Monday, January 21, 2013

Patriots Dropped By Ravens, 28-13

The Patriots playoff run ended abruptly (don't they all) with a 28-13 loss at Gillette Stadium last night.  The loss sent the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl, the Patriots to do some soul-searching and preparation for the off-season, and their fans to wonder how it went so wrong when it looked all set up for them.  There was a lot of what Terrell Suggs called "arrogance" among fans -- many predictions of double-digit victory and rematches with the 49ers.  But all the talk was for naught.

Last November, the Patriots traded for corner Aqib Talib, and much of the local media wondered: "Can one player make that much difference for this awful secondary?"  If the last three quarters of the AFC Championship Game are any indication. the answer is an obvious, "Yes!"  Talib was on the field for the first two drives on Sunday, and the Ravens were scoreless before he left with an injury.  After that, Baltimore spent the entire second half exploiting matchups with nickel back Marquice Cole, and they outscored the Patriots 28-10 the rest of the way.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco took a few series to figure it out, and he spent one series targeting Kyle Arrington.  But after Arrington almost intercepted two passes, you could literally see Flacco come up under center and look for Cole, and then throw to the receiver he was covering.  And just like that, the Patriots defense that was so well-suited to stopping long pass plays, was suddenly very vulnerable to them.  The last three-quarters of the game looked a lot like the Patriots early season losses, unable to stop the long pass, and when they went with more DBs, unable to stop the run.  A lose-lose.

However, on this count, the biggest fault of all rests with the New England coaching staff.  Once the situation was obvious to everyone watching at home and in the stands, it was incumbent upon the coaches to do something to rectify it.  My advice would have been to move Devin McCourty to cornerback and take your chances with Tavon Wilson at safety.  Not a great option, but once Cole was beaten for the fifth time in a row, it was time to try something new.  But no such adjustment was made, and the Ravens looked unstoppable for most of the second half.

And to those defensive problems, add in a ton of missed offensive opportunities in the 30 minutes.  Here is how their first half drives went:
  1. Welker dropped a perfect pass on third-and-two, and they punted
  2. Brady called a no-huddle run that was stuffed on third-and-two, and they kicked a field goal
  3. Dropped pass by Lloyd on third-and-nine, and they punted from the Baltimore 35
  4. Third-and-two (again!) missed pass to Lloyd, and they punted from the Baltimore 45
  5. Touchdown drive
  6. Blown clock management and a field goal instead of a TD from the Baltimore 10
Six drives got 13 points, but it should have been at minimum 19, and could have been 27.  No team scores every time, but bad plays on third down and lack of guts to go for it on fourth down kept the game too close at 13-7.  They went for most every fourth down inside the opponent 40 all year, so why the passivity in Ravens territory this time?  And maybe Gisele was right -- her husband can't throw *and* catch the ball.  Not that Brady was great in this game, but in the first half he made enough plays to hold more than a six-point lead, if his receivers could hold onto the ball.

Even with all that, with the problems on defense and the issues on offense, the Patriots still could have won the game, obviously, leading at the half.  But while Baltimore was exploiting the Patriots defense, the Patriots offense sputtered, and finally they began to turn the ball over.  They punted from the Baltimore 34 yard line on their first drive, and then went 3-and-out on their second one -- shades of the first half.

And then, on a promising drive to start the fourth quarter, down by only eight points, Stevan Ridley took a vicious hit and fumbled.  The Ravens promptly abused the Patriots defense again, to post a 28-13 lead.  However, those were the last points they would score, and with 11:13 left in the game, a two-score lead wasn't insurmountable.  But the last three drives went: turned over on downs, tipped-ball interception, and interception.  Ball game.

That, my friends is how you lose a playoff game.  Didn't go for it on offense when they'd done it all year.  No pressure on QB Joe Flacco, and when your secondary sustained injuries, he toasted them for multiple touchdowns.  Meanwhile, your offense didn't make hay in the first half and turned the ball over in the second half.

Here is a quick list of who did well in the game:

1.  Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez were rock solid, with only 1 or 2 drops and lots of important catches.  Combined, they notched 16 receptions for 153 yards.

2.  Punter Zoltan Mesko did a great job pinning the Ravens back, even if the team should have called on him two or three fewer times and gone for it on fourth down instead.

3.  Rookie Alfonzo Dennard and oft-criticized Kyle Arrington were the best secondary players on the day, but that mostly casts an unflattering light on the rest of the secondary.

4.  Linebacker Brandon Spikes did a great job against the run, especially given that the defensive line didn't do its usual stellar job (mostly just held serve).

5.  Rob Ninkovich had another "johnny on the spot" game, finishing with 8 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 QB hits, and doing a nice job holding the edge against the run.

As for who didn't do well:

1.  Tom Brady didn't control the game with audibles as he had all year.  The first interception wasn't on him, and the second one was in desperation time, so his QB rating was worse than his performance.  But too many bad plays called in third-and-short situations, and not decisive enough when he ran out of the pocket.

2.  The coaches weren't aggressive enough, didn't make good adjustments (shown by a scoreless second half), blew the end-of-half situation, and didn't do enough to help their defensive backfield when Talib went out of the game.  The one good thing -- they obviously found something with the inside run in the second half.  But even including that, a poor performance.

3.  The linebackers in pass coverage, just didn't get the job done.

4.  The offensive line was mostly just okay.  Some decent holes but not consistent enough in the running or passing games.

5.  Wes Welker led the team in pass receptions and yards, made some catches after bone-crushing hits, and did good work on punt returns.  But his two drops -- both on third down in Ravens territory -- they were killers.

6.  Not that it was his fault, but corner Marquice Cole had an awful game.

So where does that leave us?  There literally is no tomorrow this season, so for a change, the Patriots Pro Bowl players will participate n the game next week.  The team has to figure out whether or not to bring back Talib (likely they will), and they should do their best to bring in another veteran to solidify that part of their defense.  And as always, they should consider all possible candidates for defensive coordinator, because that situation has not worked out very well lately.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  In the first 17 games this year, Mesko punted from inside the opponent 40 yard-line only 9% of the time (6 of 65).  On Sunday, it was 40% (2 of 5).  (Trivia question: in which game did he punt three times from inside the opponent's 40 yard-line -- answer below.)

Bonus Statistical Oddity:  Tom Brady won his first 67 home games when he held the lead at the half.  Yesterday was the first loss of his career in that situation.  (I read this one on several sites.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Missed opportunities always come back to haunt you; the Pats lost this game in the first half."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-5 & 1-1!
PPS.  Mesko punted from inside the Miami 40 yard-line in the season finale -- a 28-0 blowout win.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview

For the fourth time in three years, it's Patriots vs. Ravens, and it's sure to be a classic as they fight for a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.  In the last three meetings, the Patriots won twice, 23-20 each time (including an overtime game), and the Ravens scored a thrilling 31-30 comeback victory earlier this season.  Given how close this rivalry is, you might think there's no reason to ask if enough has changed to alter the outcome from last time.  But you'd be wrong :)

Several things changed since the last game, which was only last September.  And those changes will affect how things go, even if the game ends up as close as the other recent games.  Here are the key factors in this weekend's contest, how they will likely impact the game, and what the result is likely to be.

Factor #1: Improved Ravens Offense

Just two weeks ago in my playoff preview, I cited the Ravens desperation on offense.  The team was so frustrated with that side of the ball, they fired their offensive coordinator, replacing him with a man who'd never called a game at the NFL level.  And the results... well, I'll say that a heaping helping of crow goes down nicely with a good root beer!  (Is it strange that it tastes like Raven?)  New OC Jim "the statue" Caldwell has come to life, and reanimated the Baltimore offense.

In the last three "real" games they played, the Ravens averaged 31 points and over 10 yards per pass attempt (excepting week #17, when they rested their starters).  They throw the ball down the field now, attacking vertically rather than their old habit of ball-control running and safe passes.  "Win with defense" is now passe in Baltimore, and quarterback Joe Flacco is playing at a higher level.  Still not elite status, but he is continuing to improve.

The receivers are very complimentary; with Torrey Smith the deep burner, Anquan Boldin the physical outside threat, and tight end Dennis Pitta working the middle of the field.  And though Flacco too often eschews safer short passes for long bombs, he is making better decisions the last few weeks than he has in past playoff runs.

The Ravens offense is now more dangerous than their defense, and the defense is still formidable.

Factor #2: Improved Patriots defense

After an early-season loss to Seattle, I implored the team to put Devin McCourty at safety and keep him there.  Rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner got beaten on the winning touchdown for Seattle, and it was clear that Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung weren't coming back from injuries any time soon.  They needed McCourty's skils and veteran presence to solidify the back end of the defense.

Two weeks later, the Patriots traded for corner Aqib Talib (from Tampa Bay).  What a difference one player can make. Talib allowed the McCourty move to safety, put rookie Alfonzo Dennard to cover the second-best outside receiver, and lastly left Kyle Arrington on slot receivers, which is a better match-up for him.

The turn-around was immediate.  The Patriots gave up nine explosive pass plays (20+ yards) against the Ravens, and after the Seattle game, they ranked dead last in the NFL in that category.  But since Talib came in, they have given up the fewest such plays.  Quite the reversal.

The bad news for the Ravens is that the Patriots defensive improvement works directly against their offensive improvement.  This matchup of newfound-strength-on-newfound-strength will be fascinating to watch on Sunday.

Factor #3:  Trading Speed for Gronk

With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots will depend on speedier players than they would have with Gronk in there.  Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, tight end Aaron Hernandez, slot receiver Wes Welker, and running backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen -- every one of them uses speed or quickness, whereas Gronkowski's game is mostly size and strength.

Not that the team is better off without Gronkowski.  They will especially miss his blocking in the run game, and the double-coverage he drew opened up room for the other receivers.  Also, his chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady is superb, and there is no replacing that, especially in the red zone.  However, they have no choice to play on, and being able to utilize speed against stout Ravens linebackers simply gives them different matchup advantages.

The crucial question is whether or not the receivers can get off the line of scrimmage quickly enough.  Ravens defenders will no doubt try to disrupt the timing of the passing game by hitting receivers within the allowed five-yard zone.  Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to find creative ways to get his receivers off the line: bunch groups, men in motion, and even receivers lined up in the backfield.

If the receivers get into their patterns quickly, their speed will win the day.  If not, the advantage goes to the Ravens.

Factor #4:  Ray Rice Versus Brandon Spikes

On January 10, 2010, Ray Rice took a hand-off on the opening play of the game, and carried it 83 yards for a touchdown.  It was the first strike in an eventual 33-14 playoff rout over the Patriots.  But including the rest of that game, in 3.99 games since then, he's averaged only 3.7 yards a rush, only topped 100 yards once, and has just 2 touchdowns.  The defense hasn't shut down Rice, but they have limited his impact -- even holding him to an average of 3.5 receptions for just 24.5 yards a game, and 0 receiving touchdowns in those games.

The key to slowing down Rice on Sunday will be linebacker Brandon Spikes.  He made huge strides this year in correctly diagnosing plays as either run or pass, and also in breaking up running plays with well-timed blitzes.  He will have to do that exceptionally well on Sunday.  Because if Spikes guesses wrong or blitzes into the wrong hole, or if Rice slides away from him in the backfield, the Patriots will pay dearly for those mistakes.

Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Dont'a Hightower -- along with the outside containment -- will have to hold up well to give the Patriots any chance to slow down the Baltimore running attack.  But to stop Rice, Spikes has to have a big game.

Quick Hits:

A)  Home field simply doesn't hold much advantage in this rivalry.  The games have been so close, it seems almost irrelevant where they are played.  And don't worry about the Ravens, they will not be intimidated by the crowd or the enormity of the situation.

B)  Both teams gave up big kickoff returns last week, but you should expect they will shore things up and do a lot better this Sunday.  The Ravens and the Patriots had terrific kick-coverage teams all season, so last week's performances should be considered aberrations.

C)  In the running game, the Patriots will likely try more outside runs -- pitches, reverses, and screen passes -- because they haven't been successful running inside on Ravens recently.

D)   The start of the game will be big, because the Ravens bring tons of emotion early in games, so the Patriots will have to survive the onslaught.  And the end of the game will be big, because the Patriots offense got much better at closing out games as the season progressed, so the Ravens will have to make a big stop late to get the ball back or preserve a lead.

E)  The current weather forecast calls for mild temperatures and no precipitation.  But it is expected to be windy.  That could cause problems for the Ravens deep strike offense, and also for the Patriots field goal game, given the erratic season by kicker Stephen Gostkowski.


Both teams will run the ball some, whether or not they gain lots of yards.  They have to; the defenses are too good to attack one-dimensionally.  However, the biggest factor in the game is that the Patriots defense has evolved into the kind that will give the Ravens trouble throwing down the field.  And the Ravens are not the type of team that changes things up for one game.  They usually go with what they do well and try to execute better than their opponent.

If the Ravens do alter their game plan and go with the medium-range passing game, the advantage will be theirs.  Attacking the Patriots linebackers through the air is a lot safer and more effective than attacking the revamped secondary.  However, there is little reason to expect the Ravens to make that change.  And at this particular moment, the Patriots secondary should hold an advantage over the Ravens deep passing game (especially if the wind is a factor).  And that makes the Patriots the favorite.

I foresee a game where a team gets one last, critical stop to hold onto a lead, and the outcome of that drive will be the ball game.  And if forced to predict, I'd say the Patriots are the ones who will make the crucial play, and come away with the victory -- let's say 24-20.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-4 & 1-0!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Patriots Advance With 41-28 Victory Over Texans

At 41-28, the score was closer this time around, but the game was almost as securely in hand most of the second half as the first one.  (Trivia question: prior to yesterday, when was the last time the Patriots scored 40+ points in two consecutive games against the same team... answer below.)  The Texans made most of the right moves, almost all the questionable calls went their way, and they even converted 3-of-4 fourth downs.  But with all that, they could not keep up with the Patriots.  The win means a repeat of last year's AFC Championship Game, with the Patriots hosting the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at 6:30.  Should be a great game, but more on that later in the week.

As for the game yesterday, the Patriots were obviously superior to the Texans.  It wasn't about specific player matchups, because the Patriots suffered two significant injuries on offense but still scored 41 points.  It wasn't about patience with the running game this time, because it wasn't a blowout until the fourth quarter, so Houston had plenty of time to establish the run.  And it wasn't about bad in-game coaching, because there was very little to quibble with.

This game was about the play of superior players, having positional flexibility and skilled backup players, designing a thorough pre-game scheme, and making superb in-game adjustments, especially in the first half.  The Texans don't have good enough players to win many games against the Patriots.  But more importantly, they lack imagination in game-planning so they suffer early in the game, and they also lack the ability to make necessary in-game adjustments.  So as the game goes on, the Patriots present more and more problems for the Texans and the Texans present fewer and fewer problems for the Patriots.

Perhaps the only game the Texans could have won yesterday was one where they got early turnovers and converted them into touchdowns.  As it was, they started the game with a 94-yard kickoff return  -- and the "drive" stalled after 3 yards, and they settled for a field goal.  In fact, their scoring drives in the first half averaged just 25 yards.  If they didn't get great field position from special teams, they were simply unable to  drive 60+ yards and score.  So there was no way they could not keep up with the Patriots offense; after all, the Pats had five scoring drives of 60+ yards in the game.

Special teams might have played a big role in Houston's initial score, but they were crucial in keeping the Texans out of the end zone the rest of the quarter.  How?  These two plays: 12:48 left, Zoltan Mesko punts 61 yards to Houston 12 (tackled at the 17), and 6:00 left, Mesko punts 57 yards to the Houston 8 (tackled at the 20).  Big, booming punts (with the wind, but so what...), and great coverage pinned the Texans back all day, especially early on, while the Patriots offense was still working to get untracked.  Mesko was the unsung hero of the game -- with 5 punts for a 52.8 yard average.

Not that special teams was all smiles and wonderment, the kickoff team gave up 230 yards on 5 returns, three of them absolutely huge plays that led directly to Texans points.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski seemed to get plenty of distance and hang time, but the coverage gave up the edge too easily and lacked central lane discipline on two of them.  Perhaps this was owing to the two-week layoff, but rest assured Baltimore's kickoff returners are salivating, so the Patriots have to get that straightened out.

Fortunately, the defense was outstanding, especially in the first half.  It was not always pretty, with a lot of second-and-short and third-and-short, but the defense played very stout when necessary to end drives and get the offense back on the field.  The Texans were a paltry 4-of-15 (27%) on third-down conversions, and even with star running back Arian Foster, they averaged fewer yards than the Patriots in the running game (4.0 versus 5.1 for the Pats).  And they kept Houston QB Matt Schaub under just enough pressure to make him uncomfortable.

The linebackers totaled 3 tackles for a loss, and Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower both made good plays in pass coverage -- a rarity this season.  Brandon Spikes continues to do a great job in run blitz, and as a unit, they did well passing off crossing receivers and making tackles after the catch.  It wasn't always pretty; some drives appeared heading for a score, but timely big plays were the key.  The linebackers need to continue this level of play next week, because the Ravens come to town with good tight ends and running backs who can attack the short-middle in the passing game.

The defensive line was led on the stat sheet by Rob Ninkovich, who had a monster game: 4 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 QB hit, 2 passes knocked down, and 1 huge interception.  He also recovered an onside kick in a nasty looking scrum, and that pretty much sealed the game.  Interestingly, his interception came on a zone-blitz where he dropped into coverage and linebacker Jerod Mayo took his place rushing the QB.  This defensive wrinkle confused Schaub, and he threw it right to Ninkovich.

He wasn't the only lineman who shone brightly.  Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love continually pushed the center of the line back into the quarterback's face, and that pressure forced early passes and some throws on the run (something Schaub is really bad at).  They finished with 5 and 1 tackles, respectively, but the rest of the line only notched 5 tackles among four players.  But they all worked in concert to force the Texans to throw before they wanted to, and it paid off when the incompletions piled up.

The secondary did a nice job tackling, but only an okay job in coverage.  Aqib Talib had 10 tackles, mostly because he covered Andre Johnson all day and Johnson had 8 catches.  Talib did a nice job making the tackle after the catch, but ended the day without a single knocked-down pass.  Safeties Steve Gregory (10) and Devin McCourty (7) kept everything in front of them, forcing Houston to drive the ball a few yards at a time.  Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson didn't do much to distinguish themselves, and the overall impression is that they'll have to be better at knocking away passes next week.

On offense, running back Shane Vereen had an outstanding day.  He had 7 carries for 41 yards, and also caught 5 passes for 83 yards, and he had 1 rushing TD and 2 receiving TDs.  When Danny Woodhead went out with an injury, Vereen filled in more than capably -- didn't even notice any problems with pass protection in the spread formation.  Stevan Ridley got 82 yards on 15 carries, giving the Patriots their stellar 5.1 YPC average, and Ridley pitched in with a touchdown, too.

In the passing game, quarterback Tom Brady handled the pressure very well.  Texans were blitzing from everywhere, and Brady did a great job searching for receivers down the field while players were flying all around him.  He ended up going 25 for 40 (62.5%), 344 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions (and nothing even close to being picked off), and a 115.0 QB rating.  He did a nice job of mixing in the no huddle with the fast break offense, and made a few absolutely gorgeous passes (most notably the 33-yard touchdown to Vereen).

Wes Welker led all Patriots receivers with 8 catches for 131 yards, and Aaron Hernandez proved again that his is the uncoverable man, getting 6 catches of his own for 85 yards, despite facing lots of scrutiny at the line of scrimmage.  The loss of Gronkowski (reportedly for the rest of the playoffs) will hurt, but it will be up to Brandon Lloyd, one of the other tight ends (Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui) to step up, because the team won't go much of anywhere with only Hernandez and Welker involved in the passing game.

And all of that is not to slight the offensive line, especially given how well the Pats ran the ball and how clean Brady's uniform was  Logan Mankins and Nate Solder were solid all day, and the interior of the line did a great job on the Ridley runs up the middle.  Sebastian Vollmer had trouble at times, although they were facing one of the best defensive lines in the league, so it was understandable.  But overall a very good performance by the O-line.

Coaching gets a very mixed grade.  They did a nice job with both the offensive and defensive game plans, and were outstanding at in-game adjustments.  But the kick coverage teams literally played poorly enough that they could have cost the Patriots the game, if not for stellar defensive play that bailed them out.  And the team committed five penalties, two of which were 15-yarders that really hurt (Lloyd's killed a Patriots drive, Gostkowski's gave the Texans an even shorter field late in the game).

Penalties and poor special teams play went hand-in-hand, and both are often attributed to rust and/or bad coaching.  The penalties were probably rust, but still more of a coaching responsibility.  But the special teams gaffes were coaching through and through, and need to be fixed by next Sunday -- or you might be in for two weeks of Ray Lewis hype at the Super Bowl.

So where does that leave us?  As stated, the Patriots host the Ravens next Sunday at 6:30, right here in Foxboro.  And this time, the Ravens are healthy and it's the Patriots with some significant injuries.  Should be a barn-burner -- two teams that know each other well, and that respect each other but hate each others guts.  I'll be there with my hate-hat on, so tune in and see if the Pats can make it six Super Bowls in the Belichick/Brady era.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: From 2006 - 2011, Rob Ninkovich had a combined 6 interceptions/forced-fumbles.  With his INT yesterday, he has 6 this season alone.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Nice job by the Texans -- in two games they scored as many points as the Patriots scored in the first game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-4 & 1-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer: just last year, the Patriots put up 41 and 45 against the Denver Broncos -- once in the regular season and once in the playoffs, just as with the Texans.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Patriots vs. Texans Preview

Patriots/Texans -- it doesn't have the ring of Patriots/Steelers or Patriots/Broncos... at least not yet.  But they are developing a history, right before our eyes.  One month ago, they were the 11-1 and 9-3 AFC big boys, when they met in Foxboro.  Unfortunately for Houston, they became the latest contenders to be exposed as pretenders to the throne.

However, that was then, this is now.  Given that the teams played to recently, it should be easy to figure out if enough has changed for each team to expect a different outcome.  On December 10, the Patriots whupped the Texans, 42-14, in a game where the blowout score very accurately indicated the differences between the teams on that day.  So Houston has a lot of ground to make up; question is, can they possibly turn-around a 28-point deficit?  The answer might surprise you.

1. The Game Is Currently Tied

Even though the Patriots won the first game by 28 points, and controlled it from very early on, they don't get to carry those points over.  It is an oft-repeated point, but in this case, it applies more than most weeks.  This is a brand new game, and though some themes carry forward, many breaks went the Patriots way last time, and they could just as easily go the Texans way this weekend.

Last time, the Texans were completely unprepared for the intensity of what was the franchise's first big game.  And when the Patriots leaped out to a big lead, Houston had no idea how to come back and had no confidence they could.  But that game is now behind them, and the coaches and players in Houston understand what big games are like.  And they showed they know how to win a big game, by winning their first playoff game last week, even when they did not play their best.

But at this exact moment, the teams are even; the game is tied, 0-0, with 15:00 left in the first quarter.  And don't expect it to be 21-0 in less than 19-minutes in like last time.

2.  Patriots Improvements

Tight end Rob Gronkowski did not play in the first game, and yet the Texans had few answers for the Patriots fast-break offense.  With Gronkowski back, Houston will have to pick their poison among three receivers -- they'll have to single-cover Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, or Wes Welker.  Oh, and they will need to figure out better coverage for Brandon Lloyd, too, since he finished with 7 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Additionally, a vastly improved Jermaine Cunningham returns, which further solidifies the rotation on both sides of the outside defensive line.  Rob Ninkovich is limping with a hip injury, but both Cunningham and Trevor Scott will keep Ninkovich fresh and provide outside pressure (though neither does as well against the run).  On the other side, Chandler Jones has made big plays the last few weeks, and fellow rookie Justin Francis came out of nowhere to notch three sacks in the last game.

Suffice it to say the Patriots will be improved.  They also got rest for many of the players dinged up during the season, so expect them to be at the top of their game health-wise.

3. Texans Improvements

The Texans did not return any significant players, but they can expect two improvements over the December game.

First, experience is key, and they know better how to prepare and play a game of this magnitude.  None of the players had participated in anything close to the December game, and one should reasonably expect them to be much better prepared this time.

Second, most of the breaks went against the Texans last time.  The Patriots recovered their own fumbles on two of their touchdown drives, they got an interception when Matt Schaub could have tied the game at 7-7, and they had a questionable pass interference penalty extend another drive that ended with a touchdown.  Not saying the Patriots didn't earn the win, but preparation, breaks, and momentum mostly explain the lop-sided final score.

4.  Likely Changes in Strategy

Given the 42-14 final score, the Patriots won't likely change a lot for this game.  On defense, expect them to bottle up the run with their stout defensive line, and double-cover receiver Andre Johnson, thus daring Matt Schaub to beat them with other players.  On offense, Gronkowski will get a lot of attention, especially early on, before anyone knows how effective he will be after the lay-off.  That should be when they target Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd to try for another early lead.

For the Texans, expect them to mix in more blitz packages to disrupt the timing of the Patriots offense.  Wade Phillips isn't really comfortable with this, but head coach Gary Kubiak will insist on going all-out.  And on offense, the Texans will likely use mid-range passes to exploit the pass-coverage deficiencies of the Patriots linebackers.  Watch for tight ends Owen Daniels and also for running back Arian Foster out of the backfield.

5.  Quick Hits:

A)  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn't attempt a field goal in the first game, but he was mired in his worst streak of the season, having made only 67% of his attempts in the previous three games.  However, Gostkowski is 5 for 5 since then, so it appears he shook off his case of the "yips."

B)  Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips needs to mix up his defense to slow down Tom Brady.  The Patriots haven't lost to a Wade Phillips defense in over 7 years, and Brady's average game is impressive: 26 of 44 for 321 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, a 102.6 QB rating, and 2 sacks for 9 yards.  Oh, and Phillips' teams haven't intercepted a Brady pass since January 14, 2007.

C)  For the second straight time, weather will not be a factor.  It was 59-degrees at kickoff on December 10 (with some light rain), and it's supposed to be 45-degrees with no precipitation and very little wind this Sunday.

D)  The Texans have a diverse enough offense to keep up with the Patriots, but they have to stay patient.  The Patriots will stack up the run, but that should open up the short- and intermediate-passing game, which is where Houston has to attack.  But they can't start chucking it down the field, their quarterback isn't accurate enough and they don't have enough deep threats to make that work consistently.

E)  The Patriots rushing attack was an underplayed factor in the first game.  They went for 130 yards and averaged 3.9 yards a carry.  And that was without Gronkowski, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.  When he's on the field, the Patriots can switch from pass to run and vice versa at will -- and that should get them even more yards per carry on Sunday.

6.  How Will It Play Out?

Given all those factors, it's unlikely that enough has changed in the last 31 days to indicate a Houston win.  They could win, but no matter the outcome, it should be a lot closer.  The Texans should not be overwhelmed this time, the breaks will probably be more even, and if the game stays competitive, Houston will focus on their running game to keep the number of possessions lower and more manageable.

So Houston can win the game.  But in the end, the Patriots should win it.  Houston couldn't slow down the Pats offense without Gronkowski, and everyone in the NFL knows that he is a match-up nightmare and one of the great difference-makers in the league.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Patriots 2012 Regular Season Awards

The 2012 season ended in dramatic fashion, with a win on the final Sunday that ensured a first-round playoff bye and an extra week to get healthy.  But before the Patriots start what we hope will be a long playoff run, here is a look back at the best performers, newcomers, and most improved players of the 2012 season.

The Offense 

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker, Nate Solder

The rest of the team might have to wait until Brady retires to get a shot at this award.  It was another stellar year; he threw for 4,827 yards, completed 63% of his passes, and tossed 34 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions.  Brady again was in complete control of the offense, and three of the four losses on the year were by 1, 1, and 2 points -- so the team could easily have been 13-3 or 14-2 (or even 15-1).

Wes Welker started the season under a cloud of rumors he was being phased out.  He ended up with 118 catches (second in the NFL), 1,354 yards, and 6 touchdowns.  Reminds me of the twilight of Roger Clemens' career -- we can all only hope to be phased out like that someday.

More on Solder's value in the next section.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Nate Solder
Honorable Mention: Stevan Ridley

In one year, Solder went from a "now reporting as eligible" third tight end to a 16-game starter who replaced the underrated (and under-appreciated) Matt Light a left tackle.  He was better protecting Brady's bilnd side than Light was last year, and in a position group with so much change and uncertainty, Solder was the only dependable starter all year long.

For sheer numbers, Stevan Ridley increased his rushing yards by 180% (441 to 1,263 -- the highest total since Corey Dillon left the team) and touchdowns 11-fold (1 to 12).  He did unfortunately increase his fumbles to 4, but he lost only 1 fumble in the last 11 games of the year.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Lloyd
Honorable Mention: none

Lloyd didn't work out as well as people dreamed he might, but he was more than a solid addition, grabbing 74 passes for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Some catches were spectacular and his game against San Francisco helped the team climb back from a 28-point deficit and almost win.  Not Randy Moss (circa 2007), but a very good addition who could play dividends when both tight ends play in the playoffs.  He will also likely improve next year.

The Defense 

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty

Patriots interior defensive linemen never get big numbers, but Wilfork still got 48 tackles, 3 sacks, and knocked down 6 passes.  More importantly, ever since the AFC Championship Game last year, Wilfork has been playing at a new level, even for him.  He breaks through double-teams and still makes tackles, and he almost always pushes the pocket back, which helped outside rushers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones total 8 and 6 sacks respectively.

Wilfork is almost as important to the defense as Brady is to the offense, and he is playing at a level equal to Richard Seymour in his prime.

Jerod Mayo moved to outside linebacker this year, and he got more pressure on the quarterback and helped shore up the the edge run defense.  He also stepped inside when needed, showing the kind of versatility the Patriots like.

McCourty also changed positions, from cornerback to safety, and he also switched back when needed.  The change led to 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and he was second on the team with 82 tackles (albeit a distant second, to Mayo's 147).

Most Improved Defensive Player: Rob Ninkovich
Honorable Mention: Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham

Ninkovich also changed positions, moving from linebacker in the 3-4 to D-lineman in the 4-3.  And the improvement was remarkable -- increase his sacks from 6.5 to 8.0 and his forced fumbles from 1 to 5.  He also helped (along with Jerod Mayo) to shore up the outside run defense, doing a much better job holding the edge than he did the previous year.

McCourty for reasons already mentioned; he played some safety last year, but his move to safety in 2012 helped solidify the position group.

Cunningham had 1 tackle in 9 games last year, and improved to 24 tackles in 12 games this year.  Of course, he got busted for performance-enhancing drugs, so make you own judgment as to how he improved.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Chandler Jones, Steve Gregory
Honorable Mention: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard

Jones and Gregory brought new energy and solid play to the front and back of the defense.  Jones was second on the team with 6.0 sacks.  His mediocre middle of the season was bookended by a sensational start and a solid finish.  The Patriots defense is not easy to learn, and Jones did a great job holding up for 14 games.

Gregory came to a secondary that couldn't get any worse (remember Matthew Slater at safety and Julian Edelman at corner?).  An injury slowed him in the middle of the year, but Gregory did a nice job playing centerfield for the team -- helping to keep plays shorter when he played.

Aqib Talib played in only six games and had only one interception, and Dennard played in ten games and grabbed three interceptions.  But their impact was to allow McCourty to return to safety and for Kyle Arrington to cover slot receivers, and that is the best secondary lineup they have.

The Special Teams 

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: Zoltan Mesko

Slater was named the AFC Pro Bowl special teams player, so there's no question he deserves the award for his team.  He did a great job flying down on coverage teams, and that helped Mesko put 28 punts inside the 20 yard line and also helped keep all but 6 punts from being touchbacks.

Mesko was key to keeping some of the Patriots lesser opponents backed up, which helped the defense.  And when the defense stepped up, it gave the offense short fields.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: none

Slater had almost as many tackles this year (19) as in 2011 (24) -- the difference is that he did not play on defense this year, so all 19 tackles were on special teams.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: none
Honorable Mention: none

Sorry -- but no one new really distinguished themselves this season.

So there you have it; the coveted regular-season awards.  Now we're ready for the playoffs -- look for a preview of the Patriots/Texans tilt some time this week.  Until then...

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Playoff Preview

Ignore warning Lo and behold, playoff time is here again!  Time to forget Black Monday firings, replacement referees, BountyGate, the Jets' bluster, and where Josh McDaniels will coach next year -- and sit back and enjoy the best post-season tournament this side of NCAA basketball.

Here is my handicapping of the field, from the contenders to the pretenders.  If you are a loyal reader of this blog, you know better, but a word of warning to the uninitiated: this is for your entertainment only.  Momentum and matchups play a much larger role in the NFL playoffs than regular-season records, and no one can predict who will face whom in any round.  Suffice it to say, this is just one person's opinion -- and in a year with no clear favorite, it's even more likely to have a flaw or two.

The Faves

1.  The Denver Broncos earned the #1 seed in the AFC, and deservedly so.  Winners of 11 consecutive games, they are the only team to rank in the top 5 in both scoring offense and defense (second and fourth, respectively).  They also possess one of the top home field advantages in sports, and have a reborn passing game complimented by a decent running attack.

Potential problem: The Patriots offense regularly thrashes defenses coordinated by Denver coach Jack Del Rio.  Just like they did earlier this year, when Brady completed 74% of his passes and threw no interceptions, and the running game compiled 251 yards on the ground.

2.  The New England Patriots earned the #2 seed in the AFC, and deservedly so, too.  Winners of 9 of their last 10 games, they have the post-season experience and pedigree that make them dangerous most any year.  Their offense scored almost five points more per game than any other team, and they set a record with 444 first downs and had the fewest three-and-outs in the league, by far.  They also lead the NFL with a +25 turnover ratio, owing to a young and opportunistic defense.

Potential problem: Health is the biggest issue.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib the keys to the offense and defense.  With either one missing (or too limited to make a difference), the Super Bowl is that much less likely.

3.  The San Francisco 49ers have four important elements to a potential Super Bowl run: (1) an innovative coach, (2) a very physical defense, (3) a good running game, and (4) explosive players in the passing game.  The defense finished second in points allowed, the running game ranked third in yards per carry and fourth in yards per game.  And quarterback Colin Kaepernick leads all playoff signal-callers with 8.3 yards per pass attempt (a stat very closely associated with winning games).

Potential problem: Place-kicker David Akers was the worst in the NFL this year, missing 13 kicks and succeeding only 69% of the time -- very bad numbers in the modern NFL.  He's been so bad, they tried out another kicker this week, and in the playoffs, every point, every possession, everything is that much more important.

A Notch Below

4.  The Green Bay Packers entered the 2010 playoffs as the #6 seed, won three road games, and then upset the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl.  They have a lot of the same elements in place this year.  QB Aaron Rodgers led the league with a 108.0 QB rating, and combined with the fourth-ranked passing defense (74.1 defensive QB rating), the Packers could indeed be formidable.

Potential problem: The Packers' poor performance running the ball and defending the run could cost them against several teams.  They rank 23rd in yards-per-carry against, and 20th in yards-per-carry on offense.

A Puncher's Chance

5.  Washington is the only team starting a rookie quarterback in this category, and no rookie QB has ever won a Super Bowl.  So why Washington?  Because they have great run/pass balance on offense and a proven playoff coach in Mike Shanahan.  They rank second in yards-per-rush (5.2) and quarterback Robert Griffin III ranks third in QB rating (102.4).  And Shanahan has shown he can win the big games if he has a good running attack and gets good play at quarterback.

Potential problem: Griffin is injured, and the defense is middle of the pack against the run, the pass, and in points allowed.

6.  The Atlanta Falcons are the #1 seed in the NFC, but that ranking is deceptive.  They've played poorly the last few weeks, and suffered injuries in the final game of the regular season.  They enter the playoffs 2-2 in their last four games, and they rank a dismal 29th against the run (4.8 yards per carry).  Most years that might be okay, given they played better against the pass, but the NFC has three very strong running attacks to contend with (San Francisco, Washington, and Seattle).

Potential problem: Matt Ryan's career record is 56-22 in the regular season, 0-3 in the playoffs.

7.  The Cincinnati Bengals are an intriguing team.  Enough of a pass rush and a stingy enough defense that they could be this year's New York Giants.  Andy Dalton is a second-year QB, and two of them have won the Super Bowl this century (can you name them... answer below).  The problem is, no real running game, and a complete lack of playoff experience.

Potential problem: Marvin Lewis' playoff record is the same as Matt Ryan's, 0-3.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

8.  The Seattle Seahawks are ranked this low for two reasons.  First, they have a rookie quarterback, and no rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl.  Second, just to make it to the Super Bowl, they will very likely have to win three road games -- and they were 3-5 on the road this year.  Maybe they win one game, but very difficult to imagine them winning three away from home to advance to the Super Bowl.

Potential Problem: listed above.

9.  The Houston Texans spent much of the year flying high, leading the rest of the AFC field by as many as two full games.  But they went 1-3 down the stretch and lost home-field advantage, so they have to play this weekend and then go on the road if they emerge with a victory over Cincinnati.  At this point, they look shell-shocked, following up their 42-14 drubbing at New England with lack-luster performances against playoff teams Minnesota and Indianapolis.

Matt Shaub looks like he needs at least another year of seasoning, and the defense looked predictable and flat against all three teams they lost to down the stretch.  12-4 is impressive, until you realize all four losses came against playoff teams.

Potential problem: Will have to win in cold-weather, outdoor stadium to make the Super Bowl, and New England and Denver are unlikely to be hospitable to the dome-team Texans.

10.  The Baltimore Ravens fired their offensive coordinator a few weeks ago, a desperate act by a desperate team.  11th in yards-per-rush and 16th in QB rating, they could rally and win a game, maybe even two.  But with a middling quarterback and not enough defensive horses to stop teams, they can't win three to get to the big dance.

Potential problem: Joe Flacco is not, and never will be, an elite quarterback.

11.  The Indianapolis Colts were a great story all year long, but they lack the offensive fire-power and frankly their defense isn't that good away from home.  They gave up 19.25 points per game at home, but that average ballooned to 29.1 points a game on the road.  They are the fifth seed, so that likely means winning three shoot-outs, games they are not well-prepared to compete in.

Potential problem: Reggie Wayne can't do it alone.

12.  The Minnesota Vikings have a great running game and not much else.  Nice that they made the playoffs, and they could beat the Packers on Saturday.  But no way they get through two more road games to the Super Bowl -- not with the shaky play at quarterback and lack of offensive firepower.

Potential problem: The defense is decent against the run, but bad against the pass.  Look for Aaron Rodgers and any other NFC quarterbacks to audible to pass plays, over and over again.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

PPS.  Rookies Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson, and second-year QBs Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, and Christian Ponder all start in this year's playoffs.

PPPS.  Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger both won the Super Bowl in their second seasons.