Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Patriots 23, Jets 7 (12/26/2004)

Way to bounce back, boys. A tough Monday Night loss where some crucial mistakes by Tom Brady helped evaporate an 11-point in with 4:00 left, and Brady does what he always does -- came back with a win. In fact, he's now 7-0 in games following a game where he throws at least two interceptions. And so, the Patriots won a relatively easy 23-7 victory over the out-classed Jets, improving to 13-2 and 5-1 in the division. Meanwhile, a Jets team that appeared a shoo-in for the playoffs just one month ago has gone 1-2 recently and has to tie or with their next game just to make the playoffs. And that won't be an easy task; they have to play in St. Louis against a Rams team fighting for their own playoff lives.

The New England victory combined with San Diego's loss gives the Patriots the second seed in the AFC, guaranteeing them a week off between the regular season and playoffs. And man, can they use the rest. Yesterday's starting cornerbacks were safety Eugene Wilson and Earthwind "The Touchdown Maker" Moreland. On the sidelines were Tyrone Poole (out for the year), Ty Law, Randall Gay, and Dexter Reid; and Asante Samuel didn't start, although he did play a lot. Must have been one of those "coaches decision" thing-a-ma-jigs. Additionally, Richard Seymour left the game with a leg injury, Matt Chatham was out, Bethel Johnson missed another game, and Corey Dillon could probably use some rest for minor leg tweaks he's had lately. Fortunately for the Pats, they can rest these guys for three full weeks, because the San Fran game this Sunday can't change anything in the standings for them. The starters might play half the game, but expect Brady and company to be on the sidelines by the second half.

As for Sunday's game against the Jets, Tom Brady and the offense recovered nicely from that Miami loss. They scored first (23 games and counting) and scored 10 points in the second half against a team that has seven second-half shutouts this year. Brady was on from the beginning, with at least five passes dropped *perfectly* in to guys who were tightly covered. He took only on sack, had no fumbles or interceptions, and even ran for a first down. The Patriots gained only 3 yards per rush, but made enough first downs to have a 12 minute advantage in time of possession. The Jets over-committed their defense to shut down Dillon, and that opened up some long passes for Brady. If it was less windy, I think the Pats might have scored 40 points against such a defense; but the Jets were probably counting on the wind to help them defend the pass.

Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham got involved in the offense again, with five catches for 74 yards between them. This probably signals a change in offensive philosophy as the weather gets colder and windier. So you can expect the Pats to run the ball and throw short more until the Super Bowl (should they make it), because all their games between now and Jacksonville (site of this year's SB) would be in New England or Pittsburgh. The rest of the receivers did very well, with David Givens having a sick 32 yard average per catch and Deion Branch keeping drives going with clutch third-down receptions (and a lot of yards after the catch). Oh, and I shouldn't forget Patrick Pass, who had some nice runs and swing passes out of the backfield to go along with solid blocking on blitz pickup. Rabih Abdullah missed the only blitzer he was supposed to block, which is why he's sat on the sideline most of the year. The O-line had only two penalties and gave up only the a single sack, although honestly, Stephen Neal looks out of place about half the time. Brady got hit a few times in the game, but nothing horrendous.

The Patriots defense for this game exploited Chad Pennington's two weaknesses: poor run fakes and average arm strength. Romeo Crennel and his staff seemed comfortable letting Curtis Martin get his yards but making sure the Jets didn't beat them through the air. To that end, they had the front seven handle most all the running plays without help from the secondary. This minimized the effect of play action fakes and draw plays because the secondary wasn't paying any attention to the run. And since Pennington doesn't execute run fakes very well, the linebackers could drop deep into coverage on pass plays -- that's how Tedy Bruschi got his interception 15 yards down field. Given that Pennington can't throw the long ball very well (there are reports he's injured), the Pats kept tight coverage in the 10- to 20- yard zone and hoped that anything deep would be off target; and that turned out to be the case all day long. Even the Jets touchdown was under thrown; the Pats defender simply fell down for a relatively easy score.

This defensive plan changed a bit in the second half, with Rodney Harrison coming up to help occasionally. But for the most part, the Patriots dared the Jets to run it and they couldn't do it (Curtis Martin gained only 33 yards on the day). Rodney had a great game, as did Asante Samuel and Willie McGinest. And Monster Masher Vince Wilfork just gets better and better. When he's not clogging the middle, he's in the backfield after the QB or re-directing a running back. Here's hoping Vince stays injury free and the aforementioned injury to Richard Seymour isn't bad (even though Jarvis Green did an good job replacing him). Oh, and that the secondary gets healthy soon, too. That Earthwind Moreland guy scares the crap out of me, and I'd like to get Eugene Wilson back to safety because Don Davis is too inconsistent. But overall it was a great defensive performance for New England. Even though they dared the Jets to run, NY gained only 46 yards on the ground, averaged 6 yards per pass attempt (in the bottom third of the league for the day, I would guess), and the New England defense caused four turnovers. They also sacked Pennington three times and committed only one penalty on the day.

The special teams were a draw for the day, which means the Patriots must have improved. The average starting position after a kickoff was around the 30 yard line for both teams, and Josh Miller did a nice job downing the ball inside the 20 a couple of times. The wind plays havoc with kicks on a day like Sunday, and Adam missed his second field goal attempt of the year (a 50 yarder just before the half), but overall, he did a great job kicking in those conditions. In fact, he accidentally kicked a kickoff right into a Jets player and the Patriots recovered it right before that 50 yard attempt. (Aside: a month or two ago, I suggested to a friend that when the Patriots have to onside kick, they should kick it *at* the wall of players standing ten yards away. Perhaps the Patriots will try that next time, based on the accidental kick by Adam on Sunday.) I'd like to get a bit more out of the special teams, but if they can play the other teams specialists to a deadlock in the playoffs, that will probably be good enough.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Pats will play a semi-meaningless game this Sunday against San Francisco (and I'll be freezing cold while I cheer on Rohan Davey and Rabih Abdullah). After that, they'll watch the first week of the playoffs to see who's coming to town to lose... er, I mean play them... the weekend of 1/15 - 1/16. If all goes according to form, that will be the Indianapolis Colts, which makes it that much more important to get the secondary healthy. But who knows, maybe they can with Randall Gay and Earthwind -- if there's 10 inches of snow and 50 mph winds :) I'm guardedly optimistic that either the secondary or the weather will come through; but of course, we might not end up playing Indy at all. Since I've got a bye week, I'll drop you an email previewing the playoff game once it's clear who we're playing. And of course, those coveted year-end awards must be given out.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule [1978], only two teams have won as many as 28 games in two consecutive seasons: the Bears in 85 & 86, and the 49ers in 89 & 90. The Bears won 29, but if the Patriots win on Sunday, they will be tied with San Fran for the second most wins in consecutive seasons in NFL history."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry the update is late, but I was in Ohio and didn't get to watch the game until last night.

PPS. 13-2!

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