In his post-game interview, Rob Gronkowski said that he was not trying to initiate contact and that he was trying to make a move.
As it had in the Super Bowl two years ago, one yard once again separated the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. This time it was the New England offense – trailing 24-31 – that stood one yard from victory (or at least a tie). It was fourth-and-goal with 14 seconds left. With all of the other receivers aligning to the right of the formation, Gronkowski was all alone on the left side. All alone standing in the end zone waiting for him was Seahawk safety Kam Chancellor. It was, apparently, the match-up that both sides wanted. At the snap, Gronkowski ran straight at the safety. On the second step of his drop-back, quarterback Tom Brady lofted the ball in Gronkowski’s direction.
Chancellor – no novice to this kind of situation – positioned himself exactly at the pivot point of Gronkowski’s route. With no other end zone traffic, Kam was at liberty to firmly hold his ground at the precise point where Rob would have to plant his foot and break toward the corner of the end zone. Chancellor didn’t bite on Gronkowski’s stutter-step, and the two collided in the end zone, both tumbling to the ground.
The pass fell harmlessly in the back of the end zone. None of the officiating crew reached for their flag. And Seattle came away with the victory. The proper call? Debatable. But I think the right result. After replaying this play maybe a couple dozen times, I am left with the feeling that Kam Chancellor just played it extremely well. I could make a pretty good case, I think, for offensive pass interference as Chancellor is entitled to the ground he’s standing on and Gronkowski was colliding with him at the exact moment that Brady was releasing the ball. That, of course, is a moot point as Seattle would have declined the penalty had it been called.
That play, and the goal line stand that had preceded it, provided a fitting ending for the marquee matchup of Week Ten – and particularly the marquee matchup within the matchup: the New England offense vs the Seattle defense.
The Goal-Line Stand
Twenty-nine football seconds earlier, the Patriots broke huddle with a first-and-goal on the two yard-line. A quarterback sneak gained one of those yards. Then the sequence got curious.
On second down they handed the ball to hammer-back LeGarrette Blount who – I’m not sure why – tried to leap over the pile for the touchdown. The defensive surge – led, again, by Chancellor – held Blount out of the end zone by about the width of the lace on the ball. It’s significant that Blount tried to leap over the pile. From that same one-yard line in the waning moments of the first half, Blount bulled his way into the end zone carrying about half of the Seattle defense with him. When he stays on the ground, LeGarrette runs with significant leverage. His leap in that situation may have done the Patriots a favor.
Now it was third down and New England went back to that almost unstoppable Brady sneak. But they messed it up. Brady leaned left while his offensive line was thinking he would plow straight ahead. The ball was jarred out of Brady’s hands, rolling free on the two-yard line for an agonizing second before Brady fell on it. An ensuing penalty on Seattle (for too many men on the field) moved the ball back to the one and set up the fourth-down drama.
New England’s Resurgence
In the four games since Brady returned from his suspension, the Patriot offense had averaged 34 points per game, scoring at least 27 in all of them. They also averaged 414 yards per game in as unstoppable a display of offense as the league has recently witnessed. This year’s Patriots had re-discovered offensive balance, as they came into the Seattle contest ranked eighth in the NFL averaging 116.4 rushing yards per game.
As to Brady and the passing attack, Tom came into the game completing 73.1% of his passes (98 of 134) for 1319 yards (9.84 yards per pass and 13.5 yards per completion). In four games, Brady had thrown for 12 touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating was 133.9.
As for Seattle, the highly regarded Seahawk defense had taken on some water lately. Through the first four games of the season, Seattle had allowed just 54 points (an average of 13.5 a game) and 1056 yards (an average of 264 a game). Opposing offenses had managed just 64.2 rushing yards a game against them, while opposing passers rated just 65.6 against them. While these numbers were impressive, it’s worth pointing out that they were achieved against struggling offenses in Miami (before Jay Ajayi), Los Angeles, San Francisco and the New York Jets. Hardly fair fights.
Over the next four weeks, Seattle was challenged by a set of better offenses in Atlanta, Arizona, New Orleans and Buffalo and looked a little more human, allowing 20 points and 401 yards per contest. Of particular interest was the Seahawk run defense, which came into last Sunday’s contest having allowed 417 rush yards over its previous three games, including 162 to Buffalo the week before. They seemed like teams headed in different directions.
But Sunday night in Foxboro the Seahawk run defense made a significant return to form, holding the Patriots to 81 rushing yards on 2.9 yards an attempt and reducing the contest to Brady and his receivers vs the “Legion of Boom.”
Seattle’s defense plays more zone defense than, I think, is generally recognized. But it’s not their strength. The Patriots saw mostly man coverage, with Richard Sherman mostly on Danny Amendola (who managed 1 catch for 14 yards) and Chancellor usually on Gronkowski. The problem here, though, is that the Patriots present more matchup problems than this. Covering the “other” tight end (Martellus Bennett) was an issue (he finished with 7 catches for 102 yards). And then there is the mercurial Julian Edelman (who finished with 7 more catches for 99 yards).
The Seattle defense prospered most in the first half when they got some pressure around the edges, forcing Brady to throw on the run (not his strength). He finished the half 11 of 16 for just 111 yards, no touchdowns and his first interception of the season (an ugly affair where Tom scrambled around to his right, then scampered back into the collapsing remains of his pocket and flung a desperate pass to a double-covered Malcolm Mitchell). Brady ended the first half with a 62.2 rating.
The second half was a different story. With better protection and finding ways to get and exploit the matchups he wanted, Tom completed 12 of his last 16 passes for 205 yards. His second half rating was a much more Brady-like 116.7. The principle targets of the second half were Bennett (who caught all 3 passes thrown to him in the half for 59 yards) and Edelman (who caught all 5 passes thrown to him for 88 yards). Brady also found Gronkowski in man coverage down the sideline against DeShawn Shead. That play resulted in the 26-yard pass that set up the game ending goal-line stand at the two.
After sixty vigorous minutes, the Patriot offense and the Seahawk defense both had their moments. New England survived two turnovers and two sacks to finish with 385 yards and 24 points. They didn’t prevail because of a couple of clutch defensive plays and the efforts of the other quarterback in this contest – Russell Wilson.
Wilson is back – in case you hadn’t heard. The Patriots entered the contest among the best pass defenses in the league with a passer rating against of 84.9. But they had no answer for Mr. Wilson who exploited both man and zone coverages all night. Sitting in the pocket when convenient and scampering out of trouble when needed, Wilson finished 25 of 37 (67.6%) for 348 yards (9.41 per attempt and 13.92 per completion). Against a pass defense that had allowed only 9 touchdown passes in 8 games, Russell Wilson added 3 more without throwing an interception – a 124.6 rating.
The Week-to-Week NFL
The NFL is referred to over and over as a “week-to-week” league. What this means is that the level of parity is such that most teams consistency is a week-to-week adventure. This is true almost everywhere in the NFL. It is not true in Seattle and New England. These are two model franchises that have risen above the relative mediocrity of the league. With the health or availability of their franchise quarterbacks as the only notable variable, the Seahawks and Patriots, week in and week out, fight every game down to the very last yard. This is one of a handful of pairings that are legitimate Super Bowl possibilities. There are other top teams (like Dallas) that are in the mix, but a rematch for these two clubs in February is not at all unfathomable. With two teams that fear each other not at all, it should be a pretty good game – if it happens.
The Cowboys Prevail
Speaking of Dallas, for the second time in three weeks, the Cowboys won a “moxie” game. Earlier in the season, Dallas opened up significant early leads and cruised to relatively easy victories. In recent games against Philadelphia (three weeks ago) and Pittsburgh (last week) the Cowboys met with more adversity than before. The Eagles led by ten early in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers – playing at home – took a lead with 42 seconds left in the game. These are games that most teams lose. The Cowboys just keep winning (eight in a row, now).
Against the Steelers, Dallas had only 42 rushing yards at the half. They outrushed Pittsburgh 85 to 2 after the intermission. Ezekiel Elliott accounted for almost as many rushing yards on his last carry (a 32-yard touchdown sprint) as the 48 rushing yards that Pittsburgh managed all day.
That being said, both the Eagles and Steelers exposed some defensive weaknesses in the Cowboys. This may be the weakness that separates them from the Seahawks.
So Do the Eagles
And speaking of the Eagles, the first number that jumps out of their 24-15 win over Atlanta is their 208 rushing yards. These were achieved against a Falcon defense that had ranked seventh against the run coming into the game, allowing just 91.6 yards per contest.
Philadelphia is one of those teams that epitomizes the week-to-week nature of the NFL. Having surpassed 100 rushing yards only once in the previous four weeks they suddenly blow through one of the better run defenses in the league. The Eagles have had some impressive wins over some good teams (Pittsburgh, Minnesota and now Atlanta), and all four of their losses have been close losses on the road against over .500 teams (24-23 in Detroit against the 5-4 Lions; 27-20 in Washington against the 5-3-1 Redskins; 29-23 in overtime in Dallas against the 8-1 Cowboys; and 28-23 in New York against the 6-3 Giants). They have played a very strong schedule and look like a team that can compete with almost anybody.
But the second number that jumps put from this game is Atlanta’s rushing totals: 13 rushes 48 yards for the game. Although in the second half they never trailed by more than 6 points until the last two minutes, they still ran the ball only 5 times in the half. Granted they miss injured running back Tevin Coleman, but still the Falcon offense came into the game ranked number two in yardage and number one in points yes because of Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, but also because they could balance that passing attack with a top-ten running game that had averaged 114.2 yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush. Losing that balance helped Philadelphia unravel the Atlanta passing attack. Ryan was only 7 for 18 in the second half.
A Tale of Two Brees’
The blocked extra-point that turned into a 2-point play for Denver in their 25-23 win over New Orleans overshadowed one of the better second-half passing performances you are likely to see for a while and one of the most surprising turnarounds. After a dismal first half in which he completed only 8 of 14 passes for 109 yards and 2 interceptions, Drew Brees stung the elite Denver defense to the tune of 13 of 15 in the second half for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception. And almost a victory.