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!