Monday, December 5, 2011

Patriots Hold Off Late Rally For 31-24 Victory

Don't let the final score fool you; the Patriots dominated most of the day and sent the Colts back to Indianapolis with a 31-24 loss and an embarrassing 0-12 record. The win puts the Patriots one win (or one loss by the New York Jets) away from their fourteenth division title, and keeps them in the race for the #1 or #2 seed in the AFC. Next up is a road trip to the nation's capital for a date with the boys from Washington.

Indy is so bad this season, they've only held the lead against one team that currently sports a winning record, and that lead lasted only 4:05 of game time. (Trivia question: name the team -- answer below.) And the Patriots did what good teams do when they play bad ones; they dominated and built up a four-touchdown lead. Unfortunately, they let off the offensive accelerator and allowed the Colts to rally back to a one-score loss.

Ill-timed penalties and costly turnovers didn't help the Colts' cause; but it didn't help to be playing one of the top teams in the AFC. Tom Brady was his usual magnificent self (29 of 38, 293 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 115.4 rating), Wes Welker caught all 11 passes thrown his way (for 114 yards), and budding superstar Dan Gronkowski caught 5 passes for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns -- and he ran for a third.

Brady spread the ball around to seven receivers, completing important throws to Deion Branch and even getting one to Chad Ochocinco and another to newcomer Tiquan Underwood. The running backs gained just 73 yards total (3.0 yards per carry), and the load was also spread around pretty evenly among Stevan Ridley (8 carries for 33 yards), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (6 for 14), and Danny Woodhead (4 for 12).

The offensive line did a good job in pass protection, in concert with short passing routes and quick releases. Not much of a running game to speak of; but they did keep Brady mostly clean on the day. And their third center of the year, Nick MacDonald... well, he didn't screw up any of the snaps, so that's good.

On defense, Vince Wilfork dominated inside, with 10 tackles and a sack. Newly signed defensive back Nate Jones had 9 tackles, and wide receiver Matthew Slater tied tackling machine Jerod Mayo for third on the team with 7 (note: Mayo added a spectacular interception). Slater played safety for much of the game, and did a poor job in coverage but apparently a good job tackling.

Corner Devin McCourty returned from injury, but to mixed reviews. He gave up completions on plays where he was in position to knock the ball away, but it is his first game back, so he deserves some slack. At least he isn't coming back closer to the playoffs; which would magnify every mistake -- the timing of his return gives him a few weeks to round into shape.

Not much pass rush this week. Outside rushers Andre Carter and Mark Anderson totaled 3 tackles, 0 sacks, and 0 QB pressures between them. Oft-rushing linebacker Rob Ninkovich did better all by himself -- adding a sack and a QB pressure to his own 3 tackles. Overall, still no sign the Pats will have much of a pass rush in the post-season; unless they get better play in the secondary, and that depends on improvement by McCourty and the healthy return of safety Patrick Chung. 

Special teams have now recovered four consecutive onside kicks (including one called back for a penalty yesterday). Other than that, kicker Stephen Gostkowski had plenty of distance kicking with the wind and not enough against it. Punter Zoltan Mesko had an impressive 46.8 average; though he booted only one of them into the wind. And wide receiver (and defensive back) Julian Edelman makes very nifty moves on both punt and kickoff returns.

Nothing inspired about the coaching, except perhaps the experiment with Slater at safety. One hopes that doesn't mean Chung is out for the playoffs. 

So where does that leave us? As stated above, 9-3 and one win from a division title sounds like the right place to be in early-December. The game in Washington is unlikely to tell us much about the Patriots defense; but Mike Shanahan's crew has a good defense, so it's a chance for the Pats offense to test themselves again. 

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Colts QB Dan Orlovsky posted the best quarterback rating of his career (113.2). He'd never topped 100 before Sunday. 

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Can't verify this easily, but I believe Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne had a career high in tackles yesterday. He made two tackles, one on the Colts fumble, and the other on the Colts interception. 

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Packers and Niners get all the headlines, but the Pats clinch the AFC East with their next win."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  9-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer:
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The Colts led the 9-3 Pittsburgh Steelers for just over four minutes.

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