Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Patriots 23, Jets 7 (12/26/2004)

Way to bounce back, boys. A tough Monday Night loss where some crucial mistakes by Tom Brady helped evaporate an 11-point in with 4:00 left, and Brady does what he always does -- came back with a win. In fact, he's now 7-0 in games following a game where he throws at least two interceptions. And so, the Patriots won a relatively easy 23-7 victory over the out-classed Jets, improving to 13-2 and 5-1 in the division. Meanwhile, a Jets team that appeared a shoo-in for the playoffs just one month ago has gone 1-2 recently and has to tie or with their next game just to make the playoffs. And that won't be an easy task; they have to play in St. Louis against a Rams team fighting for their own playoff lives.

The New England victory combined with San Diego's loss gives the Patriots the second seed in the AFC, guaranteeing them a week off between the regular season and playoffs. And man, can they use the rest. Yesterday's starting cornerbacks were safety Eugene Wilson and Earthwind "The Touchdown Maker" Moreland. On the sidelines were Tyrone Poole (out for the year), Ty Law, Randall Gay, and Dexter Reid; and Asante Samuel didn't start, although he did play a lot. Must have been one of those "coaches decision" thing-a-ma-jigs. Additionally, Richard Seymour left the game with a leg injury, Matt Chatham was out, Bethel Johnson missed another game, and Corey Dillon could probably use some rest for minor leg tweaks he's had lately. Fortunately for the Pats, they can rest these guys for three full weeks, because the San Fran game this Sunday can't change anything in the standings for them. The starters might play half the game, but expect Brady and company to be on the sidelines by the second half.

As for Sunday's game against the Jets, Tom Brady and the offense recovered nicely from that Miami loss. They scored first (23 games and counting) and scored 10 points in the second half against a team that has seven second-half shutouts this year. Brady was on from the beginning, with at least five passes dropped *perfectly* in to guys who were tightly covered. He took only on sack, had no fumbles or interceptions, and even ran for a first down. The Patriots gained only 3 yards per rush, but made enough first downs to have a 12 minute advantage in time of possession. The Jets over-committed their defense to shut down Dillon, and that opened up some long passes for Brady. If it was less windy, I think the Pats might have scored 40 points against such a defense; but the Jets were probably counting on the wind to help them defend the pass.

Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham got involved in the offense again, with five catches for 74 yards between them. This probably signals a change in offensive philosophy as the weather gets colder and windier. So you can expect the Pats to run the ball and throw short more until the Super Bowl (should they make it), because all their games between now and Jacksonville (site of this year's SB) would be in New England or Pittsburgh. The rest of the receivers did very well, with David Givens having a sick 32 yard average per catch and Deion Branch keeping drives going with clutch third-down receptions (and a lot of yards after the catch). Oh, and I shouldn't forget Patrick Pass, who had some nice runs and swing passes out of the backfield to go along with solid blocking on blitz pickup. Rabih Abdullah missed the only blitzer he was supposed to block, which is why he's sat on the sideline most of the year. The O-line had only two penalties and gave up only the a single sack, although honestly, Stephen Neal looks out of place about half the time. Brady got hit a few times in the game, but nothing horrendous.

The Patriots defense for this game exploited Chad Pennington's two weaknesses: poor run fakes and average arm strength. Romeo Crennel and his staff seemed comfortable letting Curtis Martin get his yards but making sure the Jets didn't beat them through the air. To that end, they had the front seven handle most all the running plays without help from the secondary. This minimized the effect of play action fakes and draw plays because the secondary wasn't paying any attention to the run. And since Pennington doesn't execute run fakes very well, the linebackers could drop deep into coverage on pass plays -- that's how Tedy Bruschi got his interception 15 yards down field. Given that Pennington can't throw the long ball very well (there are reports he's injured), the Pats kept tight coverage in the 10- to 20- yard zone and hoped that anything deep would be off target; and that turned out to be the case all day long. Even the Jets touchdown was under thrown; the Pats defender simply fell down for a relatively easy score.

This defensive plan changed a bit in the second half, with Rodney Harrison coming up to help occasionally. But for the most part, the Patriots dared the Jets to run it and they couldn't do it (Curtis Martin gained only 33 yards on the day). Rodney had a great game, as did Asante Samuel and Willie McGinest. And Monster Masher Vince Wilfork just gets better and better. When he's not clogging the middle, he's in the backfield after the QB or re-directing a running back. Here's hoping Vince stays injury free and the aforementioned injury to Richard Seymour isn't bad (even though Jarvis Green did an good job replacing him). Oh, and that the secondary gets healthy soon, too. That Earthwind Moreland guy scares the crap out of me, and I'd like to get Eugene Wilson back to safety because Don Davis is too inconsistent. But overall it was a great defensive performance for New England. Even though they dared the Jets to run, NY gained only 46 yards on the ground, averaged 6 yards per pass attempt (in the bottom third of the league for the day, I would guess), and the New England defense caused four turnovers. They also sacked Pennington three times and committed only one penalty on the day.

The special teams were a draw for the day, which means the Patriots must have improved. The average starting position after a kickoff was around the 30 yard line for both teams, and Josh Miller did a nice job downing the ball inside the 20 a couple of times. The wind plays havoc with kicks on a day like Sunday, and Adam missed his second field goal attempt of the year (a 50 yarder just before the half), but overall, he did a great job kicking in those conditions. In fact, he accidentally kicked a kickoff right into a Jets player and the Patriots recovered it right before that 50 yard attempt. (Aside: a month or two ago, I suggested to a friend that when the Patriots have to onside kick, they should kick it *at* the wall of players standing ten yards away. Perhaps the Patriots will try that next time, based on the accidental kick by Adam on Sunday.) I'd like to get a bit more out of the special teams, but if they can play the other teams specialists to a deadlock in the playoffs, that will probably be good enough.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Pats will play a semi-meaningless game this Sunday against San Francisco (and I'll be freezing cold while I cheer on Rohan Davey and Rabih Abdullah). After that, they'll watch the first week of the playoffs to see who's coming to town to lose... er, I mean play them... the weekend of 1/15 - 1/16. If all goes according to form, that will be the Indianapolis Colts, which makes it that much more important to get the secondary healthy. But who knows, maybe they can with Randall Gay and Earthwind -- if there's 10 inches of snow and 50 mph winds :) I'm guardedly optimistic that either the secondary or the weather will come through; but of course, we might not end up playing Indy at all. Since I've got a bye week, I'll drop you an email previewing the playoff game once it's clear who we're playing. And of course, those coveted year-end awards must be given out.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule [1978], only two teams have won as many as 28 games in two consecutive seasons: the Bears in 85 & 86, and the 49ers in 89 & 90. The Bears won 29, but if the Patriots win on Sunday, they will be tied with San Fran for the second most wins in consecutive seasons in NFL history."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry the update is late, but I was in Ohio and didn't get to watch the game until last night.

PPS. 13-2!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Patriots 28, Dolphins 29 (12/20/2004)

How the hell am I supposed to sleep *now*?

Well, the Pats finally blew one folks, falling to the Miami Dolphins after taking an 11-point lead late into the fourth quarter. The loss drops them to 12-2, a full two games behind Pittsburgh for the first playoff seed and only a game in front of the Colts and Chargers for that coveted first-round bye. The loss broke their string of consecutive wins when leading at the half (32) and after the third quarter (36), although they kept their string of games scoring first intact at 19 consecutive.

It was a game that proved once again how razor thin the line between a win and a loss really is – all of which makes the Patriots two seasons of success all the more astonishing. How did this team win 21 straight when a single late interception can cost you a game? How did they win 28 out of 29 (playoffs included) when an 11-point lead can evaporate in two minutes? How they avoided this fate 28 out of 29 times is truly amazing, but if they want to continue that run of excellence, they’ve got some work to do.

There’s no sugar coating this one; the loss rests at the feet of Tom Brady. The team that wins the turnover battle usually prevails, and Tom threw four interceptions to A.J. Feeley’s none. Almost every other statistic favored the Patriots: first downs, third down conversions, penalties, time of possession, totals yards, rushing yards, sacks – they all went the Patriots way except the two most important ones of all, turnovers and points scored.

Without Brady’s boneheaded third interception, the Dolphins wouldn’t score two touchdowns in the final four minutes, and without his fourth interception, the Patriots might have had a final drive to win it. They were in a four-down situation anyway, so there was no need to panic on second down. Sure, there was pressure on both those passes, but we’ve come to expect better from Brady under pressure. Maybe last week’s completion while sitting on the turf made him cocky. But whatever the case, he has to play better for us to have any chance against the Jets and as we head into the playoffs.

The rest of the offense ran hot and cold all game long. Corey Dillon ran for 121 yards, but was bogged down for much of the third quarter. The offensive line alternatively received praise and blame from commentator John Madden, having the most trouble in the second and fourth quarters and shining in the first and third.

The receivers did a good job overall, and it was great to see Daniel Graham back and contributing. But they were limited to short completions, never getting behind the defense for a long strike we needed. You can credit the Miami defense, but with the safeties playing deep and the Dolphins two starting inside linebackers out of the game, we should have been more consistent in the running game.

The defense held up well until the end of the game. In the last four minutes, Rodney Harrison had a foolish pass interference penalty, setting up a Dolphin touchdown, and after a Brady interception, Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown looked like the Keystone Cops, allowing the Dolphins their last touchdown of the night. I think Romeo Crennel should separate Moreland and Brown, because the two of them on the same side of the field is a deadly combination for the Patriots. And while Harrison played well in run support, he added a stupid personal foul (spearing) to his pass interference penalty to account for 33 of the Patriots 53 penalty yards for the game. Not good.

This very poor end of the game overshadowed the solid play of the defensive line and linebackers for the entire game. Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green were factors on nearly every play, and the ageless Willie McGinest always makes plays, whether he’s rushing the passer or covering a tight end. I also thought Asante Samuel played very well in the secondary; the team could have used two or three of him.

Oh, and the special teams get mention for being anything but special. Kevin Faulk returned okay, but the Patriots were consistently facing a longer field than the Dolphins. With as many starters as the Patriots play on special teams, they should do better in the return and coverage plays than they have lately. Here’s hoping they can get that straightened out before the playoffs; although it is rarely a deciding factor unless your special teams are terrible.

Well, what more is there to say? It was shameful to waste 56 minutes of great effort with two minutes of brain-cramp-itis. But it just goes to prove how difficult it is to win week in and week out in the NFL. Every team has good players, and you don’t get a do-over or another week to plan something else if things don’t work out. No seven-game series in football – one chance and that’s it. It took the Patriots 56 minutes to build an 11-point lead and only two minutes to lose it, and that cost them a game.

So where does all that leave us? Well, in my pre-season preview, I predicted the Patriots would win this game and lose to the Jets this Sunday. Now that they’ve lost the first of those two, I sincerely hope they can reverse those results and beat the Jets on the road. It won’t be easy with the Monday Night hang-over and a division opponent on the road, but the Patriots do match up better against New York than Miami.

Last night’s loss almost certainly assures the Pittsburgh Steelers the first seed in the AFC (they would have to lose their last two games and the Patriots win their last two for Pittsburgh to finish behind New England). And whether the Patriots win or lose against the Jets, the only serious competition they have for that second seed (and the bye week that comes with it) is from the Chargers. The Colts would have to win their last two and the Patriots lose to both the Jets and 49ers for the Colts to take that position.

So your New England Patriots are still looking at a likely second seed in the AFC for the post-season. Now all they have to do is stop turning the ball over and start covering guys with someone other than Earthwind Moreland and who knows; they might just make some noise in the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "All three 12-1 teams had trap* games this weekend, and all three game were much closer than most of the experts thought they would be. Maybe now the press will stop mocking Belichick when he says that winning in the NFL isn’t easy. A 12-1 record didn’t buy much respect for anyone this weekend."

* A trap game is one where your team might have a tendency to look past the game to a tough game the next week. This was coined by none other than Bill Parcells.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-2!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Patriots 35, Bengals 28 (12/12/2004)

I know some people have been bored by the Patriots lately because they never lose; but I don't think anyone was bored by yesterday's win. An up-and-down the field battle with over 800 yards of offense, an INT return for a touchdown, another INT in the end zone, a fake field goal for a touchdown, and some helmet-jarring hits in the secondary should never be called "boring." So your New England Patriots held serve at home and kept the good times rolling with a 35-28 win over the Bengals. It was quite an improvement over the pre-season game where the Bengals starters wiped out the Patriots starters 31-0, and yesterday's win put the Patriots in the playoffs for the third time in four years. Later in the day, the Jets loss to the Steelers guaranteed a third division title in four years -- so there will be at least one playoff game in Foxboro. Not bad.

As for the game, it was closer than a lot of people thought it would be. In fact, the Bengals were either tied or ahead in almost every statistic there is: first downs, third-down conversions, return yards, time of possession, total yards, rushing yards, passing yards, and average gain per play. So how did they lose? Well, they lost in two major categories: turnovers (3-0) and penalties (9 for 75 yards versus 2 for 13 yards). The turnovers and penalties are mostly concentration errors where the Patriots just paid closer attention to taking care of the ball and not committing costly penalties. However, the Bengals did a good job overcoming their penalties, although 75 yards versus 13 is a really big differential. The real killer was the timing of their turnovers. Their fumble and one interception came with them poised to score, and their other interception was returned by Asante Samuel for a touchdown. That accounts for 21 points (14 they potentially lost and 7 the Patriots gained), which is huge when you lose by a touchdown.

The Patriots defense did not play very well overall. I know, I know, they played an explosive offense and still won. But this game was like a companion piece to the KC game from earlier this year: the Chiefs exposed the Patriots secondary with long passes; the Bengals did the same with short passes. And just like that KC game, the Patriots defense came up with enough timely plays to win the game, which has been their modus operandi for two years now. It's just that with every other team gunning for them (because they are the defending Super Bowl champions), eventually that formula will fail against the better teams in the playoffs. So they've got to get healthier in the secondary to make a serious run at another championship.

I was glad to see both Asante Samuel (full-time) and Tyrone Poole (part-time) return for this game. Samuel had the aforementioned touchdown return, but the secondary seemed confused overall. Maybe it was too much to bring back both players in the same game and not expect some miscommunication. Samuel played pretty well overall, and I'm sure he will get better with more snaps and better health. He had an injured shoulder but didn't shy away from contact or tackles. Rodney Harrison played his usual great game, even helping out with a run blitz or two. And Richard Seymour was an absolute monster on defense. I counted at least four plays when he was *triple-teamed* by three offensive lineman. Usually, a triple-team is a lineman, a tight end, and a running back; but the Bengals were so worried about Richard that he was constantly double- or triple-teamed by lineman. And he still made some great plays. Oh, and Troy Brown is now tied for the team lead with three interceptions -- not bad for an old geezer, eh?

I thought with all the double- and triple-teams that Seymour faced, the Pats should have gotten more pressure on the Bengals QB. But once it was clear that long passes would be difficult in the wind, Cincy switched to a short passing game, so the ball was out to the receiver before they could pressure the QB. Couple that with a strong running game, and the Bengals offense seemed to move it at will for long stretches of the game. And once again, the Patriots gave up lots of yards but not as many points as those yards should have created. Somehow, some way, they always make a play to preserve the win. When the defense plays like they did yesterday, I get nervous; but it's 27-1 in their last 28 games, so they must be doing something right.

The Patriots offense was very impressive. Tom Brady's QB rating was a gaudy 127.1, with 70% completions and 10 yards per attempt. He had zero turnovers (and no really close calls), with his two best passes being the long touchdown to Patten into the wind and a 15-yard completion to Patrick Pass while Brady was sitting on the ground -- something I've never seen before and don't expect to see again in an NFL game. With Daniel Graham out, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver got into the game (five receptions for 47 yards between them); and with David Givens missing the game, the rest of the receivers pitched in for 13 catches and 213 yards. I think the running game missed Graham's superior blocking, accounting for only 94 yards on 29 carries. But Cincinnati came into the game second in the AFC in turnovers caused (second, of course, to the Patriots), and the Patriots zero turnovers were the key to the win.

So where does that leave us? Well, only the Jets are a real threat to beat us for the remainder of the regular season. The Dolphins and 49ers are both 2-11, and the Patriots get an extra day to plan for their Monday night game with Miami. The Jets are playing well and the Pats and Jets have oftentimes split the season series. So since the Pats beat them earlier in the year, you might expect the Jets to win the game two weeks from now. However, if Tyrone Poole is back and healthy *and* the game means something to the Patriots (e.g. home field throughout the playoffs is still up for grabs), expect the Patriots to win that game. They are superior to the Jets, and the Jets are unlikely to have any playoff positioning on the line -- so I'd expect the Patriots to win a close one if it means anything to them.

Also, heading into the playoffs, the Pats face their first real distraction in two years: offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has signed on to be the next head coach at Notre Dame. He promised to work mostly for the Patriots until their season is over, and I hope he holds to that promise. I'm sure if Bill Belichick senses that Charlie is distracted by Notre Dame stuff, he'll either get him back in line or let him leave, perhaps taking over the OC job himself for the duration of the playoffs. But for the moment, the Patriots are the second seed in the AFC, and one more win would make it practically impossible for them to lose that first-round bye -- the only other scenario would be San Diego running the table and the Patriots losing the rest of the games, which would include a home loss to San Francisco. And even then, it would come down to fourth tie-breaker and that might still go the Patriots way. In other words, looking good for a week of rest before the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "This injury thing is getting ridiculous. Now, their starting tight end [Daniel Graham] and wide receiver [David Givens] missed the Bengals game. And their secondary took yet another hit when their starting safety [Dexter Reid] went down in the second half. The Pats might need that bye week just to get 45 players healthy for the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-1!

Monday, December 6, 2004

Patriots 42, Browns 15 (12/5/2004)

The Patriots steamrolled the Browns yesterday, with a 27-point win that helped them keep pace with Pittsburgh (both at 11-1) for one of those first-round bye weeks. You might ask, how do you play your sloppiest game of the year and win 42-15? Start by making sure your opponent has an interim head coach, add in two two veteran QBs sidelined with injuries, mix in a rookie starting quarterback, spice liberally with front-office turmoil, and decorate with a bunch of cheap-shot, self-glorifying, overpaid, underachieving hotshots who will stop trying in the third quarter. Unfortunately, the Patriots can't play the Browns every week, because they'd wax these guys 16-straight. Randy Cross (the CBS commentator) can talk all he wants about how NFL people should consider whether they want to be a part of "something special" that will be built in Cleveland, but there's nothing special about a team that's one tie-breaker away from missing the playoffs six straight years. In fact, the last two coaches to lead the Browns to the playoffs were Butch Davis and Bill Belichick -- Davis was fired last week, Belichick was fired in 1996, though he's done pretty well since then.

So on to the game. The Pats ended this one early. I remember when the score was 21-0 and I thought the Pats had played poorly to that point. That is the kind of game that drives the other team's fans crazy; when you know you had some opportunities but the other team was so good you still had no chance. It reminded me of a Patriots-Chiefs game in 1990. KC came in with a strong ground game and my brother and I talked all week about how we had to stop the run to have any chance to win. On their first play from scrimmage, they threw an 84-yard touchdown pass and the stadium fell deadly silent. The game was over and half the fans weren't even in their seats. I did get a nice tan, though.

Well, the Cleveland fans must have felt that way yesterday. Bethel Johnson quieted the crowd with an opening kickoff return for touchdown, and with a rookie quarterback, it was game, set, and match. The Pats defense was so strong that Cleveland's only scores came as follows: tipped ball fell into the hands of Antonio Bryant for a touchdown; Dexter Reid got burned twice for 40+ yards on back-to-back plays, the second of which was a touchdown to Bryant again. That was it folks. The Browns got inside the Patriots 20 yard line once the entire game. Their running game was stymied (17 rushes for 46 yards), 9 of their 14 drives went three plays or less, and they committed five turnovers.

The Patriots front seven played exemplary defense, shutting down the run while pressuring McCown and cutting off the underneath passes that rookie QBs love so much. Randall Gay continues to impress, knocking down several passes and returning a fumble for a touchdown. And since the Pats apparently trust Troy Brown more than Earthwind Mooreland at cornerback, it was Eugene Wilson starting at corner and Troy Brown the third CB in the nickel package. Rodney Harrison had an INT (and nearly had a second), and he laid down the law over the middle all game long. And of course, old reliable Troy Brown got his second pickoff of the season and even made a slamming tackle by the sideline. Not that he got to enjoy it; he was right back out there on the next offensive play. The Pats secondary might just be the second most impressive story of the season -- right behind the resurgence of the San Diego Chargers. I'm more convinced than ever that if Romeo Crennel leaves, Eric Mangini will be promoted to defensive coordinator. If not, he might end up D-coordinator for another team next year.

At the end of the first quarter, the Pats were up 14-0 (both 90+ yard scoring "drives") and had a 10:40 to 4:20 time of possession advantage. They pretty much kept that going, rushing Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, and Cedric Cobbs to a 39:08 to 20:52 time of possession edge and 225 to 46 advantage in rushing yards. Brady might have been able to take the day off, with Dillon and Cobbs alternately getting stuffed in the backfield and then gashing the defense for another first down. It seemed that when Cleveland tried, they could actually stop the run; but then the Pats would open Hummer sized holes on the next play and it would be first down again. It was a dominating performance by both lines; unfortunately for Cleveland, their performance only lasted until the half. After that, it was all Patriots all the time.

If this was a "audition for next year's roster" (as Randy Cross put it), then I wouldn't expect many Cleveland Browns to be on the team next year. Probably five dropped passes, stupid penalties, a dreadful cheapshot by the O-line, and a bunch of linebackers and defensive backs who just refused to run to the ball and/or tackle if they happened to be in the way. I can clearly recall three plays were Dillon or Cobbs ran to the outside after WR David Givens *wiped out* a Browns linebacker. That's a 5' 11" 200 pound receiver taking out a 6' 4" 240 pound linebacker. That can happen once, but after that, the linebacker simply has to start laying out some punishment. And their defensive backs avoided contact all day, with the best example being Daniel Graham running out of one tackle and then pasting the safety along the sideline. Just no heart left in that team. Wait 'til next year.

As for our beloved Patriots, please indulge me while I take a walk down memory lane, circa Spring of 2004. I thought the Patriots won the draft and the off-season maneuvering when they landed Corey Dillon for a second-round draft choice. But every week it's clearer that it's so much more than that. Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor are improvements over Ted Washington. Ty Warren and Jarvis Green are improvements over Jarvis Green and Bobby Hamilton. Stephen Neal is better than Russ Hochstein -- as evidenced by the fact that Hochstein (last year's Super Bowl starter) now comes off the bench. Cedric Cobbs is better than Larry Centers, who never really fit in. The secondary is deeper than ever, with the three best corners injured and Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, and Troy Brown shutting down team after team. Every one of those players (save Troy Brown) was added in the last two years.

So what happens when Ty Law and Tyrone Poole return, and Randall Gay and Asante Samuel are the nickel and dime backs? SUPER BOWL, BABY -- YEEEEE-HAAAAA!!!!!!!!!! Pardon me... we now return to our regularly scheduled program.

So where does that leave us? It's clear that when the Patriots run, they are unstoppable. And up next is a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, with the worst-rated running defense in the AFC (giving up 142 yards a game). Should be a cakewalk; right? Somehow, I don't think so. I think the Pats will win, because they always do at home. But the Bengals have a physical defense that man-handled us in the pre-season (I know, I know, pre-season means nothing -- but their first team whipped up on our first team), and head coach Marvin Lewis always has some special stuff on defense.

For now, the Pats are closing in on a division title. If they win on Sunday, the worst they could go is 12-4, and even though those pesky Jets could finish at 13-3, I just don't see them running the table and us losing the rest of the year. And of course, they are one step closer to getting a much coveted first round playoff bye. Pittsburgh almost lost yesterday, but they retain their number 1 seeding by virtue of their win over the Pats. But I'm not worried about that at all. We had to beat the Steelers on the road to win our first Super Bowl, so if we have to play the AFC Championship game there again, I'm all for it. It's better than being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Don't look now, but Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills are one game out of the playoffs right now. They can't win the division, but they've won five of their last six and played themselves back into the post-season picture. If that happens, it would be the first time since re-alignment that three teams made the playoffs from the same division."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-1!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Patriots 24, Ravens 3 (11/28/2004)

This game was so great. It's so great to finally be 10-1 with a virtual stranglehold on the division *and* a first-round playoff bye, so great to beat "Talking Ray Lewis, with the Kung Fu Grip" and Brian "Of Course I'm a Genius -- Just Ask Me" Billick, giving them a taste of their own medicine with a suffocating defense -- well, I was so happy after the game that cried like a baby, water streaming down my face, soaking me from head to toe with tears of glee. Now... wait just one second... that was the *rain*, not tears. After all, there's no crying in football, is there?

Well, your New England Patriots did it again, beating up an inferior opponent and chugging right along toward the playoffs. They are 10-1 for the first time in franchise history, with a two-game lead in the division (over the New York Jets) and over their next closest rival for a first-round playoff bye (surprising San Diego). They did it with defense, defense and more defense in a game that should have been a shutout and that exposed the Ravens as a two-dimensional team (special teams and defense) in a three-dimensional league. If Baltimore could just get the NFL to spot them a touchdown every week, they might win some more games -- but until then, they'll be on the short end against teams that don't make mistakes with the ball.

And the Patriots are just such a team. On such a sloppy day, the most amazing statistics of the day were: the Patriots had zero turnovers; Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal. With the Ravens best running back out, Baltimore managed only 2.1 yards per run and barely had more total offense than Corey Dillon (124 to 123). And once the Patriots stopped their ground game, Ravens QB Kyle Boller simply didn't have the tools to win in through the air. Last week I marveled at Tom Brady's 11.4 yards per attempt, calling it other-worldly. Boller ended Sunday's game with 1.2 yards per pass attempt, one of the worst numbers I ever remember seeing. He was also sacked four times, was flushed from the pocket multiple times, threw an interception, and fumbled near his own goal line (recovered by Jarvis Green for a touchdown). And most of it wasn't his fault. With Boller's lack of downfield weapons, the Pats knew he couldn't hurt them deep, and with his lack of a running game, the Pats knew he couldn't sustain a drive. You know Baltimore's offense had a bad day when their only scoring drive reads: 6 plays, 12 yards, 22-yard field goal.

Of course, Boller and company had a lot of help in looking bad. The reconfigured New England secondary played a soft or medium zone, just keeping things in front of them to prevent the long pass. With Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Asante Samuel out, the Pats shifted Eugene Wilson to cornerback opposite Randall Gay (with old reliable Troy Brown as the third corner) and alternated linebacker Don Davis with Dexter Reid at safety. Only Rodney Harrison played his natural position, and yet the Pats held Boller to 15 completions in 35 attempts for 93 yards and one interception. Folks, 93 yards is a decent *quarter* for Tom Brady or any other elite quarterback. Given that he couldn't do anything against this patchwork secondary, I'd say this guy Boller just doesn't have it.

The Patriots defensive performance is a credit not only to the coaching staff, but to the Patriots front seven (lineman and linebackers). In the 26 years I've been watching the NFL, I can't recall a team that lost its two best cornerbacks and then went 5-1. It just doesn't happen unless you get great coaching, great replacement play, and have a great front seven to help cover the secondary's deficiencies. Richard Seymour doesn't have the numbers from last year, but he's being double-teamed a lot. Ty Warren has played his best three-game stretch the last three weeks; and his counterpart Jarvis Green stepped up big-time yesterday. The Keith Traylor-Vince Wilfork rotation makes you forget about Ted Washington, and Willie McGinest can sack the QB one play and then cover a wide receiver the next. Ted Johnson is having his best season in three years, Rosevelt Colvin is contributing after his awful hip injury, Roman Phifer continues to defy his age (the oldest Patriot at 36), and of course, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi are somehow always involved in those big plays.

On offense, the Patriots controlled the game on the ground. 144 yards rushing against the NFL's fourth best defense is something to crow about. It was 35 yards more than Baltimore's season average, and is a credit to the Patriots offensive line and to Corey Dillon. If we were still counting on Antowain Smith, this game would have been much more of a dogfight, but Dillon averaged 4.1 yards a carry where Antowain might have gotten 2.7 -- and that difference was huge, given the number of close third-down conversions the Patriots had. It's nice to see Daniel Graham continue to work his way back into the receiving rotation; but Sunday was not a game for great passing numbers. Brady didn't throw it as much as he had lately, and even so, the Ravens got significant pressure on him. They had linebackers and cornerbacks speed rushing from the edge and getting to Brady about half the time. Tom did a good job throwing the ball away rather than risking interceptions, and ended the game with a respectable 15 of 30 for 172 yards and no interceptions or fumbles. He was sacked once, and he got pushed around a bit, but in the end, the lack of turnovers is what won the game.

With the Baltimore offense held in check, and their defense unable to force a single turnover, the only way they could hurt us was with special teams returns. And they do have one of the best units in the NFL; but as with many things, the Patriots took away their opponents strength. Return man B.J. Sams never got much going, and never really changed field position in the game. Our punter, Josh Miller, had his worst day punting for us, and Kevin Faulk misjudged a punt, giving us possession at the 15 yard line. But the only time special teams changed the game for us was when we had 30 yards of penalties on a single punt play. That gave the Ravens their only score of the game. As for the other part of special teams, you just have to marvel at Adam Vinatieri and his partners in crime long snapper Lonie Paxton and holder Josh Miller. Some of Adam's most impressive kicks: 45 yards in the snow, 23 yards in the snow; 48 yards to win Super Bowl XXXVI; 46 yards to beat Tennessee in the 2003 playoffs; 41 yards to win Super Bowl XXXVIII. And while Sunday's 45 yarder in three inches of mud wasn't as pressure-packed as any of those others, it adds to his legacy as one of the great bad-weather kickers in NFL history.

So where does that leave us. Okay, the division title is just about ours. If we were somehow to go 2-3 over the last five games (doubtful), the Jets would have to go 5-0 to ensure they'd win the division. Since that won't happen, a division championship guarantees a home playoff game. The only real threat we have to a first-round playoff bye is the San Diego Chargers. They are two games behind us and could theoretically take the second seed if we started losing. But again, they'd have to go 5-0 or 4-1 to have much of a chance to catch us, and they still have games against Denver, KC, and on the road against Indy. (Speaking of Indy, they don't have much chance to take a first-round by from us -- they are two games back *and* we have the tie-breaker over them because we beat them to open the season.) So things are looking good for your hometown team.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats playoff success will be decided by how well Ty Law and Tyrone Poole play when they return. The team has held its own without them because they played flawed teams. But once you're in the playoffs, I don't think Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland can take you to a championship."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-1!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Patriots 27, Chiefs 19 (11/22/2004)

Where or where should I start. Deion Branch 6 catches for 105 yards? Tom Brady 124.4 passer rating? Ty Warren 7 tackles and 2 sacks? Willie McGinest sack to end the game? Adam Vinatieri leads NFL in scoring? Defense shuts down the Chiefs running game? Rodney Harrison at cornerback? It just never ends with this team.

Another week, another impressive performance, another win. For those not keeping track at home, that's 9-1, a two-game division lead, and a two-game edge in the race for those coveted first-round bye spots in the playoffs. Your Patriots just keep rolling along, beating teams that beat themselves, flattening teams that come out flat, and besting teams that don't play their best. The Chiefs exposed some of the young performers in our secondary, but our defense stopped them more often than their defense stopped us; and that was pretty much the story of a 27-19 win in Kansas City.

The Pats scored first (for an NFL record-tying 18th consecutive game), mixed the pass and run very well, and would have blown out KC if not for a late Corey Dillon fumble. To their credit, after the fumble the Chiefs drove the ball 97 yards in less than 6 minutes for a touchdown to bring them within five points. We all knew KC's offense was scary, especially with all the injuries in our defensive backfield, and they showed it on that drive. But after that drive, the Patriots held the ball for 4:27 and got a field goal to ensure no worse than overtime (an eight point lead with 1:45 left). And this time, the defense left no doubt, holding KC without a first down, and Willie McGinest finishing them off with a sack on fourth-and-six.

Brady played great, delivered the ball well and made just about zero mistakes, and posted a unbelievable 11.4 yards per pass attempt (anything above 8 is considered outstanding -- 11.4 is other-worldly). Corey Dillon ran pretty well, although his average was down a bit. Aside from them, the real offensive stars were Deion Branch and Daniel Graham, both of whom had some big catches after weeks of not being featured at all (Branch due to injury, and Graham due to game plan). In fact, my highlight of the game was Branch's touchdown catch, where he weaved through the Chiefs defense, picking up blocks downfield and making three guys miss and out-running two more to dive in for the score.

The O-line allowed only one sack, although Brady was hit a few other times. But the Patriots moved the ball at will, scoring on five of eight legitimate drives (excepting the two that ended the half and the game with kneel downs). KC couldn't stop us, only silly penalties (twice) or turnovers (once) could hold us back.

On the other hand, KC only scored on four of nine legitimate drives, less effective than you'd expect with all their offensive firepower and all our injuries in the secondary. They couldn't run the ball (20 rushes for 64 yards) and had too many dropped passes (I recall at least five easy ones). Some of those drops were caused by the big hits delivered by the Patriots secondary -- just enough for the receivers to take their eyes off the ball that split-second early. Oh, and Tony Gonzales is a whiner. He claimed to have been held on Rodney Harrison's interception, but I didn't see any holding and he had the rest of the game to try to make up for it -- and did just about nothing.

Speaking of Harrison, he and the secondary are remarkably resilient. Rodney played both safety positions and cornerback; linebacker Don Davis did some duty at safety; safety Eugene Wilson played some cornerback; Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, and Earthwind Moreland all played hurt and were in and out of the game a few times; and of course, old dependable Troy Brown took some snaps at cornerback (quite a few snaps, actually). It's been three games without Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, and the Patriots are 3-0. I don't think any other team in the NFL could reasonably expect to go undefeated after losing their two starting corners.

Oh, and Ty Warren was the man. 7 tackles, 2 sacks, and he seemed to be around the ball all day.

I'd like to make special mention of Adam Vinatieri, NFL leader in points scored. With a new holder (punter Josh Miller, who deserves his own special mention), he's 25 out of 26 in field goal attempts, missing only one kick in the Miami game (which we won going away) and his kickoffs have been deeper this year. There were rumors he had a bad back last season, and now that he's totally healthy -- well, you can see the difference every week. Back in the dark times (when Pete Carroll was the head coach), Adam missed a potential game winning kick in KC -- but that's the only potential game winner I *ever* remember him missing. Glad no one else drafted you out of college, Adam.

So where does all this leave us. The Steelers and Patriots are now two games ahead of the Jets, Ravens, Chargers, Broncos, and Colts for the first two seedings in the playoffs. The Patriots hold the tie-breaker over the Colts and Jets (for the time being; they play again later in the year). That makes this Sunday's game against Baltimore a big game, because a loss would put the Ravens one game behind us *and* give them the tie-breaker. If we win, they are three games behind us and we won't have to worry about playing games in Baltimore for the balance of the playoffs. Other than the Jets, the Patriots don't play any of their 7-3 competition, so I expect the Patriots to take this game very, very seriously.

The Ravens don't really have the offensive explosiveness to exploit our injured secondary, and their featured running back might miss the game. OTOH, the Ravens defense uses turnovers to provide good field position to their offense, and they are one of the most physical defenses in the NFL. So the Pats will have to protect the ball, play solid special teams, and try to grind out a win. Let's hope the Pats don't eat too much turkey on Thursday and they're ready to go Sunday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Romeo Crennel leaves the Patriots this off-season, I think they might have found their new defensive coordinator. Eric Mangini has done a phenomenal job patching together a secondary with more players injured than healthy. With [former Patriots linebackers coach] Rob Ryan gone to Oakland, Mangini might be the natural choice to replace Crennel."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-1!

Monday, November 15, 2004

Patriots 29, Bills 6 (11/14/2004)

You gotta admit it sucks to be Drew Bledsoe right now. Three years ago, the Patriots granted his wish and traded him so he could start for another team. Unfortunately for him, the only other team interested was Buffalo. Since the trade, the Pats and Bills have played six times, with Bledsoe losing five of the six. And in those losses, he's completed only 56% of his passes, thrown 10 interceptions and only 4 touchdowns, been outscored 156 to 47, and been hit about 100 times. The only saving grace was the 31-0 thrashing to open last season. Hope he enjoyed that win, because it might be his last versus his old team. The Bills are reportedly ready to cut him in the off-season, and he'll likely become a backup quarterback on a good team or a starting quarterback on a bad team by September 2005. Kind of re-defines "be careful what you wish for."

So in a boring game last night, the Patriots continued their dominance over Bledsoe, winning 29-6 (with the "6" being a punt return for touchdown by Buffalo) while holding the Bills offense to 125 total yards and a paltry 8 first downs (versus 25 for the Patriots). The win, coupled with an overtime loss by the Jets, puts the Patriots two games ahead in the division and keeps them tied with Pittsburgh for best record in the AFC (though the Steelers do hold the tie-breaker). The Patriots have now won nine straight division games, unthinkable two years ago when no team in the division finished under .500. And it vaults them to another team record: no Patriots squad had ever started the season with eight wins in their first nine games, not even close -- 6-1 was their previous best.

You might expect the Patriots to win a game that started with Damon -- Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon dropped by with a little something they call the "World Series Championship Trophy"-- and ended with Davey -- Pats backup QB Rohan Davey running out the clock on the last two series. (If only Damon Huard was still the backup... oh the symmetry.) The Pats scored on four out of five first-half drives and with the game in hand pounded the ball right at the Bills defense; Corey Dillon gouging them for 156 yards and the Patriots totaling a 41:22 to 18:38 time of possession advantage. The game looked like the Patriots/Steelers game of two weeks ago, with the Pats playing the inhospitable hosts and the Bills playing the physically-dominated visitors. The Pats got the lead and then bludgeoned the Bills into submission.

Brady wasn't as sharp as he's been, with a number of missed passes to open receivers. I hope this was just an off night; but I have this nagging suspicion that he might have been hurt when 350+ pound Sam Adams sacked Brady early on. For a few weeks now, Tom has been listed as "probable" with a shoulder injury, and having 350+ pounds land on top of you could tweak an injury pretty easily. I have no inside information here, just the observation that after the hit, Brady misfired on at least six passes where he was not pressured, there was very little wind, and the receiver was open. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

On the other hand, everyone else on offense played great. Defense is the strength of the Bills team, yet they sacked Brady only twice and and gave up 208 yards rushing and 220 yards passing. The Patriots O-line deserves a lot of the credit for a great performance, as does Charlie Weis and his staff for their terrific game plan. But Corey Dillon was the man on this day. He made yards where the seemed to be none and got to the outside like no Patriot in recent memory. Curtis Martin himself never got this many yards running free down the sideline. And when Dillon couldn't make 'em miss, he ran over 'em. He left the game injured in the second quarter, only to return and drive the ball right into the heart of the Buffalo defense time after time. You just can't thank the Bengals enough for trading Dillon for a mere second-round pick. He's just been spectacular, 900 yards in 9 games and a 5.0 average.

On defense it was "another week, another great game plan" for the Pats. In an effort to stop McGahee's running, the plan was to push the Bills O-line back a yard and then just stay engaged with the linemen an not give McGahee any cut-back lanes. Worked perfectly, as he was held to 37 yards, his first sub-100 yard performance in a month. And with the running game stifled, the Pats dropped into simple coverage and rushed Bledsoe with three linemen. This worked perfectly because Buffalo's offensive line is well-below-average, and with eight men in coverage, they didn't need to get a lot of pressure on Drew because no one was open.

So, inevitably Drew got impatient and threw into coverage, tossing three INTs (ranging from the spectacular catch by Eugene Wilson to the easy grabs by Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown) and throwing away a bunch more. And when receivers did get open, Bledsoe missed them more often than not (8 of 19 on the day), under throwing most all of his misses by at least a few yards. The Pats were still missing their two best cornerbacks, and once again, linebacker Don Davis and receiver Troy Brown played a lot in the defensive backfield. And with Eric Moulds and Lee Evans at receiver, the Bills were supposed to take advantage of that mismatch. But Bledsoe is so immobile that they have to keep seven or eight guys in to protect him, so that meant two Bills receivers had to find openings among eight Patriots defenders. The results were predictable.

And so it goes. Winning never gets boring, but this win was a bit boring in the second half. I don't blame you if you opted for a decent night's sleep by heading for bed after the first half; most of the crowd seemed to do the same. When Brady threw two touchdowns in the last 4:00 of the first half, the game was 20-0 and was over. You could watch 10 years of football and not see a game as easily won as this. The Patriots just rolled, and extended their division lead and winning streak in the process. They are two wins away from being assured of a playoff berth, and four more wins almost certainly gets them the division crown (the Jets would have to finish 7-0 to overtake them in that scenario). And I can count three almost-certain wins on their remaining schedule (Cincinnati in four weeks, Miami on 12/20, and San Fran on 1/2/05), not including winnable games against KC (next Monday) and at home against Baltimore (11/28).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I heard the rumors that Scott Pioli could be headed for Miami to run the show for the Dolphins. I wouldn't count on that, but I'm almost certain that the Dolphins will get at least one or two guys from the Patriots organization to work for them next year. Could be Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Pioli or even some of their other coaches. But the Dolphins owner wants what Kraft has, and the best way to do that is to just take it away."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-1!

Monday, November 8, 2004

Patriots 40, Rams 22 (11/7/2004)

Q. What do you get when mix the following elements: one team with a vast array of superfast wide receivers, one of the great running backs of all time, and a quarterback who completes more than 60% of his passes and has 32 tosses of more than 20 yards for the season; a "dome field" advantage for that team, with an historically loud crowd and speedy artificial surface, and an extra week to prepare for the game; combine that with another team that has two star cornerbacks out and one who left the game on his second play, a team that will play most of the afternoon with a rookie, a journeyman who had never started, a third-string linebacker, and a 33-year old wide receiver in their defensive backfield?

A. What do you get? Same thing you get week in and week out, a Patriots win.

Quite the team effort yesterday, as "YOOOOOUUUURRR NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS" improved to 7-1, a game ahead of the Jets for the division lead and with the second seed in the AFC. A defensive end who dropped into coverage most of the afternoon (Willie McGinest); a backup linebacker who rushed the passer effectively all day (Tully Banta-Cain); a quarterback who fake audibled all day to shred the defense with the run (Tom Brady); a linebacker who made a sensational catch for a touchdown (Mike Vrabel); a wide receiver with the fourth-most tackles on your team; and of course, a kicker who threw a touchdown pass. Yep, just like they planned it in practice. Actually, that might have been the way they practiced it.

Aside from a fumble in the end zone, Brady was efficient and very good on third down. And after that fumble, they faked the audible at least three times and then ran through a defense that expected a pass. Corey Dillon's return helped a lot (112 yards, well on his way to 1,500 for the year), and David Givens just continues to impress; he makes clutch catches the way Troy Brown used to, and we really need him with all the injuries.

And I can't say enough about the defense. They were flat out more physical than the Rams, and just like in the first Super Bowl victory, the Ram receivers didn't like it. Isaac Bruce went off early after a big hit and was barely heard from again, and every receiver ran out of bounds to avoid contact at least once (that included Marshall Faulk), costing them yardage every time. The Pats got pressure on Ram QB Marc Bulger without blitzing; they simply overpowered the offensive line. A team like the Rams likes to go with a three-step drop and quick throw, and pushing the pocket straight backwards can be effective, if you can slow down the receivers long enough.

So here's a list of the players who slowed down those receivers: Earthwind Moreland, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, Rodney Harrison, Troy Brown, Don Davis. And The Pats defensive backfield coach, Eric Mangini, should take a bow here. He molded these guys into a cohesive unit with very little extra time because the team had back-to-back road games. Quite an achievement. I mean, they were counting on Asante Samuel all week, and he was injured on the second Rams play of the game. Enter Troy Brown, who had three tackles, three passes defended, and only one penalty. The defensive scheme certainly wouldn't have worked without Willie McGinest and Roman Phifer dropping into coverage more often, or without the pressure from an understaffed defensive line, but I just marveled at the defensive backfield.

Finally, at the end of the game, I found myself wondering if there's anything Adam Vinatieri can't do. On a kickoff his rookie year, I remember Hershel Walker sprinting up the sideline for an apparent touchdown -- before Adam ran him down *from behind* and made a textbook tackle. The Patriots lost the game, but I was forever impressed with Adam. And now he's thrown for a touchdown. Any chance he could run one back someday?

Hope you enjoyed the game as much as I did. It was exciting, up and down the field action, with clutch catches, trick plays, and excellent schemes and play-calling by the Patriots. With Buffalo at home next Sunday, they should run their record to 8-1 (after all, they already beat Buffalo on the road this year), and that would put them two wins from an almost certain playoff berth.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Tough to know how [Rams head coach] was ever referred to as a 'genius.' He ran too little in the Super Bowl two years ago and lost, and ran too often on Sunday and lost. His clock management is awful and he's one fourth-quarter comeback against Seattle away from being 3-5 this year. He could be on his way out if the Rams don't do anything in the playoffs this year -- *if* they even make the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-1!

Monday, November 1, 2004

Patriots 20, Steelers 34 (10/31/2004)

This was the scariest Halloween in years! It was bound to happen eventually, and it did yesterday. The Patriots lost for the first time in 399 days, and in the process set themselves up to lose the tie-breaker to Pittsburgh should the teams meet in the playoffs. My congratulations to the Steelers for playing a great game yesterday and to the Patriots for a mind-boggling 21-game winning streak. It was 3 games and 17% longer than *any team in 72-years of NFL history*, and is an extraordinary achievement.

Now, on to the game. In my pre-season preview, I wrote that: "The Pittsburgh and St. Louis games could be tough, with both games on the road the week after the opponent had a bye.... Expect the Pats to lose one of these two games, but not both." Well, they lost their one game so I expect them to get back to winning next week against St. Louis. The big problem with that is injuries to the defensive secondary don't bode well for a game with a pass-happy opponent. Tyrone Poole hasn't played significant minutes in the past three games (out of the last two entirely), and Ty Law and Randall Gay were injured yesterday when the turf let loose on them. If neither Law nor Gay can go next week, it'll be interesting to see how the Pats try to compensate for having third-string players on the field.




The Pats defense didn't play as badly as it seemed yesterday, despite the alarming statistics. Pittsburgh had one -- count 'em one -- long drive for a touchdown. The drive was 80 yards and 68 of them came on two plays -- one where Ty Law got injured (21 yards), and one where Ty Law's replacement was one-on-one against Pittsburgh's best receiver (47 yards). Other than that, Pittsburgh scored on the following gifts given by the Pats offense: Brady fumble at the NE 27 (touchdown), Brady INT (returned for a touchdown), Kevin Faulk fumble at the NE 17 (touchdown). Aside from those gaffes, the Pats defense made the Steelers drive the length of the field and held them to field goals, one in the second quarter, one in the third quarter. And that's exactly what they've been doing all year, all through the streak. But when you don't take care of the ball, you can only win against a sub par opponent (see the Cardinals game from earlier this year). Against a good team, especially on the road, you've got real trouble.

Now Pittsburgh's big statistical advantage is undeniable. But don't panic about the run defense yet. The Steelers are near the top of the NFL heap in yards rushing, and they held the ball for so long the Pats defense couldn't rest (time of possession was 42:58 to 17:02). Once the game seemed in hand, the Steelers simply ran it right at the Pats, and with little time to regroup and so much time on the field, there was little the Pats could do. And with a decided running advantage and a depleted New England secondary, Pittsburgh's young quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) looked like a world-beater. The Patriots were supposed to confuse him with blitzes and different zone coverages, but the blitzes never got to him and the secondary was like Swiss cheese most of the day. If the Pats had made a game of it and forced "Big Ben" to pass more often, it could have been even worse.

Special Teams

Well, the kickoff return team got a lot of practice. There wasn't much of note on special teams, actually. Bethel Johnson made a head's up play by touching a kickoff while he was out of bounds, but the Pats missed the chance to pin the Steelers at their two yard line. Maybe I should have skipped this category.


Well, what can I say? I would call the Steelers my daddy, but that line's been done to death. The Pats lost one and it isn't the end of the world. If I had to guess, I would say they won't end the season 6-10, they will somehow stop some running backs before the year's over, and Brady will not turn the ball over 27 more times this season. It's only one loss and there's nothing to do about it now. But if they have any thoughts of making a deep run into the playoffs, the Pats will have to take better care of the ball and they will have to get healthier in the defensive backfield.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Expectations can be a pain. If Pete Carroll still coached here, we'd be ecstatic with a 6-1 record. But with Belichick and company at the helm any loss seems like it could have been avoided. I guess two Super Bowl championships and 21 straight wins will do that to you."

Keep the faith (and for the first time this year, I really *mean* that),

- Scott

PS. 6-1!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Patriots 13, Jets 7 (10/24/2004)

It was said all week that the Pats and Jets were mirror images of each other. Teams that didn't turn the ball over, didn't commit stupid penalties, made the sure tackles to avoid the big gains, were solidly-spectacular on special teams -- or to put it in cliché form, they didn't beat themselves. So it supposedly would come down to which team could make those few plays down the stretch to preserve the win on defense or win the game on offense. In the end, both of those came to pass: the Pats defense stopped the Jets on four straight downs near the end of the game and the offense ran out the clock when every single person watching knew Corey Dillon was getting the ball.

Not an artistic masterpiece, but a 13-7 win nonetheless. The Pats have now won 21 consecutive games and 18 straight in the regular season (both NFL records, although only one is "official"), and most important of all, they beat their division rival to grab a one-game lead in the division. And it's a good thing. The next two games are on the road against teams with winning records, and both those teams have extra time to plan for the Patriots because they have their bye week before they play the Patriots. Not going to be easy.

As for yesterday's game, I don't think I need to break it down by offense, defense, and special teams. Statistically, the teams came out of the game pretty even. But it seems to me the entire game was encapsulated by six plays late in the game, starting with the Jets on offense at the Patriots 37 yard line:

2nd down and five: The Jets run the fullback in motion to the left, drawing Eugene Wilson to cover him and leaving Asante Samuel with no deep help against Justin McCareins, who has consistently beaten Samuel all day. At the snap, McCareins goes to the end zone (looked like a post route that Samuel shielded him away from), and the pass is thrown behind him and looks like it might be complete. But Wilson had faked covering the fullback and then raced to the end zone and helped with McCareins. Wilson breaks up the pass. It seemed like Wilson knew exactly what play was about to be run, and he also knew that a 10-yard completion to the fullback was much less dangerous than a touchdown at that point.

3rd down and five: Curtis Martin tries to run a quick hit to the offensive left, seeming to catch the Patriots while they were still making their adjustments. But just before Martin hits the line, Jarvis Green (I think it was him) reaches out to grab him by the shoulder pads, slowing him down and pulling him back just enough for Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour to make the tackle for a three-yard loss. The Patriots rotated their defensive linemen a lot in this game, and it just goes to show you that you never know who might make an important play at a crucial time.

4th down and eight: Wayne Chrebet comes in from the sideline and when the huddle breaks, he goes to the slot left. Pennington never takes his eyes off of him as he drops back to pass, and when the throw goes Chrebet's way, he's double-covered short and there is deep safety help as well. Rodney Harrison knocks the pass away, but either of the other two defenders (I believe it was Wilson deep and Samuel short, but it might have been Randall Gay short) could have made the play, and someone else should have been open on the play. But once again, it seemed like the Patriots knew who was the most likely receiver on that play and had him well-covered.

Now the Patriots have the ball at their own 30 with just over two minutes left in the game. With the 2:00 warning and two Jet timeouts remaining, the Pats need to get at least one first down. Everyone in the stadium, watching at home, and (presumably) in the Jets huddle knows that Corey Dillion is going to carry the ball three times.

1st down and ten: Dillon runs over left guard for six yards.

2nd down and four: Dillon runs up the middle for two yards.

3rd down and 2: Dillon runs off left tackle for four yards and a first down. The Jets knew the Patriots would run, and they ran for the first down anyway. No last-second heroics, no dangerous punt return, nothing. Ballgame over.

I hope you enjoyed the game as much as I did. And I also hope you've gotten a chance to watch (or see in person!) some of what the Red Sox have been doing. Between the Pats and Sox, they are undefeated in their last 27 games; pretty astounding when you think that a week ago, the Yank-mees missed a chance to sweep the Sox out of the playoffs. Great time to be a sports fan from New England.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Patriots are undefeated after six games, imagine what they might be like when they get Troy Brown, Deion Branch, and Tyrone Poole back."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-0!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Patriots 30, Seahawks 20 (10/17/2004)

Well, I hope you enjoyed the game as much as I did. Seems like the one game don't go to is one of the best games of the year: last year, Patriots beat the Titans 38-30; this year it's 30-20 Pats over Seahawks. Everyone knew going into yesterday's game that the Seahawks would be one of the toughest tests of the year. In fact, several media know-it-alls predicted this might be a Super Bowl preview. Well, Seattle left just like they came in -- unproven in big games. They've got some work to do to be as good at the Patriots, and a long way to go before they'd represent the NFC in the Super Bowl (especially with Philly and Minnesota playing so well).


The offense was spectacular in the first half, sluggish for most of the second half, and then spectacular again when Bethel Johnson made one of the best catches you'll ever see to help close the deal with 3:00 left in the game. They scored on their first three possessions and showed a great mix of pass and run (33 rushes, 30 pass attempts for the game). Brady, Corey Dillon (two touchdowns), Daniel Graham (a couple of clutch catches), Kevin Faulk, and the entire offensive line played great in the first half, and Seattle didn't seem to have any answers for the Patriot offense until the third quarter. Once the Seahawks made their adjustments, they held the Partiots scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter. Brady uncharacteristically turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions: a fumble while running for a first down, and then an interception. It seemed to me like he was frustrated with their lack of offensive progress in the second half and tried too hard to get something going. If he'd played the possession/field-position game, the Seahawks probably wouldn't have gotten as close as they did. This unit should be scary if they ever get all their wide receivers back; they rang up 30 points against a defense ideally suited to stop them (they have "shut down" corners and the Pats had no extra wide receivers to get Seattle's backup DBs on the field). The run-pass balance with Dillon in town is remarkable (for the season, 156 rushing plays, 143 passing plays -- credit to Michael Smith of ESPN.com).

If you would indulge me, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate two unsung offensive guys: Daniel Graham and Dante Scarnecchia. Graham's progress in the passing game has been admirable, but the thing that keeps him on the field is his blocking ability. This game was the first time I heard the commentators mention his blocking, but you could see in the replays that he just takes guys out of the play, running plays, passing plays, trick plays, any plays at all. Glad to see him finally get recognition for this underrated part of tight end play.

Dante Scarnecchia is the team's offensive line coach. He's been a Patriots coach since the Ron Meyer days (that would be 1982 for those with short memories), he is serving under his seventh head coach with the Patriots, and he's coached everything from special teams and linebackers to tight ends and offensive line. Last season, he juggled an offensive line that started the year injured and ended the year with *zero* sacks in the entire playoffs even without the team's best lineman (Damien Woody -- injured for the Super Bowl) and a rookie at center (Dan Koppen). And this year, Dante's project is Stephen Neal, a guy who's been on and off the practice squad of two teams and spent time on the injured reserve list and the physically unable to perform list over the last three years. Well, he not only made the team, he's *starting* and blocking well in both pass and run schemes. It's not often a non-head coach, non-coordinator gets much attention in the NFL, but I just wanted to recognize Dante's longevity and obvious gift for coaching.


Suppose Seattle wants a do-over? Their first half couldn't have gone worse, with inopportune penalties, dropped passes, turnovers, and when they did get in the red zone, field goals instead of touchdowns. They looked flat, but a lot of it was due to the Patriots defense. They were hard-hitting, they played with anywhere from one to five defensive lineman and disguised their blitzes to confuse the Seahawks offensive line and get pressure on Hasselbeck. The Pats sacked him 3 times and had him on the run at least another 10. In fact, Hasselbeck doesn't throw very well on the run, so I'm sure that was part of the plan to stop Seattle.

Beyond the usual suspects (Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole in the secondary), it's tough to pick out any one player for extra praise. They rotated lineman and linebackers so much that Jarvis Green got as much playing time as Vince Wilfork. And everyone in the secondary hit hard and broke up passes, and the Pats run defense kept Shaun Alexander completely in check. Willie McGinest was all over the place, though he rushed himself out of a few plays. And Eugene Wilson had ten tackles and a forced fumble. But this was one of those overall team performances. They shut the Seahawks down the entire first half, and then late in the game when it was on the line. And much like the Dolphins game, they won the red zone battle (Seattle had one touchdown in five trips inside the Patriots 20 yard line). Not bad when you're playing "offensive genius" Mike Holmgren.


The Patriots played their best game of the year on Sunday. It was a cooly efficient performance that reminded me of what I saw from great teams of the past when they played up-and-coming teams that weren't quite ready for prime time. The Pats won the following battles by a little bit: third-down conversions (50% to 47%); punting average (40.5 yards to 38); yards per return (23 to 21.5); interceptions (2 to 1); time of possession (31:37 to 28:23); rushing yards (130 to 102); yards per pass (7.2 to 6.4); and sacks (3 to 1). Not huge differences, but enough to overwhelm an inexperienced team playing on the road. Even when Seattle came within three points, I never thought the game was in doubt. Seattle just didn't have enough to get the job done.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Think Corey Dillon was worth a second-round pick?" (said with a wry smile).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry this was late, but the Red Sox are frying my brain. And if you think that series is over, remember what I've been telling people since last Thursday: "If the Yankees don't win another game, they lose the series."

PPS. 5-0!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Patriots 24, Dolphins 10 (10/10/2004)

Hey, some people might be bored with this, but not me. My first six years with season tickets went like this: one game followed by a player's strike; 5-11; 1-15; 6-10; 2-14; 5-11. In fact, in the 1-15 season I went to all eight home games and they *lost every single one*. So I have no apologies for enjoying 19 wins in 19 weeks. It's a great accomplishment that has gotten just about the right amount of national attention. And as Seattle's loss on Sunday (after leading by 17 points with 5:50 left the game) showed, it is easy to lose your focus for just a few minutes and cost yourself a game. The Pats have maintained that focus, and have beaten 12 consecutive over-.500 opponents -- not bad, not bad at all.

Now, on to the ugliness. Tom Brady goes 7-19 for 69 yards, two touchdowns, one INT; Miami kicker injured *during warm-ups*. Pats go 4-14 on third-down conversions; Miami rushes for a 2.6 yard average. Both teams get more first downs by penalties than by running plays. Brady gashes his chin and is knocked around a lot more than the one sack would indicate; Miami loses both quarterbacks by game's end (and both are likely out for next week, too). Take your pick; it was an ugly game. But in the end, only the score counted and that went in the Patriots favor for the 19th consecutive time.


I thought the offense performed pretty well. Miami's defense is very good, and their plan was to hit Brady whenever they could (including some "roughing-the-passer") -- and it showed. So the Pats ran the ball right down their throat, and that worked pretty well. The Patriots out-gained Miami 2-to-1 in rushing, and once they had a lead, it allowed them to work the clock while daring Miami to try to score. Which of course, Miami could never do.

Given how the game played out, I give the O-line, tight end, and running backs a lot of credit. It was great to see Kevin Faulk back in the lineup, and Corey Dillon went for almost 100 yards and the recently picked-up Rabih Abdulla added a touchdown against a very stout defense. With Bethel Johnson, Troy Brown, and Deion Branch on the sideline, the Pats went with only three wide-receivers -- one signed only the previous week. And they did enough to get 24 points, which is more than you might expect against Miami, even with a full compliment of players. Brady's aforementioned stats are terrible, but if you want the most important stat in the game, here it is: red-zone efficency, Dolphins 20%, Patriots 100%. Ballgame. Two great play-fakes for two easy touchdowns were the difference.


Another stellar performance by Rodney Harrison. He was in on just about every big play of the game, and he anchored the secondary without Tyrone Poole (and sometimes Ty Law). And the play of the young guys continues to impress. Randall Gay got his first INT, Asante Samuel acquitted himself nicely (notwithstanding two completions against him), and Vince Wilfork played his best game as a pro. Now the Miami O-line is pretty bad, so I don't want to go overboard about Wilfork; but he might be the key to the Patriots having another very successful year. When he plays well, the Pats play a 3-4 defense (three defensive lineman and four linebackers), and in essence, that allows them to have much more complex blitzes and Rodney Harrison is free to blitz, drop into coverage, or help with the run. Keith Traylor has not been able to handle the demands of the 3-4, but Wilfork has shown flashes of being able to do so. He continues to improve, and that improvement might be more important to the Patriots season than most people think.

As for the rest of the defense, Bruschi and Law had big days, and I thought Roman Phifer played well. Also Richard Seymour and even Keith Traylor made some important plays. However, Ted Johnson is just a liability in pass defense. That wouldn't be so bad, except that the offense seems to change to a pass play whenever they see Johnson on the field. Now, the only reason they bring Johnson into the game is when we're having trouble stopping the run; so this situation bears watching. Better play from Wilfork and Traylor could mean less playing time for Johnson.

As for the overall defense, any time you stop a team from scoring 80% of their trips inside the red zone, you have accomplished something. Heck, the Dolphins had first-and-goal inside the one-yard line, and they lost 13 yards *and* both quarterbacks and didn't score. That's impressive no matter how bad the other team's offense is.

Special Teams

I guess they practiced and practiced and practiced all last week, and it seems to have sunk in. The Pats cut Shawn Mayer and signed Je'Rod Cherry (from last year's team) and some speed burner named Kevin Kasper. There are also rumors that Bethel Johnson was inactive for the game because he wasn't practicing hard enough. And the message finally got through: Miami averaged only 20 yards per kickoff return and 8 yards per punt return. The Pats return game wasn't better than it was against Buffalo, but the coverage teams were markedly better. Larry Izzo and Cherry were the special teams stars, seeming to make just about every tackle there was to be made.


I'll say it again: the Patriots haven't played their best football yet. They're getting better -- fewer turnovers and penalties and better special teams coverage. And they will have to continue improving to beat a very good Seattle team this week. I won't be at the game (::sobbing::), but I'll be rooting right along with the rest of you. I think the Pats will score against Seattle, especially if they get one or two receivers back this week. So the burning question will be whether or not Seattle can score more against the Patriots. And I think the answer will be "no."

Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:

"This was the second week in a row the Patriots played a team that *should have* signed away a Patriots assistant to be their head coach. The Dolphins are fond of blaming all their problems on Ricky Williams [who left the team just before the season started]. But their biggest off-season blunder was keeping a coach whose teams continued to decline even as they added more talented players."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Patriots 31, Bills 17 (10/3/2004)

Patriots score first, beat the division rival Bills 31-17, continue the winning streak to 18 consecutive, and remain tied for the division lead at 3-0. Life is good. It wasn't exactly a work of art (both teams had too many penalties and some ugly special teams play -- and even an official left the game injured), but it got the job done -- again. Here's what I saw:


The O-line shuffle from the past two games was pretty much gone. They stuck with five guys for most of the game, and I imagine that will continue as the weather gets cooler and heat exhaustion problems are diminished. Faced with 6-man blitzes two-thirds of the time, they protect Brady pretty well -- zero sacks, but he did get hit more than a few times. I give Buffalo's defense some of the credit; it's obvious that's where they've spent most of their time and money.

With the Pats running game slowed for most of the day (3.8 yards a carry), Tom Brady, David Patten, and David Givens came up big. Brady escaped with no interceptions, although he could have had at least two, and had two touchdowns and almost 300 yards passing despite being blitzed and harassed all day long. Patten went over 100 yards and had a huge touchdown just before the half, and Givens continues to be a big-time receiver who will make the tough catches over the middle. With Ben Watson out for the year, the Patriot receivers will have to do the dirty work over the middle again this year, so having Givens is a big plus. (Note: the Pats are already thin at wide receiver, with Troy Brown day-to-day, Deion Branch out of Sunday's game, and the injury to Bethel Johnson on Sunday.)

Corey Dillon was sort of give-and-take against the Bills. He had a great touchdown run right up the gut early in the game, and then fumbled at the 2-yard line (and had an uncalled fumble later on). The fumble was part of two "14-point swings" in the game: one where the Dillon fumble cost the Pats a touchdown and led to a Buffalo touchdown; the other when Drew Bledsoe's fumble cost Buffalo a possible touchdown and was directly converted to Richard Seymour's touchdown (more on that later).


The defense probably surprised the Bills by not blitzing for the first three quarters. The Pats stayed in their base defense, concentrating on making Buffalo sustain long drives to score, and for the most part, it worked. The Bills had one very long drive (96 yards) -- that was aided by a misplayed punt that went for a 34-yard gain, but most all their other drives stalled out eventually. The secondary did a better job tackling than covering, and they got two Bledsoe turnovers (interception early, fumble late). And once the Pats were ahead late and they knew the Bills would pass almost every down, the Patriots blitzed and had a man coming free on Bledsoe every down.

The D gave up only ten points (the other seven were on special teams). Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Eugene Wilson, and Rodney Harrison deserve special mention. All played well (especially Seymour, who continues to draw double- and sometimes triple-teams), although I wish Harrison didn't have to work so hard against the run. The D notched seven sacks and about twice that many pressures, and that led to many mis-thrown passes or wrong decisions by Bledsoe. And even when the Bills did complete passes, the defenders were right there to make the tackle, so there were very few yards after the catch for Buffalo. And of course, the Bruschi/Seymour combination on the fumble return for a touchdown was great. Buffalo's O-line blew the assignment, with the guard switching out to take Willie McGinest (who dropped into coverage instead of rushing) and the running back missing the assignment switch to take out Bruschi.

The Pats run defense continued to struggle, giving up 138 yards and a 5.3 per rush average. The only time they seemed to stop the run cold was when Vince Wilfork (who is getting better by the week) and Keith Traylor are on the field at the same time -- or when the running back fell down on his own. Sometimes playing Ted Johnson helped, but when he's on the field, teams usually switch to a pass play because he's weak in coverage. The Bills were committed to the run, and that made it more difficult; but when the Patriots play the more balanced offenses of Seattle and the NY Jets, they'll have their hands full if they can't stop the run with their base 3-4 (i.e. with either Wilfork or Traylor in the game -- but not both at the same time).

Special Teams

My mother always told me if I didn't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Good thing she's not on this list. The Patriots special teams got their assess fed to them at gunpoint by Buffalo. The Bills ended up with more return yards than passing yards (213 to 199), and out-returned the Pats almost two-to-one (213 to 117). A lot of those yards were on the 98-yard return by Terrence McGee, but the next four Patriot kickoffs resulted in the following field position for Buffalo: Bills 40, Bills 41, Bills 42, and Bills 39. They might as well have kicked all of them out of bounds (which Vinatieri did once) with those results.

The Patriots lost outside contain on a botched punt (which the punter ran it for 34 yards to keep an eventual touchdown drive alive), gave up two 10+ yard punt returns, and had two botched punt returns by Tyrone Poole. They did get a few good kickoff returns, but it did little to offset the yardage given up to Buffalo. Just a disaster for the Pats and their special teams coach Brad Seeley. I have a lot of respect for the Bills special teams coach, Bobby April (who ran the out-standing St. Louis special teams the past few years). But I know Bill Belichick will have everyone working on this all week, because Miami's special teams are historically among the top ten in the league. Look for more starters on special teams if things don't improve against Miami.


Buffalo is the ultimate Forrest Gump team: you never know what you're gonna get. Their defense is very fast and hard-hitting, but they gave up a lot of stupid of penalty yards; the offense ran well, pass-protected poorly, and came up with only ten points; and the special teams rocked most of the game but a penalty on a Pats field goal allowed the Pats to score a touchdown instead. It was a nice divisional win, but the Pats still have too many penalties (10 for 77 yards), are giving up too many yards on the ground, and need to be more careful with the ball (Brady could have thrown two INTs, and Dillon had two fumbles).

If they play the same type of game against Miami, it won't cost them a loss, because Miami's strong defense, they can't beat you if they can't score. However, the Pats better get their act together for the run against Seattle, the NY Jets, and then some tough road games. But of course, all-in-all it's nice to get a win. 18 straight and if they win next week, they will own the NFL record all by themselves. Sorry about the delayed update, but I was renovating my home this weekend and was exhausted Monday morning.

(The return of) Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Looks like Buffalo made a real mistake not waiting to hire Charlie Weis [Patriots Offensive Coordinator]. If they'd waited until after the Super Bowl, they could have had a great offensive coach who might have turned their program around. But they rushed the decision and now they're 0-3 and look like they hired a guy who's in over his head [Mike Mularkey]."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-0!

Monday, September 20, 2004

Patriots 23, Cardinals 12 (9/19/2004)

You wouldn't think the Patriots could play worse than they did against Indy and still win, but they did. This game reminded me of many the Pats played in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Back then, New England was the bad team that would play its guts out while vastly superior teams from San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle would fritter away opportunities, turn the ball over, suffer offensive and defensive lapses -- and still win by 14 points. This was a mirror image of those games, with the Patriots being the the superior opponent and the Cardinals being overwhelmed by the talented Pats. In case you missed the final score: New England 23, Arizona 12.

Another week another win -- 17 in a row is one short of the NFL record. Not a very exciting game, but it's important to win the ones you are supposed to win and the Pats did that. Here's what I saw:


All the offensive line shuffling is taking its toll. Brady was hurried and the O-line beaten around the corners too often. They did very well blocking for the run, but they've obviously got some work to do in pass protection, and they should settle on a starting 5 and go with them as soon as they can. They were short a tight end, which put them in more wide open formations; maybe that was the problem. As for the run, Corey Dillon was outstanding. 158 yards on 32 carries is more than the Patriots could ask, and he helped them control the clock and the game once they had the lead. His fumble might have been his or Brady's fault, tough to tell from the replays.

Brady played well, despite his two INTs (he threw one on the last play of the half and the other while being drilled). He averaged twice what Arizona did per pass (7.3 yards to 3.4), and the Pats controlled the ball for 10 more minutes than the Cardinals. And despite the pressure, Brady was only sacked twice. And of course, no analysis of the offense could be complete without mentioning David Givens. He made the tough catches in traffic to keep Patriot drives alive and had an outstanding day (6 catches for 118 yards). With Deion Branch out the entire second half, Givens delivered big time.

Oh, and even though the Pats scored only 23 points, they had one touchdown called back and one possible scoring drive stalled on penalties that I am absolutely certain were not penalties. Must be the NFL's way of evening the playing field when the home team is overmatched.


For years, NFL people have said that a Bill Belichick defense against a young quarterback is a mismatch. Yesterday's game should be Exhibit A in support of that idea. The Patriots blitzed from every angle, dropped eight men back into confusing zones, switched defenses when the offense switched plays at the line, and at every turn, the young Cardinals QB, Josh McCown, looked confused, scared, or just plain exhausted. His happiest plays were when he handed off to Emmitt Smith, though Smith and the running game didn't provide much yardage or relief.

The Pats defense dominated the game, sacking McCown five times and hitting him another ten, all while holding the NFL's all-time rushing leader to 2.3 yards a carry and a meaningless 1-yard TD. Seemed the only time the Cardinals scored was after a Patriot turnover or one of those drive-you-crazy penalties that the referees seem to call five times a game. (Speaking of penalties, Arizona's only touchdown came after a bogus call on Ty Law in the end zone. I know Bill's mantra of avoiding penalty calls, but how was Law supposed to keep from falling on the guy's back? He tripped over the receiver's foot and the laws of physics took over at that point. And for the past 20 years that has been considered incidental contact -- but not anymore.)

The run defense was vastly improved (although the Cardinals probably aren't as formidable on the O-line as the Colts were). Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor improved dramatically at nose tackle, Willie McGinest had some key knockdowns and sacks, and Rodney Harrison had some of those big hits he's famous for. The linebackers were flying to the ball, stuffing the run and stopping receivers for no gain after the catch. The Pats held Arizona to 3.3 yards per play, outstanding in today's NFL, and excepting the Cards's first drive of the second half, the Patriot defense controlled the game from start to finish.

Special Teams

Troy Brown is back and all is right with the world. Troy had some nifty returns and most important, didn't have any fumbles or lost yards on the return. Bethel Johnson didn't have much kickoff returning to do (three of the four Arizona kickoffs were downed in the end zone, but that was more a testament to the Patriots defense stopping the Cardinals from scoring). Adam didn't miss, and the Patriots downfield coverage teams look like they might be better this year than last. New punter Josh Miller is a keeper (45.7 yard average and no return on any of them).


Well sure, the Patriots committed three turnovers and 12 penalties, and they were sometime sloppy with the play-calling. But overall, this was a dangerous game. Their next game is a division opponent on the road, and teams oftentimes overlook struggling opponents in that scenario. But once again, they made the critical plays to make sure the game was never in doubt. 17 in a row is sweet, and with two weeks to plan for the Bills (who have apparently forgotten how to play offense), things are looking good. It's never fun to have a bye week this early, but I'm sure the coaching staff will put it to good use.

See you in two weeks,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!