A horde of players gathered in the Patriots equipment room Sunday around 4 p.m. to watch the final minutes of the Texans-Eagles game.
When the Eagles kicked a last-second field goal to vault the Patriots into the No. 2 spot in the AFC, a roar went up.
A “F*** yeah!” mixed in with the whoops signaled that the Patriots were very much on the side of Nick Foles, Lane Johnson and Dangerous Doug Pederson, if only for a moment. Strange bedfellows.
The players, most still in full uniform, then went to their lockers and found their AFC East Division Champions swag waiting for them.
It’s not the norm for the Patriots to be watching an out-of-town game two days before Christmas, fingers-crossed that somebody else’s kicker might help deliver them a first-round bye.
It’s like seeing a Kennedy returning bottles at Stop & Shop.
And it’s not the norm for the Patriots to get their division champs hats and tees a few hours before Christmas Eve. Usually, that happens closer to Thanksgiving.
It’s not the norm to see Tom Brady throw for 126 yards and wind up with a 48.3 passer rating or for the team to run the ball 47 times and throw it 25.
But this isn’t a normal year.
“It’s been a challenging season,” Bill Belichick said at one point during his postgame press conference.
The Patriots are usually well-squared away by now, pies baked, wrapping done, sitting with their feet up in front of a roaring fire waiting for company to arrive.
This year, they haven’t even started shopping. And don’t know what they’ll get.
After 16 NFL weeks, the Patriots are still figuring out what exactly they do well. Instead of debating this week how much Brady will play in the finale, we’ll instead debate how well he’ll play.
The Patriots defense was outstanding on Sunday. They held the opposing quarterback to fewer than 50 percent completions, bottled up an opponent’s rushing attack for the first time in way too long, picked off a couple of passes and partially blocked yet another punt.
And now the caveats. Bills quarterback Josh Allen doesn’t throw to his receivers as much as he throws over, around and under them and the Bills have an impotent running game. Holding them to a dozen points was expected.
The Patriots will see better offenses. But, if you want reassurance, they’ve also handled some decent offenses as well.
And they ran the hell out of it, amassing 273 yards on the ground. Their running game has been a key component in their success. They’ve run the ball 30 or more times eight times this year. When they can run, they can win.
But there are factors that take them out of the ability to do so. Score. Being productive on first down. Avoiding penalties.
When they don’t get “behind the sticks” as they say, they are fine. But they will against better teams. And when they do, will they be able to throw the ball?
Sunday was not a good indication that they will. The effectiveness of the running game impacts the numbers, but Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett didn’t see a pass. Rob Gronkowski saw three, caught none and had one glance off his hands and turn into a pick. Cordarelle Patterson – who was a beast in the running game with 66 yards on four carries before dinging his kneecap – caught one pass for 3 yards.
The Patriots passing attack is – optimistically – a work in progress now that Josh Gordon is out of the mix. Or, cynically, it is what it is.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘troubling,’ ” said Julian Edelman when asked about having a specific identity at this point and whether the change to a run-oriented team was an odd departure. “We still got a game left. There’s things we have to tighten up, that’s for sure. We gotta watch this film and go from there but whenever you’re winning games that’s still good.”
When I mentioned this “new” reality of being a running team is unusual, Edelman had a philosophical reply.
“Take a look back at history,” he said. “At this time of the year, we usually run the ball pretty decent. It’s a new year, a new team, I just come in, work hard and do what the coaches ask me to do and that’s that. … They do a great job of putting us in the right situations and we’ll go from there. When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
That was a “Frankism,” Edelman told me. Ripped from the mind of Edelman’s father, Frank Edelman.
The point is interesting though. The offense, even after 16 weeks is still trying to grow. Not yet ripe enough to be appetizing.
What’s the “sell-by” date? We will soon find out.
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