Monday, January 23, 2017

Patriots Crush Steelers To Advance To Super Bowl

The Patriots ran the Steelers defense out of the building last night, beating them 36-17 to advance to face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI(ar). The game wasn't even as close as the score would indicate, as the Patriots scored more points on Sunday than the Steelers scored in two games against New England this season.

It's tough to choose whether the offense or defense had a better game. The Pats scored on 7 of 9 "real" possessions, and put up the most points allowed by Pittsburgh this season. And the defense held the Steelers to 9 points through 57 minutes of playing time, and their 17 total points were their lowest total since November 6.

As is sometimes the case, there are too many superlatives to go over every position group. So here are five things to know in five categories.


Quarterback Tom Brady destroyed Pittsburgh once again. In addition to his great stats yesterday (32 of 42, 384 yards [Patriots playoff record], 3 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a 127.5 QB rating), he moved well in the pocket to buy time and nailed every open receiver right between the numbers. He is 8-2 lifetime against the Steelers with 27 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

Running back LeGarrette Blount didn't do as much damage in this game as he did the last time they played Pittsburgh, but his 47 yards rushing included one where he carried the entire Steelers defense five yards and almost scored a touchdown. (Note: he scored on the next play, so it was all good.)

James Devlin caught one pass for 13 yards but most importantly he converted an important third-down on the drive that eventually led to a touchdown that salted away the game at 27-9.

The entire offensive line improved markedly over the last game. They gave up just one bad sack and three QB hits in the game. And at least three times Brady held the ball for five-plus seconds without the Pittsburgh defense laying a glove on him.

Notable was the Patriots offense committed just one penalty in the game. This against a very active front-seven that usually draws a few holds or "hands to the face" penalties every game. Nice discipline by everyone on offense.


Chris Hogan set a Pats playoff record with 180 yards, and he did it on just nine catches, for a 20-yard per-catch average. He also hauled in two touchdowns, including one on a beautiful flea-flicker.

Julian Edelman's eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown were nothing to sneeze at, either. As he usually does, he also converted a high percentage of those catches into first downs, five of them this week. He's also seventh in NFL history with 84 postseason receptions.

Tight end Martellus Bennett had a quiet game statistically, but he is really gutting it out on what is reportedly a broken bone in his ankle. The team has very few tight end options behind Bennett, and he still managed to block well downfield and make five catches on five targets for 32 yards.

Brady completed 78% of his throws, due mostly to receivers finding holes in the defense but also because they caught everything thrown their way.

A quick thank you to the Steelers receivers, who dropped two touchdown passes and had just one touchdown reception on the day.


Defensive ends Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Vincent Valentine, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower stopped the Steelers running game cold. And the key to beating Pittsburgh is always to make them one-dimensional.

Safety Patrick Chung stuffed several running plays at the line of scrimmage, stopped a receiver at the half-yard line (saving the Patriots four points), and broke up a pass that forced a Steelers punt -- and the Pats scored a touchdown to make it 27-9 on the ensuing drive.

Corner Malcolm Butler virtually shut down Pittsburgh's star receiver, Antonio Brown. Brown had over half his seven catches against zones, and Butler battled him every play for every yard all night long.

Fellow corner Eric Rowe had a surprising bounce-back game, making four tackles, breaking up two passes, and nabbing his third NFL interception, first in the playoffs.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy spelled Hightower to keep him fresh and forced a fumble that Rob Ninkovich recovered.

Special Teams/Coaching

Jonathan Jones had two spectacular special teams tackles. The first was a big hit on a kickoff return, and the second was a diving tackle of Antonio Brown on a play where he would have gained another 20 yards if not for Jones.

Punter Ryan Allen averaged ten more yards per punt than his counterpart on the Steelers (48.5 to 38.5).

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gets kudos for the plan to abandon the run and just pass, pass, pass all game long. He also called for the up-tempo attack that wore out Pittsburgh's defense and allowed the Patriots to run them out of the building. And of course, he called the flea-flicker at the perfect time.

In their last seven games, the Patriots have given up an average of just 5.8 points in the second half. Credit defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for that, and wonder aloud why he gets less interest as a head coach than McDaniels.

Often overlooked, long snapper Joe Cardona finished of a great campaign with another flawless performance.


Corner Logan Ryan was as bad in this game as he was great against Houston. He led the team with nine tackles, but mostly because his man caught the ball over and over again.

Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another extra point. Maybe he will fare better in the dome during the Super Bowl.

Malcolm Mitchell's first playoff game was forgettable. He caught one pass and allowed another one to slip through is fingers on third-down, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal.

Elandon Roberts was mostly a non-factor against the run, even though he run-blitzed a fair amount in the game.

The Patriots defense had no sacks and just one QB hit in the game. They did force one or two throws to come out early, but they just didn't generate enough pressure on the quarterback.

When you bring a Weather God to the game, you expect better than 40s and rain... just sayin'

(Just kidding, Al!)

So where does that leave us? The Patriots need two things to compete effectively in Super Bowl LI(ar): a healthier Martellus Bennett, and a faster offensive start after the bye week than they had against Houston.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Hogan's stellar day made him the man of the hour.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: It has to be that the Patriots now hold the record for most Super Bowl appearances (9) in the history of any franchise. Who would have predicted that when they went 1-15 in 1990?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Can we play Pittsburgh in the playoffs every year?"

Keep the faith!

- Scott

PS. 16-2 & 2-0!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Patriots vs. Steelers Playoff Preview

The Patriots play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game this Sunday, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers with a Super Bowl bid on the line. Usually in this case I'd blog about the most recent game between the teams and whether enough had changed to produce a different outcome. But not this time.

Plenty has changed, that's for sure. Their most recent game was last October, and it was played in Pittsburgh (instead of Foxboro), contested without Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (who is back for this game), featured a standout performance by tight end Rob Gronkowski (out for Sunday's game), and linebacker Jamie Collins led the team with eight tackles (he plays for Cleveland now).

But I won't be delving into all that because after considering all aspects of the game, I believe there is one factor that will decide which team goes on to Houston and which one goes home.

The Patriots Front-Seven Versus Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell

To turn a phrase, Bell is on fire of late. He broke the Steelers' playoff record for rushing yards the last two games in a row, and he hasn't averaged less than 4 yards a carry in any game since mid-November. Much has been made of his stop-and-go running style, and he uses it to set up blockers. But his ability in the passing game might be even more dangerous this Sunday.

Bell The Runner

The Patriots maintain excellent discipline along the line of scrimmage, and they are very big defensively inside with linemen Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, along with linebacker Dont'a Hightower. And if those players control their gaps, Bell won't do much damage up the middle.

However, he could gain yards down the sidelines if the Pats lose outside containment. That is where Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard come in. Both of them have to play with outside leverage, funneling Bell back inside where the rest of the defense can rally to make the tackle.

Long did this pretty well against Houston last week. But Sheard was flat out awful in that game, allowing multiple runs to get outside him for chunk yardage plays. He can't let that to happen again this week, even if it means he never gets any pressure on the QB.

If Bell gets outside, he has the speed and elusiveness to turn a four-yard gain into a 40-yard gain in the blink of an eye. And I'm sure the Patriots coaches have been hammering that into Shear's head all week long.

Bell The Receiver

Even if the Patriots stop Bell from running wild, he could really hurt them as a receiver. He caught 10 passes on 13 targets in last October's game, gaining 68 yards and converting a first down on 40% of those plays. In fact, he generated as many first downs receiving as he did rushing, even though he ran the ball more than twice as often as he caught it (21 to 10).

The Patriots simply had no answers for Bell when he came out of the backfield as a receiver. Their linebackers could not keep up, and that was with Collins in the fold. It could be even worse without him -- they simply do not have a linebacker with the speed to keep up with Bell play-after-play.

And that will likely be the crux of the game. The Patriots have a few options to consider. By now the gameplan is in place, but here is what you might see on Sunday.

They could employ their now-famous "Bullseye Defense," and hit Bell on every play, even when he doesn't have the ball, sacrificing QB pressure in the process. They used this to win their first Super Bowl, with Marshall Faulk being the target that day.

The coaches might call more blitzes, forcing Bell to stay in and block. But this only works if they correctly anticipate whether the play will be run or pass. If they blitz into a running play, one missed tackle can lead to a 25-yard run.

I think they are most likely to play a three-safety scheme. This would allow them to have Patrick Chung spy Bell and cover him if he comes out of the backfield. The downside is that either Duron Harmon or Devin McCourty would be responsible for the tight end, which is either a bad tight-end matchup (if it's Harmon) or would weaken their ability to stop the deep pass (if McCourty covers tight ends).

Referendum Game

No matter what scheme the Patriots use, this game will likely be a referendum on the Jamie Collins trade. Collins wasn't great in pass coverage, but his replacements are particularly poor at it. That hasn't hurt them to this point. But if Bell dominates in the passing game and the Patriots lose, many will question whether the Collins trade cost them a Super Bowl berth.

The NFL is a results business. If a decision works, it was the right one. If it doesn't, the decision-maker is judged incompetent.

So head coach Bill Belichick needs to pull out all the stops to win this one. Because if he doesn't, it will crack the facade of "In Bill We Trust" for many fans.

Enjoy the game and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-2 & 1-0!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Patriots Pull Away Late for 34-16 Win Over Texans

In a game that more closely resembled the preseason than the playoffs, the Patriots rode a dominant second half to a 34-16 win over the Houston Texans yesterday. The victory was fueled by the defense, big plays on offense, and an historic first for Pats running back Dion Lewis. Next Sunday the Patriots host the AFC Championship Game for the seventh time since Robert Kraft bought the team in 1993.

Houston employed a unique defensive approach, flooding the middle of the field to stop the run and most short passes. This forced the Pats to throw deeper than usual and outside the numbers, which is not their normal offense, and their frustration showed. However, once they figured things out, they used big plays to turn field position and score.

Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure all day long, as the Texans used multiple blitz looks to get free rushers. When they rushed just three, Brady had all day, but that was rare in the game; he ended up being sacked twice and hit eight other times. His stat line was poor: 18 of 38 (47%) for 287 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions (as many interceptions as he threw all regular season), and a 68.6 QB rating. And he could easily have been picked a third time.

His receivers did a great job adjusting to long passes that were either jump balls or thrown short to keep the ball away from defenders. Julian Edelman (8 catches for 137 yards) and Chris Hogan (4 for 95) caught long passes that flipped field position, mostly down the sidelines, and mostly on throws that required excellent adjustments on their part. Newcomer Michael Floyd just wasn't in sync with Brady; their missed timing on slants cost one interception and nearly a second. More work to do before he's a big part of the offense.

The Patriots running game was non-existent until the fourth quarter. 70 of their 98 yards came in the final 15 minutes, including a few wide-receiver runs and two reverses. Other than that, they were stoned time and again. And given the amount of pressure on Brady, the backs deserve a bad grade for picking up blitzers, too.

The best things the running backs did all day were the two touchdown catches. Dion Lewis took a short throw and ran around end for a 13-yarder. And James White outran a linebacker to get open down the right side where Brady hit him with a perfect rainbow pass. The worst thing the RBs did was the two fumbles by Lewis; one as a back and one as a kickoff returner.

The offensive line was alternatively really bad and really solid. They looked confused by blitz schemes and stunts, allowing untouched rushers to crush Brady repeatedly. But when they faced three or four rushers, they held stronger than that amazing wall they are planning on the Mexican border. Still, with the poor rushing attack and too much pressure on the QB, they get a bad grade. Nate Solder and center David Andrews looked particularly overmatched most of the game.

The defensive star of the game was cornerback Logan Ryan. He had a sack, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, an interception, knocked away three passes, and made eight total tackles. Safety Patrick Chung was solid in coverage, and Devin McCourty had an interception and broke up the pass that turned into Ryan's interception. However, Eric Rowe gets the booby prize for the day, giving up at least four receptions and committing a boneheaded personal foul penalty that extended a Texans drive on which they scored.

Dont'a Hightower led the linebackers with eight tackles, though Rob Ninkovich had a better rounded game with two tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, and even an pass defended. Kyle Van Noy was more up-and-down; made some nice plays down the field but almost no impact near the line of scrimmage. And Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts showed their inexperience in this one, neither making the plays that were there to make and both busily taking on blockers when they should have been making tackles.

Three of the defensive linemen played pretty well. Alan Branch had seven tackles, Trey Flowers had seven, and Malcom Brown had six tackles and a sack. But they only get okay reviews because they gave up long running plays and didn't generate enough pressure in the first half. Once the team made adjustments for the second half things went better, but that doesn't wipe out a mediocre first half. Noteworthy is that Jabaal Sheard reverted to form, pushing his rush lane too far inside and giving up running plays and one huge QB scramble to his side.

Special teams kicking was great; Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on the day and punter Ryan Allen had two more kicks downed inside the Houston five yard-line. But Lewis offset his 98-yard kickoff return touchdown with a fumble later in the half that helped get Houston back in the game.

So where does that leave us? Hosting the AFC Championship Game is about as good as you could hope for at this point in the season. The winner of the Kansas City/Pittsburgh game tonight will travel to Foxboro to play for a Super Bowl berth.

The Patriots have one health concern; tight end Martellus Bennett left the game limping, and he's their only decent tight end. So here's hoping he is a fast healer.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Logan Ryan takes it this time; his play was crucial to stopping the Texans on at least three drives.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Lewis' is the first player in NFL history to record a running TD, passing TD, and return TD in the same playoff game.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Allen's second stellar performance. How often does a punter have two punts downed inside the five yard-line in two games against the same team in one season?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Warm ups are over, next week it'll be a real team and the Pats will need to play better for sure."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-2 & 1-0!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Patriots/Texans Playoff Preview

With the Pats/Texans game coming up in two days, here is my review of how things might have changed since their last meeting.

The Patriots dominated that previous meeting, a 27-0 beatdown in Foxboro last September. A lot has changed for the Patriots and the Texans since then; here is a quick list of what will look different this Saturday in Foxboro.

Patriots Offense

Rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start in the regular-season game. Tom Brady will be making start number 267 this weekend. The Texans weren't sure what to expect from Brissett, but they know full well what Brady brings to the table. He has a 6-1 lifetime record against Houston, his last win a 27-6 shellacking in the Lone Star state.

Brady will throw to two receivers that the Texans didn't see much from last time: rookie Malcolm Mitchell and free agent signee Malcolm Floyd. Mitchell had just one catch in the earlier contest, but he's come into his own late in the season, averaging four catches and almost 58 yards over the last six games. And Floyd went beast mode in the season finale, carrying six Dolphins into the end zone on one play and blasting a would-be tackler on a 77-yard touchdown run by Julian Edelman.

Finally, running back LeGarrette Blount punished the Texans on the ground (105 yards and two touchdowns), but he will have much more help in the rematch. Shifty back Dion Lewis returned to his pre-injury form and provides the perfect complement to Blount's bruising style. And James White had his least productive game against Houston, improving as the year went on, much like Mitchell.

Patriots Defense

In personnel terms, the main difference this time will come at linebacker. Jamie Collins dominated the first game, but ended up traded to Cleveland, and long-time starter Jonathan Freeney played in September but is on IR for this game. Defensive captain Dont'a Hightower missed the first game, Shea McClellin barely got on the field (28% of the defensive snaps), rookie Elandon Roberts didn't play at all, current starter Kyle Van Noy wore a Lions uniform, and defensive end Rob Ninkovich missed the first game and moved to linebacker to provide experience and depth. I know, that's a lot of changes (and a really long sentence... sorry).

The talent probably took a hit overall. But schematically the coaches settled on a regular LB rotation, and that allowed them to experiment with more looks and schemes in the secondary and on the line of scrimmage. The Patriots employ more corner and safety blitzes now, and they also work more stunts and twists up front on the defensive line. They shut out the Texans in September, and the defense has more tricks up its sleeve for the rematch.

The other big change is the play of Trey Flowers. He started the season slowly and played just 61% of the defensive snaps against Houston. However, around mid-season he took off in this defense. All seven of his sacks have come in the last nine games, and every one of them came in big games: Buffalo, Seattle, Baltimore, and Denver.

(BTW, strange to think that the second Buffalo game was a big one -- but at the time, a loss would have put the Bills one game behind the Pats *with* the head-to-head tie-breaker.)

Texans changes

Some people think the loss of J.J. Watt presents the biggest problem for Houston. But his back injury obviously slowed him in the first game, and he wasn't much of a factor. Losing Watt isn't a good thing, but honestly his absence doesn't change things much from the September game.

One thing that did change was the Houston quarterback situation. In fact, it changed multiple times; starter Brock Osweiler was benched for poor play, and his replacement, Tom Savage lasted three starts until a concussion knocked him out. Savage has cleared the concussion protocol, but Osweiler will reportedly start on Saturday, after getting his first playoff win last weekend. All in all that's probably okay with the Patriots -- Osweiler's record and his TD-to-INT ratio against the Pats are identical: 1-2.

Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus finished the season playing better than he was in September. He had 10 tackles and four sacks in his last two meaningful games, and he's the play-wrecker the Patriots have to worry about on the defensive line. Playing opposite Mercilus is budding star Jadeveon Clowney, who is coming into his own at just the right time for the Texans. He got his first NFL interception last week, and has a sack in three of his last four games.

Special Teams

The first game was probably the biggest special teams blowout the Patriots had since the 2002 AFC Championship Game. They forced two fumbles on kickoff returns, recovering both and scoring touchdowns on each of those drives. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski not only placed his kickoffs perfectly, but he was 2-2 on field goals and 3-3 on extra points. And all seven of Ryan Allen's punts were downed at or inside the Houston 20 yard-line, four of them at or inside the 10.

It's unlikely Saturday's game will feature such a lopsided special teams performance.

Other Factors

The weather will be quite a bit different this time. It was 68 degrees at kickoff in September; current predictions call for 25-ish temps on Saturday. To underline how much that could mean, consider this statistic: warm-weather and dome teams are 0-11 in Foxboro playoff games since 1979. Ironically the last Pats loss in that situation was to Houston -- the 1978 Oilers of Bum Phillips, QB Dan Pastorini, and some running back named Earl Campbell.

(Factoid: the highest-rated Patriots passer in that game was running back Andy Johnson, who completed one touchdown pass for 24 yards, earning him a perfect 158.3 QB rating.)

One last thing to keep in mind is that the previous game was a Thursday night contest. The Texans had to go on the road on a short week, and anyone who follows the NFL knows road teams fare poorly in those situations. The Patriots offense will be better on Saturday, but the Texans will no doubt show up better rested and prepared.


Probably not enough has changed in the Texans favor to indicate they can turn-around a 27-point loss. However, if they just don't turn the ball over they can stay with the Pats. The Patriots offense traditionally starts slowly after a bye week, so Houston has to capitalize and get a lead early.

Failing that it the Patriots should be able to handle them. But I'd guess tighter than people think: 31-20.

Enjoy the game, and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2 & 0-0!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Patriots 2016 Regular Season Awards

With the Patriots on a playoff bye week, this is the perfect opportunity to give some virtual hardware for the best Patriots players and coaches this season.

Offensive Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount and Julian Edelman

There’s a reason I name a “Non-Brady MVP” after every game; because no one else would ever be in the running if Tom Terrific were allowed in the conversation. Among his special accomplishments this year:
  • Set a new NFL record with a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio
  • Took a career-low 15 sacks and tied his career-low with zero lost fumbles
  • His 112.2 QB rating and 67.4% completions are second only to his phenomenal 2007 season
Enjoy Brady while he’s playing. Remember that the starting quarterback just before Bledsoe/Brady locked down the position for two-plus dedaces was the immortal Jeff Carlson (career QB rating: 34.1).

Blount carried the load in the running game: 1,161 yards on 299 carries, and an NFL-best 18 touchdowns. And despite 306 touches on the year, he fumbled only two times and lost just one of them.

Edelman caught 4+ passes in every game except one (which they lost, of course), and he was incredibly consistent picking up first downs to keep the chains moving. He also topped 1,000 yards for the second time in his career (1,106).

Most Improved Offensive Player: Marcus Cannon
Honorable Mention: David Andrews, Nate Solder, and James White

Cannon really suffered under the two-year tutelage of former offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, and he caught a lot of grief for it. But his about-face under returning coach Dante Scarnecchia has been nothing short of incredible. He is the Pats best or second-best run blocker, and he’s done a great job protecting Brady from outside pressure.

Consider his 180-degree turnaround against Denver’s Von Miller. In the AFC Championship Game last January, Miller went around Cannon like he wasn’t even there. In the December rematch, Cannon used a novel technique to dominate the matchup, playing with his hands down until Miller engaged him, then using his size to push Miller around.

The resurgence of the O-line was also evident in the improved play of center David Andrews (especially good pulling on run plays), and the return to form of Nate Solder. Brady was sacked 38 times in 2015, but only 15 this year. And credit for that goes mostly to the players, aided by Scarnecchia.

White improved in catches (from 40 to 60), rushing yards (56 to 166), and yards per rush (2.5 to 4.3). He was more of a threat in the passing game, something he lacked entirely the year before.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Martellus Bennett
Honorable Mention: Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Joe Thuney

Take a talented tight end from Chicago (where he caught 90 passes from Jay “bleeping” Cutler) add him to an offense with Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady, and what do you get? The 2016 Offensive Newcomer of the Year! Bennett was the Patriots third attempt to rebuild the two tight-end offense post-Hernandez, and “Marty” proved the perfect match.

Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards, both good for third on the team. He also led the team with a career-high seven touchdowns and gained 12.7 yards per catch (second best of his career). Additionally, he blocked very well, both at the line and downfield, and he was more durable than Gronkowski, playing in every game this season and starting 12 of them.

Additionally, his ability to learn the offense should not be underestimated; there have been a lot of free agent receiver busts in New England over the years. Not everyone can learn the offense quickly enough to get playing time and build a rapport with Brady. But Bennett seemed to do everything well. May he play next to Gronkowski until Brady retires!

Speaking of receiver non-busts, Chris Hogan came over from Buffalo and immediately fit in. He totaled 38 catches for 680 yards on the year, a gaudy 17.9 yards per catch that was second on the team to Gronkowski.

The last rookie receiver who had the same impact as Malcolm Mitchell was Deion Branch. Mitchell's 32 catches for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns are similar to the 43 for 489 and 2 touchdowns Branch posted in 2002. And all this came after an elbow injury in the preseason almost finished Mitchell’s season before it started.

Not to be forgotten is rookie guard Joe Thuney, who came in unheralded but worked his way into the starting lineup and contributed to the massive O-line turnaround. He also tied David Andrews for highest percentage of offensive snaps this season.

Defensive Most Valuable Player: Alan Branch & Malcom Brown
Honorable Mention: Trey Flowers, Malcolm Butler, and Devin McCourty

In the closest race (and the most crowded field), defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown get the nod. The two were twin blocks of solid granite inside, stuffing one running back after another, and pushing the pocket back into opposing quarterbacks.

Both were central to the Patriots defensive resurgence in the second half. Their consistency inside allowed coaches to try other players at different positions and in a multitude of formations. And even though interior linemen rarely make tackles in the Patriots scheme, Branch and Brown ranked sixth and seventh on the team in tackles, respectively.

Trey Flowers would have won this award if he’d started earlier in the year. He led the team with seven sacks and had become a dominant lineman by the end of the season. He’s only 23 years old, so we could be seeing him for some time to come.

Butler is the closest the Patriots have to a shutdown corner. He isn’t quite there, but his competitiveness and drive to improve have him on the cusp of a huge payday, coming off a season with 50 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, and a team-leading four interceptions.

McCourty brought attitude and stability to the secondary. His primary responsibility being to make sure the team gave up as few big plays as they could, and he did pretty well there. The Patriots ranked second, giving up just 59 big plays on the season His impact is often underrated, but his knowledge of the defensive schemes and versatility allow the Patriots to give opposing offenses a lot of different looks to deal with.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Trey Flowers
Honorable Mention: none

Flowers could have won Defensive Newcomer, except he was a “redshirt rookie” last year – out for the year with an injury before he really got started. In addition to the facts listed above about Flowers, he did his best work on the bigger stages. Five of his seven sacks came against Seattle, Baltimore, and Denver, three of the toughest opponents the Patriots faced in 2016.

Flowers played less than one game in 2015, and no one was close to his level of improvement, so he owns this category alone.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Chris Long
Honorable Mention: Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts

Long still struggles to hold the edge on running plays, but his impact against the pass has been significant. He had four sacks and over a dozen QB pressures this year, while also knocking down three passes at the line of scrimmage. He also forced a fumble and made 35 tackles, and even dropped into pass coverage occasionally.

The linebacking trio were difficult to separate. Roberts started and ended the season strong, McClellin got better as the year progressed, and Van Noy came in at mid-season and is already the backup signal-caller when Dont’a Hightower is out. All solid additions, and an interesting group to watch in future seasons.

Special Teams Most Valuable Player: Nate Ebner
Honorable Mention: Ryan Allen and Jonathan Jones

It would be difficult not to give this award Ebner, who tied for the league lead with 19 special teams tackles. He was a beast this year, flying down the field with abandon, cutting off angles, and planting multiple returners in their tracks. Matthew Slater nearly retired this award the past few years, but Ebner was the Patriots best this season. Maybe something in that Olympic water down in Rio :)

Allen posted his best year in punting average (44.7 yards a kick), net average (41.4), and fewest return yards (134 for the season).

Jones was third on the team with eight special teams tackles, but he had more impact plays than Brandon King (nine tackles) and always stayed disciplined in his lane.

(Note that the Patriots 2015 special teams coverage units were probably underrated. They had three of the top 10 special teams tacklers in the entire league: King had 16 tackles, Slater 15, and Ebner 14.)

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ryan Allen
Honorable Mention: Nate Ebner

As mentioned before, Allen had several areas of improvement. And his ability to pin teams deep was invaluable in several wins this year, notably against Miami, Houston, Baltimore, and Denver.

Ebner had a great year, but it wasn’t that much better than his already excellent 2015 campaign.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Jonathan Jones
Honorable Mention: none

Not a strong category for the Patriots, but rookie Jones was solid in his special teams play.
Before the season, Cyrus was supposed to be the “Jones” we’d all be talking about. But he had more special teams fumbles than the entire team the previous year, and he was riding the pine by the end of the season.

Most Valuable Coach of the Year: Brian Flores (linebackers)
Honorable Mention: Chad O’Shea (receivers)

To quote the old saying, Flores made chicken salad out of chicken feathers. He lost two starters from the previous year (Jamie Collins and Jonathan Freeney), was given two cast-offs from the NFC North (McClellin and Van Noy), a rookie (Roberts), and was asked to integrate defensive end Rob Ninkovich into the rotation.

The results were surprisingly good, as week after week he built a more cohesive unit that complimented each other’s strengths and overcame each other’s weaknesses. But season’s end the linebackers were no longer a question mark. Any injury at LB would still hurt in the playoffs, as depth is an issue. But even if that happens, Flores is likely to pull a rabbit out of the hat and make it work somehow.

In ten years with the Patriots, Flores has coached special teams, offense, safeties, linebackers, and he’s been on the scouting staff. If the Patriots need to fill their defensive coordinator position in the off-season (more on that later), don’t be surprised if Flores gets the gig.

As mentioned earlier, the list of receivers who never panned out in New England is surprisingly long. But O’Shea got good production out of newbies Hogan, Mitchell, and at the end of the year, Michael Floyd. Those three couldn’t be more different as receivers, and O’Shea made it all work.

Most Improved Coach of the Year: Matt Patricia (defensive coordinator)
Honorable Mention: Ivan Fears (running backs)

Patricia oversaw numerous changes in his front-seven, but somehow improved the defense enough to move them from tenth in 2015 to first in 2016 in points allowed. He called better games this year, his players tackled better and were more competitive on every play, and his defense literally shut teams down (one shutout and two games where they allowed only three points).

It should be no surprise that Patricia is in the conversation for several of the available head coaching positions. He might not get one; most owners want an offensive coach who can bring along a young QB. But Patricia is meticulous and innovative and should bear serious consideration.

Fears helped LeGarrette Blount and James White have the best years of their careers, both improving their play in the running and passing games.

Coaching Newcomer of the Year: Dante Scarnecchia (offensive line)
Honorable Mention: none

Scarnecchia managed an amazing turnaround on the offensive line. The line was passive and confused under former coach DeGuglielmo, and their problems were a large part of the reason the team lost in the AFC Championship Game last season. But Scarnecchia worked his magic, settling on a solid starting five and coaching them up all year until they were one of the better units on the team.

A very impressive job by any measure.

Enjoy the games this weekend and keep the faith!

- Scott

PS. 14-2 & 0-0!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Patriots Finish Strong, Beat Dolphins 35-14

The Patriots won an easy one yesterday, taking the last game of the season 35-14 in Miami. The win gives them a 14-2 record, and 8-0 road record, and the #1 overall AFC playoff seed. They will rest next weekend and take on the Raiders, Texans, or these same Dolphins at 8:15pm on January 14 (NFL just announced the schedule).

The game started out as a laugher. The Patriots dominated time of possession (21:16 to 8:44) en route to a 20-7 halftime lead. And even though Miami made it close, the Patriots defense shut them down and pulled away for the lopsided final score.

By holding Miami to just 14 points, the Pats posted the best scoring defense in the entire NFL: 250 points allowed on the year. (Trivia question: name the last year the Patriots gave up the fewest points in the league. Answer below.) And though the pundits have disrespected the D, they are clearly playing their best as the team heads into the playoffs.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia managed an in-season sea change on defense. In the past, linebackers almost always led the team in tackles. But this year, defensive backs hold the top three spots: Logan Ryan (92), Patrick Chung (91), and Devin McCourty (83). And yesterday, Ryan picked off a pass and made some key tackles, while McCourty changed the game with his forced fumble early in the fourth quarter.

Trey Flowers dominated along the defensive line. His five tackles and two QB hits led the D-linemen, and he forced early throws or QB movement in the pocket on multiple plays. Alan Branch (two tackles, one pass knocked down) and Malcom Brown stuffed the run effectively -- the Dolphins gained just 3.3 yards per carry.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is clearly still nursing a knee injury. But Elandon Roberts (seven tackles and a QB hit), Rob Ninkovich, and Shea McClellin filled in admirably -- especially McClellin's fumble recovery and 69-yard return to set up the Patriots last touchdown. It's nice for Hightower to have the help; but the team will need him to get healthy in the next two weeks if it expects to make a deep playoff run.

The offensive balance was impressive. They ran 29 times and passed 34 times, and play-action passes were especially effective, as the Dolphins overcommitted players to slow down the running attack.

Running back LeGarrette Blount led the team with 51 yards, but his running mate, Dion Lewis, was even more impressive: 48 yards on 11 carries. The two make a great combination, with Lewis attacking small creases inside or bouncing outside and Blount hammering defenders with is size and strength. Blount set a Patriots record, and led the NFL, with 18 rushing touchdowns. And Miami's preoccupation with him opened up at least two touchdowns throws.

Those two touchdowns were the easy pitch-and-catch to tight end Martellus Bennett and receiver Michael Floyd's "catch and plow through six defenders" touchdown. Floyd is fitting in well, catching jump-ball throws and slants on-time and in stride. He's picked up the offense so quickly it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see a back-shoulder throw.

But even with those two plays, the receiving star of the day was Julian Edelman. He had eight catches for 151 yards, accounted for five first downs, a two-point conversion, and caught a scintillating 77-yard touchdown. The TD was a short pass where Edelman outran all but one defender, who was crushed on a huge block by Floyd.

And of course, none of this machinery works without the quarterback. Tom Brady excelled in this game, especially given how much pressure he was under in the second half. His stat line: 25 of 33 (75.8%), 276 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a gaudy 130.4 QB rating. He even added a first-down run on the opening drive, just to keep himself humble. Brady ended up second in the NFL with a 112.2 QB rating for the season (Atlanta's Matt Ryan took the crown).

On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski did miss a field goal; but it was from 52 yards to end the half, so perhaps he can be forgiven. Even with his mid-season hiccups, Gostkowski made 84.4% of his field goals on the year. And the kick coverage teams and punting were their usual excellent selves.

Punter Ryan Allen ended up seventh in the league with a 41.3 yard net average per punt. And in 287 career punts, only one has been returned for a touchdown. (Trivia question #2: can you name the team that returned that punt for a touchdown? Answer below.)

So where does that leave us? The Patriots play their first post-season contest at 8:15pm on January 14. So they should enjoy the show next weekend as the other contenders bash each other to bits while the Patriots get as healthy as they can. Hightower, Bennett, and Brady should get extra special rest and treatment.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Trey Flowers was a one-man wrecking crew along the defensive line.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady set yet another NFL record with a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not sure how many more records there are for him to break.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "No matter which teams they played, you can't turn your nose up at leading the NFL in fewest points allowed."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

PPS. Trivia answers:

1) The Patriots gave up 238 points in the 2003 season to lead the NFL. Note: they also won the Super Bowl that year.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles blocked a Ryan Allen punt and returned it for a touchdown during the 2015 season.