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