After 20 years of dominance there haven't been a lot of similarities between the 2020 Patriots and the vast majority of its predecessors. That's true in terms of performance only. Otherwise, when it comes to the characteristics we've come to judge Bill Belichick's teams by, this version has been as tough as any.
The 2020 Patriots may not be destined for greatness, or even a trip to the playoffs, but that won't be due to a lack of effort. The problems with the team's current roster have been well documented – a lack of talent and depth, injuries, COVID-related absences chief among them – but in terms of preparation, toughness and overall character this team is second to none.
Sunday's win over Arizona was just the latest example in a season full of them. The Cardinals appeared to be on the verge of taking complete control of the game at least a couple of times, and on each occasion the Patriots changed the complexion in a hurry.
After kicking a field goal to go up 10-0 early, the Cardinals watched Donte' Moncrief return the ensuing kickoff 53 yards to set up a short field for the struggling offense. It led to a touchdown and immediately steadied the ship. It was an example of Bill Belichick continuing to work on an area that had been unproductive all season. Rather than accept the poor results, Belichick harped on the return game and saw it pay dividends when it was needed most.
Later in the half the Cardinals had the ball inside the Patriots 1 with time for one last play. A touchdown would have put the visitors on top 17-7 and set to receive the second half kick. Instead Belichick watched his practice squad call up Akeem Spence chip in with Ja'Whaun Bentley and others to keep Kenyan Drake just out of the end zone. Another disaster averted.
There were certainly other examples along the way, but the last one came down the stretch of a 17-17 tie. Cam Newton's second interception of the day with less than five minutes to go easily could have been the death knell. Arizona took over in Patriots territory, quickly moved into field goal range and had a chance to run the clock down before attempting a final kick.
But on third-and-2 after the two-minute warning, the defense once again stuffed Drake a yard short of the first down, forcing a 45-yard field goal. Even if Zane Gonzalez had made it, the stout front would have at least given the team 1:47 to work toward a tying field goal of their own. Gonzalez' miss allowed Nick Folk the chance for his second game-winner, and the veteran once again came through.
With a 4-6 record and their playoff hopes on life support entering the game, the Patriots easily could have packed it in at any of the aforementioned junctures of the game. Belichick doesn't coach that way, and his veterans follow his lead and play with an uncommon mental toughness that allows such a limited team to scrap and claw its way toward the .500 mark.
It may not lead to a playoff berth, but regardless the Patriots play the game the right way and it starts at the top.
On the other hand
A lot is made of coaching decisions throughout the league with many critics pointing out tactical mistakes regularly. Sometimes we lack the information to do so, but others are more than worthy of second-guessing. Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury made a number of head-scratchers during the game, but I will focus on one. There is a lot to choose from – going for it on fourth-and-inches to close the half, burning three timeouts due to communication issues, going for a fourth-and-5 trailing by seven, not going for a fourth-and-1 before kicking the final field goal – but those decisions all have two sides to them.
Kingsbury calling timeout before the Patriots third-and-13 play with 56 seconds left and the Patriots out of timeouts does not. It was a horrific decision and ultimately that – not the questionable penalty called on Isaiah Simmons – cost his team the game.
The Cardinals had just sacked Newton at the Patriots 32 with the clock running to set up the third-and-13. At that point overtime seemed inevitable, but Kingsbury called his last timeout. Newton then ran for 14 yards and the Patriots got 15 additional yards tacked on by the penalty. Four plays later Folk sent everyone home with his game-winner.
Bad luck for Kingsbury? Sure, but here's the point: What was the upside to stopping the clock? I like to weigh these decisions by a risk-reward factor. The risk is obviously what happened – the Patriots pick up the first down and go on to win. The reward? Realistically the best-case scenario for the Cardinals was another sack of Newton or stuffing a running play for little to no gain.
Kingsbury had to know Belichick wasn't allowing Newton to throw, so an incompletion or interception were off the table. So even a stop was almost 100 percent going to happen with the clock running, taking at minimum 45 seconds off the clock. Belichick would have allowed the clock to run, had Jake Bailey punt it away and Kingsbury's "upside" amounted to possession somewhere around his own 20 with less than 10 seconds to go.
So the best Arizona could have hoped for by calling timeout likely amounted to Kyler Murray taking a knee before heading to overtime – which is exactly what would have happened had he simply allowed the clock to run after the Newton sack, taking the clock down around 15-20 seconds after the third down play. At that point Kingsbury could have used the final timeout and forced the punt. Instead, he gave the Patriots life.
Enough is enough
The NFL is working hard to do whatever it can to get through this most unusual of NFL seasons. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on all of our lives and the world of pro football has been no exception. The league has tried to adapt and adjust as needed throughout the season, and while they're accomplishing the goal of getting the games in it's hard to feel great about it.
Consider the situation the Denver Broncos faced on Sunday. Backup quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive and was place on the reserve-COVID-19 list Thursday. On Saturday the remainder of the quarterback group – Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles – were placed on the list in order to self-isolate when it was learned they had been in meetings with Driskel while not wearing maks. That left the Broncos with no quarterback and a game to play against the New Orleans Saints.
The league denied the Broncos request to move the game, and the results were predictable. Kendall Hinton was called up from the practice squad, and the wide receiver was thrust into the fire as the Broncos quarterback. Hinton played some quarterback at Wake Forest before making the switch to receiver, and he looked overmatched while completing just 1 of 9 passes for 13 yards with a pair of picks.
The game amounted to little more than a forfeit for the Saints, who gladly accepted the gift and a 31-3 win. It seemed like a silly demand from the league to make Denver play without a professional option at quarterback. The protocols have changed and these are the rules the league is implementing on the fly. But at some point common sense should take over.
It seemed more than likely that one of the three quarantined quarterbacks could conceivably be ready on Monday or Tuesday and the league could have offered a fair contest. In fact, that's exactly what happened and the game easily could have been played Tuesday night. Instead, the league's response led to what amounted to a college homecoming game, which all but eliminated the Broncos already remote playoff hopes while handing a win to one of the NFC's frontrunners.
In a league that preaches competitive balance and parity, it seemed like an odd decision.
Kansas City continues to roll and they stay atop this week's power rankings. Others weren't as fortunate as the Colts fell out as quickly as they appeared.
- Kansas City (10-1, 1st last week) – Sometimes Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill look like they're playing a game of two-hand touch in their back yard. Tom Brady's Bucs were invited to watch Sunday.
- Pittsburgh (10-0, 2nd last week) – The Steelers Week 12 game with the Ravens has yet to be played but it would be hard to top the Chiefs explosion in Tampa.
- New Orleans (9-2, 3rd last week) – Sean Payton's team should have to give that one back after beating up on the Broncos and practice squad WR-turned-QB Kendall Hinton.
- Buffalo (8-3, 5th last week) – The Bills remain stuck in the land of mediocrity, turning the ball over twice after jetting to a 24-6 lead. But Buffalo did just enough to maintain control of the AFC East.
- Green Bay (8-3, unranked last week) – After a couple of weeks off the Aaron Rodgers Spite Tour was back in full swing.