Patriots

Not as easy as it looked

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Not as easy as it looked

By Michael Felger

Four quick thoughts from a terrific NFL Sunday:

Credit the Patriots win on Sunday night to Aaron Rodgers' concussion. If the Packers starter played, it's hard to imagine the Packers would have burned the clock like they did late in the game and it's hard to imagine the Pats, given the way they were playing, would have been able to stop him. As it was, the Pats made Matt Flynn look like a star (or at least Colt McCoy) and won only thanks to a pair of unlikely returns one by guard Dan Connolly of all people, and another by corner Kyle Arrington.

The Pats were not particularly sharp offensively or defensively on this night, but they made just enough plays on both sides of the ball to eek out the victory. That's an improvement from the last time they looked like this, Nov. 7 at Cleveland, when their mistakes proved fatal. This time, they just proved a nuisance.

Still, Bill Belichick will have plenty of teachable moments to show his team. Ideally, this will be the kind of reality check game the Browns contest was, only without the negative impact of a defeat.

Then again, the Pats had been playing so well recently that a more human performance was probably in the cards. And it may very well show the fans the reality of the situation: The path to the Super Bowl won't be as easy as the Pats were making it look.

I don't know how you feel about it, but I consider the Colts winning over Jacksonville to be a mediocre result for the Patriots.

With the win, the Colts assumed the lead in the AFC South, and if the season ended today they would hold the No. 4 seed. As of now, that makes them the Pats' most likely opponent for their first playoff game at Gillette Stadium next month. (The Pats, as the presumed No. 1 seed, will face the lowest remaining seed in the AFC in the divisional round. If both home teams win on wild card weekend at this point that would be the Chiefs and Colts then the Pats get Indy).

I'd rather face any other team in the AFC than the Colts.

The history is well-known. Peyton Manning and Indy came into Foxboro last month having won five of the last six meetings with Belichick, and only a diving James Sanders interception in the closing moments prevented that run from going to 6-of-7.

Yes, the Pats defense has improved. Yes, Manning's offense has been depleted by injuries (Austin Collie suffered another concussion yesterday). Yes, the game will be played outside in January, and Manning has only rarely played well in those conditions. I understand all those things.

And I still don't want to face the guy. He figured you out a long time ago.

Disagree?

Great win for the Jets in Pittsburgh. One of those statements games. They may not be as good as the Pats, but they don't suck. They're a worthy playoff team. They are NOT the "same old Jets."

All that being said, they still do stupid things as a team and a coaching staff that will eventually catch up to them. Two things stood out in Pittsburgh:

The first was the way they defended Ben Roethlisberger. The book on the Steelers quarterback is well known: His best plays come off scrambles. He loves rolling right and throwing into the right flat. He's not as effective staying on the spot, or scrambling left. Everyone knows this.

So what did the Jets do? They sent blitz after blitz off Roethlisberger's left side, forcing him out of the pocket to his right. The results were predictable: Roethlisberger shredded them on third downs

The other was the Jets total lack of clock awareness in the final five minutes. On several occasions, Jets ball carriers stepped out of bounds, stopping the clock and allowing the Steelers to preserve time outs. Receiver Braylon Edwards did it twice. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson did it at least once. And if that wasn't bad enough, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer kept calling pass plays, most of which naturally fell incomplete, again stopping the clock and allowing the Steelers to keep their stoppages.

Brutal.

Finally, after what happened yesterday in New York, how can you not want Michael Vick and the Eagles in the Super Bowl, should the Patriots make it that far?

I know some of you want revenge on the Giants. And I know some would like the fireworks associated with a matchup against the Saints for Falcons. A few of you would appreciate an easy matchup with Chicago.

But come on. There is no more exciting or controversial player in the NFL than Vick. It's guaranteed entertainment both during the week (can you imagine the dog nuts in Dallas?) and come game time. That's the matchup I want.

The only downside, and it's a significant one, is having to share the city of Dallas with the knuckle-draggers from Philadelphia. I'll just be sure to bring the Hazmat suit.

The report card will post Tuesday morning. E-mail Felger HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to Felger on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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