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!

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