FOXBORO — The Patriots saw their 21-game home winning streak come to an end on Sunday, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs 23-16 at Gillette Stadium.
Unfortunately for the Patriots and the NFL, the officiating by Jerome Boger and his crew cost New England a fair shake at a comeback bid in the second half.
With 3:07 remaining in the third quarter, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick challenged the spot and possible offensive pass interference on a third-down conversion by Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
The ruling could have gone either way, but the play was upheld, and Belichick lost the challenge.
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Later in that drive, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce clearly fumbled when safety Devin McCourty jarred the ball loose. The officials ruled it wasn’t a fumble and blew the play dead, likely costing New England a touchdown, which forced Belichick to throw the challenge flag once again.
Although Belichick won the second review, the Patriots head coach was out of challenges for the remainder of the game after losing one earlier.
In the fourth quarter, another challenge would’ve come in handy as the refs incorrectly ruled that rookie N’Keal Harry was short of the end zone and then missed a blatant defensive pass interference call on Phillip Dorsett.
The NFL replay system is broken, and so is the officiating. Boger and his crew were deplorable, and because the coaches are left to fix the mistakes themselves, Belichick didn’t have enough challenges to correct all of the errors.
The Patriots didn’t play well enough to beat the Chiefs on Sunday afternoon, but the officials cost them a chance to win a critical game in the AFC playoff race.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots drop to 10-3 on the season:
1. Tom Brady Has Another So-So Game in Defeat
In New England’s four games since the bye week, Brady is only completing 51.5 percent of his passes for an average of 5.4 yards per attempt. The Pats quarterback is in the midst of one of his worst statistical stretches in one of his worst statistical seasons of his Hall of Fame career.
Brady doesn’t appear to be in a physical decline, and he certainly isn’t the main concern with the sputtering offense, but the Patriots need him to elevate his game to GOAT status quickly.
Many of Brady’s seven interceptions this season are on disguised coverages by the defense, where it doesn’t look like the interceptor is the primary defender in coverage.
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On his interception on Sunday, tight end Matt LaCosse seems to be winning on a seam pattern against man coverage. However, the Chiefs were actually in a three-deep structure with cornerback Bashaud Breeland playing that third of the field. Breeland makes it look like he’s on Edelman but peeled off the Pats top receiver when he went underneath the defense and climbed to step in front of LaCosse.
On a positive note, the Pats quarterback reacted well as the game went on to a flurry of blitzes that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called in the game.
The offensive line had its struggles in pass protection, which we’ll get to, but Brady read them out pretty quickly and made some big plays by throwing to his “hot” receivers.
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Here on second and eight, Kansas City sends a slot blitz to overload the left side of the line. There’s a free runner at the quarterback, but Brady calmly throws at the blitz to Julian Edelman, who picks up a first down.
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Earlier in the game, Brady hit Edelman for an 18-yard catch and run on a similar slot blitz.
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We also got to see gazelle Brady scamper for 17 yards for a critical fourth-down conversion, his longest run since Week 15, 2014.
Tom Brady with a wrap on his right elbow. He says it was from taking a hit. pic.twitter.com/zUN74HcZAW
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 9, 2019
To make matters worse, Brady had his right elbow wrapped after the game after he took a hit on his throwing arm in the loss. Brady said he’s fine, but will likely land on the injury report.
My concern level with Brady’s physical ability remains very low.
But they need him to play better as we head towards the postseason.
2. Patriots Defense Makes Second-Half Adjustments to Slow KC Offense
After allowing 20 first-half points to the Chiefs offense, the Patriots defense shut Patrick Mahomes and company down in the second half, holding them to three points.
The reigning MVP averaged only 3.8 yards per pass attempt after torching the Pats defense for 9.0 yards per attempt in the first two quarters.
“We got a feel of what they were trying to do to us in the second half and played more aggressive,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.
Safety Duron Harmon added, “I think it was more about playing sound, everyone being on the same page. We disguised a little bit more and made it tougher on Mahomes rather than knowing what we were in before he snapped the ball.”
Along with throwing different disguises at Mahomes, the Pats defense also returned to their man and post-safety coverages in the second half.
In the first half, the Pats defense played over a third of their coverage snaps in a soft cover-2 shell, which Mahomes torched as he picked apart the underneath coverages.
But in the final two quarters, the Patriots only played two snaps in cover-2, returning to mostly post-safety looks in either cover-1 man or cover-3.
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Here, the Patriots are in cover-1 man with the deep safety on Tyreek Hill’s side of the field. The coverage forces Mahomes to go exactly where the Patriots want him to throw the football, at Stephon Gilmore in coverage on Sammy Watkins. Gilmore does an excellent job of staying over the top of Watkins, and when the ball hits the Chiefs’ wideouts hands, he punches forces an incompletion. Gilmore is fantastic at playing through the hands of the receiver. It looks like a catch, but he gets the ball out at the last second.
Although it wasn’t enough, the Patriots defense was terrific in the second half and gave them a chance to win.
3. Patriots Pull Out Two Trick Plays to Awaken Struggling Offense
On the one hand, many in the media will likely spin New England’s usage of trick plays as a bad sign for the offense; they need gimmicks to move the football, and still only scored 16 points.
But on the other hand, given how anemic this unit looks at times right now, Josh McDaniels doesn’t have a choice, and at least he’s willing to go to his back of tricks to get something going.
There are no alternative options to create big plays for the Patriots offense, so good on the OC for dialing up some trick plays to give them life.
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On the first bit of trickery, the Patriots set up a beautiful flea-flicker touchdown to Julian Edelman throughout their opening drive. The Pats ran a few outside zone handoffs that the Chiefs defended well.
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However, this time, they give it to Michel like he’s running outside zone, and he pitches it back to Brady, who throws it deep to Edelman for the score.
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And late in the game when they needed a drive, McDaniels called the first halfback pass since Patriots legend Kevin Faulk attempted one back in 2008. Pats running back James White, who can truly do it all apparently, connected with rookie Jakobi Meyers for a 35-yard gain.
At the end of the day, 16 points is 16 points. But at least McDaniels didn’t sit on his hands for another game while the offense struggled.
4. Patriots Offensive Line Struggles Against Aggressive Chiefs Defense
Based on a live viewing of the game, Brady was under pressure on 39.5 percent of his drop-backs, and the Pats QB was under duress on 69.2 percent of third down plays. Not great.
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As the numbers indicate, there were also several one-on-one losses by the Pats OL, and third-string center James Ferentz had a long day. Ferentz was overwhelmed at times by the power of Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones.
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But Ferentz was far from the only one that got beat on Sunday. Pats left tackle Isaiah Wynn also had some issues staying in front of Chiefs pass-rusher Frank Clark. Clark beat Wynn for a sack with a speed and dip move off the edge, killing New England’s chances to get points before the half.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also dialed up some successful blitzes, but Brady won his fair share of bouts with those calls throughout the game.
The Pats need to win their one-on-one battles across the board more consistently to help out the rest of the offense.
5. Pats Rookie N’Keal Harry Plays Only Two Snaps
On a day where Chiefs rookie receiver Mecole Harmdan caught a 48-yard touchdown, the Pats first-round pick only saw the field for two offensive snaps.
The Patriots played six snaps with four wide receivers on the field, and Harry wasn’t in that package. A first-round pick is currently not a top-four wide receiver on the depth chart, ouch.
Although that hurts, it’s incredible what happens when McDaniels puts Harry in a position to succeed.
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On a play that New England installed last week, the Pats ran a misdirection play with Harry leaking out of the backfield into the flat. The play design got Harry, who is known for his skill as a ball carrier, a head of steam into space along the sideline. He broke three tackle attempts by the Chiefs defense and should’ve scored his second career touchdown.
If Harry’s route-running skills aren’t consistent enough for him to see regular snaps, the Patriots could use his unique combination of YAC ability and jump-ball skills in certain areas of the field.
6. Pats Weapons Behind Julian Edelman Go Silent Again
The lack of production behind Edelman is becoming a weekly theme for the Patriots offense. Brady’s go-to target was responsible for almost half of New England’s passing yards, nearly out-gaining the rest of his teammates combined through the air (109 to 95).
As the Patriots struggle to find receivers outside of Edelman, the one spark remains to be running back James White. Teams are now game-planning for White, but when New England can get him the football, the offense seems to move more effectively.
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Here, White gets some breathing room by sneaking him out of the backfield off of play-action. The vertical routes take the defense deep, and White has space to maneuver and make a defender miss underneath for a 17-yard gain.
The more the Pats give White the ball, the better, and he needs to be a focal point along with Edelman for the rest of the season.
7. Patriots “Cut” Speedster Tyreek Hill Out of the Game
To hold the explosive Chiefs offense to 23 points, the Patriots focused heavily on limiting speedster Tyreek Hill. Unlike the AFC Championship Game, there were very few straight doubles on Hill, if any, but the Pats safeties were patrolling his side of the field all game long.
Instead of chasing him around, the Patriots had their safeties “cut” the various crossing routes that the Chiefs like to send Hill on to present him with winnable foot races.
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On JC Jackson’s early interception, the Pats are in a coverage called “one cross” by most defenses. In the scheme, the safety that typically plays as a “rat” in the middle of the defense will hunt crossing routes at the intermediate level. In this case, Devin McCourty jumps Hill on a crosser overtaking Jonathan Jones in coverage. WIth McCourty cutting, Jones then takes over Devin’s responsibilities as the rat. McCourty’s technique takes away Mahome’s first look to Hill, and the Chiefs quarterback forces a pass to a tightly covered Demarcus Robinson.
The Chiefs tried a few different ways to get Hill loose, but the Patriots held him in check to the tune of six catches for 62 yards.
8. Patriots Use Different Approach Against Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce
In last year’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots treated the All-Pro tight end like a wide receiver by putting cornerbacks JC Jackson and Stephon Gilmore on him in coverage. This time, it was mostly the Pats safety duo of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty tracking Kelce.
Kelce only caught seven balls for 66 yards, but the Pats were too passive with four-time Pro Bowler at times.
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One of Belichick’s favorite strategies against Kelce is to beat him up on his release at the line of scrimmage. On the play above, Pats linebacker Jamie Collins gets a good jam on Kelce, but the Pats are playing a two-deep zone, and when Collins passes him off, nobody picks up the dangerous tight end. From there, the Pats also fail to touch him down when he hits the ground, and Kelce gains 20 yards on third and five to set himself up for a trick-play TD.
We’ll get to Kelce’s touchdown later, but after a week of gushing about the All-Pros talents, it was surprising to see the Patriots be so laissez with him at times.
9. Patriots Offense Leans on “11” and “12” Personnel Packages
In the first half, the Patriots leaned heavily on their “12” personnel package with tight ends Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse on the field. The New England offense had some success with both tight ends in the lineup before this week, but they couldn’t move the Chiefs front in the running game or get production out of their tight ends in the passing game on Sunday.
In the second half, they returned to more of their bread-and-butter with “11” personnel and moved the ball with some success.
The Pats also used their “20” grouping a few times with poor results. In theory, the package should get the five best New England skill players on the field at once with three wide receivers and two running backs. But statistically, the results of this package have left a lot to be desired.
Similarly, the Patriots haven’t gotten much out of four-wide receiver sets either, and it’s certainly demoralizing to see rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry not on the field in “10” groupings.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels continues to search for a personnel package that works.
10. Play of the Game: Nate Ebner’s Blocked Punt, Travis Kelce’s Rushing TD
A twofer this week to end things, one good and one bad.
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Let’s start with the good, where the Pats special teams coaches once again discovered a weakness in an opponent’s punt protection, leading to a massive blocked punt. Pats special teams ace Nate Ebner said the punt coverage unit practiced all week on the rush that led to the block, but that anyone could have done what he did as the seas parted.
The Patriots were desperate for a big play, and the blocked punt set up Brandon Bolden’s score on a jet sweep that made it a ten-point game.
That’s a franchise-record fourth blocked punt for the Patriots, the rest of the league has five this season.
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Along with Ebner’s block, the Patriots also got beat by a gimmick play by the Chiefs and Andy Reid. Kansas City put the ball in the hands of tight end Travis Kelce with quarterback Patrick Mahomes behind him, and Kelce ran a veer-option scheme where he had the choice to hand it off to a sweeping Tyreek Hill or take it in himself. The play caught the Patriots defense by surprise, and Kelce went right up the middle for the score.