Just like that, the Patriots find themselves in the conversation as AFC contenders. All it took was one game for everyone to declare that quarterback Tom Brady is back, that tight end Rob Gronkowski was back, that, just you wait, running back Shane Vereen will make this offense even more dangerous and cornerback Aqib Talib will come back to shut out the opposition.
It only took one game for everyone to announce Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's ascension to legitimate playoff start, and it only took one game to slam the panic button with defensive tackle Geno Atkin's ACL injury.
It only took one game for the Buccaneers, the Bills, the Vikings, the Falcons, and the Texans to provide the football world with a microcosm of each team's year, seasons wracked with the inability to close out games, or avoid back-breaking mistakes.
It took one game for the historical mysticism surrounding the Steelers defense to erode away, just as it took one game for the chatter of Brady's inevitable demise to subside.
In one game, rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson ran away from the defender and into the spotlight, evoking feelings that Patriots fans haven't felt in over five seasons. We saw tackle Marcus Cannon emerge as a beast of a tackle, while guard Logan Mankins floated in and out of blocking purgatory.
We saw Brady showing zip and touch and accuracy and the fire that he needs to have if this team is to have any success in the post-season. We saw safety Devin McCourty continue his ascension to the top of the safety throne, while running back Stevan Ridley broke the chains of Bill Belichick's dog house, his play shouting that he will not be kept down.
But it was just one game. Keep that in mind when evaluating these Patriots. It was one game.
This team has too frequently fallen back into the pit, just as it seemed like they were going to pull themselves over the cusp. This Patriots team is still climbing. They've suffered innumerable damages through the course of this season, yet they've continued to bite and claw and fight their way to the surface.
This is a Patriots team that can't, won't, and shouldn't be defined by any one game this season. This is a team of warriors who have bonded together through the terrifying odds and have managed to come out on top of multiple coin tosses.
But all it takes is one game. One game at a time and the Patriots will be able to keep writing their own history. One that's not defined by the trials they've overcome, but by the team's unified success in the face of the abyss. This is the story of Dobson developing into a genuine receiving threat, of Ridley growing on top of last season's success, of Bill Belichick rallying the team together to give their all, week after week, even when that "all" isn't enough.
This Sunday marked just one out of sixteen, and that must be remembered. But man, what a Sunday it was.
Dan Connolly decided not to block anyone on that play.— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) November 3, 2013
I'll start this by saying that Dan Connolly wasn't the worst Patriots offensive lineman this week. In fact, he might not be the roughest of the Patriots starting linemen (I'll let center Ryan Wendell, who seems to have majorly regressed this season, fight Connolly for that title).
But this play was everything that's been wrong with the Patriots offensive line.
While the tackle play has been nothing short of spectacular for the Patriots, allowing Brady to have a wide berth of protection, the interior line has been in shambles. For a team showing some of the greatest continuity, this has to come as a surprise as many of the faults lie with miscommunications or lack of chemistry.
In this case, the Steelers were showing blitz so Brady motioned tight end/fullback Michael Hoomanawanui into the backfield to be an additional blocker. He slid between tackle Cannon and guard Connolly, so it's expected that Connolly slide further inside to pick up the inside man that Hooman's about to block, but also be aware of any additional pass rushers up the middle.
In this case, Connolly doesn't get the memo an instead helps Hooman seal out the defensive lineman- which is fine, except for the linebacker barreling through the now open gap that Connolly has his back towards. While Connolly is perfectly fine in helping Hooman, his technique leaves the entire pocket vulnerable as he turns his back to the biggest gap available.
It's becoming a weekly occurrence where a delayed pass rusher is able to cut through the line, unblocked, and take down Brady with a big hit. Usually, this gap is between Wendell and Connolly, as Wendell turns to help Mankins, or Connolly slides to help Vollmer/Cannon. The end result is usually a stunt, a spin move, or a blitzing linebacker that attacks the hole as soon as the opening appears.
Brady's kryptonite has always been interior pressure. Something has to be fixed over the bye week if Brady's to keep playing with a clean pocket and have enough time to go through his reads. If that doesn't happen and Brady can't go through his reads, then look for Brady to start locking back in on Gronkowski and for the offense to become a lot more predictable.
It appears that all that praise Belichick has heaped on Brady for his running ability has gone to the QB's head.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyedNESN) November 3, 2013
One week after Brady dazzled for a first down run on fourth, he went back to his ol' lovable, two bricks tied to his feet self and did one of the most awkward slides since Prince Fielder tried to get back to third base.
Hey Tom- don't use up all your moves in one spot. Try and spread your jukes out over the course of the year to keep the defenses from catching on.
Brady to Amendola. TD. Brady, so very old and decrepit at this point, lets out weary sigh. Totters to sideline. Naps.— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) November 3, 2013
Hey guys, Danny Amendola is pretty good at this football thing.— Luke Hughes (@LukeFHughes) November 3, 2013
It was kind of unfair for Danny Amendola to wear his invisibility cloak on that play.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyedNESN) November 3, 2013
Anyone covering Amendola today?— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) November 3, 2013
Ah, the ole "don't cover Amendola" play. Works every time.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) November 3, 2013
Brady just pump faked Troy Polamalu into walking into the wrong locker room— Jerry Thornton (@jerrythornton1) November 3, 2013
A huge wave of comments! Amendola flashed one reason why the Patriots wanted him, by breaki- oh. Brady straight up devoured Polamalu and looked him into a different area code.
But seriously, if the Patriots can use Amendola at every level of the field like they did against the Steelers, he'll be an extraordinary asset to the team
Ninkovich has a foot injury. His return is questionable.— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) November 3, 2013
Long snapper Danny Aiken has now put his helmet on and is practicing some snaps on the sideline. Appears to be managing something, but OK.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) November 3, 2013
Don't worry Dr. Gill is a world renown wrist specialist— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) November 3, 2013
The last one is re: safety Steve Gregory's injury. Gill is actually a knee/shoulder/joint specialist, but I'm assuming this was a play on Gill's surgery on Gronkowski's forearm.
Within a span of four minutes, real time, the Patriots saw another team captain in defensive end Rob Ninkovich go to the locker room, following by the special teams long snapper getting checked out on the sidelines (apparently he's fine, just got his "bell rung"), and then another team leader and defensive play-caller safety Steve Gregory walk to the sideline, holding a limp wrist.
This needs to stop.
Losing Ninkovich and Gregory forced the Patriots to be without two of their defensive leaders, and raised the tally of "starters not on the field" to six. That's the difference between Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Ninkovich (3 of the starting DL), Jerod Mayo, Aqib Talib, and Gregory (half of the starting secondary) and rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, newly signed veteran Andre Carter, sophomore Hightower, and rookies Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon.
That's replacing years of experience with four rookies, a sophomore, and a player just picked up off the street.
And if you look beyond Andre Carter's 34 years of age, you'll find that Kyle Arrington is the old man on the defense at a ridiculous 27 years of age. In fact, if you look at the average age of the 4-2-5 defense (including old man Carter), the Patriots stand at exactly 25 years of age. 25. Twenty. Five. Remove Carter (for the heck of it) and they're averaging 24.1 years of age.
Hopefully Ninkovich and Gregory are able to return after the bye because the Patriots can't afford to lose any more key players- and especially not any more leaders.
As if passing Moon wasn't enough, Brady rubs it in by hitting Dobson for a one-moon-equals-two-feet TD a play later.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) November 4, 2013
While many of the records that Brady seemed primed to reach might have to take another year, this is one more that Brady was able to take down. Can we also talk about how sweet this catch was?
I'm 90% convinced this was luck because there's no way Dobson intended to use his elbow/backside to solidify his in-bounds status. That happened way too fast. I'll also say that the 10% of Dobson that has a penchant for making ludicrous displays reared its beautiful head on this play. No other player on this roster makes this catch. This was Brandon Lloyd 101 and it was glorious.
It's like this team just disappears into a void for the 15 minutes between the end of the 2nd and start of 4th quarter.— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL) November 4, 2013
Here are some stat differences:
AverageOtherQs: 7.3 TDs, 1.3 INTs, 0.67 FMB, 6 sacks
Q3: 2 TD, 2 INTs, 2 FMB, 8 Sacks
Damning fact: In the third quarter, the Patriots have spent 18.1% of their snaps with over 10 yards to go for a first down. In every other quarter, that percentage is only 7.6%.
Damning fact 2: The Patriots average 4.5 yards/play in the third quarter, down from 5.3 in the other three quarters.
AverageOtherQs: 3.67 TDs, 4 INTs, 1.67 FMB, 6.33 sacks
Q3: 6 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 FMB, 10 sacks
Damning fact: Just to restate the above, the Patriots have forced one turnover in the third quarter this season. They've turned it over four times in that block.
Damning fact 2: Also, they're averaging 0.63 turnovers per other quarter. That plummets to 0.11 in the third quarter. That's a difference of one forced turnover per half and that's a huge momentum swing.
Not really damning fact: They are converting their pressures into sacks, though.
For whatever reason, the Patriots continue to come out of halftime with a lackluster performance. The coaches need to improve their halftime adjustments, while the players need to improve their execution. The third quarter is pivotal as it will either bury a team or let the opposition fight their way back in. And when the Patriots opt to receive in the second half, a lousy drive will sink the whole purpose of the double-dip score at the end of the half.
Crazy how they go from benching Ridley for a quarter to giving him 26 carries and Bolden and Blount basically none.— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) November 4, 2013
First Quarter: Brandon Bolden, 2 carries, 12 yards, 1 TD; Stevan Ridley, 4 carries, 9 yards
Second Quarter: Ridley, 8 carries, 31 yard, 1 TD; Bolden, 2 carries, 25 yards
Third Quarter: Ridley, 8 carries, 44 yards; Blount, 1 carry, 4 yards (last play of the 3rd quarter)
Fourth Quarter: Blount, 4 carries, 43 yards, 1 TD; Ridley, 6 carries, 31 yards, 1 TD
Guys, guys, guys...VICTORY!!
The Patriots ran Ridley early and they ran him often. While Bolden saw some early success, the Patriots continued to ride Ridley as their workhorse and he rewarded their faith in his ability. When the Patriots used Blount as their closer and he fought his way into the end zone, the coaches earned themselves a bright gold star. The Patriots used their talent at running back to perfection.
Just wait until Vereen gets back and can add another layer, although I believe that a healthy Bolden will receive a snap count that will surprise some people.
That escalated quickly.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) November 4, 2013
81-yard TOUCHDOWN from Brady to Dobson! #PITvsNE— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 4, 2013
Earlier this year, I said I was all in on Dobson. He was on pace for 75 receptions, 810 yards, and 7-8 touchdowns.
Where does he stand today?
On pace for 58 receptions, 851 yards, and 7.5 touchdowns.
Steelers give up 55 points -- the most EVER allowed by the team in franchise history.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) November 4, 2013
Patriots take the 55-31 lead, and it now seems like 10 years ago this game was in doubt in the third quarter.— Erik Frenz (@ErikFrenz) November 4, 2013
And that's all she wrote. The Patriots are fortunate enough to get a bye week to lick their wounds and head into the final stretch of the season.
If someone told you this off-season that this Patriots team would be 7-2 at the bye, you would take it, right? With a gauntlet of the Falcons, Bengals, Saints, as well games against the always difficult Steelers and divisional rivals, you'd have taken it, right?
Well, the Patriots have a solid closing schedule. They face the Panthers (who are my sneaky pick for NFC wildcard) and the Broncos right out of the break, both of which should be huge dog fights. Behind that are four dangerous defenses in the Texans, the Browns, the Dolphins, and the Ravens, before closing out the season with a rivalry game against the Bills.
This season is far from over, but this year's story is going to be fun to talk about.