Time Out For Sports Talk: The Defensive Force Awakens
Todd: What a difference a week can make in the NFL, as the Patriots go from a third seed playing on Wild Card playoff weekend to back in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the AFC and forcing their foes to visit Gillette in January. But if I have to hear the words, ‘If the season ended today…’ I’m going to have truckloads of coal delivered to New York, Los Angeles and Bristol, CT.
Not only did the Pats avoid their first three-game losing streak since back when Attack of the Clones was still showing in theaters, but they received other breaks around the AFC. Some were literal breaks, such as Andy Dalton’s thumb (ouch) while others came in the form of Gary Kubiak opting not to have his offensive line make any blocking adjustments on Khalil Mack.
As for the Pats, the injuries continue to pile up faster than my plate at a holiday luncheon buffet (more on that in a bit), yet the return of Rob Gronkowski made life a little more comfortable for Tom Brady, even though he only caught four passes. While it doesn’t feel like Gronk has had a true Gronk-like season, in less than 12 games he has ten touchdowns while amassing over 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in his career.
What gave me hope that these Pats can win it all (even if they have to play on the road in the postseason) is their defense, which limited the Houston Texans to a pair of field goals and seven first downs while registering six sacks and likely ending old friend Brian Hoyer’s season with his second concussion this month. It continues to amaze me how Bill Belichick can find no-name guys in free agency like Jabaal Sheard, who was unknown in Cleveland but has become such a powerful force up front with the Pats.
Here’s a fun stat: the Pats have recorded at least one sack in every game this season, something they’ve only accomplished four times in franchise history and the most recent occurrence was way back in 1979.
Let’s not forget about Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, who continue to improve so much each week that I hardly remember the guys they replaced, although I believe one of them has been battling various injuries for a certain division rival. The Butler keeps on doing it, playing with a tenacious streak not seen around these parts since Ty Law (so says Bill Belichick). Ryan struggled most of his rookie year but has rebounded mightily this season, leading the D with 4 interceptions while also tied for second with 68 total tackles.
Along with the defense—which needs a healthy Dont’a Hightower regardless of how well they played last week—I continue to also be impressed with how this team deals with injuries, although they eventually have to reach their breaking point, don’t they? Add Dominique Easley and LeGarrette Blount to the list of those not coming back this season. Who is now going to run out the clock when this team gets a late lead? Brandon Bolden? James White? Let’s make a deal for Montee Ball, although can he help?
Here’s my stat of the week, courtesy of mangameslost.com: through the NFL’s first 14 weeks, the Pats have the third highest number of games missed by players due to injuries—167 total. For some perspective, the New York Giants lead the way with 177 missed games, while the teams residing at the bottom of the list include the Dolphins (59 games), Bengals (67) and Broncos (72). It should also be noted that of the top ten teams with games lost to injury, the Pats are the only ones with a winning record…depth matters.
On to this week’s regular season home finale, as Gillette Stadium prepares for the Bruins-Canadiens Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. The last time the Pats hosted the Titans, it snowed in October and Brady threw six TD passes in a 59-0 win. In the last three meetings between these teams, the Pats have outscored Tennessee 133-36. Not much else you need to know about the 3-10 Titans, other than QB Marcus Mariota will be in for a long day: Patriots 30, Titans 10.
Week 15 Picks (1-2 last week, 20-16 season): So much for my insurmountable lead—Mike and I begin anew, tied with a winning percentage well below Brady’s career completion percentage. To my credit though, picking teams I’d rather see lose paid off, if only for Pats fans. I’ll try my best to keep it going this week by taking the Jets over the Cowboys and the Bengals over the 49ers. For my final pick, let’s go with the Giants to stun the undefeated Panthers (if this doesn’t happen, I predict Carolina will finish 16-0).
Mike: Yup, I am not surprised to see the Patriots right back on top of the AFC playoff standings. This season, it has seemed that every time the Pats need something to happen (other than having their players stay healthy), it does.
Need the Broncos and the Bengals to lose? Check.
Oh, and as an added bonus, let's have the Bengals become irrelevant by losing their starting QB for an extended time. Meaning that the Pats should finish no lower than No. 2, and I can't see them losing to Denver twice in a season.
But getting the bye is crucial. With all of the injuries, the Pats need as much time as they can to get healthy going into the playoffs, and that extra week of rest will be very welcome.
And to top this all off, while they have some bad losses due to injury, they dodged a bullet by getting Gronk back quickly, and they will be poised to add Julian Edelman back when the playoffs start.
I'm not 100% sure they can go all the way this year, at some point, the injuries have to catch up to them, but I think they have a very good shot of getting out of the AFC to a second straight Super Bowl, and I'll take the Pats in a big game every time.
Can you imagine if the Patriots get to the Super Bowl and beat undefeated Carolina? That will be very hard for the commissioner to take. New England denies the league the story of the undefeated team, and then he has to hand the trophy to Bob Kraft again....
Hee, hee hee. Oh, and Pats beat the Titans 31-17.
Week 15 Picks (2-1 last week, 20-16 season): Ok, I need to go opposite of Todd on one of these. I'll take Carolina over the Giants, the Jags over Atlanta and the Packers over the Raiders.