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.