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!

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