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!


  1. So if we're comparing Pats teams, I want to throw 2 cents of my own in. And as always consider that I'm not a diehard football fanatic.
    I think the missing piece " and Larry Bird ain't walkin through that door" is the clutch defensive play. The Ty Law interception, the Willie McGinest goal line stand, et. al. Lets hope that Mayo or Meriweather or someone else can step up. The bend don't break worked but it frustrated opponents most when it ended a drive with the opportunistic turnover. Again just my 2 cents.


  2. Hey MP,

    I agree, that has been missing for some time now. Seems like ever since Ty Law left, the defense can't make the big play any more.

    Meriweather has played better and Mayo is something special, and time will tell if they can make big plays in pressure situations -- a la Tedy Bruschi in his prime.

    Thanks for checking in.

    - Scott