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!

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