Monday, January 14, 2008

Patriots 31, Jaguars 20 (1/12/2008)

A phenomenal offensive game + a stingy second half defense = another victory for your New England Patriots. This time, Jacksonville limped home with a well-earned 31-20 loss that put the Patriots in the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year. Also, the Colts lost to San Diego, so that means the Pats will play the Chargers on Sunday -- a team they beat in the post-season last year and in the regular season this year.

The Jacksonville defense tried to stop the Pats by doing what they do best, rushing four and dropping seven into coverage. Admirable to try what got you to the playoffs, but foolhardy against a Patriots team that waxed every single team that did that in the regular season. For weeks, it’s been obvious that you can’t stay close to the Patriots without blitz pressure and tight coverage on the receivers.

So how did that plan work? With barely a whiff of pressure, Tom Brady went 26 of 28 (an NFL record 92.9 completion percentage) for 262 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He controlled the game with pinpoint throws to Wes Welker (9 catches for 54 yards and 1 touchdown), and running backs Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney (a combined for 7 catches and 76 yards). And he threw two short touchdowns to long-forgotten Ben Watson (his first touchdown grabs since November 18).

Overall, the receiving corps had one of the best games I’ve ever seen a group of receivers have. They helped control the game with short receptions, dropped only two passes, didn’t fumble once, and blocked extremely well in the running game and the short passing game. Donte Stallworth had two huge catches late in the game (a third-down conversion and a 53-yarder on the Patriots last scoring drive). But his blocking on Wes Welker’s quick-hitch and screen passes was the best I’ve seen him all year, and often turned losses into gains. Randy Moss had only one catch, an important fourth-down conversion on the team’s first drive, but his blocking helped spring Laurence Maroney in the running game.

And with the great passing to loosen up the defense and great blocking (by both the receivers and offensive line), the running game had its best performance in any close game this year. Maroney was a beast out there, notching 122 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He ran with an attitude, pushing the pile for extra yards more than once. And overall, the Patriots out-gained the vaunted Jacksonville running attack, 145 to 80. And with just one sack and two quarterback hits allowed and 145 yards on the ground, the O-line should get some credit. So here I am, giving them some. Good job, guys.

It was a dominating performance by the offense. They had scoring chances on six of seven important drives (one missed field goal), converted 60% on third down, averaged almost nine yards per pass attempt, had just one penalty, and held a five-minute advantage in time of possession. Want more proof, take a gander at the Jags defensive line: 1 sack (4 yards), 2 quarterback hits, zero interceptions, zero passes knocked down, and zero forced fumbles. That’s a lot of zeros for a playoff team.

To stop the Jaguars running game, the Patriots started James Sanders and Randall Gay, both of whom are better in run support than the usual starters (Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs, respectively). Sanders responded with eight tackles and Gay had seven. Rodney Harrison dropped one sure interception and got the game-sealing pick later. But he has to stop the foolish personal foul penalties – three of them in the last two games.

There has already been some sports-talk buzz about poor play by the secondary, as Jacksonville threw the ball at will. But in this game, the idea was to stop the run first, and then make sure the Jaguar receivers didn’t get behind the defense or make yards after the catch. And you can’t argue with the results -- Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for 19 carries and 66 yards, 65% below their average output and numbers they topped *individually* 13 times this season.

Of course, the front seven “pitched in” to stop the run, too. Junior Seau (10) and Tedy Bruschi (7) led the linebackers in tackles, and Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas did a great job setting the edge and forcing the run back inside. Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour (who is indeed starting to play better) had 5 and 4 tackles, respectively, and Ty Warren added a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 quarterback hits to his 5 tackles. So very solid play by the line, nothing flashy and no big plays allowed.

Special teams gave their usual up-and-down performance. They covered well, especially on a reverse on a kickoff return (nice job by Heath Evans and Kelley Washington). And given the explosive nature of the Jacksonville special teams, we should probably be happy there were no big returns against the Patriots, but here are two nitpicks. Chad Jackson averaged six-yards less per kickoff return than usual return man (Ellis Hobbs), though thankfully, he didn’t fumble after being on the bench most of the year. And Stephen Gostkowski just has to be able to make a 35-yard field goal. It was his first playoff miss, and here’s hoping it’s his last.

The coaches put together a great game plan, and stuck to it when others might have panicked. It was the reverse plan from the 1990 Super Bowl, when the Giants defensive coordinator (some guy named Belichick) told his team that to beat the Buffalo Bills, they would need to allow the Bills to run the ball all they wanted, but stop the pass. This time, it was the run that was the threat, and the Patriots took that away instead. Also, some special praise for defensive coordinator Dean Pees. His halftime adjustments have been crucial to the Patriots success. In the 11 close games this year, the defense has allowed only 6.7 points per second half (including 6 in Saturday's playoff game).

So where does that leave us? 1-0 in the playoffs must mean we’re on the field again next week – woo-hoo! It’ll be the Patriots vs. Chargers in the AFC Championship game this Sunday at Foxboro (3:00). To be honest, I was hoping to play the Colts, because they play a similar defense to Jacksonville’s. But it’s probably just as well we don’t have to worry about a last-minute comeback by Peyton Manning.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: David Garrard threw three interceptions in the regular season and three in the playoffs. Not quite as magical as Tom Brady, after all.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Maybe Jack Del Rio [Jacksonville head coach] doesn’t know how to blitz. I mean, you’d think he would make some changes after Brady started out 14 for 14.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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