Sunday, September 22, 2013

Patriots Out-class Buccaneers, 23-3

The Patriots simply out-classed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spotting them an early 3 points and then scoring the last 23 for a 20-point win.  The victory helped the Patriots keep pace with the 3-0 Dolphins, who beat the Falcons today.  And speaking of the Falcons, the Patriots travel to Atlanta next week to take them on; their first difficult opponent of the season.

This game looked to be in doubt for the first 15 minutes.  The Bucs put together drives of 55 and 51 yards, but missed one field goal so they held only a 3-0 lead.  Meanwhile the Patriots punted after "drives" of 4, 5, and 3 plays each, and their offense looked completely out of sync.  Fortunately Tampa Bay didn't cash in enough of those early opportunities, and when the Pats stopped them on fourth down, Brady drove the team 66 yards for their first touchdown, and then followed it with 62-yard drive for another 7.

At that point, it was game over.  The Bucs had decent plans on offense and defense to start the game.  But once the Patriots made their adjustments, the Buccaneers had nothing to fall back on, and their offensive ineptitude led to more short drives for points by the Patriots.

A great example was the Patriots interception.  Tampa needed to get to the locker room and regroup (they were getting the ball to start the second half).  But QB Josh Freeman made a bad decision and threw the ball right to Aqib Talib with 11 seconds to go int he first half, and the Patriots used two plays to get into field goal range and make it a two-touchdown lead at the half.

The Patriots defense played very well, especially after the first quarter.  Solid pressure by Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones (1 sack, 2 QB hits), with occasional help from Tommy Kelly (0.5 sacks, 2 QB hits).   Vince Wilfork sees almost constant double-teaming, which should free Kelly and the rest to make plays -- and they are making them for sure.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo had a sack and led the team with nine tackles.  And running mate Brandon Spikes continues his excellent run from last year, guessing run/pass correctly about 80% of the time.  He doesn't always make the tackle (though he had seven yesterday), but his instincts (and obvious film study) help him blow up plays before they even get started.  Dont'a Hightower didn't have huge stats, but he holds the edge well against the run, and his pass coverage is probably the best of any Patriots linebacker.

In the secondary, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Aqib Talib never let up the pressure on opposing receivers.  They were beaten regularly early in the game, with Arrington actually moving outside for a few series (not sure if Dennard was injured).  But they just kept hitting, pushing, rerouting, and all-around annoying the receivers, until some of them left the game with injuries and others dropped passes because they heard footsteps.  Oh, and all three made nice defensive plays with the ball in the air (again, excepting the first quarter).

And please consider it a compliment to the safeties that there isn't much to say about them.  The Patriots are not giving up long passes, the safeties have only been beaten deep twice all season (both times in the Bills game).  And the run support has been good enough, although that leads to this point...

The run defense remains suspect, giving up at least 4 yards a carry for the third consecutive game, 4.4 this time.  (Trivia question: Who was the Patriots head coach the last time the Pats gave up at least 4 YPC in each of their first three games in a season -- answer below.)  Yesterday it was more yards between the tackles, something that's plagued them to this point.  And frankly, these performances came against teams with subpar quarterbacks, so the Patriots knew all three teams would run the ball a lot.  Yet the run defense got repeatedly gashed on quick traps and inside runs in all three contests.  Not a problem so far, but something to watch as the year goes on.

On offense, the young receivers who took so much heat the last few games got their acts together in this one.  Aaron Dobson: 10 targets, 7 catches, 52 yards, and 5 first downs (including a penalty he drew and a fourth-down conversion).  Kenbrell Thompkins: 7 targets, 3 catches, 41 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a late-game first-down (he also had two drops).  But most important of all, they ran the correct routes and were on the same page as Tom Brady, which is critical to the success of this offense.

Julian Edelman contributed his usual 7 catches for 44 yards, and even Michael Hoomanawaui had 2 for 31 yards.  And after a first quarter where Brady held the ball longer than usual, the offense got in sync and it was the quick-pass attack recognizable to anyone who watches the team on a regular basis.  Brady ended up 25-of-36, 225 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 92.9 QB rating.  Not stellar, but the offense is still a work in progress.

The running game was actually quite good, making use of all three running backs and their diverse skill sets.  Stevan Ridley (11 rushes for 35 yards) ran most often early in the game, spelled from time to time by the faster Brandon Bolden (3 for 51).  Later in the game, LeGarrette  Blount came in for what looked like mop-up duty, but he got 14 carries for 65 yards (and a long of 23).  A nicely balanced attack, with large holes on some plays and very few runs for a loss.

The offensive line did a passable job.  The early pressure really was more on Brady for holding the ball.  But there were a few miscues up front, with Dan Connolly blowing it one play (and giving up a sack), and some apparent mis-communication on the right side between Connolly and Marcus Cannon (in for Sebastian Vollmer for a few series).  Overall very nice work, but the Bucs proved once again that the Patriots O-line is vulnerable to physical, attacking defensive lines.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski had a great game.  His kickoffs were never returned (and all but one went through the end zone), and he was a perfect 3-3 on field goals, including a career-long-tying 53-yarder to end the first half.  And though punter Ryan Allen's first punt was a shank job, he recovered nicely to have one downed inside the 20 and a 42.7 yard average.

The coaches showed their skills with adjustments in the first half.  The score was only 3-0, but Tampa Bay was dominating play and time of possession.  However, when the Patriots made their adjustments, they scored on five of the next six possessions, and that was ball game.  With Rob Gronkowski likely back next week, it will take some of the pressure off the young receivers (and Edelman).  No telling what they'll do next with the offense.

So where does that leave us?  3-0 and tied for first place in the division, that's where.  The Pats head to Atlanta for a big game next Sunday night.  This will be a much better indicator of where they are at this point.  If Gronkowski returns, look for him and Brady to play very well -- they both do so when the bright lights are on them.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  In the last 12 months, Tampa Bay traded Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount to the Patriots.  Yesterday Talib got the Patriots lone turnover, and Blount was the Patriots leading rusher.  That has to be an oddity -- when has that ever happened in the NFL?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "Gronk's return couldn't come at a better time.  Now that the warm-up acts are done, let's bring on the real season."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  3-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer:
20 years ago, in Bill Parcells' first year with the Patriots, the Pats gave up the following numbers in their first three games of the 1993 season:
Buffalo = 42 rushes for 177 yards (4.2)
Detroit = 44 for 186 (4.2)
Seattle = 43 for 209 (4.9)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Patriots Hold On For 13-10 Victory Over Jets

The Patriots got an early touchdown and rode a 10-0 first quarter lead to a 13-10 win.  For the time being, the victory puts them in sole possession of first place in the division, and puts the Jets in sole possession of last place.  Now it's 10 days off to rest and recuperate before taking on the so-far winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Foxboro.

You don't seriously expect an in-depth analysis of this game, do you?  I called Eric Northman to see if he can "glamour" me to make me forget the entire sordid evening.  Here are some thoughts on how the Patriots won, how they could have lost, and where they are after two weeks.

1.  Win the turnover battle 4-0 and you should win by a lot more than 3 points.  But in the end, three Geno Smith INTs and a fumble by receiver Stephen Hill gave the Patriots the win; and it also gave them the ball a lot, so they had a chance to do this...

2.  Go 4-18 on third-down conversions -- which is pathetic, closing in on Rod Rust territory.  Perhaps this was the statistical counterweight to the 4-0 turnover margin, and a lot of it owed to poor second-down performance and dropped balls by young receivers.  Oh, and speaking of that...

3.  Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson dropped almost as many passes as Rex Ryan has pounds.  He combined with Kenbrell Thompkins and James Develin for six catches, and though Thompkins shook off the first-game jitters of last week, he still had some missed routes and confusion between him and Brady.

The only veteran of the group, Julian Edelman, had 13 receptions all by himself, and even when double-teamed he found ways to get open and keep the chains moving.  Not bad for a converted QB.  Oh, and speaking of Edelman...

4.  It's time to have Leon Washington return punts.  Sure, Edelman is very good at it, technically the highest average in NFL history.  But Edelman is just too valuable to the offense, at least until Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola come back from injuries.  If Edelman goes down on a punt return, the passing game would be completely stagnant, so there is no reason to risk him on special teams.  And speaking of special teams...

5.  Is Stephen Gostkowski so fragile that the Pats have to waste a down to put the ball in the middle of the field for him?  At the end of the second quarter, Brady could have taken a shot in the end zone, or tried for a first down or at least to get the ball closer.  But since the ball rested on the right hashmark, and that apparently is Gostkowski's least favorite hashmark, Brady took the snap and knelt in the middle of the field.

And Gostkowski promptly rewarded the team by hooking the ball wide left, keeping the game closer than it should have been.  Gostkowski was supposed to be a veteran you could depend on, but maybe not in a big spot.  And speaking of veterans you could depend on...

6.   Anyone else miss Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick?  Tommy Kelly is fine, but the lack of defensive line depth leaves him and Vince Wilfork out there for too many snaps.  And in case you haven't noticed, the Patriots are getting gashed on inside running plays this year -- something that rarely happened last year.

They've given up an average of 4.0 yards a carry in both games so far this season, a number they allowed in only one-third of games last year -- 6 of 18, including playoffs.  (Trivia Question: can you name the one team that ran for over 5 yards per carry against the Patriots last year?  Answer below.)  And speaking of the playoffs...

7.  The Patriots as currently constructed are not a team that will do much damage in the playoffs.  Fortunately for them, they don't play much of anyone until week 4, and with 10 days to prepare for Tampa Bay, they should be able to find a way to win that game.  But they need Gronkowski back and Amendola has to stay healthy if the team expects to win anything of consequence this season.  And speaking of winning...

8.  The secondary won most every battle against the Jets.  Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard just won't stop competing; they make the opposing receivers miserable with jams at the line and by always fighting for the ball in the air.  Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory looked very good at safety, and Aqib Talib had two interceptions (Dennard had the other one).  There isn't much depth back there, but for the time being, they were good enough to help you steal this game.  And lastly, speaking of how the game was stolen...

9.  Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan, and Dont'a Hightower were in the backfield and all over the Jets QB.  Even when they didn't sack him, they flushed him out of the pocket or made him throw early.  Jones is becoming a beast, and with consistent pressure from his side, Ninkovich is seeing more single-blocking.

The coaches are also employing more stunts and games up front, something they shied away from over the years.  But perhaps with a more seasoned veterans they feel more confident the players will adjust if the stunt is about to backfire.

So where does that leave us?  2-0 is better than any alternate record after two games, so don't worry, be happy.  Ten days off means you have your Sunday free this week, so get out and enjoy what is supposed to be a nice weekend in New England.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady has thrown for 473 yards this season, his lowest total in the first two games of any season since 2006 (383 yards).  His two opponents in the first two games of 2006: the Buffalo Bills followed by the New York Jets.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:  "I never thought I'd say this, but it's time for the offense to catch up to the defense."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  2-0!
PPS.  Trivia Answer: the Buffalo Bills ran for 5.79 yards per carry (28 rushes for 162 yards) on November 11, 2012.  (Note: give yourself a half-point if you thought it was the Indianapolis Colts, who averaged just a shade under, at 4.96 yards per carry [24-119].)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Patriots Eke Out 23-21 Victory Over Buffalo

The Patriots kicked a late field goal to escape their turnover-laden performance with a 23-21 win.  The victory puts them in a three-way tie for the division lead.  Next up are the New York Jets, this Thursday night on the NFL Network, with a chance to put themselves a game up on yet another division foe.

The parties most responsible for the Patriots win are not in the employ of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  First, the Bills had 10 penalties for 75 yards, and there were some absolute killers (big plays called back, second chances given to the Patriots).  And if that wasn't enough, rookie head coach Doug Marrone continued to run the hurry-up offense for two drives when the game situation dictated he should have been running out the clock.

Quarterback play?  Brady a pedestrian 76.4 QB rating and only 55.7% completions, E.J. Manuel 105.5 and 67%.  Turnover battle?  Bills won that 3-2, and points off of turnovers went their way, too, 21-14.  The Patriots tight ends had only one catch and caused one interception.  And the interior defense was gashed by inside runs and short crossing patterns.

And yet, down by four points late in the game, the Patriots drove for two fourth-quarter field goals to win.  And in those drives, Brady was clutch: 10 for 17 for 87 yards, no sacks, and not a single ball put in harm's way.  And breakout star Shane Vereen was the only running back in the entire league to break 100 yards this weekend (ended up with 14 carries for 101 yards, and 7 catches for 58 yards).

The receivers were really a two-headed monster, starting with apparent circus-refugee Danny Amendola and his 10 acrobatic catches for 104 yards.  (Note: Brady put those throws into some tiny, tiny openings.)  And Julian Edelman had 7 grabs for 79 yards, and most importantly, 2 touchdowns.  Without those two, the team would have been in huge trouble.

On the downside, rookie Kenbrell Thompkins looked like a guy in his first NFL game, with several wrong reads and at least two plays where he didn't leave himself enough room to come down in bounds.  And if you expected help from the tight ends, Michael Hoomanawanui had one catch and not much in the way of blocking, and rookie Zack Sudfeld had no receptions and slipped, causing Brady's only interception.

Oh, and before we leave the turnover situation entirely, nice game by Stevan Ridley.  Nine carries, one fumble returned for a touchdown, and another fumble recovered by the Patriots offense.  No wonder Vereen had so many yards, Ridley was on the bench by the second quarter.

One thought on the offensive line; they are very good at run blocking plays outside the guards, but they allowed too much pressure on the quarterback.  Seven quarterback hits and multiple other hurries, along with two sacks; that's too much time for Brady to be on the ground.

On defense, the leading tacklers were mostly linemen and linebackers: Jerod Mayo (15), Rob Ninkovich (8), Tommy Kelly (7), Chandler Jones (6), Dont'a Hightower (4), and Vince Wilfork (4).  So you'd think they stuffed the run and short passing game.  But they were repeatedly gashed by inside runs, and time after time on short crossing passes.

The front seven made enough plays to stop drives (when Bills' penalties didn't), as the Bills averaged only 4.35 plays per drive, and managed just 1 drive of over 10 plays.  But the inside trap blocks sprang their backs multiple times for big yards, and the linebackers were just gawd-awful in short coverage.  Mayo might be a tackling machine, but he is ill-suited for pass coverage, and that will be even more obvious against veteran quarterbacks.

The secondary did an okay job most of the time, but when they blew it, they blew it big time.  One touchdown came when Kyle Arrington missed a jam at the line and the receiver outran him and the safety.  And the other was to a WIDE open receiver in the end zone, and there was some bickering between corner Aqib Talib and safety Steve Gregory after that one.

Arrington's two forced fumbles redeemed the secondary, and with all that's on his plate, Alfonzo Dennard acquitted himself quite well (er... no pun intended).  Steve Gregory led the secondary with nine tackles, and the safeties are sure to be a work in progress until they solidify communication with the cornerbacks.

Rookie punter Ryan Allen had an up-and-down day, botching one pooch punt, but doing a very good job with the holder duties (sometimes on mediocre snaps). And Stephen Gostkowski was absolutely money on the day -- neutralizing the Bills kickoff return game and nailing two clutch field goals in the fourth quarter.

The offensive coaches took too long to switch to the running game, and no fault of theirs, but the passing game needs more diversity.  Amendola/Edelman could become the new Welker/Gronkowski -- and the team needs more targets to more different players if they expect to keep up with better quarterbacks and teams.

So where does that leave us?  1-0 and atop the division, although just one field goal away from being 0-1 and at the bottom.  The Jets won a gift game on Sunday, and having to travel for a Thursday night game makes them a likely loser to the Patriots.  No guarantees this early in the season, with the key injuries facing the Patriots.  But you have to feel good about getting the win last Sunday.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have won their last ten season openers, and in those ten games, they played the Bills three times.  The Pats won those games by a total of five points.

Weekly Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Good enough against Buffalo, but they need at least two more receiver targets."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-0!

PPS.  Sorry, no trivia question this week :(

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Patriots 2013 Season Primer!

“Constant change is here to stay,” Anonymous.

No word on whether or not Anonymous was an NFL fan, but clearly that saying applies to this year’s New England Patriots.  You might not expect a club that reached the AFC Championship game, and was the top scoring team in the league, to have almost 50% new starters on offense, and 14 new players on the roster.  But then you wouldn’t expect the off-season that just happened to the Patriots, either.

So here we go, your catch-up blog entry on the comings and goings, and what changes to expect with so many new faces.


Hello: RB LeGarrette Blount, RB James Develin, WR Danny Amendola, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Josh Boyce, WR Aaron Dobson, TE Zach Sudfeld, and T Will Svitek.

Good-bye: RB Danny Woodhead, WR Wes Welker, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Deion Branch, and TE Aaron Hernandez.

1.  Back to the running game

The Patriots have five running backs at the moment, and it’s an impressive group.  Two-year starter Stevan Ridley is exactly what they need on first and second downs, a hard runner who stays under control through the second level and knows his pass-protection assignments cold.  And backing him up, the talented Blount can grind out the tough yardage, whether it’s third-and-short or working the clock late in games.

Shane Vereen is a clear upgrade over Woodhead, whose slack of size hurt the team in pass protection, despite his status as a fan favorite.  Vereen is a threat to go the distance on any pass or run, and his speed allows the team to attack the short/medium zones with moves and speed instead of shiftiness and deception.

And with a blocking back on the team for the first time in years (Develin), you will see even more emphasis on the run.  Not bad for a team that finished seventh in rushing yards in the NFL last season.

2.  Tight Quarters

Tight end will be a lot less productive in comparison to 2012, especially early in the year.  Reportedly Rob Gronkowski will return sometime in the first four weeks, but until then, the team will get lesser run blocking and a lot less in the passing game.  Gronkowski is a beast in the passing game and almost as dominant as a run blocker.  And no one on the current roster comes close to replacing him.

With Hernandez gone and Gronkowski missing early on, Michael Hoomanawanui (5 catches for 109 yards last year) and rookie Zack Sudfeld will hold down the fort.  And though both showed flashes of good play in the preseason, the team has no one to replace either of last year’s starters -- so tight end will suffer until Gronkowski returns; no two ways about it.

3.  Wide Open

Welker and Lloyd took 192 catches and 2265 yards with them when they left town, and it won’t be easy to replace that.  However, if the preseason is any indication, the Patriots did at least a passable job (no pun intended) bringing in replacements who could challenge those numbers.

Initial predictions on Amendola were that he would be a Welker replacement, but it appeared he would play on the outside at least as often as in the slot.  And in incumbent receiver Julian Edelman the Patriots already had a talented slot receiver, he just needs to stay healthy.  That frees Amendola to play more positions and work in motion, where he was uncoverable in the preseason.

Among rookies, Kenbrell Thompkins developed immediate chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady, and he’s already a favorite “sleeper” in many fantasy football leagues.  He showed a great understanding of the offense, fought for position and for the ball, and chose the right situational routes.  Fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce showed flashes.  But expect Thompkins to border on superstardom soon, especially when Gronkowski returns and defenses load up to stop him and Amendola.

4.  Line of Risk?

The offensive line is a talented group, but there is little depth given the injuries that hampered them last year.  In 2012, guard Logan Mankins missed 6 games with various injuries, and in the last two seasons tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed 11 games (and additional time within games he played) with back problems.  Not a terrible record, but if the injuries crop up again, it could mean significant playing time for the backups.

Marcus Cannon is a decent backup at either guard position, but hasn’t shown the quickness to move outside to tackle.  And newcomer Svitek looked okay in the preaseson; however, O-line play is about getting time together, so he will make his share of mistakes if called upon too often early in the year.  Also, to show their lack of depth, Svitek is listed as the backup at three positions along the line.

Add to that the team is counting on continued good health for starters Nate Solder (tackle), Dan Connolly (guard), and Ryan Wendell (center).  Not an awful situation to have that much front-line talent.  But they have to avoid injuries if they want to keep Tom Brady upright.

5.  Speaking of Tom Brady

Expect more of the same from Brady this year -- another MVP-caliber season, even with new receivers at nearly every position.  He’s shown no signs of slowing down, rarely puts the ball in harm’s way, and with the receiving talent more evenly distributed, perhaps the receptions will be, too.  One little-discussed problem of recent years: the team had become very Welker-Gronnkowski-Hernandez-centric, and thus was much easier to defend, especially if one of them got injured.

Amendola looked terrific in August, and with Gronkowski missing only the first few weeks, the offense should be running like a top by October.  The improved running game could help Brady the same way it helped John Elway all those years ago.  You remember the back-to-back championships, right -- with some guy named Terrell Davis in the backfield…


Hello: DT Tommy Kelly, DE Michael Buchanan, DE Jake Bequette, LB Jamie Collins, CB Logan Ryan, and S Duron Harmon

Good-bye: DT Kyle Love, DT Brandon Deaderick, DE Trevor Scott, LB Niko Koutouvides, and S Patrick Chung,

1.  Backing a New ‘Backer

The biggest change on defense was one of the smallest on the field.  That little green sticker, the one that indicates which which defensive player has the radio helmet -- it no longer belongs exclusively to Jerod Mayo.  In the preseason, second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower saw significant time with the green dot.

Not only does this show enormous confidence in Hightower, but it could signal a reduced role for Mayo.  His pass-coverage deficiencies are well known to my regular readers.  And rookie Jamie Collins excelled in pass coverage in college (and was actually decent in the preseason), which could mean Mayo comes out on passing downs this year… with Hightower calling the defense in those situations.

If Mayo becomes a two-down player, that most definitely signals a sea change.  Hightower is high energy and is much bigger than Mayo, and yet still is better in pass coverage.  Mayo led the team in tackles every year in the league, but if he only plays two-thirds of the defensive snaps, that streak is in jeopardy.

2.  Meet Your 2012 Secondary -- Again!

It feels like a decade since the Patriots had a good secondary, and if 2012 was any indication, 2013 won’t be much better.  There is decent front-line talent: corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and slot-man Kyle Arrington, provide aggressive coverage and very good ball skills.  And Devin McCourty’s move to safety represents an unvarnished success -- pairing him with Steve Gregory solidified the back end after it got torched by Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and even Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Unfortunately the secondary looks almost exactly the same this year.  They added rookie corner Ryan and are probably banking on better play from second-year safety Tavon Wilson (and perhaps contributions from Harmon).  But as with last year, they are one injury away from Toastmaster Marquice Cole at corner and the still unproven Tavon Wilson at safety.

If it holds together the secondary should be fine.  But if Dennard goes to prison (his hearing for parole violation is in a few weeks), or if the starters are injured for any significant time, it could cost the team several wins.  And that can be critical when the playoff runs begin in December/January.

3.  Line Set to Dominate?

After years as the lone superstar on the line, Vince Wilfork finally has some help.  Chandler Jones enters his second year with high expectations, and he looked ready to make that leap in the preseason games.  And with surprising rookie Buchanan backing him up, there shouldn’t be any sophomore slump for Jones, who hit the rookie wall hard last year (also slowed by an injury).

On the other side, Jake Bequette was here last year, but he missed almost the entire season with an injury, so it’s like his rookie campaign.  Except he played far above rookie expectations in August.  And even though Love and Deaderick are gone, Tommy Kelly will help man the inside with Wilfork, giving the Patriots a solid 635-pound wall to break through.

There isn’t much depth inside, but plenty outside, so if the two main men in the middle can tough out the season, the line should get much improved pressure on the passer without losing anything against the run -- where they ranked an impressive 6th in average yards given up per rush (3.9) last year.

Special Teams

1.  Missing Mesko

The team cut Zoltan Mesko, opting to keep rookie Ray Allen.  This is just three years after setting a rookie record for net punting average (38.4 yards), and two years after leading the AFC in net punting average (41.5).  Alas, money was the likely culprit -- here’s hoping the salary savings don’t cost them with an errant punt or a bad hold on a field goal.

2.  Washington’s Crossing

The Patriots also signed kick returner Leon Washington in the off-season, and he was cut after the last preseason game, and just resigned a few hours ago.  Washington will help the Special Teams in two ways.  First, he’s a better kickoff returner than incumbent McCourty.  And second, they need someone to take return duties away from both McCourty and punt returner Edelman.  McCourty is too important to risk on special teams, and Edelman is fragile enough without having to return punts.

Washington will act as a sort of human shield for these guys, protecting valuable (but fragile) starters, and probably improving their kickoff returns, too.

The Schedule

And here goes with my annual attempt to predict which games the Patriots will win and lose for the season.  Take it with a grain of salt -- I am usually close in the final record, but not as accurate with which games go which way.  As always, the season is broken up into quarters.

First Quarter

  • The Bills host the Pats tomorrow, and with a rookie QB and a new coaching staff, it will likely take Buffalo a while to gel.  Besides, the Patriots have beaten the Bills 18 of the last 19 times they played, and they are usually more dominant in Buffalo than at home.  Mark this one as a win.

  • The Jets come to town for a Thursday game, and frankly they are too much of a mess to give the Patriots much trouble, so it should be victory #2.

  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Foxboro next, and even though they are building a decent program there, I don’t think they are ready to compete with the Patriots just yet, so I see the Patriots winning a close game.

  • Next up the Pats travel to Atlanta, a team that doesn’t make critical mistakes and thrives at home.  This one will be the Patriots first loss… sorry Danielle :(

Second Quarter

  • Two reasons the Patriots win their next game, in Cincinnati: Bengals QB Andy Dalton hasn’t seen a Belichick defense yet, and the Bengals play a division road game the week before, and there is an inevitable letdown the week after.

  • The last time the Patriots played the Saints, New Orleans spanked them but good.  This time it’s outdoors and in Foxboro.  However, I see returning coach Shawn Peyton reasserting himself as an offensive guru against a sometimes vulnerable Patriots secondary.  Second loss of the season.

  • A short trip to New York should bring another victory over the Jets.

  • And then the Dolphins come to town, an intriguing team with a young QB and lots of added talent in the off-season.  However, tight end Dustin Keller is out for the year, and the Dolphins only really give the Patriots trouble in Miami, so this should be another victory.

Third Quarter

  • The Steelers come to town next, and the last time they played, Pittsburgh seemed to figure out that they had to attack the Patriots down the field (and won the game, 25-17).  Unfortunately for them, their field-stretcher, Mike Wallace, signed with Miami, so they are counting on a rookie WR.  The Patriots defense will flood the middle of the field, slowing the running game and tight ends, and will win the game.  Home field might be the key difference in this one.

  • The Pats then have two consecutive bye weeks, an actual buy and then the Panthers on a Monday night.  I’m joking, actually -- I expect QB Cam Newton to have a bounce-back year.  But with a bye to rest and prepare, expect the Patriots to be ready to win this one.

  • The next game is a tough one.  The Patriots have a short week and play the elite Broncos.  But the game is in Foxboro, and Tom Brady absolutely owns defenses run by Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.  Also, the Broncos have division games the week before and after, making this a semi-trap game.  Look for the Patriots to eke out a win, but it will be closer than you’d expect based on Brady’s history against Del Rio (i.e. 6-0 record, 137 of 185 [74%], 1430 yds, 14 TDs, 0 INTs, 121.2 QB rating, and an average score of Patriots 29-14).

  • The next week will be the letdown game, where the Texans avenge two recent beat-downs by laying the lumber on the Patriots in Houston.

(Note: not that I’m hedging, but the Patriots will lose against either the Broncos or the Texans, but not both, so if they lose to Denver, the Texans better watch out!  The Patriots simply don’t lose two in a row very often.  Trivia question: how many losing “streaks” [two or more losses in a row] have the Patriots had under Bill Belichick?  Answer below!)

Fourth Quarter

  • When the Browns come to town, expect second-year QB Brandon Weedon gets his first taste of Belichick on defense -- and this will come out as such situations usually do, with a Patriots victory.

  • At Miami is one of the intriguing games of the season.  The Dolphins are indeed developing a winning program, and they are likely to be fighting for their playoff lives by this point in the season.  But if the Patriots are healthy, Miami will have no answer for Gronkowski, and the Patriots will win by sheer force of talent.

  • It’ll be a different story in Baltimore the following week, where the Ravens are also likely to be fighting for a playoff spot.  And in addition to a great home field advantage (and a night-game to boot!), they’ve shown the ability to beat the Patriots recently, so there’s no “aura” to save the Patriots this time.  Mark it down as a loss -- the game will mean a lot more to Baltimore than New England by that point in the season.

  • The Bills stop by to put a bow on the season, and most years they fare a lot worse in the second game against the Patriots, so expect them to be mailing it in by then and lose for sure.


That makes the Patriots 12-4 again, division winners for sure, and likely competing for a playoff bye.  They could stumble early, given the number of changes on offense.  So if you are one of those “recreational bettors,” wait until October before you start committing big money.

And that is about it for now.  I don’t know if I’ll get my updates out as quickly as in the past, but here’s hoping!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer: the Patriots have 9 losing “streaks” of 2-games or more since Bill Belichick took over in 2000.  And only 4 in the last 7 years.