Monday, October 18, 2021

Patriots Lose a Wild One, 35-29 in Overtime

The Pats hung tough yet again and lost a squeaker yet again, falling to the Cowboys 35-29 in overtime. The loss drops them to 2-4, still in second place in the awful AFC East, but they are quickly falling out of any chance to contend for the play... uh, never mind. Next week the Jets visit Gillette, and here's hoping the team can get it's first home victory of the year.

Back and forth, up and down, roller coaster, what's your favorite way to describe a game with four lead changes in the last 12+ minutes? I'd say trick or treat, in honor of the season. The teams scored a total of 31 in the first 45-minutes and 33 the rest of the way. The Cowboys made a dozen mistakes (between penalties and coaching miscues), but their talent was enough to overcome those problems against an undermanned Patriots squad.

The Patriots are now 2-0 on the road and 0-4 at home. (Trivia question: What is the franchise record for home losses in a season? Answer below.) And the team is proof of how tiny the difference is between winning and losing. On the season, the Pats have given up just two more points than they scored and they are 2-4 and going nowhere. The Chargers have also given up two more points than they scored, and they are 4-2 and leading their division.

The story of this season will be their inconsistency. Yesterday they scored two TDs in the first quarter and two TDs in the fourth quarter. In the six drives between they ran 21 plays for 69 yards and zero points and had a fumble and a blocked punt. You can beat the Jets and Texans that way, but are unlikely to prevail over talented squads like the Cowboys.

But even with all that, they were a Nelson Agholor drop (first play of OT) and a gutless punt on 4th-and-3 in overtime away from maybe pulling it out. Once again, I said it in the stadium at the time, they should have gone for it on 4th-and-3 near midfield. They hadn't stopped the Cowboys since the opening drive of the second half, so punting it away was pretty much giving them the win.

If the Patriots lose either of the next two games, they should be sellers at the trade deadline (November 2). If they drop to 3-5 (or worse) with the bulk of their difficult games to come, they should trade anyone decent who won't be helping them in 2022. Given their play this season, I count 4 winnable games after October, and 7 wins won't get you into the post-season.

It obviously wasn't all bad yesterday; here are some of the better performers:

  • QB Mac Jones went 15 of 21 (71%) for 229 yards, two TDs, and one INT (on yet another tipped-ball). His QB rating was 118.9, all of which are impressive in the face of relentless pressure.
  • RBs Damien Harris (18 carries for 101 yards, 1 TD) and Rhamondre Stevenson (5 for 23, 1TD) ran well and protected the ball very well (two-hands all the time!).
  • LB Ja'Whaun Bentley was everywhere against the run, with 13 tackles and a forced-fumble at the goal line that kept the score 17-14 at the half.
  • S Kyle Duggar made impact stops against the run and got a timely interception in the end zone.
  • DE Deatrich Wise Jr. drew two holding calls early and got 6 tackles.
  • S Justin Bethel, a special teamer who was pressed into duty at safety, made several big plays (including tipping the pass that Duggar intercepted).
Who had a bad day?
  • LB Kyle Van Noy got caught in-between coverage and rushing the passer several times.
  • The O-line still gave up too much pressure: 5 QB hits, 2 sacks, and some unacceptable penalties.
  • Cornerbacks (other than JC Jackson): you can't give up 445 yards passing without breakdowns and poor play.
  • OC Josh McDaniels, who waits until runs get stuffed before calling play-action instead of anticipating it and taking advantage. Also, two full quarters without points was partially due to poor play calling.
  • The entire defensive coaching staff; too many points, too many yards, great on third-down, not good on first- and second-downs, lost contain of Prescott just about every time. And all that includes *two* Cowboys end zone turnovers that bailed them out -- or this game would have been a blowout.
Where does that leave us? The season was sorta in the balance yesterday. Now it's really in the balance. Lose either of the next two and you should sell off pieces at the trading deadline. Win them both, and maybe you played your way back into things.

Biggest on-going concern: That the coaches seem to think Tom Brady will be walking through that door. For decades they played close games as if they knew they'd pull it out at the end. But MJ10 isn't TB12, so they can't be punting on 4th-and-short, getting punts blocked, and hoping other teams will soil themselves in big moments.

Jones might well be the quarterback of the future. If so, let him try (and sometimes fail) when the games are on the line.

Non-QB MVP: Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, who did just about everything he could to keep the Patriots in the game. His opening drive gaffes were soooooo Mike McCarthy.

Statistical oddity: There are six NFL teams with five-or-more wins this season; five of them are in the NFC, pending the Bills game tonight.

Water-cooler wisdom: "I think I hear Don Meredith singing, 'Turn out the lights, the party's over.'"

Keep the faith, if you can,

- Scott

PS. 2-4!

PPS. Trivia answer: the 1990 Patriots went 0-8 at home to set a franchise for homefield futility. Interestingly they could break that record this year, as the extra game makes 0-9 possible.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Patriots *Win* a Squeaker, 25-22 over the Texans

The Patriots hung on and hung on and hung on and then dominated the fourth quarter to pull out a 25-22 win in Houston. The victory leaves them at 2-3, in second place alone behind the 3-1 Bills (their game pending tonight). Next week the red hot Cowboys come to Gillette for Dak Prescott's second tilt against the Pats.

The Texans game was sort of a story of the two halves. Houston dominated the first half, though on the scoreboard it was only 15-9. But after Mac Jones started the second half with his lone interception, the Texans drew up a flea-flicker for a touchdown that had them in command at 22-9. The Texans next five possessions ended: punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, and fumble. The Patriots next five possessions ended: punt, field goal, field goal, touchdown, and field goal.

Houston's implosion included a botched fake-ish punt, a blown timeout, a 56-yard field goal attempt by a kicker who couldn't hit on single-number-roulette, and a roughing the passer penalty that extended a Patriots drive. The Pats weren't perfect during that stretch, but they were good enough to come back against a team that seemed to insist that the visitors take it.

This game clearly was hangover game from the previous week against the Bucs. But in a game where four of the Patriots starting O-linemen were out with injuries/COVID, where they were down to two RBs at a few points, and where a starting cornerback was inactive, they pulled one out when they probably shouldn't have.

You've heard that story before -- about 50 times over the last two decades plus. But this is the first one with Mac Jones at the helm.

Once again the Patriots depended on the rookie quarterback. He went 23 of 30 (77%) for 231 yards, one TD and one (bad) INT. But maybe most important, the team made 14 first downs on pass plays (or runs by receivers), and just 5 from the running backs. (Note: on his interception, he missed a wide-open checkdown to a running back for an easy 5-7 yard gain. That's why it was a bad throw.)

He completed passes to seven receivers, and six of them had multiple catches. Also, Jones audibled to good plays several times, and in a game this close did not waste any timeouts with confusion or indecision.

The receivers by and large did a great job, both catching and blocking downfield. Hunter Henry had 6 grabs for 75 yards and a touchdown, Jakobi Meyers had 5 of his own (for 56 yards), but will regret the long pass he dropped down the sideline. And quietly Kendrick Bourne is turning into the best playmaker on offense.

The running backs were limited partially because the number of backs was limited. Damien Harris had yet another fumble, this one just before he entered the end zone for a touchdown. And that sent him to the bench for a while, but even when he came back, a chest injury limited his action for the rest of the game. They brought back Rhamondre Stevenson and who knows, maybe JJ Taylor will be back from the doghouse if the injuries continue to mount.

The Pats did run for 126 yards, but it never felt like they could do so when needed. Not surprising given the injuries along the offensive line. But with the trade of Sony Michel, fumble-itis of Harris, Stevenson, and Taylor, and season-ending injury to James White, this group is looking pretty thin at this point.

In honor of Halloween month, the defense was trick-or-treat. Houston went touchdown-touchdown-field goal to start the game, and their QB had a 156.2 rating for the first half, with a couple of long passes against seven-man defensive backfields.

The secondary got chewed up all half, though I will say I've never seen a player have 10 tackles in the first half, which safety Kyle Duggar did. Some of the throws were either perfect or lucky, but you can't write off all the problems on that. There was too much blitzing without enough pressure, and they couldn't really stop the run much, either.

What changed? They started using five- and six-man fronts in the second half, sometimes blitzing and sometimes dropping them into coverage. They let the pass rushers loose to speed up the young quarterback, and frankly the Texans had more near misses. Maybe that was just things averaging out. Everything close went Houston's way in the first half, everything close went the Pats way in the second half.

Among the defenders, both only Duggar and linebacker Matthew Judon stood out. Judon had 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, and just caused havoc for the Houston offense. Oh, and Jamie Collins came off the street to notch a huge sack in the fourth quarter; good to have him back, for the third time :)

Special teams was a blowout in favor of the Patriots. Nick Folk booted four field goals, including two 52-yarders and the game winner. The opposing kicker missed two extra points, missed a 56-yarder, and sent a kickoff out of bounds. Punter Jake Bailey averaged 47 yards net, while his counterpart averaged just 27.3 yards, and after a bad "trick play" call booted it off his own team's helmet (for 0 yards).

But the biggest mismatch was in head coaches. Bill Belichick stayed calm and kept his team in position to take advantage of any miscues. Texans head man David Culley had his team ready to go, but he wasted several timeouts, foolishly tried a 56-yard field goal, and went conservative too early in the second half.

The Patriots coaching wasn't great, but it was better than the opposition.

Where does that leave us? 2-3 keeps hope alive for a competitive season. Unfortunately the easier part of the schedule is over, so they'll have to play better in the coming weeks if they plan to finish over .500. Dallas won't be an easy game, but they have to start pulling out games where they can, any way they can.

Biggest on-going concern: Most definitely the offensive line now. The COVID absences should be back next week. But they haven't played well since Trent Brown got injured.

Non-QB MVP: Nick Folk. Two 52-yarders kept them in the game, and he finished the job with a 21-yard kick at the end.

Statistical oddity: Jakobi Meyers now has 116 receptions for 1,390 yards in his career without a touchdown catch. Those numbers are an NFL record. (The irony is he has thrown two touchdown passes in his career!)

(Note: to the best of my knowledge, Meyers is also the only player who's name I have misspelled on this blog. My apologies, Jakobi.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "If they turn things around and just miss the playoffs, will the Bucs or the Dolphins loss sting more?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-3!

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Patriots Lose Squeaker to Bucs & TB12, 19-17

The Patriots played better but it wasn't enough to top the Super Bowl champs in Tom Brady's return to Gillette. The 19-17 loss drops them to 1-3 and into a three-way tie for second/last place in the AFC East. Next up is a trip to Houston to take on the reeling Texans.

It seems apparent to me at this point that the Patriots were looking past the Saints toward this showdown. And of course, it went as expected. Their game plan, in-game adjustments, and performance under pressure were all much better against the Bucs than the Saints.

Given the lateness of this entry, I'll just cover a few topics.

1. Should have gone for it on 4th-and-3

Live, at the stadium, in real time, before they kicked the ball, I said this to the folks around me. Apparently the analytics say that attempting the field goal gave the team a 42% chance of winning, whereas going for it held just a 34.5% chance of a victory.

But the analytics don't take a few things into account:
  • A rainy and windy night makes the kick much tougher
  • The previous two drives: 10 points and a whopping 9.5 yards per play
  • Even if the kick was good, TB (and TB12) would have had 50 seconds and two timeouts to go about 45 yards and try a field goal to win it anyway.
In Super Bowl 49, Belichick famously did not call timeout with the Seahawks threatening to run it in for a winning touchdown. He did this because he sensed confusion on the Seattle sideline and thought a timeout would have helped them. In that case, even though the conventional wisdom was to take the timeout, as head coach his job was to decide if that was right for the game situation.

IMO, he blew this one. Some theorize that he was protecting the young quarterback, allowing either himself or his kicker to take the blame if the field goal was no good. But that's bogus in my book. The game flow and situation said it was best to go for it. And it was actually important because there is a massive difference between a 1-3 and a 2-2 record.

2. Mac Jones won the QB battle

Jones played well in the face of yet more pressure. The O-line allowed 12 quarterback hits and four sacks, and yet Jones completed 77.5% of his passes and got two touchdowns and just one interception (under pressure, naturally). He also audibled to the right play several times and twice he avoided the rush when blitzers came untouched up the middle.

Also impressive was his ability to overcome not one, but two, holding calls on the same drive. They forced him to convert a first-and-20 and also a second-and-20 later in the drive. He was poised, took the plays he could make, and converted both to keep possession.

Brady didn't play great, but of course, just like when he was here, he came up with the plays he needed to win.

3. Matthew Judon can blow stuff up

Judon is a beast against the pass. He had two quarterback hits, one sack, two tackles for a loss, and drew a key penalty on a 50-yard pass by the Bucs. He does lose outside contain against the run, but I hope that doesn't get him in the doghouse because he is so effective against the pass.

4. Josh McDaniels is still mediocre, IMO

Once McDaniels realized the Patriots couldn't run he finally adjusted with play-action on early downs. The problem is it took him way too long to make that adjustment. In the first half they ran the ball on first down 6 times for -14 yards (including a penalty). McDaniels needs to figure out these things faster and adjust quicker.

Once he went play-action the Patriots basically shredded the Tampa defense with short passes most of the rest of the game. In the stands we were calling for that after the first two or three drives -- not sure why we can see what the offensive coordinator can't.

I give him credit for the two trick plays and eventually abandoning the run. But if he'd gone pass-heavy one drive earlier it might have gotten the points they needed to win.

5. The offensive line flat out stinks

As a team the Patriots had 8 rushes for -1 yard. And a wide receiver got 4 yards on an end around, so the rest of the runs totaled -5 yards. Please pause for a moment to consider just how hard it is to end up with negative rushing yards. Especially in a league that stacks defenses to stop the pass.

As if that wasn't enough, they gave up 4 sacks and 12 quarterback hits, and it would have been much worse if Jones hadn't thrown the ball so quickly. Trent Brown's injury doesn't explain it all. Center David Andrews isn't playing well, Brown's replacement tandem have been horrifyingly bad, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn stacks one dreadful game after another.

Does anyone have Dante Scarnecchia's cell number on speed dial? Remember that when he retired the first time the O-line was fine the next year and imploded the year after. That prompted BB to call Scar out of retirement. Well, this is the second year since his second retirement, and it looks like the same pattern.

(And note; Wynn and left guard Michael Onwenu are on the COVID list, so this isn't likely to get better this Sunday against Houston.)

6. Problems with the little things

The team is still making basic mistakes they should have corrected by now. Poorly timed penalties (Matthew Slater, O-line holds), yet another time out because they only had 10 men on defense, a penalty because they had 12 men on defense, and they lost the turnover battle 2-0.

Belichick teams are famous for avoiding these pitfalls. And they can't make any more excuses about the missing/extra players on defense. Someone needs to be punished for this; it can't keep happening.

7. I didn't see the television coverage, but...

Who has their "tongue out Steve Belichick" costume on order for Halloween?

Where does that leave us? 1-3 and hoping to catch fire and get a sniff of a playoff run. The pity is they should have won against Miami and could have beaten the Bucs, which would have given them a 3-1 record and a share of the division lead. Even if they had split those games, 2-2 sounds a lot more hopeful than 1-3.

Unfortunately their offensive line is in even deeper trouble, with COVID taking a toll this week. The Texans aren't good, but at this point no game looks like an easy win.

Biggest on-going concern: The Offensive Line is now the biggest problem on the team. Penalties and turnovers are big. But if they don't improve up front, Mac Jones might not make it through the season.

Non-QB MVP: Judon, a man among boys.

Statistical oddity: In addition to beating all 32 teams, Tom Brady's victory over Belichick marks the 100th head coach he has topped in his NFL career. (Trivia question: who was the NFL head coach Brady beat in his first NFL start? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "This loss was expected; the one to the Dolphins will haunt them later in the year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
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The first game Tom Brady won as a starter in the NFL came over none other than Jim "Playoffs?!?!" Mora, a 44-13 drubbing of his Colts.












Sunday, September 26, 2021

Sloppy Patriots Fall To Saints, 28-13

The Patriots fell to the Saints, 28-13, in a messy game that won't make the highlight reels for either franchise. The loss dropped them to 1-2, a game behind division-leading Bills. Next week the Buccaneers come to town, sporting some quarterback and tight end who used to play here.

This game was a huge blowout in all but the final score (which was a blowout but not huge). The Saints missed two field goals and went way too conservative too early in the second half. That's the only reason the Patriots lone touchdown got them to within one score of tying things up.

I thought before the game the Patriots needed to win the turnover battle to win the game. But they lost it, 3-0 (and 4-0 if you consider the blocked punt a turnover, which I always do). All three official turnovers were Mac Jones interceptions, but only one of those was on him (the first one). The other two came on (1) a tipped ball that should have been caught instead, and (2) a desperation throw at the end of the game.

And the turnover battle wasn't the only problem. Here were the offensive issues in summary:

  • Jones got hit 11 times and sacked twice
  • They ran for just 49 yards (Jones was the leading rusher)
  • Jonnu Smith dropped multiple passes and caused an interception
  • Brandon Bolden was used way too often with the game in question
  • Really poor execution on every single screen pass
  • Most of the receivers can't get separation quick enough
  • Still no speed threat so teams just load up short zones and blitz
  • Almost all of Mac Jones' throws with the wind sailed long
Things were slightly better on defense, but by no means great:
  • They must have missed five sacks on a pocket quarterback
  • Some good run stuffs were offset by gashing runs in key situations
  • The secondary looked overmatched by mediocre WRs
  • They lost discipline against the Wildcat offense (again!)
  • Had trouble getting off the field except when N.O went conservative
Special teams wasn't pretty, either:
  • Kicked off out of bounds, second time in two weeks
  • A Saints defender came free on another punt and blocked it
  • Angled a punt to go out of bounds but it bounced into the end zone instead
As for coaching, they needed to recognize that Jones had trouble throwing with the wind and call shorter routes going that direction. The blocked punt was likely a film-study issue the Pats should have corrected. 18 penalties through three games is way above the norm for New England. And they had yet another slow start on offense, indicating their game plans coming in aren't up to snuff.

And for the love of my Aunt Loretta, why in the world was Bolden taking so many snaps with the game still in doubt? The team's mantra this year should be: "When in doubt, go with youth." JJ Taylor should have gotten those snaps. At least he would have given them a chance at a decent play.

Who *is* playing well, or at least improving? Wideout Jacobi Meyers, linebackers Matthew Judon and Ja'Whaun Bentley, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy Jr. and Davon Godchaux, corner JC Jackson, and kicker Nick Folk. Other than that, every player needs to get better, including longtime stalwarts Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty.

It's obvious the team won't have nearly the level of success I thought they'd have before the season began. So... 

Where does that leave us? 1-2 with two home losses isn't where they need to be. (Trivia question: when was the last year the Patriots started the season 0-2 at home? Answer below.) With the defending Super Bowl champs due in town next Sunday, a 1-3 record is well within the realm of possibility. Time to get it together or start preparing for 2022.

Biggest on-going concern: The overall sloppiness of their play. Too many penalties, loose with the football, missing assignments, costly missed tackles, and sooo many special teams gaffs. I know, the health of James White and the teams seeming inability to stop the run are big. But if they don't clean things up nothing else will matter.

Non-QB MVP: Yeeesh, I guess Meyers because he was the one reliable receiver they had (9 catches for 95 yards). But really, this is like choosing the best rotten apple in the bunch :(

Statistical oddity: For his career, New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston throws an interception on 3.5% of his drop backs, a very high number these days. But against Bill Belichick, he's thrown no interceptions in 67 career attempts.

Water-cooler wisdom: "A year that held the promise of mirroring 2001 looks more like a repeat of 2000."

Keep the faith,

PS. 1-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:

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The last time the Pats started 0-2 at home was 2000, when they had a rookie quarterback on the roster who sorta made something of himself.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Patriots Dominate the Jets 25-6

The Patriots took the Jets to the woodshed, beating them handily 25-6 in New York. The win puts the locals in a three-way tie for first place with the Dolphins and Bills, all standing at 1-1. Next week they play the trick-or-treat Saints, who won in a laugher week 1 and got schooled in week 2.

The Pats defense dominated this game. At the half, rookie Jets QB Zach Wilson had as many passes completed to the Patriots as to his own team (3). By game's end they had intercepted four passes, sacked Wilson four times, and the Jets coaches called a bunch of running plays when they were way behind -- effectively agreeing that they couldn't do anything through the air.

After two games, the New England defense is tied for the second-best scoring defense in the league, giving up just 23 points (Carolina has given up 21). Their secondary played great yesterday, the front seven made more tackles than the DBs, a good sign, and for the season they're allowing just 29% third-down conversions (7 for 24).

Corner JC Jackson played amazing, with two INTs and two passes knocked down, not to mention blanket coverage all game long. Safety Devin McCourty had an interception of his own, was third on the team with five tackles, and also knocked the first INT of the day to Jackson. And Adrian Phillips makes plays every week, a great signing from San Diego (or was it Los Angeles?) in the 2019 off-season.

The front seven improved over the previous week, though they still gave up some gash runs. The linebackers in particular were much better; Ja'Whaun Bentley and Dont'a Hightower led the team in tackles with eight and six, respectively. Hightower also made a few great run forces. Josh Uche and Matt Judon were more active, getting closer in the backfield, and Uche ending up with two sacks to Judon's one.

The Jets did run the ball okay, but Christian Barmore and Devon Godchaux are making the correct reads and stuffing the right gaps on more plays. Lawrence Guy tied for third in tackles and honestly the results against the run haven't been what I'd expect given the level of play. Some lost outside contain explains a bit of it, but the problems on gashing inside runs are hard to diagnose.

On offense, rookie QB Mac Jones completed over 70% of his passes for the second week in a row, going 22 of 30 for just 186 yards, 0 touchdowns, but unlike his counterpart, 0 interceptions. So far he seems to understand which players are likely to be open, takes the heat well, and his performance against the blitz probably means less blitzing going forward.

The running game wasn't as good as it was last week, totaling just 101 yards. But Damien Harris had some tough runs, especially his 26-yard touchdown, on which no fewer than eight Jets defenders failed to bring him down. James White was used as a switch-up back, running successfully out of passing formations, and hanging onto the ball on a wicked hit on one pass reception.

The O-line hasn't been as impressive as they were advertised to be this year. Isaiah Wynn had a really rough day, with a whiff on one sack, and two penalties. But worse than that has been the play of the two replacements for the injured Trent Brown: Yasir Durant and Justin Heron. The team has been switching between the two, and finding nothing but problems. Neither can handle outside rushers so they need help with chipping tight ends or backs. And runs in that direction just aren't going as far they are to the other side. Here's hoping Brown is back soon; because aside from Wynn, the rest of the O-line is playing well.

The receiving duties were well spread-out: six players had two catches or more. No touchdowns among this group, but the longest catches by each player is telling: White's was 28 yards, Jacobi Meyers' was 24, Jonnu Smith's was 19, and Hunter Henry's was 32. That shows they aren't all short passes, there are some shots down the field, which is important in keeping the defenses honest.

Special teams were a mixed bag. Nick Folk made all four field goals but missed an extra point. Jake Bailey punted well, especially his 59-yarder with no return -- but his kickoffs were short and the team gave up way too many yards on kickoff returns.

The coaches had a stellar game. The defensive game plan was outstanding, applying pressure to the young quarterback and waiting for him to turn the ball over. And on offense, the Pats were bottled up early but switched up with some misdirection that paid big dividends against the aggressive Jets D.

They got a better result this time than the last time they faced a Jets team in New York (well, New Jersey) in week #2 with a rookie QB. (Trivia question: can you name the quarterback who beat them in this scenario? Answer below.)

Where does that leave us? Bill Belichick always said the second game of the season is the most important, so you knew he'd put a lot on winning this one. The offense is improving, the defense is definitely improving, and the special teams needs to redouble their efforts. 1-1 is okay for now, a lot better than 0-2.

The Saints won big the first week and lost big this week. It'll be interesting to see what team shows up at Foxboro next Sunday... I'll be there to greet them :)

Biggest on-going concern: The health of Trent Brown. His replacements have been poor and his injury was reported as a calf strain. If he can return soon, it'll be a huge boon to the team's pass protection and running game.

Non-QB MVP: Nick Folk; four field goals and sets a Patriots record with 32-straight made field goal attempts.

Statistical oddity: Folk missed his first two field goal attempts for the Patriots and made the next 32.

Water-cooler wisdom: "Looks like games will be a struggle early on, but they are progressing each week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

PPS. Trivia answer:

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It was Mark Sanchez who beat them in week 2 of the 2009 season.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Patriots Fall To Dolphins, 17-16

The Patriots dropped a very winnable game, 17-16 to the Dolphins. The loss drops them into a three-way tie for last place in the division, all other looking up at the mighty Dolphins and their 1-0 record. Next week is a trip to NYC to take on the Jets, here's hoping they can straighten out their issues and take that one to even their record.

I don't have time for the type of in-depth analysis I'd usually do. But it isn't really necessary. The Patriots should win games where their offense outgains the opponent 393 yards to 259, where they rush for one yard more per carry, where their QB is 20 ratings points better, where they complete more passes (29) than the other team attempted (27), where they hold the other team to 36% on third down while converting 69% of their own, and where the other team has just two decent drives all day and only scores 17 points.

So how did they lose?

Penalties, especially the untimely ones. Twice they took field goals after penalties cost them a realistic chance at touchdowns. The Pats were penalized 84 yards to the Dolphins 28...  yikes!

Turnovers, especially the last one. Two young running backs will be running laps this week. Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled his second NFL carry, and mostly rode the pine the rest of the day. But even with all the mistakes, the late fumble by Damien Harris -- at the Miami 5 yard line with 3:00 left in the game -- *that* was a killer.

If he holds onto the ball, they have a great chance at a touchdown. Hell, they can kneel on it three times and kick the field goal to win at that point. The only thing he couldn't do was turn it over, which he did.

Mac Jones wasn't to blame, the receivers weren't to blame, and the defense wasn't to blame. It all falls squarely on the penalties and turnovers -- things that drive Bill Belichick crazy.

I might write more about this later in the week, but probably not (I'm on my first vacation week since before the pandemic -- and I need the R&R).

Most likely I'll be back to my normal analysis next week; just don't have the time this week.

But some quick thoughts:

1. Matthew Judon is a beast, but lost contain on one long run and had a stupid 15-yard penalty. So played great but BB has enough to humble him this week.

2. Jones was great against pressure, throwing a very catchable ball even when getting hit.

3. Glad to have James White back; he had a fantastic day running and receiving.

4. I have no idea how Nick Folk ended up as the kicker for this game. I can't keep track of the moves they make with him and Quinn Nordin. But Folk was solid, and I guess that's all that matters.

5. More of Josh Uche, please. The guy destroyed a blocker for a sack and just seems to have a knack for getting into the backfield quickly.

6. The new tight ends and receivers look really really good. Agholor did get a few deep shots and the other receivers were key in the controlled passing game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-1!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Patriots Preview 2021: The Schedule

And finally, my latest futile attempt to predict the winner of each of the Patriots 17 games this year, as usual, broken up into quarters of the season (with a bonus Overtime round for the extra game).

(Note: for those keeping score at home, the closest I ever got was in 2007, when I predicted they'd lose the Ravens game and go 15-1. Rex Ryan screwed that up -- he was the Ravens D-coordinator that called time out and gave the Patriots a second chance to convert a fourth down, which of course they did, en route to a 16-0 season.)

First Quarter

The Patriots host the Dolphins to start the season tomorrow. Honestly I'd feel better about this if Cam Newton was starting, because Miami head coach Brian Flores is an excellent defensive tactician and it's Mac Jones' first game. But I have to predict a Patriots win, because otherwise the 'Phins can't be the first 17-loss team -- and that is my dream :)

(Trivia question: Prior to Mac Jones on Sunday, who was the last rookie to start a game for the Patriots at quarterback? Answer below.)

Next week is the Jets, in New York, and the Pats shouldn't have any trouble at all winning this one. A young QB against a Belichick defense, and a team that finished 2-14 last year... Not. A. Problem.

The Saints come to Foxboro the following Sunday. This worries me a bit because Sean Payton is so good. But I suspect BB will have plenty of surprises in store for turnover-machine Jameis Winston, the N.O. quarterback. Put it down as a win.

Then some guy named Brady brings his Buccaneers to town for a Sunday night tilt to start October. It should be an epic game, and the Bucs have to travel across the country the week before to take on the Rams. Much as I'd like to predict a Patriots win, I think the older Tampa players will be fresh at this early point in the season, and their defense will school Mac Jones to some degree, so it's the first loss of the year.

Second Quarter

The Pats travel to Houston next to take on the downward trending Texans. Houston looks pretty awful, and the continuing legal issues with QB Deshaun Watson left them with Tyrod Taylor under center. Another win for our hometown team.

And despite what you saw on Thursday, I don't actually think the Cowboys that great; they are always more smoke and mirrors than actual team. In fact, they haven't been great since the mid-1990s. Belichick's record against the NFC is stellar, so mark this down as another win.

The J-E-T-S come to town after a week off to double-plan for the Patriots. It won't make a difference; they'll take another beating in Foxboro, chalk up another victory for the Pats.

For Halloween the Patriots travel to La La land where they'll take on the improving Chargers. Second week in a row they'll have to play a team coming off the Bye. Given the travel and the extra time to prepare, San Die... I mean L.A. could be tough. Young QB Justin Herbert shouldn't be intimidated, he'll be over 20 starts by then. I foresee a loss here.

Third Quarter

The Pats open November with a contest against the Panthers in Carolina. It's tough to know how it'll go, but BB's good record against the NFC coupled with his defensive domination of new quarterback Sam Darnold (when he was with the Jets) should be enough to get the win.

I hesitate to say it, but the following week the Browns will give the Patriots some trouble. They have easy games against the Bengals and Lions surrounding the Pats game, and they are a serious playoff contender. Something tells me this will be a loss, one of the tougher ones to take this year.

On the other hand, I don't see the Pats having much trouble with the Falcons on their only Thursday night game of the year. Atlanta has three road games surrounding this one at home, and no team handles the short week better than New England. Atlanta's got speed; but Thursday night games are often slugfests, and the Patriots are better prepared for that. Win.

The Titans swing up for a game the next Sunday. Patriots have 10 days to prepare and Belichick will have revenge on his mind from the playoff loss two seasons ago. This will be a very close game but the extra prep time swings the game to a Patriots win.

Fourth Quarter

The last part of the season begins with a tough road game in Buffalo. I expect the Patriots to split with the Bills, but oddly that each team will lose at home. Buffalo has tough road games sandwiching this one (New Orleans and Tampa Bay). They won't take their eye off the ball, but the Patriots actually play the Bills tougher in their stadium than their own. Pats win.

After a Bye week, the local 11 travels to Indy to take on the Colts. The result probably depends on who is the quarterback by then, as newcomer Carson Wentz has had injury problems, including this off-season. Both teams are coming off their Bye week, and I expect the Pats offense to start slow (as it traditionally does) after the Bye. Put it in as the Patriots fourth loss.

If I give the Bills a loss at home, then they'll win the rematch at Gillette. Patriots lose the day after Christmas :(

"I foresee a Jaguars loss to start the new year," I read that in a fortune cookie one time. Young quarterback with enough film for BB to break down his tendencies? Sounds like win #11 for the Pats!

Overtime

If those pesky Dolphins *are* 0-16 by this point, then I'll fly to Miami and go to the game just to watch them lose #17! But alas, I doubt it. However, by then Mac Jones will be well established and Miami should be playing out the string. I know south Florida has been tough on the Patriots -- but maybe, just maybe that was a Brady thing. Fingers crossed -- victory will be ours!

Summary

For those of you who struggle with math, that puts the Pats at 12-5. Clearly a playoff team, probably competing for the division crown.

Is all that expecting too much from the young QB? Maybe. But in reality, my expectations have more to do with improved offensive weapons and a vastly improved linebacking corps on defense.

Time will tell; what are your thoughts?

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer...

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Jacoby Brissett, who started two games when Tom Brady was suspended and Jimmy Garopollo was injured in 2016.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Patriots Preview 2021: Special Teams & Coaching

And we are on to the special teams and coaching. Here are my thoughts on those areas.

1. Kicking Themselves?

Will the Patriots regret going with rookie Quinn Nordin as their placekicker? He was inconsistent in the preseason, hitting some long field goals and missing some short ones.

I think the team sees a pretty easy schedule early on and they are using the first three games as an audition for Nordin. They have Nick Folk on the practice squad in case Nordin can't handle the pressure. But if he can, he'd be a big improvement over Folk, who lacks the leg to hit anything very long at all.

Additionally, it could take the pressure off punter Jake Bailey, who has to kickoff because of Folk's age and lack of depth on his kicks.

2. Returners

Gunner Olszewski was the Pro Bowl kick returner last year, and it was well deserved. He improved a lot during the year, and could be better this year with more experience and knowledge of his teammates.

Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel are back, both playing key roles in kick coverage. Bethel has been better than Slater the last few seasons, which is impressive because Slater has made the Pro Bowl himself about 3,000 times.

Bailey is invaluable, both punting (a Pro Bowler, too) and with his directional kickoffs.

3. Coaching 'Em Up

My blogging was truncated last year, so I didn't get to mention one of the bigger stories of 2020: the replacement of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. In fact, the Patriots offensive line played very well. But apparently it took two men to replace Scar: Col Popovich and Carmen Bricillo were here last year. And Billy Yates was added this year as an Assistant O-line coach, I guess Scar had extremely big shoes to fill.

I wish the team would decide on a defensive play-caller. In the preseason it still appeared that Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo were splitting time at it. By now I'd expect they would know who did a better job.

And I will say that the tight ends didn't show much of anything under Nick Caley last year. I hope he does better with better players. Because if this talented group doesn't do well, it'll be a mark against his coaching acumen. 

4. Back To Basics

I think Bill Belichick relishes the chance to take his team back to basics. Ball security, controlled passing game, stop the run, good situationally (third downs, 2:00 drills, etc.), defensive flexibility, solid kicking game, and players who will run the scheme as he envisions it.

That is how the Patriots won their first three Super Bowls. But since 2007 it had become high-flying offense with defense that tried to hold on and special teams that tried not to make mistakes. They won three Lombardi trophies during that time, but there is no way he liked the game against Seattle (really bad in the last 2:00 of each half) or the Falcons (turnovers).

The last Super Bowl over the Rams was more to his taste. Stifling defense and an offense that made no mistakes and took advantage of the one real opportunity it had.

I suspect BB will like getting back to BB-football. Year 1 of that starts on Sunday

Next up: The Schedule!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS 0-0!

Pats Preview 2021: The Defense

The Patriots didn't just improve on offense. The defense looks a lot better overall, though the absence of corner Stephon Gilmore is a glaring problem.

Here is how the D got better and how they'll look different than last season.

1. Improvement At (Nearly) Every Position

The front seven is much improved across the board. Free agent lineman Davon Godchaux and rookie lineman Christian Barmore both look like perfect fits for a 4-3 Belichick defense. Tough, big, run stuffers who can one- or two-gap and allow the team to let the linebackers and safeties run free to the ball.

The linebackers went from non-existent (they actually started 1 linebacker twice last season!) to a huge strength. Dont'a Hightower returned from a COVID-year opt-out, Kyle Van Noy came back after a year in Miami, second-year 'backer Josh Uche looks like a play-destroyer, and free agent Matthew Judon (from Baltimore) made play after play in the preseason.

This group is so good that Harvey Langi flashed in the preseason and Ja'Whaun Bentley looked great -- and neither cracked the starting lineup!

More later on the secondary, the one place where the team took a step back

2. MJ9

The two MJ's, Mac Jones and Matthew Judon, will be the most significant off-season acquisitions. Judon was a play destroyer in the preseason, showed a great understanding of the defensive concepts, and even though he's undersized, he did a good job holding the edge against the run.

For the old-timers here, Judon looks like Adalius Thomas with a coaching staff more willing to use his versatility and to blitz on more plays. In other words, Judon looks like the real deal; so watch out for #9 on your scorecard.

3. 'Backers Are Back

Last year's linebackers were an embarrassment. When Bentley is your best and you have to play a rookie safety (Kyle Duggar) at LB for multiple games, you know you've shorted yourself at the position.

Bring back Hightower and Van Noy, add Judon, and get another year of improvement from Bentley and especially Uche, and suddenly it looks like a real strength.

And it's important, because Belichick has traditionally based his defense a line that occupies space and players and linebackers who rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, and fly to the football. It was tough to watch last year. This year it'll look a lot more like a normal BB defense.

4. Safety Switch

Patrick Chung retired after quite the career and three Super Bowl championships. But the Patriots are about as ready as they can be for the transition.

Adrian Phillips and Kyle Duggar are both in their second years with the team, and both picked up the defense quickly and were tough on receivers over the middle. Duggar did play some linebacker last year, which makes me respect him even more, because he isn't really built to take on tight ends or O-linemen.

5. The Elephant In The Room: Cornerback

With Gilmore sidelined to start the year (out until at least week 6), JC Jackson is your new #1 corner, with a bunch of JAGs ("just another guy") behind him. Many in the media speculate that Gilmore is sorta-holding-out, claiming an injury so he only has to play half a year to earn his dough.

I'm not convinced; he'd make a lot more next season if he played the entire year. But if it's true, then the Patriots get him back for the tougher part of their schedule and any potential playoff games. Not all bad.

If Jackson is the best corner, expect him to take their opponent's #2 receiver and the team to double-up on the #1. They've done that with players as great at Darrelle Revis, when it made sense, and it isn't a bad way to go. It mostly means the other team has to beat you with their #3 wideout, and not many teams have enough talent to make that work.

6. Putting It Together

The new big guys on the D-line should shore up the running defense, which was suspect last year. Though IMO it was mostly suspect because they didn't have any decent linebackers. So pairing the new linemen with LBs could make the front seven something special.

The vastly improved linebacking corps, along with the hitters at safety, should be able to help cover up the issues at corner. 

New England might have the most talented front seven in the league. And given that, I don't expect as much blitzing as last year. The 2020 team had to take chances that the 2021 team shouldn't need to take to slow down teams.

Next post: Special Teams, Coaching, and The Schedule!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Pats Preview 2021: The Offense

Hello all, how have you been of late? Quite the off-season, wasn't it?

The Patriots didn't take their 2020 sub-.500 season lying down. They spent a record amount on free agents, welcomed back several COVID-year opt-outs, and drafted their QB of the future... or is that the present?

Here are the the key points on offense as we head into a season with lots of new faces, what they mean to the team, and how they are likely to integrate the new folks and scheme things up for the rookie QB.

1. Improvement At Every Position

It's basically inarguable that the Patriots improved every position group on offense. In 2020 they had among the worst quarterback play, the least talented wideouts (especially after Julian Edelman got injured), and had the least productive tight ends by a country mile.

Even the running backs and offensive line are better this season, even though they were both very good last year.

2. MJ10

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones beat out Cam Newton for the starting gig. He seemed to grasp the offense quickly, including blitz adjustments and ball security -- both very important to the Patriots throughout Bill Belichick's time here.

Jones' skillset is more in line with how the Patriots liked to run their offense with the old man who used to play here. Quick reads and passes, largely short throws to the middle of the field and screen passes to avoid the rush.

He won't burn many teams with his feet, but his pocket awareness was good in the preseason and should improve with experience.

3. On The Run

Third-year back Damien Harris looks completely ready to take over the starting role, replacing traded back Sony Michel. J.J. Taylor is the change-of-pace back who might have his eye on James White's third-down role -- though White is back for another season.

Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson looked amazing, though most of his yards came against the second- and third-teamers in the preseason. And note: rookie backs rarely get much playing time here because they have to understand the blitz pickup to get on the field. 

Also, not to be overlooked, blocking back Jakob Johnson is back from injury and was a beast in the preseason. It looked like he missed hitting people and wanted to make up for lost time.

The Pats should lean heavily on the running game early in the year, both to control the clock and protect the young QB. Harris can do it all but they will rotate backs to keep them fresh

4. Better To Receive

Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were the two biggest tight end prizes in free agency, and the Patriots got them both. Henry was injured in the preseason but expects to start the season playing. He and Smith move the Patriots tight ends group from dead last in the league to at least upper-third.

Given how much the Pats offense traditionally flourished with good tight end play, the addition of these two will help immensely.

At receiver, the majority of 2020 had Damiere Byrd and N'Keal Harry as the starters, so just about anything would have been an improvement. So again, they signed two big-ish names in free agency: Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Bourne has been hurt this preseason, but Agholor looked good and returning receiver Jacobi Meyers looked excellent during the fake games. The receivers would have looked better with either Newton or Jones starting, but with Jones pulling the defense in with the tight ends, Agholor specifically should have lots of chances for big plays.

5. Oh! Line

The offensive line looks deep, physical, and well-coordinated. And you can't ask for much more than from that group.

They pushed other teams around in the preseason, running for 170 yards a game, 5.7ypc average, and 7 touchdowns. They were physical, did a great job in pass protection, and the choreography on screen passes as mostly impeccable.

6. Putting It Together

The team should protect Jones by leaning on the running game and the defense (more on that in my next post). In fact, this season might look a lot like 2001; lots of free agents, young QB, solid running game, and a fierce defense. Not that I expect the same result as 2001, but the season could look a lot like that year.

The coaches haven't had this much talent at tight end since Aaron Hernandez got arrested, so it'll be interesting to see how OC Josh McDaniels uses the two TEs. The running game has both power (Harris) and speed (Taylor), and James White will help Jones a lot with his third-down acumen and reliability.

I'm not convinced the wide receivers are going to be amazing. But they will make teams pay attention because they can hurt you if you go one-on-one all day long.

Next post: the Defense!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!