Monday, January 6, 2020

Wild Card Weekend Wild Stat

I know Belichick preaches that his defense stay back and make sure they don't get beaten on big passing plays. But when he coaches Wild Card weekend, he might want to change his tune.

Here are the total stats for the last two games he coached the first weekend of the playoffs:


Starting Quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill):
12 of 25 for 106 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, and a 39.75 QB rating

Starting Running Backs:
56 rushes for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns

I think the running backs did more damage than the quarterbacks on both occasions.

- Scott

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Patriots Fall To Titans 20-13, Exit Playoffs

The Patriots lost for the second straight week at home with playoff implications on the line. The last time that happened under Bill Belichick was never. Last night the Tennessee Titans handed them a 20-13 loss, and it will be the Titans advancing to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The loss knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and leaves them with a lot of soul-searching this off-season.

The maddening thing about Pats playoff losses is that they are always close. When you get blown out, you can just write it off as "not your day." But when you lose by one score or less, every mistake, every unlucky bounce, every single play can be micro-analyzed for its impact on the point differential.

So of course, that's what I'm going to do. The Pats gave up a ton of rushing yards, the punting game was unimpressive, and the offense sputtered. But the loss came down to killer mistakes on a few plays, and I'll list the ones I thought were the most impactful here.

Killer Mistake #1: Josh McDaniels play-calling on short yardage

On first-and-goal from the Titans 1-yard-line, McDaniels called for a heavy formation with everyone in tight and called three straight runs without any misdirection. It's football 101 that you can't do that unless you have a dominant offensive line or the other team is weak on the D-line. A touchdown there would have put the Pats up by 10, and maybe Tennessee would have leaned more heavily on QB Ryan Tannehill -- which would have played right into the Pats hands. The field goal they got didn't do enough to change the Titans game plan.

This wasn't McDaniels' only bad call though. Nearly every time they brought in Elandon Roberts to block, it was a run that followed Roberts. By the third quarter, the Titans were flooding those gaps with safeties, which left them singled-up on receivers all over the field. Where was the play-action on those plays? How about sending Roberts left and running right?

McDaniels wasn't bad all day long. His screen-pass calls were well-timed and mostly successful. But on short yardage, here is how it went:


  • Runs from running formation: 7 plays for minus-1 yards (0 first downs)
  • Run from pass formation: 1 play for 14 yards (1 first down)
  • Passes: 3-of-5 for 32 yards (3 first downs)

That "minus-1 yards" is not a misprint. Maybe McDaniels would like to have this game back.

Killer Mistake #2: Shaq Mason illegally downfield

Patriots first possession of the second half, they drove from their own 13 to the 37 yard-line. On third-and-10, Brady bought time in the pocket and found an uncovered Ben Watson for a 38-yard gain to the Titans 25. The Pats were moving the ball and in business, ready to score and take the lead.

Wait... flag on the play. Inexplicably, Shaq Mason wandered downfield instead of staying back to protect Brady. That five-yard penalty that cost the Patriots 43 yards and a first down. Next play was a screen that lost 4 yards and the Patriots punted.

I heard some analysis saying that Mason might have thought Brady was running or that he was trying to block his guy too aggressively. Bullshit. He had absolutely no business going downfield on a pass play unless he knew the quarterback was running. It's the second thing they teach you as an offensive lineman -- right after they show you how to get away with holding :D

This was a huge brain-cramp by Mason. By and large he had an excellent year. But in this critical moment, he cost the team points in a game they eventually were going to lose by a single point (the garbage-time pick-six notwithstanding).

Killer Mistake #3: Not scoring after the INT

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Tannehill was pressured and threw the most Ryan Tannehill of interceptions -- a big lob ball that was easily picked by safety Duron Harmon at the Patriots 41 yard-line. Still in a one-point game, all the Pats needed was about 30 yards to attempt a field goal for the lead.

Two plays later, the Patriots even got bailed out with a defensive holding, giving them a free five yards and a first down instead leaving them with third-and-10. And things looked promising when they gained four and then three yards on the next two plays.

But a short pass to Dorsett fell incomplete, leaving them to contemplate whether to punt on fourth down. Ultimately they tried the punt to pin the Titans deep, but Jake Bailey's kick sailed directly into the end zone for a touchback (net of 26 yards).

Not sure if I disagree with the punt. But I think the better scenario was to spread the field and run the ball on third down and gain a few yards, to give yourself either a first down or a chance on fourth down.

And not to pile on McDaniels, but that situation called for emptying the playbook. Whatever play you had in your back pocket, it was time to call it. The misdirection screen, a Jet Sweep, play-action QB draw, Statue of Liberty -- any play that gets you 10 more yards and a shot at a field goal. I know they have a section on the playsheet with high-confidence calls. All three of these downs should have come from that section. Period.

Killer Mistake #4: Julian Edelman's dropped pass

With 3:26 left in the game and the Patriots at their own 37 yard-line (why was it always the 37?), they faced a second-and-four. Brady took the snap and threw a perfect pass to Julian Edelman for an easy first down. But Edelman looked to run before he secure the ball and he dropped the pass.

Edelman has had more drops this year than in past years, and that is likely a result of all the wear and tear on his body through the years. But they really needed him to catch that one. A first down there and the Titans would have started to tighten up and the game would be moving in the Patriots favor.

But after Edelman's drop, a pass to Phillip Dorsett fell incomplete and the Patriots punted. It would be their last meaningful possession of the game, because of the next Killer Mistake...

Killer Mistake #5: Allowing Derrick Henry to run late

Henry ran wild all day, ending the game with 34 carries for 182 yards (5.4 average) and a touchdown. By and large, the Patriots seemed okay with that. And it worked for most of the game; the Patriots only gave up 14 points and were in position where a single score would win them the game.

But after their final punt was downed at the Tennessee 13, it was time to bring up a safety and/or corner to make sure Henry didn't get a first down. With 3:10 on the clock and the Pats holding 3 timeouts, if they stoned the Titans on three straight downs, they would have gotten the ball back with 2:30 or so, plenty of time to drive for a winning field goal.

But Henry gained 2 yards, 5 yards, 11 yards and a first down, and then the Patriots loaded up the box to stop him. That came too late, as stopping them at that point only left the Pats with 15 seconds on the clock.

The smarter move would be to run-blitz the entire possession and if it was a pass have those players get to the QB. Their talented secondary should have been able to hold up for 1.5 seconds a play, and it also would have increased the chances of another Tannehill pick. Sitting back just allowed another 2:00 to vaporize.

One additional but not quite "Killer" mistake: the decision not to field the final punt

Please tell me that Belichick didn't sign-off to have no returner on the last punt of the game. Sure the game was pretty much over, but they tried this earlier in the season and the same thing happened. The ball bounced short and rolled deep into the Patriots end, and it took precious seconds off the clock.

Last night, the ball landed at the 25 yard-line with about 20 seconds left. By the time it was downed, it was at the 1 yard-line with 15 seconds left. Gaining 45 yards in 20 seconds is a lot more likely than gaining 69 yards in 15 seconds.

I'd like to think special teams coach Joe Judge made that decision. But I fear it's another mistake by Belichick in the "game operations" realm -- and he's had way too many of those this year compared to previous years.

Other General Problems:

1. Jake Bailey chose a bad day to have his worst performance of the year. He shanked one kick. But on four others he had two downed inside the 20 and two go into the end zone. His counterpart on the Titans, Brett Kern, had four downed inside the 20 and zero go into the end zone.

2. James White ran once for 14 yards and never again in the game. This despite the Patriots known pattern of running when Sony Michel was in the game and passing when White was in the game. Going against this tendency had worked recently, and it worked last night. It should have been used more.

3. Giving up 182 yards to Henry was unacceptable. He had 75 yards on six carries on one of the Titans' touchdown drives, for crying out loud! Make some adjustments, beat your blockers, and get this guy on the ground!

4. After Patrick Chung went out with an injury, backup safety Terrence Brooks was involved two significant plays. He gave up a touchdown and allowed a first-down on Tennessee's final possession. Blech :(

One Last Point

I've heard some in the media blame the defense for the loss. They claim that their inability to stop Henry was more problematic than the offensive futility.

Puh-lease with that crap. If your defense gives up 14 points in a home playoff game, you should win. Hell, the Buffalo Bills with their extremely limited quarterback, even they scored 19 on the road yesterday.

The loss is squarely on the offense. If BB, TB12, and JE11 come back next year, they'll have to fix that side of the ball.

Where does that leave us? Pondering a longer off-season, perhaps enjoying some playoff football where we don't have a dog in the race, and wondering when we'll find out if TB12 is about to bolt -- maybe even to the Bolts. Enjoy the time off, it's not often you get to relax in January :D

Statistical Oddity: The last two times New England played on Wild Card weekend, Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards. In between those contests, the Patriots played 22 playoff games and allowed just two other 100-yard rushers (Trivia question: can you name either, or both, of the other 100-yard rushers in those games? Hint: the Patriots won both games. Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Playoff losses are always so abrupt, but Tennessee was the better team on Saturday."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-5 & 0-1... :(

PPS. Trivia answer:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V

V
V
V
V
V
V
The Ravens' Justin Forsett ran for 129 yards in the AFC Championship Game in January of 2015, and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch ran for 102 in the next game, Super Bowl XLIX. Interestingly, both games ended with late interceptions to seal the victories.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Patriots vs. Titans Playoff Preview

So it's just a few days until the Patriots take on the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. The game feels like a bit of a tossup, with the Pats favored by just 4.5 points at home (which makes them a 1.5-point fave on a neutral field). However, fivethirtyeight.com gives the Patriots a 69% chance of coming out with a win.

I'd usually look at the last game the teams played and try to determine if enough had changed to alter the outcome. But even though they last suited up against each other just 14 months ago, so much has changed that that tilt (November 11, 2018) will have little bearing on how this game goes.

So here is my best attempt to put together how the teams will attack each other and which team has specific advantages in particular areas of play.

When The Titans Have The Ball

The Titans are pretty well-suited to attack the Patriots defense. Most teams that had success against the Pats either ran the ball well or threw shorter passes to tight ends and running backs. Teams with lots of deep-receiving talent have largely been shut down.

Tennessee's running game is stout, led by RB Derrick Henry's 1,540 yards on 303 carries (5.1 yards per carry), and his very impressive 16 rushing TDs. The next most productive back was old friend Dion Lewis, but his stats (54 for 209 yards and 0 TDs) pale in comparison to Henry.

The Titans are clearly a one-back team. The problem is that Henry doesn't often make people miss, he is more of a downhill/yards-after-contact type of runner. And the Patriots usually clog the middle and are very sure tacklers this year. If the game stays close and the Titans stay committed to the run, Henry versus the run defense could become an epic battle of wills.

In the passing game, the Titans have the speed burner, A.J. Brown, but he will likely be neutralized by the Pats talented secondary and/or scheming. The danger for the local-11 is when they throw to Lewis (25 catches for 164 yards) or tight ends Jonnu Smith (35 for 439) and Anthony Firkser (14 for 205).

(Note: injured tight end Delanie Walker is a big loss for Tennessee. But unknown tight ends have had career days going against Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower. So don't assume Walker's absence will make the tight ends ineffective.)

Despite improvements in the secondary and disciplined play along the line, the Patriots linebackers are still vulnerable when attacked through the air. Brown might be the show-stopper, but the tight ends and backs will have to keep the chains moving if the Titans expect to win.

When The Patriots Have The Ball

This matchup isn't half-bad for the Patriots. Tennessee plays nickel as their base defense and usually brings one linebacker to rush four at the passer. Behind the line, they play a vanilla zone, which is a defense that Pats QB Tom Brady has traditionally destroyed.

The Titans are near the bottom of the league when it comes to pressuring the passer. They blitz just 24.8% of the time (21st in the league) and get pressure just 21.2% of the time (25th). The odd thing is that in 2018, they blitzed the 9th-most, which seems to indicate they've become more conservative on defense. They will occasionally throw in a corner blitz; old friend cornerback Logan Ryan is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks this season.

This style of play has not helped the secondary. Ryan allowed 66% completions on the passes thrown his way and gave up 5 touchdowns. And star Safety Kevin Byard dropped off from last year, too, allowing 57% completions and 3 touchdowns (versus 50% and 1 TD last year). Additionally, both have been targeted more, with Ryan's targets increasing an astonishing 61% (from 64 last year to 103 this year!).

Brady should have plenty of time to read the defense and choose the right receiver. In fact, with Tennessee's lack of pressure, he could have enough time to let receivers get open before throwing it -- something he hasn't always had in the past when he would throw to a spot and trust the receiver to be there.

The New England receiving corps isn't as great this year as it has been in the past. But this opponent seems tailor-made for Julian Edelman and James White to attack short and Phillip Dorsett and N'Keal Harry to attack deep.

Tennessee should be stouter against the run. They gave up just 4.0 yards per carry this year (ranking them 7th), and the Patriots gained just 3.8 yards per carry (ranking them 25th).

Expect the Patriots to soften up the defense with short throws, and then use the running game effectively. Don't expect them to lineup and run it down the Titans throats, it won't be happening.

Special Teams

As great as Patriots rookie Jake Bailey has kicked, Titans punter Brett Kern was even better this year. So no great advantage there.

And believe it or not, as we enter the playoffs the Patriots field goal game is in much steadier hands! Nick Folk successfully made 14 of 17 field goals (84%) and 12 of 12 extra points (I'll let you do the math on that). The Titans current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn't attempted a field goal this season. He's been with Tennessee two games and has only tried extra points (of which he has made them all).

Neither team has particularly dynamic returners in the punt or kickoff game. Though the Patriots kick coverage teams are annually among the best in the NFL.

One place where the 2019 Patriots have excelled is in finding ways to block kicks. Special teams coach Joe Judge has done an amazing job identifying weak spots in opposing blocking schemes. And the Patriots have blocked four punts this year, returning two of them for touchdowns.

Coaching

The 2018 game was former player Mike Vrabel's chance to show his stuff to his former head coach, Bill Belichick. And that has happened quite a bit, where a new head coach that was formerly associated with Belichick will clip him the first time.

But now that Vrabel's team has played two full seasons in his system, no doubt Belichick knows how to attack it, both offensively and defensively. The question is whether he has the horses on either side of the ball.

Quick Hits

1. Though Lewis might seem like a threat in the passing game, he has averaged exactly one reception per game in the last seven contests in which he played. He has 25 grabs on the year, but most of them came early on.

2. For some reason the Titans kickoff short and force teams to return the ball. That's probably a smart strategy against the Patriots, because running back Brandon Bolden isn't exactly Cordarrelle Patterson back there.

3. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 11 interceptions in 11 games against the Patriots. And some of those Pats teams fielded awful secondaries. He will need to be careful with the ball against this Pats team -- they have three players near the top of the NFL in interceptions.

Note: for all the consternation about the man Tannehill replaced, Marcus Mariota, Mariota has a lower interception rate (1.3%) than Tannehill (2.1%) this year.

4. No one would mistake Tannehill for Lamar Jackson, but the Patriots need to keep the Titans QB in the pocket. He's rushed 43 times for 185 yards (4.3ypc) and 4 touchdowns this year. And in a one-game elimination, all he'd need to do is make two or three plays with his feet to keep drives going.

Summary

If the Titans play their standard defense, the Pats should put up points. So the game will come down to how well the Patriots defense plays. Tannehill does better against zone-coverage, and the Patriots don't play much of that. So it would seem to lean in their favor.

However, Derrick Henry is the X-factor. If the Pats can't contain him with their front-seven, bringing extra players to stop him will make them vulnerable to the pass -- especially play-action passes. They'll need to read their keys and rally to the ball when it's a run. When it's a pass, they should be good enough to make Ryan Tannehill look like the player we all knew and loved-to-play when he was in Miami.

Statistical oddity that will likely never be repeated: The only two teams to use four field goal kickers this year meet in the playoffs -- that's right, your New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Dolphins Stun Patriots 27-24, No Playoff Bye

The Patriots got outfoxed by the Dolphins, losing the division home game 27-24. Meanwhile the Kansas City Chiefs won, dropping the Patriots to the #3 playoff seed. The loss was huge, meaning no playoff Bye week, no two-game road to the Super Bowl, likely two road wins to get to the big game at all, and just about no margin for error. Next week the Tennessee Titans come to town for a win-or-go-home tilt in Gillette Stadium.

There was plenty of good and bad from the Dolphins game. But the main questions are: how did this happen? and who is to blame for the loss? The unsatisfying answers are probably that it was the entire team. However, that won't stop me from delving deeper into exactly what went wrong and what it means going forward.

Non-Players

1. Brian Flores and Chad O'Shea

Credit where it is due. Miami head coach Brian Flores had his team ready to go, kept them in the game despite their season being long over, and never assumed he was overmatched against a team with 8 more wins than him. There was talk of tanking in South Florida this season. But I knew in my bones that Flores would never sign-on for that -- this game proved it.

When he left New England for Miami, I predicted that the next time Bill Belichick didn't win the AFC East, it would be Brian Flores atop the division. This game only validates my instinct that Flores is the real deal. And he will have a team that threatens the Patriots dominance within two years.

Also credit to Miami offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea. He emptied the playbook to make every possession count. He never panicked and didn't put his QB in a position to make the big mistakes he has historically made against the Patriots.

2. Bill Belichick

Unlike O'Shea, Belichick did not do everything to maximize his possessions. As the first half drew to a close, he could have used a timeout to give his team the ball with about 1:35 on the clock. Instead he kept the timeout and allowed the Dolphins to run down the clock. The result was the Patriots got the ball with less than a minute to go.

And even with that, Belichick seemed content to run out the clock. Granted this season the team does not have a quick-strike offense. But IMO he should have at least tried to get in position for a field goal. Those potential three points would have come in handy in a game they lost by exactly that many.

Additionally, the gadget plays seemed to catch the Patriots completely off-guard. But O'Shea coached for the Patriots for years, so they should have known something was coming. (Note: one one flea-flicker, they played it perfectly, and the receiver ran the ball instead of throwing it -- and of course he got 11 yards and a first down.)

BB gets adulation when he wins; today he gets blame for the loss.

3. Defensive play-calling

I don't study the "all-22" film, but I don't remember a game this season where the Patriots played as much zone as they against Miami. A very strange choice, given their dominant season playing largely man-coverage.


Maybe it was due to injuries in the secondary. Maybe the coaches expected Ryan Fitzpatrick to toss up a few jump-balls for interceptions. Maybe they just expected the Dolphins to pack it in.

Whatever the reason, the defensive play-calling was far too passive going against a team as offensively limited as Miami.

4. Offensive play-calling and execution

The Patriots ran fo 5.0 yards per carry and 135 yards. But unlike their previous two games, they did not stick with the run to wear down the other team and control the ball. It was especially problematic in the sequence leading to the Patriots lone turnover. They started the game with three runs and eight passes, the eight being intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Later in the game they found some balance and scored on four of seven drives. But by then, the damage had been done and the Dolphins were convinced they could win.

5. Complacency

Years ago Bill Parcells warned of "trap games," where players had already begun thinking about their next opponent and overlooked the one right in front of them. If ever a game fit that description, it was this one.

Players

1. Tom Brady

His pick-six was a killer, and he just floated the ball out there on that play. He also over-threw Mohamed Sanu on a third-down play and missed several other open receivers.

2. Stephon Gilmore

A supposed candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore got lit up by the Dolphins best receiver, DeVante Parker. Granted, some of it was because they were in zone- instead of man-coverage. But Gilmore got caught looking into the backfield on a long gainer up the sideline and lost his man over the middle another time.

You know a corner is having a bad day when he leads the team in tackles, especially when a bunch of them were his guy in coverage.

3. Mohamed Sanu

A play before Brady's interception, Sanu was wide open over the middle and Brady hit him right in the hands in-stride. If Sanu caught it, he would have gained 7+ yards on first down, and maybe the Patriots run the ball for the first down. But instead, it clanged off his hands and fell to the ground incomplete.

Without that drop, maybe Brady never throws the killer pick. Maybe...

4. Marcus Cannon

He chose a bad time to revert to three-years-ago form, but Cannon had his worst or second-worst game of the season, giving up pressure around the corner on too many plays. As a right tackle he doesn't face the best pass rusher, but on Sunday it looked like he was.

5. The rest of the secondary

Fitzpatrick's statlines from the first and second Pats games this year:

  • 11 of 21 (52.4%) for 89 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, and a 23.8 QB rating
  • 28 of 41 (68.3%) for 320 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, and a 99.6 QB rating

The entire secondary should be embarrassed about this.

Other thoughts

1. Why don't the Patriots use James White more? Two carries for four yards and just three passing targets in the game; all in the second half. If they are saving him for the playoffs, they blew it -- because no amount of rest makes up for missing out on the playoff Bye.

2. Usually former assistants of Belichick's clip him in their first game as head coaches against the Hoodie. This was Flores' second game, but either way, BB is just .500 (12-12) against head coaches who coached under him at some point.

3. Head man Bill Belichick might be spending too much time with the defense. Because his in-game mastery is showing some cracks this year.

He wasn't aggressive at the end of the first half of games against Dallas and Miami, screwed up his challenges against the Chiefs, and the team has had some uncharacteristic brain-cramps (multiple penalties on kickoffs, too many men on the field penalties, etc.).

4. On the plus side of things, the running game was effective again, N'Keal Harry continued to grow into the receiver role, and kicker Nick Folk was perfect yet again. I guess there is always a silver lining...

Where does that leave us? Having to play next weekend instead of getting a week off. Those injuries to Julian Edelman, Brady, Sanu, Jonthan Jones, and Jason McCourty will have to heal in the off-season. Because the playoffs are upon us, and it's all hands on deck.

Biggest on-going issue: Health in the secondary. If the secondary isn't great, the pass rush doesn't look as formidable, and the medium-zone throws against linebackers get a lot easier.

Please have the entire secondary in a huge ice-bath every day after practice. Pretty please... with sugar on top :D

Non-Brady MVP: Danny Shelton was a beast against the run (and the Pats allowed just 2.9 yards per carry) and had six tackles on the day.

Statistical Oddity: Miami head coach Brian Flores went 5-11 in his first year at the helm there. Note that Bill Belichick had the exact same record in his first season with the Patriots (the 2000 season). (Trivia question: Which team handed Belichick his last loss that season, and what was the final score of that game? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Keep telling the Patriots they've never gotten to the Super Bowl without a Bye -- it'll be on their bulletin board all week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
Belichick lost the last game of the 2000 season to the Miami Dolphins. The score was identical to yesterday's loss: 27-24. I know, it's a little bit creepy, isn't it?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Pats Hold Off Bills, 24-17, Win AFC East for 11th Straight Season

The Patriots outlasted the Bills 24-17 on Saturday to win the AFC East and put a stranglehold on the #2 AFC playoff seed. The loss locked Buffalo into the #5 seed, and it gave the Patriots their NFL-record 11th consecutive division title. Next week the Miami Dolphins come to town, and a win by the Pats gives them the #2 seed and the playoff bye.

There was a lot to like and some things not to like in this one. Here is a quick list.

Positives

The running game looked a lot stronger, even though Buffalo had a decent run defense. Sony Michel led the team with 21 carries for 96 yards, Rex Burkhead pitched in 20 yards on 5 carries, as the team totaled 143 yards and 4.1 yard a carry. The offensive line opened up holes and got blocks to the second level. On many runs, the linemen were 5+ yards downfield, always a good sign.

QB Tom Brady had his best statistical day in three months: 26 of 33 (78.8%) for 271 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interceptions, no sacks, and a 111.0 QB rating. His throws were crisp and on target, he made good decisions, and he threw it away to avoid bad plays or losses. And it was most encouraging that he did it against the Bills. They entered the game with the second-best pass defense in the league.

The offensive line, which overall kept Brady clean (no sacks and only 4 QB hits) and opened up big holes in the running game. It was a bit of an odd switch of roles though; left tackle Isaiah Wynn wasn't as good as usual, while turnstyle-in-training Marshall Newhouse flourished in a move from left tackle to right tackle.

Everyone is buzzing about N'Keal Harry's emergence, and rightly so. But the rookie's two catches for 21 yards (and two runs for 18 yards) don't tell the entire story of the receiving corps. Here are the number of catches for those with multiple grabs in the game:

  • Julian Edelman = 5
  • Rex Burkhead = 4
  • James White = 4
  • Jakobi Meyers = 3
  • Mohamed Sanu = 3
  • Ben Watson = 3
  • N'Keal Harry = 2

I've said it before, the Patriots are a very dangerous playoff opponent when they have diversity in their passing game and overall offense. And that's exactly what they had -- against one of the best NFL defenses, too boot.

The front seven bottled up the run nicely. The running backs of the Bills got just 49 yards on 16 carries, just over 3ypc. If not for QB runs, this would have been the highlight of the defense, but alas Josh Allen ran 7 times for 43 yards and made some big plays to keep drives going.

The Patriots performance on third-down was one of the great contrasts of the game. New England converted 50% of their third-downs (7 of 14) while Buffalo converted just 18% (2 of 11). That helped the Pats build an advantage of almost 18 minutes in time of possession (38:52 to 21:08).

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Nick Folk's impressive 51-yard field goal. It was booted into the wind but had room to spare. For symmetry, the last time he hit a field goal that long was against the Patriots -- November 17, 2016, over three *years* ago! (Trivia Question #1: For which team did Folk kick that field goal? Answer below.)

Among the uneven secondary play, JC Jackson was a standout. He led the team with six tackles and knocked down two passes, including a potential game-tying or game-winning touchdown throw on the Bills last play. I'll get to the rest of the secondary coming right up...

Negatives

The secondary got burned far too often. They gave up deep passes of 25, 33, and 53 yards, and there was a short one that went for another 28. There was too much miscommunication and too many times corners or safeties just got flat-out beaten. And it would have looked a lot worse if Bills QB Josh Allen had hit a few open receivers. Almost no one was immune, and you would not expect this against a team the Patriots see twice a year. Very disappointing.

Coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for a first down late in the second quarter turned out disastrously. He could have punted it deep given the Bills a long field to travel with probably 28-seconds left. But instead, he went for it and failed, giving them the ball at their own 41-yard-line with two timeouts.

Ultimately, the Bills drove down the field and scored a touchdown just before the end of the half. But Belichick's decision was ill-advised. Many have said that if Sanu had made his block they would have had the first-down. But that ignores the risk/reward situation.

The way the Pats offense had been going, they could have expected to get a field goal at best from that drive. That was the potential reward. But the risk was exactly what happened; that the good field position would net the Bills a touchdown. And after a half dominating Buffalo, they went to the locker room tied, when the Patriots should have been up by 7 points. It was a bad risk/reward decision by the Hooded One.

Sanu played an awful game. He whiffed on the block on that aforementioned fourth-down play. And he fielded a punt he should never have been close to, risking a muff that would have changed momentum. Not sure if his ankle injury is still bothering him, but he's one of the players who will benefit from some time off if the Patriots get a playoff Bye.

Where does that leave us? One more win and the Patriots get their traditional week off before the playoffs. Miami is pretty terrible, and they almost never win important games at Foxboro. So if form holds, the Patriots will play their first post-season game on 1/11 or 1/12/2020. Here's hoping!

Biggest on-going issue: It's still the offense, though there were hopeful signs this week. The most underplayed issue is that there have been more game-operation problems with the Pats sideline than most years. But that is secondary to the offense at this point.

Non-Brady MVP: Rex Burkhead, despite his fumble. He gave the team a spark in both the run and pass games, and his 19.3 yards per catch is excellent on four catches.

Statistical oddity: Since the NFL realigned divisions in 2002, no team in the AFC East has won more games than the Patriots in any single year. The two seasons since then where the Patriots didn't win the division was because of tie-breakers.

(Trivia Question #2: name the quarterbacks to play the majority of the snaps for the two non-Patriots teams that won the AFC East since 2000. Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "A great game and a good win. One more good win and they get a week off."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer #1:
Folk kicked the 51-yarder for the New York Jets.

PPPS. Trivia answer #2:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
Trick question; only one quarterback turned the trick. Chad Pennington played the majority of the snaps for the 2002 Jets and the 2008 Dolphins, which are the only teams other than the Patriots to win the division in the last 19 seasons.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Patriots Dispatch Bengals 34-13,Gain Playoff Berth

The Patriots outclassed Cincy, beating the Bengals 34-13 to run their record to 11-3. The win guarantees the Pats a playoff berth, and keeps them in the hunt for the #2 overall AFC seed. Next up is the showdown with Buffalo, who comes to Gillette this Saturday to try to knock the Patriots from their usual perch atop the AFC East.

If you didn't watch this game, it was a lot more tense than the final score indicates. The Bengals led 10-7 early, were running the ball all over the place, and had a third-and-2 at the Pats 31 yard-line. They could have made things really uncomfortable with a score there. But they got stuffed on third- and fourth-downs and the Pats took control of the game from that point.

As is often the case, QB Tom Brady started slowly. He misfired on his first throw of the game (and was pissed at himself about it) and completed less than 50% of his passes in the first half. He sometimes has trouble coming out firing these days. Too many high or low passes. This game, he ended up with pretty boring numbers: 15 of 29 (52%), 128 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an 86.6 rating. But perhaps most important was the 0 next to interceptions.

In fairness, his receivers dropped a bunch of passes, too. Mohamed Sanu dropped a fourth-down pass for the second time in three games. Julian Edelman and James White also had drops, and the offense just couldn't sustain anything after the opening drive.

The O played better in the last 35 minutes. That was partially because they just executed better, but they also benefited from short fields after turnovers. Including a blocked punt late in the first half, the Patriots scored on drives of minus-5 yards, 43 yards, and 40 yards. Not exactly the kind of sustained success you'd hope to see. (Note: the defense threw in a pick-six score for the final total.)

On offense, the Patriots seem to come in with decent first-drive plans, having scored on their opening possession the last three games. But once their opponents see the plan and make adjustments, it often takes until the second half to come up with Plan B. That works against also-rans like the Bengals, but it likely won't in the playoffs.

The running game took center stage yesterday. New England rushed for a season-high 175 yards and got 5.5 yards per carry. Sony Michel led the team with 89 yards, and Rex Burkhead chipped in 53 and an 8.8ypc average (and a nifty 33-yard touchdown). Also, running back James White led all receivers with 3 catches and 49 yards.

If White's numbers look pedestrian for someone who led the team, then you can guess how the receivers looked. The last time Edelman had as few as 2 catches in a Tom Brady start was all the way back in 2014. N'Keal Harry looked okay some of the time, but even on his touchdown, he took over 5 seconds to get open at the end-line. Sanu caught 2 passes and fumbled one of them, and tight end Ben Watson zeroed out the stat sheet. Only tight end Matt LaCosse and Harry looked better than usual in this contest.

One note on the offensive line, Marcus Cannon had an absolutely dreadful day. The Bengals sacked Brady twice and hit him six other times. And it seemed like every time it happened it was Cannon's guy coming around edge to put the hurt on Brady. He's played better this year, and it would be a bad time for him to start losing form -- maybe O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia can work some magic with him.

As per usual, the defense was the best of the three units by far. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore picked off two passes, including the aforementioned return for touchdown. And his INT on the Bengals' first drive of the second half turned the tide firmly in the Patriots favor. If Cincy had scored, they could have been in the lead -- but after the INT, the Pats scored and it was getting away from the Bengals.

Corner JC Jackson also had two picks, and he and Gilmore also knocked away seven other passes, which is an almost unheard of number for one game! Safety Patrick Chung and corner Terrence Brooks were up-and-down, and Jonathan Jones got beaten on another touchdown. But even with those issues, a very impressive day for the secondary.

The linebackers started slow but got better as the game wore on. On Cincinnati's only touchdown drive, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower both missed tackles in the backfield on one play -- a play that went for a 29 yard run. Collins got better, though Hightower wasn't that noticeable. By game's end, backup Ja'Whaun Bentley was making plays in mop-up duty. Also of note: rookie Chase Winovich seems good for a few QB pressures and hustle plays every game.

Bentley shared the team lead in tackles (7) with defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who did a great job clogging the middle after the first few drives. Danny Shelton also performed well on the line, getting six tackles of his own.

Special teams ace Matthew Slater caused a fumbled punt, and it was recovered by another ST ace, Justin Bethel. The Patriots didn't go after blocks this week, but special teams still made a real impact. The Bengals used timeouts to get the ball back before the half, but Slater and Bethel denied them -- giving the Pats the ball and a field goal before intermission.

As for the coaching, one thing I've noticed is there are more in-game issues with the Pats than usual. In the second quarter yesterday, John Simon was called for a penalty on an Andy Dalton incompletion. But on the play, it was pretty clearly intentional grounding on Dalton. But Belichick never even looked at, let alone yelled at, an official on that one.

I wonder if BB has taken on so much with the defense that some of the in-game management has suffered. Against the Chiefs they ran out of challenges after one was wasted on an unlikely overturn. And in that game, they didn't even try for points with good field position before the half, seeming to run out the clock rather than attack as they normally would.

It bears watching, but there do seem to have been far more game-management issues in 2019 than in past years.

Where does that leave us? 11-3 and in the playoffs for the 11th straight year. It's a far cry from the Rod Rust years in the old stadium. Next up are the Bills, who won to keep pace yesterday. A win and the Patriots are AFC East Champs yet again.

Believe it or not, the Patriots control the division even if they lose on Saturday (4:30pm). Their 10-1 record against common opponents would be the tiebreaker in effect if they lose to Buffalo (currently 8-3) and they end up with the same record.

However, things would be much simpler if the Patriots won out. That way they'd have a playoff bye and the division crown. They can lose the #2 seed to Kansas City under the above scenario. So better to just beat the Bills, like they usually do :D

Biggest on-going problem: Offensive consistency. First drive, "Yay!" Rest of the first half, "Meh..." Second half, "Woohoo!"

They need to get rid of that second part.

Non-Brady MVP: Stephon Gilmore, who basically shut down the Bengals best receiver (Tyler Boyd, 3 catches for 26 yards), knocked down four passes, intercepted two passes, and returned one of those for six points. As far as I'm concerned, he can take the Miami game off, he's earned it!

Statistical oddity: It's been 46 years since a team finished with three of the top five intercepting players in the league. The Patriots have a real shot at it this year, with Gilmore, Jackson, and safety Devin McCourty among the league leaders. (Trivia question: can you name the team that did it in 1973? Answer below...)


Water-cooler wisdom: "The Bills are better than expected, but Josh Allen isn't ready to take down the best secondary in the league."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

PPS. Trivia answer:
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
The 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers had Mike Wagner, Glen Edwards, and John Rowser in the top 5 in Interceptions that year.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Brady Now More Likely To Leave Than Retire

For a while it has appeared that 2019 will be Tom Brady's last season in New England. Mostly I thought retirement was the most likely outcome. But now I'm thinking the odds have shifted on his future.

I have come to believe that the most likely scenario is Brady leaving to play somewhere else in 2020. There is a lot of evidence already in place, which I'll list here but not rehash. (A) His contract was re-done so it expires after this year. (B) He and his trainer (Alex Guerrero) put their houses up for sale. (C) He resigned from the local chapter of Best Buddies charity.

In the past few weeks, two new things popped up that helped sway me to believe that TB12 might leave for another team.

The first is that he started making noise about playing until he was 47. My thinking had been that if he was only going to play until 45 (as he asserted previously), it didn't make sense to leave the Pats for a rebuild project somewhere else. If he did that, it would take a year or two to rebuild the new team. And that would give him just one or two shots at another Super Bowl win.

However, if he is planning to play until 47, a one/two-year rebuild gives him three or four shots at another Super Bowl in the new location. IMO, that is a much more attractive option for Brady.

The second thing is that Tom Brady, Sr. said publicly that his son wants to continue playing after this year. He could be wrong, but something tells me he has more information than most when it comes to Tom Jr.'s decision.

Putting these two new facts into the mix changes the picture significantly. I previously thought there was a 50% chance he'd retire, a 40% chance he come back to New England, and a 10% chance he'd play somewhere else.

Now I think it's more like a 60% chance he'll play somewhere else, a 30% chance he'll be back with the Pats, and a 10% chance he'll retire. IMO he is now twice as likely to leave than to stay.

(Note: I have no inside information about this. Zero, zilch, nada, bagel! This is just me putting together information that is known to the public.)

If Brady leaves, the question then becomes which team he would play for in 2020. Here are the three strongest contenders, in my opinion:

1. Miami Dolphins. He knows a lot of the coaching staff there, the weather is much nicer, and they have plenty of salary cap space to pay him absolute top dollar. This would also give him two games a year against the Jets and Bills, teams he has absolutely owned over the years.

A bonus for him might be the chance to stick it to the Patriots twice a year. But that is a double-edged sword -- as he'd have to face Belichick, the greatest coach of all time. No easy task.

2. Tennessee Titans. They have a defense that's ready for prime time, and are a QB away from being a legitimate contender. And as well as Ryan Tannehill has played for them, the organization should be honest with itself about his ceiling. This year is more likely fool's gold than actual treasure.

A huge bonus would be that this division is always (and I mean *always*) mediocre. Since 2013, no team has won 12 games in a season. And multiple division champs were 9-7 during that time. In other words, Brady would *own* this division for the foreseeable future.

3. Los Angeles Chargers. The team moves into a new stadium next year, but they are an afterthought to the LA Rams. Signing Brady would get fans into the stands. And he'd be able to expand his TB12 health centers to the west coast.

The downside is that he'd always be on the "afterthought" team in LA -- because the owner of the stadium owns the Rams. And he'd have to face stronger competition in the AFC West than the AFC South.

Lastly, don't think I'm bummed about this. The media plays it up like it would be a disaster to lose Brady. But that attitude does two things that I don't like.

First, it takes away from watching him and the team now. If fans started worrying about the future when Brady first started to decline, they wouldn't have enjoyed the last three Super Bowls as much as they could.

Second, it assumes that the Patriots will be lost without Brady. I don't think that will ever be true as long as Belichick is in New England.

I've said for years that Belichick gets you to the playoffs almost every year. But it's Belichick/Brady that got the team to nine Super Bowls and won six Championships.

Without Brady, Belichick probably would have won one or two Super Bowls. So without Brady going forward, don't expect the Pats to fall off a cliff.

I still hope Brady doesn't leave. But if it does, get ready for: "We're on to Stidham."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-3!