Monday, December 31, 2007

Patriots 38, Giants 35 (12/28/2007)

Once again we were shown that there is a blueprint... a blueprint for keeping it close and then losing to the 2007 New England Patriots. The Colts, Eagles, Ravens, and Giants all played hard, got a lot of pressure on Tom Brady, and had second-half leads against the Pats. But as in the other contests, the New England defense stood tall and the offense took advantage of good field position and opportunities, as the Pats finished off the Giants to record the fourth perfect regular season in NFL history. In case you read that sentence too quickly, I'll say it again: you just witnessed the fourth perfect regular seasons in the last 88 years! The win didn't mean anything in the playoff seedings to either team, but the Patriots got out of the game injury free and now have at least two weeks to prepare for their first playoff game (which will be either January 12 or 13).

Old friend Tom Brady was absolutely brilliant, mixing short and long throws to finish 32 of 42 for 356 yards and 2 touchdowns (both to Randy Moss). His season total of 50 touchdowns is an NFL record (as is Moss' 23 TD receptions), and Brady overcame some early drops by Ben Watson and a late drop by Moss to record his best QB rating in four games. Moss' 6 catches for 100 yards should be considered secondary to the crucial role of Wes Welker (11 for 122) and the indispensable Kevin Faulk (8 for 64 and some absolutely huge third-down conversions). Watson played his way into form, grabbing four catches by game's end, and here's hoping the early drops were just rust after a few games out of the lineup.

And note that all of this happened with 40% of the starting O-line out of the game. Nick Kazcur and Stephen Neal were both out (replaced by Ryan O'Callaghan and Russ Hochstein), and that created some problems with protection and consistency in the running game. But for the game, Brady was sacked only once, and even though the team totaled only 44 yards, Laurence Maroney powered in two short touchdowns and a two-point conversion. That the team held it together with backups manning the right side of the line is testament to both the coaching and to the team's resilience -- but they won't go far in the playoffs unless they get at least one of those starters back.

The defense really stepped up in the second half, and it made all the difference -- for the tenth time this year. To update the stats from my earlier blog entry (click here), ten of the Patriots games were close at the half, and the defense allowed less than a touchdown per game (6.8 points) in the second half of those games. Without those outstanding performances, all the offense in the world would not have saved the undefeated record, and any critical mistake in any of those games could easily have led to losses instead of wins. So Dean Pees and the entire defensive staff and players can take a bow, because their adjustments and execution made 16-0 possible.

This was one of the Patriots patented "total team efforts" on defense, and it's hard to pick out one key performer. The best unit was the secondary, with Rodney Harrison getting pressure on the QB on several blitzes, and making a lot of tackles in the running game. If he could keep his temper in check, he might have gotten secondary performer of the game from me. But his 15-yard penalty in the fourth quarter with a perfect season on the line tarnished what was a very good game for him. IMO, the best secondary performance belonged to Ellis Hobbs, who secured the only turnover of the game -- a fourth-quarter INT that led directly to the winning touchdown. And after that, he had a pass defensed in the end zone and made two critical tackles in-bounds to keep the clock moving as time was running out on the Giants.

The D-line got very little pressure on Giant's QB Eli Manning in the first half, and so they called more blitzes (both linebacker and safety) in the second half. But overall, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren did a good job slowing the run, and in they used some zone-blitz looks (where a member of the D-line dropped into pass coverage) to break up plays in the fourth quarter. Of the linebackers, I noticed Adalius Thomas more than the others -- he got the team's only sack -- but Junior Seau is playing better by the week and Tedy Bruschi had a mostly solid game (two missed tackles were the only problem for him).

And for about the sixth straight week, special teams inconsistency plagued the team. Short kickoffs and a kickoff return for touchdown by the Giants were the negatives. Good kickoff returns, gutsy punt returns, and 3-for-3 on field goals (including a 45-yarder) were the positives. Maybe I just expect too much because the offense is historically good and the defense makes some of the best adjustments in the NFL, but if the Patriots could shore up this one area, they literally could be unstoppable.

So where does that leave us? 16-0, an historic season by any measure, will be a footnote unless the Patriots can win the Super Bowl. But to paraphrase an old baseball adage, they can't win three games this week. In fact, they can't win any games this week; they are off until January 12 or 13. They will likely take that time to get healed, work on the weakest aspects of their game, and be ready to come out at full tilt in two weeks. So take some time to bask in the glow of an undefeated regular season, and hope the team can close the deal with three more 1-0 weekends.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Giants scored four offensive touchdowns in Saturday's game -- one each on their first and last possessions of the first half and their first and last possessions of the second half.

Non-statistical Oddity of the Week: Early on in the movie "I am Legend," the crawl on a television screen reads, "Patriots beat Giants for second time this year." Given that the two teams are in different conferences, the only way that could happen is if the Patriots scored a victory over the Giants in the regular season and then won the Super Bowl against the Giants. So I guess that's one win down, one win to go :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You might have missed it, but with the win over the Giants, the Pats broke their own record for consecutive regular-season wins. Saturday was their 19th in a row."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Happy New Year!

PPS. 16-0!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Patriots 28, Dolphins 7 (12/23/2007)

Looks like The Big Tuna's got his work cut out for him down there in Miami. The Dolphins got 4 turnovers (and lost none), won the battle for time-of-possession, and became the first team to shut out the Patriots in any half this year. But they are so bad, the Patriots beat them by 21 points, marking the 10th time the Pats have won by 21+ this year. The Patriots beat the 'Phins 28-7, sweeping the division for the first time in franchise history and going 1-0 for the 15th weekend time this year. With the #1 seed all sewn up, the win... well, it kept them in the habit of winning. But perhaps most importantly, they got out of the game without any major injuries.

(Note: I missed the last 7:45 of the game, so this update is based only on the first 52:15. However, rest assured that I will watch the end of the game before next week's contest with the NY Giants, and if anything in the fourth quarter changes what I think, I'll send an amended update later.)

There were reports that the Patriots practiced the running game last week, and it showed. Laurence Maroney had his best day as a pro, getting 156 yards and a long touchdown on just 14 carries. He had two runs of over 50 yards (51 and 59), and hit the hole quicker than he has most of the season. Kevin Faulk threw in 29 more yards on 7 carries, and fullback Heath Evans and the O-line did a great job of blocking for the run. They didn't do quite as well pass-blocking, with Pro Bowler Matt Light getting schooled by Jason Taylor several times and the Dolphins totaling three sacks and six quarterback hits.

And all that time on his back clearly affected Tom Brady. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and was below 55% completions on the day. Not that it was all bad, he had a rifle throw to the sideline for a Jabar Gaffney touchdown, and he threw two others to Randy Moss (giving Brady 48 and Moss 21 on the season). The catches were pretty evenly distributed, with Moss, Gaffney, and Wes Welker each getting 5 apiece (which gave Welker 101 for the year, tying Troy Brown for the team record). But the team appears to be missing its tight ends. Both Ben Watson and Kyle Brady were out again yesterday, and with no one to help Welker in the short passing game, the offense sputtered in the second half. Both players will likely be back for the playoffs, and that should help a lot in the possession passing game.

The defense was the story of this game. Or was it Miami's inept offense? Whatever the case, twice on the day, the Dolphins drove the ball inside the Patriots five yard-line, and both times, the Patriots stopped them on fourth down. Miami had great field position three times in the game, and scored zero points on those drives. And if you think Tom Brady got knocked around, the Patriots got to Dolphins QB Cleo Lemon 20 times (7 sacks and 13 quarterback hits) in the game.

The D-line played very well, with 3.5 sacks total (1 each for Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, and 1.5 for Ty Warren). Newly minted Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork didn't get the QB, but his value against the run was obvious when he was out of the game and Miami gashed the Patriots on the ground. Wilfork is likely playing less in order to be healthy for the post-season, and his presence is missed when he's on the sideline. Mike Vrabel (another Pro Bowler) had two sacks and along with Tedy Bruschi's improved play, the linebackers have adjusted well to the loss of Rosevelt Colvin. And Adalius Thomas is playing better, perhaps owing to being more comfortable with the very complex defense the Patriots use. (BTW, Rosevelt Colvin had trouble for most of his first year of full-time play with the Patriots -- and then he played much better in the playoffs and helped the team win the Super Bowl that year. So here's hoping that's the path Thomas is on.)

The secondary is starting to come on at just the right time, with tighter coverage and some fierce hits. Eugene Wilson, Ellis Hobbs, and rookie Brandon Meriweather all had big hits, and it's probably no coincidence that the Dolphins had at least five dropped passes. Since his return from injury, Wilson is playing much better, and that has allowed Rodney Harrison to improve his game, too. Rodney led the secondary with six tackles, and even with Wilson getting more snaps, third-string safety James Sanders contributed four of his own.

Punter Chris Hanson had one of the special teams plays of the year, booting a 64-yarder out of his own end zone just when the Dolphins were gaining momentum. And the kick coverage was excellent on both punts and kickoffs. Troy Brown made his first appearance of the year, returning several punts. But it was a less-than-triumphant return, given that he muffed one that Miami recovered. Fortunately, the defense bailed him out by holding Miami to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive.

So where does that leave us? At 15-0, they couldn't be doing much better, record-wise. Next week, they travel to New York to play a Giants team that has nothing to play for (their playoff position is set, win or lose). New York coach Tom Coughlin has already said his starters would play some but not the entire game, so the Patriots should have a good chance to win. The Giants do get after the quarterback well, so protecting Brady will be of the utmost importance.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: All year long, it's been offense, offense, offense, but believe it or not, the Patriots are tied with Tampa Bay for the best scoring defense this year (239 points).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The first thing Parcells has to do is find a quarterback. I mean, you can't win the turnover battle 4-0 and lose by 21 points. Their offense just stinks."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-0!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Patriots 20, Jets 10 (12/16/2007)

An "old school" win if I ever saw one. The wind howled, it rained, sleeted, snowed, and fans tossed "snow fireworks" into the air. Oh, and the Patriots scored a touchdown after a blocked punt, ran an INT back for another touchdown, and rode a great defensive performance to a 20-10 victory over the Jets. The win secured home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and made them the second team in NFL history to win the first 14 games of a regular season. (BTW, a quick shout-out to my buddy, Mike, who went to the game with me and outlasted the elements like a hardened season-ticket holder. Nice job, Mike.)

The Jets posed some real matchup problems for the Patriots yesterday, and I shudder to think what would happen if they got a decent quarterback. Their coverages confused Tom Brady, who had his worst statistical game of the year and threw to closely covered receivers while missing wide open ones several times. With only 140 yards passing, there wasn't much to go around, but Randy Moss had 5 grabs for 79 yards (and one great catch to shift momentum late), and Wes Welker had a clutch catch to convert a third-down. Not the best day for the league's most prolific passing game, as the elements and the Jets defense played equal roles in frustrating Brady and company.

Luckily, the Patriots had a very good day running the ball. Laurence Maroney carried the load, with 26 rushes for 104 yards, and had the team's lone offensive touchdown. The ground game helped the Patriots control the clock (33:37 to 26:23 time of possession) and keep a run/pass percentage more appropriate for the conditions (55-to-45 as compared to the Jets 27-to-73). There were some big holes for Maroney, with the O-line blowing the Jets defense off the ball for much of the day. And between that and the Jets lack of pressure on Brady, I'd give the line high marks on the day. Well, except for the three false start penalties.... besides that, I'd give them high marks.

With the offense struggling to move the ball, the defense and special teams played like tandem wrestlers, each giving the other opportunities to help the team score. Willie Andrews made a spectacular play to help down a punt at the Jets three yard-line. And then Richard Seymour's pressure forced a bad throw from Kellen Clemens that was picked off by Eugene Wilson, who sauntered into the end zone for a touchdown. Later in the half, a Junior Seau sack backed the Jets up near their own end zone, and Kelley Washington broke through to block a punt and give the offense the ball at the Jets three yard-line. From there, it was two running plays and another touchdown. Those were the only two Patriots touchdowns of the game, and both came after crucial sequences by the defense and special teams. In a 10-point victory, it's tough to overstated how important those plays were.

As for the defense overall, they had a great day. Adalius Thomas was the monster-for-the-day, making tackles all over the field (9 total), notching 1.5 quarterback sacks and a quarterback hit, and forcing one of his two fumbles as the Jets were driving for a score early in the third quarter. Old friend Junior Seau is rounding into playoff form, with two sacks and two other hits on the quarterback, and Mike Vrabel got a QB-pressure to force and errant throw that basically sealed the game for the Patriots. However, the linebackers were out of position on several mis-direction running plays, and that won't fly as the team goes forward. They have to stay disciplined, because every other team will look at the tape from Sunday's game and will try those running plays, if only to slow down the pursuit from the Patriots linebackers.

Other than Eugene Wilson's big day (INT for a touchdown, fumble recovery), the secondary continues to get hurt in the short passing game. Randall Gay and Ellis Hobbs covered better yesterday, but they both missed chances to knock down passes or get interceptions (as did Rodney Harrison). And Asante Samuel missed several tackles by going for a "knockout hit" instead of wrapping up. He needs to play better, otherwise he'll be disappointed with the offers he gets in free agency next year. The secondary can get away with those types of plays versus the Jets, but teams with good receivers will make more third-downs than the Jets did (3-for-14) and those drives will continue down the field and become points. No need to panic, but they have to make the tackle after the catch and they need to make more plays while the ball is in the air. Also, in certain situations, they should risk tighter coverage to stop drives on third-and-short.

Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork continued their stellar play on the defensive line, stuffing the Jets run when it came their way and moving the quarterback out of the pocket. Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour combined for 1.5 sacks, but honestly I didn't see them do much at the point of attack. I appears that Seymour is missing something after the knee injury and Green is probably better as a spot-starter or in-game replacement. But even with those quibbles, the team still has plenty on the D-line, if the linebackers and secondary play more disciplined.

Special teams, special teams, special teams... what to say about the special teams. They were instrumental in the win, and had some great plays. But in tight games (you know, like playoff games), Stephen Gostkowski needs to hit 24- and 32-yard field goals. He just has to hit them, conditions notwithstanding. The kickoff coverage can't give up 50-yard kickoff returns and then add another 15 yards with a penalty when they have the other team on the ropes. And Chad Brown should practice special teams all week -- I believe he missed the guy who blocked a punt early in the game and he was also called for illegal motion on another punt. Oh, and when a guy breaks through the middle to block a punt, the kicker should notice that and either eat the ball, run it, or fake the punt and let the guy go past before actually kicking it. Some very good, some very bad... so probably some extra work on special teams this week.

So where does that leave us? Next week is the Miami Dolphins, and they don't present nearly the matchup problems the Jets did. They don't have the pass rush or pass coverage to give the Patriots trouble, and they don't have the running game to hurt the Patriots if the conditions are bad. So expect a win, even if members of the 1972 Dolphins are begging the current players to hurt Tom Brady so the Patriots won't win 'em all. Also, the Patriots ability to break several offensive records was put in jeopardy by the poor performance in the Jets game, so if they don't have a few passing touchdowns by the third quarter and the game is a blowout, look for Brady and some of the other players to get a little rest.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Here's how the Pittsburgh Steelers match up against the Cleveland Browns this year: Pittsburgh has a 5-0 record in the division (Cleveland is 3-2), they've outscored their opposition by 113 points this year (Cleveland has outscored their opposition by only 12 points), they boast the #1 socring defense in the NFL (Cleveland is 29th), and they beat the Browns twice this year. The oddity? The two teams are tied for the division lead in the AFC North. Go figure.

One Possible Serving of Humble Pie (please read in a deadpan monotone): "I think Tom might've missed a few open receivers, and we have to stay home for those mis-direction runs. The blocked punt... well, we can't have that, and there were a couple of passes we could have knocked down or intercepted -- we probably need to make a play on a few more of those. And we need to do a better job clearing snow out of the aisles so we don't have fans falling down, we have to do a better job on that, and it starts with the coaches on down..."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Jets defensive schemes and special teams always seem to give the Patriots trouble. I might actually start worrying if they could find a quarterback."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-0!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Patriots Unsung Defense

With all the attention on the Patriots offense this year, people have overlooked how good their second-half defense has been. They've been in some close games, and pulled out the victory every time, and there's no way the offense could have done that alone. So here is the story of the second-most critical component of the team’s success this year -- the second-half defense.

Of the 13 games this year, 8 of them have been within 10 points at the half, and the defense has performed significantly better in the second half of 7 of those 8 games, holding the other team to few points and helping secure the win. (Note: I’m not including the 5 games where the Patriots held large leads at the half because such analysis would be pointless and misleading. Teams that fall behind by large margins often change their offensive play-calling and usually abandon the run, making them much easier to defend. So it wouldn’t tell us much to include those numbers.)

It is clearer all the time that Dean Pees was a great choice to replace Eric Mangini at defensive coordinator. Pees and his staff are making adjustments more quickly and more effectively each week, and they will likely get better as time goes on.

How much have those adjustments helped this year? Well, here are some of the numbers from the eight close games from this year:

1. They allowed 46% fewer points in the second half (51) than the first half (95). Points scored is clearly the most important thing in the game, and the defense allowed at least a touchdown less in the second half five times (including two second-half shutouts).

2. They allowed 19% fewer passing yards per game in the second half (88.6 vs. 109.6), and of the three teams that threw for more yards in the second half, the Jets barely did so (87 vs. 80).

3. They held the opposing quarterback to a 15% lower completion rate in the second half (56.7 vs. 66.6). Their halftime adjustments clearly paid dividends here – dropping the opposition from an efficient completion percentage to one that underperforms the league average.

4. They generated 60% more turnovers in the second half (8 vs. 5). The number of turnovers doesn’t sound impressive, but note that the defense virtually sealed wins with late turnovers against the Colts and Eagles, and got back into the game against the Ravens via a second-half turnover.

So while the offense rightly gets most of the attention (they are on pace for several NFL records), and we stand in awe of what the quarterback does on a weekly basis, please take some time to appreciate what the defense has meant to their success. Without their second-half improvements and timely turnovers, the Patriots would not stand at 13-0 and would be in a real battle for a favorable playoff position.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-0!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Patriots 34, Steelers 13 (12/9/2007)

Might want to schedule those post-holiday errands for January 5th or 6th, because the the Patriots pounded another pretender to the throne and "guaranteed" they won't be playing that weekend. The Pats soundly defeated the Steelers, 34-13, getting the coveted week of rest before the playoffs and putting a stranglehold on the #1 playoff spot in the AFC. One more win would clinch the #1 seed, and the 3-10 Jets are in town next ::muuhhhhaaahhahaahaaa::

As for yesterday's game, the Steelers defense just couldn't match up with the Patriots offense. Baltimore and Philly have the cornerbacks to challenge the Pats receivers. But the Steelers corners aren't as polished at coverage, so the short passing game beat them all day long. And when the Steelers defense crept toward the line to slow that down, the long pass was deadly effective. The Patriots first touchdown drive was 8 plays, all short passes and runs. Their next possession was 1 play, a 63-yard bomb to Randy Moss that was set up by an outstanding run-fake.

Tom Brady was very effective (32 of 46 for 399 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), and that's not easy when the team only runs 9 times for 22 yards. But they used the short passing game in place of the run to nickel-and-dime their way down the field. 42 of Brady's 46 attempts were for short yardage, and his main targets were Wes Welker (9 catches for 78 yards and 1 TD), Moss (7 for 135 and 2 TD), and Jabar Gaffney (7 for 122 and 1 TD). And with 50 drop-backs, there were zero quarterback sacks and Brady was hit in the pocket only 4 times on the day. That is a very impressive performance by the O-line, because the Patriots were often in five-wide formations with no tight end or running back to help in pass protection. Oh, and a round of applause for Kevin Faulk, please -- who twice picked up blitzes to give Brady time for a pass completion.

On defense, the Pats definitely addressed their problems stopping the run. The final numbers don't look good (32 rushes for 181 yards), but here's the bottom line: with the game in question, the Steelers ran 19 times for 105 yards (5.5 yards per carry), and couldn't score on fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1 yard-line. It wasn't the kind of stellar defense we've seen for the past few years, but it was a lot better performance than they had against Baltimore last week.

Vince Wilfork was a madman on Sunday, with 7 tackles and 1 sack, numbers almost unheard of for a nose tackle in the 3-4. He even made a tackle near the sideline, which good nose tackles only do five or six times in a *career*. Rodney Harrison (11 tackles and 1 pass defensed) and Tedy Bruschi (8 tackles) came back from last week with strong performances, and James Sanders (8 tackles and a fumble recovery and only one missed coverage) continued his solid play opposite Rodney at free safety. Even Richard Seymour played well, although it's clearer every week that his knee injury has reduced his explosion off the ball. Might have to wait until next year for him to round back into form.

Lineman Jarvis Green and linebacker Adalius Thomas had a sack each, and Junior Seau chipped in 6 tackles and a pass defensed. And the secondary covered very well most of the time, enough to cause 3 sacks and 3 hits of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. There were some secondary breakdowns, with Ellis Hobbs (twice), Randall Gay, and Asante Samuel leaving receivers wide open for catches. But those four plays aside, their coverage was much tighter, and Randall Gay has improved almost every week. The defense didn't have a good two weeks against the Eagles and Ravens, but if it can make the proper adjustments and play well in the playoffs, things will be looking up for the the Patriots in January.

Special teams needs a bit of work. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another make-able kick (42 yards), and those points will be more crucial in the playoffs, so he's got some work to do. He also missed a pop-up kickoff (needed to be higher and longer), giving the Steelers great field position. The team's kickoff coverage was hot-and-cold -- and overall, it needs some extra practice. The coaches took some of the pressure off Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk by having Chad Jackson return punts and kickoffs, and he did okay, with one nice kickoff return for 39 yards and no mistakes. The punt coverage team did get a fumble recovery, and the Pats committed no penalties on their own kicks, which is nice.

Finally, a word about the coaching. This was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's first big game, and he was simply out-coached. The Steelers never made adjustments to combat the short passing game, and with 7:00 left in the game and down by 18 points, they inexplicably used running plays and short passes that didn't allow the receivers to get out of bounds. Needing three scores in that little time, they should have been passing either deep or to the outside and running to the edge. As for his counterpart, Bill Belichick, his plan to dink-and-dunk them to death worked perfectly. And whatever defensive adjustments he made at the half worked well enough to shut out the Steelers over the final 30:00.

So where does that leave us? As stated earlier, a win this coming weekend and the Patriots will be home as far as they can go in the AFC playoffs. The Jets come to town for the latest renewal of the border war between the two teams. I haven't see the Jets play lately; but they probably haven't closed the gap very much from their 38-14 loss earlier in the year, so it should be a game the Patriots can handle. But we'll see -- last year the Jets unexpectedly beat the Patriots at mid-season, so you just never know.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Not so much an oddity as an astonishing number, Tom Brady's touchdown-to-interception ratio is 9-to-1. It is reminiscent of Pedro Martinez' 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2000, and both are among the greatest performances in their respective sports.

One Possible Serving of Humble Pie (please read in a deadpan monotone): "Well, we had some drops and missed some tackles, and the kickoff coverage didn't go the way we drew it up, and there was that fumble on the gadget play with Moss and Brady... we need to get that straightened out. I was kinda hoping the fans would chant "Guar-an-tee" more toward the end of the game... might've started that a little early. And the rain showed up a half-hour early... so I probably need to coach that better."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Steelers just don't have the corners to play press coverage against the Pats. But the good news is that most of the teams in the playoff hunt don't have great corners, either. Only the Vikings, Tampa Bay, and maybe Green Bay have the talent to challenge our wideouts and keep their coverage for the play. Other teams will play tight coverage, but they can't sustain it if they don't get to the quarterback."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PPS. 13-0!

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

After this week’s heart-pounding end to the Patriots/Ravens game, several Ravens players said they thought the NFL wants the Patriots to go undefeated. They used that conspiracy theory to explain why they had so many penalties called against them, especially down the stretch.

The idea that the NFL (which punished the “bad boy” Patriots earlier in the year) wants to see the Patriots rewarded with anything is ridiculous. And anyone who observed the officiating in New England’s hard-fought win over Indy (more info here) would plainly see that there couldn’t be any conspiracy.

Or could there? The more one considers all factors, the more it seems like there is a conspiracy to help the Patriots win. But the NFL Offices and referees aren't involved. It’s the 31 other NFL teams and the sports pundit-ocracy who allow the Patriots to restock their team with talent and provide a continuous supply of motivation to keep the team focused and sharp.

How else can you explain the following:

1. Both Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis were retained by the Patriots for the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowl Championship seasons. There were 15 head coaching changes during the off-seasons that preceded those two years, and neither Weis nor Crennel received more than cursory interviews, even though most observers thought they would make excellent head coaches.

Add to this the NY Jets hire of under-performing defensive coordinator Eric Mangini in 2006 (which allowed the Patriots to hire Dean Pees, who has been much better), and one might conclude that the other NFL owners wanted to make sure the Patriots got as much out of their coaches before hiring them away. How generous of them.

2. The Buffalo Bills traded their 2003 first round pick to the Patriots for Drew Bledsoe – when there were no other suitors for Bledsoe’s services. The Bills were so desperate for a quarterback, they ended up bidding against themselves and the Patriots held firm and extracted a first-rounder, even though everyone in the NFL knew the Patriots couldn't keep both Bledsoe and new star Tom Brady.

The Patriots chose star defensive lineman Ty Warren with pick, and the Bills ended up with a 23-25 record under Bledsoe with no playoff appearances in three years. It's not a big deal, if you think Bledsoe is your man and you want to make the trade. But don’t bid against yourself when the other team has no leverage at all. Sheesh!

3. The rest of the NFL General Managers sat idly by while the Patriots signed Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison as free agents and the Bears compliantly traded nose tackle Ted Washington to the Pats for a fourth-round pick in the 2003 off-season.

Colvin was the most prized defensive player in free agency that year, and Washington was the run stuffer the Pats needed while they groomed current star Vince Wilfork. It would have been impressive if the Patriots had gotten any of the three players, but at the time, I noted: “Of the six most significant defensive acquisitions in the NFL [this off-season], the Pats made three.”

If I could see that, why did other GMs sit on their hands? The Patriots had won a Super Bowl two years earlier and missed the playoffs in a tie-breaker the previous year. Yet the rest of the league looked the other way while they improved every problem area they had from the prior year. Maybe ownership and coaches should just say, “thank you” and wait until next year’s bumper crop of signings.

Oh, by the way, the result was the team's second Super Bowl Championship in three years. And a big, wet smooch to the rest of the league for enabling it.

4. 30 NFL General Managers let the Super Bowl Champion Patriots grab borderline Hall-of-Fame running back Corey Dillon for a second-round pick. The only knock on the 2003 Patriots was the mediocre stats of featured back Antowain Smith (642 yards and 3 touchdowns for the year). So when every other team passed on Dillon (who’d gone over 1,000 yards in 6 of 7 seasons), the Patriots shored up their one weakness on the cheap. Of course, what followed wasn't much of anything at all -- just an NFL record for consecutive wins (18 regular season, 21 including playoffs) and another Super Bowl win. Way to go, NFL GMs. Patriots fans really appreciate it.

5. After the Patriots had two early playoff exits, the rest of the NFL was back to its generous ways this past off-season. The Raiders overplayed their hand with the Packers and ended up taking a fourth-round pick from the Patriots for Randy Moss. The rest of the league also allowed the Pats to sign wide receiver Donte Stallworth and linebacker Adalius Thomas (once again, the most sought-after defensive free agent last year). And then Miami put the cherry on top of the off-season sundae by trading receiver/kick returner Wes Welker to the Pats for second- and seventh-round picks.

Moss has been nothing short of brilliant, Welker is an excellent replacement for Troy Brown, and Stallworth has played exceptionally well. And the signing of Thomas was crucial, given the age of the Pats linebackers and how steep the drop-off is from Junior Seau to Eric Alexander. The rest of the NFL had to know how desperately the Patriots needed help at wide receiver and linebacker, but they the team shore things up all the same. Again. Does anyone else out there smell a conspiracy?

(Oh, and that fourth-round pick the Pats traded for Moss... they got it in a trade with San Francisco. In return, the Patriots got San Fran’s first round pick next year; which looks like it will be a top 5 pick in the 2008 draft. Looks like the league is still full of gifts that keep on giving!)

6. With all that talent, the last thing the Patriots need is extra motivation. But the rest of the NFL has consistently provided plenty of it – often aided by the 24/7 sports pundit-ocracy.

If Bill Belichick was unsure how to motivate his team, the media reaction after the videotaping incident was all he needed. Dozens of NFL “experts” in the media declared that the Patriots Super Bowl victories were “under a cloud” or “tainted” by the scandal. And of course, many current Patriots were on those teams. So all Belichick had to do was remind the players that people were questioning their past achievements – and it was one blowout win after another.

7. At mid-season, Don Shula (the head coach of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins) said that if the Patriots went undefeated, there should be an asterisks next to their record. And two players from that Dolphins team questioned whether or not the Patriots have the stamina to go undefeated. Shula has since backed off that statement, but don’t think the Patriots forgot it.

8. ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook has written over and over that the Patriots are running up the score in a display of bad sportsmanship. He even went so far as to write a column that characterized the Patriots/Colts game as a showdown between “Good and Evil.” He later said he was being sarcastic, but I’m sure that didn’t lessen the fire it lit under the Patriots players.

Every time a team or a pundit questions the referees calls, wonders how good the Patriots are, says that “the best team didn’t win" after a Pats victory, or questions the Patriots sportsmanship in “running up the score,” it provides just a little extra edge the Patriots can use to keep themselves focused on the game at hand. Think about it: when the Ravens accused the NFL of conspiring to allow the Patriots to win... well, isn’t that a roundabout way of saying that the Patriots aren’t good enough to win the games on merit. Think the Pats took that personally?

So it appears the Patriots have always depended on the kindness of strangers. And perhaps the Ravens are onto something, there might well be a conspiracy in support of continued success for the Patriots. But if there is, the Ravens are as much a part of it as the rest of the NFL. Maybe they forgot the old saying: “When you point your finger at someone else, you’ve got three pointing back at yourself.” Look in the mirror, guys – you are as much a part of the “conspiracy” as anyone.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-0!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Patriots 27, Ravens 24 (12/3/2007)

"Ladies and gentlemen, Houdini has left the building!" Your New England Patriots escaped from the windiest place on Earth -- Baltimore in December with Ray Lewis jawing all game long -- and snuck out of town with a 27-24 victory over the Ravens. The win kept them three games ahead of the Steelers and Colts in the playoff hunt, and they now stand one win away from a first-round playoff bye. If they beat the Steelers on Sunday, it'll be a week off followed by a home game in the playoffs. It is literally that simple.

The Ravens game, unfortunately, was not quite that simple. Tom Brady had his worst statistical game of the year: 18 of 38 for 257 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. No receiver had more than four catches, and overall, the offense made far too many mistakes: dropped touchdown passes by Ben Watson and Randy Moss (who added a second drop, too); a dropped first-down pass by Jabar Gaffney; Kevin Faulk running out of bounds instead of stretching for a first down; a Russ Hochstein illegal-motion penalty that turned a fourth-and-one into fourth-and-six; blown protection that led to two of the three sacks. But even with all that, the Patriots scored on two of their last three drives (while Baltimore scored on none of their last four), and the team survived with its dominant playoff position intact.

The O-line had trouble handling the overload blitzes, and Brady was hit a lot more often than the Ravens three sacks would indicate (they got him at least six other times). The line made decent adjustments, and even created enough holes for a passable running game (Laurence Maroney and Faulk combined for 20 carries and 77 yards). It wasn't stellar running, but it was enough to make the Ravens honor the play-action fake late in the game -- a crucial factor on Ben Watson's important catch early on the final drive and the Gaffney's game-winning touchdown 11 plays later. A 16% third-down conversion rate, almost doomed the Pats. But on the final drive, they converted one third-down and two fourth-downs -- just in the nick of time... just as you would expect from a championship-caliber team.

There were many defensive miscues, to balance out the offensive problems: Adalius Thomas and Vince Wilfork (and probably everyone else on defense) over-pursued rushes that went for big gains; the D-line was stymied by one-on-one blocks; early on, Rodney Harrison complained more than he made plays; Asante Samuel went for the INT instead of the tackle on a 53-yard catch and run; Ellis Hobbs' man was wide open at least twice; and the linebackers disappeared behind a wall of Ravens O-linemen. It's clear that the loss of Rosevelt Colvin (out for the season) will cost them in both stamina and performance, as the Ravens ran the ball at will and Adalius Thomas played worse in his new position at outside linebacker.

However, as easy as it is to thrash the defense, they are the reason the Patriots were even in the game. They gave up a lot of yards on the ground, but they made the stops they had to make at the end. For about the first three quarters of the game, the Ravens converted 38% on third-down. But after getting down by seven points, the Patriots stepped up their play, stopping the Ravens on three consecutive three-and-outs and giving themselves a chance to get back in the game. Safety James Sanders intercepted a ball at the 1 yard line, but almost as importantly, he returned it to the Patriots 42, giving give them a legit chance at a field goal. Harrison stuffed a run for a one-yard loss on the next drive, and made a *huge* stop on the third three-and-out, too (a first down there would have allowed Baltimore to run more clock).

You can't fault them for not pressuring the quarterback, either, because they did. The defense was shut out in sacks, but they hit Ravens QB Kyle Boller five times and had him on the run several others. Just give Boller credit for making plays under pressure, and perhaps take the defensive backfield to task a bit for losing coverage too quickly. I actually think that's where the Pats problems begin... but with two games remaining against teams with no offense (Jets and Dolphins), it probably won't cost them any playoff position.

The special teams gave up a 38-yard kickoff return (the drive resulted in a touchdown) and a 33-yard punt return (the drive ended with an INT). But overall, I thought their efforts were good. When Stephen Gostkowski kicked into the wind, he got good hang time, and with the wind it ended up in the end zone every time. They say that you can tell a team's intensity on special teams, and the Patriots matched the Ravens kick-for-kick on that count.

Oh, and a special shout out to the Ravens and their uncontrolled emotions. I've never seen a team kickoff from the opponent 35 yard-line, but two unsportsman-like conduct penalties and an offsides made that happen last night. And it cost the Ravens any realistic chance to win the game at the end. I mean, 35-yards in penalties enforced on the kickoff? Oh, and for those who think the referees wanted the Patriots to win, remember two things: first, if Gaffney's touchdown was disallowed, those penalties would have given the Pats a first-and-goal at the two yard-line; and second, where was the pass interference call on Baltimore's last-gasp throw toward the end zone?

So where does that leave us? 12-0 is nice, and pole position for a playoff bye is even nicer. Before the season began, I predicted that these two games would be the toughest stretch the Patriots would face all season, and nothing I've seen has changed my mind. The Steelers game does present many problems: from a short week and an emotional game against the Ravens to a stronger offense. But these are the games the Patriots have always gotten up for, and it is a home game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Curious how the Patriots won their three close games? In the fourth quarter against the Colts, Eagles, and Ravens, the Patriots outscored those teams 31-14.

One Possible Serving of Humble Pie (please read in a deadpan monotone): "We had some drops, especially the ones in the end zone, those hurt a lot. We gotta do a better job in kick coverage and some of our secondary assignments didn't work out the way we wanted. It was a little windy, but next game, I think I'll request better lighting... and maybe a nice lobster bisque in the after-game buffet. Aside from that, it's on to the Steelers, and we'll have to be ready to play our best game..."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Pats gave up a lot of rushing yards; but I still think their biggest problems are in the secondary. If no one else gets injured, the front seven will hold up -- but can Ellis Hobbs make one frickin' play?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-0!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Patriots 31, Eagles 28 (11/25/2007)

In the "Any Given Sunday" world of the NFL, the Eagles served the Patriots some "humble pie" last night, reminding them that they are human. But Philly failed to close the deal as the Patriots squeaked out a 31-28 win. The Buffalo Bills lost earlier in the day, and that gave the Patriots the AFC East Championship (tied for the earliest clinching of a division title since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978), and kept them three games ahead of Pittsburgh (who plays tonight) and Indianapolis (won last Thursday) in the race for playoff positioning.

The O-line didn't have their best game; but there was a lot of pressure on them. The Pats went with an empty backfield a lot of the time, and the Eagles love to blitz guys from everywhere. The result was 2.9 yards per rush, 3 sacks, and a lot more pressure than Tom Brady usually faces. The Patriots barely ran the ball at all, but when they did, it was effective. Their 16 attempts netted them 5 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Heath Evans got one TD, and Laurence Maroney got the other. There isn't much else to say about the running game, except that Tom Brady had two nice scrambles for first downs.

As for Brady's passing, it wasn't quite his best, but he ended up completing 63% of his passes for 380 yards and a touchdown (and most important, no interceptions). He was sometimes not pressured at all and sometimes under a lot of pressure -- nothing in-between. When he had time, he made some throws that could have been game-changers, but his hand was hit on the release on one (and Donte Stallworth knocked it away from a defender), and Randy Moss dropped another. In fact, the receivers had more drops in this game than they've had all season (maybe a slight exaggeration, but it felt that way). Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth (twice), Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk all had drops that I remember. The one name you don't see on that list is Wes Welker, who had a terrific game. Career highs with 13 receptions and 149 yards, and a 42-yard catch-and-run -- on a drive where the Pats (unfortunately) failed to score with a first-and-goal at the five-yard line. And Jabar Gaffney made another Plasticman reception for a touchdown to end the second quarter -- a huge play in a three-point win.

The defensive stars of the game were Asante Samuel and James Sanders. Between them, they had five passes defensed (out a team total of six) and three interceptions -- with Samuel taking one back for a touchdown and Sanders icing the game with his. The rest of the secondary is due some serious reprimands this week. The Eagles had four touchdown drives that looked much too easy, with wide open receivers on the sideline and guys open for medium gains in the middle. The team didn't get much pressure on the QB, so I expected them to stop blitzing and dropping more guys into the passing zones. But that rarely happened, and with a lack of pressure, Ellis Hobbs, Randall Gay, and Eddie Jackson were either out of position or late on too many throws.

For a while, it looked like the Mike Vrabel show early on. In the first 16 minutes he'd stopped Eagles running back Brian Westbrook for short- or negative-yardage plays four times, made two tackles on passing plays, and pressured the QB on two others. But he tailed off after that, getting called for an encroachment penalty and being beaten for several runs around end. Tedy Bruschi and Adalius Thomas had good games, but this wasn't the linebackers shining moment for this season. There wasn't enough pressure on the QB, and there were too many tackles *after* the catch.

The D-line didn't do anything extra special, nor did they screw up a lot. The controlled the line of scrimmage on running plays (19 rushes for 53 yards), but could not get consistent pressure on the pocket. I heard some commentators talk about how the Eagles "exposed" the line and the secondary, but I disagree. Philly's O-line has to get a lot of credit, and the Patriots coaches should have switched to more soft-zone and fewer blitzes when it became clear they couldn't get any pressure on the QB. The Pats D-line played the Eagles O-line to a standstill, which is better than most lines do. The secondary was always the weakest link in this defense -- but few teams have had time to exploit them. BTW, I've seen enough of the 2-5-4 with Jarvis Green and Mike Wright on the line... the team got smoked on that defense way too often.

Special teams didn't do much that was great, and had some real gaffes. Kelley Washington had an unnecessary hold that brought a kickoff return back from the 46 to the 21, and Stephen Gostkowski missed a simple 32-yard field goal, and they let the Eagles recover an onside kick, which should have their coach (Brad Seeley) force-feeding them humble pie all week. However, they kept all of the kickoff and punt returns short, and Gostkowski converted on a 23-yard field goal -- so it wasn't *all* bad.

As for the coaches, on offense it was pretty good, just too many dropped passes. But special teams didn't play that well, and on defense, they should have mixed in more eight-man drops with their five- and six-man blitzes, just to keep the Eagles off-balance. Once the Eagles QB knew that four, five, or six men would rush every play, he just hit quick passes and kept the chains moving. Not that it was all bad -- the Eagles scored on four drives, but they had two three-and-outs, a four-and-out, and three interceptions on their other six. But I think the coaches should have adjusted quicker to the game situation.

So where does that leave us? 11-0 sounds pretty good, and division champs sounds even better. That guarantees a home playoff game, although the team would obviously like to secure a first-round bye and/or the #1 AFC playoff seed. By my calculations, if they win the next two games, a first-round bye would be assured. The reason is because it would put Pittsburgh too far behind the Patriots (since one of those two wins would be over Pittsburgh), and the only other contenders would be Jacksonville and Indianapolis -- and they play each other next week, so the loser of that game would not be able to catch the Patriots, either. But of course, given the one-game-at-a-time mantra, it's the Baltimore Ravens next Monday night. The Pats should be able to win if they don't turn the ball over; because the Ravens have no offense at all. But note: it isn't easy to keep from turning the ball over against the Ravens.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The halftime score of this game was the same as the score at the end of the Patriots Super Bowl win over the Eagles (24-21). Also, the teams both scored seven points each in the first half of the Super Bowl and did the exact same thing in the second half of Sunday's game. Lastly, in both those games, the Eagles QB threw three interceptions and a safety picked the third one to seal the game for the Patriots.

One Possible Serving of Humble Pie (please read in a deadpan monotone): "Well, we gave up too many easy passes, not enough pressure on the quarterback, we had some drops and stuff, and we gave up some sacks. We kinda missed the boat on that onside kick, and you'd think we could hit a 32-yard field goal... we gotta do a better job coaching that stuff. Other than that, I think the fans need to work a little harder -- don't sell you tickets to fans of the opponent and cheer louder when we come out of the tunnel. And the wind needs to be stronger when they have the ball, and maybe it could rain on their sideline. Just some stuff to get fixed before the next game."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Look, we all love blowout wins, but you don't want to go into the playoffs without struggling in any games. You gotta be battle-tested, otherwise you might fold the first time things get tough. Just ask Randy Moss -- his Vikings team blew through the league at 15-1 -- then lost in the NFC Championship game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-0!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Patriots 56, Bills 10 (11/18/2007)

At halftime, Bob Costas said the Patriots were "toying with" the Bills, and I can't think of a more accurate description. The "Big Dog" Patriots scored a convincing 56-10 victory over the "chewed up tennis ball" Bills. The win all-but sealed the AFC East division crown, which the Pats will clinch with their next win or Buffalo's next loss. And their stranglehold on the #1 AFC playoff spot is now a three-game lead over the Colts (two games plus a tiebreaker) and Steelers (three full games back). Not bad for about 25 minutes of actual work (the game was 28-7 at that point, and for all intents and purposes, over).

The Patriots offense invited everyone to the party last night. They ran the ball effectively, especially in the second half, when Buffalo knew they were going to run but couldn't stop them. They scored touchdowns on their first seven drives, with each mixing in more running with the pinpoint passing game. With Laurence Maroney either banged up or just resting, Heath Evans had his second-best day as a Patriot (10 carries for 56 yards) and Kyle Eckel chipped in, too (10 for 40 yards and a touchdown). I don't know for sure if Maroney was injured, but he didn't play in the second half. Kevin Faulk was out, and my guess is that Maroney was being saved for third-down passing plays, but they just didn't have any in the second half while the starters were in there. Time will tell with Maroney, but I hope both he and Kevin Faulk are okay. Oh, and by the way, the reason I think Maroney might have been slated for third-down play is because earlier in the game, Heath Evans blew a blitz pickup and got Brady hammered after the throw.

Speaking of Brady, he's playing like Superman right now. 31 for 39, 373 yards and 5 touchdowns, and it didn't look like he broke much of a sweat. Amazing what great receivers and offensive line play will do for you. Randy Moss is slowly making the case that he was worth that fourth-round pick we traded for him. Maybe if he breaks the record for touchdown receptions in a season, *then* I’ll sign off on that trade. Last night's evidence in his favor: 10 catches for 128 yards and 4 touchdowns. Wes Welker (7 for 78) and Donte Stallworth (5 for 56) "chipped in" with numbers that are surprisingly close to what our leading receivers did last year. Ben Watson returned to full-time action, and had a nice touchdown and an important third-down grab to extend the Pats second scoring drive. He also blocked very well, as did the entire offensive line.

And speaking of the O-line, when your QB takes two hits and you score 49 offensive points, you gotta give ‘em some credit. Billy Yates missed his block on a screen pass, but other than that, I have nothing negative to say about the O-line. 4.4 yards a rush, 9.3 yards a throw, and plenty of time for Brady to find receivers. The Bills defense usually relies on speed to get around blocks, but not on this day. Brady got slammed on the aforementioned Heath Evans braincramp, and was grazed one or two other times. But for the most part, his day was "drop back, keep on my toes, survey the field, pat the ball, survey the field, step up in the pocket, call GEICO to save a bunch of money on car insurance, survey the field, throw for a completion." And the offensive line deserves the lion's share of the credit for that. (Note: no word on whether or not Brady will split his car insurance savings with the O-line, but I think he should.)

The defensive line was dominant. Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork plugged up the middle all day, and collapsed the pocket on many pass attempts. Richard Seymour continued to split time with Jarvis Green, who had 4 tackles and a forced fumble. In point of fact, 4 tackles tied Green for the team lead, with the defensive snaps limited by the their own (and the offense’s) great performance and the tackles spread throughout the defenders. And also, I considered Adalius Thomas a part of the defensive line, since he rushed the passer on most of the snaps.

And speaking of Thomas, he was by far the brightest star of the day. The Pats are starting to use him in interesting ways, inside, outside, covering the tight end, rushing from the edge, all over the place. He entered the game with 0.5 sacks for the year, and he had 2.5 sacks in the game (to go along with 4 quarterback hurries and a pass defensed). Mike Vrabel added another sack from the edge-rusher position (and is closing in on double-digits, with 9.5 on the year), and both Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau played the middle extremely well. Rosevelt Colvin didn't seem to be in the action much, but it was my impression that Buffalo ran their offense in the other direction most of the day.

I thought safety James Sanders had the best game in the secondary, with solid tackling, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. Ellis Hobbs returned that fumble for a touchdown, and he was good the rest of the game, even though he was beaten for the Bills only touchdown (a play on which he was in great position but the ball was underthrown and the receiver made a great play). Asante Samuel's statline looked boring, but they didn't throw much in his direction, and he almost picked one off when they did. And of course, the only INT of the day belonged to old friend Randall Gay -- starting cornerback for the last Patriots Super Bowl winning team, in case you’d forgotten.

The special teams were nothing really special. They had a lot of kickoffs, but I thought their coverage was spotty, giving up a pair of 29-yard returns and a 16 yard return on a short kick designed to limit return yardage (the ball ended up at the Buffalo 43). It might be quibbling, especially given the Bills excellent special teams, but when things are going well, you’re going to get the small complaints. On the plus side, Kelley Washington has been very good on special teams all year long, and Kyle Eckel is starting to show something, too.

So where does that leave us? Well, with a 10-0 record, the Patriots are in the driver’s seat for both a division crown (a foregone conclusion) and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Three more wins would force either the Steelers or Colts to win the rest of their games to snag the #1 seed, so winning that many would probably seal the deal for the Pats. And along those lines, there are three more teams the Patriots should beat if they don’t turn the ball over: the Ravens, Jets, and Dolphins – so the #1 seed is easily within their grasp. I refuse to predict that they could run the table, because the last time I even hinted at that, they lost the next game. So don’t look for any season-long pronouncements from me. And the Eagles game probably hinges on the health of Donovan McNabb – if he can’t play or isn’t 100%, the Patriots will probably win. But remember, Brian Westbrook gives the Patriots fits, and he’s playing well right now.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots scored their most points in a game (56) on the fewest drives in a game (8).

Weekly Serving of Humble Pie (new feature for this week, spoken in deadpan monotone): “Well, it looked like Evans missed a block and got the quarterback hit, and someone ran the wrong route on a Brady scramble. There were those dropped passes, and the long kickoff return before the half… we kinda messed that up. Tom’s intentional grounding… I don’t know what he was thinking on that play. And Asante might’ve missed an interception, and he’s got the ball skills to make that play. We didn’t make every tackle, and we sorta let the Bills back into the game on that pass over Ellis. Other than that, I’ll have to check the tape.”

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The scariest thing about this team is that they have the 2004 Colts offense and the 2003 Patriots defense. No wonder they’re kicking the crap out of everyone.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-0!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Has the Dynasty Been Tarnished? (11/16/2007)

Hello all,

Usually, I write a bye week update that details how things are going and what I expect for the remainder of the season. I might still do that before the next game, but there is something else I'd like to write about instead. Many people nationwide have suggested that the Patriots videotaping of the opposition's defensive signals has (choose one) "tarnished," "cast a cloud over," "left a black mark on," "put a stain on," or "places an asterisks next to," the Patriots previous three Super Bowl victories.

I don't agree with those statements. There are many teams who bent the rules or outright broke them, and I don't hear any hue and cry to reconsider *those* championships. The Denver Broncos were whacked for keeping better players by circumventing the salary cap, and no one says their Super Bowls were tainted. Former Oakland Raiders players have said most of their championship teams were on steroids, and there's no cloud over their victories. And there were long rumors (and a few select admissions) of steroid use by the Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, and yet they are considered one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.

You can't go back in time, so none of us will ever know how much the Patriots might have gained through the use of sideline videotaping. In fact, we don't know for sure whether or not they were using sideline videotape during their championship years. But nonetheless, I'm intrigued by asking just those questions and seeing where the investigation might take me. So if you'll indulge me, I'd like to explore three questions. First, how bad were the actions taken by the Patriots in this situation? Second, could there have been any real advantage from the videotaping, and if so, how much advantage? And third, if there was an unfair advantage, should we question the validity of the Patriots playoff victories after the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons?

I. How big was the scandal?

In my opinion, the depth and importance of the scandal was overblown by a controversy-driven media. Numerous commentators have stated that there was no ambiguity in the rules that govern videotaping from the sideline, which is untrue. Official NFL rules prohibited taping from the field "for use during the game." And those five words are a stadium-sized loophole that most of the media ignored. (Note: and don't listen to those who claim that it's less important because it's a "technicality." The reason these rules are written so carefully is that they sometimes end up being challenge in court, so specificity in language is important.) Bill Belichick stated that he had a different interpretation of the rule than the NFL commissioner -- so I believe he thought he was within his rights to videotape from the sideline as long as he didn't use that tape during that particular game.

I'm personally disappointed in Belichick, but I don't think his actions rose to the level of outright cheating. Prior to the 2007 season, the NFL sent letters to all 32 teams, clarifying the rule somewhat and warning that it would be strictly enforced. When that happened, I think Belichick should have contacted the NFL and asked specifically whether his interpretation was correct. The NFL would have told him it was not, and the Patriots could have stopped taping from the sideline, asked that a crystal clear version of the rule be put in place, and been done with it.

But disappointment is a lot different than the public tar-and-feathering the coach has undergone among the media and fans of other teams. Some have even used the scandal to portray a general atmosphere of team lawlessness and rule-breaking that I believe is the opposite of who Belichick is. I think the national reaction was a function of inaccurate information (about the specifics of the rule), Belichick's surliness with the media, the media's insatiable thirst for controversy, and many (in the media and in the general public) who resent him and the Patriots and who were looking for a chance to take him and the team down a peg. That doesn't exonerate Belichick, but he was treated much worse than he deserved.

II. Did the use of videotape provide any substantial advantage to the Patriots?

As for how much videotaping of defensive signals could help, there would obviously be some advantage, and most of that advantage would have shown up the next time the Patriots played the same opponent. Assuming that Belichick violated only the spirit of the rule and not the letter of it, it's unlikely that he tried to use videotape from the sideline in the same game. (Note: Many former NFL coaches and players have stated that it would be almost impossible to use sideline videotape during the game -- their contention is usually that there isn't enough time.) But by breaking down the video after the game, the head coach and/or his staff could decode the signals, thus giving them a head start in decipher signals the next time they played the same team.

Being better prepared to figure out the defensive signals would not give the Patriots any advantage early in the game, because every team changes signals from week-to-week (sometimes from quarter-to-quarter). Even if someone from the Patriots studied videotape of previous games, it would still take some time to decode the new defensive signals in a new game. So any advantage likely wouldn't be realized until the second half of the game. If the Patriots were very good (or the other team's coding system was very bad), they might have the signals figured out at some point in the second quarter, but it's not very likely, given everything else that happens on the sideline during a game.

So my belief is that there was likely some benefit gained through the use of videotape. It would have shown up when the Patriots offense had the ball, most likely in the second half of games. Also, given how often teams change coaching staffs and defensive signals, the advantage would most likely materialize only if the Patriots had played that team within the previous two or three years. In fact, it might be only teams they played in the particular year in question, but I'm willing to accept that studying videotape might help even a year or two later.

III. And the big question, should you burn your memorabilia from Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX?

Only the NFL league offices and the Patriots know if the videotaping went back to the 2001, 2003, or 2004 seasons. Without knowing that for certain, we can't be sure if the Patriots were violating the rules, and therefore, whether or not they could have gained an unfair advantage by videotaping from the sideline. This is the only question in this entire controversy that has a "yes" or "no" answer, but neither the NFL nor the Patriots are willing to give that answer, so we're left in the dark.

I won't assume the Patriots were videotaping from the sideline during those years. But to assert that they were not would be dishonest and would end all questions right now. So if we assume that they were videotaping since Belichick took over the team, the next question is whether or not they benefited from it. I don't have the time or resources to revisit every regular season game. So to explore that question, here is a playoff-game by playoff-game breakdown of whether or not the team could have benefited, if they appeared to benefit, and how significant that benefit might have been.

The First Super Bowl Run

2001 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 16, Raiders 13

Prior to this game, the Patriots had not played the Raiders under Bill Belichick. So this one is easy, there could not have been any existing videotape, so no advantage.

2001 AFC Championship game, Patriots 27, Steelers 17

Same as the previous paragraph; this was Belichick's first game against the Steelers as Patriots head coach, so there could not have been any advantage.

2001 Super Bowl, Patriots 20, Rams 17

The Patriots did play the Rams that season (a 24-17 loss in November). But it is very difficult to make the case that the offense had an extra leg up in the February tilt. The Patriots Super Bowl offense improved in some areas (yards per rush: from 2.6 in November to 5.3 in February, total yards: 230 to 267), stayed about the same in others (first downs: 13 to 15, yards per play: 4.7 to 4.9, sacks allowed: 2 in each game), and did worse in others (yards per pass attempt: 6.2 to 4.6, third-down conversions: 42% to 18%, net passing yards: 179 to 134).

Also, the statistics show no improvement in the second half, which is what you'd expect if they had deciphered the defensive signals. On the contrary, they got worse at third-down conversions (33% to 0%), completed fewer passes (63.6% to 56.3%), and had fewer first downs (8 to 7). And note that those second-half numbers include the Patriots final drive, during which there probably weren't any defensive signals used on the majority of plays (since it was a two-minute drill).

The Rams lost this Super Bowl because they turned the ball over and gave the Patriots the short field too often. The Pats scored on an INT-return, scored on drives of 40 yards and 14 yards after turnovers, and scored on a drive of 53 yards to end the game. Other than that, the team's average possession was 4.6 plays for 20 yards and they punted at the end of every one. I don't see how your numbers could be that bad if you knew what the defense was doing.

So I'd suggest keeping your Super Bowl XXXVI jersey and hat -- the Pats won this one fair and square.

The Second Super Bowl Run

2003 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 17, Titans 14

This one is easy. The Patriots beat the Titans 38-30 during the regular season, and were *worse* in every significant offensive statistic in this game. It's true the earlier game was played in great weather and the playoff game was the coldest in Foxboro history. But this little factoid clinches it: the Patriots scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives and only managed a field goal in the last seven drives. So their offense was much worse in the second half, which runs counter to what you'd expect if they knew what defense was being called.

2003 AFC Championship game, Patriots 24, Colts 14

The Patriots beat the Colts 38-34 in Indy that November, and it's tough to say with certainty whether they might have gained some advantage if they were videotaping the Colts defensive signals. The Pats scored 14 fewer points in the playoff rematch, and in the second game, they scored more than half of their points on the first three drives of the game. But their offense performed better statistically in several areas, when compared from the first game to the second one (total yards went from 282 to 349, sacks from 2 to 0, rushing average from 2.4 to 3.5 per carry, and time of possession from 27:56 to 32:14).

There were three other factors that weight heavily on the game. First, the second game was a Patriots home game (advantage Patriots), but the weather was very cold (which one would presume would suppress scoring), and of course, Peyton Manning was bedeviled by the Patriots defense (four interceptions).

So again, the question of whether or not videotaping (if it was happening in the 2003 season) might have helped the Patriots is a tough one. I lean against it, mostly because the Patriots scored 13 of their 22 offensive points before they would have had a chance to figure out Indy's defensive signals, and the yardage and efficiency statistics show no significant improvement in the second half. Also, if the Pats knew the Colts defensive signals, how could they possibly score just six points on three second-half possessions inside the Indy ten yard-line. However, my mind is not made up on this one, and anyone with valid points to make should be taken seriously.

2003 Super Bowl, Patriots 32, Panthers 29

With the back-and-forth nature of this game, and all the scoring in the final quarter, this game seems like a natural to view with suspicion. The Patriots offense did play better in the second half, improving in rushing yards, passing yards, yard per pass attempt, and first downs.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the Patriots hadn't played the Panthers in two years, *and* the Panthers changed their coaching staff and defensive schemes right after that previous meeting (the last game of the 2001 season). So videotape or not, there was no way they could have gotten an unfair advantage over the Carolina defense, because the defense and signals would have been completely different.

So I think you can keep your Super Bowl XXXVIII sweatshirt and pennant. But if an Indy fan wants to argue the point, just listen politely and let me know what s/he says.

The Third Super Bowl Run

2004 Divisional Playoff game, Patriots 20, Colts 3

The Patriots beat the Colts 27-24 on opening day that year, and along with their two games the previous year, they had plenty of opportunity to build a video library (if they were taping signals in 2003 or 2004). And frankly, this game is the most likely so far to be one where they deciphered the Colts signals and gained some advantage from it.

In three key areas, the offensive improvement from the first half to the second half is significant. In the following categories, the Patriots offense played much better in the second half: first downs (7 to 14), third-down conversions (29% to 75%), and their first-half scoring drives resulted in field goals whereas their second-half drives resulted in touchdowns. Also, those two long touchdown drives in the second half contributed to the Colts having only four second-half possessions, making it much tougher to mount a comeback.

Granted, the Colts couldn't have won by scoring only three points; however, they might have scored more if they had the ball more than four times in the second half. So it seems to me that if (and that's a big "if") the Patriots were recording defensive signals in 2004, this is one instance where you could legitimately surmise that the videotaping could have provided an advantage. The win itself probably had more to do with winning the turnover battle (3 to 0), but the doubt still remains.

2004 AFC Championship game, Patriots 41, Steelers 27

The Patriots lost to Pittsburgh earlier in the year (34-20 on Halloween Day), so the opportunity to tape from the sideline was there. But I don't think it's fair to compare offensive numbers from the two games. The Steelers routed the Pats that day, going up 24-3 in the first half. The Patriots ran the ball only six times, and with all that passing, the Steelers won the turnover battle 4-0 and the Patriots never got into any offensive rhythm at all.

However, I did compare the first and second halves of the playoff game, and it was a mixed bag at best. The Patriots offense was better at third-down conversions (25% to 50%), yards per pass attempt (12.3 to 9.3), and time-of-possession (10:19 to 18:10). But they were roughly the same in completion percentage (64% to 70%), yards per rush (3.8 to 3.9), and points scored (17 to 17). And they were worse in sacks allowed (0 to 2), total yards (173 to 149), and passing yards (135 to 72). Those numbers are the biggest mixed bag since... well, since my description of the numbers from the Patriots/Rams Super Bowl (scroll up 15 paragraphs if you forgot already).

If there was any advantage gained in this game, it was that the Patriots did a better job making (Steelers QB) Ben Roethlisberger beat them. I think they knew he wasn't ready to shoulder the entire burden in a Conference Championship game, and he ended up with three crucial interceptions. So my conclusion is that there wasn't any ill-gotten advantage.

2004 Super Bowl, Patriots 24, Eagles 21

The Patriots did play the Eagles within the two years prior to this game -- but just barely. They beat Philly 31-10 in the second week of the 2003 season, 35 games prior to their meeting in the Super Bowl. So the possibility existed that the Patriots might have had tape of the Eagles' defensive signals to study. So did it likely make any difference? Only if you believe the Pats could have figured out the defensive signs in the first 20 minutes of the game. Because that is when their offense started to crank.

The Patriots offense was shut down for the first four drives, with an average of 3.25 plays for 9.25 yards and a punt to end each one. However, they took over 20:05 into the game and their next 3 drives averaged 8 plays for 60 yards, and they scored 2 touchdowns on those drives. Also, the Patriots bettered their offensive production in the second half in the following areas: third-down conversions (20% to 43%), total yards (148 to 183), yards per pass attempt (6.3 to 8.1), and sacks allowed (2 to 0). Considering both the quick change in drive production at the 20:05 mark and the increased offensive production in the second half, this game seems more likely than any of the other playoff games to have been effected by the sideline videotaping.

I'm torn on this one. I believe the Patriots coaches are smart enough to decipher signals quickly, but most of the NFL ex-players and ex-coaches have said they don't think that's possible (at least not on a regular basis). So if you think the Patriots coaches are could have done it, then you probably believe the Pats got some advantage from their sideline videotaping. But there is another factor that could easily explain that shift in offense at 20:05 -- the Patriots maddening lack of offense early in games the week after a "bye" week (note: this game was after a week off). To break it down quickly, here is the first quarter scores for the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots after a week during which they did not play: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0, 14 -- for a whopping average of 3.6 points per first quarter and 7 shutouts in 14 games.

So around here, we're used to poor first quarter performance after a bye week. But given the disparity in the first and second half in this game, I'd say that it could have been affected by the Patriots use of sideline videotaping. Couple that with my feelings about the Divisional Playoff game against the Colts, and it appears that of the three Super Bowl victories, this one would be the most in question. I believe whole-heartedly that the trade for Corey Dillon and the emergence of Deion Branch, David Givens, Randall Gay (who single-covered "TO" all game long), Vince Wilfork, and Rosevelt Colvin played a much bigger role in the eventual Super Bowl victory. But the uncertainty about this playoff run remains.


The Patriots got caught doing something they shouldn't have been doing, so some will always question whether or not their Super Bowl victories were legit. I think the first one is clean beyond any doubt, the second one was almost certainly clean, and the third one has some residue of doubt associated with it. But the team will have to live with some level of doubt -- that's what happens when you break the rules.

But don't look for the NFL to strip them of any championships or for this doubt to cast a long-term cloud over the current dynasty. As I wrote earlier, the Broncos, Raiders, and Steelers either did cheat or are heavily-suspected of doing so, and their legacies are intact.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-0!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Patriots 24, Colts 20 (11/4/2007)

A "football game for the ages" that actually lived up to the hype -- wow! I think that's happened to me three times; in my entire life. The Patriots overcame the Colts, the crowd noise (both live and "memorex"), and the officials for a scintillating 24-20 victory that put them on top of the AFC all by their lonesome. The win kept their record perfect (9-0) and essentially gave them a two-game lead on the Colts for home field advantage in the playoffs. It also maintained their 4.5-game AFC East advantage over the Buffalo Bills, who have won three games in a row.

Not the O-line's best game, but the Colts defense had something to do with that. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are so fast on the pass rush that Brady had little time to head- or pump-fake, and that made it tough to do much early in the game. Matt Light and Nick Kazcur had first half gaffes (a big penalty and a blown block, respectively), but by the end of the game, the Colts D-line had been worn down and was almost completely ineffective. There wasn't much running room, either. But I don't fault the O-line for that -- the Colts have become very good at guessing when the Patriots will run, and they over-committed their secondary players to stopping the run. Seems like the Patriots should have been able to exploit that, and perhaps they will if the two teams meet in the playoffs.

Brady's stats don't reflect it, but he was absolutely brilliant under constant first-half pressure. He took what the defense gave him, not forcing anything until late in the quarter (when Matt Light's penalty made it 2nd-and-24). And even then, his interception should have been nullified because the defender pushed off Donte Stallworth -- but more on the officiating later. However, Brady really shined brightest in the fourth quarter. After the Colts took a 10-point lead, Brady led the following touchdown marches back-to-back: 7 plays, 73 yards, in 103 seconds; and 3 plays, 51 yards, in 43 seconds. He finished the day with as many INTs as he'd had all year (2), but his 25th fourth-quarter comeback was sorely needed and as impressive as any of the first 24 of them.

The receiving corps was led by Randy Moss (9 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown), who made a ridiculous catch over the middle and had another jump-ball grab in the end zone. Wes Welker (5 catches, 38 yards, 1 touchdown) was solid and necessary, catching two crucial passes on the second-to-last TD drive and converting a third-down to ice the game. He also threw in some very important yards on two punt returns and a kickoff return. Donte Stallworth had a very important catch down the sideline that set up Kevin Faulk's 13-yard touchdown grab. Overall, a nice day by the receivers, especially given how tight the Colts coverage was most of the day. The running backs played well, but no one stood out as having a great day. Laurence Maroney (15 carries for 59 yards) continues to work his way back into the lineup, and Brady had his second-longest career run (19 yards) to convert a 3rd-and-7. Aside from that, nothing particularly noteworthy.

The defense put on a gutty performance. They looked old and outmatched in the first half, with Joseph Addai running wild and Peyton Manning moving the chains relentlessly down the field. But the Pats held Indy to two field goals and a fluky touchdown late in that half, all of which kept the game close enough. All the while, the Patriots pass rush built momentum and started to get to Manning in the second half. Off-season acquisition Adalius Thomas hardly played, with the Patriots using five defensive backs and three linebackers (Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau got the lion's share of the snaps at ILB). But no matter. Jarvis Green and Rosevelt Colvin both had sacks and forced fumbles, and the secondary did a great job overall -- even when some horrendous officiating calls that went against them.

Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin had trouble setting the edge on the outside run, and Addai got most of his yards outside. (Note: I think the Pats might have to rethink their outside technique against certain teams, but perhaps I'll delve into that more in next week's "bye week" special.) But overall, it was a very solid team defensive plan: make the Colts beat you a little bit at a time and try to make them settle for field goals in the red zone. Rodney Harrison was great on Dallas Clark (2 catches, 17 yards), and the Indy wideouts and tight ends totaled only 11 catches for 111 yards and zero touchdowns (excepting running back Addai's 5 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown). Manning had more commercials than completions (and more pouts than touchdowns -- gosh darned it, I'm funny!), and the Pats defense basically owned the Colts offense in the second half, limiting them to 85 yards and a single 32-yard touchdown drive.

The Patriots special teams played a great game. Richard Seymour blocked a field goal, Wes Welker had two big punt returns and a kickoff return, Ellis Hobbs continued to excel on kickoff returns, and the kick coverage teams were exceptional. On average, the Patriots started their drives at their own 38 yard line, and the Colts started their drives at their own 21. So the Patriots started with an 17 yards (almost 2 first downs) advantage per drive. Kudos to special teams coach, Brad Seeley, on an excellent job with the game plan and with team preparation. In fact, the overall coaching was very good. They had great in-game adjustments to slow Addai and basically shut down the Colts offense in the second half.

Now, about that officiating. The Patriots set a team record for penalty yards (146 yards), and as regular readers of this email know, it's been a while since I complained about the officials (the 2005 Denver post-season game). When you play poorly, you usually lose, regardless of the officials. But there were some horrendous calls in Sunday's game, and they all seemed to go against the Patriots. Here's a list of the calls I think the officials missed, and how many yards (or opportunities) those blown calls cost the Patriots:

1. Asante Samuel called for defensive pass interference (37 yards). This call should have been offensive pass interference, but it gave the Colts great field position and they scored a field goal as a result.
2. Ellis Hobbs called for defensive pass interference (40 yards). This one should have been no call (there was no contact on the play), and it gave the Colts a first down at the Patriots 6 yard line. They scored their second field goal as a result.
3. Matt Light called for a personal foul (15 yards). They called him for a leg whip, but he committed tripping, which would have been a 10-yard penalty instead. That made it 2nd-and-24 (instead of 2nd-and-19), and Brady threw his first INT on the next play. Which leads me to...
4. Antoine Betha not called for pushing off on his interception. This should have been a 1st-and-goal for the Patriots at the Indy 2 yard line, but the officials missed an obvious interference call (and the Colts scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive).
5. On 3rd-and-20, the refs missed an obvious call when Kevin Faulk was held before the ball arrived. It should have been an automatic first down, but the Patriots ended punting. Both Faulk and Brady were livid -- and with good reason; there was no excuse for missing that call.
6. Randy Moss called for offensive pass interference (10 yards). Once again, there was no real contact, and the announcers said they didn't see any penalty. Fortunately, the Patriots scored two plays later, so no real harm.
7. All of that is in addition to the many holding calls missed when the Colts were on offense. Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin were held most of the day, and the Colts had only one offensive holding call all day long.

So if you include penalties called on the Pats or not called on the Colts, it cost the Patriots 133 yards on the day. Without the missed penalties, the game would likely have been another Patriots blowout win. We'll see what happens in the future, but I'm sure the Patriots will point out those penalties to the NFL and have the crew "spoken to" before next week.

So where does that leave us? Well, it's bye-week heaven, with a 9-0 team coming off a huge win over their nearest NFL rival. The Pats continued to put distance between themselves and the rest of the league, and now they've got a week off to get healthy and continue working Richard Seymour back into game shape. The Bills are 4-4, but believe it or not, if they lose next week, the Patriots will clinch the division title with a win over the Bills after the bye week. Of course, the Bills are playing Miami, which makes that scenario very unlikely.

Statistical Oddity of the week: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre are the only quarterbacks in NFL history to beat 31 other teams during their careers. But what the Favre and Manning suck-ups conveniently forget is that Brady took just 104 games to do it. Manning took 152, and Favre took 248.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, Brady kicked ass in the fourth quarter. But without stellar play from the special teams, there's no way they win that game. Welker's returns were key, and they Colts never returned a kick past their own 24 yard line."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-0!