Thursday, August 11, 2016

Four Reasons To Watch The Preseason


August already, and you’re wondering why to spend a beautiful summer evening inside watching Patriots preseason football. After all, you could be at a BBQ, an outdoor concert, or maybe getting a cool treat at your favorite ice cream place.

Oh wait, this year you don’t need an excuse to watch the preseason! Tom Brady, in case you hadn’t heard, will sit out the first four regular-season games. So Patriots fans everywhere have all the motivation they need to crank up the A/C and watch all four preseason games.

But just in case watching Jimmy Garappolo tune up for the real games isn’t enough, here are four things to watch in the four preseason games.

1. The Most Important Position in Team Sports

Naturally fans are curious how third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will perform in the regular season. And dissecting his every preseason snap is the closest they’ll get to figuring out whether to bet the over or under on Pats season victories.

But I’ll actually be watching the rookie, Jacoby Brissett more than Garoppolo. I know about what to expect from Jimmy G. He breaks the pocket a bit too quickly, and he will have a tougher time with complex defenses than Brady. That’s to be expected.

However, if Garoppolo struggles in the regular season, I’ll want to know if Brissett is ready to step in. And he should see plenty of action in the preseason. After all, if Garoppolo is expected to start opening day, the Pats will limit his exposure to injury in the preseason.

2. Two Tight End Offense, Round III

This is literally the third season in a row the Patriots spent significant energy trying to find a second tight end to pair with superstar Rob Gronkowski. And after some mediocre production from Tim Wright and last year’s disappointment, Scott Chandler, they might have gotten it right with former Chicago Bears TE Martellus Bennett.

All reports out of camp say he has developed a good chemistry with both Garoppolo and Brady. And Bennett's 6’ 6” frame will give the Pats another great weapon in the red zone -- if he works out.

I’ll be watching to see if the QBs throw to Bennett on time and in rhythm, which would show he’s earned their trust. Other things to watch are whether they target Bennett in the end zone, and if the two tight-end formations bring smaller defensive lineups (for coverage) or heavier lineups (to stop the run).

3. Reshuffled Lines

The Pats traded Chandler Jones, their top sack-man from last year, to the Arizona Cardinals. His departure seemed inevitable, both because of some off-field issues and because his longer, leaner frame just didn’t seem suited to play outside on the Patriots line.

Newcomers Terrance Knighton (6’ 3”, 355 pounds) and Chris Long (6’ 3”, 270 pounds) are more like traditional Patriots linemen -- shorter but stouter against the run. Jones will likely thrive in Arizona (bet the over on number of sacks he has this season), but Knighton or Long will likely be the most important off-season defensive pick-ups for the Patriots.

The offensive line added perhaps its most important piece: 68 year-old O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. When Scar left, the line quickly went from a strength to a weakness. And departed coach Dave DeGuglielmo couldn’t patch things together -- even when the team spent higher draft picks on linemen.

It will help if tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer can stay healthy. But if Scarnecchia can work his magic, he could be this year’s Wade Phillips -- the most important non-player signing in the league. And that worked out well for Phillips; he oversaw a Denver defense that led them to a championship.

4. The New and The Returning

The two most important players returning from injury are wideout Julian Edelman and running back Dion Lewis. And you can’t overstate the importance of either. There is no replacement for Edelman on the roster, and there is no one behind Lewis who comes close to his burst or ability in the open field.

If Lewis hadn’t been injured at mid-year last season, the Patriots likely would have gone to the Super Bowl. And if the Pats plan to tread water during Brady’s absence, they’ll need Edelman and Lewis healthy enough to make the offense click with Garoppolo.

Guard Jonathan Cooper came via the Jones trade, and he’s already first on the depth chart at right guard. If he comes close to reaching the potential that convinced Arizona to draft him seventh overall, that trade would be a blowout win for the Patriots. If he can just provide stability and stay healthy, it will go a long way toward reestablishing the O-line as a strength on the team.

The Pats also have six backup linebackers on the roster, all trying to unseat journeyman Jonathan Freeny. Freeny is okay, but it’ll be a welcome development if they can build depth behind rising stars Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, because the talent drop-off is significant after those two. It would also give them the flexibility to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 defense situationally, something head coach Bill Belichick always strives for.

Summary

And there you have it; four reasons to watch the four preseason games, only one of which was the obvious choice.

Enjoy the games!

- Scott

Monday, January 25, 2016

Patriots Outlasted By Broncos, 20-18

Sigh. The Patriots came up just short yesterday, losing 20-18 to the Broncos. That means no trip to the Super Bowl, no chance that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to swallow his tongue handing the Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft, and no chance that Brady gets that fifth ring this year.

Despite the close final score, the Broncos defense dominated play. They sacked Tom Brady 4 times and hit him 20 times in the game (according to some reports, 20 is the highest total for any NFL game this season). And even that might have been survivable, if the Pats receivers could get quick enough separation. But that's where Denver's D did the job; they jammed receivers at the line and dropped in to short zones that didn't allow for the quick releases necessary to keep Brady upright.

The Patriots offensive line was just dreadful. It's clear now that their performance against the Chiefs was fool's gold -- with numbers helped by quick release throws and two missing KC pass rushers. Outside pressure regularly beat Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, and when they added a sixth linemen, Cameron Fleming got whipped outside, too. Add to that the facts that Brady was their leading rusher with 13 yards and they committed 4 penalties for 30 yards, and it's obvious they sucked.

How was the quarterback? Hard to tell. Every wide-view replay verified what I feared; that the receivers simply weren't winning any one-on-one battles. Even Brady's completions were usually in tight windows and some looked like they would be knocked away before reaching the receivers. And oh, those missed throws to running back James White. He had him breaking open for touchdowns twice on one drive, and overthrew both times.

Brady made some amazing plays, two fourth-down conversions on the final drive, for example. But his two interceptions were just plain bad throws. One interception led to a touchdown drive, and the other killed great field position before the half.

With the exception of Gronkowski, the receivers join the O-line in getting an F for the day. No separation, no blocking on running plays, important drops (I'm looking at you, Danny Amendola), and an overall lack of focus. Gronkowski battled injuries, cramps, and double/triple-teams to grab 8 catches for 144 yards and an almost-tying touchdown. Julian Edelman was invisible in the first half, and I'll never understand how Brandon LaFell went from 74 catches and 7 touchdowns in 2014 to 37 and 0 in 2015. SMH.

The running backs suffered from bad O-line play, too. 14 carries for 31 yards, and Brady had more yards than any running back. They did have 7 catches for 74 yards, and if Brady had hit White on either of the touchdown throws, the entire game might have come out differently.

Linebacker Jamie Collins was emblematic of how the defense played all day. He got beaten on both of the Broncos touchdown passes in the first half. And in the second half, he had two sacks (for 25 lost yards), five tackles, and two QB hits, as the team held the Broncos to just three second-half points. The Patriots offensive problems allowed Denver to get a lead and play small-ball/clock-management and hold on for the win.

The other linebackers, mostly Dont'a Hightower and Jonathan Freeny helped slow the Broncos running game some (3.3 yards per carry, as opposed to 5.6ypc in their November meeting). And Freeny made a heads-up play, covering a lateral that was eventually ruled a turnover for the Patriots. (It also led to their only touchdown in the first half). But it was surprisingly easy for the Broncos receivers to get open in the short-middle zones. Those throws are the easiest for Peyton Manning at this point, so I expected the Patriots linebackers to cut them off and force outside throws instead.

The defensive line did a great job all day long. Not only did they shut down the run, but they pushed the inside pocket effectively enough to force about 8-10 bad plays by Manning. Alan Branch had a sack and a tackle for a loss, Chandler Jones did a nice job dropping into coverage to force a sack of Manning, and Rob Ninkovich was instrumental in stopping the run.

The only really bad play by the D-line was losing contain on a Manning scramble. He gained a first down, and that changed field position significantly. The next four Patriots drives started at their own 8, 4, 20, and 29 yards lines. That made it pretty tough to come back.

The only real complaint about the secondary is that twice cornerback Malcolm Butler was in position for an interception and he missed both times. Once the pass was completed, the other time it was incomplete. But in a game when the team needed a big play, he had two in his hands and didn't come up with either. He ended up with two knockdowns and seven tackles, but had a chance to be a hero in the game.

Logan Ryan did great work on Demaryius Thomas, holding him to two catches for twelve yards. (Side note: the Broncos should cut Thomas; he never shows up in big games.) And both safety Devin McCourty and third-corner Justin Coleman had key knockdowns early in the game. Safety Patrick Chung did a decent job in run support, although I suspect he was responsible for deep coverage on the Broncos first touchdown.

Special teams did not hold up their end of the bargain. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in a decade, and it forced the team to try for two at the end of the game (and of course, the try failed). He took the blame for the loss, and though it's not all on him, he has to figure out why big-game kicks are more difficult for him. The team also had an "illegal downfield" penalty on one punt and "illegal motion" on another. These are pre-season types of penalties, and there's no reason they should happen in a playoff game.

The punt game itself was very good. Ryan Allen's net average was 43.3, gunner Brandon King made a nice tackle, and they forced Denver into a 15-yard penalty on another punt. Also, Danny Amendola and Edelman combined for a 12-yard average on four punt returns; not bad.

Several coaching decisions left me puzzled. First, the decision to receive the opening kickoff instead of deferring was a head-scratcher. Bill Belichick defers so he can get the ball first in the second half, when the crowd is usually quieter than they are to start the game. In a situation like this, where crowd noise would disrupt his undermanned offensive line, it's strange that they'd decide to take the ball for the first time in recent memory.

Also, they went for it on fourth-down late in the game instead of kicking field goals. The first time would have been a 43-yarder to make it 20-15 with 6:00 to play. The second time would have made it 20-15 (or 20-18) with 2:25 to play, and the Patriots holding all their timeouts. In a game where they ended up 2-15 on third-down conversions (13%), it might have been wiser to kick one of those field goals to set up a touchdown to win it (or kick both to set up a field goal for the win).

So where does that leave us? I'll be getting back to my normal sleep patterns, I guess. The loss sends the team back to the drawing board. It appears both their offensive and defensive coordinators will be back next season, so they'll have to start with player evaluations and decide whether or not to keep their special teams and offensive line coaches.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the last five possessions of the game, the Broncos had 3 yards of total offense, the Patriots had 3 red zone possessions.

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Alan Branch, who disrupted the Denver running attack and notched a sack.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Wait 'til next year won't stop hurting until the Monday after the Super Bowl."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-5 & 1-1 :(

Friday, January 22, 2016

Playoff Preview: Patriots at Broncos

So the annual Brady/Manning game got pushed back a few months, and it’s this Sunday. Blame it on Brock Osweiler; the faux heir apparent who was good enough to beat the Pats in November, setting up Denver to host this game.


The Broncos won that game 30-24 in overtime. So the question is: has enough changed between then and now to expect a different outcome?


**Spoiler Alert**, plenty has changed, believe me. Read on to see if the Patriots can reverse the deficit on Sunday and go to their seventh Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.

1. Meet The New QB, Same As The Old QB


Peyton Manning isn’t quite the same old QB, but he is an upgrade over Brock Osweiler at this juncture. Manning has 25 playoff starts, Osweiler none. And for those who think Manning doesn’t have the arm strength to be effective, remember: both he and Brady are the best ever pre-snap.


Even if Peyton can’t throw it more than 20 yards, he can audible to the proper play to give his team a chance to win that play. And he can do that with great effectiveness for 65-80 plays a game. He might not win it with 40-yard bombs, but he’ll be better putting his team in the right position more often than Osweiler would have been.


If Osweiler had been good enough to keep his job, this game would be a Patriots blowout. Belichick is just too good at attacking the weaknesses of young quarterbacks. (Note: the one blip in that pattern is that QBs are 5-4 when their making his second, third, or fourth start -- that is how Osweiler won in November; it was his second start.)

Also consider that Manning overthrew long passes by 2-3 yards in week 17 of the regular season. But he only overthrew long passes by a yard or less in last week's playoff victory. If he gets his accuracy back for this game, it'll make things that much tougher.


2. Patriots Defensive Reinforcement


The one defensive player who couldn’t go for the Patriots in November was linebacker Jamie Collins. Regular readers of this blog know how much he means to the team. He will make it more difficult for the Broncos to complete short passes over the middle, which would force Manning to throw deeper or to the sideline, both of which are a problem for him at this point.


One additional reinforcement, hopefully, is a healthier Dont’a Hightower. He played a little over one-quarter of the November tilt. The Broncos rushed for an average of 2.9 yards per carry with Hightower on the field, and 8.0 ypc without him, so his importance can’t be overstated.


The team did lose Jerod Mayo this week. But he didn’t play very much (or very well) in the first Broncos game. In fact, his replacement that night, Jonathan Freeney, led the team with 12 tackles and had a sack of Osweiler.


3. Patriots Offensive Changes


Missing from the November game: receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Patriots went 2-13 (15%) on third-down conversions in that game; but in games with Edelman, they were 52% on the season (including 50% last weekend). Also, Amendola wasn’t there to return punts, and rookie Chris Harper fumbled a punt to led to a Denver touchdown.


On the downside, the team lost running back LeGarrette Blount since the November tilt. And they have no running game to speak of at the moment; so it’ll all come down to Brady and the receivers. Which isn’t a bad place to be, especially when Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are on the field.


4. Denver Defensive Line Help


One important Denver player who missed the November game was defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He brings his 7.5 sacks to the party, playing opposite Von Miller, who led the team with 11 on the year. In fact, the Broncos led the NFL with 52 sacks. And they’ll have their raucous crowd to disrupt the Patriots still-struggling offensive line.


This might be where the game is won or lost. If the crowd noise disrupts the Pats offensive line enough for the Broncos ends to get pressure on Brady, it could be a long day. It only takes pressure on a few plays to hurry the quarterback and have him risk a turnover or take an inopportune sack.


Denver is a tough place to play, not just because of the altitude, but because their team is designed to take advantage of the crowd noise. It’s similar to when Indianapolis had two defensive ends who could speed-rush with the best of them. Add the noise in the dome and it's nearly impossible for offensive linemen to get a good jump on the play.


5. Blunders/Officiating


In the first game, the Patriots muffed a punt, they missed several tackles behind the line of scrimmage that would have stopped big gains, and they botched clock management at the end of the half and the end of the game.


They were also on the wrong end of several questionable officials calls. Not that I’m blaming the referees for the loss; but it didn’t help.


It’s unlikely all that will go against the Patriots again. But on the road you never know for sure.


6. Quick Hits

A) Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is 1-4 in his last five games against Bill Belichick.


B) Denver is the only playoff team that had a negative turnover ratio in 2015 (-4 on the season).


C) The Patriots finished with a +7 turnover ratio, and they turned the ball over the least in the entire NFL (14 total for the year).


D) Brady and Manning have met in four previous AFC Championship Games. The home team won all four times.

E) Brady is 2-6 career in Denver.


Summary


The Patriots are too thin to sustain any injuries among these players: Tom Brady (obviously), Gronkowski, Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Collins, Hightower, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan.


They have enough depth elsewhere to survive injuries. But if any of those listed players miss significant time on Sunday, the chances of a Patriots win drop significantly.


It’ll all come down to the Patriots stopping the Denver running game and the Broncos getting pressure on Brady. With Collins and Hightower playing, they can accomplish the former. And if Edelman and Gronkowski stay healthy, Brady can deliver the ball quickly enough to neutralize the latter. I think they will be healthy enough, so my guess is...


Patriots 31, Broncos 23.


Enjoy the game!

- Scott


PS. 1-0!
&
13-4!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Patriots Beat Chiefs 27-20

The Patriots started the playoffs with a rousing 27-20 win over the Chiefs in Foxboro yesterday. The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship Game; the opponent next week depends on the outcome of the Steelers/Broncos game tonight. The Patriots will either host the Steelers in Foxboro or go on the road to play the Broncos in Denver.

The game yesterday went about as expected. With most of the Patriots healthy, and Kansas City missing their best receiving threat, the Pats started fast, leading 14-6 at the half. They turned the ball over from Kansas City on the first drive of the second half, and before you knew it, it was 21-6.

From there, they played the slow-down game on defense, keeping multiple scores ahead most of the time, and the Chiefs ran out of time. Although that was partially their own fault; head coach Andy Reid reverted to form with terrible clock management, aided and abetted by his QB, who huddled after most every play with the clock running down.

The secondary did a great job of keeping very tight coverage. It wasn't perfect. Starters Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, along with nickel back Justin Coleman, all had some terrific plays and coverage, and all made some boneheaded plays that gave up completions. But they were doing something right, holding Chiefs QB Alex Smith to his lowest yards-per-completion (4.9) of the season and second-lowest completion percentage (58%) during their recent winning streak.

More than a few times we at the stadium marveled that there were simply no KC receiver with more than a yard of separation. Mind you, this is part of the Chiefs' DNA. Patriots QB Tom Brady would have thrown into those tight windows. But Kansas City has less faith in their receivers to battle for the ball, so they often throw the ball away when it's a close call.

Ryan and safety Patrick Chung led the team with 9 tackles a piece, and Chung did a nice job holding KC tight end Travis Kelce to just 3.8 yards per catch, the lowest number of Kelce's entire career. Safety Devin McCourty was mostly used near the line as a cornerback, which tells me the Patriots don't trust their corners after Coleman. That put Duron Harmon in centerfield to protect against long passes, which he mostly did a good job on (despite a few hiccups).

The linebacking corps held up well, overcoming injuries that knocked all three starters out at different points in the game. Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo left in the third quarter and did not return. Dont'a Hightower was in-and-out during the game, and he stood out, with six tackles and a big fumble recovery. Jonathan Freeney played surprisingly well filling in, and Dekoda Watson (#52 on your scoresheet) was up-and-down but made a few plays, too.

On the defensive line, Chandler Jones had an excellent game, notching four tackles, one sack, a QB hit, and a huge forced fumble. The younger players seemed unsteady in the big game. Both Malcom Brown and Aikeem Hicks weren't as active as they'd been recently. As a result, KC ran the ball better than expected, averaging 4.2 ypc and totaling 135 yards on the day. Fortunately they fell behind, and thus had to abandon the run midway through the third quarter.

Quarterback Tom Brady was in complete control of the game from the start. He had only two or three bad throws, and without some dropped passes he would have topped 70% completions. With a more complete portfolio of receivers, he released the ball quickly and hit receivers in stride. One of his best throws of the night was a pump-and-go on the second touchdown to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The timing of those two was on display on that play and many others.

The receivers were outstanding. Gronkowski finished with 7 catches for 83 yards and 2 TDs, and receiver Julian Edelman returned with 10 catches for 100 yards, and five first downs. It wasn't perfect for Edelman; he had a least two drops, but the rust should come off as the games progress. Keshawn Martin was the biggest receiving surprise. He had only two catches, but both were for big first downs on scoring drives.

Running back James White had more receiving yards (39) than the entire team had rushing (38). In other words, if the Patriots plan to go further in the playoffs, it'll be on the arm of Brady and the route-running of the receivers, not on the running game. The backs should play based on how well they block and can be used in the passing game, because there is no running to be had by New England right now.

The offensive line did play better with the return of tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Still not great, but with the receivers getting quick separation, the O-line didn't have to protect for very long.  Brady wasn't sacked but that was mostly due to the quick-release, so don't be fooled.

Special Teams had one bad penalty when Nate Ebner was offside on a kickoff. It's only a five-yarder, but on the re-kick the Chiefs picked up 14 total yards, and got a field goal just before the end of the first half. It didn't cost them this time, but that combined with Danny Amendola's penalty shows there are still some issues on special teams.

Also, punter Ryan Allen didn't live up to his usual standards. His 26.3 net average is the second worst of his career, and he had no punts downed inside the 20 yard line. His kicks were uncharacteristically low, which allowed decent returns by the Chiefs. Hoping it was an anomaly, not a new normal.

The Patriots coaches had an excellent game plan to start the game. And once they got ahead, they let the Chiefs try to come back with their history of poor clock management and no deep threat. Although they did have some poor clock management themselves, running off just 60-seconds of clock time mid-fourth quarter, when they should have run off at least 2:15.

My other complaint with the coaching was that both of their replay-challenges were ill-conceived. On the first one, they had the ball first-and-goal at the half-yard line, so their chances of scoring in any event were excellent. (And in fact, they scored on the first play after the challenge was denied.)

The second challenge was on a non-catch over the middle that the Patriots wanted reversed to a catch-and-fumble by the Chiefs. But the replays were pretty clear that the play was an immediate hit, which is not ruled a catch in today's NFL. The coaches have to be smarter with those challenges; they won't always be playing against ultra-conservative coaches with lesser offensive weapons.

So where does that leave us? Awaiting the result tonight, I guess. Hoping for a Steelers win, but the undermanned Pittsburghers won't have it easy in Denver, without their best receiver, best running back, and an injured quarterback. You can always hope; but no matter the outcome, Brady will be in his tenth AFC Championship Game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the 2015 regular season, the Patriots converted 50% of their third downs when Edelman was on the field, but only 33% when he wasn't in the game. With his return yesterday, they converted exactly 50% again.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Julian Edelman for the reason stated in the Statistical Oddity. He's the motor that makes this offense go, and even if Gronkowski scores more points, without Edelman, there aren't enough first-downs to get to the end zone.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Once it was clear the Pats receivers were okay, this game was always going to be a win. KC just doesn't have the weapons to keep up."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!
&
13-4!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Playoff Preview: Chiefs at Patriots

The Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs this Saturday, and if you are a regular reader, you know I think that is the toughest possible team for the Patriots to face in this year's playoffs (link). Not that any team is unbeatable, but Kansas City poses specific problems that exploit weaknesses on the Patriots.

The last time they played was at Arrowhead Stadium in KC, and you'll probably recall the Chiefs thrashed the Patriots 41-14. If you don't remember the game, maybe these post-game quotes will remind you:
  • "The Patriots just aren't good any more." (Trent Dilfer, ESPN)
  • "[Jimmy Garappolo] could start sooner rather than later." (Chris Mortensen, ESPN)
  • "Less than a month ago Brady said 'when I suck, I'll retire.' If he's true to his word he'll walk away tomorrow." (Will Brinson, CBS Sports)
  • "I don't believe this group is ever going to play in another Super Bowl." (Mike Lupica, New York Daily News)
  • "Their failure was so complete, so embarrassing, that it's hard to see any way they'll win more games than they lose." (Ty Schalter, Bleacher Report)
  • "Should they explore trading Tom Brady?" (Eric Wilbur, Boston.com)
Now that the history lesson is out of the way, has enough changed between September 2014 and January 2016 to think the outcome will be different? Perhaps; read on to find out.

1. Pats O-line Problems

One common denominator is the Patriots problems on the offensive line. Kansas City dominated the line in 2014, as new O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was still trying to build a cohesive unit. Brady threw two interceptions, lost a fumble, and his QB rating of 59.9 was the lowest of the season.

This year the O-line issues are mostly injury related. Left tackle Nate Solder is out for the year, and the other tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, missed multiple games with injuries. The shifting lineups led to problems with Brady getting time to find receivers, and a mostly non-existent running game.

Vollmer will be back on Saturday, but no certainty how well he plays. The Pats will likely use an extra player in pass protection (either tight end Michael Williams or a sixth offensive lineman). This could be a big problem, but might be mitigated by... 

2. Chiefs Coverage Challenges

The Patriots receivers won't be 100% healthy, but if they are close, they present problems for the Chiefs. Kansas City has given up significant yards and catches to tight ends this year, and ones you might not have heard much about. Imagine how they'll hold up facing the best tight end in the game, Rob Gronkowski.

And even if they double-team Gronkowski, receiver Julian Edelman is expected to return from injury. Reportedly Edelman has been running all the normal routes in the normal way in practice, so he could be at or near 100%. Even double-teaming Edelman doesn't always work, so they are probably better off making quick tackles after the catch.

But assume for a moment that the Chiefs double Gronkowski and Edelman. That leaves Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell facing their third- and fourth-best corner backs. It also leaves only linebackers to cover running back James White. All three of those matchups are mismatches in the Patriots favor.

The Chiefs have to get pressure on Brady. Because if they don't, the myriad weapons in the passing game could eat them alive.

3. Patriots Defense Better, and Worse

The Patriots defense got schooled in that last game. 207 yards on the ground, a 144.4 QB rating for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, 8.4 yards per pass attempt, and 36:27 time of possession. Those are all really, really bad stats. Some of it was attributable to turnovers, but the defense still gave up big plays on those extra possessions.

For the Saturday tilt, the Pats front-seven is better and the secondary is worse. Jabaal Sheard, rookie Malcom Brown, and veteran Akiem Hicks helped shore the front line, and the team finished second in the NFL with 49 sacks. Few teams run well against the Pats, and running quarterbacks are usually kept in the pocket.

However, the secondary is demonstrably worse. They lost their four top corners from last year, among them Darrelle Revis and underrated slot-corner Kyle Arrington. Second-year corner Malcolm Butler and veteran Logan Ryan have stepped up admirably. But behind them there is very, very little depth.

Fortunately for the Patriots, the Chiefs' top receiving threat, Jeremy Maclin, suffered a high ankle sprain last week. So no one should expect much from him in this game. That leaves mostly tight end Travis Kelce to attack a defense that is very good at eliminating the other team's main weapon. And Pats safety Patrick Chung has done a great job against tight ends this year; expect that to continue Saturday.

So even though the Patriots secondary is worse than last year, the Chiefs are not effectively equipped to attack its weaknesses.

4. Turnovers

The Patriots and Chiefs turned the ball over the fewest times in the league this season. The Patriots turned it over just 14 times, but the Chiefs were close behind with just 15 giveaways on the season. Both teams thrive on turnovers, but neither can expect many on Saturday.

Tom Brady throws an interception only 1.1% of the time he throws the ball. Alex Smith throws an interception only 1.5% of the time he throws the ball. Yep; turnovers are going to be hard to come by in this game.

5. Venue and Weather

The last game was in Kansas City, and that was a major factor in the game. Offensive line play is about continuity and communication. And the crowd noise made communication impossible, which was especially tough with a bunch of new linemen and a new line coach.

In this game, it'll be the Chiefs who have to fight crowd noise on Saturday. And don't discount the Patriots ability to exploit that. Their linebacker and safety blitzes have been very effective this year.

Weather will be chilly but not freezing, and the rain should be over by game time. There will be some wind, but overall, the weather should not be a factor.

7. Quick Hits:

A) The Chiefs pass rush is nothing to sneeze at; they had 47 sacks of their own this year.

B) However, they also gave up the sixth-most sacks, 46, for the season. That is the second-most among playoff teams this year (trivia question #1: which playoff team gave up more sacks than the Chiefs? Answer below.)

C) Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 4-1 career against Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.

D) I keep hearing the Chiefs will have a decided special teams advantage on Saturday. But I don't see it. The Patriots had some breakdowns, but KC hit only 30 of 37 field goals and was middle-of-the-pack in punt and kickoff returns.

E) Since 1970, the Chiefs have two road playoff wins. Both came in Houston (the Oilers in 1993, and the Texans last week).

8. Summary

Even though Denver holds the #1 seed in the AFC, this is still the toughest team for the Patriots. Health of the players is key. If Gronkowski, Edelman, Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Chung, and Devin McCourty are healthy, the Patriots will win. If any of them are less than 80%, it'll be a dogfight.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots lost back-to-back division games to end the 2015 season. The last time they lost consecutive games to division opponents was Belichick's first season in New England, 2000. (Trivia question #2: One of the losses in 2000 was to a team no longer in the division -- name that team. Answer below.)

Enjoy the game, and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!
&
12-4!

PPS. Trivia answer #1:
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The Green Bay Packers have gave up 47 sacks in the 2015 regular season.

PPPS. Trivia answer #2: The Patriots lost three in a row to AFC East opponents in 2000: the Jets, Colts, and Bills. Two years later, the NFL realigned and the Colts moved to the newly formed AFC South.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Patriots 2015 Regular Season Awards

Hello all,

The playoffs give the 2015 Pats a chance to be special, but before we get to that, here are the much-coveted YourPatriots Regular Season Awards for 2015. Look for the Patriots/Chiefs preview later this week!

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman

It’s simple, folks; without Brady, the Patriots offense simply isn’t championship caliber. And that is AFC East-championship caliber. His command at the line of scrimmage, his ability to identify defenses and the best matchups, his accuracy (even in throwing the ball away), his movement inside the pocket, and even his success rate on third- and fourth-and-short plays -- they all add up to one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game.

Enjoy him while he’s here.

Gronkowski is the other irreplaceable piece on offense. Not only for his receiving abilities and sometimes jaw-dropping yards-after-catch stats, but his blocking is great and his football intelligence allows him to thrive in one of the most complex offenses in the league.

Edelman went down during the Giants game. But with him in the lineup the team averaged 33.6 points per game, and without him they averaged 23.1 -- and never once scored 33 points without Edelman. Also, the team went 9-0 with Edelman in the lineup, 3-4 without him.

Most Improved Offensive Player: LeGarrette Blount
Honorable Mention: James White

Blount ran for 422 more yards (703 vs. 281) and had more than twice as many touchdowns (7 vs. 3). He also carried a lot more of the load on first and second downs, that being forced when Dion Lewis went down with an injury.

For White, more playing time gave him the chance to do more damage in the passing game, and he came through, especially late in the year. He had eight-times as many catches (40 vs. 5), and almost eighteen times as many receiving yards (410 vs. 23). And in fact, he will be a key player in the playoffs, getting time in the shotgun formations and passing downs.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Dion Lewis
Honorable Mention: David Andrews, Shaq Mason

Lewis was a revelation this year, picking up the offense immediately and for seven games he was an excellent replacement for Shane Vereen. His injury halfway through the season was a bigger blow than you’d expect for a first-time Patriots player.

Lewis ran for 4.8 yards per carry, totaled 234 yards, and had 36 catches for 388 yards, including some big ones. He also was very good in pass protection, picking up the blocking schemes faster than any other running back in recent memory.

Andrews and Mason both played well, though Andrews tailed off later in the year. Mason was better on run blocking, but with all the offensive line injuries, these two brought needed talent to that group.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Jamie Collins
Honorable Mention: Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard

Even though Collins missed three games mid-season with an undisclosed illness (and one other with an injury), he had the most sacks (5.5), most passes defended (6), and most forced fumbles (5) of his career. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time, and is the only linebacker the team has who can rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, make tackles inside, and cover backs and tight ends in the passing game.

Hightower missed four games, too, and when his impact against the run was obvious when he was out of the game.

Sheared had eight sacks, four forced fumbles, and two passes knocked down this year. He also did a great job against the run, and could well have been the team’s best outside defensive lineman.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Malcolm Butler
Honorable Mention: Logan Ryan, Chandler Jones

Butler barely saw the field last season, though there was that one important play in the Super Bowl. This season he was clearly the most consistently good corner on the team. He didn’t always take the best receiver one-on-one, but when he did, he either held them in check or competed like hell trying.

Butler led the team with 15 passes defended (he had just 3 last season), and got his first two regular-season interceptions. He is also excellent in run-support.

Ryan started from the first game of the season, and for a while was playing better than Butler. He tailed off toward the end of the year, so Butler was a better corner in 2015, but Ryan had 14 defended passes of his own and also notched four interceptions.

Jones did not have as good a year as some thought, but he did have 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He also got his first NFL interception.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Jabaal Sheard, Malcom Brown
Honorable Mention: Akiem Hicks

Sheard for the reasons mentioned above.

Rookie Brown was one of the best interior defensive lineman on the team, improving while Sealver Siliga’s play dropped off.

Hicks was brought in from New Orleans, and provided the same kind of persistent effort and stability to the interior defensive line that made that unit one of the most dependable on the team.

Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Stephen Gostkowski
Honorable Mention: none

Gostkowski led the NFL in scoring for the fourth straight year, and almost 70% of his kickoffs were touchbacks, good for third in the NFL. He really only missed one big kick all year, the one in the Miami game gave the opposition good field position and led to a seven-point deficit at the half. Gostkowski also attempted two onside kicks, and the Patriots recovered both of them.

Punter Ryan Allen and coverage specialist Matthew Slater had good years overall. But both had failures at critical junctures that led to poor plays in the punt game, so they didn’t merit Honorable Mention status.

Most improved Special Teams Player: none
Honorable Mention: none

Too many special teams failures to name anyone much improved.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Joe Cardona
Honorable Mention: Brandon King

Cardona was the new long snapper, and he had only one bad snap that I noted this season. The Pats rotate this position quite frequently; they must think it’s easy enough to coach a guy up so they want to save the salary cap space.

King challenged Slater for fastest player on special teams, and his coverage was mostly very good.

Special dis-honorable mention: the new special teams coach, Joe Judge. The team basically lost the Eagles game on special teams, giving up a punt-block touchdown, a punt-return touchdown, and using some ill-conceived drop-kick onside attempt by a non-kicker. Those failures are on the coaching; we never saw things like that with previous coach, Scott O’Brien.

Those are the awards for this year. Congratulations to all the winners, and good luck heading into the playoffs.

Enjoy the games this weekend!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!
&
12-4!