I don't know if I've ever been this unhappy to be right, but I nailed this game back in August
. As I went through the schedule, predicting the outcome game by game, I defied conventional logic and pegged this trip to Cleveland as a loss. All the classic signs of a meltdown were there. A big Halloween Night game vs. the Vikings and an intimidating trip to Pittburgh were sandwiching what appeared to be a throw-away game against the lowly Browns. The only problem is that there's no such thing as a "throw-away" game in the NFL. The second you start underestimating your opponent is the second that they put a notch in your loss column. Adding danger to the trap was the fact that this was a road game, Cleveland would be coming off a bye week, and that Mangini would be gunning for Belichick. Throw in the perfect storm of New England holding the league's best record and the ensuing week-long love-fest to give the Patriots' youngsters a healthy dose of overconfidence, and disaster was waiting to strike.
Little did we know that Disaster was wearing the #87 jersey...
I'm having a hard time remembering the last Patriots player to conduct such a massive sabotage on his team's ability to win a game, as the one Rob Gronkowski pulled today. Before New England even got their hands on the ball, Gronkowski managed to screw things up by signaling for a fair catch when he was in no position to return the kickoff. This clearly threw off Sammy Morris, who fumbled the return, leading to a 10-0 Cleveland lead mere minutes into the game. Still with 50+ minutes left to go, the Pats had plenty of time to close the gap. After a fairly miserable first half, it appeared the Patriots were about to do so. They made a big drive down the field and were about to go into the locker room down only three, 14-17, when Gronkowski fumbled just a few feet from the goal line. Those two plays led to a 14-point swing in Cleveland's favor as a direct result of some bone-headed moves by Big Rob Gronk. Needless to say, the rookie has earned a permanent spot in my dog house until he comes up with some big redeeming play.Rob Gronkowski's perfomance on Sunday was worse than Michael Bolton's jive.
However, as much as I'd like to place the blame on a single player and chalk this game up as an aberration, this loss was clearly a team effort. The Patriots came out completely flat. In a game where the only way they could lose was to get caught off guard by trick plays and turn the ball over, they did exactly that. There was absolutely no sense of urgency. It was nearly reminiscent of the "Wildcat" game against Miami two years ago, where the team appeared to get confused, frustrated, and just give up. That 10-point giveaway at the start of the game seemed to deflate the team and lead only to further sloppy play. I can't say there was a single aspect of the game in which the Patriots functioned well. Even their normally stout run defense was abysmal this afternoon, as they allowed Peyton Hillis to run over them like he was Walter Payton.
Of course, adding insult to injury was the Lions' collapse to the Jets. Had the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins all lost this week, the only real damage from this Browns game would have been potential first-round-bye positioning. I swear, the Jets are the luckiest team going. The thing is, they aren't winning games by being "lucky" the way the Patriots were lucky back in the day. The Patriots were "lucky" because they made big plays and capitalized on other teams' mistakes. The Jets, on the other hand, are lucking out because of bogus pass interference calls and because they injure the team's opposing kicker, forcing their rookie defensive lineman to kick field goals. It's garbage, and eventually, that luck is going to run out.
But getting back to the Patriots...
It's easy to get all up in arms and say the sky is falling. This was about as ugly of a loss as you can get. However, Pats fans, before we get too bent out of shape, remember this: The 2003 Patriots laid some pretty bad stink bombs themselves. So did the 2004 team. Even the best teams have off weeks. Realistically, as high as I was on the Patriots heading into this game, this was not a 15-1 team. The losses were going to come, and, honestly, I'd rather they come during a freak game on the road against a team with no playoff hopes, than in some of the bigger battles we've had this season against Miami, Baltimore, and San Diego. If this loss does nothing else, it served a nice big slice of humble pie to some of the younger players on this team who were probably starting to feel pretty good about themselves. You can be guaranteed that Belichick is going to be all over the players for today's perfomance, and hopefully this game can serve as a springboard to get the Pats focused for next week's huge game against the Steelers.
The Patriots coming off a bad loss... A game at Heinz field... An overrated Steelers team...
Sounds like a good 'ol recipe for success to me.