I often criticize the New England Patriots for their play-calling. I argue that they throw the ball too much, and the only reason they usually get away with it is that Brady is so good.

But, as a student of the game, it’s only fair I give them credit where it is due.  And at the end of regulation in Super Bowl LI, with the score tied at 28, they ran one of the most brilliant plays I’ve ever seen.

They pretended like they were just going to take a knee to run out the clock and go to overtime. But instead, they either handed off or direct snapped (I couldn’t tell which) to the running back Dion Lewis, who was lined up close to Brady in standard kneeldown formation.

Brady acted like he took a knee, then rolled out and faked that he had the ball while the rest of the team ran to block for Lewis as he ran down the sideline.

The Falcons ultimately ran Lewis out of bounds, so nothing came of it.  Some fans even criticized the play since Lewis seemingly got injured on the run.

 

Even though it didn’t work,the play was a stroke of genius for two reasons:

  1. There are very few situations where a fake kneeldown makes any sense. Obviously, you usually take a knee when you are about to win,so faking in that case is a needless risk. And no one would ever take a knee when they are trailing. The only other time it would make sense to run such a fake would be at the end of the first half. The fact that the Patriots even bothered to think about and practice such a highly specific play shows why they are so dominant.
  2. The logic is impeccable. It is a low-risk, high-reward play.  The risk is a fumble, which would only be a problem if the other team ran it back for a touchdown, since there wasn’t time for any additional plays to be run.  The odds of that were low, especially since Lewis was careful to stay near the sideline.  On the other hand, the potential reward was winning the Super Bowl.  It was very calculated.

So, well done, Patriots play-callers. Good decision.  Now just learn not to throw the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter, and not to send Tom Brady to throw blocks on reverses, and you’ll really have this football thing mastered.

It’s funny; the Buffalo Bills are my favorite team, and yet I know far less about them than about the New England Patriots. I could probably write a book on the subject of the New England Patriots from 2001 to the present.  Even though Michael Holley already did that.

I have written about New England so much because are always on TV and in the playoffs.  As such, I know their strengths and weaknesses pretty well at this point.  Their strengths are Tom Brady’s ability to read defenses and throw accurate passes, and Belichick’s skill at confusing the opponent with coverages.

Their weaknesses are related to their strengths.  Brady is so good that their offensive game plans tend to rely on him almost exclusively. (Unless they are playing the Colts) They will throw in obvious running situations. Usually, it works. But sometimes it blows up in their faces.  But they keep doing it.  This is what is known as”hubris”.

If you want to beat Brady, you need to do two things: take away his favorite receiver with one defender, and get pressure with four, or better yet, three lineman. Do not blitz him and do not attempt to double cover his favorite receiver, unless it is Gronkowski, but Gronkowski is injured as usual, so he isn’t a factor.

As for the New England defense, you can generally beat Belichick’s defenses by being patient and not going for the big play.  Getting pressure isn’t really a priority for Belichick, so if your quarterback is willing to wait around and go for short passes to second or third receivers, you can move the ball against them. But you are not going to get big plays to your top offensive player.  They won’t let it happen.  So you have to plan to win with somebody else.

Can the Falcons do any of that?

I’m much less familiar with them than with the Patriots. But based on what I’ve seen…

Well, their defense is not great. That bodes ill. But they did manage to shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, so perhaps there is hope.  The Patriots have a much better screen passing game than Green Bay, so I don’t expect a similar performance from Atlanta’s defense. Brady is going to have a good game, and LeGarrette Blount probably will too.

So, ok; maybe Atlanta can win a shootout, then?

Atlanta’s major weapons are wide receiver Julio Jones and their running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.  Jones gets the headlines, but my sense is that the RBs are far more critical to their offense.

I suspect Belichick has noticed this too, and will stifle them much as he did Marshall Faulk, the superstar running back at the core of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” years ago.

In the end, it comes down to that old adage: defense wins championships. Atlanta has the number one scoring offense, New England has the number one scoring defense. The Falcons will still manage some points–but they’ll also probably commit some costly turnovers. So it goes.

NE: 41

ATL: 24

All the criticisms I’ve read of the NFL’s ruling on the deflated football scandal have come from angry Patriots fans.  They’re easy to dismiss, since they have something of a vested interest in seeing the punishment overturned.  But because my two favorite teams are the Bills and the Steelers–the first two teams that will face the Brady-less Pats–I think I can say I’m coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

On the four game suspension for Brady: I was surprised they were that harsh.  I expected at most two games, since it has not even been proven he did anything.  But, if the league wants to take a “the-face-of-the-game-must-be-above-suspicion” stance, I can’t really blame them.  I mean, ever since the Ray Rice disaster, Goodell’s judgment will always be suspect in my eyes, but this is the equivalent of a Performance-Enhancing Drug suspension. Fair enough.

Fining them money and a first-round pick, though–that’s where I think they went overboard. I don’t care what Dave Rappoccio of “The Draw Play” says, this “it was a second offense” justification is ridiculous.

In the spying scandal, everyone agreed that Belichick broke the rules for where videographers were allowed to be placed during a game.  Even he admitted it. As the Patriots head coach, it was legitimate–harsh, but legitimate–to take away a draft pick from the organization, as any decision made by Belichick is effectively a decision made by the New England organization. So, it’s fair to take away a draft pick for that.

But you know what else happened only weeks before the spying controversy?  Then-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for using HGH.  That’s right; the same number of games as Brady has been suspended.  Seems logical.  A player does something to get a competitive advantage, he gets suspended.  The team’s punishment is that they don’t get that player’s services for those games.  This all makes sense.

It wouldn’t have made sense to fine the Patriots for Harrison’s rule-breaking.  Harrison was acting on his own initiative, not on orders from the organization–just as was Brady, according to the report that this is all based upon. He wasn’t doing it at the behest of the organization.  I can’t remember any instance of an organization being punished for a player independently breaking the rules.

This lends credence to the idea that the NFL is trying to punish the Patriots not merely for cheating, but for their success.  This is not as outrageous as it sounds. After all, the NFL draft itself is designed to punish success in the interest of parity.  And it makes sense they would do that–it gives fans hope. (Not that my Bills have exactly taken advantage of it these past 15 years.)

You can’t win for this long without making a lot of enemies. I think the other 31 teams are just sick of seeing the Pats every year, and are resorting to unorthodox means to take them down.

Do I think they broke the rules on football inflation?  Probably the assistants did–whether Brady ordered it or not I don’t know.  I suspect every team does a little rule-bending things like this to gain an edge, but when one team gets too far ahead of the others, the rest use the knowledge that they are doing something against the rules as a convenient way to rein them in.  It is typical cartel behavior. I think we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the NFL. I just hope Buffalo can win at least one championship before it all falls apart.

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Blogger friend P. M. Prescott posted his own thoughts on this scandal. He differs from me in that he favors a stronger punishment for New England.  He also makes the very astute point that other players and the officials should have noticed the footballs were deflated–in which case they should also be punished.

I think it’s interesting that while we differ on how much the Pats should be punished for this, we both think the NFL has mishandled this.  It’s kind of a disaster for the league, as I mentioned in the comments below, because whether the Pats are completely innocent or guilty as sin, the league’s credibility has taken a huge hit.  Personally, it will be hard for me to have as much faith in the legitimacy of everything the league does going forward, because either the best team in football is fraudulent, or the league’s policing/enforcement of its own rules is fraudulent.