Five takeaways from a 26-10 Patriots victory that makes Tom Brady the winningest quarterback in NFL history and gives New England a three-game lead in the division and the battle for a first-round bye with four games left to play:
1. BRADY SETS THE RECORD
In these parts, most probably didn’t need the record book to tell them Brady is the best winner in football history, but as he resets the NFL record for wins by a quarterback it’s worth stepping back and appreciating that achievement by putting that record in its proper perspective.
There are many metrics that would facilitate that, including the one that Brady broke Peyton Manning’s record in 31 fewer starts – or practically the equivalent of two full seasons. But perhaps most impressive is the brute arithmetic. Discounting the 2007 season in which he played just one game, he’s posted 201 wins over 15 seasons. That’s an average of 13.4 per campaign. Since Brady took over the Patriots in 2001, only 23 teams outside of Foxborough have managed 13 wins in any single season, and 17 franchises haven’t reached that mark even once.
Here’s another one: Brady’s legend effectively began against the Rams, in Super Bowl XXXVI. That franchise’s last 201 wins date back to the middle of the 1987 season. That span encompasses a move from Los Angeles to St. Louis, then a move back to Los Angeles – despite at one point reaching the Super Bowl twice in three years, and the playoffs in five of six. There’s a reason Brady’s record is unlikely to ever be broken.
2. FORGET THE IDEA OF SITTING BRADY
After a knee injury seemed to be hobbling Brady against the Jets, there was some discussion over the sports radio waves this week about whether the Patriots may want to rest their starting quarterback at some point as a means of long-sighted preservation. Sunday’s opening drive then lent credibility to the notion the Pats may look to protect Brady, as the club leaned heavily on the run and short passing game even before LeGarrette Blount busted off a 43-yard scamper to paydirt.
But the fourth quarter suggested it’s time to let go of that idea. Leading 26-3 with less than five minutes to play, the Patriots threw the ball on four consecutive downs – including second-and-2 and first-and-10. So not only did the Pats look to limit their quarterback’s activity on the day. And not only did they pass on a chance to get Jimmy Garoppolo into a game that was effectively a blowout by the start of the fourth quarter. They also kept throwing when the outcome was decided and there was little to gain other than Rob Gronkowski-absent repetitions.
And from here it’s hard to see where they might sit Brady. Next week’s game against the Ravens should be highly contested. Then the Patriots host a Jets team that led the Pats down the stretch last week between difficult trips to Denver and Miami that could have playoff seeding implications for New England. The final quarter of the season is tough enough that if Brady isn’t on the field from here forward, it’s probably more indicative of a problem than a protective luxury.
3. NICE AND EASY … AS IT SHOULD’VE BEEN
After needing to grind out a couple of tougher-than-anticipated road wins against sub-.500 teams, the Patriots found themselves in a game that they should have made look like an easy win. And they did.
With a 16-point win, the Patriots’ stretched their season-long scoring margin to plus-112. And while no other AFC team began the week with a margin better than plus-57 (Denver), New England’s path to 10-2 has prompted some questions about just how good this team really is. Beating the 4-8 Rams and limiting a rookie quarterback leading one of the league’s worst offenses isn’t exactly a litmus test, if nothing else the club does deserve credit for taking care of business. The defense forced a couple of turnovers, Jabaal Sheard played well as he works his way back into a regular role, his linemates pressured Jared Goff persistently, and the secondary did its part in limiting Los Angeles to 25 yards from scrimmage in the first half.
The Pats have taken heat for making bad quarterbacks look good. In turn, they deserve acknowledging for making a bad offense look bad on Sunday.
4. IT’S AMENDOLA SEASON
The stat line was modest, per usual, showing Danny Amendola with three catches for 30 yards. But with three of his four targets coming on third down – including a couple of conversions – came a reminder that while Amendola spends most of the season as something of an afterthought on the Patriots’ list of weapons, come December and January the trust of his quarterback tends to turn him into more of a primary option.
From 2013-15, Amendola averaged 4.3 catches and 6.5 targets in December – compared to 2.8 catches on 3.9 targets in regular season games played the rest of the year. In the final month of the calendar, his 52 catches trailed only Julian Edelman (59), and were 14 more than any other Pats pass catcher over those three years. And that says nothing of the way Amendola has stepped up in the postseason, which was highlighted by his three touchdowns en route to New England’s Super Bowl XLIX title.
Amendola is so trusted by Brady in big spots that his two third-down conversions were his 10th and 11th of the season. He’s made only 23 catches in total, and only 13 AFC receivers began the week with more. His day eventually ended with an ankle injury incurred while fielding a punt. An injury that didn’t appear to be too serious – but could be a significant concern, at this time of year, if it lingers.
5. GOSTKOWSKI, JONES, AND CONFIDENCE
The pressure off, Stephen Gostkowski drilled all six of his kicks Sunday, including field goals of 28, 48, 45 and 45 yards. The team continues to say his confidence hasn’t been shaken, but after Bill Belichick passed up a try well within Gostkowski’s range last week in favor of trying to convert on fourth down, Sunday’sperformance should be a start toward restoring faith in the field goal operation.
On the flip side, though, Cyrus Jones dropped another ball in the process of attempting to return a kick (which Pat Chung recovered), and at this point there’s no reason Belichick should be entrusting the rookie with running back a punt or kickoff in any sort of meaningful circumstance the rest of the season. He now has 10 returns on the season, and has been charged with four fumbles in addition to a couple other less-quantifiable mistakes in judgment.
Remember, it was a fumbled punt from depth receiver Chris Harper that kickstarted the Broncos’ comeback late in the loss that cost the Patriots home-field advantage last season. By giving Jones opportunities to work through his issues in game action, the Pats are just putting themselves at risk of a similarly costly gaffe.