The first back-to-back December Patriots losses since 2002 have a way of sparking questions about anything and everything, even how a Hall of Fame coach determines personnel on Hail Mary coverage and how his Hall of Fame quarterback decides to pilot a potential game-saving drive.
Bill Belichick was as usual disinterested with looking back on his weekly conference call, but did offer some more grist regarding the thin ice his Patriots are on if they’re to earn a ninth straight first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. That bye figures to be important as ever with the streaking (and physical) Colts, the run-heavy Ravens and the Titans — Patriot conquerors barely a month ago — looming as potential visitors to Foxborough for a wild-card round game.
“It’s a bottom-line business,” Belichick told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ve lost two games on the last play of the game. It’s not good enough. Hopefully, we can do things better and have different results. I think we’re definitely getting better as a team.”
Belichick made clear he’s looking forward, deep in preparation for Sunday’s home game against Buffalo which figures to finally lock up a 10th-straight AFC East title and a 16th-straight 10-win season. He did, however, entertain some leftover what-ifs from last Sunday’s 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh.
Tom Brady got the Patriots to the Steelers’ 11-yard line with 37 seconds to go, hitting James White on three straight passes after his 34-yard completion to Julian Edelman got the team across midfield. Overtime felt close, as did a win at Heinz Field for the third straight season and a major blow to the Steelers’ playoff hopes.
Yet those were Brady’s last completions. Facing 2nd-and-15 from the 21 after Shaq Mason’s holding penalty, Brady threw three balls toward the end zone. All were too high and the hand-wringing was on.
Belichick was asked specifically on Tuesday about third down, when four wideouts streaked into the end zone and safety-valve White leaked open in the left flat. The latter was an easy completion who at the least would’ve made fourth down more manageable (and likely could have gotten out of bounds to stop the clock), but Brady never looked in his direction.
Belichick, after making clear “the ball is not supposed to go to anybody … we’re going to try to do what’s best on the play,” expressed faith in his quarterback’s decision-making.
“I would certainly not second-guess his judgment, which given the game situation and the time and all of the things that went into that play, he made the best decision that he thought he could make at that time,” Belichick said. “If we complete a pass and the clock’s running and how much time that’s going to take and what we have left, that’s a split-second decision that he’s got to make. I don’t think anybody will make it better than him.”
Critical losses beget second guesses, and these last two certainly are no different. Josh Gordon got just two targets against the Steelers despite playing all but five offensive snaps. One was that final fourth down, but Josh McDaniels told reporters in his Tuesday call that Cordarrelle Patterson got the nod simply because he was fresher that Gordon, who’d “run quite a few plays in a row.”
White’s felt a bit of a squeeze since Rex Burkhead’s return at the start of December, but remains a big part of the passing attack — White has 20 targets the last three games and was second only to Edelman against the Steelers — and McDaniels didn’t express much concern about balancing between the two.
“The more he touches it, the more we can get it to him, we usually feel very good about those opportunities,” he said of White. “Again, sometimes there are other things that determine whether we can or can’t get it to him and there’s usually – other than screen passes or run plays – there’s usually other things available on the play.”
Brady chose the other on that third down, leaving Patriots fans to wonder how it all could’ve gone different, and to cheer for the Eagles against Houston on Sunday to give their team another shot at a free weekend to open the playoffs.
Also on the call, Belichick had plenty of praise for cornerback J.C. Jackson, whose acrobatic breakup on JuJu Smith-Schuster on Pittsburgh’s final scoring drive was the only reason the Patriots had a chance on that final drive.
“J.C.’s been playing against good players every week,” Belichick said. “He’s just played a little better each time he goes out on the field, takes advantage of his opportunities and just continues to get a little bit better. He’s had some opportunities to play in games and has taken advantage of some of those opportunities with playing in third down or some substitute defensive situations and that grew a little bit.”
“J.C.’s done a great job of continuing to work to get better,” cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer added in his call. “I think there’s a comfort level of him understanding what we’re asking him to do and then doing that at a better level. So, I think over time, there’s been a steady improvement of that.”