Friday, January 29, 2010

Patriots 2010: Dynasty or Decline?

The Patriots worst playoff loss in 24 years shouldn't cloud the fact that the team stands on the cusp of re-establishing its dynasty for the next five seasons. There are several historical factors that play in their favor. And if they make the right moves this off-season, they could compete for Super Bowl berths through the 2015 season.

They already possess the two most important pieces of the puzzle: a championship quarterback and head coach. They also boast a young defense that allowed the fifth-fewest points in the NFL, and they have 4 of the top 53 draft picks in this year's draft (plus 2 first round picks in 2011), so they can restock their talent pool quickly.

But perhaps most important of all, if the current labor-negotiation situation stays the same, there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season. That means the Patriots can re-sign their high-profile players to favorable contracts, cut loose veterans who aren't working out, and pay free agents as much as they want with no negative impact on their salary cap going forward.

Additionally, some of their AFC rivals will be hurt by the uncapped year. The Colts, Chargers, Ravens, and Jets were among the last eight teams in the playoffs. And under an uncapped off-season, they won't be able to sign new free agents until they lose free agents of their own. So this is an historic chance to add talent while your main rivals can only re-sign their own players.

There will be other teams trying to use the uncapped year to their benefit, so it won't be easy. And the Patriots will have to change some of their philosophy about the draft, free agency, and player contracts to fully take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But if they think outside the box and go full bore, they have a chance to re-build their dynasty on the fly and end up with at least 15 years of greatness that will be considered among the best ever.

The Patriots should be bold in the next four months, aggressively pursuing free agents, re-signing the players they want and cutting those they don't, and using their many draft picks to set themselves up to contend for another five years.

Here are the steps they should take.

1. No More Draft Dodging

First off, the Patriots haven't drafted as badly as some in the media characterize it. A lot of the consternation about the Patriots recent drafts hasn't taken into account draft picks they traded to get veteran players. If you include those trades, the Pats have had very good or great drafts every year except one (2006) since Belichick took over the operation. For example, the only 2007 draft pick still on the roster is Brandon Meriweather; however, they traded three draft picks to get Randy Moss and Wes Welker. So when you add them to the mix the draft looks a lot more productive.

But in recent years they have traded down a lot and also traded picks from one year for higher picks the next year. That is fine when the draft doesn't have a lot of talent or you don't have significant areas of need. However, according to the experts, the 2010 draft is one of the deepest and most talented classes in years. And anyone who saw the Ravens pummel the Pats knows the local team needs a significant talent upgrade. So 2010 is not the year to trade for future picks or trade down for better value for the money.

2010 is the year to trade up and get the most talent at your positions of need. The team could even trade future picks to get young players this year, though that isn't essential. But what is essential is that they hit on as many of their picks as they can. It would be great if they contribute right away, but for the Pats to compete for the next five championships, they will need a draft more like 2003 (Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Tully Banta-Cain, and Eugene Wilson) than 2006 (Stephen Gostkowski, Laurence Maroney, and just about no one else).

The Patriots greatest areas of need are as follows:
  • Defensive linemen who can collapse the pocket
  • Outside linebackers who can play pass and run
  • Tight ends who can create separation in the passing game
  • Cornerbacks with size, speed, and good ball skills
  • Offensive linemen
  • Running backs who can... well, run the ball
They could also use a punter but should pursue one in free agency instead.

2. Use Cap-less to Avoid Hap-less

The only silver lining to the Patriots playoff loss is that they weren't one of the last eight teams in the playoffs. Those teams have severe restrictions on their 2010 free agent activity. But the Patriots are free to sign as many players as they want, while the top eight playoff teams will have to wait for one of their free agents to leave before bringing in new ones.

And given that this is an uncapped year, there is virtually no limit on how much the Patriots can pay the players. And that is true for re-signing their own guys as well as free agents from other teams. For example, the Patriots can match any offer that Vince Wilfork gets, and with a dearth of talented nose tackles on the market, there is no real excuse not to bring him back. Even if the Patriots think Mike Wright or Myron Pryor can replace Wilfork, why take the chance? Re-sign Vince and let 'em all play for you next year -- it will help the team win more games, and the young guys would get a few more years learning under a Pro Bowl nose tackle.

The Pats can also sign their own players to contract extensions, and if they play it right, they can leave themselves plenty of salary cap room in the future. Tom Brady is the best example of this. His contract runs out after next year. So why not redo his contract and pay him $60 million this year and $1 million a year for each of the next four years? That puts 94% of the contract money on the 2010 uncapped ledger and allows them lots of salary cap flexibility for 2011 - 2015.

And as for bringing in free agents, not only are teams free to pay whatever they can afford, but they are not even limited by the 53-man roster. That only applies during the regular season; so the Patriots could bring in virtually as many players as they want at any salary level the player is willing to accept, and then only keep the players who work out well. So it also benefits the Patriots to bring in lots of talent and let the players compete for playing time and roster spots. For example, if they think they're thin at linebacker, they can sign Julius Peppers. And Shawne Merriman. And DeMeco Ryans. And... well, you get the idea.

Note: they should not bring in lots of mid-level free agents, as they have done in the past. That is a strategy to pursue in years when you are limited by the cap, not this year. At the end of the day they can only keep 53 players, so they should spend this particular off-season concentrating on quality, not quantity. If they want to go back to signing mid-level free agents in 2011, that's fine -- but 2010 is not the year to concentrate on players who might not even make the team.

The last thing to consider is how best to hurt your competition while helping yourself. Signing players from the Colts, Steelers, Chargers, Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, does double duty, as it helps your team and hurts your main conference and division rivals. So for example, getting Antoine Bethea helps you and hurts the Colts, which is a lot more valuable than signing Nick Collins from Green Bay, since the Packers play in the NFC.

3. Wallet, Meet Crowbar

In the past, the Patriots have paid top dollar for players who they believed were worth the money. They paid Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas more than anyone else offered. And they re-signed Randy Moss for more than any other team would have paid. But some years they left salary cap money on the table. It wasn't always their fault -- Deion Branch, for example, wouldn't resign, so some of the money they set aside for that purpose was never spent.

It's possible that their current building boom in Foxboro (Patriots Place, The CBS Scene, etc.) might have cut into money they had for bonus payments the past few years. But now is the time to make a full commitment to use all revenue streams, any money they have socked away, and any other resources they can bring to bear to get the players they need. With two major pieces in place (coaching and quarterbacking), this off-season -- and only this off-season -- offers them the ability to fix their problems quickly.

So put the construction on hold, pay your debts as slowly as you can, and use all your resources to rebuild the team this year. After all, if the Patriots decline into mediocrity, the stadium and everything around it will look a lot emptier in the future. And empty seats and parking lots are bad business; owner Bob Kraft knows that better than anyone.

4. Coach's Decision

The 2010 labor situation doesn't specifically impact this, but if the Patriots want to be Super Bowl contenders, they have to change how they hire and treat coaches.

The team has experienced a slow erosion of coaching talent since they started winning Super Bowls. Offensive and defensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left in 2005, followed by Eric Mangini the next year, and Josh McDaniels in 2008. Dean Pees already left this year, and the team lost several other lower-level coaches along the way.

This is to be expected. When you win in the NFL other teams sign away your coaches to strengthen their team while weakening yours. But the Patriots rarely bring in coaches from outside the organization, and don't use them to their full potential when they do (e.g. Dom Capers). And the coaches they promote through the ranks take too long to grow into their new jobs (Josh McDaniels), are not fully trusted by Belichick (Bill O'Brien), or leave too quickly (Eric Mangini).

So starting this off-season, they should change two things:

A. They should hire the best coaches available, whether that is a promotion from inside or someone from another team.

The Saints hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from outside the organization last year, and the defensive improvement helped propel them to the Super Bowl. So sometimes it is best to hire from outside your team, and the 2009 Saints showed what the right hire can do.

If the Patriots expect to compete with teams that will hire the best available coaching talent, they have to do the same. Without input from outside coaches, the offense and defense have gotten stale, and the team wastes too many years grooming coordinators who aren't ready for the job. And inevitably those coordinators either flame out (Dean Pees) or are signed away from the Patriots before they can benefit from the years spent teaching them (Mangini).

B. They should not hire coaches in whom Bill Belichick has less than 100% confidence about their ability to do the job.

Once coaches are in place, they must be trusted to implement the game plan and communicate adjustments on game day. In recent years, Belichick has spent too much time making in-game adjustments on defense while his offense suffered. It probably cost them the a championship in 2007, and last year the offense needed help but the head coach was busy doing Dean Pees' job for him.

It is incredible that the coach who made "do your job" an organizational mantra would think it doesn't apply to him. But it is about time he took his own advice. So two simple rules to follow for hiring coaches: (1) get the best coach available, and (2) once they are in place, let them do their job.

As for which coaches they should consider replacing, here is my list:
  • Defensive coordinator, because they don't currently have one
  • Offensive coordinator, because they don't currently have one
  • Tight ends, they never get enough production from that position
  • Cornerbacks, they haven't played well since Mangini left
  • Quarterbacks, because they don't currently have one
  • Strength and conditioning, because they annually suffer more injuries than other teams

So here the Patriots stand, on verge of becoming one of the great NFL dynasties ever. And with an uncapped 2010 falling into their lap when they need it most, it is all there in front of them. Belichick can be considered perhaps the greatest coach in history; Brady the greatest quarterback; Kraft the greatest owner; and the New England Patriots the greatest team of the Super Bowl era.

Bob Kraft modeled the Patriots after the San Francisco 49ers. Well, those Niners won 5 Super Bowls in a 14-year span. So if he wants to emulate them, Kraft will have to win it all twice in the next five years. And the uncapped 2010 off-season and the 2010 draft are his best chance at immortality.

Will he go for that brass ring? We won't know until free agency starts on February 27th. So stay tuned.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Patriots Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees Resigns

Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees resigned from the Patriots yesterday. According to Pees' statement, it was for health reasons, and that appears to be true in this case. Pees was diagnosed with prostate cancer this summer, had trouble with blood clots, and was hospitalized during the last game of the season at Houston.

A year ago, in January of 2009, I wrote of Pees: "[Belichick's] got enough to worry about on Sundays to be dealing directly with the minutiae that his coordinators should handle. So he needs to hire a real [offensive coordinator], and if he doesn't have enough faith in [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees, he should fire or demote him and hire someone he trusts."

Ironically, Pees did a much better job in 2009 than he had in 2008. Despite turning over more than half of his defensive starters (6 new players in 2009) and losing a lot of star power (e.g. the trade of Richard Seymour and injuries to Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo) he and his staff fielded the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL. The defensive backfield was improved, while the linebackers regressed, but somehow the staff held it together. The failing this year was the offense, not the defense, so it is tough to see Pees leave when he did such an admirable job.

I've thought for a few year that Pees should step aside, though no one ever wants poor health to be the reason. Dean, my best wishes for a full recovery and a long life and career. And best of luck in whatever new role you take on next.

- Scott

Patriots 2009 Regular Season Awards

A home playoff loss shouldn't overshadow a 10-5 record, an AFC East division title, and all the players who performed well in the regular season. So here are my 2009 Patriots Regular Season Awards.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Wes Welker
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady, Sebastian Vollmer

Welker wins in a walk. He missed almost three full games and still led the NFL in receptions (123) and yards after the catch (not an official stat), and was second in receiving yards. He was uncoverable most of the year, notching 71 first downs, 32% of the team's first downs via the pass, and was clearly Tom Brady's most reliable target. He wasn't the most feared receiver in the league; but he was probably the most consistent.

Brady ended the year with a playoff clunker, but without him they would not have won close games against Buffalo (twice) or Baltimore, and thus would not have made the playoffs. Vollmer, a rookie, stepped in for injured players at several positions along the offensive line, and performed like a seasoned veteran every time, even dominating several great pass rushers.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Wes Welker
Honorable Mention: None

If you throw out the last game of the year, Welker increased his yards per game by almost 40%, accounted for 52% more first downs per game, and he did all that without a true threat opposite Randy Moss.

The rest of the offense was probably worse in 2009, so no honorable mention.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Sebastian Vollmer
Honorable Mention: Julian Edelman

Sebastian was a real find in the draft, and might allow Matt Light to move to right tackle next year (his natural position). Vollmer absolutely dominated some of the best pass rushers this year (Dwight Freeney in Indianapolis and Elvis Dumervil in Denver), was a stud on running plays and showed great versatility filling in on three line positions.

Edelman's injury was one of the season's big disappointments. He led NFL rookies in catches through six weeks, but missed four of the last ten games with injuries and finished back in the pack. It would have been interesting to see him with a full season.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Tully Banta-Cain
Honorable Mention: Brandon Meriweather, Vince Wilfork

After a two-year hiatus in San Francisco, Banta-Cain came back this year and accounted for 10 of the team's 31 sacks on the year; he was really their only pass rushing threat. He also finished seventh in total tackles, improved at holding the edge against the run as the year progressed (except the playoff game), and used his speed to track down plays from behind, something I thought he should have done all along.

Meriweather played great in some games (Titans) and terrible in others (Saints), and he needs to stop going for knock hits and just make the tackle more often. But his stabilizing influence on a young secondary was invaluable. Wilfork played great when he was in there; but he missed three entire games and most of a fourth.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Gary Guyton
Honorable Mention: Mike Wright

Guyton played in 15 games as a rookie in 2008, but he graduated to a 16-game starter in 2009. And he made the most of the extra playing time, more than doubling his tackles (from 34 to 85), recording the first 1.5 sacks of his career, and holding down the fort until Jerod Mayo returned from injury.

Wright probably didn't expect to become a starter, but the trade of Richard Seymour and injuries to Wilfork and Ty Warren gave him more playing time. He rewarded the team with career highs in tackles (35), sacks (5.0), and even knocked down two passes. He is a high-motor guy who didn't always play great, but showed he is worthy of more time on the field.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Brandon McGowan
Honorable Mention: Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler

McGowan is a hitter who brought a new attitude to the defense, forcing fumbles and making big hits to help win games (Buffalo, Baltimore, and Jacksonville). As the year went on he made fewer big plays (partly due to shared playing time with James Sanders), but he was second on the team in tackles and had three crucial forced fumbles.

Leigh Bodden was the best free agent corner added this year. He knocked away twice as many passes (18) as the second best defensive back (Meriweather with 9), tied for the team lead in interceptions (5) and scored a touchdown on one, and had some great plays against top receivers. Butler didn't start until late in the year, but he was the only defensive back who improved every time he played.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Jake Ingram
Honorable Mention: Stephen Gostkowski

This is where you ask, "Jake who?" Ingram replaced long-snapping stalwart Lonie Paxton. And guess what; you'd never know the difference. He missed by just a bit on his first field goal snap of the season, but never had another bad one all year. Not too shabby when you are replacing a 10-year veteran who was one of the acknowledged best in the game (and a local "snow angel" legend to boot!).

Gostkowski did miss more field goals this year (5 instead of 4), but he averaged almost 4 more yards per kickoff, and he forced more touchbacks (21) than any previous campaign. Mostly rock solid -- he even made some special teams tackles :)

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: None

Slater's numbers dropped from 2008, but he helped fill the void left by the departure of Larry Izzo, and it was my sense that he did a better job in coverage, even though he recorded fewer tackles. In most years he would be an honorable mention, but there was not a lot of improved play on special teams this year, so he scores top honors for the category.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Jake Ingram
Honorable Mention: Kyle Arrington, Pat Chung

See above for information about Ingram; his impact can't be minimized.

Arrington was cut by Tampa Bay earlier in the year and found a place on the Pats special teams coverage units. He played only the last eight games, but was around the ball making tackles on a regular basis. Rookie Pat Chung started out shaky (some bad penalties), but toward the end of 2009 he was contributing more on special teams.

That is it for the regular season awards. Keep an eye out for my season-ending questions post, and until then...

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Patriots 14, Ravens 33 (1/10/2010)

So what would happen if they held a playoff game and only one team showed up? 33-14 Ravens is what. The Patriots were knocked out of the post-season with their worst playoff loss since 46-10 (points off if you don't know what game that was). The loss ended their season and their continuing offensive futility portends of big changes for the 2010 campaign.

No need to bore anyone with tedious details; the entire team did not show up, the Ravens did, and it was that simple. Brady had the worst playoff game of his career, by far, tossing 3 interceptions (one a fluke, one bad, and one terrible), losing a fumble on a strip sack, and (according to reports) missing wide open receivers. He got some pressure, but mostly it was on him -- bad decisions that snowballed into a 24-7 halftime deficit. And the 2009 Patriots, as you know, were not a second-half comeback team.

It might be tough to swallow, but the defense actually played pretty well. There were two missed tackles on the first play, an 83-yard touchdown run. But aside from that play, they held the Ravens to less than 3 yards a carry, and Baltimore QB Joe Flacco went a mere 4-10 for 34 yards and 1 INT. The final score was bad, but aside from the long run, the Ravens scored on "drives" of 17, 25, 18, and 52 yards -- short fields provided by Brady and terrible special teams coverage. BTW, the Ravens average starting position was the 50 yard line. Not going to win very often when that's the case.

On special teams, it was bad punts, big returns against bad coverage, and a missed field goal. The only bright spots were a muffed-punt turnover that gave them their first touchdown and a big return by Darius Butler that led to their second. But there were way too many downers to call this anything but a bad special teams performance.

And the coaching... ah, the coaching. It's almost midnight and I think the Patriots just called the inside draw to Kevin Faulk AGAIN! My friend Al asked how many times they would run that before they realized it wasn't working. 9? 10? 11? maybe it was 42. For the game, Faulk had 14 carries and got 2 first downs on that play. And you'd think they would bail on the wide receiver screen after the first three lost yardage; but nope, called it one more time just to be sure. The Pats looked like a team with no offensive coordinator (which is technically true), though somebody was calling those hideous plays.

Furthermore, why go for it on 4th-and-17 and then kick an iffy (and unhelpful) 44 yard field goal on 4th-and-11 on the same drive -- a kick that went wide-right. And the Ravens passed on 10 plays and ran on 52, so it was probably safe to try some run blitzes or go to a 4-3 to stop the ground game. Anything to put the ball in Joe Flacco's hands, where the Ravens clearly did not want it.

So where does that leave us? In the midst of a long, cold winter. Better be a productive one, because a lot of Patriots Nation is sharpening up their pitchforks!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady dropped back to pass 45 times, Joe Flacco just 10. I would venture to guess it's been a long time since a team passed the ball 4.5-times as often as their playoff opponent.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Somehow I don't think Wes Welker would have made much difference in this one. Unless he could play quarterback."

Store your faith in a freezer bag and don't forget to thaw it around July 15,

- Scott

PS. 10-7!
0-1 :(

Friday, January 8, 2010

Preview of Patriots vs. Ravens (1/8/2010)

You might have heard that the Baltimore Ravens are coming to town (Sunday at 1:00!), hoping to avenge an early season loss and continue in the playoffs. And of course, the Patriots are hoping to send them home with another loss and make their own playoff run. So who will prevail? And how will the game play out? As is my general mode, I will look closely at the last game they played (link) and determine if enough has changed since then to account for a different outcome. The Patriots won the earlier game 27-21, with the Ravens falling short on a last-minute drive, so they have some ground to make up, albeit not much. Here's how I see it:

1. Flacco will be less flustered

The October game was QB Joe Flacco's first against the Patriots, and he struggled as so many young quarterbacks do when Bill Belichick has enough film to game plan against them. His QB rating was a subpar 78.7, he took two bad sacks and threw an INT. But the advantage that BB has in the first game usually dissipates a bit in the second, so Flacco should post a better game this time around.

That is especially true given that Baltimore's head coach and offensive coordinator both know a lot about quarterback play. That can't help but be an advantage for the Baltimore QB, but Flacco will need to play a completely clean game -- no interceptions or fumbles and hit receivers when they are open -- to win a playoff game on the road. And of course, Pats corners Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler are playing better now than they were then.

2. Brady and company will be less offensive

The Patriots offense didn't really click until two weeks after the Baltimore game, and they have been more productive since. Mind you one of Brady's favorite targets won't play on Sunday (Wes Welker, who is out of the playoffs), but at least they have a serviceable replacement for him (rookie Julian Edelman). However, since that first Baltimore game they found a new O-line starter in Sebastian Vollmer, the running game is stronger, and Brady's timing with is receivers is vastly improved.

And the offense wasn't that bad against the Ravens in October. So if the game isn't a blowout, the offensive balance and improved timing should help the Patriots score more than the 27 points they got in October.

3. Weather or not

The first game was played in beautiful conditions: 64-degrees, sunny with very little wind. This time it will be sunny, but about 40-degrees colder, and the wind is predicted to be about 8 mph, which translates to about 12-to-15 mph in the stadium.

That could mean more dependence on the running game, and that is an advantage for the Ravens. Ray Rice gained 9.4 yards a carry in the first game, but his team fell behind so they had to throw more in the second half, making it difficult to take full advantage of the ground game. But if the weather poses problems this Sunday, the Ravens can line up and run it with the best of them. The Patriots are running the ball better lately, and match the two-headed Baltimore running game (Ray Rice and Willis McGahee) with a four-headed running game of their own (Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk).

But windy weather is probably still an advantage for the Ravens, so watch those weather reports.

4. "It's the play-offs after all" (sing it to the tune of "It's a Small World")

In October, Ravens receivers dropped easy passes, Flacco missed reads and held the ball too long, Ray Lewis missed a tackle that let Tom Brady score on a QB sneak, and the Baltimore defense guessed wrong too often and gave up 27 points. In October, the Patriots offense tightened up in the second half, Brady was stripped of the ball and it was returned for a touchdown, and the kickoff coverage team gave up an ill-timed 38-yard return late in the game.

Now it's the playoffs, and those passes will be harder to catch, the reads tougher to make, defensive guesses riskier, tight offenses more difficult to overcome, turnovers more dangerous, and bad special teams plays more devastating. The Pats have much more playoff experience than the Ravens, with solid offensive and special teams performers (Brady, Faulk, Moss, the O-line, and Gostkowski).

So as the games get later and every mistake is magnified, expect the Ravens to crack a few more times in this game than the Patriots do. It might not make any difference in this game; but it well could.

Quick hits:

A. One thing that hasn't changed is the Ravens penchant for self-destruction. In the last five games, on average they gave up 3 sacks for 19 yards, lost 2 turnovers (1 INT & 1 lost fumble), and committed 6.5 penalties for 67 yards per game. In the playoffs, no team can afford that many turnovers, and the penalties can be killers if they come at the wrong time.

B. Those hoping that Julian Edelman can replace Wes Welker should be warned: Edelman's two best games this year were 8 catches against the Jets and 10 catches against the Texans. The Patriots lost both those times.

C. Two special teams notes. First, the Patriots need a repeat performance from punter Chris Hanson, who averaged 38.3 yards per boot, and more importantly, allowed zero return yards on the day. However, they'd like a bit of improvement from kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who allowed a 38 yard return on his last kickoff of the day -- giving the Ravens too good a chance at a game winning touchdown drive.

D. The Patriots are 8-0 at home this year, undefeated at Gillette Stadium in the post-season, and Tom Brady hasn't lost at home since 2006.

E. The Patriots are 5-0 all time against the Ravens (regular season and playoffs).


So all in all, this game looks like a repeat of the earlier one. The Patriots offense will do better, and so will the Ravens offense. Special teams will likely be a wash, and the Patriots are bringing back their run-stoppers on defense (Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren). Given all that, it should go much like the game in October. Unfortunately for those looking to hear the Patriots get the victory, the earlier game was a six-point win and the Ravens were driving for a winning score near the end.

Should be a close one; but the Patriots have a stellar post-season record at home, have the playoff experience needed for close ballgames, and have never lost to the Ravens. Sounds like a win. But as with every Pats post-season game this year, do *not* bet on it :)

Post-season Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Ravens play with so much emotion that they're always dangerous in a one-and-done scenario. They can't win every week like that; I'm just hoping they don't do it this weekend."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Playoff Preview 2009 (1/7/2010)

That's right, Jim... it's the PLAYOFFS!! The real season, the tournament, the one-and-done, win-or-go-home time of year when parity is the watchword and any team that's in has at least a chance to make a run and hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Miami on February 7. The time when frozen toes and scream-induced laryngitis are a small price to pay if your team advances, when even the meekest fan raises trash-talking to obscene new levels, and when unknown players can become legends and well known stars can punch their tickets to Canton (link).

31 days from now a new NFL Champion will be crowned. And even though logically it's true that every team has a chance, here is my take on which teams have the best chance to prevail, which ones might do it but probably won't, and which ones are just party crashers that security staff should escort to the exit. (Bear in mind my low success rate at predicting the eventual winners. I only continue this tradition to give people a chance to mock and deride me. Keeps me humble.)

The Faves

1. The San Diego Chargers have the most momentum of any team entering the playoffs. They won their last 11 games, have the QB who *should* win the MVP (Philip Rivers) and a dynamic pair of wide receivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, both of whom went over 1,000 yards for the season and who had 17 touchdowns between them. Rivers was third in the NFL with a 104.4 QB rating, is rarely sacked (less than 1.5 times a game), and his 28 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions show he is making good decisions with the ball, which is crucial in the post-season.

Their kicking game is solid if not spectacular, and you can run on them if you stay close. The big question mark for the Chargers is whether they can overcome past playoff failures. Head coach Norv Turner has never taken a team to the Super Bowl, always failing in the first or second rounds. In fact, he might be praying for a Ravens upset on Sunday, because if the Patriots prevail, they will travel to San Diego, and that has not been a good matchup for the Chargers. But if Norv and company can hold it together in that first game, this is a great chance for an athletically gifted team to finally live up to expectations.

2. The Indianapolis Colts are one of the three clear favorites. They boast the best record in the league, took the last three weeks getting their players healthy, and will play at home as long as they last in the AFC playoffs. Peyton Manning is not the best QB in the league, but it doesn't matter. When he needs to rise to the occasion, he is currently the QB you want under center when the game is on the line (sorry Tom Brady). They have no running game, but no matter the weapons, no matter the circumstances, Manning delivered about a hundred comeback wins this year (okay, it was really nine).

If your team can stop the offense, the defense can be had, as several key players are nursing injuries and there is a lack of experience in the secondary. But the players are playoff tested, and the entire organization is supremely motivated to win it all, especially after they got put through the ringer for not going all out for an undefeated season.

The only reason they are listed behind the Chargers is that they can't beat them in the playoffs. But if someone knocks off San Diego, it'll be clear sailing for another Colts trip to the Super Bowl.

3. The Green Bay Packers enter the playoffs on a 7-1 streak, with the loss a last-second miracle touchdown by the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They played three playoff teams during that streak and dominated the Cowboys, man-handled the Ravens, and embarrassed the Cardinals. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers takes too many sacks, but he has 30 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions (only 2 in the second half of the season), and boasts the quietest 103.2 QB rating in NFL history (fourth in the league).

On the flip side, the defense allowed a QB rating of 68.8 (and 6.4 yards per attempt), grabbed 30 interceptions and the team sports an absolutely *sick* turnover ratio of +24 (+9 ahead of the second place team). The Pack scores 28 points a game and gives up only 18, and they have serious momentum going into the playoffs. That is a team to be reckoned with, my friends.

A Notch Below

4. The New Orleans Saints are the first seed in the NFC, but appear ripe for a first or second round exit. They are a lot like the 2007/8 Dallas Cowboys (another NFC #1 seed that I correctly predicted would lose early in the playoffs). The Saints are playing their worst football at the worst possible time; the last four games in which they played their starters went as follows: almost lost at Washington, almost lost at Atlanta, lost at home to Dallas, and lost at home to Tampa Bay (YIKES!). Those two home games exposed some serious weaknesses; too many turnovers, poor special teams, their QB play is slipping, and after those two home losses, no one will be intimidated by the home crowd or the 13-3 record.

Additionally, no team has ever won the Super Bowl after losing its last three regular season games (which New Orleans did); they have no playoff experience to speak of, and their offensive output has dropped from 37 points a game (through week 12) to 23 (in their last 4 meaningful contests). There's also the fact that only two dome teams have won the Super Bowl -- trivia question: can you name them (answer below)? The Saints were the early favorite to go all the way, and they could still win it all. But don't be surprised if they're out before Feb. 7.

5. At first glance, the Minnesota Vikings should be ranked higher: a 12-4 record, scored the second most points in the league, good run offense and defense, and finally have a decent QB. But a closer look reveals a lot of cracks in their armor. All-world running back Adrian Peterson hasn't broken 100 yards since mid-November; it's been even longer since D-linemen Jared Allen had a big game; their last three road losses were bad ones (@Chicago, @Carolina, and @Arizona); they seem to have lost their big play ability, and there is locker room dissent with the QB vs. the Coach drama. Also, there's that pesky "dome team" thing (noted above), and I don't see the Vikes becoming the third dome team to win it all. I almost put them in the next category down.

A Puncher's Chance

6. The New England Patriots could get blown out in the first round or find themselves on the way to Miami. But there are too many variables and questions to give them anything more than a puncher's chance at the crown. Running backs Laurence Maroney and Fred Taylor bring different strengths to the position, but both had fumble problems. Wideout Randy Moss is hot-and-cold, and the most important receiver (Wes Welker) was replaced by rookie Julian Edleman for the playoffs. The O-line is great when their best five play, but injuries are a problem there. And speaking of injuries, QB Tom Brady has hand, rib, and shoulder problems, and he's been inconsistent. Oh, and they can't score in the second half.

And that's just the *offense*! The defense is young and improving, but linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren have been out, and their replacements are about a 50-50 proposition. The linebackers are good but not great, sometimes the pass rush gets consistent pressure and sometimes it disappears, and the secondary is young and probably thinks it's better than it really is. However, at least the defensive coaches make good adjustments; the halftime adjustments on offense have been pathetic.

So if Edelman plays like a vet, Wilfork is healthy, they get past the Ravens and the Chargers fall apart in the second round, then it's possible they could play for the AFC Championship. That's a lot of "ifs" that have to go their way, but with the playoff experience and Brady and Belichick it's possible. Just don't be the mortgage on it.

7. The Philadelphia Eagles would be higher up, but they lost to Dallas the final week and now have to win three straight road games to get to the big game. The quarterback and coach have plenty of playoff experience (5 NFC championship games and 1 Super Bowl), they have playmakers on offense (Donovan McNabb, DeShawn Jackson, and Brian Westbrook), defense (Asante Samuel), and a solid kicking game. If this was about which team would win this weekend, they'd be ranked lower. But even on the road for the entire playoffs, the Eagles have a better chance to be in Miami than any of the teams listed below.

8. Last year, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals took the league by surprise, winning a mediocre division before storming through the playoffs and almost pulling out a Super Bowl victory. Their big win during that run was a drubbing of the Panthers in Carolina, and they were fortunate that the Eagles knocked out the Giants, which brought the NFC Championship Game to Phoenix. And honestly, the Cardinals still almost lost that game. But give them credit; they would have been Super Bowl champs if they'd tackled James Harrison on his 100 yard interception return.

So what changed this year? Arizona won a mediocre division, scored fewer points than they did last year, gave up fewer points than last year, and now they can't take anyone by surprise. Half of their dynamic receiving duo is hobbling (Anquan Boldin) and half of their dynamic cornerback tandem is hobbling (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). They've got the playoff experience where they need it (coach and QB), but the stars must align perfectly for them to make another run, and it just ain't happening two years in a row.

9. The Dallas Cowboys won their division and secured the #3 NFC position; they rank second in points allowed and pitched two shutouts to end the season, and they lost by just three points to the mighty Chargers. So why the low ranking? They have been to the playoffs recently and always flame out early, had only one decent road victory all year, and head coach Wade Phillips and QB Tony Romo inspire no confidence at all. That places them squarely in the "puncher's chance" category -- could win if everything falls just right.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

10. The Cincinnati Bengals are a real enigma this year. They swept their division, but by an average of only 5 points a game (including back-to-back-to-back 3 point wins). They had terrible losses to the Raiders, the Vikings, and the Jets (47-0 last week) but almost won on the road in San Diego three weeks ago. Their defense is ranked sixth in points allowed, but they only scored 14 more points than they gave up. The bottom line is that they need to win four games in a row, and have no playoff pedigree. Just not going to happen.

11. The Baltimore Ravens scored 130 more points than they allowed this year, and yet only finished 9-7 and squeezed into the playoffs on tie-breakers. They notched their only big road win four months ago (September 20) in San Diego, before the Chargers found themselves and reeled off 11 wins in a row. They have very little positive playoff experience, have a defense that feeds off emotion (and that happens to have its best player, safety Ed Reed, injured), and it's tough to see them cranking it up to win on the road three straight weeks. They fell out of the "puncher's chance" category because they depend on emotion and it's tough to summon that for three straight road games. But they do have a decent running game, so they could give some teams trouble. Just not enough trouble to make it to Miami.

12. The New York Jets have a very good defense and a good running game. But their coach is too unsteady and the QB turns the ball over way too often to win three road games and a Super Bowl. They had a nice year, but sneaking into the playoffs with a 9-7 record and favorable tie-breakers isn't a great resume. They will need more offensive firepower to contend again next year. To contend this year? They need more offensive firepower *and* a new QB -- but the trading deadline is long past :)

So there's your Playoff Preview for 2009. Enjoy the games!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: The St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts are the only two dome teams to win the Super Bowl.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Patriots 27, Texans 34 (1/3/2010)

A 34-27 loss to the Houston Texans is in the books; not a great showing, not a terrible showing, not a lot to show for the trip. As AFC East champions, the Patriots will host the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs this Sunday (1:00). Much of my analysis of that game will be in a mid-week update about the playoff contenders, in which I'll detail my guess at each team's chances of winning the Super Bowl.

As for Sunday's game, the biggest story was the likely season-ending injury to Wes Welker. His knee buckled without being hit when he tried to cut to the right, and it was obvious by his very emotional reaction afterward that it is not going to be good news. He will clearly be sidelined for this Sunday's game. And according to early reports he might have the same injury Brady had last year, which would keep him out of the playoffs and most of the 2010 season.

Difficult as it is to see this happen, the criticism directed at Bill Belichick is simply unreasonable. Even when teams rest players in advance of the playoffs, the starters always play at least the first quarter, just to keep them sharp. Welker's injury occurred five minutes into the game in a non-contact situation, something that could have happened to any NFL superstar last weekend, because they all played on their team's first series. The Welker injury is a case of disastrous timing and circumstances; nothing more.

However, Belichick should be taken to task for playing Tom Brady in the second half. Brady is nursing multiple injures (reported to be broken ribs and a broken finger on his throwing hand). And BB kept at least three starters (Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and Kevin Faulk) inactive because they were already injured. So playing Brady was inconsistent with how he treated other players. And there was clearly no call to play him beyond the first quarter. He should have been given no more than a quarter's worth of work on Sunday -- the risk of further injuring his ribs or hand was just too great. And playing him was not logically consistent with how Belichick treated other injured star players.

Julian Edelman will play the part of Welker in the playoffs. He is no Wes, who was the maestro of YAC (yards after the catch), made up for the subpar tight ends and running game, and was terrific at punt returns. But Edelman does have many of the skills necessary to play the slot receiver in the Patriots offense: quickness off the line, sharp moves, ability to weave through traffic, and decent YAC. He doesn't have the rapport with Brady, so there might be a missed communication or two each game. But earlier in the year Edelman was developing into the third best receiver on the roster. So the only positive spin you can put on this is that at least the Patriots have a serviceable receiver to take over for Welker in the playoffs.

As for the game, it was a mishmash. Starters played the first quarter, and then ducked out for the second, only to return in the third and then some of them bowed out for the fourth. All that shifting around made it difficult to see who was playing well.

Brady was only mediocre; mostly due to inconsistent protection. He didn't throw a touchdown, and his lone INT came when he was getting hammered by Mario Williams, and some miscommunications with Edelman caused a few incomplete passes. The team started their best five offensive linemen, but swapped in backups during the game. Starter Stephen Neal got beaten on a few plays, and did not have his best day. However, when they ran the ball, Neal, Logan Mankins, and astounding rookie Sebastian Vollmer were just beasts, and that might be their best strategy in the playoffs.

Among receivers, Randy Moss did a nice job getting some first downs, and Edelman led the team with career highs in receptions and yards (10 for 103) and some nifty moves on a 25 yard scamper. The rest of the receivers were nondescript -- sort of like the rest of the season. It was always Moss and Welker and then some other guys; yesterday is was Moss and Edelman and some other guys.

On defense, the Pats would not have been in the game without Darius Butler's 91-yard interception return for a touchdown. Butler had interceptions in back-to-back blowout wins earlier this year, but this was a nice catch and he jetted up the field untouched for the TD. It was the only score in the third quarter, putting the Patriots up 20-13 even though Houston dominated the quarter. Shawn Springs defended a few passes early (though they didn't show up on the stat sheet), and the safety trio of James Sanders, Brandon McGowan, and Brandon Meriweather made a potent last line of defense.

Unfortunately, those safeties made way too many tackles, as the front seven alternated between acceptable and terrible. The good was Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain, who continue to improve their play. If Warren and Wilfork return for the playoffs, Wright might challenge Jarvis Green for the starting spot in the playoffs, making it an all "W" defensive line. And Jerod Mayo and Derrick Burgess are both peaking at the right time -- with Mayo closer and closer to last year's form and Burgess consistently pressuring the QB, which is what he was brought here to do.

The bad was... well just about everyone else. Gary Guyton made some tackles but got pushed around all game long. Ron Brace started for Wilfork again, and he didn't make a single play that showed up in the stat sheet -- not even an assist on a tackle. Junior Seau blitzed himself out of two running plays and whiffed on a tackle in the backfield. Jarvis Green played beyond invisible, and Myron Pryor looks like a rookie; though not as bad as Brace.

In other words, better hope for Warren and Wilfork to return. The Patriots linebackers can't get off a block and make a tackle consistently, so they need Warren and Wilfork to occupy blockers and allow the 'backers to run untouched to the ball. If only Wilfork returns, they could still be okay. If Vince is out on Sunday, it could be a long day against the Ravens, who had the fourth-best rushing attack in the league (4.7 yards a carry).

Stephen Gostkowski had a very good day kicking, knocking two field goals right down the middle (43 and 51 yards), while his counterpart missed an extra point and two field goals. Gostkowski even made a tackle on a kick return. The punt game was nothing special, for about the 15th week in a row. It would be safe to assume the Patriots will upgrade that position in the off-season.

Belichick's only questionable decision was putting Tom Brady back on the field, especially when the game was a lost cause in the fourth quarter. It made no sense to have your most important player drop back and sling it when the Texans were ignoring the run and just crashing the pocket.

So where does that leave us? Hosting a playoff game is better than traveling for one, and all signs point to the return of Ty Warren and Wilfork. But without Welker the Pats will have to morph some into a run-oriented team. Perhaps it would be best if it was windy on Sunday, to neutralize both passing games and make it a contest of wills with the run. In that circumstance, the crowd could make it tough on the Ravens, who are prone to penalties already. Just an early though -- more to come later in the week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Think Edelman can't replace Welker? Welker's average stat line for the season (minus the partial Texans game) was 9.5 catches for 103 yards. Edelman's stat line on Sunday was 10 catches for 103 yards.

Statistical trivia question (answer below): Last week I suggested the Patriots could capture the lead league in three areas: time of possession, total plays from scrimmage, and fewest points given up. Did they end up leading the NFL in any of those categories? and if so, which one(s)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With Welker, the Pats were the team no one wanted to face. Probably *everyone* wants to face them now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-6!

PPS. Trivia answer


The Patriots led the NFL in time of possession this year, averaging 33:05 per game.