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Jets Help Patriots Go Bye

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Division battles are always tough.  Patriots versus Jets is one of the toughest in the NFL.

Tough?  Brutal perhaps best describes Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium.  The 3-12 Jets gave the Patriots the battle of their life, with the possible loss of the top playoff seed in the AFC staring them in the face.  A late series of events, some of them rather bizarre, allowed the Patriots to hang on for dear life and defeat the Jets 17-16.  The win gives the Patriots no worse than the two seed and a bye week; a Denver loss on Monday night or a Patriot win next week at home against Buffalo gives the Patriots the top seed in the playoffs.

All game long, Rex Ryan, in what might be his last home game as Jet head coach, had his defense dialed up and basically shutting down Tom Brady and the Patriot offense.  The Jets took advantage of a slightly depleted and discombobulated Patriot offensive line with Dan Connally a scratch for the game and used an effective blitz to keep Brady off kilter and on the run all game long.  Brady was sacked four times as the Patriots at times looked totally helpless against the blitzing Jet defense, the Jets helping their cause with disguised blitzes and terrific blitz technique, mostly Sheldon Richardson.

The Patriots were finally able to deal with the Jet blitzing by going to a no-huddle offense with quick dropbacks and passes that did not take a lot of time to develop.  On their second and third drives of the second half, the Patriots used the no-huddle to ring up ten precious points to provide the eventual margin of victory.  With Julian Edelman a scratch from this game, Danny Amendola was made to step up and come up big in the slot, and he responded with a season high (and team high) eight catches for 63 yards.

It was a chain of events that began midway through the fourth quarter that sealed the win for the Patriots.  Some of these plays typify why the Jets have been consistent losers this season, and why they have played well but not quite well enough to qualify for the playoff recently.

Danny Amendola came up big in Julian Edelman’s absence with eight key catches in the Patriot win over the Jets on Sunday.
(USA TODAY Images)

The score was 17-16 Patriots with 7:26 left in the fourth quarter.  The Patriots had the ball, needing a field goal to make it a 4-point lead and a touchdown to make it an 8-point lead, either scenario forcing the Jets to have to respond with a touchdown for a win or a tie.  The Patriots had the ball at their own 24.  After an illegal formation penalty on the Patriots and an underthrown pass to Amendola in the right flat, Brady was pressured on second down and nearly sacked by Jason Babin.  Brady let loose a wild throw in the left flat that was thrown behind Brandon LaFell and intercepted by Marcus Williams.  The Jets had the ball at the Patriot 30, and it was a lock that they would at least take the lead on a field goal.

On third down and four at the 24, Geno Smith did the one thing he absolutely could not do:  take a sack.  Dont’a Hightower blasted through and sacked Smith for a ten-yard loss.  Nick Folk came in to attempt a now treacherous 52-yard field goal.  Vince Wilfork got what some players said was a “fingernail” on the ball, and the ball sailed wide left and fell short.  The Patriots took over on the 42 with 5:16 left.  Either the Patriots run out the clock or get a field goal, and they’ll be home free.

Three plays later, it was third down and seven at the 45.  Brady threw a quick screen to Amendola in the left flat, and he was tackled right at the first down marker.  What happened next is still a little hard to explain.

Television replays showed Amendola just a little shy of the line to gain, which is not official in determining a first down.  The chains came out, and the ball was measured as about two chain links short.  The Patriots were about to go for it on fourth down and inches, but just before the snap, the whistle blew and a red challenge flag was thrown.  Bill Belichick was challenging the spot of the ball, right?  No, Ryan was challenging the spot of the ball.  But the ball had been marked short of the first down by a measurement.  How did this happen?

The game announcers did not immediately report this, but an official ruled first down for the Patriots after the measurement, not fourth down.  This forced Ryan, and not Belichick, to throw the red flag.  Referee Brad Allen looked at the play, then came out and upheld the first down call.  Ryan now had only one timeout left after the lost challenge.  One has to wonder why first down was ruled when it was clear that the ball was short of the line to gain after the measurement.

The Patriots now had only 4:03 to kill off.  A false start on Marcus Cannon set them back five yards, but two passes to Amendola for 19 yards put the Patriots in easy field goal range.  Three Brandon Bolden runs, the last of which went for 17 yards around right end, put the game away.

The sack of Smith, the missed field goal, and the confusion surrounding the measurement more or less encapsulate this season for the Jets.  Give them credit for taking it to the Patriots, and the Jets almost succeeded in imperiling the top playoff seed for the Patriots.  Give the Patriots credit also for pulling out a tough division game on the road.  Any time you can win by one point on the road in a divisional game speaks well with the playoffs just a few weeks away.

Brady was held to only 182 yards passing on 23 of 35 passing and a 76.1 passer rating.  LaFell (seven) and Rob Gronkowski (six) had the bulk of the remainder of the catches, with Gronkowski snaring the one touchdown pass from Brady.  The Jets did a nice job in shutting down the Patriot running game; take away Bolden’s last run and the Patriots had only 23 carries for 69 yards and exactly three yards per carry.

Smith finished 17 of 27 for 210 yards and a touchdown.  His passer rating was 83.9.

If Denver loses Monday night in Cincinnati, the Patriots lock up the top AFC playoff seed and the season finale against Buffalo becomes a meaningless game (maybe a start at quarterback for Jimmy Garoppolo in the offing?).  If Denver wins, the Patriots will get a Buffalo team that was eliminated from playoff contention by losing at Oakland, 26-24 and may be in a “get on the bus” mindset.  But if the game means anything for the Patriots, Buffalo may play them tough up to a point.

Whatever the case, the Patriots need to shore up their substandard first halves before the playoffs hit.  The Jets played the Patriots brutally tough.  A playoff team will throw much worse at them.

Division Title Not Enough For Patriots

FOXBOROUGH – Patriots Run The Division, so say the t-shirts.  Running the league is a bit more important.

The Patriots bombarded the Miami Dolphins with a 24-point third quarter en route to a 41-13 victory on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, clinching still another AFC East title for the Patriots.  The shirts and caps always look nice, but the ones that say “Super Bowl Champions” look nicer.  All the Patriots did on Sunday was prove their ongoing superiority in a division with three inferior teams on paper but who all play the Patriots tough on the field.  The Patriots literally have to win the division, but it is still a fine accomplishment to actually go out and do it year after year.

Miami was actually looking for its third straight win over the Patriots, but such was not to be.  The Dolphins completely outplayed the Patriots in the first half but went into intermission still trailing the Patriots by a point.  Whatever was said in the Patriot locker room during halftime must have worked, because the Patriots went out and had arguably their best quarter of the season, as Rob Gronkowski woke up from his first half slumber and the defense provided an interception which led to a quick touchdown.

The Dolphins outgained the Patriots, 271-102 in the first half.  Lamar Miller had 51 yards rushing, Ryan Tannehill threw for 197 yards and a touchdown, and the Patriots were basically shut down offensively.  But the score was 14-13 Patriots at the half thanks to three huge plays which went the way of the Patriots and had nothing to do with the offense.

The Dolphins opened the game with a 50-yard bomb from Tannehill to Mike Wallace, drawing Malcolm Butler in coverage.  The drive stalled at the Patriot 22, and Caleb Sturgis came out to attempt a 40-yard field goal.  Jamie Collins burst through and blocked the field goal attempt, and Kyle Arrington scooped up the loose ball and scampered 62 yards for a touchdown.

On their first possession of the second quarter, trailing 7-3, Tannehill took the Dolphins from their own 10 to midfield.  On third down and 14 at the Miami 45, Tannehill tried to hit Brandon Gibson in the slot but overthrew him.  Duron Harmon made the interception and returned it 60 yards to the Miami 8-yard line.  Three plays later, Shane Vereen took a handoff out of the shotgun and ran it in from three yards out to make it 14-3 Patriots.

When Miami got the ball back, they should have cashed it in with a touchdown.  A pass interference call on Brandon Browner helped put Miami at the Patriot 35-yard line.  On third and nine, Damien Williams ran a wheel route and sprinted past Collins down the left sideline.  Tannehill saw him and floated a perfect toss to Williams at the goal line.  Williams turned into stonefingers and dropped a sure touchdown, and Miami had to settle for a field goal.

A hideous exchange made it a one-point game just prior to intermission.  With 40 seconds left and all three timeouts, perched at their own 15-yard line, Josh McDaniels opted for three useless Vereen runs.  Miami exhausted their three timeouts, and got the ball back at the Patriot 32-yard line thanks to a 32-yard punt return by Landry.  With 11 seconds left in the half, Tannehill found Wallace on the same route where Williams dropped his touchdown earlier.  This time, with Butler in arrears, he made the catch to make it 14-13 after replay overturned a call of incomplete.

Rob Gronkowski had a strong second half against Miami on Sunday, catching three passes for 96 yards and a touchdown.
(USA TODAY Images)

But the Patriots came right out firing in the third quarter.  Brady hit Gronkowski in the seam for 34 yards on the first play.  Jonas Gray finally got involved with a few runs, and Brandon LaFell got away with a dropped pass for 14 yards.  Then Tom Brady made the play of the game, when on third down and 11 at the Miami 20, scrambled right for 17 yards to the Miami 3.  Instead of sliding, he took a hit from Walt Aikens as he was running out of bounds.  LeGarrette Blount ran it in on the next play to open up a lead for the Patriots.

Miami ended the ensuing possession by getting stopped on third and three at their own 27 with a two-yard run by Miller.  The Patriots took the ball and drove to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal from 35 yards.  On the next play, Tannehill tried to hit Miller in the left flat, but he was blasted by Browner and the ball deflected into the air.  It came down in the hands of Patrick Chung, and on the next play Brady was able to find Gronkowski between two defenders for a 27-yard touchdown to make it 31-13.  It was Brady’s best throw of the day as he zipped the ball right between Jimmy Wilson and Reshad Jones.

After a three-and-out, Brady took over at the Miami 45.  He zipped another long one to Gronkowski for 35 yards, and on the next play Brady hit Julian Edelman on a crossing route in the end zone to make it 38-13 Patriots and essentially seal the deal.

This was merely a shift in intensity and better execution, combined with the fact that the Dolphins basically gave the Patriots 14 first half points.  What the Patriots didn’t do in the first half, they did in the second.  The defense finished with 4 sacks of Tannehill, Miller had minus-4 yards rushing in the second half, and Gray seems like he is finally out of Bill Belichick’s doghouse with a 62-yard second half and a 5.6 per carry average.

After the big win last week in San Diego, these last three games against inferior AFC East teams can all be taken as trap games.  Trap game number one goes to the Patriots thanks to the second half adjustments, but the Patriots played the first half rather flatly and at times uninspired.  They travel to the Meadowlands next week for a road date against the Jets, which may be the hardest of the three remaining games to win.

Denver had a losable game in San Diego, but held on to win 22-10 to clinch the AFC West and keep the pressure on the Patriots to win all their remaining games to maintain home field throughout the playoffs.  The Patriots will need to treat their remaining two games, with a home date against Buffalo (which knocked off Green Bay at home on Sunday) to follow the Jets game, as literal “play-in games”.  The Patriots have to hold on to the one seed if they are to have any chance to make it to Super Bowl XLIX.

For now, the Patriots will enjoy their hats and shirts.  That’s 12 division titles in 14 years for the Patriots, not too shabby.  This won’t last forever.  The Patriots have “super” goals, of course, but another division title adds nicely to the legacy that is the Brady-Belichick Era.

Okay, coach, let it rip.  We’re on to the Jets.

Patriots Make Road To Super Bowl Much Easier

SAN DIEGO – Route 1 is the Boston Post Road.  It now may have a second name, the Super Highway.

With the Patriots outlasting the San Diego Chargers, 23-14 on Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium, the Patriots retain the number one seed in the AFC despite Denver beating Buffalo earlier in the day.  The Patriots now have three games left, two at home, all against AFC East teams, and if they win out, the AFC road to Glendale, Arizona goes through Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The win over the Chargers was anything but easy or routine.  The Patriots trailed, 14-3 in the second quarter before they finished the game by scoring the last 20 points and suffocating Phillip Rivers and his vaunted squad of receivers.  Penalties, turnovers and an inspired Chargers defense kept the Patriots at bay until the fourth quarter, but in the end the Patriots were able to make the plays needed to win the game.

This was a game that could very well have gone the way of the Chargers.  Questionable play calling on the opening drive cost the Patriots a near certain touchdown.  The Patriots once again won the coin toss, deferred, and were in a position to score on both the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, but Tom Brady threw one of his worst passes of the season to end the first half.  A pick-six by Devin McCourty was wiped out on a controversial penalty.  The Patriots did not get their first first down of the third quarter until the final play, preceded by four three-and-outs.

Jamie Collins called the defensive signals and also had eight tackles and two sacks for the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)

The Patriots showed a great deal of resiliency in mounting their comeback.  With Dont’a Hightower sidelined due to injury, the defensive play calling fell to Jamie Collins.  Overall he did well in that, and he himself chipped in with eight tackles and two sacks, both team highs.  Brandon Browner was bedeviled with penalties, but stood firm and did a nice job overall on Malcolm Floyd.  Brady had a so-so game overall but in the end managed the team through the decisive fourth quarter and outplayed Rivers in the second half.

The Patriots opened the game by featuring LeGarrette Blount on power runs, and it was working wonderfully.  Beginning at their own 7-yard line, the Patriots went on a 17-play drive, with Blount getting eight touches on the drive.  On first and goal at the ten, Blount blasted up the middle for nine yards.  On second and goal from the one, the situation screamed for a Blount run up the middle behind James Develin.  Instead, Brady play faked to Blount and tried to hit Develin in the right flat.  Develin had an open path to the end zone, but Tourek Williams jumped the route and batted the pass down.  On third down, Brady attempted another pass but was sacked by Melvin Ingram.  The Patriots had to settle for a chip shot field goal, but Blount could have easily delivered a touchdown.

In the second quarter, trailing 7-3, the Patriots were at the Chargers 49, third and three.  Brady hit Brandon LaFell in the right flat for a first down, but was stripped of the ball by Jahleel Addae.  Darrell Stuckey picked up the loose football and scampered 53 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-3 San Diego.

At the end of the first half, with the score 14-13 Chargers, the Patriots had the ball and seemingly in position to take the lead at halftime, then get the ball back to begin the second half.  The Patriots had the ball at the San Diego 18 with 18 seconds left.  A Stephen Gostkowski field goal gives the Patriots the lead, at the very worst.  Instead, the “very worst” turned into an interception.  Brady tried to float a touch pass to Rob Gronkowski in the left corner of the end zone, but Brady badly underthrew the ball and the ball settled into the arms of Manti Te’o.  The Patriots began the second half with a three and out.  The Patriots got zero points for those two key possessions and still trailed by a point.

Midway through the third quarter, a strange turn of events could have permanently shifted the momentum towards the Chargers.  On the first play of their third offensive possession of the third quarter, Rivers tried to hit tight end Ladarius Green in the left flat on a crossing route.  As soon as the ball got there, Browner blasted Green with a vicious but legal and clean hit which jarred the ball loose and snapped Green’s neck backwards.  The ball went airborne and landed into the arms of McCourty.  He returned the pick 56 yards for a touchdown.  But Browner was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, helmet-to-helmet contact.  Replays clearly showed that Browner did not lead with his helmet, that he hit him flush and did not lead with his shoulder pads.  Green’s head snapping back perhaps influenced the call, but the call was questionable and certainly debatable, as well as potentially costly for the Patriots.

Something happened in the second quarter which greatly helped the Patriots in the second half, especially from a field position standpoint.  On their second possession of the second quarter, the Patriots stopped the Chargers three-and-out.  Brandon Bolden subsequently blasted through and blocked the ensuing punt by Mike Scifres.  Scifres fell hard on his left shoulder and had to come out of the game.  Faced with only 25 yards, the Patriots were able to get their first touchdown of the game with Brady hitting Gronkowski from 14 yards out.  With placekicker Nick Novak forced into second half punt duty, the Patriots benefitted from substandard punting and the Chargers began four of their seven second half drives inside their own 15.

Julian Edelman helped the Patriots seize the lead for good in the fourth quarter.  He opened the quarter with three catches for 29 yards to help set up a Gostkowski field goal from 38 yards to give the Patriots a 16-14 lead.  On the next drive, it took only one play for the Patriots to go up two scores.  Edelman ran a slant route on the right side, took a quick pass from Brady in front of Brandon Flowers, then zipped by Marcus Gilchrist who missed a sure tackle.  Edelman took the pass to the house for 69 yards, and the Patriots were in control the rest of the way.

Brady finished 28 of 44 passing for 317 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 90.8 passer rating.  Gronkowski and Edelman each had eight catches and a touchdown, but Edelman rang up 144 receiving yards.  Rivers was 20 of 33 for 189 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 73.9 passer rating.

The Patriots finish the season at home versus Miami, then on the road at the Jets, and finish at home with Buffalo.  The Miami game will be revenge for the season opening loss, and weather could be a factor.  The Jet game could be a trap game given how badly the Jets have played this year, and the Patriots usually do well against the Bills at home.  All three games are winnable, but the Patriots still need to be on their game in all three instances.  If the Patriots do win out, they clinch the top playoff seed in the AFC.

Bill Belichick will see to it that the guys take it one game at a time.  But the Patriots can be forgiven if they can exhale just a tiny bit now that the tough part of the schedule is over.

Rodgers Too Much For Patriots To Handle

GREEN BAY, Wisc. – There was a reason why Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down at the Patriot 49 on the final drive of the game for the Patriots.

After a missed field goal, the Patriots needed a three and out to get the ball back and enough time to try and get a game winning touchdown.  The Green Bay Packers were at their own 43, facing third and four, the Patriots out of timeouts, but the two-minute warning would get the Patriots the time they needed to broker a walkoff win.

But you just knew that Aaron Rodgers would get those four yards somehow.  Belichick went for it at midfield for a reason.

That reason came true on the critical play of the game.  Despite good coverage by the Patriot secondary, Rodgers was able to find Randall Cobb at the 50-yard line to seal a 26-21 win over the Patriots on Sunday at Lambeau Field.  Cobb made a leaping grab in double coverage, and three kneeldowns later, this game was in the books.

In this much-heralded first ever matchup between Rodgers and Tom Brady, Rodgers was a bit better and simply made more plays than Brady did.  Some of it had to do with good coaching on the part of the Packers, as they called a better game offensively than the Patriots did.  Both defenses came up big at times despite zero turnovers in the game.  It basically came down to Rodgers versus Brady, and Rodgers got him this time.

If perchance these two teams do meet in Super Bowl XLIX in February in Arizona, Belichick will perhaps design a good defensive game plan to deal with Rodgers and his posse of wide receivers.  It was painfully clear that putting Darrelle Revis on Jordy Nelson and Brandon Browner on Cobb was not enough.  While both players generally played well, Rodgers showed the Patriots that they have more weapons that need attention that perhaps the Patriots thought, and having so many offensive options makes Rodgers and the Packers much more difficult to deal with than one might have guessed.

Having his best game so far as a pro, rookie wide receiver Davante Adams bedeviled the Patriots for six catches for 121 yards.  Early on, Mike McCarthy showed that Adams was going to be the go-to guy, figuring that Nelson and Cobb would be smothered by Revis and Browner.  Logan Ryan wound up getting torched by Adams, who dazzled in college catching passes from Derek Carr at Fresno State.  Adams was brilliant in a quick screen-oriented offense out in Fresno, but Adams used double moves and terrific route running to throw the Patriots out of whack early with 90 yards on three catches in just the first quarter.

The Patriots gave up way too many big plays all night long.  At the end of the first quarter, just after Adams hauled in a 45-yard left sideline pass on Ryan after beating him with a double move, Rodgers found Richard Rodgers for a 32-yard touchdown pass on the very next play.  Rodgers floated a beautiful touch pass to Richard, who slipped past Patrick Chung, normally a subpar cover defensive back.  It was one of many favorable matchups that Aaron found all night long.

The Patriots made an adjustment in the second quarter, putting Browner on Adams.  So what happens?  Cobb catches four passes for 55 yards, 33 of them on a right flat pass in which he drew Rob Ninkovich, of all people, in coverage.  Ninkovich would later cough up a 28-yard pass to James Starks near the end of the first half.

Brandon LaFell had two touchdown catches in the Patriots’ 26-21 loss at Green Bay on Sunday.
(USA TODAY Images)

The critical play of the first half was simply a great play by the Packers.  After the Starks play, the Packers were at the Patriot 45-yard line with 23 seconds left.  On third down and two, Rodgers was able to hit Nelson on a quick slant on the right side in front of Revis, who up to that point had smothered Nelson and forced Rodgers to concentrate on the Adams-Ryan matchup instead.  Nelson took the pass in front of Revis and simply sprinted right away from him.  Devin McCourty nearly ran down Nelson near the goal line, but Nelson hit the pylon for the touchdown as the Packers led at the half, 23-14.  The play really deflated the Patriots, as up to that point they had held Green Bay to only field goals when they ventured into the Red Area.

Other than the final drive which ended in kneel-downs, the Packers had the ball for eight possessions and scored on six of them.  The Packers punted only once and also had a missed field goal, both of these happening in the third quarter.  Otherwise, it was difficult to watch Rodgers surgically carve up the Patriots through the air.  The Patriots did do well in the Red Area, but Brady and the offense could not do enough to overcome all the Packer field goals (Mason Crosby did hit four field goals despite the one miss).

Rodgers finished 24 of 38 passing for 368 yards, two touchdowns and a 112.6 passer rating.  Cobb still managed seven catches for 85 yards.  Nelson was limited to only two catches, but one of them was that long touchdown bomb to close out the first half.

Brady wasn’t that bad all game long, but was a little hamstrung by bad play calling and some drops.  He finished 22 of 35 passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns.  His rating was 102.7.  Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman each had seven catches, and Brandon LaFell caught both touchdown passes.

Some experts wonder if the Patriots should have run the ball more.  Both Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount averaged over 5.5 yards per carry, and especially Blount had some real decent power runs between the tackles.  In the third quarter, there was one curious call where Aaron Dobson, who hadn’t seen game action since September, came in on second down and seven in relief of Edelman, who had been injured on the previous drive.  Brady tried to hit Dobson on a right sideline lob pass, which naturally was overthrown and Dobson came out of the game with a pulled hamstring.

Gronkowski was targeted 12 times but caught only seven passes.  On their final offensive drive just prior to Stephen Gostkowski’s missed 47-yard field goal, Gronkowski beat Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix in the end zone and made what looked like a diving catch, but he bobbled the ball as he fell to the ground.  Edelman was targeted ten times and made seven catches.

This was one of those games where you simply have to tip your hat to the Packers and hope you get to see them again in Glendale, Arizona in February.  The Packers will be in the conversation as NFC Champs, as will Arizona and Seattle.  The Patriots remain the top AFC seed as this loss doesn’t really hurt them as far as playoff posturing.  The loss still stings, but it was a great game between two great teams and the Packers simply came out better this time.

And this was the first look the Patriots had at Rodgers, not counting that relief job in 2006.  If you aren’t impressed with this guy, you are far too parochial or you are simply a bad sport.


What if Ben Cherington Were Bill Belichick?

Rather quickly, the Red Sox went from lots of problems to lots of pleasant problems.

On Tuesday at Fenway Park, Ben Cherington introduced two new free agent signings to Red Sox Nation.  One of them really isn’t new, as Hanley Ramirez was a Sox farmhand some ten years ago when the Sox sent him to Florida in a deal which brought Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston.  Ramirez became a man-child in Miami before finding his way to the Dodgers.  Ramirez, a shortstop, has already agreed to learn left field, behave himself and get along with everyone.  At four years and $88 million, he had better do that and hit too.

The real splash of the day was the introduction of World Series hero Pablo Sandoval to the Boston media.  Sandoval, who has been a lifer in San Francisco and has won three World Series with the Giants, becomes the new third baseman of the Red Sox, signing a 5-year, $95 million deal.  Affectionately known as Kung Fu Panda, Sandoval gives the Sox stability at third base, another postseason stud on the roster, and someone who will make Mo Vaughn look like Don Knotts.

What the Red Sox are left with is a hellacious logjam in the outfield, a minor logjam in the infield, and a pitching staff in dire need of two starters and some setup men.

Cherington did put together a World Series champion in 2013.  So Ben can sort this all out.  With John Henry literally relegating the “we don’t overpay for players over 30” dogma to “I said WHAT?!” status, the Red Sox are going to spend their way back to the top of the division, and most importantly, back to relevancy again.

But let’s fantasize for a minute.  Ben is good.  But Bill is the best.  Let’s call on the late Rod Serling to work his Twilight Zone act on the Boston sports scene, and swap the front offices of the Red Sox and Patriots for just a few months.  Let’s see what Bill Belichick would do to make the Red Sox winners again, but this time consistent winners, not just one-year flukes.

Bill Belichick is the unchallenged best architect of a winning pro sports team in the region. How would he rebuild the Red Sox if that were his job instead of the Patriots?
(USA TODAY Images)

First, some qualifiers.  There is no salary cap in baseball.  Like Henry, Bob Kraft has more money than Davy Crockett.  No need for capologists or capology here.

Second, Max Scherzer is out of the question.  Scott Boras is waiting for Jon Lester to set the market on starting pitching.  Then the “bidding”, so called, will open for Scherzer.  When the “bidding” maxes out, the Yankees will get a phone call, exceed the highest bid by $10 million, and that will be that.

That said, here is arguably Belichick’s goal of a 25-man roster for Opening Day 2015:

Position players:  David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino, Christian Vasquez, Brock Holt, Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr. (for late inning defense only, and zero meaningful at bats), David Ross, and one more utility player, probably an outfielder, yet to be acquired in a trade.

Pitchers:  Two front line starters, Clay Buchholz, Edward Mujica, Koji Uehara, Andrew Miller, two more young starters and three more relievers from within or acquired by trade.

Players to be used as definite trading chips:  Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, and a ton of young farmhands, the list too long to name here.  But the first four names are the key.

Now, let’s explain what Belichick would be thinking here.

Here is where the Patriot Way is easy to figure out, but near impossible to extrapolate to Yawkey Way.  You would be hard pressed to find many Red Sox fans willing to trade Pedroia, one of the most popular players in recent memory.  Belichick would.  He would insert Betts at second, which is his natural position, as the first solution in untangling the logjam in the outfield.  Pedroia will then become the Logan Mankins of the Red Sox, an all-star and fan favorite who is being traded with his best days behind him.  He hasn’t been the same player since signing that huge contract a few years back, and Betts represents the all important word in Patriot Nation:  value.  Betts simply replaces Pedroia at second.

In any scenario, if he is healthy, Victorino must be the starting right fielder, not Cespedes, Craig, Castillo or anyone else.  Victorino spent most of 2014 on the disabled list.  In 2013 he was the cult favorite in Boston, providing clutch hit after clutch hit and making Bob Marley the next Neil Diamond.  Victorino is just like Sandoval, a proven postseason clutch performer who will get you to the postseason over the summer, and then get you a ring when he gets there.  It could be argued that Victorino’s absence in 2014 was perhaps the biggest reason why the Sox offense suffered so much without Jacoby Ellsbury around any more.  If you want a Patriot equivalent of Victorino, one might offer up Mike Vrabel, a veteran who made hay with another team (Pittsburgh), then came to New England and made even more hay as a steady veteran who was reliable and a proven winner.

As for Ramirez being a man-child, worry not.  If Belichick could handle Corey Dillon and Randy Moss, he could handle Ramirez.  Actually Terry Francona won two World Series with another man-child named Ramirez.  It can work.  Ortiz is a lot like Vince Wilfork from a leadership standpoint, and Ortiz will be charged with keeping Ramirez in line.  Belichick would facilitate this, but John Farrell will work this issue just fine, too.

Kraft would allow Belichick whatever it took to resign Lester.  So Belichick would get Lester back in the fold.  Then Belichick would turn around and flip Cespedes, Pedroia, Middlebrooks and Craig (or a combination of two of the four) in a package that would bring either Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto to Boston, with Philadelphia or Cincinnati sending maybe an outfielder and/or a blue chip setup man in return.  It might not take all four of those veterans to pry Hamels or Cueto loose from their current teams, and the Phillies and Reds would perhaps prefer some of Boston’s younger prospects instead of Craig or even Pedroia.  The Red Sox could perhaps be aggressive to any team they seek starting pitching from if they offer Cespedes and Pedroia.  Belichick would have that all worked out, and he would find the right package to get that second starter behind Lester.

Kraft would also let Belichick bring back Miller as a lefty setup.  Pay him.  No prob.

As for determining the fourth and fifth starters, Belichick would either find that out in training camp or get blown away with a great offer from some team that needs young pitching depth.  Whoever pitches well gets the job.  Those who don’t head to Rhode Island.  Belichick would also work the personnel lines and look for a David Patten or a Roman Phifer or a Wes Welker or a Vrabel who would fill out the rest of the roster.  One man’s trash is Belichick’s treasure.

One last thing that Belichick would do is something that Larry Lucchino would also do, or rather tell Cherington to do.  When the “bidding” for Scherzer opens up, the Red Sox should lay in wait for a while, then offer Scherzer Clayton Kershaw money with the understanding that the Yankees will outbid anyone and anything.  Force the Yankees to pay through the roof for Scherzer since that is what is pre-ordained to happen.  In this case, make the roof as high as the earth’s atmosphere.

There.  That’s probably how Belichick would do it.

Cherington probably doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to trade Pedroia.  One might remember that in 2004, Theo Epstein traded Nomar Garciaparra, replaced him with Orlando Cabrera, and got to ride in duck boats three months later.  Henry might have a ceiling on the price of Lester that Kraft, absent of a salary cap, might not have.  Cherington and Farrell would need to be on the same page as to who plays where, but Belichick would make those decisions himself.

When the dust clears, here is a possible 2015 Opening Day starting lineup:  Betts 2B, Victorino RF, Sandoval 3B, Ortiz DH, Ramirez LF, Napoli 1B, Castillo CF, Bogaerts SS, Vasquez C.  Lester would take the hill.  Miller would handle the seventh, Junichi Tazawa the eighth and Uehara the ninth.  Assuming all are healthy and Sandoval doesn’t become the next Carl Crawford or the next Edgar Renteria, that’s a good lineup that could get you back in the discussion of winning the AL pennant.

But this is Cherington’s problem, not Belichick’s.  Bill needs to stick with Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Clay Matthews for now.

Patriots Make Blount Statement To Both Lions And Gray

FOXBOROUGH – Those of us who don’t do Showtime are getting to know the show Inside The NFL thanks to the NFL Network.  They begin every show with four guys sitting around discussing “What did you learn from Week (fill in the blank)?”

So, let’s localize it.  What did you learn from the Patriots after their 34-9 dismantling of the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Gillette Stadium?

Jonas Gray went from the most famous player in the NFL to the most humbled almost overnight.

The Patriot defense is so good that they simply take the best guy out of the game and turn the quarterback into an incompletion machine.

The Patriot offense is so good that they can look at the top run defense in the league, clear their throats and bombard the Lion defense with a balanced passing attack, all the while bringing in a running back off the street and still get key rushing yardage.

Detroit happens to be the third straight division leader the Patriots have beaten soundly, but the real top team in the NFC North is the next opponent of the Patriots, the Green Bay Packers.  The Patriots basically took the best the Lions could throw at them, tossed it aside, and overwhelm them with the best the Patriots could throw at them.

In some ways, the Lions helped the Patriots out.  Matthew Stafford wound up with the lowest completion percentage for a quarterback against the Patriots since the merger, but there were several key drops by Lion receivers.  Tom Brady was able to find receivers that at times were wide open, but that was largely thanks to receivers finding zone seams all game long and almost no man-to-man coverage.  Stafford had a huge blunder in the fourth quarter on a fourth and ten play where he had an easy first down by running for it, but instead slid for the first down and was a yard shy of the first down when he began his slide.

LeGarrette Blount made his triumphant return to the Patriots on Sunday with 2 rushing touchdowns and a 6.5 yards per carry average.
(USA TODAY Images)

We’ll begin with the disciplining of Gray.  Gray spent the entire game on the bench, his helmet on and his mouthguard in place, waiting to get in the game.  On Friday, Gray was late to a practice thanks to the fact that his cellphone did not go off.  Bill Belichick, like he did earlier this year with Darrelle Revis, sent Gray home.  Unlike Revis, who did play the weekend of his missed practice, Gray missed the entire game as punishment.

Gray had to sit (or stand) on the bench and watch LeGarrette Blount make his Patriot return.  Blount was dumped by Pittsburgh earlier this week after leaving a Monday night game against Tennessee early due to being disgruntled over lack of playing time.  Blount came back to the team he finished well with last year and rushed for 78 yards on 12 carries and a 6.5-yard average with two touchdowns.  The NFL is now very much a quarterback league, and Blount coming in literally off the street and doing as well as he did underscores that element.  It should also send a strong message to Gray, who will probably never be late to practice ever again.

So many times over the course of the year, the Patriots will take away the top offensive threat of the other team and dare the team to beat them with the other guys.  The target for the Patriot defense this week was Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, the obvious choice.  Sure enough, Brandon Browner out-physicalled Megatron for most of the game.  Megatron finished with 4 catches for 58 yards.  Revis was chiefly responsible for Golden Tate, and despite Tate making some hay early on, Revis was stunning for most of the game, leading the Patriots with four passes defensed.  Detroit had no running game at all to try and open up the passing game; the Lions averaged only 3.6 yards per carry as a team.

Last week at Indianapolis, the Patriots ran to win.  On Sunday, they passed to win.  Brady finished with 38 of 53 passing for 349 yards, two touchdowns (both to Tim Wright) and a 94 passer rating (lowered a bit thanks to a pick in the third quarter by former Patriot James Ihedigbo).  Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell bedeviled the porous Detroit secondary with 89 and 98 yards respectively and 20 catches collectively.  Rob Gronkowski chipped in with 78 yards receiving on five catches.  Detroit had the best run defense in the league, but Brady merely went through the air and Blount still had great rushing numbers anyway.

An unsung hero for the Patriots was punter Ryan Allen.  After the second offensive possession for the Patriots, a second straight three-and-out, Allen took a low snap one yard deep in his own end zone.  He recovered and boomed a 66-yard punt which put the Lions on their own 21.  After a three-and-out, Brady led the Patriots on their first touchdown drive.  The Allen punt seemed to swing momentum towards the Patriots for the remainder of the contest.

Penalties were the only thing that prevented this from being even more of a Patriot rout.  The Patriots were flagged eleven times for 84 yards.  Three penalties in particular were real harmful; a second quarter holding call on Jamie Collins negated a demonstrative sack of Stafford by Rob Ninkovich, but the drive still ended in a Detroit punt anyway.  Late in the first half, a 31-yard pass to Edelman was wiped out on a holding call by Nate Solder, and the Patriots had to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to end the half.  And a third quarter 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by Danny Amendola was nullified by an illegal block in the back by Patrick Chung.  Instead of the touchdown, the Patriots suffered a three-and-out deep in their own territory.

So next week, the Patriots travel to Lambeau Field in Green Bay for what many experts will call a Super Bowl preview.  The Patriots will have to take on a hot Packer squad, but the NFL will be salivating at perhaps a more compelling quarterback matchup than Brady-Manning, this one being Brady-Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers has as many Super Bowl wins as Manning (one), but some NFL observers feel that Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league and not Brady or Peyton Manning.  The weather won’t faze the Patriots, but Green Bay is one of those opposing venues that no one wants to play at.  The last time the Patriots went to one of those places, it was this game from Hell in Kansas City.

This Patriot team is much better equipped to win this game versus that one.  It should still be one of the best games of the year in the league.  The Packers were catapulted into first place thanks to the Patriots beating Detroit.  But don’t expect any warm hospitality in return from the Packers.

Meanwhile, despite the home cooking, Mike McCarthy will have plenty to worry about with Belichick and company coming to town.

Patriots Successful In The Gray Area

INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Brady looked awful at times. And he still won on the road by three touchdowns.

If Patriot Nation isn’t sure who Jonas Gray is, they sure are now. Gray is turning Stevan Ridley into a distant memory, and turning a lot of heads in the process. Gray, an undrafted practice squad running back out of Notre Dame, rushed for 199 yards and a Patriot record four rushing touchdowns, as the Patriots took a solid foothold on the top seed in the AFC with a 42-20 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night.

With Denver losing earlier in the day at St. Louis, the Patriots now have a two-game lead (winning head-to-head tiebreakers counted) over both Indianapolis and Denver in the race for the top AFC playoff seed, a critical component for the Patriots to try and get to Super Bowl XLIX. The Patriots won for the first time in Indianapolis since 2007 and won for the first time ever at Lucas Oil Stadium following three prior losses (including Super Bowl XLVI). The Patriots improved to 3-0 over Colt teams quarterbacked by Andrew Luck, and all three games have been high scoring blowouts.

Gray established himself right from the start, rushing four times for 32 yards on the opening offensive possession, including the last four yards for a touchdown. Gray ran in literally every direction and every angle, off tackle, end runs, and up the gut. The Patriots used a sixth offensive lineman, Cameron Fleming, in most of the run packages, and fullback James Develin was also a key component as a lead blocker.

Gray did almost no juking or excessive faking. His running style was basically straight ahead with lots of power, hitting and attacking holes hard and consistently. It was clear that the Colts had no answer in the front seven for Gray, and it was also clear that bringing up safety help was something the Colts did not want to do.

Gray missed being the third running back in Patriot history to have a 200-yard game, the others being Jim Nance and Tony Collins, who holds the single game record of 212 yards in 1983. But his ability to gash the Colts allowed Brady a ton of breathing room and a large room for error.

Brady needed that room in the first half. He threw two interceptions, both to Mike Adams, and both were terrible decisions and terrible throws, with the second of the two one of the worst in-game decisions by Brady of his illustrious career.

The Patriots had the ball at their own 8 with just over two minutes left in the first half. Leading at the time 14-3, a Gray run of five yards and a left flat pass to Julian Edelman left the Patriots third and one at the 17. In an obvious run situation, Brady inexplicably checked off at the line of scrimmage and play faked to Gray. Montori Hughes blasted through and headed towards Brady, ready to clobber him. Brady quickly let fly a softball to the left side, and Adams jumped in front of Brandon LaFell and picked it off. Three plays later, Luck hit Hakeem Nicks for a 10-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-10. Bill Belichick was furious with Brady, and was so dumbstruck with the play that he had Brady take two kneeldowns to run out the final 51 seconds despite getting the ball to start the second half.

Brady also threw a bad ball on the second offensive possession. Starting at the 20, Rob Gronkowski caught a nine-yard pass, then Gray ripped off a 20-yard run. On first down at their own 49, Brady lofted a deep ball up for grabs. Brian Tyms was in triple coverage, and the ball went right to Adams about three yards to the left of Tyms.

Brady’s passer rating for the first half was 24.8. Luck’s was 92.7.

To Brady’s credit, his second half was more Brady-like. His passer rating was a perfect 158.3, the Patriots scored touchdowns on all four possessions that didn’t end the game, and Gray still piled up rushing yards in the process. The Patriots finished with 244 team rushing yards and a 5.4 yards per carry average.

Luck did manage 303 passing yards, most of them to tight end Coby Fleener. Fleener finished with seven catches for 144 yards. The game plan was to stop T.Y. Hilton, and he was held to three catches for 24 yards. Stopping the Colt rushing attack was also key, as the Colts as a team rushed for only 19 yards on 17 carries.

There was a sequence late in the fourth quarter which more or less spoke volumes of the Patriot mindset all game long, especially in the end. Being run-oriented all game long, Gronkowski finally broke out late in the game with two notable plays. When Gray scored his fourth touchdown to make it 35-20 Patriots, Gronkowski got sick and tired of former teammate Sergio running smack all game long. He took Brown on Gray’s left end run and literally threw him into an NBC camera. Gronkowski was called for taunting, and looked like the Tasmanian Devil on his way back to the bench.

On the next drive, Gronkowski culminated the drive with a catch in the left flat at the Colt 26. He put unbelievable moves on D’Quell Jackson and Greg Toler and danced his way into the end zone for the final score of the evening. He went berserk again, jumped up and down at Belichick on the sideline and then did some awful dance on the sideline with his tongue hanging out. The two sequences were more or less symbolic, showing the Patriots brandishing their dominance over a very good AFC team on the road, and showing the rest of the conference a ton of swagger and confidence as the schedule heads towards December.

The Patriots will now get the Detroit Lions in town next week, and two huge stars on either side of the ball. Calvin “Megatron” Johnson will likely occupy most of Darrelle Revis’ time this week in the film room, and Ndamokung Suh has become the NFL defensive behemoth everyone thought he would be. It will be interesting playing the Lions around Thanksgiving but not on Thanksgiving, as has been the case several times over the past decade.

Right now, with this win at Indianapolis, the Patriots have to feel incredibly good right now. They are in solid control of their own playoff destiny, and are peaking at exactly the right time in the schedule.

Belichick usually talks about the Red Area in his postgame. From now on, the color will likely change from Red to Gray.

A Powerful Message Sent By Patriots

FOXBOROUGH – It snowed Sunday morning in Foxborough, and you almost wished that the snowplows would leave the playing surface at Gillette Stadium alone.

The plows did clear the field, but it was still plenty cold enough for the Game of the Year that afternoon against the Denver Broncos.  The Patriots seem to play this team every year, and last year they played them twice.  It may happen again this year, and like last year, the Patriots will have the tiebreaker edge against Denver with a 43-21 thrashing of the AFC champs.  It was a clear and convincing win over Peyton Manning and his vaunted offense, and the Patriots head into their bye week with the conference lead and enough confidence to choke a pig.

The Patriot defense, bolstered by the addition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, proved to be more than capable of handling Manning, although Manning traditionally plays poorly in cold weather (Manning is now 8-12 when it’s below 40 degrees).  The weather almost didn’t matter as the Patriots, despite yielding 438 yards of passing to Manning, made the plays when they had to and held the future Hall of Fame quarterback to only 21 points and did force two interceptions in the process.

Brady-Manning XVI was all Tom Brady, pretty much.  Despite some sputtering at times and several dropped passes, Brady had a good rhythm all game long and was able to find Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman for nine catches each.  His four touchdown passes were to four different receivers.  He suffered one interception, but that was because a pass tipped off Danny Amendola’s fingertips and into the arms of Bradley Roby.

Tom Brady is now fifth all-time in passing yardage and fourth all-time in career touchdown passes after a 43-21 win Sunday over Denver.
(USA TODAY Images)

If you could make a laundry list of how the Patriots were able to manhandle the Broncos, it might go like this.

Containing Manning when they had to.  In his postgame press conference, Manning downplayed any confusion from the Patriot defense and blamed the loss on his poor play.  He mentioned that the Broncos were able to drive the ball well, but three of the last four Bronco offensive possessions ended on failed fourth down passes.  The first one was an overthrown pass to Jacob Tamme in the end zone with Patrick Chung in perfect coverage.  The next drive ended near midfield when Manning hit Emmanuel Sanders for three yards on a nifty quick slant route, but Sanders needed four for the first down.  Finally, Manning found Sanders in the end zone about two steps ahead of Malcolm Butler, but overthrew Sanders.  For the game, Denver was 0-4 on fourth down.

Edge in special teams.  Why Denver jettisoned placekicker Matt Prater is a little hard to understand.  Replacement Brandon McManus doinked a 41-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter and never attempted another field goal for the rest of the game.  And this was with the wind at his back.  This was part of the reason why Denver attempted so many fourth down plays.  Meanwhile, in the second quarter, Britton Colquitt mishandled a punt snap, barely avoided getting the punt blocked by Brandon Bolden, then launched a 53-yard punt.  That’s good, except Edelman wound up running the punt back 84 yards for a touchdown.  It made the score 20-7 Patriots at the time, and relaxed the Patriots a great deal.

Brady was super patient all game long.  Denver is the best in the NFL in rushing defense, and without Stevan Ridley to neutralize that edge, Brady methodically found favorable matchups all over the place, and would have had better numbers if not for several drops by Brandon LaFell and Shane Vereen.  Gronkowski led the Patriots with 105 yards receiving, and even Danny Amendola had two key receptions for double-digit yardage.  In a game where Brady might have shown frustration thanks to literally no rushing attack (the Patriots averaged 2.6 yards per carry as a team), Brady instead kept his head and managed to find his receivers against a Denver secondary that is not as impregnable (read:  Champ Bailey in his heyday) as in past years.

The key matchup of the game, Browner versus Julius Thomas, came up a winner for the Patriots.  Browner smothered the great tight end most all game long.  When Thomas caught his touchdown pass early in the third quarter, it was Chung in coverage and not Browner.  Revis and Kyle Arrington did a nice job on Demaryius Thomas and Sanders for the most part, but Browner’s work was critical for the Patriots.

If there was one chink in the Patriot armor, it was that the fourth quarter seemed to take forever and the Patriots were unable to control the game and the clock, relying on the defense to make fourth down stops to do what the running game could not.  It did force Josh McDaniels into some play calling which made Patriot fans scratch their heads, but in reality Jonas Gray and Vereen were collectively unable to pound the ball and keep Manning off the field like teams usually like to do.  The Patriots were fortunate to have such a paucity in rushing and still beat Denver by 22 points.

Manning finished with 34 of 57 passing for 438 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions (Rob Ninkovich, Browner) dropped his passer rating to 80.9.  Sanders had 151 yards receiving, while Demaryius Thomas had 127.  Former Patriot Wes Welker was held to three catches for 33 yards before a hit from Devin McCourty on the play where Browner made his interception in the third quarter sent him to the bench with a back injury.

Brady had an historic afternoon.  He passed John Elway (who watched the game from the luxury suites) in career total yards passing and passed Drew Brees in career passing touchdowns and is now fifth and fourth in those categories respectively.  Brady was 33-53 for 333 yards with four touchdowns and a 97.4 passer rating.

This season is shaping up to be a lot like 2013.  For the moment, the Patriots are the top playoff seed, but this is only after nine weeks.  Denver has a much easier last seven games than the Patriots do, and despite holding the tiebreaker edge, it is still not a lock that the Patriots wind up with the one seed instead of the two seed or worse.  Beating Denver last year didn’t matter as a late season loss to Miami sent the Patriots to Denver for the AFC Championship Game.  There is too much regular season left, and the Patriots need to worry about handling their own business rather than worrying about Denver handling theirs.

But for right now, as the Patriots head into their week off, Patriot Nation should feel terrific.  The Patriots look like the Kansas City loss was the biggest anomaly of decade.  The team looks like everyone thought they would look like back in the summer.

And of course, any win over Manning is extra sweet.  Manning’s boosters can continue and trumpet his praises all they want.  But look at the record and draw your own conclusions.

Patriots Tune Up For Denver With Blowout Win

FOXBOROUGH – For those who remember Super Bowl XX, any huge win over the Chicago Bears is extra sweet.

On Sunday, the Patriots dismantled the Monsters of the Midway, 51-23 at Gillette Stadium, advancing the Patriots to 6-2 and setting up a titanic bout next weekend.  Brady-Manning XVI figures to be the game of the season in the NFL to this point, and both teams looked terrific at home heading into the tilt next weekend at The Razor.

That said, despite all the offensive heroics for the Patriots and how easily they handled Da Bears in general, there are still lingering concerns over the Patriots, especially on defense, which will have a huge impact on a very important game next weekend which could in the long run help determine the AFC Champion this season.

Everyone will go gaga over Tom Brady’s terrific day, Rob Gronkowski returning to his invincible form, and Brandon LaFell becoming the next Julian Edelman.  And they should.  But all this offensive bling won’t matter next week if the Patriots don’t do something about run defense, and they should thank their lucky stars that the Bears don’t believe in the old maxim “Run the ball until they show that they can stop the run.”

Patrick Forte was the key to a Bears victory, if that was meant to be.  Forte was exactly as advertised, rushing for 114 yards on 19 carries and a six-yard average per carry.  He also tied for the team high in pass receptions with six catches for 54 yards.  Forte’s backup, Ka’Deem Carey, chipped in with 33 carries on six carries and a 5.5 average per carry.

Like Chris Ivory of the Jets last week, Forte was gashing the Patriots inside most all game long.  But the Bears did not take full advantage of the matchup advantage with Forte and missed out on a chance to control the game and keep Brady off the field.  Marc Tressman could have used Forte and Carey in a tandem so as to not wear one or the other out, and then used play action to set up a passing attack with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.  Even with inconsistent Jay Cutler under center, this plan could have worked perfectly and helped the Bears keep pace with the Patriots better.

With how bad the Chicago defense played, perhaps this didn’t matter.  It will next week against the Broncos, as Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball could help Peyton Manning set up a lethal passing attack with Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas.  If the Patriots cannot contain the Bronco rushers better than they have done in the past few weeks, Manning will find one or two guys running around with ease next week as Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner can’t cover everyone.

This is something the Patriots have to address and fix and soon.  A Denver loss next week will pull them into a tie for the conference lead with the Patriots (and Baltimore and Indianapolis if they win).  Winning the tiebreaker with Denver would be crucial come January, though it didn’t quite pay off last year despite the exciting regular season overtime win.

What the NFL will be licking its chops over next week will be a Brady-Manning shootout.  If Brady is on his game like he was on Sunday, next week should be most entertaining.

Rob Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes from Tom Brady on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
(USA TODAY Images)

Brady’s numbers were absolutely outstanding.  He finished 30 of 35 passing (and remember that Edelman and Shane Vereen each had two drops) for 354 yards, five touchdowns and a 148.4 passer rating.  Gronkowski tied his career best with nine catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game in the second half due to dehydration.  LaFell had his best game as a Patriot with 11 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.  Despite his output coming in garbage time, Tim Wright had seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown.  This was a rarity for Brady to have the kind of game he had but spreading most of the workload around generally three receivers instead of seven or more.

Jonas Gray did nicely at running back with 86 yards rushing on 17 carries and a 5.1 average per carry.  He doesn’t remind you of Stevan Ridley, but given how well the Bears played run defense in the red area, those were good numbers.

Defensively, the Patriots weren’t impregnable, but looked good for the most part.  Revis did a great job in shutting down Marshall, limiting the outspoken receiver to three catches for 35 yards.  Browner also had a nice game mostly lined up against Jeffery.  Rob Ninkovich had a fumble recovery return for a touchdown late in the first half, and the defense sacked Cutler three times.

The fact that the Patriots really didn’t contain Forte didn’t matter at all.  The Patriots had the ball ten times, scored on eight of the possessions, punted on one and did the victory formation on the other.  Chicago basically played hideous defense; they went after safety Ryan Mundy all game long, they had no answer for Gronkowski at all, and to make matters worse, Lamarr Houston sacked Jimmy Garoppolo late in the game and had to come out of the game with an injury sustained while he was celebrating the sack.

The game was decided in a dizzying sequence late in the second quarter.  Gronkowski caught a 2-yard touchdown pass which should have been overturned on replay as he juggled the ball as he fell to the ground keeping both feet inbounds.  Leading 24-7, the Patriots held the Bears three and out and Edelman returned the ensuing punt 42 yards.  A holding penalty put the ball at the Chicago 9-yard line.  LaFell caught a touchdown pass on the next play as he beat former Boston College cornerback Al Louis-Jean in the left corner of the end zone.  On their first play of the next drive, Zach Moore induced a Cutler fumble which Ninkovich picked up at the Chicago 15 and ran it in for still another touchdown.  The Patriots wound up scoring three touchdowns in 57 seconds to make it 38-7.

To make matters worse, the Patriots got the ball to begin the second half, and Brady was able to hit Gronkowski for a 46-yard touchdown pass.  He gave Mundy a terrific stiffarm on his way to the end zone and outran Louis-Jean the rest of the way.  No wonder that an IV was next in store for the big fella.

So let the Brady-Manning hype begin.  Like last year, the game will be home (regular season, that is).  It will be fun to watch.  It would give the winner the all-important tiebreaker edge.  Playoff alignment is still too early right now to carve up and dissect, but it still matters.

Stop the run.  Put that up in capital letters on every Patriot bulletin board and blackboard.  Stop the run.  Stop the run.

Patriots Survive Brutal Struggle With Jets

FOXBOROUGH – No matter how bad the Jets are, when they play the Patriots, they always seem to play their best – or two best – game(s) of the year.

After a season opening victory over Oakland, the Jets have lost five straight games, the worst losing streak in the Rex Ryan era.  The Patriots did make it six, but barely, as a last second field goal attempt by Nick Folk from 58 yards out was blocked by Chris Jones, sealing a 27-25 Patriot win on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.  The Jets played a solid game and battled the Patriots tooth and nail, and in the end the better team (stop us if you’ve heard this before) found a way to win.

It seemed all game long that the Patriots were giving the Jets all they wanted on the ground while literally daring Geno Smith to beat the Patriots through the air.  The stingy Jet defense almost made the Patriots pay for that strategy, but an incredible touchdown catch by Danny Amendola with 7:49 left gave the Patriots an eight-point margin that held up in the end.

Danny Amendola caught the winning touchdown pass and recovered an onside kick to help the Patriots beat the Jets on Thursday night.
(USA TODAY Images)

The night seemed like a Patriot blowout was in the offing right from the start.  On their second offensive play, Tom Brady hit Brandon LaFell for 24 yards after a missed tackle by Phillip Adams.  Two plays later, Shane Vereen lined up at wideout on the right side.  Two Jet defensive backs, especially safety Antonio Allen who was most responsible for coverage, let Vereen run uncovered down the right sideline.  Brady hit Vereen and almost overthrew him, but Vereen made the catch and stumbled into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown catch and a quick 7-0 lead for the Patriots.

Ryan and his defense were embarrassed, and the Jets struck back.  The Patriots played primarily a 4-2-5 base defense to make up for the loss of Jerod Mayo, with man coverage on the outsides and zone up the middle.  On the third offensive play for the Jets, Smith was able to hit tight end Jeff Cumberland on a slant route for 28 yards with Devin McCourty playing a soft zone.  Chris Ivory, the top offensive weapon for the Jets, ripped off a 15-yard run amidst a hail of missed tackles.  Folk would later hit a 23-yard field goal to put the Jets on the board.

The Jets had the ball four times in the first half, and each drive ended in a Folk field goal.  The Patriots seemed to concede a ton of yardage between the 20s, especially on runs by Ivory.  Eric Decker, the free agent pickup from Denver, drew former Jet Darrelle Revis in coverage.  Decker wound up with four catches for 65 yards to lead the Jets.  Late in the first quarter, Smith threw perhaps his prettiest pass of the night as he lofted a lob pass just over the leaping Revis and into Decker’s hands for 24 yards to help set up Folk’s second field goal.

Time of possession in the first half was lopsided in favor of the Jets, 22 minutes to eight for the Patriots.  But the Patriots led 17-12, as Brady was able to hit Vereen for a second touchdown pass, this time from 3 yards out with 4:22 left in the first half.  The plan to allow Jet movement from between the 20s was working up to that time.

The Jets got the ball to begin the second half and proceeded to take the lead, eating up six minutes of time in the process.  Ivory began the second half with a 17-yard run on a nice cutback move.  Two plays later, Ivory burst up the middle for 12 yards.  On third and four, Decker caught a slant pass for 14 yards, but Alfonzo Dennard was on him and not Revis.  Three plays later, on third and 12, Decker beat Revis for 18 yards on a slant route.  On first and goal at the eight, Ivory ran twice to cover the eight yards and the Jets led 19-17.  The Patriots would get the lead back on the next drive thanks partly to two defensive penalties on the Jets.  Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on both his field goal attempts, and this 36-yarder gave the Patriots the lead for good at 20-19.

The Jets’ next drive resulted in their first punt of the night as their first five drives resulted in scores.  The teams traded three-and-outs until a bad Ryan Quigley punt went only 30 yards to the Jet 46 with 10:51 left.  Brady was able to shake off two consecutive dropped passes by Julian Edelman and drove the Patriots the 46 yards to give them the winning margin.  Brady hit Gronkowski for five yards, then Edelman for 14, and then a nice seam pass for 24 yards to put the Patriots at the Jet 3.  Vereen lost a yard on first down, then an illegal pick call on LaFell put the Patriots back at the Jet 19.  On third down, Brady dropped back, rolled to his left, then hurled the ball towards the end zone.

Amendola, perhaps the most maligned Patriot, ran a slant route against Allen, then curled back inside and made a leaping grab of Brady’s pass in the end zone.  The Patriots led, 27-19 with 7:49 left.  It was a remarkable catch by Amendola, his best in a season where he was literally no offensive factor at all.

The Jets had only one timeout left at this time.  Through either Jet stupidity or Patriot savvy, the Patriots gave the Jets a ton of yardage over the middle and despite giving up a touchdown, the Jets were forced to eat up 5:18 of playing time.  The Jets haven’t converted a two-point try in four years (the last one was against New England, of course).  Smith overthrew Jace Amaro in the end zone, and the Patriots kept the lead.  Amendola added to his heroic evening by smothering the onside kick which took a funky bounce and didn’t look like the solid lock play it has looked like over the years.

The Patriots could have iced the game with one first down, but managed only one net yard on their brief possession.  The Jets got the ball back with 1:06 left, and once again ran plays that mostly stayed inbounds.  Folk was left to try a 58-yard field goal with four seconds left, and Chris Jones, who was at the epicenter of that strange penalty in the loss to the Jets last year, was able to burst in from the middle and block the kick to end the game.

Ivory finished with 107 yards rushing on 21 carries and an average just over five yards.  The Jets as a team rushed for 218 yards and a 5.1 average per carry.  Smith was 20 of 34 passing for 226 yards and an 88.6 rating.  Despite the game being a nailbiter to the finish, the Patriots’ game plan worked perfectly, but the team does need to do more to replace Mayo with tougher competition coming up on the horizon.

Brady was 20 of 37 for 261 yards and three touchdowns, and a passer rating of 103.5.  Vereen and Gronkowski each had five catches for 139 combined yards.

The Patriots get the Chicago Bears at home in a week and a half.  The rest will do them well, but this 4-2-5 base that worked against the Jets won’t cut it for the rest of the season.  Jay Cutler is better than he has been in years past, and the next quarterback after him is someone named Peyton.

But a win over the Jets is nice no matter how pretty or ugly.