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!


  1. I seem to be a bad-luck charm when it comes to playoffs.

  2. I am going to look at it this way. They overachieved. This should have been a 10-6 that probably should have tied or lost the division to the Jets. In terms of "progress" at the end of 2009, in every cat except for QB the Jets were ahead. We way over achieved and enjoyed a great run. Let's load up with impact RE and WRs, and have Bill use the experience for this young team that had never been to the playoffs.

    Go Packers, yeah?

  3. @Al... you should use your status as the Foxboro Weather God to get snow -- Brady *never* loses in the snow!

  4. @SportsWorldBliss,

    I had them at 12-4, so they exceeded my expectations, and I think they are building a team that will compete for championships for the next 5 years or so.

    Doesn't make the loss sting any less, but if they get their pass rush fixed and if Bill O'Brien continues to improve as an OC, they should be fun an interesting for a while.

    PS: How much better will they be if Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden come back next year?

  5. I am hoping for Richard Seymour and DeAngelo Williams personally. We'll see. Warren will be big. I'd actually like to see them take a run at Champ Bailey.

    This is strange to say, but they need to do more tape on Sanchez. For some reason he hasn't been terrible against them, and they are going to be the competition because they are in the division. None of the games this year were really won or lost because of Sanchez this year, but still.

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