Things to consider while breaking in my favorite Christmas gift of the year:
*OK, so this wasn’t isn’t exactly the throttling they gave Houston three weeks ago. But with plenty of top-tier teams sputtering into the playoffs against stublebums, and even Denver’s win deserving as asterisk since it came against KC at their absolute rock bottomiest, this was a hell of an impressive game at exactly the right time. Dominating a decent, middle-of-the-pack team in all three phases doesn’t happen often. And if I’m another playoff team, I’m looking at this Patriots win the way governments do when some foreign power test-fires a new advanced superweapon. This was a warning shot across everyone else’s bow that says they better figure out a way to stop this thing. And it might already be too late.
*And the new technology at the heart of the weapon system was Justin Francis. 6-4, 270. Played inside, played outside, stood up, played the run, rushed, and one time at least dropped into coverage when Reggie Bush released. He showed a burst but was strong enough to shove Nate Garner into Tannehill and pick up the sack. He’s been coming on the last month (last week I called him the best defensive player they had) but yesterday was his coming out.
*Granted he had a lot of help; that sack vs Garner was as much about the coverage as anything. And his sack on 3rd & 9 on the opening possession was mostly due to Rob Ninkovich coming from a Wide-9 around Garner to flush Tannehill into him like a kid on a Snipe Hunt. But then again Francis helped make Trevor Scott’s sack in the 3rd. He came from the outside against Jonathan Martin, put on the spin move to get to the middle where Brandon Deadrick was collapsing Mike Pouncey. Tannehill had nowhere to turn and Scott finished him off.
*All in all not bad from a guy who in Training Camp, if your kid had gotten an autograph from him at the end of practice you’d stick around to see if you could get someone who’d actually be on the roster.
*On the subject of guys who do surprisingly well: I’ve got to stop being so giddy every time Danny Woodhead makes a play. I’m like the dog in “Up” whenever he sees a squirrel. “OOH! Woodhead!” “Look! There’s Woodhead!!!” At some point I have to just accept that the guy is a good football player and get over myself.
*As well as Francis and Scott filled in for him, Ninkovich’s injury could cost us. Prior to limping off the field, Nink was the Pats best player. On either side of the ball.
*How about the way Jim Nantz and Phil Simms say “How about the way” a guy plays when they want to introduce the topic of the way a guy plays? And you want to talk about how they use “And you want to talk about?” I’m telling ya, those guys do an amazing job…
*And if Nantz and Simms weren’t so fixated on whatever useless graphic they had to show they might have made mention that Niko Koutivedes turned in one of the best Special Teams plays of the year. I mean how often does a kick returner get brought down at the 6? Then later on he forced a Fair Catch by being right in Rishard Mathews’ radiator; both total effort plays. Don’t despair Niko. We noticed.
*In a decade of bad showings by the swells in the red seats, this was one of their worst. Miami got the ball with 1:00 to go in the 2nd. And rather than make noise for a defensive stand to end the half, they all raced inside like the stadium club was about to run out of Chablis. By the kickoff after the Pats 3rd TD there might have been 2 dozen people in their seats. And even less for the 2nd half kickoff. Sure it was cold, but not THAT cold. But the cheerleaders were still grinning ear to ear deep into the 4th quarter, you Sissy Marys. Ernest Shackleton would’ve shot you and fed you to the dogs instead of the other way around.
*The whole Gronk experiment was, in a word, weird. In my life I can never remember watching an NFL lineman trying to block with one arm. Not surprisingly, he was pretty good at it. And I’m sure the playing time helped him get reacclimated. But he didn’t just favor the other arm, he let it hang there like the guy who killed Dr. Richard Kimball’s wife.
*Weird too that he’s playing with one arm on a night when “60 Minutes” is doing a piece on robot arms. No way I could watch that because the thought of a Gronkowski with mechanical parts is just too frightening to imagine. Machines making machines and all that.
*By midgame they only had Gronk in on pass plays and went with Hoomba and Daniel Fells when they ran. The Dolphins didn’t seem to pick up on that and let him run uncovered on a seam route for a TD. Which is inexcusable when the subtle tell you’re looking for to clue you into the Pats intentions happens to be 6-6, 265.
*I’m just glad Gronk didn’t have a white forearm guard on the other arm too. It would’ve been way too Audrey Hepburn for my liking.
*How about the way (Note: I’m just going to segway into a new topic this way whenever I’m feeling it) Belichick twice passed on trying a field goal toward the Bug Zapper end of the stadium? Then Joy Philbin tries one identical to those and the wind takes it like a St. Andrews short iron. I guess the message that coaches should watch Belichick and learn from him went to Philbin’s junk folder.
*If everything you know about Santa you learned from watching NFL games, you’d think he’s a luxury-car peddling, status symbol-flaunting, conspicuously consuming elitist dickbag.
*The comment of the day was when Simms said Ryan Tannehill was “solid” yesterday. He was solid. Just not so solid that the Pats Front 7 couldn’t plunge him down the drain anyway.
*When the interception that Chris Clemons pulled out from between Welker’s buttcheeks got reversed, I was relieved not so much about the touchdown coming back as I was the fact we won’t have to watch that highlight a million times. That would’ve been been downright humiliating. A Jets-caliber Football Folly. The bad news for Clemons is the play came back. The good news is he’s got some impressive midwifing skills there.
*I always feel like as a season progresses, the defensive staff adds more pages to the playbook. And yesterday looked like they’d more or less filled the binder. They mixed coverages but also trusted the DB’s to play a lot more man than we saw earlier on. There was less sitting on top of breaks and a lot more lining up tight. Not jamming or pressing, but shuffle-stepping into a baseball turn and keeping your man in front of you. A couple of times Brian Hartline ran comebackers on McCourty to defeat it, but there’s no shame in that. Hartline’s good. And the big play was never available. For a unit missing their starting corners, that was a hell of a showing.
*And their play went hand in hand with the pressure they generated. Some was just beating 1-on-1s, but some was by scheme. Take the sack Deadrick had in the 1st half. While Miami was in the huddle, Mayo called a play to the tackles. When Miami came out in an empty set,Deadrick and Wilfork slid out wide, with Mayo and Nink on the A gaps. Mayo spied Tannehill who had to pull the ball down with no one open. VW got a push on Garner (tough day at the office for him) and Deadrick finished him off.
*Then there was Gregory’s INT. Ninkovich was wide there, but stunted along the line to the opposite side B gap. Richie Incognito might have picked him up but Mayo came on a delay to occupy him and Nink came clean to force the bad throw. I’m just spitballing here but it all looked like it was by design to me.
*I have to confess I was looking ahead to the playoffs sooner than any Belichickian should. I was looking for Ryan Mallet up 21-0, which was way too early. But they say premature Malletation happens to every guy once in a while.
*This week’s Applicable Movie Quote: ”Next to me in the blackness lay my plastic, Patriots-logoed beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging New York Jets on the wing and getting off spectacular Knee Jerk blogs. And all was right with the world…” – “A Christmas Story.” (Note: I changed it a little bit.)
*You know the Dolphins haven’t made much progress when the big topic in Miami this week was them updating their logo. As long as the Pats keep dominating them… and they will… I’m going to suggest they go with this one: