Monday, January 15, 2007

Patriots 24, Chargers 21 (1/14/2007)

Bill Belichick might be speechless, but not me... I've got *plenty* to say. That was by far the best game I've seen in two years, a scintillating 24-21 come-from-behind Patriots win over the first-seeded Chargers. It was hard fought and nerve-wracking to watch, but that's the kind of game that keeps me coming back to football year after year. The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship game this Sunday (6:30 pm) against Peyton "Cut That Meat!" Manning and the red hot Indianapolis Colts. More on that game later, but on to yesterday's amazing contest.

When I think about how the Patriots won, five things come to mind: they are a better coached team that had no stupid penalties and few dropped passes; there were five fumbles in the game and the Pats ended up with possession of the ball after every single one of them; the defensive backfield kept hitting and knocking down passes; the offensive line played lights-out the entire second half; and they have magic-man Tom Brady at quarterback.

You're going to hear a lot about Tom Brady's final two drives for the tying and winning points. But the offensive linemen were the real stars of the game. After some early pressure, they kept the sack-happy Chargers in check the rest of the game. It wasn't like the Minnesota game, where Brady was never touched, but with pass rushers like San Diego, there was no way that was happening on Sunday. But the O-line kept Brady upright and gave him enough time to score when needed. And when the coaches switched from maximum QB protection to wide open formations, ironically the O-line handled the Charger blitz packages even better. Kudos to Matt Light, Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, and Nick Kazcur.

As for the aforementioned Mr. Brady, he came through when it counted most. His numbers on the day were more like vintage Peyton Manning playoff numbers: 27 of 51 for 280 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. But with the team down by 8 points in the fourth quarter, he led his offense to 11 points and the victory. The running game was as mundane as Brady's numbers; 51 yards and a 2.4 per carry average. It was so bad, the Pats abandoned the run early, rushing seven times for six yards the entire second half.

Some of the biggest plays were made by the Patriots receiving corps -- and only some of them were receptions. Reche Caldwell had a touchdown to tie the game at 21-21, and a *huge* 49 yard catch to set up the winning field goal. But his biggest play in the game was recovering a fumble after a Brady interception on the aforementioned touchdown drive. And who do you think forced the Chargers defense to fumble that interception? Why it was another receiver, part-time defensive back Troy Brown, who stripped it away. Brown had little impact as a receiver, but that play gave the Patriots a chance to stay in the game. And lastly, backup tight end Dave Thomas had zero catches on the day, but he recovered a fumbled punt and the ensuing drive ended with a Pats field goal.

As for the passing game itself (where wideouts usually earn their keep), Jabbar Gaffney had his second straight 100-yard receiving game (10 grabs for 103 yards). He now has more catches in the playoffs (18) than he did all regular season. He also had four receptions, including the touchdown, on the Pats important scoring drive late in the first half. That drive kept the Pats in the game, changing a 14-3 rout into a 14-10 dogfight. And the tight ends contributed, with Daniel Graham's 19-yard catch changing field position on one scoring drive and Ben Watson's lone 9-yarder setting up another touchdown.

The defense never really stopped LaDainian Tomlinson (23 carries, 123 yards, 2 touchdowns), even though he appeared to be hurt in the first half. He consistently exploited the guard-tackle gap, and also hurt the Pats with a 54-yard screen pass that led to a touchdown. However, the defense got better against Tomlinson as the game went on, holding him to 4.4 yards a carry in the second half after he totaled 6.1 yards a carry in the first.

Rosevelt Colvin also got better, making a beautiful interception in the second half on the play that LT had burned him on earlier in the game. Overall, the linebackers were very hot-and-cold, missing tackles for big gains and then sacking the QB or stuffing the run just when they needed to do so. The defensive line didn't play particularly well, mostly getting pushed off the ball and not making many tackles at all. The Chargers attacked Ty Warren's side of the field, so he ended up with 7 tackles, Vince Wilfork with 3, and Richard Seymour with just 1.

The defensive backfield deserves most of the credit in this game. James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins had 13 tackles combined and each recorded a sack. And thank you, Ellis Hobbs, who had a couple of huge hits and knocked down four passes on the day (including a sure touchdown). In fact, all of the DBs hit and hit some more, creating problems for the San Diego passing attack. As expected, Chargers QB Philip Rivers seemed confused some of the time, but his miscues didn't cost the team as much as dropped passes did. The game verified what I wrote last week; the Chargers wide receivers are worse than the Patriots wide receivers. Vincent Jackson dropped at least three catchable throws, Keenan McCardell dropped two, even the Sainted Antonio Gates dropped one, and Eric Parker dropped four or five *and* topped off his day by fumbling a punt. Credit a hard-hitting defense for holding Gates in check and hitting the receivers until they couldn't even catch the ball. But also lay the blame at the feet of the receivers -- there's no excuse for playing that poorly in the biggest game of your career.

Special teams provided several highlights, including a recovered fumble, a two-point conversion on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk, and three pressure-packed field goals by rookie Stephen Gostkowski. The Chargers special teams played well, too, keeping the Patriots pinned back with several great punts (and one great play to down a punt at the three yard-line). Overall, a draw. But since the Patriots play again next week and San Diego doesn't, I was happy to see Gostkowski perform well in the playoffs.

Overall, I also liked the coaching in this game. They held the high-powered Chargers attack in check most of the second half. They stopped the Chargers on multiple drives in the middle of the field, instead of their habit of stopping teams at the goal line. And the switch to three-wideouts proved crucial, as it force the Chargers to use some of their worst backups (fifth and sixth defensive backs) instead of some of their best (fourth defensive linemen and fifth linebacker).

And as for the coaching on the other side of the ball; well, it was bad. Reportedly, Marty Schottenheimer could be fired soon, and he might just deserve it, even after a 14-2 regular season. Once again he coached an undisciplined team to the first playoff seed, and lost his first game. His team took too many stupid penalties and dropped too many easy passes. He should have tried a field goal on 4th-and-11 early in the game (instead he went for it and gave up a strip-sack fumble), and he should have run the ball more in the second half. And most important of all, he should *not* have challenged a fumble play late in the game, because it was obviously called correctly and the failed challenge cost him a timeout. That timeout could have saved his team 40-seconds of clock time -- which could have gotten his team a shorter field goal at the end. Instead, they missed a 54-yarder with time running out, and he's headed home for the rest of the playoffs. Just bad coaching.

So where does that leave us. Well, most important of all, the team is playing next week. It's on to Indy to take on Manning, Vinatieri, Tony Dungy and the rest of the Colts. "Can they win?" you ask. Well, you'll have to wait until later in the week for my thoughts on that. Just suffice it to say the teams played earlier this year (a Colts 27-20 victory in Foxboro), and *plenty* has changed since that game -- some of it good for the Pats, some of it good for the Colts. I'll check back with an update Thursday or Friday with my thoughts and (maybe) a prediction.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In his first 10 playoff games, Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. In his last 3 playoff games, he's thrown 5.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe they should use Troy Brown on the blitz. Who knows, he might strip-sack Manning for the game winning turnover."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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