FOXBORO – By the time it all ended after midnight, the five banners, the giant Lombardi trophies, the 70,000 clown face towels – all the pomp and circumstance of the Patriots season-opening prime-time victory lap – were reduced to cruel ironies.
To have a shot at a celebration, you have to crawl through fire for seven months. Thursday night’s stunning 42-27 loss to the Chiefs put the entire team into the flames. Now, as the team’s longest-tenured players said, is the time to find out how willing this team is to start crawling.
“What’s going to define this team is how we react to this loss,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “We’ve got a long season, we’ve got a long ways to go. We all know that’s not how we want to play. We’ve got to improve and it all up to us.
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“It’s obvious that we didn’t play the way we needed to play,” he continued. “When you’re forging steel, you’ve got to put it through the fire. And that’s what we’re going to do now and that’s what we’re going to continue to do, because that’s what we need to be. I don’t think the average person truly knows how difficult it is to win a game and maybe this team doesn’t know that. But we’re going to learn that and keep pushing forward. You can’t take for granted how talented, how well-coached, how skilled and how tough some teams are. We’ve got to give everything we’ve got to win a game. It comes down to us and how much we have to give to win these games.”
Player after player stated that the prime problem wasn’t about execution and communication. It was about energy and commitment.
“I just think we need to have more urgency and go out there and perform a lot better,” said Tom Brady, who struggled to a 16-for-36 night throwing the ball. “That is a winning attitude and a championship attitude that you need to bring every day. We had it handed to us on our own field. It’s a terrible feeling, and the only people that can do something about it are in that locker room. We’ve got to dig a lot deeper than we did& tonight because we didn’t dig very deep tonight.”
“I’ve been a part of this organization for five years, and I can say we definitely needed some more energy on the sideline,” said safety Duron Harmon. “It wasn’t where we were at, it wasn’t at the level that we usually have it at and it seems like it made us pay.”
Execution and communication are certainly going to be high on the list of things to address between now and the Patriots second game of the season in New Orleans nine days fro Friday.
Execution failures were seen in an inability to convert on short yardage. The Patriots failed on a fourth-and-1 at the Kansas City 10, they failed on a third-and-1 at the KC 8 and settled for 3 and they failed on a fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs 40 when they trailed 28-27. Convert and the game changes.
As for communication breakdowns, that was seen on Tyreek Hill’s 75-yard touchdown reception and – to a lesser extent – on the 78-yard touchdown reception by Kareem Hunt.
But the lack of energy and intensity was on display when the Chiefs ran for 58 and 21 yards on consecutive plays en route to a touchdown that allowed the Chiefs to salt it away. And in the air of offensive resignation on the Patriots final drives.
To hear the Patriots' most veteran players tell it, it was the lack of energy and the urgency that led to the fourth-quarter collapse when Kansas City scored 21 unanswered points.
The Patriots were on the cusp of putting Kansas City away in the first half. Leading 17-7 even after coming away with just three points after consecutive drives inside the Chiefs’ 10, New England had the ball at their own 40 with 3:44 left in the half. They went three-and-out after a Dion Lewis run and two incompletions but they still pinned the Chiefs deep, pushing them back to their own 6.
But the Chiefs then chipped away with a 96-yard touchdown drive to make it 17-14 at the break. That, coupled with a 90-yard drive in the first half in which they had first-down gains of 9, 14, 8, 9, 11, 18 and 0 was an eye-opening development. Before the game began, everyone knew the defense had things to sort out in the front-seven but not to the extent where they were barely a speed bump to capable but unspectacular Alex Smith.
Every move defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made was countered by Smith and Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Sometimes that just happens. They make plays, you don’t. It gets addressed, adjustments are made, it doesn’t happen again.
This time, the slow drip drives were followed by quick-strike explosive plays. It’s almost unprecedented to see the Patriots this incapable and seemingly overmatched. And the fact is, you can only scheme it up so much before you have to look at the guys carrying out the schemes and conclude that they have a long, long way to go.
The Chiefs took the Patriots coverage-heavy scheme as an affront.
“I’m not sure what it was (that led to the offensive success of the Chiefs),” mused Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. “It might have been the lack of respect they had for Alex’s arm, the lack of respect for our running back. The defense that they were presenting, I thought they would have gone a different way. We went out there and we executed given what they presented and we came out with a win.”
I asked Kelce if he deemed the Patriots four-safety alignment as disrespectful and he nodded agreement.
Bill Belichick said the alignment was because “there were a lot of plays where they had five receivers on the field – four receivers and Kelce.”
Disrespect wasn’t intended. That’s what Belichick and Patricia thought would get it done against a team with a rookie running back from Toledo named Kareem Hunt and a quarterback like Smith who loves to throw short.
But the Patriots ended up being unable to handle either Hunt of Smith, hence, 537 yards of total offense for KC.
The defensive problems – especially now that Dont'a Hightower could be nursing an injured knee for some time – aren’t going away with a wave of the wand. It may take weeks.
Offensively, the Patriots have plenty to figure out as well. Cavalier dismissals of Julian Edelman’s torn ACL being a staggering blow look stupid now. The Patriots couldn’t get anything done in the middle of the field where Edelman feasts. Neither Chris Hogan nor Rob Gronkowski were able to get decent separation all night. Hogan had one catch for eight yards. Gronk had two for 33 and was blanketed on both catches. It was going to be tough sledding for a while without him and that was before Danny Amendola landed in concussion protocol and Malcolm Mitchell landed on IR.
The short middle is where the Patriots offense begins. Everything else unspools from there.
“They packed it in there pretty good,” Brady said of the short middle. “We had a couple plays, and then we missed a lot of plays. If that’s how teams are going to play us, then we’ve got to make plays where they’re not, and I always say I’m going to throw it where they’re not. We just didn’t come up with enough of them.
It was fun to forecast just how good the 2017 Patriots were when they had all their pieces and the paper version of a team that won the Super Bowl in February looked untouchable. But now that some of the pieces are off the board and the games have begun, it’s obvious that getting to great is going to be harder than expected.
And the Patriots effort -- according to them -- is going to have to be a lot higher if they want to have any kind of shot at another banner night next September.
“We didn’t have it the way we needed it tonight,” said Brady. “It’s got to be at a much higher level next week and the rest of the year. That’s going to be a big point of emphasis for all of us.”
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