Sunday, December 28, 2014

Patriots Drop Season Finale to Bills, 17-9

In case you missed it, the Patriots lost their fifth pre-season game at Foxboro, 17-9 to the Bills. The loss left the team with a 12-4 record, good enough for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC, a week off, and it puts them two victories away from the Super Bowl. Next week is... a respite from the grind -- Pats have the weekend off!

Not much to learn from this game, given the number of starters who missed significant time or skipped the game entirely. But here are a few nuggets:

1. Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury, and did not return. If he isn't healthy for the playoffs, it is a big blow to an offensive line that has been under fire most of the year. He hasn't had a good year, but last week against the Jets, he was replaced by Marcus Cannon -- and Cannon was even worse.

2. When the Patriots play vanilla defense, they are pretty easy to play against. The Pats blitzed rarely and stunted on the line even less often. But when they did use extra pressure, it was pretty effective: Akeem Ayers and Jamie Collins got sacks of the Buffalo QB on a stunt and a blitz, respectively.

3. The biggest Pro Bowl snub from the Patriots is Collins. He is their Mister Everything, rushing the passer (3 sacks on the season), stuffing the run (led the team in tackles this year with 111), is their best pass-coverage linebacker (tied for the team lead in interceptions in 2014), and in only his second year with the team, he handled sideline-to-defense communication in parts or all of four games.

4. Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looks like a rookie, but a decent one. He never made it past his second read, and held the ball way too long -- much like most rookie QBs in their second games. But he showed good escapability and made plays with his legs, although he was pretty inaccurate throwing on the run.

Played okay, but his day showed how ridiculous it was for the media to talk about how he'll replace Brady "sooner rather than later." (I'm looking at you, Chris Mortensen of ESPN.)

5. When the starters rest, special teams aren't affected very much. The obvious reason is that there are no backup kickers, so the place kicker and punter both played. But the Pats still got very good returns from Danny Amendola, and for the most part had excellent coverage. There was one long Bills return, but it happens when the other team is also good in the kicking game.

6. No matter who they play, corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan get picked on. There's a reason for that, and it would be helpful if last year's starter Alfonzo Dennard could find his way back to the field for the playoffs. Not to mention Kyle Arrington, to cover slot receivers.

7. Two of the three AFC North playoff teams represent the biggest AFC threats to the Patriots this post-season. Baltimore has beaten the Pats twice in Foxboro in the playoffs recently. And even though the Patriots seem to own the Steelers in the playoffs, their offense is dramatically more dynamic than it has been in the past. So hope those two teams are hitting the links, instead of hitting the Patriots, the weekend of January 10-11.

So where does that leave us? Yet another playoff bye, with any AFC playoff games in Foxboro -- that sounds pretty sweet. Here's hoping Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Browner, and Dont'a Hightower benefitted from the extra week of rest.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Bills beat the Patriots in Foxboro for the first time in 15 seasons.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: The Bills finished with a winning record (9-7) for the first time in 10 seasons.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Solder is okay, then it was mission accomplished on Sunday -- no major injuries."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Patriots Hold on for 17-16 Win Over Jets

The Patriots eked out a win, hanging on for a 1-point victory over the Jets in New York. The win guaranteed the Patriots a first-round playoff bye, and put them in position for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs -- if they can get either a Denver loss Monday night or a victory over Buffalo next Sunday. And by the way, Buffalo lost to the Raiders, so they are out of the playoffs and have nothing particular to play for next weekend.

This was the fourth straight Jets/Pats game where the margin of victory was three points or less, so everyone should have expected it to be close. (Trivia question: the Patriots have four straight games against another team that have all ended within four points, name the team... answer below.) Division games can be tricky, and I for one will be glad to see Rex Ryan take his talents elsewhere, because he always gives the Pats a tough time.

The Patriots offense stunk up the joint in this game. Any game where you average 3.7 yards per play is a very bad one. The line gave up way too much pressure; one stat from the television broadcast: Patriots had 19 drop backs in the first half, and gave up 4 sacks, 6 pressures, and 8 hurries. Do the math, and you'll quickly see they couldn't do much worse.

The Patriots were missing starters receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount, and guard Dan Connolly. And it showed; pressure came at Tom Brady from every angle, with multiple blown assignments. Missing his usual outlet receiver (Edelman), that pressure led to negative plays too often.

On one play, tackle Nate Solder was responsible for *three* Jets defenders, and all three rushed the quarterback -- the predictable result being another sack. That play wasn't Solder's fault, it was poor design and bad recognition by Brady. And it was emblematic of the day; the Patriots offense looked outnumbered most of the day.

Thankfully, for the second consecutive Jets game, the Patriots defense and special teams bailed out the offense. Danny Amendola returned a punt to the Jets 36 yard line, setting up the Patriots first touchdown. In the second half, Jamie Collins intercepted an errant throw and returned it to the Jets 38, which led to the Patriots second touchdown.

And in the fourth quarter, a Brady interception set up the Jets at the Patriots 30, and New York needed just a field goal to take the lead. But the Pats defense stiffened, stuffing the Jets for minus-four yards on three plays. And on their long field goal attempt, Vince Wilfork broke through the line to get a piece of the kick, which landed harmlessly and pretty much sealed the victory. Sounds a bit like week seven of this season, when Chris Jones blocked a kick to secure a victory over the Jets in Foxboro.

To combat the Jets running game, which gashed them for 218 yards in the first game, the Patriots deployed a 5-2-4 defense, getting more beef on the front line with five defensive linemen. And it worked to perfection; the Jets got 5.0 yards a carry, but only 116 yards. And when the Jets threw the ball, those linemen kept their lanes so Jets QB Geno Smith couldn't run for first downs, which he did four times in the first game but not once on Sunday.

The first two levels of the defense did a great job. Two of the interior defensive linemen, Wilfork (9) and Sealver Siliga (8), finished in the top five in tackles, extremely rare in the Patriots gap-responsibility defense. Siliga had a sack and two QB hits, too, and he's been outstanding since his return. Chandler Jones has also been amazing the last two weeks since returning from injury; he had 5 tackles and 2 QB hits and was very disruptive in the running game.

Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are more impressive every week. Collins made 11 tackles (1 for a loss), had a pass defended, and got the aforementioned interception. Hightower kept tight coverage on backs and receivers out of the backfield, and still managed to get 9 tackles (1 for a loss), 1 sack (10 yards), and a QB hit. Not much out of the other linebackers, but that was mostly because they didn't play, except on special teams.

The secondary was up-and-down. It was odd to see Devin McCourty close to the line of scrimmage so often, he is so good playing center field. He was up on the line when fellow safety Patrick Chung got beaten for a long touchdown pass -- giving the safeties a mixed review on the day. Cornerback Darrelle Revis continues his steady play, and made a few tackles in run support, too. Brandon Browner played well, but they have to find a better solution than corner Malcolm Butler, who got beaten repeatedly and contributed not a single tackle or pass defended on the day.

Brady did okay, considering how much pressure he was under. However, every time they tried to throw deep it was either covered, Brady missed the throw, or the pressure got to him first -- his longest completion of the day was 14 yards. He ended up with just 182 yards on 23-of-35 passing (66%), had a touchdown and a had one of his poorer throws intercepted (when he was under pressure, of course). He did have another big run, and took advantage of two short fields to get touchdowns. But not his best day.

The receiving corps was missing Edelman, but Danny Amendola stepped up his game to help out. Problem is, Amendola (8 catches, 63 yards) doesn't run Edelman's routes as well as Edelman (or Wes Welker before him). So when Brady was in trouble, there wasn't that easy outlet. Brandon LaFell had an excellent game, catching 7 throws for 64 yards and some big first downs. And even with the abuse and attention he gets, tight end Rob Gronkowski finished with 6 catches and a touchdown.

With Blount out, the featured running back was Jonas Gray, and he had 6 carries for 5 measly yards (blech). Later in the second half, Shane Vereen had more success running out of passing formations, 6 carries for 38 yards. And Brandon Bolden got 32 yards on 5 carries, 17 coming on the game-sealing drive. However, the backs had a lot of trouble in blitz pickup. Gray had two nice ones early on, but Vereen got beaten once and picked the wrong blitzer at least one other time.

And speaking of the offensive line; they were dreadful. Nate Solder was on two all-rookie teams in 2011, and he was near Pro Bowl level in 2012. But last year and this year he's regressed dramatically, and some of it appears to be mental mistakes, not physical ones. But he wasn't alone yesterday: Josh Kline started for Dan Connolly and did nothing to distinguish himself. And Marcus Cannon spelled Solder for a few series, and got his butt kicked just like Solder had.

In the final sign of surrender, the Patriots went back to the six-linemen alignment they had to use earlier in the year just to keep Brady upright. Their offensive line won't be a big strength this year, but they have to get more consistent play from this group. And not just when they have subs in there -- they haven't been good enough to win a Championship in about four weeks (Lions game).

Special teams set up the first touchdown, as mentioned earlier. Also, punter Ryan Allen pinned the Jets deep on the previous kick, setting up a great field-position trade that led to points. However, while Danny Amendola had some nice kickoff returns, one of his best got called back on a blocking penalty -- which amounted to a 38-yard penalty when you wiped out the return.

And of course, special teams might have saved the game with yet another blocked kick, their fourth of the season (including punts). One last thing; it appeared they had kicker Stephen Gostkowski execute shorter kickoffs with more hang time, which he did very well.

The coaching is a mixed bag. Geno Smith scrambles killed them in the first game, and the five-D-linemen set controlled that and the running game. However, they must have known the Jets would go with exotic blitzes and press coverage, but it took until the second half to try any screens or draws to slow the pass rush. The new O-line coach might end up being one-and-done here if he can't get better performance out of that group.

So where does that leave us? 12-3 and still with the inside track for home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. The Bills come to town on Sunday, and if the game means anything, count on a Patriots win. They are 21-1 in their last 22 games versus Buffalo.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: It has to be that the Patriots won two games against the same opponent with a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter of each game to protect the lead. How often has that happened in NFL history?!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It's the Jets, of course it was close. Wait until next week; if that game means anything, it'll be a big Patriots blowout!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer: It's that other New York team, those pesky Giants, who have won 21-17, 24-20, 17-14, and lost 38-35 (games played in 2012, 2011, 2008, and 2007, respectively).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Patriots Dominate Dolphins, 41-13

The Patriots barely held serve in the first half and then ran away with the game in the last 30 minutes, topping the Dolphins easily, 41-13. The win gives the Patriots their sixth consecutive AFC East title, guaranteeing them a home playoff game (yay!), and kept them ahead of the pack for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next up is the team's last regular season road game, in New York to take on the Jets -- which won't be as easy a game as people probably think.

Bill Belichick's crew got off to a very shaky start this week. Miami's first play from scrimmage was a 50-yard bomb to Mike Wallace. And the halftime stats would lead you to believe it was a Dolphins blowout from the start. They ran 40 plays to the Patriots 28, got over twice as many first downs (16 to 7), had twice the time of possession (20:00 to 10:00), nearly three-times the total yards (271 to 102), and were averaging 14.1 yards a completion.

However, the Patriots got big plays in each of the first three quarters to keep themselves in the driver's seat. And it just so happened that those big plays came from each unit, and they held the game in the balance until the Patriots took over in the last 25:00.

In the first quarter, special teams came to the rescue. Linebacker Jamie Collins hopped over a lineman and blocked a field goal, which was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Kyle Arrington. It was huge, because the Dolphins had driven right down the field, and to hold them to the FG attempt and then do the 10-point turnaround instead was a key early play.

In the second quarter, the Dolphins were on the move again, when the defense was heard from. Safety Duron Harmon intercepted a pass and returned it to the Miami eight yard-line. Three plays later, running back Shane Vereen sliced in for a touchdown, making it a 14-3 Patriots lead in a game the Dolphins had dominated statistically.

As the third quarter began, it was 14-13 Patriots, and it was the offense's turn to put their stamp on the game -- not with one play, but with three big ones. The first play of the second half: quarterback Tom Brady looked off the safety and threw a 34-yard dart to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady was almost sacked on the next play, but as he was being dragged down, he threw a short pass to running back Jonas Gray -- turning a potential second-and-14 into second-and-3. Five plays later it was third-and-eleven, and Brady scrambled for 17 yards, his longest run of the season. Next play, touchdown, a 21-13 lead, and the Patriots never looked back.

In the first half, the defense barely held it together, playing the bend-but-don't-break style that drives so many fans crazy. But it did keep them in the game by giving Miami fits once they reached the Patriots side of the field. Three field goal attempts and just one late touchdown (which was really more on the coaches, but more on that later), had to have been frustrating for the Dolphins.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower was back after missing the Chargers game with a shoulder injury, and he was up to his old tricks, tearing up offenses from every angle. He had 8 tackles (1 for a loss), 1/2-sack (for 5.5 yards), two QB hits, and a forced fumble. He also made sure tackles to end drives and was only beaten once in pass coverage that I saw. Collins was all over the field, and it appears teams are starting to look for him and run plays the other direction. That's how much of a mismatch he has become.

Another injury returnee was lineman Chandler Jones, and he had a major impact right away. They deployed him inside instead of on the edge, and he responded with 1.5 sacks (for 21.5 yards), 7 tackles, 2 QB hits, a forced fumble, and he disrupted multiple plays in the backfield. Given the recent return of Sealver Siliga, who had a sack of his own yesterday, he and Jones provide a big boost, with fresh legs and attitude.

Oh... and stalwart Vince Wilfork has fully recovered from last year's achilles tendon injury, as evidenced by his busting through double-teams to make tackles yesterday. Rob Ninkovich still gets exploited in the passing game some, ever since Green Bay exposed the Pats scheme with running backs and the wheel routes. But he held up okay yesterday, and contributed a sack and three QB hits of his own. This will be a formidable group as the Patriots move into the playoffs.

The secondary was hot and cold. Two interceptions, six passes defended, and multiple safety tackles short of first downs was hot. Cold was five plays of 20+ yards, including the 50-yarder to start the game and a 32-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to play in the first half. There's no excuse for either, though the second is even less forgivable than the first. Malcolm Butler was victimized on the 50-yarder, and looks somewhat lost down-to-down. It's tough to call it a good day when Ninkovich and Wilfork have more passes defended that you.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis did is usual excellent job, shutting down the main Miami receiver to whom he was assigned. Brandon Browner had five tackles and some big hits, but almost gave Miami a free first down in the fourth quarter with a silly unnecessary roughness penalty (it was nullified when a Miami player taunted Browner). He had two other penalties, and it's unclear whether the attitude he brings offsets the 15-50 yards a game he gives up on penalties.

On offense, it was also a tale of two halves. The Pats first drive ended on an interception, and their only scoring drive of the first half was an eight-yarder after the Harmon interception. But in the second half, they went touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, end of game. I've often scolded offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for poor halftime adjustments, but he did a great job yesterday, especially given how good the Miami defense is.

Brady went 21 of 35 (60%), 287 yards, 2 touchdowns, that one interception, zero sacks, and a 93.4 QB rating. But the zero sacks mask the problems in pass protection. Officially he was hit five times, though it seemed like he was under pressure a lot more than that. And his first half was nothing to write home about, three tipped balls and at least two others under thrown. He also overthrew receiver Brian Tyms on what could have been a long touchdown in the third quarter.

Once Brady turned it around, the offense got humming again, especially Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman. After a few weeks in a downward trend, Edelman has been on fire the last two weeks, following up his big game against the Chargers with 7 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Among those catches were five first downs and two that left the team with third-and-one. And Gronk didn't have to bowl anyone over yesterday, instead he split the defense up the seam in the second half for all three of his catches (for 96 yards, a 32-yard average!).

The only concern with the passing game is it's becoming very Edelman/Gronkowski/LaFell-centric. That's what has hurt them the last few years in the playoffs; not having enough established weapons for the other team to worry about. Running back Shane Vereen is a threat of the backfield, but they team could really use more consistent help from Danny Amendola or Brian Tyms.

Speaking of the running backs, it didn't take LaGarrette Blount very long to develop some bad habits. In the first half he danced in the backfield too often, not running the play as designed. So he sat to start the second half, and old friend Jonas Gray got the call. He responded with 11 carries for 62 yards, and was effective running into the spot the play was designed for. One negative on the backs, there was a lot of pressure on Brady, and some of that was missed assignments or poor blocks by the backs.

The offensive line did not look great. Even when the offense turned things around after the half, there was still too much pressure on Brady, and the running plays looked good more because they added a sixth lineman and/or had Gronkowski blocking. It's bad news when your best blocking lineman is actually your tight end... food for thought, Josh McDaniels.

Special teams turned in yet another special play, with the Collins block and Arrington return for TD. It was the Patriots' second of the year, and came (appropriately enough) the week Chandler Jones was back on the field (he had the other blocked-FG return against the Vikings in week 2). Punter Ryan Allen also had a great game, with a 60-yard bomb and two punts that were downed inside the 20. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski wasn't up to his usual standard, though both his bad kickoffs were into the wind, so it's possible it was stronger than was reported.

The coaching wasn't great to start the game, and gangbusters after the break. The curious run-run-run play-calling to end the half allowed the Dolphins to get a last-second touchdown. And the team should have been better prepared for the blitz/man-press scheme Miami used -- they *always* use that to great effect, so the Patriots should have been ready for it.

But whatever they did to make halftime adjustments, they need to do more of that. After the game it was obvious that Belichick was unhappy with his team's performance. This game tape should give him plenty of humble pie to serve in the film room later today.

So where does that leave us? 11-3 has them running away with the division and tied for the best record in the NFL. But don't count your chickens yet. Their margin in the AFC is razor-thin, and the Jets could give the Patriots trouble this weekend. Remember: they almost beat the Pats in week 7 in Foxboro, and this game is in New York. And their head coach, Rex Ryan, absolutely hates the Patriots and would like nothing more than to beat them before he gets fired at season's end.

A defensive guru with an axe to grind and nothing to lose is a dangerous opponent. In fact, the Patriots should emphasize that Gronk and Edelman get down after catches, because it wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Jets going after players. That's how much bad blood there is in this rivalry. Also, after the seven-game gauntlet the Pats just worked through, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see a letdown against the lowly Jets. Here's hoping Belichick has enough ammo to keep his team on their toes for two more Sundays.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Dolphins shutout the Patriots in the second half of their week 1 encounter, and the Patriots returned the favor, pitching a shutout against Miami in the second half yesterday. (Trivia question: since Belichick became head coach, name the only division team that has *not* traded second-half shutouts with the Patriots in the same season.. answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Hats and t-shirts are nice, but a faster offensive start would go a lot further in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

Since 2000, the only AFC East team that has not traded second-half shutouts with the Patriots is the Indianapolis Colts. Oh... did you forget again about the Colts being in the Patriots division in the 2000 season? For shame, I reminded everyone earlier this season :P

(For the record, the Bills and Pats traded second-half shutouts in 2003, the Dolphins this year and in 2006, and the Jets in 2010.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Patriots Defense Dominates San Diego in 23-14 Victory

The Patriots spotted the Chargers a 14-3 lead last night, and then dominated the second half to score 20 straight and take the game 23-14. The win kept them ahead of the AFC pack for a potential first-round playoff bye. And since the Dolphins and Bills both lost, the Patriots need just one more win (or a tie) to claim their sixth straight AFC East title.

The Patriots defense, one big play by the special teams, and one big play by the offense really won this game. The defense stymied San Diego, giving up just 125 yards and four 3-and-outs in their last 9 drives of the game (an average of just 13.8 yards per drive). On special teams, Brandon Bolden sliced from the outside to block a punt, knocking the Chargers' punter out of the game and setting up the Patriots first touchdown. Lastly, Julian Edelman's catch-and-run 69-yard touchdown was a back-breaker for the Chargers, making it a two-score lead in a game where their offense had done nothing for the better part of 32 minutes of game time.

The defensive line did a great job mixing up blitz packages and stuffing the run. Seaver Siliga returned with a vengeance, man-handling blockers and forcing runs away from him, while totaling 3 tackles, half a sack, and a QB hit. And Alan Branch and Vince Wilfork helped form an impenetrable front line that freed up the outside pass rush to get to the San Diego QB.

On the outside, Rob Ninkovich had a terrific game, with 5 tackles (2 for a loss), 1 sack, and a QB hit. And several of his tackles were down the field, stopping the Chargers from converting third downs, and forcing punts. And Akeem Ayers continues to improve and prove his worth; he had 2 tackles, 1 QB hit, one pass defended, and his interception shut down San Diego's only decent penetration of the second half. These two forced Phillip Rivers up in the pocket, where he regularly got punished by the interior linemen and blitzing linebackers.

Speaking of linebackers, Jamie Collins is really coming into his own. Dont'a Hightower missed the game with a shoulder injury, so not only did Collins have to take on more playing responsibilities, he had to call the defenses and make adjustments, too. And he came through with flying colors: 9 tackles to lead the team (3 of those for losses), 2 sacks (for 18 yards), and 2 QB hits. He also helped cover San Diego's most dangerous weapon, tight end Antonio Gates, who had just 5 catches for just 34 yards and 1 first down.

Collins, special teamer Jonathan Casillas, and safety Patrick Chung did a great job faking the blitz and then falling back into coverage -- because they blitzed just enough to keep the Chargers guessing.  And the 'backers did a great job cleaning up any runs that reached them, although frankly that didn't happen all that often. Most of the run stuffing was done by the front four.

In the secondary, Darrelle Revis was Mister Shutdown yet again. He shadowed receiver Keenan Allen, who had just 2 catches for 3 yards, his lowest output of the season. (Between you and me, it's a joy to watch Revis play. He's much better than anyone who's come through here since Asante Samuel left.) At safety, stalwart Devin McCourty proved his worth again, helping hold the Chargers to three plays of 20+ yards -- just a week after giving up seven such plays against the Packers.

Opposite Revis, both Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington struggled some and made some plays. Browner had a huge hit that caused an interception, but the play was called back, as Browner was called for a bogus penalty on the play. However, bogus or not, Browner gets so many penalties, he will never get the benefit of the doubt in a situation like that. He needs to clean up his play-to-play actions if he wants the officials to respect him.

Arrington had a silly tripping call and got beaten on some of the bigger plays in the game. But he also had an important tackle-for-loss on a running back and did a nice job making tackles after the catch (at least most of the time). He'll never be mistaken for Revis, but he never gets down and always makes receivers earn every yard.

On the opposite side of the ball, it was a struggle all night long. The offensive line gave up way too much pressure: 1 sack (7 yards), 9 tackles for a loss, and 5 QB hits. Nate Solder got schooled on the pass rush in the first half, though he did bounce back in that aspect in the second half. And the interior linemen couldn't give quarterback Tom Brady a clean pocket into which he could step and throw. Brady's lone interception came when San Diego hit him yet again, causing a short throw that was picked near the goal line.

Not to excuse the quarterback. That INT was unacceptable; he would have been better off eating the ball than throwing with so much pressure in his face. It was only second down, and he had a timeout in his pocket. Overall he ended up with decent stats: 28 of 44 (63.6%), 317 yards, 2 touchdowns, one INT, and a 90.8 QB rating. But that interception was a real problem. And not for nothing, but getting mad on the sideline doesn't help as much as not throwing the pick in the first place.

The receiving chores were top-heavy again, with tight end Rob Gronkowski (8 catches, 87 yards, 1 touchdown) and receiver Julian Edelman (8 catches, 171 yards, 1 touchdown) doing the bulk of the work. Between them, they accounted for more than half the teams' catches, and many of those receptions were against double- and triple-teams. San Diego's best strategy to stop Gronkowski was to force him to help in pass protection. And Edelman was honored with the best cornerback on many plays.

No other receivers did much, except for Brandon LaFell's fumble that was returned for a touchdown. I'd give him a semi-pass on that, since it was his first fumble of the year. But as the games get more and more important, ball-security becomes one of the critical stats that lead to victories. So LaFell and Brady have to take care of the ball going forward.

The running game as an afterthought in this one. LeGarrette Blount had 20 carries for 66 yards, but was slammed back most of the game. Shane Vereen didn't do much better, and Jonas Gray got off the bench for a few plays (2 carries, 9 yards). None of them did a particularly great job in pass protection, but the blitzes came from so many areas, the Patriots went with an empty backfield on most of their pass plays anyway.

As for the coaching, the defensive game plan worked extremely well. The Chargers scored 34 points the prior week against the Ravens, including 21 points in the fourth quarter. And the Patriots held the San Diego offense to just 7 points, and shut them out the entire second half. Kudos to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and his assistants.

The offensive coaching has to get better, in my opinion. In the last two games, the Pats faced excellent defensive coordinators, and they came away with a total of 3 points in the first- and third-quarters of both games combined. In fact, for the season they have just 137 total points in those quarters for the year, versus 263 in the second- and fourth-quarters -- so they've scored just 34% of their points in those two halves of games.

This disparity speaks to not having the right plan entering the game, and getting out-adjusted at the half. Coordinator Josh McDaniels might be on the short list for another head coaching job, but until he leaves, he needs to self-scout better and have a better plan entering each half.

So where does that leave us? 10-3 and in prime position to have a playoff run that goes through Foxboro. The Dolphins come to town next week, and if the Patriots win, they will clinch the division title. They'll probably win the division no matter what; but a loss probably means road games in the playoffs, so that has to be avoided for the balance of the season.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots committed fewer penalties than their opponent in only three games this season -- and all three games were against the AFC West. (Trivia question: can you guess which AFC West opponent did not have more penalties than the Patriots when they played this year? Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Homing in on another division title, and hoping for a #1 playoff seed. That Kansas City debacle seems like a long time ago."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
It should be no surprise that the Oakland Raiders were able to keep up with the Patriots when it comes to breaking the rules -- as each team notched six penalties in their September game.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Patriots Bow to Packers, 26-21

The Packers beat the Patriots in Green Bay, 26-21, dominating time-of-possession and clamping down on the Pats offense like no one has in weeks. The loss puts the Patriots in a tie with the Broncos, but they hold the tie-breaker, so New England retains first place in the AFC. The Buffalo Bills won, so the Pats' lead in the AFC East is down to two games. Next up is a trip to San Diego for a Sunday Nighter against the Chargers.

If you want to know how the Patriots lost, you could just re-read my analysis of their last playoff defeat, in the AFC Championship Game in January of this year (link). Both games played out the same: (1) defense gave up yards but forced strong offenses to take field goals; (2) Patriots offense played poorly in the first and third quarters; (3) the opponent racked up 35+ minutes of possession time; and (4) even though both games ended with close scores, neither was as competitive as that would indicate.

Given the similarities, and the fact that all the way back in September I predicted the Pats would lose this game, I'm not going to do a full-and-thorough breakdown. Unfortunately, the game went as I expected, so there isn't as much to go over.

But they say that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. So here are some stats that tell the story of how the game went -- some that tell the truth, and some that lie like dogs.

Truthful statistics:

1. Green Bay possessed the ball for over 36 minutes, and the Patriots less than 24. The Patriots defense simply couldn't get off the field between the 20 yard lines. And when they had the Packers on the ropes, Rodgers usually bailed them out with a scramble for a first down or to extend the play for a big pass completion.

2. The Packers ran 70 plays and averaged 6.8 yards per play; while the Patriots ran just 54 plays and averaged 5.9 yards per play. The Packers had seven plays of 20+ yards, three of them for 30+ yards, and two of them for 40+ yards; whereas the Patriots had three plays of 20+ yards and zero plays longer than 30 yards.

Green Bay didn't attack down the field as much as they hit short routes that turned into longer plays or got big plays when the Patriots pass rush gave the QB too much time.

3. Patriots scored zero points in the first and third quarters. This is illustrative because it speaks to a poor offensive game plan to start, and then poor halftime adjustments. And that falls to the offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels -- he has to improve performance against good game-planning teams or the Patriots defense will have to bail him out.

Lying statistics:

1. The Patriots had three sacks in the game, and the Packers just one. But your eye tells you that Brady was under much more pressure than Rodgers, all day long. In fact, on one pass play Rodgers had 12 seconds to throw. 12 seconds is a lifetime; and I doubt Brady had more than 5 on any play all day long.

2. The Patriots went 3-3 in the Red Zone, scoring touchdowns on all three drives inside the Packers 20 yard line, but the Packers went 0-4 in the reverse situation. While it's nice to make your opponent take field goals, in the end you have to score enough of those TDs make it stand up. So this looks good on the stat sheet, but the offense didn't do enough with its opportunities to make it mean anything.

3. The Patriots didn't turn the ball over. This did them no good because they also got no turnovers from the Packers. A single turnover might have swung the game in their direction, but so long as the defense couldn't produce one, a draw in the turnover battle was meaningless.

4. The Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per rush. Problem was, they ran only 18 times and could not control the game that way. In the second half, the Packers were happy to have the Patriots run; they had the lead, so it helped them burn time off the clock.

Five Up:

1. Receiver Brandon LaFell caught two touchdowns on five receptions (38 yards). With Gronkowski and Edelman getting all the defensive attention, LaFell and tight end Tim Wright will continue to be targeted in the end zone.

2. Quarterback Tom Brady was under duress all day long, with outside rushers coming hard off the edge and free blitzers on far too many plays. But he ended up 22 of 35 (63%) for 245 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 102.7 QB rating. It just wasn't good enough when the opposing quarterback was Aaron Rodgers.

3. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner controlled the Packers' #1 and #2 receivers much more than they've been controlled recently. It wasn't perfect; Revis got beaten inside on Jordy Nelson's 45-yard touchdown, and Browner had two penalties that hurt the Pats in the first quarter.

4. Combined, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower had 23 tackles, 2 sacks (for 15 yards), 3 tackles for a loss, one QB Hit, and a forced fumble. Hightower did get beaten on running plays, so there is still room to improve how he sheds blockers. But these two were a bright spot on a defense that had a lot of trouble getting off the field.

5. Running Back LeGarrette Blount had 10 carries for 58 yards (I'll let you do the math), and had a bunch of yards after first contact. It is fortunate the Blount fell into the Patriots lap at this time; with Bolden on the other list and Vereen a better third-down option, they needed knowledge of the offensive schemes and a veteran presence here. Blount brings both things to the table.

Five Down:

1. Wideout Danny Amendola was supposedly signed to replace Wes Welker. So what happened when Welker's actual replacement, Julian Edelman, left the game with an injury? The Patriots brought in Aaron Dobson instead. Amendola isn't doing much to earn his $5 million a year salary.

2. Corners Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington were targeted and beaten multiple times. It might be inevitable that they end up on this list, after all, the Packers weren't going to take a chance with Revis or Browner. But still, these three were covering the third-, fourth-, and fifth-best receivers, and should have had better days.

3. The offensive line looked porous, especially when facing speed rushes from the outside. The best counter for outside pressure is running the ball, but they had just 36 yards on the ground in the first half (and couldn't rush in the second half, because they got behind).

Crowd noise still causes issues with their communication. And when they can't hear the snap count, they get beaten again and again on the outside. Probably time to recommit to the running game on the road, if only to protect the tackles. 

4. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski canNOT miss a field goal that would make it a two-point game late in the fourth quarter. Even if the Patriots had gotten the ball back and score a touchdown to win, he would be on this list. He simply can't miss a 47-yarder when the snap and hold were good. Unacceptable.

5. Running back Brandon Bolden had a touchdown, but too often he free-lanced on running plays and took a loss. That's probably why he rushed just once (for -1 yard) in the second half. Wasn't he listening when everyone praised Jonas Gray for running to the hole the play was designed for?

(Note: Rob Ninkovich escapes this list because even though he had a tough time in pass coverage, he filled in admirably as the Pats long-snapper for the week. He had only one bad snap, and that was not on Gostkowski's miss.)

So where does that leave us? 9-3 is still pretty good, and a game better than I had them at this point in the season. 

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their three losses this season, the Patriots averaged just 7 points per second half. In their nine wins, they averaged 15.4 points per second half.

Statistical Similarities of the Week: When comparing yesterday's loss with the AFC Championship Game in Denver: the Patriots had exactly the same number of total yards (320), gave up the exact same number of points (26), on the exact same breakdown of scores (2 touchdowns, 4 field goals), were within a minute on time-of-possession (36:35 to 35:44), and scored exactly zero points in the first- and third-quarters of both games.

Please email me if you find a more similar game; to me they felt exactly the same.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "San Diego and KC are the only two teams in the AFC that can control the Pats defense like Green Bay did. We'll see how it goes with the Chargers next weekend; but let's hope they face neither of them in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-3!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Patriots Down Detroit With Dominant Defense, 34-9

Tom Brady's first NFL game was mop-up duty in a 34-9 drubbing by the Detroit Lions in 2000. Yesterday he returned the favor, dominating the first half and watching his defense shut down Detroit, in a 34-9 win for his Patriots. The victory put the team three full games ahead of Miami in the AFC East and two full games (with tie-breakers) ahead of every other team in the AFC. Next week is their toughest remaining game; in Green Bay to take on the Packers.

Even though the Patriots offense doubled-up what Detroit usually allows per game (15.6 ppg before yesterday), it was the defense that led the day. Against a team with plenty of weapons, the Pats allowed their receivers one 42-yard catch and nothing else of consequence. All-world receiver Calvin Johnson was shut out in the first half and even when the Lions got into scoring range, the Patriots defense held them to field goal attempts (and they  missed one of those, in the first half). And allowing just nine points to any NFL team is a successful outing.

(Note: with both the offense and defense in high-gear, the Patriots lead the league in point-differential. Trivia question: how many seasons has Tom Brady led the Patriots to the best point-differential in the NFL? And if you dare, how many of those years can you name? Answers below...)

Cornerback Darrelle Revis was the defensive star of the game. He had four passes defended, including a mano-y-mano knockdown of what should have been a Johnson touchdown. Additionally, his tight coverage forced the Lions to use the running game and third- and fourth-receivers. Fellow corner Brandon Browner had two passes defended, and Logan Ryan had a typical up-and-down day, with one pass defended and at least one important pass given up -- to go with an interception.

Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were among the team leaders in tackles (seven and six, respectively), and Chung added a pass defended. Additionally, Chung showed great instincts in helping stop the run. And McCourty played the deep safety to Johnson's side, making sure he did little, if any, damage in the game.

The linebackers do not seem to have been affected by the loss of Jerod Mayo. Dont'a Hightower led the team with eight tackles, and he has done a great job getting after the ball, be it hitting the QB, in pass coverage, or stuffing the run. Hightower struggled last year when Mayo went down, but he's adapted admirably this year.

It helps that Jamie Collins continues his excellent play. He was exceptionally good in Indianapolis last week, and against Detroit he showed a ton of versatility, in all phases of the defense. It also helps that Akeem Ayers tossed in a QB hit, a sack, and three tackles of his own. No one could be sure how Ayers would play when he arrived in New England, but he's helped replace the QB pressure Chandler Jones applied before his injury.

And speaking of the defensive line, it's difficult to see how they are doing what they are doing. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich are still there, and both doing their usual great job on the inside and outside, respectively. But around them, it's Zack Moore, rookie Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, and recently acquired Alan Branch. Jones hasn't done much of note, but Easley and Branch are doing a decent job filling in.

The D-line clearly does more stunting, zone-blitz schemes, and also fake blitzes than they ever have. (Note: this probably tells you the coaches trust their safeties and linebackers to cover up against the run when teams trap-block against those schemes.) And given how vanilla the Patriots defense usually is, this seems to confuse team after team. And maybe, just maybe, it shows you what the Patriots *should* have been doing all these years, rather than their "stay disciplined and do your job" approach, which didn't exactly tear it up in 2009 or 2010.

On offense, last week it was the running game, this week it was the quarterback. Given how stout the Lions run defense is, the Pats threw the ball 53 times and ran just 20. Tom Brady wasn't sacked once on those 53 drop-backs, though that was owing to his quick release. He did get hit four times, and a few of those were very quick penetrations, but Brady got rid of the ball in a flash all game long. He ended up 38 of 53 (72%) for 349 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 94.0 QB rating.

With all the completed passes, there should have been more players with catches. But it was still an okay job of spreading the ball around. The Lions tried to take away tight end Rob Gronkowski, so ended up with only 5 catches for 78 yards. But "the other tight end," Tim Wright, had 5 catches of his own, for just 36 yards, but 2 big touchdowns. Wright's production has been inconsistent. He has four games with zero catches, but has notched six touchdowns on the season. Not bad for a guy who arrived just before opening day.

Receiver Julian Edelman took some hard hits while catching 11 for 89 yards. And Brandon LaFell had some big first downs among his 9 grabs and 98 yards. Edelman needs the other receivers to step up, because he takes a real beating out there. But props to LaFell, who I dubbed "LaFail" earlier in the year. He's worked his way into that third-receiver role, and the team will need him and Wright to be productive when teams try to shut down Edelman and Gronkowski.

The running backs were more of an afterthought in this one. Last week's hero, Jonas Gray, was late for Friday practice, so he sat for the game, replaced by newly re-signed LeGarrette Blount. Blount had 78 yards on 12 carries, but that was mostly in garbage time. In the first half, the Pats ran the ball just six times, controlling the ball with the pass. And Shane Vereen was more of a receiver threat (8 catches, 48 yards) than a run threat (8 rushes, 12 yards).

The offensive line did a pretty good job. Brady was pressured some, but the Lions front-seven is very good, so that is to be expected. Both of the tackles (Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder) had penalties on the day. But the only big whiff of the day was another interior rusher who came 100% free despite being double-teamed. The coaches need to work on controlling the right-side A-gap on quick screens, because that can lead to very, very bad plays. Also, no one expected the Pats to run very well, so ending up with 90 yards on 20 carries is a decent day.

Special teams was a blowout in favor of the Patriots. Punter Ryan Allen made the play of the day; scooping up a bad snap and booting a 66-yard punt that was returned just one-yard. Danny Amendola had an 81-yard kickoff return that led to the Patriots second touchdown. And on a day when Detroit's kicker missed a field goal with the game still in doubt, kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed his two and gave up just 27 return yards on six kickoffs.

Last, but certainly not least, the coaches should take a bow for their excellent game plans. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's decision to bracket Johnson and single-cover Golden Tate with his best defender couldn't have worked out much better. Tate's only long reception came against zone, and Johnson was shut down until the game was out of reach. And on offense, wearing down the Detroit defense with up-tempo passing was a much better choice than trying to run into front-seven.

So where does that leave us? 9-2 and with that two-game lead over the field. Not a bad place to be with five weeks to go. Green Bay will be the team's toughest test remaining on the schedule. Some are calling it a Super Bowl Preview. I could live with that if it comes true!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the second quarter, linebacker Jamie Collins was called for penalties twice in three plays. But he wasn't the guilty party in either case -- the referee called the wrong number both times. I've seen that happen from time to time, but never twice in three plays to the same player.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If LaFell and Wright continue to be productive, the Pats won't have to fear anyone in the playoffs. That's right, I said playoffs!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-2!

PPS. Trivia answer: Under Tom Brady, the Patriots have led the NFL in point-differential four times: 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2012.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Patriots Throttle the Colts, 42-20

What a nice night for a beat-down. The Patriots dominated in the running game and the second half, and ran away from the Colts, 42-20. The win give the Patriots a two-game lead over their nearest AFC East rival (Dolphins), and when you factor in tie-breakers, they hold a two-game lead over the other AFC division leaders (Bengals, Colts, and Broncos). Detroit comes to Foxboro to get their asses handed to them next week.

The Patriots didn't turn their first-half dominance into much of a lead. The Colts converted a late Tom Brady interception into a touchdown that made it 14-10 after 30 minutes. But given that mistake, New England recommitted to the running attack, and went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, and touchdown to start the second half. Indy couldn't keep up, and it was over about halfway through the fourth quarter.

Running back Jonas Gray held quite the coming-out party: 38 carries, 199 yards (5.2 ypc), and 4 touchdowns. He showed patience and once he got rolling downhill, he handed out punishment to the undersized Indy defense. Shane Vereen had only one rushing attempt, but was good in pass protection and also had 4 catches for 59 yards. But Gray was so dominant on this night, he got his own section of Statistical Oddities below.

Quarterback Tom Brady enjoyed lots of time to throw in the second half, courtesy of the running game and play-action. And he used it to pick apart the Colts zone scheme. But his first half was only okay. He looked good most of the time, but called an audible on third-and-one near the end of the half and did the one thing he could not do in that situation: threw an interception.

In fact, Brady had two INTs in the first half, so his final stat line didn't look all that fantastic: 19 of 30, 257 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and an 85.0 QB rating. But overall, Brady moved well in the pocket, and mostly made the right reads. And he has to get some credit for leading his team on four consecutive touchdown drives in the second half.

Six different receivers contributed, led by tight end Rob Gronkowski's 4 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown where he ran through five or six Colts defenders. Julian Edelman had 5 catches for 50 yards, but he appeared to suffer a hip injury and wasn't very effective in the second half. And just when the Colts thought they had everyone bottled up, Brandon LaFell caught a big third-down pass and got two others, too.

The offensive line deserves credit and praise for their great run blocking. The team put in a sixth O-lineman once they were dominating on the ground, and that made it even more difficult to stop them. They were great on pulls and slashed through the smaller Colts defenders all night long. And Gronkowski deserves credit as an honorary O-lineman for the game; his blocking was as good as it's been all year.

However, last night was not an unalloyed success for the O-line. Both of Brady's interceptions came on plays with almost instant pressure from the Colts defense. The first was a whiff by tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who let his man get inside and force a bad pass. And on the second interception, a Colts defender split an inside double-team and was on Brady in less than a second (trust me, I timed it). You have to take off points for giving up pressure in less than a second when you are double-teaming the man who got the pressure.

As for the defense, well, you can't pile up a 244-to-19 yard running advantage unless your team stops the opponent running game. And the Patriots defensive line and linebackers did a great job attacking the run not just clogging things up. Add the brilliant play of cornerback Darrelle Revis and the great game plan of making the Colts beat you with something less than their best players, and it was a masterful day for the Patriots defense.

It all started with the secondary. Coming into the game, the Colts led the league in big plays (20+ yards), but they had fewer such plays than the Patriots last night. Receiver Reggie Wayne beat them early, and then Revis shut him down the rest of the game. The Pats then double-teamed the Colts best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, which forced them to use tight end Coby Fleener -- who had a good game but didn't dominate like Hilton and Wayne can.

Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington got beaten during the game, but both battled back. Ryan ended up with 2 defended passes and 3 tackles. And Arrington got 1 pass defended and also had 3 tackles. Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung went mostly unnoticed, which was a result of the gameplan to keep things short. And just so you don't think I'm going soft, cornerback Brandon Browner got beaten early and often, and pretty much never got back to do much about it. Not his best game at all.

The defensive line did a great job holding firm in the running game and getting after the passer from the outside. Rob Ninkovich got 5 tackles, and had a tackle for a loss and 2 QB hits. Interior linemen Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch, and Dominique Easley did a great job holding things up so the linebackers could shoot gaps and stop plays before they got started. 19 yards on the ground, you can't ask for much better than that.

Linebacker Jamie Collins was the front-seven star of the game. He ended up with 8 tackles (2 for a loss) and a forced fumble. And his coverage out of the backfield was very good. Dont'a Hightower had more mixed results, with 6 tackles of his own, 2 QB hits, and a pass defended. But his pass coverage wasn't nearly as consistent; he was behind several plays, and appeared to stop running once a receiver got past him. Newcomer Akeem Ayers was a non-factor.

Special teams was unremarkable, which means they did a good job. Ryan Allen only punted once, and Stephen Gostkowski never attempted a field goal. However, a day when you give up no big returns and have no blown plays is a good day. The only quibble was that return-man Danny Amendola got tackled at his own four-yard line -- not good.

The coaching plan was terrific. On offense: slow down the pass rush by running the ball up the middle; and when the running game worked well, stick with it and set up play-action. On defense: stop the run and don't give up big plays.

So where does that leave us? Technically the Chiefs are just one-game behind the Patriots, but they have to win their division to be in the conversation about first-round playoff byes. So unless they can overtake the Broncos, the Patriots are in the driver's seat when it comes to playoff seeding. Next up is Detroit; a dome team coming to play outdoors in Foxboro as the weather turns colder. Smells like a win to me.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: There were three penalties in the game for facemask/hands-to-the-face -- and all three were committed by players wearing #50. (Two on the Patriots Rob Ninkovich, and one on the Colts Jerrell Freeman).

Bonus Statistical Oddity: After a slow start the Patriots are second in the NFL in points per game (32.3). Trivia question: can you name the team that leads the NFL in this category? (Hint: this team is on the Patriots 2014 schedule... answer below.)

Jonas Gray Statistical Oddities of the Week: Gray was the first Patriots running back with 100+ yards and 2 touchdowns at the half since 1983. He's also one of only four players in NFL history to score his first four touchdowns in one game (and first since 1979). Gray is one of only five running backs in NFL history with 150 yards and four touchdowns in one road game. And lastly, he now holds the single-game Patriots record with four rushing touchdowns in one game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm trying to imagine how good this team can be -- remember: Chandler Jones should be coming back later this year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
The Green Bay Packers put up 53 yesterday, and lead the NFL with 33 points per game. Should be a barn-burner in two weeks!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Patriots Dominate Broncos, 43-21

Your New England Patriots dominated the previously dominant Broncos, hitting them hard and fast in a 43-21 drubbing at chilly/windy Gillette Stadium. The win puts the Pats in familiar territory, first place in the entire AFC, and with wins in hand over two of the other division leaders (Broncos and Bengals). The team has their bye this week, and then they play the other division leader, the Colts, in Indianapolis the week after.

This game was too close early, with the Patriots leaving points on the board in the first quarter, and ending that quarter behind 7-3. Then they scored on six of their next eight possessions, while the Broncos scored on only two of their next eight, and the rout was on. And with 94 points in the last two games, the offense is obviously rounding into form.

Quarterback Tom Brady threw his first interception in since week four, on a tipped ball, no less. He was mostly magnificent, finishing 33 of 53, 333 yards, 4 touchdowns, that 1 INT, and a 97.4 passer rating. And even though he was sacked just once, he used movement in the pocket and quick releases to avoid sometimes very quick pressure (Denver hit him eight times in the game).

The only problem with Brady's game was his misfiring on several "wheel" routes to running back Shane Vereen, and several off-target passes that were slightly behind receivers (including on his interception). But given that the Broncos defense is one of the best in the league, not a bad day chucking the ball.

The receivers were all terrific. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman pulled in 9 catches and 1 touchdown each, with 105 and 89 receiving yards, respectively. Gronkowski is a beast these days, plowing through defenders after the reception, and making one of the catches of the season, a one-handed grab at the goal line. And Edelman was unstoppable in the slot, coming up with five big first downs.

Danny Amendola also had two big catches for first downs, indicating the Broncos don't have great slot-receiver coverage. And Brandon LaFell had 6 grabs for 43 yards and a touchdown.  In fact, maybe the most important numbers are 9, 9, 6, 5 -- the number of receptions of the top-four Patriots receivers. They are extremely difficult to defend when they spread the ball around like that.

The running game left a lot to be desired. The Patriots squeezed out 66 yards on 25 carries, for a paltry 2.6ypc. They were also tackled for a loss four times, and got just 3 rushing first downs on the day (even Brady failed on his patented QB sneak). Jonas Gray and Vereen had nowhere to go, several times beating their linemen to the hole, which usually meant there was no hole there.

Which brings us to the continuing saga of the offensive line. Still too much inside push, although that is getting better. Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, and Bryan Stork were all beaten at specific points in the game, and the inability to complete "wheel" routes indicates that the O-line didn't do it's job on the outside. Overall they are improving, and given the level of competition, this was a decent game. But it isn't perfect, and those flaws will look a lot worse against the Colts in their version of the TunderDome in two weeks.

It was a different story on defense, where the Patriots coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for how they mixed things up. They started in a 3-3-5 defense and kept the five DBs on the field most of the game. It was a great plan of complimentary defense, with just enough pressure on the quarterback to force quick throws, enough pass coverage to ensure those throws had to be pinpoint, and enough discipline to limit the running attack to 43 yards and 2.5ypc.

I've never seen lineman Rob Ninkovich drop into coverage so much, nor have I seen the team throw so many last-second blitzes up the middle. And they rarely employ the zone-blitz, but used it to great effect on the first interception.

Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork starred on the defensive line. Ninkovich ended up with the INT, a pass defended, and 3 tackles. And Wilfork's 2 tackles don't tell the entire story -- he clogged the middle and pushed the pile toward Manning all night long. The Broncos offensive line is very good, so just battling them to a stalemate in the running game and getting some pressure out of the front three is a big deal. It allowed the Patriots to do so much with the defense.

Linebacker Jamie Collins played the Swiss-Army Knife on Sunday. He dropped into coverage, had a tackle for a loss, got a huge stop on a third-down that forced a punt, and he sliced through the center of the Broncos O-line multiple times, putting quick pressure on Peyton Manning to throw the ball before he was ready. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower did the same, but to a lesser degree of effectiveness than Collins. And newcomer Akeem Ayers got the Patriots only sack, along with a QB hit.

The secondary play was difficult to decipher. Corner Darrelle Revis got five tackles and defended a pass, but he was in the area for multiple long pass completions. Corner Malcolm Butler was repeatedly burned, but came up big with a pass defended late when the Broncos were trying to claw back into the game. Safety Patrick Chung had three passes defended and eight tackles, but he and safety Devin McCourty both choked on a touchdown to Denver tight end Julius Thomas. And corner Brandon Browner had an INT and a pass defended, but he continues to pile up the penalty yards.

Maybe the lesson here is that it was never going to be perfect against Peyton Manning. But the corners and safeties did their best when they had chances, and held the Broncos to 23 points, despite the dizzying numbers put up by the Broncos. Maybe no team will shut down all those receivers; the best they can do is survive them.

On special teams, Julian Edelman set a new Patriots record with his fourth punt-return touchdown, a long and winding run that put the Pats up 20-7 in the second quarter. And on this very windy day, kicker Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 3-3 on field goals, and did a decent job kicking off, even into the stiff breeze. This is quite the contrast to the Broncos special teams, which had a difficult day handling the elements, yet again (remember last year's muffed punt to lose the game in OT?).

The coaching staff put together a great game plan. They mixed in 7-man fronts with 3-man pass rushes, delayed blitzes, stunts and games up front, zone blitzes, man-to-man press coverage, short cover-two, deep cover-three, and even the old "meandering" defense, where players wander around near the line and then attack at the snap. And on offense, they exploited mismatches at slot receiver and tight end, and when the Broncos adjusted, they threw to a single-covered LaFell outside the numbers.

So where does this leave us? Right where you'd expect by week nine -- leading the AFC East and the AFC. The Pats have a brutal schedule coming up, with tilts against division leaders Indy and Detroit, and road games against 5-4 San Diego and 5-3 Green Bay. If they survive the next month, they have three AFC East games to end the season, two of them at home, so that should be fine.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The last time the Patriots scored 94 points in consecutive home games, the Denver Broncos were the second team they beat. (Trivia question: name the year, and if you can, the other team involved... answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Broncos really had eight turnovers: two interceptions, a punt-return touchdown, a missed field goal, and 0-4 on fourth downs. Not going to win very often like that."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
In 2011, the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 49-21 to close out the regular season. They then drubbed the Tim Tebow Broncos, 45-10 in the divisional round of the playoffs, scoring exactly 94 points in two consecutive home games.