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.

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