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!

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