is required to succeed at such things. We've seen enough athletes -- particularly short athletes, or smaller athletes, or late-round draft picks, etc. -- constantly seeking out chips on their shoulders in order to continue driving them.
The line about getting physical with the Patriots and watching them fold was probably more a case of Lewis feeling himself a bit too much after a win, but overall, it's hard for me to cast any judgment on the spite. We wouldn't be watching Lewis in the NFL at all if he didn't take slights personally.
--For as much as the Belichick era has been defined by ridiculous, preposterous, unheard of success, it's also been known for the random midseason clunker against a team that can be described as decent at best. Add this one to the list.
An incomplete history of the last 15 years:
2018: at Tennessee, at Detroit
2017: at Miami, vs. Kansas City
2016: vs. Buffalo
2015: vs. Philadelphia, at Miami
2014: at Kansas City, at Miami
2013: at Cininnati
2012: vs. Arizona
2010: at Cleveland
2008: at San Diego
2006: at Miami
2005: vs. San Diego
2003: at Buffalo, at Washington
It may defy proper explanation, but, well, it does happen.
--The Jets are so bad. Nothing to do with this game. But it had to be said. My goodness.
--Reminder, again, for emphasis: The Detroit game in Week 3 was even worse. For real. Go check out the websites and things. It's crazy.
--All right, after arguably the longest preamble in history, let's dive in. First things first, the start was just lazy. Keen viewers could tell from the opening kick, which showed some lazy coverage, that something wasn't right. The Titans' first offensive snap saw Stephon Gilmore peeking into the backfield while Corey Davis casually and easily ran an in-cut to pick up 24 yards:
A 58-yard return on the opening kick, and a 24-yard pickup on the first offensive play. Tennessee was in the end zone three minutes later, and it never really ever got better for the Patriots.
--The coverage -- or lack thereof -- on the Titans' first two touchdowns left something to be desired.
Here's Patrick Chung on Jonnu Smith (who entered the game with seven catches and one touchdown on the year but was made to look like an Olympic sprinter on this play):
And here's Gilmore on Davis, where Gilmore was beaten so badly that he had to commit a blatant PI in the end zone ... but still couldn't prevent the reception from being made:
Neither of those touchdowns looked like a schematic failure by the Patriots. Just a matter of making plays. Tennessee did, New England didn't. And that's how a game can quickly end up being 14-3 in favor of the home team.
--Why stop there? Let's look at the Titans' third touchdown of the day, which came before halftime to extend Tennessee's lead to 14 points. The Patriots could have made the stop ... if Elandon Roberts had just filled a gap instead of running into a mass of bodies:
Swing and a miss.
--Josh Gordon has been very good for the Patriots. Better than anyone should have rightfully expected. But I don't think the guy needs excuses made for him. The broadcast team seemed to suggest that the finger that Gordon busted last week was to blame for at least one, perhaps both of these non-catches:
I suppose, technically, a hurting finger might lead to some reluctance at the point of the catch. But that wouldn't absolve Gordon from, you know, having to still make the catch.
Nevertheless, Gordon was targeted 12 times. He caught four passes. Granted, two, maybe three of those targets were essentially throwaways. And his catch percentage isn't spotlighted here necessarily as a poor reflection of him. It's just a sign that the offense was certainly out of whack in this game. The Patriots need more from Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, and that need can be fixed both from the players themselves as well as the quarterback and offensive coordinator's decision-making process.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Brady connect with nine different receivers when the Patriots next take the field against the Jets. (The Jets are awful.)
--Speaking of not making catches, uhh ...
Obviously that wasn't going to count, because of a semi-bogus PI penalty on Gilmore. But still. What in the world?
--This is not related to the game, per se, but why don't we ever talk about how big Danny Shelton is? Trent Brown has stolen all of that shine, but, well, look!
Danny Shelton -- he's big!
--I suppose Edelman wasn't the only positive of the game. Dont'a Hightower earned some credit for going full Dont'a Mantower on poor Luke Stocker here:
Luke Stocker is 6-foot-5, 253 pounds. But you never would've known that by watching that play.
Plays such as that one, though, are rendered meaningless when plays like like this one come later:
--People seem to be a bit puzzled by Brady's bad day, but to me, a true genius, it's quite simple. There's just such a tremendous difference between pressure that's generated off the edge and pressure up the middle. And when you're a pocket passer, you just can't function when there's pressure up the middle.
It's what made Brady looked so awful (or "washed up," if you were not smart) in Kansas City in that famed 2014 loss, and it's generally what takes him off his game the most. The man has made a Hall of Fame career out of dodging and side-stepping pressure when it comes off the edge. Climbing the pocket while feeling some space for himself is his calling card. When you take away that pocket, he either gets hit, or he starts running out of the pocket, or he starts to feel pressure with a little bit more worry than normal. It happened in Week 2 in Jacksonville, and it happened in Week 10 in Tennessee.
Pressure him up the middle enough, and you get throws like this one:
This isn't anything new.
--While some of his throws resembled Craig Kimbrel fastballs that get yanked to the lefty batter's box side of the plate, the most puzzling play from Brady came on the QB sneak the Patriots ran early in the second quarter. The Patriots have run QB sneaks when they've needed two yards before, but against this front?
Weird decision. Brady almost always checks out of that. Shocker of all shockers, it did not work.
--It doesn't help when your left guard blocks your halfback instead of the blitzing cornerback, too.
--Speaking of not helpful, and speaking of pressure up the middle, James White had a chance to pick up a blitzing Wesley Woodyard on a third-and-8. Didn't work out.
--Not to go all armchair psychologist on you ... but I'm about to go all armchair psychologist on you. It's just that, after the Patriots scored their lone touchdown of the day to cut the Titans' lead to seven points, the CBS cameras showed Brady on the bench. He looked ... off. He certainly didn't look happy, despite the successful 75-yard drive. And he was listening intently to whatever Brian Hoyer was telling him:
Don't know what that was, of course, but he didn't seem his normal self there after a pretty big scoring drive had just been completed.
--Given the way last year ended, that defensive showing in Tennessee is going to lead a lot of people to worry that this year will end similarly. It's a fair concern, given the results.
At the same time, I wouldn't count on Gilmore to have many more games like the one he had on Sunday, and the same goes for Patrick Chung. And those of us who know that Malcolm Butler just making one tackle in last year's Super Bowl probably would have made the difference between winning and losing? We can tell you that it'd make a pretty significant difference if each of those guys could have made one more play on Sunday.
As for the offense, the road stuff is genuinely concerning. The offense just hasn't functioned as well as it should on the road compared to how it functions at home. Even the wins weren't perfect; the Buffalo win was a grind, and the Patriots needed two special teams touchdowns and a Hail Mary tackle at the 1-yard line to win in Chicago.
Add in that even the most successful coach-QB duo in NFL history owns a 3-4 record on the road in the postseason and have lost their only two road playoff games of the past decade, and you'd be right to have some worry there. A January trip to Pittsburgh (the Steelers average 35 points per game at home) or Kansas City (the Chiefs average 34 points per game at home and 35 points per game overall) would appear, at this point in time, to be quite troubling.
But, let's just hold off on that. Can we?
The Chiefs still have the Rams, Chargers and (the feisty) Seahawks on the schedule. The Steelers will have to beat the Patriots and the Saints to earn a bye. There's quite a bit that is yet to be determined. Sunday was as ugly as ugly gets, and there's a chance that ugliness rears its head in the coming months to end the season in disappointment. But surely, you've seen enough from this team over so many years to know that there's no reason to fully enter panic mode before the team even hits its bye week.
--Bad game, you know this, duh. But it could have been much worse. I mean, even with that newfangled space helmet, Brady could have lost several body parts on this play:
So yeah, a loss in the standings, but Brady managed to make it through the day. I bet you eleven dollars that, despite the "cliff" and "decline" and whatever other takes will flood the world over the next two weeks, that guy looks pretty good the next time we see him play football.
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