Monday, December 22, 2003

Patriots 21, Jets 16 (12/20/2003)

With his team riding high four weeks ago, Bill Belichick said to his players: “You want to be compared to the 2001 team? Okay. They won nine games after Thanksgiving, you haven’t won any.” In the four games since then, the Patriots have ten interceptions (two returned for TDs); they controlled Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor, and Curtis Martin in succession; they won in a dome, in two snowstorms, and against a divisional opponent on the road; and they stand alone atop the NFL with a 13-2 record. Ask the Colts, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Jets, and they’ll probably tell you the team responded pretty well to that challenge.

The Pats won another hard-fought divisional road game, toppling the Jets 21-16 in New York. Your local NFL entry has won 11 consecutive games (all by less than 14 points – an NFL record), and combined with losses by the Chiefs and Colts, the Patriots need only a tie next week against Buffalo to clinch home field throughout the AFC playoffs. And no team in their right mind wants to travel to Foxboro in January. Heck, I barely want to go there myself.

The offense started quickly again this week, scoring on the opening drive for the second game in a row (this time, on the first play) – after Tedy Bruschi’s INT gave them a short field. Two factors allowed Tom Brady to be cool and efficient on the day (and the wind-chill wasn’t one of them): the offensive line did a brilliant job protecting him (no sacks in 26 pass attempts); and the running game made it’s year-end return (133 yards on 24 carries). Antowain Smith became the first Patriots rusher to crack the 100 yard mark this year, averaging almost 7 yards a carry and prompting some to float “The Mothball Theory” – i.e. that they let Smith rest all year so he’d be rested for the playoffs. Preposterous, but amusing, I suppose.

The offensive line gets special mention for playing a fantastic game: Matt Light, Damien Woody, Dan Koppen, Joe Andruzzi, and Tom Ashbook are the names you never hear. But any time you average 5.5 yards a rush and give up no sacks, you have to give the O-line credit. They even minimized their false-start penalties with the hostile crowd making it tough. The receiving corps did a pretty good job, although almost everyone had at least one dropped pass. Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, and Kevin Faulk had the most critical drops, costing the Pats first downs when they needed them. Combined with some inopportune penalties, the dropped passes were largely responsible for their three-for-eleven third-down conversion rate. Honestly, the Jets defense just didn’t have much to do with it – just poor execution by the offense.

Fortunately for the Patriots, this game was all about defense. And man, is our defense scary. They intercepted Chad Pennington’s first pass, and kept doing it until the end of the game, finishing with five picks (one returned for a touchdown by Willie McGinest) against a quarterback who’d never had more than two in any NFL game. They sacked Pennington four times and harassed him a whole lot more, and if not for a near-INT that fell into the hands of a Jet receiver, the game wouldn’t have been as close as it was. They kept Curtis Martin under control (his longest run was 8 yards), and stopped the short slant patterns the Jets love – once again, taking the opposition out of what they like to do.

Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Ty Law get specific praise from me this week (though I’m sure they don’t really care). Vrabel, Harrison, Bruschi and McGinest played monster games, hitting everything that moved and getting three of the team’s INTs. Perhaps they were inspired by being snubbed in the Pro Bowl balloting, but something got into those guys and they are playing mean. Ty made a key open-field tackle of Curtis Martin, and had excellent coverage on two fade routes into the end zone (one of which, he picked off). Seymour was Seymour. “Third year player going to his second Pro Bowl” says about all you need to know about him. He has gotten better as the year has progressed, and with Ted Washington back to take on extra blockers, Richard will be a big key to the Pats playoff push.

The Patriots kick coverage was very good, allowing only one punt return and not much on the kickoffs – although they had Vinatieri trying some awkward kicks into the wind, which led to decent field position for the Jets. It’s nice to have Troy Brown returning punts, and with Bethel Johnson on kickoff returns, their special teams are almost as dangerous as they were in 2001.

And on that point, I’m starting to feel about this team the same way I felt about the 2001 Patriots. When I think about playing any other team in the NFL, I don’t fear a Patriots loss. In fact, aside from the Rams and Chiefs, the Patriots have beaten every high seed in the playoffs (Titans, Colts, Cowboys, and Eagles). And the Chiefs are 3-3 in their last six games and haven’t stopped the run in two months. Some have called the Patriots lucky because they’ve won so many close games. But the way I read the season is that they just keep making plays until the other team makes a critical mistake – and that the Patriots have capitalized on those mistakes. That’s not luck; that’s good, sound football. The kind that sometimes leads to special seasons.

So where does all that leave us? Well, when we destroy the Bills (and I’ve been telling everyone for 10 weeks that we will), we’ll have a 14-2 record, a first round bye, and home field throughout the AFC playoffs. (Note: this is the NFL, they could always possibly lose. I just don’t see it this week.) And that’s all you can ask for. You play the regular season hoping you can be in that position, and the Patriots can get there with a win or a tie. I don’t expect them to lose focus now, so put it in stone – the Patriots will win on Saturday and you’ll be looking for me in the stands the second weekend of the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Even though they gave up 31 points on opening day, the Patriots have a chance to give up the fewest points in the league this year. They’re just behind Tampa (238 to 231), and the Bucs have to play a motivated Titans team on the road while we’ve got the Bills at home. Not bad given how they started the year.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-2!!!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment