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!

Monday, September 13, 2004

Patriots 27, Colts 24 (9/9/2004)

Well, well, well... another week another close victory. The Pats played exceptionally well on offense and poorly on defense and special teams -- yet they came away with a 27-24 victory over the Colts. It was a festive atmosphere, with the crowd cheering every pre-game field goal by Adam and the Super Bowl banner being unveiled. I'm guessing the concerts looked better at home than in the stadium, but it was fun to watch these guys perform in the rain. With losses by Miami and Buffalo and a win by the Jets, the Pats are tied for first place in their division, and had ten days before playing a mediocre-to-bad Arizona team. They appear poised to make it 2-0 to start the season.


Tom Brady is clearly better than he was last year. He made no mistakes reading the defense and completed passes to receivers who weren't even really open. Brady threw for 80 more yards than supposedly-best-QB Peyton Manning, was sacked only once, and his only interception resulted from a missed route by Daniel Graham. He was outstanding, squeezing the ball in to receivers who were barely open (or in some cases, not open at all). And speaking receivers, kudos to this group (especially David Patten, Daniel Graham, and David Givens) for making the catch when they were about to get hit hard. Corey Dillon ran well (5.7 yards a carry) and made quick cuts and moves that I haven't seen from the Patriots in a long time. The O-line did a good job protecting Brady (although he was sacked once and pressured a few other times) and run blocking (almost 5 yards a carry). This was particularly important because the Patriots rotated their offensive lineman for the entire game to keep them fresh, and that can often lead to confusion; but these guys handled it well.


What to say, what to say. The Colts ran at will, pointing to the absense of Ted Washington and the underperformance of Keith Traylor. In fact, rookie Vince Wilfork significantly out-played Traylor, a 13-year veteran. The only time the Pats really stopped the run was with both men in the game at the same time, in a modified 4-3 defense. But Traylor was plain and simply neutralized by one man on most every play, whereas Wilfork at least took two men or forced the running back to change directions when he was one-on-one. The plus is that Wilfork will only get better, so the run defense should improve as the season progresses.

There were also too many missed assignments in the defensive backfield and linebacker corp, with Edgerrin James and the Colt receivers running free all game long. Both Ty Law and Rodney Harrison had some hamstring tightness and left the game for significant periods of time. And I give Asante Samuel a lot of credit for stepping up and playing well; but the Colts have too many weapons in the passing game to play them at less than 100% for too long. However, the defense made the plays they had to make in crunch time. They forced two James fumbles at critical times, intercepted a Manning pass near their own goalline, and sacked him with 40 seconds left to force a long Colt field goal attempt (which they missed). Willie McGinest made that sack, and Colt fans must see him in their nightmares after last year's goalline tackle to win the game in Indy.

Special Teams

The Patriots special teams were 'specially bad. Patrick Pass and Bethel Johnson botched a kickoff, Deion Branch turned the ball over attempting a fair catch on a late punt, Josh Miller outkicked his coverage at least twice (although his 47-yard average was nice), and too many return men tried the old "I'll go backwards to get around this corner" trick and ended up losing yardage. It wasn't all bad; Adam's kickoffs were deeper than last year and the coverage was passable. But there's a lot to work on here: who returns punts when Troy Brown is out (as was the case Thursday); when will Troy return; who is the backfield captain on kickoff returns; why can't these guys just catch the ball (a concern I had in the pre-season); why don't they just run straight ahead and take the yardarge they can; if Miller outkicks his coverage now, what happens when other teams jam our outside "gunners" at the line. I think they'll get these worked out over the next few games -- perhaps with more starters playing on special teams, perhaps with a new punt returner. But in any case, expect a busy week for special teams coach Brad Seeley and his players.


I'm very satisfied with the way the game went. The Patriots have improvements to make on the defensive line and in the secondary, they need to play a lot better on special teams, and the offense was great. And I have no doubt that the defensive and special teams improvements will happen; this coaching staff is just too good not to fix what's broken. And with all that, they still won, and they had 10 days to prepare for Arizona (a 17-10 loser yesterday). I'm sure they will perform a lot better on defense and special teams, and if the offense can just play 90% as well as they did last Thursday, it should be another win.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry this was late, but I was exhausted on Friday morning and once that deadline passed, I thought it would be best to wait until Monday so I could comment on this past weekend's games.

PPS. 1-0!

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Patriots 2004 Season Preview (9/7/2004)

Patriots Preview 2004

The Patriots had a busy off-season, what with the draft, free agency, training camp, the pre-season… and of course, designing their World Championship rings and banner! There have been some significant changes from last year, and here are my thoughts on how the old and new faces will fare in 2004.

The Draft

The Patriots had the best draft this year when they traded a second round pick for Corey Dillon, one of the five best running backs in the NFL. Everything else was gravy. Excepting last season, Dillon has run for 1,250 yards a year (for six years), he blocks well, and has good hands in the passing game. They also drafted two players in the first round (Ben Watson, tight end; and Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle) who were both rated to go higher than the Patriots picked them; so they got good value there.

Wilfork will need some work before he’s ready to step in, but Watson looks like a keeper already. He appears to be a Daniel Graham clone, except he’s got better speed and catches the ball more consistently. It should be interesting to see what Charlie Weis does with all this offensive talent. He must feel like a kid in a candy store right about now.


Hope you said your "good-byes" to Damien Woody. His injury vaulted Dan Koppen to starting center, and Woody never got his job back; so when he got a big contract offer from Detroit, the Pats let him go. The offensive line played well in the one pre-season game they were all healthy for – at Carolina. The other games exposed the backups and showed that good health along the line will be one of the most important factors in their 2004 season.

Antowain Smith went to Tennessee and has been replaced by Corey Dillon, a vastly better running back. If Dillon can block and hold onto the ball as well as Smith, we won’t miss Antowain at all. The wide receiver corps should be improved with another year under their belt and a healthy David Patten. And Tom Brady should be Tom Brady. At 27, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be better than last year, and he’s making a conscious effort to have fewer turnovers (both fumbles and interceptions). There is less experience backing him up (Rohan Davey replaced Damon Huard), so the Pats are banking on a healthy Brady for the season.


Two-thirds of the Patriots starting defensive line left the team this off-season when both Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton went to Oakland. To counter that, the Pats signed Keith Traylor (and two other free agents who are now injured and out for the year, Dana Stubblefield and Rodney Bailey), drafted Wilfork, and moved Ty Warren to start at left end. I don’t think Traylor can replace Washington, so the run defense could be a bit worse; but Warren will be a fine replacement for Hamilton. The team’s depth isn’t what it was last year, but as Wilfork works into the lineup, the defensive line could go from a question mark to a strength.

Rosevelt Colvin has returned from last year’s season-ending injury, and he and the rest of the linebackers (Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, and Ted Johnson) are the heart of this defense. Bruschi, Phifer, and Vrabel can do it all, and Johnson is a proven run stopper. Backups Larry Izzo and Tully Banta-Cain could start for many teams in the NFL.

The secondary looks the same as last year (whew!). Ty Law made peace with Belichick and is a happy camper, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson will be back at safety to punish receivers over the middle, and Tyrone Poole will be ably backed up at cornerback by Asante Samuel.

The biggest change in the secondary will be a renewed enforcement of the "5-yard contact zone" rule. This means that any contact more than five yards downfield during a pass play will result in a penalty. I think this rule change will help the Patriots offense more than it could possibly hurt the defense – because the Pats have so many great defensive backs that no matter the rules, they will continue to outplay their counterparts on the other teams.

Special Teams

Better in all aspects. Adam Vinatieri nursed a back injury all last year and still kicked the game winner in the Super Bowl, Josh Miller has averaged about ten yards more per punt than Ken Walter did last year, and long snapper Lonnie Paxton is back from an injury. Adam’s kickoffs have been longer, the kick coverage has been good throughout the pre-season, and two key players, returner Bethel Johnson and coverage expert Larry Izzo, are back. If the kick returners could just catch the ball before they start running (something that caused them problems during the pre-season), we will have another year of upper-echelon special teams play.


In the 2003 season preview, I said we should try to win a Super Bowl this year because the other NFL teams couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to let us keep defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis once the season was over. Well, I was wrong. Oakland hired our linebackers coach to be their defensive coordinator, but other than that, the coaching staff remains in place.

And with that, we have the best top-to-bottom coaching staff in the NFL. They make adjustments midgame and from game to game better than any staff I’ve ever watched, and they always seem prepared for any situation. So I’ll repeat myself: we better win another Super Bowl because it JUST ISN’T POSSIBLE that both Weis and Crennel will be back next year. Is it? I mean isn't there an old saying, "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me."

The Schedule

The Patriots can expect everyone’s best effort this year. That happens to both Super Bowl teams the next season, and especially to the winner. However, I believe the players are better prepared for it than they were two years ago -- and that team only missed the playoffs in a tie-breaker -- and the schedule is easier than last year's. So here goes with a fearless look at this year’s schedule:

I expect the Patriots to beat the Colts in a high-scoring affair to open the season (home field and the Pats offense versus Indy’s smallish defense should be the deciding factors). They then have ten days before playing Arizona on the road, another game they should win, and they follow that up with a bye week. After the bye, they have Buffalo on the road and Miami at home. It’s always tough to win road games within your division, but something tells me that this year will not be a repeat of last year’s Buffalo debacle. With the extra time to see their offensive changes and with Drew Bledsoe having to learn another new offense, and Buffalo’s bruising schedule at that time (three consecutive division games, starting with the Pats), the Patriots should win that third game. Which will bring it to the possibility of breaking the record for consecutive wins against the team that holds that record – the Miami Dolphins. And if the streak is intact, expect it to continue. Like I said, it’s tough to win road games within your division, and this one is a road game for the Dolphins. I expect the Pats to be either 3-1 or 4-0 at this point, with the only question mark being the Colts game.

The second quarter of the season begins with Seattle and the NY Jets coming to Foxboro. Both games are winnable, with the Jets searching for an identity and Seattle vulnerable at linebacker and in the secondary – plus the fact that the Seahawks have a division road game the following week across the country in Arizona. (Note: historically, the Patriots and Jets have often split the season series with the road team being victorious both times. I don’t expect that this year, but if the Jets win this game, count on the Patriots winning the game in NY.) The Pittsburgh and St. Louis games could be tough, with the both games on the road the week after the opponent had a bye. Additionally, the Pats play Buffalo in prime time (Sunday night game) the week after St. Louis, so there could be a bit of a letdown there. Expect the Pats to lose one of these two games, but not both.

The third quarter of the season begins with the aforementioned tilt against Buffalo. The Pats should absolutely win that one – at home against a division rival. The next week, they’re on the road for a Monday night game against Kansas City, a team that hopes their defensive collapse last year was due to ousted coordinator Greg Robinson. I don’t believe it; the chiefs are old and slow on defense, and they will have just finished two games against bruising defenses on the road before coming home for this. Patriots should win with superior balance over a team ranked 2nd in offense and 29th in defense last year. Next up is the Baltimore Ravens and their brutal defense at Foxboro. This will be a tough game, given the traditional Monday night hangover; but if Anthony Wright isn’t the quarterback (he’s due to start playing again in October), the Patriots will be able to load up against the run and force either Kordell Stewart or Kyle Boller to beat them. Stewart has never had success passing against the Patriots, and Boller is in his second year. If Wright doesn’t play or only started playing within the previous two weeks, I expect the Patriots can overcome the Monday night jinx; otherwise, it will be difficult to win against Baltimore because of their ferocious defense and Wright’s return would give them balance on offense. We finish up this quarter with a road trip to Cleveland, and with Cleveland having a division road game the previous week, I expect the Patriots can handle them. An injury-ravaged Patriots team beat them last year and the Browns haven’t improved since then while I think the Pats have.

Cincinnati comes to town to start the all-important final quarter of the regular season. The Bengals will have just finished three consecutive division games, and the Patriots should have revenge on their minds for the 31-0 drubbing the Bengals gave them in the pre-season (it wasn’t as bad as all that; most of the points were scored against our second and third team defense). I’ll pencil in a win. And the Patriots will finish the year with a win over the Dolphins on Monday night in Miami (Dolphins just aren’t that good anymore), a loss to the Jets in NY (Monday night hangover against a division opponent on the road – too much for most any team), and by beating up a bad San Francisco team at home. The only way the I see the Patriots winning the Jets game is if it means the playoffs for them (or as explained in my earlier note); but as you can probably guess, I expect they will have the playoffs in hand by then.


If you count the Baltimore game as a loss, that puts the Patriots at 13-3 (and an opening-day loss to the Colts would make them 12-4). And that just about guarantees them the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The unknown factors, of course, are how the Patriots will react to getting everyone else’s "A" game and whether or not injuries will hurt them this year. Last year, they proved that injuries don’t have to derail your season, but when everyone is gunning for you, injuries happen more frequently and it hurts more to have your starters out.

And remember, they didn’t blow many teams out last year. A bounce here or a penalty there and they could have finished with four more losses than they did. The margin of victory in the NFL seems to get slimmer every year. You just have to trust the evidence you’ve seen that no matter what obstacles come, Belichick and his coaching staff will answer the call as they always have – like champions.

Enjoy the season,

- Scott