Somehow the Patriots have done it again. They should have been down, out, and passing on the division to the next generation of quarterbacks. Instead, the Patriots find themselves atop the AFC East, tied for the biggest division lead in the NFL. This week was more than just a win a loss. It was a statement and it was about establishing an identity the face of insurmountable injury.
And what a statement they made.
The Patriots came out in the exact opposite fashion of last week. Instead of being high flying and putting a stamp on the opposition in the first half, the Patriots limped into halftime. Scratch that- they crawled into the half. Brady opened up the game with an interception with a pass that's been the story of the whole season (he's been throwing behind all of his receivers on those quick out routes and forcing them to adjust behind them), and he didn't get any better before halftime, finishing with a stat line of 6/8, 25 yards, an interception, and a giftwrapped pass interference call that looked to be out of pity since the Patriots had just lost All Pro tackle Sebastian Vollmer to an apparent season ending injury (not official yet).
The cherry on top? With 30 seconds and a full battery of timeouts, the Patriots opted to kneel into halftime. Yes, they were receiving out of the half, but one of the main purposes is to get the double-tap of a score before and after the break. And while my gut said they should have gone for it (and I had no problem saying they should have gone for it), the numbers just don't support it.
Since 2001, the Patriots have had 24 opportunities with 25-35 seconds on the clock at the end of the half or the game. They have never scored or turned the ball over. That is correct. In these situations, the Patriots have had one field goal attempt (they missed), and 23 situations where they just went into halftime/endgame empty handed.
The entire league, since 2001, has had 328 drives started behind a team's 25 yard line, with 25-35 seconds on the clock, excluding drives ending in kneeldowns (but including those rinky-dink dive plays that do nothing but add to the risk of players' health). Four drives have resulted in field goals. None have ended with a touchdown. For those keeping track, that's roughly 1.2% of drives ending with a score. Add in the six other field goal attempts that were misses or blocked, and that's still around 3%.
Compare that to the 24 drives (7.3%) ending in a turnover (15 interceptions, 9 fumbles), and the expected outcome wasn't good enough to warrant risking additional injury. With the way the Patriots offense was operating through the half, there wasn't anything anyone could have expected New England to post on the stat sheet. Instead of subjecting his players to needless hits and stress, Belichick took his football into halftime and rewrote the story for the second half, and the rest is history.
Oh, and Sunday's turnaround marks one of the best in the Belichick era. Nothing can touch last season's comeback against the San Francisco 49ers (although if you value winning the actual game as being kind of important, I understand), but today's comeback is one of a handful. Against the 49ers, the Patriots were also down 17-3 at the half, before falling behind 31-3. The Patriots then scored 28 points to tie it back up, before ultimately falling. The only other time the Belichick Patriots had scored 3 or fewer points at the half, to come back and score 24+ in the second half and win the game?
Week 16 against Miami in 2011. New England was down 17-0 at the half, and were able to come back with 27 points in a row and win the game 27-24.
There's just something about Miami.
Let's check in on Twitter.
In case you were wondering if the problem is Brady or his receivers, he just threw behind his best guy - Gronk - and got picked. #FOAud— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) October 27, 2013
We'll start by saying that you need to read these tweets as a tale of two stories. One of despair and one of redemption. If you have the opportunity to rewatch the game, make sure you do so with the full respect this game deserves- this is one of the best games we'll see. Not from a statistical standpoint. Not from a rivalry standpoint. But from a story? This is a game you make a television special and a movie about.
For all the focus on Tom Brady's hand before the game, his opening throw didn't quell any of the fears that anyone had. On Brady's first throw, he was behind tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was unable to adjust backwards to knock the ball out of the defender's hands. All the momentum the Patriots might have had from forcing that three-and-out on the Dolphins opening drive? Gone.
And that's been Brady more often than not this year, and it's unfair to the receivers to place the blame on their shoulders at this point. Tom hasn't been able to lead his receivers into their breaks and that's historically been his strength. With any receiver last season, Brady was able to hit him on the shoulder with the open field. This year, he's been behind the receiver on out routes, he's been too far wide on sideline routes, he's been too long on go routes. That's on Brady.
So when Brady opens up the game looking as flat as he's been for the past three games? Well, it didn't look good at all. And with his fingers in such focus, and his last few outings, everyone going into immediate panic mode was more than acceptable. It was, and pardon my language, reasonable.
Stevan Ridley reclined his seat into Bill Belichick on the plane. Big mistake.— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) October 27, 2013
The inexplicable benching of Ridley has been confusing to everyone this year. A year after breaking out, Belichick has for some reason decided that Ridley's early season fumbles warrant delegation to a committee based backfield. And you know what? If for some reason the Patriots were just as good with him on the sideline and that Ridley was more easily replaceable, it might be a good coaching decision.
Unfortunately, he's not easily replaceable. Of the 15 offensive scoring drives (touchdowns or field goals) over the past three games, Ridley has been involved in 11 of them, including an astounding 5/5 this Sunday. The four he hasn't been involved in were both opening and closing drives against the Saints and Jets in regulation time. The opening drive against the Saints is reasonable since it was his first game back from injury, while the final drive against the Saints also makes sense since it was all passing to try and get into the end zone quickly (and it was similar in the closing drive against the Jets in regulation).
So can the coaches keep Ridley on the sidelines when it's going to be a passing-heavy drive? Sure, if they want to leave all the cards on the table. Oh, Ridley's on the field? Let's stack the box. Oh, he's off? Look for them to pass the ball. Ridley is easily the best runner on the team and not playing him only serves to hurt the team. Mixing up the backs on drives is fine for finding the best match-ups, but not featuring Ridley in the rushing attack until the end of the first half? Disturbing.
Nick Underhill notes that LeGarrette Blount's average yard per carry was the same as Ridley's entering the game, and Blount's certainly had his fair share of bright moments this year. However, he's better is the being the change-up to Ridley, instead of the opposite. Blount's one of the worst short-yardage backs in the league and having him run between the tackles is asking for trouble early in the game. If Blount can't gain the early yards, it forces the Patriots into obvious throws, which are easier to defend.
Blount's value can come in later when the Patriots have already established the presence of the running game. He's not getting more than what's given up the middle. Ridley can make his own yards. Let Ridley set the tone from here on out and let Blount bat clean-up. It just makes more sense.
"Dobson is the only one consistently open. Even if he drops 1 of 5, he's better than nothing. Throw it to him." - @TheTimShea— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 27, 2013
This came in around halftime. Tim and I watch the games at the lovely Professor Thom's in New York and I was randomly spouting out his thoughts when we were splitting a plate of wings. Statistically? I like it, in the same fashion that I like Kenbrell Thompkins and Pierre Garcon making up for their low catch rate by lighting it up with a big play every other drop.
The reason I have big support for Dobson is not just because I'm all in on him, but because Tim's absolutely right: Dobson is one of the few targets who are consistently open for Brady to throw to. Sure, for every time AD will get open, he'll drop a tater, but he'll keep getting open. Feed him the rock and he'll eventually take it to the house.
Brady's clear focus has been on Rob Gronkowski since his return (22 targets the past two games), while Dobson (12 targets), Julian Edelman (9 targets), Kenbrell Thompkins (6 targets), and Danny Amendola (6 against the Dolphins) have fallen to secondary targets. And when Brady tries to get the passing game going, he's used to throwing the quick, short passes to his slot receivers to get the chains moving.
But if the early run to Blount only gains 1-2 yards, and then Brady throws an incompletion to Gronkowski because he's obviously going to be double covered, then Amendola and Edelman have to try and make up for the remaining 8-9 yards to get to the chain and the first down.
Meanwhile, Dobson's open and just waving his inconsistent hands. But he'll keep getting open until Brady throws it his way more often- and it might just bear more fruit than forcing throws to Gronkowski.
Amendola caught it and got up. #Progress— PatriotsXLVIII (@PatriotsXLVIII) October 27, 2013
Any progress is accepted.
@PatsPropaganda Ridley and Ryan have emerged from the doghouse— Erik Gamans (@SonicLibrarian) October 27, 2013
"That Greg Schiano is such a great coach!" - @TheTimShea— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 27, 2013
We've talked about Ridley's importance. Logan Ryan? He was clearly disciplined for his *ahem* crotchal grab into the end zone last week. Well, he deserves more playing time and he showed why.
With Aqib Talib missing another week (and hopefully he'll stay out through the bye week. Not only does it improve the chances of a fully healthy return, it also gives some experience to Ryan and, hey, maybe it'll knock down his off-season price by a couple hundred thousand a season), Ryan was benched for pretty much the first half, with the Patriots playing Alfonzo Dennard (did anyone hear his name all game?) and Kyle Arrington outside, with Marquice Cole in the slot.
Well, Ryan came off the bench in the second half and lit it up. He won't get a game ball, but holy cow he shifted the entire game back to the Patriots. His strip-sack, his almost-pick, his second sack? Guy's a gamer. And the Patriots wouldn't have him unless former Rutgers head coach and current Tampa Bay Train Wreck Greg Schiano didn't do such a great job in the college ranks (and he did a great job).
Even if Ryan never makes it to the same level of skill as Talib, he'll be more than adequate as a starter moving forward to next year- and right now, he just gives defensive coordinator Matt Patricia another valuable chess piece.
There's that Dolphin OL we heard about.— Deep Threat (@DeeepThreat) October 27, 2013
The Patriots weren't generating any pressure in the first half against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is the most sacked quarterback in the league. A week after rookie quarterback Geno Smith shredded the defense on third down, it looked like Tannehill would wind up doing more of the same and that the injuries to the defense were finally just too much.
Well, the Patriots somehow managed to ratchet up six sacks in the second half and just totally abuse the pocket. Most importantly, sophomore phenom Chandler Jones was quiet most of the game, which means that all the pass rush came from other sources. With the likes of LB Dont'a Hightower, DT Chris Jones (who is a rookie stud in his own pass rushing right), DE Rob Ninkovich, LB Dane Fletcher, and CB Logan Ryan all creating their own pressure? That's just dandy.
Also, I'll have to rewatch the second half, but it looks like the Patriots called blitz for the majority of the game swing. Safety Steve Gregory was standing in the box and provided additional rush, while Patricia kept calling plays to try and disguise where the defensive back was going to be blitzing from- and it totally worked. Kudos to the defense for adjusting and kudos to Patricia for evolving the defensive plan.
Special shout out to Sophy who provided an unnecessary shot of Jameson at Professor Thom's that led me to buy Rice Krispies Treats from a bakery uptown. I know she wished that I was actually Alec Shane, but I'll take whatever I can get! I try to catch the games here, so if you're ever in the neighborhood for a game, I'll probably be upstairs at a table and would love to see you.
"For however many guys they had out blocking in front of Gregory, underwhelming return." - @TheTimShea— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 27, 2013
And there's no better way to end the game. The Special Teams unit was light out all day, with Stephen Gostkowski nailing his field goals, Ryan Allen shifting the field, Edelman handling his punts, Blount posting a 30 yard kick return (!!), and the kick off coverage being extremely solid when Ghost couldn't knock out a touchback due to the wind.
But c'mon now Gregory. You had daylight.
Doesn't get prettier than that when the punt coverage is intentional. To return it 11 yards is to sacrifice the gift. Missing a shot that was worth taking. A whole bunch of cliches. Just. Wow. Lateral it to Devin McCourty or something?
No matter what, this has been a great day. The story of today was of a team rising from the ashes of a burnt out first half to come roaring back in dominant fashion. If Patricia keeps taking leaves out of Rex Ryan's book and dials up defensive back blitzes in order to prevent the tight end from shaking the linebacker coverage, I'm all for it. It will just add another layer to this team who is in commanding lead of the division.
The Patriots stand at 6-2 and have a two game lead on the Jets in the division, and they were annihilated 49-9 by the Cincinnati Bengals. With both teams facing a week 10 bye, with the Jets squaring up against the Saints and the Patriots getting the Steelers (at home), a three game lead in the division isn't out of the question.
This team is full of fighters who won't go down without giving their best. If their best is good enough remains to be seen, but if the team can function like they did in the second half of the game, then there's no reason to think New England doesn't have as good a chance as any at doing some damage and fighting for some hardware.
Oh, and the Red Sox won and tied up the World Series, so there's always that.
On to the Steelers.