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.