Things to consider while celebrating the Festivus miracle that is Rob Gronkowsk’s return:
— Putting aside the little matters of clinching the division and reclaiming the top spot in the AFC playoff picture, I don’t know how you could squeeze any more statements into one statement win. You go on the road against allegedly one of the hottest teams in the league, have three huge plays reversed on you, give up zero touchdowns despite another fumbled punt, and you roll up on them in all three phases, still without your best receiver and your best defensive player? That’s the kind of statement all the campaign money in New Hampshire can’t buy. “The New England Patriots. Tough. Experienced. Tested. With the leadership we need to defeat Carolina in February.” I’m Jerry Thornton, and I approve this message.
— Even bigger than what this win does in the standings is what it did to opposing defensive coordinators, who probably should start swallowing Cymbaltas by the handful. This was a return to the versatile, changeable, Optimus Prime, matchup nightmare offensive sets we were seeing at the beginning of the season. And I honestly don’t how you defend them.
— Consider two red zone plays. On one, the Patriots came out in “tank” personnel, with three tight ends and two running backs, forcing Houston to go with its goal-line defense. Tom Brady then motioned Scott Chandler out to one side with Rob Gronkowski and fullback Brandon Bolden out to the other. Brady looked over his options, the best was Gronk matched up with Quintin Demps, touchdown. On the other, they were up by 14 and had the luxury of playing for a field goal knowing it would make it a three-score game. So they spread the Texans out, getting Vince Wilfork off the field, then audibled to a draw to James White, touchdown. I’d say defenses have to pick their poison, but it’s more like the McOffense chooses for them.
— I concede that J.J. Watt was limited playing with his Luke Skywalker-hanging-underneath-Bespin hand. But that doesn’t take away from the scheming and effort it took to completely obliterate him from the game. Though for the most part the Pats fed Watt the chef’s combo platter of Michael Williams, Cameron Fleming, Asante Cleveland, Gronk and Sebastian Vollmer, with a side of help from the guards, there were times Marcus Cannon was left on an island and controlled him. Which is a huge upgrrade from how Cannon has been playing. They kept Watt guessing all night to the point he got frustrated, committing a roughing the passer and a neutral zone infraction. In particular there was one play where Cannon had him one-on-one and Watt responded with this weird, looping, circumnavigation-of-the-globe rush while Brady hit Danny Amendola for seven. I think game-planning was way more a factor in his non-factorishness than his bandaged-up droid hand.
— The bear in “The Revenant” doesn’t give Leonardo DiCaprio as much trouble as Logan Ryan gave DeAndre Hopkins. Brandon Browner is on his way to setting the NFL record for penalties in a season and Ryan is on his way to a Pro Bowl. If not this year, soon.
— Remember at the very beginning of the first “Hard Knocks” this year when Bill O’Brien lectured his players about how they think they’re better than they are and the organization is a joke around the league? I was reminded of that when Hopkins finally caught a ball over Ryan, then gave the Pats sideline the phony tough guy stare-down. With his team down 21 points. Someone needs to go through the Texans equipment room and see if they have one of those 2012 Lettermen jackets in his size.
— As good as Ryan has been, the best Patriot on the field was Jabaal Sheard. If we’ve learned anything from watching this team over the years and looking at the free agent deals of Tully Banta-Cain and Mark Anderson, Bill Belichick can turn any slappie into a 10-sack situational edge rusher. But Sheard does more. He’s got the power and technique to push the pocket from the middle. He came off the edge to produce two strip sacks. And on one crucial set of downs when it was still a game came unaccounted for to drop Chris Polk for a loss. Who knows? If he keeps this up, opponents might even start looking to block him.
— The most gratifying aspect of the defense is the recent play of Jerod Mayo. Maybe he just needed to get back into game condition or something because he is playing much closer to his peak of 2010 than the guy who was swinging around ball carriers like they were stripper poles earlier in the year. Taking a lot of reps, he is getting sideline to sideline, playing that spill technique, stringing things out, defeating blocks and letting nothing get by him. He’s still nobody’s idea of a great pass defender, but in the run game he’s got the Most Improved superlative on lock.
— I find few things as fascinating as Bill O’Brien’s chin dimple. That thing is positively hypnotic. Like, I get lost staring into it. The whole triangular shape to that thing reminds me of Tony Stark’s arc reactor in “Iron Man 2.” Of course Brady’s isn’t as deep, but it is round like “Iron Man 1,” which was a thousand times better.
— The key sequence of the game was that defensive stop after Keshawn Martin muffed that punt. With the ball on the 21, Houston gained seven yards on a pass to Hopkins, Jonathan Grimes got stuffed by Rob Ninkovich and Alan Branch, Brian Hoyer threw an incompletion, and then the Texans bizarrely went for it on fourth down and a pass fell incomplete, defended by Leonard Johnson. The punt team gave them the ball in the red area high and the defense gave up zero points. There’s your ball game.
— And just like that, Leonard Johnson is the leader in the clubhouse for the 2015 Fred Coleman “Who the Hell is That Guy?” surprise hero award.
— I feel like if Larry Lucchino was running the Patriots he’d have figured out a way to monetize the weekly fumbled punt by now. “Text the word MUFF for your chance to be the Special Teams Screw-Up Fan of the Week, brought to you by Butterfingers.”
— That peculiar decision by O’Brien to take three easy points off the board wasn’t even his worst decision. I mean, who thinks the wildcat still works against the Patriots? They’ve had that thing on lockdown since after the first time the Dolphins gave them the whoops upside the head with it under Tony Sparano. Their corners and ends are coached up to crash down on the QB and the option back and hit them both, problem solved. Running it even once is doing them a favor. The way O’Brien kept going to was either really, really dumb or he was being really, really loyal to his old mentor.
— And I’d love to hear some analysis about what compelled the Texans to play right into the Patriots’ hands there. But no, by all means tell us about the “Teapot” nickname again. That story gets funnier after the first 30 mentions.
— I have to admit I waited for 20 minutes after the game just to make sure the officials didn’t overturn the ruling on the field that the Patriots had won. “The ruling on the field is changed” is a registered trademark of Jeff Triplette and the NFL. All rights reserved.
— It was refreshing to say the least to see the Patriots get back to the aggressive play-calling right before the half. When they got the ball with 2:45 left, ran one play and let it run down to the two-minute warning, I think it gave us all flashbacks to Denver and Philly. When they get all conservative like that it feels like they’re the grandpa in a commercial who can’t play with the grandkids because he’s got bladder control problems or something. Maybe Gronk is the Depends that gives them the confidence they need or whatever. But I’d rather see them have the occasional accident than just stop living life the way they always have.
— That said, Josh McDaniels had a huge bounce-back game after the odd decisions of the last couple of weeks. Motions (like the quick screen to Brandon LaFell on the touchdown drive before the half), backside screens (Martin goes in motion and they run a play action to White but Martin gets it going backside of the play to pick up the first) and combo routes (“ghost” to Martin in the flat for a first down with Gronk going deep and Danny Amendola on an in-cut). Not to mention that designed play on the first possession where Brady rolled right and hit Gronk deep left against Whitney Mercilus, which was brilliant. Get Julian Edelman back and the McOffense will be unstoppable. Again.
— That is, provided the Patriots keep extracting the Wrenched Ankle and Butterflies in the Stomach out of the Operation game board that is the 2015 season without setting off the buzzer. I’m not even sweating LeGarrette Blount or Devin McCourty. I’m all injury-worried out at this point.
— Watch that James White touchdown run where Shaq Mason drives Brian Cushing three yards back and tell me I’m wrong when I say Cushing is the most overhyped linebacker in the game. All sizzle, no steak.
— Jon Gruden Nickname of the Week: “Jabaal Sheard? I call him ‘Sheer Balls’ because that’s what he brings on every down!”
— This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “So this is planet Houston.” — General Zod, “Superman II” (Note: I will die before I get so lazy I go with “Houston, we have a problem.” Even though it would probably get me into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
— The fact the Pats get to face Tennessee, at home, right after the Titans got slapped around by the Jets is like finding the health pack in a first-person shooter game. They actually could go into the playoffs the healthiest they’ve been all season. If they do, the rest of the league might want to get a jump on changing the rules to ban what the Patriots will do in this year’s playoffs. Don’t wait until it’s too late, like last season.
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