Curran: Patriots' casualty list reconfigures expectations

Curran: Patriots' casualty list reconfigures expectations

NEW ORLEANS – So I have a complaint.

Be forewarned: It’s a whiny one informed by years of unchecked Patriots Privilege in which folks don’t wonder whether the local 53 might make the playoffs, only whether or not they will win the Super Bowl.

This is not what I thought we signed up for in the offseason. Where is the relentless, merciless, march through the opposition that I saw on the brochure?

I distinctly remember being told each opponent would wind up like a bug on a windshield and the Patriots would roll on, impervious. This doesn’t feel historic.


Not even after Sunday’s 36-20 road win over the Saints when 40-year-old Tom Brady (he’s 40, you know) threw for 447 and three touchdowns. You expect to walk away from the stadium smug and cackling after a game like that, saying, “Damn, this team is tough to beat. Exactly what we thought. This race for perfection thing is good for business.”

Instead? They’re 1-1 and even though they smacked that astronaut in the Superdome, the steady stream of players filing in and out of the Big Blue Tent gives pause about where things are headed.  

The arc of the 2017 Patriots has changed from unbeatable to resourceful underdogs forced to survive on dwindling supplies. Already gutted by the season-long injury to Julian Edelman, the weeks-long MCL sprain for Dont'a Hightower, the absence of emotional leader and special teams ace Matt Slater, the concussion for Danny Amendola and the retirement of Rob Ninkovich, on Sunday against the Saints Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead, Phillip Dorsett and Eric Rowe all got hurt. And Chris Hogan was intermittently limping around like he had a nail in his foot.

Gronk’s injury was reported as a groin. He was bug-eyed and urgent-looking on the bench while talking to medical staff. That’ll happen when your groin hurts. But he wasn’t limping. And they weren’t asking him to do anything groiny. And the play on which he was hurt reminded me of the play he got hurt on last year in New York when he had to have season-ending back surgery. So you inevitably wait for the other shoe to drop.

That’s football life with Gronk, knowing that, with him and injuries, it’s a “when” not an “if.” (Which must suck even more for him because he likes playing, is fun to watch and has done enough rehab to last eight lifetimes.)

Even if whatever’s ailing Gronk and Hogan turns out to be minor, the problem is, the Patriots are two games in. Whatever you hurt in September isn’t going to not hurt in November unless you let the thing fully heal. And there’s no real way the Patriots can do that with those two, not with everyone else they’ve lost.

That this team is going to be less “shock and awe” and more “snap and ow” takes some getting used to.

Which brings us to the game itself. This was a win the Patriots themselves took a lot of pride in, beginning at the top with Bill Belichick, who indicated he and his coaches hammered the team and themselves since the season-opening loss to the Chiefs.

Brady, who hasn’t softened at all on what he thought was a half-assed effort against the Chiefs, kept banging the drum on Sunday when asked if the Saints game was better.

“All the veterans had a chance to say the things they wanted to say to their different groups,” said Brady. “Whether it was their own unit, or offense or defense, the whole team. The NFL’s tough, man. Every game’s tough, every quarter’s tough, every play’s tough. You can’t take anything for granted and in order to win you gotta go out there and compete as hard as you can every play.”

He added: “There’s a level of critiquing you do if you lose that you don’t really do if you win. Our coaches were all over us all week. They want us to get it right and they want us to get it right now.”

There was plenty of room for improvement. Even as the offense rolled up 555 yards, there were some defensive breakdowns on the back end that – while not as egregious as Week 1 – were a little surprising.

But nobody was complaining about the effort.

“The feeling after [the Chiefs game], the not finishing, the style of play [wasn’t] what we expect,” said Devin McCourty. “Guys that have been here are accustomed to how we play – playing the whole game and finishing. We won a lot of games coming back. That (performance against the Chiefs) irked a lot of guys. Guys passed it on and everyone got the message."

Interestingly, left tackle Nate Solder, the kindest, gentlest, easy-smilingest, 6-foot-8, 320-pound men you will ever meet, wasn’t ready to come back with a full verdict yet.

“It was a step in the right direction,” Solder said. “We gotta play a lot better still. We had a different level of urgency. But that has to continue for us to be any good.”

Was it daunting to see the parade of teammates disappearing into the Big Blue Tent?

“Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter who’s over there,” Solder replied.

But it does. He knows it. They all know it.

They aren’t on the road to the coronation we thought they’d be on. This is going to be hard.


A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'


A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'

When asked on a conference call if Sunday's matchup with the Steelers reminded him of any of his previous close-and-late finishes with the Patriots, Bill Belichick had a relatively quick reply. 

"It was a similar ending to the Seattle game," he said, referring to Super Bowl XLIX, which of course ended on the most famous goal-line interception in NFL history. Even down to the inward-breaking route in the final moments, Duron Harmon's pick had similarities to the one Malcolm Butler made to win a Lombardi Trophy.


"The difference in that game was they had to score a touchdown," Belichick added. "They were down by four. This one, the field goal changed it, which kind of highlights the importance of the two-point play. Had we not hit that two-point play they would've just kneeled on the ball and kicked the field goal at the end. There were so many big plays in that game."

The two-point conversion that the Patriots executed with less than a minute left can get lost in the shuffle in game recaps, but it was in many ways a game-winning play -- even though the Patriots already had a one-point lead before Tom Brady floated his pass to Rob Gronkowski in the back corner of the end zone.

The fact that Gronkowski was so open, after a quick move at the line of scrimmage, made it seem like a foregone conclusion. But as Belichick explained, it was one of many critical plays in the final minutes that led to the dramatic Patriots win. 

"Just go back through the fourth quarter of the game. Really every play is a huge play," Belichick said. "A difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter -- maybe call it the second half of the fourth quarter on, the last seven or eight minutes -- a change in any one of those plays could've effected the outcome of the game.

"That just to me showed how competitive the game was, and how critical every little thing is. Each play, each player, each call, each situation. It was a great football game."


Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

PITTSBURGH -- A weird mix of fear, respect and hubris led the Steelers meltdown Sunday evening.

All day and into the night, they did all the right things. Minimal mental stupidity. Great resilience. Mostly outstanding execution. Unforced physical errors at a minimum. 

For 59 minutes and 26 seconds they were on it. They had the Patriots where they wanted them. The elephant in the room? The Steelers had embraced it. There were fireworks. The kitchen was lit. Every other metaphor Mike Tomlin had used to whip up his team and fanbase worked. 

Then they short-circuited and kicked it away in the final 34 seconds.  

First, they burned a timeout at the end of the Juju Smith-Schuster catch-and-run that put the ball at the 10. That left them no way of stopping the clock aside from spiking the ball or throwing incomplete, which -- as we would see -- the Steelers opted not to. That bad time management was Mental Gaffe No. 1. 


We’d seen that before. Coming out of the two-minute warning in Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks burned their final timeout ON AN INCOMPLETION and that set the stage for their unprecedented (until Sunday) mental disintegration. To adeptly work clock management and manage down, distance and score while understanding how the game is playing out demands a little bit of zen. Bill Belichick praised Pittsburgh's outstanding game management earlier in the week. And those weren't empty words. The Steelers had been brilliant in executing comeback after comeback and recording four buzzer-beating wins. Now, though, they were on a slippery, sloppy slope. 

Next came the touchdown throw to Jesse James and Mental Gaffe No. 2. 

The reality of the reversal that hasn't been highlighted is simple. Either James didn't know the rule, chose to ignore it or, he too got swept away. His first job was to make the catch. He’s not a rookie. He's not a scrub. Presumably he watches games. It’s December. They coach this stuff every day. Or should. 

You can’t stick the ball out and put the fortunes of your team at the mercy of your grip strength. James did.  Forget the chest-puffing “trying to make a play . . . ” crap that’s pouring forth. One job. Catch it. Don’t bring the officials into it. Monkey roll into the end zone if you have to. 

From there, the Steelers threw in-bounds to Darrius Heyward-Bey and he wasn’t able to get out of bounds. Tick, tick, tick. Mental gaffe No. 3. And now the Steelers were on the precipice, clock running. 

In the 2015 season opener, the Steelers came undone in a loss at Foxboro. They didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on multiple plays. They looked unprepared. They got croaked. After the game, Tomlin complaining about headset interference. Ben Roethlisberger complained about the Patriots synchronized shifting on the defensive line. The loss was anybody’s fault but theirs. 

Now, with homefield and a chance to exorcise the Patriots demon in this game Tomlin walked the verbal plank for, confusion reigned. 

Roethlisberger said he got to the line with the intention of clocking it. The Steelers would kick the field goal and take their chances in overtime against a reeling defense.

 “I felt like that was the thing to do,” Roethlisberger said. “But it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it! Run a play!’ At that point, everyone thinks I’m going to clock it and we didn’t have time to get everyone lined up.”

Terrific. Play of the year and you’re disorganized. And you’re trying to get the most well-prepared and anal team in NFL history for fall for the banana in the tailpipe.Like the Seahawks figuring the Patriots would never expect a pass and opting to throw into the teeth of coverage rather than taking a calculated risk with a fade. 

And here’s where the hubris comes in. Asked about the end-zone slant to Eli Rogers that was ricochet-picked, Tomlin said, “We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

The words are “we play to win.” What he meant was, “we played to win on our terms..” With Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley lobbying to clock it and send the game to overtime, Tomlin -- who built this game up for a month -- injected himself and led with his chin. Mental gaffe No. 4.

This isn’t the NHL. You don’t get downgraded for the win if it comes in extra time. The Steelers are most likely traveling to Foxboro in January because Jesse James wasn’t tight on the rules -- blame him or the coaches for that -- and because Tomlin didn’t want to win the game, he wanted to win the game a certain way.

If that’s luck, the Patriots are lucky.

Back in 2009, Bill Belichick, iin a game at Indianapolis, went for it on fourth-and-2. That, obviously, was a diceroll that -- like Tomlin's on Sunday -- didn't work out. But here's the difference. The Patriots gambled because they didn't like their odds playing straight up. Take the chance to end the game, but don't give it back to Peyton Manning. It was understanding game situation and defensive shortcomings. Appreciating your weakness.

That's not why the Steelers gambled Sunday. They didn't fear overtime. And even though Tom Brady just went through them like poop through a goose, they didn't need to. The Patriots had forced one three-and-out all day. The Steelers were 10-for-16 on third down. They went for the win because winning right there would FEEL a certain way. It would make a certain statement about the Steelers and Tomlin. It would satiate their fans and their egos to see the Patriots on the canvas rather than seeing both teams standing after overtime with one having its hand raised on a decision. 

It took the Steelers an hour of football to push the Patriots to the ledge. But in the final 34 seconds, they were the ones that lost their footing.