Sunday, October 7, 2018

Patriots Handle Colts, 38-24

By now you almost certainly know the Patriots beat the Colts, 38-24, last Thursday night. The victory puts them at 3-2, and with the Dolphins loss today, they are now tied for the AFC East lead. Seems like a long time ago the Pats were in a "must win" situation against Miami.

I just got around to watching the full game and had a few thoughts to share.

The Pats weren't as impressive as the score indicated. Even though the offense is starting to find its groove, the two tipped-ball interceptions kept the Colts in the game. And without a fluky INT by the Pats' Jonathan Jones, the outcome could well have been in doubt. New England will have to play better against teams that aren't as undermanned as Indy was.

Julian Edelman looked very good in his return, notwithstanding the one pass he dropped. His routes were crisp, and he showed his same old moves once he had the ball in space. That includes his two punt returns. (Note: looks like he'll be doing that for the rest of the season - the Pats cut Cyrus Jones, who was signed two weeks ago to return punts.)

Tom Brady was outstanding. Neither INT was his fault, and in fact, both should have been completed passes. He stood strong in the pocket, absorbing hits to complete passes, some of them ridiculous (one to Gronkowski was particularly amazing). And in general, his command of the field has been great the last two weeks.

The running back tandem of Sony Michel and James White are playing great. White had 10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. While Michel had 18 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. As the season progresses, expect them to improve their balance of running plays and pass receptions. And once they do, the offense will be even more dangerous. (Note: both have been decent in pass protection, too.)

I wasn't as impressed with Josh Gordon as some. His TD catch wasn't so much a great play as a blown coverage by the Indy defense. #41 of the Colts took a terrible angle with the ball in the air, allowing Gordon to slip between him and the corner. Also, Gordon missed the read on a comeback route, leading to a Pats punt when it should have been an easy first down.

Still, Gordon is learning the offense (caught a tough one over the middle), and as he gets the route-trees down, he should be more and more effective.

On defense they did what they needed to do, no more no less. The secondary is playing much better, though they were helped by several Indy drops. The linebackers are okay, though their supposed star, Dont'a Hightower, isn't recovering from his injury very quickly. And the defensive line is playing with energy and mucking things up for the other offenses, which helps the back seven immensely.

Devin McCourty's 14 tackles led the team, but he got beaten in coverage a few times. However, he probably made up for it with a Bruschi-esque strip of the ball for a turnover. The secondary did knock away 10 total passes; some games they have only one or two. Devin's twin brother Jason had two of those, Jones two more, and Stephon Gilmore had three.

The D-line looks like a bunch of interchangeable nobodies. But they are playing well together, doing more stunts and games up front while keeping the last two QBs in the pocket. Trey Flowers is the only star in that group, and his return has paid dividends. And I'm still seeing some special blitz packages from D-coordinator Brian Flores, which I expect will help them as they move through the season.

Special teams continues to be a sore spot. This week, they had a chance to pin Indy back at their 20 after the Colts had a penalty on a kickoff. Instead, the Pats took the five-yard penalty, kicked it through the end zone, and had a penalty of their own! So they lost 10 yards on that trade, with a decision that actually made no strategic sense at all.

And punter Ryan Allen boomed a 59-yard punt, only to have it returned 33 yards because he outkicked his coverage. Those little mistakes haven't cost them any games to this point. But they need to clean up their special teams strategy and execution if they expect to make a run toward the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? 3-2 and atop the AFC East sounds about right. The next game is against KC on Sunday. Should be a barn-burner, as the Chiefs are 5-0 and their QB is on fire of late.

Biggest on-going issue: Special teams play takes the top spot for a week. ST coach Joe Judge needs to clean up the mistakes and stop with the strange kickoff strategies.

Non-Brady MVP: For the second straight week, James White edges out a win. Almost gave it to Patrick Chung, but White was more important.

Statistical oddity: On two consecutive offensive plays, the Patriots scored 34-yard touchdowns (one a Michel run, the other a Gordon reception.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Why is the KC game always the pivotal one?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fish Squished, Patriots Rout Miami 38-7

If you took the Dolphins getting 30 points; you and they still lost yesterday :P

The Patriots outclassed the current AFC East leaders, throttling them 38-7 in a game not even that close. The victory helped the Pats pick up a game on Miami in the division (still one game back), and also on the Bills and Jets, both of which lost.

This game was the polar opposite of last week. Everyone appeared to play or coach much better, and it'll be hard to pick out many negatives (though that usually doesn't stop me). But the offensive turnaround in this game was helped greatly by three players who weren't with the team last year.

Rookie running back Sony Michel was consistently good from beginning to end. He ran with power and elusiveness, toting the rock 25 times for 112 yards and his first NFL touchdown. He was not involved in the passing game, as he has had trouble picking up the routes. But improvement there should come with time. Meanwhile, it's nice to have a semi-replacement for Dion Lewis.

Oft-troubled receiver Josh Gordon was key to keeping three drives alive, and all three ended in scores (17 total points). His first reception with the Patriots was a first-down grab on third-and-six. Early in the second quarter, an incompletion thrown his way drew a flag for another third-down conversion. And in the second half, his second reception converted yet another third down. Nothing earth-shaking, but a good start to his New England career.

And even oft-maligned receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson got into the act, with an electrifying 55 yards touchdown bomb. He also had a nice run on an end-around, and should have drawn an interference call on a quick throw in the end zone on the first drive. Regrettably, he fell down yet again after catching a swing pass... sigh. But overall, serious improvement in his pass receiving.

As for the regulars on offense, QB Tom Brady played a decent game: 23 of 35 (65.7%), for 274 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 94.2 QB rating. That rating would be higher is he'd stop throwing long passes to Phillip Dorsett, two of which were picked off in this game. But he also had a ridiculously great throw on James White's touchdown, lofting it high before White even broke to the corner of the end zone.

Dorsett had an outstanding touchdown catch of his own, summersaulting through the air to get the ball just before it hit the ground. White also was his usual dependable self: 8 catches for 68 yards, and a great TD run. And tight end Rob Gronkowski was okay, but had to leave with an ankle injury.

The O-line did a great job blocking for the run, and an okay job pass protecting. Brady wasn't sacked, but he did get hit seven times and was hurried a fair amount.

The defense was nearly unrecognizable from the week before in Detroit. They played with energy and speed, blew up plays before they got started, and used new rush techniques that I'll get to in a moment.

The names on the defensive chart are almost unknown. Jonathan Jones is a DB who led the team in tackles with eight and knocked away a pass. John Simon joined the team about 10 minutes ago and had five tackles, including a sack for ten yards! And the teams only INT came from J.C. Jackson, who had played 12 defensive snaps all year before yesterday.

The secondary did a great job of taking away the opposition's first read, forcing the QB to wait in the pocket for an extra beat. And that is when the Patriots secret weapon came into use: they actually rushed the quarterback for a change!

I know that seems radical, but multiple times in this game, they threw off their "rush under control" agenda. They had the interior linemen simply bull-rush toward the QB, pushing the pocket back. At the same time, outside rushers were closing in from the edges, and several plays featured delayed blitzes to further confuse the Dolphins. And that rattled the Miami QB into a bunch of bad throws.

It could be this was only used because the game was in hand and the Patriots didn't fear Miami's running game. But a little birdie told me these strategies will be refined during the season, to be put to the test if/when the Patriots make the playoffs. (And yes, by "little birdie" I mean that voice inside my head that channels Bill Belichick.)

It wasn't perfect on defense, but it was much better than the last two games. Most impressive of all was pitching a shutout until garbage time, despite Miami starting four drives on their own 36, 36, 38, and 40 yard lines (none of which resulted in a score).

Which brings us to special teams, the one weak spot in the game. ST Coach Joe Judge, please have kicker Stephen Gostkowski boot his kickoffs through the end zone whenever possible. He kicked off seven times yesterday, and only once did Miami start inside its own 25 yard line. Stop with the misdirection, trickery, and "cunning plans" -- they aren't working. Gostkowski has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, use it!

So where does that leave us? 2-2 is right where your humble blogger predicted they'd be at this point in the season. With a winnable game against the Colts this Thursday (at Gillette), and with Miami traveling to Cincy, the Pats could be tied for first place by next Sunday.

Biggest on-going issue: Inconsistency. There will be no AFC East crown or playoff run if the Patriots don't play more consistently going forward. The return of Julian Edelman should help, as will continued improvement from Michel. But until they put together three good games, it'll be hard to trust them come December/January.

Non-Brady MVP: After some internal squabbling, it's James White. 8 carries for 44 yards, and 8 catches for 68 yards, and two touchdowns speak for themselves. (Note: it was almost Phillip Dorsett, but his drop of a long pass in the second half cost him the award this week.)

Statistical oddity: Brady tied Vinny Testaverde for most different players one QB has thrown a touchdown to (both have 70). The difference is, Testaverde played for seven teams, Brady just one. (And watch for another entry on this later this year; Brady hasn't thrown one to Michel or Gordon yet!)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Is it time warm up 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss' yet?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Patriots Flattened by Lions, 26-10

The Patriots played pretty much like this blog entry -- a day late and a dollar short -- and came up lame in a 26-10 loss. The game leaves them at 1-2, two full games behind 3-0 Miami in the division. Up next, those same Dolphins come to town for what is a sneaky important game this early in the year.

The Pats actually scored to end the first half and again the first time they got the ball in the second half. Unfortunately, that was all the scoring they did. Aside from those two drives (the TD was on a short field after an INT), they averaged 3.75 plays per drive, including three consecutive three-and-outs to start the game -- the first time that has happened to the Pats game since Belichick became head coach.

So when you hear people blame the defense, take it with two grains of salt. The offense bears its share of the blame, first for not scoring enough, and second for never giving the defense a chance to catch its breath. After all, the Lions D only made 39 combined tackles, the Patriots had to make 71 of them. And if you need more proof, time-of-possession was: Detroit 39:15, New England 20:45. Blech!

Pretty much everyone on the Patriots had a bad game. And it didn't help that they were missing three key pieces on defense: Trey Flowers, Patrick Chung, and Eric Rowe. Oh, and before you scream that Rowe isn't any good, his replacements were significantly worse, hard as that might be to believe.

Duron Harmon was not good in place of Chung. And the rotation of corners were worse that Rowe, who at least competes and does his best. As for Flowers, the Pats have absolutely no one on the roster to replace him, so when he is out, it just hurts.

On defense, the "bad pie" falls mostly to linebackers who can't cover in the passing game (or don't know their assignments yet), a defensive line that got pushed around all night in the running game and got no pressure on the QB, and confusion that culminated in a "12 men on the field" play that we usually see from other teams.

Dont'a Hightower looks limited by injury. Elandon Roberts hasn't progressed. And for the time being, Ja'Whaun Bentley (who got his first INT) is good but still misses assignments due to inexperience. Without a trade, there are no reinforcements coming. So better hope that Hightower gets healthy and Bentley continues to improve.

On the D-line, at least Deatrich Wise Jr. showed some spirit. He sacked the QB once and also got another QB hit, and he tried to get his teammates to up their emotional intensity. But it was for naught; because former D-coordinator Matt Patricia knew exactly how to slice up the Pats defense.

Offensively, it really does come down to execution. On the first possession of the night, Tom Brady threw a deep pass to Chris Hogan on third-and-four, when he had a running back open over the middle for an easy first down. Result: punt. Same thing on the second drive, except it was to Phillip Dorsett this time. Result: punt. And on the next drive, they tried a run up the middle on third-and-one and got stuffed. Result: punt.

Each of those times, a better play call or better execution would likely have gotten the first down. But they are taking too many deep shots on third downs, and it has been years and years since they could line up in a running formation and overpower the defense to get a first down.

Offenses hate to be called "finesse," so I'll just say the Pats offense depends on deception and trickery more than most. That is its strength, and they need to play to it more often.

Sure there are a lack of talented receivers, and the offensive line has only been okay this year. But it's execution under pressure that is killing them. When Julian Edelman returns, things will look better. However, the team won't be doing much this year if they can't get Chris Hogan or Sony Michel integrated into the offense.

The special teams standout was returner Cordarrelle Patterson. He averaged 28.3 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 45 yards. And even though it looked like the Lions kickoffs were low and short, I'll take the one positive from it that I can.

Where they go from here is up to them. They have the talent to rip off three straight wins and bring the universe back into alignment. But if they somehow lose Sunday, they'd already be looking at a three-game divisional deficit four weeks into the season. A steep mountain to climb, especially if you lose your home game to Miami, and that's who you trail.

So where does that leave us? Time to get back to basics. Stop with the long throws on third-down and take the easy firsts that are available. Stop trying to integrate Patterson in the offense and let him just return kicks and run "go" routes to gas opposing defenses. And stop thinking your talent will win out - this is the NFL, you take the game or it gets taken from you.

Biggest on-going issue: I'm sick of hearing it's the defense -- it's the offensive execution and some of Brady's decision-making. The defense has problems, but it is exposed the more the offense bungles things up.

Non-Brady MVP: Deatrich Wise, Jr., who at least tried to fire up his teammates.

Statistical Oddity: This is the first year since the introduction of overtime that four teams are 1-1-1 after three weeks. (Trivia question: can you name the four teams? Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler wisdom: "Remember: the sky was falling after the KC game in 2014. And that ended with a fifth Lombardi trophy."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer

The Packers, Vikings, Steelers, and Browns are all 1-1-1 this season.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 :( :(