Tom E. Curran's 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: Brady brings 'em back


Tom E. Curran's 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: Brady brings 'em back

We're into the Top 20 now.

These are the plays of the Bill Belichick Era you best never forget. And probably can't. They're the ones that led directly to championships -- most for New England, a couple for the other guys. Or they're plays that signified a sea change in the way the New England Patriots under Belichick would be behaving from there on out.

I did my best to stack them in order of importance. You got a problem with that? Good. Let us know what's too high, too low or just plain wrong. And thanks for keeping up!


THE YEAR: 2014

THE GAME: Patriots 43, Bengals 17

THE PLAY: Brady keeper on fourth down vs. Bengals

WHY IT’S HERE: For a week after the demolition in Kansas City, all the doctors stopped by the Patriots hospital bed and came away shaking their heads. The consensus was that the condition was grave. Even the optimists believed the team wouldn’t return to its former vitality. It was an ugly week. So on Sunday Night Football, the Patriots came out against a talented Bengals team that beat the Pats in 2013 . . . and bullied them.

With Tom Brady putting the Patriots on his back, physically and emotionally.

On their first drive of the night, Brady had completions of 20 and 30 yards. He also scrambled for six yards and. on a fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 5, he plowed for four yards to set up a Stevan Ridley touchdown. The 10-play, 80-yard drive was cathartic for the team which -- after getting questioned so harshly -- became galvanized in a way that would carry them to their fourth Super Bowl title.


THE YEAR: 2007

THE GAME: Patriots 38, Jets 14

THE PLAY: Randy Moss blows by three Jets to track down 51-yard TD in opener

WHY IT’S HERE: After two lost seasons in Oakland, the conventional wisdom on Randy Moss was that the party was over. He’d be a “what coulda been . . . ” enigma. Before the season, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ranked Moss at No. 246 on his list of the NFL’s top 500 players.

Moss didn’t play in the preseason, nursing a purported hamstring injury, though my suspicion is that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Moss all knew what was going to happen when the Patriots offense was unveiled and didn’t want anyone to get a preview. The Patriots -- ushered from the 2006 playoffs by the Colts -- should have won the Super Bowl the previous year, but contract discord (most notably with Deion Branch) sidetracked the roster and the Pats were relatively punchless. Not so in 2007 with Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney added.

So there was that anticipation at the start of the season and -- with the Patriots opening in New York -- a renewal of the Belichick-Eric Mangini frostiness, which began when Mangini left to coach the Jets and tried to lug players and coaches with him on his way out the door. The Jets had a plan in their back pocket to fix the Patriots’ little red wagon, though. More on that later.

With Tom Brady for the first time throwing to elite outside receivers, he went 22-for-28 for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Moss had 9 catches for 183 yards and a 51-yard touchdown in which Brady threw a moonball and Moss ran past defenders like Usain Bolt at sixth-grade field day. Asked about Brady, Moss said, “It's like a kid with a toy for Christmas and he can't open it. He didn't have all of his toys to play with. Now that he has all of his toys to play with, the sky's the limit.”

Somehow the NFL left the Moss catch off their list of his top catches of 2007. But what that game and play did was presage the most incredible offensive season in NFL history to that point.

As for the Jets’ plan? They decided to turn in a Patriots’ cameraman over to the NFL when they caught him taping from the sidelines. The stupid effort at future edge-gaining by the Patriots would be conflated into a mortal sin against the game. And that event would foreshadow a similar effort by the rest of the NFL in 2014. Can’t beat ‘em, discredit ‘em.

Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

AP Photo

Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

Looking for a two-word answer from Bill Belichick during a press conference? Ask him how a new addition to the roster might fit into the Patriots scheme. 

"We'll see," is Belichick's typical reply in those situations. 


We point that out here because it's hard to know exactly what any new player's role will be with the Patriots, particularly for an edge player like Adrian Clayborn. That spot in Belichick's defense can take on a variety of roles, from pass-rusher, to edge-setter, to coverage player. 

But we can take an educated guess as to how Clayborn will fit in the Patriots defense, based on what we know. That's what the Patriots did when they signed him. They saw certain skills. They saw Clayborn perform in certain situations. They made their projection. 

There's always the chance Clayborn asserts himself in a way that wasn't expected. Or maybe the way he fits with his new teammates will open his coaches' eyes in ways they weren't anticipating. But at this point, as is the case with every new addition, they're hypothesizing. So we will too. 

AGAINST THE PASS: Clayborn was, for the vast majority of his snaps, a pass-rusher for the Falcons last year. He played 631 snaps for the Falcons, which was 53.4 of their defensive snaps. Of those 631 plays, Clayborn rushed the quarterback 477 times, per Pro Football Focus (76 percent of his workload). And of those pass-rush snaps, only one came from the left side. (Clayborn was born with Erb's palsy, which means his right arm has some limitations compared to his left, which impacts the side of the field he aligns on. He played 91 percent of his snaps from the right side in 2016.)  Clayborn played over 80 percent of the snaps during each of his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Bucs so he's been a three-down player before. But recent history would suggest the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder is now more of a sub option.

Here's how Clayborn responded during a conference call on Wednesday when asked if he could chip in on first and second down for the Patriots. "I believe that’s what people have pigeon-holed me in as a third-down player, but I know I can play first, second, third down if need be," he said. "That was my role in Atlanta because that’s what they asked me to do, but I mean, I can play all three downs if you ask me."

AGAINST THE RUN: According to Pro Football Focus, Clayborn has been a negatively-graded player against the run during each of his seven seasons in the NFL. Last year he checked in as PFF's 78th-ranked run defender among edge players, which was far below the ranking Trey Flowers received (19th) but ahead of Deatrich Wise (85th) and Eric Lee (96th). During each of his last three seasons with the Falcons, he has seen his snap-counts break down similarly: about 75 percent of his work came against the pass, about 25 percent came against the run. He can defend the run. He's capable of it. He just hasn't been asked to consistently hold up on the edge on a down-in-down-out basis during the most recent phase of his career. 

THE FIT: Based on his history in Atlanta, it would make sense if the Patriots asked Clayborn to come off of the right edge in passing situations in 2018. That's where his recent experience has been. Keeping him away from the left side not only makes the most of where he's strongest, but it also keeps him from finding himself in coverage. As Belichick has explained in the past, the left end spot (Rob Ninkovich's old spot), going against right-handed quarterbacks, is typically asked to do more in coverage. The right edge has been Flowers' area in the recent past -- he played almost 65 percent of his passing-rush snaps last season off the right, per PFF -- but if the Patriots are fully-healthy up front, Flowers could kick inside to do his rushing. An ideal sub package for the Patriots, it could be argued, would have Clayborn on the right edge, Flowers and either Wise or Adam Butler on the interior, and Derek Rivers or Dont'a Hightower on the left edge. Rivers saw some work off the left side before suffering an injury in last year's training camp. Early last season, Hightower saw time on the left edge. 


Clayborn will have an opportunity to show he can do more than rush off the right side. He said on Wednesday that the Patriots have discussed multiple roles for him. (Perhaps he could rush from the interior, though he's not as long as Flowers or Wise, whose arms make them good matchups for stouter guards and tackles.) Wherever those opportunities come, Clayborn knows he'll have to make the most of them if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. The deal for two years and $10 million he just signed in New England doesn't guarantee him myriad responsibilities.

"Whatever I can prove I can do,” he said. "I know I can rush the passer. I know I can set edge in the run. I mean, there’s a couple of different positions that they believe I can play, so it’s up to me to prove I can play them."


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

File Photo

Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.