Monday, December 19, 2016

Patriots Get Rare Win In Denver, 16-3

The Patriots beat the hated Broncos 16-3 yesterday, in a game that was closer than the final score indicated. The win runs their record to 12-2, and it gives the Patriots the AFC East title and a first-round by in the playoffs! Next up are the woeful Jets on Saturday, with a chance to cement the overall #1 AFC seed.

All credit to the defense for this win. Four sacks of Denver QB Trevor Siemian, 58 yards rushing allowed, held the Broncos to 2-of-12 (17%) on third-down conversions, and got two turnovers. They hit hard, controlled the line of scrimmage, and shut down dangerous receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Note: the Patriots have given up the fewest points in the NFL this season.

The secondary had the best day of any unit. Corner Logan Ryan led the team with seven tackles, and added a pass defended, another QB pressure, and a huge interception (returned 46 yards). Malcolm Butler shut down Sanders, and safety Devin McCourty had five tackles, a massive hit that forced an important incompletion, and he recovered a fumble. Even Eric Rowe had a decent game, as did Patrick Chung. Overall, the secondary's best game since the Houston rout in week 2.

The defensive line was next on the hit parade. Malcom Brown and Alan Branch controlled the middle of the line, forcing Denver to run outside exclusively, which they don't like to do. The Broncos love cut-back runs, but there weren't any lanes available with those two monsters inside.

Trey Flowers extended his team lead in sacks with two more. He has seven for the year, and has only started six games! His speed is rare for a Patriots inside-lineman, and compares favorably with Chris Long on the outside. Speaking of Long, he disrupted multiple timing throws by forcing the QB to move in the pocket. And Jabaal Sheard looked like his old self, powering through blockers to get a sack and two QB hits.

On the stat line, Kyle Van Noy won the day among linebackers. He had six tackles, including one for a loss, and he forced a fumble. Dont'a Hightower didn't make many plays, but that might have indicated the Broncos running and passing away from him. He didn't appear gimpy or out of position, but his teammates just made more plays than he did.

On offense, the running backs did most of the damage. For the first time this season, LeGarrette Blount wasn't the Patriots leading rusher. That honor went to Dion Lewis, who juked his way to 95 yards on 18 carries (5.3 ypc). He showed the same burst and shiftiness from last season, and his style was the change-up needed to beat the Broncos defensive speed. Fullback James Develin deserves special mention, as he was the lead blocker most of the game for a running attack that kept the Broncos off-balance.

And the Patriots needed the running game, because quarterback Tom Brady started the game 0-6 and had trouble finding open receivers all day. Brady ended up with his lamest stat line of the season, completing only 50% of his passes for 188 yards, zero touchdowns, and a QB rating of just 68.2. But perhaps most important was that he threw no interceptions, protecting the ball to help win the turnover battle. He also used play-action fakes to excellent effect, though offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should have used that even more.

The receivers had trouble getting open, and the team became much too dependent on wideout Julian Edelman. He was targeted 12 times, catching six passes for 75 yards. Brady and James White failed to connect on the first three passes thrown his way, twice it was Brady's fault, and once it was White's. But all of this probably owes to the Broncos insisting the Patriots beat them on the ground, which they were all too happy to do.

The offensive line blocked well on both run and pass plays. In this game, the Broncos had two sacks and five QB hits; in the AFC Championship Game in January, they had four and 20, respectively. Yesterday, tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon contained the outside rush, with chipping help from the tight ends and running backs.

Marcus Cannon did a great job slowing down Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, who registered no sacks or QB hits in the game. The commentators pointed out that Cannon played with his hands down until Miller engaged him, then he'd use his superior strength to push him back or angle him away from Brady. This runs counter to most games, where O-linemen try to hit the defenders first. But it took away Miller's hand-fighting advantage, so it was a great plan and execution by the coaching staff and Cannon.

Special teams earned their name this week. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski continued his improved run with three field goals and angled kickoffs. The coverage unit downed three punts inside the Broncos 20 yard-line, and even came up with a turnover on a muffed fair catch.

So where does that leave us? 12-2 and in the driver's seat for the #1 overall seed in the AFC. Not bad for a team whose starting quarterback was suspended four games to start the season. The Jets game should be another win, but even if the Patriots do win that game, they need a loss or tie by the Raiders to secure the #1 seed.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Logan Ryan turned the tide with his interception and led the team in tackles.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady is 5-3 in games when he posts a sub-70 QB rating without throwing an interception, and all three losses have come against the Miami Dolphins.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Broncos fans should not despair; the last three years in which the Patriots won in Denver, the Broncos made the playoffs. (Trivia question: can you name all three years? Answer below...)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It's the defense that's stepping up now. Giving up just three points on the road against any NFL team is an accomplishment."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
The Broncos made the playoffs in the 2000, 2003, and 2011 seasons, after losing to the Patriots at home each of those years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Patriots Hold On For 30-23 Win Over Ravens

The Patriots dominated Baltimore most of the night, and overcame two special teams turnovers to hold on for a 30-23 win. The victory keeps them a game ahead of Kansas City and Oakland for the #1 overall AFC seed in the playoffs. It also has them three games ahead of second-place Miami in the AFC East, with three games to go. Next week it's a road trip to Denver to face the Broncos.

The game looked like a blowout early in the third quarter, as the Patriots took a 23-3 lead. But Cyrus Jones muffed a punt for a turnover that the Ravens quickly turned into a touchdown. And on the ensuing kickoff, special teams captain Matthew Slater fumbled, giving Baltimore the ball at the Pats 22 yard line, and an easy path to a 23-17 score.

A Ravens field goal made it a three-point affair. And then Brady took the snap at his 21 yard-line, faked a handoff to LeGarrette Blount, and threw a perfect pass deep down the middle to Chris Hogan, who took it the distance and effectively ended the game. Sure, there were more than six minutes left, but Baltimore’s offense was not going to travel the length of the field twice in that little time. Not last night.

The Pats offense looked as sharp as they did against the woeful Rams the week before. They produced over 500 yards of offense, converted 8-of-16 third downs, averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt, had 20 first downs, and the running game went 22 yards over the average against the Ravens.

Quarterback Tom Brady inserted himself into the MVP race again with a resilient game and a stellar stat line: 25 of 38 (65.8%), 406 yards, three touchdowns, and a 116.8 QB rating. His 406 yards were the most against the Ravens this year, and his QB rating was 30 points higher than what Baltimore gives up on average. Brady’s only mistake was a bad one: a red-zone interception that cost the Patriots valuable points before the half.

The receivers were led by Hogan’s five catches for 129 yards and that long touchdown. But more important for the stretch run — for the second consecutive week there were at least five players with 3+ receptions each. This week it was Hogan, Julian Edelman (7), Martellus Bennett (4), Malcolm Mitchell (4), and James White (3). The passing offense has adjusted to the loss of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola by going multiple, and in the past, this multi-pronged style has paid dividends in the post-season.

Running back LeGarrette Blount was his usual workman self: 18 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown. He broke 1,000 yards for the season, and his 14 touchdowns tie the Patriots franchise record for rushing touchdowns in a season. With three games left, he will surely break Curtis Martin’s 20 year-old record.

The defense made timely plays all night long.

Defensive lineman Trey Flowers’ team-leading sixth sack came on a third-down and forced a punt. And the team’s second-leading sack artist, Rob Ninkovich, got one on another third-down, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal. Safety Devin McCourty intercepted an errant Joe Flacco pass, and knocked away a potential big gain on third down to force yet another punt.

But perhaps the biggest play of them all was made by the biggest Patriots defender of them all, 6′ 2″, 315-pound defensive lineman Malcom Brown. He pushed his blocker into the backfield and tackled Ravens back Kenneth Dixon in his own end zone for a safety and an early 2-0 lead. Brown is perhaps the Pats most-improved defender this season, and this play set the defensive tone early.

There were other big plays; the team knocked down four total passes, the new linebacker rotation of Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Rob Ninkovich, and Kyle Van Noy made 23 tackles, and safety Patrick Chung flew all over the field, topping his teammates with nine tackles of his own.

And then there was special teams. No doubt you’ll read just about everywhere that the kicking team almost cost the Patriots the game. If this was college football, these guys would be running the stadium steps all week as punishment. But believe it or not, the special teams helped the Patriots win the game before they nearly gave it away.

Punter Ryan Allen played an MVP-type role, having two of his punts downed inside the two-yard line, one of which was cashed in for the aforementioned safety. Additionally, McClellin hurdled over the Ravens snapper to block a field goal. And the importance of those three points was magnified in a game with a score of 23-20 going into the fourth quarter. Special teams also contained all-time return man Devin Hester, who ended up with 52 total yards.

As for the bad, Jones’ play was awful. He was too busy waving other players away from the short punt get away himself. And whether he thought the ball hit him or not he should have grabbed it when it was sitting at the three yard-line. If he thought it hit him, he needed to get it to retain possession. If he didn't, then he should have picked it up after the Ravens touched it -- it's a basic special teams play that everyone knows, because there is no potential downside if the other team touches it first.

So in either case, Jones screwed up twice on the same play. An all-around horrific play by Jones, who should not return kicks for the rest of the season.

Slater’s mistake was forgetting the game situation. He caught the kickoff at the one yard-line, so he had to return it. But there was no reason to plow into a pile at the 20 yard-line, trying to get a few more yards. Slater should have known that with a 13-point lead and the game in control, those extra yards were meaningless compared with possession of the ball. It’s at least his third special teams mistake this season, and it’s time for him to button up these problems before they cost the team a game down the stretch, or worse, in the playoffs.

Without these two mistakes, pundits would have praised the Patriots special teams. They might have even given them credit for the win. But the mistakes happened, and given that they nearly did lose the game, it’s important for the the coaches to re-emphasize good decision-making going forward.

Two thoughts on the coaching this year. First, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done an amazing job of rebuilding the linebacker corps with the loss of 2015 starters Jamie Collins and Jonathan Freeney. He's coached-up and integrated cast-offs from the NFC North (McClellin and Van Noy), a rookie (Elandon Roberts), and a converted defensive end (Ninkovich). It's still not perfect, but it looked like a disaster three weeks ago.

Secondly, there isn't enough praise in the world for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The line continues to excel at run blocking, despite losing one of the best run-blocking tight ends in Rob Gronkowski. I didn't think they'd be able to run the ball effectively without Gronk, and I was wrong. The Ravens run D is the real deal, and the running backs averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

So where does that leave us? The Patriots 11-2 record has them a game ahead of Kansas City and Oakland for the #1 overall playoff seed in the AFC. They also hold a three-game division lead over Miami with three games to go, and appear all but certain to get at least one home playoff game once the division is sewn up.

The offense is playing as well as they did before Gronk’s injury, and the front seven on defense has settled on a rotation that works pretty well. Ravens offensive mistakes helped out a bit last night, but overall the Pats defense has played as well as could be expected with all the turnover and shifting of players. Or perhaps you didn’t notice they’ve given up the fewest points in the AFC :)

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: The entire offensive line, and O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. 95 yards rushing, 4.7 yards per carry for the running backs, and just one sack of Brady against one of the best front sevens in the league.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Despite the press clippings, the Ravens are now 1-8 versus the Patriots in the regular season.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: It’s not Patriots related, but Jeff Fisher tied Dan Reeves for the most losses by a head coach in NFL history with 165. The oddity: both men were fired after their 165th loss, and those firings both took place with three games left in their respective seasons.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I guess this is why Belichick stresses playing well in all three phases of the game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-2!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Patriots Cruise to 26-10 Win Over Rams

The Patriots took apart the Rams yesterday, beating them 26-10, though it wasn't really that close. The Pats 10-2 record is good enough to lead the AFC and gives them a three-game lead in the division over the 7-5 Dolphins. The Ravens come to town next Monday for a battle of division leaders in Foxaboro.

The Rams offense is pretty bad, and they compounded their problems with key dropped passes and a ton of penalties. And that also meant giving the ball back to the Patriots offense, which was efficient and deadly, even without tight end Rob Gronkowski (out for the year).

Honestly the Rams put up so little fight, there wasn't as much to analyze or learn from this game. But here are a few things to know.

The Patriots ground game remains solid, even without #87 blocking on the line. Running backs LeGarrette Blount (18 carries for 88 yards), Dion Lewis (5 for 27), and James White (3 for 17) got extra yards by using outside seal blocks by tight ends and receivers. Their 133 yards dwarfed the Rams' 36, and they seemed to be able to run at will.

The offensive line obviously had a great game, blocking for the run and keeping the quarterback pretty clean. Brady was hit four times but never sacked. One concerning statistic is Brady's 5.8 yards per attempt, which is the second-worst of the season, after last week versus the Jets. Obviously it hurts to lose the Gronkowski deep threat.

However, Tom was plenty good enough to earn the 201st victory of his stellar career.  It's quite an achievement; one that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. In fact, Belichick and Brady have been so good, the Patriots have more wins than any other original AFC franchise. Let *that* sink in for a moment!

As for yesterday, the receivers were outstanding. Julian Edelman always came through on third-down (8 catches for 101 yards), and Malcolm Mitchell was a revelation: 8 catches for 82 yards, including outs, slants, and back-shoulder catches. The Pats replaced Gronk by having seven receivers make at least four catches -- and they are always more dangerous when they spread the ball around.

The defensive coordinator finally called some exotic blitzes, sending linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks at rookie QB Jared Goff And the Patriots players showed they could make that work. The results were impressive: 1 of 12 on third-down conversions, 162 total yards, 3.5 yards per pass attempt, 4 sacks (35 yards), and two interceptions.

There is some interesting stuff going on at linebacker. The Patriots appeared to play DE Jabaal Sheard at 'backer a few times, to great effect. He knocked away three passes and somehow was more effective when he rushed the passer. This also allowed Rob Ninkovich to play more at DE, and he delivered, with a sack, a tackle for a loss, two QB hits, and multiple QB pressures.

The team still hasn't settled on a rotation at linebacker, but it appears Shea McClellin (six tackles and a sack) and Kyle Van Noy (interception) will work with Dont'a Hightower for the time being. Early fave Elandon Roberts seems to have fallen out of favor.

The secondary had a great game. Logan Ryan blitzed twice, getting a sack and a QB hit. Malcolm Butler knocked down three passes and had an athletic interception. And safety Devin McCourty knocked down two passes.

Even kicker Stephen Gostkowski shook off his recent woes and put four field goals right down the middle, along with two extra points.

Quick Hits:
  • Martellus Bennett limped around most of the day. Given that the game was in hand by the half, and he's their last tight end, he probably should have sat after intermission.
  • Great overall play led to the Patriots dominating time of possession: 37:57 to 22:03.
  • Cyrus Jones had another fumble on special teams; you might have seen the last of him in the kicking game for a while.
  • The Patriots more than doubled-up the Rams in first downs (4 to 1), total yards (402 to 162), and sacks (4 to 0). But in fairness, the Rams doubled-up the Patriots in one area -- penalties committed (8 to 4).
So where does that leave us? The Pats cruised in this one; next Monday against the Ravens will be a better test. Their 10-2 record gives them a three-game lead in the division with four games to play, so it appears they'll be at least one playoff game in Foxboro this year.

Non-Brady MVP of the game: Malcolm Mitchell snags this award for the first time in his young career. Very impressed with his grasp of the offense and his precise route-running.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: To underscore how dominant the Patriots were, their defense had to make just 40 tackles. The Rams made 72.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Aggregate score of last three times these two head coaches faced each other: Belichick 130, Fisher 17.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Now that the warmup is over, it's on the the real thing next Monday!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!