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!