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

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