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!

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