Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Patriots 31, Jets 21 (12/26/2005)

There might not be enough synonyms for “domination” to write my usual update. You just don’t usually see ass-whoppins like that in the NFL, but the Patriots completely "own3d" the Jets, dealing them a 31 to 21 loss that felt more like 31 to 2.1. The win moved them to 10-5 on the year and kept alive their chances for the third playoff seed and a first-round game against Pittsburgh instead of Jacksonville. Not that that’s a good thing (for reasons I’ll delve into later), but the higher your seeding, the better your chances of hosting more playoff games. And of course, you never want to head into the playoffs on a losing streak.

The offense seemed bored at times, as if they were more interested in wearing down the Jet defense than scoring. They had 50 rushing attempts (versus 33 pass plays), and even when facing 8- and 9-man fronts they ran effectively enough to keep the ball for 43:21 (72% of the 60 minutes in the game). Corey Dillon ploughed for 77 tough yards, and Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass were effective as change-of-pace backs (13 rushes for 52 yards). The O-line didn’t get a huge push, but they did move the Jet defenders backwards. Special mention goes to offensive lineman Tom Ashworth, who played a lot of fullback and has made his transition to that role seamlessly. Tom Brady was sacked three times but faced only nominal pressure the rest of the game. He was very efficient (18 of 29 for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns); his only braincramp led to a Ty Law interception return for the Jets only score of the first three quarters.

The receiving corps was mostly unremarkable, which is expected with only 18 complete passes for the game. But two things stood out for me. First, Mike Vrabel will soon be drawing double-coverage. He’s got eight NFL receptions – all for touchdowns, and is now tied for second on the team with four touchdowns for the year. And second, Ben Watson may be learning how to get open. One of Monday night’s replays revealed that he let the defender hit him downfield and then Watson used his strength to push the DB away *just* before the ball arrived for a 23-yard reception. Plays like that can be penalties either way, but they are rarely called and are exactly the technique used by the best tight ends in the league.

As for the defense… well, I don’t want to praise them too much for stopping a very bad Jets offense – one of the worst I remember seeing in the last 10 years. A one-dimensional offense has no hope against the Patriots; but a no-dimensional offense is a chance for Patriot defenders to pad their stats. Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Hank Poteat added a sack each, Ellis Hobbs added 4 tackles and a couple of passes defensed, and Monty Beisel and Chad Brown even saw significant action (5 and 2 tackles, respectively). The only real defense concern is the health of Asante Samuel and Tedy Bruschi. Samuel took a knee to the head and Bruschi left with a leg injury. Neither player returned to the game. By all accounts, Bruschi is fine, but if Samuel is out for the playoffs, that might be the defensive injury that breaks the camel's back.

But mostly, it was a great team performance. In the first half, the Jets offense tallied four three-and-outs and threw an interception, had a QB rating of 10.71, got zero first downs, netted 18 yards, and held onto the ball for only 6:26 out of 30:00. It looked like they were playing seven-against-eleven, and the Jets got their first first-down with only 20 minutes left in regulation. For the game, the Pats held the Jets to 171 total yards, the fourth consecutive game of less than 200 yards allowed -- and the cumulative QB rating against them for the past four weeks is 51.51. The defense is razor sharp, stopping the run cold (an average of 31 yards against over the last four games), and creating heavy pressure with only limited blitzes. The Jets ran only 40 offensive plays, and if you take away the two garbage-time touchdown drives, the Jets had only 38 yards on 19 plays. All of that is a tribute to the Patriots rushing offense and smothering defense.

Special teams were okay but not great. When going with the wind, Adam V. put his kickoffs into the end zone, but the other direction was another matter. His first kickoff into the wind was returned past the Jets 40, and after that he kicked high and short to avoid long returns. The Patriots return game was very good (average starting position was their own 44), and Adam tried only one field goal (good from 26 yards, into the wind).

And I think the coaching staff deserves kudos. They recognized the Jets wouldn't be a threat as long as they protected the ball. So they ran and ran and ran, substituting in fresh running backs and sprinkling in enough passing to keep drives going. They rested some starters and protected their QB as they head into the playoffs, which is the right call at this time of year.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Pats can still get the third playoff seed with a win over Miami this Sunday (very likely) and a Cincinnati loss in Kansas City (also likely, given that the Chiefs have won 18 consecutive December home games). Should that happen, they'd draw either the Steelers (whom they beat this year) or Chiefs (to whom they lost this year) instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars (who are struggling with an unproven QB). Now, I'd rather face the Jags in the first round, but facing the Steelers or Chiefs means avoiding Indy the next week. However, avoiding Indy means playing the Denver Broncos (who beat the Patriots this year). No great options, but if forced to choose, I'd take the Jaguars and Indy over the Steelers/Chiefs and Broncos. I just think the Patriots stand a better chance of beating Indy in a dome than Denver at their place because since 2001 Tom Brady (9-0 record) and Adam Vinatieri (perfect in non-Houston domes) play other-worldly football inside.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Going for it on fourth down four times shows how much faith Belichick has in his defense. And if he believes in them, who would disagree?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Patriots 28, Buccaneers 0 (12/17/2005)

When the Patriots clinch an AFC East title at home, they play The Who’s famous line “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss” over the PA. Seemed appropriate to hear it Saturday, when your hometown Patriots dismantled the Tampa Bay 28-0 and won their sixth division crown in Bob Kraft’s twelve years of ownership. The win gives them a home playoff game the weekend of January 7-8, and it looks like the Jacksonville Jaguars will be visiting that day. (BTW, didn’t the Patriots just win a Super Bowl in Jacksonville’s home stadium?)

On Saturday, the Tampa defense was loaded up to stop the run and get after the QB, but fortunately the Patriots drafted some guy named Tom Brady late in the 2000 draft and he just carved the Bucs to pieces. 20 for 31, 238 yards and 3 touchdowns reads like a line from last December’s stat-sheet, and performances like that coupled with the Colts loss yesterday might give him a leg up in the NFL MVP voting. David Givens was the Pats best receiver, accounting for 137 of those yards (and 19 yards on two end-around runs), and making two crucial catches -- one to keep their opening drive alive and the other a 31-yarder to change field position late in the first quarter. The tight ends are banged up, and so Christian Fauria had the only two catches from that position. The team will need more production from there if they expect to do anything in the playoffs.

The running backs contributed seven important catches, and 83 hard-nosed yards with zero fumbles (in fact, no turnovers on the day). The offensive line did give up a sack and Tampa got some hits on Brady, but overall their pass protection was good and the run blocking decent. Not stellar, but they are on their third left tackle, second center, second right tackle, and they've got a rookie at left guard. And of course, the shining star on the line was Tom Ashworth (no. 68 in your program), who snagged his first NFL touchdown – he lined up at fullback and caught a one-yard pass in the end zone.

But the Patriots defense was the unquestioned story of the day. All four starting linebackers had at least one sack (Bruschi and McGinest had two each and Colvin and Vrabel had one each), and two of them teamed up for a sack that forced a fumble (Vrabel) and recovery (McGinest) late in the first half. Bruschi looks like he’s all the way back, and Colvin and Vrabel continue to play out of their minds. Vrabel tackled everyone in his path and that freed Colvin to roam – and he seems to be everywhere all the time. Bruschi's stroke recovery aside, this has been the healthiest unit on the team all year, and they are rounding into playoff form nicely.

However, the linebacker play wouldn’t have meant much without stellar defensive line play. Richard Seymour is back to his All-Pro form, throwing aside linemen to make tackles in the running game and collapsing the pocket with brute force on passing plays. And Vince Wilfork (of all people) is finally holding his own in the middle. The team has been rotating Jarvis Green for Vince on obvious passing downs, and it has worked to perfection. Tampa couldn’t move Wilfork at all, and that meant no running room inside the tackles, which is where Tampa makes most of their yards. The Bucs gained only 30 yards on the ground, their lowest total of the season.

And finally, kudos to rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs. The Buccaneers were running and passing away from his side of the field, which means they thought they had a better chance attacking veterans Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. That’s when you know you’ve arrived in the NFL, when the opposition designs their game plan to avoid you. And Hobbs backed it up, with three passes defensed in four attempts to his receiver.

The special teams numbers were a mixed bag. For the third week in a row, they gave up a big play (luckily, the 81-yard punt return was called back on a penalty); however, the kick-off coverage was very good (Tampa’s average starting position after kick-offs was their own 28). But some of the kicking game problems come with the territory when you play outdoors in cold, snowy, windy weather, and a lower punting average can sometimes be more circumstantial than you think. Adam Vinatieri hasn’t done anything but kick-off and "add the extra point" in two weeks; so I suppose he’ll be well rested for the playoffs.

As for the coaching, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has pushed all the right buttons for three straight weeks. But the offensive play-calling gives me a bit of worry. The Pats had 11 possessions, and six of them were three- or four-plays and a punt. With drives like that, they can still prevail against lesser teams and against better teams in Gillette. But to get to the Super Bowl, they will have to win either one or (more likely) two games on the road against the best in the NFL. And I just think they need to be more productive than that against the iron of the league.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Patriots have a 5-1 record in their last 6 games, and seem destined for a date with the Jaguars in three weeks. They should have a decent chance to rest Brady (or anyone else who’s injured) because there are no realistic possibilities to move up in the playoff seedings. The Jets are next on the schedule (Monday at New York), and they have played better the past two weeks and could give the Pats a run for their money. Well… maybe not. So just enjoy the ride until the end of the year. Playoffs, here we come!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The Pats defense has dominated lately. They gave up 485 yards in the last three games combined. That’s less than their own offense had in the snow at Buffalo (494 yards).”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Patriots 35, Bills 7 (12/11/2005)

Yikes, did the Jets switch uniforms and play the Patriots again this week? The 35-7 final doesn’t even come close to describing how soundly your New England Patriots thrashed the Buffalo Bills yesterday. The win maintained the Pats two-game lead over Miami in the division, and set them up for a clash with the 9-4, division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Saturday in Foxboro. And any win by the Patriots or loss by Miami gives the Pats their third consecutive AFC East title (and fourth in the last five years).

As for yesterday's game, the offense was simply brilliant. The semi-patchwork O-line (Nick Kazcur was out) consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage, kept Tom Brady upright, and pushed Bills all over the joint the entire game. 69% on third-down conversions, 75% pass completion rate, 80% red zone efficiency, 41:59 of possession time, 494 total yards (159 of them rushing), and only one sack (for one yard), and a franchise record 32 first downs -- all a credit to the run and pass blocking of the offensive line. Their dominance was so complete the game wasn’t in question the entire second half, and it speaks volumes that they scored 28 points against a Bills defense that stymied them for three-and-a-half quarters only six weeks ago.

Corey Dillon ran for 102 yards, only the second 100 yard rushing performance for this year's team (Dillon had 106 at Atlanta). He ran with more authority, as the line blew big holes and sealed the corner for several outside runs. Every week he looks more like the Dillon of last year. And Kevin Faulk did well as a change-of-pace back, the two of them combining for 10 catches for 100 yards. The running game was a vital component to the win because it was snowing and windy in Buffalo. And despite the bad conditions, Tom Brady killed the Bills with tough passes into tight spaces, and the receivers didn’t drop anything remotely close to catch-able… well, except for Michael Cloud’s tipped ball that was intercepted. Brady’s other interception was a miscommunication in the Buffalo end zone, but for the most part, he and his receivers were in perfect sync. David Givens looked like his old self, making the tough catches in traffic, and that opened up things for Deion Branch (5 catches for 83 yards) and Troy Brown (6 for 45 yards and a touchdown).

Add to all that a Patriots defense as ferocious as the weather, and the game wasn't even close. The defense mercilessly attacked the line of scrimmage, holding a decent Buffalo running game to only 14 yards on 12 carries and hitting QB J.P. Losman just about every time he dropped back to pass. All told, they forced seven drives of three or fewer plays, got three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), and held the Bills to 183 total yards (109 of them coming on two pass plays).

Richard Seymour has been on fire lately, disrupting plays before they even get started, and with Vince Wilfork now holding his own on the nose, the line stopped the run cold. And of course, that freed things up for the linebackers, which benefited Rosevelt Colvin tremendously. Colvin is finally playing up to his contract (after a season-ending hip injury in early 2003), pressuring the QB off the edge and sniffing out the run like a bloodhound. And when Willie McGinest comes from the other side, it just gives the other team's offense fits. With Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi prowling the middle, there isn't much the front seven can't handle.

However, the real improvement has been in the secondary. Rookie Ellis Hobbs is now the team's best cornerback (another INT yesterday), and with him and Asante Samuel outside, and Eugene Wilson and Michael Stone or Artrell Hawkins at safety, the Pats have some stability in the defensive backfield. With Hawkins out, Stone gave up his customary two big plays -- he missed the coverage on Lee Evans's long catch and missed the tackle on Josh Reed's short catch and long run. But the rest of the secondary obviously did a great job, because the Pats were running all kinds of blitzes and gave up only those two long passes. The blitz packages are starting to get to the opposing QB, and just in the nick of time. Without consistent pressure on the quarterback, the Patriots were going absolutely nowhere in the playoffs.

Not much to report on special teams. The Bills one great kickoff return was called back on a penalty, and there one great punt return put them in position to score. But alas, the Patriots' James Sanders returned an interception for a touchdown on the next play, so no harm, no foul.

The offensive and defensive coaches did a great job yesterday. The offense was imaginative, and the play-calling was dead on. Only a few plays looked doomed from the start, and any time you go 69% on third-down conversions, you are doing a lot of things right. And with the improvements on the defensive line and in the secondary, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini is starting to call some interesting blitzes. The healthier they get, the more interesting their post-season possibilities.

So where does that leave us. Eight wins in the AFC East just about seals the deal. With three games to go, the Dolphins are two games back, so any win by the Patriots or loss by Miami gives the Pats the division. And the Pats are too far behind the other division leaders to believe they'd end up with anything better than the fourth seed in the playoffs. The Patriots have now won four out of their last five games (including three division wins), but their four wins were over teams with a won-lost record of 16-35 (31.4%). This Saturday's contest with Tampa Bay (9-4) will be the kind of test they need before the post-season starts, and it will tell you a lot about how far they've come recently. I think they can win that one because the Buccaneers have been so awful in the cold, but even if they lose, they will finish with two wins and be 10-6.

Just as a side note, many people were rooting for a Miami loss yesterday, so the Patriots could clinch their division and rest their starters. But I'd rather see both San Diego (lost to Miami) and Kansas City (lost to Dallas) out of the playoffs. My dream scenario is where Pittsburgh and Jacksonville are the wild cards, with the Patriots hosting the Steelers in the first round and Jacksonville going to Indianapolis to play the Colts in the second round. That would give the Patriots their best chance to go far in the playoffs because Jacksonville plays the Indy tough, and the Patriots already beat Pittsburgh this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm rooting for Pittsburgh. The Pats lost to both San Diego and Kansas City, so I'd rather face the Steelers in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-5!

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Patriots 16, Jets 3 (12/4/2005)

Not a whole lot to say about the game. When you play a terrible offensive team, you usually win if you avoid turnovers and big returns in the kicking game. The Patriots did give up a few big returns (one called back), but they coasted to an easy 16-3 win over the offensively challenged New York Jets. Their 7-5 record looks a lot better when you consider they've won three of their last four games, two within the division. They've got a chance to make it four out of five with a 4-0 division record when they travel to Buffalo next Sunday to battle the Bills.

Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk returned just in time to give Patrick Pass and Heath Evans a break (Pass and Evans were injured and inactive). They combined for 100 yards, and the running game provided 8 of the Patriots 24 first downs and helped the Pats control the clock for 38:10. They tried something new on offense, using a sixth lineman as a blocking halfback on certain plays (instead of a defensive lineman or tight end). Dillon ran well, hitting holes quickly and getting outside several times, and even though the line gave up two sacks, they kept Tom Brady clean for most of the game. A pretty good performance given that the Jets defensive front seven is considered their greatest strength.

Tom Brady fared better this week than last (he is now 4-0 the week after a four-interception game). he was sharp early, and would have had even better statistics without several dropped passes, and I'm still trying to figure out how he got one pass to Kevin Faulk through double-coverage for an important first down early on. The return of David Givens and the running backs were crucial to the team's improvement. No receiver had breakout numbers, but in an homage to their "everything is team" attitude, Givens, Deion Branch, and Troy Brown combined for 15 catches for 135 yards and the generic "running backs" contributed 8 catches for 65 yards. The passing game was smooth and efficient, and with the Jets obviously taking away the deep bomb, the Patriots still average twice as many yards per pass as the Jets did (6.4 vs. 3.2). And even though the Jets boast the sixth-best pass defense in the league, Tom Brady and company hit them for 100 yards more than they usually give up passing (271 total), and they never got a turnover even though they average 1.5 a game.

How thoroughly did the Patriots defense dominate? The Jets averaged only 18.2 yards per *drive*. Against many other teams, I would call the Patriots defensive performance dominant -- giving up three points in an entire game is nothing to scoff at. But the entire AFC East is quarterback-poor, and the Jets O-line is beat up and their receivers are sub-par; so I'd be worried if the Patriots gave up much more than they did. The middle of the D-line played better, with Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green rotating at nose tackle. They really clogged things up and the linebackers stopped the running game cold (41 yards). Rosevelt Colvin and Tedy Bruschi continued their disruptive play, busting into the backfield to slow the run before it started or pressure the QB into a quick throw. Both Colvin and Mike Vrabel were unblocked on blitzes right up the middle, and they both blasted Brooks Bollinger. Add Jarvis Green's sack, and the Pats got Bollinger twice and knocked him to the turf at least a dozen other times.

And the secondary played much better. They are starting to gel a bit, with Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Eugene Wilson starting three straight games and James Sanders and Hank Poteat mercifully returned to their roles as fifth and sixth defensive backs. Hobbs, a rookie, is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and even though he's still learning, he might be playing better than two-year starter Samuel, who appears to be nursing a leg injury. Eugene Wilson was back to his old self, prowling the deep middle and letting the D-line and linebackers handle the run. Even though the Jets offense is bad, I was watching the Patriots secondary and they weren't letting guys run free in this game -- pretty tight coverage overall. So I guess I'll take the improvement and see how it works going forward against the Bills.

The special teams were great on field goal attempts, but not so great in kick coverage. Adam V. nailed three-out-of-four field goals (and in the process, became the Patriots all-time scoring leader), and the kick off and punt averages were good. But they gave up a 49-yard punt return, another long return was called back, and one of Josh Miller's 45-yard punts was a 20-yard shank that bounced 25 more. It's always difficult to kick in the wind, but it won't get easier; so the special teams still need some work.

I thought the coaching staff did a good job of preparing some special defensive packages, at least three times they had blitzers unblocked (Colvin, Vrabel, and McGinest), and the mixed maximum pressure with maximum coverage nicely. And they also called a good offensive game, not trying to win with one play but staying with the short gains that made up long drives. I will say I prefer to judge them when preparing for a real NFL team, so maybe more next week...

So where does that leave us. The win, coupled with Buffalo's loss, just about locks up the AFC East and the fourth seed in the AFC (just too many teams in front of them to get the third seed). To lose the division, the Pats would have to go 1-3 while Miami went 4-0 (including a victory in Foxboro on 1/1/06). So with their playoff future set, the Pats should get as healthy as they can for the post-season and perhaps experiment with some new offensive looks and defensive blitz packages. I'm personally hoping the Steelers rebound so we can host them in the first round. But failing that, let's hope for Jacksonville -- because Kansas City, Denver, and San Diego already beat us this year, and Cincinnati would do the same.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You gotta give the Jets credit; they gave the fans what they wanted. The fans blamed the kicker and the offensive coordinator for last year's playoff problems and so the team fired them both. Now they're playing for the first pick in next year's college draft. Hope the fans are happy."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!