Monday, October 17, 2005

Patriots 20, Broncos 28 (10/16/2005)

Boy, it's tough to know what to say about that one. The Patriots gave up some huge plays and dug a 28-3 hole from which they couldn't quite extricate themselves. The final was 28-20, but the game seemed like a massive blowout for the first three quarters. The loss gets the team to the bye week at 3-3, tied for first place in the AFC East with Buffalo, who beat the Jets on Sunday.

With all their success in recent years, the Pats still can't play *their* game against Denver. Under Bill Belichick, the team has thrived on getting a lead and forcing the opponent to take risks to come back -- and the Pats usually turn those risks into turnovers and even bigger leads. But I have to give the Broncos credit; head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always devise good offensive game plans that give them the early lead, thus negating New England's greatest strength. It was the same old story yesterday, and it's why the Broncos are always tough on the Pats.

Given the absence of Corey Dillon, the Patriots actually ran the ball okay. Not a lot of running, mind you, but 4.7 yards a rush is pretty good; although 89 yards is less than you'd like. And you might hope for some more rushing yards early, but without Dillon, they'll take them wherever they can get them. Patrick Pass and Amos Zereoue were the only Patriots running backs to play, and Pass played the second half injured -- a gutty performance that shouldn't get lost in an otherwise poor offensive day. The O-line could not protect Tom Brady, Brady himself did not throw well early, the receivers ran some bad routes, and they also had some uncharacteristic drops. I'm talking about you, David Givens and Deion Branch. Branch's dropped touchdown pass didn't cost any points (the Pats scored two plays later), but both he and David Givens dropped passes late in the game with the Pats needing a play to keep their chances alive. And both were passes that I believe Troy Brown would have caught (Brown was out with a foot injury).

And Brady doesn't escape criticism either. His poor throwing early helped the Broncos build a 25-point lead, and his bad throws and a killer intentional grounding penalty late cost the team a chance to come back. Granted, he took some big hits, and it's tough to throw while lying on the turf, but not all the errant passes can be explained by the pressure. 52% completions just won't cut it, and to see receivers running open and the ball hitting five-yards in front of them was to know it would be a bad day. The one bright spot on offense was the play of the line in the second half. Maybe Russ Hochstein should replace Logan Mankins (who was ejected at the half) every week, because the line played much better with Hochstein in there.

The pass defense gave up big plays, just like last week against Atlanta. I would daresay the Patriots have already given up more plays of over 50 yards than they did all last season. The Patriots seemed to be trying a new defense, the 4-4-3 -- where they move a safety into a linebacker spot and leave their cornerbacks to fend for themselves. Granted, Duane Starks had another rough day, but how do you provide no safety help for a corner covering the Broncos best receiver over half the field? And how do you do the same thing against the Broncos second-best receiver on the next bloody drive??!! That secondary coach isn't doing the job Eric Mangini did last year, is he?

As for the non-existent run defense, it's discipline, discipline, discipline. The Broncos double-teamed Vince Wilfork on the nose all day long, so linebackers Mike Vrabel (switched to inside this week), Monty Beisel, and Chad Brown should have cleaned up in the running game. Unfortunately, they overpursued and left huge cutback lanes that the Bronco running backs gashed for 178 yards (twice the Patriots output for the game). Even without Tatum Bell's 68-yarder, the Pats gave up too many 8 - 15 yard runs -- and staying disciplined in your assignments is crucial against Denver. They feast on cutback lanes, and the Patriots kindly provided them at every possible moment. The Patriots linebackers are all veterans and should know better than to overpusue, especially against Denver.

Oh, and the pass rush wasn't anything spectacular, either. Given the commitment to stopping the run, you'd think there would enough players near the line to disrupt Jake Plummer, but of course, that was not the case. His uniform looked pretty clean at the end of the game, and several times he faked a handoff and swung back to the other side to find no one within 20 yards of him. That gave him plenty of time to find a receiver, throw it away, or run it on his own. Again, it's about staying within the scheme of the defense. When you leave your responsibilities because you don't trust the other players to take care of theirs, it's 11-man chaos.

Special teams must have played well, because they drew the bulk of the Bronco 11 penalties. Denver's best starting field position was their own 28, and they started four drives inside their own 20, three inside their 10. Didn't do much good, but it was very good special teams coverage. On the downside, Adam Vinatieri missed a difficult field goal just before the half that would have helped a lot in their attempted comeback, and the return game never provided any spark, despite having lots of practice returning kickoffs.

The coaches? Let me list the coaches doing a good job: defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels. The rest of them have not kept the team focused and disciplined enough in any of the past five games. The D-line and QB won the Pittsburgh game, and the QB won the Atlanta game. Without their stellar work in those two games, the Patriots could be 1-5. That's Arizona Cardinals territory, folks.

So where does that leave us? Well, as I said before, the Patriots are 3-3 and tied with Buffalo for first place atop the juggernaut AFC East. But they have an all-important, just-in-time, and much-needed bye week. I'll write up a semi-mid-season report as to the state of the team for next week, including a breakdown of what Tedy Bruschi's possible return could mean to the team. I'll also revisit the schedule given what we know about them and their opponents that we didn't know before the season started. Until then, enjoy the fall weather, get those outside chores done, and get ready for Halloween. Here's hoping the season isn't as scary as the annual "Simpsons Treehouse of Horror."

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Talk about a mediocre team. When you include the pre-season, the Patriots have gone: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Can 8-8 possibly win the AFC East? Mmmmmmmm... could be."

Keep the faith (for the time being),

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

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