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FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots will get the week off on Wild Card weekend after a 38-3 trouncing of the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Led by a bounce-back performance from Tom Brady, the Patriots locked up a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs extending their NFL record streak to nine seasons.
Brady and the offense woke up through the air leaning on a balanced approach that saw Brady complete passes to seven different receivers, a positive development for the offense moving forward.
Defensively, the Patriots overwhelmed Jets rookie Sam Darnold and beat the New York offense up at the line of scrimmage scoring more points than they allowed.
The Patriots checked all the boxes in the win but did lose defensive captain Devin McCourty to a head injury in the third quarter, a player they cannot afford to be without in the divisional round.
Below, we’ll go through ten things we learned from the Patriots’ 11th win in the regular season finale:
1. Tom Brady’s Bounces-Back With Vintage Performance
Allow him to reintroduce himself? All season long we’ve nitpicked, and most of it fairly, Tom Brady’s game in his age 41 season. However, against the Jets on Sunday, Brady answered those critics with a throwback performance capped off by a season-high four touchdown passes and a 133.8 passer rating. We’ll get to some of his throws, but first, it’s worth noting that the situation around Brady was much better this week than it was in Week 16 against Buffalo. The offensive line was terrific in pass protection, the receivers got open, and the coaching contributed to that as well (more on all of that later). But at the end of the day, it’s all on Brady, and the Pats quarterback was terrific minus one misfire to a wide open Chris Hogan in the end zone which you know the critics will point to this week. Let’s get to some of Brady’s throws:
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To start things off, Brady’s arm strength and velocity came in question last week as did his footwork in the pocket after the ball appeared to be fluttering on him. On the Patriots’ first touchdown drive, Brady made one of his best throws in weeks with on an 18-yard dart to Julian Edelman. The Pats ran play-action, which Brady has been lethal off of all season, and he fit the ball into tight coverage on a line on a throw over the middle. Notice his footwork in the pocket; strong and sturdy base, steps into the throw, and his lower half is completely in-sync with his upper body. That’s how you generate velocity from your core and legs.
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Do you want touch passes? We got touch passes. Over the years, Brady has mastered lob throws like this one to running back Rex Burkhead on his second touchdown pass. As you can see, Brady got good protection from the offensive line and found the matchup with Burkhead on a linebacker. Then, he put the perfect amount of touch on the throw to beat the safety coming over while lifting the pass over the defenders head. Beauty.
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After countless rumors about an injured knee, watching Brady get outside the pocket and make a throw on the move to Phillip Dorsett in the back of the end zone was a welcomed sight. Brady felt the pressure coming off the edge, stepped around right tackle Marcus Cannon, kept his eyes downfield to locate Dorsett, and delivered a strike on the money. Arguably his best throw since the seam ball to Cordarrelle Patterson in Miami.
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And finally, it was also great to see Brady’s patience and confidence behind his offensive line return to form. On this throw early in the fourth quarter, the pocket eventually breaks down, but Brady keeps scanning downfield for an open receiver and finds Chris Hogan for a first down throw while under pressure. In the previous few games, Brady didn’t show that kind of pocket presence and would’ve likely thrown the ball away on a play like that.
Out of all the good things that happened on Sunday, Brady’s play should have Patriots fans confident in the offense going into the playoffs.
2. Patriots Offense Emphasizes Spreading the Wealth in the Passing Game
After a run-heavy approach against Buffalo, the Patriots went with a more balanced attack against the Jets. That was mostly due to the way the Jets defensive front played the game making it clear they weren’t going to allow New England to rush for over 200 yards again like they did last week and in the matchup against New York in the Meadowlands.
“They did a good job in the running game. They played a couple of different fronts and certainly weren’t going to let us run the ball like we did last week or even in the first game. We threw it more. We had to go to some alternative-type things. I thought our team did a good job of that,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the game.
Along those lines, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett told me that due to the Jets’ approach, the game plan coming into Sunday’s contest was to spread the ball around in the passing game, and Brady completed passes to seven different receivers.
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On the Patriots’ first scoring drive, Brady completed passes to five different receivers capped off by a 17-yard touchdown throw to running back James White on an angle route. The Patriots had three receivers to Brady’s left with White in the backfield sending those trips receivers vertically downfield to open up space for White to run into underneath the coverage. The Pats running back shook the linebacker in man coverage, and there was nobody there to tackle him once he got away from the Jets defender.
That drive was a perfect summation of this game and how the passing offense should look moving forward.
3. Julian Edelman Once Again is Brady’s Go-To Target in Career Season By the Numbers
Along with takes on the demise of Brady and Gronk, some took aim at Julian Edelman saying he has lost a step as well. However, if you take Edelman’s production and stretch it out over 16 games, he’d be having a career season a year removed from an ACL injury.
Edelman continues to torch defenses on in-breaking routes over the middle by using his tremendous route-running ability and IQ to create separation.
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Here, Edelman beats a jam by Jets slot corner Buster Skrine with a little bit of physicality of his own. He gains ground in his stem to get on Skrine using a technique that’s often referred to as “stepping on the toes” of the defensive back. That allows Edelman to out-leverage Skrine to the inside, and he explodes at the top of the route with a subtle push off to pull away for an 18-yard gain.
On this 17-yard gain, Edelman dusted Skrine with a “burst” release after motioning towards the formation. Usually, Edelman uses that release to set up a corner or out route which may have confused Skrine when he cut over the middle.
If you’re looking for a difference in Edelman’s game, maybe it’s that his route tree has changed slightly with more downfield patterns instead of change of direction routes in the short area of the field, but he’s as good as ever from this perspective.
4. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett Remerge as Weapons for Tom Brady
What a difference a week made for Patriots wideout Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett; last week, Hogan led all receivers with 62 snaps but was not targeted in the passing game, and Dorsett only played after an injury to Cordarrelle Patterson and wasn’t targeted either. This week, the two combined for 11 catches for 98 yards on 16 targets plus a touchdown for Dorsett and a should’ve been TD for Hogan on a throw that Brady missed in the end zone. Dorsett was honest after the game saying that the team went in with the mindset that they needed to spread the ball around in the passing game.
“I feel like when everyone gets involved, the offense flows. We put a great game plan together when it came to getting everyone involved, getting everyone touches, and I think it worked. I think it’s easier for Tom [Brady]. He makes it look so effortless when the offense is like that. They tried to stop the run, so we knew we needed to pass the ball and Tom did a great job of spreading it around,” said the Pats wideout.
Along with the performance of the offensive line and Brady, Dorsett and Hogan’s involvement was great to see as it makes the offense that much tougher to stop when the defense needs to account for all five eligible receivers. Plus, the two made some plays when given the opportunity combining on three first-down receptions one of which came on third down for Dorsett.
5. Pats Offensive Line Responds to Tough Coaching From Dante Scarnecchia
Earlier this week, Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told me that he was disappointed in the way the offensive line protected Tom Brady against the Bills, especially when it came to picking up blitzes.
On Sunday, the Pats OL responded well to their coach’s criticism allowing four quarterback hits (one sack) but ultimately gave Brady plenty of time to operate and find open receivers downfield.
As they’ve always been under Bowles, the Jets are a heavy blitzing team, and they sent some blitzes the Patriots’ way that New England handled well.
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On this completion to Chris Hogan, the Jets blitzed safety Jamal Adams from the slot. The Pats ran play-action, but they had the blitz sniffed out perfectly with James White stepping up to take Adams in blitz pickup giving Brady a perfect pocket and allowing him to step up to make the throw.
Although stats are nice, you can always tell how the pass protection fared in a game by the way Brady reacts to the rush in the pocket. This week, he was cool and calm signifying to me that it was a good day for the boys up front.
6. Rob Gronkowski Flashes Despite Underwhelming Stat Line
Although Gronk finished with only two catches for 24 yards, he moved well on Sunday but continues to play a limited role both in terms of targets and snaps. Over the last two weeks, the Patriots have limited Gronk’s snaps holding him out on first down with tight end Dwayne Allen taking his place. Gronk has mostly been in the game in passing situations, but the team clearly tried to limit his workload going into the postseason.
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On one of Gronk’s two catches, the Jets gave the Pats tight end a gift by giving him a free release at the line of scrimmage. Jets safety Jamal Adams had him in man coverage playing off the line, and Gronk ran an out with a little wiggle at the top of the route to shake Adams and picked a low throw off the ground to haul in the pass for a 14-yard reception.
After the game Gronk told me, “getting a free release is always easier than getting a SAM [strongside] linebacker up in your face or a defensive end trying to chip you, so getting a free release always helps you out in the pattern to get open easier.”
Gronk also had a 30-yard catch and run wiped out by a questionable pass interference call on Dwayne Allen where he broke a few tackles and looked more like himself in the open field.
And hopefully, the Patriots’ next opponent doesn’t read this and continues to give the big guy some more free releases in the playoffs.
7. Stephon Gilmore Out-Muscles and Out-Classes Robby Anderson
In the matchup of the day, Patriots Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore handed Jets wideout Robby Anderson his lunch for the second time this season. In the first matchup, Gilmore shut out Anderson shadowing him on 84 percent of his routes, and it was a repeat performance today with Gilmore following Anderson and shutting him out in meaningful snaps.
In the postgame locker room, Gilmore told us that he wanted to be physical and beat up the smaller Anderson, who came into the game averaging over 100 yards with three touchdowns over the Jets’ last three games. After asking Gilmore if his approach was to beat up Anderson, he said, “yeah, he’s too small.”
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This first-quarter pass breakup summed up the match up perfectly. Darnold targets Anderson on stop route along the sideline, but the Pats cornerback is physical with Anderson throughout the route knocking him off his path completely at one point and then dominates at the catch point to break up the pass.
Out of all the players in the Patriots locker room, Gilmore is playing as much confidence as anyone as you see the mental aspects of the game lining up with the physical things for him this season, and he’s flat-out dominating the competition.
8. Patriots Run Defense Improving After a Rough Few Weeks
On the stat sheet, the Patriots gave up over four yards per rush to New York, but the run defense was much better than that, especially when the game was close in the first half. In all, the Patriots defense forced a season-high six negative rushes limiting Jets running back Elijah McGuire to 18 carries for 41 yards (2.3 average). However, if you take out McGuire’s 17-yard rush, the Pats defense held him to 24 rushing yards on his other 17 carries.
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The Patriots set the tone early when Deatrich Wise and Dont’a Hightower brought McGuire down for a loss on his first carry of the game. Wise did a tremendous job of pressing the blocker and using those long arms to create separation to hold the edge with McGuire coming towards him, and Hightower slipped a block to bring down McGuire.
Here’s Wise on the play and his newfound skill of using his freakishly long arms in run defense:
“The ball was snapped, I shot my hands to drive him back, and I recognized the ball carrier was coming towards me. I didn’t want him to get out, so I kept pressing as I saw him cut inside I saw someone [Hightower] come in and clean it up.”
“It wasn’t always something I knew how to do [use arm length]. Players like Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown helped me play the run to my ability. Use my arms. I have long arms, learning how to use them and then over time getting comfortable with doing that.”
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Along with Wise and Hightower’s stuff, the Patriots also got a huge play from the run defense on a fourth down stop in the red zone in the third quarter from linebacker Elandon Roberts and defensive tackle Malcom Brown.
Here’s Roberts’ recollection of the play in the locker room after the game:
“I was about to run in there and find the ball carrier. No, I was going to do my job, but I was ready to make a stop. My main focus is; we need a big play, and I want to be that guy to make the play. Not in a selfish way, but I wanted to step up for my team. The guard pulled, so I shot in full force. I boomeranged off, got on the tackle who was right on me, and then Malcom [Brown] came in to help me finish him off.”
In weeks 13-15, the Patriots defense allowed almost 7.5 yards per rush, but that number has leveled off to 4.3 yards per carry in the last two weeks of the regular season.
9. Patriots Pass Rush Rattles Jets Rookie Sam Darnold
The Patriots defense also got contributions from the pass rush to the tune of four sacks and one strip-sack touchdown by Kyle Van Noy.
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On the strip sack, defensive tackle Adam Butler credited the coverage downfield with limiting Darnold’s passing options and the edge rush with forcing him to step up in the pocket. He then said that he knew Darnold had to throw the ball with the pocket closing, so he put his hand out to deflect the ball out of his hand. Butler was credited with the sack, but the Patriots had a party around Darnold with both Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers converging on the Jets rookie as well.
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Patriots top pass rusher Trey Flowers also had a big third-down sack where he made Jets right tackle Brent Qvale look silly. Flowers hit Qvale with a stutter-and-go move on the edge forcing Qvale to completely whiff on his punch as he worked around him to Darnold. Give that man his money.
10. Patriots Kick Around Jets Pro Bowl Returner Andre Roberts
Entering Sunday’s matchup, Belichick and the Pats special teams players were in awe of Jets return man Andre Roberts who leads the NFL in both kick and punt return average this season. To combat the dangerous Roberts, the Pats kicked away from the Jets return man on kickoffs going with a mortar kick approach to the up man to avoid Roberts at all costs. On punts, Ryan Allen put on another clinic on directional punting pinning Roberts to the sideline with the ball either flying out of bounds or allowing the coverage to use the sideline to trap Roberts. In all, Roberts had one punt return for zero yards with two fair catches and two returns for an average of 29.5 yards with the longest return covering 32 yards. Limiting Roberts was clearly a significant part of the Patriots’ game plan.
11. Play of the Game: Derek Rivers’ First Career Sack
There were a lot of options for this week’s play of the game, but there’s nobody on this team I want to succeed more than Rivers. The 2017 third-round pick has all the tools to be a productive sub rusher in this league and has battled for playing time all season after losing his rookie year to injury. Plus, you could see how happy his teammates were for him recording that first sack of his career. Van Noy joked that he backed off of Darnold knowing it was Rivers’ first sack, and Adam Butler said he just wanted to do his job on the play, occupying the center, to give Rivers, his guy, a chance.
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The Patriots executed a twist game perfectly with Butler and Van Noy penetrating to get Rivers free up the middle as the wrap player.
Here’s Rivers on what it means to him to get his first career sack and how the play went down:
“It was surreal. It was super exciting to feel that feeling again. I just came around, and there was this big opening, and I got really excited.”