Monday, December 9, 2013

Patriots Storm Back For Miracle 27-26 Win!

Honestly, I don't believe what I just saw. For the third straight week, the Patriots spotted their opponent a halftime lead, then came back to win the game late. This time, four amazing things went their way, as they topped the 4-9 Cleveland Browns, 27-26. The victory puts the Patriots three games up in the AFC East with three games to go, and gives them a chance to sew up another division crown with a victory (or tie) against the Dolphins in Miami next Sunday.

This one looked like a loss at 26-14. But as a Denver fan reminded me a few weeks back, with Tom Brady as your quarterback, you can never count the team out. In the last two minutes, the Patriots got a late touchdown with a questionable 15-yard penalty against the Browns, recovered their first onside kick in 18 years, got a correctly called pass interference penalty in the end zone (and a 1-yard TD toss), and then survived a 57-yard field goal attempt by the Browns, that came up short. It's tough to win in the NFL, but this game should not have been this close.

The first half wasn't all bad; with the offense sputtering, the defense held the Browns to just six points, limiting the damage to keep the game in reach. And their comeback was not only improved offense, but defensive stops, too. And on the last two drives, Brady was 10 for 11 (not including the clock-stopping spike), for 93 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a QB rating of 141.5. And of course, kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit another 50-yarder in the fourth quarter and then successfully executed an onside kick for the team's first recovery in 18 years (also against the Browns, interestingly enough).

However, the win came at a cost; tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the third quarter, and he did not return. (On the television broadcast, you could hear Gronkowski yell: "He broke my f***ing leg!" -- so it does not look good for a possible return this year.) And the Patriots offense was starting to jell with all their weapons healthy, even if they struggled in the first half of games. For context, the Pats ranked 22nd offensively without Gronkowski, and 2nd with him. The very definition of a difference-maker.

These last-second wins can be viewed one of three ways: (a) the Patriots are a team of destiny that keeps winning in amazing ways and has that magic something, (b) they possess the mental toughness never to quit and will be a tough out in the playoffs, or (c) they are a slow-starting team that won't overcome early deficits against better competition in the playoffs. Sadly, I put them between (b) and (c) -- a mentally tough team that won't go far in the post-season unless they can play better in the first half of games.

Here is how they can turn things in their favor as they march toward a likely playoff run:

1. Brady needs to improve on long throws. He overthrew two long passes in the first half, either of which would have turned the game the Patriots' way early on. He ended up with a nice stat line: 32 of 52 (61%), 481 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and a 91.7 QB rating. But almost all of that came in the second half. And the reason he didn't get many chances in the first half was his own miscues.

2. Stop turning the ball over. They have turned the ball over in nine straight games, six of those in the first half of games, which helped put them in early holes. Thirteen games into the season, only twice have they not turned the ball over. (Trivia question: without looking, can you name either of those two games -- answer below).

3. Move running back Shane Vereen into the role formerly occupied by Aaron Hernandez. If Gronkowski is out for the year, then Vereen is the biggest potential matchup problem they have on offense. Brady targeted him 17 times, and Vereen hauled in 12 of them for 153 yards, mostly against overmatched linebackers. However, for better or worse, this means...

4. Bring back Stevan Ridley (8 rushes for 35 yards) and pair him with LeGarrette Blount (8 for 42) at running back. At this point, the team needs Vereen to diversify the offense, so they have to work Ridley back into the starting role (or at least a platoon with Blount). They need a decent running game, because the combo of Ridley and Vereen on the field creates mismatches and forces the other team to honor the run.

If Ridley fumbles at a crucial moment, so be it. But keeping him in the dog house is not longer a viable option. The team needs his skills if they plan to do anything in the playoffs.

5. Give left tackle Nate Solder help. Most of the pressure and sacks have been his player or the man opposite right tackle Will Svitek. You can forgive it with a lesser-rated player (which Svitek is), but Solder is having trouble with speed rushers who make it to the corner against him too often. Send a back into the flat and chip the pass rusher, or run some inside draw plays in Solder's direction -- something to stop defensive ends from teeing off to the outside of Solder.

6. Keep rotating the interior defensive linemen to help with the run defense. Yesterday they started Sealver Siliga (#71 on your scorecard) and rotated him in sporadically with Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga and Chris Jones. Jones and Vellano are first year players, who appear to have hit the rookie wall.

The team should consider giving each of them an entire game off if they can before the end of the year. It can only help their run defense, which had been soundly thrashed three weeks in a row -- until yesterday, when they gave up only 108 yards and 4.3 yards per carry. This experiment should continue and be expanded, as January nears.

7. Stop moving Chandler Jones inside, and always have him and Rob Ninkovich (7 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 QB hits) either at the end of the D-line or dropping into pass coverage. Neither player has the size to hold up inside, and both excel at getting pressure from the outside, and so both should be kept where they work best. If the team needs to do something fancy on defense, have them drop into a short zone, where both have done okay work in pass coverage.

8. Find out what linebacker Dont'a Hightower ate yesterday, and feed it to all the linebackers. Hightower has taken some heat from me (and a lot more from the press), but yesterday he was much, much better. He notched eleven tackles and a QB hit, he was quicker to the ball carrier (meaning shorter running plays), and his pass coverage was very close in most cases.

9. Continue to give Jamie Collins reps and responsibility. Brandon Spikes must be injured, as his statistics and effectiveness have dropped off markedly. Collins is a decent running mate for Spikes, because Collins is better in pass coverage and has the speed to run sideline-to-sideline. Spikes is more of a film-study guesser (and he's quite good at that), blitzing into running holes or up the middle to the passer.

10. Get healthy in the secondary. Rookie Logan Ryan is playing well, but still gets overmatched when he takes on the better receivers. Aqib Talib is nursing a hip injury, though he gutted it out yesterday, mostly taking away the Browns best receiver. So if the team can get Alfonzo Dennard back full-time, they could have a dime package of Talib, Dennard, Arrington, Ryan, and safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty.

However, if any of those guys are missing (or less than 90% healthy), the drop-off is significant. And in the playoffs, the really good quarterbacks will make you pay -- a lot more than journeyman Jason Campbell, who put up 391 yards and 116.8 QB rating against the injured secondary.

11. Find out what kicker Stephen Gostkowski is eating this season and feed it to the rest of the team. Honestly, if he isn't the Pro Bowl kicker, then who is?

12. The coaching staff needs to self-scout and figure out why they can't score in the first half. Some of it is turnovers, some is poor throws by Brady, some is bad initial game planning, some is getting out-coached by the opposing defensive staff, and some is just bad luck. But the Patriots purportedly self-scout better than any team out there. So prove it, and get going earlier in the game.

So where does that leave us? 10-3 and a three-game lead in the division with three weeks to go. Smells like another division crown, coming to a stadium near you, perhaps even next week. The Dolphins are fighting for their playoff lives, so the trip to Miami won't be easy. And if the Patriots start slow again, expect the Dolphins to put the pedal to the metal, instead of waiting around like the Browns did yesterday.

Statistical oddity of the week: With three games to go, Brady has been sacked for 228 yards this year, already more than his previous worst (219).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Browns fans will whine, but the Patriots lost to the Jets and Panthers on controversial calls that went against them. Cleveland lost because they played not-to-lose in the middle of the game. Period."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  10-3!

PPS. Trivia answer: neither the Falcons or Jets (first game) took the ball away from the Patriots.

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