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!