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.