Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Patriots 34, Colts 38 (1/21/2007)

Every time these teams play in Indianapolis, the score ends up 38-34. What's up with that? As you probably know, the Patriots built a huge lead (21-3 at one point) and then the Colts outscored them 35-13 the rest of the way to beat the Pats in the AFC Championship game. The game leaves us... well, nowhere. The Colts go on to Super Bowl XLI and the Patriots go home to lick their wounds and build a new team for next year.

The Pats had at least five chances to close out the game, and failed on all five of them (or you could say the Colts succeeded in stopping all five). It was frustrating because in the past, the Patriots always made those kinds of plays, but this time the Colts found ways to stay in the game. With the score 21-3 late in the first half, the Patriots got the ball at the Colts 48 and if they got a touchdown, it would have been a four-score lead and essentially "game over." But once they got into field goal range, they were called for two penalties, Brady was sacked, and they had to punt. On the Colts ensuing possession, the Colts had a 3rd-and-10 at their own 12 yard-line. A stop at that point and the Patriots would go into the half with a three-score lead. But Reggie Wayne got free for 18 yards, and the Colts got a field goal on that drive to bring the lead down to two scores.

After the Colts opened the second half with a touchdown (now a one-score lead), the Pats needed to get a few first downs to let the defense rest. But the play-calling was uninspired and Heath Evans couldn't gain a thing on a swing pass, so they punted it back to the Colts, who easily drove for another TD against the weary New England defense. (Note: at that point, they had played 34 of the last 37 non-special teams plays, so of course they were exhausted.) With the score tied 28-28, the Pats had a first down at the Colts 13; but a penalty cost them five yards and they had to settle for a field goal. Later in the game, the Pats had a three-point lead and held the Colts to a 3-and-out, and I thought they'd won the game. All the needed to do was get one first down to run out enough of the clock. But Heath Evans got an offensive penalty and the Pats couldn't overcome the 1st-and-15 and had to punt it away.

There were other chances: Reche Caldwell's two costly drops, a bad non-call when Jabar Gaffney was interfered with in the end zone, a bogus roughing the passer call that cost the Pats a chance at overtime, and very good field position that the team cashed in only two out of four times. But in my opinion, those five were the killers. Every one of them could have effectively ended the Colts season, and the Patriots missed on each and every one. Uncharacteristic and humbling.

It's tough to complain about an offense that put up 34 points... but let me give it a shot. Eight rushing yards in the second half -- you gotta be kidding me. Brady gets more than that on quarterback sneaks in some games. And the offense just didn't take advantage of the great field position they had all day. They started five possessions at or beyond their own 40 yard-line and got only 13 points out those drives. And lastly, how about some untimely penalties. Troy Brown had no business winding up and shoving a DB (though that is the first time this year I've seen the standard "pick" play called against the offense). And Heath Evans's "12th man in the huddle" and Jabar Gaffney forgetting to come to a stop after breaking the huddle were just stupid mental errors that had no business in an AFC Championship game.

In the final analysis, the offense had a good game but needed to do better. The Patriots probably win if they go 6-14 on third-down conversions instead of 5-14, or if they are 4 for 5 in the red zone instead of 3 for 4, or if they convert some rushing losses into short gains, or maybe change their couple of big runs into a few more medium-length runs, or maybe take a time out instead of giving up five-yards on the 12-men penalty, or make two catches on easy throws that were dropped. Woulda, coulda, shoulda... go home for the off-season.

As for the defense, I've got more complaints about the coaching decisions than the players. They were obviously afraid of what San Diego did against their run defense, so they demoted Tully Banta-Cain, moved Mike Vrabel back outside, and started Eric Alexander inside. Once the Colts figured out that Alexander couldn't cover anyone, they killed the Pats with passes to the tight ends (who totalled 8 catches for 174 yards). But this was a desperation move in the biggest game of the year. The Chargers ran the ball well because they have a great O-line and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. The Colts were never a threat to run the ball that way, and the Pats should have switched back to Banta-Cain once the Colts started to exploit Alexander.

Additionally, I thought their decision to blitz Peyton Manning almost every play was doomed to failure. The key with Manning is to confuse him: show him blitz and then drop into 8-man coverage; show him a 3-man rush, and then blitz the corner from his blind side; line up in standard alignment and use a zone-blitz; essentially do whatever it takes to make him question what he sees. Blitzing every time was foolhardy. And I've also read reports that the defensive coaches had them in a 3-4-4 at the end of the game, even though the Colts had very more trouble against the nickel package (3-3-5). The only way they should have chosen the 3-4-4 for the most important drive of the year is if injuries left them no choice -- but they ran the 3-3-5 on the Colts previous 3-and-out, so I don't see how that could be the case.

As for the players, Alexander had great stats, but got burned on passing plays all day. Rosevelt Colvin was a monster early on, but he injured his hamstring and barely played the rest of the day. The blitzing did put pressure on Manning (the linebackers got 3 sacks and the line was near Manning all day), and Asante Samuel returned an early INT for a touchdown. In fact, given all the blitzing, I thought the defensive backfield acquitted themselves nicely. As a unit, they totaled 18 tackles, 6 passes defensed, one interception, and only one penalty. I like the way James Sanders has developed this year; and it's good to have someone to step in for the aging Rodney Harrison. The defensive line and linebackers obviously wore down during the game, and Manning kept the pressure on by going no-huddle to limit their substitutions. But considering the coaching problems, injuries (both coming into the game and during the game), and the wear-and-tear of playing so many snaps in a row, I thought they held up as well as could be expected.

The special teams had a spectacular game, setting up great field position with some excellent returns, going 2 for 2 on field goals and 4 of 4 on extra points, and averaging 51.4 yards per punt without giving up any big returns. Too bad it came in a loss; but I think the Pats found their kickers for the near future.

Special teams notwithstanding, I do question the coaching decisions. The offensive staff hasn't made effective halftime adjustments all year, and it cost them on Sunday. They just don't seem to understand what defensive adjustments the opposition will make, and they rarely score coming out of the locker room. In fact, in 19 games this year (including post-season), they scored 24 total points on the first drive of the second half. Additionally, they had two turnovers, seven 3-and-outs, 11 punts on the first drive of the second half. Not good. Josh McDaniels did a better job this year than last, and he needs to continue improving to make the offense dynamic enough to keep the pressure on the opponent. As for the defensive coaching, Dean Pees did a better job this year than Eric Mangini did last year -- just not in the Colts game.

So where does that leave us. With a well-deserved rest after a frantic season. Lots of ups and downs, lots of excitement, and another year of Brady's career gone by the wayside without a championship. I suspect the Patriots plan to make a big splash in free agency, perhaps signing another big-time linebacker (a la Rosevelt Colvin) and/or defensive back. I'd like them to keep Asante Samuel, but I think another team will overpay him and he'll go the route of David Givens.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the season, it took me an average of 1.164 hours longer to send out the update when the Patriots lost than it did when they won (including this week).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gotta hand it to the Colts. They faced elimination about five times, and came up every time."

Keep the faith... well, keep it warm and toasty during the long, cold winter.

- Scott



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