Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Patriots 34, Bengals 13 (10/1/2007)

Q: How do you know your team is kicking ass? A: When the game is so out of hand that the announcers spend the entire second half pondering whether or not your team can go undefeated. The Pats manhandled the Bengals, 34-13, in a game that wasn't nearly that close. The win puts them at 4-0, and gives them a three-game lead over their nearest division "rivals" (the Jets and Bills are tied for second place at 1-3). They've won their games by an average of 25 points, and the margins could easily have been much larger. Hence all the talk about how great they are and a possible undefeated season.

So it's all wine and roses, and Championship poses right? Uhhhh... not quite. I don't want to rain on your (possible Super Bowl) parade, but the Patriots *should have* won all four of those games. I'll give you a quick lowdown on the Bengals game, and then tell you why the 4-0 start isn't as impressive as it looks and where the danger games really are. And trust me, they aren't just the ones the national media thinks they are.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the absolutely dominant New England Patriots offensive line: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein, Nick Kaczur, Stephen Neal, and Ryan O'Callaghan. In this game, Tom Brady dropped to pass 33 times and was sacked once and pressured only 3 other times. For the season, those numbers are 123 drop-backs, 3 sacks, 12 pressures -- simply astounding. No wonder the QB leads the league in just about everything. Featured back Laurence Maroney missed the game, and the O-line opened up some *huge* holes for Sammy Morris (21 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown), and the team averaged 5.9 yards a carry (not including kneel-downs by Brady and Matt Cassel)! And perhaps most impressive is that they still gained lots of yards when the Bengals knew they were going to run the ball. Sure, they got their first holding call of the season, and added a few false-starts, but the O-line has played exceptionally well so far. They are a very large part of the reason the Patriots are #1 in the NFL in time-of-possession (averaging almost 35 minutes a game).

Brady had his worst day of the year so far, a mere 78% completions, 3 touchdowns, and a 115.0 quarterback rating. I can already hear the home crowd chanting, "Cass-ell, Cass-ell!" Moss killed again, with another 100-yard day and two more touchdowns -- one on an absolutely unfair jump-ball in the end zone. Donte Stallworth finally got into the act (4 receptions for 49 yards), and Wes Welker contributed as much with his 27 yards on a reverse as he did in the passing game.

As great as the offense has looked, I've been even more impressed by the defense. They've allowed 14, 14, 7, and 13 points in the four games so far. Looks like that Adalius Thomas guy might work out. He got his first sack on Monday, and he already has 9 passes defensed, 22 tackles, an interception return for a touchdown, and he can take some credit for Mike Vrabel's great start (since Thomas allowed Vrabel to move back to outside linebacker). The front-seven is just rock solid, and if Richard Seymour returns before week 10, they will be that much better for the anticipated playoff run.

Against the Bengals, they used a 4-3 (instead of their traditional 3-4), and only blitzed a few times. They were obviously willing to give up some rushing yards to stop the pass, and with at least seven men dropping into coverage on most plays, they did just that. Carson Palmer's 0-7 on third downs shows the effectiveness of that strategy. And Palmer's no slouch -- he's probably one of the five or six best QBs in the league. The secondary gave up the underneath routes, and made the tackle for short gains (the exception being James Sanders, who whiffed twice). Asante Samuel got his second INT of the season, and Randall Gay got his first. But Ellis Hobbs played just as well, fending off a third-down pass and coming up big in run support on several plays.

Special teams was like a reliable old car. No big mistakes, no huge plays, no turnovers, no missed field goals or extra points. Much better than they were two weeks ago, when I said they had some work to do.

So where does that leave us? Well, here's where the Patriots stand. They have beaten the following teams: a Jets team that they beat twice last year and that was a marginal 2006 playoff team that did almost nothing to improve in 2007; a Chargers team that over-achieved during the 2006 regular season and that the Pats beat in the playoffs in San Diego -- a team that then lost its head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator, and then had to travel to New England for the "playoff rematch;" a Bills team that they swept in 2006 and that lost its two best defensive players and was decimated by injuries in the first two weeks; and a Bengals team that they beat 38-16 in Cincy in 2006 and that lost almost its entire linebacking corps and its featured running back before the Patriots arrived for the Monday Night Beatdown.

Does all that mean the Patriots aren't good? Nothing of the sort. But just to keep things in perspective, the combined records of the vanquished Patriots opponents is 4-12. Now, they wailed the crap out of 'em (a 25-point margin is nothing to sneeze at), but the bottom line is that they should have beaten them. The only game that should have been a test was the Chargers game, and San Diego has fallen flat on its face.

Now, given all that, there are games that could give the Pats trouble, and I'll list them in chronological order:

1. October 7 against the Browns. That's right, this Sunday's game could be trouble because it's a classic "trap game" with the twist of a brand new quarterback thrown in. The Pats have a short week (due to the Monday night game), the Browns scored even more points (51 -- yikes!) against the Bengals than the Pats did, the Browns could very easily be 3-1 instead of 2-2, and the Pats have a road game against currently undefeated Dallas the following week. This weekend's game is the one where they'd be in the most danger of losing their focus, so it worries me more than other games. Also, the Pats have had trouble against young quarterbacks who haven't played very many games. The best example was Ben Roethlisberger, who beat them in his fourth career start (10/31/2004) and then lost badly to the Patriots once they had 15 games of film on him. (Note: that's the regular film, not the illegal film from the sideline.)

2. October 28 against Washington. Another "trap game," with a division foe the week before and the currently undefeated Colts the week after -- Washington has some big play ability, and they might just slip under the radar and come in for an upset. As with the Browns game, maintaining focus is the key to winning this one.

3. November 4 at Indianapolis against the Colts. For all the reasons others have mentioned, this could be a tough game. The good news for the Patriots is that they almost won in Indy last year and they've added Adalius Thomas, Junior Seau, and Rodney Harrison to their defense and Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Laurence Maroney, and Sammy Morris to their offense. So if they don't make mistakes and come up with a good defensive scheme, they could turn the tide against the Colts (who have beaten the Pats the last three times they played).

4. December 9 against the Steelers. Another "Monday Night Hang-over" game, with a game against a very physical Baltimore Ravens team the week before. The advantage they have in this game is that they'll have enough film on the Steelers new defense to have good strategies to counteract it. And of course, it's a home game.

5, 6, & 7. December 16 - 29 against the Jets, Dolphins, and Giants. If the Pats continue unbeaten until late in the season, these games might be meaningless to the Patriots, with a division crown almost assured and with games against all their AFC rivals in the books. If the Pats have wrapped up a first-round playoff bye, they will most certainly rest their starters toward the end of the season, and that could mean a loss in any one of these games.

So when the national media (or anyone else) tells you the Patriots could go undefeated, remember all the pitfalls and traps that are out there for them. The undefeated Miami team of 1972 played one of the easiest schedules in NFL history, but this team won't have that luxury. The beginning and end of their schedule are relatively easy, but with two trap games and tilts against two currently undefeated teams (Colts and Cowboys) and another AFC power (Steelers), the middle 9 games are pretty brutal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Is Chris Hanson new Hunter Smith of the NFL? Hanson is the Patriots punter, and he's kicked only five times in four games. Even Colts punter Hunter Smith (sometimes called "The Maytag Repairman of the NFL") never punted at a rate as low as 1.25 kicks per game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Patriots looked great against Cincy. But the Browns are in town this weekend, and they scored *51* points against the Bengals."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!

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