Wanted to wait until after the Colts game to file a report, and my, oh, my. This season has taken a pleasant little turn since the last time we talked, hasn’t it?
In our First Quarter Review, we showed concern (“panicked” might be a better description) after New England’s horrific outing at Kansas City. The best way to summarize that column is through the final line, where I wondered what ailed them: “But in Buffalo in two weeks – after a presumed loss to Cincinnati and a 2-3 record – they’d better figure it out.”
Yeah. Good call, me. After keelhauling the Bengals, 43-17, New England took care of the Bills (37-22), Jets (27-25), Bears (51-23), Broncos (43-21), and Colts (42-20).
That makes seven weeks, six games, and six wins later. The Pats and their fans are basking in the glow of the franchise’s latest dismantling of Indy that puts the Patriots at 8-2. During their run, the team has shown an affinity for adaptation normally reserved for generations of Galapagos finches. Oh, you like to stop the rush, Denver? Well, we’ll mix in the run for play-action, and pass for 332 yards. Ah, Indy, you want to hold down our air attack? We’ll just keep it on the ground to the tune of 244 yards.
Actually, the latter wasn’t much of a surprise, considering the Colts have a reputation for softness that makes me want to add them to my laundry’s rinse cycle. But the way New England did it – and the way they have done it these past several weeks – I didn’t see it coming.
So, my mea culpa tour, if you will…
Pride Goeth Before LaFell: Ah, yes. Brandon LaFell. You mean the guy discussed in our wide receivers review this past spring with less enthusiasm than Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins? Is this the same guy who a) converted a third down on a back-shoulder pass that looked more like a front-knee pass with a defender draped all over him? The guy who snatches footballs out of the air like a frog catching flies, to the point where we say about half the time, “Did he just catch that?”
Sure, I had doubts. Panthers fans lamented his lack of consistency snaring the ball. Some of us got a little wary of the Belichick Opponent Syndrome, where the coach obsesses over players who do well vs. New England (Wes Welker signing = good; Ochocinco = mal.) Through 10 games, LaFell has 39 reception for 536 yards (14.8 avg) and five touchdowns. And by the way, did you realize he caught 11 passes against Chicago for 124 yards? I didn’t.
Probably because, like opposing defenses, I was focused on –
I Wanna Gronk And Roll All Night (Y Fiesta Todos Los Dias): The next time I or anyone else complains about Bill Belichick’s second-round picks, just say the name Rob Gronkowski. Gronk – a risk at the time, considering he’d missed his final year at Arizona with neck issues – has helped shaped the offense into the amorphous monster it has become. You want a receiver? In 10 games, Gronk’s got 53 catches for 734 yards and nine TDs, a solid season for most tight ends. You want a blocker? Look what he did to Colts safety Sergio Brown on Jonas Gray’s fourth and final touchdown.
Just ridiculous. This year, with the benefit of solid health, he has returned as the player Patriots fans missed. And he has elevated Tom Brady’s play alongside his own.
The Price Was Wright: Yes, good, another miss by me. I was not a fan of the Logan Mankins/Tim Wright deal, just because the O-line seemed to be in a state of flux where Mankins could have helped maintain some stability. Was Dan Connolly going to stick around, or Ryan Wendell?
Yes, and yes. Along with rookie center Bryan Stork, the middle of the line has solidified, giving Brady a hell of a lot more time than he had early in the season. Wright, meanwhile, has 18 receptions and four touchdowns, adding another wrinkle for defensive coordinators to worry about.
Everything Turns Gray: I remember looking over potential late-round/undrafted rookies in 2012 and coming across Jonas Gray, a 5-10, 225-pound senior who’d missed his final season at Notre Dame due to a terrible knee injury. His only event at his pro day? The bench press: 31 reps of 225 pounds. Figured New England could take a flyer on him as a backup to Stevan Ridley.
Well, after stops in Miami and Baltimore, fans are glad that plan eventually came together. Sunday night, Gray broke out like a teenager on a chocolate binge, compiling 199 yards on 38 carries (5.2 avg) and four touchdowns at Indianapolis. He had shown signs of productivity vs. Chicago two weeks prior (17 for 86, 5.1 avg) and did enough against Denver (12 for 33, 2.8) to make play-action viable. Certainly can’t expect the same numbers when Detroit shows up, but important that the loss of Ridley for the season won’t become the giant setback some of us feared.
Holy crap: I haven’t even talked about the defense yet.
This Is My Brother Darrelle And My Other Brother Darrelle: What? Nope. Wait a minute…
The D-Backs Of Arizona: With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Devin McCourty in New England’s defensive backfield, a surprisingly proficient effort from Patrick Chung and contributions from nickelback Kyle Arrington and undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, this may prove to be the deepest, most talented backfield in Belichick’s tenure. Talk of a trip to Arizona for the Super Bowl surrounds the group. Why not? Browner can cover big receivers or tight ends. Arrington can take the slot consistently. Revis covers everyone so well, a camping gear company has started calling their one-man tents Revises (This is not true.)
It’s different. And exciting. Even when they give up yardage, they carry with them the expectation of stopping the opposition before the end zone. That’s refreshing.
Dont’a, Forget About Me: What did you think when Jerod Mayo went down? Tough, right? Difficult for the Patriots to recover/replace? So, kudos to Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins for stepping up and battening down the linebacker spots. Praise also to Belichick and Co. for going out and getting outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (two sacks, 10 tackles in three games for New England) and coverage linebacker/special teamer Jonathan Casillas (five tackles in two games for NE).
Collins’ athleticism was never in question – take a gander at his combine results if you feel like your chin needs to touch the floor (how’s a 41.5-inch vertical sound?). Now in his second year, Collins has gotten into a rhythm of how and when to react, and it’s a joy to watch. Especially alongside Hightower, whose heavier build and long-term savvy complements Collins so well.
Oh, man, I just remembered…
Behind Every Cloud There’s A Sealver Lineman: New England has two defensive linemen due to come back, run-stopper Sealver Siliga and pass-rusher Chandler Jones. As Siliga waited out his time on the injury/designated to return list, the Patriots brought in Alan Branch, a 325-pound veteran (Cards, Seahawks, Bills) who was cut by Buffalo this past August. Branch got three tackles at Indianapolis, helping shut down the Colts running game for a piddling 19 yards (four from the running backs).
Let’s reflect on that for a second. Trent Richardson, former first-round pick, carried the ball seven times for a total of zero yards. Did you watch the game on your couch? Did you move from your couch at any point during the game? If so, you gained more ground than Richardson.
Now, with the possibility of Siliga and Jones returning (4.5 sacks in the first seven games), this defense has the potential to improve. From a fan’s view, that’s amazing.
You know what else is amazing? The fact that we’ve barely mentioned Brady, or Julian Edelman, or Shane Vereen. We haven’t even discussed Rob Ninkovich (five sacks, one INT).
The Patriots are 8-2, atop the AFC. Sure, they might lose a game or two. Aaron Rodgers always plays tough in Green Bay. Hell, even the Jets could play rude hosts if Rex Ryan has his squad drinking the Nothing-To-Lose-Kool-Aid (Rex-Aid?). But, with reasonable health, we have a hard time thinking this team can’t go far in early 2015.
But don’t ask me. I have no idea what I’m talking about.