Monday, December 31, 2012

Patriots Down Dolphins, 28-0

Yesterday afternoon, with a chance at a first-round playoff bye, the Houston Texans laid an egg and lost 28-16.  Last night, with that same chance, the Patriots and Broncos won by a combined 66-3.  That's called finishing, folks, and the Patriots did just that, earning the #2 seed and a week off before hosting a playoff game.  The Patriots play on January 13 at 4:30, and potential playoff opponents are the Ravens, Texans, or Colts -- but all won't be revealed until after next weekend's games.

In Sunday's tilt, the Patriots offensive game plan stood out.  Coordinator Josh McDaniels called for short passes on a windy day, and the Patriots receivers were outstanding in yards-after-catch.  In the first quarter alone, they had "short passes" that went for 23, 24, and 25 yards; with most of those yards gained after the catch.  In contrast, the Dolphins tried deep throws, and some passes were badly off the mark, some were knocked away, and one was intercepted.

The defensive game plan repeated their earlier performance against rookie QB Ryan Tannehill.  They blitzed from every angle, knowing from the previous game that he'd make critical mistakes under pressure.  Tannehill might be fine in the long run, but his rookie numbers in two games against the Patriots will never impress anyone: 33 of 64 (51.5%), 421 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 10 sacks for 36 yards, and a 66.0 QB rating.

The Patriots defense dominated, holding Reggie Bush to 3.25 yards a carry, sacking the quarterback 7 times, getting the early interception, forcing a fumble, and knocking down 6 passes.  Chandler Jones had his best game in months, with 7 tackles and 2 passes defended, and he held the edge well on running plays.  His fellow linemen did a great job against the inside run, and the other outside rusher, Justin Francis got 3 sacks of his own.  Unfortunately, starter Rob Ninkovich left the game with an injury; here's hoping it doesn't keep him out of the playoffs.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo applied good pressure on blitzes and was stout against the run.  Additionally, he made a nice play to knock down a pass, a rare pass-coverage success.  Dont'a Hightower is very up-and-down, but when the playoffs come, if Brandon Spikes returns, Hightower can return to his more natural right OLB position.  Spikes did play some yesterday, and they need him back for the playoffs, especially if Ninkovich can't go.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib missed the entire game (after missing most of Jacksonville game last week), and Alfonzo Dennard was out, too, both of which are worrisome.  The team's best secondary lineup is Talib and Dennard at corner along with Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory (or Patrick Chung) at safety.  With Talib and Dennard out, McCourty shifts to corner and Kyle Arrington joins him there.  McCourty is better than people give him credit, but Arrington plays much better against slot receivers.

The Patriots need either Talib or Dennard back for the playoffs.  They can survive with McCourty at corner and Gregory/Chung at safety, but Arrington at the second corner spot is a time bomb against teams with two good outside receivers.  And in the playoffs, there are plenty of those teams.

On offense, Rob Gronkowski returned and was effective, even if he played with only one arm.  He grabbed 2 catches for 42 yards, and had a nice seam route for a touchdown.  And even with the injured wing, he blocked better than Michael Hoomanawanui -- who was blown off the ball twice, blocked no one while a corner ran past him for a sack, and whiffed on two other blocks.  Not sure why he's in the game, but if Gronkowski isn't fully healthy for the playoffs, the Patriots offense will be... how shall we say, limited.

As for the other receivers, Wes Welker had his routine great game: 8 catches, 94 yards, 1 touchdown, and several great blocks.  Aaron Hernandez made nice yards after the catch, and the only other receiver who had a big day was running back Danny Woodhead.  As my wife pointed out, Woodhead seems to be useful situationally.  He can't pass block consistently, so he has to be used sparingly in that role.  And against some teams, he tears it up running (San Francisco and Miami), while against others, he can't seem to get started at all (New York Jets and Houston Texans).

Woodhead had a very good game this week, but the rushing star was Stevan Ridley: 20 carries for 74 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  Ridley ran hard, making multiple tacklers miss and gaining yards where none appeared to be there.  Woodhead (3-18), Brandon Bolden (6-26), and Shane Vereen (8-38) contributed to a team total of 167 yards and 4.4 yards a carry.

You don't get numbers like that without good play from the offensive line, and the Patriots line did a great job against Miami.  They gave up only one sack (and as mentioned, that was the tight end's fault), and Tom Brady was hit only twice all game.  Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer were especially active on sweeps and downfield on screen passes.  And there was almost no inside pressure, so the very good Miami outside pass rush was simply pushed past the pocket to little effect.

Brady's best qualities came out in this game.  His decision-making was nearly flawless, with audibles to a run when the Dolphins flooded the passing zones, and hot reads that beat the blitz.  How well he controlled the game is belied by his ho-hum stat-line: 22 of 36, 284 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a 104.4 QB rating.  But his focus was keen and he got the Patriots into the right look about 95% of the time, which is outstanding against a defense that knows him as well as the Dolphins.

Special teams did pretty well, although the windy day limited their opportunities.  Punter Zoltan Mesko placed put 4 of his 5 punts inside the Miami 20 yard-line.  Wes Welker had some nice punt returns, but the only Miami kickoff was downed in the end zone.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn't attempt a field goal, and with good reason, if you saw how badly the Miami attempt went wide-left in a gusting wind.

As mentioned before, the coaching on both sides of the ball was very good.  The Patriots had a solid plan, and the players executed it flawlessly.  You can't ask for much better than that.

So where does that leave us?  Patriots are officially scheduled for the 4:30 game on Sunday, 1/13/13.  (As tweeted earlier, I hope those twin "13s" aren't bad luck, @yourpatriots.)  That gives the team two weeks to prepare, which is great, because Brandon Spikes, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and Aqib Talib (among others) could use the time to heal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:
  Patriots top three tacklers were a lineman (Chandler Jones, 7), a cornerback (Kyle Arrington, 6), and a safety (Patrick Chung, 6).  Care to guess the last time no linebacker was among the top three tacklers for the Patriots (answer below)?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "It's possible both lower seeded teams could win in the AFC next week.  Houston and Baltimore are playing so poorly, they could easily get knocked off."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer:

On September 24, 2011, the Patriots visited Buffalo, and their top three tacklers were all cornerbacks: Devin McCourty (11), Leigh Bodden (7), and Kyle Arrington (6).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Patrots Take Care of Jaguars, 23-16

I didn't watch the game yet, so no detailed report at this point.  However, the Patriots did indeed hang on for a 23-16 win over Jacksonville, keeping pace with the victorious Broncos and Ravens, and picking up a game on the losing Houston Texans.  Next week, the Pats host Miami in the final game of the regular season, and depending on the results, they could finish with any of the top four playoff positions.

Playoff scenarios for this Sunday

1.  Patriots finish fourth only if they lose and the Ravens win.

2.  Patriots finish third if they win and the Broncos and Texans win or tie their games this weekend.  They also finish third if they tie on Sunday, or if they lose and the Ravens lose or tie.

3.  Patriots finish second if they win and the Broncos or Texans lose.

4.  Patriots finish first if they win and the Broncos and Texans both lose.

Got all that?  There will not be a quiz later :)

So where does that leave us?  The Dolphins are riding a two-game winning streak, and in the last three games, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 60% of his passes, threw 5 touchdowns, has no interceptions, and posted a 96.1 QB rating.  Doesn't necessarily mean he will win on Sunday, but he's playing better than he was four weeks ago, when the Patriots beat them in Miami.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  The Patriots won their only two Florida games this year by the exact same score, 23-16.

Bonus Statistical Oddity:  Tom Brady threw 4 interceptions in the first 13 games of the season.  Then he threw 4 in the last 2 games.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "They can't rest the starters on Sunday; there's too much at stake.  Besides, they have to get some reps for Gronk."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  11-4!

Monday, December 17, 2012

49ers Outlast Patriots, 41-34

San Francisco came to town and played the part of inhospitable guests, building a 28-point lead and hanging on for a 41-34 victory over the Patriots.  The loss dropped the Pats a game behind the Broncos for the second seed in the AFC, and all but puts the #1 seed out of reach.  Next week it's a tilt against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (site of the Patriots' most recent Super Bowl victory), and they need a win to stay ahead of the Baltimore Ravens and avoid slipping to the #4 seed.

The game was ugly early, great for about 18 minutes, and then depressing late.  Speaking of late, it's after 3:00, so I'll keep this update brief.  Not much to say beyond "Patriots stunk up the joint" anyway.

First, credit where it is due -- San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh put together a great game plan.  He attacked the Patriots defense with ingenious schemes, attacked their offense with brute force and turnovers, and used special teams to extend drives and (more importantly) to keep the Pats backed up all game long.

The first 49ers score came when two receivers lined up next to each other and ran fly patterns into the end zone.  Both got behind the defensive backs, and the safety was late getting over, so it was an easy touchdown to Randy Moss -- though it could have gone to the tight end just as easily.  On another touchdown, they ran two tight ends to the same half of the end zone, but their scheme left the Patriots' Alfonzo Dennard alone to defend both players -- another easy touchdown.

They also ran a fake punt, which is something they probably saw in film study.  And with the combination of turnovers and great punting, the average 49ers drive started on their 46 yard line, whereas the average Patriots drive started on their own 20 yard line.  Patriots special teams penalties contributed to that disparity, too, but it was mostly great punting and kickoff coverage by San Francisco.

The Niners defense was good enough to hold the Pats for a half.  But giving more credit where it is due, the Patriots made outstanding halftime adjustments, and scored four touchdowns in less than 20:00 of game time.  Unfortunately, they'd dug themselves too deep a hole.  Down by 28 points, they had to be perfect just to catch up, which they did -- but then, they slipped up a few times down the stretch and San Francisco took advantage and put the game away.

In the Patriots first 9 possessions, they had: 3 three-and-outs, 1 four-and-out, 2 lost fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 1 field goal.  Their second fumble and second interception came on their first two possessions of the third quarter, and those turnovers left them down 31-3, and all looked hopeless.  But once the Pats stopped stopping themselves, they roared back to tie the game.

Not often you lose the turnover battle 4-2 and even have a chance to win.  But the Pats defense stopped the 49ers on five second-half possessions, while the offense racked up four straight touchdowns.  But alas, the Niners used a great kickoff return to set up a one-play touchdown and vault back into the lead.  And the Patriots offense looked like it would score to tie it again, but two sacks on consecutive plays ended that drive, and effectively any chance to win the game.

It wasn't all bad, so here are some of the good things that happened:

1.  Great halftime adjustments by the offensive line coach and the offensive coordinator.  If not for turnovers, they could well have pulled out the game, the turnaround was that stunning.

2.  Tom Brady's touchdown-saving tackle after an interception -- and the defense turning the ball back over to the offense two plays later.

3.  Brandon Lloyd ended up with 10 catches for 190 yards, by far his best game with the Patriots.  This is a very encouraging sign, as the team chugs toward the playoffs.  Oh, and San Francisco had no answer for Aaron Hernandez (10 for 92), and they couldn't cover Wes Welker in the second half (5 for 56).

4.  Danny Woodhead's shifty running style worked better against the large 49ers defense; he had 61 yards on the ground, 5 catches for 23 yards, and 2 rushing TDs.  Once a millstone on the first- and second-down offense, he's a nice change of pace, especially against lumbering defensive linemen. 
 And to be balanced, here are some of the lowlights for the Patriots:

1.  Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen -- tsk tsk tsk, take better care of the ball.  If not, Brandon Bolden will get your carries in the postseason.

2.  The interior of the Patriots defense was repeatedly gashed for big yards right up the middle.  And when they had shots at SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they didn't take them, letting up or letting him get away instead.

3.  Secondary miscommunications and/or poor design -- too many 49ers receivers running wide open, especially in the end zone.

4.  8 penalties for 73 yards, the worst of which was an illegal shift that negated a touchdown.  There were also several penalties that canceled out good punt returns and gave the offense a long field to drive.

5.  The referees -- made the game too long, blew several pass interference calls on both sides, somehow missed a muffed punt, and spent too much time talking with coaches.

So where does this leave us?  10-4 and needing help to secure a playoff bye.  But don't count on it.  The Patriots could run the table, but Denver has to lose to Cleveland or Kansas City, neither of which seems likely to give the Broncos much of a game.  Next week it's Jacksonville, who will pay the price for the Patriots missteps this week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Brandon Lloyd had almost as many yards yesterday (190) as he had in the previous five games combined (214).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "Can't win 'em all -- especially when they fumble six times and you only get one of them."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-4!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Patriots School the Texans, 42-14

The Patriots continued their December dominance with a thrashing of the upstart Houston Texans, a 42-14 beat down at Foxboro that pitted a prepared team against an ill-prepared one.  The win put the Patriots firmly in the lead for a playoff bye, and only one game behind Houston for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC.  Next week they take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, on a short week, but at least it's at home.

This game reminded me of a game the Patriots lost a few years ago; a 38-17 loss to the Saints in New Orleans.  In that game, the Pats had more mental breakdowns on defense than they've had this entire season, and Saints QB Drew Brees made them pay for every mistake.  Brees averaged an astonishing 16.1 yards per attempt, and the Cold, Hard Football Facts web site declared it the greatest passing performance in NFL history (  I remember it as the most embarrassing game since Rod Rust and his 1-15 record left town.  (Trivia question: can you name the team Rust's 1990 Patriots beat... answer below.)

Last night, the Texans had a linebacker cover Aaron Hernandez and the Pats tight end scored a touchdown.  They lost track of Hernandez near the goal-line, and it was an easy throw for his second score.  The Texans bit on play-action fakes, even when the Patriots hadn't run the ball effectively yet, and gave up long pass to Wes Welker and a Brandon Lloyd touchdown.  They also committed two pass interference penalties.  And that was just the first half.

On offense, quarterback Matt Schaub threw a red zone interception when he could have tied the game.  Wideout Kevin Walter dropped a fourth-and-five pass to turn the ball back to the Patriots.  And when they went back to him on the next drive, he failed to catch another pass on fourth-and-five (at least he was consistent).  There were multiple dropped passes, and free Patriots blitzers smacking Schaub around just as he released the ball.

Nothing went right for Houston, and everything went right for New England.  Even when the Texans caused their two fumbles: they could have fallen on the first one and missed it (Pats TD two plays later); and the second one bounced into the end zone and Lloyd fell on it for another touchdown.  They gave up field position with penalties on special teams.  They ran into the teeth of nine-man fronts, and waited until they were down 28-0 to try play-action throws to all-world receiver Andre Johnson.

Sometimes Bill Belichick will call a victory a "team win."  This was a Houston "team loss" -- with contributions from offense, defense, special teams, and the coaching staff.

As for the Patriots, the good news on offense:

1.  Tom Brady was surgical in the first 20 minutes, but his accuracy and effectiveness diminished when the Texans started knocking him around in the second quarter.  The offensive line did a pretty good job getting to the QB (only one sack, but six other QB hits -- and some serious hits at that).  And once the Patriots made their halftime adjustments, Brady was surgical again in the second half.

2.  Looks like Brandon Lloyd will pick up the slack for the missing Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.  The Pats went 1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers most of the game, and while that personnel gives it away that they are passing the ball, Lloyd gives them an outside threat to compliment the inside receivers.

3.  Donte Stallworth can still go deep, as he did on his 63-yard touchdown, featuring a nice catch, two broken tackles, and a stretch for the end zone.

4.  Once the game was in hand, the coaches did a great job using the up-tempo offense to tire out the Texans defense.  And when they were tired, the Patriots ran out of the no huddle, keeping them from substituting and gashing them with clock-killing runs.  In the fourth quarter alone, the Pats had 10 rushes for 65 yards -- that's exactly half their rushing yards.

5.  The return of guard Logan Mankins was a boon inside, bringing not only great blocking, but also an attitude.  He got a huge push on several running plays, and kept at it with the active and talented Houston front seven.

6.  The foursome at running back all had their time to shine: Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen carried the load, Danny Woodhead had some nice catches and a great catch-and-run, and rookie Brandon Bolden averaged 5.5 yards in his return from a drug suspension.

The good news on defense:

1.  Vince Wilfork might be playing the best football of his career.  He was always an immovable object, but now he's getting to the passer and busting through double-teams to make tackles in the backfield.  Reminiscent of Richard Seymour at his prime, which as you know is some of the best you will ever see.

2.  Corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington held Johnson in check in the first half and everybody else in check the entire game.  They battled and scrapped, and took full advantage of the rushed throws by Schaub.

3.  Devin McCourty is now the Patriots best safety, and he even moved back to corner to replace the injured Talib in the second half.  McCourty's first quarter interception changed the direction of the game, and he also had a pass defended, a tackle for a loss, and five tackles on the day.

4.  Jerod Mayo, but only when he's blitzing.  When he attacks the passer, he hurries the throw at least 75% of the time, and when he run blitzes, he either gets to the running back or redirects him and/or disrupts the timing enough to blow up the play.  In pass coverage, not so good... not good at all.

5.  Trevor Scott; 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in two games.  A better-than-adequate replacement while Jermaine Cunningham serves his suspension.

And finally, the bit of bad news:

1.  Two fumbles; just unacceptable.  They recovered both of them, but in the playoffs, putting the ball on the ground is the surest way to lose.  They have to straighten this out fast, San Francisco hits hard and is always trying to jar the ball loose.

2.  Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer just isn't very effective with his back problems.  He was dominated several times by Houston's J.J. Watt, and the Patriots had to slide tight ends to his side when they ran.  The worse news: the team doesn't really have a good alternative to Vollmer.

3.  Wes Welker's three dropped passes.  With Gronkowski out, every offensive mistake is magnified, and of the six targets that were not completed, at least three of them were flat-out drops by Welker.

4.  Commentator Jon Gruden, who apparently can't tell the difference between Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in pass coverage.  Or is it that he doesn't want to admit Mayo's problems covering tight ends... not sure.

So where does this leave us?  As stated earlier, the Patriots will get a first-round playoff bye if they win the rest of their games.  However, that won't be easy, with the tough and battle-tested 49ers coming to town in six days.  A win there, and they can likely beat Jacksonville and Miami to close it out, but this Sunday is a daunting task, especially on a short week.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  Entering this season, Zoltan Mesko was the NFL's all-time leader in career net punting average.  This year ranks 30th in the NFL in that category.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "That game was the football equivalent of 'Godzilla Versus Bambi.'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-3!

PPS.  Trivia answer: on September 16, 1990, Rod Rust notched his only victory as an NFL head coach -- but just barely.  The Patriots beat the Colts in Indianapolis, 16-14, which means the Rust Era ended with zero home victories.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Patriots Win 23-16, Clinch Division Crown

The Patriots stayed pretty conservative and outlasted the desperate Dolphins for a 23-16 victory.  The win clinched their ninth division title in ten years and guaranteed their 12th consecutive winning season.  The win also tied them with the Baltimore Ravens, who lost to Pittsburgh and are now tied with the Patriots and Broncos at 9-3.  When considering a playoff bye, the Patriots hold the tiebreaker over Denver, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots, and the Broncos and Ravens play in a few weeks.  So rather than write 2,000 words about the possibilities, better to wait until after that game to figure it out.

This win didn't come as easily as might have been expected, but a road division win is always tough.  And the Pats have traditionally had more trouble winning in Miami than in New York against Buffalo or the Jets.  The Patriots have a lot more firepower than Miami, but they mostly held it in reserve, choosing to go with safe passes and throw-aways rather than risk big plays down the field.  Given the lack of Dolphins deep-threats, the strategy seemed sound, and it worked pretty well.

Miami played tight to the line to stop the run and disrupt the timing of the passing game, and it had the desired effect.  Tom Brady was sacked 4 times, posted his lowest passer rating of the year (74.8) and his lowest yards per attempt this season (5.95), and threw his first interception in six games.  In his defense, it seemed the game plan was to stay conservative.  All eight pass plays of 11-yards or more were short passes that went for more yard after the catch.  And in fact, Brady's INT came on one of his few long pass attempts, up the sideline to a blanketed Aaron Hernandez.

Among receivers, Hernandez came up big in this game, 8 catches for 97 yards and some key yards-after-catch.  He and Wes Welker (12 for 103 and 1 touchdown) were the receiving stars, targeted 31 times between them and accounting for 10 of 14 passing first downs.  Welker tied the NFL record with his 17th game with 10 catches or more (trivia question: who shares that record with Welker; answer below).  The rest of the receivers were nondescript, with Julian Edelman leaving with a foot injury and Brandon Lloyd completely silent until the very end of the game.  And you know the receiving corps is getting thin when Matthew Slater comes off the bench to fill in.

The running game didn't help much, at least early in the game.  The Pats couldn't run outside and the O-line really misses the blocking ability of Rob Gronkowski (out with a broken arm).  The Patriots netted just 10 yards rushing at the half.  They did get it together for a game-sealing 16-play drive that consumed 7:18 of clock time and all three Dolphins timeouts.  They succeeded by abandoning the idea of running wide and simply pounding it straight ahead with a combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead.  After just 46 yards through three quarters, they came up with 62 in the final stanza and were blowing the Dolphins off the line.

The offensive line misses Logan Mankins' toughness and ability and (as mentioned) Gronkowski's blocking.  Donald Thomas receives a lot of praise, but frankly I don't see why.  He gives up too much pressure in the passing game, and the team has a lot more success running to the other side.  Not to denigrate Thomas; he's a fill-in for a reason.  But the offensive line had an up-and-down game, giving up too much pressure and providing no running game until the end.  Oh, and some of that was on the offensive play-calling -- more on that later.

On the defensive line, Trevor Scott improved on suspended Jermaine Cunningham's improvement from last year.  Scott got two sacks, one QB pressure, and forced a fumble.  Rob Ninkovich is coming back to reality from his stellar first half, and Vince Wilfork continues to drive hard to the end of the season, making plays that don't always show up on the stat sheet but that are very effective at stopping drives.  The rest of the line played only okay, losing outside contain several times and giving up some big runs -- but overall, they mostly contained the quarterback, which was probably their job for the day.

The linebackers played very well, with Brandon Spikes starring against both the run and pass.  And Jerod Mayo got six tackles and a huge sack that forced the Dolphins to take a field goal.  It wasn't perfect, with a few long runs squeezing through, but the team held Miami to 3.7 yards a carry and receivers made big plays mostly on long passes that were the secondary's responsibility.  Miami might have lacked the underneath play-makers to attack the linebackers vulnerability against the pass, but even so, the middle-zones were controlled much better this week.

The secondary was trick-or-treat.  Aqib Talib was close on several plays but not quite close enough.  And the safeties took a step back in covering the deep ball, arriving late on several outside passes and getting beaten on two plays where the Dolphins QB simply missed the receivers.  If those plays had been completed, the game could have gone against the Patriots.  Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard compete like demons out there, but there's no hiding the reasons they were an undrafted free agent and a seventh-round pick, respectively.  The team needs Patrick Chung back and more playing time for Steven Gregory to get back into the swing of things.  That would allow them to move Devin McCourty back to corner, and he'd be an improvement over anyone not named Talib.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another make-able field goal, and no blaming the snap or hold this time (which were both perfect).  He clearly has some confidence problems, and he needs to straighten that out before the playoffs.  Post-season games are usually close, and missed field goals can cost you a game.  So you can survive them now, but in the playoffs, it can cost you your season..  On the plus side, Edelman had two nifty punt returns before leaving with his injury.

The offensive play-calling was suspect in the first half.  Too many outside running plays and not enough no-huddle.  Although the fake end-around/screen pass to Vereen was such a beautifully designed play that you could give coordinator Josh McDaniels a pass on the bad running calls.  And one strange thing was that most everything worked better out of the spread offense, including inside handoffs.  Lined up in the I-formation or in the standard pro set, the Pats had a lot more trouble moving the ball.

On defense, the most curious coaching decision of the day was to run stunts against a mobile quarterback.  On multiple occasions, this left 350+ pound Kyle Love chasing the nimble Ryan Tannehill, a race that Love had no chance to win.  The better plan against mobile quarterbacks is probably to keep the fastest guys (Rob Ninkovich and Justin Francis/Chandler Jones) outside and let the big guys push up the middle.  Or at least put Scott and Ninkovich on one side and let them stunt -- neither of them is the behemoth that Love (or Wilfork or Brandon Deaderick) is.

So where does this leave us?  Seven weeks ago, the entire AFC East was tied at 3-3.  Since then, the Patriots are 6-0 and every other team is 2-4.  The Pats have an extra day to prepare for their next game, and they'll need it for the Monday night tilt with the AFC-leading 11-1 Houston Texans.  The division championship is to be savored, but the Patriots have to refocus on Houston quickly if they entertain any ideas about a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  The Patriots have a chance to sweep the division this season, having gone 5-0 so far with one game remaining against the Dolphins.  The only other time Tom Brady achieved this was 2007, the year the Pats went 16-0 in the regular season.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Yesterday marked Brady's first December victory in Miami.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With a solid defense, imagine how much better the Dolphins could have been if they chose Matt Ryan instead of an offensive lineman with the first pick way back when.  Parcells picking the groceries..."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  9-3!

PPS.  Welker tied none other than Jerry Rice with 17 games of 10+ catches.