We've reached the stage of the football season where an NCAA Tournament mentality should be kicking in. Or, perhaps Sun Tzu's The Art of War should become required reading.
Because it's now all about the ability to survive and advance.
That's all there is to it, really. Style points, while nice to have for public or media sentiment, are not reality, nor are they necessary. When the football calendar reaches December, all the periphery – and the surrounding landscape – changes. The mentality changes. Nothing matters but the bottom line. The mission becomes singular.
The late Al Davis said it best. Just win, baby.
Now, this doesn't mean that improvement can't be had. We've said previously that by mid-season, you pretty much know what kind of a team you have, for better or worse. The Patriots, however, have excelled in previous years by knowing exactly what time of year it is…and how to survive it, while also advancing through it.
The weather turns colder, the competition turns tougher. If you're fortunate enough to start quickly and win during the first half of the season, you earn a reputation for your performance. As such, the mindset changes. You then become the hunted, rather than the hunter.
The competition becomes a survival of the fittest, but you already hold a mental advantage. You're better than the other guys are. The won-loss record tells you this.
The strategy then changes. It becomes one of maintenance, rather than one of seizing opportunity. How do you keep what you have, without sacrificing the overall ability to complete the goal of winning at the end?
We know a football season is a literal 'war of attrition.' Or to put it another way, "he who has the most toys at the end, wins." This is where the strategy turns into "survive, but advance." You lay low and defend your current position or standing until such a time as you can safely move ahead.
That's where these Patriots are today. They're beginning to move safely ahead. Or have you not noticed incremental improvement from the defense over the past two weeks? 23 points allowed over the previous two games. The opposition converting a mere 10-of-29 on combined 3rd and 4th down chances. Only 616 total yards allowed.
Sure, there's still plenty of room to improve, but the tactic of executing successfully and building momentum does take time.
This doesn't automatically mean you should start planning for Atlanta in February. The offense continues to have its own challenges. But what it does mean, is that this is a road traveled previously by the commanding general (Bill Belichick). It's part of a plan executed previously by a battle-tested field general overseeing the troops in the trenches – Tom Brady.
There's also the experience of 18 straight winning seasons on the battlefield, and a 65-13 record under General, _er_, Coach Belichick in December. This isn't mean to trivialize war, but the analogies are similar. The mindset should be similar as well, if winning is the goal.
We've reached the stage of 'survive and advance.' Nothing else matters.
"Win or go home" comes next.
To receive, or not to receive
As you may know, I'm very much a proponent of taking the football if you're able to win the coin flip. The art of deferment, from this view, is becoming an overrated, overused ploy that doesn't currently reap enough of a benefit to consistently warrant its strategical use.
Two seasons ago, a surprising 82% of teams winning the coin flip deferred possession of the ball to start the second half. Aren't your chances better at scoring if you have actually have possession of the ball?
That being said, I get why teams try it. Because when you hit on it, it can serve as a powerful, one-two punch to an opponent on the scoreboard, by attempting to score with a final first-half possession and repeating it with the opening possession of the second half. Two straight scores, without the other guys getting the ball, could put a game out of reach in your favor.
If, that is, you are successful. The actual numbers in the "deferral era" (2008-present) show that to start a game kicking teams only win about 49% of the time. Receiving teams ultimately win 51% of the time. The Patriots' success with deferral has skewed this thought process, because the Patriots have largely been a better team as they employ the strategy.
That's why it has worked. It doesn't mean that if you stink, you'll all-of-a-sudden be better if you defer the opening kickoff.
But shhhh, don't tell that to the rest of the NFL.
With the troubles the Patriots have had to this point in the season defensively, it has made little-to-no sense to put the weakest link on the field first. Especially with the difficulties away from home thus far, it makes complete sense to take the ball first, score first, and take the home crowd out of much of the early emotion in a game.
At home, well, maybe it's a different story. This week, the Patriots won the toss and deferred possession to the 2nd half against the Vikings. The defense did force Minnesota into a 3-and-out to start, and then the offense followed up with an opening drive score in the 1st quarter.
Maybe it's the emotion and energy of the Gillette Stadium crowd? Maybe it's knowing the opponent and knowing your strategy against them is something they haven't much seen. And maybe it's just blind luck.
The results are telling us it's probably all of the above. Including the luck part.
There's a flag on the play (again)
It was an improvement over the previous weeks' performance against the Jets, for sure. Eleven penalties for more than 100 yards in walk-offs is not a sign of attention to any sort of detail, other than the kind you need to clean up – and quick.
Seven penalties for 60 yards against Minnesota was incrementally better, but still alarming as the team enters the December stretch run. Self-inflicted mistakes are usually tougher to overcome, if only for the mental aspect of YOU having made the mistake, while the other guy didn't do much to beat you.
There was a sequence in the 3rd quarter that began with a Brandon King hold on Julian Edelman's 22-yard punt return that would have placed the Patriots in outstanding field position, at a time when they needed a boost. Instead, the penalty cost the team 31 yards in field position.
Never mind, there's more. Sony Michel committed a false start before the first snap of the series. After an outstanding catch from Cordarrelle Patterson picked up 29 yards, Rob Gronkowski was caught for holding. Back to the Vikings' 39, after reaching the Minnesota 29.
Four plays later, Joe Thuney is flagged for another hold at the 25, pushing the ball back to the Vikings' 35. Four plays after that, Stephen Gostkowski missed his first field goal from less than 50 yards out (this one was from 48) after 35 straight conversions.
14 plays, and nothing to show for the effort. Dirty laundry on the field had a lot to do with that.
And your thinking was?
It's not a nitpick, really. But one of the interesting aspects of the game came from something that had little to do with game's eventual outcome.
After the Patriots challenged an officials' call following a Latavius Murray 4th down run in the 4th quarter, it appeared Minnesota's Adam Thielen took exception to Patrick Chung's falling to the turf with an apparent injury – ostensibly giving the Patriots more time to consider the challenge.
Coach Belichick apparently had an issue with Thielen's complaint, in no uncertain terms, if you were able to read lips.
"I just thought the play was cheap," Thielen said afterward. "I wasn't directing it toward him (Belichick). I just thought the play was cheap, but like I said, I let the emotions get the best of me because it's a smart football play if you are in that situation."
Belichick was asked if the two had exchanged holiday greetings in that on-field moment during his postgame interview. "Yeah, pretty much," was his answer.
The Patriots ultimately didn't win the challenge – if only because the officials blew the call upon review. Every angle available to the media via television showed Murray short of the line to gain, yet the crew (led by referee Craig Wrolstad) denied the challenge based on a 'lack of visual evidence.'
The pressure to win
It's mounting in Atlanta. Carolina. Perhaps even Pittsburgh. Teams that were all thought to be in the thick of the postseason chase are all finding themselves reeling a bit – some more than others – at a most inopportune time.
The Panthers announced Monday they've fired defensive coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura. The Falcons have lost four straight games to fall to 4-8, with team owner Arthur Blank giving coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff a vote of confidence through an interview with The Athletic. A kiss of death, perhaps.
And the Steelers?
Suddenly, their matchup with New England in two weeks may be for their own playoff survival, rather than home field advantage or a 1st round bye.
The Patriots' offense may be misfiring on a couple of cylinders, Rob Gronkowski may not be his usual self, and Josh Gordon may or may not have been in witness protection for three quarters against Minnesota. Whatever.
But New England is 9-3. And controlling, as of this moment, their own pressure-cooker.
John Rooke, an author and award-winning broadcaster, is in his 26thseason as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for more than 30 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.