The holidays are stressful - everybody knows that. No matter how involved you are with all things December, this time of year has us all a little bit on edge. There's a lot to love about the holiday season, of course, but I definitely count myself as among those who wouldn't be overly upset to get the vast, vast majority of his holiday spirits from Sully's Beer shop over on Bliss Road in Newport.
Which made last night's game against the Baltimore Ravens all that much tougher to watch. In the glow and glare of blinking lights and scented candles, I sat through a Patriots game that should have been over by halftime, but courtesy of three massive mistakes ended up being a whole lot closer than it should have been as the Ravens did what they always do against this team and hung around, ensuring that I didn't have a lick of fun until the final whistle blew and I got to breathe my annual "I just don't want to see this team again" sigh of relief as I went to bed way later than I should have.
Overall, though, you have to be happy with what you saw last night. Mistakes aside, this was probably the most complete game the Patriots have played this year, and with the win they sit alone in the top spot in the AFC at 11-2. They are all but guaranteed a first round bye at this point with homefield advantage very much within reach. All while knocking off a rival and crippling Baltimore's playoff hopes.
Not a bad way to spend a Monday.
- This was the first full Monday Night Football game I have watched in 2016, as this year continues to be the year where I find myself caring less and less about anything that goes on in the NFL that isn't Patriots-related. And while I'm not going to sit here and say that I enjoy waiting all weekend and into the weeknights to see the Patriots play, man did I forget how great John Gruden is in the announcer booth. I think my New Year's Resolution for 2017 is to find one thing to get as relentlessly enthusiastic about as Gruden does football.
- That said - I don't think I like the duo of Gruden and Sean McDonough in the booth. It's weird, because I'm a big Gruden fan, and I consider McDonough one of the best in the business...but there just isn't any real chemistry there the way there was with Mike Tirico.
- There's a "Welcome Home Julia" Toyota commercial circulating the airwaves right now that, under most circumstances, would kick me right in the feels and leave me crumpled up on the floor like Hans Moleman. However, every time I see it, all I do is wonder whether or not Julia's parents might be better off actually meeting her at the airport instead of spelling out a "Welcome Home" sign in lights. And what if Julia had an aisle seat? Or if she was on the other side of the plane? Seems like a high risk strategy where a lot can go wrong.
- The Patriots have now forced three safeties on the season, which is more than I can remember as I type this note with zero motivation to actually look it up. The first came on a delayed Hightower blitz against Andy Dalton that represented a smart read and good coverage. The second was Hightower part deux, and last night's was a simple All Shift where the defense read the blocking scheme, got a great push at the line, and stopped Kenneth Dixon in the end zone. It was a technique that Matt Patricia dialed up all night, with tremendous success.
- Overall, last night represents Patricia's best, most creative defensive gameplan of 2016, coming off the heels of another solid outing against the Rams. The Patriots only rushed four, but by giving a lot of mush rush looks and blitz disguises, Flacco never really knew which four were coming, and thus had trouble calling out blocking assignments Although Joe Flacco was only sacked twice, he was never able to get comfortable and the vast majority of his completions were checkdowns.
- I'm starting to wonder if Ed Hochuli legit has it out for the Patriots. He didn't call a bad game overall, but a few of his decisions last night were absurd. The most glaring was a Trey Flowers sack on Baltimore's first drive of the game that ended up forcing a punt in which Flowers drove Flacco back, stripped the ball as he was going to the ground, and then came up with it. You can watch the player here; at no point was Flacco's forward motion stagnant or was he held up on his way to the ground. Not that I still think about it all the time or anything..but during a certain game in 2007, Eli Manning was in the grasp three times as long as Joe Flacco was on that fumble that wasn't.
- There are few things I love to see more than a fired up Tommy B. There was a 3rd and 20 play where Brady had the chance to hit Edelman deep behind the safety for a touchdown, but Edelman pulled up on his route, forcing a Patriots punt instead. The result of that miscue was a tapestry of obscenities that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan. Now if you hate Tom Brady, then that's just a whiny pretty boy throwing a temper tantrum, and that's fine; I'll never begrudge someone their good old fashioned fan hatred. I'm just going to appreciate the fact that a 39-year-old quarterback with 4 Super Bowl rings, the most wins by any QB in NFL history, a supermodel wife, a moat around his house, and me as a best friend still gets angry over missing a first quarter scoring opportunity.
- Other than the obvious, what most chapped my ass about yesterday's game was watching, yet again, backs catching passes for big plays out of the backfield. The first was a 40 yard gain from Kyle Juszczyk that set up a FG attempt, and the second was an eight yard TD pass to Dixon where he walked, completely uncovered, into the end zone. Now there are a lot of things I have be struggling with for years to no avail. My weight. My overall lack of intelligence. My crippling self loathing. My massive schnoz. But I'm not getting paid a lot of money to fix them. This has been an issue for YEARS now with this team, and I guess it just is what it is.
- On the other side of the ass chappery, I was more than a little tingly to see the return of the hurry-up/no-huddle offense last night. What was once a major part of the offense has gone a bit by the wayside as of late, and I was glad to see it back and working so well.
- Even better was that the Patriots ran, and audibled into, a diverse array of packages out of the no-huddle, which means that no matter the personnel on the field, they can give you a number of looks. We saw a lot of spread formations to limit the pass rush and prevent too much A-gap pressure. We saw a lot of power formations to give Blount some breathing room. The motioned the backs into the slot and then back into the backfield. We saw a glimpse of what we were kind of hoping to see all year, and all without Gronk.
- And it's because they are without Gronk that they had to get creative. Rob Gronkowski is the biggest gamechanger in the NFL and it really isn't even close. When he's out there, you really don't need to do much else. Now I'd be foolish to sit here and say that the offense is better without him - but four different Patriots had 70+ yards last night against the best defense in the league. Just sayin.'
- Of course, the reason for all the success: Tom Brady and his pre-snap reads. Last night's game was a master class in what a cerebral quarterback is capable of. The number of times Brady came to the line with a few plays in mind, took a look at the defense, send a man in motion to gauge coverage, and then called the appropriate play to put the Patriots in position was nothing short of phenomenal and I thank Tebow every day that he's our QB.
- Perfect example: up 9-0 in the second quarter, facing a 3rd and goal from the six yard line, Brady lined his offense up in an offset shotgun with James White in the backfield and Malcolm Mitchell alone on the right side in the X role against Jarraud Powers. Mitchell was alone because Brady motioned Edelman across the line, bringing a defender with him and - get this - inviting the overload blitz and the numbers mismatch on the weak side. Knowing the blitz was coming, he got Mitchell to break off what I'm guessing would have been a clearout corner route - I feel like Bennett was the primary target on the play pre-snap, but that's just a guess - and instead cut inside, where Tommy B hit him with an absolute laser for six. I don't know what it is about Brady throwing beautiful passes to #19 against the Ravens...but...well...excuse me. I need a minute to gather myself because I just watched this clip again.
- Credit, once again, to the offensive line. Shaq Mason had his best game as a Patriot and it isn't even close. Be it stretch blocks, pull blocks, quick chips to reach the second level, or setting up screens...when you call out an offensive lineman and it isn't because he got put on skates, you know he had a good day.
- Sumo figure skating should be a legit sport. I never get sick of that ad and would watch fat men in thongs wobble around a rink all day long.
- Credit to Rich and I for rightly calling out Martellus Bennett on our podcast last week. He obviously listened (thanks for subscribing, Marty!), knows how important an Alec Shane endorsement is, and decided to step it up. Not only were his four grabs for 70 yards and a touchdown his best output since the Cleveland game, but all of his gains were meaningful ones and helped to swing the game. That's who we have been hoping to see all year.
- As great as Tommy B was yesterday - what an absolutely atrocious throw and decision on that pick. He's always good for a (thankfully) small number of throws like that every year that makes you wonder what the hell he was thinking. If the Patriots score there, the game was more or less over and I would have actually gotten to enjoy the second half.
- Is that moving tackling dummy thing real? I can't help but feel like Dartmouth stole that idea from a recurring dream I keep having.
- Eric Weddle should have been a Patriot. He would have fit right in here and could have been such a great compliment to McCourty. Plus, if he was in New England he wouldn't have gotten burned on a Chris Hogan TD and gotten pancaked by Blount as the game wound down.
- Peyton Manning got a lot of flak for his Manning Face, and rightly so. But nobody seems to want to talk about the Suggs Face - on the sidelines, mouth agape, eyes drooping, likely thinking of how to best add to the laundry list of items that makes him a despicable human being. I mean take a look for yourself.
- I don't want to spend too much time on Cyrus Jones, because I'm in a pretty good mood right now and I don't want to ruin it. But he needs to be a healthy scratch for the rest of year. If he wasn't a rookie and a 2nd rounder, he would have been cut by now. He's horrible in coverage (he was in on the Perriman completion) and his decision making as a punt returner makes Prohibition seem like a genius move. What's insane is that he was one of the best punt and kick returners in the country at Alabama, and his skills as a returner are likely a big part of why the Patriots drafted him. Unless something drastic happens between now and next fall, Jones will go down as one of the biggest busts of the Belichick era.
- It's really too bad, too, because other than Jones (and Slater, but I love him too much to knock his fumble here) the special teams had a stellar day. Ryan Allen set up the safety. Shea McClellin came up with a huge FG block to keep momentum with New England. Baltimore was pinned back all night. Ghost was perfect on extra points. But nobody is going to remember any of that because Cyrus Jones inexplicably ran towards a football when he had no business being anywhere near it.
- When ESPN flashed that 90 straight regular season home wins entering the 4th quarter, my stomach dropped significantly and I know that all of yours did as well. I HATE those stats.
- However, the Patriots held on, iced the game with a Hogan TD, and were able to close it out when a questionable decision to kick an onside kick didn't pan out and a few first downs means that Flacco would never get another shot. I'd like to say that the Hogan touchdown was some flash of brilliance, but it was just a blown coverage; however, what's great is that Brady and Hogan saw the exact same thing pre-snap.
- Which, of course, brings us to the real question of the day. The one that should be dominating the airwaves coast to coast: what aspect of this latest Patriots/Ravens game will be made illegal next year? Shifting defensive linemen? Safeties? Blocking field goals? Flea flickers? Beating the Ravens? Playing in Foxboro? The debate is sure to rage on.
- Honestly, I would be OK with jumping the center on a FG try was made illegal. Granted, it wouldn't have been an issue if the Patriots weren's successful with it twice in a few years, but I can see some safety issues there that the league can point to to make that play against the rules in 2017. But we all know that safety won't really be the reason.
- Go away, Ravens. Just go away and never return. Mmkay thanks.
Off to Denver, my least favorite place to play on the planet. Let's get out of there with a win, a bye, and a chance to keep the Broncos out of the postseason altogether.