How will the Patriots respond to the NFL’s offensive explosion?
Last week’s “Monday Night Football” fireworks shook up the NFL conversation in a way no game had done in years, the high-flying offensive shootout between the Rams and the Chiefs representing one of those moments when you don’t need the benefit of hindsight to recognize a sea change; you can’t help but see it as it is happening.
And maybe it was indeed the night the NFL changed forever, the full and final payout on the offensive favoritism that has driven recent rule changes, the complete and total shift to the air-it-out model of play design and play-calling that has ruled college football for so long there was little chance of the NFL resisting it any longer.
So it was no surprise the Tuesday morning conversation was rapid and hyped, full of speculation whether 50-point explosions are our new norm, wondering whether anyone across the league can stop hot young stars Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes, now or in the future.
Yet there was one notable exception to the breathless excitement. We’ll give you three guesses who it was, and the first two don’t count.
There was Bill Belichick Tuesday, in a conversation with reporters about explosive plays, when someone asked him if he’d gotten a chance to watch the previous night’s game between two explosive offenses.
“I saw a little bit of it, yeah,” he said.
The obvious follow-up: Any takeaway?
“Yeah, the Jets,” he said. “That’s my takeaway, getting ready for the Jets.”
Way to rain on the NFL’s parade, Coach.
But really, do we expect anything else? Of course the Patriots’ veteran coach is focused only on his Sunday opponent the Jets, willing to talk only about his upcoming division rival game at the Meadowlands, concerned only with the state of his own team over the rest of the league. You don’t command nearly two decades of dominance and win five Super Bowls any other way. While all about them the league goes nuts, Belichick’s Patriots remain the NFL’s steadiest ship, an ocean liner moving inexorably across the horizon while these fancy new boats dart all around, content to speed up or slow down at their own pace, the standard-setter in a game of constant imitation.
And I’ll be honest — that’s precisely what I find so fascinating about them now. What will they do across the regular season’s final six games? Will they have an answer for the touchdown barrage we’re seeing from the likes of the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints? Or will they bend other teams to their will yet again? They’ve been here before. Remember, this is a franchise that kicked off a dynastic run by grounding the “Greatest Show on Turf,” the victory over Kurt Warner’s Rams back in the 2001 season the first real indication of how much preparation and game-planning can make predictions look foolish. Wouldn’t it be something if they bookended that historic win by bucking the NFL trend yet again, making another run to the Super Bowl at the expense of those shiny new toys?
It won’t be easy. Quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t been nearly as prolific since outdueling Mahomes in a Week 6 Sunday night shootout, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of reaching those heights again. Who can forget last season’s Super Bowl, when Brady broke the passing record he’d set only a year before, a 505-yard outburst in a losing effort representing just one of seven passing records Brady set or tied, when the Patriots and Eagles combined to set the Super Bowl record for most combined total yards (1,151) and most combined passing yards (874).
That’s what that game dictated. Come Sunday against the hapless Jets, it’s not likely Josh McCown would be ready to ignite such a high-scoring game. So while the rest of the league continues to put up points (the Saints scored another 31 in a Thanksgiving night win over Atlanta) the Patriots aren’t concerned about matching pyrotechnics. They just want a win, could use one on the road (their three losses this season have come at Jacksonville, Detroit, and most recently Nashville), and will take one in any way it comes. Leave the wheel reinvention and surprise attacks to others.
“I don’t think we want to come in here and run the wishbone because they haven’t seen it before. We do what we do,” Belichick said this past week. “They do what they do. You dress it up a little bit, but in the end I don’t think this game is the type of game that it’s going to come down to a big, huge deception at the end of the game. One team’s [not] going to be sitting there saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never really seen them do that before. That was totally off the wall.’ I don’t think it’s going to be that kind of game. It usually isn’t in the division. Is there a wrinkle or two in there? Yeah, but you get that every week.”
Only six weeks to go in this regular season, six games for the Patriots to ease their path to the playoffs if they can secure the AFC’s top seed, six Sundays to see if they will try to keep up with the football Joneses, or whether they find a way to make the rest of the league keep up with them. Color me fascinated.