It was still a good year

197881.jpg

It was still a good year

By Michael Felger

Ten quick thoughts from a pair of AFC train wrecks this weekend. We'll start with the one in our own backyard.

1. If there is one second-guess above all the others from the Patriots' massive gag against the Jets, it's the deliberate manner in which the Pats played offense in the second half. And their 14-play, 48-yard "drive to nowhere" in the fourth quarter, which took 7 minutes and 40 seconds off the clock, was simply atrocious. Inexcusable. Reprehensible. Pick the word. It epitomized the Pats' choke-job like nothing else.

To refresh, the Pats got the ball at their 18-yard line with 12:55 left in the fourth quarter trailing by 10 points following Santonio Holmes' big touchdown catch. The ensuing play-calling was curious -- seven running plays, down by two scores in the fourth quarter? -- but what was far worse was the pace at which the Pats operated. They huddled. They walked to the line. And worst of all, they whittled down the play clock. They played squarely into the hands of the slow-down Jets.

I counted 11 snaps on the drive where the play clock and game clock were running simultaneously, and this is when the Pats snapped the ball on those 11 plays:

:11, :05, :08, :03, :12, :07, :25; :12, :11, :05, :00.

Again, the Pats were down by two scores in the fourth quarter, and on a 14-play drive they allowed the play clock to get under 10 seconds on six snaps. Four times it was at five seconds or less. Even the normally comatose Jim Nantz had to exclaim at one point, "Doesn't seem like much of an urgent atmosphere." When Nantz, who wouldn't know an opinion if it bit him in the tuchus, calls you out -- that's trouble.

This is on the entire operation, from Bill Belichick to play-caller Bill O'Brien to quarterback Tom Brady. Someone had to realize the situation and press the "go" button. And no one did. When Brady and Branch just missed hooking up on a fourth-and-13 play, the Pats had leaked away half of the most important quarter of their season with nothing to show for it.

Shortening the game at the exact point you should have been lengthening it was a fail of epic proportions. If it wasn't Belichick running the show I'd say it was the result of a coaching staff that had no idea what it's doing.

2. Another thing that bugged me didn't really have a major impact in the final score, but I still think it bears mentioning.

If you're going to "bench" Wes Welker to start the game as punishment for breaking from team protocol, then why are you having him field the opening punt? I mean, how ridiculous. So he was benched on offense but not on special teams? Does that make any sense?

The fact that Welker was benched in the first place -- apparently for joking harmlessly about Rex Ryan's foot fetish on Thursday -- was bad enough. But if you're going to sit a player as a statement . . . then sit him. Having him field that punt was just ass-backwards. I think it's safe to say Brady and his teammates would have much rather seen him suspended from the punt team and not the offense.

Either way, it was an early indication that something was afoul on the Pats' sideline. As in, maybe Belichick should have focused a bit less on what his players were saying at the podium and a bit more on the Jets.

3. Bad call on the fake punt -- and that is not a second-guess. I spit out my coffee when I first saw the ball go back to Pat Chung, before he dropped it and was stopped short of the first down. It was a 7-3 game at that point. Yes, the Pats were struggling, but the Jets were hardly firing on all cylinders. The Pats were set to get the ball to open the third quarter, so the obvious play was to kick the ball away and reload at the half.

A lot of people are saying Chung would have picked up the first down had he just handled the snap -- but I'm not so sure about that. It seemed safety Eric Smith was in there. Regardless, what are you doing snapping to a rookie and asking him to make his first offensive play of the season with your season on the line?

It just felt needlessly desperate, the act of team that needed to trick it up to win. And you could see what Rex Ryan was thinking when it failed: We have them.

4. It's amazing how much worse it could have been. The Jets got no points off Brady's interception to David Harris, thanks in large part to the hustle of Alge Crumpler. And twice in the second half the Pats managed to recover their own fumbles -- on a Brady strip sack in the third quarter and again on a Danny Woodhead cough-up in the fourth -- to avert further damage.

And if Mark Sanchez had been able to find the target a few times early (he was otherwise terrific with a 127.3 rating), the game could have been a blowout.

5. This season was still a success for the Pats. Face it, it was a bridge year. Just look at the way they approached it. Belichick went young on defense, reconfigured the offense and swept out the turds. He threw that up against a brutal schedule, and it turned out the results were better than anyone had a right to expect.

It's obvious the organization has been looking ahead to 2011 for some time. That's when the Pats will have two picks in each of the first three rounds and the Krafts will have their new CBA (we hope). I still think the Pats got their soul back in 2010 and rediscovered what works best for them. The young defense is going to get better. The young skill position players are going to get better. Brady's got another 3-5 years of his prime. The Pats aren't going anywhere.

Obviously, that doesn't take the sting out of Sunday. The Pats had the talent to win it all and were playing at a high level. They should have been in the Super Bowl. There's no excuse for beating a team 45-3 in early December and then losing by seven at home a month later when it matters most.

That's why the bottom line remains the same. This was a choke.

Meanwhile, what an atrocious, annoying football game the Ravens and Steelers played on Saturday. Just a brutal melange of penalties (many of which were justified, some of which were a joke), turnovers and dim situational awareness. Five more thoughts:

1. Someone in Baltimore needs to lose their job after that 58-yard bomb from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie Antonio Brown on THIRD-AND-19 with 2:07 remaining. Roethlisberger admitted after the game the Steelers were treating the play like a glorified punt: just throw it up there, and if it gets picked off so what? All the Ravens had to do was defend deep, and still cornerback Ladarius Webb and safety Dawan Landry let Brown get behind them. Brutal.

Worse, nickel back Haruki Nakamura was flagged for an illegal contact on the other side of the field, which would have given Pittsburgh a first down whether Brown came down with the ball or not. Again, it was THIRD-AND-19. And Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have the nerve to point the finger at the offense after that play?

I'm not kidding. Someone -- a player, a coach, a ball boy, whoever -- needs to be sent packing today.

2. I'm not usually one to focus on officiating as it relates to the outcome of the game -- but there were a pair of calls that were just two crucial to ignore.

The first came with just under six minutes remaining on an apparent punt return for a go-ahead touchdown by Webb, when Steelers cover man Will Allen, realizing his side had lost the play and Webb was going to the house, flopped to the ground with a dive that would have made the Montreal Canadiens proud. Ravens receiver Marcus Smith drew the phony flag -- and the Steelers then held the Ravens to a game-tying field goal. A huge turn.

The second came on the Steelers' ensuing series, when Rashard Mendenhall was stopped short of the goal line on a second-down run with 1:55 remaining. The stop would have set up a third-and-goal and subsequent field goal attempt. Instead, Ravens defensive lineman Terrence Cody was inexplicably called for holding and the Steelers were given a first down. The Ravens were then forced to burn their timeouts and the series resulted in a touchdown. Another huge turn.

3. I'd feel worse for the Ravens if they weren't so pathetic offensively, if they could only throw and catch the football. They still should have had a touchdown following the Smith penalty, but Anquan Boldin dropped a ball in the end zone. And they still could have continued on a potential game-tying drive in the final minute, but TJ Houshmandzadeh dropped a fourth-and-18 pass that hit him right in the hands.

The Steelers are susceptible in the passing game if you can spread them out and throw into the flats. But Baltimore doesn't have the talent or versatility to do it. That's their problem.

4. Apparently no one on either team, aside from Ravens defensive lineman Corey Redding, knows the significance of those little blue bean bags the officials carry on their belts.

In one of the few cases all day in which referee Jeff Triplette and his crew (which called 15 combined, accepted, penalties) did the right thing, the officials rightly swallowed their whistles after an apparent Roethlisberger fumble on a strip sack late in the first quarter. It was a close play (Roethlisberger's arm was just about to go forward when Suggs hit him), but Triplette rightly let it go, throwing his bean bag on the field to signify fumble.

The blue bag was in plain view, resting at the feet of numerous players, and yet no one grasped the meaning of it. Until, that is, Redding stumbled after the ball, picked it up and carried it into the end zone.

5. Newsflash: Joe Flacco is a mediocre quarterback. The numbers were one thing (16-of-30, 125 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 61.1 rating), but his overall presence was another. He basically had none.

When the game needed to be settled down in third quarter, he turned into a puddle. He was sacked twice, threw an interception to set up the Steelers game-tying touchdown and then fumbled the center exchange to set up Pittsburgh's go-ahead score. Again, all in one quarter.

I know Baltimore is mean and nasty. They're a physical team. They still play good defense. But I'll still take my chances against that quarterback any day.

Felger's report card posts Tuesday morning. E-mail him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Blount on free agency: 'I definitely want to go back to New England'

Blount on free agency: 'I definitely want to go back to New England'

LeGarrette Blount knows where he wants to be for 2017. Ever since he re-joined the Patriots in 2014 following a short stay in Pittsburgh, the 250-pound back has been very open about how he wants to play out the rest of his career in New England. 

Those feelings haven't changed, even as he faces free-agency after having recorded the best season of his seven-year career.

"I just want to make sure that I go to this free agency with an open mind, knowing that I definitely want to go back to New England," he told NFL Total Access on Monday. "I love it there. I love the culture. I love the players. I've become close with a lot of the guys. Obviously you know how my running back group is.

"We'll cross that bridge whenever we cross it. On that point, I feel great. I'm in amazing shape. I feel like I could play 100 more years if I have to."

Blount finished 2016 with career-highs in attempts (299) yards (1,161) and touchowns (18). His ability to help the Patriots close games in the fourth quarter was notable throughout the course of the season, and he was among the most effective goal-line backs in the league. His 18 rushing scores are a franchise record.

Toward the end of the season, as Dion Lewis worked his way back into the Patriots offense, Blount had his workload cut into, and his fumble in the Super Bowl was a near-catastrophic moment -- his devastated reaction to which was caught expertly by NFL Films. But a big-picture view of Blount's year would reveal that he  posted the most prodictive "big back" season the Patriots have had in more than a decade.

Blount signed a one-year deal with the Patriots last offseason after seeing his 2015 prematurely ended by way of a hip injury. He turned 30 in December.

Garoppolo's mom keeps him apprised of trade rumors: 'She's all over that stuff'

Garoppolo's mom keeps him apprised of trade rumors: 'She's all over that stuff'

Jimmy Garoppolo can't help but hear trade rumors that involve his name. He heard all about them during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Now his mom's keeping him up to date. 

"My mom loves telling me the news updates," Garoppolo told ESPN's Adam Schefter, "so she’s all over that stuff, but it’s been working really well . . . 

"I’m telling you, she could be your assistant. She’s all over the place. Her and my dad on Twitter and stuff like that. I don’t even think they know how to tweet, but they always have something going on . . .

"They know what to hit me with and what to keep quiet. They know me so well that they know what I’d like to hear and what I don’t need to hear. There’s a couple slip-ups here and there, I’m not going to lie to you, but they’re just so excited about it. It’s an exciting time, and they’re loving it."

Garoppolo tried his best to deflect questions about his future as he prepared for Super Bowl LI, but he could only insulate himself so much from those conversations. After six quarters of well-played football, he's chummed the waters for quarterback-starved franchises. As the draft nears, offers are expected to hit the Gillette Stadium offices, and it will be up to Bill Belichick and his staff to determine whether they should part ways with Tom Brady's backup. 

Schefter asked Garoppolo about one team in particular that could be interested: the Chicago Bears. Their general manager Ryan Pace is an Eastern Illinois alum, like Garoppolo, and Garoppolo is a Chicago-area kid. 

"I get asked about [that possibility] all the time from my friends and family back in Chicago," Garoppolo said. "They’re good reporters, my family. But I keep telling them I really don’t know how it would feel until . . . if it was to happen, I wouldn’t know how I’d feel until it did, you know? So it’s kind of one of those things, it’s hard to say right now."

Garoppolo added: "For the most part I am just trying to stay level-headed, trying not to think about it, over think it too much because at the end of the day I am still under contract. It is not my decision if I get traded or if I don’t, so I am just trying to take it all in stride. At the end of the day, you just have to enjoy it. The NFL, it is a hard place to be, hard place to succeed and when you get an opportunity you have to go and take advantage of it."

The idea of getting an opportunity, though, is an enticing one. Before the 2016 season, Garoppolo was very open about how he looked forward to his opportunity to start with Brady suspended for the first four weeks of the season. And with Schefter, he acknowledged that there are times when it's hard not to be impatient when you're the guy behind the guy.

"There’s times," Garoppolo said. "Obviously the kickoff happens and you are ready to roll. The juices get flowing again. You get the adrenaline, the butterflies. It’s football, you have to love the atmosphere . . . 

"We all play the game. We all want to be out there on the field and get an opportunity to play. I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there is probably the best way to put it. We’re competitors at the end of the day. We want to be out there, I want to be out there competing and playing with my teammates.”