By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Life is all about balance. So is football. For every yin, a yang, and so forth.
That's probably important to remember now, as the panic and hysteria really ramps up to new levels for the 10-2 New England Patriots.
On the one hand, Sunday night was, by and large, a grisly showing for the Patriots. They fell behind after a Tom Brady/N'Keal Harry interception, they showed some uncharacteristically poor tackling to fall further behind, and they surrendered a deep shot to fall behind 21-3, a hole out of which they never fully climbed.
As a result, they lost the game and their hold on the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Rightfully, their flaws will now be put under the microscope.
At the same time ... taking a wider perspective is generally a wise course of action.
When the Patriots' schedule was released, seemingly every reasonable mind concluded that in the six-week stretch, from the Cleveland game through the Kansas City game, the Patriots would likely emerge with a 4-2 or 3-3 record. Playing against good teams in November and December will generally lead to that type of output.
Now if we agree that a 4-2 record in that six-week stretch would constitute a mostly successful run, then we must ask: Did we expect them to look good in those losses? Typically, when a team loses a football game, it doesn't make it through the 60 minutes while looking like a great team that merely missed a bounce or a call. Typically, when a team loses a football game, that team looks ... bad.
Losses are losses, and they almost always look ugly. Outside of the 1972 Dolphins (and their cupcake of a schedule), it happens to every team. We all expected them to lose at least twice during this stretch, didn't we? It would have been utterly foolish to expect this team to actually go undefeated. Thus, wouldn't we be a bit dishonest if we all lost our collective minds after ... the second loss?
That is not to diminish the legitimate concerns, obviously. But it often feels like that perspective is almost never applied.
(Plus, if you are one of those people who tweets in hysterics, who shouts that Tom Brady should be cut or Josh McDaniels should be fired or Bill Belichick should retire? I'd kindly ask you to go back and check what you said after the Pittsburgh loss last year. It'll be illuminating, I'm sure.)
So, with the Patriots now at 10-2, let's take a dive through the leftover thoughts from Sunday's odd 28-22 loss in Houston, shall we?
--I know that offense is the topic du jour, understandably so, but I really have to start with the two plays that I think really changed the game. Both involved rare missed tackles by the Patriots.
The first was high-profile. On a first-and-10 near midfield, early in the second quarter, with Houston leading 7-3, John Simon broke into the backfield for an easy sack of Deshaun Watson and a loss of 10 yards. Easy. Well ...
Simon couldn't help but smile and laugh after, but the significance of Watson's escape was massive.
On the very next play, Watson hit 6-foot-4 tight end Jordan Akins in the flat. It should have been a gain of about a yard, leading to a third-and-9. But Patrick Chung simply missed the open-field tackle that he always makes.
Instead of a third-and-9 near midfield and likely a punt, the Texans had a fresh set of downs at the New England 36-yard line. They were in the end zone four plays later, expanding their lead to 14-3.
That was just such an uncharacteristic stretch for the Patriots' defense, which always exhibits fundamentals and seemingly never misses those tackles in the open field. That they came consecutively really worked to shift this game in Houston's favor.
--The offense is clearly just not good enough. That much is clear. I just ... I'd caution against the crowd of folks rushing to say that Tom Brady is washed up or needs to retire. I still think he's their biggest reason for hope, offensively.
I will grant you that these throws stood out as particularly bad:
Also, his decision to not really try to drop a pass over the 6-foot-4 Benardrick McKinney and connect with Phillip Dorsett in the end zone was an odd one.
Based on Brady's reaction, it seemed like he perhaps wanted Dorsett to jump through the roof of NRG Stadium and bring that one down. Or maybe he was just mad at his overthrow. Hard to say.
Nevertheless, those are the lowlights. But if you only watch those and conclude that Brady is cooked, then you're missing quite a bit.
Like, for instance, the time he threw a pass 115 mph to Julian Edelman to convert a third-and-5:
Or the spring that he still has in the pocket, something he's desperately relied upon in recent weeks as he's had to stand hopelessly in the pocket while waiting for receivers to get open:
Or any number of plays he made throughout the night to show that athletically, he's still as capable as ever. (No need to turn the day-after-Texans-loss post into a Brady highlight reel, you know?)
Physically, he's able to make every throw and scramble that he needs to. Mentally, he's leaps and bounds better than any other QB in the league right now. If the offense is going to climb out of this rut, Brady will be the driver, not some old, decrepit passenger.
--The Duke Johnson touchdown came after he was in man coverage against Kyle Van Noy. The common explanation for this play went something like, "Well Van Noy can't be expected to cover Johnson in space." He probably could have, though, if not for a rush toward the line and then a missed shove at the line of scrimmage.
Likewise, on Watson's TD pass to Darren Fells, it looked like Dont'a Hightower got sucked in to a good play fake on a second-and-1, leading to an easy TD.
Devin McCourty gave a pretty good answer when asked what happened on those touchdowns. It's long, but thoughtful, considering most Patriots weren't up for speaking too much after that loss. I'll bold some parts that stand out, in case you fade in and out.
"Yeah, I mean, the first play was we've just got to cover better. I understand that Duke Johnson's a really good player. Coming out of the back field is kind of tough, you know, KV on the line. But that's what we do on defense, we mix up a lot of things. And then the misdirection play, we just got to handle that coming out of the backfield. So both plays, it wasn't like new, like we never saw it before. But like I said, it comes down to executing. Those are two plays, that if we make a play, changes the game. But they made the play, so now it's two touchdowns in a game where we just couldn't give up. We couldn't give up touchdowns. In the red area, we had to try to force them to kick field goals. That's a part of playing good defense. And we didn't do that tonight. And I always say, being a good team, being a good offense, good defense, good special teams comes down to each week executing. No one cares what you've done last week, what you've done throughout the season, what your stats look like. No one cares about that. It comes down to that week, come Sunday, come and executing and playing well. And we didn't do that tonight. And when we don't do that, we're average at best. And I think that's any team. Any team could beat any team in this league. And when you don't come and execute and play at the best of your ability and play at a high level, you'll fall victim to getting killed or not playing well and losing. And I think, obviously, we fought and gave ourselves a chance at the end. But I think we know that about ourselves. We know we're never just going to just give up in the game. We've got that character, we've got that fight in us. But now, you know, playing the good teams, you got to execute. It's not about just fighting and playing hard. You got to execute."
If you're a "find the positives" type of person, you should be heartened by that commentary. Often, the most instructive lessons for improvement are taught in losses.
--This is bad!!!
--This is the official sign that things are wrong:
Let's name that one "The WTF Chuck," a play where the quarterback figures, beh, what the heck, might as well throw the deep bomb, even though absolutely nothing is there. He did it a few weeks ago in Baltimore. He did it last year in Detroit. (Those two were picked; this one was not.)
I think it's a sign that he's just not at all comfortable with what the offense is doing. It's never a good sign to see that.
Brady, McDaniels, Sanu, Edelman, Harry, Meyers, Dorsett, White, Burkhead and Michel should all just take this week off from practice. Maybe take a retreat to Honolulu together or something instead. Figure it out. It'll be nice.
I should really coach football. I've got some good ideas.
--Likewise ... err ... these three passes shine a light on an offense that is not quite functioning like a symphony at the moment.
When the schoolyard "go deep" point isn't even working, there are some problems.
--The NFL's flawed process for replay review was once again exposed. In this case, it was a very debatable catch by Jakobi Meyers on the sideline. In real time, it looked like he might not have had both feet down before going out of bounds. On replay, it still looked close. A play that close, within two minutes of halftime, warranted the triggering of an automatic replay review. No doubt about it.
But yet ... no replay was initiated by the replay official or from Al Riveron in New York. The powers that be determined that no replay was necessary.
OK. Fine. That was their decision. ... Until Bill O'Brien called a timeout. It was only after that timeout was called that an automatic review was initiated.
The play was eventually upheld, because Meyers really made a dynamite play. But instances like that one -- where one decision is made, only for the decision makers to instantly flip-flop -- do nothing to grow the confidence in the NFL's officiating.
--Speaking of officiating ... I mean ... these two plays.
The second didn't matter as much, because the Patriots overcame the loss. But it does show that an arm bar across the chest that brings a pass rusher to the turf is indeed a standard case of holding.
Given the lopsided nature of the first three quarters, it would be wrong to suggest this officiating gaffe had even a 5 percent impact on the final outcome of the game. Still, having the Texans score a touchdown instead of being forced into a second-and-20 at the 45-yard line was quite significant. Quite.
--Considering he has very little experience catching punts, I was struck by how casual and nonchalant Mohamed Sanu was while fair-catching his first punt of the night:
Damn! That's one cool dude!
Yet, the inexperience might have shone through, when he fair-caught this punt that traveled more than 50 yards, instead of letting it likely bounce into the end zone.
That wasn't a high-arching boot from midfield designed to hit the turf and die. It was flyyyyying in there.
It might not have mattered at all, considering everything else on the night. But on a night when the offense and defense had plenty of missteps, special teams didn't fare much better on the positive contribution scale.
(For that matter, the coaching decision to try to run a two-point conversion, with a delay of game penalty as a fallback, didn't seem all that great, considering their new kicker hasn't played all year and only played three games last year. Bad night all round for just about everybody.)
--Can you imagine? Can ... you just imagine?
It's probably best to not imagine. But if Brady and the offense made a comeback from 21-3 and 28-9 in the same building where they came back from 28-3? My goodness. The Patriots would have to start holding home games in Houston every year, as unofficial owners of the Texans' stadium.
Can you imagine?
--In the "Tip Your Cap" department, DeAndre Hopkins put this move on Stephon Gilmore (the best cornerback in football, or the 20th-best cornerback in football, depending on your style of analysis) to convert a third-and-6 near midfield on the Texans' final touchdown drive.
Hopkins had just 64 receiving yards on five catches, but in this particular battle of All-Pro vs. All-Pro, Hopkins made the play.
--This play was awesome. You knew that, but I had to reiterate.
Imagine if Watson didn't catch that ball, and the Patriots recovered it off the turf and ran it 90-plus yards the other way for a touchdown, only for that touchdown to come off the board because it was actually a forward pass and not a lateral? That would have been an electric scene.
Probably best for all involved that it didn't happen.
--Last year, I sat way up here on my high horse, which is balancing on a pedestal, and I calmly pointed out that it was ludicrous for people to fret and fuss over the possibility of the Patriots having to play a postseason game in Kansas City. It just wasn't and isn't a scary place to play. Indeed, when the Patriots outgunned the Chiefs, Kansas City fell to a ridiculous 1-7 record at home in the playoffs since 1995.
Boy did I look like a smarty pants.
This year, though ... this year ... I believe that home-field advantage is just massive. As we know, even though John Harbaugh's Ravens have fared better than most over the years, playing in Foxboro in January is no picnic for anybody. Add in that the Patriots looked their absolute worst when they traveled to Baltimore earlier this year, and the prospect of the Patriots traveling to Maryland on Jan. 19 seems like a losing proposition.
That race is not over. The Ravens have to beat the Bills, in Buffalo. And a Week 16 trip to Cleveland to face the Browns (who whooped them in Week 4) followed by a potential must-win game for the Steelers in Week 17 won't be an easy end to the season for Baltimore. The Patriots, meanwhile, mostly need to worry about the Chiefs next week, and maybe a little bit about the Bills on a Saturday afternoon in Week 16.
Football is wild and unpredictable, so there's no use spending too much time on Dec. 2 trying to forecast what will happen over the final four weeks. But if you're really banking on a trip to Miami this year, you're going to have to hope that the final month of the season sees a role reversal between the limping Patriots and the hottest team in football.
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