Patriots

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.

Patriots' 43-40 win over Chiefs lives up to the billing

Patriots' 43-40 win over Chiefs lives up to the billing

FOXBORO – It was 11:28 p.m., just after Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yarder at the buzzer ended a Sunday Night Football game you won’t forget.

As I walked from the media elevator to the field I thumbed out a tweet I suspected might get some pushback.

“That was a great, great game.”

That conclusion should have been self-evident. But launching a tweet like that into the vortex of snark and negativity that swirls on Twitter during Patriots games is asking for a mass debunking.

The “yeah, buts . . . ” and laments about which guy sucks, what play call was stupid and how this team won’t be winning Super Bowls playing like that usually come raining down.

But this time, the bitchers, moaners and punch-bowl turds were vastly outnumbered by people realizing just what they watched.

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Two teams putting up almost 1,000 yards of offense (500 for the Pats, 465 for the Chiefs)

The greatest quarterback of all time dueling the most exciting young quarterback in the NFL.

A franchise in the autumn of its years at the top, rolling up its sleeves at crunch time and using a whole lot of Dad strength to subdue the latest wannabe.

“Wannabe” isn’t meant to demean the Chiefs. Every team in the league that’s not based on Route 1 in Foxboro wants to be what the Patriots have been for two decades, not just another notch on the belt of Brady and Belichick.

It used to be the same here. We’d get giddy talk about the 1994 opener when Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino dueled and the Patriots lost 38-34, the same way people in Kansas City are going to talk about this one.

But we’re a little jaded now. We’ve got a catalog of indelible games to thumb through now. So many that, when these games end we’re like jewelers inspecting diamonds searching for flaws in something that was really, really exquisite.

The journey to 43-40 was as entertaining and jammed with intrigue as any other regular-season game in recent memory.

It was 27-26 entering the last quarter, the Chiefs having erased a 24-9 halftime lead with a 67-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Kareem Hunt after Bill Belichick warned his team all week long about guarding against big plays. And there was a strip-sack of Brady in there too when the quarterback went on walkabout and got hammered to set up a touchdown pass to the uncoverable Tyreek Hill.

That was the prelude to a 30-point fourth in which the Chiefs got a 97-yard kickoff return setting up a go-ahead touchdown, Brady ran one in from four yards out on third-and-goal, Gostkowski drilled a 50-yarder after a 42-yard hookup between Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Mahomes hit Hill for a 75-yard touchdown that tied it and then Brady hit Gronk for 39 yards to set up the game-winner.

After a week debating the merits of Gronk compared to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Gronk got the last word. And so did Brady after we spent more than a week marveling at the arm and composure of Mahomes.

In a lot of ways, this was the rare game that we all forecasted pretty accurately.

Not all the dirty details, but the fact that both teams would go up and down the field on each other.

That the Patriots might hatch a couple of things to confuse Mahomes (both of his picks were costly and caused by savvy defense) but that his arm strength and the speed of his receivers made him a threat no matter where he was on the field.

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That Kansas City might get alternately picked on and bullied on the ground and spread thin and picked apart through the air.

But we also learned that Mahomes has it in him to rebound on the road against a dynasty. Yeah, he’s just another notch on the Patriots belt this morning, another under-25 quarterback that lost to the Patriots at Gillette, but he’s the wind beneath the Chiefs wings now. And that’s why the losing locker room didn’t sound like a losing locker room.

The Patriots didn’t play badly and lose badly as they did the last two times the Chiefs saw them in the regular season. The Patriots, overall, played really well and still the Chiefs almost got them.

“I feel like if we had the ball last like they did we would have gone down and scored and won, too,” said Hunt. “We can take this loss. I mean, you never want to lose. We’re going to learn from this, go study and make sure it don’t happen again.”

The Chiefs can “take this loss” as Hunt said because they feel pretty good that this won’t be the only time they see the Patriots this year.

“When you score 40 points and you lose you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror,” said corner Orlando Scandrick. “This team has got great character. It’s one of the best group of guys I’ve been around in my whole 11-year career. We’ll be fine, I am not worried about it at all. The way this team works, the way this team prepares. If we handle our business the way we’re supposed to handle our business there is a good chance we will see them again.”

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Patriots rise to the situation against unbeaten Chiefs

Patriots rise to the situation against unbeaten Chiefs

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady had a thought when Tyreek Hill sprinted down the sideline in front of the Patriots bench for a 75-yard touchdown:

"Good. Score quick."

With just over three minutes remaining, Hill's electric catch-and-run tied the back-and-forth shootout, 40-40. But taking a glass-half-full approach, Brady viewed it as more time for him and his teammates to drive the field and score to win the game.

He was right. Seven plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal as time expired that made the Patriots the only team to knock off Kansas City so far this season.

"We had enough time," Brady said. "They had one timeout left and it gave us enough time to go down and kick the field goal. I don't know if we punted tonight (NOTE: They didn't) . . . Still think we missed some opportunities out there. Made some situational plays when we needed it, the short yardage. We really lost the game (to the Chiefs) last year on short-yardages. I thought we were pretty good in that tonight, so that was real positive."

The critical short-yardage play of the game-winning drive came just after the two-minute warning. Sony Michel, who'd racked up over 100 yards for the second time in his young career, took a handoff on third-and-one at the Patriots 34-yard line, ran off left tackle Trent Brown and picked up two.

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The clock was ticking and the Patriots were off and running.

"That was great," Brady said. "I was happy we made the third-and-one. You know, that gave us a great opportunity, and then we hit some other plays."

"Situational football," center David Andrews said. "We practice it so much. Talk about it. Walk through it. We knew we didn't want to give him the ball back. That was the third-and-short, right? To start the drive? That was a big play.

"We kind of knew what they were going to be in. We executed it. That was a big play right there. Sony did a great job of going downhill and getting the first down."

In last year's season opener, the Patriots failed on two fourth-and-one plays. On Sunday night, Michel converted a third-and-one at the goal line in the first quarter, James White ran for 10 on a third-and-2 in the second, Michel picked up enough on a third-and-one in the third, and later in that quarter Brady rushed for a touchdown on a third-and-four from the four.

The Patriots were 7-for-13 on third down in the game, and they went 6-for-7 on third-and-less-than-five. One of those conversions was a little atypical, with Brady hitting Chris Hogan for a 42-yard pass on third-and-one in the fourth. The Patriots were down 33-30 at the time.

"I think it's a confidence thing," Hogan said of his team's late-game execution. "We practice these things, and we're in these situations sometimes in games. When we're in those situations, our poise is good. Tommy obviously being in the huddle really commands us. Our attention and our detail and our sense of urgency has to go up in those situations, and you gotta execute. We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game."

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Once Michel had picked up the final third-and-short of the game, Brady went to his most reliable weapons in the passing game. He hit White for 16 yards and a first down. Then he found Rob Gronkowski in one-on-one coverage for 39 yards up the right sideline.

"He got a matchup and made a big play," Brady said. "He’s been making a lot of those in his career. I’ll keep throwing to him in the biggest moments."

One snap to center the football for Gostkowski was all that was left to do. The game-winner might've been Gostkowski's easiest kick of the night, but he never would've been put in that position had he not made four field goals prior to that one, including a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter that was as clutch as any late-game play the Patriots were able to execute.

"That's a guy that's certainly taken for granted around here," Matthew Slater said after the game. "Kicker is a funny position in the league. Nobody starts paying attention to you until you start missing kicks. That guy's been so reliable, so consistent for the last 13 years . . . Really no surprise there. He does it in practice. His approach is the same. His mentality never changes. He came up big for us tonight."

Gostkowski. Gronkowski. Brady. White. Hogan. Michel and the offensive line. There were plenty who came up big to finish off the biggest test the Patriots have faced to this point in the year.

If every season is different, every team is different, as Bill Belichick and his players tell us annually, then Sunday -- and in particular that final drive -- must have taught them something about themselves. There are all sorts of players on the roster have been in that kind of late-game spot many times before. But this team hadn't.

"I think we have a lot of clutch players," Brady said. "I think we have no problem grinding it out. That’s what the football season’s all about. I don’t think we’ve seen our best. I think we can all play a lot better, and I think that’s what we plan to do."

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