Monday, September 9, 2019

Patriots Dominate Opener, Top Steelers 33-3

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the Patriots wailed on the seemingly hapless Steelers, wiping them out 33-3 in a game that wasn't even that close. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for the AFC East lead, one game up on the losing Jets and Dolphins. Next up is those same Dolphins, who are 14.5-point underdogs at home next week against the Pats.

As is often the case, it's tougher to learn a lot from a blowout win than a close game. But here is what I gleaned from the victory.

1. This might be the deepest linebacking corps the Patriots have had under Bill Belichick. They were missing Kyle Van Noy (out for the birth of his son). But the fill-ins stopped absolutely everything in front of them. No short passes, no running game, multiple tackles for a loss, and multiple stops on third- and fourth-and-short.

This had been an area of concern since the victory in Super Bowl LI over Atlanta. And they probably lost the SB against the Eagles because the linebackers were a weak spot, and barely had a linebacking crew last year. But now it's a clear strength on the team. Team Captain Elandon Roberts didn't even play enough to make a single tackle -- shows you how deep they are.

2. Seems like the media concerns at receiver were overblown. Julian Edelman had 6 catches for 83 yards; Josh Gordon 3 for 73 (and 1 TD), Phillip Dorsett 4 for 94 (and 2 TDs), and the running backs combined for 10 catches and 97 yards. Even rookie Jacobi Meyers got into the act with his first NFL catch (more on that later).

And all this before Antonio Brown arrived. Yep; I'd guess the receivers will be just fine.

3. Tom Brady started slow but still torched the Steelers. TB12 ended the day going 24 for 36 (67%), 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 124.9 rating. Not bad considering he was off a bit to start. Pittsburgh did get more pressure as the game progresses, but he was only sacked once and made two of the TD passes as he was getting hit.

4. The field goal unit was perfection in action. Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 on field goals (longest 41 yards) and 3-for-3 on extra points. There were no signs of uncertainty or issues with holds were evident in the preseason. And the kicks weren't just edging in, all were good with room to spare.

5. So much for slow starts. The team started 2-2 in three of the last five seasons. Not much chance of that in 2019 -- they have the awful Dolphins next week, the terrible Jets the week after, and the team they always beat, the Buffalo Bills the week after. (Note: Brady is 33-2 in games that mattered against the Bills since becoming a starter... a 94.3 winning percentage.)

Things to watch

A) Meyers is close to being in the Brady circle of trust. He made the right move and was open on his one catch. But if you watch the replay, the throw is just a touch late because Brady waited to see if Meyers broke the route inside before he let it go. Once he's fully trusted by Brady, the ball will come out earlier and he won't get hit just as he receives the ball.

(Although it was nice to see him hang onto the ball after the hit.)

B) The Pats really do have a three-headed-monster at running back. The star last night was Burkhead (8 carries for 44 yards), and he and White were important to the passing game. Michel got bottled up because Pittsburgh loaded up to stop him. But he'll get his as the season progresses.

C) The punting game is in good shape, on both sides. New punter Jake Bailey averaged 45.6 yards a kick and had two downed inside the 20. And return man Gunner Olszewski returned two kicks for 35 yards -- impressive enough that Edelman shouldn't be called on to do much of that this year.

D) The back-seven of the defense looks really good in pass coverage. It might have owed to a bad Steelers receiving corps, but the DBs and LBs knocked away nine passes total, the most I remember in a long time. Every Steelers receiver had a guy right on him, and at least one got away with a push-off that should have been penalized.

E) I'll say it again here, new team captain Roberts will not be a starter by October. Their best linebackers are, in order: Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Ja'whaun Bentley, and maybe then Roberts.

So where does this leave us? The win should have been expected, based on the Pats history of dominance over Pittsburgh in this century. The Dolphins might give the Patriots a tougher game next weekend, because a former assistant is running the show there. But they should still win.

Biggest on-going issue: The shotgun snaps of new center Ted Karras. (The fact that this is the biggest issue shows you how great they played last night.)

Non-Brady MVP: Dont'a Hightower. Dominant early in the game, setting the tone with multiple hits, and helping shut down the Steelers while the Patriots pulled away.

Statistical Oddity: The Steelers have been held to 3 points just 3 times in the last decade (2011 vs. the 49ers and 2016 vs. the Eagles). The last time they had fewer was 2006, when the Ravens shut them out.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Antonio Brown actually works out, the Pats could be looking at 16-0 again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Patriots 2019 Primer!

Four weeks just flew by, didn't they? The Pats finished the preseason 3-1, and their regular season starts tomorrow night!

The Patriots raise Super Bowl banner #6 on Sunday, and event unthinkable on the day Bill Belichick was hired as head coach in 2000. But not only are they the most envied team in sports, they are the odds-on faves to get back to the SB and maybe bring back another championship.

But I get ahead of myself. Game 1 is Sunday against Pittsburgh @ 8:20pm. So it must be time to impart what wisdom I can about the Pats off-season moves and how they will translate into the real games.

So here is what changed, what stayed the same, and the likely impact on 2019. Enjoy!

Offense

What changed

1. Receivers

Gronk went bye-bye ::sniffle:: He's selling CBD oil and hinting at a possible comeback sometime in the future. His loss is huge; he was the one mismatch that teams *still* couldn't figure out, even as Gronkowski slowed down over the years. His catch in the SB led directly to the only touchdown of the game.

The Pats drafted wide receiver N'Keal Harry in the first round, and he ended up on IR for the first 8 weeks of the season (at least). Another rookie, Jacobi Meyers, made the team and Denver veteran Damarius Thomas is on the roster, too.

Late note: some guy named Antonio Brown signed the other day. He can't play until week 2, but honestly, I don't expect him to have much of an impact until at least October (and maybe November).

2. Offensive line

One-year wonder, left tackle Trent Brown, went bye-bye in the off-season. He was to be replaced by sophomore Isaiah Wynn. But just when things appeared to be settled, David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs -- and his return timetable is unknown.

The Pats shifted Ted Karras to his spot, moved Joe Thuney into Karras' vacated right guard, and then traded for three new OL. Doesn't speak well of how they view the depth at that position.

3. Coaches

The team had some turnover in the coaching staff. They lost receivers coach Chad O'Shea and some minor pieces, but OC Josh McDaniels and offensive line whiz Dante Scarnecchia stayed. So the team is likely to be in good shape, even with the turnover.

What stayed the same

1. Receivers

Bear in mind that the irreplaceable receiving piece has been Julian Edelman, not Gronkowski. Edelman is the cog that the offensive engine can't do without.  They've won Super Bowls without the all-time tight end, but none recently without pesky little receiver. And they appear to have a few smallish/quick receivers on the roster who could replace him eventually.

Also returning is Phillip Dorsett, who is in the Brady "circle of trust," and Josh Gordon, after his latest drug bust. Dorsett is steady if not spectacular... and Gordon is potentially spectacular if he can keep his nose clean.

2. Running backs

They drafted Damien Harris, who fell on the depth chart after some injury issues. But mostly it's the same, another year older for James White and another year wiser for second-year man Sony Michel. Michel appeared to have more lateral moves in the preseason, though it's always tough to judge much in those games.

3. Quarterback

Sure the Pats let Brian Hoyer go in favor of rookie Jarrett Stidham. But it's still the Tom Brady show. At age 42, he looks as good as he has for the past five years, which is great news for us and bad news for the rest of the league. If Gordon plays the entire season, it'll help make up for the lack of tight end production. And Brady's numbers could look pretty similar to the last few years if that happens.

Defense

What changed

1. Coaches

Defensive coordinator Brian Flores became the head coach of the Dolphins, and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer went with him. Replacing Flores is long-time Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo, who called the plays in the preseason.

2. Linebackers

Ja'Whaun Bentley was the best preseason linebacker last year. And he was injured early in the first real game and missed the rest of the year. Jamie Collins was a talented player who wanted to get paid, so the Patriots traded him a few years back. Both players returned to the Patriots this year.

Mark my words, Elandon Roberts won't be a starter for long (if at all) this season. Bentley and Collins both outplayed him in the preseason, and it wouldn't even shock me if one or both ended up starting with Dont'a Hightower this year. They are that good.

3. Trey Flowers got paid!! But it was by the Detroit Lions! Good for him, not so great for the Patriots. Thankfully, the team loaded up on linebackers, because among the D-linemen, only Flowers could help cover up deficiencies in the linebacking group last year.

The Pats brought in Michael Bennett to help shore up the D-line. But it'll be him and a bunch of big bodies clogging things up so the linebackers can make plays -- more like 2004 than 2014.

What stayed the same

1. Cornerbacks

Stephon Gilmore was the highest rated CB in the game last year, and he and his coach (Steve Belichick) remain the same. The Pats have Jason McCourty listed as the other CB starter, but I suspect J.C. Jackson will take that role most of the year.

This is a deep and technically sound group, and they should be better with another year in the system for both McCourty and Jackson.

2. Safety

The safeties have been the same for what seems like forever. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty start, Duron Harmon spells them. McCourty is a little long in the tooth, and Chung has pending drug charges that could cost him time. But with Harmon in the fold, the team is well-prepared to field two safeties no matter what time off the others might have to take off.

3. Defensive line

It's just a mishmash of big guys who will do whatever the defensive coordinator tells them. The Pats weed out players with egos in favor of those who will do their bidding. And they need that discipline -- they switch from 3-4 to 4-3 to 5-2 to Amoeba to Bullseye to 10-man-front to 1-man-front and from zone- to man- multiple times a game. And one screw-up could cost them a touchdown -- so everyone has to play his assignments, not exceptions.

Special Teams

What changed

1. Punter

My Super Bowl LIII MVP is gone -- punter Ryan Allen was cut in favor of rookie Jake Bailey. He and kicker Stephen Gostkowski screwed up a few kicks in the preseason, but by the end appeared to have the kinks worked out with Bailey's holds.

2. Gunner

The Patriots best coverage guy from the last few seasons is out for the year. No, not Matthew Slater -- Brandon King, who has been going back and forth with Slater for the title of best coverage on the team for the last few seasons. King tore his quad muscle in the preseason and he's likely done for the year.

What stayed the same

Gostkowski and long-snapper Joe Cardona.

What it all means

The offense will be even more run-oriented than last season, especially early in the year. It'll take time for the new receivers to work their way in. So in the meantime, expect more two-back sets, with White and Michel splitting out as receivers on pass plays.

Defensively the Patriots are loaded for bear. They have solid safeties, well-above-average cornerbacks, excellent linebackers, and defensive linemen who will play their responsibilities and maintain discipline. (They also don't face very many great QBs, which will make them look better.)

As for special teams, I suspect the change of holder will cost them a few field goals. Hopefully it won't cost them a game, but that's the risk when you change personnel.

And now the main event... Predicting the season

It's my annual futile attempt to predict the Pats wins and losses, game by game, before the first snap of the first game. I ran the odds on this, and my chances of getting them all right are approximately 65,536-to-1. Again... futile, but I'm still going for it. (After all, I went 15-1 once!)

As usual, I'll split the season into quarters.

First quarter
  • The Pats open against Pittsburgh, who they have absolutely owned over the years. The last time Tom Brady lost to the Steelers at home was... never. And he won't start this season, the Pats win a close one.
  • They then travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins, who are in total rebuild mode. Even though that place has been tough for the Patriots, this should be a win.
  • The NY Jets have added a lot of talent this year, but they are coached by the guy who the Pats throttled the past few years in Miami, and it takes time for a team to gel with that many changes -- Patriots should win this one.
  • It's hard to see them losing the next game, at Buffalo -- the Pats are so dominant in this series, especially in upstate NY. Looks like they are 4-0 in September!
Second Quarter
  • Next up is a trip to Washington (the Capital, not the State), against a team that had a road division game the week before (@ NYGiants). Not only that, they don't really have the horses to keep up with the Patriots, so I'll say it's win #5.
  • Then they play those same NY Giants. At home. On a Thursday night. Home teams are dominant on Thursday nights, and the Patriots are dominant at home. The only question is how much the Patriots will win by.
  • After that, it's a quick skip down to NY to beat the hell out of the Jets again.
  • Then things get interesting. The Cleveland Browns are much improved, and they've given the Patriots trouble over the years, even at Gillette. They are also coming off a Bye, while the Patriots have a division road game before and fly to Baltimore to take on the Ravens after. Even though Belichick dominates against young QBs, I'll say this is their first loss of the year, so they end the first half of the year at 7-1.
Third quarter
  • In a strange scheduling quirk, the Patriots play a second straight game against a team coming off a Bye. Baltimore always gives them a tough game, and it will be difficult to beat them at home for a night game. So I'm going with loss #2.
  • After a Bye, next up they travel to Philadelphia. I don't suspect they'll lose three in a row, so I am calling for a win. Philly is also coming off their Bye. But bear in mind, this will be Carson Wentz' first time facing a Belichick defense, and that usually doesn't go well for young QBs. (Also, the Patriots defense is vastly better than they were in the Eagles SB loss... and IIRC, the Patriots absolutely smoked the Eagles D on that day.)
  • Game 11 is at home against Dallas, and that will be the week that Dak Prescott learns what Belichick defenses do to young QBs the first time they face him. Pats win.
  • The tough stretch is nearly over by this point but they still have to travel to Houston for a prime time showdown. The Texans appear to have lost their defensive edge with DC Mike Vrabel taking his talents to Tennessee. I think the Patriots pull out the victory, which puts them at 10-2.
Fourth Quarter
  • The home stretch of the schedule features three home games, starting with new rival Kansas City. I want to pick KC, I really do, but until they prove they can win anything but a fluke game against the Pats, you just can't choose them. Patriots win.
  • The one road tilt has the Pats jetting off to the Queen City to play Cincinnati. The Bengals are a mess, so don't expect much resistance -- Patriots should roll.
  • Buffalo in Foxboro is an annual cakewalk
  • Miami's only path to victory is if the Patriots don't care about the game. And you know what, at 13-2, I don't think they will -- so they lose this one to end up at 13-3.
Summary

That's how I see it, folks. The schedule combined with an improved Patriots defense adds up to a two-game improvement over last year. A 13-3 record would probably mean a playoff Bye and likely put them in contention for the overall #1 seed.

Now they just have to play the games :D

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Patriots 2019 Preseason Preview

Well, hi there, how have you been lately?!

The Patriots finish a semi-eventful off-season tomorrow night, when they take on the Detroit Lions in the preseason. There's been a lot of angst about next year and the year after. But take my advice -- enjoy this year, it could be a special one!

As for the preseason, here are four things I'll be watching for when the real players and scrubs take the field the next four weeks.

1. N'Keal Harry

Harry was the Patriots first pick in the draft, a 6' 4" 225-pound receiver out of Arizona State. By all accounts he's had a great camp, making spectacular catches in most practices and building trust with QB Tom Brady.

Harry will be important in the passing game, with Rob Gronkowski "retired" and wideout Josh Gordon not reinstated yet. So I'll be watching for him to do those little things, block downfield and in the running game, fight for jump balls, and be in the right place at the right time for Brady to hit him in stride.

2. Left Tackle


Long-gone Trent Brown had a very good year here last season. But the Pats coaches trusted the position to redshirt freshman Isaiah Wynn and coach Dante Scarnecchia. Wynn was drafted in the first round last year but never saw the field in the regular season. And Scarnecchia is an offensive-line magician, who will either mold Wynn into a good LT or plug in someone else.

I'll be looking for how many snaps Wynn plays, whether QB pressure comes from his side of the formation, and how he handles stunts and games up front. It'll also be interesting to see how he run blocks, given the Pats recent emphasis on running the ball.

3. Two Linebackers

Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins are listed as backups on the depth chart. But if I had to guess, one or both will start by mid-season at the latest.

During last year's preseason, Bentley was really the only defensive player who stood out. He was all over the field and seemed to grasp the defense much quicker than most veterans can. Alas he was injured early and didn't get much playing time in the 2018 regular season.

Collins was traded to NFL Hell in Cleveland for two years. He got paid there, and now that he's willing to take less to win, he's back in the fold. He wasn't great toward the end, but he knows the defense and when he is on-point, he was great when paired with starter Dont'a Hightower.

I'll be looking for continued playmaking by Bentley and a return to form for Collins. And I will keep an eye on their playing time, especially with the starters.

4. Defensive End

Trey Flowers took his considerable talents to the aforementioned Lions this off-season. Who can blame him -- every player deserves a shot at one big payday. And that was his chance.

The Pats brought in Michael Bennett to help replace him. But Bennett is more of a stout player than a long-and-lean freak of nature like Flowers.

So I'll be watching how Bennett does holding the edge against the run, whether they have either DE drop into coverage at all, and whether anyone botches their assignments (which is easy in this defense).

Summary

There you are; four things to watch in four preseason games. Hope you enjoy the games and that the Patriots stay healthy.

Enjoy the summery weather and I'll check back with a season preview sooner than you think!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Pats Win SB LIII, 13-3!

"Well, well, well... what abouuuut dat?" (My friend, Leo Pasetti, 1982.)

So the team that didn't train enough in the off-season, that went a "pathetic" 3-5 on the road, that "wasted" a first-round pick on a running back, that didn't get enough in the Garoppollo trade, that "blew their chance" at a playoff Bye with a loss in Miami, and that couldn't possibly beat the Chiefs in Kansas City -- THAT team just won the Super Bowl!

The Patriots capped an improbable playoff run with a 13-3 win that was actually a lot closer than the score indicated. They did it with a great defensive game plan, outstanding special teams play, and a grinding, time-of-possession offense that did just enough to outscore the high-flying Rams.

In a game that paired the #2 and #4 scoring offenses, the biggest stars were the defensive coordinators.

Rams' DC Wade Phillips devised great disguise schemes that confused Patriots QB Tom Brady. They got an interception when Brady mistakenly thought it was man coverage. And time after time the Patriots drove into Rams territory, only to be thwarted before getting into scoring position.

And in his Patriots' swan song, DC Brian Flores crafted a plan to attack the Rams offense up the field, cutting off the misdirection lanes. He added timely blitzes and games that kept Rams QB Jared Goff off balance and out of sorts. And all season he employed far more stunts, games, and exotic defenses, sometimes switching between them five or six times within the same drive.

Flores is headed to Miami tomorrow, to be introduced as the head coach of the Dolphins. And I'll predict right here that he will be the next head coach to win the AFC East. Might not be for a few years, with Belichick around. But he is that good, and he will be sorely missed, no matter whom they bring in to coach the defense next year.

The offensive star was Julian Edelman, the Super Bowl LIII MVP, who kept the chains moving over and over with 10 catches for 141 yards. Rob Gronkowski had a few clutch catches on the lone touchdown drive of the game, but aside from that, the receivers were mostly effective blocking for the run game.

Two running backs were key, led by Sony Michel's 94 yards on 18 carries (5.2 ypc) and that one touchdown. And surprisingly, Rex Burkhead added 43 yards, averaging 6.1 ypc himself. And it wouldn't be right not to mention one back with zero carries -- James Develin didn't touch the ball but his blocking was key in this entire playoff run.

Brady was spot on when he deciphered the defense properly, but it was strange to see all the misfires when he didn't read things properly. He wasn't pressured as much as expected by the Rams D-line, but he did take more hits and was sacked more than in the prior two playoff games combined.

On defense, the line and linebackers simply ran up the field to get to the QB or the RB, whomever had the ball. There weren't any standouts, but the scheme put the front seven near Goff time after time, and it bottled up the running game, too.

But the star was the secondary, which blanketed the receivers on 95% of the plays. Stephon Gilmore earned his rep as the highest rated corner in the NFL. He shut down wideout Brandin Cooks, knocking away three passes, had a forced fumble and an interception.

Additionally, oft-maligned Jason McCourty ran from the other side of the field to knock away a sure touchdown when Cooks got free in the end zone. And when safety Patrick Chung went down with a broken arm, Duron Harmon stepped in, knocking down another potential touchdown and blitzing to force a bad throw on the Gilmore INT.

As for special teams, they played great despite the missed field goal by Gostkowski. Punter Ryan Allen was a legit candidate for MVP, as was gunner Matthew Slater. Allen booted three punts that were downed inside the 10 yard-line, all three by Slater. Giving the Rams the long field went a long way to keeping them off the scoreboard.

I already went over the coaching job on defense. And honestly, the offensive plan wasn't great, entering the game or adjustment-wise. Good enough in the end, but without that defensive game plan, the Pats wouldn't even have been in the game.

Where does that leave us? SUPER BOWL CHAMPS of course! Leave the off-season questions for another day, just enjoy this for the next week, and don't sweat the small stuff :D

Non-Brady MVP: Allen. I know Julian got the MVP award, but if Allen doesn't have one of his best games of the year, it's likely a loss.

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots have faced the Rams in two Super Bowls, and in those games, the Pats allowed 69% fewer points than the Rams averaged during the regular year:
  • 2001: 31.4ppg in the regular season, 17 points in the Super Bowl
  • 2018: 32.9ppg in the regular season, 3 points in the Super Bowl
Water-cooler Wisdom: "We're Still Here!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-5 & 3-0!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Pats Rams SB Preview

As you've no doubt noticed, there was a disturbing lack of emails and updates during the playoffs. Sorry folks, but life intruded and I just didn't have the time.

However, I did have a few thoughts on the big game, now that they've gotten there. Mostly, it's the keys to the game when the Pats are on offense and defense. Here we go...

When the Patriots have the ball

When the Pats are on offense, it'll come down to how LA defensive coordinator Wade Phillips does. He struggled to stop Brady for years (his defenses literally went almost 10 years without intercepting a single Brady pass), but he's beaten the GOAT the last two times. And he won those games by bringing pressure instead of sitting back in a zone. (Also, it didn't hurt that Peyton Manning helmed the offense for those Broncos teams.)

You can bank on Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have a great plan entering the game. Because in the first two playoff games, his plans have been nearly flawless. Here are the numbers for the first two drives of the games against the Chargers and Chiefs:

  • 25:00 of possession time
  • 286 yards
  • 9 of 10 on third down conversions
  • 21 points

And if not for a foolish interception by Brady, it would have been 10 of 10 on third down and 28 points in four possessions. Impressive beginnings to both games, to say the least.

McDaniels is dialed in this year. The previous seven playoff games, New England failed to score a first-drive touchdown. This year, they were unstoppable early in their first two games.

This is where Phillips comes in. In the two games he beat Brady, his defense totaled 7 sacks and an amazing 26 QB hits! He brought pressure and it paid off.

For the record, both games were in Denver, where the crowd noise made it harder for the Patriots O-line to communicate. And that won't be the case in the Super Bowl; that corporate crowd will only be slightly louder than a theater playing "A Quiet Place."

But Phillips should have learned his lesson by now. He took one thrashing after another playing his usual "four man rush, seven man zone." If he tries it again this Sunday, the Patriots will already be over halfway to a victory.

When the Rams have the ball

On Los Angeles possessions, it'll all come down to whether Jared Goff turns the ball over in the first half. The LA quarterback gave up 18 turnovers (5 fumbles lost, 13 interceptions) this past season, which is slightly more than 1 per game. And Belichick defenses usually confused young quarterbacks, especially the first time they face a Belichick defense.

Add to that this year's D-coordinator (and soon-to-be Miami head coach) Brian Flores, who employs multiple exotic defenses and schemes all over the field. The Patriots ran more stunts and games up front, and deployed more of the Amoeba, Bullseye, and "one down lineman" fronts than in past years. It's paid off by masking a general talent drain, but that aside, it's been extremely effective.

But it works best in the first half. Best evidence of that is the two Chiefs games. KC scored a total of 9 first half points in the two games, but they scored 62 total in the combined second halves. This shows the Patriots defense is hard to decipher at first, but once good offensive teams figure it out, watch out!

Goff doesn't need to get off to an amazing start. His young counterpart, Patrick Mahomes, didn't for the Chiefs, but they still came back to tie the game in the second half.

However, if Goff commits the cardinal sin, if he turns over the ball (especially in the first half), it'll spell real trouble for the Rams.

The rest of it

As for the rest of it, it's mostly a wash. The Patriots have much more experience, but the Rams have more talent. The Pats have a perceived coaching advantage, but no one has seen LA wunderkind Sean McVay in the big game, so no telling how he will do.

Each team's special teams have advantages and weaknesses, but those should mostly cancel each other out. And both offensive and defensive lines are playing their best football of the season right now.

Aside from the experience advantage, the Patriots do have one other thing in their favor: the two-week break. Think back to how dominant they were from the get-go against the LA Chargers. That was after a Bye week.

Rest can't be overrated for a team with this many veteran players. And the first two playoff games showed how much it helps.

That's about it; hope you enjoy the game and that you enjoyed my thoughts on the season. I'm sure I'll write up something post-game -- here's hoping it's a celebration, not a lamentation :D

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-5 & 2-0!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Patriots Earn A Playoff Bye, Crushing Jets 38-3

The Patriots took care of business, beating the listless Jets 38-3 to secure the #2 playoff seed and a week off before their next game. The win was predictable; Tom Brady is now 14-2 against the Jets in regular-season home games. In two weeks, the Patriots will host the Texans, Ravens, or Chargers at Gillette Stadium.

There was very little to learn from the Jets game. Reports were that some New York players skipped meetings this week because they were sure the coach was going to be fired. They had checked out, and it showed in the game.

However, three trends about this Patriots team have emerged since mid-season.

1. Defensive improvement

Starting in week eight, the Pats gave up 68 points in two games to Tennessee and Miami (34ppg), and 78 points in the other seven games total (11ppg). And those seven games included tilts with the potent Packers and Steelers offensive teams, the Steelers game in Pittsburgh.

The secondary is playing much better, with rookie JC Jackson taking over the second corner position and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts improving more than you could possible expect. Also, discipline within the scheme along the front four/five is much better than earlier in the year.

They still give up lots of yards, but are making teams settle for field goals and turning the ball over much more often. There won't be any bad offenses in the playoffs, so it'll be interesting to see if the Steelers game was poor play by Pittsburgh or better play by the Patriots defense.

2. Running the football

Excepting the losses to Tennessee and Miami, the Patriots averaged 153 rushing yards a game in the last nine contests. The offensive line has been dominant of late. And fullback James Develin has been a devastating blocker in multiple games.

It's true that this is partly out of necessity, because the passing attack has been mediocre. But it's also true that other teams knew the Patriots were going to run, and they still couldn't slow them down.

3. Diverse offensive attack

Over the years, the Patriots have succeed in the playoffs more often when they used a lot of receivers and runners on offense. That kind of diverse attack always served the well, because teams usually key on your best performers in the playoffs.

To that point, in four of their last five games, three or more rushers had double-digit yards on the ground. And in two of those games, they had five such rushers. It makes it tough to key on one player, and also means the Patriots can bring in fresh legs over an over to attack defenders who have been on the field all game long.

And in the last six games, the Pats had at least five players with multiple receptions in five of them. Again, this just makes it tough to key on one guy, giving opposing defenses fits and lots of players to cover.

In the past, teams would often double-team Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. And despite Gronk's lesser production this year, teams leave him singled-up at their own peril. But even if they only double Edelman, that leaves Gronk, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett (who has been coming on), James White, Rex Burkhead, and Cordarrelle Patterson in one-on-one coverage.

4. Quick hits

A. The Patriots have four non-offensive touchdowns this year, two on special teams and two on defense.

B. Despite a lot of consternation about the number of Patriots penalties, they are third-best in the league, committing less than 50 yards worth of penalties per game.

C. The kickoff returns are a real concern. The Jets average start after a kickoff was the 32 yard-line; not good.

D. The last time the Patriots clinched a playoff bye the last weekend of the season with an 11-5 record was the 2001 season. IIRC, they won the Super Bowl that year :D

Where does that leave us. We can all relax next weekend, as the next Patriots opponent takes a beating Wild Card Weekend. If you want to root for something, hope the Chargers win and the #6 seed loses (the Colts, Titans, and Steelers, depending on tonight's game). That would put division rival LA in Kansas City, which is always a tough draw in the playoffs.

Biggest ongoing concern: It's inconsistency. In 2019, penalties, poor kick coverage, missed field goals, bad defensive calls, and poor tackling have all cost the team games. It's amazing they have a playoff bye at all. But now that they do, they need to shore up those issues, because they aren't more talented than the other teams in the post-season.

Statistical oddity: The Pats gave up 34 points in one game against Miami, and 41 total points in their other five AFC East tilts.

Water-cooler wisdom: "After all the hand-wringing, the Pats are two wins away from the Super Bowl yet again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  11-5 & 0-0!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Patriots Win Game, Division, 24-12

The Patriots took care of business, defeating their "little brother" Bills 24-12 in a game not quite that competitive. The win gave the Patriots the AFC East crown, and combined with Houston's loss at Philly, the Pats will be the #2 playoff seed if they win next week. Speaking of which, the Jets come in with their young QB, hoping to play spoiler to the Pats playoff hopes.

I hope you didn't get too depressed the last few weeks, when the local 11 lost back-to-back heartbreaking games. It appeared they were out of the running for a playoff Bye, but the win today changed all that. It's unclear why people always assume other teams will win-out to knock the Patriots down, but once again, the Pats are kings of the AFC East, and have that week off in their sights.

They did it yesterday with the running game. Excepting the kneel-downs to finish the game, the Patriots rushed 45 times for 275 yards (6.1ypc), with rookie Sony Michel leading the way (18 for 116 and 6.4ypc) and Cordarrelle Patterson (4 for 66, and an eye-popping 16.5ypc!). The O-line plowed through the Buffalo defense, opening big holes and reaching the second and third levels to take out defenders. It was the most yards rushing in any Tom Brady start.

Brady himself was pedestrian, as were the receivers. Julian Edelman had two dropped passes, and Rob Gronkowski had one go through his hands that ended up being intercepted. On the day, Brady was 13 of 24 for 126 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs (all that despite being sacked just once and hit only twice).

The biggest problem in the passing game was that only five players were targeted. As stated in the past, Patriots post-season success often comes down to having a lot of receivers involved in the passing attack. It's too easy to shut them down if the other team can key on one or two receivers -- so they have to diversify their passing attack before the playoffs start.

Lost in all the angst of the last few weeks was how well the defense played against the Steelers. In four of the last five weeks, they have given up yards but held teams once they got inside the 20, giving up an average of just 13 points each to the Jets, Vikings, Steelers, and Bills.

They still aren't as reliable as when former D-coordinator Matt Patricia was here, but new defensive signal-caller Brian Flores has improved as the year progressed. And believe it or not, it's mostly about their discipline. They are playing their assignments better; keeping Buffalo's running QB in check on Sunday.

Corners Jason McCourty and JC Jackson are playing better, as is safety Devin McCourty. The linebackers are still suspect, but the D-line looked a lot better against Buffalo. Trey Flowers is by far the best of their front seven, and he's been helped by better play from Lawrence Guy and occasional good plays from Malcom Brown.

On special teams, the team had another blocked punt (Matthew Slater), but they also had really bad kickoff returns. In the third quarter, the Pats had three kickoff returns, and started at the 15, the 12, and the 12 yard lines. Not good, folks, not good.

Where does that leave us? Patriots won the division for the tenth year in a row. (Trivia question: what was the last season when an AFC East team won more games than the Patriots? Bonus question: can you name the team? Answers below.) The team is relatively healthy, and they if they beat the Jets next week, they will be home Wild Card Weekend. Note: Tom Brady is 13-2 at home as a starter against the NYJ in regular season play.

Biggest ongoing concern: It's the stagnant passing offense. With Josh Gordon gone for the year, they have to find another option to take pressure off Gronkowski, Edelman, and the running backs. My suggestion is to use Chris Hogan, but either he or Phillip Dorsett needs to step up if the Pats expect to make much noise in the playoffs.

Non-Brady MVP: Running back Sony Michel, who now has more 100-yard games (4) than all other rookie running backs under Bill Belichick (3). The team is also 4-0 when Michel runs for at least 100 yards.

Statistical oddity: The Patriots tenth consecutive division title is the first time in NFL history a team has won at least ten straight. The only other team in major American sports history to do so was the the Atlanta Braves, who won 14 in a row

Water-cooler wisdom: "Two weeks ago, everything went against the Pats. Yesterday, everything went for them. Call me when that changes."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

PPS. Trivia answers:
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In the 2000 season, the Miami Dolphins were 11-5 and the Patriots the opposite, finishing 5-11. The two seasons since then when the Patriots didn't win the division (2002 and 2008), they finished tied with the Jets and Dolphins, respectively, and lost the crown on tiebreakers.