Patriots

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.

"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."

Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes. 

The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field. 

The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down. 

Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times. 

Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction. 

"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."

What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger. 

There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said. 

But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.

"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."

The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing. 

"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. 

"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."

Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter. 

Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging. 

"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."

Patriots' 43-40 win over Chiefs lives up to the billing

Patriots' 43-40 win over Chiefs lives up to the billing

FOXBORO – It was 11:28 p.m., just after Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yarder at the buzzer ended a Sunday Night Football game you won’t forget.

As I walked from the media elevator to the field I thumbed out a tweet I suspected might get some pushback.

“That was a great, great game.”

That conclusion should have been self-evident. But launching a tweet like that into the vortex of snark and negativity that swirls on Twitter during Patriots games is asking for a mass debunking.

The “yeah, buts . . . ” and laments about which guy sucks, what play call was stupid and how this team won’t be winning Super Bowls playing like that usually come raining down.

But this time, the bitchers, moaners and punch-bowl turds were vastly outnumbered by people realizing just what they watched.

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Two teams putting up almost 1,000 yards of offense (500 for the Pats, 465 for the Chiefs)

The greatest quarterback of all time dueling the most exciting young quarterback in the NFL.

A franchise in the autumn of its years at the top, rolling up its sleeves at crunch time and using a whole lot of Dad strength to subdue the latest wannabe.

“Wannabe” isn’t meant to demean the Chiefs. Every team in the league that’s not based on Route 1 in Foxboro wants to be what the Patriots have been for two decades, not just another notch on the belt of Brady and Belichick.

It used to be the same here. We’d get giddy talk about the 1994 opener when Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino dueled and the Patriots lost 38-34, the same way people in Kansas City are going to talk about this one.

But we’re a little jaded now. We’ve got a catalog of indelible games to thumb through now. So many that, when these games end we’re like jewelers inspecting diamonds searching for flaws in something that was really, really exquisite.

The journey to 43-40 was as entertaining and jammed with intrigue as any other regular-season game in recent memory.

It was 27-26 entering the last quarter, the Chiefs having erased a 24-9 halftime lead with a 67-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Kareem Hunt after Bill Belichick warned his team all week long about guarding against big plays. And there was a strip-sack of Brady in there too when the quarterback went on walkabout and got hammered to set up a touchdown pass to the uncoverable Tyreek Hill.

That was the prelude to a 30-point fourth in which the Chiefs got a 97-yard kickoff return setting up a go-ahead touchdown, Brady ran one in from four yards out on third-and-goal, Gostkowski drilled a 50-yarder after a 42-yard hookup between Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Mahomes hit Hill for a 75-yard touchdown that tied it and then Brady hit Gronk for 39 yards to set up the game-winner.

After a week debating the merits of Gronk compared to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Gronk got the last word. And so did Brady after we spent more than a week marveling at the arm and composure of Mahomes.

In a lot of ways, this was the rare game that we all forecasted pretty accurately.

Not all the dirty details, but the fact that both teams would go up and down the field on each other.

That the Patriots might hatch a couple of things to confuse Mahomes (both of his picks were costly and caused by savvy defense) but that his arm strength and the speed of his receivers made him a threat no matter where he was on the field.

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That Kansas City might get alternately picked on and bullied on the ground and spread thin and picked apart through the air.

But we also learned that Mahomes has it in him to rebound on the road against a dynasty. Yeah, he’s just another notch on the Patriots belt this morning, another under-25 quarterback that lost to the Patriots at Gillette, but he’s the wind beneath the Chiefs wings now. And that’s why the losing locker room didn’t sound like a losing locker room.

The Patriots didn’t play badly and lose badly as they did the last two times the Chiefs saw them in the regular season. The Patriots, overall, played really well and still the Chiefs almost got them.

“I feel like if we had the ball last like they did we would have gone down and scored and won, too,” said Hunt. “We can take this loss. I mean, you never want to lose. We’re going to learn from this, go study and make sure it don’t happen again.”

The Chiefs can “take this loss” as Hunt said because they feel pretty good that this won’t be the only time they see the Patriots this year.

“When you score 40 points and you lose you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror,” said corner Orlando Scandrick. “This team has got great character. It’s one of the best group of guys I’ve been around in my whole 11-year career. We’ll be fine, I am not worried about it at all. The way this team works, the way this team prepares. If we handle our business the way we’re supposed to handle our business there is a good chance we will see them again.”

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Patriots rise to the situation against unbeaten Chiefs

Patriots rise to the situation against unbeaten Chiefs

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady had a thought when Tyreek Hill sprinted down the sideline in front of the Patriots bench for a 75-yard touchdown:

"Good. Score quick."

With just over three minutes remaining, Hill's electric catch-and-run tied the back-and-forth shootout, 40-40. But taking a glass-half-full approach, Brady viewed it as more time for him and his teammates to drive the field and score to win the game.

He was right. Seven plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal as time expired that made the Patriots the only team to knock off Kansas City so far this season.

"We had enough time," Brady said. "They had one timeout left and it gave us enough time to go down and kick the field goal. I don't know if we punted tonight (NOTE: They didn't) . . . Still think we missed some opportunities out there. Made some situational plays when we needed it, the short yardage. We really lost the game (to the Chiefs) last year on short-yardages. I thought we were pretty good in that tonight, so that was real positive."

The critical short-yardage play of the game-winning drive came just after the two-minute warning. Sony Michel, who'd racked up over 100 yards for the second time in his young career, took a handoff on third-and-one at the Patriots 34-yard line, ran off left tackle Trent Brown and picked up two.

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The clock was ticking and the Patriots were off and running.

"That was great," Brady said. "I was happy we made the third-and-one. You know, that gave us a great opportunity, and then we hit some other plays."

"Situational football," center David Andrews said. "We practice it so much. Talk about it. Walk through it. We knew we didn't want to give him the ball back. That was the third-and-short, right? To start the drive? That was a big play.

"We kind of knew what they were going to be in. We executed it. That was a big play right there. Sony did a great job of going downhill and getting the first down."

In last year's season opener, the Patriots failed on two fourth-and-one plays. On Sunday night, Michel converted a third-and-one at the goal line in the first quarter, James White ran for 10 on a third-and-2 in the second, Michel picked up enough on a third-and-one in the third, and later in that quarter Brady rushed for a touchdown on a third-and-four from the four.

The Patriots were 7-for-13 on third down in the game, and they went 6-for-7 on third-and-less-than-five. One of those conversions was a little atypical, with Brady hitting Chris Hogan for a 42-yard pass on third-and-one in the fourth. The Patriots were down 33-30 at the time.

"I think it's a confidence thing," Hogan said of his team's late-game execution. "We practice these things, and we're in these situations sometimes in games. When we're in those situations, our poise is good. Tommy obviously being in the huddle really commands us. Our attention and our detail and our sense of urgency has to go up in those situations, and you gotta execute. We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game."

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Once Michel had picked up the final third-and-short of the game, Brady went to his most reliable weapons in the passing game. He hit White for 16 yards and a first down. Then he found Rob Gronkowski in one-on-one coverage for 39 yards up the right sideline.

"He got a matchup and made a big play," Brady said. "He’s been making a lot of those in his career. I’ll keep throwing to him in the biggest moments."

One snap to center the football for Gostkowski was all that was left to do. The game-winner might've been Gostkowski's easiest kick of the night, but he never would've been put in that position had he not made four field goals prior to that one, including a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter that was as clutch as any late-game play the Patriots were able to execute.

"That's a guy that's certainly taken for granted around here," Matthew Slater said after the game. "Kicker is a funny position in the league. Nobody starts paying attention to you until you start missing kicks. That guy's been so reliable, so consistent for the last 13 years . . . Really no surprise there. He does it in practice. His approach is the same. His mentality never changes. He came up big for us tonight."

Gostkowski. Gronkowski. Brady. White. Hogan. Michel and the offensive line. There were plenty who came up big to finish off the biggest test the Patriots have faced to this point in the year.

If every season is different, every team is different, as Bill Belichick and his players tell us annually, then Sunday -- and in particular that final drive -- must have taught them something about themselves. There are all sorts of players on the roster have been in that kind of late-game spot many times before. But this team hadn't.

"I think we have a lot of clutch players," Brady said. "I think we have no problem grinding it out. That’s what the football season’s all about. I don’t think we’ve seen our best. I think we can all play a lot better, and I think that’s what we plan to do."

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