The season is halfway over and the Patriots are on their bye week, so what better time for midseason superlatives? In the first of a three-part series, Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran and Mike Giardi look at some of the best -- and worst -- on-field occurences so far in 2017.
PHIL PERRY: The Tom Brady-to-Brandin Cooks game-winning touchdown against the Texans. Brady's execution was flawless as he pumped to hold off the safety, took a huge shot, and still threw a dime. For Cooks, it was an acknowledgement that he was in the circle of trust. Not many game-winners over the course of the season, so this one is the easy choice in my opinion.
TOM E. CURRAN: Brady-to-Cooks, but Phil got there first. So I’ll go with Gronk’s 53-yard TD against the Saints. Brady heaved it to him and Gronk skedaddled and sidestepped his way to a TD that indicated he was indeed back from his back.
MIKE GIARDI: I have watched the 27-yard completion from Tom Brady to James White from Sunday’s game with the Chargers at least 15 times, and we also featured it on Monday Night Patriots. It didn’t win the game, like Brandin Cooks versus the Texans, but it combined terrific pocket awareness by Tom Brady; left tackle Nate Solder engaging one of the best pass rushers in the game, Joey Bosa, for five or six seconds, and then White first chipping Melvin Ingram and then working hard to uncover as Brady moved around. The throw was spot on. The play was sexy. It really was.
PHIL PERRY: Kareem Hunt's 58-yard fourth-quarter run in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs. The Patriots were down one score (35-27) with 4:15 left in the game, when Hunt went streaking down the sideline on a simple toss play. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts took bad angles in pursuit. Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung were blocked easily. If not for Devin McCourty chasing Hunt down, it would have gone for a 79-yard score. One play later, Charcandrick West was in the end zone and the game was effectively over. Afterwards, perhaps with this sequence in mind, Tom Brady questioned the team's attitude and competitiveness.
MIKE GIARDI: Which play from the Carolina game do you want to go with? I’ll pick the screen to Fozzy Whittaker in which every single Patriot defender on the offensive left/defensive right vacated the area as if someone launched tear gas into the area. Elandon Roberts. Devin McCourty. Stephen Gilmore. It was the lowest point for a defense that had a dozen or so of those plays over the first month of the season. I still can’t get over Gilmore -- the last player remaining on that side of the field -- just tearing ass to chase rookie Christian McCaffrey. Staggering. And Cam Newton could have easily flipped it the tight end, who was also all by himself.
PHIL PERRY: The Week 7 win over the Falcons. In prime time, against what was thought to be a very good offense, the much-maligned Patriots defense held Atlanta to one score. And the biggest question mark on the other side of the ball -- the offensive line -- showed signs of turning the corner. We may look back at that night as the night things finally got on track for good.
MIKE GIARDI: No brainer. It’s the Atlanta game. It didn’t have the most points or most explosive plays, but it was Patriot football. Clinical, emotional, suffocating and there was never, ever a doubt, despite the talent on the other sideline. If the Pats could play nine more games like this year, I’d sign up for it. I’m sure Bill Belichick would, too.
PHIL PERRY: Deshaun Watson. Mobile. Tough. Accurate enough. We didn't know it ahead of time, but Watson was a matchup nightmare for the Patriots in Week 3. He was able to take advantage of a secondary still finding itself, and he had all kinds of time to do it based on his own quickness and the absence of a devastating Patriots pass-rush.
MIKE GIARDI: To this point? It’s gotta be Watson. The Texans quarterback had his team poised for a huge win at Gillette if not for the heroics of Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks. Watson was as slippery as a snake covered in axel grease. Pats defenders had one shot after another to take him down for a big loss and Watson slithered in and out of their grasp to make one big play after another. His calmness under pressure comes as no surprise. Watson did this in college for years. But he’s made the seamless transition to the NFL and despite some of the analytic sites not loving him, Watson has given the Texans hope at that position, something they haven’t had maybe ever. I’m actually disappointed that JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus are done for the year. I wanted to see Houston come to Foxboro in January and Watson is a big reason why.
GIVE US YOUR OPINION: Who's the toughtest opposing player the Patriots have faced this year?
FOXBORO -- How was film study for the Patriots defense after allowing 42 points to the Chiefs?
“What do you think?” Kyle Van Noy asked back Friday.
“Not fun, but good coaching points,” he continued. “I think we can all learn from it. There’s not one person in the defensive meeting room that thought they played well. Everyone holds themselves to a high standard here.”
Friday was a mixed bag for Van Noy. Acquired mid-season last year as part of a swap of late-round picks with the Lions, the 26-year-old linebacker finalized a two-year contract extension with the Pats Friday. Though he gushed about the opportunity to stay with the team this season, the main focus throughout Gillette Stadium was getting past a rough defensive performance that saw the Patriots give up more points and yards (537) than they ever had under Bill Belichick.
“I take my one day to be mad about a loss and that’s today, so I’m not very happy about how I played and I’m not happy about who the defense played, or as the team, we’re better than how we played,” Van Noy said. “I think it will show the next time we play. We’re going to come together. This is going to bring us closer and we’ll be good to go.”
Linebacker play was just one of the issues for the Pats as Alex Smith and Co. lit up the defense. The group was a mess in the passing game (Smith completed 28 of 35 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns with no picks) and running game (Kareem Hunt ran for 148 yards and added three total touchdowns in his NFL debut).
Smith and Hunt weren’t exactly perceived as potential game-breakers heading into Thursday’s game, so as the team takes extra time to prepare for the Saints, they’ll do so knowing they have another capable group awaiting them in Drew Brees, Mark Ingram and, to a degree, the ghost of Adrian Peterson.
Nobody saw the Patriots starting off the season with a loss. They’ll need to perform better against Brees on the road to avoid 0-2. Asked what the team aims to do to remedy Thursday’s game, Van Noy was once again blunt.
“Win,” he replied. “Win. It’s win or lose. It’s black or white. We didn’t play well as a defense [we’re] frustrated with how we played. We’re going to take this weekend to heal up and get back to work.”
The NFL postseason is where quarterbacks’ legacies are built. Though those reputations often become overstated, once you’ve solidified yourself as a “winner” or “loser,” those tags are hard to shake.
By the looks of it, this postseason might see a few guys trying to build their playoff names from scratch, and those guys might have to do it in Foxboro.
This has been a weird year for quarterbacks. Between the six playoff teams in the AFC, 13 different starting QBs will have been used by the time Oakland’s Matt McGloin starts Week 17 for the injured Derek Carr. Surprisingly, that’s actually as many as were used between last season’s AFC playoff teams.
None of the AFC playoff teams have had the same quarterback start every game. The Patriots have led the way with three, though that’s partially due to suspension.
Depending on whether Ryan Tannehill (sprained ACL) is good to go next week for the Dolphins, the AFC’s starting quarterbacks in the postseason could be the following: Tom Brady, Matt Moore, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Savage, Matt McGloin and Alex Smith. Half of those guys have postseason experience. The other three don’t.
Even if Tannehill does play for the Dolphins, and even if the recently supplanted Brock Osweiler does reclaim his job in Houston, neither of those guys have taken a playoff snap either. If experience under center is as important in the playoffs as everyone makes it out to be, the Patriots, presuming they take the No. 1 seed, could get a crack or two at toying with inexperienced postseason quarterbacks on their home field.
It’s not like green postseason quarterbacks can’t get far. Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme and Ben Roethlisberger are at least semi-recent examples that they can go to a conference championship (Roethlisberger), the Super Bowl (Jake Delhomme) or even win it all (Brady).
This might not surprise you, but the Patriots have never lost to a quarterback playing in his first postseason. They’ve played six of them, beaten them all and only allowed a passing touchdown to half of them.
Here’s a quick run-through:
2012, Matt Schaub: The Pats may have been more worried about Arian Foster, but Schaub wasn’t bad in his second-career postseason start. He completed 34 of 51 passes for 343 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. The Pats sacked him once.
2011, Tim Tebow: The divisional round saw the Patriots sack Tebow five times and hold him to 136 yards on 9-of-26 passing with no touchdowns or picks in his second and final postseason game. He’ll always have the previous week’s OT winner against Pittsburgh.
2006, Philip Rivers: The Patriots went into San Diego and upset the No. 1 seed (and 14-2) Chargers in Rivers’ first career postseason start. Rivers, who was sacked three times, was 14-of-32 for 230 yards with no touchdowns and a pick. He may have yelled a bit about Ellis Hobbs after the game.
2005, Byron Leftwich: In the lone postseason start of Leftwich’s career, the Patriots sacked the Marshall product four times and held him to 18-of-31 passing for 179 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He did have an 18-yard run, though. Man, Byron Leftwich ruled.
2004, Ben Roethlisberger: Then a rookie, Roethlisberger had the pleasure of the AFC championship being his second career playoff game. Unfortunately for him, it was against a powerhouse Patriots team and he got picked three times. He also threw a pair of touchdowns on 14-of-24 passing for 226 yards.
2003, Jake Delhomme: The Pats had their way with most of these other guys, but Jake Delhomme was damn good for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, throwing for 323 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. This Panthers loss certainly wasn’t on the quarterback (*cough John Kasay cough*).
Given the landscape of the AFC, it should be smooth sailing for the Patriots as they aim to reach their seventh Super Bowl under Bill Belichick. History says these inexperienced playoff quarterbacks some of their opponents might throw out there won’t make big names for themselves against the Pats.