Monday, November 24, 2003

Patriots 23, Texans 20 (11/23/2003)

A pretty exciting game -- though not particularly well-played -- and a very exciting outcome. The Patriots squeaked one out in Houston, heading home with a 23-20 overtime victory despite playing their worst game of the year. Inopportune penalties, Adam Vinatieri's first indoor missed field goal, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, and two interceptions (that could easily have been three) and a fumble by Brady. Yet they won, Brady is 7-0 in overtime, the team is 9-2 -- best start in franchise history -- and if they win the next two games (Indianapolis and Miami), they win the division. Couldn't ask for much more than that.

The defense played very well, with Ted Washington's return paying immediate dividends. It's obvious that with Mount Ted in the game, it frees up Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Tedy Bruschi to make plays, and that's exactly what they did. In the first quarter, Houston had first down and goal at the Patriots 1, and they stuffed them three times and made them take the field goal. In overtime, Houston had first down at the Patriots 40 and then their 35. In each case, one more first down and the Texans could have tried a game-winning field goal. And in each case, the Patriots stopped them (the second time, they even pushed them back) and forced a punt -- the second punt being the last time the Texans had the ball, as the Pats drove down the field for the game winner from Adam. Those names deserve a second mention, so here they are: Ted Washington, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi.

The defensive backs did a great of covering the Texan receivers, knocking down a dozen or more passes with only one pass interference call the entire game. And their coverage often caused QB Tony Banks to throw the ball away or take off running -- both of which played into the Patriots gameplan. Tyrone Poole had an outstanding game, and Ty Law might be the guttiest player I've ever seen. He's got a severe ankle injury and an abdominal strain and no only did he take just about every snap on defense, he was in punt coverage on special teams. It's great to have two "shut down" corners, because it allows Belichick and Romeo Crennel the freedom to scheme to their heart's delight with the other nine guys. Worked out pretty well yesterday. Houston had only 169 yards, and if they hadn't had a short field three times, they probably wouldn't have scored a single TD.

The offense was really up and down, which might sound strange given that they gained 472 yards. But they had three critical turnovers -- well, okay, Tom Brady had three critical turnovers. His first INT and his fumble were inexcusable -- he knows better than to throw over the middle late and should have taken better care of the ball on the fumble. He was hit just as he released the ball on his second INT, so that isn't his fault. As in the Washington game, Brady tried to do too much too often, and it kept blowing up in his face. Fortunately for him, this time they won. There were the usual number of dropped passes (Graham had two, I believe Branch had one), and Bethel Johnson had a very good game, with 5 catches and a forced fumble. But Graham came through with two clutch catches (the TD to send the game to overtime and a 33 yarder during overtime that changed field position in the Patriots favor).

But the offensive star of the game was Kevin Faulk. Not only did he have almost 200 yards in total offense, but how he ran and the way he set up blockers on the screen passes was more effective. He let the play develop and got a ton of extra yards because of it. He just seems more confident overall, and with good reason. He seems to be completely over his wrist injury, and hasn't fumbled in a long time (something that plagued him early in his career), so we can expect him to be the featured back for the forseeable future. The offensive line did a pretty good job of pass protection and run blocking. Houston has a lot of talented defenders, and they run blitzes from just about anywhere -- and for all that, sometimes Brady had 5 - 8 seconds to throw, unusual for an NFL QB. So like I said, a bit of an up and down performance.

My mother always said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." And there's nothing nice to say about the special teams, so I'm skipping them for this email.

Oh, and if you want to know why Belichick is considered a genius, here's one example. Of the game-tying TD pass to Graham, one reporter asked him if he was surprised at his good fortune on the play and in the game. He responded that he wasn't surprised because not only do they practice that play all the time, but they practice getting the ball to the receiver *when he's covered* as well. He said they found the best way to beat the defender in that case is to throw the ball to the left and up high because that's the most difficult adjustment to make -- and since that's where Brady threw it, he expected the pass to be completed and the game to go into overtime. So he's planning contingencies on top of contingencies -- I doubt a 10 percent of the head coaches insist on practicing the play with an open AND a covered receiver every week. That's why the Pats are 9-2. Not luck, not good fortune, just preparation and more preparation.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, it's strange to say it with five games left, but if the Pats win the next two games, they win the division. Because if they win them both, the best Miami can finish and the worst we can finish is 11-5, but we will have beaten the Dolphins twice so we'd hold the first tie-breaker. I know we should expect more from a 9-2 team, but it's nice to know they're headed for a first-round home game at the very worst."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Monday, November 17, 2003

Patriots 12, Cowboys 0 (11/16/2003)

8-2 with room for improvement... what could be better?

As you no doubt know, the Patriots won 12-0 last night, maintaining their lead in the AFC East and giving the Tuna a well-deserved smack. To paraphrase Bill Belichick (after the Cleveland game), any time you shut out an NFL team, you've really done something. The defense played very well, keeping Dallas off-balance and making them use long drives of short plays and getting the big turnover at crucial times. All of which meant a big goose-egg for the 'Boys and a hard-fought win for the Pats.

The Pats didn't turn the ball over, and despite playing without their two best receivers (Troy Brown and David Patten) they got enough big plays and overcame a rash of penalties and several dropped passes (Daniel Graham had two, Deion Branch had at least one) to score what they needed to win. Tom Brady was efficient, and the Pats did well to score 12 points against the league's #1 defense. Especially with those drive-killer penalties, some of which were questionable calls.

So now that they did what they needed to do to win, where do we go from here? Well, there are three areas where they need to improve if the Pats want to make a serious playoff run... I call them the "Three P's."

1. Penalties. I know some of Sunday's calls were questionable, but this has been brewing for a while. Some of it is rookies not getting respect or commiting penalties when they're beaten (the rookie center, Dan Koppen, is the perfect example). But they simply can't continue to give up 100 yards a week to the yellow-hanky and expect to win. And even though I'm sure Belichick has stressed this with his players, sometimes it takes a loss for a team to get that message. Here's hoping that loss isn't in an important game. Oh wait, they're all important, aren't they.

2. Punting. Ken Walter is indeed a great holder, but his main focus should be punting and he's been up-and-down since the Titans game (10/5). It's frustrating to watch, because you know he can do better -- he got a game ball for his punting in the Cleveland game. But he almost cost us the Denver game, and he's been terrible for two weeks now. I guarantee you Belichick won't put up with this beyond the Houston game, because he can't afford to give up field position against the Colts. So unless Ken is injured and will be better soon, look for a punter in camp to provide a little competition.

3. Play-action passes and fakes. The Pats need to work on this because it looks like Tom Brady is bored with it and isn't selling the play-action fakes anymore. It's a basic tenet of football that you have to run to make a play-action fake work, and the Pats didn't run enough to make Dallas honor the fake. And the more they faked the run, the less interested Brady seemed in actually carrying through the fake -- and the defense didn't react much at all, thus negating the effect of the fake entirely. The interesting thing is that once the Pats did run (pretty well, in fact), Brady did try to sell the fake and they got the defense out of position. But in any event, they've got to run the ball a bit more and Brady needs to get back to his old self and really try to sell the play-action fakes. Once upon a time, Drew Bledsoe was known for his ball-handling skills but now he seems disinterested -- I'd hate to see Brady fall into that same pattern.

All in all, it's not possible to be an unhappy Patriots fan this morning.
At 8-2, two more wins and they're in the playoffs, and they've got a legitimate shot at the first or second seed in the post-season. Ted Washington made an impact in his return, and if they can just get some off their receivers healthy it would go a long way toward possible wins against Indy and their divisional games down the stretch. But for now, it's time to prepare for Houston. Let Indy fall for the "trap" game the next week, when they play us buy have Tennessee the following week.

Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm glad the Pats won, but if they want to make a serious playoff run, they've got to get better on special teams and cut down on their penalties. Ken Walter looks like crap and their punt return team hasn't done much without Troy Brown. Hey, you know you're in trouble when you get an extra point blocked."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Friday, November 14, 2003

Finally Published (11/14/2003)

In case you're interested, had me write up a short article explaining why I think Bill Belichick is a better head coach than Bill Parcells. Here's the link:

And if you want the opposite perspective, here's another fan praising


- Scott

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

2003 Mid-Season Update

Okay then, here's my take on the season so far.

The 7-2 record does accurately reflect how good the Patriots are (unlike Dallas's 7-2 record); but the schedule-maker worked in their favor a few times. They played Philly, the Jets, the Giants, and Denver at just the right time. Those teams were hitting low ebb when we played them (for various reasons), and were thus a bit easier to beat. But I give the Pats a lot of credit because they could have become one of those "low ebb" teams after the Week One thrashing by Buffalo. They could have made excuses or pouted or taken a few weeks off or just given up -- but they're made of tougher stuff than those other teams. The didn't let the Milloy distraction get worse and didn't let the injury list slow them down.

They had big road wins against Philly, Miami, and Denver, and their victory over Tennessee was just as impressive. I think Cleveland and the Giants are more dangerous than people think, and the Buffalo game was lost when the schedule came out (as I said in my pre-season preview, it had nothing much to do with the Lawyer Milloy situation). The Washington loss still bothers me, but mostly because Brady threw three really stupid interceptions and they only lost by 3 points. I hope that loss doesn't cost them anything in the playoffs (home field, first-round bye, etc.).

Overall, the offense has been okay but not overly impressive. Brady has been a bit up-and-down (7 INTs in their two losses, only one INT in all their wins), but he's throwing the long pass much better and is his usual efficient self in the short passing game. The young receivers stepped in nicely when Troy Brown and David Patten were injured, and the Daniel Graham/Christian Fauria tight end combo has worked very well. Graham has a chance to be a great tight end. The offensive line has pass blocked very well, and shown flashes of being good at run blocking; but overall, the only way to describe the running game is disappointing. Antowain Smith hasn't shown much, and Kevin Faulk got injured trying to be an every-down back. I don't know how the running game will play out, but when the weather gets colder and windier, they're gonna need it to work better than it has (the Tennesse game notwithstanding). One other factor of note is that since they moved Damien Woody from center to guard, he's been a run-blocking monster.
I read someone who thought he should go back to center, but I think guard is a better fit for him.

The defense has been outstanding. At certain points in the season, they had changed every position player from the 2002 defense -- with Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour changing position -- except Tedy Bruschi. The secondary is all new, the starting linebackers are different, and the defensive line moved everyone around to accomodate Ted Washington and enhance Seymour's skills by moving him to the outside. And you know what: change is good.
Last year, the Pats gave up 41 TDs; they're on pace to give up 25 this year.
This unit is the major reason they are 7-2 this year as opposed to 5-4 at this point last year. They hit hard, they're faster than last year, and they play cohesively as a unit. And Richard Seymour has become one of the best defensive lineman in the league. Every week he makes big plays, and the week he missed, they gave up 100 yards to a running back for the first time this year. Bruschi is Bruschi -- the heart of the defense. And the young players (especially Ty Warren and Jarvis Green) have rejuvinated and re-energized Willie McGinest and Anthony Pleasant. And they added a ton of speed in the secondary. Rodney Harrison gets to plays that Lawyer and TeBucky missed, Tyrone Poole opposite Ty Law works great, and the other safety played cornerback in college, so you know he's fast. All in all, a terrific group that plays hard every week and has often made up for a sputtering offense.

Special teams haven't been anything special. Adam V. has missed some field goals (some in bad weather), Ken Walter's punts have been terrific one week and dismal the next, and they've just had too many penalties on special teams. Bethel Johnson has added blazing speed to the kick-return game, and they have had some decent punt returns. But I'll trade those for the stupid penalties (like their three holding penalties on punts that gave the other team the ball back). They've got to clean up this aspect of their game if they want to make a playoff run. A new punter might be a nice start, but he holds for Adam; and when the Pats tried Brady as a holder (in the preseason), it just didn't work.

So, overall, the Pats first half rocked; they're 7-2 for the first time since 1978, and their second-half schedule includes only three teams with winning records (Dallas, Indy, and Miami) -- and two of those games are at home. Barring severe injuries (how much worse could it get?), they should win at least 10 games and be in the playoffs, and they've got a great chance to win 11 or 12 and get a first-round bye. There are no cakewalks in the NFL, but if the Pats keep their focus they should beat Houston, Jacksonville, and Buffalo. They've got a great chance to beat Dallas and Miami (both home games), though they might have more trouble against Indy and NY Jets. I still think they'll beat the Colts (they've always had their number; just one of those things), and who knows if the Jets will be playing for anything by late-December.

Hope you enjoyed the first half. Look for me Sunday night -- I'll be the one at the stadium... the tall guy... ummmm, the one cheering... cheering really really loud... ummm, nevermind.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Patriots 30, Broncos 26 (11/3/2003)

Well now, wasn't that exciting! Patriots lose the turnover, penalty, and time of possession battles and still come out on top. On the road. In Denver. With all the injuries.

Can we get Bill Belichick to coach the Red Sox next year?

I really enjoyed this game. It was close throughout, and both teams made their share of good and bad plays. But in the end, the game hinged on the inability of Denver's offense to do anything in the second half. Watching the first half, I thought that Romeo Crennel and Bill B. were playing close to the vest, just well enough to survive, and that they planned to turn up the heat on Denver's young QB (Danny Kanell) in the second half. It pretty much went that way, except the Pats offense didn't force Denver to take any risks until about four minutes to go. And, as with many young quarterbacks, those risks cost the Broncos the chance to win the game. When they needed to run time off the clock, Kanell couldn't deliver the short passes to keep the drive going -- and they gave it back to the Pats twice within a minute (from 4:00 to 3:00 left). He's new, what are you going to do?

The Pats defense played pretty well, despite the biggest injury of the year in Richard Seymour (hope he's back soon). Any time you shut out a team in the second half, you must be doing something right. (Denver scored on special teams -- kick return for TD -- and on a Safety the Patriots decided to give them.) The Pats D hit hard, knocking at least four Broncos out of the game for a few plays, and adjusted well after Denver's inevitable early surge. In the second half, they opened with five DL and started the blitzing -- which led to a number of three-and-out series for the Broncos.
Portis ran pretty well, but he never became a controlling factor, leaving too much of it up to the QB. If Denver's kicker hadn't been injured, it might have come out differently; but I still think the Pats would have won
-- just by fewer points.

The Pats offense played okay, with a lot of big plays interspersed between some sputtering drives. The star of the game was the Offensive Line. I can't remember the last time I saw a Patriots QB with that much time to throw, and those guys deserve a lot of credit for playing so well against a strong front-seven from Denver. Kevin Faulk came up big, and Antowain Smith got more carries and yards that I thought he would. Daniel Graham made some nice catches, though he dropped one they needed when they were backed up at the goal line. But for all their trouble, I only counted four or five missed reads by Brady and only one or two bad throws (Bethel Johnson open in the end zone was one he should never have missed). And Tom Brady continues to improve his long passing. All that work in the off season obviously paying dividends.

And now, a word about the officials. You know I don't usually blame officials, but I thought a few times they got caught up in the emotion of the crowd and screwed the Pats. Almost every replay of a Denver run showed some holding by their O-line, and there is an actual rule called "Neutral Zone Infraction" that should have been called late in the game (instead, they called the Pats for "False Start"). That call is sometimes missed, but this was a very big situation and the call looked obvious to me (and to John Madden). If they're not going to enforce the rule, then let's delete it from the rule book.

Lastly, I'm very impressed they're 7-2 right now. With all their injuries, they have the third-best record in the NFL -- and they've matched what I thought would be their best possible record at this point, and I didn't anticipate all the injuries. Now, with next week off, they can get healthy and get ready for the Tuna Bowl on Sunday, November 16. I'll rest up, too; 'cause I'm gonna need all my strength to cheer the team on that night.

Since there's no Pats game on Sunday, I'll send a mid-season summary next week to fill the gap between games.

Until then, keep the faith,

- Scott