Monday, January 17, 2011

Patriots 21, Jets 28

Seems like the easiest path to the Super Bowl wasn't easy enough for the Patriots. The Jets flew into town and handed the Pats their second straight home playoff loss, a 28-21 final that frankly wasn't even that close (a late Patriots touchdown accounted for the 7-point margin). The defeat puts a period on the season and begins a period of self-reflection on what might have been after a 14-2 regular season. The Steelers awaited the winner of last night's contest, and the Patriots have never lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. So in essence, yesterday was the AFC Championship Game for the Pats, and they looked overwhelmed by the opportunity.

Look at the stat sheet, and you'll see each team had areas of advantage, and you might think it all evened out.  The Patriots had more first downs (26 to 14), passing yards (259 to 194), and time of possession (34:56 to 25:04). The Jets had better starting field position (the 45 yard line versus the 28), got the game's only turnover, and had fewer penalties (3 to 6).

But the numbers do not tell the story of how the game got away. The game turned on five really bad plays by the Patriots, that added together were too much to overcome. 

Really Bad Play #1: Tom Brady's interception.

Just like speed kills on the highway, turnovers kill in the playoffs. On their opening possession, the Patriots drove the ball 56 yards and deep into Jets territory. The Jets were on their heels at that point, and the Patriots moved the ball efficiently and easily. On first down from the Jets 28, Brady made two run-fakes and then threw a screen pass to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But he got some light pressure and overthrew the pass, and the Jets picked it off and returned it to the Pats 10 yard line (saving tackle made by Alge Crumpler).

The pressure might have caused the high throw. But it was first down, and the team was already near field goal range, so protecting the ball was of the utmost importance in that situation. If Brady pulled the ball down and took the sack, it would have been second-and-17, and even if the Patriots didn't get the first down, they could try a long field goal.

Brady simply made a big mistake in a big spot. He faced heavy pressure all day, as the Jets 5 sacks for 40 yards, and 7 QB hits attest. But at that juncture in the game, a sack is better than an interception. And even though the Jets didn't score from the Pats 10, without the INT the Pats would have led 3-0 or 7-0. And the next Patriots drive would have made it 6-0, 10-0, or 14-0, except for...

Really Bad Play #2: Alge Crumpler's dropped touchdown.

After stopping the Jets at their own 10, the Patriots mounted another long drive, taking the ball 72 yards to the Jets 7. Brady's play-action fake was effective, and Alge Crumpler beat safety Dwight Lowery to the inside for an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown. Only one problem: Crumpler bobbled the ball and it fell to the ground, incomplete.

Alge was not hit on the play and the defender never got a hand on it either, and the throw was on target. Crumpler just dropped it. So at this point, the Patriots could have been leading 10-0 or 14-0, but because of two bad plays they kicked a field goal and led just 3-0.

Really Bad Play #3: The fake punt.

With 1:10 left in the first half, the Patriots had a fourth-and-4 at their own 38 yard line.  Common sense tells you that the Jets offense hadn't done much, and that trailing 7-3 in the game, the smartest move was to kick it away and make the Jets drive a long field and *maybe* try a long field goal before the half. The Patriots were getting the kickoff to open the 3rd quarter, so punting away would just about guarantee they'd be within one score when they got the ball to start the second half.

But they called a fake punt, snapping it to Patrick Chung for a run around right end. Chung had a lane and it might have worked, but he fumbled the snap and the play blew up... no gain and turned over on downs at their 38 yard line. It took the Jets just three plays to score a touchdown and make it 14-3 at the half.

The fake punt looked like a panic move, and act of desperation that the Patriots almost never commit. At that point in the game, the Jets offense had one long pass play that led to a touchdown, and hadn't done much of anything else. The Pats were only down by 4 points, so there shouldn't have been any panic. But the team tried a risky move with a small upside if it succeeded and a huge downside if it failed. And when it failed, the ultimate downside came to fruition.

Really Bad Play #4: BenJarvus Green-Ellis stuffed at the line.

Trailing 14-3, the Patriots got the ball to start the second half. They called a nice play for a first down, and then two runs left them with third-and-1. The play call was BenJarvus Green-Ellis up the middle (or perhaps over left tackle). However, when the Patriots came to the line, the Jets stacked 10 men in the box to stop the run, leaving the Pats with 9 players to block 10, a mismatch. At the snap, Green-Ellis was met in the backfield and lost yards, forcing a Patriots punt.

However, the biggest mistake on the play wasn't made by the O-line or by Green-Ellis, it was Brady's failure to change the play or call a timeout. A 10-man front is the perfect defense to try a play-action pass. And in fact, when Aaron Hernandez motioned across the formation, he was single covered by a linebacker, a complete mismatch and an easy throw for a first down.

But this was typical of the day; the Patriots failed to take advantage of the opportunity again. No NFL team can regularly run against a 10-man front, the numbers just don't work. Brady had to change the play in that situation, and for the most part this season he has done that without fail. Not sure why he deviated from the plan yesterday; but his mental mistake led to a four-and-out "drive" to start the second half, when the team desperately needed to put points on the board.

Really Bad Play #5: The first onside kick.

Imagine you have totally botched your game plan, messed up multiple plays, mismanaged the clock badly, seen physical and mental breakdowns, and given your opponent every chance to blow you out. Yet somehow you kick a field goal to make it a one-score game, and there is a glimmer of hope. The situation: 2:00 left in the game, you have two timeouts, and the other team has one first-down in the quarter. Your choice: kick the ball away and get a defensive stop, or try an onside kick for all the marbles on one play.

The Patriots somehow convinced themselves that the onside kick was the right choice, even though Shane Graham appears to possess one of the worst onside kicks you'll ever see. And of course, like all their decisions on the day, this one blew up in their faces, resulting in a penalty and giving the Jets the ball at the Pats 23 yard line. The Jets scored a game-icing touchdown.

This was a closer call than the fake punt, whether to kick away or go for the onside. But the Jets were set up to stop the onside kick, so kicking it away would have given them lousy field position. And kicking away puts the pressure on the Jets to make a first down to end the game, which is what you want -- young Jets players under pressure to perform.

But the onside kick took all the pressure off, especially when the Jets returned it to the Patriots 23. Sure, if the Patriots recovered it the game would have been winnable (or at least tie-able). But to put it all on one play, when you kicker can't onside kick to save his life, that seems like a stretch of logic. And it is the kind of stretch of logic the Patriots almost never made in the past. During their heyday, they rarely talked themselves into bad choices, always forcing other teams to deal with pressure rather that put it on themselves. Seems like a loooooong time ago.

Certainly there were other mistakes.  The non-hurry-up in their long fourth-quarter drive, very bad coverage on Jericho Cotchery over the middle, receivers not turning to catch balls they could have had, and problems blocking along the offensive line. But those five were the biggies on the day. If they'd avoided any of them, they might have tied at the end. Avoid two or more of them and the game very likely goes in favor of the Patriots.

So where does that leave us? A long cold winter that started too early and a post-season ended before it really got started. There is the looming threat of a lockout and no football in 2011, so it would have been nice to get another game or two in before that. Stay tuned for off-season updates, thoughts on where the Patriots need to go from here, some thoughts on how to improve the league, the rules, and perhaps even avoid the lockout.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In Tom Brady's last 30 games in Foxborough, he is 28-0 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Last week I saw a kid on Pee Wee football with a better onside kick than Shane Graham."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-1!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Preview of Patriots vs. Jets

Doesn't two weeks between games feel like too much?  Unless of course your team has a playoff bye and a home playoff game -- then you'll accept it, I suppose.  The Patriots face off with the Jets on Sunday, their third meeting of the season, and sure to be a barn-burner.

Naturally the big question is who will prevail, and to answer that question I usually look at the most recent game they played and consider whether or not enough has changed in the interim to alter the outcome.  But that would be a foolish exercise in this case.  The Patriots shellacked the Jets 45-3 last time, a blowout win that almost certainly won't be repeated this time.

So instead of the shortest entry in the history of this blog (e.g. "Patriots will win... tune in Monday for the recap."), I will consider the game a wash at this point and see how the teams are likely to perform, given the venue, the weather, the past history, and playoff experience.

1.  Sunshine and Sunset

Mark Sanchez could be one of "The Sunshine Boys" -- because he plays so much better in good weather than bad, and he plays exceptionally poor games in Gillette Stadium.  His mediocre 62.4 passer rating in the win over the Colts last week is typical for him at this time of year.  And for anyone holding out hope of a great performance by Sanchez, consider how his stats compare from sunny September, to dark and scary December/January, to cold and windy Gillette Stadium:

95 of 162 (58.7%), 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 96.1 QB rating
181 of 324 (55.9%), 7 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 68.0 QB rating
At Gillette Stadium:
25 of 54 (46.3%), 1 touchdown, 7 interceptions, 30.4 QB rating

Not a lot to hang your hat on there.
At running back for the Jets is LaDainian Tomlinson, who at age 31 might be nearing the sunset of his career, and who certainly performs worse as the season hits its sunset -- the playoffs.  Here are the rushing numbers from Tomlinson's last seven playoff games:

16 carries for 82 yards
12 for 24
5 for 25
0 for 0
21 for 42
7 for 28
2 for 5

Even if you discard the 0-0, that averages to 10.5 carries for 34.3 yards a game and a 3.2 yard-per-carry average, not exactly the stuff of legends.  And even though he reportedly is healthier for these playoffs than past years, his 82 yards last week were less impressive given that they came against a porous Indianapolis defense.

None of this is to say that Sanchez and Tomlinson can't do well on Sunday.  Either or both could have breakout games and possibly decide things in the Jets favor.  But history tells us they probably won't. 

2.  On the Defensive

For all the bluster coming out of the Jets and all the praise heaped on Rex Ryan and their defensive talent, the Jets don't have a distinct advantage in the most important defensive statistic, points allowed.  New York gave up 304 points this year, New England gave up 313 -- less than 1 point difference per game.

But the biggest problem when the Jets play the Patriots stems from their basic defensive design.  Rex Ryan built them to stop a more traditional passing attack, with height and speed on the outside, quickness at the slot, size at tight end, and one running back.  Unfortunately for the Jets, they don't face a team like that on Sunday.

The Patriots quick-cut, possession passing game destroyed the Jets scheme last time they played, with multiple receivers beating press coverage at the snap and Tom Brady hitting them in stride for good gains, some with 20+ yards after the catch.  The Jets concentrated on stopping Wes Welker and Deion Branch, but they still grabbed 10 catches for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The Jets will definitely come up with a different scheme to combat the Patriots short game, but they are limited by the type of talent they have.  They need fast, active linebackers and advanced zone schemes to stop an inside/short/possession passing attack, neither of which play to the Jets strengths.

3.  On the Defensive II

The Patriots might have some issues on defense, too.  Last week New York punished the Colts with the running game to hang around and beat them at the end of the game.  Most people think their best chance to win on Sunday is to do more of the same.  And if the Jets can duplicate their 38 rushes for 169 yards 2 touchdowns and a 6:14 advantage in time of possession, they probably have a decent chance.

Their odds of pulling that off increased when Mike Wright and Ron Brace were placed on injured reserve, knocking them out of the playoffs.  The Patriots D-line is mostly Vince Wilfork and a bunch of guys who rotate in and out -- and that usually isn't a good formula to stop the run.  (Although they did finish #11 in the NFL with 4.2 yards given up per rush.)

There are two bits of good news for the Pats defense; Brandon Spikes returns from his suspension, and he is a much better run-stopper than his replacement, Gary Guyton.  Also, with an extra week off, the Patriots defensive linemen should be well rested, making it tougher for the Jets to wear them down with the run.

Still, if the Jets keep the game close, they will continue running the ball.  So perhaps the Patriots best defense would be a good offense -- one that scores a few touchdowns early and makes the Jets abandon the run.

4.  Special of the Day

The impact of special teams could be significant because the level of play between the teams is different.  The Patriots lost Stephen Gostkoswski early in the year, and Shane Graham's kickoffs are shorter and field goal attempts less certain.  Add to that the Jets very good return game, and that could add up to a significant advantage in field position for New York, and also could be trouble if the Patriots need a late field goal.  Graham will have to be very good with his directional kickoffs and the Pats might need to squib the kick if they face a significant wind.

The Patriots kickoff return game is very good, but teams have been kicking away from Brandon Tate, and aside from Dan Connolly's oddball return, the other players haven't picked up the slack very much.  And the Jets are sure to pull out all the stops for the playoffs, so everyone on the kick return team needs to be aware of how to handle short kicks and also be on the alert for trick plays or unexpected onside kicks.

The teams are about equal in the punting game, both having potential game-breaking returners and punters who averaged about the same net yards on the year.  Of course, the Patriots have a rookie punting, and you never know how young players will perform when you get to the playoffs.  Which leads directly into the last major factor...

5.  The Rookies

Much of the Patriots success can be traced to a very good rookie class, and there is no way to predict how the young players will perform in the playoffs. It is especially important to get good games out of the rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and rookie corner Devin McCourty.  Here's a quick break-down of how they are likely to do.

There is evidence that Gronkowski might have trouble performing on the big stage. He had his worst game of the year at Cleveland, and the game plan clearly revolved around Gronkowski attacking the seam against the Browns.  But being featured in the offense affected him negatively.  

Gronk botched the opening kickoff, giving the Browns a short field and an early lead.  And late in the half, he fumbled near the Cleveland goal line, taking potential points off the board that could have made it 17-14 or 17-10 at the half.  He's been featured in the offense much of the rest of the year, showing no ill effects from that early failure.  But you can't be sure how he'll respond in his first playoff game, and it could spell trouble if he plays like he did against Cleveland.

Hernandez played much better early in the year, though he hasn't had any bad games at all and faced tighter coverage once his skills became known throughout the league.  He did miss the last two games with injuries, and with the playoff bye week he hasn't played any meaningful football in almost a month.  Based on that, he could start slowly against the Jets; but given his performance this year he shouldn't have any trouble with playoff intensity.

Devin McCourty is another story entirely.  His play improved just about every week this year, and he helped shut down Braylon Edwards in the second Jets game.  He was their best corner by far this year, and should continue to shine.  Probably won't shut anyone out, but playoffs or no playoffs he is a very good corner who can out-physical or out-technique just about any receiver.

It would be shocking if McCourty wilts in the playoffs.  He played like a seasoned veteran all year, and has become a corner that teams throw away from.

Quick hits:

A.  Since Ryan and Sanchez arrived in New York, the teams have split their games 2-2.  But the Patriots swept the games in Foxboro, outscoring the Jets 76-17.

B.  In the regular season, Tom Brady is on a 28-game winning streak at home.  In the post-season, he's on a 1-game losing streak.

C.  For all the injuries on the defensive line, and despite facing 7 of the top 20 running backs in the league, the Patriots allowed only one 100-yard rusher this year (trivia question: can you name that player... answer below).

D.  The Patriots are 16-3 after a bye week under Bill Belichick.


This game does not look like a repeat of the last one.  The Jets won't come out as flat and the Patriots probably won't be as dominant.  But even so, it's tough to come up with a scenario where the Jets win unless they either (a) win the turnover battle by a lot, or (b) get scores on defense and/or special teams.  And the Patriots set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season (10), so neither scenario seem likely.

It is the NFL, so don't take anything for granted.  But the Patriots should be able to handle the elements and anything the Jets defense throws at them.  And if the offense scores in the high-20s or low-30s, that puts too much pressure on Mark Sanchez, who isn't quite ready to back up Rex Ryan's bold statements.

Post-season Water-cooler Wisdom: "Literally, all the Pats have to do to win is protect the football.  In the end, if they win the turnover battle, they will win the game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer:
Cleveland's Peyton Hillis ran for 184 yards in the Patriots most recent loss -- 11/7/2010.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Patriots 2010 Regular Season Awards

2010 opened with lowered expectations among the local and national media, but the Patriots outperformed those expectations, notching their third 14-2 record and eighth AFC East crown in the last ten years.

So before we move on to the real season, here is a look back at the best performers, best newcomers, and most improved players in the 2010 regular season.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: none

Two seasons removed from a season-ending knee injury, Brady re-established himself as the best quarterback in the NFL. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was an absolutely unfair 36-4, and his 111.0 QB rating was the fifth best in NFL history.

His numbers against the best competition, teams with winning records, were otherworldly: 159 of 241 (66%), 1,934 yards, 16 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and QB rating 105.7. He will be named the NFL MVP; not much argument against him being the Patriots offensive MVP.

Most Improved Offensive Player: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady, Matt Light

BenJarvus wins this award going away. From 2009 to 2010, Green-Ellis improved 880% in carries (26 to 229) and yards (114 to 1,008), and in the process became the first 1,000+ yard Patriots rusher since Corey Dillion in 2004. He started zero games last year and 11 games this year, and he shouldered the load when Laurence Maroney was traded, and Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk were injured.

Brady's stats were better this year, but his biggest improvement came in managing crucial game situations much better. In 2009 he threw bad interceptions in losses to Miami and Indianapolis and did not perform well at the end of the Denver overtime loss. But he left all that behind this year.

Matt Light missed five games in 2009, and honestly rookie Sebastian Vollmer outperformed him -- not Light's best year. But he rebounded in 2010, starting all 16 games and did a great job protecting Brady's blind-side.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler, Brian Ferentz
Honorable Mention: Danny Woodhead

The Patriots employed creative destruction at the tight end position. They released all of their 2009 tight ends and fired the tight ends coach. I wrote at the end of last season that the tight ends coach should go (link), but even I didn't foresee them turning over the entire position. The results were immediate, tangible, and vital to their success in 2010.

2009 tight ends: 43 catches for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns
2010 tight ends: 93 catches for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns

Quite simply, the productivity improvement at tight end is one of the five best position-improvements in the entire NFL (right up there with the Rams quarterbacks, Raiders running backs, and Chiefs quarterbacks). And the Patriots tight ends bring such different skills, it's difficult (if not foolhardy) to separate them -- so your winners are all three tight ends and their new coach. Kudos on a job well done, gentlemen.

Danny Woodhead's emergence was crucial to the Patriots success, especially given that he took the place of Kevin Faulk, long a dependable and underrated cog in the Patriots offense.  But Woodhead, who signed as a free agent when the Jets released him, brought more speed and elusiveness to the position, and he learned the offense well enough to split out at wide receiver or pick up blitzers -- whatever was necessary.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty
Honorable Mention: Jerod Mayo

Wilfork was a more vocal leader in the locker room, was an absolute beast on the field, and showed amazing versatility throughout the season. He played all four positions on the defensive line, employing both 1-gap and 2-gap techniques to blow up running plays and pressure the passer, and he did it all with a revolving door of linemates due to injuries and new player rotations. Through it all Vince played at a Pro Bowl level and was the most important player on their defensive front seven.

The McCourty pick was widely panned by the media, but he ignored the naysayers, learned from early season mistakes, and was a legitimate Pro Bowler himself. He led NFL rookies with 7 interceptions, defended another 17 passes, forced 2 fumbles, and did a great job in run support on the edge. He led the team in INTs, and was *third* in tackles... not bad for a rookie who might not have started if not for the Leigh Bodden injury.

Jerod Mayo was far and away the leading tackler on the team, and like Wilfork, he played next to an array of linebackers, some of whom aren't even with the team any more.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Jerod Mayo
Honorable Mention: Patrick Chung

Mayo regained his speed and explosion this year, after suffering an early knee injury in 2009. But even more than that, he added his experience to the return of his physical prowess and simply dominated from the middle linebacker position. It helped that Brandon Spikes emerged, but Mayo went from leading his team in tackles in 2009 to leading the NFL in tackles in 2010.

And Chung has become the team's best safety -- the acknowledged "quarterback" of the secondary. He brought an attitude and consistency that made a real difference when he was in the game. Sort of the Bob Sanders of the Patriots -- except he seems to be more durable.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Devin McCourty
Honorable Mention: Brandon Spikes

Read above for information about McCourty -- and consider where the Patriots would be if McCourty hadn't been drafted and Darius Butler started opposite Kyle Arrington. Just don't think about it too long -- it's sort of scary.

Spikes' addition was critical to the team. Gary Guyton was a nice story in 2009, an undrafted free agent who played pretty well next to Jerod Mayo. But Spikes solidified the other inside linebacker spot, showing the toughness to stop the inside run and the speed and instincts to cover running backs out of the backfield and rush the passer. And he allowed the backup linebackers to do what they do best -- be backups.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Brandon Tate
Honorable Mention: Matthew Slater

Tate returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 28 yards a return. And the threat Tate represented caused other teams to kick away from him or kick short, which helped the Patriots get good field position week after week. In fact, kicking away from Tate led directly to Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return on a squib-kick against the Packers... a game they won by only 4 points.

Slater had 15 special teams tackles in 16 games, and he never missed his lane on kick coverage that I noticed.  Not much of a receiver, but very good on special teams.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Brandon Tate
Honorable Mention: Dan Connolly

Tate's 2009 stats: 4 kickoff returns for 106 yards
Tate's 2010 stats: 41 kickoff returns for 1,057 yards and 2 touchdowns

Connolly's 2009 stats: 1 kickoff return for 16 yards
Connolly's 2010 stats: 3 kickoff returns for 90 yards
(Note: mostly kidding about including Connolly.)

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Zoltan Mesko
Honorable Mention: Matt Katula

I said it before but it bears repeating: in 2009 the Patriots finished 36th in punting... and there are only 32 teams in the league! This year Mesko ranked 11th in net yards and did a great job as the holder on place kicks. Also, he handled all the bad snaps when Jake Ingram got the "yips" earlier in the year. There were a bunch of low snaps that he pick up on the fly and he still got good kicks away, and he handled several high snaps on place kicks.

Once Jake Ingram was let go, the Patriots signed Matt Katula to replace him at long snapper. He didn't mess up a single snap for the balance of the season -- nailing every single on on punts and kicks.  Couldn't ask for more from a mid-season replacement.

That is it for the regular season awards. Keep an eye out for my Pats-Jets breakdown later this week, and enjoy the ride :)

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Friday, January 7, 2011

Easiest Path to the Super Bowl

There are no real juggernauts in this year’s NFL.  Every team could potentially be undone by flaws on offense, defense, special teams, or even coaching.  So as often happens, the road to the Super Bowl will largely come down to which team matches up best with the opponent it has to play.

Play teams you usually beat, teams with weaknesses that work to your strengths, teams that can't handle what your home field dishes out (weather, crowd noise, etc.) -- and your chances of reaching the big game increase.  Play teams that frustrate your offense, skewer your defense, or that are built for January football, and your chances decrease.

Considering only the issue of matchups, here are the Patriots potential playoff foes, in order from the team they should most like to see to the team should least like to see.  Note that nothing here is guaranteed; but given past results, injury status, and playoff experience, here are the AFC playoff teams, listed in the order you'd most like to see them in Foxboro, because they would give the Patriots the best shot at advancing another week.

(A quick spoiler, get ready to hold your nose and root for the Jets this weekend.)

1.  Pittsburgh Steelers

You might be shocked to see the #2 AFC seed listed at the easiest win, but the Patriots simply own the Steelers, especially in the playoffs and especially when Tom Brady plays.  The Steelers haven't beaten Brady since Ben Roethlisberger's sixth career start, way back in 2004.  Tom Terrific is 4-1 against Pittsburgh in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs.

The Steelers like to do what they do best, and don't mix it up much from week to week.  That makes them an easy mark for a Patriots team that always evolves and can win just about any way imaginable.  One additional factor in New England's favor: for some reason they always have better special teams than Pittsburgh.  Special teams won them the 2001 AFC Championship game, and the Steelers almost never get that aspect of the game to go in their favor against the Patriots.

Speaking of AFC Championships; the Pats and Steelers can't meet until that game this post-season.  So if the Patriots win on January 16, keep your fingers crossed that the Big Bad Steelers come to town the next week.  It's the surest bet on the table for a Patriots Super Bowl berth. 

2.  New York Jets

Not an easy game, but the Jets as currently constituted do not appear to be much of a threat to take out the Patriots in Foxboro.  Their defense is better suited to stop traditional wide receivers; Randy Moss, Larry Johnson, or even Chad Ochocinco types.  Their corners are physical at the line, slowing route development enough for the pass rush to get there.

But their stout cornerbacks and run-stopping linebackers got schooled by short, quick passes in the 45-3 drubbing they suffered in Foxboro.  And there isn't much evidence that Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie can suddenly change techniques to disrupt those routes.  Besides, even if they do it would open up room for Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, or Danny Woodhead.

Besides, Rex Ryan should know by now that it's a game of inches, not a game of feet!
(Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

3.  Kansas City Chiefs

You hear it a lot, that Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel know the Patriots as well as the Pats know themselves, and those two coordinators can devise a new scheme to stop Tom Brady and attack the Patriots defense.  Only one flaw in the plan: Bill Belichick knows those two pretty well, too, along with the tendencies and weaknesses of their quarterback, Matt Cassel.

Under different circumstances this would be a decent chess match -- like if the Chiefs had anywhere near the talent the Patriots do.  But they do not, especially at the all-important quarterback position.  Kansas City is slightly more likely than the Jets to pull off an upset, but only because they might surprise the Pats and get a quick lead.  But how likely are they to do that to a guy who knows them as well as they know themselves?

4.  Indianapolis Colts

Any team with Peyton Manning will always be a threat in a one-and-done situation, so the Colts are a dangerous opponent.  And remember that in November the Pats had them down 31-14 with 8:00 left and had to hang on for a 31-28 win.

There are two main reasons the Colts are not as tough an out as the Ravens (ranked #5).  First, they aren't as healthy, missing receiver Austin Collie, as well as Dallas Clark and safety Bob Sanders.  Secondly the weather in November was actually pretty good.  It was 37-degrees, sunny, and not windy at all (6 mph), and the January weather is sure to be worse.

The Colts can't play the Patriots until the AFC Championship game (if either team makes it), and I doubt Peyton and company will luck into such benign conditions on January 23.  More likely they'll face snow, colder conditions, and almost certainly more wind.  Hell, games in *August* usually have stronger winds than 6 mph!

5.  Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are the team you least want to see in town this January.  They had the Pats down by 10 points earlier this year in Foxboro, and since then they got all-world safety Ed Reed back and Joe Flacco is doing a better job at quarterback.  And Flacco had his second best QB rating of the year against the Patriots (119.3); though admittedly that was when Devin McCourty was still developing and Brandon Meriweather was still starting.

The Ravens aren't what they used to be on defense, giving up late leads a few times (including the Pats game), and Flacco isn't the most dangerous quarterback in the league.  But Baltimore put together a team in the same sense as the Patriots: they can beat you in many different ways, they don't turn the ball over much (just 20 all season), and they are sound on special teams.

If the Patriots have to play the Ravens, let's hope they meet on January 23, not January 16.  A later meeting would mean Baltimore had to win two road games just to get to the AFC Championship game.  And they play with so much emotion it is doubtful they could crank it up a third straight week.  But if the Pats have to play Baltimore on January 16, watch out!


If you are looking for the easiest path to the Super Bowl for your Patriots, you should root for the Jets this weekend.  That would knock out the second toughest AFC opponent (Colts), and would have the Patriots playing the second easiest AFC opponent (Jets) on January 16.  And if the Pats took care of business on the 16th, it would leave either the easiest opponent (Steelers), the third easiest (Chiefs), or a team emotionally drained by two road wins (Ravens).

Again, take all this with about 100 grains of salt.  Nothing is for sure in the NFL.  But the path of least resistance to Dallas is Pats-Jets followed by Pats-Steelers.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  14-2!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Patriots 38, Dolphins 7

Now that's finishing the things the right way.  The Patriots won their eighth straight game (38-7 over division rival Miami), and in the process scored 30+ points every week and turned the ball over just once during that span.  They ended the season at 14-2, Belichick's fourth regular season with at least 14 wins (an NFL record), outscored their opponents by 202 points for the year, and they have not only the first playoff seed in the AFC but serious momentum and an offense and defense playing at their highest levels of the year.

Miami looked decidedly disinterested, getting whacked in all three phases of the game.  The Patriots defense completely shut down the Dolphins, allowing just a garbage-time touchdown.  They tallied 5 sacks and 8 quarterback hits (excluding a Vince Wilfork sack that was disallowed on a bogus roughing-the-passer penalty), and overall Miami had a 62.9 cumulative QB rating and just 250 total yards.

The defensive line and linebackers worked extremely well in tandem.  Wilfork and his no-name linemates stuffed everything that came their way and mixed in one-gap techniques to pressure the QB all game long.  And the coaches brought linebacker blitzes right up the gut, with Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton getting free runs at the QB and blowing up running plays.  Mayo was a thorn in Miami's side all day, notching 6 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, and 2 QB hits.

Newcomer Eric Moore started in place of Tully Banta-Cain, and he played a very good game, not bad for a guy who arrived just five weeks ago.  He forced a fumble and held up well against the run, making two terrific tackles.  And Rob Ninkovich snapped out of his slump at the right time, collapsing the pocket for two sacks and stopping runs around the edge (and even throwing in two special teams tackles).  In the playoffs you might expect to see a four-man rotation at OLB, and with two players peaking (Ninkovich and Moore) and the other two getting healthy (Jermaine Cunningham and Banta-Cain) it could work out well.
The story of the secondary (and maybe of the year) is Devin McCourty.  He had another interception on a route undercut, and he completely solidified left cornerback all season, both against the pass and in run support.  He won't be NFL defensive rookie of the year, but will probably finish second to Ndamukong Suh, and without him the Patriots wouldn't be 14-2 -- especially since their best DB from last year missed 2010 with an injury (remember Leigh Bodden?).  The other difference-maker in the secondary is Patrick Chung, who intimidated receivers and always executes his assignments flawlessly.  He appears to be healthy, and that important heading into the playoffs, because his backup, Brandon Meriweather, could cost the team dearly against complex and diversified offenses, although Meriweather can contribute on a limited basis.

Beyond McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler got most of the snaps at corner.  Arrington competes on every snap, and though his skills are limited he won't let receivers get free releases and just about always makes the sure tackle.  Butler did not have a great game, and he's probably better covering the other team's third best receiver, but sometimes schemes have him covering better players and his limitations show through.  Neither inspires confidence; but they probably won't get you beaten and do the best with what they have.

On offense just about everything worked for the Pats.  With Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Deion Branch out of the game, the passing game focused on Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and the combination of Brandon Tate and rookie Taylor Price.  They targeted Gronk 10 times, and he caught 6 of them for 102 yards and a touchdown.  Edelman seemingly returned from the dead; he had 3 catches for 72 yards after previously catching only 4 for 14 yards all *season*.  Not sure what to make of Tate, who caught fire with 2 catches for 82 yards, or Price, who'd never gotten a single grab before and came up with 3 for 41 yards.  Can you say "peaking at the right time!"

Dr. Brady was in fine form, putting up a 145.6 rating with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions before being lifted for backup Brian Hoyer.  Oh, and Hoyer wasn't too shabby either: 7 of 13 for 122 yards and 1 touchdown an a 111.7 rating.  Both QBs stayed clean all day (zero sacks and just 4 QB hits), and there weren't really any scary moments when you wondered why Belichick kept Brady out there.  Tom Terrific finished the year with 36 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, a record 335 passes without an interception, and a QB rating of 111.0.  He should make arrangements to pick up his second NFL MVP award; it'll be coming soon.

The running game topped 100 yards for the eighth consecutive game, going for 181 and 4 yards a carry.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the main main again, getting 80 yards on 20 carries and reaching 1,008 for the year (first Patriots running back to break 1,000 yards since 2004).  Danny Woodhead fumbled on a hard hit early in the game, and they held him out with a head injury the rest of the afternoon.  It didn't look like a major injury.  And his speed and elusiveness in the short passing game are assets the team will need in the playoffs, so here's hoping the injury isn't severe.

Oh... and any O-line that gives up zero sacks and generates 4 yards a rush deserves priase.  But it's especially impressive when they played mostly backups the second half -- and that was against the Dolphins starting defense.  Kudos to line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the linemen for their ability to adjust to different schemes and injury-related lineup changes all year.  This might well be Dante's finest coaching job since he arrived in New England -- and that was over 20 years ago!

Special teams lived up to the name this week.  Julian Edelman set a Patriots record with a 94-yard punt return touchdown (trivia question: who's record did Edleman break?), though he needs to show some discipline and not try to return every punt from inside the 10 yard line.  Shane Graham's kickoffs were deeper and the coverage was good so they must have had decent hang time.  And Zoltan Mesko finished up his rookie campaign ranked 11th in net punting average, did a nice job holding for placekicks this year, and basically didn't screw up -- which was a vast improvement over last year, when the Pats had the worst punting unit in the NFL.

So where does that leave us?  The Patriots don't play again until 4:30 on Sunday, January 16, and their possible opponents are the Jets, Ravens, or Chiefs.  I'll post a breakdown of the playoff participants this week.  So relax and enjoy the two weeks of hype and next weekend's action on the field.

Remember folks... these are indeed "the good old days."

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Aggregate score in the 2010 Patriots first three division games: 93-72.  Aggregate score in the 2010 Patriots last three division games: 107-13.

Bonus Statistical Oddity:  Since playing to a tie in the first half of the first Dolphins game, the Patriots outscored Miami 73-14 73-7.

Wacky Note of the Week: The 2010 Patriots scored seven different ways against Miami: rushing touchdown, passing touchdown, field goal, interception return touchdown, kickoff return touchdown, punt return touchdown, blocked field goal return touchdown.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "Remember when the Dolphins fired their special teams coach after the first Pats game?  I wonder who will get the axe after yesterday's debacle!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  14-2!

PPS.  Trivia Answer:
Mike Haynes returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown in November of 1976.