Monday, January 12, 2004

Patriots 17, Titans 14 (1/10/2004)

Now that, boys and girls, was a great football game. The best I've seen all year, though if you like offense, you probably liked the 38-34 win over the Colts in November. Personally, I like a little more defense, so I prefer the 17-14 win over the Titans on Saturday. (This was, in fact, a great weekend on the gridiron - with four games decided by an average of five points.) The winning streak stands at 13 games, and one more win over the Colts to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

The defense remains largely responsible for the entire streak, and they did most of the heavy lifting this week, too. The defensive line did a nice job holding Eddie George to 48 yards and they pestered Steve McNair enough to keep him at 200 yards passing while sacking him three times. Willie McGinest was the defensive star, with eight tackles and two sacks, and he and Rodney Harrison were around McNair all day. Derek Mason (their best receiver) accounted for 90 of those passing yards, mostly when he found himself covered by safety Eugene Wilson - a mismatch the Patriots took too long to correct. The Tennessee receivers are big and they thrived on the physical play of the Patriot corners, and they made some fantastic catches along the sideline on their last drive. Neither Ty Law nor Tyrone Poole distinguished themselves with great plays, though not many passes were completed against Law. Aside from the damage Mason inflicted, most of the passing yards came on excellent catches through tight coverage. Harrison had the game's lone interception, which led to the team's second touchdown, and he and Tedy Bruschi forced the Titans into crucial penalties on their last drive. Tedy Bruschi had an interception called back because of an offensive penalty -- and he would have returned it for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead, and a totally different game. In fact, the Titans twice committed penalties that helped them, but overall they had far too many for a playoff game. The ended the day with nine penalties and at least three others that the Patriots declined.

The Pats offense didn't perform as well as I expected, and I give the Titans some of the credit for that. The Patriots scored an opening-drive touchdown for the fourth game in a row, a 41-yard pass to Bethel Johnson, and followed that up with an opportunistic TD in the second quarter. Antowain Smith ran very well (16 carries, 69 yards and a touchdown), and the Pats surprisingly out gained the Titans 96 yards to 84 on the ground. The offensive line deserves a lot of praise, not only for their run blocking but for their stellar pass protection - can't do much better than zero sacks. Tom Brady completed passes to 10 different receivers, and even though his completion percentage was barely above 50%, he never turned the ball over. That was left to Daniel Graham, who had a horrible day. He dropped a crucial third down pass, lost a fumble, then dropped back-to-back passes on second and third down as the clock was winding down toward four minutes to play. Had he caught either of them, the Pats could have run more time off the clock and gone for a touchdown rather than a field goal. To compensate for Graham's bad day, the team got important contributions to the passing game from David Givens, Christian Fauria, Bethel Johnson, Troy Brown (a clutch fourth-down reception), and Kevin Faulk. But Graham better get his head on straight for the next game. The Patriots can't afford to miss scoring opportunities against the Colts.

Special teams were very inconsistent. Some have come to expect the worst of Ken Walter, and his 27-yard average leaves a lot to be desired. But Craig Hentrich (the Titans's punter) was even worse, with one kick of 14 yards and a poor kick that gave the Pats a short field on their game-winning drive. Given that Hentrich led the league in punting but still had trouble in the poor conditions, I can cut Ken Walter a little slack. What cannot be excused was the poor kickoff coverage. The Patriots kicked off four times, and twice they lost outside containment - both times leading to great field position for the Titans. Bethel Johnson and Patrick Pass were the guilty parties, and they'll need to stay disciplined in the next game or it could be trouble. (Note: in both cases, the special teams coach, Brad Seely, took the player aside for a little chat, so I think the message got through.) In addition, Adam Vinatieri missed a 44-yarder, and the Patriots got nothing from their punt- and kickoff-return teams - including a punt Troy Brown should have caught that ended up being downed at the Patriots 5 yard line. On the positive side, Richard Seymour blocked the Titans's only field goal attempt, and Adam did hit the 46-yard game winner. And they should fare better against the Colts because their special teams aren't as good as Tennessee's. But I still had higher expectations for this game.

So it was a lot of fun if you like defense and close games. If you like scoring, the Kansas City/Indianapolis game was right up your alley. The Pats didn't perform as well as I thought they would coming out of the bye, but as is the case every game (for the last 13), they minimized mistakes and did enough to win. They ran for 3.6 yards a carry, had only one turnover, no interceptions, committed only 3 penalties (14 yards), and Tom Brady wasn't sacked all night. To win against Indy, they will have to capitalize on every offensive opportunity that presents itself. The Colts can probably score at least half the time they get the ball against the Patriot defense, which means the Pats will have to score more than half the time they get the ball. But Indy's defense is easily the worst one still in the playoffs, and good defense usually beats good offense in the playoffs; so it should be interesting.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Colts look great, but remember the conditions for their games. One game in their dome and the other in 50-degree weather against a really, really bad defense. Their punter should get some work this Sunday in frosty Foxboro, and those small receivers probably won't hold up as well as the Tennessee receivers did in the sub-zero wind-chill. Besides, they're 1-3 in AFC Championship games, and the Pats are 3-0."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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