Willie Nelson was certainly famous for his being on the road as a performer. In fact, the country music superstar once sang rather fondly about his days on the road:
“On the road again…
Goin' places that I've never been…
Seein' things that I may never see again…
And I can't wait to get on the road again.”
Can’t be quite sure, however, that the New England Patriots feel the same way about traveling on the road – especially this season. The 27-13 win over the New York Jets Sunday at MetLife Stadium did place the Pats at .500, 3-3 away from home so far this season with two road trips remaining.
But did the win over the J-E-T-S give them the ability they’ll need to navigate at least two more road wins this year? Looming in the not-too-distant future are Miami (Dec. 9) and Pittsburgh (Dec. 16). They’ll probably need to win both games to maintain their current hold on a playoff bye in the opening round of postseason play.
If they don’t win them, the road to the Super Bowl is likely to feature an extra trip, or two, away from cozier confines.
Yes, yes. I know. We’re onto Minnesota. Focus is on the Vikings for next Sunday at Gillette. But you’d be missing out on the focus for a bigger picture – that the road may need to be where these Patriots find their fortune, and their legacy, this season.
Three road losses this season has been something of a statistical anomaly for this team. The previous two years (2016, 2017) saw New England go a combined 15-1 away from home, which is extraordinary. It has to be a reason why so many Pats’ fans undoubtedly feel a sense of invincibility and superiority surrounding their team, because winning on the road is supposed to be harder than winning at home.
Three road losses this season, to this point, match the team’s performance from just three short seasons ago in 2015. Two overtime losses at Denver and New York, followed by a season-ending defeat at Miami, set the Patriots up having to play the AFC title game in Denver – which was another loss.
How soon we forget. The Patriots have never won a Super Bowl with more than three road losses during the regular season.
It is true, of course, that one season has absolutely nothing to do with another. But when your three road defeats this year have all been double-digit deficits, that bubble of invincibility pops into reality – especially when your final two road trips are to places where wins have traditionally been tough to come by.
I know, I know. The Patriots have won five of their last six playing in the Steel City. Pittsburgh is also likely to be reminded, ad nauseum, about New England’s win at Heinz Field a year ago. And the Pats have also lost four of their last five playing at Miami, too.
You can certainly make the argument the results of these two games will have a lot to do with this season’s playoff seedings, not to mention this season’s greetings – as in messages being sent to the rest of the league.
With playoff possibilities looming in the distance, New England’s focus certainly has to be on the present. But the road again, especially to places they’ve previously been, will probably decide how this current band of Patriots is ultimately remembered.
Where do we begin?
Let’s start with an obvious, glaring one. Too many hankies on the field.
And it wasn’t just the number of flags thrown and penalties accepted against them (11 for 105 yards, a season high) from a crew known for it’s love of laundry. Referee Shaun Hoculi’s crew led the NFL in penalties per game going into Week 12, so that might explain part of the problem.
Patriot players should have known this about the crew during their preparation for the Jets. What really hurt was the roughing the passer call against Deatrich Wise that kept a New York drive alive in the 1st quarter for an eventual touchdown.
Or the three penalties called on the opening possession of the 2nd quarter that ruined a nine-play drive, one of which (holding on Trent Brown) that wiped out a 25-yard gain from Sony Michel.
Or the holding penalty on Joe Thuney that rubbed out a red zone opportunity in the 3rd quarter and forced the Patriots into a 32-yard field goal.
I won’t go on. There were others. But you get the idea. Maybe attention to detail wasn’t prioritized during the bye week.
It should be this week.
This feels a bit like saying the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but when Tom Brady has missed on a pass, he really misses. As in, he’s not very close.
The primary evidence this week, other than throwaways at a receivers’ feet and another to Cordarrelle Patterson in the 4th quarter, comes from the two red zone pass attempts to Rob Gronkowski in the 2nd quarter, on 2nd and four from the Jets’ 16-yard line, and again on 3rd and four.
The need to get Gronk involved in the red zone offense again is obvious. But force-feeding him the ball, especially with the running game working well on a short-yardage situation, doesn’t make much sense. The first of the two attempts on 2nd down could have been picked off.
NE settled for a field goal. It felt like giving points away on that possession.
Bendable, and eventually breakable?
The defense allowed 13 points to the Jets on the road. By itself, that poses no problem whatsoever.
Until you realize this is the Jets we’re talking about, playing behind seldom-used-this-year Josh McCown at quarterback. Overall, there’s not a ton to complain about – except for McCown’s ability to scramble on 3rd down to pick up a first down (in the 3rd and 4th quarters) and the linebacking corps still finding themselves in trouble spots trying to cover receivers.
These are two areas that a team better-equipped (or prepared) than the NYJ might find a way to exploit against New England, as they have been season-long difficulties.
From this point forward, these lapses will become bigger problems, absolutely, against contending teams.
All is not lost
Here’s the sorbet to soothe the acidity left behind from our nitpicking – with the win, the Patriots have clinched at least a .500 record for an 18th straight season.
That means squat to the players, or to Bill Belichick, of course. Nevertheless, the Patriots are the only NFL team to finish with a record of .500 or better in each of the last 18 years (2001-18).
Each of the other 31 NFL teams has had at least one losing season since 2001. The Patriots have the second-longest streak in league history at .500 or better, behind only the Dallas Cowboys’ streak of 21 straight years (1965-85) with a non-losing record.
A point of pride, perhaps? Better yet, proof of life. This team may have some downs with the ups, but it ain’t dead yet, either.
Better than the Joneses
Two good examples this week of “no matter how bad you think you have it, someone else always has it worse.” We play this game every week, and sometimes it amazes.
Example One: Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers voiced his frustration over the Packers’ Sunday Night loss to Minnesota, to the point of mentioning his a-g-e.
"Obviously, I've got a lot more gray in the beard than I did a few years ago,” Rodgers told ESPN.com after the 24-17 defeat. “So I know that football mortality catches up to everybody, and you never want to lose a season -- especially when you felt great starting the season about our prospects.”
Sounds strangely like he’s setting himself up, as well as Packers’ fans, for the inevitability of watching the postseason from a living room couch.
Example Two: Here’s what happens when you celebrate your Super Bowl win in September. It can all go downhill, in a hurry, from there.
Jacksonville’s Jaguars fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett on Monday, per an original report from NFL Network. "These are always tough decisions, but as the head coach, I have to do what I think is best for this football team," was the reasoning announced by head coach Doug Marrone.
Read between the lines. Hackett is the first fall-guy for a team and offense that has woefully underperformed, and if he doesn’t go, others could. Including Marrone. Seven straight losses after a 3-1 start, and a September celebration over the Patriots, has a lot of fingers pointing the Jags’ way.
And not all of them may be gracious or cordial fingers, either.
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.