Here’s how you know the Patriots aren’t frauds. After more than a quarter of snoozy, preseason-level execution against the Panthers they kicked off the covers, put their feet on the floor, rubbed their eyes, stretched and administered a beating.
Good teams -- complete (or at least complementary) teams -- can flip a switch like that. They can stop the madness and figure things out on the fly. If one engine isn’t working, there’s another engine that can give extra power.
Not always. Sometimes you mess around and find out as the Buffalo Bills did Sunday against the Jaguars.
But for the second straight week, the Patriots defense keyed a win when their offense was sputtering.
The Patriots first two drives were six-play rides to midfield that were short-circuited by penalties and ended with punts. Their third possession at the end of the first quarter ended with a strip-sack after two plays.
And what did the Panthers do with that turnover? They embarked on their longest drive of the first half. Twelve yards. They got a field goal.
After the Patriots responded with an eight-play touchdown drive and the Panthers went three-and-out, Mac Jones set the Panthers up again, throwing an ill-advised pass directly to Stephon Gilmore. Again, the Panthers were limited to a field goal after a net-gain of three yards on the drive.
Then the Patriots closed the half with a 10-play scoring drive to go ahead 14-6. The second half went Carolina punt, Patriots punt, J.C. Jackson pick-six and the game was -- midway through the third quarter -- effectively over.
And yeah, sure, Sam Darnold. Whaddya expect. Against a better team they couldn’t have skated through that tepid and undisciplined start and exerted their will. But they kind of did the same thing last week against the Chargers. On the road. Against a team that’s actually pretty good.
Down 14-7 and having just gone four-and-out inside the Chargers 5, they forced two three-and-outs and came up with a pick, adding two field goals off of that stretch. Then, after fumbling on their first second-half possession, the Patriots defense forced another punt, got a pick-six out of Adrian Phillips and churned out that win.
Look big picture at what the Patriots have done since their fairly ugly, 28-13 home loss to the Saints.
They lost at the buzzer to Tampa. They fell behind by 13 then blanked the Texans in the second half to escape with a win. They lost in OT to Dallas. They demolished the Jets. Then you have these last two games where the offense scuffled and the defense -- which got carved for 30 minutes by Davis Mills and 60-plus minutes by Dak Prescott -- was the backbone.
Look back at the 2018 Patriots. That was an 11-5 team but every one of their regular-season losses that year came to teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Got blown out in three of them. That team was lost (relatively) deep into December before it found its footing. I’m not predicting this season ends like that one did. But this team seems a little more complementary. Can’t throw. They run. Can’t run or throw? Defense kicks in. That 2018 team went 3-5 on the road. This one is 4-0 so far.
Winning convincingly when you don’t have your best stuff -- even if you are facing the rapidly devolving Sam Darnold -- is what good and balanced teams do. The Patriots are one of those.
On to the takeaways!
Running game becoming dominant
The Patriots got 146 yards on the ground from Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden. They got 74 receiving yards from those three and another 23 from their tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. The only wide receiver yards they got were from Kendrick Bourne (32) and Jakobi Meyers (8). That tells you (again, since you probably already knew it) that they are a power team.
Not only are they a power team, but I’d bet that no team in football has a three-back rotation that runs as physically as Harris, Stevenson and Bolden. Bolden, of course, wouldn’t be getting the reps he’s seen if James White was healthy. But the upshot of his presence as the third-down back means the Patriots have to be one of the most unpleasant teams to tackle in the NFL right now.
Next week’s opponent -- the Browns -- have only allowed an average of more than 4 YPC once this season. They entered Sunday’s game against the Bengals third in rushing yards allowed per game (84.8) and second in YPC allowed (3.51). The Patriots entered Sunday averaging 149.4 YPG (third) and 4.89 YPC (fifth). So it won’t be easy for the Patriots to find similar success running against Cleveland, which was sixth in the NFL defending runs up the middle (3.27 YPC), exactly where the Patriots have run it most successfully (6.64 YPC, second in the league).
It will be a strength-on-strength matchup in the running game and the Patriots will be hoping for a little better work from Jones than they’ve gotten the past two weeks through the air.
Still uncharacteristically sloppy
With the Jones strip sack, the Patriots have now lost seven fumbles this year. Their nine fumbles lost in 2016 was the most they’ve lost in the previous five years. They lost four, seven, six and five from 2017 through 2020.
They had three total fumbles Sunday and are up to 12 on the season through nine games. It’s an issue that bears watching, especially with the style of rushing attack they have when there are so many plunges into piles of prying hands.
The Patriots also had six penalties on Sunday, all on the offense. They are at 52 penalties for the year. They had 62 penalties in 2020. They have seven pre-snap penalties, five for delay of game (they had one of those against the Panthers). Isaiah Wynn has five of the penalties and he added a false start on Sunday. Hunter Henry has three of those this year, including Sunday.
Overall, the Patriots are still in the middle of the pack in terms of how often they’ve been flagged (Carolina leads the league with 65 penalties). They’re also tied for fifth in net flags against their opponents, having been flagged 10 times less.
But both the fumbles and penalties are the kind of preventable (usually) mistakes the Patriots need to keep working to tidy up.
Asked about the pre-snap flags after the game, Bill Belichick said, “Yeah, that’s not what we’re trying to do.”
Gilmore got his pick, but the Pats won the war
I kinda loved the response from Mac Jones when asked about the pick he threw to Gilmore.
“I mean I threw the ball right to the guy,” said Jones. “A lot of people could catch that. So, I just have to look at the film and see where I could have thrown it better. But, he is a great player and they are good on defense. They have a good pass defense and respect to those guys. I can do better with my reads and all that stuff. I just have to look in the mirror and see what I can do better.”
Gilmore’s a great defender and had three outstanding and decorated seasons for the Patriots. He sealed a Super Bowl win. He won a DPOY. He was average in the 11 games he played in 2020. This year, he held out or was hurt or a combination of both so he was on the PUP list until he got traded so the Patriots could clear space and sign Jamie Collins, who had a nifty pick of his own on Sunday.
Would he have helped the Patriots against, say, Miami? Probably. But he couldn’t play. PUP list. Tampa? Couldn’t play. PUP list. Dallas? Couldn’t play. PUP list. Gilmore used the leverage he had to try and get a raise or a new deal on top of the five-$65M the Patriots agreed to pay him. And while using that leverage, the Patriots lost games he could have helped them win.
Shame on them for not coughing up a raise for a 31-year-old corner coming off quad surgery who wasn’t that great in the limited time he played last year? After a spending spree for the ages helped kickstart their rebuild for this year? What’s another $8M? I mean, I guess. If the cap space were there. Which it really wasn’t. If you knew how Gilmore would respond physically once he was on the field practicing in full, which he wasn’t.
And can you bank on a balls-to-the-wall effort from a guy who’s dying to hit free agency and will want to make sure he is in tip-top condition for his next team? Gilmore’s 2020 performance -- especially against the Niners when he gave tepid effort on too many plays – didn’t make a great case that he would.
The upshot? We’ve all seen plenty of NFL players get hosed financially because teams held the hammer on them and used it to pound them into submission. The Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins holdouts at the end of their rookie contracts? One-hundred percent justified. Malcolm Butler had a case for being pissed. J.C. Jackson -- who now has an absurd 22 career interceptions and will have made $5.1M for his four-year career by the end of this season -- would have a case.
As an example of an NFL player getting played and taken advantage of by his team, Gilmore is not a sympathetic figure. Very good player. Very nice guy. But it’s hard to say a guy who wouldn’t play in New England for the same rate he’s making in Carolina is somehow vindicated because Jones threw a pick that hit him directly in the 9.