By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- If there's one thing you can never accuse the Patriots of being, it's boring.
Even when they're running away with a blowout victory over what was supposed to be a real tough opponent in the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, they manage to keep you entertained for the full 60 minutes more often than not.
Granted, that's not really what the team itself is looking to do. Certainly, Bill Belichick isn't too worried about the entertainment factor. And in the cutthroat league that is the NFL, a rookie like Cyrus Jones wouldn't play footsie with a punt on national TV. Tom Brady didn't throw one of the silliest interceptions of his career on purpose, and Matthew Slater didn't cough up a kick return in order to boost the television ratings.
Nevertheless, that list of mistakes wasn't as long as that of the Ravens, and so the Patriots emerged with a 30-23 victory. And, in a way, the dramatics of that victory -- which required some clutch execution during crunch time on offense, defense and special teams -- leaves the Patriots feeling perhaps even better after the win than they might have felt after a ho-hum thumping of the visiting Ravens.
"It was a big game for us -- we played at home in December on Monday night against a great defense," Brady said after his 406-yard, three-touchdown performance. "It was important for us to come out and play well. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game. They're a tough defense. Like I said, I think there were some plays I wish we all would have had back, but they're a competitive team, they force you into some errors, and it was great to finish the game with the ball in our hands. We always love doing that."
Belichick, who's had his battles with John Harbaugh and the Ravens over the years, echoed the sentiment.
"It came down to key plays there in the fourth quarter, especially in the last couple of minutes [with] some good situational football. I thought our guys really hung in there," Belichick said. "It wasn't perfect. We had three turnovers, obviously hurt us. But we kept battling and made some big plays in all three areas of the game there at the end when we had to make them. That's the important thing, is to come out of here with a win against a good football team. Like I said, it was about the game I thought we would get in terms of 60 minutes, coming down to the wire, situational plays, needing everybody, and we did. It's good to have this one."
That it is. With the win, the Patriots secured their 11th victory of the season for the seventh straight season (tying the Colts from 2003-09 for the most of all time). They didn't exactly clinch the division for the eighth straight season and 14th time in 16 years, but all they need now is one more Dolphins loss to earn that crown.
It's just the latest chapter in a truly remarkable string of dominance from the Patriots organization, and it came by way of a thoroughly entertaining football game. After seeing teams like the Rams come to town, it makes it easier to appreciate how good we have it as football viewers in New England.
And now, on to the leftover thoughts!
--This might make you chuckle. It made me snort.
Never forget the Bills celebrating that meaningless, meaningless win (and, unwittingly, celebrating their 13 years of ineptitude in Foxboro). Never. Forget.
You've got to love the Buffalo Bills.
--To be honest, despite some people saying this seemed like a playoff game, I don't think either team looked particularly ready for January. Granted, Baltimore may not even make it to January, but you get the point. If either of those teams put forth those performances against a team that focused solely on not turning the ball over and limiting mistakes, they'd find their seasons ending abruptly.
But, of course, the good news is this: It's not January. This type of game, on a cold night, with some adversity sprinkled throughout, was as good a dress rehearsal for postseason football as the Patriots could have asked for. Not only did they open up some areas that need some attention, but they also managed to emerge with a victory, thus getting them one step closer to securing the all-important No. 1 seed in the AFC. There were numerous negatives to take away from a Patriots perspective, of course, but the overriding takeaway from that game should still be positive.
--I felt like Jon Gruden saying "Flowers might be the best defensive player" on the Patriots was a strong to quite strong assessment. But considering it came after Trey Flowers literally ripped the ball out of Joe Flacco's hands and came down with possession of the football all in one motion, it was pretty good timing.
--Hey -- that brings us to Ed Hochuli! What. A. Joke. The man literally reshaped the entire sport in a moment's notice when he ruled that Flowers' strip sack was not a strip sack because Flacco's forward progress had been stopped.
Think about that.
A quarterback's forward progress.
Had been stopped.
The quarterback. Whose motion is called a "dropback." Had his forward momentum. Stopped.
What a joke.
What Hochuli did there was profound: No longer can quarterbacks fumble. Strip sacks are a thing of the past. If you want to force a turnover from a QB, you better pick him off or hit him as he runs forward. Otherwise, he's getting credit for his forward momentum -- which, come to think of it, is going to be a few yards forward from where the sack took place.
To get serious for a moment: People used to love Ed Hochuli many years ago because he had large biceps. "Ha ha!" they would say. "Look at those arms." Even now, Hochuli gets praised by broadcast crews for his "thorough" explanations of his rulings, even though the 65-year-old man has always been his own biggest fan.
And now, because he didn't see an obvious turnover in live motion, Hochuli took his beloved microphone to say "the quarterback was sacked, stopped by forward progress before the ball coming loose." This isn't his first major bungling, and it won't be his last. He famously ruled an obvious fumble as an incomplete pass, costing San Diego a win. The crew he was in charge of in an NFC Championship Game also botched a forward progress ruling on a fumble that would have likely given San Francisco a trip to the Super Bowl. But ha ha ha! The Gun Show! He talks a lot! So good!
The joke is over. Enough.
--Sports are funny, because when Shea McClellin went flying into a loose football on a Patriots punt and kicked the ball into the end zone for a touchback, he was looking like a real Grade A bozo. A real special teams joker. But then, of course, he turned into Spider-Man, leaped over the line, blocked a field goal and made millions of people say, "Wait, who was that?" It was a very sports moment.
--On the topic of special teams performances, Jonathan Jones made a nice play to down a ball at the 1-yard line to set the stage for the safety. It was a huge play, but I felt the immediate praise -- on the broadcast and on Twitter -- went slightly overboard. It's sometimes forgotten that doing something like that is the job of a special teamer, and it's not the most difficult thing in the world to do. Now, had Jones solved a Rubik's Cube with one hand while balancing on a tightrope and juggling chainsaws with the other hand, then I think we could all rise as one nation and give the man a sustained standing ovation.
Nice play, though.
--The safety itself was a fascinating glimpse at a Belichick defense. They took the field and lined up like this as Flacco assessed the field:
Chris Long then shifted inside, and Shea McClellin moved up out of the linebacker spot to the right defensive end spot:
Malcom Brown ended up being untouched by the Ravens' O-line, giving the 320-pounder a running start to blow up fullback Kyle Juszczyk and then make the tackle on Kenneth Dixon for the safety.
It was a beastly effort from Brown, but the play was so busted that three different Patriots might have been able to make the tackle in the end zone if Brown hadn't.
Even if the Patriots hadn't pulled that late shift, perhaps they would have made the tackle in the backfield anyway. But you can bet that that exact situation has been practiced ad nauseam and hammered into the heads of all 11 players on the field so that when the opportunity arose, they would be ready to execute. That, more than anything, is probably the best definition of the "Patriot Way" under Bill Belichick.
--Early in the game, Cameron Fleming checked in with Hochuli to declare himself as an eligible receiver. I saw this clear as day on my television set, just as I saw Shane Vereen do twice and Michael Hoomanawanui do twice with Bill Vinovich back in that memorable playoff game. Even though Vinovich clearly announced those declarations in January 2015, some confusion reigned for the Ravens, who got quite upset about the "clear deception."
Well, this time around, I didn't want to take any chances, and I didn't want any controversies to spring up. So I did my part on Twitter dot com to let the Ravens know what was up.
Just doing my part to help out.
(The Ravens left Martellus Bennett completely uncovered for an easy 18-yard reception. Sadly, the Ravens had no ready-made excuses available.)
--Speaking of leaving somebody wide open without any handy excuses at the ready, how does this happen in the fourth quarter of a three-point game against Tom Freaking Brady?
If that was a Jeff Fisher-coached team, the whole world would be pointing and laughing. What an utter failure that was in the game's crucial moment. And it could be the nail in the Ravens' season.
--I didn't really want to do this in the absence of Bob Gronkowski, but you know, frankly, it's been too long since the ol' Leftovers saw a good "Zero Humans" graphic.
So, in honor of the injured Bob, here you go:
--Oh, by the way -- a fleaflicker? Against John Harbaugh? Coincidence? IIIIIIII don't think so, Tim.
You'd have a hard time convincing me that the fleaflicker was anything but a sly middle finger from one sideline to the other. I'm not saying I'm definitely right. But you'd have a hard time convincing me otherwise.
--The Ravens seemed to be responding in kind with their oh-so-trick punt plays. On one, they broke the huddle and everyone sprinted to the line. Then they … ran a normal punt. The next time, the long snapper broke the huddle first, and he got into position to snap all by himself. Then the rest of the huddle broke and the rest of the players likewise sprinted to the line. Then they ... punted.
Man. Such trickery. Almost fooled the Patriots.
--Speaking of "clear deception" -- what was that onside kick attempt? If John Harbaugh had any honor or integrity, he would have had Justin Tucker kick the ball in the direction he lined up to kick the ball. But running over the ball, spinning around and kicking it the other way? The league ought to take a look at that. Not fair. Not nice. Impolite. Intolerable.
--There were a number of big plays in the game. My personal favorite came on a second-and-2, just inside the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots looking to move the chains and ice the win.
LeGarrette Blount hit the hole and ended up in an old-fashioned one-on-one with safety Eric Weddle.
Weddle didn't stand a chance.
Woof. You respect the effort of the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Weddle. But that was a brutal outcome.
Football is painful. LeGarrette Blount makes sure of it.
--Terrell Suggs made headlines all week for refusing to say Tom Brady's name. Suggs then came dangerously close to not even getting his own name on the stat sheet. Meanwhile, Brady lit up the best defense in the NFL. Suggs really ought to start saying the name.
--The Patriots' mistakes were obvious, from Cyrus Jones' punt disaster to Matthew Slater's fumble to Edelman's drops to Brady's end zone pick. But the Ravens' mistakes were persistent and consistent. Breshad Perriman let a pass bounce off his chest when he wasn't looking for the ball. Mike Wallace dropped an easy catch. Rick Wagner got called for a false start on a second-and-inches. Dixon started early on a fourth-and-2. Flacco took an illegal motion penalty. And then nobody covered Chris Hogan.
The game was exciting on the whole. But there was some ugly football scattered throughout the evening on Monday.
--On Cyrus Jones, I'll just say this: It's one thing if you make a mistake while catching a punt and/or returning a punt. But to twice botch the simple act of ... not catching a punt? That's the sign of someone whose mind is so twisted right now that it's going to take a lot of work from a lot of people to get him out of it.
--Brady talked to Jim Gray about the whole Giants-Steelers DeflateGate Part II thing, and what I can't understand is how on earth Brady stays on the high road. Not everybody knows everything about DeflateGate, but you have to know this: the commissioner of the National Football League pursued a vendetta against (arguably) the greatest quarterback of all time for no reason. Roger Goodell, whose greatest accomplishment in life was filling his closet with nice suits, likened a "ball deflation scheme" to taking steroids. He paid a lawyer to argue that Brady's elaborate "ball deflation scheme" was akin to the 1919 White Sox intentionally throwing the World Series.
And, as we now know definitively after the NFL lied about last year's in-game measurements and ignored this year's Steelers footballs, Tom Brady and the Patriots did not have a "ball deflation scheme." Goodell has yet to admit to being wrong about one single thing throughout the entire dogged pursuit of Tom Brady's reputation.
It was, out-and-out, a dishonorable move by Goodell (and that's using polite terms). Yet Brady, upon seeing the NFL completely ignore footballs that measured at the same PSI as the Patriots' footballs, managed to say this to Jim Gray: "It's really inconsequential to me. I really had put my situation behind me a long time ago and they'll decide whatever they want to do. That's their prerogative as a league, but for me, I got plenty of things that I have moved on from and I have to worry about."
Can you even imagine? Having the commissioner spend millions of dollars and stop at nothing to take you down in order to shame you in front of the whole world, only to see him blatantly disregard the same "offense" because it would discredit his entire case against you? And you respond by saying it's "inconsequential"?
Brady operates on a different emotional level than most people. He no doubt feels human emotions (maybe), but his ability to stay publicly calm while always offering politically correct answers is really something to behold. He'll be writing some self-help books in his retirement.
--All of that being said, Brady's never hid his emotions while on the field. And after hitting Hogan with that bomb to win the game, Brady let it rip when he got back to the sideline.
Looks like me when I'm dealing with my road rage in the car. We all have our outlets.
--One more note on the emotions of Tom Brady: It was very unsettling to see him so mad at Julian Edelman. On a day when we all had to deal with the trauma of the "Flip Or Flop" couple spltting up, none of us could deal with seeing a Bradleman split.
Fortunately, 11 and 12 talked things out on the bench, and they connected for a 28-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-3 on the following drive.
--Bill Belichick has won a ton of football games -- 234, fourth-most of all time, to be exact. But that doesn't mean the man doesn't enjoy each one.
It may be a brief, fleeting moment, but Belichick's made it more of a habit to let his guard down juuuuust enough late in his career to let the world know that yes, he does feel joy.
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