Jerry Sullivan: Pats are figuring it out, as usual - The Buffalo News

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Jerry Sullivan: Pats are figuring it out, as usual

Column as I see 'em, Week Seven:

I'm not sure what's more commonplace among NFL media – assuming that the Patriots are heading into decline, or conceding that, once again, reports of New England's demise appear to have been premature.

A few weeks ago, when the Pats fell to 2-2 after losing at home to the Panthers, people were handing the AFC title to the Chiefs and contemplating whether the Pats might miss the playoffs.

By now, we should know not to overreact to the first month of the season. After Sunday night's resounding home win over the Falcons, the Pats are on a three-game winning streak and once again loom as the team to beat in the conference, if not the league.

Sure, Bill Belichick's defense allowed six straight 300-yard passers to begin the season. But Bills fans realize that giving up 300 yards through the air doesn't make you a bad defense. They've allowed more than 700 yards combined to Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston the last two weeks.

No one is better at figuring things out than Belichick. The hooded genius appears to have corrected some things. The Pats have made dramatic improvement during the win streak. They gave up 334 yards passing to Winston, but held the Bucs to 14 points in a road win. They gave up two early TDs to Josh McCown, then allowed the Jets only three points (with help from the refs) in the last 42 minutes.

Then, in a foggy Super Bowl rematch in Foxborough, they played their best game of the year, confounding Matt Ryan in a 23-7 rout. Ryan, the reigning MVP, was 22-for-33 for 233, with no completion over 22 yards. It was his lowest passing output since a shutout loss to Carolina in 2015.

Remember, the Pats always get better as the season goes along. They're 103-25 in second halves of seasons since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001. It's a regrettable scheduling quirk for the Bills to get them twice in December this season.

Brady, meanwhile, is as good as ever at 40. He leads the NFL in passing yards with 2,208 and is on pace for 5,040. He has 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Over his last 35 regular-season games, Brady has completed 65.8 percent for 10,532 yards, or 301 a game, with 79 TDs and 11 interceptions. That's better than his career numbers in each category.

It should be an interesting December, assuming the Bills are fighting for a playoff spot – and maybe the division title – when they meet New England on Dec. 3 (here) and on Dec. 24 (at Gillette Stadium).

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St. Francis graduate David Caldwell's job seemed precarious when the Jaguars brought in Tom Coughlin as vice president of football operations. But Jacksonville's young GM has done a marvelous job of constructing the Jaguars' defense into a devastating force.

On Sunday, the Jags had 10 sacks in a 27-0 win over the Colts. It was "Sacksonville's" second 10-sack game of the season, making them the third NFL team to do it, joining the '67 Raiders and '84 Bears. The Jags are tied for first at 4-3 in the AFC South, with all four wins by 21-plus points.

During the offseason, Caldwell fortified a rising defense with three veteran free agents: Defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. Campbell leads the NFL with 10 sacks. Bouye has 10 passes defensed and two interceptions. Church has been rock solid.

Two years ago, Caldwell went defense with his first three draft picks, getting cornerback Jalen Ramsey (No. 5 overall), linebacker Miles Jack (36) and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (69). He also signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson away from the Super Bowl champion Broncos.

The results have been spectacular. The Jaguars lead the league with 33 sacks. Ngakoue has 6.5. They had 33 all last year. They're first in the league in takeaways, tied for first in interceptions and first in net yards allowed per pass play at an amazing 4.2.

The Jags haven't made the playoffs since 2007. Their record during the Bills' 17-year drought is worse than Buffalo's. Wouldn't it be something if former Bills coach Doug Marrone — whose reputation is also soaring these days — got Jacksonville back to the postseason? Or better yet, if the Jags and Bills snapped their droughts in the same year and met in a playoff game?

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Is He Owned? This week's featured fantasy player is Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has become Ben Roethlisberger's second wideout option after Antonio Brown over the last couple of weeks.

Smith-Schuster – at 20, the youngest player in the NFL – had two catches for 39 yards in Pittsburgh's 29-14 win over the Bengals, including a 31-yard TD. He has gotten more snaps and targets than veteran Martavis Bryant in the last two weeks, which hasn't gone down well with Bryant.

Bryant, who was suspended for the 2016 season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, has asked to be traded and took a shot at Smith-Schuster on social media, saying "JuJu is nowhere near better than me, fool. All they need to do is give me what I want and y'all can have JuJu and whoever else."

The second wideout doesn't get a ton of work with the Steelers, who have Le'Veon Bell rushing 30 times a game and Brown getting a big share of the targets. But if you're looking for help in a PPR league, it's never a bad idea to have Roethlisberger's second wideout option.

Smith-Schuster, who was the 62nd pick of the draft, was available in both my leagues. Honorable mention: The Bills' Deonte Thompson.

Bucky Gleason: Meet Deonte Thompson, who made a difference in Bills' win over Bucs

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Bears rookie Mitch Trubisky went 4-for-7 passing (he played the whole game) in a 17-7 win over Carolina, becoming the first quarterback to win a game with fewer than five completions since Tim Tebow in 2011. Tebow was 2 of 8 for 69 yards in a win over the Chiefs that year.

Of course, those games pale next to the Bills' infamous 6-3 loss to the Browns here in 2009. Cleveland's Derek Anderson was 2-for-17 passing that day for 23 yards.

* * *

Tennessee's Ryan Succop booted four field goals in the Titans' 12-9 overtime win over the Browns, giving him an NFL record of 55 straight makes from inside 50 yards. The Bills' Stephen Hauschka tied a record by making his 12th straight from 50 or beyond with a 52-yarder on Sunday.

I'd say Hauschka's feat is more impressive. By the way, he's fifth all-time in overall field goal accuracy at 87.2 percent. Succop is 18th.

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Stats Incredible: The first six teams on the Bills' schedule all lost on Sunday: Jets, Panthers, Broncos, Falcons, Bengals and, of course, the Buccaneers ... Bears rookie corner Eddie Jackson became the first NFL defensive player to have two 75-yard plus TD returns in a game, one reason Chicago didn't throw much ... Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas hurt his triceps and finally missed a snap. Thomas had played 10,363 straight since his debut in 2007. It's a wonder his brain hasn't snapped after playing all that time with the Browns ... The Bills were 10-for-16 on third down against the Bucs, their best effort since going 12 of 17 in the loss at Seattle last year ... The last two London games have been shutouts. And they say there's not enough scoring in soccer ...

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