Matt Goisman is going to write about a game each and every week from America’s #1 city for sports: Here. The column is called 52 Games because that is what we are going to end up with. For our inaugural column, Goisman caught the season finale of the New England Patriots at the one and only Cask ‘n Flagon. Keep up with him here.
I stumble into the Cask ‘N Flagon Sunday around noon. The Patriots are wrapping up their regular season with a home game against the Bills. A win guarantees the best record in the AFC and home-field advantage for the playoffs… not that that helped much last year against the Jets.
I spend the next hour trying to find that ideal blend of eggs, starches, caffeine, water and Bloody Mary to cure the New Year’s Eve hangover, then the game gets underway.
Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – the Harvard-iest QB in the NFL – picks apart the Patriots secondary, which is the weakest part of their historically weak defense. The Bills play gutsy, carefree football, faking a punt and going for it on fourth-and-4 in the first quarter.
The crowd groans loudly as the Bills go up 14-0 on a touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Steve Johnson with just over five minutes left in the first. They don’t care that the Pats are losing to the Bills. It’s the Bills – who gives a shit? But the fans know that come the playoffs, starts as slow as this week’s or last week’s against Miami could easily doom the Patriots. The fans are hungry for that “statement game” from the defense, and despite a a season with at least 12 wins, they never get it.
The Bills get into the end zone on their first three possessions. They start the second quarter up 21-0.
The crowd watches with the bleariness expected of the first day of the new year. A few diehards cheer at the bar, but the people at the tables mostly talk to each other, with occasional glances at one of the bar’s dozens of TVs.
I wander over to a group watching intently. Jim Hudson, a 43-year-old letter carrier from Dorchester, says this is a particularly bad defensive game in a very bad defensive season.
“This is the worst defense they’ve ever had,” Hudson says, especially laying into that secondary a pass-rush that took a huge hit when they lost Andre Carter to a knee injury two weeks ago.
The defense has shaken Hudson’s confidence in the Patriots’ chances in the playoffs. Badly.
“They’ll be lucky to win one game,” Hudson says.
While we watch, Hudson and his friend Terence Connolly – another letter carrier from Dorchester – regale me with goofy memories of the Patriots’ heyday (not glory days), including when the Patriots beat the Bengals at home on Dec. 22, 1985, clinching a playoff spot.
“The fans rushed onto the field, and they carried the goalposts out onto Route 1,” Connolly says. “Ten of them got electrocuted.”
Though only five people actually got electrocuted, this did happen. Only in New England.
The Bills can’t maintain their stranglehold on this game forever. Tom Brady hits tight end Aaron Hernandez for 27 yards, then rookie running back Stevan Ridley busts 21 yards down-field. Hudson hasn’t quite written this game off yet, but he’s close.
“We don’t score here, we’re done,” he says. Luckily, BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs it in two plays later to put the Patriots on the board.
Brady’s play-action touchdown to Aaron Hernandez gets the crowd going louder than Green-Ellis’. They know that if the Pats defense can just keep it a one-touchdown game at halftime, the offense should at-least tie the game. Brady is just too prolific a scorer to be held scoreless for an entire half (though that happened last week against Miami, but their pass-rush is way better).
Bill Belichick clearly hasn’t prepared his team well for the starts of games this season. His halftime adjustments, however, have been spectacular.
The Patriots have outscored their opponents in second halves of games this season 283-172, including nearly tripling their opponents in the final eight games (all wins). The Patriots run six drives in the second half against the Bills, scoring in each of the first five, then kneeling to end the sixth and the game.
Hernandez breaks off a 44-yard catch-and-run early in the fourth, setting up Green-Ellis’ second touchdown and a 35-21 lead. People have forgotten that in their rookie seasons, Hernandez caught more balls and racked up more yardage than Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski’s size and strength make him a tough matchup, especially in the end zone, but Hernandez is much faster. And as defenses shift more and more to stop Gronkowski and Wes Welker, Hernandez is going find himself more and more in single-coverage. So far, he’s shown he can succeed against that alignment.
With three minutes left, Brady hits Gronkowski in the end zone. The touchdown – No. 300 – ties Brady with John Elway for fifth-most career TD passes. Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s two touchdowns add to a season-total that’s already broken the NFL record. It’s amazing how much better Gronkowski has gotten in just one season, especially considering off-season training was limited by the lockout.
Defensive coordinators must shit their pants thinking how strong Gronkowski could come back next season.
A late-game 22-yard pass from backup QB Brian Hoyer brings Gronkowski’s season-total to 1,327 yards – also a record for a tight end.
“As long you have Tom Brady, and one of the best wide receivers in the game, [Wes] Welker, and the best tight end in the game [Rob Gronkowski], you’re gonna win games,” says Scott Dinjian, a 34-year-old analyst at Bank of America.
The defense steps up after halftime as well, intercepting Fitzpatrick four times. Fitzpatrick’s first – to Sterling Moore, one of two for the cornerback – gets Will Pitt, a 40-year-old writer for truthout.org, shouting “I don’t believe it! A defensive play!”
Pitt, to be sure, doesn’t like the Patriots defense either.
“The difference between our secondary and cardboard cutouts of our secondary are negligible,” Pitt says.
Pitt blames the Patriots’ toilet-bowl defenders on Belichick, who since the departure of Scott Pioli hasn’t had anyone to help him draft. And as with everyone else I talk to, Pitt isn’t feeling too confident in his team come the playoffs.
“The only reason we’re gonna see the second round of the playoffs is because we have a first-round bye,” Pitt says. “We have the worst pass-defense not just in the league, but in the history of the game.”
Even when the defense plays well, the best defender is actually Tom Brady.
The Patriots beat the Bills, 49-21:
Even without Moore’s second interception, which he returns for a touchdown, that’s the equivalent of six touchdowns. Most teams can’t match that.
Brady’s ruthless offensive efficiency forces opponents to play from behind and call riskier plays. That cripples opposing offenses, often ballooning the Patriots’ score further as Brady keeps getting the ball back, then scoring again.
Pats fans get all that.
“We’re gonna have to do this every time we play in order to get to [Super Bowl site] Indy,” Pitt says after the game. “That’s the only way it’s gonna happen.”