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!

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