Monday, December 1, 2003

Patriots 38, Colts 34 (11/30/2003)

Now that was a great football game. Great offense, great special teams plays, and enough defense to make it count at the end. At 10-2, the Pats win the division with a win Sunday against the Dolphins, they hold a 2-game lead over Indy and a 1.5-game lead over Tennessee for the second seed in the playoffs, and all (except the punting, the lack of a running game, and Troy Brown's injury status) is well with the team. They've never been 10-2 before, and I just don't know how to act. But I'll tell you that I'll be wearing a smile from 10:00 - 2:00 (a little better than ear-to-ear) all day.

This one had shootout written all over it from the start. 18 minutes into the game, the Pats were sitting on a 17-0 lead, but you knew Manning and company wouldn't stay down for long and they didn't. They made three significant runs at the Patrtios and each time the home town crew made the plays needed to repel the advance. The first one was Bethel Johnson's kickoff return for TD at the end of the half, putting the Pats back up by two scores at 24-10. The second was Johnson's 67-yard kickoff return after the Colts had tied it at 31 points apiece, setting up the winning TD pass to Deion Branch. The third was the four-play goal-line stand to end the game, with Willie McGinest grabbing the headlines by grabbing Edgerrin James on fourth down to seal it. However, that final series was a total team effort, with the interior of the Patriots defense stuffing three runs from inside the 2 yard line.

Tom Brady started out on fire, cooled off, then came back to life when it counted to score the winning TD. The Pats continue to be haunted by their lack of a running game, and that could bite them eventually -- although it hasn't yet. It's unusual to see a team win with defense and a controlled passing attack, but somehow they keep doing it week after week. One can only wonder what the Pats would be doing if they had a great runner in addition to all their passing weapons. (As an aside: when the "experts" talk about the great quarterbacks in the league, it's always Manning, Bledsoe, McNair, McNabb, Favre -- and almost never Brady. However, one thing all those other QBs have in common is an excellent running game to take the pressure off their passing game. Give Brady that and you might hear his name mentioned with the other elites in the league, especially now that he's shown he can throw the deep ball.) But for all the passing the Pats did, the protection was decent (only two sacks) and they had a pretty good third-down conversion rate (54%). Not bad considering they were missing Troy Brown and David Patten -- their starters from the beginning of the season.

Defensively, I think the Pats played very well considering who they were playing. I doubt they would have given up 3 TDs in 6 minutes if the offense hadn't provided the Colts with a short field twice and if the Colts didn't have so many good players. Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and Marcus Pollard are the real deal, and if you give them a short field, they'll eat you alive. However, the run defense continues to improve with the two Teds (Washington and Johnson) back in the game. And for all his experience and talent, Manning was clearly frustrated and confused at times, and aside from the three quick touchdowns near the end of the 3rd quarter, he wasn't really in sync most of the game. He had one INT, and could easily have had two more. But overall, I think the Colts finally exposed some of the young Patriots defenders, getting Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel out of position a few times and drawing a couple of offsides penalties against our over-agressive defensive line. The up side of that is that no team on our remaining schedule has the offensive talent to exploit those gaps in our defense the way the Colts did. The down side is that the teams in the playoffs probably will.

But for all that, the Patriots special teams might have won them the game.
Late in the second quarter, the Colts got back to 17-10, and they were due to get the opening kickoff of the second half. But Bethel Johnson's return made it a two-score game again and allowed the Patriots to feel a bit more comfortable going into the locker room. Once the Colts came all the way back to tie it, Johnson came through again -- returning a kick 67 yards to give the Patriots a chance to go up again. Both times, special teams were instrumental in breaking the momentum, and without those plays, the Colts could have come back to rout the Patriots. But as they say, great teams make big plays when they need them, and even though it's a different player each week, the Patriots live that saying every week.

So where do we go from here? Well, the Pats are 10-2, and as I've been saying all season, 10 wins gets you in the playoffs. So congratulations to them on getting in. You now know (based on last week's Water-cooler Wisdom) that if they beat Miami this week, the Patriots are division champs and that guarantees they will host a playoff game. (Note: I'm sending in my playoff ticket invoice this week -- woo-hoo!!) More importantly, they are now in the driver's seat for the second seed in the playoffs, which would mean a week off and a home game the second week of the playoffs. Because they beat the Colts and Titans, for all intents the Patriots hold a 2-game lead over Indy and at 1.5-game lead over Tennessee for that second playoff spot. If you've got your eye on that first spot, then hope Kansas City loses to the Broncos next week. If not, the Patriots will have to finish a game ahead of KC to get that first spot because the Chiefs will have a better conference record. If they lose to the Broncos, then the Pats could potentially tie them in conference record and then it would come down to common opponents (a tie right now), and the Patriots would have to hope to get to the strength of schedule tie-breaker where they have a decided advantage.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Willie McGinest might get all the glory, but Ted Washington was instrumental in three of the four goal-line plays at the end of the game. He blew through his blocker on second down and fourth down, and forced James outside on first down. The Pats run defense improves whenever Ted is in the game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

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