By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Last week we talked about The Art of War. The Patriots dynasty perfected a different kind of art: the art of pulling a win out of your ass.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady amassed some impressive blowouts on the 249-75 combined record they put together over 19 seasons. But among all those wins (219 regular season, 30 playoffs) are many that came within minutes of slipping away. Brady and Belichick’s true genius came on the days that the Patriots weren’t at their best, but as the game hung by a thread, they pulled the rug out.
Take Week 6, 2011 season. Remember that one? It’s OK if you don’t. The Dallas Cowboys had intercepted Brady twice and were under three minutes away from scoring the rare Gillette upset. The first 57 minutes weren’t pretty for the Patriots offense, but Belichick managed the fourth quarter just enough to hand Brady the ball with a chance to close. You may remember what happened now.
Brady went 8-for-9, hitting Aaron Hernandez in the end zone to finish off a 20-16 win. He drove them 80 yards in 2:04. He surgically removed the hearts of Cowboys fans in a way as nondescript and forgettable as the game itself. But that just speaks to Brady’s greatness in those situations.
Belichick has pulled off similar feats. Remember the Malcolm Butler Super Bowl? No, the one where he undercut the route? That was Belichick having his guys more prepared for that moment than Pete Carroll. Butler is forever a Patriots legend for that play alone, but it doesn’t happen without the team’s Belichickian level of preparation and situational awareness.
So the coach is capable of having his team prepared for those moments. The question, now, is Cam Newton. Belichick will almost certainly end up in situations where Newton gets the ball with a chance to win at the end of the game.
What happens? Newton may play his ass off in a system devised by Belichick and Josh McDaniels. But his execution in high-pressure moments will define his season. Newton seems to have the right mindset for that kind of moment, when it arises.
“I don’t think there’s pressure, it’s just do your job, and I’m planning on doing mine,” said Newton, when asked if he feels pressure as Brady’s immediate successor. “I know on opening day [Brady’s] not going to be worried about little old me, and I know on opening day I have other things to be focused on rather than who was here before me.”
Intangibles are a pointless debate. It’s too hard to quantify clutch. You either come through or you don’t. But if Belichick and Newton both have a deep understanding of the situation and how to execute the gameplan, then they’re in good position to pull out a tight one.
Much of Belichick and Brady’s greatness was about their ability to find ways to win the clunkers. Belichick and Newton may have a few blowouts in them this season, but the most fascinating moments will come in the close ones, after the two-minute warning.
N’Keal Ignores The Noise
After a rocky first year in the NFL, in one of the country’s more unforgiving sports markets, N’Keal Harry should simply ignore the noise. The Patriots second-year wide receiver knows better. He learned a long time ago from a special person in his life that it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
“No, I’m not worried about all the noise,” Harry said Friday. “Every day I come into this building, I’m worried about getting better and becoming the best player I can be and the best man I can be. I’m not worried about all the noise, it doesn’t matter. You can’t please everyone in this world, and I’m aware of that. My grandmother has taught me that.
“All the outside noise is something that really never fazed me and really never has fazed me, whether it’s good hype or bad hype, I’m going to stay N’Keal. I’ll stay the same person.”
Harry has yet to prove he can stay on the field for a full season, let alone produce like a first-round pick. But it’s been one damn year. He’ll have his share of detractors until he takes a big step forward, but the key is simply worrying about himself and not what’s said outside of the Gillette Stadium walls.
Who Plays The Chung Roles?
That’s roles, plural. Bill Belichick notably said once about Patrick Chung that you couldn’t replace him with just one player. So a major question for the 2020 Patriots defense, one that may have to rely more on younger players than Belichick typically prefers, is how they adapt without perhaps the most versatile player on the unit.
Veteran free-agent signing Adrian Phillips appears to be a logical choice as a box safety. Phillips feels like an acquisition geared toward Lamar Jackson. He was a terror in the 2018 Wild Card round as he intercepted Jackson, broke up three passes, made six tackles, and recovered a fumble. But Phillips may not be able to cover the many big, dynamic tight ends on the schedule (and Aqib Talib isn’t available). That task may end up in the hands of 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams.
What if the Pats need another guy in the slot after Jonathan Jones? There’s no obvious candidate. Bright side, the secondary is the least of the Patriots’ concerns on the 2020 roster. But replacing Chung is complicated. This is something to monitor as 2020 progresses.
The New Blind Side
Isaiah Wynn has a clean bill of health and a firmly entrenched starting role at left tackle. And like the rest of the offensive line, he has a new challenge ahead of him in terms of who he’s protecting. What’s the key to keeping opponents away from Newton, who’s known for mobility and escaping the pocket exponentially more than Brady?
“Just doing my job, staying inside-out and blocking whoever’s in front of me,” Wynn said. “Just got to protect him, the quarterback, Cam.”
“Inside-out” is the key term. Protecting the full width of the field is key with Newton, who will improvise and take off more often. Wynn’s athleticism and footwork could make him an asset in the running game and as an open-field blocker for a scampering Newton, as well.
Listen below as Alex Barth and I preview the 2020 season for the Patriots (and Tom Brady’s Bucs), as well as Week 1 between the Pats and Dolphins.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at email@example.com.