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!

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