Monday, December 18, 2017

Patriots Top Steelers 27-24 In Wildest Finish This Season

Games like this are why we keep coming back to the NFL. The Patriots barely eked out a 27-24 win in Pittsburgh yesterday, sealing the win with an interception in the end zone! The victory won them the division, and most importantly, gave them the inside track on the overall #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next week the Buffalo Bills visit Foxboro, with the Pats needing a win to keep their playoff status in their own hands.

Pittsburgh changed up their defensive scheme this week, playing more man coverage and rushing just four players at Tom Brady. It's notable because they haven't done much different over the years, but it appears they finally figured out that a soft zone isn't the way to slow down the Patriots offense. The plan worked pretty well for most of the game, but in the second half the Pats beat that coverage by going to all-universe tight end Rob Gronkowski for big chunk plays.

But in the end, it was the Steelers incompetence that cost them the win. The Patriots scored 11 straight points to take a three-point lead. But Pittsburgh roared back, riding a long reception to a first-down at the Pats ten-yard line, with a chance to tie with a field goal or win with a touchdown. Then the wheels fell off:
  • An apparent touchdown was apparently bobbled as tight end Jesse James went to the ground, so it was ruled incomplete upon review.
  • A pass to receiver Darius Heyward-Bey was short of the end zone, but Heyward-Bey didn't get out of bounds, so the clock continued to run.
  • QB Ben Roethlisberger rushed his team to the line for one last shot at a touchdown before a field goal attempt for the tie.
  • Instead of throwing a fade (as suggested by commentator Tony Romo at the time), Roethlisberger tried to hit a man over the middle. The pass was broken up by Pats corner Eric Rowe, and intercepted by safety Duron Harmon.
It's not the worst loss in the annals of the league; but it shows once again that unprepared teams have trouble closing out games against prepared ones. The Steelers have more talent on the field, but they didn't close out a home game because they got too conservative with a chance to run clock and they melted down when a busted play gave them a chance to end it in regulation.

It certainly wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for the Patriots. They should always have been ready for the change in defensive scheme, but it took about 35 minutes of game time to figure out how to attack it. They went 3-of-9 on third-down conversions, which makes them 3-of-20 in their last two games (looks like a 15% success rate). That has to change if they expect to succeed in the playoffs. And of course, they missed another extra point, although this one was more on the long-snapper than kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

However, it's always hard to argue with the results. Even head coach Bill Belichick seemed to bend to the gravity of the situation, going for a fourth-down conversion on the first drive of the second half because he knew field goals probably wouldn't do it on a day like this. So without delving in too deep, here are some ups and downs from the game.

Brady didn't play his best game, but he bounced back in style. His long throws were mostly money yesterday; he completed them to receiver Brandin Cooks and Gronkowski. Gronk had two catches for 33 yards in the first half but caught fire (and everything thrown his way) in the second half: 7 grabs for 155 yards. And he made an amazing catch leaning down to snag the ball just inches from the ground.

Defensive lineman Trey Flowers was obviously what they were missing on defense. Five tackles, 0.5 sacks, and three QB hits tell you he was disruptive. And he barely missed several other sacks, including a strip-sack that Roethlisberger barely worked out of.

On the other hand, linebacker Elandon Roberts was obviously not what they were missing on defense. He read run correctly on multiple plays where he either rushed the wrong lane or whiffed on the tackle. He did make a play or two, but his inconsistency really hurts with the team down so much talent at LB. Probably no one ever thought "If we could just get Kyle Van Noy back" would be a rallying cry, but... well, here we are.

In the secondary, corner Stephon Gilmore did pretty well in coverage, but his run force leaves a lot to be desired. And safety Devin McCourty had probably his worst game of the year; taking bad angles on a few long running plays and providing just about nothing in the way of help for his corners. Not a good day for the secondary, especially when you consider the up-and-down performances of corners Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe. (Although I did like the performance of safety Patrick Chung.)

The coaches simply took too long to get untracked. Once they started exploiting Gronkowski in man coverage the offense started humming. But it took until the half, when it should have been implemented in the second quarter.

So where does that leave us? 11-3 and atop the AFC, sorta rhymes, doesn't it? If the Pats win out, then the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC runs through Foxboro. And it would probably help if you gave your 40 year-old quarterback an extra week of rest toward the end of the season.

Biggest On-going Issue: It could always be the linebackers, but the lack of receiving threats is starting to concern me. Yesterday Gronkowski (9) and Cooks (4) were the only Pats players with more than two receptions. The team needs more production out of Amendola and the running backs, just to make other teams defend more players.

It was good to see newcomer Kenny Britt make a contribution. And it was also nice to see he was upset with himself for not getting the first down on his one reception. But his limited time with the playbook and the team makes him an unlikely candidate to step up in any meaningful way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gronkowski. Without his ability to get separation and make circus catches, the Pats wouldn't have been close enough to win at the end.

Statistical Oddity: Rob Gronkowski continued his success against Pittsburgh yesterday. His average in six games against them is: 6.5 catches, 111 yards, 22.8 yards per catch, 1.3 touchdowns. Might want to double-team him someday -- maybe the next time you play. (Trivia question: name the only team against which Gronkowski has higher averages in three of those four categories; answer below.) 

Water-cooler Wisdom: "If you don't like the catch rule, talk to the NFL; but that was not a catch."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
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In his one game against the Rams, Gronkowski had 8 catches for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Patriots Dominate 2nd Half, Win Going Away, 23-3

The Patriots annual pseudo-bye in Buffalo ended as it always does, with a Patriots win, this time 23-3 over the .500 Bills. The win opens up a four-game lead in the division with four games to go, though they haven't quite clinched the AFC East yet, due to tiebreakers. And pending the Pittsburgh Monday Night game, it will at least keep them tied with the Steelers for the AFC #1 playoff seed.

If there are horses for courses, the Patriots under Bill Belichick were built to dominate the Bills. Since the head coach arrived, the Pats are 35-5 against Buffalo, including 16-2 in Orchard Park! In fact, Tom Brady 14 wins in Buffalo ties him for the most by any QB in that stadium since 2001. And yes, that includes Bills QBs, even though they play there eight times a year and Brady only gets one shot at it a season. (Trivia question: Can you name the only Bills quarterback with 14 home wins since 2001? Answer below.)

As for yesterday's game, the Bills played tough for a half, limiting the number of possessions and holding the Patriots to nine points. But they had a very badly thrown (and badly timed) red zone interception on their opening drive, and their QB also overthrew a bunch of open receivers, while some receivers dropped passes right in their hands.

Then came the second half; which the Patriots won 14-0. In fact, for how close the game was early on, Belichick's charges scored on five of their first six possessions in the game. And even though the passing game was stalled, they ran for 130 yards in the first 30 minutes, not half bad.

The star of the game was tight end Rob Gronkowski. He had a couple of monster blocks in the running game, and also had nine catches for 147 yards. His performance proved once and for all what I've said for years: the Pats should run with Gronk blocking because it makes him soooo much more effective in the passing game. When defenders don't know if he fires off the line to block or to run a route, that moment of hesitation is all he and Brady need to gash them with either the run or pass. It's more unstoppable than flanking him out wide on a corner, and they should use it, frankly until he retires.

The other receivers were nondescript, with running backs totaling seven receptions and the rest of the team notching just five. Speaking of backs, Dion Lewis is just electric with the ball, forcing misses on first contact about 75% of the time. He had 92 yards on 15 carries, while fellow back Rex Burkhead got 78 yards on 12 carries. (Before you do the math, that is a very, very healthy 6.1 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively.)

And the 191 yards on the ground illustrated the great performance of the offensive line. When they weren't committing penalties (three on the O-line, four total false-start penalties -- unacceptable!), Shaq Mason and David Andrews made great pull blocks and created gaps right up the middle or inside the tackles. Mason played his best game of the year, and even struggling Nate Solder did some nice work (though not consistent enough).

Brady was saved his usual pummeling because the run game was so effective. Buffalo had three sacks and five QB hits, and that total of eight hits is much lower than any of the last few games. His pedestrian 82.4 QB rating owes mostly to his one interception (which should have been nullified by three penalties on the Bills). But to complete 70% of his passes for the game after only 57% in the first half is testament to his improvement after the break.

The defense played very well, led by former Bills corner Stephon Gilmore and former Bills practice squad linebacker Eric Lee. Gilmore knocked down two passes and provided tight coverage. Lee dominate his former team: 4 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 passes defended, and 1 huge interception.

He might be what the linebacking corps needed, as they continue to be short on talent and energy. David Harris just can't make enough plays in the running game (and can't cover running backs), and Elandon Roberts seems to be repeating the same pattern from last year: start strong and fade later in the year. 

On the line, the return of Malcom Brown made a big difference in the run; he is a lineman who regularly totals 3+ tackles a game, which really is a lot for a Belichick defense. If only the front seven contained Tyrod Taylor in the pocket, this would have been a truly dominant performance. He scrambled three times, and each time he converted a third-down to extend the drive.

But overall it's tough to find fault when you only give up three points.

So where does that leave us? 10-2 and waiting to see if we open up a lead over Pittsburgh tomorrow night. The rest of the AFC seems to have ceded the #1 and #2 seeds to the two teams, so it's a matter of jockeying for the poll position. On the injury front, the Patriots really need to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon back at full strength. The linebackers struggle without Van Noy, and you could see the difference in O-line play with the return of David Andrews at center.

Biggest On-Going Issue (a new weekly item): Earlier in the year the offensive pass distribution was great, with multiple receivers/backs getting three or more receptions in many of the games. However, injuries have, of late, set the team back there. The Pats had just three such receivers yesterday and two the week before against Miami.

Maybe it's just that the division rivals who know the Pats tendencies well enough to combat the diverse passing attack. But they've had this pattern before, and it can come back to haunt them in the playoffs, when teams are more adept at shutting down your favorite targets.

Non-Brady MVP: Rob Gronkowski, a monster game.

Statistical Oddity: In honor of Gronkowski, note that he has only fumbled three times in his career, and the last time he lost a fumble was five years (and 69 games) ago in 2012. He might not be durable, but when he plays, he is amazingly dependable.

Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Same old story in Buffalo, just a few new faces to pound into the dirt."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Believe it or not, the only Bills QB with as many wins as Brady in Buffalo since 2001 is Drew Bledsoe, who won 14 homes games in three seasons after being traded there in 2002.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Pats Handle Dolphins 35-17, Control AFC East

In a game that resembled the Patriots last two contests, this one was no contest: a 35-17 victory over the overwhelmed Dolphins. The win puts New England at 9-2, and gives them a three-game lead in the AFC East with five games to play. Next up is a trip to Buffalo, in what is a must-win if the 6-5 Bills expect to contend for a division crown.

As with the last two games, there just wasn't a lot to learn in this one. The Patriots controlled the game from the start, and if not for two turnovers, it would have been a complete laugher, just like the wins over Denver and Oakland. But there were some interesting wrinkles in this one, so here goes...

The running backs have gone from a five-headed monster to just two heads: Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. Lewis ran for 112 yards, Burkhead for 50, and the rest of the RBs had 13 total. And it's the third week in a row. Against the Raiders it was Lewis/Burkhead 66 yards, James White 13, and versus the Broncos it was Lewis/Burkhead 91, White 7.

Given that the ratio holds in the passing game, too, it appears they have settled on a rotation. The big question is Lewis' health. He's had only one injury with the Patriots, but it was a huge one; an ACL tear that cost him an entire year. He is smaller, so it probably makes sense to spell him with James White to keep him healthy and fresh for the stretch run.

Speaking of White, the team did something interesting with him this week. When he was assigned blitz pickup, he moved up three yards so he could take on defenders before they got a running start. White struggled picking up the pass rush against Oakland, so this probably makes sense. However, it means he can't be used as a runner out of the shotgun, which limits his effectiveness. I'll keep an eye on that the next few weeks; it's a crutch he's never needed before, and it makes him more one-dimensional.

As for the offense in general, apparently Miami defensive end Ndamukong Suh is right; the only way to get Tom Brady to make mistakes is to hit him, a lot. He was sacked once and hit eight other times, and he did make some mistakes (a bad interception, over and under throwing players a few times). Although in fairness, he made some great throws into tight coverage, especially near the goal line (one reason he ended up with four TDs).

Brady was hit so many times mostly because the offensive line didn't hold up particularly well. Yesterday they lost LaAdrian Waddle to injury (and he himself was playing because of an injury to another starter), and on the next play Cameron Fleming gave up a sack that forced a punt. Replacement center Ted Karras snapped the ball early, resulting in a fumble return for touchdown by Miami.

Usually offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can make almost any situation work. But it appears there is a limit to magic; and perhaps three missing starters is just too much to bear. Especially when left tackle Nate Solder is having a down year, although he played better yesterday.

In the defensive secondary, the Pats employed an interesting twist; they had their third corner, Jonathan Jones, cover the Dolphins #1 receiver with safety help. Jones followed Jarvis Landry around all day, mostly tackling him after catches, which is one reason he led the team with nine tackles.

Historically, this strategy has involved having the #2 corner cover the other team's best receiver with safety help. So this appears to be either a shot at #2 corner Malcolm Butler, an acknowledgement that Landry just isn't that dangerous (or that his QB isn't), or an expression of confidence that they can slow down #1 receivers with even their third corner. Whatever the case, it was interesting to watch that defense deployed.

At linebacker, Elandon Roberts looks bigger than last year but plays just as fast. When he guesses pass/run correctly, he can be a real force. But when he is wrong, or when he chooses the wrong place to help, he looks completely lost. Yesterday he looked great: 4 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 QB hits.

The biggest problem at linebacker is the team literally has no one who is even above average in pass coverage. Longtime Jets linebacker David Harris has played better lately, but he's good against the run and junk in coverage. Same goes for Kyle Van Noy (well... he's a little better in pass coverage, as long as it's a pretty short pass).

The only team that can exploit this weakness for the remainder of the regular season is the Steelers, and there's no guarantee they will bother -- they like to establish the run, while the Patriots get out to a 14- or 21-point lead. It's just what they do.

The point is, the Patriots are likely to end up with a great record and good playoff positioning. But once they get to the post-season, there will be multiple teams that can exploit poor pass coverage by linebackers. So we might not know if they are vulnerable until it's too late. Stay tuned; I'll do my best to watch for signs of improvement here.

So where does that leave us? Riding high at 9-2, and rooting for a Green Bay victory over Pittsburgh tonight that would put us atop the AFC alone. Next week in Buffalo would look like a tough game on the face of it. But historically the Patriots have played Buffalo tougher there than at Gillette Stadium. So expect a close game early that turns in the Patriots favor after the half.

Non-Brady MVP: Trey Flowers, who notched 2 sacks (for 16 yards), 2 QB hits, and 4 tackles. Same statline as Roberts, but he was more consistent throughout the game. (I almost gave it to Stephon Gilmore, but he let Duron Harmon take his second interception, so he only got credit for one.)

Statistical Oddity: For the third straight year, the Patriots have more than one player with a quarterback rating of over the century mark: Brady is at 111.7 and Brian Hoyer is at 118.1. The previous two years it was Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. (Trivia question: prior to 2015, can you name the last year that the Pats could make this boast, and which players were involved? Answer below.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Honestly, what would big mouth Ndamukong Suh know about beating Tom Brady? He's 1-6 against him all-time."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
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In 2011, both Tom Brady (105.6) and Brian Hoyer (118.7) topped 100 in QB rating for the Patriots. Ironical, isn't it :)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Patriots Continue To Roll, 33-8 Over The Raiders

The Patriots Crazy Train keeps on rolling along, notching a 33-8 rout of the Raiders yesterday in Mexico City. The win keeps them tied with 8-2 Pittsburgh for the first playoff spot in the AFC, and coupled with Buffalo's loss, they now have a three-game lead in the division. Next up the Dolphins come north to play on Sunday.

This will be one of the shortest entries in quite some time. There just wasn't much to learn from this game. If you like shorter write-ups, please send your thanks to Jack Del Rio, head coach of the Raiders. He just won't change his defense, and Tom Brady roasts him almost every time they face each other. (There are details in this entry from a few years ago, scroll down to "Factor #4": link.)

And not only does Brady destroy Del Rio defenses, no one is better in international games than the G.O.A.T. (Trivia Question: name the only game Brady has lost to a Del Rio defense; answer below.) Here are his numbers in three games outside of the U.S. (two in London):

76 of 104 (73%), 951 yards, 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a 125.1 QB rating. He is 3-0 in those games, with an aggregate score of 113-22. Maybe the Pats should move to London; Brady would retire the MVP trophy if they played half their games across the pond.

Another player who excels in international games is kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He has never missed a kick in that situation; here are his numbers in three games outside the U.S.:

14 of 14 successful extra points, and 5 of 5 successful field goals, including a franchise record 62-yard boot yesterday. He also booted the ball through the end zone on six of his seven kickoffs in the game. And just for symmetry, he kicked one short enough for Oakland to return it, and they still ended up on their 25 yard line.

Not much else to say. Every time Oakland had a chance to get back in the game, their receivers dropped easy passes, or they committed an untimely penalty or turnover.

Once again, a disorganized team was outclassed by the Pats in a game outside the country. Not sure why other teams still can't figure out how to handle it. But it effectively gives the Patriots a second Bye week, and that's probably just fine with the team.

So where does that leave us? 8-2 and sitting pretty for a first-round playoff bye. Because of their loss to Kansas City, they really have a one-game lead on them. And by virtue of their better conference record, they hold the tie-breaker over the 7-3 Jaguars, too.

Non-Brady MVP: Receiver Brandin Cooks, who caught six passes for 143 yards and a 64-yard touchdown.

Statistical Oddity: Someone might want to notify Del Rio that Cooks has his number almost as much as Brady does. He has played the Raiders in each of the last two years. His receiving totals:

  • 6 catches for 143 yards, and a 64-yard touchdown
  • 6 catches for 149 yards, and a 98-yard touchdown 


Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Suddenly 13-3 doesn't look unreasonable."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
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This should have been an easy one; it was the game referenced in the link in this article, the AFC Championship Game in January 2014.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Pats Coast To 41-16 Win Over Denver

In case you went to bed at the half, the Patriots finished off the Broncos last night, 41-16. The win ran their record to 7-2, tied atop the AFC with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are two games clear in the AFC East now, with the division crown looking more inevitable all the time. Next week the Pats take on the reeling Raiders in Mexico City.

The story line today will be how the Patriots special teams totally outplayed Denver's, which led to an easy victory. But that misses the point; special teams was a mismatch to be sure, but the Patriots improving defense and diverse offense outplayed Denver's units as well. All that said, here are some of the special teams highlights...

The Pats kickoff team executed its usual strategy of kicking high/short and covering well. This forced returns (because the ball wasn't in the end zone) and allowed the coverage team to keep the opponent inside the 25 yard line. But when the Broncos tried it, they gave up a 103-yard touchdown to Dion Lewis. And frankly, there's no way they should try that -- it isn't their game, and Lewis had a huge return in the Patriots previous game, too.

Denver also fumbled the Patriots first punt of the night, turning the ball back to the Pats who promptly scored a touchdown. And Pats running back Rex Burkhead blocked another punt. But the last special teams disaster was probably the sweetest of all: a five-yard penalty for too many men on the field, which negated a Pats punt and gave them a first down instead. Naturally the Patriots scored a touchdown on that drive.

On offense the Pats started out by exploiting their running backs in mismatches with Denver linebackers. But by the end of the game, the leading receivers were wideouts and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The final stats were very impressive; quarterback Tom Brady completed passes to nine different receivers, with eight of them catching multiple passes. No team can stop that kind of diversified attack, because no team has enough talent across the board to do it. Denver needed heavy pressure on Brady but had only one sack and four QB hits.

Brady finished 25 of 34 (74%), 266 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 125.4 QB rating. He is currently the highest rated quarterback by Pro Football Focus, a site that breaks down the All-22 video of every play in every game. Brady's longest pass was 27 yards, but the short- to medium-passes over the middle were open early and often. The team never bothered to attack the outside corners, the strength of the Broncos defense.

The running game was effective in spurts, with Lewis (14 carries for 55 yards, and 1 TD) and Burkhead (10 of 36) carrying the bulk of the load. Most impressive was the blocking of the offensive line and especially fullback James Develin. He blasted linebackers multiple times, and never once in the game whiffed entirely on a block. A stellar game for an under-appreciated player.

The O-line deserves a lot of credit for keeping Brady clean and blocking well on running plays. But you should temper your enthusiasm a bit; the lack of pressure on Brady was largely due to quick-release passes. He did stand in the pocket a few times, but he mostly avoided pressure by hitting receivers on-time and in rhythm to keep the Denver rush at bay.

The Pats secondary didn't always look great. Corner Malcolm Butler gave up a few big plays to Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, with whom he was matched up one-on-one all night. It was a tough draw for him, but he battled all game long and made more plays later in the game to stop third-down conversions and force Broncos kicks.

Fellow corner Stephon Gilmore returned from a concussion and played much better. Of course, the defensive scheme was mostly man-coverage, which is his preferred way to play. So it won't be clear how much progress he's made in learning the defense until they play more zone. One other note on the defense: they had six passes defended by six different players. So they are playing very good team defense, at just the right time of year.

At linebacker, David Harris is actually playing better, which is astounding. He was invisible early in the year, but he made plays against both the run and the pass last night. Kyle Van Noy led the team with five tackles, and Elandon Roberts even played well in the absence of Cassius Marsh. I also noticed lineman Trey Flowers dropping into coverage again on a few plays; makes me wonder if they are moving him into Rob Ninkovich's former role as lineman/linebacker.

Speaking of the defensive line, the Pats don't have any supremely talented players there, but they have depth, depth, and more depth. Malcom Brown was out with an injury, but Alan Branch improved his play to make up for it. And they have semi-interchangeable parts all across the line: Lawrence Guy, Branch, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Jr., Flowers, and newly added Ricky Jean Francois. They just keep coming in waves, mostly the same type of player, but fresh every new set of downs.

The coaching was solid if no spectacular. The Patriots obviously used the bye week to put in a few wrinkles with running backs in the passing game, which worked perfectly. But mostly it was a game of making Denver settle for field goals (four of them) while the Pats scored touchdowns.

Not to make light of the defensive coaching -- the Pats have given up 17 or fewer points in each of their last five games. But most any defense would look good against Denver's current offense. It's time for the Broncos to remake their offense, starting with getting a real QB under center.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 isn't bad at all, even better is the two-game cushion in the AFC East. The Patriots play the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a few weeks; that game could determine home field throughout the AFC playoffs. (That's right, I said "Playoffs!")

Non-Brady MVP: Running back Rex Burkhead had some nifty runs, caught a few passes (including a touchdown), and blocked a punt. A pretty good day.

Statistical Oddity: The AFC South is the only NFL division with a first-place tie. The oddity is that the 6-3 Jaguars have a +92 point differential for the season, while the 6-3 Titans are -8 on the year. That's an impressive 100-point difference between two teams with identical records.

And the -8 Titans are technically in first place because they beat the Jags earlier in the year. Tell me *that* isn't an oddity!

Weekly Water-Cooler Wisdom: "With Bennett in the fold, and Burkhead growing into his role, the offense looks unstoppable."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Patriots Keep Rolling With 21-13 Win Over Chargers

Three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Brady beats Rivers. The Pats topped the Chargers 21-13 yesterday, winning their fourth straight game to land atop the AFC East at the halfway mark yet again. And in this game, Tom Brady moved to 7-0 all-time against Philip Rivers, whose only win over the Pats is against Matt Cassel. Next up is the bye week, so smoke 'em if you got 'em.

This game looked worrisome at times, but in the end, the Chargers shot themselves in the foot more often than the Patriots did. Los Angeles missed a field goal, gave up a horrible safety on a botched punt return, wiped out their own touchdown on a penalty, didn't drive inside the Patriots 20 yard line the entire game, and mishandled the clock on their final drive with a chance to tie the game.

All the Patriots did was drop some passes and miss two field goals. So on balance, the less self-destructive team won. It looked a lot like a pre-bye week game for the Pats.

The good news on offense is that the Patriots attack is always better when they force defenders to protect against multiple receivers and types of runners. Here are the numbers for their top five receivers and top two runners yesterday.

Receivers:
Rex Burkhead = 7 catches for 68 yards
James White = 5 for 85
Chris Hogan = 5 for 60
Rob Gronkowski = 5 for 57
Brandin Cooks = 5 for 26
Runners:
Dion Lewis = 15 carries for 44 yards
Mike Gillislee = 11 carries for 34 yards

It wasn't perfect yesterday; there were multiple drops and QB Tom Brady was under far too much pressure for much of the game (three sacks and seven QB hits). But other teams will have a very tough time defending the Patriots if they continue to feature that kind of diversified attack. There's a reason the Pats held the ball almost 37 minutes -- the Chargers couldn't figure out how to get off the field.

On defense, the news was mixed but leaning toward the positive. They blew one play and it went for an 87-yard touchdown run. Aside from that, they got off the field on third downs (30% conversions by L.A.), and they held the Chargers to 57% completions on just 30 attempts. Outside contain is still a problem against the run, as is the inside defense when Malcom Brown isn't in there (he missed yesterday's game ).

But linebackers Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and David Harris all played their best games of the year. And Johnson Bademosi is rounding into a good corner, which will help with depth once starters Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore return from injuries. Not saying the defense is about to become a juggernaut; but they held their last four opponents to 14, 17, 7, and 13 points.

There was a miscommunication between corner Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty on a touchdown pass, so there is obviously there is work to do. And I still think the lack of talent at linebacker will come back to haunt them if they make the playoffs. But there are encouraging signs.

And then there is special teams. First the good news; Brandon King and Jonathan Jones combined on a tackle in the end zone that scored a safety. And Jones almost stole another punt when he pushed a Chargers blocker into his own man trying for a fair catch.

However, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals, although they were well-rounded failures: each from 43 yards, each from a different hashmark, and each from a different end of the field. He visited the locker room in the middle of the first half, but there was no follow-up on that from the broadcast crew -- so we don't know if his problems were injury-related.

But I'll suggest for the umpteenth time that they replace the special teams coach with a real special teams coach. The current guy (Joe Judge) was promoted from within and he appears to be out of his depth in trying to get Gostkowski right again. None of his misses have cost the team this year. But things are magnified in the playoffs; lest we forget they lost an AFC Championship Game four seasons ago partially because Gostkowski missed an extra point.

The coaching was decent in this game. Josh McDaniels abandoned the run too quickly a few times in the game, but fortunately the Pats defense held the Chargers down and the Patriots got back to it. The runs went mostly up the middle, excellent game-planning to take away the outside rush. Just wish they'd stuck with it more consistently.

And linebackers coach Brian Flores (last year's Coach Of The Year, at least in this space) is doing a good job making a more cohesive unit out of new and returning players. It isn't perfect yet -- Cassius Marsh still needs help, he gave up the fourth-down scramble last week and this week the 87-yard touchdown was run outside to his contain this week. But if last year is any indication, the linebackers will be solid by year's end.

Also, take a bow whomever is coaching Bademosi; quite the out-of-nowhere story this season.

So where does that leave us? 6-2 and ahead in the entire AFC is a good place to be. Oh sure, the Chiefs are 6-2 and hold the tiebreaker, but stay calm -- Andy Reid is the coach in KC; he'll be at least a game behind the Patriots by the end of the season.

Non-Brady MVP: Running back Rex Burkhead gets it this week, for his complimentary game of running and catching the ball well.

Statistical Oddity: To start the season, the Patriots gave up 300+ yards passing to the first six passers they faced. Since then, they gave up less than 300 yards to Matt Ryan, last year's MVP, and Philip Rivers, currently 10th in all-time passing yardage in NFL history.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: The Patriots held L.A. to just 52 offensive plays, their lowest total of the season. That is becoming quite a habit with the Pats (hello Atlanta Falcons!). (Trivia question: Against one team this calendar year, the Patriots failed to run more offensive plays in two separate games, can you name the team?)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe the Pats will make a trade by Tuesday so we'll have something to talk about during the bye week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Houston Texans tied for number of offensive plays in last year's playoffs (69-69) and ran more than the Patriots in their game earlier this season (71-64).

Monday, October 23, 2017

Patriots Outclass Falcons, 23-7

A funny thing happened on the way to 4-3, the Patriots detoured to 5-2 instead on the strength of a 23-7 beatdown of the Falcons at Gillette Stadium. The win put them atop the AFC East, a half-game ahead of the surprising Buffalo Bills (4-2). Next up is another surprise team, the 3-4 L.A. Chargers, who just shutout the Broncos 21-0.

Sunday night's game was easily the Patriots' best overall performance of the season. Their defense shut down the Atlanta offense for almost 56 minutes. The offense was diverse and efficient. And special teams was great in punt and kickoff coverage and even threw in a blocked field goal!

All three units were true team efforts, no single player really stood out over the unit play. Quarterback Tom Brady had a 121.2 rating, but only dropped back to pass 30 time. He ended up 21 of 29 for an efficient 249 yards and two touchdowns. The only throw that really stood out was his back-shoulder toss to Brandin Cooks; otherwise he simply carved up the Atlanta zone and waited out their man coverages.

The running backs split carries, with Deon Lewis carrying most of the load (13 rushes for 76 yards) and Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead dividing most of the other reps. Lewis and Burkhead impressed the most, the former with quick-hits and a great burst at the second level, and the latter for his speed to the hole and decent running for his first real plays of the season.

The receivers shared the load pretty evenly, as you can see from the receiving numbers: James White (5 catches), Chris Hogan (4), Cooks (4), Danny Amendola (3), and Rob Gronkowski (3) all contributed while none dominated. Although Gronkowski and Hogan get special mention for their blocking in the running attack.

And finally the offensive line started messy in pass protection but shored things up as the game wore on. They were very good run blocking, carving out enough room for 162 yards and a 4.5 average yards per carry. Nate Solder is still struggling, but the rest of the line looked very good, especially the interior.

All three levels of the defense were interesting to watch. The defensive line stuffed what is a good Falcons running attack, limiting them to 30 yards in the first half. Emerging star Trey Flowers continues to make impact plays (6 tackles and a huge penetration on the Falcons fourth-down at the goal line). And rookies Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. made good plays and held up well, while veteran Lawrence Guy gets better every week.

At linebacker, Cassius Marsh played better in pass coverage and Kyle Van Noy led the team in tackles (7); in fact, he made the tackle on the aforementioned fourth-down stuff at the goal line. If Dont'a Hightower can stay healthy, and Van Noy and Marsh continue to up their game every week, it's more and more likely the Patriots can do something in the playoffs without adding a linebacker via trade.

(Remember that last year I named linebackers coach Brian Flores the Coach of the Year. He molded his 2016 unit with mediocre talent and into a strength by year's end. If he can do that again, he should get serious consideration around the league for a defensive coordinator position this off-season.)

But the secondary might be most interesting of all. Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore were out with injuries, so Malcolm Butler and Johnson Bademosi had to step up against much bigger receivers. And they did! With an assist from safety Patrick Chung, they slowed down the Falcons and made big plays on third- and fourth-downs to stop drives before they got started. Bademosi and Butler were also among the team leaders in tackles, with seven and six, respectively.

When you consider that Jonathan Jones was their second-best corner to start the season, this unit could be a real strength when Rowe and Gilmore return. In fact, Gilmore could find himself riding the pine if he isn't careful, even though he is the highest-paid player on the team.

On special teams, Marsh blocked a field goal, making up for his lost outside contain on fourth-and-eight a few plays earlier. Jones had a great rush another field goal attempt, which might have influenced the kicker to hurry... and the kick doinked off the upright and was no-good. Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs were great, as was the coverage.

The only downer was a Ryan Allen long punt that bounced into the end zone instead of checking up inside the ten yard line. But his other kicks were high enough to force fair catches by Atlanta.

The game was a coaching mismatch, but mostly because Atlanta stunk up the joint. Going for a fourth-down late in the first half was foolish, as was the slow-developing "jet sweep" called near the goal line (it was stuffed for a five-yard loss). But it wasn't just bad coaching by the Falcons; the Patriots had a great plan to stuff the run game and on offense they mixed pass and very effectively.

So where does that leave us? 5-2 is not a bad place to be, especially when you have only two convincing wins (New Orleans and Atlanta) and could easily be 2-5 or 3-4. This week will be an interesting match up, as the Chargers have the talent and some new life of late to give the Pats trouble.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Trey Flowers, for anchoring the defensive line and making plays that didn't show up on the stat sheet but were crucial to shutting out the Falcons for almost the entire game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Both of the winless teams this season have winning records against the Patriots all-time. San Francisco and Cleveland are both 0-7 this year, but the 49ers are 8-5 all time against the Patriots and the Browns are 12-11. (Trivia question: Can you name the only NFL team that has never beaten the Patriots? Answer below.)

Bonus Statistical Oddity: In Super Bowl LI, the Falcons last scored at about 8:30pm Eastern Standard Time. Last night they first scored at 11:15pm EST. So after they took a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, they went 80:20 of game time -- or 261+ days, or 6,266.75 hours -- before scoring again.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats played a great game; they would have beaten just about anyone last night."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Jacksonville Jaguars are 0-7 all-time against the Patriots.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Patriots Outlast Jets 24-17

The Patriots used the mid-game to build a two score lead and held on for a 24-17 win over the Jets in New Jersey. The win put the Pats in first place, a half-game ahead of the 3-2 Bills (who are on a bye). Next up is a Super Bowl rematch against the Falcons at Gillette stadium next Sunday night.

Given my recent absence, I'll try to cover as much as I can from the past few weeks and this game. But suffice it to say there were some signs of progress this week.

For the first time in a while the Patriots defense made good adjustments during the game to shut down an offense that was gashing them. They did the same against Houston, then almost gave the game away late. Yesterday they adjusted and held the Jets to three points on their last eight drives.

The secondary got burned early but came back to clamp down on receivers in the second and third quarters. And this was without big-money free agent Stephon Gilmore or Eric Rowe (insert Nickelback joke here), both out with injuries. Malcolm Butler and Johnson Bademosi weren't perfect, but they mostly improved as the game progressed.

(Although they were helped by New York's curious decision to attack Butler instead of journeyman Bademosi, whom they left alone for most of the day. Perhaps the Patriots kept safety help to Bademosi's side. Not that you'd know it from the broadcast, they didn't have a single illuminating replay the entire game.)

In the first five weeks of the season, New York averaged 111.5 yards per game rushing and 4.5 yards per carry. But Matt Patricia's defense held them to 74 and 3.1 respectively. Good tackling technique and gap control led to five short-yardage stuffs in the last 45 minutes of the game, three of them giving the ball back to the Patriots.

Penalties were down for a change. The Patriots had 12 accepted penalties against Tampa Bay, and they are among the league leaders in most penalties. However, they had just six accepted flags against the Jets. And they didn't have those stupid penalties we'd seen the first quarter of the season: back-to-back roughing the passer calls, back-to-back running into the kicker calls, and calls for too many men on the field or lining up incorrectly. I'm hopeful this is the start of a trend where they get back to disciplined football and don't beat themselves.

The offensive rhythm looked a lot better, with Brady throwing "on time" more often and hitting receivers in stride so they could do damage after the catch. He wasn't perfect, perhaps owing to his left shoulder injury. But he made the plays necessary to keep the team moving and score points. (And between us, a few of his under thrown passes were due to being hit, but don't tell anyone else.)

Brady was protected better in this game. But I can't chalk that up to the O-line; it looked like they were chipping the outside rush with backs and tight ends. That's the wise thing to do, but it doesn't speak to much progress of the O-line, though they were a bit better this week, especially in the running game.

Rob Gronkowski is still a difference-maker, and as I've noted before, he is vastly more effective when the team runs the ball well. The team wouldn't have won without his two touchdowns. And Brandon Cooks looks to be completely in-sync with Brady, as is Chris Hogan. But Phillip Dorsett looks totally useless; he doesn't even fight for the ball when it's about to be intercepted.

One downside from the game was another field goal missed by Stephen Gostkowski (47 yards). His defenders say he is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. But he is not clutch, and he can't be counted on in a big spot. And I reiterate my suggestion from last year: bring in a real special teams coach. Gostkowski thrived under Scott O'Brien, who was a long-time ST coach. Current coach Joe Judge might be in over his head trying to figure out what ails Gostkowski.

So where does that leave us? All in all a good win, but still plenty of room for improvement. 4-2 is not a bad spot to be, especially when you could easily be 2-4. Next week against Atlanta could be a big problem if Gilmore isn't healthy.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: The running game was key this week, so it goes to Deon Lewis, who played a lot more because Mike Gillislee fumbled and was benched for a while.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots offensive has notched an impressive 106.9 passer rating. But their defense has allowed a dreadful 104.4 passer rating. (Trivia question: name the year and the team that gave up the highest defensive passer rating in an NFL season... answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The games against Atlanta, Denver, and Oakland will tell the us a lot more than the Jets game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The 2014 New Orleans Saints allowed a defensive passer rating of 116.2. That's even worse than the 2008 Lions, who went 0-16... blech!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Patriots Defense Restores Order In 36-20 Rout Of Saints

The Patriots righted the ship with a 36-20 victory over the Saints yesterday in New Orleans. The win put them in a tie with Buffalo for second place in the AFC East, trailing the 1-0 Dolphins by a half-game. Next week the Houston Texans come to town, to face the depleted Pats.

The defense improved as the game wore on, giving up just seven points and only one big play after the break. This is more characteristic of the defense under coordinator Matt Patricia, so it appears the missed assignments and big plays of the Kansas City loss might have been an aberration.

It also came with their best linebacker (Dont'a Hightower) out with an injury and their best defensive lineman from last year (Alan Branch) not starting due to a poor performance against KC. The ultimate "next man up" team got its biggest defensive line contribution from a rookie, Deatrich Wise (2 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 quarterback hits).

In the secondary it wasn't big-money Stephon Gilmore or touted vet Malcolm Butler who impressed, but second-year Jonathan Jones, who made two tackles and knocked away two passes, both along the sideline. Safety Patrick Chung played very well, making eight tackles, knocking down one pass, and providing excellent coverage on the Saints' tight ends and running backs in the short zones.

The offense just nailed it in the first quarter: three touchdowns on three drives, with a good mix of running and passing plays, and nice tempo-changing plays thrown in for good measure. Tom Brady still wasn't great, despite having very good numbers. For the second straight game, he laid out too many potential interceptions, including one actual INT where he got bailed out on a penalty call. (The defensive holding call, not the 12-men call.)

The receivers they had looked great. Chris Hogan (5 catches, 78 yards, 1 touchdown) ran both deep and underneath passes, taking on part of the Julian Edelman traditional role. Brandon Cooks looked good in his New Orleans return, and tight end Rob Gronkowski was otherworldly for three quarters (6 for 116 yards, and a 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run). Unfortunately he got injured late in the game; although it's a groin injury, not his back or a broken bone. Might have dodged a bullet on that one.

The downside is the sheer lack of receivers. Both Hogan and Gronkowski were gimpy by game's end, so without Edelman and with Amendola in the concussion protocol, they are left with just Cooks and newcomer Phillip Dorsett (late of the Colts). It'll be tough to patch the offense together this week if Amendola doesn't return.

If the receiving corps is short-handed next week, expect some running backs to take a few snaps each to cover for the missing receivers. After all, they did it this week. James White led the team with eight receptions (85 yards), and Rex Burkhead (3 for 41), Dion Lewis (1 for 11), and James Develin (1 for 16) all lined up at receiver for a few plays.

The backs also did a nice job running the ball. Led by Mike Gillislee (18 carries for 69 yards), they ran for 119 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry average. The O-line also impressed in pass protection, giving up just five QB hits and two sacks. Brady made some of the biggest plays when he had lots of time in the pocket, which happened frequently.

The kicking game is still a work-in-progress. Against KC, they had two penalties for running into the punter, in a row -- first time I've ever witnessed that. Yesterday Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point, and they had him place his kickoffs short to force a return -- but the Saints broke one anyway and the Pats committed a 15-yard penalty on another one.

The punting is impeccable as always. But somehow they have to solidify both the extra points and the kick coverage teams. Mistakes like that have to be corrected by late in the year if the team expects to make the playoffs, or make any noise in the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? Head coach Bill Belichick has said in the past the second game of the year is the most important regular season game. Because if you win the first game, you want to continue the momentum. But if you lose the first one, you need to turn it around fast!

The Pats did that emphatically against the Saints. Next up is Houston, which will be a much tougher test if Amendola and/or Gronkowski can't go.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: I'm going with Chung, who was instrumental in sealing the short zones on defense. New Orleans was 4 of 12 (33%) on third-down conversions; first time in a while they've been that poor.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: This is the fourth season in a row the Saints started the season 0-2. (Trivia question: One other NFL team has also started the last four seasons 0-2, name it... Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It was only the Saints."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
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The Indianapolis Colts have also started each of the last four seasons 0-2. I guess "Suck For Luck" has lingered longer than they thought it would.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Patriots Complete Astonishing Comeback To Win Super Bowl 51

The Patriots actually shocked the world last night, stunning everyone with a 25-point comeback to force overtime, where they won Super Bowl LI 34-28. It was the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history; no team had ever overcome a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit in the postseason. The victory gives the Patriots five world championships under the leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- now the undisputed greatest of all time in their respective fields.

(Trivia question: the 25-point deficit was the largest comeback win of Brady's career. Can you name the team, quarterback, and number of points that was his largest comeback before yesterday? Answer below.)

The first three quarters were forgettable for Pats fans. Atlanta led 28-3 with 18 minutes left, in the game and a lot of that was aided-and-abetted by bad Patriots plays. In the first half, it was LeGarrette Blount's first fumble in 16 games, Tom Brady's first playoff pick-six, piss-poor run defense, and bad play-calling in the red zone. In the third quarter, it was dropped passes, blown coverages, and two special teams mistakes by Stephen Gostkowski (more on those later).

Not to take anything away from Atlanta. Their offensive execution was masterful, as coordinator Kyle Shannahan's plan slowly picked apart the Pats D. They got chunk plays running and passing, and some absolutely sick catches by Julio Jones. They executed well and showed great poise for the first three quarters.

But everything changed in the fourth quarter. After a third-quarter touchdown, the Pats entered the final 15 minutes down by 19. And all they did was score on every drive, blank the Falcons, convert two two-point tries, and double-up time of possession as they methodically worked closer and closer until they tied the game. And in overtime, they won the coin toss and scored yet another touchdown to claim the win

In that fourth quarter, Brady cemented his status as the greatest quarterback to play the game. In the final 19 minutes (including overtime), he went 22 of 29 (77.2%) for 248 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, a QB rating of 112.4, and four straight scoring drives.

Running back James White was the man in the second half, after both Blount and Dion Lewis struggled to contribute. White caught a Super Bowl record 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, and he scored the team's last two touchdowns and added a two-point conversion. He was everything Blount and Lewis weren't: poised, effective, gutty, and clutch.

Among receivers, rookie Malcolm Mitchell proved the indispensable man. He caught five passes in the second half, four of them for important first downs. He and White became Brady's go-to guys as the Falcons doubled Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett. Bennett and Danny Amendola had a few big catches, especially Amendola's important fourth-down conversion on the Pats first touchdown drive, and his quick-out for another TD.

But the catch of the game was a tipped-ball-dive-forward-as-defenders-fall-all-around-you-and-grab-it-just-before-it-touches-the-field-and-control-it-among-defender's-feet-over-the-middle 23-yard catch by Edelman. This was the Pats version of the David Tyree and/or Jermaine Kerse catches of the past.

The offensive line picked a really bad time to have their worst game of the year. Atlanta had five sacks (24 yards), and officially eight QB hits (though they listed it at 15 during the broadcast). The Falcons didn't do any special blitzes, they just overpowered the Pats line, pushing them around in both the pass and run game.

Brady ended up with a SB record for yards and completions, but that was despite the line, not because of them. The best protection Brady had all day was throwing the ball quickly or tiring out the D-line with long drives. Oh, and the running game was mediocre, again testament to how poorly the O-line played.

The real defensive star of this game was coach Matt Patricia (more on him later). But among players, it had to be defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who tied for the team lead with six tackles and had 2.5 sacks (for 26.5 yards in losses), two tackles for loss, and five QB hits all on his own. The rest of the line was invisible on the stat sheet, but Alan Branch played well stuffing the inside runs.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower turned in the defensive play of the game, a strip-sack that gave the Patriots the ball and life in the game. The Patriots scored a touchdown on that possession, making it a one-score game. Other than that, it was a very weak game for the LBs. Elandon Roberts was out of position or overmatched much of the game and Rob Ninkovich couldn't cover the backs out of the backfield. The entire linebacking corps totaled seven tackles; a paltry number for a Patriots defense.

The defensive backs were a real mess for much of the game. But you can't disrespect them too much; they had 25 of the team's 44 tackles. Logan Ryan mostly covered Julio Jones and by game's end, Malcolm Butler had Taylor Gabriel. But the Pats changed coverage multiple times throughout the game, looking for something that worked. They never really shut down Atlanta. Every DB got beaten at some point; though each of them made important plays, too. And with the changes in coverage it's just too difficult to judge who played well without additional film study.

Special teams saw its share of ups and downs. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point and then screwed up a perfectly good onside kick. But he also booted two perfect kickoffs late in the game to pin the Falcons deep and give the Patriots a chance to comeback. In all, he forced five returns and the Falcons averaged just 8.4 yards per return. Oh, and that also speaks very well of the coverage teams.

The coaches had two stars and one underwhelming performance. First, head coach Bill Belichick deserves a lot of credit for not panicking down by 25 points. He just kept his players focused on the task ahead and put his team in position to make progress toward a win.

On defense, Patricia's charges kickstarted the comeback with the strip-sack, and they held the Falcons scoreless for the final 23+ minutes. His defenses always get stingier as the game goes on, and it's a puzzlement why he doesn't get more head-coaching buzz than offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Speaking of McDaniels, he had a poor game for three quarters. His last play-call of the first half was just plain strange (screen pass to Bennett with 11-seconds on the clock). And once again, he got schooled for most of the game by a seasoned NFL defensive coordinator. McDaniels is good at putting together a game plan, but if his first plan doesn't work, it takes him too long to adjust to Plan B.

One last note on the coaching, the Patriots are not Super Bowl champs today without a big mistake by the Falcons coaches. Atlanta had the ball on the Pats 22 yard-line with a first down and 4:40 left in the game. If they take a knee three times, it either runs the clock or takes all of the Pats timeouts. And then they can kick a field goal for a two-score lead.

It's head coaching malpractice to pass the ball there. But that's what they did; leading to a 12-yard sack, a holding call, and eventually, a punt back to the Pats with a one-score lead.

So where does that leave us? Super Bowl Champs, natch! The off-season will start soon enough, but for now, this was a great game that will merit much discussion. And the other discussions will be about where Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots dynasty rank among the all-time greats. In other words, it'll be your favorite week ever!

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: James White, who merited serious MVP consideration.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots are the Super Bowl team to run more than twice as many plays as their opponent. Their 93-46 ratio is the most lopsided in Super Bowl history.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The NFL should stop hating on the Pats and put them in the Super Bowl every year. Every game they play there is great!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 17-2 & 3-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: Three years ago, I was at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots trailed the Peyton Manning-led Broncos 24-0 at halftime. A Denver fan said at the time: "No lead is safe; you guys have God playing quarterback." His hyperbole was not out of line -- the Patriots mounted a furious comeback to force overtime where they won the game. Until last night, that was the biggest comeback of Brady's career.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Patriots Super Bowl Preview

So it's finally here, Super Bowl LI, the game to end all games... until next year. Your Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in what promises to be a high-scoring affair.

Usually in this space you'd see an analysis of the last game the two teams played, with the most important question being if enough had changed to change the outcome. However, the Pats and Falcons last met on the field in September of 2013 -- 28 months ago. And that game will have little bearing on this one; most of the starters are gone on both teams, and the Falcons have an entirely new coaching staff.

So here is a breakdown of what to expect when each team has the ball, key players in each phase of the game, some additional factors, and a completely useless prediction.

When the Patriots have the ball

The Patriots offense can do whatever it wants. Atlanta ranked 11th in yards allowed per pass, 22nd in defensive passer rating, 25th in yards allowed per rush, and were a surprising 27th in points allowed. It doesn't look like they'll be stopping the Patriots third-ranked scoring offense very often.

More interesting is how the Patriots will likely attack on offense. Some expect a heavy dose of heavy formations, with extra offensive linemen and tight ends and running back LeGarrette Blount. Others predict a balance of run-pass, with James White and Dion Lewis running from the spread formation while Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett work the short passing zones.

Atlanta's speed in the secondary makes long passes dangerous, unless they can draw up the safeties in run support. So expect Patriots to play it safe in the first quarter to avoid an early turnover. They will switch between the two ball-control strategies until they see what Falcons head coach Dan Quinn does on defense.

Once they see how Atlanta plays it, the Pats will go to whatever gives them the best match-ups against that defense. That is when the game really begins.

Key Patriots Player: running back Dion Lewis or running back LeGarrette Blount
Key Falcons Player: linebacker Vic Beasley

When the Falcons have the ball

Atlanta's offense is exactly the kind has historically given Patriots fits: a balanced attack with multiple weapons. The Falcons run the ball effectively, quarterback Matt Ryan can use short or long passes to three or four talented receivers who can turn a short pass into a long touchdown in the blink of an eye.

Atlanta led the league in points per game, average yards per pass, QB rating, and passes of 40+ yards. They have three gifted receivers who are hard to cover, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel. Their two-back-attack keeps their running backs fresh, and Ryan is the presumptive 2016 MVP.

Despite the two-man running attack, Atlanta won't likely run much on the Patriots. New England ranked eighth in yards allowed per rush, and their disciplined defense will force the cutback runners to hesitate so the rest of the defense can rally to the ball.

Atlanta will make hay with throws over the middle to their second- and third-best receivers. The Patriots usually neutralize the other team's best weapon (in this case, Jones), so Sanu and Gabriel will have to beat man-coverage or find holes in the zone quickly.

The Patriots will likely play safety Patrick Chung close to the line to help with the run and cover the tight end and/or running backs. His ability to diagnose run/pass quickly will be put to the test, as the defense could be undermanned against either tactic if he is out of position.

Key Falcons Player: receiver Mohamed Sanu
Key Patriots Player: safety Patrick Chung


Quick Hits

A) The Patriots own a marked advantage kick coverage. The Falcons allowed almost twice as many yards per punt return (9.6 to 5.0) on the season. And they gave up over three yards of field position to the Pats on kickoffs (average opponent starting yard-line: 22.6 vs.19.3).

B) Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski did have an off year, so Atlanta's Matt Bryant outperformed him in field goals and extra points.

C) In the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons had two false start penalties, a defensive offsides, and a botched snap. Those are all signs the moment was a bit to big for them; and the spotlight will be even brighter this Sunday.

D) In 2016, the Patriots gave up the fewest first-quarter points in the NFL (1.9 average), whereas the Falcons scored the second-most first-quarter points (8.6). It'll be strength vs. strength for the first 15 minutes.

E) A close game late favors the Patriots: they gave up an average of 5.1 points per fourth quarter (5th) and Atlanta gave up an average of 9.4 points per fourth quarter (31st).

Prediction

Neither team will stop the other cold, but the Patriots defense is better-suited to stop Atlanta at least some of the time. And if the Pats score on 75% of their possessions and the Falcons score on only 60%, that's a win for the Patriots.

Additionally, turnovers are key in the postseason, and Atlanta's younger, less experienced players are more likely to give the ball away.

Patriots win: 34-23.

Enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS. 16-2 & 2-0!