Monday, December 29, 2008

Patriots 13, Bills 0 (12/28/2008)

Well known philosopher Sir Michael Phillip Jagger once said, "You can't always get what you want." And alas, Patriots fans know that all too well today. The Patriots did their part, beating the Bills 13-0 in windy Buffalo. But neither of the other teams that could help them secure a playoff berth cooperated; as the Ravens and Dolphins both won to finish with at 11-5 (as did the Patriots) and knock out our local heroes on tie-breakers.

So we get a great stretch run but no playoffs, which is better than about half the NFL teams. Matt Cassel, Wes Welker, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork are rising stars in the league, and some of those aging defensive players are sure to retire this year (Rodney Harrison, anyone?). Bill Belichick did one of his better coaching jobs this year, though I think 2001 and 2004 were both better. Those years had just as many challenges and both resulted in Super Bowl wins. Maybe the difference was Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennal, but who knows.

Yesterday's game looked like bloody hell to play in. The wind was a steady 30-35mph, with gusts up to 55mph during the game. And it showed. Two field goals were blown wide right, an extra point went through the uprights and almost blew back before falling juuuust over the crossbar. And punting was an extra special problem, so much so that three times the Pats went for it on fourth down. (BTW, Matt Cassel was the leading punter, with a 57-yard quick kick that was downed at the Buffalo 2.) And there were only 33 passes attempted in the entire game, with the Bills responsible for 25 of them.

The big sequence came when Jarvis Green forced a fumble that Mike Vrabel recovered at the Bills 43. It was the only turnover of the game, and driving into the worst of the wind the Patriots set aside kicking and went for it twice on fourth down. Cassel's fourth-and-five pass to Welker (the first pass into the wind all day) gave the team a first down at the Buffalo 2, and LaMont Jordan pushed it in from there. Given that the teams were about to switch sides, setting the Bills into the wind for the fourth quarter, that touchdown pretty much sealed the victory.

On the day, the Patriots ran for 168 yards, with Sammy Morris (24 carries for 85 yards) and Jordan (20 for 64) splitting time. The Pats continued to use guard Russ Hochstein as a blocking back, and it helped the Patriots control the clock 32:00 to 28:00. Cassel had a huge fourth-down conversion on a quarterback draw, and completed 75% of his passes, even though it was only 6 out of 8. And even with so few throws, Matt ended up with a QB rating over 100 for the third straight week in very poor conditions.

On defense it wasn't looking so good. Fred Jackson gashed them for five yards a carry, and without Richard Seymour to hold the end of the line, it looked like the Bills would just run it on Jarvis Green all day and eventually wear the Pats defense down. But after the Pats scored to make it 13-0, the Bills had to pass into that wind, and that was pretty much game. The ball was flying all over the place all day long, and even when they got a decent throw, some of the receivers dropped the ball. Just not a good day for Dick Jauron's team.

The coaching might have been the story of the day. The Patriots were 2 for 10 on third down, and with the bad punting conditions they went for it on fourth more often (went 3 for 3, actually). And once they had a decent lead, Belichick realized the most likely way for Buffalo to get back into the game was on special teams. So he took that away by having Cassel punt once and then punting on third down, which didn't allow Buffalo to have their standard return team on the field. Really smart stuff.

So where does that leave us? The 2008 Patriots are officially the second 11-5 team to miss the playoffs, and the first in 23 years (Broncos in 1985). A tough pill to swallow, to be sure, but if Ben Watson doesn't fumble against the Jets, if Jabar Gaffney catches an easy touchdown against the Colts, or if Randy Moss catches an even easier touchdown against the Steelers, the Patriots could have finished 12-4 and gotten in to the playoffs. But that's the way it goes. The most interesting off-season question will be about Tom Brady's health, and I'll have an email detailing that and other 2009 concerns soon.

Statistical Oddity of the Week, Part I: Since I was the first one to give it to you (10/27), I might as well round it out. The Patriots did indeed set a new NFL record for fewest penalties in a 16-game season, with 57 on the year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week, Part II: That other oddity was widely reported today, so here's another one. The 2008 Patriots rushed for 2,278 yards -- more than any Patriots team since 1985 (there's that year again...). It's the 23 year gap that makes this an oddity.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I wonder if Cassel will get more free-agent interest as a QB or a punter." (follow it with a wry smile)

Keep the faith warm during this long winter,

- Scott

PS. 11-5!

PPS. Go Celtics!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Patriots 47, Cardinals 7 (12/21/2008)

The 2008 Patriots have done everything anyone could have hoped for. Tom Brady played 7.8 one-thousandths of the season, and his replacement is considered a Pro Bowl snub. They went half the year before getting their best starters together on the O-line, and they're tied for the division lead. The defense ended the Seattle game with only four opening day starters healthy, but squeaked out a win to finish 4-0 against the NFC. And they played back-to-back games on the west coast *twice*, yet are undefeated in December and have made the last month of the season actually mean something.

The Patriots overwhelmed the Arizona Cardinals 47-7 yesterday. That set them up so if they beat Buffalo next Sunday, they have a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs. A win over the Bills (whom they've beaten 10 straight times) would put them in the playoffs if the Ravens or Dolphins lose or tie their last game(s) of the year. And BTW, it's a scoreboard watchers dream -- all three games start at 1:00! Where will *you* be sitting when it all gets decided??

As for yesterday's game, I heard that Arizona hadn't played in the snow since 1983, and it showed. I saw cardinals outside my *window* that looked more comfortable than the ones at Gillette Stadium. Dropped passes, bad play calling, sluggish running plays, quarterback hits galore, bend-and-break defense -- doesn't sound to me like they'll be a force in the playoffs. Especially when they travel to New York or Carolina for that second game. They are 0-5 in the eastern time zone this year.

A few Matt Cassel thoughts on the last two games, one in a driving rain storm and the other in a driving snow storm. He has 7 touchdowns and 1 interception (on a tipped ball by Ben Watson), no fumbles, has taken only 4 sacks, and has back-to-back QB ratings of 108.1 and 116.1. Those would be stellar stats for any quarterback under pristine conditions. But to do that in the rain and snow is amazing. I know the Raiders and Cardinals aren't that great, but it's still NFL players and coaches on the other sideline.

And a random Wes Welker thought: where the hell would the Patriots be without this guy? Jabar Gaffney (5 catches, 90 yards) and Randy Moss (2 for 87) had gaudier numbers than Welker (7 for 68) yesterday, but Wes has done this game after game. He truly is the new Troy Brown, fearless over the middle and always able to get that extra yard for the first down. He's got only one game with 10+ catches, yet he leads the NFL in receptions. No doubt Gaffney played a huge game against the Cardinals, chewing up yardage with long catches down the sideline. But Welker's contribution in every one of their games has been consistently amazing.

As for the details of yesterday's trouncing, it went something like this. The Cardinals tried to run the ball and couldn't. Then they tried to pass the ball and couldn't. Then they tried to stop the run and couldn't. Then they tried to stop the pass and couldn't. Other than that, they were dominated in field position by the Patriots superb special teams play. And the guy Matt Cassel backed up at USC came in to mop up for no-longer-an-MVP-candidate Kurt Warner. Oh, and the team looked cold.

One thing of note: this game had my absolute favorite play of the year. First play of the second half, Patriots break the huddle in an offset-I formation. Cassel steps back from center and directs Heath Evans to move to his right, appearing to set up run blocking in that direction. Further evidence that this will be a run comes when Benjamin Watson goes in motion to the right, and so the Cardinals send extra defenders to stop the anticipated run. Cassel takes the snap, fakes to the right and then throws a quick screen to Moss on the left. With fewer defenders on that side and everyone close to the line to stop the anticipated run, Arizona is stuck in pursuit of perhaps the fastest man on the Patriots. Moss takes it down the sideline untouched for six points.

I loved this play because it was a great combination of the following elements: halftime adjustments; the conditions (which made it tougher for out-of-position defenders to recover); anticipated game situation (with a 31-0 lead, most teams would start running out the clock); and faux confusion (I don't believe for a second that Evans didn't know where to line up). Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

So where does all that leave us? Well, on Sunday you should first hope the Patriots take care of business and win in Buffalo. Then, keep an eye on the scoreboard to see if you'll be watching more football in January or reading my "2008 New England Patriots Awards" email. Remember: it's Jacksonville over Baltimore or New York over Miami. 11-5 is usually good enough to get in, but no guarantee this year. So keep those fingers and toes crossed!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Eight of the sixteen games this Sunday have playoff implications. Seven of those games start at 1:00, and the other one starts at 8:15. That means you can take a break during the 4:15 games -- because neither of them has any affect on the playoffs at all. Nice job with that schedule, NFL.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I guess some of the Cardinals hadn't seen snow in their lives before this road trip. Hope they have fond memories of the winter wonderland we call Gillette."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Patriots 49, Raiders 26 (12/14/2008)

Sorry this is so late and so... incomplete. But things got out of hand on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon I was flat on my back with a nasty (non-computer) virus. I'm still recovering, so there won't be any detailed breakdown of this game. The most important thing now is how can the Patriots make the playoffs. So I'm going to skip the usual stuff and go directly to...

So where does that leave us? To have any real shot at the post-season, the Patriots must win their last two games and finish at 11-5. So let's assume they do that, and consider the four other teams fighting with the Patriots for three playoff spots: Indy, Baltimore, Miami, and the NY Jets. Unfortunately, the Pats lose most tie-breakers to those teams, so they need to finish with a better record than three of them to get into the playoffs. Here are the possibilities, in the order from most likely to least likely (IMO).

Possibility #1: Baltimore could lose one of its last two games (most likely being at Dallas this Sunday). That would get the Patriots into the post-season with at least a wild card berth and possibly a division title, provided they finish at 11-5.

Possibility #2: Either the Jets or Dolphins lose this weekend and then win the last game of the year when they play each other. That would leave both the Jets and Dolphins at 10-6, and the Patriots would be division champs at 11-5.

Possibility #3: If the Jets *and* Dolphins lose this weekend, Patriots would win the division if they finished at 11-5.

Possibility #4: Finally, we get to the fourth team, Indianapolis. If the Colts lose their last two games, the Pats would be in the tournament at 11-5, either as a wild card or division champ.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Want proof that you get what you pay for? Check out this 'Patriots Update.' Talk about lame."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Patriots 24, Seahawks 21 (12/7/2008)

A win is a win and at this point in the season you'll take one any that come your way. Patriots prevailed 24-21 over Seattle, and with the Jets loss and Dolphins win, all three teams are now tied at 8-5 for first place in the division. Difficult to think you're going much of anywhere when you struggle to beat a 2-11 team. But the win keeps them one game back for a wild card and gives them a legit chance at a division crown, which would guarantee a home playoff game.

Sunday's game was in doubt until the very end. The Pats got their first lead of the game with less than three minutes remaining, on a fourth-down leaping touchdown by Sammy Morris. And Seattle got close. Driving to the Patriots 43 with 2:00 left, they were only 10 yards away from being able to attempt a tying field goal. But the Patriots, with over half of their regular defensive starters out of the game, gutted out the win when Brandon Meriweather knocked the ball loose on a safety blitz and the Pats recovered to seal the game.

Not many teams would have held on, especially with names like Warren, Wilfork, Bruschi, Vrabel, (Adalius) Thomas -- players with 11 Pro Bowls between them -- missing action during the game. Nice that they were able to plug in a player with more Pro Bowls than that to replace Bruschi -- namely Junior Seau (he has 12 Pro Bowl appearances). Seau didn't exactly light it up, getting beaten for a touchdown pass and over-pursuing Deion Branch on his 63-yard catch and run that led to another TD. But with injuries to the starters *and* backups, it definitely helped to have both Seau and Rosevelt Colvin to pitch in relief.

Overall the defense counted on Seattle's general incompetence as much as their own skill. But even so, they did what the needed to do late in the game. They had a few key third-down stops, just enough pressure to mess up the timing of plays, and even with Wilfork out they stuffed the run in the second half. Down 21-13 in the fourth quarter, they simply had no choice in the matter. If they couldn't stop the Seahawks, time was going to run out on them.

On offense, it's shaping up to be an amazing race for MVP of the team. Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk -- where would the Patriots be without either one of them. These were instrumental in the strategy of keeping third down to manageable distances. Consider Welker's catch-and-run and two-point conversion on the last touchdown drive, and he forges ahead. Look at Faulk's overall share of the running yards, his 6.1 yards per carry, and his obvious value as a safety valve for Cassel, and maybe he inches ahead. Suffice it to say that I'm glad they are on the team I root for.

And even though I sometimes bristle as his pass coverage, Ellis Hobbs had a big 55 yard kickoff return just when the Pats needed it. The short field led to the team's first touchdown, and made it a within-reach 14-10 at the half after a bad first 30:00. Stephen Gostkowski also contributed with a 50-yard field goal (and was 3-for-3), and *almost* had his the first fumble recovery of his career.

So where does that leave us? It could be that only the AFC East champion will play in the post-season, which means that even if the Patriots win 'em all, they could be on the outside looking in. I still don't think it will happen -- 11-5 is almost always enough to get it -- but then there's no guarantee of anything. At least the Pats made next week's game mean something, because if they'd lost this one, the playoffs were probably out of the question.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: While most people weren't looking, the Patriots set yet another NFL record winning streak -- 14 consecutive wins over the NFC is an all-time record. They now own the longest overall winning streak (21), two longest regular season winning streaks (19 & 18), longest playoff winning streak (10), and the aforementioned 14 game streak over NFC teams. Now that I think about it, maybe this shouldn't be under the heading "Oddity" at all.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "While the announcers were praising Deion Branch, the guy the Pats got in that trade didn't do too bad. Might have been Meriweather's best game to date, with three tackles for a loss, two passes defended, and the game-sealing forced fumble."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-5!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Patriots 10, Steelers 33 (11/30/2008)

Sorry there was no update yesterday, but I was just trying to fit in. I figure if Randy Moss, Jabar Gaffney, Benjamin Watson, and Matt Cassel are all dropping the ball, well... then so should I. With turnovers on five consecutive possessions, the Patriots went from 10-10 at the half to a 33-10 drubbing at home by the Steelers. The first place Jets lost, too, so they remain one game back in the AFC East race, and at 7-5 need to win the last four games to be sure of a playoff berth.

I don't really have time for a full blown update. (Too busy looking for silicone gloves, so I can drop passes *just* like my heroes ::snicker snicker::) Suffice it to say that you don't win very often when you lose the turnover battle 5-1. It started off well, with Mike Vrabel picking off a pass early and the offense converting that to a touchdown just three minutes into the game. Who knew it would be the last touchdown for the Patriots on the day.

The game itself turned on three plays:

1. With time running down in the second quarter, Randy Moss dropped an easy touchdown that would have made it 17-10 at the half. He had a shot at another touchdown on the next play, but it was a good defensive play. And then Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal, so the game was tied after 30 minutes.

2. On their first possession of the third quarter, the Patriots were driving and had a second-and-one in Steeler territory. But Cassel held the ball too long on the next play, and was sacked for a six-yard loss, and his third-down pass fell incomplete. That sack really hurt, because it made third-down more difficult *and* knocked them out of field goal range.

3. Pittsburgh took the ball there and drove down for a field goal, to make the score 13-10. And on the ensuing kickoff, Matthew Slater muffed the kick and the Steelers recovered at the Patriots eight yard-line. Slater's big mistake (once he fumbled) was that he tried to recover the ball. It was bouncing toward the sideline, and since he didn't have a clear recovery opportunity (he arrived at the same time as a Steeler player), he should have punched or pushed the ball toward the sideline. If it went out of bounds, it would have been Patriots ball. But instead, two plays later, it was 20-10, Steelers.

After that, it was all turnovers and stat-padding for Pittsburgh. Sure, there was Gaffney's drop in the fourth quarter, but who's to say that the Patriots could have scored two touchdowns *and* two two-point conversions. Maybe... but that isn't what cost them the game. It was like the Miami home game, where it looks like a huge blowout final score, but it was a momentum game that the Patriots could never get in their favor.

In fact, several of their games have been the same. The 48-28 win over Miami was much more competitive for much longer than the final score would indicate. This year's Patriots cannot turn momentum with incredible defensive stands, quick-strike touchdown drives, or timely kick returns. They are like much of the league -- if they miss their early opportunities, they just aren't good enough to overcome it.

So where does that leave us? At 7-5, the Patriots have to win the rest of their games to be certain of a playoff berth. One more loss would put them at 10-6, and they would have a shot, but several of the tie-breakers do not favor them. And as the mantra of the team ("one game at a time") will tell you, they can't go 4-0 if they don't go 1-0 this weekend. Fortunately, they play an NFC team, and they have an excellent recent record against the NFC. Unfortunately, it's the beginning of their second two-week west coast swing of the season. And they split the games the first time they did this; so no telling how things will go. But then again, that's why we watch, isn't it ;)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their wins, the 2008 Patriots have an eight-minute per game advantage in time of possession. In their losses, they have a four-minute per game disadvantage.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I just hope the Pats can win the next few games, so that the final week in Buffalo means something."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Patriots 48, Dolphins 28 (11/23/2008)

The Patriots earned a split with the Dolphins with an offensive surge that ended in a satisfying 48-28 win that helped the team keep pace with the first place NY Jets. No wild wildcat this time. No four-sack game for Joey Porter. No red zone ineptitude. And no panic for a Patriots team that scored 99 points the past three weeks.

If you want a statistical breakdown of the game, I suggest you go to Because there is so much going on with the team, I just can't contain myself to this one game. The playoffs are a possibility, and there are definite trends and scheduling advantages that could get them there. Here is a state of the team report.

1. QB Matt Cassel's continued improvement gives them a chance for a playoff run. Cassel has started to mold the offense to his style, with plays that suit his talents. The fake-run and dump off to Wes Welker that kept a drive alive. The look-off then come back to Jabar Gaffney on big third downs. The much better play-action fakes and even selling the pass a bit before handing off to Kevin Faulk from the shotgun. And of course, the signature QB draw near the end zone (yet another touchdown on that play this week).

2. The team has made significant strides in the red zone. In Cassel's first three starts, the Patriots scored only 36% of the time they got inside the opponent's 20 yard-line (4 of 11). In the last three games, that has increased to 61% (8 of 15). Those numbers reflect play-calling that takes better advantage of Cassel's mobility, improved timing and touch on fade passes, and more patience as teams have tried to pressure the Patriots into red zone mistakes.

3. The shotgun/spread formation is here to stay. It was the main formation last year, and they returned to it after lackluster performances against Indy and Buffalo. Spreading the field simplifies the job of identifying the defense, and with options like Randy Moss, Welker, and Faulk, the Patriots are making serious hay with this formation. Forget the wildcat -- throwing the ball well correlates much more closely with winning.

4. At least they hit the hole now. Injuries to Laurence Maroney have thrust running backs Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis into the starting role. But what the team lost in explosiveness, they gained in having two backs who will at least run the ball where the play was designed to go. And the results are decent so far -- 154 rushes for 628 yards (4.1 yards a carry), 9 touchdowns, and just 1 fumble.

5. Penalties on the rise. The one thing that Belichick-coached teams usually don't do is beat themselves with penalties. And a few weeks ago the Pats were on pace to break the NFL record for fewest penalties in a 16-game season. Alas, they've drawn 11 flags in the last two games, and several others have been declined. Got to be careful because they just aren't talented enough to overcome that against the better teams in the league.

6. Forget about 2001, this team looks more like the 2007 Patriots. Not record-wise, but in what they do well. The 2001 team prided itself on making few offensive mistakes, stellar special teams play, and a stout defense. Not this team. In the last two weeks, the Patriots scored 79 points against defenses that were only giving up 20 points a game. They are becoming more like last year's edition, one that will score on 75% of their drives and dare you to try scoring that often against their defense. It's a little bit scary to live that way, but that is what they do best, so they are going with it.

7. With that secondary, they *better* score a lot. Deltha O'Neal (despite his great last name) is completely hit-or-miss, Ellis Hobbs is better on special teams than on defense. And the rest of their corners are even worse. When the defense doesn't get pressure from the front three or four, it's usually a complete pass or a drop by a wide open receive. And the safeties... don't get me started on them :(

8. Good thing the D-line can still dominate. Since the salary cap makes it impossible to have great players at all positions, the Patriots concentrated on getting excellent defensive linemen. And when Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, and Mike Wright are all healthy, it's a great front three rotation that can make a QB's life miserable while stuffing the run.

9. Young linebackers to the rescue. Jerod Mayo is just about a lock for defensive rookie of the year, and Gary Guyton makes a positive impact at least half the time he's on the field. Couple that with improved play from Pierre Woods (though still too inconsistent for a third-year pro), and stalwart Mike Vrabel, and the linebacking corps just about holds their own. Watch to see if Adalius Thomas returns from a broken arm. If he doesn't, the Patriots should consider signing Rosevelt Colvin, who knows the system and could contribute in a limited role.

10. Don't expect to get bailed out by special teams. As the injuries mount, the Patriots have fewer and fewer starters in the kicking game. And the results are predictable -- Ellis Hobbs isn't as dangerous on kickoff returns and the kick coverage has suffered. So don't expect touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns. It could happen, but just be happy if they stop the other team from getting big returns.

11. Coaching is up-and-down, but improving. The defensive coaching is more yo-yo-ish, but the offensive game-planning and execution is better every week. The switch to the spread formation, improved design in the red zone, and finding ways to get Moss and Welker the ball are all paying dividends. Given the amazing the production they are getting out of Moss (8 touchdowns) and Welker (on pace for 116 catches), defenses are often designed to take them out of the game. Which makes it even more impressive that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels finds a way to get them the ball week after week.

So where does all this leave us? Well, in late-November of 2001, the Patriots lost a close game to the St. Louis Rams. After that game, there were no teams in the entire league that made me worry that the Patriots couldn't play with them. Not that I thought they were invincible, but just that they didn't scare me. And in fact, the Patriots won the rest of their games, regular- and post-season, and won the Super Bowl.

At this point, I feel exactly the same way about this team. It is for different reasons; most notably for their offensive firepower, which can and will force teams out of their comfort zones. Again, this isn't to say the Patriots will finish the season 12-4 and run through the playoffs to a Super Bowl win. But the only difficult games on their remaining schedule are Pittsburgh and Arizona. And they've beaten the Steelers five of the last six times they played, and the team record against the NFC is 27-5 (since 2001). So the Pats are in prime position to make a playoff run. And if they continue to improve, it could be something much more than was assumed after Tom Brady went out for the season.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Patriots gave up 23 sacks in Matt Cassel's first five starts. They've given up 9 in his last five starts.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "2001? Naaaah... it's more like last year's team. Lots of offense, shaky defense, mediocre special teams. No perfect season, but I'll take 7-4 and a great chance to make the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-4!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Patriots 31, Jets 34 (11/13/2008)


Two of the last three weeks the Patriots have lost very close games in prime time. The Colts beat them 18-15 and last night the Jets escaped with a 34-31 overtime thriller that catapulted the Jets into first place all by their lonesome. Both games were nail-biters and gave you plenty of entertainment value. But the Patriots could be 8-2 instead of 6-4 right now. Some of it is growing pains with new players in seemingly every position group. But four losses means they can't afford more than two more if they want to make the playoffs (and they probably want to keep that number to just *one* more if possible). Unfortunately those two close losses haven't left them much margin for error.

This game was really two games: one that saw the Jets bolt out to a 24-6 lead; and the other where the Patriots came roaring back in the second half to tie it 31-31 (on an amazing throw and catch from Matt Cassel to Randy Moss). Cassel helped dig the Patriots into their initial hole with missed throws in the first half. And his teammates didn't exactly help the comeback cause. Ben Watson fumbled out of nowhere, and Dan Koppen snapped the ball before Cassel was ready, causing a huge loss that ended the drive in a punt. Special teams even contributed to the ineptitude, giving up a 92-yard touchdown on a kickoff return.

Statistically the Patriots totally kicked butt. 511 total yards, 5 yards per rush, 7.1 yards per pass, 3 touchdown passes from Cassel (and no INTs), two sacks and a forced fumble on defense. But there were too many missed opportunities and too many field goals when touchdowns were needed. The Patriots defense got better as the game went on, at one point forcing four punts and a fumble on consecutive drives. Unfortunately, the offense only scored 14 points, and committed the aforementioned gaffes, during that time.

The offensive stars were quarterback Matt Cassel (his best game yet), wideouts Wes Welker (7 catches, 108 yards) and Jabar Gaffney (7 for 86), and running back... well, running back Matt Cassel (8 rushes for 62 yards). Watson (8 receptions for 88 yards) would have made the list if not for the inexplicable fumble, and Moss' spectacular catch is all he did for the game. A quick note: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gets credit for running Cassel on QB draws and for making very good adjustments in the red zone. Who knows, this might be the game that gets them over the red zone hump.

On defense, it was Jerod Mayo and then everyone else. I can't recall any game under Belichick where the Patriots had a single defender with *20* tackles (16 solo). The team defense concept simply doesn't allow that kind of one-man wrecking crew. But Mayo was everywhere, knocking down the QB, tackling runners for a loss, standing up entire piles of humanity, and knocking down passes to the tight end. It was only one game, but that one game reminded me of vintage Ray Lewis (with slightly less developed pass coverage skills). Looks to me like the Patriots made the right choice with that first round pick. Mayo could be a star for years under this system.

Other than Mayo... Vrabel was excellent at holding the outside point against the run. Seymour wasn't his dominant self, but he and Vince Wilfork did an admirable job helping out with Ty Warren out of the game. Mike Wright (#99 in your program) had a choppy game. Both Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton contributed, and even though Brandon Meriweather did a solid job helping with the run, it usually isn't a good sign when your safety makes 11 tackles. Oh, and the secondary wasn't anything special -- not terrible, not great. The Pats mostly got burned by a little known tight end, and that would be mostly on the linebackers.

Special teams... special teams are probably best not mentioned. Yuck!

So where does that leave us? A 6-4 record is edging just a bit too close to the middle of the pack for my comfort. And as mentioned before, it leaves very little margin for error. With ten days to prepare, it will be absolutely crucial to get a win in Miami -- which is not an easy task for the Patriots. Even with all of their recent success, they are only 3-5 in Miami under Bill Belichick.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Last night was Bill Belichick's first overtime loss in eight years. I'd say that makes it an oddity.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Nice to see players progressing, but at this rate they'll progress their way out of the playoffs. They gotta find a way to win some of these."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Patriots 20, Bills 10 (11/9/2008)

As Fall moves toward Winter and the days get shorter and shorter, you gotta love those 1:00 games that end before 4:00. Patriots needed just 2 hours 42 minutes to dispatch the Bills, 20-10, keeping them in a first place tie with Jets (who they play this Thursday). And the time of the game left me with time to do some chores around the house: yard work; winterize the A/C unit; bring the summer/fall yard tools inside; finish some indoor fixes; and (of course) write a blog! Man, the NFL should mandate that *all* games be this short!

The win was completely predictable. The Bills are sort of like the Patriots, with less talent, and they've lost to their "older brother" 10 straight times since the "Lawyer Milloy Bowl" on September 7, 2003. BTW, those games weren't even close; the aggregate score is 308-96 (got some numbers now, Lawyer?). But even with that history, the Bills continue to wait around for the Patriots to fold under pressure or make the big mistake -- because that's what they do to *every* team. But that only works to beat teams that are worse than you, not those more talented and disciplined. Head coach Dick Jaroun needs to open things up if he hopes to salvage the season and make a playoff run.

Matt Cassel continues to improve. An effective 23 of 34 for 234 yards, he ran for his first touchdown and completed at least two throws on the run for first downs. His only mistake was trying to throw the ball to Kevin Faulk as he was being sacked -- ended up fumbling it away for the only turnover of the game. But he stepped into his throws, and mostly hit his target or threw it away. Of course, he was helped by the Energizer Bunny of receivers, Wes Welker (10 catches for 107 yards), Jabar Gaffney (4 important catches for 36 yards), and Randy Moss (5 for 53). And when Moss came up gimpy, Sam Aiken stepped in and converted a huge third down with a catch deep in New England's own end of the field. After that conversion, the Patriots continued the drive for 16 more plays and a game-icing touchdown.

On to the running game, and an overdue shout out to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Since being elevated to the starting role (four weeks ago at Denver), he's done two things that are vital to success: (1) he hits the hole where the play is designed to go, saving any moves for after he gets past the first wave of defenders; and (2) he keeps mistakes and negative plays to an absolute minimum (no fumbles, no penalties, and has let no blitzers touch the QB on his watch). Yesterday was his first game with 100+ yards (26 carries for 105) and his fourth straight game with a touchdown. Not bad for an undrafted free agent rookie that started the season on the practice squad.

As for the rest of the offense, it's really good to have Stephen Neal and Nick Kazcur back. Neal is so good at seal blocks, and Kazcur just has a nasty streak that allows him to dominate in the running game. And note that since these two returned to the starting lineup against Indy, the team has allowed one sack in two games, after giving up four a game prior to that. And of course, no summary would be complete without mentioning Kevin Faulk, who did his usual great job in the passing game. Not as many running plays or yards for him, but that's better. He always excels when used only on third-down and hurry up situations.

The Bills got a garbage time touchdown after a very long kickoff return. So the Patriots defense basically held them to 3 points. Some observers have said that since the Bills can't run the ball it's easy to stop the pass, but I still think the Patriots defense did an excellent job all day long. The Patriots used a 4-3 a lot in this game, and the entire D-Line did an excellent job of stuffing inside runs. Ty Warren was always around the ball, and Richard Seymour continued his excellent play. Vince Wilfork was more up-and-down, with some nice plays holding the middle and a few where he got pushed around. Oh, and along with some blitzing linebackers, they got consistent pressure on the Buffalo QB, sacking him only once, but hitting many other times.

And speaking of linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Mike Vrabel starred from that unit. Mayo had a number of read-and-react plays where he came clean to make a tackle. And he even added a deflection in pass coverage. Vrabel did an outstanding job in outside contain against the run *and* rushing the passer, shrinking the pocket time and again with speed rushes that powered toward the
quarterback at the end. Two pieces of bad news from the linebackers. First, Adalius Thomas went out in the second quarter and did not return. Sources tell ESPN that he broke his arm and might be done for the year. Second, Pierre Woods missed three sure tackles and sometimes still looks lost, so the replacement scenario if Thomas it out for while is probably rookie free agent Gary Guyton. That isn't *all* bad news, Guyton is playing well. But I'd expect Woods to be better after 1,000 years on the team.

(BTW, you could make the argument that the last three Patriots seasons started to come apart when featured linebackers were injured in November. Rosevelt Colvin was the injury last year, and that elevated Junior Seau to the starting role and he and Bruschi wore down quickly as the season drew to a close. And remember how they couldn't get a stop on that final drive in the Super Bowl.)

As for the secondary, with all that pressure on the QB (and a little help from the wind), the Patriots defensive backs had two interceptions. Ellis Hobbs' pick was the wind-aided one, and he undercut the route nicely. Deltha O'Neal had the other INT, and of course, he giveth and taketh away -- with poor coverage one play and a great knockdown on the next. He's up-and-down more than (wait for it) your 401k (rim shot, please). Also, Brandon Meriweather played well, with big hits and some help stopping the run. The one injury I thought would hurt the second most (aside from Brady) was Rodney Harrison; but since he went down, the secondary has gotten better. I don't think Rodney was the problem, just took longer than expected for the players to gel.

Special teams were outplayed by a significant margin in this game. No surprise, really. The Buffalo special teams are annually among the best. But the Bills thrice started at the 40+ yard line after kickoffs, and the Buffalo punter had two booming kicks into the wind and killed two more inside the Patriots 15. Gostkowski also missed a 49-yard field goal, but with the wind whipping, it was a less than 50-50 shot anyway.

And as for the coaching, this was a total mismatch. The Bills couldn't run the ball, but rarely went with a spread formation and never used the hurry-up. The Bills couldn't get to the Patriots QB, but refused to adjust by sending more pass rushers. The Bills ran no mis-direction plays, rarely used a even a draw play to slow down the pass rush, and their screen passes were all sniffed out by Patriots defenders. The Patriots were simply much better prepared and made better adjustments than the Bills.

So where does that leave us? 6-3 and atop the AFC East sounds pretty good. Three days to prepare for the suddenly red-hot Jets... not so good. At least it's a home game; but it should be interesting to see our improving secondary against an improving Brett Favre and company. Programming note: if you don't get the NFL Network at home, the game is being broadcast locally on WCVB, channel 5 in Boston. And of course, there's always your local sports bar!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: A stark a reminder how lucky you are to be a fan of the Patriots and not the Detroit Lions. Detroit is currently on the losing end of the *three* longest active home winning streaks over one opponent in the NFL. They've lost their last 11 trips to Minnesota, their last 17 trips to Green Bay, and their last 21 trips to Washington. Meanwhile, your Patriots have lost two games in a row *once* since 2003 -- that's once in five-and-a-half seasons!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats really need to win this Thursday. Even when the Dolphins stink they hardly ever win in Miami, and the Dolphins are good this year. And losing two of three division games would not bode well for any playoff asperations the Pats have."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-3!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Patriots 15, Colts 18 (11/2/2008)

A very good game, but sort of depressing that the Patriots couldn't pull it out at the end. Colts won 18-15, but the 5-3 Patriots remain tied for first place in the AFC East. And for the moment, they are tied for the third-best record in the AFC. They begin their three-game romp through the division next week with a home tilt against Buffalo.

I don't have time for a full review of the game, but here it is in a nutshell.

The Patriots did everything they needed to do to win except one thing. They controlled the clock (34:24 to 25:36), had more first downs (22 to 18), ran the ball better (140 to 47), and were better in the kick return department. Their turnovers were desperation plays that came too late to really kill them, and even though they didn't get to Manning, they slowed the Colts offense all game long.

Sure, they could have won with better management of their timeouts. They could have won if Jabar Gaffney caught a sure touchdown pass (they settled for a field goal). They could have won if David Thomas didn't get a 15-yard penalty with about 4:00 left in the game. And they could have won it with better play calling at some crucial points. But none of those things cost them the game.

The Patriots lost because they scored one touchdown in four trips inside the Indy red zone, and Indy scored two touchdowns in two trips inside the New England red zone. Simple as that. If the Pats scored just one more touchdown, they probably would have won. But they had two 13-play drives and two 15-play drives, and only 15 points to show for it. They have to improve their red zone touchdown percentage to have make any noise in the playoffs this year (or perhaps just to make the playoffs).

When you hold the Colts to 18 points, you have to be able to win the game. The Patriots young secondary players did a great job of the old bend-but-don't-break, and it's a shame to waste that performance. As Belichick would say, "We've got to do a better job coaching, game planning, executing, adjusting, and a much better job in the red zone on both ends of the field."

Sorry for the abbreviated summary, but I've got too many things going on. I promise not to make next week's update twice as long to make up for it ;)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Hey, the penalty hurt, but how can you complain when they had only two penalties all game long? If they could just score in the frickin' red zone, they'd be fine."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-3!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Patriots 23, Rams 16 (10/26/2008)

Well, The Foxboro Weather God (i.e. my friend Al) blessed the skies for Sunday's game, and the sun-shiny day was picture perfect, as it always is when he attends. Better yet, the Patriots erased a fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Rams 23-16, giving them a 5-2 record -- good enough for a share of the division lead, and (get *this*) a tie for the second best record in the AFC. Not bad given that we're barely 15 days removed from the bandwagon emptying loss to the Chargers.

The defensive front had a great game, with seven QB hits, four sacks, and seven tackles for a loss. Adalius Thomas led the team with two sacks (for 26 yards) and his linemate Richard Seymour pitched in with one of his own. Both had seven tackles, but the tackling machine on this day was Tedy Bruschi (11 total). Mike Vrabel and Jerod Mayo played well, though they lacked the gaudy numbers. The line and linebackers got a consistent push from all angles, and pressured without exotic blitzes. Any time you give up 3.5 yards a run and around 50% complete passes, you've accomplished something. They had Rams quarterback Marc Bulger on the run most of the day, and it was a good thing because when he had time, he picked the secondary apart.

And speaking of the secondary, what an up-and-down day. Ellis Hobbs got beaten a few times deep but made a few very nice plays to knock away passes. James Sanders took a terrible angle and knocked himself and Hobbs out of the play on 69-yard touchdown to a rookie receiver. Rookies Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley played... well, like rookies, some mistakes and some nice plays, but at least you could excuse their faults. In fact Wilhite had seven tackles and kept decent coverage on some plays. The only rock-solid player in the secondary was Brandon Meriweather, who had six tackles and didn't miss any assignments that I saw. Maybe his good example will rub off on the rest of the secondary.

On offense, it was what you'd expect from a team missing their starting QB, starting RB, backup RB, and third-string RB. They had so many opportunities that would have made the game a laugher if they'd cashed them in. Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass and they settled for a field goal. Wes Welker dropped a pass and they had to punt. And on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter they had two INTs (only one was Cassel's fault) and couldn't gain half-a-yard on two plays and turned the ball over on downs. Not the kind of thing you want to do every week, but they overcame it all to put up enough points to win.

In fact, the most encouraging thing about the offense was the performance of Matt Cassel. Sure, he threw one bad interception and some of his passes were behind receivers. But he was more self-assured, throwing the ball away or checking down instead of taking sacks, and stepping up in the pocket before firing over the middle to Moss or Welker. And he looked almost Brady-like in coming from behind in the fourth quarter to score twice and win the game. Perhaps most important in his development is his improving touchdown-to-interception ratio (1-1 in his first two starts, 1-3 in his third and fourth starts, and 4-2 in his fifth and sixth starts).

Kevin Faulk was the invaluable man on offense against the Rams. Led the team with 13 rushes for 60 yards, had 4 catches for 47 yards, and most important of all caught the winning touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball (and one that Moss missed on a similar play). With three running backs injured, he carried the extra load without missing a beat in pass protection or spread-offense effectiveness. However, they still need either LaMont Jordan or Sammy Morris to return -- Faulk can't do it alone for the rest of the year. Moss and Welker got seven catches each, but both had critical mistakes (Moss bouncing a ball up for an INT, and Welker just flat out dropping a pass that could have gone for big yardage). They were good enough against the Rams, but will need better focus and performance against Indy next week if the Patriots expect to win.

The O-line was decent, with newcomer Mark LeVoir filling in well at right tackle. They got a pretty good push on most running plays, and gave up only three sacks this week. They still missed a few assignments and speed rushers are giving Matt Light more trouble than in the past. But especially considering the O-line shuffle of late, not bad for a position that depends on knowing what the guy next to you will do. And I still think they will improve when/if Nick Kazcur returns.

The special teams merit special mention, because they were great -- except for one play. They let the Rams recover an onside kick for their one brain-fart, but the coverage teams consistently gave the St. Louis the long field. It's never a bad day when you kickoff five times and four of those drives start no better than the 20 yard-line -- with two of them at the 12 and 13 yard-lines. The punting wasn't quite as good, with three touchbacks on three attempts. But it was a tough day with the wind, and on the kickoff returns, the young guns did the job -- Wilhite, Matt Slater, Mike Richardson, and even Kelley Washington pitching in with dive-bombing tackles on special teams.

So where does this leave us? 5-2 is good enough for a share of the division lead, and it's off to Indy next week for a showdown with arch-rival Peyton Manning. The Colts are banged up, and they are playing on Monday night, so they'll have a short week of preparation. Also, their new dome apparently isn't as loud as the old one; so who knows how it will all go down.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots are on pace to shatter their team record for fewest penalties in a 16-game season. They've got a league low 22 penalties this year, which puts them on pace for 50 over the course of the season. The team record was set by the 1989 team, with 63. Oh, and having a small number of penalties isn't always a good thing -- that 1989 team went 1-15.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sorry folks but there's no room to get back on the bandwagon this week! Try again next week after the Colts game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Patriots 41, Broncos 7 (10/20/2008)

This week, the part of the New England Patriots was played by the Denver Broncos and the part of the San Diego Chargers was played by the New England Patriots. Confused? So am I. New England ran the ball at will and passed it efficiently, while the Denver QB was no downfield threat and their offense looked pathetic in a 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots. Sounds a lot like last week's game with the names changed from Chargers/Patriots to Patriots/Broncos.

In fact, I wrote last week that you don't know what will happen with this team. And generally, that's a selling point for sports -- unscripted endings often entice people to watch. But frankly, it takes some getting used to around here. With all the winning the Patriots have done, acclimating yourself to win-win-loss-win-loss-win ain't easy. I'll take the W and marvel at how easy it looked, but I'd be hard-pressed to guarantee they'll repeat that performance next week.

Broncos QB Jay Cutler hurt his throwing hand on the first pass attempt of the game, and once the Patriots realized he couldn't throw long they simply loaded up and stopped the short pass and the running game. It also helped that five other potential pass receivers were out of the game -- two receivers, two running backs, and a tight end -- but I won't be shedding a tear for the Broncos injury woes.

The entire D-line played well -- with the possible exception of Vince Wilfork's two, count 'em, *two* unnecessary roughness 15-yard penalties. The Broncos rushed for 88 "real" yards (minus 18 yards on QB scrambles), so Wilfork deserves some credit for plugging up the middle. And the Pats got more sacks in one game (3) than the Broncos gave up in all prior games combined (2). Richard Seymour had 1.5 sacks, and semi-backup Mike Wright had 1 sack and a forced fumble, which was nicely complimented by Ty Warren's forced fumble. But really, it was just a very good performance by the entire line. They played four-man, three-man, two-man, and even one-man line sets, but no matter the setup, they got good QB pressure, slowed the run, and forced a turnover.

The linebackers, though, they were the real defensive stars. Mike Vrabel was in vintage form, setting the outside edge against the run and collapsing the pocket on pass plays. Adalius Thomas was a monster, rushing the passer, covering backs in the flat, covering tight ends down the field, and redirecting any run his way. Not a lot of stats to show for it, but perhaps his best overall game on the Patriots. And with those two hogging the spotlight, there was still plenty left over for Jerod Mayo, who led the team with eight tackles and appears more and more comfortable every game.

Now any judgment about the secondary must be done in light of the Denver injury situation. But the secondary did kick ass in this game. Ellis Hobbs and Brandon Meriweather knocked down two passes each, and Meriweather had an INT, too. James Sanders added an INT and Lewis Sanders forced a fumble. Good coverage, good discipline, and good tackling. If they could do this against first-line receivers, the Patriots might be headed for another championship.

With the defense shutting down Denver all day, the Patriots offense was patient and effective. They ran the ball 38 times for 257 yards, a whopping 6.8 yards a carry. It was the most the team rushing yards of any Patriots team in 15 years, and gave them an advantage in time of possession and wore down the Denver defense. Sammie Morris ran for a career high 138 yards -- in the first half -- and then skipped the second half with a leg injury. So in stepped rookie free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who bowled his way for 65 of his own and his first NFL touchdown (when he walked into the end zone untouched). Even Kevin Faulk gained yards in chunks, 50 yards on only 4 carries. True that many of the best running plays included blown tackles by Denver, but someone had to make them miss those tackles. And one other thing, the downfield blocking by Benjamin Watson and Wes Welker was excellent, often turning short runs into much larger gains.

Matt Cassel easily had his best game as a pro. He was 18/24 for 185 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did take six sacks, but only three of them were his fault -- the others were missed blocks by Watson, Morris, and Faulk. And it was no coincidence that Cassel's touchdowns came after Denver's best defensive back went down wiht an injury. Randy Moss against the second best defender is usually a mismatch, and Moss torched the depleted secondary for two touchdowns. Cassel's other touchdown was to Wes "the machine" Welker -- who scored easily on a blown coverage. Oh, and it's amazing how much better the offense plays when they get those wide-receiver screens to work. Forces the defense to change and with Moss and Welker, they have the players to exploit those changes.

Special teams was competent. Very good kickoff coverage, some mistakes on punt coverage, and one big punt return by Welker. Gostkowski wasn't challenged really, with field goals of only 31 and 40 yards. But no huge mistakes, just solid play.

So where does that leave us? One game out of first place in the AFC East, behind victorious Buffalo, and preparing to face the suddenly surging Rams (two straight wins) this Sunday. The Patriots realistically need to win on Sunday, because the next week they play in Indianapolis, and the Colts are likely to be desperate for a win at that point. And if the Patriots plan to make the playoffs, they need to beat the teams they should beat, and the Rams are one of them. Also of note are two significant injuries: Laurence Maroney and Rodney Harrison are both out for the year. Here's hoping LaMont Jordan comes back soon and Brandon Meriweather is ready for prime time.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots had 34 passing plays (24 pass attempts, 6 sacks, 4 scrambles), 34 running plays, and had four QB rushes (which could have been either). Is that balanced enough for ya, pundits?!?!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With Maroney out and LaMont Jordan and Sammie Morris injured, even more pressure will be on Cassel. But with Kevin Faulk likely playing more, his pass protection should be better, so that should help."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Patriots 10, Chargers 30 (10/12/2008)

Which term do you guys prefer: Jekyll-and-Hyde team; Elevator team (i.e. up-and-down); Trick-or-treat team (almost Halloween, after all); Windows team (works fine one week, crashes the next); or Heart-attack team? Well, whatever you call them, it's clear that you never know what you're going to get from the 2008 New England Patriots. Last week they won in every phase of the game and beat San Fran 30-21; this week San Diego won in every phase of the game and thrashed the Patriots 30-10. The loss leaves them one game behind the idle Bills and tied for second with the hated Jets. And with nemesis Denver coming to town next week, they might be .500 before they get better.

When you're part of the NFL pack instead of a leading light there isn't much difference between winning and losing. Last night's game was a perfect example. Halfway through the second quarter, the Pats settled for a field goal after a long pass to Randy Moss went incomplete. If the referees had called the obvious holding penalty on that play, they might have scored a touchdown instead and only been down 10-7. And on their first drive of the second half, the Patriots had a first and goal at the Chargers one yard-line, and poor play calling and execution left them with no points at all. Couple a score there with a touchdown instead of a field goal earlier, and it could have been 17-14. But instead the Chargers drove the length of the field and made it a 24-3 rout. Two plays sequences that could have changed the outcome of a game that was a laugher by the end -- both plays the Patriots would have made in the past.

And I don't mean to say the Patriots got robbed by the officials or were a play or two away from actually winning. The Chargers game plan, play calling, and execution of offense, defense, and special teams was far superior to the Patriots. The Patriots defense pretty much stopped the run, only to be beaten repeatedly for long passes. The Patriots offense was always in second- and third-and-long situations, and even their special teams were markedly outplayed by San Diego.

So who played well? Alright, alright... who didn't stink up the joint? Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, Sammie Morris on offense. Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork on defense. Ellis Hobbs on special teams.

Who played just dreadfully? Randy Moss, Nick Kazcur, Dan Koppen on offense. Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, Deltha O'Neal, Terrence Wheatley, Adalius Thomas on defense. No one on special teams.

What does that leave? 30 other players who were mediocre or not-truly-awful. And that won't get it done against any decent team in the league. With the talent the Patriots have, they might be able to just show up to get a winagainst the Rams, Seattle, and Oakland. But that leaves eight other games where the outcome will be in serious doubt and you just won't know how the Patriots are likely to do until it all gets started.

I haven't seen that kind of Patriots uncertainty since the fall of 2001, when Brady first started. But if Matt Cassel expects to get close to Brady's performance that year, he needs to do three things:

First, he needs to keep his eyes down the field when he scrambles. He's leaving too many plays on the field (he missed Wes Welker for about 15 yards when he scrambled for 3 yards in the third quarter). Second, he must be more accurate with long throws. Teams will be stacking up against the run and short throws, and with Randy Moss, those long passes will be there, so he has to hit them. And third, he needs to start calling audibles to get the Patriots out of bad plays. Too often I've seen teams put eight or nine men at the line to stop the run and the Patriots run right into it. If the coaches are telling him not to audible, it's time to take off the training wheels and see what he can do. In fact, he seemed to do better in the no-huddle, so it might be time to open the game with that.

As for the rest of the team; they got out-hustled, out-hit, out-coached, out-schemed, and out-played by San Diego. The good news is that it's only one game. The bad news is that the schedule is full of teams that are at least as good as the Chargers (Denver, Indy, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, etc.). So if the Patriots don't get more consistent effort and don't improve their preparation, it will soon be time to start talking about next year's draft.

So where does that leave us? One game behind in the division with historical nemesis Denver a week from tonight. The Patriots are 15-24 all time against the Broncos, so don't expect much help from them. Luckily, I won't be there to witness the likely carnage; but over the past few years, this up-coming tilt with Denver is exactly the kind of game they have won -- the game where no one (even me) gave them much of a chance.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: I don't want to think about the Patriots any more, but here's an odd statistic about the New York Giants. They are leading the league in time of possession (34:15 per game), but they have the second-FEWEST total plays from scrimmage (262). Go ahead, I dare you to explain *that* one.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Man, it sucks to be mediocre again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Patriots 30, 49ers 21 (10/5/2008)

I don't want you to get too excited, because it was only the 49ers, but the offense looked good and the defense played very well and the Patriots came out of San Francisco with a win for the first time in franchise history. The win gave the Patriots a 3-1 record, a half-game behind division leader Buffalo, and the allowed for a collective sigh of relief after the debacle against Miami two weeks ago.

The offense had many of the qualities you look for in a good NFL team. 39 running plays (excluding 4 Matt Cassel scrambles) to 41 passing plays (including 5 sacks) showed balance. 39:52 time of possession showed good third-down conversions and consistent O-line play. The 66 yard touchdown showed explosiveness and good protection. And consecutive drives of 13, 12, and 10 plays showed good patience and excellent play calling.

Three-and-a-half games into the Matt Cassel era and here's what we know. He can throw it long, short, and he generally makes good decisions. He takes more sacks than he should, and that would be okay except that he still throws interceptions; even though one of them wasn't his fault -- Nick Kaczur's missed block got Cassel hit as he threw his first one yesterday. But Cassel is making progress: looking off receivers, completing bullets into close coverage, making quicker decisions, and taking care of the ball better than Sage Rosenfels (link, you have to see it to believe it).

Cassel was helped yesterday by excellent play from the receivers and a punishing running game. Randy Moss (5 catches, 111 yards and a 66-yard touchdown) was the star, even going over the middle to take what the defense would allow and making a tackle deep in 49er territory after a bad interception by Cassel. Wes Welker (8-73) did what he always does, taking short passes and making yards after the catch to convert first downs and keep the chains moving. And Jabar Gaffney made clutch catches on two of the Patriots field goal drives; which was big in a nine-point win.

The running game wasn't pretty, averaging only 3.3 yards an attempt. But LaMont Jordan and Sammie Morris made enough longish runs to convert first downs or at least keep third downs manageable. And with the large advantage in time of possession, by the fourth quarter the 49ers just couldn't stop the Patriots ground attack. And there's nothing a running back and offensive line like better than blocking an exhausted defense. Laurence Maroney looked awful, running out of bounds less than a yard short of a first down and being tepid all day. I think he's injured, and at this point, it's probably best if he rests to get healthy.

I'd hesitate to say the O-line played a great game, but when you go two-to-one on time of possession and convert over 50% on third down, you must be doing something right. Maybe all five of the sacks were Cassel's fault, but there were also a number of runs that went for very short yardage.

The defense looked more like the defense of 2003 or 2004 (both Super Bowl winning years). Lots of pressure from the front four (though only one sack), timely hitting to break up some passes, a few key interceptions, and a nice mix of blitz to non-blitz calls by defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

Adalius Thomas was the player of the game, with the team's only sack, five tackles, a QB hurry, a tackle for a loss, and a pass knocked down at the line. Two rookie linebackers showed something in the game, with first-rounder Jerod Mayo starting and playing well and undrafted free agent Gary Guyton playing well when he got on the field. I didn't notice Tedy Bruschi much, but Mike Vrabel looked lost on some plays, over-playing the outside edge too often and letting the 49ers QB escape the pocket and make plays.

In the secondary, the safety position outplayed cornerback by a wide margin. Brandon Meriweather and Rodney Harrison both made great plays on their interceptions, and Meriweather's blitz caused another third-down miss by the 49ers, while Harrison made a tackle for a loss and separated receivers from the ball several times. But even with three INTs, the cornerback play was up-and-down. Mostly up, but there were still some missed assignments and wide open receivers. Tough thing is, the receivers were *so* wide open, I couldn't even tell who blew the coverage. So maybe they'll escape my wrath... for this week, anyway. Ellis Hobbs and Deltha O'Neal got burned too often, though O'Neal is playing better as he learns the defense. I've just never felt confident in the secondary since Ty Law left, so I'm hoping the rookie corners can get on the field more so we can see what they're made of.

The defensive line continued its rotation, with Jarvis Green and Mike Wright spelling the starters. It seemed to keep them fresh, and with it showed most in only allowing 1-of-9 third-down conversions and 0-2 fourth-down conversions. I don't know who they will give the prize for best D-lineman of the week -- they all played well but none were outstanding. But I'll leave that up to them.

Special teams continues to be special. Stephen Gostkowski nailed three field goals and had three touchbacks out of seven kickoffs -- which was key against the excellent return tandem of San Fran. The 49er punter did out-kick Chris Hanson, but his average was helped by an 82-yarder and Hanson's was hurt by having to kick short to avoid touchbacks -- though Hanson didn't really do that very well.

And the coaching was much better this week. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels showed imagination and a knack for calling the right play at the right time. And Dean Pees mixed in more blitzes and obviously disguised coverages well enough to get three INTs. Even Bill Belichick made a great call in reviewing a very close third-down play to help sustain a scoring drive.

So where does that leave us? Well, I wish we were all with the team, as they will spend the next week on the west coast to prepare for their game in San Diego next Sunday night. San Diego could be a very tough game, but if the Pats have any belief that they can make the playoffs, they should at least be competitive in this one. At 3-1, they sit a half-game out of first place and would make the playoffs if they started today. Not bad for a team missing its starting QB.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: When Brady went out, many thought the AFC East would be a terrible division where 8-8 or 9-7 could win it. Well, it is one of only two divisions in the entire league that doesn't have a single team with a losing record. (Extra credit if you can name the other division without peeking.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "There was a lot of impressive stuff on Sunday, but I thought coming from behind on the road with 20 unanswered points was the most important thing of all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Patriots 13, Dolphins 38 (9/21/2008)

Sorry this post is so late; big software deployment at work. The game was sort of similar to that -- big soft defense at work. Patriots gave up 5 touchdowns to a single player and over 200 yards rushing to the Dolphins team in a 38-13 loss at Gillette. The loss put them at 2-1, one game behind the improved Buffalo Bills. And with a bye week, they've got a long time to think about this one.

Let's make it short and sweet, shall we. Matt Cassel is not to blame for this loss. To win this game, the Patriots would have needed a monumental performance from the QB to overcome a phenomenal game from Miami running back Ronnie Brown and a terrible game by the Patriots defense.

It was inexcusable for the defense to be repeatedly confused by gadget plays (all five direct snaps to Brown accounted for either touchdowns or huge chunks of yardage), even worse not to get any pressure on the QB (zero sacks, 85% completions), and even worse than that to be gashed over-and-over by long passes and runs right down the middle of the field. Dean Pees, please, I'm begging you, when what you're doing isn't working, at least *try* something else. Go back to the old days with blitzers coming from everywhere, try the 46-defense, go with a two-man rush -- something!

So while the Patriots offense didn't take advantage of the great field position provided by the kick return teams, the defense just got man-handled. It reminded me of another beautiful fall day ruined when the defense couldn't get off the field and eventually wore out -- back when the Patriots lost to the Chargers in 2005 (link). I got sunburned that game, too, but nothing close to how the defense got burned play after play.

The bad performances were too many to mention, so I'll just let you know who played well. Adalius Thomas had a decent game and Jerod Mayo looked okay early in the game on defense. Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk were fine on offense. And Ellis Hobbs, and the return teams had a very good game, as did the kickers themselves. The coverage teams did well, except for a penalty on the play when they downed the ball at the Miami one yard-line.

The coaching is a little bit worrisome. It's the second time in four "real" games that they've been out-coached, failing to implement proper adjustments in this game and in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The Super Bowl loss was the first time in years that I'd see them get out-coached, and I'm hoping that twice in four meaningful games isn't a trend. We shall see.

So where does that leave us? Well, maybe I'll write more detail next week, when there won't be a big project at work to handle. Oh, right... next week is a bye week -- so maybe not after all. The Patriots have two weeks to think about that loss and make whatever adjustments they can to regain a competitive edge. I believe they will do that against San Francisco (the team they play after the bye), but after that the schedule gets a lot tougher.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The last time the Patriots have not held at least a share of the AFC East division lead was October 12, 2003. The team that was ahead of them then was... who else, the Miami Dolphins. [Note: turns out they were out of first place in October of 2005, too. Sorry about that, and props to Don Banks of SI.]

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe next time the Dolphins line up with their QB as a wide receiver, someone should just *level* him. Might make Miami think twice about using that formation again."

Give your faith a bye week --it deserves it,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Patriots 19, Jets 10 (9/14/2008)

My question to you is this: would you rather be the first place, 2-0 Patriots with a backup at quarterback, or the last place, 0-2 Chargers, Bengals, or Jaguars with the usual starter at QB? By season's end, things could look different, but the Patriots out-hustled and out-worked the Jets for a 19-10 victory in New Jersey. And at the moment, they are tied for first place in the AFC East (with Buffalo); while the Chargers, Bengals, and Jaguars are all dead last in their divisions. It's an interesting question... maybe they'd all take 2-0 with the other talent the Patriots possess.

The Patriots defied everyone (me included) and rode a competent performance by Matt Cassel, a sometimes punishing running game, and vastly superior special teams play to the top of the division. It isn't often you credit the special teams with a victory, but the Patriots average drive started on their 42 yard-line, while the average Jets drive started on their 21 yard-line. It was due mostly to very good returns and excellent kick coverage.

The Patriots did get one more turnover than the Jets, but looking for any other edge outside of special teams is futile. Rushing yards were even (Jets 104 to Patriots 104), passing yards were close (181 to 165), QB sacks were close (3 to 2), and there was just the one turnover. The most glaring differences favored the Patriots special teams: punting average was 50 to 40.5, and Kevin Faulk's 53 punt return yards to zero for the entire Jets team. Not saying that was the only reason they won, but it was a major factor.

New QB Matt Cassel was sacked on his first three passing plays of the third quarter, and it was the best thing that could have happened. Because he ate the ball, did not try to do to much or force a bad pass, and thus did not throw the killer interception that could have cost the Patriots the game. I wrote last week that the Jets would be patient and wait for Cassel to make the critical mistake. Looks like they'll have to wait nine more weeks, when they next play the Patriots in Foxboro.

The O-line did a serviceable job, despite giving up the three sacks early in the third quarter. They blocked well on the short screens and opened up running lanes late that helped them seal the deal. LaMont Jordan (11 carries for 62 yards) was their most effective running back, perhaps motivated by playing his former team. And Kevin Faulk threw in a three good runs (for 16 yards), none of which went for first downs but all of which helped get them close to first downs. The only receiver worth mentioning is Wes Welker, who caught them short, medium, and long -- and this week, he didn't fumble!

The defensive line and linebackers are playing very well indeed. The Jets couldn't run inside much, and the Patriots front line got pressure without blitzing, which had Favre throwing off his back foot all day. Ty Warren was the star of the game, and Richard Seymour continues to improve towards his pre-injury level of play. And I note that they continue to rotate linemen, which gives them solid play from Jarvis Green and Mike Wright.

Adalius Thomas played the best of the linebackers. He couldn't keep up with a Jets wideout early in the game, but aside from that he was great at setting the edge against the run and sacked Favre for a 20-yard loss late in the game. I think Tedy Bruschi was the second best of the 'backers, and he is clearly benefits from having Jerod Mayo next to him and Thomas and Mike Vrabel in their more dominant outside positions. It's been a struggle for #54 the past few years, but Mayo looks like he might stick (even though he reacts a bit too much to QB scrambles at this point). Heck, even Pierre Woods looks better with the revamped LB-corps.

With the front-seven playing so well, the defensive backfield is rounding into form. When the pressure doesn't get to the QB, there are still receivers running free. But Ellis Hobbs knocked away at least two passes, Deltha O'Neal cut off a passing lane and almost intercepted the ball, and last year's hands-of-stone nominee, Brandon Meriweather, finally picked off a ball. I don't see this unit being dominant this season, but if the front-seven is dominant, the defensive backfield should hold its own.

Special teams, you ask? Chris Hanson, 50 yards a punt. Stephen Gostkowski, 4-4 on field goals and 5-6 kickoffs went for touchbacks. Kevin Faulk I've already written about, but how about Ray Ventrone, who blasted the Jets only kickoff returner at the 20. Overall, the Patriots won this phase of the game decisively, and it might have made the difference between a win and a loss.

So where does that leave us? 2-0 and tied atop the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills. If Cassel can continue to play mistake free (or at least avoid the *big* mistakes), the Patriots could well contend for the division title. Hell, they're already one game ahead of where I thought they'd be :) Up next is a Miami team that has all the hallmarks of a major rebuilding program. This could be a dangerous game, but frankly it isn't nearly as dangerous as the Jets game should have been.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their first NFL starts, Tom Brady and Matt Cassel had amazingly similar statlines:
Brady went 13- 23, 168 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Cassel went 16-23, 165 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Even odder -- if you add up all the numbers from each stat line, you get the *exact* same total:
Now *that's* a little bit spooky, isn't it?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The NFL might be a quarterbacks league, but I think Carson Palmer [0-2 Bengals] and Phillip Rivers [0-2 Chargers] might like to trade places with Matt Cassel right about now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Patriots 17, Chiefs 10 (9/7/2008)

Nice to get a win on opening day. That’s what I keep telling myself, nice to get a win on opening day. But somehow, it doesn’t help. The 2008 Patriots took their first step toward what is supposed to be a return to the playoffs, with a 17-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. But they apparently took a huge step backwards when (according to reports) franchise QB Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. Unlike Shawn Merriman, I wouldn’t expect Brady to play through it. As always, the tight-lipped Patriots said little to nothing about the injury. But suffice it to say that with Matt Cassel at the helm, the Patriots barely beat the Chiefs, who were 4-12 last season and might have gotten worse since then. Sounds like the Patriots have a chance to fall further than any team in NFL history – from 16 wins to… well, who knows where the bottom might be.

The Patriots offense started poorly. Wide receivers fumbled the ball on two consecutive drives to begin the game (Randy Moss' fumble coming on the play where Brady was injured). And on their third drive, they were backed up at their own end zone with Matt Cassel taking the snap on a third-and-12. Certainly disaster loomed; but Cassel lofted a beautiful 51-yard strike to Randy Moss, and the entire game changed. The Patriots scored a touchdown on that drive to change the momentum.

They did miss Kevin Faulk (suspended for one game), with Sammie Morris failing to recognize the blitz on more than one occasion -- including when Brady was injured. Morris ran fine (leading rusher with 53 yards), but until he steps it up in pass protection, he will remain a fill-in, not a starter. The actual starter, Laurence Maroney ran well and team racked up 126 yards on the ground.

As for the passing game, there isn't much to say. Brady got hurt, and Cassel had two long touchdown drives (98 yards and 80 yards) and not much else. Coming into a game like that is always tough; but he acquitted himself well: 13/18 for 152 yards and a touchdown. Other than that, he led four 3-and-out "drives" and a 34-yard drive for a field goal. Perhaps no INTs was most important of all. The receivers helped him some, with Moss' touchdown catch a tough one in the end zone and Wes Welker keeping the chains in motion. And tight end David Thomas even pitched in with 2 grabs for 24 yards. Now if Welker and Moss could just hold onto the ball, well... they might just make the team.

The defense was as advertized, shutting down the Chiefs main threat, running back Larry Johnson. He averaged just 3.7 yards a carry and was unable to dominate the game through the run -- which his team needed to have any hope of winning. But Johnson was regularly met by a member of the defensive line, most often by Vince Wilfork (6 tackles). The Patriots rotated their outside D-linemen more than in the past, helping keep them fresh and with a good burst at the snap. The line was stout, and with the linebackers buoyed by rookie Jerod Mayo, there were no cut-back lanes for Chiefs running backs.

Mayo himself had 6 tackles, and his presence inside allowed both Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas to roam the outside. Both men kept the heat on the opposing QB, Vrabel with two sacks and three QB Pressures and Thomas with one sack (that knocked the starter out of the game) and a QB pressure of his own. And Tedy Bruschi was in on more plays than he was in most games last year. Looks like Mayo might just work out.

The secondary did keep closer coverage than they did last year. But the Chiefs don't exactly have a bucket-full of talent at receiver. Tight end Tony Gonzalez was the main target, and he converted some first downs. But other than that, there wasn't much going on in the Chiefs passing game -- except when James Sanders thought he'd try for an INT and ended up allowing a 68-yard catch that almost cost the Patriots the game. Man, I wish no one had been here to learn Asante Samuel's bad habits, but maybe the new secondary coach can get Sanders to do his job.

The special teams were very good, with solid returns by Wes Welker and Ellis Hobbs. Based on this week, I'd say that Deltha O'Neal should stick to the secondary and leave the returning to those with some skills. Also, Stephen Gostkowski is still kicking all his field goals right down the center, and punter Chris Hanson had a 70-yard boomer with no return. I glitch here or there, but overall, much better than the pre-season game against the Eagles.

So where does that leave us? 1-0 and tied for the top of the division, but with more question marks than a Riddler costume. If Brady doesn't return, the team's playoff future would be in serious doubt. And if he does return, there will be some question as to how effective he can be. Next week, it's the Jets in New Jersey, and I think they'll need to get turnovers from Favre to win that one sans Brady. But we'll all know more by tomorrow. Brady is due for an MRI today, and even though they like to play games with the injury report, if he's out for the year, they'll let us know.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: If Brady is done for the year, he will finish 2008 with 391 fewer completions for 4,730 fewer yards, and 50 fewer touchdowns than he had in 2007. No doubt that would be the biggest drop-off in production this side of Children of Men.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Chargers lost, Colts lost, Browns lost, Seahawks lost, and Jaguars lost. Patriots won and everyone around here is panicked. Just shows you how important the NFL has made the quarterback."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Believe it or not, 1-0!

Post-Brady Patriots

There are multiple reports that Tom Brady’s knee injury will knock him out for the 2008 campaign. Just last week I predicted the results of each of the Patriots games this season, with the caveat that “all bets are off if the Patriots don’t start at least one player named “Brady” (link). So I thought I’d take another look at the schedule, given that Brady might not suit up again this year.

(Note: there are also multiple reports that the Patriots are bringing in Chris Simms – which I think would be a good move. Doing so would obviously have an impact on how these results would go. But they haven’t signed him yet, so for now it’s on Matt Cassel’s shoulders.)

Matt Cassel’s first start on the road is next week against the Jets. The only way the Patriots win that one is if Favre throws at least two interceptions, and I don’t think he will. The Jets will be conservative and let Cassel make the critical mistake and will probably beat the Patriots. The Miami game should be a pitched battle, but I think the Patriots have enough talent to win that one.

After the Bye Week, it’ll be the battle of the unproven QBs in San Francisco – with the Patriots coming out on top. I already predicted a loss at San Diego and another one at home against the Broncos. I doubt that replacing Brady with Cassel will change things for the better, so I’ll stick with that.

The Rams will still be in a very tough part of their schedule, so I think the Patriots can win that one. The Colts will clearly beat the Patriots in Indy – provided their franchise QB stays healthy. I still think the Pats have enough firepower to beat the Bills, but the game should significantly closer than the 38-7 drubbing they gave them in Foxboro last year.

The second Jets game will likely be a rallying cry for the team, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance (at 5-4), and badly needing a win, I think they’ll muster the energy for a key division victory. I predicted a loss against the Dolphins, and I’ll stay with that. But oddly, I still think the Patriots will beat the Steelers. Don’t ask why, just a gut feeling.

Matt Cassel on the road in an extremely loud stadium in Seattle doesn’t inspire confidence, so that will put them at 7-6 with winnable games against the Raiders and Cardinals. I think they'll win those games to set up a showdown with Buffalo with the winner making the playoffs. Unfortunately, that is where the season will end, as the Bills come roaring out to get to the playoffs for the first time this century. So the Patriots could/should finish at 9-7 (or maybe 8-8, if my gut feeling about Pittsburgh is wrong), which I think puts them out of the playoffs.

I know that this morning 9-7 might sound like the rosy outlook of a huge Patriots fan. But even though I’m a fan, I will call it as I see it. The Patriots schedule is the easiest in the NFL (based on last year’s records), and they are still loaded on defense and at many other offensive positions. Belichick will likely treat Cassel the same way he did Brady in his first season as a starter. And the Patriots did okay that year. Not that I’m predicting that kind of performance again, or expecting it. Just stating facts in evidence.

Keep the faith, if you can!

- Scott


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Patriots 2008 Season Preview

Given all I've got going on (remember this?), this will be an abbreviated version of the usual block-buster season preview -- "...And there was great rejoicing!"

Here are some of the questions that illustrate how the Patriots need to improve, how they did improve, how they got worse, and how all that will affect their 2008 season.

What lessons can you learn from an 18-1 campaign?

Lesson #1 You should always get better as the season progresses

Long the hallmark of Bill Belichick teams, BB seemed to forget that mantra in the drive for a perfect season and as many offensive records as he could get. If the 2007 Patriots had spent more games developing younger defensive players or improving their defensive schemes, it might have cost them a game or two during the season. But it also might have prepared them to close the deal on the last drive against the Giants.

Lesson #2 You must always make adjustments -- 18 consecutive wins or not

No Brady-to-Moss jump ball can replace the recognition that double-teamed outside receivers means Brady-to-Welker and the running game are better options. Welker tied the Super Bowl record with 11 receptions. But IMO, he should have had 20 catches and had his tongue hanging out at the end of the game.

But the Patriots continued to call long pass plays against a defense designed to stop that specific tactic. It was just as arrogant as when the Rams refused to run the ball against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. The coaches and/or players should have adjusted to what the defense was giving them. And that failure cost them a 19-0 season.

3. Hiring coaches from outside your organization is healthy

For the first time in years, the Patriots hired a coach who wasn't a Belichick protege. Dom Capers has never coached with BB, and has had two stints as a head man himself. I don't really understand why he came to NE to coach the secondary, but I believe it is healthy to reach outside your organization to fill some coaching spots.

In the past, too many New England coaches learned everything they knew from BB. It worked out okay, but no Super Bowl victories since seconds-in-command, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, left. So it's probably time to try something new.

Anyone important show up since last year?

1. LaMont Jordan will provide depth at running back and a legitimate backup for Kevin Faulk. Faulk has been the man on third-down for years, but when forced to play too much, he can cough up the ball. So if the Patriots are throwing on every down, to catch up or to build a lead, they can insert Jordan to give Faulk a rest.

2. Linebackers Victor Hobson (from the Jets) and Jerod Mayo & Shawn Crable (both rookies) will have to shore up an aging unit that lost two starters from last year (Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin). In the pre-season, Hobson struggled a bit, but Crable looked good for a third-rounder and Mayo looked every bit the first-round pick, starting most games next to Tedy Bruschi.

And I think that more linebacker youth, a healthy Richard Seymour, and moving Adalius Thomas to outside linebacker will lead to vastly improved play from the line-backing corps. Overall, I expect better play from this unit.

3. There are too many new cornerbacks to mention, but in the pre-season, it appeared as though the first-teamers had closer overall coverage than they did on anyone last season. It's been a while since the team got game-changing plays from this unit. With so many new faces (including the secondary coach), that could change in a hurry.

Anyone important leave since last year?

1. The Pats spent their $9 million/year to re-sign Randy Moss. The Philadelphia Eagles spent their $9 million/year to take Asante Samuel away from the Patriots. Moss is clearly one of the best wide receivers in the league; Samuel might be in the top 25 cornerbacks in the league. I think the Patriots made the right choice, but they would still be a better defense with Samuel.

2. Sad to see Donte Stallworth leave; but I don't think the offense will suffer much without him. They don't have the same level of threat opposite Randy Moss, but they still have plenty of talent at wide receiver.

3. Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau -- thanks for the memories; sorry things didn't work out last year. Colvin showed flashes of brilliance over the years but was too oft-injured to really shine. And Seau definitely helped; but a 38 year-old body only goes so far these days.

How will the season go?

Here is my breakdown of the Patriots schedule. As you would expect (especially after *this* pre-season), all bets are off if the Patriots don't start at least one player named "Brady." But here is how I expect the campaign to unfold.

The Patriots will begin the season with a win over the Chiefs. Not only was KC a bad team last year, their head coach is 2-4 on opening day in his career. From there, they notch another W against the rival Jets. Brett Favre will still be learning the offense and is bound to make a mistake or two. NY will be more dangerous later in the season, but isn't much threat in week 2. Sort of the same thing against Miami in week 3 -- just too much talent differential to be a competitive game.

After the Bye Week, the Patriots should handle the 49ers in San Fran. Then comes a dangerous game against the Chargers, who play two easy "home" games (one in Oakland) before taking on the Pats, and who should be motivated from last year's loss in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots, OTOH, will be on their second consecutive west coast trip -- though they could stay out there for the week in-between. Sounds like their first loss of the season.

I hate to predict two losses in a row, but the Patriots *always* lose to the Broncos, and even though Denver has fallen on hard times, I don't see how that changes. Chalk up loss #2. After that, the St. Louis offense is good, and the Patriots will be on a short week (after playing Monday night). However, the Rams still shouldn't be any trouble -- they'll be in the middle of a killer schedule, playing their third straight 2007 playoff team (two of those games on the road). Patriots at Colts will be a barn-burner, but Indy will be on a short week (they play on Monday night the week before), and I have an inkling that Indy's time might be slipping away, so I'll go with the Pats.

That brings us to the Bills at home. Last year's average score between these two: Patriots 47, Bills 8.5. I don't think Buffalo has made up the 38.5-point differential -- and the Bills schedule before this game is San Diego and two division games (Dolphins and Jets). Pencil in another division win. The Pats then play the Jets, which would be more dangerous except that it's a home game for New England. Probably another win.

Then comes a danger game. The Dolphins will undoubtedly be better, the Pats haven't done well in Miami over the years, and it's a holiday week -- which can lead to distractions. Also, the Patriots play perennial contender Pittsburgh the next week, so this could be a trap game. Put them down for a surprise loss, unless Chad Pennington is injured for the Dolphins, then it'll be a cakewalk for the Pats.

As mentioned, the Steelers come to town after Turkey Day, and the Patriots are 7-1 the week after Thanksgiving under Belichick. I expect that trend will continue, and that the Steelers will continue their slow decline in the post-Cowher era. So even though Pittsburgh has ten days to prepare, that probably adds up to another win for the local 11.

The Pats finish up the season with three games against the very weak NFC West and one against their very meek division opponent Bills. The 12/7 road tilt against the Seahawks scares me, because it'll be the second straight week that their opponent has ten days to prepare, and the Seattle crowd will be rockin' the stadium. Feels like a loss to me. After that, the Raiders have too much dissension and should fold easily to the Pats. The only way the Cardinals win is if their playoff life is on the line *and* the Patriots have nothing to play for, which I don't think will be the case. And the Bills... well, I *still* don't think they've made up the 38.5-point differential from 2007.

So barring a late-season "rest period" for their starters or an injury to #12, the Patriots should finish the season 12-4, which will win them the division and put them in the running for a playoff bye.

And even though this would be four fewer wins than last year, I don't associate that change with the Patriots being worse than last year or to the rest of the league catching up to them. I really think Belichick will care less about winning every game at the cost of developing his young talent. The Giants won the Super Bowl last year with three rookie starters; whereas the 2007 Patriots had none. If the Pats use the regular season well, they could have two or three rookie starters for a potential playoff run (Mayo, Crable, and perhaps Terrence Wheatley). I truly believe the Patriots learned the most important lesson of all in 2008: It is better to lose a game or two with developing rookies than play the veterans all year and run out of gas in February.

Should be fun to watch how it all plays out.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Pats have the easiest schedule, based on last year's records. But the rest of their division has it almost as easy. The big difference is that the rest of the AFC East has to play the Patriots -- the Patriots don't."

(Amazing) Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady is an astonishing 40-2 on artificial turf in his career. Extra credit to anyone who can name both losses without researching it!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!