Patriots

Why fans will like referee assignment for Patriots vs. Eagles Week 11 matchup

Why fans will like referee assignment for Patriots vs. Eagles Week 11 matchup

NFL players and fans have complained at various points in the 2019 season about the abundance of penalties called, but based on the referee crew assigned to officiate Sunday's Week 11 matchup between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, we shouldn't expect to see many flags flying at Lincoln Financial Field.

Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew have been assigned to work this much-anticipated game, and as ESPN's Mike Reiss notes, this group has called the fewest penalties per game in the league this season.

The Patriots have committed the sixth-fewest penalties on offense and the fifth-fewest penalties on defense through 10 weeks. 

The defending Super Bowl champions rarely beat themselves, but that wasn't the case in their most recent game -- a 37-20 loss on the road to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9. New England committed seven penalties in this defeat, and a few of these mistakes proved costly.

A game with fewer penalties should benefit the Patriots for a few reasons, one being they have more talent than the Eagles on both sides of the ball. If Vinovich's crew lets the players play, New England should take care of business. Oddsmakers are confident in that outcome, too, as they've pegged the Patriots as 3.5-point road favorites.

The Patriots also have an 8-3 record in games Vinovich has officiated since he became a referee in 2004, including a Super Bowl XLIX victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

Tom E. Curran's latest AFC Power Rankings>>>

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Margin of error for Patriots defense thinning as offense struggles

Margin of error for Patriots defense thinning as offense struggles

FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense smothered the Chiefs in the second half Sunday afternoon. They allowed Patrick Mahomes to throw for just 57 yards on 15 attempts. They allowed 97 yards total and five first downs on five possessions.

That might read like a winning effort. But the Patriots allowed 20 points in the first half. And with their offense finding points hard to come by right now, that was enough to get them beat, 23-16. The margin for error for Bill Belichick's defense, going up against last year's MVP, was wafer-thin.

"We trust our offense," Duron Harmon said after the game. "We know eventually they're going to get it going, and they got it going in the second half. They made a lot of plays. We just gotta make sure we don't give up touchdowns. Can't give up the big plays, just play a complementary football game.

"We're all leaning on each other. They're leaning on us. We're leaning on them. We're all leaning on the special teams game. When we play complementary football between all three phases that's when we're at our best."

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That complementary game was lacking in the first half for the Patriots. First, the offense couldn't pick up the defense when they were gifted good field position. JC Jackson's first-quarter interception gave the Patriots the ball at the Kansas City 40-yard line with a chance to go up 14-0. The result: loss of one; incomplete; incomplete; punt.

Later, special teams couldn't pick up the defense. A blocked field goal gave the Chiefs good field position late in the first quarter, which was followed by a 48-yard touchdown to rookie wideout Mecole Hardman.

"I saw with the coverage they were kind of doing that thing where they were trying to put an extra guy with Tyreek [HIll]," Patrick Mahomes said. "I knew if Mecole – with his route, if he could get the guy to kind of go underneath him, then he was going to be able to break out and be open.

"Obviously they had I think a five-man rush and so the guys were getting a little bit of pressure on me, so I tried to buy an extra tick, put the ball out there. I didn’t want to overthrow him so I kind of threw it a little shorter where he could adjust, because I knew he was going to be open. With that guy, if you get the ball in his hands, he can make plays happen and you saw that."

From there it looked like the Patriots played more two-high safety coverages in order to guard against explosive plays. They were willing to open up space for the Chiefs to hit them with underneath passes in order to prevent The Big One and they succeeded.

The only other touchdown drive the Patriots allowed came when bad complementary football struck again. Tom Brady's interception early in the second quarter gave the Chiefs the football at the Patriots 35-yard line. They were in the end zone seven plays later when Travis Kelce took a direct snap and ran it into the end zone.

"We gave up the one long play," Devin McCourty said. "Against that offense you can't give it to them in one play. Then we had them in the red area and then we gave it up on the Wildcat triple-option. So, it was really two bad plays in the first half and I thought we just did a better job of eliminating that.

"When you play a good team, you can't have those plays. I thought in the second half we really locked in and just did a better job of not giving up the big play or a silly play in a key situation. Third down in the red area, we've got to play our best football."

Had the Patriots been able to muster a more effective offensive attack, though, they might've been able to withstand one or two letdowns defensively. Tough sledding wouldn't begin to describe what they went through for portions of the afternoon on that side of the ball. 

The offense converted on just 3 of 15 third and fourth-down plays. They were 1-for-3 in the red zone. They were sacked three times, and Brady averaged just 4.7 yards per pass attempt. Through the first half, the Patriots picked up only 3.4 yards per carry against a defense that was allowing more than 5.0 yards per carry for the season coming into the game. 

Brady's longest pass came on a 37-yard flea-flicker for a touchdown. The second-longest Patriots pass of the night came off the fingers of running back James White -- a 35-yarder in the fourth quarter to Jakobi Meyers. The Patriots pulled out all the stops, utilizing 11, 12, 20 and 22-personnel packages. They tried to run it with Sony Michel. They tried the screen game. They tried the vertical passing game. They tried to run their hurry-up attack. Very little worked.

The Patriots are running out of time to find out what they do well on offense. If it can be boiled down to taking care of the football and avoiding negative plays -- which they weren't able to do consistently Sunday -- then the defense is going to have to not only eliminate negative plays but come up scoring plays themselves.

They thought they had one of those when Stephon Gilmore scooped up a McCourty forced fumble late in the third quarter. But the play was blown dead and the Patriots had to challenge the ruling just to ensure they'd win possession. Cameras caught Belichick on the sideline gesturing emphatically to officials -- raising his arms over his head as if signaling a touchdown -- to let them know he thought they took points off the board for his team.

It's not just the defense. Pressure is on Patriots special teams units as well to come through with big plays as the offense has sputtered. They got one Sunday when Nate Ebner rushed through the middle of the Chiefs line to block a punt. That led to a two-play touchdown drive to cut the Chiefs lead to 23-13.

"It's our goal to make big plays every week," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "You have guys on this team that are here strictly because of special teams. Myself included. We feel like we have a responsibility to go out and try to leave a mark on the game."

The Patriots very nearly had a second blocked punt later in the game -- they went without a returner to get extra heat on the Chiefs -- but Justin Bethel just missed getting his hands on the football as he penetrated the line.

"I thought I was going to get it," Bethel said. "I was there. For me, I feel like that's one of those plays I gotta make."

Those are the types of plays -- turnovers that lead to touchdowns, swatted kicks -- that other teams might view as gravy. Instead, with an offense in search of whatever help it can get, those kinds of plays might have to be the lifeblood that sustains the Patriots at times through December and into January.

"We always talk about complementary football and that's what we were thinking," McCourty said. "Defense, we've got to get them on the long field, three-and-out. Or we've got to get a turnover, get our offense a short field. When we're able to do that, they were able to put some points on the board."

Teeing up the offense like that week after week is a tall order. But until the Patriots offense finds itself -- if the Patriots offense finds itself -- they'll need the help. Without it Sunday, they might've landed in the single digits.

Curran: Pats' resilience has to be their go-to going forward>>>

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Patriots' resilience has to be their go-to going forward

Patriots' resilience has to be their go-to going forward

FOXBORO – The Patriots’ defining trait over 20 seasons is still there. It’s part of their DNA, it’s baked-in goodness. Their resilience.

It’s because of that resilience that they had a hand on an onsides kick with time winding down last week in Houston with a chance to recover and win a game they had no business being close in. It’s because of that resilience that Tom Brady was throwing to Julian Edelman for a would-be game-winning touchdown with 1:11 left on a fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs 5.

The same resilience we saw in the AFCCG in Denver at the end of the 2015 AFCCG, the final gasps in SB42, the Hail Mary at the gun in SB46, the Malcolm Butler pick in SB49, the bounce-back from consecutive losses last year in December as they rolled off five straight wins to hoist another Lombardi.

Controversial calls in Pats-Chiefs signify larger NFL issue

It’s still there and it’s what will define this season no matter where it leads, how it ends and what happens after. The refusal to tap out.

And that’s why there was no grave-dancing from the Chiefs after they knocked off the Patriots at home, 23-16.

If you’re Kansas City, deep down, you’re feeling like it shouldn’t have been that close.

A blocked punt to set up one Patriots touchdown which came on a jet sweep to little-used running back Brandon Bolden?

Two third-down pass interference calls and a flea-flicker to allow the Patriots first score?

A 17-yard Tom Brady scramble on a fourth-down to put them in position to throw for the end zone at the end of a drive when a 35-yard halfback pass from James White got the Patriots going?

A 24-yard pass interference on another third down to put the Patriots in the red zone early in the fourth? A little toss to N’Keal Harry – just the second play of the game Harry was on the field for to get them inside the 5? Even though Harry should have been credited with a touchdown and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal instead of the seven, they still have to shake their collective Chiefs head and wonder how it got to that.

But you don’t let a disrespectful word slip from your Chiefs lips because you’ve seen the resilience up close in crushing fashion over the last 14 months and you know better.

Because even when the Patriots look dead, you’re wary they may just be sleeping.

“They play the game the right way I think is the biggest thing,” said Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “If they’re not clicking on offense or they’re not clicking on defense, they’re not clicking on special teams, the other unit picks them up. And so for me, when you have a team that plays the game the right way, that finds ways to win games even if they’re not supposed to win them, you know that they’re going to be there in the end in the playoffs.

"And so for us, we understand that, we understand that they’re still sitting at the two or three or whatever seed it is, and we understand that we’re going to have to come out every single week and then when we get to the playoffs, we’ll probably have to play them or another great team in this AFC to try to get to the Super Bowl.”

Best to talk like you expect to see them again and give them nothing to fuel their voracious appetite for disrespect, presumed or actual. Because it’s the impossible-to-measure intangibles – football intelligence, situational genius and resourcefulness - that make them so dangerous even when they are fighting with one offense tied behind their back.

And that’s what they’re attempting.

On Sunday, the Patriots conjured 16 points. Gadget plays are great when they are jumpstarting an offense. Not so great when they are the offense. Brady looks more and more like the courtroom sketch from his Deflategate days every week.

The Patriots struggled to another tough day with the ball. They went 2-for-12 on third down, 1-for-3 in the red zone; Brady went 19-for-36 for 169 yards with three completions to wide receivers not named Julian Edelman and took three sacks while absorbing another thrashing. It reminded me of the quote loosely attributed to Captain Bligh: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Even though the refs hosed them out of the Harry touchdown (and never should have whistled the ball dead after Devin McCourty’s strip of Travis Kelce), they immediately wound up going backwards from first-and-goal at the 3. A touchdown from there should have been a formality. It wasn’t. It cost them four points and those would have come in handy when they needed seven to tie the game in the final minutes.

But the Patriots should be able to score a touchdown from there the same way the Chiefs should have been able to stop the Patriots on their overtime drive in last year’s AFC Championship Game or the Raiders should have been able to come up with a stop in the Snow Bowl after the tuck rule intervened. The chance was RIGHT. THERE.  

The desperate lengths they have to go to in order to gain yards and score points continues to be both a source of amazement and concern. They’ve lost three of their past five. Their highest point total came last week against Houston (22) and 13 of those came in the final four minutes when they trailed 28-9. Their lone touchdown against Philly was an Edelman touchdown pass. Their lone touchdown against Dallas was set up by an interception at the Cowboys 12. Sunday’s touchdowns came on a flea-flicker and the short-field Bolden jet sweep.

“At the end of the day, any team that has to run gadgets to beat you, it shows what type of team they are, you know what I mean?” said Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark. “At the end of the day, we played them straight up. It wasn’t no gadgets. Play hard. You know with football, if you’re Tom Brady, you know what defense we in, you know what’s coming at you. And they couldn’t stop it. Period.”

OK, so maybe not all the Chiefs were overtly respectful. But Clark’s not wrong, either. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will get another round of second-guessing this week but he’s trying everything to find something, anything to work consistently. There’s nothing there except Edelman.

And resilience.

“That’s what it’s gonna take to finish the season,” said McCourty. “Whatever we are right now, it is what it is. Tonight sucked because I felt we played well enough to win.”

No buckling after consecutive losses to AFC contenders?

“It can’t get any worse than last year losing to Miami with seven seconds left then going down to Pittsburgh and losing that game,” McCourty countered. “This team’s resilient. Nothing fazes us. We know what we have here. A lot of guys who know how to win, a lot of guys that have won and we lean on that to lead us and just continue to try and execute. We can’t predict the future but if we keep playing we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Bill Belichick’s been playing the resiliency card since he took the 2001 Patriots to see Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure during training camp.

With losses to the Chiefs, Texans and Ravens over their past five games, he knows now is not the time to lament what his team doesn’t have. Better to trumpet what it does. Resiliency.

“I’m really proud of the way our team competed tonight,” Belichick said. “Those guys went and battled for 60 minutes. It wasn’t always perfect, there were certainly things we could have done better, but we were competitive right down to the final play and that’ll serve us well going forward.”

How far will that take them? We’ll find out.

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