Monday, November 27, 2006

Patriots 17, Bears 13 (11/26/2006)

Sometimes defensive football isn't pretty. And with two teams that shutout their previous week's opponents and that led the NFL in fewest points allowed, everyone got what they expected yesterday -- a 17-13 game that was won by the team that made the most big plays, i.e. your New England Patriots. The win helped them keep pace with the upper-echelon of the AFC (they are now behind only Baltimore and San Diego for the coveted second playoff spot), and maintained their two-game lead in the AFC East. With a home contest against the Lions next Sunday, they look good to continue the current streak before traveling to Miami for their final division game of the year.

Sunday's game reminded me of Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, with two teams just whaling the crap out of each other for 60 minutes. That game had more scoring (it was a 32-29 final), and this one could have been just as high-scoring if not for turnovers. Usually the give-away/take-away ratio tells the story, but it became almost a non-issue because both teams had so many (the Bears turned it over four times, the Patriots five). And I can't remember a game with so many turnovers inside the opponent's 20 yard-line, which is the real reason the final score was 17-13 instead of 34-31.

Brady started his post-game press conference with, "Must be the turf," a reference to his amazing 20-1 record on artificial surfaces. (Quick trivia question: do you remember the one loss? I'll never forget it; answer below.) But it wasn't the turf; it was the sparkling performance of the five layers of protection in front of him, the offensive line, that explains his gaudy stats. Well, gaudy might not be the right word, maybe effective works better. He competed two-thirds of his passes (22 of 33) for 269 yards and posted a QB rating almost 20 points higher than what the Bear defense usually gives up. He got a late touchdown (the winning points) and had two INTs on tipped balls. His receiving corps continued to solidify their current pecking order -- with Watson and Caldwell the preferred targets (combining for 146 yards on 9 catches) and Kevin Faulk this week's mystery guest receiver (37 yards on 6 catches).

But to get back to the offensive line, they gave up zero sacks on 33 pass attempts and Brady was hurried on only three passes all day. Even when tackle Ryan O'Callaghan was injured early in the second quarter, the line held off rushers to keep a nice pocket for the QB and to allow for extra time on plays that were just killers (Ben Watson's late 40-yard grab on 3rd-and-3 comes to mind). Their run-blocking left something to be desired, with a 2.5 yard per carry average for the game. But on this day, they bottled up the Bears pressure and kept Brady upright long enough to make enough big passing plays to win. In fact, the best offensive plays by the Patriots were passes with very little QB pressure. Contrast that with Chicago's best offensive plays -- long throws under pressure that ended in questionable defensive penalties.

The other reason the running game was stuffed all day was unimaginative play-calling (again). Once the Patriots got the lead, they fell back into the old run-run-pass pattern that can't continue if they hope to do anything in the playoffs. Add to that at least four times in the game the Patriots threw long passes on third down with short distances to go -- and only one of those plays worked (the aforementioned Watson catch) -- and you've got questions about the play selection. Josh McDaniels needs to manage the game as well as his QB does -- try some play-action passes on first-down, go for the big plays on second-and-short, and go for first down on third-and-manageable. It's not rocket science, and the playoffs are coming, so get to it, Josh.

The defense had consistently excellent play for almost the entire day. Asante Samuel was the obvious star, with three interceptions, nine tackles, and three passes defensed. He started things right with an early INT and finished the Bears for good with a late INT -- nice bookends on a performance that gives him a legitimate chance at the NFL Defensive Player of the Week award. The rest of the secondary played okay, with some solid hitting from James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins, but both Hawkins and Ellis Hobbs were flagged for pass interference (for a total of 75 yards, on very questionable penalty calls), and Hobbs had a bogus holding call against him that set up a Chicago touchdown that tied the game. The only reason I called their performance "okay" is that I think all three penalties were bad calls -- but they've got to do a better job defending without drawing flags.

The linebackers were outstanding all day long. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi alternated between taking away the short passing routes and pressuring Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Grossman was forced to throw long, and even though it meant giving up a lot of yards on bad penalty calls, it worked well in the end. Rosevelt Colvin was his usual disruptive force, both on the pass rush and in pass coverage. Junior Seau broke his arm in the second quarter, and they moved Vrabel inside to replace him and brought in Tully Banta-Cain to replace Vrabel. The results were mixed, with better play against the pass and worse against the run. That situation will bear close scrutiny, as Seau is out for the year.

And the defensive line... well, what can I say. The wrecking crew of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren are simply the best three-man line I've seen in years. Teams can't run between the tackles when Wilfork is in there, even when they double-team him, and Vince even slid over to provide pass coverage on two plays yesterday. And Ty Warren has been the leading D-line tackler in six of ten games he played this year, even though he left one game injured and played at less than 100% in two others. He is likely in line for a significant pay raise this off-season. And Richard Seymour is a future Hall of Famer for sure, so enjoy watching him while you can. There are very few defenders who merit a double-team when the offense is running *away* from them; but I've seen it happen to Richard. That, boys and girls, is called "respect." Add backup Jarvis Green and it's one of the dominant units in the NFL. Mike Wright is not a great replacement for Wilfork; but he's good enough to hold his own if the Pats switch to a 4-3 when he enters the game to give Wilfork a breather. I think they should try that.

The special teams had a really strange day. They blocked and early field goal (Seymour got it) and deflected a punt (Mike Wright), and after Chicago called a last-second timeout to ice kicker Stephen Gostkowski, he nailed a 52-yard field goal just before the half. In a game decided by four points, those plays loomed large. New punter Ken Walter averaged 37.3 yards a kick, only one yard less than the Bears punter on the day, which I guess is okay. However, his average was significantly lower than Josh Miller's 46.6 yard average (before he was injured). The kickoff coverage team kept a very good Bears return team in check all day, so I guess on balance they had a better day than the Bears. But it was a strange one for sure.

Aside from my earlier comments on the offensive play-calling, I have nothing big to say about the coaching staff. The special teams coach has gotten it together nicely the past two weeks. And the defensive game plans and play-calling under new coordinator Dean Pees are much better than last year. At this point, the Patriots probably have a championship-level defense; the question is, will the offense get their game together in time to make themselves championship-level, too.

So where does that leave us. At 8-3, the Pats are one game behind both San Diego and Baltimore for the second playoff seed, but they have no chance to catch Indianapolis for the #1 seed (the Colts are two games ahead and they hold a tie-breaker over the Pats). With winnable games the rest of the way, the Pats could end up 13-3, which would give them a great position going into the playoffs. However, with road games against Jacksonville, Miami, and (especially) Tennessee, they will more likely end up 12-4. That will certainly win the division, but it won't get them a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At a McDonalds just outside Gillette Stadium, the cheeseburgers cost more than the double-cheeseburgers -- $1.05 vs. $1.00. (Thanks for lunch, Al!)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots might be the fourth or fifth best team in the AFC, and they just beat the class of the NFC. I might watch the conference championship games and skip the Super Bowl, because the NFC has no chance at all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Answer to the trivia question; the Patriots lost 31-0 in Buffalo on opening day of the 2003 season, giving Brady his only loss on artificial turf so far. You might remember it as the "Lawyer Milloy Bowl," as the former Patriots safety ended up in Buffalo after being cut by the Pats at the end of the pre-season. The Pats got their revenge, however. They beat the Bills 31-0 to end that season and won their second Super Bowl.

PPS. 8-3!

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