Things seemed to have quieted down on the Free Agency front, and because of that it seems like a good time to resume our countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2013.
Up until now, the Top 20 Patriots Moments have really been more events, or series of events, than actual moments. And to a degree, that's certainly understandable; when you have a 2013 season like New England did, you kind of have to lump certain things together if you're going to encapsulate the entire year into 20 events. However, with the Number 17 Moment, we're getting back to the more singular plays that helped shape the season, as sometimes you simply have to appreciate great football and athleticism for what it is.
But first, the list so far:
20. The New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow.
19. Aaron Dobson and Aqib Talib help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the New York Jets.
18. and depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
Number 17 on this list flew under the radar this year, mainly because it came in a Patriots loss. But that doesn't detract from what really was a fantastic play.
17. Michael Hoomanawanui makes a huge one-handed TD grab just before halftime against the Miami Dolphins.
The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins met for the second time last season in Week 15 down at Sun Life Stadium, each team riding the coattails of huge wins capped off by absolute squeakers the week before. New England was sitting pretty at 10-3, having just come off what can only be described as a miracle home win against the Cleveland Browns. Miami was still very much alive at 7-6 and had just beaten Pittsburgh on the road, surviving what would have been one of the best plays of the year had Antonio Brown not barely stepped out of bounds after an 80 yard pitch and run scramble saw him in the end zone to take what would have been a 35-34 lead. Miami absolutely had to have this game to stay in the playoff hunt, as a Patriots win would not only give them the season sweep and clinch the AFC East, it would also put Miami right in the middle of an extremely crowded wild card race with very little to separate them from the other potential six seeds. Each team had a lot riding on this one, but the general consensus was that New England would come out on top, as they rarely lose hat and t-shirt games.
The Dolphins game was New England's first without Rob Gronkowski since Week 6, and it most certainly showed.The only points the Patriots were able to generate for most of the first half was a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, which came on the team's first drive of the game - an impressive 16 play, 83 yard drive that took over seven minutes off the clock. However, as it often had pre-Gronk, the drive stalled at the four yard line and the Patriots couldn't punch it in.
Luckily, New England's defense was playing extremely well, forcing some three and outs and holding the Fins scoreless for most of the half - including a huge Nate Ebner fumble recovery after a hilariously botched field goal attempt. Because of that fumble, the Patriots got the ball back with 3:35 to play on their own 31 with the chance to go up by 10 heading into halftime with the 2nd half kickoff coming to them.
The drive was, for the most part, the Danny Amendola show. Tommy B's first pass was a short one to Amendola over the middle, which he was able to to turn into a 30 yard gain. Brady hit Amendola again on his next two throws, gaining 11 and 7 yards respectively. Add in a few Stevan Ridley runs, and New England was facing a 1st and 10 at the Miami 15 yard line with 1:54 to play.
Following a Miami timeout, Brady came out in shotgun, clearly showing pass, but called a run play to Ridley off the left tackle in hopes of catching the Dolphins off guard. It didn't work, unfortunately, and Ridley was stopped after two yards. The Fins called their second timeout, hoping to save some clock for an ensuing drive. With 1:48 left, Brady once again came out in shotgun formation and looked for Julian Edelman on a quick in route, but the pass fell incomplete as Edelman faced tight coverage. It was 3rd and 8 at the Miami 13, and it looked like once again, a red zone drive would stall short of the end zone.
The ensuing play saw the Patriots do something a little different. The formation remained shotgun, but a three wide receivers lined up to Tom Brady's right, forcing the secondary to cheat heavily to that side of the field. Shane Vereen was in the backfield to Brady's left as an outlet receiver and to protect against a cornerback blitz. Michael Hoomanawanui was the weak side tight end, and the play was set up to make it appear as if he was primarily in there as a blocker. However, once the ball was snapped, Hoo-man made a quick break off the line and ran a post towards the end zone. The sole member of the secondary on that side of the field, Reshad Jones, stayed close to the line to match up with Vereen, who ran a quick clearout route towards the sideline, leaving linebacker Philip Wheeler in a one-on-one matchup with Hoomanawanui with no safety help over the top. Hoo-man got a step on Wheeler, and Brady, who saw the mismatch, zeroed in on his tight end almost from the start.
The problem, however, was that Miami had called for a Cameron Wake inside stunt that worked to perfection, as Wake came up the middle almost completely untouched. Dan Connolly was just barely able to get a push on Wake as he charged through, disrupting his rush just enough so that Tommy B was able to briefly scramble right and step up into the pocket. However, Brady wasn't able to fully set his feet as he threw and had to step into the throw; as a result, it sailed a little high and wasn't on the back shoulder where it should have been.
Hoomananawanui, who had gained some separation, proceeded to lose that separation as he adjusted his body to the trajectory of the throw. Wheeler caught up to him and was able to get his hands in the air, but Hoo-man was able to reach his right arm up, snag the ball, and bring it into his body for the score before getting shoved out of bounds. New England's first touchdown of that day was also one of the sweetest they would score all season.
Of course, the Dolphins would immediately answer back with and 8 play, 82 yard drive that put Mike Wallace in the end zone in just over a minute to cut the score to 10-7 going into the half, and Miami went on to win that game 24-20, so there was little if any time to really enjoy what a great catch it was. It rarely matters how pretty a play is if it comes during a loss, but this play makes the Top 20 for two main reasons. One, obviously, was that it was an absolutely spectacular play that Hoo-man made pretty much on it's own, and was one of the best catches by a Patriots player all season. And two, it was a red zone catch by a tight end the week after New England lost its most dynamic player and most dangerous red zone threat, officially turning the Patriots from the team with the most dangerous tight ends in the league to the team forced to sign guys off the street. Questions abounded about how the Patriots were going to move on, whether this was finally the injury that doomed the team's season, and who was going to score touchdowns for them now that Gronk was out. And while these questions never fully got answered, as New England just wasn't the same team without Gronk in the lineup, that another tight end stepped up in that moment to make a spectacular catch in the end zone when the team needed him most certainly gave me confidence at the time, once again assuring me that it truly is Next Man Up in New England and perhaps things weren't as bleak as they initially seemed.
It's easy to look at this play and think, "big deal - the Pats lost this one, so it was all for nothing." But I imagine the people who take that stance are the same people who view each and every New England Patriots season in one of two ways - Super Bowl Victory, or complete, utter, abysmal failure, with nothing in between. There's absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating a play for what it is, and that's what we're doing here.