Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Patriots 31, Vikings 7 (10/30/2006)

So much for pretender-to-the-thrown #2. The Patriots ground the Minnesota Vikings into a fine purple powder, whipping the latest young guns 31-7 and cementing their place among the 2006 NFL elite. The Vikes followed the Bengals as supposed contenders who were exposed by a superior team, with the Patriots destroying the two of them by a combined 69-20 in bookend wins to begin and end October. The win gives the Pats a 6-1 record, second best in the conference to... the Indianapolis Colts (7-0), who travel to Foxboro for a game this Sunday night.

Little did anyone know, but the Pats had the Vikings game won last Wednesday, when the coaching staff showed their brilliant game plan to the players. The plan surgically removed the two Viking strengths; by passing instead of going against a strong run defense, and then by scoring enough to force the Vikings to abandon their running game and play catch-up with a 37-year-old QB. Bill Parcells might think it’s a dumb-ass thing to say, but the Patriots out-coached the Vikings by a wide, wide margin.

Of course, all of that scheming can’t work without great execution by the players, and at the top of the list last night was Tom Brady. I know QBs get too much credit when the team wins, but the entire plan depended on his ability to read defenses quickly and find the right receiver each time. Well, he completed 67% of his passes for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns to just 1 interception (his only bad throw of the night). Considering that the game was played the Thunder-dome in Minnesota, with fans making verbal communication all but impossible, this might have been Brady’s best performance as a pro.

And I think he and his receivers have officially developed plenty of chemistry. Ben Watson had 7 catches for 95 hard-nosed yards (man, he just plows through guys) and 1 touchdown. Reche Caldwell went 7-84-1, with two important third-down catches that kept a scoring drive going late in the first half – a drive that made it 17-0. And Doug Gabriel had 5 catches for 83 yards, and perhaps the most important catch-and-run of the game when he turned a third-and-10 at the Patriots 14 into a first-and-10 at the Vikings 41.

The running game was an afterthought (even though the Pats ended up with 85 yards on only 15 carries). But props go out to the running backs and offensive linemen, who combined to give Brady time and keep him upright for most of the game. Brady was sacked three times, but two of them were obvious coverage-sacks.

And naturally, the team couldn’t have won without another outstanding game from their defense. The Vikings prided themselves on their running game, but they didn’t stick with it too long. The big early deficit forced Brad Johnson out of his comfort zone (does *that* sound familiar?) and he cracked under the pressure, throwing three terrible interceptions and admitting after the game he was confused by the defensive scheme (even though he’s a 14-year veteran).

On the line, Richard Seymour played hurt (and acquitted himself well), but still took up his usual two players so his teammates could get the glory. Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren collapsed the pocket play after play, keeping the Viking QB on the run all night. Tully Banta-Cain and Rosevelt Colvin held a clinic on how to beat a big offensive line with outside speed, alternating their pass rush between outside speed and fakes/spins back to the inside. Banta-Cain had his best day as a Patriot, notching two sacks and numerous other pressures, and while Colvin missed his one chance at a sack, he helped disrupt the timing in the passing game.

In the secondary, Rodney Harrison, Chad Scott, and Ellis Hobbs must have been jealous of Asante Samuel’s penchant for interceptions, because they all got one last night. Along with Mike Vrabel’s INT, they helped stop the Vikings from scoring a single point on offense. They forced long drives by keeping receivers in front of them and making sure tackles. Johnson has a weak arm, so the Patriots made him throw long passes by forcing his receivers toward the sidelines. (Note: a 25-yard pass down the middle travels only 30 yards, accounting for the drop-back. A 25-yard pass to the sideline travels over 40 yards, and that’s beyond Brad Johnson’s throwing range.) Again, a QB out of his comfort zone places the Patriots defense squarely into their own comfort zone.

Make no mistake about it, this is a championship level defense. They are now ranked third in the NFL in points allowed (87) and point differential (scored 80 more points than they’ve given up).

Penalties were a problem for the Pats, with 9 infractions for 85 yards, and some stupid ones, too boot (Vince Wilfork roughed the passer and Logan Mankins had a taunting penalty). And special teams had its share of problems with penalties, but atoned for the mistakes with some big plays. The Pats started their first two drives deep in their own territory because of penalties. And they gave up a punt return for a touchdown to account for Minnesota’s only points. But Laurence Maroney answered that punt return with a 77 kick-off return – the second week in a row that he gave the Patriots a short field just in time to kill the other team’s momentum. And the kick-off coverage team used shorter-but-higher kicks by Stephen Gostkowski to bottle up Bethel Johnson for a 20-yard average.

As for the coaching, refer to the top two paragraphs. Suffice it to say, they only care about winning the game in front of them, and they have some of the most creative solutions to what the problems other teams present. The Patriots obviously want a team with maximum flexibility, so they can beat a range of opponents from week to week. And as of now, they have a team that can stop the run and/or the pass, and that can control the ball and score with the run, the pass, or both. If they can shore up the kick-return game, they could be in for another deep playoff run.

So where does that leave us. Well, Denver lost, which leaves the Pats alone in second place in the AFC. Only the Colts (at 7-0) have a better record, and they have a game in Foxboro this Sunday that could even the teams at 7-1, if the Patriots can win. Indy’s run defense is suspect, so you might see the exact opposite of the Vikings game, with the Pats running 75% of the time. Who knows. But where it really leaves us is where we wanted to be. If the playoffs started today, the Pats would have a first-round bye – which is what you play for the entire year.

Statistical oddity of the week: Seattle and St. Louis are tied for the NFC West lead with identical 4-3 records. But both teams have scored fewer points than they’ve given up. Go figure.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Brad Johnson just can’t throw the long ball. Both teams ran 61 plays on Monday, but the Pats had almost 150 more yards.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-1!

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