Patriots

Game Day: Crennel, Pioli stand tall in tragedy

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Game Day: Crennel, Pioli stand tall in tragedy

MIAMI -- Some quick hits on the dawn on Week 13 . . .

An immeasurably sad crime in Kansas City on Saturday. There will be endless debate about whether or not the Chiefs and Panthers are doing the right thing by playing on Sunday. My overriding feeling on that is that, whatever the Chiefs players think is the right thing to do is the correct thing to do. But there is no "right" answer. None of it is "right". I wouldn't disagree with anyone who feels the game should have been postponed out of respect to the family of the slain girlfriend of Jovan Belcher and Belcher's family. If that was their wish. However, at this point, it's probably best to get the football game out of the way. Postponing it would merely create a maudlin media circus out of the crime. There will be more important things for the Chiefs players, coaches and staff to attend to this week and the sooner they can get to those the better.

Police in Kansas City reported that GM Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel intercepted Belcher when he arrived at the Chiefs' offices andprevented "further violence."Both men showed what kind of people they are by intervening in the situation. It was brave for them to do so but, knowing them as I do, they would never have considered doing anything but that, despite the fact Belcher was clearly dangerous and unstable given the events of the day.

Parallels have been drawn between Jim Harbaugh's controversial quarterback call in San Francisco and the decision Bill Belichick made in 2001 when he turned the reins over to Tom Brady. On the face of it, they're similar: The starter got hurt; the backup got the job and remained in place. But the similarities end there. In the case of Alex Smith, the supplanted starter, you have a quarterback the Niners have been angling to replace despite Smith's efficiency and success. Prior to Belichick taking over in New England, Bledsoe was an untouchable. And ownership had rewarded Bledsoe with a massive, 10-year contract just months before he went down in the season's second game. Meanwhile, Smith has played about as well as he could since the start of 2011. In the Patriots' case, Bledsoe was in decline and had played poorly throughout the 2001 preseason and the first two games of 2001. Brady submitted weeks of competent play before Bledsoe was ready to return and reclaim -- as Bledsoe put it -- "my job." Kaepernick had one good start while Smith was still recovering from his concussion then another good start after Smith was cleared to play.

Is San Francisco making the right call? What we haven't seen is probably what made Harbaugh feel confident in his decision: Practice reps by Kaepernick that made his upside unmistakeable in relation to Smith. Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. Smith is a good NFL quarterback. But he isn't likely to win games for you on his own. He's a cog in the machine. The dual threat ability of Kaepernick to run, to move, to create and be a more explosive thrower than Smith tips the scales. Kaepernick is bound to have a bad day and make mistakes Smith wouldn't because Smith -- by dint of having been in the league longer -- has already learned how to handle some situations Kaepernick hasn't yet encountered. There will be pressure on Harbaugh when Kaepernick falters to decide whether he rides out the missteps or goes back to Smith. Personally, I don't think it's an awful thing if Harbaugh goes back to Smith later. There's a perception -- often espoused by former quarterbacks -- that the position requires a commitment from the sidelines and that a quarterback can't play while looking over his shoulder. I kinda think competition is good and it should sharpen the focus of whoever is on the field, not serve as a distraction. If Smith or Kaepernick play scared because they may get the hook, do you really want them to be your quarterback anyway?

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

FOXBORO -- Over the Patriots’ 17-year run of excellence, the inevitability of improvement has been a constant.

No matter what’s messed up, no matter how bad it looks, the Patriots will -- almost without exception -- figure it out. There are myriad reasons for that and one of them is that they have the ultimate weapon in quarterback Tom Brady, but he isn’t the bottom-line answer to all of it. The common denominator to why they get better is trust. They buy in. The "Do Your Job” stuff gets co-opted and thrown on T-shirts and beer coozies to the point where it gets trite and worn, but the core belief that the answers they seek are attainable by the players in the room if they do what they’re asked never wavers.

They don’t ever get to a point where they wonder who they are.

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

The flip side of this is that -- over the same 17-year run -- the Patriots have a tendency to wreck teams.

Hours before the Patriots dismantled the already reeling Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks -- a 10-win team in each of the past two seasons since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49 -- had a sideline dustup where Doug Baldwin, one of their best players and leaders, shoved offensive-line coach Tom Cable. It’s standard fare out there with an immensely talented team that routinely allows itself to devolve into a screaming, finger-pointing mess of men who all seem to believe they know what’s best and that the guy in charge doesn’t know better than they do. And they have Super Bowl 49 to thank for that.

And the same loss of identity seems to be underway in Atlanta, where the Falcons are melting from the head down in the wake of their Super Bowl 51 loss to the Patriots.

Sunday night, in the Super Bowl rematch between two teams that entered the night trying to gain a toehold, New England’s upward climb began. The Falcons, meanwhile, slipped even further from the team that had the Patriots in a chokehold in the third quarter of the Super Bowl but allowed New England to wriggle free and ruin the Falcons' psyche and confidence for the foreseeable future.

After the game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was saying things like, "Believe in the team, like crazy. We’ve got work to do to get to our standard of ball. And we will work like crazy to do that.”

Bill Belichick, meanwhile, opened his remarks by lauding his team’s preparation.

"I'm really proud of our football team tonight,” said Belichick. "That includes everybody; guys on the practice squad, some of the guys that were inactive and of course all of the players that played and our coaching staff. I just thought they really worked hard this week. We had a very, very productive week. I thought the players were well prepared, ready to go and played hard for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. We had a lot of contributions from everybody. We played good complementary football. It wasn’t always perfect but we played hard and we competed for 60 minutes and that was off of a real good week of work. Hats off to them. The players did a great job. They went out and played as competitively as they could and tried to play a smart game, made the adjustments, some of the adjustments that they needed to make to some things that Atlanta was doing, some looks that they gave us. [It was] a really good job by our football team tonight. I’m proud of what they did.”

There’s a saying in golf about the key to improvement: The secret is in the dirt. It means that the key isn’t talking about it or thinking about it or watching video, it’s in doing. Over and over again until it’s right and repeatable.

Through the first six games there were myriad issues the Patriots faced on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady was routinely getting bludgeoned and the Patriots' running game was inconsistent.

Sunday night -- even though Brady got banged around some -- there was further improvement and Brady consistently had room to step up and operate. The Pats were so effective on the ground (162 yards on 36 carries) that Brady threw just 29 passes -- the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time since the start of 2014 he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

The Patriots couldn’t get control of games and couldn’t get off the field on third down earlier this year. Sunday night, they built a 17-0 lead and the Falcons were 0-for-5 on third down before halftime and 3-for-12 on third and fourth down in the game.

The Patriots consistently had secondary busts and were cutting receivers loose left and right. Six straight quarterbacks of mixed abilities had thrown for more than 300 yards against them. Sunday night there were no obvious breakdowns and Matt Ryan, the defending league MVP, threw for 233.

The Patriots had some bouts of bad tackling and front-seven play. Sunday night, they allowed 120 rushing yards and 37 of those came on Ryan scrambles.

Is everything fixed always and forever? Hardly. But to put this kind of performance together without cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Elandon Roberts -- all players who were at or near the top of the depth chart -- was remarkable. Especially against a team with the physical talent and resume of 2016 success Atlanta has.

"I thought we executed our game plan perfectly tonight,” said safety Devin McCourty. "Our coaches have been on us about just make a team make a play to beat us. You know, Julio Jones catch in the end zone, [Mohamed] Sanu’s catch on the 1-yard line -- like, those are great catches. I thought we competed and made them earn every yard. When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well. That’s always a little different. It was just, overall, everyone understanding game plan and play-in, play-out, 11 guys on the same page.”

Getting ahead, which has been a point of emphasis the Patriots haven’t been able to satisfy, was a big part of the success, said Belichick.

"We played this game from ahead, that was a switch,” said Belichick. "We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight, so it was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run and when we needed to run we got the yards.”

There will be times, too, when the opposition plays right into your hands. Atlanta was hell-bent on getting its mojo back. It wanted to attack. The first time the Falcons rolled the dice on fourth down in the first quarter they lucked out and got nine yards on a fourth-and-seven scramble by Ryan. That drive ended with a blocked field goal.

Near the two-minute warning, set up at the Patriots 48 and trailing 10-0, the Falcons tried it again on fourth-and-six. They threw a low-percentage downfield ball to Mohamed Sanu that missed, and the Patriots took possession and cruised in to make it 17-0. It was a stupid, chest-puffing exercise in bad situational football and it backfired. So, too, was the decision to try a jet sweep on fourth down from the New England 1.

Now the Falcons have that to dwell on. Along with the blown 17-point lead last week against Miami. And the blown 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. The Falcons came into Foxboro and dug themselves deeper.

And the Patriots’ annual climb began.

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Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- It wasn't that long ago that it felt like the Patriots couldn't get off the field on third down. Last week against the Jets, during their first drive, the Patriots defense put quarterback Josh McCown in four third-down scenarios . . . and he converted on all four. The last was a short touchdown pass to put New England in an early hole. 

Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons was a different story. Atlanta went 2-for-9 on its third-down chances at Gillette Stadium and 1-for-3 on fourth down. In a game where the Patriots were dominating the time of possession (they ended up controlling the football for 34:05), the Falcons were desperate to keep their offense on the field.

They couldn't. 

"We made a lot of plays when we needed to make them," said Bill Belichick. "Red area, third down, some critical situations, goal line. We didn’t make all of the plays, but when big plays came up we were able to make those plays. Those are big stops for us.

"Again, give the players credit. They’re covering good receivers. They’re playing against a good offensive team, a good quarterback, good system, good offensive line. They just really competed with them all the way through. When those plays needed to be made we stepped up and we were able to make most of them."

Two of Atlanta's first three drives were three-and-outs. On their fourth series, late in the second quarter and down 10-0, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Patriots 47-yard line.

The Falcons had plenty of time to think it over since the two-minute warning came down following their third-down play. Still, judging by the play call, they felt their best shot at picking up the necessary yardage was to attack Patriots corner Jonathan Jones in one-on-one coverage during a Mohamed Sanu corner route. Matt Ryan overthrew his target and the Patriots took over, driving the field and scoring in the half's final seconds. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

"They were playing aggressive tonight, as they should," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "They have great weapons over there and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, and the list goes on with the guys they've got. They had a lot of confidence in going for it."

But going for it on fourth down so early in the game caught some Patriots players off-guard. They had their punt-return team on the field and ready to go but had to make a late switch in order to be ready for the pass play. 

The Falcons converted one fourth down, their first, on their second drive of the night when Ryan scrambled for nine on fourth-and-seven. But they failed their next two, and some Patriots players acknowledged the aggressiveness of their opponents was heaed-scratching. 

"It kind of surprised us at some point," Trey Flowers said. "They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs."

"That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too," Duron Harmon said. "They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance."

The Patriots got their second fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter -- a gut-punch for a Falcons offense that at the time was trailing, 20-0. On third down, Malcolm Butler broke up a goal-line pass intended for Julio Jones. On fourth, Atlanta attempted an end-around run with speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel that was snuffed out quickly by Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The play lost five yards and got the Patriots started on a 74-yard field-goal drive.

"I thought we competed and made them earn every yard," Devin McCourty said. "When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well."

It was certainly better than it had been at times earlier this season. For the Patriots -- without corners Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore -- to hold the reigning MVP and his teammates to a 25 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs? That's an authoritative step in the right direction. 

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