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 (http://www.coldhardfootballfacts.com/content/brees-the-best-day-ever/7187/).  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.

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