Monday, December 29, 2003

Patriots 31, Bills 0 (12/27/2003)

Another week, another weak opponent. That's four games in a row where the other team had no realistic chance to win the game before it even started. In my first email of the year, I said: "The second half of the season? Well, if [the Patriots] can beat the Jets on 12/20, they could run the table." The Jets got injured and their playoff hopes were dashed long before December, and that just made the job easier.

The Pats waxed the Bills 31-0, in their second-best performance of the year (I think their win in Philadelphia was a little bit better). And in doing so, they secured home field throughout the AFC playoffs, so if they keep winning, their next road game will be Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. They finished an impressive regular season at 14-2, went 8-0 at home, and became only the fourth team in NFL history to win 12 consecutive regular season games. (Note: the other three won the Super Bowl - info courtesy of the CBS broadcast.)

Like the Bills 31-0 victory over the Patriots in Week 1, this game wasn't as close as the score indicated. The Pats offense came out in the no-huddle-no-running-back offense, and scored a first-drive TD for the third game in a row - then followed it up with touchdowns on two of the next three drives. Tom Brady threw touchdown passes to four different receivers in the first half, Antowain Smith averaged 4.9 yards a carry, and David Givens made enough clutch catches to earn "most improved" status (7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown).

The only problems on offense were watching Tom Brady and Damien Woody limp off the field. Brady came back later and was reportedly fine after the game. No report on Woody's condition; but the good news is that his replacement, Russ Hochstein, played pretty well, especially in the running game. I hope Woody is okay, but I've got nothing to complain about - entering the playoffs, the Patriots are one of the healthiest teams.

Special teams played a bit up and down. The kick coverage was great, except for Buffalo's return to the Pats 18 yard line. And Adam missed a 24 yard field goal, though he made one later to atone. And Ken Walter continued his post-exile improvement - averaging 43 yard a kick for the game and putting 9 of 13 punts inside the 20 yard line since he returned. I guess all he needed was some time off. And speaking of that, I hope the Pats spend their bye week working on field goals. They need to do something to regain their timing because missed scoring opportunities in the playoffs can be the difference between advancing and going home.

Last and by no means least, the defense simply overwhelmed the Bills. Last year's Bills thrived on long passes. But those days are long gone, as is a lot of their offensive talent. Their longest pass on Saturday was 28 yards and some longer attempts were knocked away or off target. When Buffalo tried short passes, they were tipped at the line, picked off, or the receiver was tackled for a short gain. They ran for 81 yards (versus 131 for the Pats), and simply couldn't get anything going. Their best scoring opportunity came when they returned the second-half kickoff to the Pats 18. A sack, a pass for a loss, and two penalties later, and they'd worked their way out of field goal range. In fact, both times they started with the ball in Patriots territory, they went for it on fourth down and failed.

The defensive stars of the game were some of the usual suspects: Tedy Bruschi, Tyrone Poole, and Rodney Harrison. The one newcomer to the list was Larry Izzo, who entered the game to give Bruschi a "curtain call" and delivered some punishing hits over the middle and made a great play on his interception that sealed the shutout. The defensive line didn't do much that was spectacular, but they slowed the Bills running game as a unit and kept the pressure on Bledsoe without much blitzing. The defense got two fumbles, two interceptions, and four sacks. All in a day's work for the best defense in the NFL, I suppose.

Oh, and that last line is official. Tampa Bay gave up 33 points, and that, coupled with the Patriots shutout, means the Pats gave up the fewest points in the league this year - a franchise first, along with their first season above 11 wins (they got 14), their first 8-0 home record, and their first #1 seeding in the playoffs. They also had three home shutouts, and gave up almost half their home points in one game (30 against the Titans). But perhaps the most impressive defensive stat (in my opinion) is that only twice this year did the Patriots allow their opponents to rush for more yards than their season averages (Washington and their second game against the Jets). On the season, the Patriots opponents gained almost 115 yards per game against other teams, but only 89 against the Pats - that's over 20% less yardage. A very impressive season, indeed.

So, where does that leave us? Well, we've got next week off to rest and prepare, then at least one home game the weekend after that. If they win, they'll be one home win away from the Super Bowl, which is all you can ask for. As Bill Belichick said, "This is the second season now, and everyone's 0-0." I would add that only one team will finish the playoffs undefeated - they call them the World Champions; and with a season like this, I'll be disappointed with anything less. (I guess your expectations rise when the team recently won a Super Bowl and won more games than anyone else in the NFL.) But for now, it's watch and wait and see which team will be headed our way January 10 or 11.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of the AFC playoff teams, the Pats have already beaten Denver, Indy, and Tennessee. Kansas city is 4-3 in their last seven games, and Baltimore only runs the ball and the Pats always stop the run. There just isn't anyone in the AFC that scares me."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

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