Monday, November 19, 2012

Patriots Smoke Colts 59-24

If Crash Davis played football, he might have said to Andrew Luck, "Welcome to the NFL... meat."  The Patriots treated Luck like piece of meat -- pressure-cooking him into rookie mistakes and sandwiching him on several hits, in a 59-24 win over the Colts.  The victory kept the Patriots on top in the AFC East, and allows New Englanders to dream of a playoff bye.  The Pats still trail both Houston and Baltimore by two games (given that Baltimore holds the tie-breaker).  Next up is the New York Jets in three days, Thanksgiving night.

The game started out looking like a shootout.  The teams traded early touchdowns, and the Colts took at 14-7 lead into the second quarter.  Then the wheels fell off -- the Patriots scored two touchdowns without a single offensive play (on a punt return and an interception return), and the second half was a 35-7 rout that would have been called if it were a prize fight or a little league game.

Even with two backups at guard, the Patriots offensive line gave Tom Brady plenty of time to carve up the Colts defensive backfield.  (And no wonder; they had two Patriots secondary castoffs on the roster... trivia question: name them.)  The offensive line gave up zero sacks and only two QB hits, and tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder held pass-rushing stars Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in check.  The guards didn't do as well in the running game, but the Patriots make their mark passing the ball, so in this game, that was okay.

Brady's stat line is impressive: 24 of 35 (68.6%), 331 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 127.2 QB rating.  His timing and connections with both Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman were the best they've been all season.   The only worry is that Brady completed passes to only five receivers, and with Rob Gronkowski out for a few weeks, it could become more difficult with reduced options at receiver.

Speaking of Gronkowski, he was the receiving star of the game.  He was targeted 7 times and caught all 7 for 137 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  He really is a beast, and the next few opponents will be glad they don't have to deal with Gronk; he is a matchup nightmare.

Edelman had his best overall day as a pro: 5 catches for 58 yards and 1 touchdown, an end-around for 47 yards, and two punt returns for 116 yards and 1 touchdown.  He broke Indy's heart with the punt-return TD early, and showed the quickness of Wes Welker and better moves after the catch.  Welker, by the way, was his usual hum-drum self: 7 catches, 80 yards, and 5 first down conversions.

The running backs were nondescript; Shane Vereen getting more playing time than Stephan Ridley.  Each got one touchdown, but together only had 68 yards on 24 carries.  The team had trouble running up the middle, too many plays were stopped in the backfield.  And on outside runs, the Colts speed tracked down most runs before they got to the line of scrimmage.  This was not a failure of the backs; it was slashing and guessing plays by the Indy defense, and overmatched guards in the running game.

Defensively, the Pats blitzed more in this game than the first nine games combined.  They brought continual pressure, throwing linebackers and even safeties or corners at the young quarterback.  They started out in a soft shell zone, but Luck tic-tac-toed down the field for two touchdowns.  At that point, it seemed the Patriots decided to go with pressure and see how Luck would respond.  He didn't do very well.

They did give up significant running plays to the Colts: two 20-yard runs, and a solid five-yard average per rush.  This owed mostly to the ailments from last week, namely blown assignments and bad tackling.  On the first two drives, they lost outside contain three times and got linebackers in the wrong spots at least four others.  It looked like Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were going to post terrible games at that point, but they turned it around and the Colts offensive success came to a screeching halt.

Vince Wilfork was their most consistent lineman, though even he missed a relatively easy tackle in the first half.  Wilfork got three tackles and knocked down two passes.  Jones got shut out on the stat line, but he played pretty well.  He and Ninkovich kept constant pressure from the outside, forcing Luck to step up in the pocket, where he made several mistakes.  And Ninkovich might have been the defensive star of the game, with 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hits, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

The linebacker tandem of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes accounted for 19 tackles and 1 QB hit.  But Mayo was late on too many plays to call it a good game.  Spikes was good overall, but even he looked lost in pass coverage on a few plays.  All in all, rookie Dont'a Hightower might have been their most consistent linebacker.

The secondary benefited mightily from the blitz-crazy game plan.  Newcomer Aqib Talib got an interception and returned it 59-yards for a touchdown.  Not to be outdone, rookie Alfonzo Dennard took a pick 87-yards for a TD late in the game.  And another rookie, much maligned Tavon Wilson, got an INT, too.  Mind you, all three gave up plays, too, and these interceptions were mostly gift picks caused by pressure up front.  But beggars can't be choosers, and good play by the secondary should not go unnoticed.

The safety combo of Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty mostly kept plays in front of them.  The one long touchdown came when Gregory bit on a run fake and McCourty had responsibility in the medium-middle, which left T.Y. Hilton single-covered for a 43-yarder.  But aside from that, while they weren't perfect, Gregory and McCourty were light-years better than last week, taking the pass-off effectively from corners, breaking up passes or making sure tackles right away, or hitting receivers at just the right moment to cause incompletions.

Talib did get beaten on a few plays, but mostly his coverage was good -- sometimes the passes were just better.  And the team would still be better with Patrick Chung and Gregory at safety, so McCourty can take the corner opposite Talib.  But with rookies Dennard and Wilson improving, the secondary is rounding into shape at this point.  Don't know if they'll be ready to stop strong passing games in the playoffs, but it looks more promising now than it did a week ago.

On special teams, there were the two great punt returns to crow about.  And the Pats had very good kickoff and punt coverage in the game.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal and almost missed an extra point.  But it appeared that the snaps on both those kicks were too much into the body of the holder -- and they got that straightened out for the many second-half extra points they kicked.

The special-teams coaching deserves special mention; with great return and coverage games, along with getting the long-snaps straightened out during the game.  The defensive coaching looked shaky early on, but they made great adjustments and brought the Colts offense to a complete standstill.  On offense, they should have abandoned the outside runs and/or used the misdirection play with Edelman earlier to slow down the Colts pursuit.  But it's tough to complain about a game with 59 points on the board.

So where does that leave us?  7-3 and third in the AFC.  Given the trouble the Steelers are having, the Ravens are likely to finish in front of the Patriots.  Which means their best chance at a playoff bye might be beating the Texans in December and hoping they end up tied or in front of them.  Otherwise, it appears that the AFC East title is a virtual lock; with a three-game lead over the rest of the pack, and tie-breakers over two of the three teams.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Even though Tom Brady had an outstanding game, the Patriots got more return yards (377) than passing yards (331).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Colts didn't have bad Luck, they wouldn't have had any at all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: corner Darius Butler and safety Sergio Brown now play for the Colts.

No comments:

Post a Comment