As the 2015 season wound down, Bill Belichick made some decisions that, looking back, turned out to be questionable (I know, that is heresy in New England, but look at the results). After winning their first eleven games the Patriots started to wilt. With a bunch of walking wounded, a beat up Tom Brady and the play-offs with home field in game-one guaranteed, he rested some key players and went to a non-existent running game against the J-E-Ts and Dolphins. For the 1st time in may years the Patriots seemed to be playing not-to-lose.
Well, as we all know (so why am I reminding you????) the Pats lost both those games and went into the play-offs having lost four of their last six games. They never completely recovered from those decisions. After winning a home play-off game against the Chiefs (27-20) they traveled to Denver and lost to the ultimate Super Bowl Champion Broncos (20-18) in the Conference Championship game.
How Different Is 2016?
Now, with two games remaining in the 2016 regular season, New England faces the same two teams, NY J-E-T-S and Miami, in a similar situation. The J-E-T-S are out of the race, but always give the Patriots a good fight…and the Dolphins continue to fight for a play-off spot.
So…why does it feel so different? Here are 5 reasons:
The 2016 Patriots are now playing their best football of the season, unlike 2015, when they were unsure if the defense or offense could hold up
Tom Brady won’t be going into these games already bruised & battered thanks to Dante Scarnecchia and a rejuvenated OL (yeah, I know he’s back to limited practice & on the injury list…but he’s still in better shape than last year)
The running game is at it’s peak, with LeGarrette Blount rushing for 15 TDs and over 1,000 yards…a healthy Dion Lewis..a solid #3 with James White and the impressive blocking of James Develin. Last year neither Blount nor Lewis were playing due to injuries
The defense is #1 in points against in the NFL. I’ll say that again, the defense is #1 in points against in the NFL
Bill Belichick seems completely confident in all aspects of the Pats game. He’s willing to trust his defense (say what?), offense or special teams to make the crucial play at the end of the game. That’s something that has been missing for many years
Same Decision = Different Results
So, that said, what if Belichick makes the same decisions this year that he did in 2015? If he does, the results should be completely different.This team is tough and in no way resembles the 2015 version of the New England Patriots.
They don’t have Rob Gronkowski or Danny Amendola and both are big losses. However, they do have a bruiser in Blount, a quick Lewis plus new heroes in Chris Hogan (highest yards-per-catch in the NFL) and the speed of rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell. Add in tough TE Martellis Bennett and, oh yeah, a well rested Tom Brady!
With a defense that is starting to click without Chandler Jones or Jamie Collins…but is lead by Trey Flowers, always reliable Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and, suddenly rejuvenated Jabaal Sheard, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and a host of others…they are a formidable bunch.
Congratulations to Brady, Slater, Hightower & McCourty on their selection to the 2016 NFL Pro-Bowl. Hopefully none will be able to play as they prepare for the Super Bowl
Condolences to Malcolm Butler, Blount and Marcus Cannon (can’t believe I’m saying this), who all deserved a shot too
The NFL is always fair & objective…just look at their recent “punishment” to the Giants & their Head Coach for being caught cheating! #Integrity
This has been an outstanding year for Patriot Coaches Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and Scarnecchia
Tom Brady is being penalized again! Many are saying he doesn’t deserve the MVP because he has played 4 fewer games than the others in the running. King Goodell strikes again
The Patriots are the only team in the NFL who have not lost a road game this year. Despite that, the advantage of playing in Foxborough in the playoffs is huge.
Hard to believe, but, 14 games down (12-2) with just 2 more before the real season begins. This season has flown by.
If nothing else, 2016 has been a season with many surprises for the New England Patriots. Some have been pleasant…and some haven’t turned out too well. Despite all the changes, this year’s team is once again a legitimate Super Bowl contender and are, at 10-2, right where most expected them to be. Here are my 5 biggest surprises as the season progressed.
#1 BRADY ACCEPTS 4 GAME SUSPENSION
He gave it a gallant fight, but TB finally got tired of deflategate and moved on. Many were disappointed, but it was time to play football. He never acknowledged any guilt despite the Brady detractors using his acceptance of the 4 games to claim it a “win” for the NFL. Nothing about deflategate was a win for anyone…the NFL, Brady, the Patriots or fans anywhere.
#2 – DEFENSE
As the season started fans and prognosticators (my $50 word for the day) were saying the 2016 defense would be top 5 caliber. In one way people were right. As of now they are tied with their next opponent (Baltimore) for 2nd in the NFL for least points allowed (17.2 PPG), trailing only the Seahawks.
The big surprise from that group has been the departure of Collins, benching of Sheard and under performance by all but Butler. Overall the defense has not been as bad as it seems to the naked eye, but it certainly still hasn’t proven itself to be an elite unit.
The team is currently ranked in the top 10 in 4 key categories, but considering the weak offenses they have faced, questions still abound :
#2 points allowed (207)
#9 total defense
#12 passing defense
#10 rushing defense
#9 yards allowed
It is a must for this unit to improve if the Patriots are to go far in the playoffs, let alone win the Super Bowl. Monday Night vs Baltimore will be a true test
#3 OFFENSIVE LINE
Shock would be the word I use to describe how well the OL has performed. Dante Scarnecchia’s goal coming into the season was to solidify a unified unit of 5 to play most snaps…and he has been highly successful with (LT) Nate Solder, (LG) rookie Joe Thuney, (C) UFA David Andrews, (RG) Shaq Mason, (RT) Marcus Cannon. Just how good has this group been?
Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett have been sacked just 26 times while throwing 417 passes
LeGarrette Blount has rushed for 957 yards and 13 TDs
Add in that Marcus Cannon, who I have been known to chastise in the past, just had his contract renewed and is having his best season ever in his 6th year as a Patriot = you have realize just how much of a surprise this unit has been. Thank you “Scar.”
#4 – ROOKIE WR MALCOLM MITCHELL
The Patriots drafting of wide receivers has been beyond bad, but this year they hit a home-run (sorry for the baseball analogy) with 4th round pick (112th overall) Malcolm Mitchell. He has quickly gained Brady’s trust and has grown game-by-game while exhibiting his toughness, route running, speed and sure hands. Just look at what he has done over the past 3 games:
8 receptions/82 yards vs Rams
4 receptions/98 yards/1 TD vs 49ers
5 receptions/42 yards/2 TDs vs J-E-T-S
This young man will only get better. He needs to continue to improve with the loss of Danny Amendola & Rob Gronkowski for the offense to control the game. Mitchell is this year’s Dion Lewis.
#5 – KICKING GAME
The inconsistency of the kicking game has truly been a surprise. This was consider an area of strength when the season began, but has been erratic throughout the first 12 games.
Stephen Gostkowski has been AFC special team player of the week twice, including last week against the Rams, but has missed 4 makeable field goals and 3 extra points…not good enough for the highest paid kicker in the NFL.
Ryan Allen (no, not Logan Ryan as identified during the Fox telecast Sunday) has given the Patriots great field position throughout his 4 year career in the NFL. This year he hasn’t been consistent, shanking some and leaving opponents in good shape. His net average is fractionally his highest ever (40.8 vs 40.4 for his career), but of his 52 punts only 17 have been inside the 20 yard line.
Playoff game are usually won and lost by field position (I have no data to prove this, but let’s net let facts get in the way of the story), so both Gostkowski & Allen need to be on-their-game as that part of the season rolls around.
Tom Brady was the story, picking up win #201, most by a QB in NFL History in the Patriots blowout of the Rams. But, let’s face it, we knew it was coming…just not when.
What no one predicted, or thought possible, was the season that LeGarrette Blount is having. Admit it, as the season began you were hoping the Patriots would get a “real” playmaker for the backfield. Blount was a plodder who had to go north & south to make any yardage, and then was going to get 2-3 yards without breaking off anything long…right!
BLOUNT FORCE TRAUMA
Let’s start with some statistics thanks to Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal: Blount leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns (13), he’s fifth in rushing yards (957) and ninth in rush yards/game (79.8).
The only non-quarterback to have more touchdowns is David Johnson (15).
4.4 yards per carry
53 First Downs
1 Fumble lost
Not too shabby for a “plodder” no one wanted.
The first four games without Brady looked to be his only opportunity to strut his stuff. In those 4 games he made opponents shake when he handled the ball, gaining 352 yards on the ground and, surprisingly, catching 3 passes. He ran for over 100 yards against both Miami & Houston before Tom Brady came back in week 5 and, as expected, running the ball was less important.
Carrying the pigskin 31 times in wins against Cleveland & Cincinnati for 87 yards, he averaged just over 3 yards per carry, as Tom Terrific took over his team.
Not to be forgotten, Blount ran for 127 yards against Pittsburgh and 124 against San Francisco while scoring at least 1 TD against Arizona, Miami, Houston (2), Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh (2), Buffalo, Seattle (3) and LA. Now, that’s production!
TIME TO BACK OFF CRITICISM
With that resume, it’s time to realize that Mr. Blount has been way above average this year. He has looked quicker, and shown he is capable of actually breaking off a long one once in a while (see featured photo where he broke off a 43 yard TD run).
After the game Blount said “I think he (Jeff Fisher) knows our names now. He already knew my name,” Blount said, via the Boston Herald. “I think he knows James and Dion now for sure, though.”
The New England Patriots have had a long run of exceptional success. The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady link has a lot to do with the dominance they have over the rest of the NFL. This year, despite losing Brady for the 1st four games (no comment necessary), they have what could be the deepest, if not most skilled, roster in years. Despite missing some key players early due to injury, fans will be rockin’ as the 2016 Patriots evolve.
Are there still areas of concern? Definitely… but all positions are filled with strong, talented young players chomping at the bit to replace seasoned vets. Think about it. The lack of training camp transactions and difficulty in selecting who will be among New England’s 53 man roster opening day this deep into camp is a strong indication that the back-end will have skills needed to survive the long season.
COMPETITION IS GOOD FOR EVERYONE
After two pre-season games, the competition for playing time is fierce. And, let’s face it, that’s good for everyone. Shoot, even Tom Brady, arguable the best QB in NFL history, can’t find playing time when he wants to. OK, I know, he was playing with scissors and cut himself, keeping him out of game #2, which he was scheduled to start. But the point is, someone has stepped in and done the job. You may not be a fan of Jimmy Garoppolo as the “long-term” answer when TB retires, but he has shown the ability to hold things together while Brady is out. Let’s take a quick look at what we could see on offense opening night, September 11, in Arizona.
QB: (2) This one’s a no brainer,( so I qualify), and my prediction -ta dah- unequivocally: the two slots are owned by Goroppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett. How’s that for stepping out on a limb. It is doubtful the Patriots will sign a veteran back-up QB for the 1st four games unless one of those two get injured. Brady does not take up a roster spot until game 5.
WR: (6) Who needs a real deep threat when you have a roster full of good hands, elusive players battling it out for a limited number of positions. The days of Randy Moss are long gone, so, as they say in certain circles, “forgeddabout-it.”
Veterans include Danny Amendola, Jules Edelman, Nate Washington, Chris Hogan, Keshawn Martin, Aaron (yep, he’s still here) Dobson and old faithful MatthewSlater.
Young and looking to step in players are Chris Harper, Malcolm Mitchell, DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien.
Injuries will factor in the final six. The availability of Amendola and Mitchell are the two question marks. If healthy they are locks, along with Edelman, Slater, Hogan and Harper. That leaves Washington, Martin, Dobson, Carter & Lucien on the outside looking in. If either Amendola or Mitchell can’t go, look for Martin to fill their slot.
TE: (3) Like QB, the first two are easy – Rob Gronkowski & Martellus Bennett. After that is a big question. Do you want a blocking, athletic or flexible player filling that role? Based on his performance to-date, I’m going with AJ Derby (FB James Develin is capable of filling the blocking TE role). As of 8/21 veteran Clay Harbor is listed ahead of Derby on the Patriot’s unofficial depth chart.
Rookie TE AJ Derby (Photo courtesy patspulpit.com)
RB: (5) BULLETIN – CSNNE is reporting Dion Lewis needs more surgery. James White has looked good in that role, but lacks Lewis’ elusiveness. LeGarrette Blount has impressed in pre-season, but is vulnerable with the emergence of Tyler Gaffney. Branden Bolden’s value on special teams will be the determining factor for him, leaving Joey Iosofa and D.J. Foster with little chance. As mentioned under TEs, James Devlin’s flexibility as both a blocking back and TE make him seem a certainty.
Final five – Gaffney, White, Devlin, Bolden & Blount. Would not be shocked if either Blount or Bolden were cut. It seems like every year Belichick makes a surprise cut, so either Blount or Bolden could be this year’s shocker.
OL: (9) As in all but a few predictions, health is the determining factor. Sebastian Vollmer is out & Tre’ Jackson is hurt. A decision on Jackson needs to come shortly. (A player must open training camp on PUP in order to be eligible to be placed on the reserve/PUP list to open the regular season). His leadership will be missed, but the offensive line is gradually revolving into a young aggressive group, with rookie Joe Thune at left guard and Shaq Mason (broken hand) looking at more playing time. Center Dave Andrews beats out Bryan Stork at center, leaving veterans Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle & Josh Kline joined by youngsters Ted Karras & Tre’ Jackson. If Jackson isn’t available (heaven forbid). add Marcus Cannon (ugh) to the list. No sense at all about Jonathon Cooper, who has been suffering with foot problems since the 1st padded practice. Probable IR candidate.
The regular season is fastly approaching and with that comes roster cuts. Over the next few weeks the Patriots have to cut their roster down from 90 to 53, which won’t be easy with this being the most talented and complete 90-man roster the team has had during the Bill Belichick era. With only one preseason game played and a few weeks of practices here is how my Patriots roster projection looks
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett. (Brady suspended first 4 games) (2) This ones pretty obvious, Garoppolo will be starting the first four games of the season while Brady is suspended and once Brady’s back he’s taking over. There was talk about the Patriots possibly bringing in a veteran QB with rookie Jacoby Brissett in the backup role but Bill Belichick shot those rumors down this week and the two QBs on the roster will be Garoppolo and Brissett.
Running Back: LaGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James Develin, James White, Tyler Gaffney. (5) Let me start off by saying no Dion Lewis is not getting cut. Lewis is currently on the PUP list and has yet to practice after his season-ending torn ACL last season and I think the team leaves him on the PUP to start the season. There has been speculation that Blount could be cut but I don’t think that’ll happen, running back is probably the weakest position on the team right now and I don’t see them cutting the veteran and going into the year with a bunch of backs with not much if any NFL experience. White did a pretty good job after the Lewis injury last season and looked good in the teams first preseason game and can be the pass catching back out of the backfield until Lewis returns. Gaffney is finally healthy and looked pretty good in the first preseason game, breaking off a 44-yard touchdown run. If he can continue to look good in games and practice he could find a spot on the roster.
Wide Receiver: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Aaron Dobson. (5) The first four guys listed are obvious, Edelman and Amendola are your starters, Hogan signed a big contract this offseason and Mitchell was taken in the 4th round this year and has looked like a stud prior to his elbow injury, which thankfully he’ll only miss up to four weeks with and has been practicing with the team already in non-contact drills. Not listing Matthew Slater as a receiver because he never plays on offense and is a special teamer. Aaron Dobson is the luckiest man in the world and will somehow find a way to make the 53-man roster again. Dobson always shines in camp and the preseason but can never get it together in the regular season. Keyshawn Martin is still not practicing with the team due to an injury and though I’m a fan of Martin don’t think he’ll make the final roster if he can’t get healthy. Rookie Devin Lucien and Chris Harper I think will find their way to the practice squad.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, A.J. Derby. (3) Gronk and Bennett are two of the best in their position in the entire league and are obvious roster locks. The third tight end spot will come down to either A.J. Derby or Bear Pascoe. The two are completely different players, with Derby being a receiving tight end and Pascoe being a blocker. Derby made a few nice plays in the first preseason game against the Saints which could help him earn a spot on the roster. Pascoe could take over the Michael Williams role from last year as pretty much being an extra lineman on the field. It depends which route the team chooses to go but right now I give Derby the slight edge.
Offensive Line: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Joe Thuney, Josh Kline, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Ted Karras, LaAdrian Waddle, Marcus Cannon. (9) Jonathan Cooper was a tough cut here but with him being injured and his injury history it could be tough for him to make the team. Joe Thuney has looked like the teams best offensive lineman and like a steal selecting him in the third round of this years draft. Bryan Stork was a tough cut but with his concussion problems and inconsistent play it shouldn’t be a total surprise if he doesn’t make the team. With versatile players such as Kline, Karras and Thuney able to move to center and backup David Andrews, Bryan Stork could be replaceable on the line. I HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE Marcus Cannon but it doesn’t look like the team will be cutting him, even though he couldn’t block my 12-year old cousin. Tackle is really weak with Solder, Vollmer, Waddle and Cannon and the team could look to make a move. From what I’ve seen and heard I really like Ted Karras, he’s a guy who can play a few positions on the line and adds a toughness to the line. I think Tre’ Jackson starts the season on the PUP list to get completely healthy and see what they have Karras, if he struggles they could move him down to the practice squad when Jackson is healthy.
Defensive Line: Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Malcolm Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, Vincent Valentine, Chris Long. (9) The most complete area on the roster. No debates on who makes the team out of this group. Markus Kuhn is someone who Bill Belichick likes but I don’t see him beating out any of these guys for a roster spot. Ninkovich is already practicing after tearing his triceps and is unknown if he’ll be able to play week 1 but he’ll be on the roster. Heard is gonna replace Chandler Jones with the help of Trey Flowers who was electric against the Saints and was all over the place making plays. Brown, Branch, Knighton and Valentine will add some beef to this line that will be hard to run against.
Linebacker: Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Kamu Grugier-Hill. (5) Not too much depth at linebacker butCollins and Hightower are two of the best linebackers in the league and are obviously locks. Jonathan Freeny played well last year and should also be a roster lock. McClellin is a similar player to Ninkovich and can play both linebacker and defensive end, he doesn’t do anything great but can do a few things well. Grugier-Hill is a smaller linebacker and played defensive back in college and played well in pass coverage against the Saints. He could have a big role covering tight ends and backs out of the backfield. I expect to see a lot of two linebacker sets featuring Collins and Hightower if both can stay healthy.
Cornerback: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc. (5) A very inexperienced group outside of Butler and Ryan. Cyrus Jones was the teams top draft pick taken in the second round this year and is a lock to make the team and looks like he will be the teams starting slot corner. Jonathan Jones generated a lot of buzz during OTAs and at the beginning of training camp. He got beat a few times against the Saints but also made a few nice plays and pass deflections. Cre’Von LeBlanc has also been generating some buzz in Foxborough after his amazing interception against the Saints. He had good, tight coverage throughout the game and performed well in joint practices this week against the Chicago Bears. Was tough to not include Justin Coleman because of experience over Jones and LeBlanc but he has not had a very good camp up to this point. Got beat a couple times against the Saints in the first preseason game and struggled this week in joint practices with the Bears. This is a young unit with a lot of potential, but also a lot of question marks.
Safety: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards. (4) A very strong safety unit that could hopefully help out the young corners. McCourty and Chung are two of the best in the league with McCourty providing help to corners over the top and Chung playing down in the box and covering tight ends. Harmon is similar to McCourty providing help and creates a lot of plays in the secondary. Jordan Richards was very limited last year and will be interesting to see how he does this year and the different roles they could use him in.
Special Teams: Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King. (6) The best special teams unit in the entire NFL. Gostkowski is by far the best kicker in the league in my opinion, Matthew Slater might be the best special teams player of all-time, Ebner is back from the Olympics and who is another great special teams player, as well as Brandon King. Another big contributor to special teams is Brandon Bolden who I have listed with the running back group.
The focus on Julian Edelman’s return to the Patriots line-up has rightfully been the center of attention since the season ended with the New England offense looking more like the Cleveland Browns than the juggernaut that started the season. His week 10 broken foot against the Giants crippled not only the player, but the entire Patriots offense.
Why Edelman’s Return Is So Critical
There are many reasons why his return will help rejuvenate a stagnant Patriot offense.
He is, by a wide margin, the man Tom Brady trusts most (my apologies to Rob Gronkowski) to be in the right spot at the right time
He seldom drops a pass and often makes the hard catch look easy
When Edelman is in, defenses have to adjust, giving others – like Gronkowski – more space to make the catch
The weakest part of the New England offense, the offensive line, is exposed less with Edelman playing because Brady has that security blanket available for his quick release. No one else filled that role during his absence. Danny Amendola did his best, but it wasn’t quite good enough.
Don’t underestimate the importance of #4. The bye-week does give time for the big guys up front to rest. However, at it’s best, this season it was mediocre…even when rested.
The return of Edelman alone is not a cure-all. Although it should make a huge difference on offense, the defense needs to get back to the dominant group that intimidated QBs throughout the league. The return to health of some key defensive players should take a lot of pressure off the offense, allowing wins while falling short of scoring 30+ points a game.
Remember three years ago when we were all questioning Hightower’s ability to diagnose offenses and actually make the big play? As we’ve seen over the past two seasons, he has dispelled any doubt…he was a great 1st round draft pick (25th overall) in 2012!
Arguably the most valuable player on the defense, Hightower has played injured for a while now…and it has shown with his hesitancy on the field. Hopefully this bye-week gets him confident that he is OK and he’ll return the All-Pro that he was prior to getting banged up.
When Hightower got injured Jones production suffered, despite the help he got from Jamie Collins and Jaball Sheard. At one point it felt like Jones was going to smash all Patriot sack records, but by seasons end he had an injured toe and was struggling to get to the QB. The two weeks off (he sat the last game) should re-energize his motor and the combination of Jones, Hightower, Sheard, Collins, Akiem Hicks, Malcom Brown and, old faithful, Rob Ninkovich will have opposing teams scratching their head when they have the ball.
…And Let’s Not Forget
If Edelman hadn’t been out Amendola wouldn’t have played (injury) at the end. No one can ever question his toughness to me. Here’s hoping fans appreciate how much he has done this year, beside building a car port in an upper class area of Rhode Island.The trio of Gronkowski, Edelman, Amendola along with James White, Brandon LaFell (yes, as 4th receiver), Steven Jackson and Keshawn Martin should keep defenses on their heels, cutting back on the pressure being put on Brady.
No, he’s not an afterthought. When he limped off the field in Miami, Patriot’s Nation held their collective breath and looked to the sky. Why, oh why, was he even playing? Despite the (high?) ankle sprain sustained on a low hit (no penalty?) by arguably the dirtiest player in the NFL (Ndamukong Suh) you know #12 will be on the field doing anything it takes to win.
…And No More Injuries, Please!
It seems every day something new pops up on the injury front. Whether it was Chandler Jones last week or Nate Ebner Thursday, enough is enough.
In case you forgot, the non-playing Injured Reserve list for the Patriots includes these names we were counting on to help get to Super Bowl 50:
Nate Solder & Ryan Wendell from the OL
Running backs Dion Lewis (sigh) & LeGarrette Blount plus FB James Develin
Oft injured DL Dominique Easley
There are more, but those six were key players.
So, everyone else, please, stay healthy for the 1st real game of the season, January 16 at Foxborough…as the next step to ring #5 commences.
Let me start by saying it was great to see Rob Gronkowski back on the field. There’s no doubt he made a big difference in the Patriot offense as they destroyed the Houston Texans 27-6 on Sunday Night Football. The win & Miami’s Monday night loss to the Giants gave New England the AFC East Division title once again.
Tom Brady was efficient (22/30, 255 yds, 2 TDs, 0 ints). Heck, he even helped the officials out with a call (see photo). James White continued to show promise, Danny Amendola was solid and, once again, Brandon LaFell had the drops (caught 5 of 8 passes)…but make no mistake, this game was…
All About The Defense
One of 6 sacks as Brian Hoyer is brought down by Dominique Easley with help from Ninkovich. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Yes, the offense put up 27 points against what was a surging Texan’s defense, but this was a game dominated by the Patriots D. There was never a time when you felt Houston could score enough points to win from their opening 3 and out to Tom Brady kneeling to kill the clock over the last 2 minutes.
Even when Keshawn Martin muffed a punt (this is beginning to become a habit) and Houston recovered the ball on the Patriots 22 with 10:32 left in the 3rd quarter there was no concern. New England was up 20-6 at the time and, despite their recent troubles with 14 point leads, you just knew this team would not blow another double digit lead.
Obviously Houston Coach Bill O’Brien had no confidence in his team’s ability to move the ball long distances when he ignored the opportunity for a chip-shot field goal and went for it on 4th and 4 at the Pats’ 15 yard line. An incomplete pass from Brian Hoyer to Nate Washington, who was covered by Leonard Johnson, and the D had done it again.
It’s easy to question the decision to chase points that early in the game, and I have to confess I did. The game was within reach and putting any points on the board would have given the Texans a lift with most of the second half still to play. He proved to be right though, as that was the last time Houston had an opportunity to score.
So, Who Is Leonard Johnson
Leonard Johnson, a previously unknown cornerback, played 42 snaps(courtesy of Mike Reiss) and had a solid game as the #3 CB behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. The Texans were 0-3 throwing in his direction and he had one of the better break-ups in the game. Johnson joined the team this week after being released by Tampa, and Bill Belichick jumped at the chance to bring him in and sign him to a 2-year contract.
Belichick is slow to give praise to any player, let alone one who had just joined the team, but he had this to say about the 4th year undrafted free agent:
“He worked really hard this week,”“It was a long week, a lot of extra work, a lot of extra meetings, some good competitive time on the practice field. Got to give him a lot of credit — he came in, learned and his teammates embraced it … .”
As the year started everyone had concerns about the Patriots’ secondary, but, to the surprise of all, it has been pretty solid through the first 13 games. Butler has had some great and some not-so-great games, Logan Ryan has grown into a sold #2 and now it looks like (I know, it was just one game) Johnson brought the final piece to the puzzle.
It’s Nice To Be Back On Top
Everything fell into place on this Sunday as the Patriots went from the #3 AFC seed back to #1, aided by Cincinnati and Denver losses. Once again they have control of keeping an important bye-week in the play-offs and home field advantage throughout. With 3 games left (Titans at Gillette next week, J-E-T-S and Dolphins on the road) they could, and should, finish with another 14 win season and a healthier team when they play the real games.
It wasn’t all good news though, as the injuries continue to mount.
LeGarrette Blount (Hip), Devin McCourty (Ankle), Dominique Easley (Thigh) and Jonathan Freeny (Hand) had all left the field with injuries by the end of the game.
Blount is walking with the aid of crutches and is reportedly out for the season, Freeney has a cast on his hand and McCourty has a high ankle sprain. Easley was put on season ending IR Tuesday
Jerod Mayo had his best game of the season, leading the team with 7 tackles
Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks, acquired in a trade from the Saints for TE Michael Hoomanawanui , was outstanding with 2 of the Patriots 6 sacks and was credited with 6 tackles.
Jabaal Sheard seemed to spend the entire game in the Houston backfield, as he had 2 forced fumbles, 3 QB Hits, 2 sacks and 5 tackles
J.J. Watt was a non factor except for one late hit on Tom Brady long after he had released the ball
The Patriots clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in the 22 years Robert Kraft has owned the team.
This is the 7th straight year the Pats have made it to the postseason
Gronkowski notched his 10th touchdown, marking the fifth time he’s done that in his career. That’s the most 10-plus touchdown seasons for a tight end in history (From Paul Perillo)
The Patriots have already had their trap game (Philadelphia) so should not let up as they take on the hapless Titans in Foxborough this Sunday
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