Socci’s 3-and-out: Pats begin critical stretch with the only game that matters, for now
November 18th, 2022
Three weeks ago the Patriots harassed Zach Wilson, sacking him twice and forcing three interceptions. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
This Sunday the Patriots play their 10th game overall in the 11th week of the 2022 NFL schedule and first of three contests in a span of 12 days. It’s also their last one before the season really, truly begins, according to the calendar head coach Bill Belichick has kept in the past.
“Football season starts after Thanksgiving.”
Those words have formed Belichick’s annual Foxborough refrain oft-repeated by players, most notably the ex-quarterback whose performance usually didn’t peak until February.
For most of the century’s first two decades, the Pats had a head start into the holidays. If sluggish in September, they shook it off by mid-October. Come mid-November they stood atop the AFC East as a conference elite.
Occasionally, there were exceptions such as the 2015 edition that lost four of six to end the regular season. Although that team still managed to reach an AFC Championship Game that wasn’t decided until a failed two-point try in the final seconds.
The last three years, as new players have come and many ‘old’ stalwarts have gone, the Pats have failed to play their best at a time when the games have mattered most.
In 2019, they were 10-1 as November concluded, following narrow wins over Philadelphia and Dallas, but went 2-4 in the final six weeks, including a Wild Card loss to Tennessee.
On this date in 2020, the first post-Tom Brady iteration of Patriots were 4-5. They finished out of the playoffs with a 7-9 record that included three straight December defeats.
This time last year, the Pats were riding a seven-game winning streak that was enough to propel them into a playoff spot. But four losses in the last five games, including another Wild Card loss, left a bitter taste at the end of what should have been a season of youthful promise for the future.
Now they are 5-4 after getting a ‘must win’ over the Jets two weeks ago in the Meadowlands and routing the Colts at home before their bye week.
Seen from the start of the fall, the Patriots rebounded to win four of five after losing three of their first four. Viewed from where they sit in the standings, fourth place, the Pats are looking up at their three AFC East rivals who represent four of their final eight opponents.
The first of those intra-division encounters is Sunday’s rematch with New York. No different than their last meeting, it’s about as much of a ‘got-to-have-it’ game as one gets this time of year. Awaiting on the other side is a short-week, road game at 8-1 Minnesota and a second straight Thursday nighter vs. the Bills, who outscored the Patriots, 80-38, the last two times they met.
Within the division they dominated from 2001-19, capturing 17 titles in 19 seasons, the Pats are 7-7 since 2020. Five of those victories are part of their current 13-game series winning streak over a Jets squad still lamenting the lost opportunity to take a 14-point lead three weeks ago.
If not for John Franklin-Myers’ roughing-the-passer penalty nullifying a ‘pick-6’ by cornerback Michael Carter, New York would have led the Patriots, 16-3, pending a PAT try in the final half-minute of the second quarter.
Instead, the halftime difference was, 10-6, thanks to a first-half ending field goal by Nick Folk, set up by the first of Zach Wilson’s three interceptions as New York’s quarterback. His other two picks thrown led to another Folk field goal.
That’s three errant throws by Wilson leading to two Patriots’ scores — six points in a five-point outcome, 22-17.
“If we had the pick-six before halftime, we blow them out,’’ Jets safety Jordan Whitehead said afterward, according to the New York Post.
“New England has been that way forever,’’ said New York head coach Robert Saleh earlier this week. “You walk away and you’re like, ‘Man, if we just don’t do this…’
“(The Patriots) do it all the time. They force you into mistakes. They force you into shooting yourself in the foot.”
Given that the Pats welcome back center David Andrews, who didn’t make the trip to New Jersey due to a concussion, and considering that Mac Jones played turnover-free vs. Indy prior to a bye week allowing him time for a “full audit,” one should expect a better offensive performance this time around.
Then again, it’s unlikely they’ll enjoy anything similar to the advantage they had in field position in Round 1. The Patriots’ average drive began at their 43-yard line, including six possessions originating in Jets’ territory. New York’s average series began at its 20-yard line.
Plus, one would have to think Jets offensive coordinator Mike LeFleur will try to call a game that assigns Wilson more handoffs and fewer drop-backs (see below).
What figures to unfold on Sunday is something akin to what we witnessed in Week 8. Fewest mistakes should equal most points. The only way to be the team with less and more, respectively, is to move on from the past and refrain from thinking about the two future dates in the next two weeks.
“What happened last year is obviously not going to have any bearing on this team and what happens this year,” Pats co-captain Matthew Slater recently replied when asked about the late-season struggles of 2021. “Last year it was what it was. If anything the guys that are here (now) need to realize the urgency with which we need to approach each day.”
“I’m a one-game-at-a-time kind of person,” said linebacker and fellow co-captain Ja’Whaun Bentley. “I’m focused on this game. I’m not even trying to talk about the next few. I’m more concerned about this one.”
Running back James Robinson made his Jets debut with just five carries vs. the Pats, before rushing 13 times vs. Buffalo. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
As the Patriots’ best run-stunting, run-stuffing linebacker, Bentley is likely to be busier this Sunday compared to the previous matchup with New York, which ran the ball only 15 times in Week 8.
While beating Buffalo, 20-17, the following Sunday, the Jets rushed 34 times and tried to pass just 27 times. In fact, when they gained possession at their 4-yard line with 7:53 remaining in a 17-17 tie, they didn’t look to throw until a 3rd-and-5 on the ninth play of their go-ahead drive.
Eight straight running plays devoured 5 minutes, 45 seconds and covered 78 yards. Three carries by James Robinson gained 32 yards. Michael Carter took the next three handoffs for 36 yards. Five yards of an offsides penalty and two more Robinson runs worth five yards put New York at Buffalo’s 18-yard line with 2:08 to go.
Wilson then completed a 6-yard pass to Denzel Mims, allowing the Jets to take the clock to the 1:45 mark, forcing the Bills to use all three timeouts, before Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning 28-yard field goal.
Carter and Robinson combined for 25 attempts totaling 124 yards. Opposite the Pats, a week after leading rusher Breece Hall’s season-ending injury and Robinson’s trade from Jacksonville, the newly-acquired back carried just five times for 17 yards. Carter had seven rushes for 26 yards.
“They obviously were trying to figure out a way to use their backs once Breece went out,” Patriots safeties coach Brian Belichick said on Tuesday, before complimenting the trio of Robinson, Carter and situational back Ty Johnson.
Acquiring Robinson to fill in for Hall should prove to be a good get by Jets general manager Joe Douglas.
Robinson originally signed with the Jaguars following the 2020 Draft and a four-year career at FCS member Illinois State culminating with a standout showing in the East-West Shrine Bowl. Upon making Jacksonville’s roster, he made history.
In his NFL debut vs. the Colts, Robinson’s 90 yards from scrimmage were the most ever by an undrafted rookie running back in a Week 1 contest. He continued by becoming the fourth undrafted rookie to rush for 1,000 yards, reaching the milestone in 13 games, sooner than any of his three predecessors.
Patriots defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale was a teammate in 2020. Ekuale joined the Jags initially as a practice-squad member squaring off with Robinson daily.
“He’s a guy that runs hard. He’s a big back and we know what to expect from those kinds of backs, they run downhill,” Ekuale says. “He runs hard. Every time he’s in the game we expect him to run, but don’t get me wrong, they can throw the ball to him too.
“He’s a very good kid. He works hard. You couldn’t ask for anything more as a back when I was with him in Jacksonville. They loved him over there.”
A lefty in relief?
Michael Palardy punted for the Dolphins in 2021. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Punter Michael Palardy was signed to the Patriots practice squad on Nov. 1, just in time for rookie returner Marcus Jones get acclimated to handling the kind of left-footed kicks he’d soon be seeing from the Colts’ Matt Haack.
On Sunday, the Jets’ return man, Braxton Berrios, may be the one trying to catch Parlardy’s punts. Regular Jake Bailey is listed as “doubtful” on the the Pats’ end-of-week practice report because of a back injury.
Before his recent signing, Palardy was no stranger to head coach Bill Belichick. He broke into the NFL with Carolina in 2016 and punted for the Panthers through 2019. In that span, he punted against the Patriots in the 2017 regular season and 2018-19 preseasons.
Palardy’s eight punts in the 2019 exhibition at Gillette Stadium averaged 51.9 yards. Three pinned the Pats inside their 20-yard line. The longest traveled 62 yards.
In 2021, Palardy joined Miami, unseating none other than incumbent Haack. In two games against New England he averaged 44.9 yards on eight punts. He was especially effective in Week 18, recording a 47.3 net average in the Dolphins’ 33-24 victory. Palardy also faked a punt with a one-yard run that drew a personal foul on Brandon Bolden to prolong a second-quarter drive.
Asked about Palardy by ESPN’s Mike Reiss on Friday morning, Belichick mentioned Palardy’s athleticism as a former high school quarterback during his freshman and sophomore years at South Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, Palardy was beaten out at QB by future Detroit Lion Jake Rudock.
As a member of the Panthers, Palardy attempted two passes. His lone completion for 12 yards to DeAndrew White picked up a first down at the Colts in 2019.
One last (foot) note regarding Palardy: he punted and served as the place kicker at the University of Tennessee. His career-long field goal was a 52-yarder as a sophomore at then 2nd-ranked Alabama in 2013.
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.