Monday, December 28, 2015

Patriots Fall To Jets in OT, 26-20

The Patriots staged another second-half comeback, only to lose in overtime, 26-20, to the hated Jets. The loss leaves them needing one more win to secure the #1 seed in the AFC, and vaults the Jets into a likely playoff berth. The regular season comes to a close next Sunday in Miami, where the reeling Dolphins stand in the way of a "home for the playoffs" outcome for the Pats.

No doubt people will be talking about the Patriots decision to kick the ball away in overtime. There were plenty of other reasons they lost; but that curious choice will be questioned even more vigorously than "fourth and two" was in 2009. Here is a breakdown of what happened.

The Situation

The Patriots scored a game-tying touchdown with 1:55 left in regulation, and the defense held firm at the 50 yard-line, sending the game to overtime. The Pats won the coin toss, but decided to kick the ball rather than receive the kickoff. This choice also meant the Jets got not only the ball but they could choose to have the wind at their backs for the overtime period.

After the game, head coach Bill Belichick stated unequivocally that this was not a mistake by special teams captain Matthew Slater. Belichick himself made the call, telling Slater to kick the ball to the Jets if the Patriots won the toss. (And note: the wind direction made no difference in the outcome.)

The Strategy 

Given the new overtime rules, the Patriots would have gotten a possession if the Jets had not scored a touchdown on their opening drive. So Belichick obviously thought his defense could hold the Jets to zero points or a field goal attempt. And in so thinking, it is actually to his advantage to kick the ball away.

The reasoning is that if the Jets don't score or get a field goal, it gives the Patriots more information about what they have to do to extend the game or win it. Knowing the Jets kicked a field goal, for example, means the Patriots can treat the entire drive as "four-down territory." And if the Jets don't score, then the Patriots know they only have to get in field goal range to win the game, potentially.

The Mistake

In my analysis of the situation, Belichick made one crucial mistake: he overestimated his defense. The defense did indeed play better in the second half, forcing three punts and a turnover in six Jets' possessions. However, the eyeball test told me something different about their potential to stop the Jets in overtime.

Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick missed at least five long passes in the game, where his receivers had beaten the safeties on deep routes. If Fitzpatrick hit just two of those passes, the Jets would have won the game in a rout; and the Patriots were lucky he'd missed them. Belichick should have been more realistic about how well his defense had performed and realized his team would be in danger of losing with just one bad play from the safeties.

In the end, it was actually two bad plays from the safeties that sealed the Patriots fate. In overtime, Fitzpatrick completed a short pass to the left flat, and safety Tavon Wilson took a bad angle, allowing the receiver to run 50 yards after the catch. Two plays later, safety Duron Harmon was late on a pass to Brandon Marshall, and the Jets had the ball at the Patriots six yard-line. One play later, it was all over.

For background, note that both of the Patriots usual starting safeties, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, missed the game with injuries. And without those defensive starters, the Patriots had already given up four passes of 20+ yards in the game.

Knowing that the Patriots were down two starters, that they'd given up multiple long pass plays already, and that missed connections by the Jets could have made the game a runaway win for New York, Belichick should have taken the ball instead of kicking it away.

It isn't usual that he makes the wrong call. But he did in this situation. No matter what the odds said about their likelihood of winning, the eye-test was more important that the stats on this day.

The Rest of the Game

Safety play was awful, as noted already. And the defensive line did a terrible job in the first half, giving up 6.1 yards per rush, and getting zero pressure on Fitzpatrick. They did make good adjustments at the half, but in the end they still never got much heat on the Jets QB (one sack, four QB hits in the entire game). Jabaal Sheard made three big plays (run stuff, sack, forced fumble), but he also gave up inside contain on runs right up the gut in the first half.

The two best corners did a decent job, but the rest of them were cannon fodder.  Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan gave up some passes, but mostly held the Jets receivers in check. Or was it that the Jets just attacked Leonard Johnson, Justin Coleman, and Jordan Richards? Yep -- that sounds more like what happened: come to the line, figure out who those guys were covering, and throw it to them.

The three main linebackers were all in, and Jamie Collins was the standout as usual. He led the team with eight tackles, forced a fumble, and returned a fumble for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a chance at a comeback. Before his touchdown, the team was lethargic and looked like they were headed for a 35-17 beatdown. Dont'a Hightower played okay, though several times he missed the chance to stop runs before they got started. 

The offense was in such bad shape that the Pats resorted to trick plays. Once they did a flea-flicker, with Brandon Bolden taking a handoff and then pitching it back to Brady, who missed Gronk on a deep cross. Two plays later they used the Wildcat (to no good effect). And they went for it on fourth down three times, signaling that they just couldn't line up and beat the Jets.

(Note: they went 1-10 on third-down conversions, but 3-3 on fourth down. Maybe they should have gone for it on fourth down even more often.)

With an injury to Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots have only one offensive line starter from game 1: rookie Tre' Jackson. And it shows. On a bunch of pass plays, the Pats QB couldn't even get set before he had to throw the ball, usually to poor effect. The running game averaged less than three-yards a carry, they gave up two sacks and five QB hits (even with super-quick releases).

Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't blameless, either. His interception was a terrible throw, behind a double-covered Rob Gronkowski, and it killed the opening possession of the second half. And about 5-6 throws were either too low or behind receivers, which didn't help.

The receivers once again were unable to get quick separation, forcing Brady to hold the ball longer than expected. The first few minutes of the second half was the only time the passing game looked in sync, and once the Jets adjusted to the Pats halftime adjustments, it was a slog from then on.

Gronkowski did his usual damage (4 catches for 86 yards), and Keshawn Martin (7-68) and the running backs (10-58 total, with one touchdown) were the most helpful after Gronk. Martin gets open on crossing routes more often than the digs and cuts that the starters usually run, so they should feature him more on those patterns.

As for the running game, forget about it. They mostly can't run out of running formations, using deception with runs out of the shotgun to make yards. Newcomer Stephen Jackson will have to learn the pass protections so his presence in the huddle isn't a tip-off that it's a running play.

On special teams, Slater had a few nice plays on punt coverage, and punter Ryan Allen did a great job pinning the Jets back in their own end.

The coaching was curious at the end of the first half, yet again. They had 1:57 left and two timeouts; yet they were satisfied to go to the locker room down by seven points. They did the same a few weeks back against the Eagles Broncos, and both times any extra points they could have gotten would have come in handy late in those games.

So where does that leave us? 12-3 means they have to win next week to assure themselves of the #1 seed in the AFC. They beat Miami 36-7 in October, but division games can be tricky, especially late in the year (see yesterday for proof). But in the end, they have to get healthier. The O-line is going to be a problem for the rest of the year, but they need Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman back to make any noise in the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Jets had three running backs who had more rushing yards than any Patriots running back. Bilal Powell had 56 yards; Chris Ivory had 38 yards; and Stephan Ridley had 36 yards. The Patriots leading rusher was Brandon Bolden, with 30 yards.

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Rob Gronkowski had two fourth-down catches on the drive that tied the game late. Clutch.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Fourth-and-two was defensible. But the safety play was so bad yesterday, there's no defending kicking the ball away in overtime."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-3!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Patriots Need To Beat Jets This Weekend

Once again the Patriots are in prime position to secure a #1 overall playoff seed. One more win and the road to the Super Bowl runs through Foxboro in the AFC. But if New England plans to make it to Levi Stadium in February, they need to a win in New York this weekend. They should not wait for the last game of the year to sew up that seeding.

The reason the Patriots need a victory on Sunday is it would knock out their toughest potential playoff foe: the New York Jets. A Pats win on Sunday virtually eliminates the Jets from the post-season. And while the rest of the AFC field poses some challenges, the Jets would be the toughest out for the Patriots in the Tournament.

Here is a breakdown of the AFC field, in descending order of much the Patriots should want to face them.

7. New York Jets

First off, the Jets have some history to lean on; the 11-5 Jets beat the 14-2 Patriots in Foxboro in 2011. And that was only a few weeks after the Pats laid a 45-3 beatdown on the Jets in New York.

Also, the 2015 Jets also blitz more than any team in the NFL, which sets them up to exploit the one New England vulnerability that won’t be getting any healthier: the offensive line.

Nate Solder isn’t walking through that door, and neither is Matt Light. The Patriots offensive line problems won’t be improved much between now and the playoffs. And the creative blitz schemes of Jets’ head coach Todd Bowles seem tailor-made to attack the one area the Patriots can’t shore up at this point.

Additionally, no team wants to face a divisional opponent in the playoffs. Historically division games are close, and those close games can be decided by random bounces or a single turnover. Not the kind of risk the Patriots want to take in January.

Pats’ ace in the hole: In his career, Ryan Fitzpatrick has a 1-7 record and a 79.7 QB rating against New England.

6. Kansas City Chiefs

Combine eight straight wins with a 41-14 beatdown in their last game versus the Patriots, and Kansas City is the next toughest foe. Chiefs QB Alex Smith has thrown just 4 interceptions in 424 attempts, for a lower interception ratio than even Tom Brady. And the Patriots who thrive on turnovers, would have a tough time doing so against a Kansas City team with just 12 the entire season (second-lowest in the NFL).

Pats’ ace in the hole: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 4-1 career against Chiefs head honcho Andy Reid.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are riding high, practically scoring 30 points before warmups are over. The Pats did beat Pittsburgh 28-21 on opening night, but that was without Martavis Bryant and before Ben Roethlisberger got rolling. And even though DeAngelo Williams rushed for 127 yards in that game, a three-headed receiving monster is much more dangerous against the Patriots than two receivers and a running back.

Pats’ ace in the hole: Tom Brady’s career QB rating versus the Steelers is 113.4.

4. Denver Broncos

In Brock Osweiler’s start, the Patriots were missing linebacker Jamie Collins, linebacker Dont’a Hightower most of the game, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and even tight end Rob Gronkowski at the end. And Denver still needed overtime to pull out the victory, even at home. So Patriots fans shouldn’t fear Osweiler in Foxboro in the playoffs.

Peyton Manning gives the Broncos a better chance to win in the post-season. But even if he returns, the Denver defense is ill-suited to stop Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.

Pats’ ace in the hole: New England is undefeated in home playoff games against the Broncos (1-0) and undefeated in home playoff games against Peyton Manning (2-0).

3. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals playoff failures and prime-time game futility are well-documented. Head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the post-season and quarterback Andy Dalton is 0-4.

And if Dalton can’t go, AJ McCarron isn’t much of an option. He’d be making his fifth or sixth NFL start in a potential game against the Patriots; and quarterbacks are 1-6 in that scenario since Belichick arrived in Foxboro.

Pats’ ace in the hole: Cincinnati has never won a road playoff game in franchise history (0-7).

2. Indianapolis Colts

Even if Indy wins out and makes the playoffs, they wouldn’t likely give the Patriots much trouble. Quarterback Andrew Luck is 0-5 versus New England, and the Indy offense appears to be in shambles, scoring just 36 total points in their last three games.

Patriots fans should salivate at the prospect of a Colts playoff game in the frosty northeast. Add in a chance to stick it to the franchise that leaked info to the press about DeflateGate, and it would be a perfect storm.

Pats’ ace in the hole: Dome teams are 1-5 all time in playoff games in Foxboro, and the last win was 38 years ago.

1. Houston Texans

The Patriots easily dispatched the Texans in Houston two weeks ago, 27-6. And that was without Hightower or Edelman.

True, JJ Watt had just been injured, and he played better last week. But with Houston down to their fourth starting quarterback, and coming north to play outdoors, there’s little reason to think the Texans can take out the Patriots.

Pats’ ace in the hole: Don’t really need one.


Health will be the biggest determining factor in how deep a playoff run the Patriots can make. But second to health is whom they play. And the Jets are one of the tougher potential outs for New England. All the more reason to pull out all the gadget plays and go for the victory this weekend.

If the Pats fall on Sunday, and they have to face the Jets in the playoffs, Patriots fans should be worried. Very, very worried.

Enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS. 12-2!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Patriots Handle Titans, 33-16

The Patriots took care of business yesterday at Gillette Stadium, posting a 33-16 victory over Tennessee. The win set them up for a first-round bye, which they clinched later in the day when Denver lost to Pittsburgh. Their second trip to New York is next week, this time to play the Jets, and with an outside chance to knock them out of the playoffs.

This game wasn't really as close as the final score indicated. The first half score was 24-3, and the Pats coasted from there. The Titans turned it over, they failed on third downs (1 of 8 in the first half), and their only scoring drive before intermission was 4 plays, -5 yards, and a field goal.

The one concern was the offense stagnated without receiver Danny Amendola in the second half. Both Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski played, Amendola missed the second half with a knee injury. And the comparison looks pretty ugly.

First half:
4-7 (57%) on third-down conversions
10 carries for 54 yards (5.4 ypc)
14 of 19 (73.6%) passing for 139 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 130.6 rating

Second half:
3-9 (33%) on third down-conversions
16 carries for 39 yards (2.4 ypc)
9 of 16 (56.3%) passing for 126 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, 81.7 rating

The drop-off indicates that the Patriots cannot go far in the playoffs if they have only one of their receiving stars. That means they need to have receiver Julian Edelman, Gronkowski, and Amendola healthy for a deep playoff run. They can't depend on just two of them; if one gets injured, the offense grinds to a halt.

The Titans have fallen behind by a total of 51-3 in the first halves of their last two games. And the Patriots defense had plenty to do with it yesterday. The defense scored a touchdown on a Chandler Jones strip-sack and Akiem Hicks pounced on it for a touchdown. Hicks also stuffed a running play and had a sack of his own -- all in the first quarter! And Jones had another sack, his two totaling 28 yards lost.

The rest of the defensive line did a great job stopping the run, especially outside runs. The Titans averaged 94 yards a game before yesterday, but they had just 59 against the Patriots. Jabaal Sheard had a sack and continued to disrupt the offense with quick moves inside and out to break down running plays.

Linebacker Jamie Collins led the team with eight tackles, had a sack, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, a pass defended, and an interception. And even with all that, he is a step slow on some outside runs and blitzes, so when he returns to full-speed, it'll be a sight to see. Jerod Mayo improved again this week, making six tackles in all. But unfortunately, Dont'a Hightower left the game with a knee injury.

Linebacker is about the same as receiver for the Pats. If they go into the playoffs with just two of those three healthy, they could be in trouble if one gets injured during the playoffs. They really need all of them healthy, because they can't afford to have just one on the field.

The secondary played passably well. Interestingly teams now seem to shy away from throwing at Malcolm Butler, and with good reason. He had an INT, a pass defended, and five tackles yesterday. He also had another interception called back on a penalty on the other side of the field. Logan Ryan struggled in the game, as did newcomer Leonard Johnson.

Safety Patrick Chung had a great game, doing a fine job in run support and mostly shutting down the Titans' best tight end, Delanie Walker. Walker had just two catches, although both went for touchdowns, so it wasn't a total shut down. However, Chung was injured late in the game, and his usual running mate, Devin McCourty missed the game with injury, too. Tavon Wilson did a good job in place of McCourty, but the injuries are starting to pile up at this position.

The offense was very disjointed in the first half, not having much possession time, and benefitting from short fields on all three second-quarter drives. Quarterback Tom Brady was in total control, and didn't face much pressure compared to recent weeks. After three consecutive weeks with double-digit QB hits, the Titans hit Brady just four times, and sacked him twice.

The numbers were ho-hum by Brady's standards, but he made excellent decisions and never put the ball in danger of being picked off. Brady went 23 of 35, 267 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a QB rating got 107.7. Like I said, ho-hum -- just another 105+ QB rating game. Next!

The receivers caught just about everything thrown their way. Brandon LaFell caught four passes for 88 yards, including a ton of yard after the catch. He and Amendola also had excellent blocks on James White's 30-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Excepting Gronkowski, the receivers caught 18 of 23 passes thrown their way.

Gronkowski did his usual damage: five catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. But he was targeted 11 times, so the completion percentage on throws to him wasn't great. This owes mostly to double-coverage he faces a lot, although in those circumstances, Brady should look elsewhere unless Gronkowski is actually open.

Running back Brandon Bolden started out as the workhorse. But halfway through the game, the Pats switched it up by putting in rookie Joseph Iosefa (#47 on your scoresheet). Between them, they had 24 carries for 87 yards; a very respectable total. The team had trouble running in the second half, but it was good to see someone come in for the injured LeGarrette Blount and play well enough to get more starting time.

The offensive line is still a bit messy. Shaq Mason had a great block on the first Patriots offensive play of the game and then a holding penalty on the second play. The Titans didn't blitz much, and they didn't play many up-front games, so it wasn't much of a test from that perspective. We will have a much better idea of where the O-line is after next week. The Jets blitz a ton, and if the Pats line can handle it, they'll be in good shape entering the playoffs.

Special teams continues to have trouble, and that is the second biggest worry heading into the post-season (aside from health). Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal, and Danny Amendola fumbled a punt. The new special teams coach needs to get these guys to focus on their job, or he might be looking for another job himself next season.

So where does that leave us? 12-2 and with a guaranteed first-round bye -- that sounds pretty nice for now. The Pats finish with two on the road, and if they can win next week, they'll probably sit a bunch of players for the finale against the Bills (to avoid injury against old friend Rex Ryan).

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady has a career passer rating of over 100 against all four AFC South teams:

  • 101.0 against Houston
  • 108.5 against Jacksonville
  • 102.3 against Indianapolis
  • 109.4 against Tennessee

(Trivia question: Brady's highest career QB rating against one opponent is 115.7; name the team. Answer below.)

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: James White's seven catches were outlets that helped keep Brady clean, and he turned one of those dump-offs into a scintillating 30-yard touchdown.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The only AFC team that scares me is the Jets, so the Pats should eliminate them from the playoffs next week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-2

PPS. Trivia Answer: 
Brady's 115.7 rating is against the Atlanta Falcons. Next highest: 113.4 against Pittsburgh.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Patriots Smother Texans, 27-6

The Patriots defense pitched a second-half shutout, and the team won convincingly, 27-6 at Houston. The victory puts them in the playoffs for the seventh year in a row, and they are also atop the AFC alone, as the Broncos and Bengals both lost. The Tennessee Titans come to Foxboro next week, and if history is any basis, Marcus Mariotta's first game against the Patriots won't go his way.

(Note: this loss puts the Texans at 6-7, but somehow they are still tied for the division lead. Trivia Question: name the NFL team with the worst record that is still mathematically alive for the playoffs. Answer below.)

As for the game, the New England defense was suffocating all game long. The Texans' tenth-longest play of the entire game went for just six yards. And in fact, they had only five plays that went for 10+ yards. They ended up with only 189 yards of total offense, and almost half of it (89 yards) came on two pass plays. And they went just 3-16 (18.75%) on third- and fourth-down attempts.

The defensive line did a great job with gap responsibilities and setting the edge to stop the run. Houston had a 37-yard run, and 50 yards on 21 other carries, thanks to the likes of Malcom Brown and Aikeem Nicks inside, and Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard outside. Sheard's stat line is impressive: five tackles, two sacks (for 34 yards in losses), three QB hits, and forced fumbles on both sacks! And Nicks had two sacks of his own, to go along with six tackles. Ninkovich had one sack and some big plays against the run, although he did lose contain on at least one big run.

Two linebackers led the team in tackles: Jamie Collins (9), and Jerod Mayo (8). Both players are rounding into form nicely after injuries, Collins' earlier this year and Mayo's from last year. Mayo showed great burst at the line and his instincts on play-reads are as honed as ever. He was a step slow in the Denver game, but not last night. And Collins does so many things so well he can make opponents change offensive schemes.

If Collins' can return to dominance, he's as big an X-factor on defense as Rob Gronkowski is on offense. He can rush the passer, stuff the run, knife in to make tackles in the backfield, cover backs or tight ends, reads screen passes with the best of them, and can line up anywhere on the field. Put him next to Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower (still out with a knee injury), and the linebacking corps is as potent as any in the league.

None of the front-seven would have done as well without great play from the secondary.  Corner Malcolm Butler neutralized Houston's second-best receiver, and Logan Ryan played an excellent game against their #1 guy, albiet with help of the top. But the surprise of the week was newcomer Leonard Johnson, who knocked away two passes on critical plays. He's already a big upgrade from other third corners the Pats have played, so here's hoping it isn't just a one-game thing with him.

The safeties let up two long passes, and unfortunately, Devin McCourty left the game late with an injury. But Patrick Chung held up his end of the bargain, as always. Eight tackles (including one for a loss), and he knocked away a long pass up the seam that could have gotten the Texans close in the third quarter.

Quarterback Tom Brady was only hit three times and sacked three others, a stark contrast to the 36 QB hits and eight sacks the previous three games. And his numbers reflected it: 22 of 30 (73%), 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a 116.8 QB rating. He had good pocket presence, never panicked in the face of "phantom pressure," and never once putting the ball anywhere near an interception.

Brady was obviously helped by his offensive line, at least some. Each player took his turn having at least one bad play, but the big worry was center Bryan Stork, who was either injured or benched late in the game. It wouldn't surprise me if he was benched, he'd played the worst of any of the linemen to that point. But in either case, switching centers and shuffling the offensive line yet again is bad at this point in the season. After all, his replacement, David Andrews, was benched against Denver for poor play.

The number of receivers who catch passes is dropping game by game. Only five players caught Brady passes this week, led by Danny Amendola's six catches for 46 yards. However, Gronkowski did more damage: four catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. And sneaking into the conversation for third receiver is Keshawn Martin, with three grabs for 23 yards. Not that he'll be returning punts any time soon (more on that in a bit).

The running backs helped control the game, totaling 116 yards on 31 attempts.  LeGarrette Blount (10 carries for 53 yards) did most of the damage early, but when he went down with an injury, Brandon Bolden stepped in with 16 carries and 51 yards of his own. James White didn't run much, but his only carry was the touchdown that sealed the game.

One other note on the offense. The balance in this game (31 rushes, 33 pass plays [including sacks]) is what I believe they were striving for in the Eagles game. Unfortunately they got away from it too early in the second half of that game, but expect a more balanced offense until they get receiver Julian Edelman back. 

Which brings us to special teams, where they had a blunder for the third straight week.  This time is was Martin, who fumbled a punt in the third quarter, giving Houston excellent field position. Fortunately the dominant defense bailed him out without giving up a point. But his improved play on offense was overshadowed by this mistake. Also, before that fumble, he'd averaged 11.5 yards on four returns. (BTW, does anyone else miss special teams coach Scott O'Brien like I do?)

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was money on two kicks again this week (ho hum), and punter Ryan Allen did a great job pinning the Texans back drive after drive. So it wasn't all bad.

A special shoutout to the coaching staff. They came up with a great plan to neutralize Houston defensive end J. J. Watt, and did an exceptional job in planning how to stop the Texans' offense.

So where does that leave us? 11-2 ain't half bad, especially when it's good enough for the #1 seed in your conference. A win over the Titans this Sunday would nearly guarantee a first-round bye (given that Cincinnati and Denver play each other). Also of note: if the Giants beat the Dolphins on Monday night, the Patriots are division champs again.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Including last night's game, McCourty has more one-tackle games this year (3) than he had in his entire career prior to this season (2). (Note: he has never had a zero-tackle game in his NFL career.)

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Jabaal Sheard took advantage of some poor blocking schemes and dominated a 15-minute stretch of the game that put it out of reach.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Pats get Hightower and Edelman back for the playoffs, they should be favored to win it all again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:  The 4-9 Dallas Cowboys are still alive for a possible playoff berth.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Patriots Lose Composure and Game, 35-28

The Patriots bumbled their way to a 35-28 loss to the Eagles yesterday, despite a furious comeback that came up just short. The loss puts them into a tie with the Broncos and Bengals for a first-round playoff bye, and shortens their lead in the AFC East to three games over the victorious Jets. Next week is a trip to Houston to take on J.J. Watt and the improving Texans.

Those who watched the Eagles game saw something from the Patriots they haven't seen in a long, long time: panic. After taking a 14-0 lead, the team tried a bizarre onside/drop-kickoff, which gave the Eagles good field position from which they scored. It felt like a panic move; strange for a team that had allowed an average of just 21 yards on the four drives the Eagles had before that play.

The Patriots also gave up on the running game far too quickly. They averaged 5.3 yards per carry in the first quarter and ran for 80 yards in the first half. In the second half they had just 8 carries for 23 yards, including 14 yards on Tom Brady QB sneaks and scrambles. Why panic and give up on something that's working?

And speaking of Brady, the number of hits he's taken are having an effect on his game play. The one trick play the Patriots succeeded with was a throw-back to a wide open Brady, who ran for 36 yards on the play. (Trivia Question: who was the opponent when Brady caught his only other NFL pass in 2001? answer below.) And the next snap, he threw a bomb to the end zone, and missed communication with receiver Brandon LaFell led to an interception.

This is exactly the kind of throw a quarterback makes when he is sick of being hit all the time. QBs tend to try chunk plays so they don't have to take as many hits in order to score. The team had the momentum finally going their way, but Brady had been hit 23 times the previous two weeks and ended up with another 13 hits and 4 sacks yesterday.

Panic makes you make mistakes, and the Patriots made enough of them yesterday to fill two scrapbooks. Panic has been a rare occurrence for Belichick's Patriots. But panic caught them yesterday, in a game they could have managed 100-times better and likely have gotten out with a win.

Special teams was the biggest problem for the Pats. The Eagles tied the game just before the half with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. The breakdown came with two Patriots blocked one Eagles rusher and Nate Ebner (the personal protector) blocked to the right. That left a free rusher who came in clean and it was a footrace to the end zone.

Additionally, they continued to kick to Eagles returner Darren Sproles even though he was dangerously close to breaking a return. And eventually he did, jetting up the left sideline for an 83-yard touchdown. There was the blown onside kick, which Ebner kicked too shallow and not high enough. And for the Patriots, there was precious little in the kick return games.

All in all the kind of game that gets people fired. Not sure it'll happen in this case, special teams have been excellent most of the year. But not a good day to have their worst performance in about five years. Oh, and that's on a day when they did recover one onside kick, which would usually earn special teams a gold star for the day.

Quarterback play was the second biggest problem, at least for most of the game. Brady threw into traffic at the Eagles one yard-line and it was picked off and run back for a touchdown. So instead of a 17-14 lead, the team was down 21-14. And there was the aforementioned second interception, which you just can't have when you're trying to climb out of a 14-point hole.

It wasn't all on Brady. His offensive line isn't giving him time (what else is new), even against a simple three- or four-man rush. For weeks Brady has been counteracting that with quick throws, but the receivers playing in place of his injured starters just don't get quick separation to allow for those throws.

Danny Amendola faces double-teams every play and there isn't enough talent to win against man-coverage across the field. He ended up with 7 catches (on 13 targets) for 62 yards, and was actually the best of the receivers even facing double-teams. And even when tight end Scott Chandler gets open, it's less than 50-50 that he'll catch the ball.

In fact, running back James White was the receiving star of the game: 10 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. And without him, the Pats would never have gotten the game close late, as he made clutch catches in their final two touchdown drives. LeGarrette Blount did most of the heavy lifting in the running game (13 carries for 54 yards), but as mentioned earlier, not much running in the second half.

The defense actually played a decent game. They allowed just one long drive for a touchdown and a TD on a short field. And that was about it. The Eagles scored their other 21 points on special teams and defense. The only real complaint about the Patriots defense is their lone turnover was at the end of the game when it was a nearly impossible situation to win. But at least the got the turnover.

Linebacker Jamie Collins returned and led the team with 8 tackles, adding a defended pass and that forced fumble late. He was late on a few plays, but once he gets his legs back he should return to form. The only other linebacker notes are negative: Jonathan Freeney still gets beaten far too often, especially by back in the flat. And Jerod Mayo still isn't quite healthy; made a few plays and missed more.

The defensive line was hot-and-cold, sometimes stuffing a run for a loss, and then giving up a nine-yard gain to offset that. Rookie Malcom Brown had some nice plays, but Rob Ninkovich's one good play didn't make up for several problems on edge runs. Jamaal Sheard continues to make plays, and even dropped into pass coverage on a few zone-blitzes.

Once linebacker Dont'a Hightower returns, the defense should be in much better shape. Especially if Mayo improves with more play.

As for the secondary, they fight on every single throw. The problem yesterday was they weren't as good as usual situationally. 43% third down conversions and not really a sniff of an interception doesn't add up to a great day. Safeties Devin McCourty (7 tackles) and Patrick Chung (6) are indispensable cogs in this machine.

The coaching staff seemed to want to run the ball early. They lined up with an extra offensive lineman on the first play, and they were doing damage on the ground. That's why it's so curious that they gave up on it. And there was the onside kick call, just not a great day for the coaches.

So where does that leave us? Next week is a tough spot for the Patriots, especially against old friend Romeo Crennel, now the defensive coordinator of the Texans. A lot of this will fall on the shoulders of the Patriots defense, but the Pats can't really afford another loss. Not unless they like playing the first weekend of the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Only three times in NFL history has a team scored touchdowns on a blocked punt, a punt return, and an interception in the same game. All three times it was the Philadelphia Eagles. (Credit to Fox Sports for that stat.)

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Stephen Gostkowski not only had a perfect onside kick, but his kickoffs were high and deep, leaving the Eagles with poor field position when the team actually allowed him to kick it long.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "They need Gronk and Hightower back, in the worst way."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!

PPS. The Miami Dolphins were the only other team to give up a pass completion to Tom Brady.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Patriots Fall to Broncos 30-24

The Patriots lost in overtime last night to the Denver Broncos, 30-24. The loss leaves them at 10-1, with a measly four-game lead in the division. Unfortunately, it also puts them at risk of losing a first-round bye in the playoffs -- they have just a one-game lead on Denver at this point (since Denver has the tie-breaker).

I should correct my first sentence. The Patriots did not lose in overtime; they lost in regulation -- twice. Two times they had the Broncos beaten and both times they uncharacteristically botched the situation and let Denver back into the game.

The first time was at 21-7 Patriots early in the fourth quarter. The Pats had just held Denver to a three-and-out, but on the punt, the gunner cleanly beat Nate Ebner and rookie receiver Chris Harper did not call for a fair catch. The semi-predictable result, Harper tried to move before the ball got there, fumbled, and 2.5 minutes later is was 21-14.

Before that fumbled punt, the Broncos offense and crowd were completely listless. It looked like the Patriots had them right where they wanted them. But with injuries to the two main punt returners, and an inexperienced wideout filling in, they lost control of the game.

The second time they lost it was on their second-to-last possession of regulation, leading 21-17. With 2:53 left in the game, Tom Brady had just completed a first-down pass to Rob Gronkowski at the Patriots 40 yard line, and Denver had just one timeout.

However, rather than run the clock down to 1:10 and punt it back (if they didn't get the first down), the Patriots threw it three times. Two of those passes fell incomplete, and Gronkowski also fell on one of those plays, adding injury to insult. Well, the two incompletions and lack of a first down set up Denver with 2:31 left, which was plenty of time to score a touchdown to take the lead.

It is rare to see the Patriots self-destruct in this manner. Harper's mistake was more understandable; he's a rookie. But how Bill Belichick and his staff failed to run the ball to wind down the clock -- that is inexcusable. They didn't need to gain a single yard; just run down the clock and see if the newbie at QB could drive 80 yards with no timeouts to win.

No in-depth breakdown this week, folks. The loss obscured the following:

  • Great games from cornerback Logan Ryan, running back Brandon Bolden, defensive tackle Alan Branch, defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard.
  • Improvement from linebacker Jerod Mayo, tight end Scott Chandler, left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and linebacker Jonathan Freeny (12 tackles and a sack).
  • A few nice plays from defensive end Chandler Jones (including a jump-ball interception), cornerback Malcolm Butler, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, and quarterback Tom Brady.
  • And finally, terrible performance containing the Denver running game (32 carries for 179 yards), lousy third-down conversion rate (2 of 13, 15%), and ten Ryan Allen punts, the most by the Patriots in some time (trivia question: when was the last time the Patriots punted 10 or more times in a single game; answer below.)

So where does that leave us? At 10-1, the Pats still have their playoff seeding in their own hands. Win out and they will have the #1 seed in the AFC, and winning out isn't out of the question. Next week Philadelphia comes to town, and they are a real mess right now. The only danger; Chip Kelley has 10 days to prepare; his team played on Thanksgiving day.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Bill Belichick is now 4-5 when facing a quarterback in his second, third, or fourth start in the NFL. It's hard to find situations where he is under .500, but this is surprisingly one of them.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Logan Ryan, even though he got the ticky-tack holding call that allowed the Broncos to take a late lead. Ryan knocked down four passes and made four tackles in the game, and virtually shut out the Broncos' Damarious Thomas, holding him to 1 catch on 13 targets.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The loss isn't fun, but the loss of Gronkowski could seal the deal. The Pats can make the Super Bowl with Amendola, Edelman, and LaFell. But they probably can't win it without Gronk."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-1!

PPS. Trivia Answer: Ryan Allen booted 11 punts in his second game with the Patriots, a 13-10 victory over the Jets on September 12, 2013.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Patriots Outlast Bills for 20-13 Win

The Patriots outlasted the Bills in a 20-13 slugfest in Foxboro. The win earned New England a five-game lead in the division with just six games to go. They also have a two-game lead for the #1 playoff seed. This Sunday it's the Broncos in Denver for a 8:30pm tilt. A victory there could win the division before November comes to a close, but only if the Jets lose, too.

When you're filling out your holiday cards this year, make sure to thank the Pats defense for this win. While the offensive line sleepwalked through the game, the defense put the clamps on in the second half to secure the victory. With the game in the balance, they forced three 3-and-outs, one 4-and-out, and only gave up 32 yards on 9 plays to end the game.

This was significant because in the first half, the Patriots best plays were Bills penalties and dropped passes. They could easily have trailed at the half, but Buffalo mistakes open the door to a 10-3 halftime lead. And when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yarder to open the third quarter, the Bills marched right down the field to tie the game.

That is when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's adjustments took hold, clamping down on the running game and closing the pocket, while pressing the receivers and contesting every ball thrown.

The defensive line did a great job against inside runs. Unfortunately, it took them a half to figure out that the Bills could run to the outside, after they'd been beaten repeatedly, especially to the defensive right. Rob Ninkovich couldn't hold the edge, and without linebacker Jamie Collins to fly to the ball, the Bills got 36 of their 50 rushing yards to Ninkovich's side -- and not a single run that direction went for a loss. (Note: Ninkovich did have 1.5 sacks and a QB hit, so it wasn't all bad.)

In the second half it was a different story. The Pats reemphasized holding the edge, forcing runs to their huge interior linemen and linebackers. Jabaal Sheard had an excellent game, with 5 tackles, a forced fumble, and a QB hit. And the two young guys inside, rookie Malcom Brown (3 tackles) and second-year player Dominique Easley (2 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 2 QB hits) cleaned up runs and managed a controlled push of the pocket that pressured the quarterback without letting him escape. And Chandler Jones made a huge tackle for a six-yard loss that forced a Bills punt when the game was still tied.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower recovered nicely from a first half where he was a tick late to most plays. And Jerod Mayo played by far his most snaps this season, ending the game with five tackles (one for a loss). He made some nice plays early on, even knocking down a pass in coverage. And Jonathan Freeney is actually rounding into form well. He's making more plays, and actually had the most tackles of any linebacker (6).

The secondary had two leaders this week: Malcolm Butler against the pass and Logan Ryan was a tackling matching. Butler shut down the Bills best receiver, holding Sammy Watkins to 3 catches for 39 yards and zero touchdowns. Ryan topped the entire defense with nine tackles, and even threw in a pass knockdown. Also, safety Patrick Chung filled in as a third cornerback, which tells you the secondary is much shakier than we thought.

The offensive line had a horrific game. Buffalo used the "amoeba defense," where the front line players don't indicate whether they'll rush the passer or drop into coverage. And it was one free rusher after another that knocked quarterback Tom Brady to the ground play after play. Marcus Cannon not only missed blocks but was responsible for three penalties. Center David Andrews was benched in favor of last year's center, Bryan Stork. And even the return of Sebastian Vollmer couldn't help the Patriots running game, which had just 55 yards through three quarters.

Two of the running backs had a big play or two in the game. James White ran for a touchdown and caught another just before the half. And LeGarrette Blount got enough tough yards in the fourth quarter to help seal the game. But mostly, it was like watching guys in pads run into brick walls -- there just wasn't anywhere to go.

The receivers performed a lot worse with Julian Edelman out, although each contributed at least one big play (sort of like the running backs). Danny Amendola had clutch catches on both touchdown drives, and he caught 9 passes for 117 yards. Rob Gronkowski had a 27-yarder, as did Brandon LaFell. It's going to be tough without Edelman, but time for the newbies to step up.

Finally, quarterback Tom Brady had a rough go of it -- literally. He was clearly confused by some of the defenses, and it didn't help that the O-line let so many free rushers through. I've never seen Brady throw so many balls into the turf because they just weren't in the right play to attack the defense that showed up after the snap.

However, in the end the Patriots won this game with second-half defense and the guts of their quarterback. Brady was hit 10 times and sacked once, but he hung in there for important passes to Amendola, Gronkowski, and White. Brady's pedestrian numbers don't tell the whole story. 20 of 39 for 277 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 INT sounds pretty bad for him. But those numbers look decent when you consider the patchwork O-line and constant pressure.

On special teams, Amendola had two big punt returns, and oddly punter Ryan Allen kicked the ball further into the wind than with it. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yard field goal, but that's hardly a gimme. Sorry his perfect season is over, but kicking with the wind he probably should have hit even that one.

So where does that leave us? 10-for-10 sounds about as good as it could be. The Pats had more injuries yesterday, but they should get Collins back soon, and the O-line is at least getting healthy. A win this Sunday would give the Pats a four-game lead with five weeks to go in the chase for a playoff bye. So this game is huge. (Note: I'll have more on this later this week at FootballNation, so watch out for that.)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Bill Belichick's dominance over the Bills seems to be independent of venue. The average score in Foxboro: Patriots 25.7, Bills 15.2. Average score in Orchard Park: Patriots 28.8, Bills 15.4.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who's in-game adjustments put the clamps on the Bills more and more as the game progressed.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Look, division games are tough, but they are close to winning the AFC East again; that's all that matters."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-0!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pats Comeback Outdoes Giants 27-26

In what will be one of the best games this season, the New England landed one last blow with 1-second left on the clock to turn a likely loss into a 27-26 victory. The win kept the Patriots record perfect, 9-0, putting them four games up in the AFC East on the Jets and Bills, both at 5-4. Next up is a Monday night tilt with the Bills, with a chance to put them five games behind with six games to go in the season.

(Note: this win gives Bill Belichick a 3-3 record against the Giants during his time in New England. Trivia question: name the only other NFL team that does not have a losing record against the Patriots under Bill Belichick. Answer below.)

The game had a series of big plays: an Odell Beckham Jr.'s 87-yard touchdown; a Rob Gronkowski 76-yard touchdown; two strip sacks by the Giants; an important sack by Rob Ninkovich; a strip-sack by Chandler Jones; a soul-sucking interception by the Giants in the red zone; a gut-check drive by Eli Manning for a field goal that put the Giants ahead; a Malcolm Butler knockdown in the end zone on that same drive; a fourth-and-10 conversion throw by Tom Brady; and finally to a 54-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to win it.

Special teams were crucial this week. Not only did Gostkowski win the game at the end, but four of his six kickoffs were touchbacks and his end-of-game squib kick was perfectly executed not to allow the Giants a chance to run a play after that. Punter Ryan Allen averaged 50 yards a kick (and a net of 39.8 yards), and the coverage team never allowed dangerous return man David Harris anything longer than 17 yards.

And the biggest play of the day, the one that brought the Patriots back to life, was Danny Amendola's 82-yard punt return, which would have been a touchdown if he hadn't tripped over a teammate's foot. At the time the Giants led 20-10 and the Patriots looked lifeless and dead in the water. Four plays later it was a three-point game and they had new life.

In the five drives after that return, the Patriots scored 17 points (and had two turnovers, to be fair). In the five drives prior to that return, they'd scored 3 points. That is how much that return meant to the team - it totally transformed them and got their collective heads back into the contest.

Second on the list of groups to thank is the defense. After the Patriots trailed by 10, the defense allowed only 6 more points, forcing three three-and-outs in the process. Oddly none of the individual units played great, even after the second half adjustments. But their situational play was fantastic, getting punts on three drives when New York could have put the game out of reach.

The secondary had a tough first half, allowing over 10 yards per completion and a 137.5 QB rating against them. But they mostly rallied in the second half. Malcolm Butler effectively shut down Beckham Jr. after his initial 87-yard catch, allowing just 3 completions on 11 more targets for only 17 yards. He also had a huge pass breakup when Beckham Jr. almost had what would have been a touchdown (the Giants settled for a field goal). However, Rashaan Melvin (#24 on your scorecard, but no Ty Law, that's for sure) was terrible, giving up play after play as the Giants marched down the field to take the lead late.

Safety Patrick Chung led the team with 10 tackles and he's playing the best football of his Patriots career. Devin McCourty got beaten on the Giants long touchdown pass, and even after that he gave up several sideline passes where he was out of position or late. The last few games have not been among his best.

The linebackers graded out pretty well against the run. But don't ask about their pass coverage; the Giants killed them on short crossing routes all day long. They were led by Dont'a Hightower's nine tackles. Jonathan Freeney was just one behind with eight tackles, and he also knocked down a pass in coverage. And Jerod Mayo looked overmatched at times, but they stayed with the 4-3 and he ended up with four total tackles and more playing time than he's seen all season. Hopefully that signals a return to health for the veteran, because they need him down the stretch.

On the defensive line, rookie Malcom Brown was consistently in on play after play, ending up with 7 tackles, 1 sack (7 yards), and a QB hit. The big plays were made by Rob Ninkovich, who's 13-yard sack knocked New York out of field goal range, and Chandler Jones, who had only 3 tackles but his sack caused a fumble inside the Patriots 20 yard line, saving points at the time.

Injuries to the offensive line are starting cause problems. Three players missed time yesterday, and the team dressed only six O-linemen for the second straight week, including Chris Barker, who couldn't even make their practice squad in September. The result: a Giants team that had 9 sacks in 9 games this year had 3 in this game, and added 5 QB hits, and multiple missed passes caused by pressure.

There's plenty of blame to go around. The only lineman about whom I have nothing bad to say is rookie Shaq Mason, who is a road-grader and great pull-lineman on running plays and does a decent job in pass protection. Most of the pressure yesterday came from the outside, which means a change to two tight-ends might be in order, so the outside rush guys can be chipped at the line or the TEs can stay in to help in pass blocking.

The running backs didn't help in pass protection, with LeGarrette Blount blowing a blitz pickup early and James White getting bowled over trying to pickup another blitz. Early on it appeared the Pats were going run-heavy with Blount, but he ended dup with just 66 yards on 19 carries after they had to throw more to catch up. And White helped with a third-down catch that kept a drive alive. But mostly they missed Dion Lewis again.

Quarterback Tom Brady had some bad throws under pressure, and early in the game missed some chances to audible running plays against light defensive fronts. And at the half you would have thought Manning was the one on the fast-track to an MVP, not Brady. But the Patriots helmsman turned it around when it counted. He started the fourth quarter with a fumble, and then completed 11 of 17 for 187 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 INT, and the final drive for a field goal.

The receivers had a tough time getting open in the first half, but they also came through when it counted. Amendola not only had that punt return, but he had twice as may catches (10) as any other Patriots receiver. He also converted a fourth-down on the final drive and caught the last pass of the day to get them into decent field goal range.

Gronkowski was held mostly in check but converted two first downs and had that 76-yard catch-and-run for a huge touchdown. He was decent in run blocking, though not as dominant as usual against the faster New York ends. The bad news on the receiving front was Julian Edelman leaving the game with an apparent broken foot. Edelman was a mismatch for the Giants; he had four catches in the first quarter alone. And the Patriots don't have anyone to replace him, although Amendola will try. Sadly, that leaves the team with no one to replace Amendola.

The coaching matchup was outstanding. The Giants went long-ball when they had mostly gone with short passes this season. And the biggest difference between this game and past matches is that Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's in-game adjustments put the clamps on teams as the game goes on. His defense got better as the games went on last year, and that pattern has continued this season -- giving the Patriots a chance to come back whenever they get behind.

So where does that leave us? This is the second 9-0 start in Patriots history, but they are only one game into their toughest stretch of the season. Next up is the Bills in Foxboro next Monday, and then the Broncos in Denver after a short week of preparation.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For all the high-powered receiving talent on the field, the only players who caught every pass thrown their way were both Patriots running backs. Blount caught two passes on two targets and White caught one pass on one target.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Malcolm Butler's defense of New York's best receiver earns him this coveted award. Amendola could have been the winner, but it was the defensive stops that allowed the offense the chance to get back into the game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Those damned Giants. If they aren't beating us in the Super Bowl, they are taking 10 years off my life with games like this."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: The Green Bay Packers are 2-2 against the Patriots since Bill Belichick arrived, making them the only team other than the Giants that does not have a losing record.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Patriots Beat Back Washington, 27-10

The Patriots defense dominated again, holding Washington to ten points in a 27-10 victory yesterday. The win keeps the team undefeated at the halfway point, still three games ahead of the Jets for the AFC East lead. Next up is the PITA New York Giants, in the Meadowlands.

The game was another dominant performance by the Patriots defense. The final score should have been 27-3, but for a garbage-time touchdown allowed. They are a half-point behind Denver for the league lead in points allowed (17.9 to 17.4), are seventh in defensive passer rating (83.1), and have given up only two plays of 40+ yards the entire season (3rd in the NFL).

The secondary gave up some big third downs in the first half, but buckled down to shut that down in the final 30 minutes. Logan Ryan got picked on and responded with 6 tackles, 2 passes knocked down, and a gift interception. Malcolm Butler might not be a shutdown corner against the league's best, but he was good enough to hold down the receivers he matched up with yesterday, ending up with 5 tackles and a pass defended himself.

Safety play was a problem two years ago; now the Patriots have a great group of three safeties. The surprise of the group is Patrick Chung, who was better in his return last year and is twice as good this year. His run-stuffing abilities and pass coverage in short zones were both crucial yesterday.

The linebacking corps was down Jamie Collins and it showed. Dont'a Hightower was double-teamed often and that left more work for Jonathan Freeney, who ended up with 4 tackles and a forced fumble. Fortunately Collins' situation was an illness, not an injury. Because longtime starter Jerod Mayo just can't seem to get on the field, and they have very little depth at this position.

It is increasingly difficult to single out defensive linemen because the Patriots rotate so many of them. Chandler Jones got another sack yesterday (and has a league-leading 9.5 for the season), but both he and Rob Ninkovich had trouble holding the edge against the run. This owes partly to not having Collins around to take up more blockers, so here's hoping he comes back soon.

And even though the stat sheet doesn't show it, I thought interior lineman Alan Branch did a nice job clogging the middle and making big plays at key junctures. One example was when Washington was threatening to make it a one-score game in the third quarter, Branch stripped the ball out and it was recovered by Ninkovich. Branch plays every down with high energy, and has slid nicely into the role once held by Vince Wilfork.

On offense it was a heavy dose of running back LeGarrette Blount. He rumbled over and through the Washington defense, gashing it occasionally through the middle and outside, and ending the game with 129 yards on 29 carries and 1 touchdown. Dion Lewis caught 4 passes for 39 yards, had two nice runs, made a terrible decision on an 11-yard loss, and suffered a knee injury in the third quarter. In Lewis' absence, Brandon Bolden came in for an 18-yard touchdown catch that essentially ended the game. If Lewis can't come back soon, expect James White to step into the third-down back role.

Quarterback Tom Brady was off on several throws early (might have been the wind). And unfortunately, the one throw that was right on the money was into the arms of a Washington defender, for Brady's second interception of the season. He settled down after that play, and ended up 26 of 39 for 299 yards, 2 touchdowns, and the 1 INT. His quick release frustrated the defense all day, and they ended up with just 1 QB hit and zero sacks.

Among receivers, Brandon LaFell has the biggest day: 5 catches for 102 yards. He was so wide open on one play that he waited under the under-thrown ball like it was a punt, and the Washington defenders still couldn't catch up to him. Julian Edelman (5 for 55) caught a touchdown, but also fumbled. And Rob Gronkowski actually converted the tough first downs this week.

The best news on the receivers was the distribution: six players with 3+ catches. That's good news, as a multi-headed passing attack is much more difficult to defend.

The Patriots offensive line suffered yet another injury, losing tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a reported concussion. The good news is that starter Bryan Stork returned, and the reviews were decent. Shaq Mason continued his dominant run blocking, but even though Brady was kept clean, the line is showing some issues with outside pass pressure. Might be time to play two tight ends nearer the ball to help with protection.

On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski executed a decent onside kick, which the Patriots recovered. They obviously saw something on film and decided to try it in a live game, because the Pats most definitely didn't need trickery to win this game. Also, Matthew Slater is actually underrated at his job, even though he's been the Pro Bowl as a special teamer. He might go down as the best kick and punt coverage player in NFL history.

So where does that leave us? Well, you can't do much better than 8-0 after eight games, so looking pretty good. The Giants always give the Pats trouble, and they actually lead the NFC East at this point. I suspect the coaching staff would like to paste the Giants, but they need to focus on getting the win and improving their linebacker and offensive line play.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For all you hear about the Patriots offense, they are the only team with a winning record that has held two opponents under 10 points this season (Trivia Question: name the two teams they held to single digits, answer below). Note: they would have had a third such game yesterday except for a garbage-time touchdown.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: At the halfway point of the season, Chandler Jones leads the NFL in sacks. No Patriots player has ever led the NFL in that category during any single season.

Non-Brady MVP: Going out on a limb, I'm choosing Alan Branch, though it's more of a season-long award this time. He's the unsung anchor of the D-line, hardly making a dent on the stat sheet but always impacting the game. With players switching in and out by the play, Branch is the most productive of the interior defensive linemen so far this year. 

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Last year's tough stretch was six games and five dangerous QBs. This year it's the next three games, and one dangerous QB named Manning. And it isn't Peyton :)"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
The Patriots held the Dolphins to 7 points and the Cowboys to 6 points earlier this year.