Say this for these Patriots. They aren’t that good. But they are wildly entertaining. For the third straight week and the fourth time in six games, we all had ourselves a chest-pounding, temple-grabbing time.
If you like excitement, they’re a good take. If you got accustomed to football excellence over the past couple decades -- and we all greedily did -- there are two thoughts that occur during these events. First, this is not a temporary condition. Second, stop holding your breath for excellence and start hoping for consistent competence.
The Cowboys could have scored 50 on Sunday. They didn’t. That’s a fact. But chest-puffing about going "toe-to-toe" with the potent Dallas offense? Come on.
In reality, the Cowboys stood with their arms at their sides, stuck out their chin and asked the Patriots to take their best shot. And the best New England could do was wobble them.
Dak Prescott had an end-zone pick when he threw behind wide receiver Cedrick Wilson on a third-and-9 from the Patriots 16. He fumbled on a fourth-down play at the goal line after appearing to score on the previous play. Both plays were more about Dallas than the Patriots.
The Jonathan Jones PBU in the end zone that saved four points? That was all him. Great play. But 10 of the Cowboys 12 penalties were against their offense. There were also the standard-issue scatter-brained decisions of Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
Dallas basically took what it wanted whenever it wanted to. Fourth-and-4 on a drive to tie the game at the end of regulation. Got it. Third-and-25 after staggering out of field goal position on that same drive. They get 24. Touchdown to win it in overtime? Got it.
In the aftermath of this game in which the Cowboys put up 567 yards on Bill Belichick’s defense, I heard a surprising amount of "Hey, tip your cap. That’s a helluva crew they got there." Like this was the exception not the rule. Like Davis Mills didn’t last week go 21 for 29 for 312 and three touchdowns for Houston as the Patriots narrowly survived.
The Texans lost 31-3 to the Colts on Sunday. Two weeks ago, they lost to the Bills 40-0. Against the Patriots, they went up and down the field like a real-live NFL offense.
We’ve all watched this team long enough to understand that their M.O. is to fix the stuff they suck at.
After Davis Mills’ Awesome Afternoon! I asked Jerod Mayo how long before the Patriots started playing like the Patriots.
“Really we’re still a work in progress,” he explained. “We have a lot of new guys. I would say if you look at our team historically very little turnover. We have a bunch of new guys and they are all good players. But we still trying to figure each other out.
"There have been stretches this year we’ve played I would say pretty decent football, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If you look at it statistically I’m sure we rank somewhere near the top in a bunch of categories. But you’re right, we definitely have a long way to go. We have to get better. And we always talk about, September you try to figure yourself out. Even early October you are trying to figure yourself out. Then November, hopefully, November, December, January you’re playing your best football. And by no means do I think we’re playing our best football as a team. We talk about complementary football. And I don’t think we’re playing our best defensively. I think the rest of the guys understand that and know we have a long way to go and a lot of growth and our ceiling is very high.”
Mayo said the urgency is most definitely there.
“We’re barely into October, I guess midway into October at this point,” he said. “But I do think we’ll be better. I think we’re getting better. I think the guys are really starting to come together as far as off the field, studying film, and also just playing with one another. And we’ve had some guys go in and out as well. And even if you look at this past game, not trying to look in the past, there were some plays out there which we should have been off the field. It kind of extended drives. If you take away two drives from last game and we’re not even having this conversation. But we are. And we’re here today. The only thing now we can do is look forward to playing against a very talented offense coming in here for the Cowboys.”
The Cowboys came in and almost put up 600 yards of offense. They had eight -- eight -- plays of 20 yards or more. They could have scored 50.
Now? Additional observations ...
Mac Jones’ accuracy and anticipation are so absurdly good that they completely compensate for his average arm strength. That said, when Jones had to go extra mustard on two key slant throws on Sunday, both sailed high. On the first -- a third-and-4 from the Patriots 46 late in the third -- Jones missed Jakobi Meyers. On the second, he threw a pick-6 intended for Kendrick Bourne. Those are throws that Tom Brady (sorry to keep bringing the guy up, but whatever) always tried to throw downhill. Straight over the top, nose of the football darting down. I don’t know if it’s release point, being a tad shorter or what but those high velocity short throws have to be on the black and Jones’ weren’t in those instances.
That said, Jones’ resilience is astonishing. We’ve seen it since his first day of training camp when he concluded the first padded practice by misfiring all over the joint. The next day, he came out dialed in. There are scores of similar examples since and Sunday’s flinch-free throw to Bourne to give the Patriots the lead was the best example of that.
This is what Bill Belichick had to say about Mike McCarthy’s in-game savvy last Friday.
“Situationally, I think Mike is probably as good as anybody that we play against. It hasn’t been very often, and I’m happy about that. I wouldn’t want to play Mike twice a year. There’s situational football; third down, fourth down, two-minute, four-minute, end of half, end of game, fourth down calls, low red area calls, last play calls. Things like that. They’re all good. We, in the weeks that we’ve played him, probably spent more times on those plays than with any other team. They’re very well prepared, and they always seem to execute them at a very high level.”
I’m starting to think that, even if Tom Brady had been wicked nice to N’Keal Harry in 2019, attended all the OTAs and minicamps and even went bowling with him, N’Keal would still be an utter non-factor. Do you know he was actually on the field for 21 snaps Sunday? That’s 39 percent. Yeah. Me neither. ...
Where the hell did Josh Uche go? ...
The Patriots are 9-13 since the start of 2020. Thirty-three percent of those wins came against the Jets. They can up the percentage to 40 this Sunday. The Jets (1-4) are coming off a bye. Meanwhile, the other team the Patriots beat this season, the Texans, are 1-5 and trending toward uncompetitive. The Dolphins, who beat the Patriots 17-16 in the opener back when I was saying that New England’s mediocrity would be short-lived, are now 1-5 after losing to Jacksonville. I had no idea Miami was awful.
The Patriots had a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY on Sunday to score more than 30 points at home for the second time in two years. They did not. The only time they’ve been over 30 since October of 2019 was a 36-20 win over Raiders in Week 3 last year.
Do you know there are still people who pop up after the Patriots lose and insist the team missed the boat by cutting Cam Newton? Swear to God.
Devin McCourty was candid when asked what happened on the Cowboys two back-breaking completions -- the third-and-25 to set up the game-tying field goal and the overtime touchdown.
"We’re banged up, it’s tough," McCourty said. "You would want more DBs in but you guys could see, it was tough. [Jonathan] Jones was in and out, [Adrian Phillips] went down for a second, [Justin Bethel] went down for a second, it was just tough. (The third-and-25 play) we try to practice just wasn’t executed well enough. That play was tough though."
"We were in a tough call for the route they ran,” McCourty said. “They dialed up a good play for what we tried to do, kind of situational football. What they like to do, we tried to take it away. Dak [Prescott] was able to hold it for another second. We kind of took the first two reads, the two tight ends to the flat on our left side, but an extended play, he got to kind of get back to the middle. That's where we were kind of light at and that was it.”
There are several subtexts here. First, if Stephon Gilmore -- one of the league’s best corners -- had gotten the money he wanted over the summer, would there be this kind of lamenting? Or would he have been on the field, increasing Dak Prescott’s degree of difficulty from about a 2 to maybe a 6?
I happen to believe Gilmore was hiding on PUP and -- with the Patriots grudging approval -- was executing a hold-in. If he got paid over the summer, Gilmore would have been playing. Should he have been paid? Gilmore’s teammates made their feelings clear all summer. Yes. So it logically follows that, on a day they were hopelessly chasing Cowboy receivers all over the field, they’d be left thinking that not giving Gilmore what he wanted was a misstep.
The fine print on not paying Gilmore -- his age, what he was seeking, how he played in 2020 before his injury, his reticence to get on the field and show how he could perform post-surgery -- probably isn’t that important to the guys watching Prescott and Davis Mills riddle the secondary.
Combine that with the number of times the defense finds itself outflanked by scheme or carved up after zero blitz calls and it would be perfectly understandable if some of the Patriots veteran defenders started to lose confidence in whoever -- Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick, Jerod Mayo, Matt Patricia, a four-headed monster? -- is the head chef over on the sidelines.
One of the best things about Mac Jones performance on Sunday was the lack of sideways throwing. He pressed the ball down the field with regularity and Phil Perry did a great job detailing the intricacies of the play-calling and personnel. But the in-game consistency of Josh McDaniels waned a bit as the Patriots got through their script. Of course you want to vary calls and not become predictable. But philosophically, there’s still a hesitancy from both McDaniels and Belichick to ride Jones in high-leverage spots.
After their first two drives, the Patriots drives were plays of four, three, three, three, three and five. They went fumble (strip sack), blocked punt, end of half turtling, punt, punt, punt.
They didn’t want to get into a shootout it seemed, so they coached like they were bowling with the bumpers on. They don’t need to. Ironically, on defense they coach like they are competent enough to carry out high-leverage calls and too often they haven’t.
I digress. Back to the topic at hand which is deciding whether or not Jones is one of the team’s best players and putting the ball in his hands to make a play.
On WEEI Monday, Belichick was asked about punting on fourth-and-3 from the Patriots 46 in overtime.
“With (Cowboys kicker) Greg Zuerlein, his field goal range, they can play on a pretty short field there,” said Belichick. “One first down could probably beat you there. So, not really.”
Right. But at that point, the Cowboys had driven into scoring territory on each of their last four possessions. So, with the defense clearly gassed and getting shredded, whether Dallas got the ball at the Patriots 46 or their own 20 (as they did) they were almost certainly going to get into field goal range. How to prevent that? Don’t give them the ball.
But, similar to opting for a 55-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the rain against the Bucs, Belichick and McDaniels again decided against putting their money on Jones.