With the NFL Combine wrapping up today, we're about to enter into one of the few dead times in the NFL calendar. Yes, we have mock drafts to look at and free agent moves to predict, but for the next few weeks there won't be all that much in terms of real, actual football news. And because of that, I thought that today would be a good time to keep the countdown going with the Top 20 Patriots Moments of 2013.
And just in case you missed it, here is the list so far:
20. The New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow.
With the number 19 moment, we go all the way back to the beginning of the season for a game that would ultimately end up being pretty indicative of how New England's season was going to go.
19. Aaron Dobson and Aqib Talib help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the New York Jets.
Coming off a last-minute 23-21 road victory over the Buffalo Bills, New England came home for a short week before squaring off against the Jets on the first Thursday Night Football game of the year. There were a lot of questions surrounding the Patriots based off of that first game, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and this matchup represented a chance for the Pats to get themselves squared away and start building momentum against a Jets team that wasn't likely to generate many points and got a gift penalty call the week before that allowed them to sneak by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Things started out great for the Patriots, as they were able to take their opening drive 81 yards in just over two minutes for a touchdown, capped off by a 39 yard Brady-to-Dobson completion that saw the rookie in the end zone for the first time in his NFL career. On third and two at the Jets 39, New England lined up in a single back, 1 WR 3 TE set with Nate Solder reporting as eligible and Edelman and Dobson lined up on the line as tight ends. Kenbrell Thompkins was alone on the outside against Antonio Cromartie. The Jets, anticipating run, came in on an all-out blitz and Dawan Landry, the one safety assigned to stay at home, completely bit on the playaction to Ridley. Brady hit a wide open Dobson in stride for the easy score. It was a great drive in which the Patriots only had the one third down, which went for a touchdown. Already, you could hear a collective sigh of relief from Patriots Nation, as the previous week's game in Buffalo was clearly just a case of season opener jitters. This was more like it.
The feeling, of course, was short lived.
The Patriots and Jets exchanged three and outs on their next two possessions before the New England defense made its first big play of the night. On first and 10 from the Jets 19, Geno Smith hit Stephen Hill for was what should have been a 33 yard gain, but Aqib Talib was able to strip Hill of the ball and Devin McCourty returned it 44 yards to the Jets 8 yard line, putting New England in great position to go up by two touchdowns. However, in what would become something of a theme for the Patriots last season, the drive stalled short of the goal line and the team had to settle for three, putting New England up 10-0.
After the first quarter, the game turned into something of a mess for both sides. The Patriots were completely incapable of getting anything going offensively, managing just one more field goal on yet another stalled red zone drive. The theme of the day for New England was "miscommunication," as Tommy B became visibly frustrated with his receivers' inability to make the proper reads and make the necessary adjustments; more than once he was seen on the sidelines yelling at Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson for not being in the right spot. And speaking of Dobson, his 39 yard touchdown was pretty much his only contribution all night, as he came up with some huge drops (including a deep one on 3rd and 14 that bounced right off his hands turned a surefire touchdown into a punt) and reminded us all that rookies are rarely the answer to offensive woes. The Jets were able to put together one touchdown drive in the third off of a short drive after a Patriots punt from their own seven, but for the most part Geno Smith was erratic and inaccurate, and New England's secondary made it very difficult for the Jets to get open. The score would remain 13-10 from halfway through the third quarter on with very little to show from either side; the best Jets drive all night didn't come until the very beginning of the fourth quarter, when a solid mix of run and pass saw them move the ball from their own 15 to the Patriots 27 before Kyle Arrington and Aqib Talib were able to team up and generate an interception off of poor decision making from Smith. Following that pick, New England seemed to realize that they just weren't going to move the ball offensively, and so they more or less switched to clock kill mode, relying on their defense to protect the lead; the longest play after that pick was nine yards.
After the Patriots punted yet again (Ryan Allen set a franchise record during this game with 11 punts for 514 yards) to give the Jets ball back with 56 seconds to play and no timeouts, everyone was understandably nervous. New York only needed about 30 yards to get into field goal range, and it wasn't likely that the Pats were going to be getting any more points that night.
After a first down incompletion intended for Santonio Holmes, the Jets sent Stephen Hill on a Go Route down the right sideline in hopes of picking up a lot of yards quickly. Smith got a clean release on the ball, but underthrew it and Talib was able to step in front of the pass for the game sealing interception. As he ran down the sideline and towards the out of bounds marker, Jets center Nick Mangold came in late and made a diving tackle in Talib's knee area, which drew both a penalty and a rather large scrum between the teams that even caused Bill Belichick to get in there and regulate. Talib finished the day with two picks and a forced fumble.
Overall, the game was completely forgettable, as neither team was really able to do much offensively and the foggy, sloppy conditions only exacerbated the problem. There were dropped passes, missed opportunities, ugly plays, and frustrated quarterbacks. However, this game still cracks the Top 20 for a few reasons. One, it was a win over the Jets, and that's never a bad thing. It also put Dobson's speed and potential on display; he ultimately only had the one big play, but several times he blew by the defense and was open downfield, which gave Patriots fans reason for optimism that the team would get on the same page as the season wore on. Third, it hammered home the fact that Talib was a legit shutdown corner, that perhaps this defense was FINALLY able to pull its weight, and it was nice to think that the Patriots were in a situation where they could rely on the D to keep games close as players continued to get healthy and the younger guys continued to grow and adapt to the NFL. And fourth, it showed that the Patriots could win ugly if they needed to and that they were able to grind out the victory in any way possible. It was the beginning of what would be an extremely tumultuous season, and in many ways this victory helped to set the tone for what was to transpire over the next few months.
To relive the highlights of that game, click here.