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!

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