Patriots

Patriots win, but aren't satisfied with 'all’s well that ends well' victories

Patriots win, but aren't satisfied with 'all’s well that ends well' victories

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The turning point in Sunday’s game wasn’t the Jets much-discussed overturned touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It came just before and right after the half when Malcolm Butler picked off Josh McCown with 40 seconds left, Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks with a 42-yard cloudscraper and the Patriots punched it in then tacked on another touchdown after the break. A 14-7 deficit threatening to balloon had flipped to a 21-14 lead.

Asked about that in his postgame press conference, Bill Belichick offered an answer that serves as a microcosm for the Patriots through their first six games.

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“We didn’t really handle the end of the half the way we wanted to handle it,” he said. “We got down there with a minute-and-a-half and then threw three incomplete passes and missed a field goal. We were fortunate to get the ball back and able to capitalize on that opportunity. Cooks made a great catch for us down the field. It turned out alright, we scored before the half, but that’s not really the way we were trying to handle the whole situation.”

“All’s well that ends well” isn’t really what the Patriots 16-season run of success has been about, and that’s why this win – like most of the rest – comes with caveats and yeah buts.

“I wish we would have done better but we won so … there is probably a lot to learn from it,” said Brady. “I wish we could have played a little bit better offensively.

“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to,” he added. “I think that’s probably the big thing. Just execution. We’ll keep at it. It’s only the sixth game of the year so there’s still a lot to figure out and we’ll just keep going out to practice and try to do better.”

The palate-cleansing 10-day layoff after a scrappy, short-week win on the road over Tampa was spoiled early on Sunday. The Jets converted five of their first six third downs on an 88-yard drive then went ahead 14-0 after the Patriots fumbled on their second drive.

After that, the defense settled in for a stretch as the offense slowly got its footing and erased the deficit. There were positives in the mix. Brady was much more well-protected than he’s been (no sacks, four quarterback hits) and the running game was as effective as it’s been all year. But the little inefficiencies for a team that’s long been so efficient nagged like a pebble in the shoe.

“There’s a handful of us that aren’t playing up to our potential and I think it stings,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “People say ‘great job’ but you know how much better it could be. That’s how I feel and I think some other guys feel the same way. It takes a lot to win so I understand that we have to enjoy that but you also take it hard when you’re not playing the way you think you can play. I appreciate every player and every second we’re playing and every ounce of effort and I want to play better. Both can be true.”

The Patriots are like a scratch golfer putting up a 78. Good for you. Good for me. He ain’t gonna like it though.

Surveying the NFL landscape, the Patriots are pretty much like the rest of the NFL’s presumed upper-crust. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead and lost to the Dolphins on Sunday. The Chiefs lost at home to the Steelers who were presumed dead last week. The Raiders lost to the Chargers. We could go on with the litany of examples of other teams trying to find their footing. The difference here is that the expectation wasn’t that the Patriots were in the bucket with the “other teams.” The expectation was that they were far and away the class of the NFL.

We were disabused of that notion weeks ago, but even so, the improvement is glacially slow in coming. Josh McCown dropped 354 yards on them on Sunday and the Jets went 9 for 17 on third down.

Brady’s agitation with the inefficiency – and he wasn’t flawless on Sunday by a far sight – is part of the process as well. Whether it was his cup-throwing rage in 2010 when the Patriots were playing at Pittsburgh or his screaming at the moon in 2013 in the rain during a Week 2 game against the Jets, eventually he’s going to go to the whip as a leader.

“I’m always a little edgy out there for one reason or another,” he explained when asked why he was running hot. “It’s just an emotional game. I don’t know what it was today, I think it was just frustration from the way things were going and our execution. It just blows up a little bit.”

I asked Dont'a Hightower how important it is for the leaders on the team to make sure there’s a refusal to settle for “good enough.”

“We have the right guys saying it and guys are buying in, but we need to keep harping on it,” he said. “We know what we need to do we just haven’t gone out and done it for a full 60 minutes.”

I asked him if that performance is coming.

“I hope so,” he replied. 

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EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

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EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

1:45 - Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen break down the Patriots comeback win over Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl LII.

4:20 - Leonard Fournette not looking like himself but Blake Bortles making the right plays against the Patriots defense.

7:40 - A couple of mistakes from the Jaguars, punting before 2 minute warning which gave the Patriots an extra timeout, and kneeling at the end of the 1st half with 2 timeouts and 50 seconds remaining.

12:10 - Dion Lewis struggling to find room and make anyone miss against the Jaguars defense.

13:20 - How serious Tom Brady's thumb injury was and if it had any affect on how he was able to throw the ball.

16:05 - Brandin Cooks has his best game as a Patriot, and how he was able to draw two pass interference penalties against the Jaguars secondary.

18:45 - If the hit by Barry Church on Rob Gronkowski was a dirty hit and if it is better to hit a receiver up high or down low.

24:25 - Danny Amendola with several clutch catches, once again coming back big in the postseason for the Patriots.

Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

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Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

FOXBORO -- You’ve always wanted something more from Brandin Cooks. I mean, 65 catches for almost 11-hundred yards is nothing to turn your nose up at yet we have.  But there’s something very un-Patriot like about his style.

We’ve grown accustom to seeing smaller receivers who fight for every inch, from Troy Brown to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They would scrap and claw to get that extra yard, sometimes risking their own health. Cooks isn’t that guy, despite a similar build of the aforementioned players. He’s a willing blocker, but as a runner will go out of his way to avoid contact. I wouldn’t say that changed in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. He’s still not running slants or crossing routes with any regularity or success, but the 23-year-old wide receiver shined his brightest in his biggest moment and is now headed to the Super Bowl.

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“It’ s a blessing,” he said pausing briefly before repeating “It’s a blessing.”

Cooks himself helped kick start a sluggish Patriots offense late in the second quarter with his team trailing 14-3. Almost nothing had gone right for the Pats since putting up a field goal on the game’s opening drive. With 1:28 on the clock, Tom Brady threw a pretty pass to Rob Gronkowski running down the seam. He appeared to make the catch for a brief moment before safety Barry Church knocked both the ball from Gronk’s hands and Gronk from the game. Church was flagged for unnecessary roughness, putting the ball on Jacksonville’s 40 yard line. But with Gronk staggering toward the sideline, you couldn’t help but feel a slight air of “oh bleep” in the air. Enter Cooks. 

Jags cornerback A.J. Bouye appeared as if he was going to get up in Cooks’ face before backing away just prior to the snap, surrendering some 8 or 9 yards off the line of scrimmage. But with that elite speed, Cooks got on top of Bouye quickly, forcing some contact. Instead of whimpering through the physicality, Cooks pushed back and pushed forward, again causing Bouye to use his hands. This time though the ball was already in the air and out came the penalty flags. A 32-yard pass interference call had the Pats sitting pretty at the Jags 13. Brady went back to Cooks on the very next play, picking up 12 more yards before James White crashed into the end zone for a touchdown. We had ourselves a game again, 

“You just gotta keep fighting {in those moments} because you can never put it into the hands of hoping you’re going to get a PI {pass interference},” said Cooks. “You just want to fight an make sure you get the ball or no one does.”

After his flawless first half, Cooks let one slip through his hands just as it appeared the Pats were poised to answer a Jacksonville field goal with points of their own. Instead, isolated one-on-one with a linebacker, the lithe wideout couldn’t reel in a potential big gainer and the Pats drive stalled. As the game wore on, you couldn’t help but circle back to that drop and wonder if that was an ominous sign. 

“Obviously you want to make every catch,” said Cooks of the play. “I didn’t but had to keep playing. I hoped I’d work to get another chance….Tom trusts me to put the ball in my area and let me make a play.”

It came to start the Pats’ second touchdown drive of the game, this one not beginning until 12:03 remaining on the game clock. Cooks’ speed forced Bouye to overreact, turning his hips and committing to a deep route. Instead, Cooks’ slapped on the brakes and hauled in an 18-yarder, giving him the first 100-yard receiving game of his brief playoff career. 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Cooks. “Winning is everything.”

Cooks didn’t make any more catches the remainder of the game, but his speed influenced the Jags to switch Bouye off him and put Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey on. Cooks got Ramsey too, drawing a 36-yard pass interference call later in the 4th. It didn’t lead to points but did help flip the field which eventually did lead the game-winning touchdown.

“It’s football,” he said. “We knew it’s not going to be easy. You’re talking about a great team, one of the best defenses. We knew it was gonna be hard. We knew we had to play 60 minutes of football. Not get too high. Not get too low. Just play till the clock says 0:00.”

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