Vallee’s View: Half-Hearted Patriots Fall to Dolphins

-Now what?  Following an uninspiring and listless performance in Sunday’s 20-10 loss to the Dolphins, that is the question that has to be on the minds of Patriots fans everywhere.  Following a 2-4 stretch to finish the regular season there is two schools of thought regarding the Patriots.  In one camp you have those that believe most of their problems are tied directly to their health and following the bye week when many of their players should be at their healthiest in weeks, they will regain their form from the first half of the season and be as dangerous as any team in the playoffs.  In the other camp you have those that believe the Patriots’ problems, particularly on offense, run deeper than just injuries and even if the Edelmans and Vollmers return, there is no guarantee New England will be able to simply flip a switch and instantly get back the timing and precision they had earlier in the season.
It’s tough to say which one looks like the better bet.  On the one hand you never want to count out any team with Belichick and Brady.  Underestimating the Patriots at any time in the last 15 years has led to many people looking foolish.  Just ask Trent Dilfer.  But historically in the NFL teams that stumble down the stretch don’t survive in January.  If Patriots fans are looking for a precedent to help maintain the faith they should turn to the 2008 Arizona Cardinals.  The Cardinals also finished the regular season 2-4 and, unlike the Patriots, the games weren’t even close.  Three of Arizona’s losses were by 3 touchdowns or more, including an emasculating 47-7 smashing by the Matt Cassel led Patriots.  Despite multiple humiliating losses in December, the Cardinals righted their ship in the playoffs, tore through the NFC and narrowly lost to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
-It’s hard not to notice that the Patriots players look worn out.  Whatever energy and motivation they received from deflategate early in the year appears to have faded as the wear-n-tear of facing every team’s best, week in and week out, is starting to take its toll.  New England is not only the most successful franchise of the last 15 years and started this year undefeated through 10 weeks but they are also the defending Super Bowl Champs, all facts that are not lost on their opponents.  As a result the Patriots routinely face teams putting out a maximum effort and that will inevitably grind away at even the best teams.  
Whenever discussing just how hard it is to repeat in the NFL I always cite the 1984 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.  The ‘84 49ers went 18-1, with their only loss coming courtesy of an horrendous pass interference call, and are generally regarded as one of the 5 best teams in NFL history.  In the subsequent offseason they drafted a little player you might have heard of named Jerry Rice.  Yet, the following season when they attempted to defend their title, the best they could muster was a 10-6 record and an ugly first round exit from playoffs, losing 17-3 to the NY Giants.  So, how hard is it to repeat?  One of the best teams ever drafted one of the best players ever and couldn’t even come close to defending their title.
Sunday’s game was a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to repeat.  The Dolphins have been playing like zombies for weeks and just the last week lost to the Indianapolis Colts who were quarterbacked by some clown named Charlie Whitehurst.  But when the Dolphins got a look at that Flying Elvis logo, they immediately began salivating at the possibility of hammering the Patriots and their golden boy quarterback.  Miami played their best game in weeks on Sunday, a reality the Patriots have had to deal with all year.
-It was a bizarro offensive game plan Sunday, to say the least.  The Patriots appeared unable to make up their mind and ended up caught in some kind of strange vortex of wanting to win the game and also wanting to protect to their players……and they ended up doing neither.  The Patriots lost the game, and home field advantage, and got their best player hurt.  The middling approach never works.  Football is a lot like life, you are always better off making a choice and then committing to it 100%.  Did Belichick and McDaniels learn nothing from Mr. Miyagi, and his “squish like grape” anecdote?  
Even more strange was how much their offensive game plan varied from the first half to the second half.  In the first half the Patriots looked like they had borrowed one of Tom Osborne’s Nebraska playbooks as their running backs touched the ball on their first 18 plays, including 16 running plays, and Brady attempted only five passes.  Gronkowski was targeted zero times in the first half for the first time since his rookie year.  Baffling numbers for a Patriots team.  But in the second half New England only ran the ball 6 times and attempted 20 passes and Gronkowski was targeted 7 times.  It’s almost as if Belichick’s first half plan was to protect his players and his second half plan was to win the game.  Or maybe Belichick is just arrogant enough to think he could beat Miami running Steven Jackson all game and when that failed he adjusted.  Wouldn’t the Patriots have been better off reversing those numbers?  Don’t you throw in the first half, build a lead and try to demoralize your mentally fragile opponent, then run the ball in the second half?
-The Patriots’ offense is struggling and it’s hard not to trace much of their problems to the loss of Julian Edelman.  Early in the season New England scored 30+ points in six consecutive weeks but since Edelman’s week 9 injury against the Giants, the offense has failed to score 30 for seven consecutive weeks.  During that stretch they managed over 400 yards total offense in a game just once and turned the ball over at least once in six straight games prior to Sunday.  Before Edelman’s injury they had  registered 5 turnover free games.  Edelman was Brady’s go-to receiver on 3rd down and since his injury New England has struggled to keep drives alive.   The Patriots 3rd down conversion percentage was 48.5% before Edelman’s injury and 32% after it.  But more important than that is the protection Edelman provided for the offensive line.  New England’s inexperienced and oft-injured O-Line was protected early in the season by Brady’s quick decision-making.  Even if the line missed a block or an assignment, it didn’t matter, because of the speed Brady was getting rid of the ball.  As Brady’s favorite underneath target Edelman was vital to that equation.  
The snowball effect of all this has been devastating.   Edelman’s loss has meant Brady has had to hold the ball longer, which has exposed holes in the offensive line.  This has inspired opponents to be more aggressive on defense which has led to Brady taking a beating.  The additional pressure has also forced him into desperate situations, which has triggered bad decisions and an increase in turnovers.  This in turn has shaken the confidence of the normally aggressive Patriot coaches who have passed on numerous scoring opportunities at the end of first halves, fearing that the offense might end up doing more harm than good.  
Edelman is on schedule to play in the divisional round and his return will be met with open arms in Foxboro.
-During the Patriots/Dolphins game the NFL once again invited us to play another tedious game of “Is it or is it not a catch?”.  After Greg Jennings hauled in a pass late in the 3rd quarter, he lost the ball lunging for a first down.  The pass was ruled incomplete and Dan Campbell immediately challenged.  That was when the fun began.  CBS NFL officiating “expert” Mike Carey then spent the next several moments explaining exactly why it was not a catch, only to watch biceps expert Ed Hochuli emerge from under the hood to announce that it was a catch.  With the confusing new rules and their vexing language I have no idea if it was a catch, but I do know there are not many things more entertaining than listening to Mike Carey try to bring clarity to a situation.  Calling Carey an expert is like calling Phil Simms a broadcaster.  
-It’s no surprise that the Patriots faced tough games from all three of their division opponents in the second half of the season.  New England recently tied the 70’s Rams for most consecutive division titles with 7.  But if Brady had not hurt his knee to start the 2008 season the Patriots would have just won their 13th consecutive division title.  I think it is safe to say that their historically unprecedented dominance of the AFC East has generated a lot of built up rage from three teams they have been kicking around for the last 15 years.
-On one play Marcus Cannon missed a block, committed a penalty and almost got Tom Brady killed by Ndamukong Suh.  Like smoking and working in a coal mine is Brady required to list “working with Marcus Cannon” on his health insurance forms.
-It’s particularly disappointing that the Patriots not only lost to an inferior team, but they lost to a team embroiled in a family soap opera.  Starting Miami cornerback Brent Grimes’ wife Miko apparently thinks Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill stinks and she’s not afraid to share this opinion with the internet.  Miko Grimes ripped Tannehill on Twitter last week following Miami’s 18-12 loss to the Colts, unleashing such gems as “how many people does Ryan Tannehill have to get fired before you realize he’s the problem”.  Mrs. Grimes is no stranger to controversy.  Earlier this year she was arrested at Sun Life Stadium and has met with Dolphins officials multiple times in the past over her comments on social media.  The arrest cost Miko her on-air radio job at 560 WQAM in Miami.  Too bad, sounds like that show might have been worth a listen.
Strange report from the Globe’s Ben Volin who wrote that several Dolphins players said after the game that Nate Ebner told them the Patriots were going to keep running the ball until they picked up two first downs.  I have no idea what to make of us this but it certainly seems unlikely that “several” Dolphin players would lie about such a random thing.  Is it possible Belichick had that little respect for Miami or did he simply have little interest in winning Sunday’s game?  Either way it is strange to hear a story about Belichick going all Norman Dale on us.
-Great play on a bad day:  Brady’s one-arm fumble recovery with defensive lineman draped all over him.
-If the Patriots were so concerned about the offensive line protecting Brady and so uninterested in winning the game why not just start Jimmy Garoppolo?  He is more mobile than Brady if the pass protection does breakdown and you wouldn’t be as concerned about protecting him so he could have thrown the ball 40 times if necessary.  It also would have provided Garoppolo with invaluable experience and showcased him for a possible offseason trade.
-Fascinating developments out in Denver.  Not only did they secure home-field throughout the playoffs Sunday, but they did it behind future Hall-of-Fame and current noodle-armed quarterback Peyton Manning.  Manning came off the bench and rallied Denver to a 27-20 victory and while he only completed 5 passes for 69 yards, there was a palpable emotional spark on offense when he entered the game.  It’s fair to be skeptical if Manning can maintain any consistency throwing the ball but, either way, the Manning/Osweiler saga will make the playoffs that much more interesting.
-Based on his reaction to Manning entering the game, I am quite certain Phil Simms would have Manning’s child if it were biologically possible.  
-The reemergence of Manning also comes with the fascinating PED subplot.  Even if fools like Jim Nance try to insist it’s not a story, it most definitely will be part of Manning’s playoff narrative.  I have no idea if Manning is guilty (maybe his wife just wanted to increase her arm strength), but I do know this story will only get bigger with every round that Denver advances.
-Tom Brady is 2-6 lifetime on the road against the Broncos and the Patriots are 3-17 in their last 20 trips to Denver.
-Even though they would have preferred home-field advantage, New England might be better off with the number two seed.  If Pittsburgh can beat Marvin Lewis and his playoff-challenged Bengals then Denver will be rewarded for their number one seed by having to host Roethlisberger and his dangerous collection of track meet wideouts.  The Patriots, on the other hand, would then only have to beat either Alex Smith of Brian Hoyer.
-Did I hear that right?  They are going to add a cover to the Dolphins stadium.  It should be fun watching that thing blow away during the first hurricane.
-Impressive coaching job by Bill O’Brien, who managed to get his team to the playoffs despite using four different quarterbacks.  After getting shellacked by the Dolphins Week 7, 44-26, O’Brien was looking like another busted branch from the Belichick coaching tree, but he has since raised his stock, and saved his job, by winning 7 of his final 9 games and securing a division title.
-It was disappointing that Johnny Manziel was not able to start for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, and make his case for a starting job.  I root for Manziel for the same reason I root for Donald Trump, not because I care about either one of them, because the world is a much more interesting place when they are on the big stage.
-The NFL playoffs are only going to seem that much more exciting when compared to the abysmal college bowl season.  Anybody that sat down to enjoy a little college football on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day was rewarded with an never-ending array of boring lopsided games.  In a 24-hour period college football’s biggest bowl games, including the two semifinal playoff games, produced 7 consecutive blowouts with an average score of 42-13.  
-It’s always nice when really stupid people with really stupid ideas pay a price for their really stupid decisions.  Despite ESPN pleading to move the college playoff semifinals to Saturday January 2nd, the buffoons morons idiots members of the CFP management committee instead insisted on the universally despised choice of playing the games on New Year’s Eve.  The result:  Ratings were down and down big.  And if that wasn’t bad enough the dimwits fools dunces members of the CFP didn’t even wait to see if college football fans actually liked the idea and instead already have signed on to have 7 of the next 10 semifinals played on New Year’s Eve.
-Joe Montana can’t possibly be getting paid enough money to justify those Papa John’s commercials.
-Congratulations to one of my old teammates at UMASS, Chris Grier, on his recent hire as the new Miami Dolphins general manager.  Always nice to see a good guy and fellow UMASS alum doing well.
-In case you missed it Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and Montreal goalie Mike Condon (who grew up in Massachusetts) both gave a nod of respect to their hosts with the goalie masks they wore for this year’s Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium.
-Colts owner Jim Irsay has given a contract extension to Chuck “Fake Punt” Pagano and is also keeping GM Ryan Griggson?!?#?  Never underestimate the impact of drugs on sound decision making.

On to the playoffs.