Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Patriots 24, Colts 14 (1/18/2004)

So the Patriots are going to the Bowl again -- sweet! Sunday's AFC Championship game was another classic, with the Pats pressuring Peyton Manning and daring the Colts to run. The Pats scored on 6 of their 10 possessions (excluding the end of half and end of game) whereas the Colts only scored on 2 of their 11 possessions (unless you include the Safety they scored for the Pats... heh heh). And once again, the Patriots improved their performance against a team the second time they played. So now it's on to Houston to tame the Panthers and bring home a second Lombardi Trophy -- at least that's they way *I* want it to go. It's a more interesting match up than if Philly had won, because the Pats stomped them 31-10 earlier this year and the Eagles have injuries and no offense left.

It's the same old song for this defense, although they added a verse or two. Ty Law was the man on Sunday -- with as many catches (3) as Colts receiver Marvin Harrison. Two of his interceptions were just great catches, and when you add Rodney Harrison's INT and forced fumble, the Pats got 5 turnovers (compared to 2 in the first game). Harrison (Rodney, not Marvin) and Eugene Wilson had some monster hits, and the Colt receivers obviously were short-arming passes by the second quarter. In fact, the Pats played the same defense Sunday that they played in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams -- five defensive backs, two linebackers, and four down lineman, not much blitzing, and daring the Colts to run the ball. And the Colts played just like the Rams, throwing into a defense that's more vulnerable to the run.

In fact, some of their best success came early in the third quarter when they scored their first touchdown on a drive that was mostly running. But for some reason, they didn't stick with it, and Manning paid the price. The Pats pressured him up the middle and from the back side, making him move before passing. And he threw at least three of his interceptions while on the move to the right. Jarvis Green arose from the bench to notch three sacks, and the D-line got pressure without much blitzing at all, leaving the back seven to handle three or four receivers -- a mismatch in the Patriots favor. The only bad news for the Pats defense was Tedy Bruschi limping off the field late in the game. His status for the Super Bowl is uncertain.

What is certain is that the Panthers will have their hands full with the Patriots offense. Antowain Smith is running like he did two years ago (22 carries for 100 yards), David Givens makes big-time plays (8 catches and a touchdown), Troy Brown is back to his old self (7 catches for 88 yards and a punt return for 16 yards), Adam Vinatieri went 5-5 on field goals, and Tom Brady continues to build his reputation as one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the game (5-0 in the playoffs; 9-0 against teams with a winning record this year). Brady did throw his first interception at home this year, but it was inconsequential to the outcome. In fact, if they'd converted two of those field goals into touchdowns, this would have been a blowout. (Personally, I think they threw too much when they got close to the end zone, and should have used Kevin Faulk more near the goal line.) The Pats first drive was textbook, short passes mixed with runs, and the touchdown to Givens was a beautifully designed play that beat an over-aggressive Colt defender trying to anticipate Brady's throw. The Patriots offense beat the Colts offense in time of possession, third down conversion rate, yards rushing, yards passing, completion percentage, yards per pass attempt (which correlates very closely with winning games). They also allowed no sacks, and had only two penalties and have the look of the 2001 team with a bit more talent.

Adam kicked ass (as well as the ball) on Sunday. Doesn't get much better than 5-5 on field goals. And the rest of the special teams played well, except for the kickoff to open the second half. Ken Walter didn't mess up any punts (ask the Colts what that feels like), and he saved at least two bad snaps on field goal attempts. The Colts were obviously still afraid of Bethel Johnson, kicking it short so he couldn't return it. And that worked well for us because we started just about every drive at the 35 yard line or better. Troy Brown turned in a 16-yard return on their only punt, and the Pats basically won the field position game all day.

Overall, the Patriots did what they've done all year when facing a team for the second time, especially in points allowed (a twenty point drop from first game to second). They had more sacks (from 2 to 4) and more turnovers (2 to 5) and totally rattled co-MVP Peyton Manning. And I expect they will do much of the same to the Panthers in Houston. Even though it's the first time they will play this year, the Patriots defense against an inexperience quarterback is a mismatch. The Panthers can run the ball but they haven't faced a run defense as ferocious as the Patriots is, and they don't have enough of a passing threat to force the Patriots out of their run defense.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots can't win for very long if Tedy Bruschi is out. He got injured last year and they lost their next four games. But they have shored up their run defense and have enough speed to win the Super Bowl even if Bruschi is out. But I hope he's back in time for the Bowl anyway."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

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