Patriots can learn from Sunday in order to move past Saturday

Jim Hackett
January 02, 2020 - 2:27 pm
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Since Sunday’s surprising, underwhelming and deflating loss to the Dolphins, we’ve seen the close of 2019 and the coming of 2020. Dreams of a first-round bye are long gone. The Patriots have moved on, readying themselves for Saturday night’s task and the arrival of the Tennessee Titans, an armed opponent with little to lose and everything to gain.

To his credit, Bill Belichick acknowledged Sunday’s missed opportunity right here in his weekly appearance on Patriots Monday but quickly and convincingly stated “we’ve moved on.” Is there any doubt he has?

Earlier that same day we heard Tom Brady say that there is no real momentum from game to game, also committing his focus and that of his teammates to this Saturday night and the Titans. That sentiment is encouraging based on the Belichick/Brady era resume in such situations. We all know the record. For the most part, Brady’s words on momentum are true, but even though momentum is truly a week to week thing in the NFL, there are traits over the last few weeks to build on, work out and those that frankly need correction. 

Game to game momentum may be fleeting but the footprints on the trail they have blazed to date, will either send the Patriots home early or into the next round. Over the last few weeks there are takeaways that actually matter for this weekend’s game. Let’s start up-front.

Offensive Line play:

Improved. Despite season-long problems up front and Brady’s poor play on Sunday you can’t blame the line this time. The protection against the Dolphins was as good as it’s been all season long, better than most weeks. Brady had problems all day but time to make decisions and throws were not the issue. 

In terms of run blocking which has looked paltry for most of the season that too has improved. Rex Burkhead has found the second level consistently the last two weeks as his role has increased and Sony Michel has shown visible improvement over the last three games. The stats back it up. Over the last three weeks, the Patriots have gained 175, 143 and 135 yards respectively against the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins. An average of 151 yards per game. That is nearly double their season-long average from the 13 prior weeks that yielded just over 78 yards per game on the ground. Give the offensive line, tight ends, improved play at fullback from Elandon Roberts and the overall collective scheme props for improving as the stakes increased late in the season. The whole blocking ensemble has improved. Not perfect but improved.

Play-calling:

Inconsistent. I love what they did against Buffalo on offense. Balance. One hundred and 43 yards on the ground on 35 rushing attempts and 33 pass attempts. Brady was surgical in week 16 and that is crucial, but the offensive balance was poetic. Thirty-five rushes and 33 passes are about as balanced as an offensive attack can be in a fluid and competitive football game. Buffalo was off-balance defensively all game long. 

Against the Dolphins the balance was similar, 27 rushes and 29 passes but the production, efficiency and game script were wildly different. So what changed?

Quarterback play:

As Brady once said after an embarrassing first-round loss to the Baltimore Ravens in 2009, “we picked a bad day to have a bad day.” Indeed. Same story held true on Sunday. It happens. I think there were several factors though. In week 7, Sam Darnold famously said “I’m seeing ghosts out there” referring to how the Patriots defense was confusing him. On Sunday, I think Brady was seeing ghosts of a different kind, receivers not being quite open enough, even if they were. It’s understandable as Brady’s lack of weapons has been a well-chronicled problem all year long. The Net effect of it all is what you saw from Brady on Sunday. Hesitating to trust what his eyes were showing him. His poor performance looked more like the product of Brady’s own hesitation than what he was actually seeing on the field. The result of a season filled with well-covered receivers and pass-catchers seemed to cause the vision of ghosts of his own. It’s a problem, but I think that changes Saturday night.

Defense:

The Boogeymen of 2019 looked a lot more like the ‘bend-don’t-break’ types we got too used to from 2012-2017 under Matt Patricia. The problem Sunday is that when the defense needed to seal it up, they broke. I don’t expect that to be the case moving forward. Stephon Gilmore didn’t suddenly turn into Earthwind Moreland.

Like the Patricia led defenses of the bend-don’t-break past, they gambled that the often blazing hot or shockingly cold Ryan Fitzpatrick would hang himself. They banked on Fitzpatrick being Fitztragic. Gilmore played a step off of Miami stud receiver Devante Parker all day long and Parker made him pay. Fitzpatrick fed him like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner combined. Like the Dr. Jeckel & Mr. Hyde that he is, Fitzmagic picked apart a Patriots secondary who allowed him to do so the entire game. 

The result is not a coincidence. 

The man with the wild beard has no quarterback conscience. He is the anti-Brady and the Patriots wait and react approach from the secondary played right into his Wild Wild West mentality. Fitzpatrick is like an inconsistent closer that keeps taking the ball no matter how often the walk-off home runs happen or how far they travel. What happened on Sunday was scary but solvable. If you are looking for traits to follow from the Patriots defense as a whole, I’d look towards the other 15 games versus what you saw on Sunday. The week 17 loss is the outlier. 

Again, “a bad day to have a bad day” or better said a bad game plan.

Special Teams:

We now have a kicker and the coverage units can be game-changing. I like what I see here. Enough said.

Moving forward:

So with Saturday night’s tilt at home versus Tennessee what has to happen to win? The clues and the evidence from the 2019 trail are there.

For the offense, don’t give up on the run. Mix and match Burkhead, Michel and James White to try and keep the Titans defense off-balance. Secondly and most importantly, Brady must forget what he has seen all season long and just trust the eyes and quick decision-making that has made him the clutch post-season performer and Hall of Famer he is. 

If you are seeking answers to what the biggest difference was on offense between their week 16 win over Buffalo and last week’s loss to Miami, just look at Brady’s play and sudden indecision. If Fitzpatrick can unconsciously abuse Stephon Gilmore, I’m more than confident that Brady can find his rhythm on Saturday night. Elbow problems and all. As they say in golf, think long, think wrong. Brady would be wise to trust his skills and his eyes, just grip it and rip it. If the recent trends of improved protection and more room to run hold true, then he should have enough time and offensive balance to make it work. 

On defense, I’m forecasting more of what I saw all season long versus what my eyes witnessed on Sunday. Don’t give Ryan Tannehill the space that Fitzpatrick saw or it will be another long day for the defense. Like Miami’s Parker, Tennessee’s A.J. Brown and Corey Davis can be a handful. The secondary can’t play as conservatively as it did on Sunday or those two will make them pay again. 

For special teams? I’m laying the gauntlet down. It took all season long and a Thanksgiving week appendectomy to get there but the Patriots have actually found a kicker in Nick Folk. He seals it for a 20-17 win on Saturday night, bad weather and all.