Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Patriots 21, Colts 40 (11/7/2005)

For those not keeping score at home, it is now WWWWWWWW vs. WLWLWLWL. Look up consistency in the dictionary and you're bound to find reference to the Colts (for consistently great play and eight straight Ws) or the Patriots (for consistently mediocre play and four straight WLs). Either way, the game came out as a 40-21 loss for the hometown team, and the Patriots slipped perilously close to the pack in the AFC East, with a big "showdown" next week against Miami (one game behind).

Over the years, I only remember one other game that was basically decided on single play. On 12/2/1990, the Patriots lined up against a Kanas City Chiefs team with a punishing running game. I thought the Pats only chance was to hold that running game in check, and make the Chiefs pass to win. So on the first play of the game, KC's Steve DeBerg hit Stephone Paige on an 86-yard touchdown bomb, and thus, after only 25 seconds, the game was essentially over (KC prevailed, 37-7). Well, after 15 years, it happened again yesterday. Trailing the Colts 14-7, the Patriots Mike Vrabel intercepted Peyton Manning, and the Pats had great field position. They drove the ball to the Indy 17, and then the Colts recovered a Corey Dillon fumble with 2 minutes to go. Predictably, the Colts drove for a touchdown, 21-7, pretty much the ball game.

Sure, the Patriots lost for a ton of other reasons, but a 14-14 game at the half, with the Patriots getting the ball to start the third quarter, and Peyton Manning perhaps questioning whether it was about to happen to him again -- all of that was the Patriots only realistic chance of winning. They had no pass rush, the secondary was alternately mediocre and terrible, and the linebackers couldn't stop anything for fewer than five yards. So the Patriots had to beat them in a shootout; stop the Colts for a field goal once or twice and make sure their own offense scored nothing but touchdowns. Their last possible plan to win fell from their grasp with that fumble.

On offense, the line pass protected okay but not great and run blocked poorly for the game. Dillon had some 10-yard gashes, but that would be followed by a 3-yard loss when four Colt defenders would come through unblocked. I don't think the Colts run defense is so much better than last year as much as I think the Pats O-line just blew a lot of assignments. Too many bad passes and dropped passes, too many tackes for a loss, just too many problems. I don't even know who to blame for the offensive woes; the whole offense was subpar. Guess I'll just move on.

Oh, that's right... the defense was worse than the offense, so I should probably skip them, too. But I won't. It was nice knowing you, Duane Starks, but it's time for Ellis Hobbs to show what he can do. Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson were all huge contributers in their first years, so let's hope they got it right again with Hobbs. Time to see what he can do, 'cause Duane "The Pain" Starks isn't the answer, long- or short-term. With Randall Gay back, the Pats now have three secondary players who at least know their assignments (Gay, Samuel, and Wilson), so put them out there with Hobbs and see what happens. Can't be any worse than this, can it?

Tedy Bruschi looks a step slow (which is to be expected), and the D-line just can't get enough pressure on their own. The Pats best pass rusher last night was Rosevelt Colvin, but the more I watched him, the more I realized he was guessing run or pass and hoping he was right. He blitzed himself out of running plays as often as he pressured the QB; so even though he looked like the defender of the night, he was like the rest of the team, up-and-down. I give Asante Samuel a lot of credit; he at least kept close coverage -- sometimes the passes were just too good. But the entire secondary (Samuel included) gave way too much pre-snap ground. On third-and-three, you can't give a seven-yard cushion. You just can't.

The one nice part of the evening was watching the special teams in their limited-engagement revival of "The Keystone Cops." When your kickoff returner runs into his own teammate more often than the other team makes the tackle, you've got trouble. I wonder if Larry Izzo got credit for those two tackles on the Patriots kickoff return team. Could put him in line for some kind of bonus... from the Colts, that is.

As for the coaching... nevermind. No wait a minute. I said before the season that Belichick is the only head coach who would change things in mid-season if they weren't working out. Well, guess what, we are now exactly halfway through the Patriots season. Bill, here is your mission, should you choose to accept it: (a) elevate someone to offensive coordinator, (b) ask special teams coach Brad Seeley how he intends to fix things, and if the answer is "I don't know," fire him and take over the job yourself, (c) hire someone to coach Vince Wilfork one-on-one, (d) start scouring the league for a new defensive backs coach, because Eric Mangini's replacement is no Eric Mangini.

I know I usually have more stats, so just to keep you happy, here are a few: first downs 28 to 17 Indy, third-down conversions 71% to 36% Indy, time of possession 36:41 to 23:19 Indy, turnovers 2 to 1 Indy, total yards 453 to 288 Indy, rushing yards 132 to 34 Indy, passing yards 321 to 254 Indy, yards per pass 8.7 to 6.0 Indy, sacks 2 to 0 Indy... hold on, I'm out of breath. Want to know the only significant category where the Patriots outplayed the Colts? Penalties, 4 to 7 Patriots.

So where does that leave the team? Aside from being in first place at 4-4, the Patriots are basically biding their time. They will win the division but it's highly doubtful they'll get a first-round playoff bye, so they'll have to go on the road if they want to repeat as champions. But the question of how they'll do in the playoffs is basically one of health. If January brings back Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and the 2004 versions of Corey Dillon and Tedy Bruschi, then they have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. Otherwise, expect Tom Brady to suffer his first playoff defeat in 2006.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats are still going to win the division, bank on it. But if they don't get healthy by the playoffs, it could be one and done."

(Try to) Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-4!

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