Friday, November 23, 2012

Patriots M-Barrass Jets, 49-19

Survivor goes by the tagline: "Outwit, outlast, outplay" -- the Patriots did all three (and added "Outhit") in a 49-19 destruction of the Jets last night.  The win reinforced the Patriots stranglehold on the division.  One more Pats win officially eliminates the Jets from the division title race, and two more Pats wins would knock out the Bills.  The Patriots have two games left with the Dolphins -- in fact, their next one is in Miami on December 2 -- but they hold a 3.5-game lead over Miami with 5 games to play.

The Jets game was scoreless in the first quarter, but the Patriots scored four touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second quarter, three in 52-seconds (an 83-yard pass to Shane Vereen, a Steve Gregory fumble-return, and a Julian Edelman fumble-return).  And that was the ball game.  The total meltdown by the Jets led directly to a 28-point lead, and without any deep passing threats, the Jets were done before the half.

As is typical in a blowout this lopsided, there are too many stars to go over every one, so here are some general thoughts on what went right and wrong yesterday, and how players, coaches, and team units are trending as the Patriots close in on another AFC East title.

The Offense

Quarterback Tom Brady was great again last night, and is on a roll almost unprecedented in his career.  His averages for the last five games are impressive: 22.8 of 35.6 (64%), 290.8 yards, 2.8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a QB rating of 115.7.  (Trivia question: what is Brady's single-season record for most consecutive games without an interception... answer below.)  He's been great all year, but believe it or not, Brady is trending up as we enter December.

The receivers are trending slightly down, mostly due to injuries.  Rob Gronkowski was not missed in the Jets game, but he is such a devastating weapon, the Patriots offense will suffer without him later in the season.  Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez returned from injury last night, but was mostly held in check, and versatile Julian Edelman took a nasty hit on an end-around that might keep him out for a game or two.

Additionally, the timing and chemistry between Brady and wideout Brandon Lloyd has not materialized.  Lloyd is better than Chad Ochocinco was last year, but in the last three games, Lloyd has only 12 catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns.

Running back Shane Vereen is on the rise, with 133 total yards and a nice route and run after catch on his 83-yard touchdown.  Vereen appears to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, really trying to compete for a starting job, and it shows in his production.  Starter Stevan Ridley is on pace for 1,366 yards and 11 or 12 touchdowns, and for the moment appears to have left his fumbling problems back in week 4 and 5 (when he had 2 fumbles).  And finally, the offensive coaches are using Danny Woodhead properly -- a scat-back on third down and sometime receiver.

The offensive line gets a lot of praise for weathering multiple injuries; but the missing talent is starting to show.  With three starters out last night, Brady took several shots from untouched blitzers (and somehow escaped from two others).  And even mostly solid left tackle Nate Solder whiffed on a few Jets rushers.  Certainly a unit that is trending down, and if Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon start for much longer, it will take a toll on Brady and the running backs.

The Defense

For all the praise heaped on Vince Wilfork last night, the defensive line is trending slightly down.  Chandler Jones missed the Jets game with an ankle injury, and the remaining D-linemen didn't get much pressure on the Jets QB.  Jermaine Cunningham is better as a backup/substitute, and Rob Ninkovich was completely controlled last night.  And aside from Wilfork, the interior of the line did not hold up well against the run (until the Jets got close to the goal line).

The reason they are only trending slightly down is that they were excellent against the Colts (at least in the last 50 minutes of the game).  So they can turn it around with improved play against the Dolphins next week.  And with the extra rest, they might get Jones back for that game, so Cunningham can move into the sub-role again.

The linebackers are probably the biggest problem on the defense at this point.  Brandon Spikes is a guessing and hitting machine, but when he guesses wrong, there are usually big plays by the offense.  Jerod Mayo can't cover in the short zones, and Dont'a Hightower is still a rookie.  All three are big hitters, but none of them are anything but sub-standard in coverage, which is a problem, but not as big a problem as it was in the secondary a few weeks ago.

And speaking of the secondary, this unit is on the way up, big time.  The safety position is the most improved on the team the last five weeks.  With Devin McCourty's move to safety, and the return of Steve Gregory (a few weeks back) and Patrick Chung (last night), the Patriots no longer give up multiple 40+ yard plays a game.  Gregory had a rough first game back, but he's playing well within the system again.  And the three of them played some Cover-3 last night, once the game was well in hand (and they knew the Jets would have to throw).

New addition Aqib Talib has performed well.  Not the shutdown corner some thought when he was acquired, but he hasn't been beaten deep, and when the defense aggressively goes after the quarterback, he and rookie Alfonzo Dennard play tight man-coverage and disrupt the routes enough for the pass rush to get there.  It's very good complimentary defense.  And the surprising rise of Dennard puts Kyle Arrington on a third receiver (or on the bench, sometimes), which is better for everyone involved.  Front-line receivers are all good enough to beat Arrington, but he can succeed against slot guys or third-best receivers.

Special Teams

The kick coverage teams have been excellent for the past few weeks.  They gave up one long kickoff return last night, but then adjusted with higher/shorter kicks and stopped the returner inside the 25 yard line.  And the punt returns don't seem to exist against the Patriots any more.  Last five games: 3 for 22 yards; 1 for 0 yards; 0 for 0 yards; 1 for 7 yards; and 1 for 1 yard.  Of course it helps when you don't punt much, but Zoltan Mesko has punted 15 times in those games.

The return teams are most definitely on the upswing.  Edelman brings patience and explosiveness on punt returns.  He broke two for long gains against Indy, and almost broke one against the Jets.  If he has to miss any games with a concussion, he will be missed on this unit.  The kickoff return team is more dangerous now than earlier in the year; although they end up with the ball inside their own 20 yard line too often.  Still, all-in-all they are on the way up.

The field goal unit is the one special teams group in decline.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal last night, and last Sunday he missed a field goal and almost missed an extra point.  The snaps appear to be slightly off on some of those kicks, but I can't say for sure that caused the problem.  Holder Mesko appeared to get them all placed properly and on time.  A concern if the Patriots make a deep playoff run, because those games are always close, so a missed field goal can cost the entire team.


On defense, the Patriots coaches have been dialing up more blitzes, and mostly to good effect.  And the players have become quite the ball-hawkers -- ringing up 12 turnovers in the last 3 games (though some of those came on special teams).  Moving McCourty to safety has settled down the secondary, and if they could just get one of the three linebackers to defend the pass better, they would be defensive gods!

The offensive play-calling is much better.  Woodhead is back to being a third-down back, and they run enough misdirection plays to keep the other team's defense honest.  And the mix of pass/run is truly impressive -- in fact, they had 39 rushes and only 28 pass plays last night.  When an offense can lose the best tight end in the league and not miss a beat, that's great coaching (among other things).

The special teams coach is a mixed-bag at the moment.  He needs to straighten out the field goal unit -- and fast.  But his return and coverage teams are very good.

So where does that leave us?  8-3 is good, and 10 days until the next game is a plus, too.  The Dolphins offense is terrible, so if the Patriots don't turn the ball over, they should win that game, and that would effectively seal the division title.  After that, they host Houston, and a win there puts them in the discussion for a playoff bye.  But first things first, Squish the Fish!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In honor of Thanksgiving, I give you the "feast or famine" New York Jets.  Under Rex Ryan, the Jets average win over the Patriots is 24-15 (9 points per game), and their average loss to the Patriots is 39-17 (22 ppg).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know it's bad when your fans are calling for Tebow.  He got croaked in two games against the Pats last year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  8-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: Brady ended the 2010 season by going without a single interception in an amazing 11 straight games.  Unfortunately the Jets ended that streak in the playoffs, and bounced the 14-2 Patriots in the first round.

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