Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Oddity of the NFL Standings

One of the strangest numerological phenomena of the NFL season is the following:

After 15 games, it is predictable that there are no winless teams and no undefeated teams (thank you, Indy). However, setting aside ties, every record between 1-14 (the Rams) and 14-1 (the Colts) is represented -- except 9-6! As you can see on this sorted screen-shot of the NFL standings, 9-6 is somehow absent, even though there are *twelve* teams within a game of that record (at 8-7 or 10-5).

I don't know how 9-6 managed to be avoided; but it is the first time a 16-game NFL slate will fail to produce any 9-6 records during the regular season.

So it's sort of a numerologist's double-delight ;)

- Scott

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Patriots 35, Jaguars 7 (12/27/2009)

Sorry this is late; holiday stuff and all. The Patriots did their usual thing with the Jaguars -- played with them like a cat with a straw, whipping them 35-7 in a game that wasn't even *that* close. The victory made them AFC East champs, guaranteeing a home playoff game, and giving them a decent chance at the #3 seed in the AFC.

The O-line had its best day of the season, no surprise since they finally had their five best linemen together for the game. If you want a barometer of the Patriots chances in the post-season, when the telecast shows the starting lineup for their playoff game (or games), the Patriots will do well if it reads: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, and Sebastian Vollmer. They probably won't do quite as well if Dan Connolly or Nick Kazcur are on that list. With Neal and Vollmer back, the Patriots gave up no sacks and no quarterback hits, ran for 197 yards and 5.5 yards per carry, and Tom Brady completed 88.5% of his passes.

In fact, Brady would love to play Jacksonville every week, because he just shreds their defense. Consider this trivia question: True or false, Tom Brady has more touchdowns than incomplete passes in the last two games versus the Jaguars (answer below)? Just the fact that you have to *think* about that should make it clear that Brady owns the Jags defense. Maybe they need to try something new next time, because the "rush three and play a tight zone" just isn't working out for them.

The receiving corps did quite well, with Wes Welker providing the grind-it-out yards (13 catches for 138 yards), and Randy Moss providing the scoring (4 catches, 3 touchdowns). Chris Baker added a TD on a nice back-shoulder grab. Extra note #1: Randy Moss did a very good job blocking down field on running plays and some passing plays -- no question about his effort on Sunday. Extra note #2: Wes Welker is going to lead the league in receptions again this season and might set a new record for receptions per game (he is currently at 9.38 catches per game, the old record is under 9.00 catches per game). Make sure you don't take him for granted; you probably won't see a more productive tandem than Brady-Welker in your lifetime, and Welker is the likely team MVP.

Oh yeah, and that running game. Laurence Maroney fumbled at the one yardline and was done for the day, so Sammy Morris came in to fill the void with 12 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown. And Fred Taylor did indeed return to run against his old mates -- 11 carries for 35 yards, mostly in garbage time. As for Maroney, he is running better these days but needs to get his head into the game; that was his third fumble inside the opponent 5 yardline this season, and a failure like that in the playoffs would be disasterous.

The defense was playing against an undermanned offensive line, so their stats probably look inflated. However, even with that the linebackers played exceptionally well. Jerod Mayo looked like the Mayo of last year, running sideline to sideline, tracking down plays from behind, and holding up in the middle against offensive linemen. The Jags tried to block Tully Banta-Cain with a tight end, and that was a mismatch in the Patriots favor, as Banta-Cain got another sack, two quarterback hits, and forced a fumble. He also caused general mayhem on inside runs, though he got beaten to the outside a few times.

The most surprising was the play of two of the "go home" linebackers, Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess. Thomas was everywhere, doing a nice job in coverage and making sure tackles. And Burgess didn't show up much on the stat sheet, but did a good job forcing the pocket to move and, in a surprise upset, forcing the run inside. It's possible neither of them will be back next year, and maybe they think they'll get more money in free agency if they play better now. But whatever the reason, they are coming on at just the right time.

On the D-line, the only standout was Myron Pryor. He is no Vince Wilfork, but at least he stood his ground against double-teams, unlike the completely overmatched Ron Brace last week. It showed in the running game, where the Pats held Jacksonville to 98 yards on the ground, well below their 128.5 average coming in. After a great game in Buffalo, Mike Wright was down a bit, missing several tackles that would have gone for losses. But even so, the front seven pestered Jacksonville QB David Garrard all day -- 2 sacks and 7 QB hits. And even with Wright and Pryor stepping up, the Patriots need Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren (who returned in limited action yesterday) for the playoffs.

Big hits and sure tackles were the order of the day in the secondary. Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders stopped the Jags short on consecutive third- and fourth-down plays early, giving the Patriots great field position for their first score. And Sanders followed that up with several bone-crushing hits and third-down stops. Meriweather added his fifth INT of the season, and Shawn Springs got his first pick of the year. Springs had been out for a while, but his return helped solidify things in the defensive backfield.

There was one things special about the Patriots special teams: rookie Kyle Arrington. He had five special teams tackles yesterday (2 solo, 3 assisted), and is quite the revelation for a rookie who was cut by a team the Patriots whacked earlier this season (trivia question #2: can you name that team? -- answer below).

As for the coaching, Belichick looks like a semi-genius for sending Moss, Guyton, Burgess, and Thomas home for being late a few weeks back. Only Guyton has not picked up his play since then, and despite columnists who said BB was losing the team, the Patriots rallied together since that incident. True, they are playing inferior competition, but there are fewer mistakes and easier victories since that controversy.

So where does that leave us? With a home playoff game assured, they might rest some starters against the Texans next Sunday. The only team that scares me that first playoff weekend is the Broncos, who *always* beat the Patriots. The Ravens could give them trouble; they nearly beat the Patriots in Foxboro this year. The other wild card contenders shouldn't scare anyone on the team. As for setting up that second game (should they win the first one), I think they are better off playing the Colts. They almost beat them in Indy this year, and would probably fare better against them than the more physical and balanced Chargers.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At the half, the Patriots had more rushing yards (141) and more passing yards (150) than the Jaguars had total yards (133).

Bonus oddities; the Patriots have a chance to lead the NFL in time of possession (currently tied for first with 33:24 per game), total plays from scrimmage (currently 13 behind the Dolphins), and fewest points given up (currently 15 behind the Jets, who play a prolific Cincinnati Bengals team this week).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Pats start that offensive line and get Vince Wilfork back for the playoffs, they could make some noise. Stephen Neal makes that much of a difference."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

PPS. Trivia answer #1: True. Brady has 7 touchdowns and only 5 incompletions in his last two games against Jacksonville.

PPPS. Trivia answer #2: Kyle Arrington was cut by Tampa Bay, whom the Patriots beat 35-7 in London.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Patriots 17, Bills 10 (12/20/2009)

What a difference 8 days make. Before the Carolina game, the local media (and many front-running fans) insisted the Patriots were in free fall, sure to lose the division race and miss the playoffs despite getting Tom Brady back for the season. Even after they eked out a win last week, the naysayers persisted, claiming that the charging Dolphins and Jets were in danger of overtaking the Pats and a season without the playoffs was a waste.

Well, yesterday the AFC East went 1-3 as a division, with the Patriots the only victors, courtesy of a 17-10 decision over Buffalo. And their 9-5 mark is two games ahead of the "charging" Dolphins and Jets, both of whom had late miscues to lose. So with just two games left folks, for all intents and purposes the Patriots are the AFC East champs, and will host a playoff game, likely the weekend of January 8-9. Meet the new boss... same as the old boss! Maybe tomorrow the sports radio crowd will tell you the Pats are a shoe-in for the Super Bowl ;)

The Patriots defense entered the game undermanned, with Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork missing from the D-line. And early on it showed, with the Bills running right down their throats for 56 yards on the opening drive. But as it would all day, the Buffalo offense hurt itself with penalties, an ill-timed false start forcing them to settle for a field goal.

How did the Patriots adjust, you ask. Well, the Bills didn't score for the next 48:34, a span of over three quarters, 44 plays, and 8 scoreless possessions, including four 3-and-outs and a 4-play drive of -20 yards (and a punt). The Pats started using the "wandering defense," where they had either one or zero down linemen and five or seven defenders standing near the line of scrimmage. It caused a lot of confusion for a young Bills quarterback and an offensive line in transition.

Tully Banta-Cain notched 6 tackles, 3 sacks for 22 yards, and created QB pressure that blew the timing of numerous other plays. By far his best game on the Patriots, it was the kind of big-time performance the team used to get from Willie McGinest when things were going sour. His linebacking mate, Derrick Burgess added a sack and actually made a few plays against the run, by far *his* best game with the team. Believe it or not, the next best linebacker was much maligned Adalius Thomas. Unfortunately, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton appear to be wearing down or injured (note that Mayo injured his knee this year and is still wearing a brace on that leg).

The D-line got smoked on the first drive, but once they started confusing the Bills, Mike Wright played much better, stuffing inside runs and working sideline to sideline to cover wide runs and screens. Ron Brace and Jarvis Green got decent pressure and did okay against the run, too -- though neither was as effective as Wright. But as well as they did, bear in mind that the Bills O-line is bad and QB is inexperienced. If they expect to do any damage in the playoffs, they absolutely need Wilfork back and probably Warren, too. And it is time for the Patriots to re-evaluate what life without Vince might look like. Didn't look too pretty yesterday.

In the secondary, Leigh Bodden kept mostly tight coverage and knocked away two passes, including what would have been an easy touchdown. Jonathan Wilhite picked a sideline pass that the QB threw under pressure, and Brandon Meriweather (6) and James Sanders (5) led the secondary in tackles. But perhaps the most important thing they did was limit the Bills to very few yards after the catch. At one point in the fourth quarter, the telecast noted that the Bills had only 9 yards after the catch for the entire game, which is stellar. (Note: the NFL doesn't publish official stats on that, but 9 is less than the YAC some Patriots receivers had after a single catch.)

But overall, the defense benefited from dropped passes and penalties from Buffalo. It was enough to get a win, which was much needed. But they will need to perform better if they expect to win against the stiffer competition in the playoffs. Yes, I said "playoffs!" -- no apologies to Jim Mora.

The Patriots were also undermanned on the offensive line. Stephen Neal and Nick Kazcur were out of the game; however, this time they used Mark LeVoir more than Dan Connolly, and it worked out better. The rushing yardage numbers don't look that great (109 yards on 34 carries), but in the first half, when the game was competitive, they went for 62 yards on 15 carries (4.1 yards per rush). That isn't exactly stellar, but Laurence Maroney was sharp and the blocking was solid. And the reason the final numbers look bad is they ran the clock in the second half. BTW, one play I would get rid of is the one where Matthew Slater goes in motion -- they ran behind him three times and got stuffed every time. Nice try at a new wrinkle, but Slater's a wide receiver -- he doesn't have the size to block like a tight end.

The O-line also did a decent job protecting Tom Brady. Zero sacks, and at least two of the five quarterback hits came when Brady held the ball too long. Brady's throws still aren't up to his usual standards, including an early interception that he threw just as he was hit. But even his worst statistical day of the year (11 of 23, 115 yards, 1 td, 1 int, 59.1 rating) was enough to win comfortably. Best to hope for a quick healing rib and finger on the throwing hand.

You might think with only 11 completions the receivers were non-factors. But Brady threw long to Moss three times, in fact, Randy Moss came back to life, with 5 grabs for 70 yards and a touchdown, and also forced Buffalo into a 43-yard pass interference call. Wes Welker had just 4 for 40 yards, but three of the receptions went for first downs and he got two more first downs on penalties. The tight ends were very absent from the passing game, and Sam Aiken disappeared against his old teammates.

Overall, not a lot of big plays on offense, but it was good enough to hold a two-score lead for almost half of game. Still, it is troubling that they struggle so much in the second half of games. Yesterday they had three 3-and-outs and a 4-and-out after halftime, and had only one decent drive the second half (and got only 3 points out of it). Some of it was conservative play-calling to keep the clock moving and not take chances on a turnover. But whatever the problem is, they are running out of games to solve it. Just two more chances to get it right.

Special teams were not good. They gave up a big kickoff return just before the half that Buffalo almost turned into points (field goal went wide left). Punter Chris Hanson was about as bad as he's been in any game this year, and even with the shortish kicks they gave up a 20-yard return (that the Bills cashed in for their only touchdown drive). And the Patriots did not have any significant returns of their own. The Bills traditionally have great special teams, but the Pats at least have to try to stay even with them. In a game this low scoring, a single special teams mistake could cost you the game.

So where does that leave us? 9-5 does not guarantee a playoff berth, but 10-5 (or even 9-5-1) does. So if the Patriots can win at home against a Florida team with very slim playoff hopes (i.e. the 7-7 Jacksonville Jaguars), then they will be in. The Pats have no chance at a first-round bye, but they are tied with the Bengals for the #3 seed right now. And even though it is way down the line, the #3 seed means a potential date in San Diego the second week of the playoffs. Whereas the #4 seed means a potential date in Indy instead. Pick your poison -- I'll keep you updated on how it develops.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The five best scoring defenses are all in the AFC (Jets 221, Ravens 225, Patriots 244, Bengals 244, Colts 248). The last time the top five scoring defenses were from the same conference was 1986 -- trivia question, how many of them can you name (hint: they were NFC teams)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'll take an ugly win over a 'moral victory' any time. BTW, think there's any chance Fred Taylor comes back to play against his old team this week?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

PPS. Trivia Answer:


Bears (187), Giants (236), 49ers (247), L.A. Rams (267), Vikings (273).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Patriots 20, Panthers 10 (12/13/2009)

Yooooour New England Patriots took care of business, with a typical bad weather December score of 20-10 over the visiting Carolina Panthers. The game was tight in the first half and a lot more comfortable in the fourth quarter. And the win moved their record to 8-5, a game ahead of the Jets and Dolphins, both of whom won their contests. However, the Chargers victory effectively knocked the Patriots out of the running for a first-round playoff bye. San Diego leads the Pats by two games with three to play, and the Chargers hold the conference record tie-breaker.

Even though a convincing win might have felt better... you know, before the Patriots lost two consecutive games (a sin for which the local press made Bill Belichick its personal pinata), this was probably the kind of win BB wanted. Hard fought, close game where his team had to show some heart to come from behind and batten down the hatches to secure the win. But the reason he liked these games the most was the heaping helpings of humble pie he could dish out the following week. He's at his best when he has something to keep the team focused on improving, and there was plenty to complain about yesterday.

Thing #1: reduce their turnovers. They moved the ball at will on Sunday, but came away with only 20 points. At one point this season, the Patriots were second in the league in turnover ratio, but they are now seventh (+6). They've lost 12 turnovers in the last six games, and only gotten 9 back, including 5 in a meltdown by Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Take out that Jets game, and it's an aggregate -7 for the other five games since the bye week.

Yesterday it was more of the same. A Tom Brady interception led to the only Carolina touchdown. Randy Moss fumbled his only reception of the game, turning a first down at the 50 into a Carolina first down going the other way. And Sammy Morris lost the ball at the Panthers 25 on the Patriots first drive of the second half. Without those turnovers, the Patriots win this one in a walk. But giving the ball away is the easiest way to let an overmatched team hang around. Fortunately the Patriots were able to close out this game, but they won't always be so lucky.

Thing#2: create more turnovers on defense. It isn't just that the offense is giving the ball away; it's that the defense isn't forcing nearly as many as they did early in the year. They dropped two easy interceptions (James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather), and twice linebackers could have had INTs and twice they whiffed (though both would have been great plays).

Protecting the football and creating turnovers will be crucial if the Patriots plan to make some noise in the playoffs. If they continue playing like they did yesterday, it will be a one or two game playoff run, and no chance at another Super Bowl.

Thing #3: get healthy. Brady is banged up, with shoulder, finger, and rib injuries, and it showed with some inconsistent play early on. Vince Wilfork went out with an injury yesterday, and with neither Myron Pryor or Ron Brace available to clog up the middle, the Panthers ran right down their throat. And it's obvious they have six good offensive linemen but things fall apart when two of them are out. On Sunday, they got Sebastian Vollmer back, and they ran the ball effectively and protected Brady pretty well (though it wasn't perfect). Stephen Neal remains on the roster for a possible return this year. But when both of Vollmer and Neal are out, Dan Connolly is terrible at pass blocking and only marginal at run blocking.

One other note on getting healthy. They also need to *stay* healthy. Laurence Maroney hasn't proven very durable throughout his career, and he's had to shoulder the load with both Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris missing significant time. With Adalius Thomas apparently in the dog house, they were thin at linebacker yesterday, and they are very thin (especially in talent) at wide receiver, so the number of hits Wes Welker takes is a concern. Maybe rediscovering the tight end will help with that.

Thing #4: offensive creativity. Have you heard the one about (offensive coordinator) Bill O'Brien's t-shirt? Just like every Pats coach, it has his initials on it -- "B-O" in this case. Which is appropriate, given that his play-calling stinks (cue rim shot, please!). Okay, it isn't quite that bad. Without red zone turnovers, they are probably 10-3... blah blah blah.

But please shelve that fullback dive on fourth-and-short. It worked once against New Orleans, but has failed the last three times. And try mixing in more first-down running. Yesterday you rushed for 114 yards and 5.4 per carry on first down, and only 61 yards and 3.2 yards per carry on all other downs. And instead of lobs to a covered Randy Moss, try more traditional screen passes, throw in a flea-flicker or end-around twice a game (since teams over-pursue your running plays). And get Chris Baker on the field in the red zone -- he showed the ability to create separation for touchdowns, now *use* it!

Oh... but I guess you are wondering what I thought of yesterday's game. Sorry for the long rant; here's an abbreviated version of a regular update.

Brady wasn't sharp, and I think it was the injuries. Several throws came out with no spiral (which he *never* does), but he was great at getting rid of the ball before a sack. The O-line was much better, with Sebastian Vollmer and Matt Light in the lineup, and Sir Laurence Maroney was strutting his stuff, getting 94 yards on 22 tough runs. Sammy Morris continues to work his way back, and Kevin Faulk came back from a bad game against Miami to rush for 58 (including some big first downs), and do a nice job on blitz pickup. And special props to tight end Chris Baker, who blocked extremely well at the point of attack.

But on offense it was all Wes Welker. When they traded for him, The Weather God (my friend Al) called him "Troy Brown II," and he couldn't have been more right. He extended his NFL lead in total receptions on the year (now at 105), though Andre Johnson (from Houston) leap-frogged him to take the lead in yards. Yesterday Welker had 10 catches, 7 more than any other Patriots player, 105 yards, and 5 first downs. Most important were his 5 catches for 64 yards on the Pats 96-yard touchdown drive. That score came the drive after Sammy Morris' fumble, so to score when you took over at your own 4 yard-line was impressive, and it wouldn't have happened without Welker.

The defense actually looked good. They got beaten for a long touchdown, but aside from that held the Panthers to 3 points even though they didn't force a single turnover. That's a pretty good game, folks. They unleashed some of the front seven and got pressure on the QB, and aside from a few long runs after Wilfork went out, they contained the celebrated Carolina running game. Jerod Mayo looked better, but doesn't appear to be fully recovered from the knee injury. Derrick Burgess got good pressure on the QB (1 sack, 2 QB hits), and Tully Banta-Cain did a nice job holding the point against the run and getting decent pressure (though the stats don't bear it out).

The secondary was in disarray early, and they were lucky the Panthers were missing their starting QB. Brandon Meriweather missed the aforementioned INT, but he did a good job roaming the deep middle, knocking away a potential touchdown pass in the third quarter. And rookie Darius Butler played pretty well, though not perfect. But given their secondary situation, this is good experience for him and the other younger players to get.

The kicking game was fine, not much to report either way. No special teams fumbles, no big returns either way.

And one quick note on the coaching; Belichick should stop challenging plays with his heart instead of his head. He missed on a questionable call in the third quarter, and he needs to keep in mind that the standard for overturning a call is "indisputable visual evidence" not "it sort of looks like we could overturn it." Aside from that, a nice job getting his team to close out a game they might have lost three weeks ago.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets all won yesterday, so the AFC East had a perfect weekend (4-0). That is only the second time this year a division has won four games in one weekend. Trivia question: Can you name the other division to pull off that trick (answer below)? Note: extra credit if you can name the week that other division did it, and super-extra credit if you can do all of that without using the Internet. Good luck!

Where does that leave us? As mentioned, the Pats are 8-5 with a one game lead in the AFC East. They play their last division game of the year in Buffalo next Sunday, a place where Tom Brady has traditionally feasted on the opposition. Both the Jets (@Indy, vs. Cincy) and Dolphins (@Tenn, vs. Pitts) have tougher schedules down the stretch, so if the Patriots take care of business this week the other two should start to fall by the wayside.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Look, the Pats don't look like world beaters, but in the playoffs it'll all come down to matchups. Just hope we don't have to play Denver in the first round; we *never* beat them!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-5!

PPS. Trivia answer below:


The NFC North teams (Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions) won all their games in Week 3 of this year (9/27/2009). Kudos to anyone who even guessed that division; since the Lions have only 2 wins for the entire *season*.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Patriots 21, Dolphins 22 (12/6/2009)

I hoped against hope that I'd be wrong, but these division road games after Monday Night games are just killers. (Note: as if admitting how tough this is, the NFL only scheduled it five times this year. And the Patriots are the only team that had to do it *twice*. Not that I'm bitter. BTW, trivia question: can you name the only team to *host* two division foes coming off Monday Night games this year? Answer below.) But knowing the difficulty of this situation, a gut-wrenching loss to Miami was foreseeable, and that is just what happened, with a final score of 22-21. The result is a much tighter race in the AFC East, with one game separating the Patriots from the Dolphins and Jets.

There is obviously something more going here than just the difficulty of the schedule. And when you lose four road games that you led at the half, it seems natural to blame the defense, which is exactly what most of the local media has been doing for about a month now. Couple those losses with the drubbing by the Saints, and the case seems airtight.

But I contend that it isn't the defense, but the offense that is the problem. Not the majority of the problem -- the *entire* problem -- in closing out those four games (forget the Saints game, they had no chance in the second half). And the reason to blame the offense is as simple as these numbers: 0, 0, 10, 7. That's how many points they scored in the second half of those games. Here are some of the underlying numbers that cost them the chance to win any of them.

Leading the Jets 9-3, in the second half the Patriots offense did the following: gained a *total* of 67 yards on five possessions, held the ball for just 12:09, completed 8 of 20 pass attempts, converted 6 first downs, did not move the ball into Jets territory at all, and scored zero points. In a game they lost by 1 touchdown!

Against Denver, it was even uglier. They had one 13 play drive (that resulted in a punt), and the rest of their possessions went like this: 3-and-out, 6 plays and a missed field goal, 3-and-out, 3 plays and a fumble. They completed only 5 of 15 pass attempts, had just 6 first downs, and held the ball for even less time (12:06). In a game they lost in overtime!

In the last two of these games (Indy and Miami) the offense has moved the ball but killer turnovers and the inability to convert first downs led to their ultimate downfall. Against the Colts, Tom Brady threw an ill-advised INT on a bomb to Randy Moss in the end zone (more on that later) and Laurence Maroney fumbled at the Colts 1 yard-line. Those turnovers took at least 10 and perhaps 14 points off the board. In a game they lost by 1 point!

Against Miami, they scored a fluky 81-yard touchdown on a 10-yard jump-ball-then-run by Sam Aiken, and followed it up with these stinkers: 3-and-out, 5-and-out, INT, 3-and-out, 3-and-out, INT. The offense scored no points in the last 27:02, Tom Brady's QB rating dropped from 142.6 in the first half to 61.4 in the second half. In a game they lost by 1 point!

Are you starting to see the same pattern I'm seeing here?

As for those asking where the defense was in all of these games, here is where they were.

When they were down by a touchdown to the Jets, the defense forced punts on consecutive fourth-quarter drives, a 3-and-out and a 4-and-out, while allowing the Jets to take a total of 3:26 off the clock. But the offense couldn't do anything.

In Denver, Tom Brady fumbled at the Pats 45 yard line with a minute left in regulation, and it looked like a gimme for the Broncos to pick up 10 yards and kick a winning field goal. But the Pats held them to 3 plays for -5 yards, giving the Patriots a chance to get to overtime.

The defense also stopped superstar Peyton Manning and the Colts on 3 of 6 second half possessions, including two interceptions. Fifty percent might not sound great, but against the Colts, in Indy, it should have been good enough.

And of course yesterday in Miami, we all saw them hold on fourth down at the 4:44 mark, setting up the offense with decent field position and only needing one or two first downs to ice the game. However, the offense came up small and the defense was thrown right back onto the field. But just because they couldn't hold Miami again doesn't negate the fact that they held them the first time.

There is one other reason the offense should be held to account here: the Patriots spent the majority of their salary cap money on offense, not defense. So you have to question the wisdom of how they spent their money, the will or talent of the players, or the offensive coaching staff. Take your pick (mine is the coaching). But the offense is almost solely to blame for four of the five road losses this year. The defense is just a convenient scapegoat.

So what are the problems on offense? Here are three, two of which can be corrected easily.

1. The Patriots miss Josh McDaniels more than they would ever admit. Under McDaniels, the set offensive records in 2007 and the team went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at QB. I never thought he was a great coordinator (his lack of adjustments in Super Bowl XLII was terrible), but he was creative in play design, kept the team focused on getting first downs, and was *vastly* superior in finishing drives.

Under current coordinator-in-waiting Bill O'Brien, their run/pass plays are too easily predicted by formation, there is too much reliance on jump balls to Randy Moss in the red zone, and they are just plain lousy at calling a run against a pass defense and vice versa. And they are currently ranked 25th in red zone efficiency (scoring touchdowns only 47.1% of the time they get inside the opponents 20 yard line) With the talent they have, not good enough.

2. Bill Belichick needs to pay closer attention to coaching each game for itself. He's said recently that every game is its own entity, but he took the same risk against Miami that he took against New Orleans, even though the teams are completely different. He went for it on fourth down near the Saints end zone because he was down by 14 points and knew the Saints would score more. Against Miami, he went for it on fourth down, even though he was up by 7 points and knew that Miami struggles on offense.

He needed to take the field goal there, to go up by two scores and keep the pressure on the Dolphins. Instead, the fourth-down call was terrible (the same play they ran twice the previous week), and it was easily shut down. Somehow I think those three points would have come in handy in a game he lost by one point.

3. Brady to Moss is the most dangerous combination in the NFL -- dangerous to the Patriots chances of winning, that is. It has become Brady's lazy play. Instead of reading the defense and following through with the play, he chucks it up to a single-covered Moss and hopes for the best. The fourth quarter INT was a ridiculous play given the situation. A field goal would have forced the Dolphins to score a touchdown for the win, so risking a turnover at that point was fool-hardy.

Brady needs to get back to being Brady, whether or not Moss complains. The team needs Ben Watson and Sam Aiken to produce if they plan to do anything in the playoffs, so it's time to start throwing the ball their way and get some rhythm and timing with them. And if Moss gives Brady any crap about it, have no doubt that Brady won't lose that battle -- he's got the entire locker room behind him.

So where does that leave us? Frustrated at another winnable game slipping through their fingers. At 7-5, the best they can do is match last year's record; though doing so would win the division. Next week it's Carolina coming to Foxboro with a young QB and very faint playoff hopes. The Panthers have given the Pats trouble over the years, but since it's a home game, it seems they should be able to get the win. If the offense shows up in the second half, that is.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Wes Welker leads the NFL with 95 receptions this year, despite missing two games to injury. That is an oddity because no other player in the top 10 has missed even *one* game this year -- *and* Welker is 12 receptions ahead of the second place player.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Good thing they won in London... 'cause other than that they are 0-5 on the road this year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!

PPS. The Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Raiders and the Chargers after they had played on Monday Night the week before. Note that the Chiefs are so bad they actually *lost* both games!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Patriots 17, Saints 38 (11/30/2009)

They don't get the crap kicked out of 'em often, but it happened last night. The Saints shellacked the Patriots 38-17, dropping their record to 7-4, though that is still good enough for a two-game lead in the division. Pats played them pretty tough for about 20 minutes, and then the wheels fell off, with multiple defensive lapses and not enough offensive firepower to keep up.

I considered taking the week off, just like the Patriots secondary. After all, what is there to say about a 21-point loss to an obviously superior team. But rather than do that, I'll veer from my normal update and go over what went wrong when the Patriots were still in the game and how they can improve their second-half offense, which has been poor against good teams on the road.

(BTW, if you're looking for my normal type of update, here it is: Defense was awful except Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo -- some of the time. Offensively, the O-line did a decent job run blocking but not pass blocking, Brady was rattled and inconsistent, Kevin Faulk was good, and there was a surprise in the receiving corps -- guess who led the team in receptions and yards for the first time ever [answer below]. On special teams, Gostkowski was outkicked by the opposition for the first time this year. As for coaching... well, it isn't Charlie Weis they need back, it's Romeo Crennel. Now back to the actual update.)

They started the game strong, holding the Saints to a field goal and then driving down for a touchdown and a 7–3 lead. After stopping New Orleans on the next drive, Wes Welker returned a punt 41 yards to give the Pats great field position. But on the first play, Randy Moss turned his crossing pattern up the field and Brady threw where he should have been and the ball was intercepted. This mistake wasn't all on Moss. The O-line gave up quick pressure and Moss would have been covered if he continued the cross. But if he'd run the pattern the pass would probably have been incomplete instead of intercepted, and the Patriots could have continued the drive. Saints drove the ball down for a TD and it was 10-7.

With the game still close, on the next drive, Laurence Maroney went for 5 yards on first down. Then Sammy Morris dropped an easy three-yard pass, which put the Patriots in third-and-5 instead of third-and-2. And the next play was a 3-yard completion to Sam Aiken. So without Morris' drop (and in fairness, it was his first game action in a while), the Patriots keep the ball and are at midfield. But in reality, they punted it away and that lead to this...

On first down, the Patriots ran a corner blitz with Jonathan Wilhite. Saints QB Drew Brees faked an inside run and that brought up the linebacker on that side (Jerod Mayo) and the safety to that side (Brandon McGowan) covered a 15-yard pattern over the middle. That left Saints receiver Devery Henderson wide open -- and I mean *wide* open, more open than any NFL receiver I've seen in 15 years -- for a 75-yard quick strike touchdown.

So now a game that would likely have been tied (with decent play by the offense on the previous two possessions) is a 10-point Saints lead.

Fast-forward two drives and the Pats trailing 24-10 with 1:50 left in the half. The Patriots put together a nice drive, moving 48 yards in 48 seconds, setting up first-and-10 at the Saints 32. If they score a touchdown here, they get the ball first in the second half, at which point another touchdown ties the game. But the backjudge (the referee in the deep center of the defense) misses an obvious pass interference call when Saints defensive back Pierson Prioleau throws a hand into Benjamin Watson's face and pulls down his left arm. A penalty call would have been good for a first down at the Saints 3 yard line. But the bad non-call meant the Patriots settled for a 53-yard field goal attempt that went wide left.

And in the second half, they were extremely fortunate to recover the ball when Maroney fumbled and then forced the defender to fumble again. And they cashed that in, driving 81 yards on 8 plays. But the Saints' first play of the second half was a 68-yard catch and run that led to another New Orleans touchdown and another 2-touchdown lead. On the next Patriots possession, the last chance to stay in the game fell by the wayside when a fourth-down pass to Randy Moss was knocked away at the Saints 5 yard line.

After that it was a lot of running plays, one more New Orleans touchdown, one more Brady interception, and some playing time for Patriots rookie backup QB Brian Hoyer. Not much else to say. Saints were the hungrier, faster, and better prepared team on this day. Looks like the Patriots have some work to do.

As for what work they need, even though the defensive communication problems gave the Saints quick scores, the biggest problems in their four losses are on the offensive side of the ball. They aren't making good enough adjustments, and on the big stage they appear overwhelmed by the moment. So here are a few unsolicited suggestions to help in their remaining road games (they have three, unless they make the playoffs).

1. The offense has looked a lot better in the first half, so save maybe a quarter of your best plays for the beginning of the second half instead of the beginning of the game. If you score one touchdown fewer in the first half but two touchdowns more in the second, it will be worth it. And that would help your team build some confidence about playing in the second half.

2. Try more misdirection plays early in the second half. Home teams in big games come out of the locker room rested, refreshed, and flying all over the place, and are thus more prone to overpursue plays early in the third quarter. So give 'em a flea-flicker or a reverse in the first series, and when they overreact to the initial action you should get a decent play out of it. This will also keep the other team's defense off balance, which can't hurt.

3. Rotate in a new running back to start the second half. Fresh legs can be effective against a defense that has played a half already. And it will help keep your starting running back fresher, too.

4. Be patient. It wouldn't have helped last night, but in most cases it is better and safer to run the ball and throw it short early in the second half. Long pass plays take more time to develop and are more difficult to execute, so the chances of a sack or interception should be weighed carefully.

So where does that leave us? 7-4 and two games up in the AFC East is not a bad place to be. So far I was dead wrong about the Colts and Saints games -- here's hoping that continues next week, since I predicted a loss in Miami. I don't know what is going to happen (obviously), but take note that in the past six seasons, the Patriots have lost two games in a row only once.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Drew Brees has had some great games, but yesterday's 158.3 QB rating (the highest you can get) and absolutely *sick* 16.1 yards per attempt were both career highs. For the sake of the rest of the league, here's hoping this oddity *stays* an oddity!

Statistical Oddity of the Week, Part II: Laurence Maroney, who had 1 fumble in his first 38 career games, had 1 fumble in each of the last 3 games.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Hey, even Bill Belichick is allowed a stinker once in a while."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-4!

PPS. Trivia answer: Sam Aiken had 7 catches for 90 yards.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Patriots 31, Jets 14 (11/22/2009)

The Patriots took care of business and whooped the Jets 31-14, maintaining their two-game lead in the AFC East and bouncing back nicely from the "devastating" loss in Indy. BTW, if you were looking for a hang-over from the 4th-and-2 game, check the Colts -- 3 turnovers in a 17-15 squeaker over the .500 Ravens. Losses by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati put the Patriots back into a tie for the second-seed in the AFC playoff picture, so don't write them off just yet.

Given that this is a day late, you probably don't need me to go over every detail. So here is an abbreviated summary.

The offensive MVPs were Wes Welker, Tom Brady, and Laurence Maroney, in that order. Welker destroyed the Jets, catching over half the completed passes (15 out of 28), making 9 first downs (including a run on an end-around), and totaling 203 yards from scrimmage. In the future, the Jets should feel free to put supposed "best cornerback in the NFL" Darelle Revis on Randy Moss most of the day. But they should probably make sure someone covers Welker, too.

Brady is on a run of games reminiscent of 2007. Over the last five weeks, his average game looks like this: 27 of 37 (72%), 341 yards (9.25 yards per attempt), 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a QB rating of 112.6. Just to make look even more like 2007, he even tosses in the thrice-a-game "jump-ball/bomb to a covered Randy Moss" (in case you missed the sarcasm, he should cut out that last part). The Patriots are 4-1 over that span, with the lone loss a 35-34 gut-wrencher to the undefeated Colts in Indy.

Still not sure what to make of Laurence Maroney overall. While Brady has lit it up the past five weeks, here are Laurence's rushing totals: 123, 43, 82, 31, 77 (against the Jets). But he scored 2 touchdowns yesterday, and he ran more patiently and with more authority in the game. As the weather turns colder and nastier, the Patriots will need more of a running game, and they should get Sammy Morris and (maybe) Fred Taylor back from injury soon. So in the meantime, Maroney has to be more boom than bust -- and three of the last five weeks, he has been. One thing to watch out for: Maroney fumbled in each of the last two games. As Pete Carroll used to say, "Gotta clean it up!"

On defense the first half stats were amazing. The Jets had 2 first downs, 34 total yards on 22 plays, 0 third-down conversions, 28 yards rushing, 6 yards passing on 2 completions, 2 interceptions, a 0.0 QB rating, and... well, do you really need any more than that?

Leigh Bodden was the obvious star of the day. He snagged three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), giving him five for the year, which ties him for third in the NFL. (Quick trivia: one of the players Bodden is tied with used to play for the Patriots, name that player -- answer below.) Bear in mind that this was a young quarterback and the entire secondary deserves credit for tight coverage all the way around. But even so, it isn't often you give up just one touchdown on defense, and the Patriots did that to the Jets twice this year.

Overall the defense was stout against the run. Thomas Jones ran for 103 yards, but 40 of those were in garbage time. Vince Wilfork was his usual self, and having Ty Warren back helped close up the middle. Tully Banta-Cain returned and got excellent pressure on the QB (two sacks, one QB hit, one forced fumble), and fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo continues to improve, coming back from his knee injury; not quite there yet, but getting better every week.

The special teams were decent except for one play. The Jets blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown late in the first half, giving them hope for a comeback after a half when they'd been dominated.

As for the coaching, they did a great job rallying the team after their 1-point loss in Indy. And as expected, they had a great plan to confuse and beat the rookie quarterback.

So where does that leave us? The Patriots are 2-1 in their critical five-game stretch so far. They've got a big Monday Night game in New Orleans next week, so the undefeated Saints are the only thing on their radar screen. If they lose that game, they'll have a showdown with the Dolphins in Miami for the AFC East lead, so it's important that they stay focused and do their best to hand New Orleans their first loss of the year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The four teams that have given up the fewest points in the league are all in the AFC: Colts (157), Patriots (164), Bengals (167), and Ravens (161).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Rex Ryan had it all wrong. His rookie QB turned the ball over 5 times; his vaunted defense got lit-up by Wes Welker; he lost an important division game, all but ending any playoff hopes he had for the season. *Now* is when he should be crying!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-3!

PPS. Trivia answer: old friend Asante Samuel has five interceptions for the Eagles.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Patriots 34, Colts 35 (11/15/2009)

My personal version of hell: seeing Peyton Manning interviewed after beating the Patriots. Especially when he's standing next to Reggie Wayne. Yuck!

Just a heart-breaking loss. The Patriots played so well in all three phases of the game; yet some bad coaching and more of the usual from Peyton Manning left the Pats on the short end of a 35-34 score in Indy. The loss did not change their position in the division, with a Jets loss the Patriots are still two games up in the AFC East. But it effectively ends any chance to get home-field throughout the playoffs and hurts their chances for a first-round playoff bye. It also gives the Colts an outside chance at breaking the Patriots record of 21-straight regular season wins.

It is time to tell it like it is, folks. The Colts are now officially in Bill Belichick's head. He and his staff put together a great game plan and ran it to perfection for the first three quarters and two plays. They hit Peyton Manning, disrupted the timing of the receivers and the offense, and intercepted Manning twice. Meanwhile, the offense scored on big plays to Randy Moss, mixed in the run to keep the clock moving, and the team held a 31-14 lead with 14:00 left. Indy hadn't scored since the middle of the second quarter, and it looked like one more touchdown would seal the deal.

But for some reason, they went conservative on offense, running time and again from obvious running formations in obvious running situations. By any measure, the results were less than stellar: 5 plays for 1 yard. It was maddening to watch the Colts overload to stop the run and never see the Patriots run-fake and pass over the top or down the middle. There were eight (count 'em *8*) Colts playing the run... a play-action pass there changes field position and probably gets you the one score you need to win.

And all of this came after over-thinking in the first quarter and deciding to challenge a Reggie Wayne catch with no evidence that it would be overturned. There were also wasted timeouts: one due to offensive confusion; one immediately after change of possession late in the game; and one just before the ill-fated fourth down try at the two-minute warning.

Oh, and speaking of that fourth down play. There will understandably be a lot of attention on that one decision, and Belichick should be criticized for it. It was an apparent panic move, given that the Colts scored a touchdown on their last drive, in just 107 seconds. But at that point you have to play the odds. Your defense might be gassed, but unless you have a sure fire, guaranteed play that will get you the first down for certain, you have to punt the ball. And by the way, if you have a "sure fire, guaranteed to get you the first down for certain play," you run it on third down. That way, if you don't get the first down, you can punt it.

So put this loss squarely where it belongs; on the head coach. He needs to get over the Colts and treat those games like any other games. Manning is a great quarterback, so don't ever go conservative on offense, make smart choices with your challenges and timeouts, take advantage of any turnovers you get, and just play smart. The Colts are good, but they aren't as good as your team. Just don't over-think it and you will get the result you want.

There were a few good things. Quite a few, in fact. Randy Moss played a monster game. 9 receptions for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns, one of them coming despite obvious pass interference on the Colts safety (not called -- SHOCKER). At least three of his catches converted important third-downs, and Chris Baker helped in that regard with two catches, *both* of which netted first downs. Wes Welker was as reliable as usual; though he only tied Moss for most receptions (9 for 94 yards).

And receiver Julian Edelman gets the Toughness Award of the week. He played with a broken arm that was so injured that after he caught a touchdown, he spiked the ball with his *left* hand. So to recap, he played football with an arm too sore to spike the ball. Sounds like a pretty tough guy to me.

Tom Brady had a great game... right up until the coaches put the shackles on the offense. Tough to complain about a 110.7 QB rating and 3 touchdowns. But the one mistake was an end zone interception to start the third quarter. The Pats were moving the ball crisply down the field, with plays of 6, 5, 15, and 14 yards. So there was no reason to go for a 35 yard bomb at that point, and even though the safety came from the other side of the field, it was into double coverage.

And speaking of red zone turnovers, Laurence Maroney picked a really bad time for the second fumble of his career (and first this year). He coughed it up at the Colts 1 yard line, giving away at least three points and possibly seven. That gave the Pats red zone/end zone turnovers on two consecutive drives, and even still they needed a coaching meltdown to lose. But the Patriots did end up with 113 yards rushing and a 4.0 average. But they need to be more realistic about their running game. They can't line up in the I-formation and expect to blow teams off the ball and control the clock with the run. Most of their yardage against Indy came out of the shotgun on inside hand-offs to Kevin Faulk (12 carries for 79 yards), who had an outstanding day. That is who they are; a pass-first team that can run well if they use deception properly.

The O-line did a very good job; young Sebastian Vollmer and oft-maligned Nick Kazcur playing very well. Dan Koppen returned from injury and did an okay job, pouncing on a Brady fumble. And even though he was flagged once, it was reassuring to have him out there. Dan Connolly did a nice job stepping in against Miami last week, but in the Indy dome with all that noise and pressure, you'd rather have the veteran.

The defense... what a night for the defense. The plan was obvious from the start, hit anything that moves, and if it moves again, hit it again. It was old style Patriots football -- slow the receivers at the line and get up the field to the quarterback. They only got one sack but they hit Manning four other times and put a beat-down on Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne, shutting them both down for a long stretch of the game.

The secondary played brilliantly. Leigh Bodden whacked Pierre Garcon at the line and shadowed him down the field, holding him to 3 catches out of 11 passes in his direction. Unfortunately, Reggie Wayne (10 catches for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns) did some serious damage against Jonathan Wilhite, but with the Colts you have to pick you poison. Wilhite got one interception, as did Bodden, and the secondary clearly did its job in holding the Colts down for most of the game.

The linebackers were a depleted bunch before the game began, and Tully Banta-Cain was injured early on. But they came through just fine. Derrick Burgess was flying at the quarterback all game long. The Patriots should not ask him to do anything against the run; make him a designated pass rusher and set him loose. Because every time he tried to cover the outside edge he got nowhere near Manning. Jerod Mayo still isn't quite back, but is making real strides, especially in pass coverage. And Gary Guyton did an outstanding job jamming Dallas Clark at the line to slow him up.

The D-line was... well, it was strange. They started the game with two defensive linemen on the field (and probably Derrick Burgess counted as a third). Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright started -- Ty Warren and Jarvis Green were out with injuries. And the young guys, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace played some, though not a lot. The Patriots simply played too much nickle coverage with too few players on the D-line to effectively grade that part of the team. I suppose I could watch the game again to figure it out, but doing that might put me into a depressed funk, so I won't do it. No... I *won't* -- you can't make me. You *can't*!!

The special teams were just fine. Wes Welker had a great punt return that the Pats cashed for a touchdown. And the coverage was terrific, right from the opening kickoff. I would say the Pats special teams outplayed the Colts -- though neither gained a huge advantage from the kicking game.

So where does that leave us? Well, tough a loss as it was, the Patriots are still in control of the AFC East, and can pretty much put it away with wins over the Jets and Dolphins in two of their next three games. The #1 AFC seed is out of the question, with the Colts now holding essentially a 4-game lead. But a first round bye is still possible -- they trail the Bengals by one game and are tied with Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Denver (though the Broncos hold the head-to-head tie-breaker). So after they somehow shake this one off, the Pats have to regain their focus and take care of the Jets in Foxboro.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Against the Colts, Patriots punter Chris Hanson allowed no touchbacks or return yards for the fourth time this year, and the second week in a row. The highest total for any other NFL punter this season is 2.

Trivia question, name any of the five punters who have done that this year (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Guess we'll have to hope for a rematch in January."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer...

Steve Weatherford (New York Jets)
Matt Turk (Houston Texans)
Pat McAfee (Indianapolis Colts)
Brad Maynard (Chicago Bears)
and Thomas Morstead (New Orleans)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Patriots 27, Dolphins 17 (11/8/2009)

The Dolphins unveiled the Pistol offense yesterday, but it wasn't as impressive as last year's debut of the Wildcat. The Patriots held them to two touchdowns (after getting scorched for five last year), and earned a hard-fought 27-17 victory in sunny Foxboro. The win puts the Pats in control of the AFC East, two full games ahead of the Jets and three ahead of the Dolphins and Bills. It also sets up yet another "Game of the Year" against the undefeated Colts in Indianapolis this Sunday night.

Brady started the game with another jump-ball to Moss that was intercepted, but was in total control after that. He finished with 65% completions and even though the stat sheet says he was sacked twice, it's difficult to remember those plays. The O-line kept him very clean, using quick feet to control the outside pass rush and power to run right over the Dolphins defense (quick trivia: name the only Miami defensive starter who had no tackles in the game). Sebastian Vollmer continues to impress in place of the injured Matt Light, protecting Brady's blind side and doing a great job blocking on screens and tackle pulls. Special mention goes to Dan Connolly, who stepped in for center Dan Koppen and held his own blocking and didn't mess up a single snap.

Even though there was that early interception, Brady targeted Moss a lot. And Randy delivered, with 6 catches for 147 yards, among which were the following: a pair of important third-down conversions; a spectacular one-handed grab to set up a touchdown; an exciting 71-yard catch and run touchdown; and a critical catch on a two-point conversion. The only thing he didn't do was play in the defensive backfield. Maybe next week. Wes Welker was Mr. Dependable (9 for 84 yards) and Ben Watson played one of his best games of the year, finishing with 4 for 49 yards and some excellent blocking. He was called for an illegal "pick" play, but that penalty is rarely called in the NFL, so he just needs to disguise it better to avoid the negative play.

With only three running backs on the roster and a pass heavy offense, there isn't usually much to say about this group. But Laurence Maroney looked good about 75% of the time yesterday, hitting the hole and getting great downhill blocking to end the day with 82 yards. It was important to be effective running, because it slowed down the pass rush and wore down the defenders. And they actually got some yardage from running formations, which has been tough for them this year. So progress is progress, and the running attack has improved the past three games.

The defense was a different story. They controlled the Miami offense for most of the game, giving up just the two touchdown drives. So it wasn't that they stunk up the joint; but they gave up too many third-down conversions, especially on short passes against soft coverage. And there were a lot of missed plays against the Wildcat/Pistol offense, with Tully Banta-Cain whiffing once and the entire left side collapsing on Ricky Williams touchdown run (untouched into the end zone). Now that they've seen the new wrinkles, they will do better in Miami in four weeks. But given the extra time they practiced against the Wildcat, the 16-play 66-yard drive to open the second half was disappointing.

It was not a good day for the secondary. Rookie Darius Butler was in due to injury and Leigh Bodden gimped in and out a few times. The Pats didn't rotate a safety to Butler's side so it looked like his assignment was "don't get beaten deep." He didn't give up any long passes, but instead let up quite a few short pass completions, though he was a sure tackler, getting 7 on the day. Same went for the rest of the secondary; Brandon Meriweather gave a third-down conversion early, Bodden gave up a few, and even Brandon McGowan got caught for a few over the middle, though he did make 11 tackles on the day.

The rest of the defense played pretty well, save for the two touchdown drives. Ty Warren was the star on the D-line, and the rotation of Myron Pryor and Mike Wright did a good job spelling Vince Wilfork on a hot day.

Jerod Mayo continues to round into post-injury form, notching 12 tackles to lead the team and becoming much more active and vocal. Adalius Thomas made a huge play on a double-reverse option-pass, but Banta-Cain was hot-and-cold against the different offensive looks, thought he was around the QB all day.

Stephen Gostkowski had his best day as a pro, with four field goals, consistently deep kicks to neutralize the Dolphins return game, and even one special teams tackle. The Dolphins beat the Jets with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, so there's no overstating how important it was to get touchbacks and mostly short returns. The punting game was mediocre, no huge mistakes, but Chris Hanson should have pinned the Dolphins deeper at least twice.

The coaches did an excellent job preparing for the Wildcat and a very good job adjusting to the Pistol during the game. They helped limit Miami's offensive success to two touchdown drives and once they had the game in hand they properly ran the clock, knowing they had nothing to fear from an anemic Dolphins passing attack. A very sound game plan and well executed.

So where does that leave us? As stated before, 6-2 with a two game lead in the division sounds pretty good. The Colts game will test the young secondary, and I expect they will do better than they did this week because the team will concentrate on stopping the pass, whereas with Miami they had to stop the run first. Should be a great game, carve out the three hours if you can.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots failed to force a turnover for the first time this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats could have won by more, but they went conservative in the fourth quarter. They knew they were in control of the game and the Dolphins were out of tricks."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!

PPS. Thank you to the Weather God, my friend Al, for a yet another great weather day at Foxboro.

PPPS. Trivia answer: Loud mouth Joey Porter :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Patriots Mid-season Report (11/3/2009)

At 5-2, the Patriots are exactly where I thought they'd be at this point (link). And playing in a bad division, they are well on their way to the playoffs. How bad is the division? The Pats took last weekend off and *still* gained ground in the AFC East. The Jets lost, so the Pats have a 1.5-game lead. Buffalo certainly won't contend, so the battle for the crown will come down to the floundering Jets and perhaps-resurgent 3-4 Dolphins.

But that will be played out over the coming months, and the injury factor always looms in the NFL. So rather than look too far in the future, here is my take on where the team is right now.

The Offense

Is Brady Coming Around?

He hasn't been horrible, he's just been human in coming back from a very bad knee injury. He missed easy touchdowns against the Jets and Broncos, either of which would have won the game. But without his great play down the stretch against Buffalo or his superb performance in the snow against Tennessee, they could have lost either of those games. (I know they beat the Titans 59-0, but early on it was a lot closer than people remember.)

The good news is that he's missed fewer passes lately and continues to develop chemistry with Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman, before Edelman was injured. When Edelman returns, it will be interesting to see if that chemistry comes back quickly. If it does, the Pats will be poised to do some real damage down the stretch. But in the meantime, Aiken an Benjamin Watson need to step up their games to make defenses pay for double teaming Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Attrition on the Run

The Patriots two best running backs are Fred Taylor and Sammie Morris. Both are injured, with Taylor out for a while and Morris more week-to-week. That doesn't leave them much at the running back position.

Featured back wannabe Laurence Maroney still runs hot (Tennessee game) and cold (Tampa Bay game). BenJarvus Green-Ellis at least runs the play as it is designed, but he lacks Fred Taylor's talent to avoid direct hits and still runs standing up too straight.

I would feed BenJarvus the ball, though. Maroney returns kicks and Kevin Faulk is too valuable as a third-down/spread formation specialist, both blocking and on draws and screen passes. So until Morris returns, for the time being it's important that they protect Maroney and Faulk, so maybe some additional carries for BenJarvus.

But keep an eye on this position; one more injury and there could be real trouble, because the Patriots blocking schemes are too complex for a new back to learn quickly.

The Defense

No Substitute for Youth

Meet the new Tedy Bruschis and Rodney Harrisons of this defense. Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, second-year linebackers. Brandon Meriweather, third-year safety. Jonathan Wilhite, second-year corner. Rob Ninkovich, fourth-year linebacker. And two rookies: Darius Butler (corner), Myron Pryor (defensive lineman).

All had two things that the players they replaced did not -- youth and upside. Mayo is the cornerstone of the defense, and Guyton's play when Mayo was injured was crucial to getting wins those weeks. And Ninkovich has more tackles in 7 games (12) than he had in three previous seasons (6).

Wilhite and Butler aren't perfect, but both have knocked away big passes at critical times and both will improve with more playing time. And Pryor has looked good in the D-line rotation. Here's hoping he can help pick up the slack with Jarvis Green out for 2-4 weeks.

We're #3! We're #3!

You might be surprised to know the Patriots have the third-rated defense in the NFL, giving up exactly 14 points per game (slightly behind Indy and Denver). I know it surprised me; I thought they'd need more time to gel. But with their young talent and how the secondary has come together, they could be even *better* by the end of the year.

Given the players lost in the off-season, and the gloom and doom of the local media, that's impressive. They ranked #8 last year when all the media faves were still around. So it looks like a good move to go young and develop, rather than stay old and try to hang on. I'm glad they tried something new; the old way didn't work in any of the last four years.

Defensive MVP

There's a real horse race for defensive MVP. Vince Wilfork is on the field for fewer plays (coming out in a rotation with Mike Wright and Pryor), but he has been a destroyer when he's out there. He constantly blows up or redirects running plays and is getting consistent pass pressure, even when doubled. Vince is making one of the greatest contract-year pushes we've seen from a Patriots player.

Competing with big Vince are the two Brandons, McGowan and Meriweather. The secondary is easily the most improved area of the team, and in his third season, Meriweather is the clear leader in the backfield. He has taken Rodney Harrison's old role and keeps the the secondary on the same page, delivers huge hits and makes key INTs.

McGowan came out of nowhere, a free agent afterthought by most people (including yours truly). But he wasted no time making an impact, helping forcing a crucial fumble in a close game with Atlanta, making special teams tackles, and hitting anyone who hasn't said "Uncle!" He instilled a new attitude, and every time you see the defense gang tackle or force a fumble, he's sure to be in the center of the action.

The nod for defensive MVP goes to Wilfork at this point, but it is a very close call.

The Kicking Game

Replacing Experience

Lonie Paxton left, but there hasn't been a single hiccup in the long-snapping game. Rookie Jake Ingram nailed every single one. 2008 special teams captain Larry Izzo left, but they haven't missed him much. Brandon McGowan and Matthew Slater are the big special teams hitters now. And I think that was Larry Izzo whiffing on an easy tackle last week, when Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Special teams coach Scott O'Brien replaced Brad Seeley, but they haven't missed a beat. The return and coverage games were a work in progress but both have been solid the last three weeks. And they are forcing more special teams turnovers than they did even in their heyday (2001 - 2004).

So the reviews are clear: change is good!

The Coaching

I said it before and I'll say it again; Belichick changed his mode after 2006, going for every win early in the season at the cost of not developing enough young players to get him through the playoffs. This year it's back to the 2001 - 2006 mode -- build your team throughout the year, even if it costs you a few early games, and be playing your absolute best late in the year and into the playoffs.

It worked so far. He has a younger team that's playing over its heads, hitting everything that moves, and showing off speed we haven't seen on defense since 2004. The defense is also causing more turnovers: the Pats forced only 22 turnovers all last season, this year they are on pace for 34.

He and his staff have done a great job putting together a stout defense and working through some early problems on special teams and offense. The schedule gets tough for the next five weeks, and this is when they will make their mark on 2009. Go 4-1 and they are Super Bowl contenders. 3-2 makes them a legitimate playoff threat. 2-3 or worse and they might win the division but won't do much in the playoffs.

The Schedule

My predictions from earlier in the year stand. The only two changes I thought about making were the Colts and Saints games. The Colts are still rolling; but there are factors in the Patriots favor. First, the Colts have only 1 win over a tam with a winning record (can you guess? answer below), and came dangerously close to losing to a mediocre San Francisco squad. And second, the Colts have won 16 straight games, which makes them a threat to eclipse the Patriots record of 21 straight. Don't think that's lost on Bill Belichick, who cares more about football history than most anyone. He will pull out all the stops for this one.

As for the Saints, their defense is better than I thought it would be, but there are two factors to consider here, too. First, New Orleans has started to turn the ball over more, and the Patriots defense and special teams are turnover-happy lately. Second, the new defensive coordinator in New Orleans is Gregg Williams, who the Patriots almost always beat. In their last five games against Gregg Williams, the Patriot have averaged 29.6 points per game, and they've gone 4-1.

So even though the complexion of those games has changed, I will stick with my original predictions; which went like this:

11/8 vs Dolphins (Win; Pats coming off a bye week, too much talent, I'm attending the game)

11/15 @ Colts (Win; about time for a Pats victory in Indy)

11/22 vs Jets (Win; Jets QB imploding, no Leon Washington, defense exposed last two weeks)

11/30 @ Saints (Win; Saints turning the ball over lately, and Pats feast on Gregg Williams' defenses)

12/6 @ Dolphins (Loss; short week followed by division road game)

12/13 vs Panthers (Win; Panthers are awful, cold weather game for southern team)

12/20 @ Bills (Win; Bills are awful and getting worse, Brady flourishes at Buffalo -- look it up!)

12/27 vs Jaguars (Win; read Panther game above)

1/3 @ Texans (Win or Loss, depending on whether or not the game means anything to either team)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots and one other team have scored more than twice as many points as they have allowed. Without checking online, can you name the other team (answer below)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "3-2 over the next few games sets them up nicely. But 4-1 would be better!" ::wry smile::

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

PPS. Trivia answer #1, Colts beat the Cardinals, a 4-3 AFC West "powerhouse."


PPPS. Trivia answer #2 , the Indianapolis Colts (no points off if you guessed the Saints).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Patriots 35, Buccaneers 7 (10/25/2009)

It's official; all winless teams must quake in fear before the mighty New England Patriots! The Pats laid the smackdown on the Bucs, sending their second consecutive oh-fer team home still oh-fer. The win kept them a game ahead of the Jets in the AFC East, and with the bye week to recuperate and reassess, it will seem like a long time until there's more football. But don't worry, yours truly doesn't *take* no stinkin' bye weeks, so the mid-season report will be forthcoming sometime soon.

Even though the score wasn't as bad, this game might have been unofficially over even quicker than the Titans game. Tampa's first two possessions were ended by Brandon Meriweather interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and the Pats led 14-0 in the first quarter. Tampa fought longer in this game, but Tennessee didn't start getting blown out until the second quarter. Brandon McGowan continued to impress, with two passes defended and five tackles, while Leigh Bodden added two passes defended but let up a few, too. More often than has been usual, the secondary was a step late, specifically Darius Butler on the Bucs only touchdown. But it isn't going to be perfect every week.

The rest of the defense played extremely well. It is always impressive to hold a team to 27% on third down conversions, 89 yards rushing, 26:45 time of possession, and a QB rating of 36.6 (with 3 interceptions). The line did a great job pressuring the QB, and it wasn't all Wilfork this time. Ty Warren played inspired, getting back to his 2006 form, and he was helped by Mike Wright and rookie Myron Pryor. The team also moved Derrick Burgess to down lineman and played a lot of 4-3, and that energized Burgess. He wasn't dominant, but he had his first sack in six weeks and didn't crumble on the point against the run.

(Suggestion for Phil Simms and Jim Nance, yesterday's announcers. When you tout a player before the game [in this case Tampa left tackle Donald Penn] at least have the guts to admit you were wrong when he is consistently beaten. Penn didn't hold up well on running plays or passing plays. Maybe he had a bad game, but you guys weren't shy in your criticism of Patriots rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- so you might want to be a bit more even-handed about it in the future.)

The linebackers were all over the place, and might have been the real story of the defense. Jerod Mayo continues the Medical Miracle Tour, gutting out 8 tackles even without his full strength or explosion of that injured knee. Can't wait until *he* gets back to full speed. Gary Guyton was solid as usual, and recently benched Adalius Thomas did a great job holding the end against the run.

But the real linebacking star was Tully Banta-Cain. A few weeks back I wrote that Banta-Cain "gets fooled on screens and is a non-factor when the play isn't to his side, even though he's fast enough to run those plays down." Maybe he reads this blog because he made two tackles for a loss and on one screen pass he almost got the QB and then ran down the receiver from behind, even though it was to the *other* side of the field. A great game from a player finding his way in a new defense. Tully, if you feel it necessary to throw any egg my way, I'll be sure to catch it -- face first :)

On offense, it was all about the precision passing game.Tom Brady completed almost 72% of his passes and had another ho-hum 100+ QB rating (107.3, for those keeping score at home). The one complaint is that under pressure he threw two interceptions; though neither proved costly in a blowout. Wes Welker continued to be Mr. Reliable (10 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown), and though Moss got dinged up early, he came in when needed to get first downs. Ben Watson made a nice read on his touchdown, running up the seam when the safety dropped coverage. And Sam Aiken turned a short pass into a long touchdown when he broke a tackle and raced 50 yards for the longest Patriots play of the year.

The running game was decent, breaking 100 yards for the second consecutive week. Laurence Maroney wasn't quite as good as he was against the Titans, but he was decent and was well complimented by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The one concern here is that the team is running dangerously low on running backs, with only Kevin Faulk available beyond Laurence and BenJarvus. If they don't get Sammy Morris or Fred Taylor back from injury soon, they should consider adding a running back now, so they would have two weeks to teach him the offense.

The Pats biggest problem on offense was the penalties. Four false-starts in a neutral-site game? And three offensive holding calls, not to mention two more motion penalties in the kicking game. Tsk tsk tsk... for shame. You guys have got to get this straightened out and fast; two of your next four games are on the road in domes (Indy and New Orleans), so it won't get any easier to hear the snap count.

Special teams played well, with Gostkowski forcing touchbacks on almost all of his kickoffs and the coverage teams neutralizing Tampa's strength in returns. The Bucs did get one partial block of a punt, and almost got another one, so there is some work to do in that area.

So where does that leave us? As previously noted, first place in the AFC East and enjoying a well-earned weekend off. Here's hoping for weather stays as nice as it was Sunday we see a few Yankee losses in the Soon-to-be-Winter Classic.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: So far the season the Patriots have run two fakes out of kicking formations and both times they were called back on motion penalties. Yesterday Logan Mankins was called for a false start on a fake punt; brownie points if you can identify the culprit and game of the other penalty (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "84-7 the last two games. Okay... now that they fattened up on cupcake teams, let's see how they come out of the bye. The next five games will determine whether they are built to go deep in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

uiz answer: Chris Baker against the Ravens -- and he was the intended receiver on the play!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Patriots 59, Titans 0 (10/18/2009)

You can't possibly need an update on this game, can you? Okay... the Patriots pounded the Titans into the Gillette Stadium turf, scoring almost a point a minute and giving up exactly zero. The win put them at 4-2 atop the AFC East all by their lonesome (Jets lost to the Bills), with their next winless opponent flying to London where New England meets Old England for the first time.

How bad was the beating? There are so many stats, many of which were repeated ad nauseum during the game. But here is a comparison they didn't mention:

2 of 14 for -7 yards, 2 INTs, and a QB rating of 14.3
8 for 11 for 52 yards, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 86.4

The first numbers are Tennessee's total passing on the day. The second numbers belong to Patriots rookie free agent QB Brian Hoyer, in his first NFL start. Sort of tells you the kind of day it was for the Titans.

Need more? Okay, how about these stats: first downs gained via the pass, Patriots 21, Titans 1; time of possession 39:00 to 21:00; net passing yards 426 to -7; average per completion 9.1 to -0.5; offensive plays 77 to 50, with the average yards gained 8.0 to 3.7.

It was obvious that Tennessee wasn't prepared for the weather, dropping almost ten passes, including four when they were still in the game. The Pats had a few drops, too, but when your team attempts 45 throws you might miss one or two. Add to that 6 turnovers to zero and 6 touchdowns to zero and you pretty much know the game wasn't going the Titans way.

To save time, here are the Patriots offensive stars on the day:
Tom Brady (29 of 34, 380, 6 touchdowns, 0 INTs)
Brian Hoyer (stats noted already)
Randy Moss (8 catches for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns)
Wes Welker (10 for 150, 2 TDs)
Laurence Maroney (16 carries for 123 yards and 1 touchdown)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (7 for 67 in mop-up duty)
Sebastian Vollmer (filled in admirably for the injured Matt Light)
Logan Mankins (just a nasty guy who hit everything he saw)

What I noticed specifically on offense was Laurence Maroney running hard and playing out of multiple formations, which is key. In the past teams knew that Maroney in the game meant a likely running play, so they overcommitted to stop the run. Nice to see the team mixing it up (and Maroney himself taking advantage of the playing time). I also liked the way they stacked Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to the same side, often getting the rookie open when multiple defenders covered Welker. And of course, the O-line blocking was superb, on downfield passes, screen passes, quick outs, and in the running game.

And to save time, here are the Patriots defensive stars on the day:
Brandon McGowan (7 tackles, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble, and 2 special teams tackles)
Pat Chung (6 tackles and his first INT)
The entire D-Line (plenty of pressure and mostly stopped the run)
Jonathan Wilhite (2 passes defended and a fumble recovery)

The reasons this list is so much shorter are that they didn't have as many plays and after the turnovers got rolling there wasn't a lot to distinguish stars. But seeing more press coverage and knocked down and intercepted passes was a big step forward from the week before against Denver. Glad to see the coaches adjusted their scheme after making Kyle Orton look like Dan Marino.

Special teams still look like a work in progress, but they were decent. Gostkowski missed one (semi-bad snap) and got one, but his kickoffs were consistently high and deep. And given all the kickoffs, the coverage team did okay, with an average starting position of the Titans 30 yard-line. Not great, but not terrible either.

So where does that leave us? At 4-2, the Pats are back where they belong, first place in the division. The 0-6 Bucs are next week, and if the Patriots take care of business they'll enter the bye week at 5-2. And they will need to do just that to keep pace, because the Jets play the lowly Raiders in New York next week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Julian Edelman is the leading rookie receiver in the NFL with 21 catches. The Pats haven't pulled that off for a full season since Terry Glenn in 1996. Of course, they have two players on the current roster who led NFL rookies in receptions their first seasons; give it your best guess (answer below).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Totally kicked Tennessee but the real schedule starts after the bye -- Miami, Indy, the Jets and Saints, and then Miami on the road. That stretch will show how good they really are."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

PPS. After the blowout score, doesn't it feel like 40-2 :)

PPPS. Quiz answer: Randy Moss (1998) and (gulp!) Joey Galloway (1994).