Pretty amazing the turnaround that can happen in just six sleeps.
After the Patriots narrowly escaped MetLife Stadium with a win over the piteous Jets on Monday night, rocks were kicked, teeth were gnashed, heads shook sadly. The win cost them precious draft position next April, according to SOME PEOPLE (not me … I swear).
And now, after kinda dominating the Baltimore Ravens – a team whose only losses came to the unbeaten Steelers and defending champion Chiefs – the Patriots may just have the look and feel of a playoff aspirant, according to SOME PEOPLE (not me … I swear).
With the Patriots now at 4-5, the question is, “Who ARE these guys?”
Allow me to sum it up. I don’t know.
I know they aren’t the intriguingly impressive team from early September (which feels like four years ago).
I know they aren’t the sloppy and borderline disinterested team from the mid-October shellackings by Denver and San Francisco (don’t talk to me about the final score against the Broncos, the Patriots got HANDLED in that game).
They aren’t as bad as they looked against the Jets. They aren’t as good as they looked against the Ravens.
They are young. They are limited. But they – or, more specifically, their head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels – know what those limitations are. And they stay the hell away from them as long as they can and try to get the game in a spot where they can play to their strengths.
What are the strengths?
A bludgeoning rushing attack (173 yards on 39 carries) behind a talented line that’s in good health. Damien Harris (121 yards) as a hammer running behind the anvil that is fullback Jakob Johnson.
Cam Newton, who – even if he’s here for short money and a short time – has been the consummate professional. He takes the physical punishment. He takes the criticism. He’s worked to fix the turnover problem that was costing the team wins. And he is ego-less. As ego-less as a guy who shows up wearing a Fez that tops an outfit someone lifted from 1975 can be.
Another strength is protecting possessions, playing field position, using all four downs on offense and – failing that – getting the ball to should-be Pro Bowler (All-Pro?) Jake Bailey.
On defense? I’m less sure what the strengths are. Last night, they played like a bunch of high school seniors who’d been together since Pop Warner and had one last Thanksgiving Day Game before they were all done. Which is to say with purpose. There have been games that wasn’t the case.
I’m not saying the secondary is objectively “good” right now. Not with its best and most highly-paid player Stephon Gilmore in the midst of an absence that grows curiouser and curiouser. Not with second-year man Chase Winovich packed in mothballs for a few weeks then playing like A.J. Hawk last night. Not when they’ve gotten run all over by the Broncos, Niners and Bills prior to bowing up against Baltimore.
The problem is, they aren’t always going to be able to hide the limitations. Without two brilliant playcalls to get them touchdowns last night, without the rain, without the lead, they wouldn’t have been able to play 1950s style, meat-and-potatoes football.
They took gambles to get an edge and then – once they got it – they went conservative to protect it.
Sometimes gambles work, like last night. Sometimes they don’t, like an onside kick two weeks ago against Buffalo. You can’t count on them.
Neither, I think, will you be able to count on predictable patterns from these Patriots. In a six-day span they nearly lost a game nobody thought they could lose. Then they won a game nobody thought they could win. They aren’t a team bound for the top of the draft and they aren’t a playoff threat.
They are the proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
THE GILMORE DILEMMA
Stephon Gilmore has now missed the past three games with a knee injury suffered in practice October 28. It’s been a busy few weeks for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year even if he’s been idle when it comes to playing.
After playing a tepid game against the 49ers and amid speculation he might be moved at the trade deadline, Gilmore put his home on the market. All offers needed to be in by November 3 at 5 p.m. – one hour after the deadline came and went.
Who knows whether Gilmore was putting his ducks in a row while hoping to be dealt or merely being proactive. But that was just another bit of weirdness since this summer that signals something might be off.
The first was a training camp absence that was quickly explained away as being for personal reasons. Fair enough. But soon after, Gilmore was handed a $5M raise by the Patriots for 2020. The Patriots are not famous for handing out $5M raises.
A couple of days after the trade deadline, Gilmore hurt his knee. After missing games against the Bills and Jets, Gilmore was a limited participant on Wednesday, did not practice Thursday then was limited again on Friday. He was listed as questionable for the Ravens. He wasn’t spotted having a pregame workout with trainers on the field so he didn’t appear to be a game-time decision.
Belichick’s longstanding policy of not discussing injuries has myriad benefits for both the team and the player. It protects health privacy, for one. It heads off speculation about timetables. It keeps opponents guessing. It makes for shorter press conferences.
But the secrecy – as many players have told me over the years – has a downside too. Especially when a player’s performance is suffering because of an injury that’s a helluva lot more severe than anyone knows. Or if there’s no performance at all.
MEYERS KEEPS ON PRODUCING
In the past four games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 27 balls for 346 yards on 37 targets. What’s most eye-opening is that there really aren’t a lot of other options out there for the Patriots in the passing game. Seven balls were thrown at Meyers Sunday night. No other wideout was targeted. And still – because of his ability to change speed, find soft spots, read traffic and hold onto the damn ball – he was a handful.
In the past three games that Newton started and finished, he’s thrown 77 times and Meyers has seen 31 of them. Damiere Byrd’s seen 13. Isaiah Zuber and Gunner Olszewski have seen one each.
Tack on the Jeff Blake-looking rainbow touchdown pass Meyers threw to Rex Burkhead and you have a player whose absolutely seized his opportunity and built on it.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh – amusingly – said the Ravens weren’t at all surprised by Meyers’ throw.
“We talked about it all week,” he said. “We practiced it. I think we had it covered it but (rookie linebacker) Patrick (Queen) just hesitated just a little bit. I would probably call that just a rookie mistake in terms of uncertainty in that situation and he was a guy in coverage area, and he had his guy. He was on his guy. Hesitated just a step or two, and that gave Burkhead a chance to get in position.
“The throw, the catch, was pretty good. With the weather the way it was, and tear-dropping that ball and Burkhead, he's a really good receiving running back and he made a really nice play on it.”
BAILEY’S WEEKLY BAILOUTS
Why’d I say Jake Bailey could be an All-Pro this year?
Check this out. He had four punts last night. None were returned. Two were dropped inside the 20. Last week, his 59-yarder was inside the 20 and not returned. His average this year is 46.3 gross. His net average (punt length minus return yardage) is 45.3. That’s the second-best net in the league.
His punts have been returned a league-low 17 yards. It’s a group thing on punt coverage with Bailey and his coverage group but his production this year (and last) explains why the Patriots moved on from Ryan Allen after 2018 even though Allen was a key part of the Patriots Super Bowl win that season.
The only real blemish on Newton’s quarterbacking night (at first glance) was the short-hop throw in the end zone to Meyers that cost the Patriots a touchdown and forced a field goal. It was an easy throw and he killed a turf worm with it. Other than that – running, throwing and decision-making – it was a positive game. Little checkdowns like the throw to Meyers for a critical first down in the fourth or the flip in the flat to Jakob Johnson were the kinds of throws Newton needed to hit. Full-on game management by him. And that’s a good thing. …
Chase Winovich, Terez Hall and Kyle Dugger had outstanding games defensively. Dugger had 12 tackles and was very involved at the line of scrimmage in run-support. Winovich had seven tackles – six in the first half – and was a major disruptor while Hall had a couple of mulekick hits and finished with 10 stops. …
Here was Harbaugh on the Patriots running game: “On the inside runs, those are just plays where you've got to play better. You've got to do a better job on the inside runs. That's not something that we are okay with at all, and we just did a better job of playing them (after halftime). We might have lined up in a different front a few times in the second half. We might have moved a guy here and there.
"Those are just adjustments that we made, but those aren't keys. The keys are how you play the runs. The fronts that we played in the first half were good fronts to stop those runs. They shouldn't have come through there like they did. They were pretty consistently getting four and five yards on first down when they ran those inside plays in the first half.”