Monday, September 17, 2018

Pats Fall To Jags, 31-20

In a game that was pretty much just awful, the Patriots dropped their first contest to the Jaguars, 31-20. The loss puts them at 1-1, tied for second place in the AFC East, behind the Dolphins. Next up is a Sunday night tilt in Detroit next week, facing old friend Matt Patricia's pathetic Lions team.

Going off last week's "September is the preseason" theme, if it was, the Patriots would cut about half the team based on yesterday. 33% third-down conversions (4-of-12) doesn't even tell the story; they had play after play there to be made on third-down and failed time and again. The pass rush fell asleep after Trey Flowers went out with a concussion. And two special teams gaffes literally cost them a chance to get back into the game late.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: It was probably second tight end Jacob Hollister, who caught 3 passes for 35 yards, nearly matching his 4 catches for 42 yards from all of 2017. He also had some decent blocks, but honestly, if I'm scraping this far into the barrel, it obviously wasn't a great offensive day for the Pats.

Steady Eddie: James White, who caught 7 passes for 73 yards. He had one really nice run after catch, but unfortunately came up short on a third-and-five near the end of the game, forcing a Patriots punt.

Disappointment: QB Tom Brady was off-target on several throws, overthrew a 40-yard bomb on a third-and-five when the game was still winnable, and chose to throw to White on that fateful third down when wideout Phillip Dorsett was wide open for the first down. Just a really bad day for Brady.

Overall: They averaged 3.4 yards a rush, and 6.3 yards per pass attempt, both really mediocre numbers. They undertargeted Rob Gronkowski, overtargeted Coradarrelle Patterson, and just blew it time after time on third downs. A very poor performance indeed.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Could it be that Kyle Van Noy is rounding into shape after all this time? It wasn't just that he led the team with six tackles or that he got his first INT since 2016. He also had a pass defended, and made some decent plays against the run. (Probably a one-game thing, but we can always hope...)

Steady Eddie: Sure Stephon Gilmore gave up a touchdown, but he also made five solo tackles, forced a fumble, and knocked away two other passes. In year two, he is what wanted him to be in year one - an excellent corner who covers one-on-one without help.

Disappointment: So many to choose from, but defensive end Adrian Clayborn gets the nod from me. He continually overshot the QB pocket, at least twice letting Blake Bortles run for easy first downs through a spot Clayborn vacated. Sure he got two hits on Bortles, but what good did that do when he gave up first downs instead of getting the team off the field.

Overall: Also bad yesterday were Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, and new linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley's performance can be explained as growing pains; what excuse do the rest of these guys have?

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: None.

Steady Eddie: Punter Ryan Allen averaged 45.3 net yards per kick, had one downed inside the 20, and only had one returned (once the team was gassed late in the game).

Disappointment: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal early and then blew it with a kickoff that landed one yard inside the end zone when he was told to have it land just short of the end zone.

Overall: The Pats also messed up when Jacksonville jumped offside on a fourth-and-inches late, and the entire punt team forgot to move to draw the penalty. Coach Belichick was livid on the sidelines after, and rightfully so.

So where does this leave us? 1-1 is right where I thought they'd be at this point. Didn't expect this bad of a beating, but the opening schedule was probably the toughest part of their 2018 slate. If Flowers doesn't come back next week... hell, it won't make a difference against the Lions. Will it?

Biggest on-going issue: This week it was the complete lack of pressure once Flowers went down. The reason Bortles looked great is he was under no pressure. And the Patriots don't have the defensive backfield to hold up without a pass rush. Is Chandler Jones available in a trade?

Non-Brady MVP: The clock operator in Jacksonville, who kept things moving so the game would end quickly

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In just two weeks, receiver Phillip Dorsett has as many receptions (12) in 2018 as he had all of 2017, despite playing in almost every game last year. He also has more touchdowns (1) in 2018 than he had in 2017 (0).


Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Pats win in January in Foxboro, Jags win in September in Florida. What does that say about how a playoff rematch would go?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Patriots Top Texans, 27-20

It wasn't always pretty, but in the end, the Patriots prevailed Sunday, beating their long-time whipping boys, the Houston Texans, 27-20 in Foxboro. The win put them at the top of the AFC East, tied with the Dolphins (also 27-20 winners), with the Jets game still be to be played Monday night. Next up is a trip to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday.

This game reminded me of why some commentators say the first month of the season is similar to what the preseason used to be. Five turnovers, sloppy tackling, poor clock management (by the Texans), and a few whiffs by the Patriots offensive line. The lack of playing time in the preseason was obvious to anyone who watched even a quarter of the game. With luck, things will look better as the season progresses.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: The biggest surprise on the Patriots offense was receiver Phillip Dorsett. He tied for the team lead with seven receptions, gaining 66 yards, and scoring his first touchdown with the Patriots. His routes were crisp and he caught every ball thrown his way.

Steady Eddie: Quarterback Tom Brady went a ho-hum 26 of 39 (67%), for 277 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 (tipped-ball) interception. His QB rating of 102.2 would have been exactly in the middle of last year's regular-season games (8 better, 8 worse), and he was solid if not spectacular.

Disappointment: I'll probably be the only one who says it, but it's tight end Rob Gronkowski. His numbers were great (7 catches, 123 yards, 1 touchdown). But his ball security on the Pats first drive of the second half was terrible, leading to an easy punch-out and fumble recovery by the Texans.

And to add injury to insult, running back Jeremy Hill was hurt (it looked bad) while trying to make the tackle after the fumble. The Patriots could have essentially ended the game if they scored on that drive. Instead, it was nip and tuck until the end; thanks in no small part to Gronk's mistake. Like I said earlier, looked a bit like the preseason out there.

Overall: The running game gained a decent 3.9 yards per carry, and ironically, most of the pressure on Brady came late in the second half when you'd think New England would run the ball to keep the clock moving. Those two things tell me the Pats offensive line is still a work-in-progress. Decent for the moment, but not great yet.

The running backs played well, led by Rex Burkhead (18 carries for 64 yards). And the coaches tried to take advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson's speed by running him on end-arounds and jet-sweeps. It worked pretty well; but it'll be more impressive when he catches a back-shoulder throw from Brady.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore didn't disappoint, knocking down two passes and snagging an interception. But the surprising thing was he lead the team with eight tackles. He only made that many tackles in one game last year (Pittsburgh), and he averaged less than half that many per game (3.8) for the 2017 season. Nice to see him comfortable enough with the defense to help make tackles on outside runs.

Steady Eddie: Trey Flowers had another workpail day on the defensive line, 1.5 sacks (for 10.5 yards), 1 tackle for a loss, and three QB hits. Flowers isn't totally alone on the D-line, like he was last year, but he's still the only obvious difference-maker in that group. It appears Deatrich Wise might become a nice compliment to Flowers; but for now, Flowers is their most consistent performer along the front four.

Disappointment: Sharing this "honor" are linebacker Elandon Roberts and corner Eric Rowe. Roberts for not stepping up his game to match rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley. And Rowe for missing multiple assignments and not working hard enough to get through blocks and keep backs from running down the sideline.

Overall: The defense played well, forcing two turnovers from Texans QB Deshaun Watson. They were more aggressive, and the front seven appears to be the strength of the team (along with Gilmore at corner). They probably depended on too many dropped passes, but as the season goes along, they should become better.

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: Punter Ryan Allen's gorgeous punt in the fourth quarter pinned the Texans back at their one yard-line. He hasn't had many of those over the years, mostly aiming for inside the 10 yard line. Downing it was helpful, but the kudos go to Allen because gunner Jonathan Jones was uncovered by Houston so it was an easy jaunt down the sideline to grab the ball.

Steady Eddie: Special teams captain Matthew Slater was first to the returner at least twice and redirected two other return plays to other Patriots who made tackles. There's a reason he has made the Pro Bowl for special teams play a record seven times.

Disappointment: Return specialist Riley McCarron has to know that his only job with a fourth-quarter lead is to field the punt cleanly. He blew it, fumbling to give Houston a short field and an easy touchdown. That made the game much closer than it should have been.

Situationally, that play is even worse than Gronkowski's fumble. As Pete Carroll used to say: "Gotta clean it up!" Now take a lap, son...

Overall: Special teams were oddly ineffective in this game. The Patriots were really affected by the new kickoff rule, which states players other than the kicker can't line up more than one-yard off the line of scrimmage. This gives them less of a running start on those plays, and it showed. Houston's average starting position after receiving kickoffs was the 31 yard-line. Last season, Patriots opponents' average start was their own 19.

Might be time to put speedier players on the kickoff coverage squad. Or here's a thought; have Stephen Gostkowski boot it through the end zone, like the Texans did the entire game. That gives your opponent the ball at the 25 yard-line, instead of the 31. Just a suggestion.

So where does this leave us? Still learning on the job, I suspect. The offense looked good given that Julian Edelman won't play until week 4. The defense appears to be unmolded clay at this point, working to learn and communicate better and improve under new coordinator Brian Flores. Still, 1-0 is better than 0-1, so it's fine for now.

Biggest on-going issue: The second cornerback. I still don't see Eric Rowe improving enough to solidify that position, and unless there is a trade in the offing, reinforcements are not on the way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gilmore, locking down one side against the passing attack while the other side works to round into shape.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At 7 hours 10 minutes, the Dolphins/Titans game was the longest in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. (Note: the weather delays helped with that.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "A nice win to start the season, especially when your main AFC rivals, the Steelers, couldn't even beat the Browns. 2018 is off to a great start!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Under-informed Patriots 2018 Primer!

Two days! That's all you have to wait, is two days before the Patriots start their annual romp through the AFC East. And unfortunately, you won't have as much info from me as usual; life has been much too busy for me. But even though I watched only about 45 total minutes of preseason football, I thought I'd share a few things I see in the coming months.

So here goes... the first ever Under-informed Patriots Primer! (Note: this just makes me like the rest of the media, so how bad could it be?)

The Offense

What Changed

1. At left tackle, Nate Solder is gone after starting five of the last six seasons, replaced by Trent Brown, who by all accounts did okay during the preseason.

But what you have to keep in mind is that it mostly doesn't matter. Solder was never great, neither was Matt Light (the man Solder replaced). Both were serviceable and good enough as long as they had Tom Brady's quick release to relieve the burden on them.

The sky isn't falling, even if Brown is only mediocre. Because this position has never been great since Bill Belichick arrived here. And it probably won't be great again this year. But it won't matter, because it never has before.

2. Last year's depth at receiver has been replaced by this year's uncertainty. Gone are Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell (we hardly knew ye), and Julian Edelman (suspended for the first four games).

Without Edelman, the team could suffer one extra loss in the first month, so they might go 2-2 instead of 3-1. But the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson gives them a legitimate deep threat to compliment all-time tight end Rob Gronkowski. And when Edelman returns, they could have a more diverse passing attack than they had last year.

What Stayed The Same

1. Last year the QB depth chart at season's end was Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer. The calendar might have changed, but the depth chart hasn't. Hoyer looked dreadful in the preseason, and Brady looked sharp. You can probably guess that the team will go as far as Brady can take them. Full stop.

2. Both Grokowski and Brady got incentive-laden extensions in the off-season. But that shouldn't change much for either of them. Gronk is still most effective close to the end of the offensive line, and hopefully the Patriots figured that out in their off-season film study.

3. There are new faces at running back, sure... but it's mostly going to be about the same. James White is a decent replacement for Dion Lewis (not quite as shifty, but reliable), and Rex Burkhead and James Develin are back for another year.

The biggest surprise was seeing Mike Gillislee cut after just one year. He never made the impact the team was hoping for after signing as a free agent in 2017.

4. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sold his soul to bail on the Colts head coaching job and stay as OC here. Some think he's the heir apparent to Belichick, but I have other ideas... read on to find out.

On Defense

What Changed

1. Last year's defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, left for Detroit. And even though the title isn't officially his, linebackers coach Brian Flores is calling the defensive signals this year.

I expect the team to improve defensively, because Flores seems more aggressive with blitzes, and that usually translates to better defense in year one under a new DC. The preseason featured more edge rushers in one-gap ("get the quarterback") mode, so you might see more of that in the regular games.

No telling how it will go in the long run, but for 2018, the defense should have more turnovers and play more man-to-man defense than last season.

(And note: Flores would be my choice to replace Belichick if Bill left in the next few years. He's coached a bunch of position groups, and done a great job every time. And unlike McDaniels, Flores made things work without depending on Tom Brady to bail him out.)

2. The absolute disaster at linebacker (after Dont'a Hightower) was somewhat mitigated by fifth-round 2018 pick Ja'Whaun Bentley. He made some really big plays in the preseason. And even though there will be growing pains during the year, he seems to grasp the defense and he has to be an improvement over Kyle Van Noy.

3. At cornerback, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler left for more money. And even though he was their second cornerback last year, I don't expect things to change much in the secondary. The Pats schematic play at corner will be the same as it always is.

They will put Stephon Gilmore alone on the second-best receiver of the other team, and the best receiver will be covered by Eric Rowe (or whomever) with double-team help. People forget that they used Darrelle Revis this way, even though he was considered one of the best corners in the league. It isn't an insult; it's just the way defense is played these days.

What Stayed The Same

1. The safeties look exactly the same, perhaps with the addition of Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason to the mix. They didn't play all that well against the 1s from the other team in the preseason. But expect them to do better as they get more time with the revamped cornerback rotation.

2. Even though there are a few new names, the defensive line looks about the same. Big and beefy inside, and fast and explosive outside.

Predicting The Season

As usual, here are my predictions of all 16 games, before the first snap of the season. Someday I'll go back and find out how well I do at this, but for now, just remember that these predictions are worth just as much as the paper they are printed on.

First Quarter

The first two games are a coin-flip. But I expect them to go 1-1. If they lose to the Texans to start the year, Belichick will pull out all the stops to make sure they beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. And if the Pats beat the Texans, then they will likely lose to the Jaguars. If forced to choose, I'd pick a win over Houston and a loss in Jacksonville.

After that, the Lions are a tough spot on a Sunday night in Detroit, especially because they have the same OC as last year. Expect QB Matthew Stafford to look like Nick Foles in the Super Bowl, and the Lions to win in a shootout.

The next game is a division home game with the Dolphins; chalk up a win to bring the team to 2-2.

Second Quarter

The Colts come to town on a short week for a Thursday night game, which the Patriots should win.

And giving Belichick 10 days to prepare for second-year Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes is unfair; make it a 4-2 start.

Likewise the Bears and Bills pose no threat to the Patriots. They are both in rebuilding mode, so the home team should be 6-2 at mid-season.

Third Quarter

I hate to predict a loss to the Packers the following week, especially since I'll be at that game. But that's what it feels like; a great offense that the Pats defense won't be able to stop.

The Patriots should bounce back with a win in Tennessee the following week, even if Mike Vrabel is the head coach across the way.

That sets them up to beat up on the Jets in NY after a bye week on November 25. They should have plenty of film on rookie QB Sam Darnold, and the bye week seals the deal.

The Vikings come to Foxboro the next week, and Kirk Cousins gets his first look at a Belichick defense. Minnesota is likely to come back to earth after last year, and this should be a win for the Pats.

Fourth Quarter

A lot of years the next two games would look problematic: at Miami and at Pittsburgh. But the Dolphins are in full rebuild mode, so that game should be a Patriots win, even though it can be tough to play in Miami.

The Steelers still have a ton of offensive talent, and they'll want revenge for last year's regular-season loss, so put that down as the Patriots fourth defeat.

The last two games are gimmes at home: Buffalo followed by the Jets. If the games matter to the Patriots playoff ceding, they will win both of them. If not, they could lose the last game because they sit the starters.

That puts them at 12-4 (or 11-5 if they don't need those last two games). Should be enough to earn a first-round bye, and if Brady stays upright, the division is all but assured.

Statistical Rebuke of Last Year: Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots stood at 15-0 in playoff games against teams they had not played during the regular season that year. Unfortunately, the Eagles made them 15-1 at the worst possible time -- in the Super Bowl :(

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Eagles Top Patriots 41-33 for Super Bowl LII Victory

The Patriots defense chose a bad time to revert to opening-day form (remember the KC game?). They allowed Philadelphia to score on eight of ten possessions en route to a 41-33 score that gave the Eagles their first Super Bowl championship. The loss puts the Patriots at 5-5 in Super Bowls, with Brady/Belichick sitting at 5-3 since the beginning of this century.

The Pats actually lost this game four times, and only three of them happened yesterday.

The first time they lost it was when they failed to replace two linebackers who left the team in the previous year. Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland in 2016 and Rob Ninkovich retired during the 2017 training camp. And the Patriots did nothing to shore up their linebackers, who got torched repeatedly yesterday, giving up big plays in the passing and running games.

They had ample opportunities to add a linebacker or two. The team could have added depth during training camp or any time up to the trading deadline (October 31). In fact, when they traded QB Jimmy Garoppolo for a 49ers second-round pick, I wrote that I'd be happy if they turned around the pick to improve at linebacker. By then already knew that their only decent starter, Dont'a Hightower, was done for the year. IMO, it was malpractice not to improve at linebacker, because it was their biggest weakness.

The second time they lost was at 6:30pm EST last night, when they decided to play Eric Rowe at corner instead of Malcolm Butler. Butler had been ill during the week, but reportedly he didn't play defense last night because they coaches thought Rowe was a better choice.

That was okay, until they saw Rowe get beaten repeatedly. Once that happened, they needed to forget whatever message they were sending to Butler and put him in. But he remained on the sideline (except for special teams), despite playing over 97% of the defensive snaps this season.

The third time they lost was the trade of passes to the teams' quarterbacks. Tom Brady failed to catch a pass thrown to him, one that was an easy grab. That drop led to a failed fourth-down conversion, giving the Eagles a short field which they converted to a touchdown. If Brady caught the throw, they would have been at least in field goal range, but could easily have converted it to a touchdown (would have been first-down at the Eagles' 20-25 yard line).

A score there would have made it either 9-6 Eagles or 10-9 Patriots. Instead, Philly went down the field and made it 15-3, a much worse deficit.

Later that quarter the Eagles went for it on fourth-and-goal at the two-yard line, and ran a trick play where they threw to their QB, Nick Foles. Of course the pass was complete, and the halftime score was 22-12 instead of being much, much closer. (The missed field goal and extra point didn't help, but that drop by Brady was huge.)

The fourth time they lost it was the strip-sack of Brady at 2:10 left in the game. The Pats had just let up a touchdown, but it was only a five-point deficit. The Patriots had the ball at the 33-yard line with 2:16 left and a timeout in their pocket, 67 yards from a win.

And on that play, immediately at the snap, James White was wide, wide open in the flat for an easy 10+ yard pickup by the sideline. If Brady throws it to White, it's first down at the 40-45 yard line with over 2:00 left in the game.

But he held the ball, trying to go deep, and was sacked and lost the ball. When Philly recovered, I texted several friends that was the ballgame. Best realistic possibility at that point was an eight-point deficit with 60 seconds left and the ball at the 25-yard line and no timeouts. A much worse situation than the one they had before the fumble by Brady.

In the past, TB12 would always take the short throw and live to play another down. Only he knows why he decided to hold it there. But a completion to White would have ramped up the pressure on the Eagles and that is exactly the situation where the other teams usually collapse. Not this time; instead the Pats lost the ball and the game.

The offense played plenty well enough to win overall. Brady was mostly excellent (with a few unexplainable clunker throws in there), the receivers were very good, especially after losing Bradin Cooks, and Brady wasn't under much pressure in the game.

It was curious how often they split out the running backs as receivers, as I thought all week the best way to attack with the RBs was to throw to them out of the backfield. And three receivers had over 100 yards, Rob Gronkowski (116), Danny Amendola (152), and Chris Hogan (128). But all the problems notwithstanding, they did their job for the most part -- 33 points should be enough to win in the playoffs.

The Patriots defense was the biggest disappointment of the game, specifically the inability to make adjustments to slow down the Eagles. The Pats were one of the best clubs this year in second-half points given up. But last night they gave up 19 points in the second half, after giving up 22 in the first half.

This probably owes to a lack of talent, especially the long-term talent drain at LB and the fact they didn't play Butler when Rowe wasn't working. But if I'm the Detroit Lions, I'm a little worried about hiring Matt Patricia as my head coach, because this performance was really, really bad.

Strangely the special teams was a huge weakness for the Pats. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski blew multiple kickoffs, not high enough for the coverage to get there and not deep enough to force a kneel down. He also missed an extra point. And long-snapper Joe Cardona screwed up one snap, costing them another three points.

In the end the Patriots lost because the Eagles outplayed them. But they handicapped themselves by not adding enough talent at linebacker and then compounded that by not playing their second-best corner on defense. Was it hubris by Belichick? A power-play to show Kraft that he is still in charge? If it was either, it's silly -- because the opportunities to win championships don't come around very often.

In their recent Super Bowl losses, I blamed the offense for not putting up enough points early, whereas most of the press blamed the defense for not holding a lead. But this loss is squarely on the defense. They couldn't stop the Eagles and for the umpteenth time this year, they made a bad QB look great.

So where does that leave us? Rebuilding. Both coordinators (Patricia and Josh McDaniels) are off to other jobs, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is likely retiring (again), and they need a serious rebuild at linebacker and more talent in the secondary.

Last time they had to replace both coordinators, it was two years before they returned to the Super Bowl and ten years before they won another championship. So be prepared, could be a bumpy ride.

Non-Brady MVP: Chris Hogan, who kept the chains moving when the Eagles blanketed Gronkowski for most of the game.

Statistical Oddity: The 1,156 combined yards on offense are an NFL record for the most in any game, regular- or post-season.

Bonus Oddity: In the fourth quarter this season, the Patriots gave up an average of 16.5 points in the season opener and season closer (KC and Philly games). They gave up an average of 4.6 points in the fourth quarters of all other games combined.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Holding players accountable is great, but benching Butler was just plain stupid."

Keep the faith, or not... sigh :(

- Scott

PS. 15-4 & 2-1 :( :(

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Patriots Super Bowl 52 Preview

One week to go until the big game, and I have a confession to make: I haven't seen the Eagles play this year. Life circumstances and time constraints make this the first time I'll publish a preview of the Super Bowl without at least seeing the opponent in the NFC Championship Game. So please take what you are about to read with a grain -- make that two grains -- of salt.

The Bison In The Room

Philadelphia's starting quarterback in the Super Bowl won't be the guy who started the season, former North Dakota State University star Carson Wentz ("Go Bisons!"). Wentz was on his way to a possible MVP when he was injured against the LA Rams and placed on season-ending injured reserve. So it'll be Nick Foles at the helm on Sunday.

It's been four seasons since Foles' breakout campaign in 2013 (27 touchdowns, 2 interceptions). And the results haven't been great since then: 58.8% completions, 6.43 yards per attempt, 28 TDs, 22 INTs, a 78.1 QB rating, and a 13-10 record (including 2-1 this year). He is a streaky player, who thrives when things are going well and tightens up when they go poorly.

He can throw short but loves to throw long. Against the Patriots, he would be well-advised to keep the ball in the short zones, attacking the Patriots linebackers in pass coverage. The Eagles have two excellent tight ends and at least one receiver who are very good in the short zones. They don't throw much to their running backs; but they have the players to exploit the Pats weakness at linebacker.

The Pats secondary is much more talented and their safeties could feast on the long ball if Foles can't stick with short routes. So he must remain disciplined to give the Eagles a shot.

Can The Eagles Stop The G.O.A.T.?

Philadelphia had the ninth-best passing defense in the league, as measured by giving up just a 79.5 QB rating to all quarterbacks they faced this year. But they didn't face anyone having a year close to what Tom Brady had in 2017.

To answer the question of whether Philly can slow down Brady, consider the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville led the league by allowing just a 68.5 QB rating by their combined opponents this year. And Brady torched them for a 108.4 rating, a higher rating than Jacksonville had given up in any regular-season game this year.

So it's nice that the Eagles have a good pass defense. But if Rob Gronkowski returns from concussion protocol, the Patriots have plenty of weapons to put the hurt on the Philly defense. Just ask Jacksonville.

Offensive Efficiency Dead Heat

If you think the Patriots are vastly superior to the Eagles on the offensive side, you might want to think again. Here are the two teams game statistics compared from the regular season.
  • Points Scored: Patriots 458, Eagles 457
  • Plays From Scrimmage: Eagles 1,073, Patriots 1,070
  • Third-down Conversions: Eagles 42%, Patriots 41%
  • Fourth-down Conversions: Eagles 65%, Patriots 62%
It is true that many of these stats were put up by Wentz, not Foles. But still pretty amazing to see such a close race between the two teams.

Coaching Mismatch A Lot More Than Experience

It's pretty easy to look at the head coaches and see a huge disparity. Philadelphia's Doug Pederson has coached two playoff games, and in fairness, he won them both (the last two weeks). Bill Belichick has coached 38 playoff games and won 28 of them.

Everyone knows Belichick will leave no stone unturned in his preparation and that he will not panic under any circumstances in the game. No one really knows what Pederson will do before or during the game on Sunday.

But the additional mismatch is the coordinators. Pats DC Matt Patricia and OC Josh McDaniels are reportedly gone after the season, taking head coaching jobs with the Lions and Colts, respectively. So neither of them has any reason to leave any bullets unfired in this game. If they have an exotic blitz or a special offensive play, they might as well use it in this game -- because next year they will be gone.

Interestingly, this is the exact situation as the last time the Pats and Eagles played in the Super Bowl. Back then it was Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis leaving after the big game. And both came up with masterful gameplans and stellar adjustments to changing game situations. (Trivia question: name the coaches who replaced Weis and Crennel at their respective positions for the 2005 season. Answer below.)

Quick Hits:

A) Gronkowski participated in practice today and appears on schedule to return for the Super Bowl.

B) The Patriots will likely test the Philly kickoff return game. The Pats kicked it inside the five yard-line against most teams, whereas the Eagles had the fewest kickoff returns in the league this year (18).

C) The thinking seems to be that Philly needs to get pressure with their front four; but that won't be easy. The Eagles had a middling pass rush this year, getting 38 sacks on the season, tied for 15th in the NFL.

D) The Eagles did have a stout run defense though, giving up an average of 3.8 yards per carry (tied for 6th in the league). Meanwhile the Pats gave up 4.7ypc, second-worst in the league.

Statistical Oddity: Under Belichick, the Patriots have played 15 teams in the playoffs that they had not faced in that regular season. They are 15-0 in those games. 15-0! (Credit to fivethirtyeight.com, sorry for the repeat for those on Twitter and Facebook.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "The team might think of this as a business trip, but I'm nervous as hell!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-3 & 2-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
In 2005, Eric Mangini replaced Crennel as defensive coordinator. But no offensive coordinator was named -- I know, trick question :P

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Patriots Advance To Super Bowl With 24-20 Win Over Jaguars

The Pats capped their fourth-quarter comeback with a 24-20 win over Jacksonville Sunday. The victory put them in the Super Bowl for an NFL record tenth time, and another NFL record eighth time for head coach Bill Belichick and quaterback Tom Brady. More on the Eagles soon, but first, Sunday's win...

You've no doubt heard a lot of analysis already (sorry this is late), but there are a few tidbits that haven't been mentioned much. (1) For every Danny Amendola great catch, there were equally great throws. (2) The Patriots made outstanding halftime adjustments. (3) How/Why Jacksonville went conservative and then blew it under pressure at the end.

Without Amendola the Patriots do not win this game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was ruled out of the game with a concussion in the first half, and usually dependable James White had two drops, one of which he allowed to be knocked away with poor technique. Chris Hogan didn't appear to be himself, and Brandin Cooks was fine on deep routes but sub-average on short ones. Add to all that the lack of a running game, and it was mostly Amendola keeping the chains moving in the second half.

The Pats receiver had just two catches (for 28 yards) in the three quarters, including one on the critically important touchdown before the half. But in the last 15 minutes, he had the 21-yard grab on third-and-18 grab for a first down. A diving grab for another first down inches from the ground. And then the ridiculous back of the endzone Spiderman catch where his barely got the second foot down as he floated out of bounds.

Two drives later, Amendola returned a punt 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30, and it appeared all but preordained that the Patriots were going to score and win. Two more completions to Amendola, and it was Patriots 24-20, and the ballgame. Without his contribution, the Pats would not be in the Super Bowl.

And none of this is meant to minimize how well Tom Brady played, especially with his 12 stitches in his right hand. A few of his early throws weren't up to his usual standards, particularly the touch throws to the flat. But once he got rolling in the second half, he was as accurate as he's been all year.

Four of the throws on their first fourth-quarter touchdown were outstanding. His dart to Amendola on third-and-18, down low where only his receiver could get it, but high enough to get over the defensive line. He followed that up with a quick-snap flea flicker (hand off to James White, who pitched it back to Brady). And he put that pass right on the money where Phillip Dorsett could leap up to make the play over the defender.

After that, his pass over the middle near the end zone, where he waited an extra half-beat and then threw about one inch past the defender where Amendola could only get it -- an absolutely unfair throw! And even the touchdown to Amendola, where he waited for the short routes to clear, stepped up to avoid pressure, and put it where there was no risk of a turnover but his receiver could make a play; what a brilliant throw.

Then there were the halftime adjustments. Reportedly the Patriots had to throw out 80% of their offensive game plan when Gronkowski was injured. So they mostly scrapped the running game and worked enough of the sideline to open up some throws over the middle later in the second half. It helped that Jacksonville played more zone, but that doesn't explain the increased production on its own.

The first half defense was just plain bad. They lost outside contain on multiple running plays, allowed the quarterback to complete 87% of his passes and convert 67% of the third downs, and barely grazed him beyond the one sack they had.

In the second half, it was different. They brought pressure, and pressure from odd places and strange angles. They got burned early on a delayed blitz up the middle, so they came with outside corner- and safety-blitzes that flustered the young QB. These also came in handy when the Jags tried to run outside, bring an extra defender to hold the edge or blow up the play.

In the last 30 minutes, Jacksonville averaged only 2.7 yards per carry and went 10 of 21 passing. The Patriots had figured them out, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia once again shut down a team in the second half. He has a habit of doing that -- the Pats gave up an average of 8.3 points in the second half of games this year. And that tendency will be missed when he's gone (reportedly the new head coach in Detroit after the Super Bowl).

Which leads us directly to how Jacksonville lost the game. First, after a dominant first half, they only led by four points. They had a delay of game coming out of a Patriots timeout (what?!), which negated a first-down gain and forced them to punt with about 2:00 left. And of course, the Patriots scored a touchdown easily against the Jags prevent defense.

Then, to compound the mistake, they knelt on the ball with 0:55 left and two timeouts! The Patriots would never have done that, and I'm sure Belichick was grateful that Jacksonville didn't go for the knockout touchdown or at least a field goal.

In the second half, the Jaguars were way too conservative on offense, with too many first-down runs. They ran on first down five times on seven second-half possessions, for a grand total of four yards. They needed to stick with short throws over the middle to attack the vulnerable Patriots linebackers. But they apparently thought the game was in hand, especially given that their defense was one of the league's best this year.

In retrospect, that was an obvious mistake.

Other stand-out performances:

  • Kyle Van Noy, who had 9 tackles, 1 sack (for 9 yards), a pass defended, and a forced fumble. Their only good linebacker had a good game.
  • Dion Lewis: 32 yards receiving and 34 yards rushing, including 18 big yards to ice the game.
  • Brandin Cooks had 100 yards receiving and 68 yards on two penalties against the Jaguars defense.
  • Phillip Dorsett, who not only had a 31-yard reception but did a great job chipping the Jacksonville ends to slow their pass rush.
  • Stephon Gilmore, with five tackles and two huge passes defended (including a late one to give the ball back to the Patriots).
  • Trey Flowers, except for the time he lost outside contain on a 10+ yard Jacksonville run.
  • James Harrison, but only when they had him rushing the passer and not against the run.
So where does that leave us? In the Super Bowl, baby! Gronkowski is in the concussion protocol and Brady's hand is still healing. Those are the only real unknowns; so enjoy the two weeks!

Biggest on-going concern: Back to the linebackers in pass coverage.

The Eagles won't attack them with running backs, but they have two good tight ends and at least one wideout (Alshon Jeffery) who can exploit the Pats linebacking deficiencies with short crossing routes.

Non-Brady MVP: Amendola, a monster game.

Statistical Oddity: The difference between Jacksonville's first and second halves, courtesy Matt Patricia's defensive adjustments. (Note: numbers projected from each half to a full game, for easy comparison.)

First half projections
  • Rushing: 34 for 120 yards (3.5 yards per carry)
  • Passing: 26 of 30 (87%) for 310 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 sacks (12 yards), 131.9 rating
  • Game Stats: 28 first downs, 8 of 12 on third down (67%), 4-4 in the red zone, 418 net yards

Second half projections

  • Rushing: 30 for 82 yards (2.7ypc)
  • Passing: 20 of 42 (47.6%) for 276 yards, 0 touchdowns, 6 sacks (40 yards), 69.1 rating
  • Game Stats: 16 first downs, 4 of 18 on third down (22%), 0-0 in the red zone, 330 net yards
  • 330 net yards

Bonus Statistical Oddity (courtesy of ESPN): Teams trailing by 10+ points in the 4th quarter of a playoff game in the last 10 seasons:

  • Patriots: 3-4
  • Rest of NFL: 3-70

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gilmore signing was worth it just for that last play!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-3 & 2-0!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pats Ice The Titans, 35-14

The Patriots did what they were supposed to do, crushing the Tennessee Titans 35-14 to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday (3:05pm EST). This is more than we can say for the "Second Round Steelers," who failed to hold up their end of the bargain. So it'll be the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

As for Saturday night's game, the Titans were completely overmatched. And it started with the opening coin-flip. The Patriots won the toss, but instead doing the usual thing and deferring to the second half, they took the ball. That meant the Titans chose the goal to defend, and they put the Patriots into the wind in the first quarter.

What this did was allow the Patriots to control the game by matching their style to the wind direction. In the first quarter, they only took about 6:00 off the clock, but they pinned the Titans back inside their own ten yard line for both of their "with the wind" possessions. So even though Tennessee scored first, they used the entire quarter to get one touchdown.

When the Pats got the wind in the second quarter, they went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, while Tenn. went punt, punt, failed fourth-down conversion. This basically ended the game. However, even if it hadn't, the Titans got the ball first in the second half, but the Pats forced them to go into the wind, throwing the ball to catch up.

This was a master-course in how to manage game situations by Belichick. When the team had the wind, they went up-tempo and threw a lot. Against the wind, they kept the ball on the ground or threw short passes, and they used the entire play clock. Amazing strategy against a weak-armed quarterback. By the time the Titans got the wind in the fourth quarter, they were down 35-7. Game. Set. Match.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the Patriots guy played pretty well. Tom Brady completed 66% of his passes, including some pinpoint strikes in the red zone and a ridiculous cross-body, cross-field throw to Danny Amendola that fell right into his breadbasket. Brady controlled the line of scrimmage, audibiling to the perfect play time and again, and never once putting the ball in harm's way.

Amendola led the receivers in catches (11) and yards (112). He also did a fantastic job receiving punts on a very windy night, never bobbling a single one. The passing attack also featured running backs Dion Lewis and James White, with 9 catches for 79 yards, and 4 for 29 yards respectively. You had to know that was coming, as Tennessee was the worst team in the league versus pass-catching running backs.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski had 6 grabs for 81 yards, with a couple where he got position and Brady through it where the DB couldn't get to it. Gronk also did a nice job blocking for running plays, and helped protect the passer with some well-timed chips of outside rushers.

The biggest surprise of the game was the lack of pressure on Brady. The offensive line was outstanding, although aided and abetted by a defensive scheme that mostly sent three rushers. Brady was hit four times and sacked not once. And he had upwards of six or seven seconds on a few plays. Pair that with 4.3ypc by the running backs, and it was one of the best games this year for the O-line.

The running backs did well in the passing game, and showed explosion when needed in the running game. White scored two touchdowns (one running, one receiving), and Brandon Bolden had what must have been the easiest touchdown of his career to ice the game. (He ran untouched into the end zone, right up the middle of the defense.)

The second-biggest surprise of the game was the pressure applied by the Patriots defensive line. Here are the sack totals from that group:
Trey Flowers: 1 for 7 yards
Deatrich Wise: 2 for 12 yards
Geneo Grissom: 2 for 12 yards
Adam Butler: 1 for 5 yards
Ricky Jean Francois: 1 for 8 yards

Grissom was the emotional spark, firing up the team after some near-miss sacks (before he got two). And Butler should get credit for two of the other sacks, as he flushed Marcus Mariotta out of the pocket so others could get the on the stat sheet. It was a shockingly dominant performance; the unit even added 9 of the 10 QB hits!

It was nice to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy back. They didn't need him much to cover the running backs (they aren't much of a pass receiving threat), but it will help for him to have reps before facing a tougher Jacksonville squad this Sunday.

In the defensive backfield, the safeties worked to keep things in front of them, but there were some communication breakdowns. Corner Stephon Gilmore had the only two passes defended in the game, and it was unsettling to see some of the Titans wideouts running free. Fortunately they had enough drops to make up for it.

Punter Ryan Allen led the special teams units. Not only did he pin back the Titans early, but he handled at least one bad snap on a field goal/extra point attempt. Stephen Gostkowski continued his stellar use of the short-but-high kickoff to keep teams inside their own 20 yard line.

However, there were at least three bad long-snaps from Joe Cardona. Allen handled all three, two of which were on punts, and it might have owed to the frigid conditions. It was not a problem Saturday, but something to keep an eye on moving forward.

The coaching was a complete mismatch. The Patriots were cool and calm and stayed within their game plan. The Titans looked lost, called timeouts when they should have held onto them, and had 10 penalties for 62 yards.

A sequence at the end of the first half was particularly telling. They gained 9 yards to give themselves a fourth-and-1 (really a half-yard) near midfield. Coach (now former coach) Mike Mularkey decided, correctly, to go for it. But he burned his last timeout before the play... however, if the Titans ran for the first down, he would have needed that timeout to stop the clock again or lose any realistic chance to score.

And then after the timeout, they promptly ran a wide toss to the left... which of course lost five yards and gave the ball back to the Pats. He was clearly overmatched, and Tennessee fired him today as a result. (And they have their eye on Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, by the way.)

So where does that leave us? Another AFC Championship Game sounds just about right. It's their seventh in a row and twelfth of the Brady/Belichick era. Unfortunately for us, it'll be warm -- Florida teams don't do well in January when the thermometer dips into the teens.

Biggest on-going issue It is no longer the linebackers, simply because the teams that could have exploited their weakness in pass coverage all lost this weekend (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Atlanta).

It is actually team focus at this point. The Patriots are excellent at ignoring the noise. But with both coordinators likely gone, maybe the heir apparent DC gone (linebackers coach Brian Flores), and with all the crap about Brady, Belichick, Kraft, and the TB12 stuff, I'm actually worried about focus.

I do think the release of a Patriots hit-piece the morning of the Super Bowl in 2008 affected their focus. And they lost that game by three points, so it could have cost them another title and a perfect season.

We all expect them to keep their focus, and they probably will. But on the field, there just isn't much to worry about at this point. All the high-flying offenses are gone, and the Patriots are clearly the best team remaining in the field.

Non-Brady MVP: Amendola, a great game!

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots are going to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game. No other team in the NFL has a current streak of at least seven straight winning seasons. Think about that for a second...

Water-cooler Wisdom: "At least the Titans fired their coach for malpractice... what's the Steelers' excuse?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-3 & 1-0!