The Expatriated Patriots Fan: Pats commentary from outside New England.
Welcome back to part three 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 and part two can be found here.
But before I start, a quick tip of the hat to UConn, who has just captured BOTH the men and woman’s NCAA National Basketball championships for the SECOND time, and remains the only university to ever accomplish the feat. I am a fan of the up and coming Virginia Commonwealth University myself, but while I am proud of their accomplishments, they still have a long way to go to match UConn’s pedigree.
Starting the second half of the season, the Patriots were 6-2, in control of the AFC East, and about to host the Steelers. In other words, everything seemed to be pretty much as it always was. Beneath the surface though, concerns were mounting due to significant injuries on the defense, including defensive line stalwart Vince Wilfork, his sidekick Tommy Kelly, lead linebacker Jerod Mayo, and top CB Aquib Talib. Additionally, the offense was still showing some signs of the early season sluggishness that came with near total turnover at the receiver position.
So, I wasn’t completely confident in the next game, despite the fact that it was in Foxboro, and the Pats often do well against the Steelers. Even if I had been confident though, I would never have expected the shellacking the Patriots delivered.
The Steelers started off looking good, but when they reached the NE 36, the D stepped up in the form of Rob Ninkovich forcing a fumble, which was recovered by the Pats. Still, due to some miscues the Patriots offense didn’t get on the board until there were only 4 minutes left in the 1st quarter, when Devin McCourty picked off Big Ben at the NE 34, and then Tom Brady found Amendola the very next play for a 34 yard TD.
When the Patriots scored again, completing a 19 yard strike to Rob Gronkowski with 10:35 left in the 2nd quarter, it appeared as though they were going to take charge of the game. The Steelers did muster a field goal on the next possession, but Patriots matched that the next time they got the ball, leaving the Patriots on the right side of a 17-3 split.
As the clock ticked down to the 2:00 minute mark, the Steelers managed to find the end zone of the first time in the game. It looked as though they might close the gap to a one score game going into the half. However, the Pats managed to regain their multi-score lead when Stevan Ridley rushed for a TD from the 1.
Unfortunately, coming out of the half, the D allowed the Steelers to score twice tying the game at 24, while the Pats offense appeared to stall, mustering only 1 FG at the end 3rd period, to regain a slim 27-24 lead.
THEN … however. Well, I am not sure what happened. The Patriots opened the flood gates, scoring 28 points in the 4th period, including an 81 yard touchdown by Aaron Dobson. So even though the Steelers managed one more TD, and put up a respectable 31 points, they were absolutely buried in the blizzard of 4th quarter points, with the final score coming in at 55-31, Pats.
Brady finished the game with over 400 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Gronkowski led all receivers with 9 catches for 143 yards and a TD, while Ridley appeared to reclaim the lead back role with 115 rushing yards and two TDS. Even more exciting was the contributions from the new receivers in addition to Gronk, with both Dobson and Amendola topping the century mark for receiving, and having 3 TDs between them.
Thus, heading into the bye, I was feeling pretty good, despite giving up 31 points to a 2-6 Steelers team. At 7-2, we had a 2 game lead on the Jets, and despite a tough stretch of schedule coming up, I assumed that if we could handle the streaking Panthers, we would be in good shape to take the lead in the AFC when the 1 loss Bronco’s came to Foxboro for one of the most anticipated match ups of the year.
And of course, my expectations, as usual, were completely reversed. I figured we had two tough games coming up, but was far more worried about the Bronco’s then the Panthers.
Against the tough front seven of the Panthers, the Pats offense had a hard time getting untracked, getting only two possessions in the first quarter, and scoring on neither, with the second ending with a Ridley fumble in the red zone. The Panthers however managed a 90 yard TD drive in thefirst quarter, and a Field goal early in the second. NE managed to get on the board with a FG with just over a minute left in the half, but still went to the locker room down 10-3.
The second half appeared to open up better, with the 1st three Patriots possessions netting a TD, a TD, and a FG, while the Panthers only managed to score once, leaving the Pats up 20-17. However, starting at 6:32, the Pat’s D allowed a long, clock killing drive of 5 ½ minutes and 13 plays (including 3 third down conversions) that ended in a touchdown with 59 seconds left. Starting from the 20 and with less than a minute left, it looked like Brady would engineer another patented comebacks when he led the Pats to the Panther’s 25 with 6 seconds left.
Then came the … NON-CALL. Much like THE CALL in the Jet’s game, I remember this call, or more precisely lack of it, as much as any play in the season. As the clock ran out,
Brady threw for Gronkowski in the end zone, but LB Luke Kuechly had both hands wrapped tightly around Gronk, preventing him from button hooking back to the ball. As safety Robert Lester snagged the ball for an interception, the official in the end zone threw his flag. However, Referee Clete Blakeman, who was 30 yards from the play, decided there was no flag on the play, due to uncatchability, and the flag was picked up as the Panther’s left the field in celebration.
Now, you shouldn’t let yourself get into a position where one blown call can cost the game. And a PI here wouldn’t have guaranteed a win, only giving the Pats one more chance from the one. However, I will admit this call stung. ESPN’s Sport’s science even took up the matter in the following week, calculating that Gronk could have gotten back to catch the ball, if not for being held by the 260 lb. Kuechly. The NFL office of officiating said the game officials had “Used the right process” to come to the final call. Sigh, you lose some calls, and then you lose some calls …
No time to fret however, as the AFC leading 8-1 Broncos were coming to town. A win would no longer bring us to the lead in the AFC, but would keep us in second, over the 7-4 Bengals who were on bye. (and owned the head to head tie breaker over the Pats) So, with a second round bye possibly on the line due to the unexpected loss to Carolina, the Pats prepared to host what was to be another Brady-Peyton classic duel.
On a personal note, my wife and I were headed up from my home in Richmond Va to spend Thanksgiving in Maine with our families, and to celebrate our 20th anniversary by renewing our vows. (My wife went the whole 9 yards, getting a new wedding dress, and basically holding a complete second ceremony. She also accented her dress nicely with a variety of Patriots gear, visible to the left) We thought about attending the game, but as it was an evening game, it would have required another vacation day, so sadly we had to pass.
Now, I stated this game was another classic Brady-Peyton duel. But it certainly didn’t start out that way. The Defense forced a punt on the Bronco’s first possession, but from there it went downhill hard and fast. The Patriots fumbled on their first 3 possessions, including a fumble by Stevan Ridley that was returned for a TD, and a strip sack of Brady on the very next possession that was returned to the Patriots 10. By the end of the 1st quarter, and after the 3rd fumble, when the Defense managed to hold the Bronco’s to only a field goal, it seemed like a moral victory. Down 17-0 at the start of the second quarter, things stabilized some, with the Defense only allowing one Denver score in the second. But the offense still struggled mightily, mustering only 2 punts, a turnover on downs, and another fumble. (and an end of half kneel down) Boo’s rained down on the Patriot’s, as they headed to the locker room down 24-0.
Now, one doesn’t go down by 24 points against a Peyton Manning led team. At least one doesn’t if you wish to win. However, as dominant as the Bronco’s appeared in the first half, the Patriots appeared in the second. Scoring on their first 5 possession, including 2 TD grabs by Edelman and one by Gronk, the defense held the Bronco’s scoreless in the half until there were under 5 minutes left, when Peyton Manning threw a TD to Demaryius Thomas to tie the game at 31.
Heading into overtime, we were faced with one of those moments where you have to hold your breath, grit your teeth, and repeat “In Bill we trust” over and over again. The wind had been a significant factor all game. But I admit I was stunned when, to start overtime, Belchick HANDED THE BALL TO PEYTON MANNING, winning the toss, but choosing to pick the side to defend, and trusting that taking the wind would make the difference. I, and several million N.E. fans held our collective breaths as the Bronco’s took the field for a possible sudden death overtime. But … it worked. The D held, and the Bronco’s didn’t even get into Pat’s territory until their 3rd possession, when they punted from the Pat’s 45. However, the Patriots were having no better luck in scoring, and as the punting duel continued, it appeared this game might end in tie. But then, on a punt landing at the Denver 13, the ball made contact with the leg of back up Bronco’s cornerback Tony Carter, and was recovered by the Patriots Nate Ebner. Then, after 2 kneel downs, the Pats kicked a 31 yard field goal to win the game.
It was a freak ending to be sure, but the second half comeback against the AFC leading team was a very heartening outcome, and the win kept us in the second seed. Edleman continued his career season with 9 catches for 110 yards and 2 TDs, while Gronk had 90 yards, and Vereen 60. And the defense had overall held up very well. The bulk of the points given up had been in the 1st half, and were due to the short fields the offense kept leaving them with. So the Pats were 8-3, 2nd seed in the AFC, and my wife had said “I do” for the second time in 20 years, so I was a pretty happy man.
So, with the reeling Texans up next on the schedule, I wasn’t too worried. Cue the music from Jaws. I expect you all see the pattern here.
Despite the Texans being only 2-9, the Pats again found themselves down at halftime, although only by 10 this time. Beginning the second half though, the offense turned it on again, scoring on their first 5 possessions, not scoring only on the last possession, where they punted with 7 seconds left. Still, with the D giving up TD’s at the end of the 3rd, and a go ahead TD near the start of the 4th, it was a close game, with the Pats only prevailing 34-31. Edelman and Gronk again turned in workman like performances, with 101 and 127 yards respectively.
Narrowly scraping by the team with the worst record in the league wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Still, a win is a win, and a road win at that. And we were 3 quarters of the way through the season, and held a 9-3 record, despite all the preseason turnover, and all the in-season injuries. Currently holding the 2nd seed, and with a manageable schedule coming up, (Browns, Dolphins, Ravens and Bills) the season appeared to be shaping up nicely.
Join me next week as I sum up the final four games of the 2013 Patriots regular season.
Tags: New England Patriots