Among many various philosophies Bill Belichick has often repeated over the years involves the notion that people shouldn't make important decisions in the immediate aftermath of an NFL season. The suddenness of the end can sometimes lead to emotional actions that shouldn't be made in haste, and therefore sometimes lead to bad choices.
When Belichick talks in these terms he's usually referring to veteran players who may be mulling retirement, and even coaches looking to move on from personnel after a disappointing defeat.
The Patriots will have plenty of tough decisions to make in the offseason, and we'll have plenty of time to discuss them in detail as the days, weeks and months move forward toward the start of the 2022 league year in mid-March. But there are also some rather obvious issues that time will do very little to change, and therefore we'll get right to business and take a look.
Watching Saturday night's 47-17 demolition in Orchard Park left no doubt about the current hierarchy in the AFC East. The Bills proved worthy of the crown they've now worn two straight seasons, and Josh Allen emphatically cemented his status as the top dog in the division. More importantly for New England, Allen provided a final element of proof that the Patriots defense will need to figure out how to deal with him soon if they want to compete.
There were myriad issues on defense Saturday night not the least of which was a banged-up secondary that was without Jalen Mills and saw Kyle Dugger playing with a club around his injured hand. But those players were in the lineup the day after Christmas and the Bills didn't punt in that game either.
In fact, you'd have to go back to the 13-minute mark of the third quarter of the Patriots Week 12 win in Buffalo to find Bills punter Matt Haack because he wasn't seen for almost 10 full quarters after that. Allen's mastery of the Patriots defense was striking in many ways but what really stood out was the seeming effortless nature of the performance. Not only did the Bills not punt; they never even came close.
In racking up seven touchdown drives in seven possessions, Buffalo faced a grand total of six third downs. Average distance needed: 2.3 yards. Average distanced gained: 6.8 yards. Only once, a third-and-4 from the Patriots 16 that Allen picked up with a 5-yard run, did the Patriots even threaten to come up with a stop.
The main reason: speed. The Patriots defenders appeared paralyzed at times when Allen was in the clear. He darted inside Matthew Judon and ran away from Ja'Whaun Bentley. He dodged veterans and bought time under control, realizing he was under much pressure to make plays. The defensive backs played off and allowed easy completions underneath. And when they threatened to take that away, Allen hit them with deep shots behind the defense.
New England simply couldn't keep up, and that's not a problem that will magically disappear. The age on defense is not a new topic. Thirtysomethings Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Adrian Phillips (he turns 30 in March) and Lawrence Guy all played significant roles in 2021 and expecting any of those players to improve at this stage would be foolish. McCourty, Hightower and Collins are all free agents as well, so there will be changes regardless. Belichick will need to find a way to improve the team speed if he expects to slow down the Bills attack.
Even if that's the case, he also will need to add some to the offense if he intends to keep up in games like Saturday's. What the disappointing 1-4 stretch drive proved is how tenuous the run-the-ball, play defense, don't-fall-behind strategy is. It worked against bad teams but it's no coincidence that the Patriots went 3-8 against opponents with winning records, and that includes the win in Buffalo in hurricane-like conditions.
It's too hard to rely on playing every game in your preferred style. The lack of explosiveness on offense made two-score comebacks highly unlikely, and few could have felt much confidence in the first quarter when the Bills immediately jumped out to 14-0 lead in the first quarter given how the previous four weeks unfolded.
Mac Jones showed promise in his rookie season, but he also showed some flaws. He's not the type of gunslinger who will consistently jam passes into tight windows while leading furious comebacks. He's more of the methodical type, content to take what's there while leading time-consuming drives. Again, great when you're ahead; not so much when you're chasing. That's where a dynamic playmaker would help the cause. Someone who can take the short throws, make tacklers miss and turn it into a big play.
That type of speed was sorely lacking for the Patriots in 2021, on both sides of the ball, and finding some will be a top priority.
Wild card wrap
Raiders at Bengals
The weekend was a mixed bag of action with a couple of competitive games sprinkled among some blowouts. It started well enough with the Bengals and Raiders putting forth a compelling product marred only by the incompetence of Jerome Boger and his officiating crew.
Late in the first half with Cincinnati trying to build on a 13-6 lead, Joe Burrow rolled to his right near the sideline and flicked a pass to Tyler Boyd in the end zone. Yet inexplicably the whistle blew just before the ball reached Boyd, setting forth mass confusion on the field. The officials spoke at length before ruling it a touchdown.
The problem is, an inadvertent whistle in such a case – with the ball not in anyone's possession – is supposed to result in a replay of the down. Director of officiating Walt Anderson offered a postgame briefing, and even more inexplicably stated that the whistle hadn't blown until it was in Boyd's hands. That's a flat out lie as replays clearing showed that not to be the case.
It only got worse for Boger's crew in the second half when a play saw a Raiders timeout not granted followed by a long Bengals completion, a personal foul called on the Raiders for a late hit and yet another interminably long discussion. In the end Boger explained that the timeout had actually been called despite no whistle being blown to stop the action.
The game overcame all that incompetence and came down to the final drive as Derek Carr's fourth down pass for the potential tying touchdown was intercepted in the closing seconds.
Watching that unfold made it awfully difficult to believe the individuals on this crew graded out among the best and therefore deserving of a postseason assignment.
49ers at Cowboys
This game figured to be the best of the weekend and lived up to it. San Francisco controlled things for most of the way but some missed throws by Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter, including a crippling pick, gave Dallas life.
The Niners were clinging to a 23-17 lead and had a couple of chances to ice the game, but Kyle Shanahan first refused to try then watched his team fail to execute. The Niners faced fourth-and-1 from Dallas' 49 with 2:51 left and the Cowboys in possession of all three timeouts.
It took Dallas two plays and 17 seconds to move into Niners territory. Shanahan could have gone for it on fourth down and Dallas would have been in the same spot if the Niners failed. Convert and the Cowboys would have been forced to burn the timeouts at the very least. And even if the Cowboys scored as a result of the favorable field position, the Niners al least would have had more time to kick a winning field goal.
Shanahan got away with it because the Niners defense came up huge and stopped Dallas, but now the Cowboys did use the timeouts and with 40 seconds to go San Francisco faced another fourth-and-inches, this time from the Dallas 38. Shanahan called for a Garoppolo sneak, but left tackle Trent Williams was flagged for a false start, forcing the punt.
It should never have come to the Niners defense being forced back onto the field, but Dallas quickly moved to the 41 with 14 seconds left. Time for a couple of heaves into the end zone … or a Dak Prescott quarterback draw? Not only did Dallas go with the curious call, knowing spiking the ball would be a challenge, but Prescott ran 17 yards and wasted almost all of the time before sliding down at the 24. Prescott desperately tried to spike the ball as the clock continued. Tick, tick, tick … ballgame.
Predictably Dallas bemoaned the time it took to spot the ball, ignoring a couple of facts. First, the official must spot the ball and Prescott tried to set it himself while getting everyone lined up, wasting precious seconds. Second, 14 seconds is generally not considered to be enough time to clock the ball in such situations. The Patriots have generally operated by needing at least 18 seconds to do so, yet Mike McCarthy blamed the officials.
He also smugly explained the decision to risk running the ball in the first place by saying the heaves into the end zone from the 41 weren't as desirable as running five verticals into the end zone from the 24. While it's probably true that a more conventional touchdown could be achieved in the latter scenario, few would argue that those 17 yards were worth the risk of never getting a chance. Two plays (minimum) from the 41 would have been better than one (none as it turned out) from the 24.
But a thrilling, albeit mind-numbing, end to an entertaining game nonetheless.
Time for the divisional round and our first look at Green Bay and Tennessee in the playoffs.
- Green Bay (13-4) – The Packers got some rest and possibly some players back. Now we see if that was time well spent.
- Kansas City (12-5) – It took the Chiefs about 25 minutes to get going but Patrick Mahomes was on fire the rest of the way.
- Buffalo (11-6) – It did not take Josh Allen much time to get going, and the Bills will ride high heading to Arrowhead next week.
- Tampa Bay (13-4) – The Bucs have some injury problems on the offensive line with Tristan Wirfs banged up. That could be a key factor against the Rams.
- L.A. Rams (12-5) – Matthew Stafford won his first postseason game as the Rams dominated the overmatched Cardinals.
- Tennessee (12-5) – Something tells me Mike Vrabel will be letting me know about my lack of respect for the Titans.
- Cincinnati (10-7) – The Bengals got the playoff monkey off their backs and now get to take on the top-seeded Titans.
- San Francisco (10-7) – The Niners dominated the Cowboys for 45 minutes, then barely hung on for the W in Big D.