Curran: As flaws emerge in contenders, Pats keep walking the walk originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
This was Lawrence Guy last week:
"We have to bring the fight to them. You can’t go out there and not throw the first punch."
Talk about speaking it into existence. On the first snap of the game Sunday against the AFC’s top-seeded but injury-riddled Titans, Guy crashed through the Tennessee offensive line and squashed running back Dontrell Hilliard for a 1-yard loss.
Two plays later, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill walked into a third-down sack delivered by Matt Judon. The Titans then peed down their leg on the punt with an illegal formation penalty. They had to kick it again. Gunner Olszewski returned it 15 yards to the Titans 37 and the Patriots picked up 32 yards on that re-kick.
Set up in prime position, Mac Jones guided a nine-play, 37-yard touchdown drive. The key play was a Josh McDaniels masterpiece, a screen to Brandon Bolden on third-and-10 that had Jones selling it hard to the right before whirling back to find Bolden.
The prettiest play was the surgically-placed touch pass to Kendrick Bourne on third-and-goal from the Titans 4 over the head of Kevin Byard, one of the few key Titans who wasn’t sidelined. Mixed in there was a little handoff to Jonnu Smith who picked up nine on a second-and-9.
And the next 53 minutes and 18 seconds of game time proceeded pretty much like that. Except for a 68-yard touchdown run by Hilliard just before halftime -- the football equivalent of a half-court shot -- the Titans were swimming upstream all day against a team that was simply better than them. Tennessee got shut out in the second half.
Defense. Special teams. Offense. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. For pretty much nine weeks straight.
It was predictable. And in an AFC which has been anything but predictable, the Patriots are the only team out there that walks it like they talk it.
The Patriots could have been the top seed in the conference when the sun came up Monday. They aren’t because the Ravens survived four Lamar Jackson interceptions Sunday night and dispatched the Browns. But even that performance by Baltimore showed how ripe for the picking they are too.
That was a Cleveland team the Patriots polished off 45-7 three weeks ago. As they should have. As Baltimore probably should have as well. More evidence? The Falcons team the Patriots blanked 25-0 not too long ago? They handled Jacksonville on Sunday. Relevance? Jacksonville beat the Bills, 9-6 a few weeks back.
The Bills, of course, are the Patriots' main competition in the AFC East and up next on the Patriots' inevitable and endlessly fascinating march back to the top of the conference.
We’re going to get sick to death of this storyline in the next seven days but it’s true. The MNF game in Buffalo will be the first time this team and Jones have faced a truly hostile environment this year.
Think about it. The Pats had the Bucs and Cowboys at Gillette. Patriots fans turned out in droves for games at L.A. and Atlanta. Carolina, Houston and at the Jets? Not exactly being dipped in a cauldron of hate there.
It’s going to be hostile in Buffalo. Especially in front of Bills fans who’d been promised a long reign at the top of the East in a post-Brady world. If they hated the Patriots while they were under the Brady-Belichick boot, imagine how they feel now with the Mac-and-Billy heel dropping again. Not good.
They know their team isn’t trustworthy. Just like the Ravens, Titans, Chiefs (big breath), Bengals, Chargers, Raiders, Colts (another breath), Cowboys, Rams and sometimes Packers aren’t really trustworthy.
In varying degrees, you don’t know what you’re going to get from them. All are suffering from some degree of either injuries, loose quarterbacks or coaches suffering from sporadic brainlock.
The Patriots aren’t. Even though every week they seem to be facing teams that allow deniers to drop the, "Yeah, but ..." bullet into the chamber, they don’t just get by these sadsacks. They demolish them.
Was it ideal that the Patriots allowed 270 yards rushing to an offense without Derrick Henry that -- obviously -- was going to run because it had no receivers? I would say no. Do I believe an Achilles’ Heel has been uncovered? I would also say no. The Patriots fix things. Generally. And on too many other teams, the wounds fester.
Inside the numbers
So here’s a wild statistic that doinkariffic Titans kicker Randy Bullock made me seek out. Opposing kickers are 7-for-14 outside 40 yards against the Patriots. They are 0-for-5 outside 50. Meanwhile, Nick Folk is 13-for-15 outside 40 and 5-for-8 outside 50. One of those missed was the off-the-upright doink against Tampa. ...
The Patriots are plus-10 in picks (19 taken, nine thrown) after J.C. Jackson got Ryan Tannehill at the back of the end zone. They had 18 picks last year. ...
Sacks? Last year they generated 24 and took 37 with Cam Newton as the starter. This year, they’ve got 30 sacks through 12 games and have taken 23. …
Ground game? Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have combined for 994 yards on 230 carries and have 11 combined touchdowns.
Receiver group? This is pretty interesting because of the varied strengths of each guy. Jakobi Meyers is leading the team with 59 catches for 620 yards and one TD. He’s the go-to. Kendrick Bourne is 42-623-5. He’s the chess piece.
Hunter Henry is 35-394-7. He’s the gotta-have-it. Nelson Agholor is 32-416-3. He’s a high-priced Phillip Dorsett. Brandon Bolden is 31-296-1. He’s not James White but he’s a problem. And Jonnu Smith is 25-259-1. And watch those numbers continue to rise, would be my guess.
The point? This puts the hammer to the concept of affixing those WR1, WR2, etc., labels to players. At least in New England. Unless everyone stinks except for one guy -- the 2013 Patriots with the emerging Julian Edelman -- then everyone’s going to get touches.
There is no receiver hierarchy with the Patriots because there is no King. And that’s harder to deal with for defenses than the almighty WR1.