After a holiday break with the family, I’m spelling Steve this week as we get set for the Patriots’ New Year’s Eve finale against the Jets later today. So here are this week’s Patriots news and AFC East Notes.
Contrary to the Critics, Brady Actually Looked Better Against Buffalo Than He Had in Weeks:
One of the things that really stood out during New England’s win over Buffalo on Sunday was the fact that Tom Brady looked about as sharp as he had been in about a month, which was a nice change given where he was after his name first appeared on the injury report with his “Achilles” injury. Over that span he didn’t appear to be himself, with his throws not quite having the same zip on them and he didn’t look like he was moving as well in the pocket, which also hurt him as he took some shots by the defense that he would normally elude.
But on Sunday, it was a different story. His passes were crisp and thrown on a line, with a lot more precision and velocity than we’ve seen while he was dealing with the injury. Overall, Brady finished the afternoon missing on just seven pass attempts, completing 21-of-28 for 224-yards and two touchdowns. Many will point to the pick-six he threw early in the second quarter but upon further review, it was hard to put that one on him. Looking at the film, the interception happened because newcomer Kenny Britt, who was targeted on the play, drifted back in his route instead of coming straight back across, with Brady simply putting the ball where Britt seemingly should have been. Instead, it allowed Bills safety Jordan Poyer a lane to undercut Britt and make a diving interception, which saw Poyer leap to his feet and sprint 19-yards back the other way for the touchdown.
Look below at where Britt was when Brady released the football:
This is the direction Britt looked like he should have been going in, even with the 19-yard line with an opportuntiy to catch the ball and potentially split the two safeties and reach the marker:
Instead, look at where he ends up. Britt drifts back an additional two yards, ending up past the 21-yard line, which allows Poyer to make the diving interception and the eventual touchdown:
Needless to say, it’s hard to put that one completely on Brady.
Nevertheless, aside from the turnover, Brady looked as strong as we’ve seen recently and on Sunday he was definitely moving around the pocket much better. He showed improved mobility and didn’t seem as hampered, moving out of harm’s way on several occasions while looking much more nimble in the pocket. When he was forced to move around, he showed no issues resetting his feet and firing the football, which is great to see as we head into the final week of the season.
The critics point to the fact he’s thrown interceptions in each of the last five games, but the numbers don’t always tell the entire story. While Sunday’s turnover looks poor on the stat sheet, the context under how it occurred certainly should be taken under consideration.
Through 15 games, he’s still well below some of the other top names around the league in terms of interceptions. Heading into Sunday’s game Brady is currently tied for 20th in the NFL in interceptions with eight, with players like Ben Roethlisberger (14), Cam Newton (13), Dak Prescott (13), Matt Ryan (12), and Russell Wilson (11) among players who have turned it over more than Brady has this season.
For now, while there are vultures out there looking for the dropoff that many are expecting to hit at his age, it’s still much too early to swoop in just yet.
Lewis rounds out a group that should be able to do some damage in the playoffs. (USA TODAY Images)
Lewis’ Rise Sets Patriots Up Nicely Heading Into the Playoffs:
It’s been mentioned previously in this space, but watching Dion Lewis on Sunday should have fans feeling pretty confident about the Patriots’ chances in the playoffs thanks to the dual threat he’s been giving them in the ground game as of late, with Sunday providing another terrific example.
Lewis notched a career-high 129-yards rushing on 24 carries against the Bills on Sunday, including a touchdown, his second 100+ yard rushing game in the last five weeks. He also had 5 receptions on 5 targets for another 24-yards and a touchdown. He’s averaged over 5-yards-per-carry in the last two games and appears to be peaking at the right time, which is good news for a Patriots team that has had their best success with an effective rushing attack in their previous two Super Bowl wins.
The veteran running back was named AFC Offensive Player of the week after Sunday’s performance, including a key play in the game where Lewis converted a 4th-and-1 to keep the chains moving as New England looked to pull ahead trailing 16-13 in the third quarter. After a 5-yard completion to Danny Amendola, Lewis picked up 3 yards on the next play to set up 4th and short. Brady hustled to the line and snapped the ball to Lewis, who the officials initially ruled was short of the marker. But after review, Lewis picked up the yard and kept the drive going.
Four plays later, the Patriots converted a 34-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to knot the score at 16-16. That sparked a 10 point third quarter that jumpstarted New England’s offense, which added two more touchdowns in the ensuing quarter, including one by Gillislee and Lewis to complete the 37-16 blowout.
He’s done a great job of breaking through up the middle and depending on how far New England goes, if they make another successful run, we may look back at his contributions as being pivotal if he continues to play this way in the postseason.
Return By Mitchell Could Be a Game-Changer:
Speaking of pivotal, it’s going to be interesting to see if Malcolm Mitchell makes a successful comeback, especially if he’s anywhere close to the player he was last season.
Mitchell returned to practice this week after spending the season on injured reserve and the timing couldn’t be better for a team that’s still a bit banged up at the receiver position. Chris Hogan hasn’t quite gotten back into form yet after suffering a shoulder injury a few weeks ago, leaving them a little thin at the position. That’s lead to some problems in recent weeks on third down, which Mitchell may be able to help them with.
Brady was 10-of-15 targeting Mitchell on 3rd down during the 2016 regular season, with 9 first downs including two touchdowns. Those 9 conversions were tied for third on the team with Rob Gronkowski and James White, although Mitchell’s success rate (9/10) was higher than any other player.
One of the most memorable plays he had was a 3rd-and-11 that he converted late in the Super Bowl, which played a key part of New England’s comeback over Atlanta. Having him back on the field would be important as he really had a lot of success in one-on-one match-ups last season, which is something their offense needs with Gronkowski and Cooks as two players who will likely receive a lot of attention.
Mitchell finished the postseason with 7 receptions for 75 yards, with 6 of those catches coming in the Super Bowl after Mitchell piled up 70-yards during the Patriots win over Atlanta. He was quietly one of the unsung heroes last year and hopefully, his return marks another opportunity to play a similar role this year as well.
Where they are right now really is impressive given who they’re missing:
Another thing that’s really surprising this season is the fact this team has reached the point it has with its hands essentially tied behind its back. What’s staggering is the fact that they’re sitting now tied with Pittsburgh at 12-3 on the verge of getting the top seed without the likes of Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Mitchell and Vincent Valentine.
For Hightower, his absence is quietly one of the ones that stings the most, especially given how effective he’s been in the postseason. The Patriots have gotten flashes from different players while he’s been gone, but no one has really stepped up consistently on a weekly basis, which could be a concern should this team face adversity and need someone to step up in a key moment. Hightower was no stranger to rising up when they needed a big play, and no one has quite been able to even come close to filling those shoes.
One of the things that may help New England this season is the fact that no one in the NFC right now is playing well enough to make you believe the Patriots can’t compete and win if they’re able to make it that far, which will hopefully allow them to outscore whoever they ultimately face if they end up in Minnesota.
But as we reach this point in the season, it’s tough not to lament Edelman’s loss heading into the postseason. Given how good they’ve managed to somehow be without him, just imagine having Edelman out there with Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski, which probably would have made a significant difference in how much more explosive this group would have been. Cooks likely would be a much more effective player, especially since Edelman would have drawn more of the coverage with Gronkowski.
Edelman’s potential return certainly sets things up really well for 2018, but considering where they are at this point without him, it definitely says a lot about how well this group has managed to push on with their best offensive weapon on the sideline.
Like Gronkowski’s absence last year, we’ll be left to wonder just how far they can make it without him, which will be one of the biggest questions on everyone’s mind the next time they take the field after Sunday’s finale against the Jets.
Edelman’s loss was a big one for the Patriots in 2017. (USA TODAY Images)
Edelman Felt Unwanted After the 2012 Season:
Speaking of Edelman, one of the gifts I received for Christmas from my lovely wife was “Relentless” – which is the book of Julian Edelman’s journey written by Edelman and well-known Patriots reporter Tom E. Curran. I’ll be offering up some tidbits over the next few weeks, as the book is full of some terrific insight into Edelman’s journey from pop warner to the NFL, along with a lot of looks behind-the-scenes during his time with New England.
However, one of the things that was interesting was how bitter Edelman apparently was coming off of the 2012 season before he hit free agency. Prior to that season, he had received a two-year contract offer for what he wrote was “more money than I was currently making”, but Edelman passed after he claimed that he and his agent decided that he would be better off addressing it after the season.
Instead, Edelman had a tough year after he suffered a broken hand and a broken foot, which saw him play in just nine games that season, the fewest of what at the time was his fourth-year in the NFL. As a result, New England pulled the deal from a two-year deal to a one-year deal and Edelman was extremely upset, especially after they brought in Danny Amendola after Wes Welker departed in free agency after that season.
“It was a lot for me to process,” wrote Edelman. “My feelings were hurt, and I was mad with the thought that they had decided to move in a completely different direction. So I looked at other options. I visited the Giants and I had every intention of signing there. As far as the Patriots were concerned, I felt, They don’t want me. They don’t need me. I’ll go where I’m wanted.”
But Edelman’s dad was the one who actually convinced him to stay, telling him, “not to make decisions based on emotion.” So Edelman wrote that by the end of that first week of free agency, “I had simmered down. Now my head and gut were in New England.”
It’s a good thing because Edelman had a breakout season in 2013, catching 105 passes during the regular season for 1056 yards and six touchdowns.
Edelman seemingly had plenty of motivation heading into that season, which happened after the team drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce to go along with Amendola’s addition. After Edelman’s foot recovery stretched into camp, Bill Belichick called him into his office to tell him that both Dobson and Boyce were making the team and that he needed to get out there and start practicing.
“We’ve got guys who are capable of playing,” Belichick told him. “You’ve got to show me what you’re capable of doing.”
After their meeting, Edelman wrote, “I wasn’t 100%, but I knew I was out of time. Like my dad says, you can’t snivel over it.” He also said that it motivated him.
“I felt like a cornered animal,” wrote Edelman. “I knew I had to fight my way out of it.”
He’s likely raring to go right now having sat out this season after the knee injury he suffered during the preseason. While it’s disappointing, he’s proven that he’s no stranger to doing what he needs to in order to come back from an injury and hopefully, he’ll be ready to go in 2018.
Belichick Reaches Out to a Coach Many Have Forgotten:
Steve Balestrieri came across some terrific Tweets posted this week featuring footage from a meeting between Belichick and former Lions coach Rick Forzano.
The 89-year old came to visit Belichick after he invited Forzano for a meeting prior to the team’s preseason game back in August against the Lions in Detroit. Forzano, who coached the Lions from 1974 to 1976 is the man Belichick credits with giving him his first real opportunity in the NFL. He knew Belichick from the time he was 8-years old, including a moment where at 10-years old, Forzano put Belichick in the film room and told him to break down the film for him.
“He studied everything I did, and he did just the opposite,” joked Forzano. “And that’s why he’s successful.”
“That’s not true,” laughed Belichick.
Later in the piece, Forzano also made quite the statement, referring to Belichick surpassing even the great Paul Brown.
“Paul Brown set the bar up so high,” said Forzano in the piece. “And this guy (pointing to Belichick) tore the bar down.”
It’s absolutely terrific, so besure and take a look at each of these tweets in order below. The footage continues as you move down to each one.
AFC EAST NOTES:
Despite New York’s 5-10 finish, the Jets extended head coach Todd Bowles this week, with Bowles now under contract through 2020.
That’s good news for the veteran coach, who overall looks like he’s started changing the culture for a team that was much more undisciplined under Rex Ryan.
The Jets got off to a rocky beginning in 2017 after an 0-2 start, but then won three-straight before the Patriots came in and started the first of two three-game skids that essentially derailed their season.
For New England, it’s a slight red flag in that Bowles will be looking to reward the faith of his owner by trying to beat their biggest rival to close out the season. But with the top seed on the line, there’s enough riding on this one where the Patriots will hopefully have enough motivation to spoil Bowles’ afternoon with New York’s 4th straight loss to close things out.
Jets Lost a Couple More to IR This Week:
In what was more or less a formality, the Jets placed running back Matt Forte on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury, which more or less already has him starting his 2018 preparations a little early.
Forte told ESPN that the knee has been bothering him since the Bye Week (which for the Jets, was back in week 11) and that he’s “been basically playing on one leg”.
It’s funny to see how badly his tenure has gone, as he was a popular name here in New England as a potential Patriot prior to the three-year deal he signed with the Jets. While he’s still got one year left on his deal, he’s expected to be released after this season.
“My contract is for three years and this was the second year of it, so I’m under contract,” Forte said. “What they do with that is not in my control.”
Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make and while the Patriots aren’t always perfect, it appears they made the right move after seeing him fizzle out in New York.
Meanwhile, other players who were placed on IR this week for the Jets included running back Akeem Judd, and starting guard Brian Winters. Winters’ story is interesting as he reportedly tore his abdominal and abductor muscles back in Week 2 but battled through the injuries. He Tweeted that the muscles were “completely torn” during the second quarter back in Week 2 against the Raiders, yet he still managed played much of the year.
That says a lot about him as a player and as much as we don’t like the Jets, it’s hard not to give him a lot of credit for pushing through and it certainly shows you how tough he is. Best wishes to him on a full recovery from what was likely a painful injury.
Bowles will likely be pushing his team to play spoiler Sunday.
Bills Restauarant Owner Upset With NFL’s Time Change:
In one of the more amusing stories I’ve seen in a while, Russ Salvatore, proprieter of Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More in New York, saw his Sunday plans ruined after the league changed the start time for the Bills’ game against Miami from 1:00pm to 4:25pm.
According to Salvatore, the problem with the change is on a normal 1:00pm kickoff, the game is shown in the bar area and everyone comes in and they serve a complimentary buffet, which he says, “it’s a lot of fun” and his patrons enjoy it.
Instead, the new start time conflicts with dinner time at his restaurant on New Years Eve, which on that night is much more formal as he runs an upscale restaurant, and it ruins the experience for what will be the team’s final game of the year but has postseason possibilities.
“They had absolutely no consideration for people in business or people who have made plans on New Year’s Eve for them to change it just to satisfy their pockets,” he said via the Buffalo News, referring to the NFL. “I think it’s ridiculous. A lot of complaints, I’ve gotten, from customers: ‘Russ, are you going to show the game?’ We can’t show the game. People are coming here in tuxedos and gowns; you want to show a football game on New Year’s Eve? It’s the most ridiculous thing in the world.”
He added: “There are a lot of restaurant people who are very upset.”
The Bills are still alive in the playoff hunt, but they’ll need to win along with a couple of different things happening in order to extend their season:
They’re in IF:
They win AND the Ravens lose OR
They win AND the Chargers lose or tie AND the Titans lose or tie OR
They tie AND Chargers lose AND the Titans lose
Needless to say there are a lot of things that need to happen for it to become even a slight possibility. It’s unfortunate for Salvatore and others who may have had plans to watch the game at his establishment. Either way, the good news is they’ll be able to at least enjoy seeing their former players Mike Gillislee and Chris Hogan playing in January. I’m sure they’ll like that.
Dolphins Will Play QB Shuffle Sunday:
One of the things that may improve Buffalo’s chances is the fact that it sounds like the Dolphins may be doing a bit of experimenting at their quarterback position when they take on the Bills Sunday.
According to the Miami Herald, Adam Gase is expected to give backup David Fales some playing time, which Gase is doing to try and evaluate the backup position heading into 2018.
The definitive starter in 2018 is expected to be Ryan Tannehill, who suffered an ACL injury to his left knee that knocked him out of action this season. Since then they’ve been unable to establish any consistency after Jay Cutler came in but couldn’t stabilize that position. Cutler has already stated he won’t be a backup in 2018, which means Sunday will be his final time in a Dolphins uniform.
Matt Moore is also expected to be out, as he didn’t do much during each of his opportunities this season and his deal is up as well.
As a result, things are a bit of a mess with Miami, which, lucky enough for the Bills, bodes well enough to keep those hopes alive. And so it goes in the AFC East, where there always seems to be some bizarre things going on at the end of each season. One thing we do know is that the Patriots have the chance to take care of business and lock up home field, and we’ll find out by the end of today whether or not the road to Minnesota will indeed travel through Foxboro in the AFC.
Posted Under: 2017 Patriots Season