Sunday, December 9, 2018

Dolphins Stun Patriots 34-33

The Patriots lost a big one yesterday, bowing 34-33 in a stunner at Miami. The loss kept the Phins alive for the division title. And in a week when the Steelers and Texans lost, the Patriots could have separated from the pack -- but now it's just a mess for the playoff seedings. Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh, which is crucial to the Pats playoff-bye hopes (more on that in a sec).

There were a lot of positives and some negatives in this game. But let's deal with the elephant in the room first -- who the hell cost the Patriots the game?! Miami scored on a 69-yard pass on the last play of the game. But before that play, there were plenty of bad plays and missed opportunities that led to the defeat. Here is my list of the top five, from the least objectionable to the most.

5. The missed extra point

Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point after the first touchdown of the game. These points often come back to haunt teams. And in this case, that extra point would have forced Miami to hit their own extra point after the final TD to win. But given how likely Miami is to convert that extra point, this miss probably didn't decide it.

4. The missed field goal

Gostkowski pushed this one right, just like the missed extra point, and it obviously hurt a lot more than the extra point miss. If they had these points, the final touchdown would not have cost them the game.

If the Pats had these points, they would have led by eight. So even with the final miracle play, the Dolphins would have to make a two-point conversion just to tie -- no guarantee on that. So missing this field goal was huge. (Note: combine that with the missed extra point, and the Pats would have led by nine -- an insurmountable lead at the end.)

3. The BS final play

If you didn't see it, with seven seconds left, Miami was 69 yards away with no timeouts. They threw an underneath pass, which was lateralled twice to the left sideline and run all the way in for a touchdown. All the while, their second-best defender all year, Stephon Gilmore, jogged along down the midline out of the play, and at the end Rob Gronkowski was the last man and he was easily out-maneuvered by the Dolphins running back.

The play was horrible for a couple of reasons. Gilmore needed to get into the play. The Patriots fastest defender and best tackler, Devin McCourty, was on the sideline for the final play. And Gronkowski shouldn't have been in because this was not a hail-mary situation, so they didn't need tall players to knock down an endzone pass.

Bad, bad, and more bad.

2. Poor game-management at the end

With 1:50 left in the game, the Patriots didn't try for a game-clinching touchdown, instead running three times and then kicking a field goal to go up by five points. I have no argument with running to keep the clock moving and run as much time as they could. But once they got to fourth-down, things started to break down.

Their best strategy, IMO, would have been to try for the touchdown on fourth down. If they scored, the game would have been effectively over. If they failed, Miami would have gotten the ball a their own four yard-line with 16-seconds left. Sure, they'd only need a field goal to win, but the odds against them are astronomical!

However, the Pats kicked the field goal, going up 33-28. Fine.

But once they did that, they should have had Gostkowski kick the ball through the end zone. Instead, they had him squib-kick it short, forcing a time-consuming return. But just risking the return was a mistake, giving the Dolphins to score.

And once they didn't score, it led to the play mentioned earlier :(

1. The sack to end the second quarter

Tom Brady had the biggest gaffe of the game. The Pats had third-and-two at the Miami two yard-line with 14-seconds left in the first half. New England called one more play, a pass into the end zone. If it failed, the Pats would kick the field goal and go into the half with a 30-21 lead.

On a play like this, there are only two things Brady can't do: turn over the ball, or take a sack. Losing the ball is always a problem, and taking a sack means the clock will run out without a chance for a field goal.

But instead of throwing after his first read, Brady double-clutched and tried to look for another target -- and of course, he was sacked. The Pats could do nothing but watch helplessly as the clock wound toward triple-zeros and the half came to an end.

The reason this is worse than either Gostkowski miss is that it was a mental error rather than a physical one. No player is perfect, but it was startling to see Brady take that sack. Frankly it's the kind of thing other NFL teams have to put up with on a regular basis. But the Patriots are always so well prepared for situational football it was stunning to watch. 

That's my breakdown of the breakdowns in this game. The Patriots should have had seven additional points, making that last play irrelevant. Instead, their missed opportunities gave the Dolphins a chance to beat them at the end. The Patriots missed their chances, Miami didn't. Period.

If the Pats had won, Monday we'd be talking about improved play from Gronkowski and Edelman, problems exposed on defense, and impressive special-teams coaching (they blocked two Miami punts). But instead we'll be talking about missed opportunities and a lost chance to further their playoff hopes and dreams.

Where that leaves us: Believe it or not, the Patriots are still currently the second AFC playoff seed. If they win out, they will likely rest the first weekend of the playoffs, because they hold the tie-breaker over Houston and Kansas City. Next week at Pittsburgh is the only real challenge to them running the table. They finish with two home games against non-playoff opponents (Bills and Jets).

Biggest ongoing concern: Uncharacteristically undisciplined play. They still commit too many penalties (5 for 30 yards, but really 6 for 45 because of offsetting penalties on one play), the coaching is poor in spots, and they gave up way too many big plays against Miami.

All of these things are uncharacteristic of Patriots teams in general.

Non-Brady MVP: Albert McClellan gets it this week because he blocked two Dolphins punts, which should have been enough to win the game, but unfortunately...

Statistical Oddity: This is the first time in over six years the Patriots led a game near the end, only to lose on the last play of the game. (Trivia question: can you name previous the team and the situation? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Next week against Pittsburgh is the whole thing now. If they win that game, they are probably still the #2 seed after everything they've been through."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-4!

PPS. Trivia answer:
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The Ravens beat New England 31-30 on a field goal at the final gun. Incidentally, this broke the Patriots streak of 148 games without falling below a .500 record.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Patriots Handle Jets 27-13

The Patriots took care of business, beating the Jets 27-13 in New York. The victory helped New England build a three-game lead over the Dolphins in the AFC East, and brought them within one game of the Chiefs for the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Also, Pittsburgh blew a game in Denver, which put them a half-game behind the Pats for the second seed. Next up are the Vikings in Foxboro next Sunday.

This game started like a prize fight, with the teams trading jabs early on and scoring points where they could. They both scored on two of six drives in the first 30 minutes. But once the second half started, the Patriots pulled away by scoring on three of five possessions while the Jets scored only once on four drives.

The offense benefited from return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Sony Michel, and guard Marcus Cannon. Backs Michel (21 rushes for 133 yards) and James White (9 for 73) combined for an impressive 6.9 ypc, including some big chunk plays. Michel ran well, with good moves and they both took advantage of the blocks of Mason, Gronkowski, and tackle Trent Brown.

With a dominating running game, Patriots QB Tom Brady had his best statistical game of the season: 20 of 31 for 283 (65%) yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a 115.4 QB rating. (Trivia question: can you name Brady's second-best QB rating game this season? Answer below.) Brady was hit five times, but never sacked, and his top targets were Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. But he did the most damage with Gronkowski, who caught an uncatchable ball for a touchdown in the first half.

The best sign for the offense was that Brady completed 2+ passes to five players (Gordon, Edelman, Gronkowski, Michel, and Phillip Dorsett). Coupled with excellent running, this kind of offensive distribution has always served the Patriots well in the playoffs. In the post-season, teams are good at eliminating one or two options from their opponents, so teams need third and fourth options to win in January/February.

On defense it felt like the team thought they could win by just containing the Jets to short gains. New York notched just two 20+ yard plays in the game (the Patriots had ten of those), and they just couldn't sustain drives with short gains to move the chains. The Jets gained only 5.6 yards per pass attempt, a pretty low number by NFL standings.

The few standouts from this vanilla defensive game were D-linemen Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers, safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, and corner Stephon Gilmore. Wise and Flowers combined for 2 sacks (for 12 yards) and 7 QB hits. Chung led the team with 13 tackles, and McCourty had tight coverage on a few plays downfield. Gilmore is by far the Patriots best corner; he knocked away two passes and gathered his second interception of the season.

The linebackers continue to be an issue. Elandon Roberts made a few big plays and let up a few. Kyle Van Noy was decent, but Dont'a Hightower is a shell of his former self. Hightower is either injured or is permanently hobbled from past injuries. His one assisted tackle is the kind of number you'd expect of a player who was barely on the field.

Punter Ryan Allen was consistent, having his second best game of the season. His kicks put the Jets back, forcing them to drive a long way every time they got the ball. There was one long return on a kickoff, but it appeared there was enough of a wind to make his boots in one direction shorter. Kicking the other way, the Jets didn't return a single boot.

The game plan was obviously to play it close to the vest and wait for your talent to overwhelm the Jets. For the most part it worked. However, the week after the bye, they should not have committed 11 penalties. Things needed to be more buttoned down that that.

Where does that leave us? The rest of the AFC mostly did favors for the Patriots in the past week. KC and Pittsburgh lost to put the Pats in the driver's seat for a playoff bye. And the Dolphins lost, which basically locked up the division for the Patriots. If they can stay healthy, they have a real chance to make noise in January.

Biggest ongoing concern: Believe it or not, the health of Sony Michel and Rob Gronkowski. Without them, the offense was stale. With them, it was dynamic and in much better rhythm.

Non-Brady MVP: Trent Brown, despite his two penalties, he did a great job protecting Brady's blindside and blocking on running plays.

Statistical oddity: The Jets haven't recovered a Patriots fumble in their last 11 games, spanning 6 years. (Last one was November 22, 2012,)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "It's not an impressive victory, but a division win on the road is always good."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-3!

PPS. Trivia answer: Brady notched a 109.2 QB rating in the shootout win against the Chiefs, his second-best rating for the season.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Titans Blow Out Patriots, 34-10

The Tennessee Titans were most inhospitable hosts yesterday, dominating from the opening kickoff and cruising to a 34-10 win over the Patriots. Happily the Dolphins lost, too, so New England remains up by two games in the AFC East. Unhappily, Kansas City won, giving them a two-game cushion in the race for playoff byes (and the LA Chargers currently have a half-game lead in that race).

This game was ugly from the beginning. The Titans returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to start in New England territory, one of three drives that started on the Patriots side of the field -- all in the first half. Tennessee scored 24 points in the first half, while the Pats scored on two of their first three drives and then went bagel over their last nine possessions.

It's pretty apparent that Mike Vrabel was the real architect of the Houston Texans defense that gave the Patriots fits in last year's playoffs. Because Vrabel left Houston for Tennessee, and the Patriots easily beat the Texans but struggled mightily against the Titans.

The three best Patriots on the field were not on the team anymore: Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler from last year, and Logan Ryan who signed with the Titans in 2017. The current Patriots couldn't do much right except for punting the ball, where Ryan Allen got more practice this week (6 kicks) than in any game since opening day.

The team just stunk up the joint. Lots of bad performances on both sides of the ball, poor coverage on defense, poor execution on offense, reverting to early-season form by going 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, and coaching that seemed ill-prepared to adjust. Even reliable corner Stephon Gilmore notched his worst game of 2018.

Tom Brady was under constant pressure, and it didn't help that he missed wide open receivers to keep feeding the ball to Josh Gordon. Injuries along the O-line led to very few rushing yards, botched screen passes, and 3 sacks & 6 QB hits of Brady. Only Julian Edelman played well, and he took a pounding after each of his nine receptions.

I can't go into the gory details because there were just too many screw-ups. Can we just chalk this up to the team letting down after a big win over Green Bay and thinking about their upcoming Bye week?

So where does that leave us? Mostly hoping that when Gronkowski returns from injury the offense will be better. (It should be.) There was nothing to hang their hats on yesterday; Tennessee outschemed them, outsmarted them, and outplayed them. The Bye week couldn't be coming at a more important point.

Biggest ongoing concern: The offensive play on the road has been poor. The offense scored only 10 points in Detroit, 24 in Chicago, 18 in Buffalo, and just 10 yesterday. And if not for two special teams TDs in Chicago, they'd be 1-4 on the road and fighting to stay atop their division.

Non-Brady MVP: Edelman was really the only standout, 9 receptions for 104 yards and a completed pass for the second straight week.

Statistical Oddity: James Develin ran the ball for the first time since October 12, 2014. And he made the most of it, scoring the team's only touchdown.

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Bye week seemed to start a day early for the Pats."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-3!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Patriots Top Packers 31-17

The Patriots scored two late TDs to take a 31-17 decision over the Packers at Gillette last night. The win helped them keep pace with the Chiefs, still one-game behind them for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next week is a trip to Tennessee to visit with old friend Mike Vrabel (the head coach there).

I'd like to do something different this week. A quick breakdown of the offense, and some in-depth stuff on the defense, which has been fascinating to watch this season.

The Patriots pulled out all the stops on offense. They used two flea-flickers, played receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at running back (btw, he led the team with 61 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per run), and targeted fullback James Develin more times (2) than receiver Chris Hogan (1).

Tom Brady mastered things pre-snap, but he was off on several throws again, just like last week. The absence of Sony Michel and Gronkowski hurts them a lot. Without those two, there is more pressure on James White, and at the moment, the receivers can't get separation without Gronk to take defenders off of them.

As for the defense, the team has put in some really interesting wrinkles. In the past, they've changed defensive schemes midway through games, sometimes having a different plan for each quarter. But for the most part, those were changes from 1-gap to 2-gap on the D-line, from man to zone, or from pressure to dropping eight into coverage.

However, in this game the changes were much more dramatic. They started mixing in what I'd call their "novel defenses." These are the non-standard defenses that Belichick and his staff mostly put in for single games, where they needed to confuse the opposing QBs or receivers.

Here are three examples they used last night. The Amoeba, where multiple defenders mill around pre-snap so the offense doesn't know what they are going to do. The Bullseye, where a specific player is targeted to get hit every play (famously used against Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl 36). And an unnamed one where nine or ten players are at the line of scrimmage, but instead of man-coverage, they drop into a zone.

I saw the Pats use the Amoeba a few times, the Bullseye at least five times, and the unnamed defense 5-8 times. (And that's just my count watching live, the actual numbers were likely higher.) And they switched from one to another within the same drive, giving Aaron Rodgers and his receivers a lot to think about every single drive.

Additionally, new D-coordinator Brian Flores has the front four doing more stunts and games, sometimes allowing them to ignore running backs to get after the QB. He also called the soft-release-undercut highlighted in the Bills game by Chris Collinsworth during the broadcast. Collinsworth said specifically that every QB in the league reads the soft-release to mean it's a deep safety, so having Devin McCourty undercut it would get an INT off of any quarterback in the league.

It's that kind of game-within-the-game, anticipating how your opponent will respond to you, that keeps the Patriots a step ahead of the rest of the league. They even had a play last night, where O-coordinator Josh McDaniels called a double-pass that was a designed *screen* pass instead of a home run ball. It was so unexpected (and so well executed) that it nearly went for a touchdown anyway!

The Patriots talent isn't what it has been in past years. But the innovations from their coaches, along with players who can execute those plays (and change modes so quickly) makes them ever dangerous. It's another example of the Patriots playing chess while the rest of the league is playing checkers.

In my opinion, if they could couple that with the talent of the Rams (for example), they'd threaten for a perfect season every year.

So where does that leave us? 7-2 and still breathing down the necks of the Chiefs. The division isn't quit a foregone conclusion yet; the 5-4 Dolphins are only two games back, and the teams play in Miami later this year.

Biggest on-going concern: The health of Gronkowski and Michel. Edelman doesn't have the same burst out of his breaks, so they need Gronk to draw coverage. And without Michel, the workload on James While will be too much by season's end.

Non-Brady MVP: Trey Flowers, a one-man wrecking crew on defense.

Statistical Oddity: One week after being criticised in this space, Ryan Allen posted the best regular season net average of his career: 49.7 yards per boot, no returns. Not bad... maybe I should criticise one of the cornerbacks next week :D

(Trivia question: Allen did have a playoff game with a higher average, can you guess the year or the opponent? Answer below.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Gadget plays might not win it all for you, but wins now can get you home field, which could win it all for you."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-2!

PPS. My "perfect season" of predictions just went by the wayside. I predicted before the season that the Packers would win this game. But I'm always happy to be wrong about a loss :D

PPPS. Trivia Answer:
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In Allen's rookie year of 2013, he had one punt for a 55 yards, and minus-1-yard return, for a net average of 56 yards. The opponent? The hapless Colts, of course!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Patriots Outclass Buffalo, 25-6

The Patriots shoved the Bills aside in Buffalo last night, 25-6. The game put the Patriots at 6-2, two games ahead of Miami in the division. Next week it's the Packers coming to town for a Sunday night tilt at Foxboro, a game that promises to be more competitive and compelling.

Lackluster is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this game. One rushing touchdown, one pick-six touchdown, and a bunch of play between the 20s.

The Pats showed real disdain by playing Cordarrelle Patterson at running back (which I think was punishment for the previous week's fumbled kickoff). And Bill Belichick seemed to have nothing up his sleeve for this game, as if nothing special was needed to beat Buffalo. Turns out, that second part is true.

Just a quick update, a few "Up" and a few "Down," and some small matters to get to before next week's Brady/Rodgers showdown.

Up:

  1. The Patriots secondary had tight coverage almost all night long. Very few open receivers, though the receivers aren't all that great.
  2. Trey Flowers is so good at disrupting the offense, whether it's pressure on the QB (2 hits), knocking down passes (1), or tackling running backs for a loss (2).
  3. Kyle Van Noy led the team in tackles (8), had 2 sacks for 14 yards, hit the QB twice, and forced fumble. That's two really good games in a row for Van Noy.
  4. Rob Gronkowski, but mostly when he was blocking for running backs. He only had three catches, but was very good sealing edges or opening holes for the backs... all two of them.
  5. Julian Edelman was more in sync with Brady, making 9 grabs for 104 yards.

Down:

  1. Special teams appear to be falling apart. Stupid alignment penalty on a kickoff, poor coverage, missed field goal, and no returns to speak of.
  2. The defense got caught completely by surprise by the Wildcat offense... ten years after it was last effective.
  3. Their situational execution was poor; too many failed third downs (36% blech), too many burned timeouts early in the first half, and some bad short coverages on third downs for the defense.

Let's just sum it up by saying it's a good thing they were playing the Bills. Maybe they saw their next free agent acquisition last night, as the few good Buffalo players are likely anxious to skip town in 2019.

So where does that leave us? 6-2 and atop the division is good. Still one game back of KC for the first overall playoff seed. But there is time for Andy Reid to choke down the stretch.

Biggest ongoing issue: Special Teams for the fourth week this season. I bet they can't wait for the Bye week to get some of this stuff straightened out.

Non-Brady MVP: Kyle Van Noy, all over the field and looking better by the week.

Statistical oddity: Prior to this season, punter Ryan Allen had three games where he averaged less than 30 yards net per punt. He's done that twice in the last five weeks (28.8 last night, 28.5 against Miami). I wish he had a real special teams coach to lean on right about now.

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "This next game might be their biggest test of the season -- and their last one until the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Patriots Wrestle Bears Into Submission, 38-31

The Patriots alternated brilliant plays with idiotic plays and held on to beat the Bears, 38-31 yesterday. The win puts them at 5-2, a game up on Miami for the AFC East crown and tied with the Chargers for second place in the conference. Next up are the hapless Bills next Monday night.

This was easily the sloppiest game the Patriots have one in at least ten years. Three turnovers without an interception. Two hideous penalties on special teams that gave the Bears life twice in the game. Losing outside contain over and over to allow the Chicago QB Mitchell Trubisky to run all over the place. Horrible clock management. Unnecessary timeouts in the first half that left them nearly unable to challenge plays.

It's the kind of football we've grown accustomed to seeing other teams play when facing the Pats. Rarely does  New England play that way, and when they do, they usually lose (see the Eagles game in 2015). The reason they won? The Bears were very accommodating hosts.

Trubisky missed multiple wide open receivers, and he was intercepted twice (and should have been intercepted two other times). The tried to get Cordarrelle Patterson to return kickoffs, and he rewarded them with a fumble -- before he killed them with a 95-yard return for touchdown. And of course, the Pats blocked a punt and returned that for a TD, too.

Painting in broad strokes, here is what went well and poorly.

The pass rush disrupted the Bears offense, pushing the QB out of the pocket and slowing the running game at the same time. However, Adrian Clayborn lost containment way too often, allowing Trubisky to extend drives with third-down runs and to total 81 yards and a touchdown. This game is Exhibit A of why Belichick preaches "setting the edge" and "holding your contain."

It is interesting to see them blitzing more. This probably owes to the new semi-D-Coordinator, Brian Flores. And I suspect they are experimenting a bit to prepare for what they'll need in the playoffs.

The secondary was way up and way down. Far too many open receivers running around, many of which were missed by the Bears. But both interceptions were 50-50 balls that the Pats defenders simply out-fought the Bears for. J.C. Jackson's INT was extremely impressive, as he dove down with the receiver and scooped it away with one hand.

On offense, the Pats mixed run and pass very well. Sony Michel (4 rushes for 22 yards) fumbled once, on a play where he injured his knee and was done for the day. And once he was out, James White (11 for 40) picked up the slack nicely, aided by Kenjon Barner (10 for 36). Add in Tom Brady's "slowest six yards you'll ever see," and the Pats topped 100 rushing yards for the fourth time this season (they are 4-0 in those games).

The run blocking has been excellent for weeks now (they had 173 yards against KC, sorry I didn't write up that one). And in this game, they were actually able to gain rushing yards even when everyone in the stadium knew they were going to run. That's impressive, because they usually can't.

Julian Edelman was doubled all day long, without Rob Gronkowski (who missed the trip with a back injury) to take up defenders. So the Pats depended on White for the short stuff (8 catches for 57 yards and 2 TDs) and Josh Gordon for the long stuff (4 for 100). Chris Hogan had a nice game, too (6 for 63). And all the receivers get special praise for their run-blocking, both on rushing plays and downfield after pass receptions.

Which brings us to special teams. What to say about special teams... hmmmm. Okay, they were great and they sucked.

The good:

  • The blocked punt was something they obviously saw on film. Because they brought 9 or 10 people on that play, when they usually only rush about 5 or 6.
  • Patterson's electrifying 95-yard kickoff return, where he ran right up the gut, made one move, and was then off to the races.
And the bad:

  • A delay-of-game-penalty on the kickoff after Patterson's big return. On a kickoff -- I haven't seen any of the crap teams in the NFL do that in a long time. And I wouldn't expect it from this team.
  • An unsportsman-like penalty on a punt that brought the ball from Chicago's 23 to their 38, giving them a chance to score before the half (which thankfully they did not).
  • A facemask penalty on a kickoff that gave the Bears great field position, from which they scored a touchdown.
  • Short Stephen Gostkowski kicks. Enough already, Joe Judge -- have him kick it through the end zone!
  • A list of unacceptable "net yards" on Ryan Allen punts: 30, 38, and 13. That last one was booted through the end zone from the CHI 33 yard line. No excuse... if you can't drop it down inside the 10, then try for the coffin corner kick. But don't kick it through the end zone (that's Gostkowski's job, Joe Judge!).
The coaches had good offensive and defensive gameplans. But the offense executed while the defense did not. As for special teams, most of what you see above is on the coaches. Might be time for a change there.

Where does that leave us? 5-2 is better than 4-3, so the win was important. I suspect this was a hangover game, after playing KC in prime time last week. At least that's what I tell myself, as I'm whistling past the graveyard :D

Biggest ongoing problem: Still special teams.

Non-Brady MVP: Trent Brown, the left tackle who destroyed one defensive end after another. Not a bad pickup for a swap of draft picks with the 49ers.

Statistical oddity: Including yesterday, the 2018 Patriots have twice lost the turnover battle 3-2, and twice they won the game. (Trivia question: what was the other game... answer below.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Take the win and do better next week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:V
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The Pats beat the Houston Texans opening day despite losing the turnover battle 3-2.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Patriots Handle Colts, 38-24

By now you almost certainly know the Patriots beat the Colts, 38-24, last Thursday night. The victory puts them at 3-2, and with the Dolphins loss today, they are now tied for the AFC East lead. Seems like a long time ago the Pats were in a "must win" situation against Miami.

I just got around to watching the full game and had a few thoughts to share.

The Pats weren't as impressive as the score indicated. Even though the offense is starting to find its groove, the two tipped-ball interceptions kept the Colts in the game. And without a fluky INT by the Pats' Jonathan Jones, the outcome could well have been in doubt. New England will have to play better against teams that aren't as undermanned as Indy was.

Julian Edelman looked very good in his return, notwithstanding the one pass he dropped. His routes were crisp, and he showed his same old moves once he had the ball in space. That includes his two punt returns. (Note: looks like he'll be doing that for the rest of the season - the Pats cut Cyrus Jones, who was signed two weeks ago to return punts.)

Tom Brady was outstanding. Neither INT was his fault, and in fact, both should have been completed passes. He stood strong in the pocket, absorbing hits to complete passes, some of them ridiculous (one to Gronkowski was particularly amazing). And in general, his command of the field has been great the last two weeks.

The running back tandem of Sony Michel and James White are playing great. White had 10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. While Michel had 18 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. As the season progresses, expect them to improve their balance of running plays and pass receptions. And once they do, the offense will be even more dangerous. (Note: both have been decent in pass protection, too.)

I wasn't as impressed with Josh Gordon as some. His TD catch wasn't so much a great play as a blown coverage by the Indy defense. #41 of the Colts took a terrible angle with the ball in the air, allowing Gordon to slip between him and the corner. Also, Gordon missed the read on a comeback route, leading to a Pats punt when it should have been an easy first down.

Still, Gordon is learning the offense (caught a tough one over the middle), and as he gets the route-trees down, he should be more and more effective.

On defense they did what they needed to do, no more no less. The secondary is playing much better, though they were helped by several Indy drops. The linebackers are okay, though their supposed star, Dont'a Hightower, isn't recovering from his injury very quickly. And the defensive line is playing with energy and mucking things up for the other offenses, which helps the back seven immensely.

Devin McCourty's 14 tackles led the team, but he got beaten in coverage a few times. However, he probably made up for it with a Bruschi-esque strip of the ball for a turnover. The secondary did knock away 10 total passes; some games they have only one or two. Devin's twin brother Jason had two of those, Jones two more, and Stephon Gilmore had three.

The D-line looks like a bunch of interchangeable nobodies. But they are playing well together, doing more stunts and games up front while keeping the last two QBs in the pocket. Trey Flowers is the only star in that group, and his return has paid dividends. And I'm still seeing some special blitz packages from D-coordinator Brian Flores, which I expect will help them as they move through the season.

Special teams continues to be a sore spot. This week, they had a chance to pin Indy back at their 20 after the Colts had a penalty on a kickoff. Instead, the Pats took the five-yard penalty, kicked it through the end zone, and had a penalty of their own! So they lost 10 yards on that trade, with a decision that actually made no strategic sense at all.

And punter Ryan Allen boomed a 59-yard punt, only to have it returned 33 yards because he outkicked his coverage. Those little mistakes haven't cost them any games to this point. But they need to clean up their special teams strategy and execution if they expect to make a run toward the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? 3-2 and atop the AFC East sounds about right. The next game is against KC on Sunday. Should be a barn-burner, as the Chiefs are 5-0 and their QB is on fire of late.

Biggest on-going issue: Special teams play takes the top spot for a week. ST coach Joe Judge needs to clean up the mistakes and stop with the strange kickoff strategies.

Non-Brady MVP: For the second straight week, James White edges out a win. Almost gave it to Patrick Chung, but White was more important.

Statistical oddity: On two consecutive offensive plays, the Patriots scored 34-yard touchdowns (one a Michel run, the other a Gordon reception.)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Why is the KC game always the pivotal one?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fish Squished, Patriots Rout Miami 38-7

If you took the Dolphins getting 30 points; you and they still lost yesterday :P

The Patriots outclassed the current AFC East leaders, throttling them 38-7 in a game not even that close. The victory helped the Pats pick up a game on Miami in the division (still one game back), and also on the Bills and Jets, both of which lost.

This game was the polar opposite of last week. Everyone appeared to play or coach much better, and it'll be hard to pick out many negatives (though that usually doesn't stop me). But the offensive turnaround in this game was helped greatly by three players who weren't with the team last year.

Rookie running back Sony Michel was consistently good from beginning to end. He ran with power and elusiveness, toting the rock 25 times for 112 yards and his first NFL touchdown. He was not involved in the passing game, as he has had trouble picking up the routes. But improvement there should come with time. Meanwhile, it's nice to have a semi-replacement for Dion Lewis.

Oft-troubled receiver Josh Gordon was key to keeping three drives alive, and all three ended in scores (17 total points). His first reception with the Patriots was a first-down grab on third-and-six. Early in the second quarter, an incompletion thrown his way drew a flag for another third-down conversion. And in the second half, his second reception converted yet another third down. Nothing earth-shaking, but a good start to his New England career.

And even oft-maligned receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson got into the act, with an electrifying 55 yards touchdown bomb. He also had a nice run on an end-around, and should have drawn an interference call on a quick throw in the end zone on the first drive. Regrettably, he fell down yet again after catching a swing pass... sigh. But overall, serious improvement in his pass receiving.

As for the regulars on offense, QB Tom Brady played a decent game: 23 of 35 (65.7%), for 274 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 94.2 QB rating. That rating would be higher is he'd stop throwing long passes to Phillip Dorsett, two of which were picked off in this game. But he also had a ridiculously great throw on James White's touchdown, lofting it high before White even broke to the corner of the end zone.

Dorsett had an outstanding touchdown catch of his own, summersaulting through the air to get the ball just before it hit the ground. White also was his usual dependable self: 8 catches for 68 yards, and a great TD run. And tight end Rob Gronkowski was okay, but had to leave with an ankle injury.

The O-line did a great job blocking for the run, and an okay job pass protecting. Brady wasn't sacked, but he did get hit seven times and was hurried a fair amount.

The defense was nearly unrecognizable from the week before in Detroit. They played with energy and speed, blew up plays before they got started, and used new rush techniques that I'll get to in a moment.

The names on the defensive chart are almost unknown. Jonathan Jones is a DB who led the team in tackles with eight and knocked away a pass. John Simon joined the team about 10 minutes ago and had five tackles, including a sack for ten yards! And the teams only INT came from J.C. Jackson, who had played 12 defensive snaps all year before yesterday.

The secondary did a great job of taking away the opposition's first read, forcing the QB to wait in the pocket for an extra beat. And that is when the Patriots secret weapon came into use: they actually rushed the quarterback for a change!

I know that seems radical, but multiple times in this game, they threw off their "rush under control" agenda. They had the interior linemen simply bull-rush toward the QB, pushing the pocket back. At the same time, outside rushers were closing in from the edges, and several plays featured delayed blitzes to further confuse the Dolphins. And that rattled the Miami QB into a bunch of bad throws.

It could be this was only used because the game was in hand and the Patriots didn't fear Miami's running game. But a little birdie told me these strategies will be refined during the season, to be put to the test if/when the Patriots make the playoffs. (And yes, by "little birdie" I mean that voice inside my head that channels Bill Belichick.)

It wasn't perfect on defense, but it was much better than the last two games. Most impressive of all was pitching a shutout until garbage time, despite Miami starting four drives on their own 36, 36, 38, and 40 yard lines (none of which resulted in a score).

Which brings us to special teams, the one weak spot in the game. ST Coach Joe Judge, please have kicker Stephen Gostkowski boot his kickoffs through the end zone whenever possible. He kicked off seven times yesterday, and only once did Miami start inside its own 25 yard line. Stop with the misdirection, trickery, and "cunning plans" -- they aren't working. Gostkowski has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, use it!

So where does that leave us? 2-2 is right where your humble blogger predicted they'd be at this point in the season. With a winnable game against the Colts this Thursday (at Gillette), and with Miami traveling to Cincy, the Pats could be tied for first place by next Sunday.

Biggest on-going issue: Inconsistency. There will be no AFC East crown or playoff run if the Patriots don't play more consistently going forward. The return of Julian Edelman should help, as will continued improvement from Michel. But until they put together three good games, it'll be hard to trust them come December/January.

Non-Brady MVP: After some internal squabbling, it's James White. 8 carries for 44 yards, and 8 catches for 68 yards, and two touchdowns speak for themselves. (Note: it was almost Phillip Dorsett, but his drop of a long pass in the second half cost him the award this week.)

Statistical oddity: Brady tied Vinny Testaverde for most different players one QB has thrown a touchdown to (both have 70). The difference is, Testaverde played for seven teams, Brady just one. (And watch for another entry on this later this year; Brady hasn't thrown one to Michel or Gordon yet!)

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Is it time warm up 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss' yet?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Patriots Flattened by Lions, 26-10

The Patriots played pretty much like this blog entry -- a day late and a dollar short -- and came up lame in a 26-10 loss. The game leaves them at 1-2, two full games behind 3-0 Miami in the division. Up next, those same Dolphins come to town for what is a sneaky important game this early in the year.

The Pats actually scored to end the first half and again the first time they got the ball in the second half. Unfortunately, that was all the scoring they did. Aside from those two drives (the TD was on a short field after an INT), they averaged 3.75 plays per drive, including three consecutive three-and-outs to start the game -- the first time that has happened to the Pats game since Belichick became head coach.

So when you hear people blame the defense, take it with two grains of salt. The offense bears its share of the blame, first for not scoring enough, and second for never giving the defense a chance to catch its breath. After all, the Lions D only made 39 combined tackles, the Patriots had to make 71 of them. And if you need more proof, time-of-possession was: Detroit 39:15, New England 20:45. Blech!

Pretty much everyone on the Patriots had a bad game. And it didn't help that they were missing three key pieces on defense: Trey Flowers, Patrick Chung, and Eric Rowe. Oh, and before you scream that Rowe isn't any good, his replacements were significantly worse, hard as that might be to believe.

Duron Harmon was not good in place of Chung. And the rotation of corners were worse that Rowe, who at least competes and does his best. As for Flowers, the Pats have absolutely no one on the roster to replace him, so when he is out, it just hurts.


On defense, the "bad pie" falls mostly to linebackers who can't cover in the passing game (or don't know their assignments yet), a defensive line that got pushed around all night in the running game and got no pressure on the QB, and confusion that culminated in a "12 men on the field" play that we usually see from other teams.

Dont'a Hightower looks limited by injury. Elandon Roberts hasn't progressed. And for the time being, Ja'Whaun Bentley (who got his first INT) is good but still misses assignments due to inexperience. Without a trade, there are no reinforcements coming. So better hope that Hightower gets healthy and Bentley continues to improve.

On the D-line, at least Deatrich Wise Jr. showed some spirit. He sacked the QB once and also got another QB hit, and he tried to get his teammates to up their emotional intensity. But it was for naught; because former D-coordinator Matt Patricia knew exactly how to slice up the Pats defense.

Offensively, it really does come down to execution. On the first possession of the night, Tom Brady threw a deep pass to Chris Hogan on third-and-four, when he had a running back open over the middle for an easy first down. Result: punt. Same thing on the second drive, except it was to Phillip Dorsett this time. Result: punt. And on the next drive, they tried a run up the middle on third-and-one and got stuffed. Result: punt.

Each of those times, a better play call or better execution would likely have gotten the first down. But they are taking too many deep shots on third downs, and it has been years and years since they could line up in a running formation and overpower the defense to get a first down.

Offenses hate to be called "finesse," so I'll just say the Pats offense depends on deception and trickery more than most. That is its strength, and they need to play to it more often.

Sure there are a lack of talented receivers, and the offensive line has only been okay this year. But it's execution under pressure that is killing them. When Julian Edelman returns, things will look better. However, the team won't be doing much this year if they can't get Chris Hogan or Sony Michel integrated into the offense.

The special teams standout was returner Cordarrelle Patterson. He averaged 28.3 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 45 yards. And even though it looked like the Lions kickoffs were low and short, I'll take the one positive from it that I can.

Where they go from here is up to them. They have the talent to rip off three straight wins and bring the universe back into alignment. But if they somehow lose Sunday, they'd already be looking at a three-game divisional deficit four weeks into the season. A steep mountain to climb, especially if you lose your home game to Miami, and that's who you trail.

So where does that leave us? Time to get back to basics. Stop with the long throws on third-down and take the easy firsts that are available. Stop trying to integrate Patterson in the offense and let him just return kicks and run "go" routes to gas opposing defenses. And stop thinking your talent will win out - this is the NFL, you take the game or it gets taken from you.

Biggest on-going issue: I'm sick of hearing it's the defense -- it's the offensive execution and some of Brady's decision-making. The defense has problems, but it is exposed the more the offense bungles things up.

Non-Brady MVP: Deatrich Wise, Jr., who at least tried to fire up his teammates.

Statistical Oddity: This is the first year since the introduction of overtime that four teams are 1-1-1 after three weeks. (Trivia question: can you name the four teams? Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler wisdom: "Remember: the sky was falling after the KC game in 2014. And that ended with a fifth Lombardi trophy."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V
V

The Packers, Vikings, Steelers, and Browns are all 1-1-1 this season.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Pats Fall To Jags, 31-20

In a game that was pretty much just awful, the Patriots dropped their first contest to the Jaguars, 31-20. The loss puts them at 1-1, tied for second place in the AFC East, behind the Dolphins. Next up is a Sunday night tilt in Detroit next week, facing old friend Matt Patricia's pathetic Lions team.

Going off last week's "September is the preseason" theme, if it was, the Patriots would cut about half the team based on yesterday. 33% third-down conversions (4-of-12) doesn't even tell the story; they had play after play there to be made on third-down and failed time and again. The pass rush fell asleep after Trey Flowers went out with a concussion. And two special teams gaffes literally cost them a chance to get back into the game late.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: It was probably second tight end Jacob Hollister, who caught 3 passes for 35 yards, nearly matching his 4 catches for 42 yards from all of 2017. He also had some decent blocks, but honestly, if I'm scraping this far into the barrel, it obviously wasn't a great offensive day for the Pats.

Steady Eddie: James White, who caught 7 passes for 73 yards. He had one really nice run after catch, but unfortunately came up short on a third-and-five near the end of the game, forcing a Patriots punt.

Disappointment: QB Tom Brady was off-target on several throws, overthrew a 40-yard bomb on a third-and-five when the game was still winnable, and chose to throw to White on that fateful third down when wideout Phillip Dorsett was wide open for the first down. Just a really bad day for Brady.

Overall: They averaged 3.4 yards a rush, and 6.3 yards per pass attempt, both really mediocre numbers. They undertargeted Rob Gronkowski, overtargeted Coradarrelle Patterson, and just blew it time after time on third downs. A very poor performance indeed.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Could it be that Kyle Van Noy is rounding into shape after all this time? It wasn't just that he led the team with six tackles or that he got his first INT since 2016. He also had a pass defended, and made some decent plays against the run. (Probably a one-game thing, but we can always hope...)

Steady Eddie: Sure Stephon Gilmore gave up a touchdown, but he also made five solo tackles, forced a fumble, and knocked away two other passes. In year two, he is what wanted him to be in year one - an excellent corner who covers one-on-one without help.

Disappointment: So many to choose from, but defensive end Adrian Clayborn gets the nod from me. He continually overshot the QB pocket, at least twice letting Blake Bortles run for easy first downs through a spot Clayborn vacated. Sure he got two hits on Bortles, but what good did that do when he gave up first downs instead of getting the team off the field.

Overall: Also bad yesterday were Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, and new linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley. Bentley's performance can be explained as growing pains; what excuse do the rest of these guys have?

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: None.

Steady Eddie: Punter Ryan Allen averaged 45.3 net yards per kick, had one downed inside the 20, and only had one returned (once the team was gassed late in the game).

Disappointment: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal early and then blew it with a kickoff that landed one yard inside the end zone when he was told to have it land just short of the end zone.

Overall: The Pats also messed up when Jacksonville jumped offside on a fourth-and-inches late, and the entire punt team forgot to move to draw the penalty. Coach Belichick was livid on the sidelines after, and rightfully so.

So where does this leave us? 1-1 is right where I thought they'd be at this point. Didn't expect this bad of a beating, but the opening schedule was probably the toughest part of their 2018 slate. If Flowers doesn't come back next week... hell, it won't make a difference against the Lions. Will it?

Biggest on-going issue: This week it was the complete lack of pressure once Flowers went down. The reason Bortles looked great is he was under no pressure. And the Patriots don't have the defensive backfield to hold up without a pass rush. Is Chandler Jones available in a trade?

Non-Brady MVP: The clock operator in Jacksonville, who kept things moving so the game would end quickly

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In just two weeks, receiver Phillip Dorsett has as many receptions (12) in 2018 as he had all of 2017, despite playing in almost every game last year. He also has more touchdowns (1) in 2018 than he had in 2017 (0).


Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Pats win in January in Foxboro, Jags win in September in Florida. What does that say about how a playoff rematch would go?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Patriots Top Texans, 27-20

It wasn't always pretty, but in the end, the Patriots prevailed Sunday, beating their long-time whipping boys, the Houston Texans, 27-20 in Foxboro. The win put them at the top of the AFC East, tied with the Dolphins (also 27-20 winners), with the Jets game still be to be played Monday night. Next up is a trip to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday.

This game reminded me of why some commentators say the first month of the season is similar to what the preseason used to be. Five turnovers, sloppy tackling, poor clock management (by the Texans), and a few whiffs by the Patriots offensive line. The lack of playing time in the preseason was obvious to anyone who watched even a quarter of the game. With luck, things will look better as the season progresses.

Offense

Pleasant Surprise: The biggest surprise on the Patriots offense was receiver Phillip Dorsett. He tied for the team lead with seven receptions, gaining 66 yards, and scoring his first touchdown with the Patriots. His routes were crisp and he caught every ball thrown his way.

Steady Eddie: Quarterback Tom Brady went a ho-hum 26 of 39 (67%), for 277 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 (tipped-ball) interception. His QB rating of 102.2 would have been exactly in the middle of last year's regular-season games (8 better, 8 worse), and he was solid if not spectacular.

Disappointment: I'll probably be the only one who says it, but it's tight end Rob Gronkowski. His numbers were great (7 catches, 123 yards, 1 touchdown). But his ball security on the Pats first drive of the second half was terrible, leading to an easy punch-out and fumble recovery by the Texans.

And to add injury to insult, running back Jeremy Hill was hurt (it looked bad) while trying to make the tackle after the fumble. The Patriots could have essentially ended the game if they scored on that drive. Instead, it was nip and tuck until the end; thanks in no small part to Gronk's mistake. Like I said earlier, looked a bit like the preseason out there.

Overall: The running game gained a decent 3.9 yards per carry, and ironically, most of the pressure on Brady came late in the second half when you'd think New England would run the ball to keep the clock moving. Those two things tell me the Pats offensive line is still a work-in-progress. Decent for the moment, but not great yet.

The running backs played well, led by Rex Burkhead (18 carries for 64 yards). And the coaches tried to take advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson's speed by running him on end-arounds and jet-sweeps. It worked pretty well; but it'll be more impressive when he catches a back-shoulder throw from Brady.

Defense

Pleasant Surprise: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore didn't disappoint, knocking down two passes and snagging an interception. But the surprising thing was he lead the team with eight tackles. He only made that many tackles in one game last year (Pittsburgh), and he averaged less than half that many per game (3.8) for the 2017 season. Nice to see him comfortable enough with the defense to help make tackles on outside runs.

Steady Eddie: Trey Flowers had another workpail day on the defensive line, 1.5 sacks (for 10.5 yards), 1 tackle for a loss, and three QB hits. Flowers isn't totally alone on the D-line, like he was last year, but he's still the only obvious difference-maker in that group. It appears Deatrich Wise might become a nice compliment to Flowers; but for now, Flowers is their most consistent performer along the front four.

Disappointment: Sharing this "honor" are linebacker Elandon Roberts and corner Eric Rowe. Roberts for not stepping up his game to match rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley. And Rowe for missing multiple assignments and not working hard enough to get through blocks and keep backs from running down the sideline.

Overall: The defense played well, forcing two turnovers from Texans QB Deshaun Watson. They were more aggressive, and the front seven appears to be the strength of the team (along with Gilmore at corner). They probably depended on too many dropped passes, but as the season goes along, they should become better.

Special Teams

Pleasant Surprise: Punter Ryan Allen's gorgeous punt in the fourth quarter pinned the Texans back at their one yard-line. He hasn't had many of those over the years, mostly aiming for inside the 10 yard line. Downing it was helpful, but the kudos go to Allen because gunner Jonathan Jones was uncovered by Houston so it was an easy jaunt down the sideline to grab the ball.

Steady Eddie: Special teams captain Matthew Slater was first to the returner at least twice and redirected two other return plays to other Patriots who made tackles. There's a reason he has made the Pro Bowl for special teams play a record seven times.

Disappointment: Return specialist Riley McCarron has to know that his only job with a fourth-quarter lead is to field the punt cleanly. He blew it, fumbling to give Houston a short field and an easy touchdown. That made the game much closer than it should have been.

Situationally, that play is even worse than Gronkowski's fumble. As Pete Carroll used to say: "Gotta clean it up!" Now take a lap, son...

Overall: Special teams were oddly ineffective in this game. The Patriots were really affected by the new kickoff rule, which states players other than the kicker can't line up more than one-yard off the line of scrimmage. This gives them less of a running start on those plays, and it showed. Houston's average starting position after receiving kickoffs was the 31 yard-line. Last season, Patriots opponents' average start was their own 19.

Might be time to put speedier players on the kickoff coverage squad. Or here's a thought; have Stephen Gostkowski boot it through the end zone, like the Texans did the entire game. That gives your opponent the ball at the 25 yard-line, instead of the 31. Just a suggestion.

So where does this leave us? Still learning on the job, I suspect. The offense looked good given that Julian Edelman won't play until week 4. The defense appears to be unmolded clay at this point, working to learn and communicate better and improve under new coordinator Brian Flores. Still, 1-0 is better than 0-1, so it's fine for now.

Biggest on-going issue: The second cornerback. I still don't see Eric Rowe improving enough to solidify that position, and unless there is a trade in the offing, reinforcements are not on the way.

Non-Brady MVP: Gilmore, locking down one side against the passing attack while the other side works to round into shape.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At 7 hours 10 minutes, the Dolphins/Titans game was the longest in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. (Note: the weather delays helped with that.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "A nice win to start the season, especially when your main AFC rivals, the Steelers, couldn't even beat the Browns. 2018 is off to a great start!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Under-informed Patriots 2018 Primer!

Two days! That's all you have to wait, is two days before the Patriots start their annual romp through the AFC East. And unfortunately, you won't have as much info from me as usual; life has been much too busy for me. But even though I watched only about 45 total minutes of preseason football, I thought I'd share a few things I see in the coming months.

So here goes... the first ever Under-informed Patriots Primer! (Note: this just makes me like the rest of the media, so how bad could it be?)

The Offense

What Changed

1. At left tackle, Nate Solder is gone after starting five of the last six seasons, replaced by Trent Brown, who by all accounts did okay during the preseason.

But what you have to keep in mind is that it mostly doesn't matter. Solder was never great, neither was Matt Light (the man Solder replaced). Both were serviceable and good enough as long as they had Tom Brady's quick release to relieve the burden on them.

The sky isn't falling, even if Brown is only mediocre. Because this position has never been great since Bill Belichick arrived here. And it probably won't be great again this year. But it won't matter, because it never has before.

2. Last year's depth at receiver has been replaced by this year's uncertainty. Gone are Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell (we hardly knew ye), and Julian Edelman (suspended for the first four games).

Without Edelman, the team could suffer one extra loss in the first month, so they might go 2-2 instead of 3-1. But the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson gives them a legitimate deep threat to compliment all-time tight end Rob Gronkowski. And when Edelman returns, they could have a more diverse passing attack than they had last year.

What Stayed The Same

1. Last year the QB depth chart at season's end was Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer. The calendar might have changed, but the depth chart hasn't. Hoyer looked dreadful in the preseason, and Brady looked sharp. You can probably guess that the team will go as far as Brady can take them. Full stop.

2. Both Grokowski and Brady got incentive-laden extensions in the off-season. But that shouldn't change much for either of them. Gronk is still most effective close to the end of the offensive line, and hopefully the Patriots figured that out in their off-season film study.

3. There are new faces at running back, sure... but it's mostly going to be about the same. James White is a decent replacement for Dion Lewis (not quite as shifty, but reliable), and Rex Burkhead and James Develin are back for another year.

The biggest surprise was seeing Mike Gillislee cut after just one year. He never made the impact the team was hoping for after signing as a free agent in 2017.

4. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sold his soul to bail on the Colts head coaching job and stay as OC here. Some think he's the heir apparent to Belichick, but I have other ideas... read on to find out.

On Defense

What Changed

1. Last year's defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, left for Detroit. And even though the title isn't officially his, linebackers coach Brian Flores is calling the defensive signals this year.

I expect the team to improve defensively, because Flores seems more aggressive with blitzes, and that usually translates to better defense in year one under a new DC. The preseason featured more edge rushers in one-gap ("get the quarterback") mode, so you might see more of that in the regular games.

No telling how it will go in the long run, but for 2018, the defense should have more turnovers and play more man-to-man defense than last season.

(And note: Flores would be my choice to replace Belichick if Bill left in the next few years. He's coached a bunch of position groups, and done a great job every time. And unlike McDaniels, Flores made things work without depending on Tom Brady to bail him out.)

2. The absolute disaster at linebacker (after Dont'a Hightower) was somewhat mitigated by fifth-round 2018 pick Ja'Whaun Bentley. He made some really big plays in the preseason. And even though there will be growing pains during the year, he seems to grasp the defense and he has to be an improvement over Kyle Van Noy.

3. At cornerback, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler left for more money. And even though he was their second cornerback last year, I don't expect things to change much in the secondary. The Pats schematic play at corner will be the same as it always is.

They will put Stephon Gilmore alone on the second-best receiver of the other team, and the best receiver will be covered by Eric Rowe (or whomever) with double-team help. People forget that they used Darrelle Revis this way, even though he was considered one of the best corners in the league. It isn't an insult; it's just the way defense is played these days.

What Stayed The Same

1. The safeties look exactly the same, perhaps with the addition of Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason to the mix. They didn't play all that well against the 1s from the other team in the preseason. But expect them to do better as they get more time with the revamped cornerback rotation.

2. Even though there are a few new names, the defensive line looks about the same. Big and beefy inside, and fast and explosive outside.

Predicting The Season

As usual, here are my predictions of all 16 games, before the first snap of the season. Someday I'll go back and find out how well I do at this, but for now, just remember that these predictions are worth just as much as the paper they are printed on.

First Quarter

The first two games are a coin-flip. But I expect them to go 1-1. If they lose to the Texans to start the year, Belichick will pull out all the stops to make sure they beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. And if the Pats beat the Texans, then they will likely lose to the Jaguars. If forced to choose, I'd pick a win over Houston and a loss in Jacksonville.

After that, the Lions are a tough spot on a Sunday night in Detroit, especially because they have the same OC as last year. Expect QB Matthew Stafford to look like Nick Foles in the Super Bowl, and the Lions to win in a shootout.

The next game is a division home game with the Dolphins; chalk up a win to bring the team to 2-2.

Second Quarter

The Colts come to town on a short week for a Thursday night game, which the Patriots should win.

And giving Belichick 10 days to prepare for second-year Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes is unfair; make it a 4-2 start.

Likewise the Bears and Bills pose no threat to the Patriots. They are both in rebuilding mode, so the home team should be 6-2 at mid-season.

Third Quarter

I hate to predict a loss to the Packers the following week, especially since I'll be at that game. But that's what it feels like; a great offense that the Pats defense won't be able to stop.

The Patriots should bounce back with a win in Tennessee the following week, even if Mike Vrabel is the head coach across the way.

That sets them up to beat up on the Jets in NY after a bye week on November 25. They should have plenty of film on rookie QB Sam Darnold, and the bye week seals the deal.

The Vikings come to Foxboro the next week, and Kirk Cousins gets his first look at a Belichick defense. Minnesota is likely to come back to earth after last year, and this should be a win for the Pats.

Fourth Quarter

A lot of years the next two games would look problematic: at Miami and at Pittsburgh. But the Dolphins are in full rebuild mode, so that game should be a Patriots win, even though it can be tough to play in Miami.

The Steelers still have a ton of offensive talent, and they'll want revenge for last year's regular-season loss, so put that down as the Patriots fourth defeat.

The last two games are gimmes at home: Buffalo followed by the Jets. If the games matter to the Patriots playoff ceding, they will win both of them. If not, they could lose the last game because they sit the starters.

That puts them at 12-4 (or 11-5 if they don't need those last two games). Should be enough to earn a first-round bye, and if Brady stays upright, the division is all but assured.

Statistical Rebuke of Last Year: Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots stood at 15-0 in playoff games against teams they had not played during the regular season that year. Unfortunately, the Eagles made them 15-1 at the worst possible time -- in the Super Bowl :(

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!