The Expatriated Patriots Fan: Pats commentary from outside New England.
Welcome back to part two of this five part review of the 2013 season. (1 for each quarter of the regular season, plus a post season review) If you have not read it, part one can be found here.
Heading into week 5 of the 2013 season, the Patriots were 4-0, and coming off a win in the Georgia dome. The defense was showing signs of being the best unit since perhaps 2005, and the offense appeared to be integrating its rookie receivers and finally coming to life. Additionally, Brady was closing in on the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, held by Drew Breese. In fact, he was on schedule to be able to surpass it in a game against New Orleans. So I was feeling pretty good as the Patriots prepared to face the Bengals in Cincinnati.
At 3-1, the Bengals were clearly shaping up to be a good team, and eventually went on to make the playoffs. Andy Dalton was delivering solid offensive performance, but it was the defense, led by Geno Atkins, that was developing a nasty reputation.
Unfortunately, it was the Bengal’s defense (aided somewhat by a relentlessly driving rain) that ultimately won the day. The final score was 13-6 Bengals, and the Patriots were held out of the end zone for the first time since 2009, (16-9 loss to the Jets in Sep) snapping Brady’s 52 game consecutive touchdown pass streak. For the Patriots, there were few bright spots on offense, as Geno Atkins sacked Brady on his very first pass attempt, and things seeming went downhill from there with Brady throwing for under 200 yards with a pick, and Blount and Bolden combining for only 75 yards on the ground. The low point was perhaps when New England failed to convert a first and goal from the 1 in the 4th quarter.
The loss had me concerned, especially with the Saints on deck. However, I tried to console myself with the fact that the defense had turned in another bang up job. Even with the rain, 13 points was not a lot to give up, and they had held the Bengals to only 40% conversion on 3rd downs with 3 sacks, an interception, (By Spikes of all people) and a recovered forced fumble.
Unfortunately, Tommy Kelly, who had been playing well beside Vince Wilfork, and was now being asked to step up in Vince’s absence, injured his knee in the game, and injury that would ultimately land him on IR as the Injury train was just beginning to get cranked up for the 2103 Pats.
Next up, the Patriots hosted the undefeated New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees, still holding the record for longest consecutive TD streak, was leading a potent aerial attack, with Jimmy Graham being his most dangerous target.
As the Red Sox were hosting Game 2 of the ALCS 30 miles away, the game started well, with the defense stepping up and forcing punts in 4 of the Saints first 5 possessions, including three 3 and outs. With the defense allowing only 7 points in the first half, the Pats offense seeming to have shaken off the woes from the previous week, and Steven Ridley free from the bench to run for 2 first half touchdowns, the Pats cruised to a 17-7 lead at the half.
Unfortunately, after the break, the next 28 minutes and 42 seconds belonged to the Saints. The Patriots were only able to muster two field goals, while the Saints managed two field goals, and two touchdowns. With only 2:24 left, the Patriots were starting a drive on their own 20 and down 27-23, when Brady threw a deep ball on their first play that was intercepted by New Orleans on their own 30. At this point, many fans headed for the exit in disgust. However, in the first of what was going to become a truly remarkable string of comebacks, the Patriots shocked their fans, New Orleans, and most famously, Rob Ryan. The defense absolutely LOCKED down the Saints, allowing negative 2 yards on 3 plays and forcing a punt with 1:13 still left on the clock. That, however, turned out to be 5 seconds more than Brady needed. Taking over at the Pat’s own 30 with no timeouts left, Brady tossed completions of 23 yards to Julian Edelman, 15 to Austin Collie and 6 to Dobson to reach a first down at the Saints 26. They appeared to stall with two incompletions, when Austin Collie hauled in a clutch 9 yard reception on 4th down to keep the game alive. Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock, then sent all his receivers into the end zone. Thompkins got a step on Saints cornerback Jabari Greer and outfought him for the ball to score a TD with 5 seconds left.
With only 5 seconds left, and a 3 point lead after the Extra Point, the game was well in hand. However, as if to underscore their awesome defensive performance from the last possession, the Patriots snuffed out even the slightest chance of a comeback, when they forced Darren Sproles to cough up the kickoff and linebacker Jamie Collins recovered the fumble.
The game had a solid offensive output of 30 points with a clutch, last second comeback, a defense that had held the potent Saints offense to 27 points and made a statement stand when they could not allow even one first down, and Aqib Talib had held Jimmy Graham without a catch for the first time in 46 games, so I was pretty happy with the result.
However, Talib had left the game with a hip pointer. Combined with Wilfork and Kelly, the injuries to the D were starting to add up.
The next game was against the Jets, who were coming off a loss to the Steelers where they had only mustered 6 points. The Pats were 5-1 and were presented with a chance to bury their divisional rivals in the standings with a win, which would have left them 3 games back at 3-4. However, a loss would allow them to hang around at one game back, at 4-3 to our 5-2, while negating our head to head tiebreaker advantage. The game was in the Meadowlands, but we had beaten them once, and with the chance to almost take them out of contention this early, I thought the Patriots would bring their A game.
And … and well, perhaps the less said about this game the better. But I feel an obligation to at least cover it a little for the sake of thoroughness.
The Patriots did manage 27 points, and were up 21-10 at one point. And the offense had some high points, including a 38 yard punt return by Edelman followed by a 17 yard TD run by Ridley. Gronkowski, making his season debut, had 8 catches for 144 yards. However, that may have been part of the problem. As much as the fans had been waiting for Gronks return, Brady had apparently been wishing for it more. He targeted Gronkowski again and again. Normally one of Brady’s strengths is his willingness to spread the ball around, but in this game he focused on Gronkowski like a laser. This led to, after half time adjustments by the Jets who realized Brady was ignoring his other receivers, to series of -6 (Int), -1, -3, and -5 to open the second half, allowing the Jets to get back into the game.
And then there is “The Penalty”. The NFL’s office of Officiating has said the penalty was called correctly. And I want to believe them. I do. But they also said the Jet’s had done the same thing, uncalled by the refs, on our missed kick, which, if called, would have allowed us another kick from 15 yards closer, and most likely allowed us to win the game. But when Nick Folk lined up for a 56 yarder that went wide left, Chris Jones got the dubious honor of being the only person in the NFL, before or since, to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct for pushing one of his teammates into the opponents formation. The subsequent 15 yard penalty allowed Folk to re-kick, this time nailing the 41 yard attempt. I could probably have lived with being the first team to ever be called for that penalty, but the fact that no one has ever been called for it since still stings a little. You read that right, the Patriots remain the only team ever called for that penalty.
As I said, perhaps the less said about that game, the better. And we can move on to the next game, another divisional dustup with the Dolphins. And note with some satisfaction that the Jets continued their oddly consistent inconsistency with their win one, lose one streak, by getting absolutely BURRIED by the Bengals, 49-9. (While I had some concerns at this point as to our seeding relative to the Bengals, winning the division comes first, and seeing the Jets crushed was worth a Bengals win)
The Dolphins were only 3-3 and coming off a loss to the Bills. And the game was in Foxboro. So I was not overly worried. But as if to continue to prove my expectations wrong at every turn, the Patriots only managed 3 points and 59 yards in the first half, and were showered by Boos in Gillette stadium.
And leading off the second half, their opening possession netted negative 7 yards and a punt. And the Dolphins moved the ball enough to attempt a field goal, although the missed it. But then the Pats turned it on again for another amazing comeback. Aided by a fumble from the Dolphins, they scored two touchdowns in under 3 minutes, and a total of 17 points in the 3rd quarter. Scoring 4 times (24 points) in the second half, the Patriots D held the hapless Phins scoreless in the second half. Not only did they have the aforementioned fumble recovery, but the last 3 Dolphins’ possessions ended thus: Interception, Blocked FG, Interception. Led by Dennard with 9 tackles, and Hightower with 5, they held the Dolphins to under 50% 3rd down conversions for the total game.
And so, despite some growing injury concerns, and the fact that they had gone 2-2 for the last 4 games, the midpoint of the season found the Pats in well in the lead of the AFC East, with a 6-2 record to the Jets’ 4-4 and the Dolphins even further back at 3-4. And while we were currently looking at the 3rd seed in the NFL (Behind the 7-1 Bronco’s and the 6-2 Bengals, who owned the head to head tie breaker over us), we still had plausible line of sight to a first round playoff bye with either the first or second seeds, if things went well.
Join me next week for the 3rd in the series of the 2013 Patriots Season review.