Patriots

Five thoughts: Pats win one for the ages

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Five thoughts: Pats win one for the ages

Here are five quick-hitting thoughts from what transpired between the Patriots and the Steelers on Sunday evening . . .

1) Just as you might've guessed. After 60 minutes of football, Eric Rowe-to-Duron Harmon ended up being the connection that determined which team was in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. You guessed that, right? Right.

Capping off one of the most dramatic regular-season wins in recent memory, Rowe batted away Ben Roethlisberger's last-second pass into traffic (which followed a fake spike), and Harmon snagged it to seal the victory. How exactly the Patriots put themselves in that position -- after a total takeover by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the final drive, an uncharacteristic breakdown in tackling in the secondary, and a catch that wasn't a catch -- will be broken down in great detail for days. All week, probably. We've already started chipping away at every possible angle. Before moving on to chew on those posts, check out some other notes and nuggets from this instant-classic . . . 

2) Antonio Brown's first-quarter leg injury completely changed things for the Patriots defense. Instead of having to play split-safety coverage, they could incorporate more post-safety looks and mix and match a little more often. With Brown in the game, Matt Patricia's unit consistently had multiple sets of eyes on the MVP candidate, typically with Malcolm Butler playing Brown underneath with safety help over the top. Brown's absence should've meant more help on Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster, or another body to defend the run, but the Patriots had trouble capitalizing . . . until the final few minutes rolled around. 

3) For most of the night, the Patriots defense simply couldn't get off the field. Less than a week after they couldn't convert a single third down (0-for-11 in Miami), they had trouble stopping the Steelers on any third downs. Ben Roethlisberger and his offense converted 10 of their first 13 third downs -- most of which came after Antonio Brown's first-quarter injury. Bill Belichick consistently harps on the importance of "good situational football," which includes third-down play. Over the last two weeks, good situational football -- on third downs, at least -- has been lacking. In fairness, the third-down issues will be largely forgotten because they made the two most crucial third-down stops in the game at the end. The first came with just over two minutes to go that forced the Steelers to punt and set up what proved to be New England's game-winning drive. The second was Rowe-to-Harmon.

4) The internet was quick to pile on Stephen Gostkowski for his missed extra point in the third quarter. But the kicking operation is a three-man job, and the first couple of elements of Gostkowski's kick seemed to be off in the wet weather. Joe Cardona's snap was low and in tight to holder Ryan Allen. Then Allen had to quickly snag the low flip and spin it upright. The laces were still facing inward when Gostkowski made contact, and the kick missed wide left. The timing on the operation for every kicking unit around the league is so precise (and so sensitive) that a misplaced snap can throw a wrench into the entire process . . . even if it isn't wildly off the mark. Gostkowski made a 32-yarder, a 46-yarder and one extra point on the night.

5) All eyes were trained on Malcolm Butler early in this one. It was expected he'd get Antonio Brown (with help), and he did. But it was Stephon Gilmore who quickly found himself in the spotlight. He made an impressive pass breakup in the first quarter, but was beaten by JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant for long gains soon thereafter. Before the end of the half, Bryant got away with a push-off and beat Gilmore from short range for a touchdown. Gilmore also seemed to have some issues in the running game in the second half. He'd been among the Patriots' best defenders over the last month or so, but this looked like a step back.

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Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

In Tom Brady’s fever dream, he walks down a long, antiseptic hallway filled with artificial light. This week. This week. This week we get it right. A mantra on repeat in Brady’s mind.

Smooth, soothing elevator music plays. Is it N’Sync?

A door is at the end of the hall. He pushes it open. It’s like a high school chem lab. Every seat at every table is full. Everyone is in full uniform. Brady recognizes none of them from the back of the room. They are all hunched forward, writing, their backs turned to him.

Bill Belichick stands at the front of the class. He’s dressed differently. A hooded cloak. A long white beard. A scythe leans against the wall behind him.

“So, like I said, we’re gonna play to our strengths …” Belichick is saying. He spots Brady. Belichick’s voice tapers. His face spreads into a grin. But it doesn’t stop. It keeps stretching wider. 

“I’m late?” Brady says, his voice a mixture of anger and disbelief. “Why am I late? What time is it?!”

“No, Tom, just finishing up here, not late. Right on time. I was just saying we’re looking to get the ball to Jake Bailey this week. Get it to Jake and let him do his thing…”

Bailey is at a lab table to Belichick’s right.

“Hi Tom!” he says, waving like a lunatic. “I’m here to help!”

In his left hand, he holds an hourglass. He flicks at it absently with his right index finger. Flick. Flick. Flick. Sand falls down.

Panic rises in Brady’s throat. How could he have gotten the time wrong? Is everything already done, really?

“We’re looking to get it to the punter? That’s the plan? What can I do, though? I can do things.” Brady asks, eyes darting around the room. He can remember ever feeling so exposed.

“You know what, I think we’re all set for now, Tom,” Belichick replies, his grin somehow broadening so that his eyes begin to bulge slightly.

One player sits up straight, pivots rigidly and looks at Brady with dead eyes. It’s Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” he says.

Every other player sits bolt upright. They slowly turn in unison to face Brady. They are all Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” they say robotically. Then they smile and all the Ryan Izzos give a big thumbs-up.

“This shit ain’t real,” Brady mutters. Turning for the door he spins into a body that’s blocking it.

“This is serious as a HEART ATTACK!!!!” Marshall Newhouse says and throws his head back. All the Ryan Izzos laugh.

Pushing past Newhouse with surprising ease, Brady is now in a different hall. There’s a door with a small picture taped to it. He looks at the picture. A goat. With a cane. And a top hat. His cane points at a door. Squinting, Brady sees that, on the door in the picture, there is also a picture. Of a goat. With a cane. And a top hat. That is pointing at a door.

The door opens on its own. Slowly. It’s Brady’s locker room. Same as it’s been since 2002. But at his locker, there’s a scrum of people. They are holding cameras and tape recorders. They are interviewing someone at HIS locker. The MOTHERSCRATCHER!

“Hey!!!” yells Brady. No one turns.

Brady rushes over and grabs a shoulder. Rohan Davey turns to face Brady. Then Matt Guttierez. And Matt Cassel. And Kevin O’Connell. Ryan Mallett. Jimmy. Jacoby. Jarrett. Damon Huard. Michael Bishop. John Friesz. Drew Bledsoe. They all look at Brady with detachment then turn back to the figure at Brady’s locker.

Wedging himself through Brady sees someone in a full-body cast. Only the head is visible. The face looks familiar. Brady can’t place it.

“Hi Tom!” the head suddenly cries. “I’m Tua!!!! We’re gonna work together!”

The music. Brady hears it again. It’s louder now. Deafening. “Bye, bye, bye!” It is N’Sync.

**********

Tom Brady’s purgatory season of 2019 activates the imagination so if you’re still with me, I appreciate you.

Facts are facts, Tom Brady is New England’s Achilles and his NFL Odyssey has never failed to fascinate. 

Now – in season 20 – quarterbacking a team that stylistically resembles the 2001 team that won the first of six Super Bowls, it’s hard to overlook the ironic symbolism.

The joy that coursed through that season radiated from Brady. He was the sun around which the team revolved. This season, he’s a dark star of despondency, morose about the direction of the offense and his inability to do anything but stay out of the way. 

On too many Sundays, it feels like the thrill is gone for the greatest quarterback of all-time.

His team keeps stacking wins and is 9-1 and atop the AFC. But his job right now is to not eff anything up. In less than two years he’s gone from being revving the engine of a Formula One car to pushing a bike with training wheels around a parking lot.

He’s Jimmy Page playing with a garage band, Picasso with crayons, Steve Jobs with an abacus.

Brady’s on record saying he’ll keep playing until he sucks. Maybe sucking won’t be an inability to throw hard, far and accurately and avoid a pass rush.

Maybe sucking will be being unable to play like he’s capable because of circumstances beyond his control. Maybe sucking will be an inability to suck it up and deal with what’s around him because, he figures, should he really have to at this point?

And that’s where the real conflict exists.

The most selfless and accomplished professional athlete of his generation, the guy who’s probably taken about $50 million less than he could have in salary over the course of his career, the quarterback who’s buttoned his lip and succeeded with a succession of merely OK players around him, the player who dealt with Bill Belichick’s verbal slings and arrows and attempts to replace him so that he could try and win the all-important “next one”?

Are some going to see him bummed out after a win on the road that moved his team to 9-1 and say he’s being a bad teammate? Are some going to accuse the player that authored perhaps the most memorable comeback in team sports history of running up the white flag?

Some could. Some will. Some are.

Are others going to see the whole picture in full relief and realize Despondent Tom has been marinating for a while. Through attempts to replace him. Through lowball contract offers that took advantage of his aversion to conflict. Through the lopping off of talented offensive pieces and the half-assed or lamebrained efforts to replace them.

Others could. Others will. Others are.

The Eeyore act isn’t a hit in Foxboro.

It’s understood that he’s used to a certain level of performance. And nobody believes this offense is about to transform into a unit that will approach Brady’s accustomed level. But the moping creates a firestorm and – even if Brady was publicly sounding the alarm about the offense as far back as training camp – now is not the time for “I told you so …” Even if he did tell us so.

The Patriots offense will improve over the final six games. Isaiah Wynn will help. N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are still new additions. Tight end Matt Lacosse is working his way in. It’s not going to get “good” relative to what we’re used to but it will be better.

Brady’s got valid reasons to be pissed off about how his contracts have been handled, how the offense has been constructed, the team’s reluctance to believe he’s got enough in the tank to play until 45. Things pile up over two decades. It might seem like he’s mad after Jakobi Meyers runs a bad route but that anger may really have its root in a mistake he saw Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms make 13, seven or four years ago.

After all he’s done, if Brady wants to continue kicking rocks in press conferences about what the Patriots can’t do, that’s his prerogative. For me, it won’t undo a millisecond of the Tom Brady Experience or change my belief he’s been the ultimate teammate and still is.

But do you know what it sounds like the longer it goes? A death rattle.

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Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

The New England Patriots were victorious on Sunday vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, but something still clearly didn't sit well with Tom Brady.

The Patriots quarterback was visibly frustrated in his postgame press conference, and it's easy to understand why. Brady completed only 26 of 47 passes and he failed to find the end zone in what was another lackluster performance from the New England offense as a whole.

In his Monday appearance on Westwood One with Jim Gray, Brady discussed his frustration with the offense's ongoing struggles.

"It's just part of how our season's gone," Brady told Gray. "I think there's a lot of things we talk about internally. Things that we see that we need to do to continue to try to improve ... we're going to have to just execute better than we did and better than we have.

"We're 9-1, our defense is playing great, our special teams unit is playing great and they're keeping us in every game. Offensively, I've said we've got to take advantage when we have opportunities in [a] short field and we had a few of those yesterday. Those are the ones that probably frustrate me the most."

Gray asked Brady whether this team -- with an offense that can't seem to find its rhythm -- has what it takes to make it through the playoffs and win Super Bowl title No. 7.

"That's the question that probably everyone wants to know and tries to predict, but nobody knows at this point," Brady answered. "There's only one team that's going to be able to reach the ultimate goal. Out team's in a decent position, so we're not going to know until we're in that position.

"Like I said, we're 9-1. We've got to play great complementary football. There's certainly things that we need to do better offensively. Again, it's not what I think, or what I predict, or what somebody on TV can predict or what they think, or what their parents say, or what their kids say. It's really about the mental toughness of our team to show up and try to improve."

While Brady's play hasn't exactly been spectacular as of late, the 42-year-old QB hasn't gotten a ton of help around him. The offensive line has seen its fair share of struggles through the first 10 games and there's been plenty of turnover at the wide receiver position.

The way Brady sees it, his offense simply has yet to show its full potential.

"Look, everyone thinks, you know, they analyze every game and they know everything that's going on. We talk about ignoring the noise," Brady said. "There's a lot of noise and when you play great, you're the best team in the world. When you play bad, you're the worst team in the world, you can't beat anyone. And that's just riding the rollercoaster of emotions.

"We have a lot of good players on our team and we're trying to excel, we're trying to play at a very high level. I don't think we've reached our potential yet and I'll be excited when we do."

There's no doubting the struggling Patriots offense is a concern heading into Week 12, but Brady makes it a point to look at the positive side of things with his team boasting a 9-1 record on the year.

"I don't think any team's really a finished product. As critical as we can be of our team at times, we're still in a good position," he said. "We're 9-1 and that's a good place to be this time of year. It's not perfect ... but we've got an opportunity that we're going to try and take advantage of.

"I'm going to try and play the best I possibly can. I'm going to try to motivate my teammates as best as I possibly can, and we're going to try to go out there and put our best performance on the field Sunday against Dallas."

Brady and the Pats offense will look to get on the right track when they host the Cowboys on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET.

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