Monday, January 3, 2005

Patriots 21, 49ers 7 (1/2/2005)

14-2 has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? That's two straight years with 14 wins, although it was only good enough for the second seed in the AFC playoffs this year. But that's okay; the Pats could be on the brink of setting yet another NFL record; this time for most wins (regular season and post season) over a two year span. If they win two more games (which would give them the AFC Championship), it would catapult them to 33 wins in the past two years; one more than the 85-86 Bears and 89-90 49ers. Of course, that's not relevant to the cause at hand -- namely, winning a third championship -- but it is another sign of their dominance during the past four years.

I won't bore you with much about yesterday's game. The 49ers weren't much competition, blah, blah, blah. The Patriots offense and defense did well enough to win, blah, blah, blah. They got out of the game injury free, blah, blah, blah. Let me just give you a few quick things I noticed and then get on next weekend's playoff games.

Belichick would likely have pulled his starters out of the game had they played better in the first half. However, it was tied entering the third quarter, so he left them out there to get themselves together (particularly on offense). Among playoff teams with nothing of note to play for, I think he played more starters than the others. That might have been a reaction to how flat the Pats played in their first three regular season games after he gave *all the starters* the final pre-season game off.

On offense, Jed Weaver had a breakout game. He and Christian Fauria had 7 catches for 99 yards between them, and the two combined will be serviceable replacements if Daniel Graham can't play in the post-season.

On defense, it seems that Earthwind Moreland has been demoted from cornerback to safety. And in fact, he was the backup to Don Davis, who was the backup to Dexter Reid, who was the backup to Eugene Wilson. Looks like Earthwind might be the first player sent to NFL Europe by the Patriots this off-season.

With Troy Brown playing so much defense and Kevin Faulk inactive for the game, the punt return job probably defaulted to Bethel Johnson. He did okay, but if he wants the job permanently, it needs to catch the ball every time. No bobbles, no drops.

Je'Rod Cherry played a great special teams game. Downing two punts inside the five yard-line is a very good season, let alone a single game.

Corey Dillon, I respectfully request that you HOLD ONTO THE BALL please. Thank you, sir.

Now on to the playoff games and scenarios.

Saturday is the day of "who cares" games. Someone has got to win each of the games, but I don't expect the winner to do much in the playoffs beyond that single win.

The Seattle Seahawks won their division at 9-7 and play the 8-8 St. Louis Rams in the Yawner Bowl. I saw both teams this year and I think the Seahawks are the more complete team. But they lost both games with the Rams this year, and the Rams have a lot of offensive talent that can hurt you from anywhere on the field. However, it isn't easy to win three games over one team in a single season, and I don't think the Rams can do it against the Seahawks, who are playing their first home playoff game in 20 years.

Also on Saturday is the NY Jets at the San Diego Chargers, in what I would call the Reverse Bowl. Both teams reversed their records from 2003 to 2004, the Jets going from 6-10 to 10-6 and the Chargers from 4-12 to 12-4 (and a division title). The Chargers are this year's 2001 New England Patriots, moving from worst to first and improving from the beginning of the year to the end. Drew Brees has been inconsistent this year, with some of his worst games against bad defenses in Denver and Oakland, But his good games are extremely good, and he could be dangerous in the one-and-done NFL playoffs. The Jets beat the Chargers 34-28 in the second week of the season; however, I don't see the Jets doing much of anything in these playoffs. Their defense is okay, but the Chargers won't allow Curtis Martin to run the ball consistently. San Diego is ranked third in the NFL in rushing defense, and with Pennington unable to throw long, the Chargers should be able to handle the Jets at home.

Sunday's games are much more interesting.

The 12-4 Colts play at home against the 10-6 Denver Broncos -- who beat them yesterday -- in the Don't I Know You Bowl. I've got a bad feeling about this one for the Colts. It was probably a mistake to rest their starters for 3/4 of the game and allow Denver to play them two weeks in a row. Denver's head coach, Mike Shanahan, is very good at devising offensive schemes to beat teams and defensive schemes to slow them down. And since he's playing Indy two weeks in a row, he will have a lot of time to study the Colts and break down their offensive patterns and defensive deficiencies. And giving a team two weeks to study the Colts offense just makes it easier to understand. Denver has the kind of running game that frustrates the Colts smallish defense and controls the clock. The only question is whether or not the Broncos can slow down Manning and company. My head tells me they won't, but my gut says this game will be a lot closer than people think. I can't pick the Colts to lose, but I won't be shocked if they do.

And finally, the 8-8 Minnesota Vikings travel to 10-6 Green Bay to take on the Packers in the Frigidaire Bowl. Minnesota's annual nosedive is as predictable as the sunset, and their 1-4 record in their last five games leaves no room for encouragement. Their only chance to win this game is to get nice weather in Green Bay and have a great passing day from Duante Culpepper. But the predicted high temperature is 32 degrees, and it will be colder than that when the game starts at 4:30 -- and colder still as the clock ticks toward 8:00. The Vikings running game scares no one, and their defense is historically among the worst in the league. OTOH, Green Bay is in the top three in rushing and passing offense in the NFC. And while their pass defense isn't very good this year, I can't imagine the Vikings throwing too much in the howling wind and cold of Green Bay in January.

Now, you're probably asking that all-important question: how does this effect the Patriots? Well, if Indy wins, they travel to Foxboro to play the Pats on Sunday, 1/16 at 4:30. If not, Denver will travel to Pittsburgh and the winner of the Chargers/Jets tilt will play here on Saturday 1/15 at 4:30 instead. Neither the Jets nor Chargers scare me much. We handled the Jets with ease twice this year, and after their 4-12 record last year, the Chargers will probably be happy just to win a single playoff game. Do the Colts scare me? Sort of. I still won't believe all the Peyton Manning hype until he does it in the playoffs in adverse conditions. He's too quick to get frustrated and just won't stick with the running game long enough to wear a defense down. In fact, didn't we hear how last year was the year Manning would get the Belichick monkey off his back and go to the Super Bowl? If I recall correctly, the Patriots won that game, not the Colts.

In the playoffs, you have to be able to run and to stop the run. The Patriots and Colts can both run the ball, but only the Patriots can stop it. The Pats give up only 97 yards rushing a game, while the Colts give up 127 -- and that's mostly against teams passing to try to catch up to them. The only chance the Colts have is to exploit the Patriots banged up secondary, which they could do. But when I consider the conditions at Foxboro and the home field advantage, if Ty Law and Asante Samuel start the game, it looks a lot like the Patriots will make it five in a row over Indy.

As for the Patriots chances against Pittsburgh in a potential AFC Championship Game, I refuse to look ahead. On game at a time, please.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Patriots win two playoff games, their 33 wins in two years will be a new NFL record!"

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

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