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.

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