Monday, December 29, 2003

Patriots 31, Bills 0 (12/27/2003)

Another week, another weak opponent. That's four games in a row where the other team had no realistic chance to win the game before it even started. In my first email of the year, I said: "The second half of the season? Well, if [the Patriots] can beat the Jets on 12/20, they could run the table." The Jets got injured and their playoff hopes were dashed long before December, and that just made the job easier.

The Pats waxed the Bills 31-0, in their second-best performance of the year (I think their win in Philadelphia was a little bit better). And in doing so, they secured home field throughout the AFC playoffs, so if they keep winning, their next road game will be Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. They finished an impressive regular season at 14-2, went 8-0 at home, and became only the fourth team in NFL history to win 12 consecutive regular season games. (Note: the other three won the Super Bowl - info courtesy of the CBS broadcast.)

Like the Bills 31-0 victory over the Patriots in Week 1, this game wasn't as close as the score indicated. The Pats offense came out in the no-huddle-no-running-back offense, and scored a first-drive TD for the third game in a row - then followed it up with touchdowns on two of the next three drives. Tom Brady threw touchdown passes to four different receivers in the first half, Antowain Smith averaged 4.9 yards a carry, and David Givens made enough clutch catches to earn "most improved" status (7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown).

The only problems on offense were watching Tom Brady and Damien Woody limp off the field. Brady came back later and was reportedly fine after the game. No report on Woody's condition; but the good news is that his replacement, Russ Hochstein, played pretty well, especially in the running game. I hope Woody is okay, but I've got nothing to complain about - entering the playoffs, the Patriots are one of the healthiest teams.

Special teams played a bit up and down. The kick coverage was great, except for Buffalo's return to the Pats 18 yard line. And Adam missed a 24 yard field goal, though he made one later to atone. And Ken Walter continued his post-exile improvement - averaging 43 yard a kick for the game and putting 9 of 13 punts inside the 20 yard line since he returned. I guess all he needed was some time off. And speaking of that, I hope the Pats spend their bye week working on field goals. They need to do something to regain their timing because missed scoring opportunities in the playoffs can be the difference between advancing and going home.

Last and by no means least, the defense simply overwhelmed the Bills. Last year's Bills thrived on long passes. But those days are long gone, as is a lot of their offensive talent. Their longest pass on Saturday was 28 yards and some longer attempts were knocked away or off target. When Buffalo tried short passes, they were tipped at the line, picked off, or the receiver was tackled for a short gain. They ran for 81 yards (versus 131 for the Pats), and simply couldn't get anything going. Their best scoring opportunity came when they returned the second-half kickoff to the Pats 18. A sack, a pass for a loss, and two penalties later, and they'd worked their way out of field goal range. In fact, both times they started with the ball in Patriots territory, they went for it on fourth down and failed.

The defensive stars of the game were some of the usual suspects: Tedy Bruschi, Tyrone Poole, and Rodney Harrison. The one newcomer to the list was Larry Izzo, who entered the game to give Bruschi a "curtain call" and delivered some punishing hits over the middle and made a great play on his interception that sealed the shutout. The defensive line didn't do much that was spectacular, but they slowed the Bills running game as a unit and kept the pressure on Bledsoe without much blitzing. The defense got two fumbles, two interceptions, and four sacks. All in a day's work for the best defense in the NFL, I suppose.

Oh, and that last line is official. Tampa Bay gave up 33 points, and that, coupled with the Patriots shutout, means the Pats gave up the fewest points in the league this year - a franchise first, along with their first season above 11 wins (they got 14), their first 8-0 home record, and their first #1 seeding in the playoffs. They also had three home shutouts, and gave up almost half their home points in one game (30 against the Titans). But perhaps the most impressive defensive stat (in my opinion) is that only twice this year did the Patriots allow their opponents to rush for more yards than their season averages (Washington and their second game against the Jets). On the season, the Patriots opponents gained almost 115 yards per game against other teams, but only 89 against the Pats - that's over 20% less yardage. A very impressive season, indeed.

So, where does that leave us? Well, we've got next week off to rest and prepare, then at least one home game the weekend after that. If they win, they'll be one home win away from the Super Bowl, which is all you can ask for. As Bill Belichick said, "This is the second season now, and everyone's 0-0." I would add that only one team will finish the playoffs undefeated - they call them the World Champions; and with a season like this, I'll be disappointed with anything less. (I guess your expectations rise when the team recently won a Super Bowl and won more games than anyone else in the NFL.) But for now, it's watch and wait and see which team will be headed our way January 10 or 11.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of the AFC playoff teams, the Pats have already beaten Denver, Indy, and Tennessee. Kansas city is 4-3 in their last seven games, and Baltimore only runs the ball and the Pats always stop the run. There just isn't anyone in the AFC that scares me."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

Monday, December 22, 2003

Patriots 21, Jets 16 (12/20/2003)

With his team riding high four weeks ago, Bill Belichick said to his players: “You want to be compared to the 2001 team? Okay. They won nine games after Thanksgiving, you haven’t won any.” In the four games since then, the Patriots have ten interceptions (two returned for TDs); they controlled Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Fred Taylor, and Curtis Martin in succession; they won in a dome, in two snowstorms, and against a divisional opponent on the road; and they stand alone atop the NFL with a 13-2 record. Ask the Colts, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Jets, and they’ll probably tell you the team responded pretty well to that challenge.

The Pats won another hard-fought divisional road game, toppling the Jets 21-16 in New York. Your local NFL entry has won 11 consecutive games (all by less than 14 points – an NFL record), and combined with losses by the Chiefs and Colts, the Patriots need only a tie next week against Buffalo to clinch home field throughout the AFC playoffs. And no team in their right mind wants to travel to Foxboro in January. Heck, I barely want to go there myself.

The offense started quickly again this week, scoring on the opening drive for the second game in a row (this time, on the first play) – after Tedy Bruschi’s INT gave them a short field. Two factors allowed Tom Brady to be cool and efficient on the day (and the wind-chill wasn’t one of them): the offensive line did a brilliant job protecting him (no sacks in 26 pass attempts); and the running game made it’s year-end return (133 yards on 24 carries). Antowain Smith became the first Patriots rusher to crack the 100 yard mark this year, averaging almost 7 yards a carry and prompting some to float “The Mothball Theory” – i.e. that they let Smith rest all year so he’d be rested for the playoffs. Preposterous, but amusing, I suppose.

The offensive line gets special mention for playing a fantastic game: Matt Light, Damien Woody, Dan Koppen, Joe Andruzzi, and Tom Ashbook are the names you never hear. But any time you average 5.5 yards a rush and give up no sacks, you have to give the O-line credit. They even minimized their false-start penalties with the hostile crowd making it tough. The receiving corps did a pretty good job, although almost everyone had at least one dropped pass. Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, and Kevin Faulk had the most critical drops, costing the Pats first downs when they needed them. Combined with some inopportune penalties, the dropped passes were largely responsible for their three-for-eleven third-down conversion rate. Honestly, the Jets defense just didn’t have much to do with it – just poor execution by the offense.

Fortunately for the Patriots, this game was all about defense. And man, is our defense scary. They intercepted Chad Pennington’s first pass, and kept doing it until the end of the game, finishing with five picks (one returned for a touchdown by Willie McGinest) against a quarterback who’d never had more than two in any NFL game. They sacked Pennington four times and harassed him a whole lot more, and if not for a near-INT that fell into the hands of a Jet receiver, the game wouldn’t have been as close as it was. They kept Curtis Martin under control (his longest run was 8 yards), and stopped the short slant patterns the Jets love – once again, taking the opposition out of what they like to do.

Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Ty Law get specific praise from me this week (though I’m sure they don’t really care). Vrabel, Harrison, Bruschi and McGinest played monster games, hitting everything that moved and getting three of the team’s INTs. Perhaps they were inspired by being snubbed in the Pro Bowl balloting, but something got into those guys and they are playing mean. Ty made a key open-field tackle of Curtis Martin, and had excellent coverage on two fade routes into the end zone (one of which, he picked off). Seymour was Seymour. “Third year player going to his second Pro Bowl” says about all you need to know about him. He has gotten better as the year has progressed, and with Ted Washington back to take on extra blockers, Richard will be a big key to the Pats playoff push.

The Patriots kick coverage was very good, allowing only one punt return and not much on the kickoffs – although they had Vinatieri trying some awkward kicks into the wind, which led to decent field position for the Jets. It’s nice to have Troy Brown returning punts, and with Bethel Johnson on kickoff returns, their special teams are almost as dangerous as they were in 2001.

And on that point, I’m starting to feel about this team the same way I felt about the 2001 Patriots. When I think about playing any other team in the NFL, I don’t fear a Patriots loss. In fact, aside from the Rams and Chiefs, the Patriots have beaten every high seed in the playoffs (Titans, Colts, Cowboys, and Eagles). And the Chiefs are 3-3 in their last six games and haven’t stopped the run in two months. Some have called the Patriots lucky because they’ve won so many close games. But the way I read the season is that they just keep making plays until the other team makes a critical mistake – and that the Patriots have capitalized on those mistakes. That’s not luck; that’s good, sound football. The kind that sometimes leads to special seasons.

So where does all that leave us? Well, when we destroy the Bills (and I’ve been telling everyone for 10 weeks that we will), we’ll have a 14-2 record, a first round bye, and home field throughout the AFC playoffs. (Note: this is the NFL, they could always possibly lose. I just don’t see it this week.) And that’s all you can ask for. You play the regular season hoping you can be in that position, and the Patriots can get there with a win or a tie. I don’t expect them to lose focus now, so put it in stone – the Patriots will win on Saturday and you’ll be looking for me in the stands the second weekend of the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Even though they gave up 31 points on opening day, the Patriots have a chance to give up the fewest points in the league this year. They’re just behind Tampa (238 to 231), and the Bucs have to play a motivated Titans team on the road while we’ve got the Bills at home. Not bad given how they started the year.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-2!!!!!

Monday, December 15, 2003

Patriots 27, Jaguars 13 (12/14/2003)

Well, the streak is over... Not the winning streak, mind you, but the "consecutive home games without giving up a touchdown" streak. Sigh... I guess we'll all have to move on somehow. As you no doubt heard, the Patriots continued their winning ways yesterday, beating up on the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-13 in the cold and snow in Foxboro. Their 10-game winning streak is the best in franchise history (as is their 12 regular season wins), and one more win will tie them with Kansas City for the longest string of wins in the NFL this year. They maintained their first seed in the AFC and didn't report any major injuries (a big plus given the conditions yesterday).

The Patriots scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game (first time this year), and matched two Jacksonville field goals with two of their own in the first half. It could easily have been 17-6 or 21-6 at the half, if the Pats executed better in the red zone (inside the Jax 20 yard line), but they suffered from some uninspired play-calling one one drive and Larry Centers dropped an easy TD on the other. Daniel Graham continues to play better, with 5 cathes for 69 yards and one TD, David Givens made some tough, clutch catches (ended the day with 5 for 65 yards), and Dedric Ward did to the Jags what he used to do to us -- convert crucial third downs with big-time catches. But the real receiver story of the day was the return of Troy Brown. After four or five weeks off, he came back at full steam, 4 catches for 43 yards and he returned punts (5 returns with a 10-yard average). His TD early in the fourth quarter put the Jags 14 points behind and helped seal the victory. And it was just good to see him back in the game. Now, if we could just get that new guy, Larry Centers to catch the ball, we might really have something. (Just kidding, Larry Centers dropped a few yesterday, but he's got more catches than any running back in NFL history.)

Tom Brady played extremely well, especially given the conditions: 22 for 34, 228 yards and two touchdowns. With the wind, cold and snow, that was a stellar performance, and it was set up by the very good pass protection he had all day and just enough running to keep the defense honest.
Jacksonville has a very physical front seven on defense, and sometimes they man-handled the the Pats offensive line. But for the most part, the O-line held their own and gave Brady enough time to work through his defensive reads and find the open man (Graham was at least the third read on his touchdown play). Antowain Smith's day was very up and down, 14 rushes for 39 yards and a touchdown -- but a critical fourth-quarter fumble when the Patriots were driving to finish off the Jags. Kevin Faulk held onto the ball, but didn't fare much better running. All told, the Pats got less than 80 yards on the ground, which isn't bad considering the Jax defense. But someday, this might come back to haunt them -- let's just hope it isn't this year.

As for the defense, I hate to sound like a broken record, but they played another great game. Richard Seymour was benched for the first quarter and played like an angry man the rest of the game -- much to the detriment of Jacksonville. Now if gets back to being the player who never takes a stupid penalty, we'll be all set. The Jags had three or four big passing plays and not much else, mostly because of the pressure and some nice plays by the defensive backs. Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Willie McGinest harrassed Byron Leftwich (the Jags QB) all day, and they also stopped enough running plays for short yardage that the Jags couldn't control the game on the ground either. The Pats let Jacksonville hang around in the game, with only a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. But once Troy Brown put the Pats up by 14, the Jags had to take more risks on offense. The results were predictable -- two Tyrone Poole interceptions and another win for the Patriots.

They really are masters of getting the other team out of their comfort zone and making them take chances they don't really want to take. And young quarterbacks always seem to make the crucial mistakes against this defense, which seems to be more by design than by accident. Quincy Carter of Dallas, Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland, Danny Kannel of Denver, and Leftwich yesterday all make the fatal mistake to lose the game or failed to make the big play to win it when they played the Patriots. It's also been the same with running backs. Denver's Clinton Portis, Miami's Ricky Williams, Indy's Edgerrin James, Dallas's Troy Hambrick, Tennessee's Eddie George, and Jacksonville's Fred Taylor were all riding high before playing New England; but all of them failed to match their season averages against the Patriots and their teams lost. Again, it's no accident, just good team defense, great speed at linebacker and in the secondary, and a fundamental philosophy not to let the other team beat you doing what they like to do.

Just a quick word about the Patriots special teams. Overall, I'm very impressed by their kick coverage teams and by their ability to get it done in the worst conditions. In what turned out to be a field-position type of game, they got solid kicking from prodigal punter, Ken Walter, and Adam Vinatieri outkicked his opposite number, Seth Marler, by a heafty margin. Without Lonnie Paxton, the Patriots plugged in a new long-snapper and the special teams just kept on cranking along -- although, without Lonnie, there were no snow angels yesterday :( And with Troy Brown back returning punts and Bethel Johnson on kickoffs (he was inactive yesterday), the special teams could be poised to be as good as it was during the Super Bowl run two years ago.

So, where does this leave us. Well, if we win the rest of our games, we will have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. One loss and we'd need KC to lose their last two and I don't think we want to count on that. Indy is also a game behind us, and even though we'd win the head-to-head tiebreaker over them, if we ended up tied with both KC and Indy, we'd lose the three-way tiebreaker to both teams -- meaning no week off before the playoffs and two road games to get to the Super Bowl. This week's contest with the Jets is our biggest challenge left in the regular season. NY has a good team and they always play better at the end of the year. Curtis Martin is running well (although I expect that will stop versus the Pats -- as it has for so many other running backs), and with Chad Pennington back, the Jets are a much more dangerous team than they were when we beat them by only 7 points at home early in the year. Should be interesting.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Since the Patriots use their short passing game to replace their non-existent running attack, they're bound to have more injured receivers. They've done a great job rotating receivers on and off the inactive list, but they really need Daniel Graham to continue to improve and Larry Centers to catch the ball because that will take a lot of pressure of the wideouts running those short patterns."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-2!

Monday, December 8, 2003

Patriots 12, Dolphins 0 (12/7/2003)

You know, shutting out the Cowboys was one thing, but keeping the Dolphins and all their offensive talent off the scoreboard is even more impressive. The Patriots defense came up big again this week, and on the strength of that defense, they are 11-2, Eastern Division Champions (guaranteed at least one home playoff game), and the #1 seed in the AFC (with the Kansas City loss to Denver that I know you all hoped and prayed for).

Pardon me while I take two paragraphs to rant about the Dolphins. This is the fourth consecutive year the Dolphins were supposed to prove they could win in cold climate late in the year, and they don't look likely to improve on the past three (they've finished the last three years with two wins and two losses each year). Ricky Williams is always running with confidence until he faces a decent running defense. And with the three Teds (Washington, Johnson, and Bruschi) and Rodney Harrison, the Patriots run defense is a lot better than decent. They are dominant, and showed it again Sunday.

Sure, the weather was frightful but that's supposed to mean more emphasis on running. Well, Ricky finished with 68 yards and a 2.7 yards-per-carry average And with Jay Fiedler's 13-of-31 for 111 yards and two INTs (and a paltry 1.8 yards per pass attempt), it becomes obvious why they bageled the scoreboard. I'm amazed they were 4-18 in third-down conversions, because I can't recally any conversions at all. The Dolphins didn't have a single "goal to go" situation and their only trip inside the Pats 20 ended with a Fiedler fumble. Oh, and special mention goes to the Dolphin receivers, who must have dropped eight or ten catchable passes. Way to shake off those elements, guys.

Now that the ranting is over, on to the good stuff. Rodney Harrison was an absolute monster on Sunday. He led the team with 12 tackles, defensed at least three passes, and had a critical sack that caused the Fiedler fumble and shifted momentum to our favor. The Pats didn't play as much tight coverage as I thought they would, choosing instead to attack the line to stop Miami's running game while playing a zone behind the pass rush. Worked pretty well. And later in the game, the Pats started bringing in the bigger guys on first down to bottle things up even more. And the Dolphins rarely if ever changed to passing plays in the face of a stacked deck against the run. They'd obviously decided Fiedler wasn't going to win it, and thought Ricky was their only hope. In fact, they might have been right. When Fiedler finally tried to win it, he gave the Patriots their only TD when he threw it right to Tedy Bruschi who returned it for six points.

With such a dominant defensive performance, you might expect a bigger margin of victory. But the Dolphin defense did just about the things same to the Patriots. They covered well and stuffed the run most of the day. But the Pats offense avoided what the Dolphins offense couldn't - the big turnover. Tom Brady was once again Mr. Efficient, throwing no interceptions in 31 attempts (and there weren't any really close calls either). He made good decisions and his three sacks went for only 13 yards, very important in a field position type of game (Jay Fiedler was sacked 5 times for 48 yards). There were some dropped passes, and more importantly, there were those crucial, timely throw-aways when nothing was open. The Patriot offense never really got untracked, but they didn't get undone the way the Dolphin offense did, and that was good enough to win.

Richard Seymour played a bit in the offensive backfield, taking the place of the injured Dan Klecko. The results were mixed, with one first down, two runs stuffed, and one illegal motion call. Deion Branch had some critical catches down the stretch to change our field position game, and Antowain Smith made some clutch hard-nosed runs to put the game on ice (so to speak).
Those famous Patriot screen passes and quick outs to the wide receivers were stymied by the team speed and great preparation of the Dolphins defense. I don't recall a single screen gaining positive yardage, and the quick outs were mostly incomplete or short gains. This really hurt the Patriots on third down, where they were only 5-18 for the game. If they play deep into the playoffs without improving their running game, you can look for more games like this because everyone in the playoffs will have good defensive speed. Let's just hope everyone is as offensively inept as the Dolphins - then we'll be fine.

On special teams, Bethel Johnson didn't get to return any kickoffs. Miami only kicked off once, and it went to Kevin Faulk. The new punter did a good job, only one shank job and some nice kicks into the wind. The Pats downed five kicks inside the 20 yard line, and one of those was Brady's punt on a fourth-down fake (perhaps the play of the game - until Bruschi's TD!). Adam got another one in the snow, though he missed one later on, so we can't conclude much about the new holder situation. Nothing spectactular here, just some good solid play by the coverage teams and a decent job by the new punter (Brooks Barnard, #8 on your scorecard).

So, where does this leave us? Well, 11-2 with a guaranteed home playoff game and (at present) the Number One seed in the AFC ain't bad. We play another Florida team next week (a quick "thank you" to the schedule makers). Jacksonville is coming off a big win against a division opponent, 27-0 over Houston. This couldn't be better for the Pats, because Jax has won only four games all year, and will likely have a letdown against a non-divisional team on the road in the cold a week after they had a big divisional win. No guarantees - after all, that's why we watch the games - but it looks good for the Pats.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Man, is Dave Wannstedt in trouble. If he doesn't win a playoff game, he's probably gone, and if the season ended today, the Dolphins wouldn't even be in the playoffs. And he's gotta play a hot Philly team, then go on the road to play Buffalo in the freezing cold, and then they've go the Jets at home, where NY always plays them tough. I mean, they've got a shot to lose all three and finish the year at .500, never mind making the playoffs." (Note: Dave Wannstedt is the Head Coach of the Dolphins.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Monday, December 1, 2003

Patriots 38, Colts 34 (11/30/2003)

Now that was a great football game. Great offense, great special teams plays, and enough defense to make it count at the end. At 10-2, the Pats win the division with a win Sunday against the Dolphins, they hold a 2-game lead over Indy and a 1.5-game lead over Tennessee for the second seed in the playoffs, and all (except the punting, the lack of a running game, and Troy Brown's injury status) is well with the team. They've never been 10-2 before, and I just don't know how to act. But I'll tell you that I'll be wearing a smile from 10:00 - 2:00 (a little better than ear-to-ear) all day.

This one had shootout written all over it from the start. 18 minutes into the game, the Pats were sitting on a 17-0 lead, but you knew Manning and company wouldn't stay down for long and they didn't. They made three significant runs at the Patrtios and each time the home town crew made the plays needed to repel the advance. The first one was Bethel Johnson's kickoff return for TD at the end of the half, putting the Pats back up by two scores at 24-10. The second was Johnson's 67-yard kickoff return after the Colts had tied it at 31 points apiece, setting up the winning TD pass to Deion Branch. The third was the four-play goal-line stand to end the game, with Willie McGinest grabbing the headlines by grabbing Edgerrin James on fourth down to seal it. However, that final series was a total team effort, with the interior of the Patriots defense stuffing three runs from inside the 2 yard line.

Tom Brady started out on fire, cooled off, then came back to life when it counted to score the winning TD. The Pats continue to be haunted by their lack of a running game, and that could bite them eventually -- although it hasn't yet. It's unusual to see a team win with defense and a controlled passing attack, but somehow they keep doing it week after week. One can only wonder what the Pats would be doing if they had a great runner in addition to all their passing weapons. (As an aside: when the "experts" talk about the great quarterbacks in the league, it's always Manning, Bledsoe, McNair, McNabb, Favre -- and almost never Brady. However, one thing all those other QBs have in common is an excellent running game to take the pressure off their passing game. Give Brady that and you might hear his name mentioned with the other elites in the league, especially now that he's shown he can throw the deep ball.) But for all the passing the Pats did, the protection was decent (only two sacks) and they had a pretty good third-down conversion rate (54%). Not bad considering they were missing Troy Brown and David Patten -- their starters from the beginning of the season.

Defensively, I think the Pats played very well considering who they were playing. I doubt they would have given up 3 TDs in 6 minutes if the offense hadn't provided the Colts with a short field twice and if the Colts didn't have so many good players. Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and Marcus Pollard are the real deal, and if you give them a short field, they'll eat you alive. However, the run defense continues to improve with the two Teds (Washington and Johnson) back in the game. And for all his experience and talent, Manning was clearly frustrated and confused at times, and aside from the three quick touchdowns near the end of the 3rd quarter, he wasn't really in sync most of the game. He had one INT, and could easily have had two more. But overall, I think the Colts finally exposed some of the young Patriots defenders, getting Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel out of position a few times and drawing a couple of offsides penalties against our over-agressive defensive line. The up side of that is that no team on our remaining schedule has the offensive talent to exploit those gaps in our defense the way the Colts did. The down side is that the teams in the playoffs probably will.

But for all that, the Patriots special teams might have won them the game.
Late in the second quarter, the Colts got back to 17-10, and they were due to get the opening kickoff of the second half. But Bethel Johnson's return made it a two-score game again and allowed the Patriots to feel a bit more comfortable going into the locker room. Once the Colts came all the way back to tie it, Johnson came through again -- returning a kick 67 yards to give the Patriots a chance to go up again. Both times, special teams were instrumental in breaking the momentum, and without those plays, the Colts could have come back to rout the Patriots. But as they say, great teams make big plays when they need them, and even though it's a different player each week, the Patriots live that saying every week.

So where do we go from here? Well, the Pats are 10-2, and as I've been saying all season, 10 wins gets you in the playoffs. So congratulations to them on getting in. You now know (based on last week's Water-cooler Wisdom) that if they beat Miami this week, the Patriots are division champs and that guarantees they will host a playoff game. (Note: I'm sending in my playoff ticket invoice this week -- woo-hoo!!) More importantly, they are now in the driver's seat for the second seed in the playoffs, which would mean a week off and a home game the second week of the playoffs. Because they beat the Colts and Titans, for all intents the Patriots hold a 2-game lead over Indy and at 1.5-game lead over Tennessee for that second playoff spot. If you've got your eye on that first spot, then hope Kansas City loses to the Broncos next week. If not, the Patriots will have to finish a game ahead of KC to get that first spot because the Chiefs will have a better conference record. If they lose to the Broncos, then the Pats could potentially tie them in conference record and then it would come down to common opponents (a tie right now), and the Patriots would have to hope to get to the strength of schedule tie-breaker where they have a decided advantage.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Willie McGinest might get all the glory, but Ted Washington was instrumental in three of the four goal-line plays at the end of the game. He blew through his blocker on second down and fourth down, and forced James outside on first down. The Pats run defense improves whenever Ted is in the game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Monday, November 24, 2003

Patriots 23, Texans 20 (11/23/2003)

A pretty exciting game -- though not particularly well-played -- and a very exciting outcome. The Patriots squeaked one out in Houston, heading home with a 23-20 overtime victory despite playing their worst game of the year. Inopportune penalties, Adam Vinatieri's first indoor missed field goal, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, and two interceptions (that could easily have been three) and a fumble by Brady. Yet they won, Brady is 7-0 in overtime, the team is 9-2 -- best start in franchise history -- and if they win the next two games (Indianapolis and Miami), they win the division. Couldn't ask for much more than that.

The defense played very well, with Ted Washington's return paying immediate dividends. It's obvious that with Mount Ted in the game, it frees up Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Tedy Bruschi to make plays, and that's exactly what they did. In the first quarter, Houston had first down and goal at the Patriots 1, and they stuffed them three times and made them take the field goal. In overtime, Houston had first down at the Patriots 40 and then their 35. In each case, one more first down and the Texans could have tried a game-winning field goal. And in each case, the Patriots stopped them (the second time, they even pushed them back) and forced a punt -- the second punt being the last time the Texans had the ball, as the Pats drove down the field for the game winner from Adam. Those names deserve a second mention, so here they are: Ted Washington, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi.

The defensive backs did a great of covering the Texan receivers, knocking down a dozen or more passes with only one pass interference call the entire game. And their coverage often caused QB Tony Banks to throw the ball away or take off running -- both of which played into the Patriots gameplan. Tyrone Poole had an outstanding game, and Ty Law might be the guttiest player I've ever seen. He's got a severe ankle injury and an abdominal strain and no only did he take just about every snap on defense, he was in punt coverage on special teams. It's great to have two "shut down" corners, because it allows Belichick and Romeo Crennel the freedom to scheme to their heart's delight with the other nine guys. Worked out pretty well yesterday. Houston had only 169 yards, and if they hadn't had a short field three times, they probably wouldn't have scored a single TD.

The offense was really up and down, which might sound strange given that they gained 472 yards. But they had three critical turnovers -- well, okay, Tom Brady had three critical turnovers. His first INT and his fumble were inexcusable -- he knows better than to throw over the middle late and should have taken better care of the ball on the fumble. He was hit just as he released the ball on his second INT, so that isn't his fault. As in the Washington game, Brady tried to do too much too often, and it kept blowing up in his face. Fortunately for him, this time they won. There were the usual number of dropped passes (Graham had two, I believe Branch had one), and Bethel Johnson had a very good game, with 5 catches and a forced fumble. But Graham came through with two clutch catches (the TD to send the game to overtime and a 33 yarder during overtime that changed field position in the Patriots favor).

But the offensive star of the game was Kevin Faulk. Not only did he have almost 200 yards in total offense, but how he ran and the way he set up blockers on the screen passes was more effective. He let the play develop and got a ton of extra yards because of it. He just seems more confident overall, and with good reason. He seems to be completely over his wrist injury, and hasn't fumbled in a long time (something that plagued him early in his career), so we can expect him to be the featured back for the forseeable future. The offensive line did a pretty good job of pass protection and run blocking. Houston has a lot of talented defenders, and they run blitzes from just about anywhere -- and for all that, sometimes Brady had 5 - 8 seconds to throw, unusual for an NFL QB. So like I said, a bit of an up and down performance.

My mother always said, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." And there's nothing nice to say about the special teams, so I'm skipping them for this email.

Oh, and if you want to know why Belichick is considered a genius, here's one example. Of the game-tying TD pass to Graham, one reporter asked him if he was surprised at his good fortune on the play and in the game. He responded that he wasn't surprised because not only do they practice that play all the time, but they practice getting the ball to the receiver *when he's covered* as well. He said they found the best way to beat the defender in that case is to throw the ball to the left and up high because that's the most difficult adjustment to make -- and since that's where Brady threw it, he expected the pass to be completed and the game to go into overtime. So he's planning contingencies on top of contingencies -- I doubt a 10 percent of the head coaches insist on practicing the play with an open AND a covered receiver every week. That's why the Pats are 9-2. Not luck, not good fortune, just preparation and more preparation.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, it's strange to say it with five games left, but if the Pats win the next two games, they win the division. Because if they win them both, the best Miami can finish and the worst we can finish is 11-5, but we will have beaten the Dolphins twice so we'd hold the first tie-breaker. I know we should expect more from a 9-2 team, but it's nice to know they're headed for a first-round home game at the very worst."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Monday, November 17, 2003

Patriots 12, Cowboys 0 (11/16/2003)

8-2 with room for improvement... what could be better?

As you no doubt know, the Patriots won 12-0 last night, maintaining their lead in the AFC East and giving the Tuna a well-deserved smack. To paraphrase Bill Belichick (after the Cleveland game), any time you shut out an NFL team, you've really done something. The defense played very well, keeping Dallas off-balance and making them use long drives of short plays and getting the big turnover at crucial times. All of which meant a big goose-egg for the 'Boys and a hard-fought win for the Pats.

The Pats didn't turn the ball over, and despite playing without their two best receivers (Troy Brown and David Patten) they got enough big plays and overcame a rash of penalties and several dropped passes (Daniel Graham had two, Deion Branch had at least one) to score what they needed to win. Tom Brady was efficient, and the Pats did well to score 12 points against the league's #1 defense. Especially with those drive-killer penalties, some of which were questionable calls.

So now that they did what they needed to do to win, where do we go from here? Well, there are three areas where they need to improve if the Pats want to make a serious playoff run... I call them the "Three P's."

1. Penalties. I know some of Sunday's calls were questionable, but this has been brewing for a while. Some of it is rookies not getting respect or commiting penalties when they're beaten (the rookie center, Dan Koppen, is the perfect example). But they simply can't continue to give up 100 yards a week to the yellow-hanky and expect to win. And even though I'm sure Belichick has stressed this with his players, sometimes it takes a loss for a team to get that message. Here's hoping that loss isn't in an important game. Oh wait, they're all important, aren't they.

2. Punting. Ken Walter is indeed a great holder, but his main focus should be punting and he's been up-and-down since the Titans game (10/5). It's frustrating to watch, because you know he can do better -- he got a game ball for his punting in the Cleveland game. But he almost cost us the Denver game, and he's been terrible for two weeks now. I guarantee you Belichick won't put up with this beyond the Houston game, because he can't afford to give up field position against the Colts. So unless Ken is injured and will be better soon, look for a punter in camp to provide a little competition.

3. Play-action passes and fakes. The Pats need to work on this because it looks like Tom Brady is bored with it and isn't selling the play-action fakes anymore. It's a basic tenet of football that you have to run to make a play-action fake work, and the Pats didn't run enough to make Dallas honor the fake. And the more they faked the run, the less interested Brady seemed in actually carrying through the fake -- and the defense didn't react much at all, thus negating the effect of the fake entirely. The interesting thing is that once the Pats did run (pretty well, in fact), Brady did try to sell the fake and they got the defense out of position. But in any event, they've got to run the ball a bit more and Brady needs to get back to his old self and really try to sell the play-action fakes. Once upon a time, Drew Bledsoe was known for his ball-handling skills but now he seems disinterested -- I'd hate to see Brady fall into that same pattern.

All in all, it's not possible to be an unhappy Patriots fan this morning.
At 8-2, two more wins and they're in the playoffs, and they've got a legitimate shot at the first or second seed in the post-season. Ted Washington made an impact in his return, and if they can just get some off their receivers healthy it would go a long way toward possible wins against Indy and their divisional games down the stretch. But for now, it's time to prepare for Houston. Let Indy fall for the "trap" game the next week, when they play us buy have Tennessee the following week.

Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm glad the Pats won, but if they want to make a serious playoff run, they've got to get better on special teams and cut down on their penalties. Ken Walter looks like crap and their punt return team hasn't done much without Troy Brown. Hey, you know you're in trouble when you get an extra point blocked."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Friday, November 14, 2003

Finally Published (11/14/2003)

In case you're interested, had me write up a short article explaining why I think Bill Belichick is a better head coach than Bill Parcells. Here's the link:

And if you want the opposite perspective, here's another fan praising


- Scott

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

2003 Mid-Season Update

Okay then, here's my take on the season so far.

The 7-2 record does accurately reflect how good the Patriots are (unlike Dallas's 7-2 record); but the schedule-maker worked in their favor a few times. They played Philly, the Jets, the Giants, and Denver at just the right time. Those teams were hitting low ebb when we played them (for various reasons), and were thus a bit easier to beat. But I give the Pats a lot of credit because they could have become one of those "low ebb" teams after the Week One thrashing by Buffalo. They could have made excuses or pouted or taken a few weeks off or just given up -- but they're made of tougher stuff than those other teams. The didn't let the Milloy distraction get worse and didn't let the injury list slow them down.

They had big road wins against Philly, Miami, and Denver, and their victory over Tennessee was just as impressive. I think Cleveland and the Giants are more dangerous than people think, and the Buffalo game was lost when the schedule came out (as I said in my pre-season preview, it had nothing much to do with the Lawyer Milloy situation). The Washington loss still bothers me, but mostly because Brady threw three really stupid interceptions and they only lost by 3 points. I hope that loss doesn't cost them anything in the playoffs (home field, first-round bye, etc.).

Overall, the offense has been okay but not overly impressive. Brady has been a bit up-and-down (7 INTs in their two losses, only one INT in all their wins), but he's throwing the long pass much better and is his usual efficient self in the short passing game. The young receivers stepped in nicely when Troy Brown and David Patten were injured, and the Daniel Graham/Christian Fauria tight end combo has worked very well. Graham has a chance to be a great tight end. The offensive line has pass blocked very well, and shown flashes of being good at run blocking; but overall, the only way to describe the running game is disappointing. Antowain Smith hasn't shown much, and Kevin Faulk got injured trying to be an every-down back. I don't know how the running game will play out, but when the weather gets colder and windier, they're gonna need it to work better than it has (the Tennesse game notwithstanding). One other factor of note is that since they moved Damien Woody from center to guard, he's been a run-blocking monster.
I read someone who thought he should go back to center, but I think guard is a better fit for him.

The defense has been outstanding. At certain points in the season, they had changed every position player from the 2002 defense -- with Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour changing position -- except Tedy Bruschi. The secondary is all new, the starting linebackers are different, and the defensive line moved everyone around to accomodate Ted Washington and enhance Seymour's skills by moving him to the outside. And you know what: change is good.
Last year, the Pats gave up 41 TDs; they're on pace to give up 25 this year.
This unit is the major reason they are 7-2 this year as opposed to 5-4 at this point last year. They hit hard, they're faster than last year, and they play cohesively as a unit. And Richard Seymour has become one of the best defensive lineman in the league. Every week he makes big plays, and the week he missed, they gave up 100 yards to a running back for the first time this year. Bruschi is Bruschi -- the heart of the defense. And the young players (especially Ty Warren and Jarvis Green) have rejuvinated and re-energized Willie McGinest and Anthony Pleasant. And they added a ton of speed in the secondary. Rodney Harrison gets to plays that Lawyer and TeBucky missed, Tyrone Poole opposite Ty Law works great, and the other safety played cornerback in college, so you know he's fast. All in all, a terrific group that plays hard every week and has often made up for a sputtering offense.

Special teams haven't been anything special. Adam V. has missed some field goals (some in bad weather), Ken Walter's punts have been terrific one week and dismal the next, and they've just had too many penalties on special teams. Bethel Johnson has added blazing speed to the kick-return game, and they have had some decent punt returns. But I'll trade those for the stupid penalties (like their three holding penalties on punts that gave the other team the ball back). They've got to clean up this aspect of their game if they want to make a playoff run. A new punter might be a nice start, but he holds for Adam; and when the Pats tried Brady as a holder (in the preseason), it just didn't work.

So, overall, the Pats first half rocked; they're 7-2 for the first time since 1978, and their second-half schedule includes only three teams with winning records (Dallas, Indy, and Miami) -- and two of those games are at home. Barring severe injuries (how much worse could it get?), they should win at least 10 games and be in the playoffs, and they've got a great chance to win 11 or 12 and get a first-round bye. There are no cakewalks in the NFL, but if the Pats keep their focus they should beat Houston, Jacksonville, and Buffalo. They've got a great chance to beat Dallas and Miami (both home games), though they might have more trouble against Indy and NY Jets. I still think they'll beat the Colts (they've always had their number; just one of those things), and who knows if the Jets will be playing for anything by late-December.

Hope you enjoyed the first half. Look for me Sunday night -- I'll be the one at the stadium... the tall guy... ummmm, the one cheering... cheering really really loud... ummm, nevermind.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Patriots 30, Broncos 26 (11/3/2003)

Well now, wasn't that exciting! Patriots lose the turnover, penalty, and time of possession battles and still come out on top. On the road. In Denver. With all the injuries.

Can we get Bill Belichick to coach the Red Sox next year?

I really enjoyed this game. It was close throughout, and both teams made their share of good and bad plays. But in the end, the game hinged on the inability of Denver's offense to do anything in the second half. Watching the first half, I thought that Romeo Crennel and Bill B. were playing close to the vest, just well enough to survive, and that they planned to turn up the heat on Denver's young QB (Danny Kanell) in the second half. It pretty much went that way, except the Pats offense didn't force Denver to take any risks until about four minutes to go. And, as with many young quarterbacks, those risks cost the Broncos the chance to win the game. When they needed to run time off the clock, Kanell couldn't deliver the short passes to keep the drive going -- and they gave it back to the Pats twice within a minute (from 4:00 to 3:00 left). He's new, what are you going to do?

The Pats defense played pretty well, despite the biggest injury of the year in Richard Seymour (hope he's back soon). Any time you shut out a team in the second half, you must be doing something right. (Denver scored on special teams -- kick return for TD -- and on a Safety the Patriots decided to give them.) The Pats D hit hard, knocking at least four Broncos out of the game for a few plays, and adjusted well after Denver's inevitable early surge. In the second half, they opened with five DL and started the blitzing -- which led to a number of three-and-out series for the Broncos.
Portis ran pretty well, but he never became a controlling factor, leaving too much of it up to the QB. If Denver's kicker hadn't been injured, it might have come out differently; but I still think the Pats would have won
-- just by fewer points.

The Pats offense played okay, with a lot of big plays interspersed between some sputtering drives. The star of the game was the Offensive Line. I can't remember the last time I saw a Patriots QB with that much time to throw, and those guys deserve a lot of credit for playing so well against a strong front-seven from Denver. Kevin Faulk came up big, and Antowain Smith got more carries and yards that I thought he would. Daniel Graham made some nice catches, though he dropped one they needed when they were backed up at the goal line. But for all their trouble, I only counted four or five missed reads by Brady and only one or two bad throws (Bethel Johnson open in the end zone was one he should never have missed). And Tom Brady continues to improve his long passing. All that work in the off season obviously paying dividends.

And now, a word about the officials. You know I don't usually blame officials, but I thought a few times they got caught up in the emotion of the crowd and screwed the Pats. Almost every replay of a Denver run showed some holding by their O-line, and there is an actual rule called "Neutral Zone Infraction" that should have been called late in the game (instead, they called the Pats for "False Start"). That call is sometimes missed, but this was a very big situation and the call looked obvious to me (and to John Madden). If they're not going to enforce the rule, then let's delete it from the rule book.

Lastly, I'm very impressed they're 7-2 right now. With all their injuries, they have the third-best record in the NFL -- and they've matched what I thought would be their best possible record at this point, and I didn't anticipate all the injuries. Now, with next week off, they can get healthy and get ready for the Tuna Bowl on Sunday, November 16. I'll rest up, too; 'cause I'm gonna need all my strength to cheer the team on that night.

Since there's no Pats game on Sunday, I'll send a mid-season summary next week to fill the gap between games.

Until then, keep the faith,

- Scott

Friday, October 31, 2003

Patriots vs. Broncos Preview (10/31/2003)

The first piece of bad news about Monday night's game against Denver is that
7 out of 8 ESPN analysts picked the Patriots. When the national press starts kicking it in gear, giving the other team bulletin board material and something to prove -- that's when your team sometimes stumbles. The other bit of (potential) bad news is that whatever Bill Belichick has been doing to help cover for his team's youth and inexperience, you can bet Mike Shannahan has seen it and is prepared to exploit it. He's that good a coach, and his teams usually come out strong and go for the early knockout -- so surviving the first 20 minutes with a lead or no more than 10-point deficit is crucial to their chances to win.

The good news is that the Patriots haven't overlooked teams or play half-assed very often (first half against the Giants, and maybe a bit of the Cleveland game). They must know that a 7-2 record would allow them to coast into the playoffs (3-4 gets them there, 4-3 means a first round bye), and they also have an extra week to recover from and think about this game. So you know they won't be taking the Broncos lightly and will give absolute maximum effort to make sure the two weeks between games bring positives from the press and their coach.

The another advantage for the Pats is they've already played the Broncos on the road this season -- in Week 7 in Miami. The only real differences between this game and the Week 7 tilt are that the Dolphins have a better quarterback and the Broncos have a better coaching staff. Both opponents run the ball well and have questions about whether or not their QBs can win the game for them. Danny Kanell is inexperienced, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Bill Belichick use the "46" defense (five defensive lineman) to stop the run and dare Kanell to beat him through the air -- just as he did in Miami.

Lastly, Bill Belichick's only head coaching win against the Broncos was in Denver (2000 season), and you know that 1-6 lifetime record has to be eating away at him. He just doesn't take losing well. The Pats played well in Denver in 2001, but Tom Brady threw the first, second, third, and fourth interceptions of his career (all in the fourth quarter) and the Pats lost -- so there is a history of Bill B. getting teams to play well in Denver.

Again, look for Denver to try the quick strike to get the lead, but even if they do, look for the Patriots to survive that strike and be back at even by the half. The Broncos have played only one defense as good as the Patriots this year -- and they lost that game 26-6 to Baltimore. I expect the Pats to win; though I doubt it'll be a Monday night blowout. How's 24-14 sound?

Enjoy the game,

- Scott

Monday, October 27, 2003

Patriots 9, Browns 3 (10/26/2003)

Okay, 9-3 isn't exactly the most exciting game of the year; but I'll take it. The Browns aren't world-beaters, but I still think they've got a better chance at the playoffs than, say the Buffalo Bills -- because their record is similar but their division is weaker.

Well, it's about the same as the last few emails. A battered team limps on the field and fights a opponent for 60 minutes and comes out with a victory.
The offense switched from sputtering to spectacular about five times, with the Cleveland defense causing much of the former and Daniel Graham and Kevin Faulk providing a lot of the latter.

The Pats defense played well, with major contributions from Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, and (once again) Roman Phipher -- the tackling machine.
The rest of the defense also played well, limiting Cleveland to under 250 total yards and only 3 points.

The offense... well, the less said the better. They moved the ball and had some nice performances, but just couldn't punch it in for the TD. They weren't that great on third down, and seemed to have a lot of badly-timed penalties in the red zone.

Fortunately, there's a third phase of the game, and the Patriots dominated in that category. Their special teams were truly special, downing four punts inside the Cleveland 20 (and just barely missing a fifth), and converting three out of four field goals in 25 mph winds. This was no easy day for kickers, trust me, I was there and the wind was whipping and swirling. And I think Ken Walter deserves special mention. Every one of his punts seemed to land at the five yard line and bounce away from, or parallel to, the goal line -- giving the coverage teams opportunity after opportunity to leave the Browns with a long field.

And sure enough, when Cleveland was up against it and had to take some more chances at the end of the game, it brought out the real Kelly Holcomb -- and the real Ty Law. Game over.

6-2 at the halfway mark is good enough for me. This was the best I imagined they could do (check my first email), and that was without the cascade of injuries they've suffered. I like their chances against Denver (Bill B.
always does well out there), and if they can get to 7-2, the playoffs would be virutally assured.

Go Pats!

- Scott

Monday, October 20, 2003

Patriots 19, Dolphins 13 (10/19/2003)

Well, last week I wasn't too excited about beating a bad Giants team, so you might expect I'm a lot more revved up about beating a solid Miami team. And you would be right.

The Patriots first ever win in Miami during Sept/Oct was a great combination of game plan and player performance. The Pats knew Miami ran the ball on first down 65% of the time, so they lined up with five Defensive Lineman on every Dolphin first down of the game -- holding Ricky Williams to about 70 yards in regulation. They stopped him from controlling the clock and the game and left it up to Jay Fiedler.

This game plan was reminiscent of the AFC Championship game in 2001 against Pittsburgh, when they loaded up to stop Jerome "The Bus" Bettis and dared Kordell Stewart to beat them. Fiedler had about as much luck as Stewart did that day (if you recall, the Patriots went on to the Super Bowl and Stewart went on to Chicago). And I have to say that Fiedler's mechanics and defensive reads seem to break down quickly when he gets hit a few times. Just a little pressure and a few hits, and he was underthrowing everyone or throwing it away or throwing it into tight coverage. Should be interesting to see how the Dolphins react to other teams loading up to stop the run and putting the pressure on Fiedler to perform -- because you know the rest of the league gets the film from this game and they will try to duplicate it.

The Pats D-line played a monster game. They stopped Ricky for less than two yards half the time he ran (and many of those times were for a loss), and when he didn't run, they got enough pressure on the QB to keep him out of rhythm. Richard Seymour looks more and more like a perennial Pro-Bowler (his blocked field goal was an absolute must if the Pats were to win), and Ty Warren, Dan Klecko, and especially Jarvis Green continue to make plays like veterans.

And with all those D-linemen in the game, the pressure was on the Pats defensive backfield, and they came through the challenge with flying colors. Sure, Randy McMichael caught a career high 8 passes for over 100 yards. But what did the rest of the receivers do? They were invisible, cloaked by Patriot defenders ready to make them pay if they wanted to catch the ball. Tyrone Poole and Rodney Harrison played big games, and you can assume that Asante Samuel did as well because you never heard his name (which means they didn't throw his way).

The Pats O-line played well on pass protection, with a lot fewer penalties than last week and a good job pushing the Dolphin speed rushers past Tom Brady. You could see their frustration when Jason Taylor took a stupid roughing-the-passer penalty that allowed the Pats to squeak out three points just before the half. The Pats didn't run the ball particularly well, but I credit the Miami defense on that one. On some of the plays that looked like they might go somewhere, some defender would blast through and slow up or stop the play before it got started. The Pats ran the ball well some of the time, but not consistently enough.

I liked the way the Pats mixed in the short screens and fake reverses to keep the over-pursuing Dolphins at home, and the receivers did a good job getting the yards they could after the catch. In fact, I just liked the way the kept everything in balance. Aside from the blocked field goal, there weren't any huge, game-turning plays, and the Pats just kept plugging away until Miami cracked under the pressure (okay, Fiedler and Olindo Mare cracked under the pressure).

It was a hard-hitting game, and either team might have won. But the Patriots showed a lot of guts to hang in there on the road and pull out an important divisional win.

5-2 and if they take care of business next Sunday against Cleveland, they'll be right on schedule at 6-2 heading into a showdown in Denver the following Monday.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Patriots 17, Giants 6 (10/12/2003)

I'm glad the Pats won on Sunday, but I'm not exactly fired up about it. I was there and saw every soggy play, and I'm here to tell you that the Giants stink right now. There's just no way to win a game when your starting running back loses a fumble on the lightest hit he got all day, no fewer than two passes are batted into the air and intercepted by the opposition, and your idiot coach goes for it on 4th-and-eight instead of kicking the field goal when he needs 11 points anyway -- and of course, the predictable result is yet another interception against a double-covered receiver.

It was a win, and I was even happy to sit in the rain to see it. Even though the special teams numbers from yesterday look ugly, it was raining, and they never really gave the Giants great field position, so I'd say they played pretty well. And the defense continues its bend-but-don't-break play and is hitting as hard as it did two years ago. The young guys are playing over their heads -- intelligently and with a lot of fire -- and the veterans (e.g. Roman Phipher and Richard Seymour) stepped up big-time Sunday.

But the Pats offense is straining under the weight of all those injuries (no Graham, no Branch, and the continual shuffle on the offensive line), and there were just way, way too many stupid penalties. (Note: I know the commentators said two of the holding calls were bogus, but Rodney Harrison's personal foul was obvious and dumb, and the clipping call on the double-reverse [not "triple-reverse," as those same commentators dubbed it] was unnecessary to the play and really hurt the team.) Now the penalties can partly be attributed to young players replacing injured veterans, but some of them are just lack of concentration or plain stupid (see any penalty committed by Rodney Harrison). They've got to get this part of their game shored up for Sunday's tilt with Miami. The Dolphins won't make as many mistakes as the Giants did, and that makes our margin for error smaller.

I do realize that Sunday's game was a trap game for the Pats (sandwiched between a big game with Tennessee and another with Miami), and they did play with a lot of heart again. I'm just not all fired up for a Super Bowl run based on beating a bad Giants team. Now, if the special teams and defense continue to play well, and the offense kicks into gear, we could be in first place as of next Monday.

That's all for now,

- Scott

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Patriots 38, Titans 30 (10/5/2003)

Well, I'm psyched.

Our beloved Patriots took on a team with more talent and fewer injuries, and beat them for four main reasons.

First of all, the young guys are stepping up big-time. If you want to sound sports-intelligent around the water cooler, just say, "Gee, those rookie defensive backs are playing great" or "Man, those first year defensive lineman can really make things happen." With all their injuries, the Patriots would be under .500 without significant contributions from the following first- or second-year players: Asante Samuel (CB), Eugene Wilson (S), Deion Branch (WR), Bethel Johnson (WR), David Givens (WR), Dan Klecko (NT/DT/FB), Ty Warren (DT), Jarvis Green (DE), and Dan Koppen (OL). Before you go look it up, that's 75% of all the first- or second-year players on the roster who could be playing (Rohan Davey backs up Tom Brady, so he won't play unless Brady gets injured).

As an aside, I give my brother Sean a lot of credit for this observation. He saw the game live and when I talked with him, he said, "The kids are stepping in and playing great."

Secondly, the schemes they used to keep Donovan McNabb in the pocket worked just as well against Steve McNair. The scheme put a lot of pressure on the defensive backs and linebackers, because they commit at least 5 and sometimes 6 guys to rush the QB -- and some of the big passing plays were because of that. But the plan was to rush at least five guys, have them honor the Titan's running game first and then keep McNair in the pocket for passing plays. And for the second time this year, it worked perfectly. McNair couldn't run around to buy time, and his receivers weren't able to make enough big plays to make the Pats change their plan.

Thirdly, the offensive plan was basic, efficient, and effective. The Titans have great defensive pass rushers, and the Pats ran right at them -- through some gaping holes, I might add. I hadn't seen Antowain Smith run like that in two years, and Mike Cloud has some real burst at the line of scrimmage. Brady was back to being cool and efficient, and he even hit a few long passes. And most important for him, no interceptions.

And lastly, the Patriots special teams significantly outplayed Tennessee's, even with the missed field goals by Adam V. This shocked me most of all, because the Titans are regularly in the top tier in special teams, year in and year out. But they missed too many tackles, and gave up too many big plays. I didn't expect to see the Pats outplay them by such a large margin, especially because injuries usually hurt most on special teams (because starters are taken off special teams to protect them from further injury).

All in all, this win reminded me a lot of the games they played during their Super Bowl run. Effective running game, efficient QB, "bend but don't break" defense, and sparkling special teams. If the young guys can keep it up, we should start getting some guys back in a couple of weeks, which can only help.

I think that's all for now.

Sorry this email was so late, but with all the Red Sox games, I've had a little trouble keeping up.

Take care,

- Scott

PS. Sox in seven games.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Patriots 17, Washington 20 (9/28/2003)

Well, the injury list is longer than the list of records broken by the Red Sox this year, and most all of the off-season free-agent signings have been neutralized by injury, but the Pats played a gutty game against Washington. And despite what you might read or hear, I think they fell short for two reasons:

1. They lost the turn-over battle. Tom Brady gets the blame for two intercepted passes he never should have thrown, and Washington made a great play on the third. And Kevin Faulk's fumble was devastating because it basically gave the bad guys a free TD in a game decided by 3 points. The other side of this coin is that they didn't force any turn-overs. There was a Washington fumble that bounded down the field with Patriots on all sides, but they couldn't quite get to it, and mid-way through the fourth quarter, Ramsey threw it right at two Patriot defenders, but neither could come up with it.

2. They never got Washington out of their comfort zone (this is related to the turn-over factor). Since our boys were never ahead in the game, Steve Spurrier never had to take any risks. And I would love to have watched him sweat it out as his second-year QB tried dangerous throws against the confusing and talented Patriots defense. But it never happened because the Pats had turn-overs instead of touchdowns, and Washington never had to take those risks. So, while the idiots on Sports Radio argue about the last-minute play-calling or ignore the Pats in favor of the playoff-bound Red Sox, trust me when I say they didn't lose because of the last drive. They lost it a little bit at a time all game long. And the outlook for next week is bleak right now, but I need to study up on Tennessee's general tendencies, look at their schedule, and check both team's injury reports before getting into it.

On the positive side:

1. I thought the Patriots ran the ball better yesterday. In fact, I'd like to see them go more two tight-end and smashmouth it to take some of the pressure of an already-injured Tom Brady. The offensive line has impressed me, especially with all the injuries and new players.

2. I liked the production out of Daniel Graham, although they should never have him pass-protecting without help -- the Washington linebackers made him look foolish a couple of times.

3. Even though David Givens caught a TD, he missed too many other assignments to call his game a good one. He missed a block on a wide-receiver screen that wasn't easy to miss, and he should have found a way to knock down Brady's second interception.

4. Man, do I like Asante Samuel's game. He's tight on the receivers, hits hard, and avoids the big mistakes and big penalties.

And the ultimate good news is they're tied for second place, a half-game behind Miami -- and it looks like that vaunted Buffalo defense might have been a two-week wonder. It should be a battle royale down to the wire.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

Monday, September 8, 2003

Patriots 0, Bills 31 (9/7/2003)

Top Ten reasons to be a happy Patriots fan this morning:

10. Adam Vinitieri well rested for next week

9. No shame in being shut out by the NFL's number one defense (to this point in the season)

8. Ty Law was so invisible yesterday that Canadian Mounties were unable to arrest him this year

7. Offensive line to have lobotomies reversed for Eagles game

6. Tom Brady getting his interceptions out of the way early

5. Now that the Patriots finished their 4-1 preseason, they can get on with the 15 games that count

4. Bill Parcells lost, too

3. Patriots unlikely to be eliminated before Red Sox

2. Team still tied for second place

And the number one reason to be a happy Patriots fan this morning...

1. Bills now overconfident -- we got 'em right where we want 'em!

- Sunshine Scott

Thursday, September 4, 2003

2003 Season Preview (9/4/2003)

Some quick thoughts on the up-coming Patriots season:


The Patriots had a very good off-season. Of the six most significant defensive acquisitions in the NFL, the Pats made three: Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Washington, and Rodney Harrison. Colvin, the most sought-after free agent this year, makes the defense younger, faster, and more versatile. Harrison hits hard and will keep teams from going over the middle against the Pats. And Washington (the most important pickup) is a proven run-stuffer -for evidence of that, the Eagles couldn’t run at all with “Big Ted” on the field, but the Pats had trouble stopping the run in the three preseason games he missed.

The switch to 3-4 is simply cosmetic. Of the four linebackers, any or all of them could be rushing the passer, and any defensive lineman could be dropping into coverage - especially Richard Seymour or Dan Klecko (when he gets on the field). The one caveat about the defense is that with Otis Smith likely replaced by a rookie and Tebucky Jones replaced by whomever, we could see more downfield plays against us. However, that’s only true if the QB has time, and I think the plan is to make sure he doesn’t. And don’t panic with Lawyer Milloy gone; Rodney Harrison is basically a Lawyer clone, and from what I’ve heard, Rosevelt Colvin will help fill the leadership void.


On offense, there is less change and that’s probably a good thing. The Pats didn’t run the ball well last year, but that was largely because they didn’t truly commit to it and often fell behind and had to pass to catch up. They passed the ball well, with Tom Brady leading the league in several categories. The improved defense should help the offense become more balanced, and thus more dangerous - and that should help the running game as much as anything. Besides, I think Antowain Smith has something to prove after last year, and he made one adjustment that was obvious in the pre-season, he ran more north-south - which is what he needs to do to suceed.

If Damien Woody starts the season, the O-line will be similar to last year - but with another year of experience. The addition of Bethel Johnson will help them stretch the field, and Daniel Graham should help lessen the load on Troy Brown. The Pats also acquired Larry Centers for more third-down punch. We’ll see more Kevin Faulk which can only help a team that was near the bottom of the league in rushing yards. And last, but definitely not least, Tom Brady had an outstanding preseason, with 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. And even though he could have had a couple of INTs, he could also have had a few more TDs. He wasn’t perfect, but he showed no lingering effects of the late-season shoulder separation, and made good decisions most of the time.

Special Teams

The Pats special teams is largely intact from last year. Adam Vinatieri’s kickoffs have been about 3 - 5 yards longer, and it appears Ken Walter will return as the punter/holder. Chicago made mincemeat of their kickoff coverage in the last preseason game, but don’t read too much into that. The Pats held back kick coverage regulars to avoid injuries, and Chicago has some of the best special teams in the NFL. Besides, they covered kicks very well against their three other preseason opponents. The kick return team will benefit from Bethel Johnson’s speed, and Troy Brown will likely benefit from not having to return punts all the time.

The Schedule

The Pats start out with a tough game in Buffalo. Bledsoe always starts the year hot, and the Bills are improved. The game in Philadelphia the following week is winnable. They whacked the Eagle’s first team in the preseason and the Eagle’s play on Monday night the previous week. Vinny and the depleted Jets in Foxboro and Washington on the road shouldn’t be too much trouble. So, as I see it, they could start 3-1 or 4-0, depending mostly on the Buffalo game.

Their toughest stretch of the season is Tennessee and the Giants at home (10/5 and 10/12), followed by games at Miami (10/19), at home against a disciplined and solid Cleveland team (10/26), and then at Denver on Monday night (11/3) - always tough, although Belichick has shown the ability to plan well against the Broncos in Denver (beating them in 2000 and barely losing despite four fourth-quarter INTs by Brady in 2001). Of course, I’m hoping for 5-0, but might have to settle for 3-2 or 2-3.

The second half of the season? Well, if they can beat the Jets on 12/20, they could run the table. “Tuna Bowl: Dallas” happens after a bye week, Houston is still an expansion team (though that could be a “trap” game, being a road game the week after we play a Sunday night Tuna Bowl), we always have Indy’s number, Miami will be crashing by then, Jax is rebuilding, and Bledsoe will be fading at the finish like he always does. Sounds like a long winning streak to the end, if you ask me.


So, a 3-1 start, 3-2 middle, and 5-2 or 6-1 toward the end, that adds up to 11-5 or 12-4. Either one wins the division and 12-4 gets a first round bye - and they both sound pretty sweet to me. And they better do it this year. This may be the last year the Patriots have Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. If the Pats have a good year, look for at least one of them to get a head coaching job. That, of course, makes this year a crucial one for the Pats. Everything is in place for them to make another playoff run, and they better do it now before Richard Seymour is a free agent, Romeo Crennel is coaching Baltimore, and Lawyer Milloy is playing for someone else… ooops, nevermind.

All in all, should be a great year.


- Scott