I'm reminded of a favorite phrase for what transpired Monday night in Buffalo, New York.
Ol' ugly is better than ol' nuthin'.
I use that phrase often. Stole it from legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal because it fits most any scenario as a plausible, reasonable explanation for performances that may lack, well, attention to detail? And there was some of that going on at New Era Field Monday night, with a few notable exceptions.
In other words, a few nice plays were made, yes. Big plays. Game-changing, score-altering, momentum-creating-or-killing plays. Plays that are expected from a championship contender, even though to this point they've struggled mightily in producing them on defense.
And that's precisely what this Patriots team - and more specifically, this defense - has needed throughout the first half of 2018. Players to step up and make stops, defend and simply "make plays" to get them off the field and turn the ball over to their prolific, ubiquitous teammates on offense.
New England certainly has playmakers on that side of the ball. Tom Brady may be the best there ever was, and ever has been, at making plays and creating something from nothing. Rob Gronkowski? Did you see his catch in the 3rd quarter up-and-over Buffalo's Phillip Gaines?
That's a big-time play, and he made it. Rarely does a week go by that he doesn't.
Julian Edelman? James White? Josh Gordon? Chris Hogan? There are multiple playmakers on the offense, and each one of these guys made one when he had to Monday night, keeping Patriot drives alive and flourishing. Two plays, early in the 4th quarter to Edelman and White on 3rd downs helped push the Pats away from what was then just a single-score lead.
The problem, as has become apparent, hasn't been with the offense.
Defensively, it's been a different story. Bend-but-don't-break has been the general philosophy and the thought process. Give up yards? Force field goals? Fine, but limit the touchdowns. Eventually, however, even rubber bands will snap. Brick walls will crack, foundations will crumble.
Red Zone defense has been a benchmark, a foundation and a true measuring stick for this team in recent seasons, but this year hasn't yet seen that kind of reliability. New England's RZ defense is a mere 9th in the AFC, 14th in the NFL in TD percentage through eight weeks. How can that improve?
It's simple. Make more plays.
We saw Kyle Van Noy make a big one in Chicago, returning a blocked punt for a score. He made two more of them against the Bills, on a strip-sack and fumble, and on another sack of Derek Anderson that knocked the Buffalo QB out of the game.
Devin McCourty made a big one, too, against the Bills. His 84-yard, 4th quarter interception return was a big play that sealed the deal in the 25-6 win, ripping all hope away from Buffalo and muffling a rowdy, raucous stadium crowd.
There are plays in every game which help change the course of an outcome. It's simple math - make more plays than the other guys, you're likely to win. They don't all have to be pretty, but there is power in sheer numbers. Make more of them than the other guys do.
Even if it gets a little ugly along the way. Ugly wins still count as wins, don't they?
Picky, picky, picky
Yes, the Bills' defense is pretty good, especially the front seven. They showed as much Monday night. But the Patriots' inability to score seven points on drives, as opposed to kicking three points, won't win them much as the season wears on.
Unless the other teams are as poor offensively as Buffalo is. 'Cuz they bad.
Perhaps it's the new faces in the offensive line up? Getting used to those new faces, and friendly, older ones (hello, Julian) does take some time and adjustment. But a middling-to-poor 36% conversion rate on 3rd downs, combined with a 33% TD rate (1 of 3) in the Red Zone means there's still work to do on offense, too.
Usually, it's the Patriots putting pedal-to-metal in finishing out the first half of a game. Especially if they know they're receiving the kickoff to start the second half. The ol' 'double-score' doesn't happen often enough (like it did last year), but if you can pull it off it can be demoralizing for the other guys.
Which is why I'm left scratching my head over the decision late in the 2nd quarter to not attack offensively, and forcing Stephen Gostkowski to attempt a 50-yard field goal just before the half? Three plays gained 23 yards from the NE 45, and with 17 seconds left, TB12 spiked the ball.
There was little crispness to the offense, no sense of urgency or attempt to stop the clock. Why stop there? The spike on 2nd down left one play with which to work, and it was a deep pass intended for Gronk that fell incomplete. Gostkowski then missed wide from 50.
It wasn't the best use of the clock, nor of the playbook, to put the team in better position to score as they often have just before halftime.
Knowing what's coming
Did the Patriots know what was coming at them Monday night? At times, that appeared to be questionable.
First, ex-assistant Brian Daboll was calling the shots for the Bills on offense. Knowing there was likely to be room to run in the middle, Daboll combined deception with the unorthodox, mixed in a little 'Wildcat' for good measure, and did move the ball a bit - four 1st downs on their first three possessions.
They didn't sustain what little success they had early, but when they had it the Patriots looked hesitant to handle it. Eventually, they did, by choking down on the Buffalo running game (12 yards on the first snap of the game, 34 for the rest of it) and finishing +2 in turnover ratio...leading to 10 points.
That can change a lot of scoreboard results, if the trend continues.
In the 'no matter how bad' department
Well, there's certainty in Cleveland. When things go bad, they go really bad.
It can't possibly come as a big surprise that the Browns dismissed head coach Hue Jackson from his post following the weekend loss at Pittsburgh. Cleveland also said "see ya" to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, too.
When does owner Jimmy Haslam take his share of the blame for this current "Mistake on the Lake?"
Haslam cited "internal discord" as a primary reason for the mid-season ouster, facts remain facts. Jackson was a pitiful 3-36-1 leading the team in his two-plus years at the helm, with 25 straight road losses. It's hard to really begin a re-build when you still don't have a foundation. Or a basement.
The Browns are a robust 22-81-1 since Haslam purchased the team before the start of the 2012 season. Drama and discord have been two of the biggest stars in Ohio, especially after witnessing the inner-workings of the organization during this past summer's "Hard Knocks" on HBO.
The owner says he's supporting defensive coordinator and interim coach Gregg Williams, who was a mere 17-31 in three seasons as Buffalo's head coach in the early 2000's.
But Haslam's tenure as an owner has been marked by poor football decisions and even poorer football results. By comparison, the crosstown Cleveland Cavaliers didn't wait long to fire coach Tyronn Lue - gone after just six games, in an 0-6 start to their season.
And all he did was lead his team to an NBA title two years ago. Maybe that's what the Browns are waiting for - LeBron James to make another return to Ohio?
Hey, at least they've cracked open those beer fridges.
Mistakes not confined to the Lakes
The New York Giants are at the halfway point in their season with a league-worst 1-7 record. A team that was expected to contend within the NFC East under new head coach Pat Shurmur is, instead, defending the continued mediocre-to-poor play of QB Eli Manning.
And fighting for a potential #1 draft pick, instead of fighting for a spot in the postseason.
Also, within the NFC East the Dallas Cowboys pointed the fickle finger of fate toward a somewhat unlikely goat, and we're not talking about the greatest of all time, either. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander felt Jason Garrett's wrath (or was it Jerry Jones?) and received his pink slip, with the Cowboys floundering at 3-4 after a week off.
Former Cowboy and one-time Boston College Eagle Marc Columbo takes over coaching the line, a one-time strong suit of Dallas teams and just two years removed from near-universal consideration as the best offensive line in the league.
But is it all the line's fault? RB Ezekiel Elliott is 2nd in the NFL in rushing, even though the line has also allowed 23 QB sacks - to a more-than-mobile Dak Prescott. What's also true is the Cowboys lost all-Pro center Travis Frederick to an auto-immune disorder before the season started.
When things aren't going well, and the pressure is building, just fire somebody. Anybody will do. Or, deny-deny-deny there's a problem at all. Still seems to be the way of the world within the have-nots and wannabes in the present-day NFL.
John Rooke, an author and award-winning broadcaster, is in his 26th season 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.