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!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Patriots 52, Washington 7 (10/28/2007)

That subject is not, I repeat *not*, a misprint. Your New England Patriots are rolling through the NFL like a road grader, mashing every opponent under their wheels as they plow toward this Sunday's "date with destiny" against the Indianapolis Colts. (Note: there just isn't any pretty way to describe what the Pats did to Washington. In fact, I thought of five other descriptions, none of which are printable in a semi-family email.) 52-7 was one of the Pats largest margins of victory ever, and it helped them keep pace atop the NFL and maintain their 4.5. game lead in the AFC East. The loss... well, it dropped Washington a lot further than one more game behind. They've got a *lot* of work to do over there, especially on offense.

The Patriots O-line performed very well again, allowing few pressures and only one QB sack (that resulted in a fumble). The team rushed for 152 yards and a 4.3 yard average, with Laurence Maroney obviously on the mend (14 carries for 75 yards) and Kevin Faulk pitching in (5 for 32 yards) while the game was still in doubt. Some of the holes were just huge, and Maroney hit them well -- no tippy-toeing or dancing, he just took the handoff and went right to work. In fact, the running game was so successful, Tom Brady got into the act with two touchdown runs (and even backup QB Matt Cassel had a running TD).

The passing game totally kicked butt again. Brady went 29 of 38 (76%) for 306 yards and a measly 3 touchdowns (and no interceptions -- that's 30 TDs and 2 INTs on the year). This week's attack was was less of the long-bomb passing and more of the precision short game we're more accustomed to, with Wes Welker (9 catches for 89 yards) and Kevin Faulk (5 for 32 yards, and some nice first-down conversions) doing most of the damage. Combine the excellent O-line play and Brady's pinpoint accuracy with a Washington team intent on not getting beaten deep, and it was pitch-and-catch all day underneath. Even deep threats Donte Stallworth (4 for 44 yards), Jabar Gaffney (4 for 39 yards), and Randy Moss (3 for 47 yards and a nice push-off touchdown) played well in the short game. Overall, the most efficient and balanced offense I've seen all year.

On defense, everyone played at a high level, but Mike Vrabel stood above them all. 13 tackles, 3 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles (one of which was returned for a touchdown by Rosevelt Colvin). He was just a monster, playing perhaps his best game in a year and consistently breaking down the right side of the offensive line. Aside from Vrabel, there just wasn't much to distinguish the rest of the defense. It wasn't the front three or the front seven this week; it was the entire front 11. The line made sure there was no running game and no timing for passes, the linebackers made sure the short gains stayed short, and the secondary had some nice passes defensed (and Asante Samuel got his fourth INT of the year). But most of all, the defense played cohesively to break down the timing and rhythm of the offense. And they played well enough to take a shutout into the fourth quarter (Washington finally scored with 3:07 left in the game).

Special teams were fine and dandy. Stephen Gostkowski hit his one field goal (and seven extra points) and had two more kickoff touchbacks. And Mike Vrabel (there's that name again) recovered Washington's desperation onsides kick. But overall, the special teams did a nice job of kick coverage and didn't break anything on kick returns. A good effort, but nothing special.

So where does that leave us? At Indy, of course. It's 8-0 vs. 7-0 for the first time in NFL history. The Colts present problems, to be sure, and I'll be interested to see how the Patriots additional talent and obvious chip on their shoulder (from last year's playoff loss) play out. Marvin Harrison has seen very limited action for the past four weeks, and the Colts have had a tough schedule recently (which the Patriots have not). The Dallas game was supposed to measure how good the Patriots were, but this game will measure which of these two titans is the best at mid-season. It's in Indy, which makes it tougher; but let's just say I hope to avoid putting a number 1 to my "PS." this week. Enjoy the game!

Statistical Oddity of the Week #1: Mike Vrabel might be the first NFL player in decades to record three forced fumbles and a touchdown reception in the same game. That probably hasn't happened since they switched to having different players on offense and defense.

Statistical Oddity of the Week #2: The Patriots have now played 32 quarters of football this season, and they have scored in 30 of them (94%).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Which do you think we'll see more of on Sunday: Patriots points or Peyton Manning commercials?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-0!