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!

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