Monday, January 15, 2018

Pats Ice The Titans, 35-14

The Patriots did what they were supposed to do, crushing the Tennessee Titans 35-14 to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday (3:05pm EST). This is more than we can say for the "Second Round Steelers," who failed to hold up their end of the bargain. So it'll be the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

As for Saturday night's game, the Titans were completely overmatched. And it started with the opening coin-flip. The Patriots won the toss, but instead doing the usual thing and deferring to the second half, they took the ball. That meant the Titans chose the goal to defend, and they put the Patriots into the wind in the first quarter.

What this did was allow the Patriots to control the game by matching their style to the wind direction. In the first quarter, they only took about 6:00 off the clock, but they pinned the Titans back inside their own ten yard line for both of their "with the wind" possessions. So even though Tennessee scored first, they used the entire quarter to get one touchdown.

When the Pats got the wind in the second quarter, they went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, while Tenn. went punt, punt, failed fourth-down conversion. This basically ended the game. However, even if it hadn't, the Titans got the ball first in the second half, but the Pats forced them to go into the wind, throwing the ball to catch up.

This was a master-course in how to manage game situations by Belichick. When the team had the wind, they went up-tempo and threw a lot. Against the wind, they kept the ball on the ground or threw short passes, and they used the entire play clock. Amazing strategy against a weak-armed quarterback. By the time the Titans got the wind in the fourth quarter, they were down 35-7. Game. Set. Match.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the Patriots guy played pretty well. Tom Brady completed 66% of his passes, including some pinpoint strikes in the red zone and a ridiculous cross-body, cross-field throw to Danny Amendola that fell right into his breadbasket. Brady controlled the line of scrimmage, audibiling to the perfect play time and again, and never once putting the ball in harm's way.

Amendola led the receivers in catches (11) and yards (112). He also did a fantastic job receiving punts on a very windy night, never bobbling a single one. The passing attack also featured running backs Dion Lewis and James White, with 9 catches for 79 yards, and 4 for 29 yards respectively. You had to know that was coming, as Tennessee was the worst team in the league versus pass-catching running backs.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski had 6 grabs for 81 yards, with a couple where he got position and Brady through it where the DB couldn't get to it. Gronk also did a nice job blocking for running plays, and helped protect the passer with some well-timed chips of outside rushers.

The biggest surprise of the game was the lack of pressure on Brady. The offensive line was outstanding, although aided and abetted by a defensive scheme that mostly sent three rushers. Brady was hit four times and sacked not once. And he had upwards of six or seven seconds on a few plays. Pair that with 4.3ypc by the running backs, and it was one of the best games this year for the O-line.

The running backs did well in the passing game, and showed explosion when needed in the running game. White scored two touchdowns (one running, one receiving), and Brandon Bolden had what must have been the easiest touchdown of his career to ice the game. (He ran untouched into the end zone, right up the middle of the defense.)

The second-biggest surprise of the game was the pressure applied by the Patriots defensive line. Here are the sack totals from that group:
Trey Flowers: 1 for 7 yards
Deatrich Wise: 2 for 12 yards
Geneo Grissom: 2 for 12 yards
Adam Butler: 1 for 5 yards
Ricky Jean Francois: 1 for 8 yards

Grissom was the emotional spark, firing up the team after some near-miss sacks (before he got two). And Butler should get credit for two of the other sacks, as he flushed Marcus Mariotta out of the pocket so others could get the on the stat sheet. It was a shockingly dominant performance; the unit even added 9 of the 10 QB hits!

It was nice to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy back. They didn't need him much to cover the running backs (they aren't much of a pass receiving threat), but it will help for him to have reps before facing a tougher Jacksonville squad this Sunday.

In the defensive backfield, the safeties worked to keep things in front of them, but there were some communication breakdowns. Corner Stephon Gilmore had the only two passes defended in the game, and it was unsettling to see some of the Titans wideouts running free. Fortunately they had enough drops to make up for it.

Punter Ryan Allen led the special teams units. Not only did he pin back the Titans early, but he handled at least one bad snap on a field goal/extra point attempt. Stephen Gostkowski continued his stellar use of the short-but-high kickoff to keep teams inside their own 20 yard line.

However, there were at least three bad long-snaps from Joe Cardona. Allen handled all three, two of which were on punts, and it might have owed to the frigid conditions. It was not a problem Saturday, but something to keep an eye on moving forward.

The coaching was a complete mismatch. The Patriots were cool and calm and stayed within their game plan. The Titans looked lost, called timeouts when they should have held onto them, and had 10 penalties for 62 yards.

A sequence at the end of the first half was particularly telling. They gained 9 yards to give themselves a fourth-and-1 (really a half-yard) near midfield. Coach (now former coach) Mike Mularkey decided, correctly, to go for it. But he burned his last timeout before the play... however, if the Titans ran for the first down, he would have needed that timeout to stop the clock again or lose any realistic chance to score.

And then after the timeout, they promptly ran a wide toss to the left... which of course lost five yards and gave the ball back to the Pats. He was clearly overmatched, and Tennessee fired him today as a result. (And they have their eye on Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, by the way.)

So where does that leave us? Another AFC Championship Game sounds just about right. It's their seventh in a row and twelfth of the Brady/Belichick era. Unfortunately for us, it'll be warm -- Florida teams don't do well in January when the thermometer dips into the teens.

Biggest on-going issue It is no longer the linebackers, simply because the teams that could have exploited their weakness in pass coverage all lost this weekend (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Atlanta).

It is actually team focus at this point. The Patriots are excellent at ignoring the noise. But with both coordinators likely gone, maybe the heir apparent DC gone (linebackers coach Brian Flores), and with all the crap about Brady, Belichick, Kraft, and the TB12 stuff, I'm actually worried about focus.

I do think the release of a Patriots hit-piece the morning of the Super Bowl in 2008 affected their focus. And they lost that game by three points, so it could have cost them another title and a perfect season.

We all expect them to keep their focus, and they probably will. But on the field, there just isn't much to worry about at this point. All the high-flying offenses are gone, and the Patriots are clearly the best team remaining in the field.

Non-Brady MVP: Amendola, a great game!

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots are going to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game. No other team in the NFL has a current streak of at least seven straight winning seasons. Think about that for a second...

Water-cooler Wisdom: "At least the Titans fired their coach for malpractice... what's the Steelers' excuse?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-3 & 1-0!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Patriots 2017 Regular Season Awards

Yep; it's that time of year, folks. Time to reflect on the best the Patriots had to offer in the 2017 season... before we move forward to the up-coming playoff run!

Here are my regular-season awards for the 2017 season. (Note: lighter on the text and research this year; just don't have the time I used to have.)

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Rob Gronkowski
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady and Dion Lewis

Brady has won this award 10 times in 12 years, but this season, Gronkowski was even more valuable than Brady. Sure, you can make the argument that the QB is always the most valuable player. For the counter to that argument, go back and watch the second Miami game, when Gronk sat. The offense completely stagnated.

Gronkowski was also the third-best run blocker on the entire team (after an offensive lineman and a blocking back who does nothing else). And when he's blocking well, it opens gaping holes for the backs. Haven't seen Brady do that in a while ;)

With Julian Edelman out for the year and Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola missing significant time, the team simply wouldn't be anywhere near a playoff bye without Gronkowski.

Gronk barely edged out Brady, who had a down year and will only win the MVP this season :D

Lewis gets honorable mention for much the same reason as Gronk; the other injuries made it essential that he step up -- and he did, big time!

Most Improved Offensive Player: Dion Lewis
Honorable Mention: Shaq Mason and James Develin

Lewis tripled his carries and running yards, double his catches and receiving yards, and score six touchdowns versus zero last year. Without Edelman the team depended more on running backs in the passing game. And Lewis not only came through in that area, but his ability to make the first tackler miss kept the chains moving and drives alive all year.

Mason was a beast in run blocking and was the most dependable O-lineman this year. This award could have gone to center David Andrews, but he missed a few games, thus limiting the most important ability of all: dependability.

Develin was one of the best blockers on the team this year, and even caught a few passes to boot!

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Rex Burkhead and Brandin Cooks
Honorable Mention: None

This is a tough choice. Cooks was more consistently productive (65 catches, 1082 yards, and 7 touchdowns), while Burkhead had a big impact in the few games he played (8 touchdowns in 10 games).

Cooks would have this award to himself if he would fight more for the ball, not quit on routes, and been willing to sacrifice comfort for some important catches. He wasn't a bad player, but his impact was felt in about as many games as Burkhead's was. So it's a tie.

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Trey Flowers
Honorable Mention: Kyle Van Noy

Flowers led the defensive linemen in tackles, led the team with 6.5 sacks, and added 2 forced fumbles. He also played some linebacker when the team was thin there, and was easily the Pats most consistent defender this season.

To understand Van Noy's value, just watch the linebacker play in games he missed. And also consider that he was third on the team in tackles, even though he essentially missed four entire games.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Van Noy
Honorable Mention: None

Van Noy started twice as many games and had over twice as many tackles, and added in 5.5 sacks (after notching just 1.0 last year).

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Deatrich Wise, Jr.
Honorable Mention: Stephon Gilmore

Wise, Jr. gets the nod almost by default. Five sacks in your rookie year isn't half bad; and he will make an able replacement for Alan Branch when they cut his ass in February.

Gilmore came in with high hopes, but had just two interceptions and took over half the season to learn the defense. But he was okay enough to get an honorable mention.

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Stephen Gostkowski
Honorable Mention: Ryan Allen

Gostkowski had by far the most kickoffs returned (58 versus 46 for the second-most), and that was by design. He kicked high and short so other teams would have to return the kick instead of taking the ball at the 25 yard line on a touchback. And it worked like a charm. The Pats were third in the league, with opponents starting at the 18.6 yards line on average.

Note #1 for the playoffs: all of Gostkowski's missed field goals were between 40-49 yards this year. So maybe go for it on fourth down if that's the situation... just sayin'. Note #2: please have him practice onside kicks; it's the one real flaw in his game.

I have no stats to back up my choice of Allen. But stats don't tell the whole story when the offense always has you punting from near midfield. I just remember the game where three punts in a row were inside the other team's five yard-line, and I think he deserves honorable mention just for that game.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: None
Honorable Mention: Gostkowski and Allen

If there was a seriously improved player, I must have missed it. Gostkowski and Allen get the honorable mention because both slightly improved over last year.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Johnson Bademosi
Honorable Mention: None

Bademosi had 24 tackles on the year, and it felt like half of them were on special teams. (Wait, not sure that's a good thing.)

That is all for now. Enjoy the prep time for the Titans game, and keep an eye out for my pre-game breakdown!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-3 & 0-0!