Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Patriots vs. Panthers Super Bowl Preview (1/28/2004)

Hey there,

So everyone keeps asking me how I think the Super Bowl will go. Well, you're about to be among the first to know.

When the Panthers have the ball.

Look for Carolina to run it as much as they can. They'll probably go deep with a couple of early pass attempts, just to keep the Pats defense honest. But for the most part, they will run with Stephen Davis and throw some short passes and try not to turn the ball over. As with many NFL games, it wouldn't surprise me if the Panthers scored on their first or second drive. Teams often have good plans for that opening salvo, but the Patriot defense will make the proper adjustments and stop the Panthers running game for most of the rest of the first half, as they have done to most every running back this season.

Unlike the last two games, I expect the Patriots will blitz a lot more against Delhomme. And early in the game, most of those will be contained blitzes on obvious passing downs, because committing a lot of blitzers against a running team can lead to big plays - draws or outside pitches for 30+ yards. The Pats have enough defensive speed to close down the 30+ inside run if the back breaks through the blitzers, but giving Davis the outside would be a major mistake. The Pats will jam the Panther receivers at the line of scrimmage, and the coverages will be complex enough to confuse both the receivers and the quarterback. And that confusion should lead to either failed drives or turnovers. The Panthers sometimes send only two or three receivers into the pattern, not enough to test the Pats defensive backfield the way the Colts and Titans did.

This is a mismatch in the Patriots favor. Carolina runs the ball well, the Patriots stop the run better than anyone. Carolina has a limited passing attack and an inexperienced quarterback, the Patriots have a fast and experienced defense that confuses even the best veteran QBs. Heck, the Titans and Colts have much more offensive talent, especially at quarterback, and each scored only 14 points against the Pats in the playoffs - so I don't expect the Panthers to score very easily. If the Patriots convert an early Carolina turnover into a touchdown, the game could be over quickly.

When the Patriots have the ball

I expect the Patriots to go deep at least twice in the first two drives. Carolina probably anticipates the Pats will use the short pass and the run to move the ball down the field. But I expect them to throw deep against coverages designed to take away the short game, and Tom Brady has hit on more big passing plays this year than the previous two combined. The Panther run defense is solid, so don't hold out much hope that the Patriots will control the ball with the run. But they will run and will have a decent average per run - they just won't run enough to control the game that way. It will fall to Brady and the receivers, and that's just fine with me. He's performed well all year, minimizing those crucial mistakes while maximizing his opportunities. The Patriots have scored an opening-drive touchdown in five straight games, and if they do so in Super Bowl XXXVIII, it will put a lot of pressure on that young Panther offense.

The Panthers are big and physical on defense, much like the Titans. They get pressure with their front four, giving them seven players to drop into coverage on pass plays. And on running plays, their front four usually occupies the entire offensive line, leaving the linebackers and defensive backs to clean up. Their linebackers and DBs are physical and will challenge the Patriot receivers at the line and over the middle - no different that most of the year, which is why the Pats had so many injuries at WR. Carolina will force the Patriots to grind out yards for most of the game, but if the Patriots get time, the Carolina secondary is vulnerable to the big play. As in the Titans game, look for Bethel Johnson early.

This is a slight advantage to Carolina. Their defense is playing well at just the right time and they are big and physical. If the Pats hadn't faced the Titans and Dolphins twice this year, I'd say they weren't ready for a physical defense, but they are. However, without a bruising running game to wear down the Carolina defense, it will be a chore to score a lot of points against them. The most important thing for the Patriots is to protect the ball - because the Panthers live for the turnover.

Special Teams

Adam Vinatieri is a better field goal kicker than John Kasay. Kasay missed three field goals in a big loss to Philadelphia, and missed a short kick in the St. Louis playoff game, whereas Vinatieri is money in the bank - no kicker you'd rather have in a big game. The kick coverage for both teams is very good, and I don't expect a lot of big plays on kickoffs. On the other hand, Todd Sauerbrun is a better punter than Ken Walter. Sauerbrun's yardage and net yardage averages were 7 and 5 yards better (respectively) than Walter's. But Ken easily beat Todd in touchback percentage (4% for Walter, 12% for Sauerbrun), kicks downed inside the 20 yard line (33% to 29%), and average kick return yards against (7 to 12). Still, all in all, I'd take Sauerbrun over Walter - although Ken has kicked better since returning against Jacksonville. I don't anticipate a lot of big returns against the Patriots, their coverage is very good, but you might see Troy Brown pop a few 20+ yarders against the Panthers.

I'd call this an ever-so-slight edge to the Patriots. The kick coverage teams are disciplined and well coached, and the kicking distance game goes slightly in favor of Carolina. But the difference in the big game is Adam Vinatieri and his golden toe. Nothing beats the knowledge of how to get it done with everything on the line, and his performances against Oakland and St. Louis two years ago say it all.

Other Factors

Both teams will benefit from the two week break. Defenses are always the major winners under such scenarios, so the Panthers will likely make it tougher on our offense because they had two weeks to prepare, just as we will do to their offense. The coaching match up is in the Patriots favor, but the "underdog" factor goes the Panthers way. So what decides it is that the Patriots have a better defense, a much better offense, and a slightly better kicking game. It won't be a blowout unless the Panthers panic and turn the ball over, which could happen but I don't expect it.

Injuries shouldn't matter much. Russ Hochstein played very well as a replacement for Damien Woody, and Ted Johnson will step in if Tedy Bruschi is injured - and that won't be as much of a factor as usual, because the Panthers don't have the passing attack to take advantage of Johnson's limitations in pass coverage. Carolina running back Stephen Davis has practiced all week and will likely be almost full speed for the game. Besides, a good running game almost always depends more on the offensive line than the actual running back, and the Panthers don't have any injuries there.

The Prediction

Since I'm going to the game, I am incapable of predicting a Patriots loss. I'd say a late turnover will turn the game from a 10-point game to a 14- or 17-point game. Let's go with 27-13.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Forget about the 14-game winning streak, did you know the Patriots haven't trailed in a game since before Thanksgiving?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Patriots 24, Colts 14 (1/18/2004)

So the Patriots are going to the Bowl again -- sweet! Sunday's AFC Championship game was another classic, with the Pats pressuring Peyton Manning and daring the Colts to run. The Pats scored on 6 of their 10 possessions (excluding the end of half and end of game) whereas the Colts only scored on 2 of their 11 possessions (unless you include the Safety they scored for the Pats... heh heh). And once again, the Patriots improved their performance against a team the second time they played. So now it's on to Houston to tame the Panthers and bring home a second Lombardi Trophy -- at least that's they way *I* want it to go. It's a more interesting match up than if Philly had won, because the Pats stomped them 31-10 earlier this year and the Eagles have injuries and no offense left.

It's the same old song for this defense, although they added a verse or two. Ty Law was the man on Sunday -- with as many catches (3) as Colts receiver Marvin Harrison. Two of his interceptions were just great catches, and when you add Rodney Harrison's INT and forced fumble, the Pats got 5 turnovers (compared to 2 in the first game). Harrison (Rodney, not Marvin) and Eugene Wilson had some monster hits, and the Colt receivers obviously were short-arming passes by the second quarter. In fact, the Pats played the same defense Sunday that they played in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams -- five defensive backs, two linebackers, and four down lineman, not much blitzing, and daring the Colts to run the ball. And the Colts played just like the Rams, throwing into a defense that's more vulnerable to the run.

In fact, some of their best success came early in the third quarter when they scored their first touchdown on a drive that was mostly running. But for some reason, they didn't stick with it, and Manning paid the price. The Pats pressured him up the middle and from the back side, making him move before passing. And he threw at least three of his interceptions while on the move to the right. Jarvis Green arose from the bench to notch three sacks, and the D-line got pressure without much blitzing at all, leaving the back seven to handle three or four receivers -- a mismatch in the Patriots favor. The only bad news for the Pats defense was Tedy Bruschi limping off the field late in the game. His status for the Super Bowl is uncertain.

What is certain is that the Panthers will have their hands full with the Patriots offense. Antowain Smith is running like he did two years ago (22 carries for 100 yards), David Givens makes big-time plays (8 catches and a touchdown), Troy Brown is back to his old self (7 catches for 88 yards and a punt return for 16 yards), Adam Vinatieri went 5-5 on field goals, and Tom Brady continues to build his reputation as one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the game (5-0 in the playoffs; 9-0 against teams with a winning record this year). Brady did throw his first interception at home this year, but it was inconsequential to the outcome. In fact, if they'd converted two of those field goals into touchdowns, this would have been a blowout. (Personally, I think they threw too much when they got close to the end zone, and should have used Kevin Faulk more near the goal line.) The Pats first drive was textbook, short passes mixed with runs, and the touchdown to Givens was a beautifully designed play that beat an over-aggressive Colt defender trying to anticipate Brady's throw. The Patriots offense beat the Colts offense in time of possession, third down conversion rate, yards rushing, yards passing, completion percentage, yards per pass attempt (which correlates very closely with winning games). They also allowed no sacks, and had only two penalties and have the look of the 2001 team with a bit more talent.

Adam kicked ass (as well as the ball) on Sunday. Doesn't get much better than 5-5 on field goals. And the rest of the special teams played well, except for the kickoff to open the second half. Ken Walter didn't mess up any punts (ask the Colts what that feels like), and he saved at least two bad snaps on field goal attempts. The Colts were obviously still afraid of Bethel Johnson, kicking it short so he couldn't return it. And that worked well for us because we started just about every drive at the 35 yard line or better. Troy Brown turned in a 16-yard return on their only punt, and the Pats basically won the field position game all day.

Overall, the Patriots did what they've done all year when facing a team for the second time, especially in points allowed (a twenty point drop from first game to second). They had more sacks (from 2 to 4) and more turnovers (2 to 5) and totally rattled co-MVP Peyton Manning. And I expect they will do much of the same to the Panthers in Houston. Even though it's the first time they will play this year, the Patriots defense against an inexperience quarterback is a mismatch. The Panthers can run the ball but they haven't faced a run defense as ferocious as the Patriots is, and they don't have enough of a passing threat to force the Patriots out of their run defense.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots can't win for very long if Tedy Bruschi is out. He got injured last year and they lost their next four games. But they have shored up their run defense and have enough speed to win the Super Bowl even if Bruschi is out. But I hope he's back in time for the Bowl anyway."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/14/2004)

Alright then, almost time to get it on in Foxboro. Colts/Pats II should be a great match up. The first one was a classic and both teams are playing better now. It's January, it's cold, it's windy, it's the playoffs -- let's get ready to rumble!

Some thoughts on Sunday's game. I did a little research and came up with some interesting numbers. This will be the Pats second game against the Colts this season, and they've played four other teams twice this year: Bills, Jets, Dolphins, and Titans. The Patriots were 7-1 in those games (5-0 at home), with their only loss being the opener against Buffalo. The most telling stats from those games is how much better the Patriots did against those teams the second time the played them. On a per game basis, the Patriots defense improved by 38% in passing yards allowed (from 262 to 163), 86% in forced turnovers (1.75 to 3.25), 220% in sacks (1.25 to 4), and most importantly, 67% in points allowed (22.5 to 7.5). The Patriot offense improved in sacks allowed by 55% (2.75 down to 1.25) and in turnovers by 43% (1.75 to 1). Those numbers should give the Colts some pause. None of their opponents got more sacks or turnovers the second time around, none got more passing yards, and none scored more points. And here come the Colts with their high-powered passing game -- into windy Gillette Stadium with a hostile crowd and conditions that will get worse as the game goes on (possibility of snow and a dropping temperature).

The good news for the Colts is that their offense is on fire. Peyton Manning has played exceptionally well, and was already playing well toward the end of the season, so it isn't just a playoff phenomenon. He's making good decisions both before and after the snap, his receivers are making big plays, and they score touchdowns most every trip inside the opponent's 20 yard line. And Edgerrin James is a great running back and is complimented by Marcus Pollard at tight end. However, it's been a while since the Colts faced a defense as good as the Patriots. It was probably their last game against the Patriots, where they lost 38-34 in the RCA dome. Look for the Patriots to call some last-second blitzes to counteract Manning's penchant for faking the snap to get the defense to give away their coverage. Also, look for the Pats to be extra physical with the receivers and to make the Colts earn every yard by tackling a lot better than either KC or Denver the last two weeks. And don't expect James or the short passing game to control the Patriot defense -- they have too much size up front and too much speed at linebacker.

The bad news for the Colts is that their defense is also on fire. In fact,
it got third-degree burns against Kansas City. KC's offense is better than ours, but we did score 38 points against the Colts earlier in the year, and their defense has gotten worse since then. In fact, their secondary is banged up, with two starters listed as questionable (50% chance of playing) for Sunday's game. Indy reminds me of the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings of 1998, with a defense built to thrive on being ahead. Those Vikings would score 21 points in the first quarter, forcing the other team pass a lot to get back in the game. And it's a lot easier to play defense when you know the other team has to pass. Indy's defense isn't built to shut the other team down because they score so often they almost never have to. (Note: Colts head coach Tony Dungy has admitted that his defense is three years away from being as good as he wants them to be -- a scary omen for the future, but not very scary right now.)

The Patriots have the perfect offense to beat such a defense. Denver ran for 227 yards against the Colts four weeks ago, and a lot of people think the Pats should do the same. Control the clock and keep Peyton Manning on the sideline, win the time of possession battle and the game will be yours. I don't think the Pats will do that early on. They will run it some (as they always do), and they could pick up some decent yardage that way. But they will go deep against the Colts early in the game, just as they did against Tennessee. You have to get the other team's cornerbacks to drop back if you want to succeed in the short passing game, and the Pats will hit them with one or two haymakers in the first quarter. If the Pats get another first-drive touchdown and can hold the Colts on their first possession, it could be a long day for Peyton. In the last game, the Colts were down by 21 points, and they came back quickly because Tom Brady threw some terrible interceptions that gave Indy a short field. Well, Mr. Brady hasn't thrown an interception at home all year, so the Colts shouldn't count on such hospitality this time around. If the Pats establish a lead, look for heavy dose of Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk to keep Manning and the offense on the sideline.

As for kicking and other topics. Adam V. proved again that he is a money kicker, especially in the cold and wind. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt hasn't missed a field goal or extra point all year, so I'm not counting on many screw-ups from him. However, it will be interesting to see him kick a frozen ball in the wind. That streak might just come to an end this Sunday. Ken Walter helped the Colt comeback in the earlier game with some bad kicks. But he's kicked better since he came back, and he covered-up for three long-snapping mistakes last Saturday, so I guess we'll go with him until next season and hope for the best. The weather will certainly favor the Patriots, as will the home crowd. And even though I don't usually put much stock in those "Belichick has gotten inside Manning's head" things, Peyton is 0-4 in Foxboro and Belichick comes up with great plans to beat immobile quarterbacks.

This is a classic match up of great offense and great defense. Over the years, teams with sub-par defenses and great offenses have made the Super Bowl. But they usually won their playoff games at home (e.g. last year's Oakland Raiders or the 1990-93 Bills). This being the NFL, there are no sure things. But I expect the Patriots can stop the Colts defense at least half the time. That means they should win if they can score on half their possessions -- which I believe they can do against a porous Colt defense. This is another chance to answer the "irresistible force versus immovable
object" question once again. And as has been the case over the years, I expect the immovable Patriots defense to win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Great defense beats great offense. Just ask the 2002 Raiders, the 2001 Rams, the 2000 Giants, the 1990-93 Bills, the 1987-88 Broncos, the... well, you get the picture."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Monday, January 12, 2004

How to Stay Warm (1/12/2004)

Oh, and for those of you curious as to how I stayed warm, here's a photo of what I wore to the game.

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Patriots 17, Titans 14 (1/10/2004)

Now that, boys and girls, was a great football game. The best I've seen all year, though if you like offense, you probably liked the 38-34 win over the Colts in November. Personally, I like a little more defense, so I prefer the 17-14 win over the Titans on Saturday. (This was, in fact, a great weekend on the gridiron - with four games decided by an average of five points.) The winning streak stands at 13 games, and one more win over the Colts to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

The defense remains largely responsible for the entire streak, and they did most of the heavy lifting this week, too. The defensive line did a nice job holding Eddie George to 48 yards and they pestered Steve McNair enough to keep him at 200 yards passing while sacking him three times. Willie McGinest was the defensive star, with eight tackles and two sacks, and he and Rodney Harrison were around McNair all day. Derek Mason (their best receiver) accounted for 90 of those passing yards, mostly when he found himself covered by safety Eugene Wilson - a mismatch the Patriots took too long to correct. The Tennessee receivers are big and they thrived on the physical play of the Patriot corners, and they made some fantastic catches along the sideline on their last drive. Neither Ty Law nor Tyrone Poole distinguished themselves with great plays, though not many passes were completed against Law. Aside from the damage Mason inflicted, most of the passing yards came on excellent catches through tight coverage. Harrison had the game's lone interception, which led to the team's second touchdown, and he and Tedy Bruschi forced the Titans into crucial penalties on their last drive. Tedy Bruschi had an interception called back because of an offensive penalty -- and he would have returned it for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead, and a totally different game. In fact, the Titans twice committed penalties that helped them, but overall they had far too many for a playoff game. The ended the day with nine penalties and at least three others that the Patriots declined.

The Pats offense didn't perform as well as I expected, and I give the Titans some of the credit for that. The Patriots scored an opening-drive touchdown for the fourth game in a row, a 41-yard pass to Bethel Johnson, and followed that up with an opportunistic TD in the second quarter. Antowain Smith ran very well (16 carries, 69 yards and a touchdown), and the Pats surprisingly out gained the Titans 96 yards to 84 on the ground. The offensive line deserves a lot of praise, not only for their run blocking but for their stellar pass protection - can't do much better than zero sacks. Tom Brady completed passes to 10 different receivers, and even though his completion percentage was barely above 50%, he never turned the ball over. That was left to Daniel Graham, who had a horrible day. He dropped a crucial third down pass, lost a fumble, then dropped back-to-back passes on second and third down as the clock was winding down toward four minutes to play. Had he caught either of them, the Pats could have run more time off the clock and gone for a touchdown rather than a field goal. To compensate for Graham's bad day, the team got important contributions to the passing game from David Givens, Christian Fauria, Bethel Johnson, Troy Brown (a clutch fourth-down reception), and Kevin Faulk. But Graham better get his head on straight for the next game. The Patriots can't afford to miss scoring opportunities against the Colts.

Special teams were very inconsistent. Some have come to expect the worst of Ken Walter, and his 27-yard average leaves a lot to be desired. But Craig Hentrich (the Titans's punter) was even worse, with one kick of 14 yards and a poor kick that gave the Pats a short field on their game-winning drive. Given that Hentrich led the league in punting but still had trouble in the poor conditions, I can cut Ken Walter a little slack. What cannot be excused was the poor kickoff coverage. The Patriots kicked off four times, and twice they lost outside containment - both times leading to great field position for the Titans. Bethel Johnson and Patrick Pass were the guilty parties, and they'll need to stay disciplined in the next game or it could be trouble. (Note: in both cases, the special teams coach, Brad Seely, took the player aside for a little chat, so I think the message got through.) In addition, Adam Vinatieri missed a 44-yarder, and the Patriots got nothing from their punt- and kickoff-return teams - including a punt Troy Brown should have caught that ended up being downed at the Patriots 5 yard line. On the positive side, Richard Seymour blocked the Titans's only field goal attempt, and Adam did hit the 46-yard game winner. And they should fare better against the Colts because their special teams aren't as good as Tennessee's. But I still had higher expectations for this game.

So it was a lot of fun if you like defense and close games. If you like scoring, the Kansas City/Indianapolis game was right up your alley. The Pats didn't perform as well as I thought they would coming out of the bye, but as is the case every game (for the last 13), they minimized mistakes and did enough to win. They ran for 3.6 yards a carry, had only one turnover, no interceptions, committed only 3 penalties (14 yards), and Tom Brady wasn't sacked all night. To win against Indy, they will have to capitalize on every offensive opportunity that presents itself. The Colts can probably score at least half the time they get the ball against the Patriot defense, which means the Pats will have to score more than half the time they get the ball. But Indy's defense is easily the worst one still in the playoffs, and good defense usually beats good offense in the playoffs; so it should be interesting.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Colts look great, but remember the conditions for their games. One game in their dome and the other in 50-degree weather against a really, really bad defense. Their punter should get some work this Sunday in frosty Foxboro, and those small receivers probably won't hold up as well as the Tennessee receivers did in the sub-zero wind-chill. Besides, they're 1-3 in AFC Championship games, and the Pats are 3-0."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Patriots vs. Titans Preview (1/7/2004)

In the national media build-up to Saturday's Patriots game, it seems like the Titans somehow became the #1 seed with the best record in the NFL this year. Now it's the "massive Tennessee defensive line" that will man-handle the Patriots offense; it's Tennessee's "wounded warriors" Steve McNair and Eddie George who will control the clock and the game; it's Tennessee's "dominating" special teams and great kickers who will mean the difference if the game is close. Don't believe it for a minute.

This is a very common phenomenon. In fact, it's repeated every year. The "experts" always pump-up teams that win their first-round playoff games. Somehow, they forget that the first and second seeds got bye weeks because they were the better teams, and they predict upsets or very close games. There are two main reasons for this. First, the higher seeds did not play last weekend, but the other teams did; and a win is always more impressive than no game at all. In the "what have you done for me lately" world of sports, the team that won is the "hot" team, and the team that rested for a week somehow doesn't look as impressive. Second, most of the experts have a vested interest in getting you to watch the games. I wouldn't expect the ESPN, Fox or CBS experts to predict blowout wins because people might not watch; and that's bad for business.

The Titans benefit from this phenomenon. But the really over-hyped team is the new media darlings, the Indianapolis Colts. Every year, one team is a blowout winner the first weekend of the playoffs, and the media make them the trendy pick to go to the Super Bowl. Trouble is, it almost never happens. The next week, the media darling has to go on the road and play a team that had a week off and a better record, and the media darling almost never prevails. New York Jets of 2002, who beat the Colts 41-0 then lost to Oakland 30-10. The year before, Baltimore beat Miami 20-3 then lost to 27-10 to Pittsburgh. The year before that, Philly beat Tampa Bay 21-3 then lost to the New York Giants 20-10. Each of those teams became the media favorite when they beat up on teams they were supposed to beat up on; but things changed when they went up against superior teams in the next round. Kansas City hasn't played well lately, so this year's game could be close, but I fully expect the Colts to lose this weekend.

With all that said, here are some thoughts on Saturday night's Patriots game.

The fact that Tennessee was #1 versus the run is irrelevant to this game.

The Patriots were near the bottom of the league in rushing yards and make no bones about it. (Don't be fooled by how the Pats ran the ball in their last two games. The Jets are awful against the run, and the Bills quit playing after the first series.) Even though they ran well against the Titans earlier this year, the Pats will use short passes to compensate for the lack of running. Tennessee has undoubtedly practiced against the quick passes, but so has every other team the Pats played and they still finished 14-2.

The Patriots will have to be aware of Titans defensive lineman Jevon Kerse. He is a speed rusher with a long arms and great leaping ability and could cause problems with the short passing game -- so the Pats would be well advised not to throw too many quick-hit passes to his side of the field. I expect the Pats to go deep a few times to loosen the Titan defense so they can run the ball a little bit. If it isn't too windy, look for Bethel Johnson or David Givens early. And given the extra week of practice they had, look for improved timing in the short-passing game and a few trick plays they haven't shown all year.

The Patriots defense against the Titans offense is a significant advantage for the Patriots. To refer back to what I said a few paragraphs ago, the press has somehow forgotten that the Patriots led the lead in fewest points allowed, defensive touchdowns, and shutouts. This isn't a really good defense, it's a great defense -- especially at home. They were missing five or six starters in the first Titans game. But since that time, they've played six home games and given up the following point totals: 6, 3, 0, 0, 13, 0. That's about 4 points a game. Now, those teams weren't as good offensively as the Titans are, but even if you assume they can score equal to the most they Pats gave up in those games (13), that means the Patriots only have to score 14 points to win. I just can't see Tenesssee loading up on points against a Patriots defense that is one of the five best NFL defenses I've ever seen. Eddie George didn't even run for his season average in the first game, and we were missing half our defensive line and half our starting linebackers. Ted Washington and Richard Seymour give the Pats great run-stopping and a solid pass rush without the blitz. They've got two shut-down corners and a ton of speed in their punishing secondary. And their linebackers are among the most flexible in the league -- they can cover the middle on pass plays, hit hard to stuff the run, or rush the passer.

As for special teams, with Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson, the Patriots have the most dangerous kick return tandem in the league. The Tennessee punt return team did pretty well this year, but their kickoff returns are nothing special. The Patriot kick coverage teams are vastly improved over last year, and even with their punting woes, they're near the top of the league in kicks downed inside the 20. And in the placekicking world, Gary Anderson is fine, but I doubt he could kick a 45-yarder in the absolute freezing cold he'll face Saturday. Adam Vinatieri had a bit of a subpar season, and one would hope he worked all bye week to get his timing and rhythm back. But no one in NFL history made more clutch playoff kicks than he did in 2001 -- when the going get tough and you need those points, there's no one else you'd rather have.

As for coaching and intangibles, I see them mostly favoring the Patriots.

Tennessee went on the road last week for a big emotional win in Baltimore.
They're on the road again this week, in an even colder environment, against a much better team that had a week to heal, with a more raucus crowd, and they are banged up. Add to all that the Patriots coaching staff and the confusion they cause in their opponents with only a week to prepare; now imagine what they'll do with two weeks (in fact, they've won 3 of their last 4 games after a bye week) -- and you've got to feel pretty good about their chances. The coaches always keep the team focussed on the game at hand, and with two weeks between games, they will come out fired up and ready to go.

Because of all that, I just can't picture a way the Titans can win this one.
I don't usually go for the overwhelming "can't lose" stuff, but this seems like a double-digit win for the Patriots. I won't predict the score, but I think late turnovers could make this a 14- or 17-point victory for the Pats. Of course, all the usual caveats apply: "any given Sunday," "whichever team plays better," "gotta win the turnover battle," and all that -- but this game just doesn't seem as close as the media might want it to be. But all in all, it should be a good game and I'm looking forward to it.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I've heard all the blathering about how great the Titans played last week. But the Patriots earned their bye week because they are a better team than the Titans. Heck, the Titans only beat one playoff team all year -- the Panthers -- and they went 1-3 against playoff teams during the regular season. The Patriots went 5-0."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Monday, January 5, 2004

2003 Regular Season Awards (1/5/2004)

Before we look ahead to the playoff game this Saturday, I'd like to take a little time to look back and recognize some of the integral parts that made up 2003's best team - your New England Patriots. The team seems to care less about individual honors than the feelings of their vanquished opponents, but that shouldn't stop us from praising those who contributed most to the team's dominating 14-2 record. As the Patriots reminded us all year, this is a team game, so all three phases of the game will be recognized.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady Honorable Mention: Damien Woody

The Patriots won without Damien Woody, Antowain Smith, Deion Branch, Daniel Graham, and even Troy Brown, all of which leaves little doubt as to who makes this offense go. Tom Brady worked all off-season to improve his long passing, durability, and pocket presence, and it shows. He had more 50+ yard passes this year than the previous two combined. In 2002, there were lingering doubts about his health toward the end of the season, but not even a knee-shot from Lawyer Milloy could knock him out this year. And he's been more mobile in the pocket this year - just enough to buy that extra half-second to kill the opposition. No wonder he came in third in the NFL MVP voting.

Damien Woody was an All-Pro center who improved his game by moving to guard.
He was a standout blocker all year and helped hold together a line that had several injuries and position changes.

Most Improved Offensive Player: David Givens Honorable Mention: Damien Woody, Tom Brady, Daniel Graham

His statistics alone make this an obvious choice. He bettered his 2002 numbers in every important category: receptions from 9 to 34; total yards from 92 to 510; yards per catch from 10 to 15; and touchdowns from 1 to 6. But the numbers really don't do him justice. He made the tough catches over the middle, a last-second touchdown to win the Denver game, important catches to convert first downs, and in Troy Brown's absence, he became Brady's most dependable go-to guy. He's even a good downfield blocker. Toward the end of the year he'd landed the starting job alongside Brown - not bad for a seventh round pick.

Daniel Graham is still too inconsistent, but his run and pass blocking have been great and like Givens, he's improved in every offensive category from 2002. For details on the improvements made by Woody and Brady, see the offensive MVP section above.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Dan Koppen Honorable Mention: Bethel Johnson

Koppen is one of the dozen or so rookies who stepped in due to injury this season. When Damien Woody was out for the second game of the year, Koppen became the starting center and never gave the job back (Woody was moved to guard). And the Patriots started rolling, losing only once more after trouncing the Eagles in Koppen's debut. His poise and ability belied the fact that he was a rookie and a late fifth-round pick to boot, and he became an anchor on an offensive line that kept Tom Brady healthy all year. Without his stabilizing presence along the offensive line, the Patriots would never have reeled off twelve consecutive wins and we might never have known how much better Woody was at guard.

Bethel Johnson had some standout games (the Broncos and Colts games spring to mind), and his speed helped transform the Patriots offense from a "dink-and-dunk" short game to one that could score from anywhere on the field.

The Defense

Most Valuable Player Defensive Player: Richard Seymour Honorable Mention: Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Tyrone Poole

This is the closest contest of them all, with Seymour edging Harrison by the tip of his huge wingspan. What can I say about Richard that hasn't already been said? How about this. It's amazing that a defensive lineman had more passes defensed than the starting safety - but Seymour had ten to Eugene Wilson's nine. He also had eight sacks, a forced fumble, and a key blocked field goal to force overtime in Miami. All this while facing constant double-teaming and game plans designed to neutralize him. A monster year.

Harrison showed he had plenty left in the tank, despite the whispers from his former team, the Chargers. He collected three interceptions and made a ton of big hits among his 125 tackles, including 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Looks like he might have the same kind of "twilight of his career" that Roger Clemens did. Bruschi continues to be the heart of the defense (no slight to Lawyer Milloy, but he always was), notching 128 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions himself. And the two corners kept opposing wide receivers Ty-ed down all year - the only legit set of shut-down corners I saw all year.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Willie McGinest Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel, Ty Law

Willie played like Willie again this year. The addition of Ted Washington and the switch to the 3-4 re-energize McGinest. His numbers are comparable to last year. But often being blocked by running backs or tight ends allowed him to be a much more disruptive force and to make impact plays at crucial times. In two important games toward the end of the year, he kept Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler on the run all day, and he made key stops against the Colts. At age 32, he can't be "The Man" on defense anymore, but he complimented the players around him so much better this season, he looks like he could go another five years.

Mike Vrabel made substantial improvement this year, and might have won the award if he didn't miss twice as many games as McGinest did. And Ty Law's numbers are better than last year (2 more INTs, 13 more passes defensed, and great run support) and the fact that he managed it with several lingering injuries is all the more impressive.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Eugene Wilson Honorable Mention: Asante Samuel

Drafted as a cornerback, Eugene Wilson started at safety in one of the most complex defenses in the NFL and turned in weekly performances that made everyone forget the Patriots Super Bowl-starting safety (Tebucky Jones - traded to New Orleans in the off-season). After a rocky start against the Bills, Wilson acquitted himself well, with the game against the Colts his only backward step. For the year, he snagged four interceptions, had nine passes defensed, and helped Rodney Harrison restore some attitude with punishing hits week after week.

I think Asante Samuel has a chance to be a great player in this league, if he could just get on the field (the two Tys are unlikely to relinquish much playing time). He played exceptionally well in the nickel package and was the NFL's Rookie of the Week in the first Jets game.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Larry Izzo Honorable Mention: Bethel Johnson

It's difficult to assign this award if the team doesn't have a dominant kicker, because special teams often look like semi-organized chaos. But Larry Izzo was the special teams captain for a reason. The Patriots kick coverage and return teams were improved over last year, and the team counted on Izzo's intensity, leadership, and his plain old willingness to sacrifice his body to make the tackle. Every year there is only one special teams player designated for the Pro Bowl, and Larry has made it twice. And he continues to exemplify the "do whatever it takes" attitude needed to make an impact on special teams.

The Patriots needed all of Bethel Johnson's speed and his explosive burst to keep up with the Colts in their November showdown, and his impact was shown every time the opponent squib-kicked to avoid a big return.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ken Walter Honorable Mention: Je'Rod Cherry

I know what you're thinking: "Ken Walter almost single-handedly lost the Broncos game." Well, for all his woes this year, Ken kicked very well in all but three games (Denver, Dallas and Indy). He was probably the only NFL punter to get a game ball this year (against Cleveland), and in three games this year, he had at least 75% of his punts downed inside the opponent's 20 yard line (not to mention 9 of 13 punts since returning against Jacksonville). Additionally, he improved over his 2002 performance in several significant areas: percentage of kicks that went for touchbacks (from 13% down to 4%); percentage of kicks downed inside the 20 (from 27% to 33%); and the average punt return against him dropped almost a full yard. Deride if you like, but we probably lose the Cleveland game and the second Jets game if he doesn't perform well.

My choice of Je'Rod Cherry is based on the number of times he made a play to down a ball or keep it out of the end zone on kick coverage. A notable improvement over last season.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Bethel Johnson

No Honorable Mention because no one is even close. Bethel might well be the NFL special teams rookie of the year if the league had such an award. He leads the AFC in kickoff return average, and it only took three games before teams started kicking away from him, often giving the Pats a short field to keep the ball away from Bethel. He also had two huge returns in the Colts game (one for a touchdown, one to set up the winning touchdown). With Troy Brown returning punts, the Patriots might have the most dangerous return tandem in the NFL.

Well, that's about it. I'll send something along at mid-week with info on this weekend's game. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed watching the team this year.

Happy New Year,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!