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

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