Monday, October 25, 2004

Patriots 13, Jets 7 (10/24/2004)

It was said all week that the Pats and Jets were mirror images of each other. Teams that didn't turn the ball over, didn't commit stupid penalties, made the sure tackles to avoid the big gains, were solidly-spectacular on special teams -- or to put it in cliché form, they didn't beat themselves. So it supposedly would come down to which team could make those few plays down the stretch to preserve the win on defense or win the game on offense. In the end, both of those came to pass: the Pats defense stopped the Jets on four straight downs near the end of the game and the offense ran out the clock when every single person watching knew Corey Dillon was getting the ball.

Not an artistic masterpiece, but a 13-7 win nonetheless. The Pats have now won 21 consecutive games and 18 straight in the regular season (both NFL records, although only one is "official"), and most important of all, they beat their division rival to grab a one-game lead in the division. And it's a good thing. The next two games are on the road against teams with winning records, and both those teams have extra time to plan for the Patriots because they have their bye week before they play the Patriots. Not going to be easy.

As for yesterday's game, I don't think I need to break it down by offense, defense, and special teams. Statistically, the teams came out of the game pretty even. But it seems to me the entire game was encapsulated by six plays late in the game, starting with the Jets on offense at the Patriots 37 yard line:

2nd down and five: The Jets run the fullback in motion to the left, drawing Eugene Wilson to cover him and leaving Asante Samuel with no deep help against Justin McCareins, who has consistently beaten Samuel all day. At the snap, McCareins goes to the end zone (looked like a post route that Samuel shielded him away from), and the pass is thrown behind him and looks like it might be complete. But Wilson had faked covering the fullback and then raced to the end zone and helped with McCareins. Wilson breaks up the pass. It seemed like Wilson knew exactly what play was about to be run, and he also knew that a 10-yard completion to the fullback was much less dangerous than a touchdown at that point.

3rd down and five: Curtis Martin tries to run a quick hit to the offensive left, seeming to catch the Patriots while they were still making their adjustments. But just before Martin hits the line, Jarvis Green (I think it was him) reaches out to grab him by the shoulder pads, slowing him down and pulling him back just enough for Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour to make the tackle for a three-yard loss. The Patriots rotated their defensive linemen a lot in this game, and it just goes to show you that you never know who might make an important play at a crucial time.

4th down and eight: Wayne Chrebet comes in from the sideline and when the huddle breaks, he goes to the slot left. Pennington never takes his eyes off of him as he drops back to pass, and when the throw goes Chrebet's way, he's double-covered short and there is deep safety help as well. Rodney Harrison knocks the pass away, but either of the other two defenders (I believe it was Wilson deep and Samuel short, but it might have been Randall Gay short) could have made the play, and someone else should have been open on the play. But once again, it seemed like the Patriots knew who was the most likely receiver on that play and had him well-covered.

Now the Patriots have the ball at their own 30 with just over two minutes left in the game. With the 2:00 warning and two Jet timeouts remaining, the Pats need to get at least one first down. Everyone in the stadium, watching at home, and (presumably) in the Jets huddle knows that Corey Dillion is going to carry the ball three times.

1st down and ten: Dillon runs over left guard for six yards.

2nd down and four: Dillon runs up the middle for two yards.

3rd down and 2: Dillon runs off left tackle for four yards and a first down. The Jets knew the Patriots would run, and they ran for the first down anyway. No last-second heroics, no dangerous punt return, nothing. Ballgame over.

I hope you enjoyed the game as much as I did. And I also hope you've gotten a chance to watch (or see in person!) some of what the Red Sox have been doing. Between the Pats and Sox, they are undefeated in their last 27 games; pretty astounding when you think that a week ago, the Yank-mees missed a chance to sweep the Sox out of the playoffs. Great time to be a sports fan from New England.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Patriots are undefeated after six games, imagine what they might be like when they get Troy Brown, Deion Branch, and Tyrone Poole back."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-0!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Patriots 30, Seahawks 20 (10/17/2004)

Well, I hope you enjoyed the game as much as I did. Seems like the one game don't go to is one of the best games of the year: last year, Patriots beat the Titans 38-30; this year it's 30-20 Pats over Seahawks. Everyone knew going into yesterday's game that the Seahawks would be one of the toughest tests of the year. In fact, several media know-it-alls predicted this might be a Super Bowl preview. Well, Seattle left just like they came in -- unproven in big games. They've got some work to do to be as good at the Patriots, and a long way to go before they'd represent the NFC in the Super Bowl (especially with Philly and Minnesota playing so well).


The offense was spectacular in the first half, sluggish for most of the second half, and then spectacular again when Bethel Johnson made one of the best catches you'll ever see to help close the deal with 3:00 left in the game. They scored on their first three possessions and showed a great mix of pass and run (33 rushes, 30 pass attempts for the game). Brady, Corey Dillon (two touchdowns), Daniel Graham (a couple of clutch catches), Kevin Faulk, and the entire offensive line played great in the first half, and Seattle didn't seem to have any answers for the Patriot offense until the third quarter. Once the Seahawks made their adjustments, they held the Partiots scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter. Brady uncharacteristically turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions: a fumble while running for a first down, and then an interception. It seemed to me like he was frustrated with their lack of offensive progress in the second half and tried too hard to get something going. If he'd played the possession/field-position game, the Seahawks probably wouldn't have gotten as close as they did. This unit should be scary if they ever get all their wide receivers back; they rang up 30 points against a defense ideally suited to stop them (they have "shut down" corners and the Pats had no extra wide receivers to get Seattle's backup DBs on the field). The run-pass balance with Dillon in town is remarkable (for the season, 156 rushing plays, 143 passing plays -- credit to Michael Smith of

If you would indulge me, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate two unsung offensive guys: Daniel Graham and Dante Scarnecchia. Graham's progress in the passing game has been admirable, but the thing that keeps him on the field is his blocking ability. This game was the first time I heard the commentators mention his blocking, but you could see in the replays that he just takes guys out of the play, running plays, passing plays, trick plays, any plays at all. Glad to see him finally get recognition for this underrated part of tight end play.

Dante Scarnecchia is the team's offensive line coach. He's been a Patriots coach since the Ron Meyer days (that would be 1982 for those with short memories), he is serving under his seventh head coach with the Patriots, and he's coached everything from special teams and linebackers to tight ends and offensive line. Last season, he juggled an offensive line that started the year injured and ended the year with *zero* sacks in the entire playoffs even without the team's best lineman (Damien Woody -- injured for the Super Bowl) and a rookie at center (Dan Koppen). And this year, Dante's project is Stephen Neal, a guy who's been on and off the practice squad of two teams and spent time on the injured reserve list and the physically unable to perform list over the last three years. Well, he not only made the team, he's *starting* and blocking well in both pass and run schemes. It's not often a non-head coach, non-coordinator gets much attention in the NFL, but I just wanted to recognize Dante's longevity and obvious gift for coaching.


Suppose Seattle wants a do-over? Their first half couldn't have gone worse, with inopportune penalties, dropped passes, turnovers, and when they did get in the red zone, field goals instead of touchdowns. They looked flat, but a lot of it was due to the Patriots defense. They were hard-hitting, they played with anywhere from one to five defensive lineman and disguised their blitzes to confuse the Seahawks offensive line and get pressure on Hasselbeck. The Pats sacked him 3 times and had him on the run at least another 10. In fact, Hasselbeck doesn't throw very well on the run, so I'm sure that was part of the plan to stop Seattle.

Beyond the usual suspects (Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole in the secondary), it's tough to pick out any one player for extra praise. They rotated lineman and linebackers so much that Jarvis Green got as much playing time as Vince Wilfork. And everyone in the secondary hit hard and broke up passes, and the Pats run defense kept Shaun Alexander completely in check. Willie McGinest was all over the place, though he rushed himself out of a few plays. And Eugene Wilson had ten tackles and a forced fumble. But this was one of those overall team performances. They shut the Seahawks down the entire first half, and then late in the game when it was on the line. And much like the Dolphins game, they won the red zone battle (Seattle had one touchdown in five trips inside the Patriots 20 yard line). Not bad when you're playing "offensive genius" Mike Holmgren.


The Patriots played their best game of the year on Sunday. It was a cooly efficient performance that reminded me of what I saw from great teams of the past when they played up-and-coming teams that weren't quite ready for prime time. The Pats won the following battles by a little bit: third-down conversions (50% to 47%); punting average (40.5 yards to 38); yards per return (23 to 21.5); interceptions (2 to 1); time of possession (31:37 to 28:23); rushing yards (130 to 102); yards per pass (7.2 to 6.4); and sacks (3 to 1). Not huge differences, but enough to overwhelm an inexperienced team playing on the road. Even when Seattle came within three points, I never thought the game was in doubt. Seattle just didn't have enough to get the job done.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Think Corey Dillon was worth a second-round pick?" (said with a wry smile).

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry this was late, but the Red Sox are frying my brain. And if you think that series is over, remember what I've been telling people since last Thursday: "If the Yankees don't win another game, they lose the series."

PPS. 5-0!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Patriots 24, Dolphins 10 (10/10/2004)

Hey, some people might be bored with this, but not me. My first six years with season tickets went like this: one game followed by a player's strike; 5-11; 1-15; 6-10; 2-14; 5-11. In fact, in the 1-15 season I went to all eight home games and they *lost every single one*. So I have no apologies for enjoying 19 wins in 19 weeks. It's a great accomplishment that has gotten just about the right amount of national attention. And as Seattle's loss on Sunday (after leading by 17 points with 5:50 left the game) showed, it is easy to lose your focus for just a few minutes and cost yourself a game. The Pats have maintained that focus, and have beaten 12 consecutive over-.500 opponents -- not bad, not bad at all.

Now, on to the ugliness. Tom Brady goes 7-19 for 69 yards, two touchdowns, one INT; Miami kicker injured *during warm-ups*. Pats go 4-14 on third-down conversions; Miami rushes for a 2.6 yard average. Both teams get more first downs by penalties than by running plays. Brady gashes his chin and is knocked around a lot more than the one sack would indicate; Miami loses both quarterbacks by game's end (and both are likely out for next week, too). Take your pick; it was an ugly game. But in the end, only the score counted and that went in the Patriots favor for the 19th consecutive time.


I thought the offense performed pretty well. Miami's defense is very good, and their plan was to hit Brady whenever they could (including some "roughing-the-passer") -- and it showed. So the Pats ran the ball right down their throat, and that worked pretty well. The Patriots out-gained Miami 2-to-1 in rushing, and once they had a lead, it allowed them to work the clock while daring Miami to try to score. Which of course, Miami could never do.

Given how the game played out, I give the O-line, tight end, and running backs a lot of credit. It was great to see Kevin Faulk back in the lineup, and Corey Dillon went for almost 100 yards and the recently picked-up Rabih Abdulla added a touchdown against a very stout defense. With Bethel Johnson, Troy Brown, and Deion Branch on the sideline, the Pats went with only three wide-receivers -- one signed only the previous week. And they did enough to get 24 points, which is more than you might expect against Miami, even with a full compliment of players. Brady's aforementioned stats are terrible, but if you want the most important stat in the game, here it is: red-zone efficency, Dolphins 20%, Patriots 100%. Ballgame. Two great play-fakes for two easy touchdowns were the difference.


Another stellar performance by Rodney Harrison. He was in on just about every big play of the game, and he anchored the secondary without Tyrone Poole (and sometimes Ty Law). And the play of the young guys continues to impress. Randall Gay got his first INT, Asante Samuel acquitted himself nicely (notwithstanding two completions against him), and Vince Wilfork played his best game as a pro. Now the Miami O-line is pretty bad, so I don't want to go overboard about Wilfork; but he might be the key to the Patriots having another very successful year. When he plays well, the Pats play a 3-4 defense (three defensive lineman and four linebackers), and in essence, that allows them to have much more complex blitzes and Rodney Harrison is free to blitz, drop into coverage, or help with the run. Keith Traylor has not been able to handle the demands of the 3-4, but Wilfork has shown flashes of being able to do so. He continues to improve, and that improvement might be more important to the Patriots season than most people think.

As for the rest of the defense, Bruschi and Law had big days, and I thought Roman Phifer played well. Also Richard Seymour and even Keith Traylor made some important plays. However, Ted Johnson is just a liability in pass defense. That wouldn't be so bad, except that the offense seems to change to a pass play whenever they see Johnson on the field. Now, the only reason they bring Johnson into the game is when we're having trouble stopping the run; so this situation bears watching. Better play from Wilfork and Traylor could mean less playing time for Johnson.

As for the overall defense, any time you stop a team from scoring 80% of their trips inside the red zone, you have accomplished something. Heck, the Dolphins had first-and-goal inside the one-yard line, and they lost 13 yards *and* both quarterbacks and didn't score. That's impressive no matter how bad the other team's offense is.

Special Teams

I guess they practiced and practiced and practiced all last week, and it seems to have sunk in. The Pats cut Shawn Mayer and signed Je'Rod Cherry (from last year's team) and some speed burner named Kevin Kasper. There are also rumors that Bethel Johnson was inactive for the game because he wasn't practicing hard enough. And the message finally got through: Miami averaged only 20 yards per kickoff return and 8 yards per punt return. The Pats return game wasn't better than it was against Buffalo, but the coverage teams were markedly better. Larry Izzo and Cherry were the special teams stars, seeming to make just about every tackle there was to be made.


I'll say it again: the Patriots haven't played their best football yet. They're getting better -- fewer turnovers and penalties and better special teams coverage. And they will have to continue improving to beat a very good Seattle team this week. I won't be at the game (::sobbing::), but I'll be rooting right along with the rest of you. I think the Pats will score against Seattle, especially if they get one or two receivers back this week. So the burning question will be whether or not Seattle can score more against the Patriots. And I think the answer will be "no."

Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom:

"This was the second week in a row the Patriots played a team that *should have* signed away a Patriots assistant to be their head coach. The Dolphins are fond of blaming all their problems on Ricky Williams [who left the team just before the season started]. But their biggest off-season blunder was keeping a coach whose teams continued to decline even as they added more talented players."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Patriots 31, Bills 17 (10/3/2004)

Patriots score first, beat the division rival Bills 31-17, continue the winning streak to 18 consecutive, and remain tied for the division lead at 3-0. Life is good. It wasn't exactly a work of art (both teams had too many penalties and some ugly special teams play -- and even an official left the game injured), but it got the job done -- again. Here's what I saw:


The O-line shuffle from the past two games was pretty much gone. They stuck with five guys for most of the game, and I imagine that will continue as the weather gets cooler and heat exhaustion problems are diminished. Faced with 6-man blitzes two-thirds of the time, they protect Brady pretty well -- zero sacks, but he did get hit more than a few times. I give Buffalo's defense some of the credit; it's obvious that's where they've spent most of their time and money.

With the Pats running game slowed for most of the day (3.8 yards a carry), Tom Brady, David Patten, and David Givens came up big. Brady escaped with no interceptions, although he could have had at least two, and had two touchdowns and almost 300 yards passing despite being blitzed and harassed all day long. Patten went over 100 yards and had a huge touchdown just before the half, and Givens continues to be a big-time receiver who will make the tough catches over the middle. With Ben Watson out for the year, the Patriot receivers will have to do the dirty work over the middle again this year, so having Givens is a big plus. (Note: the Pats are already thin at wide receiver, with Troy Brown day-to-day, Deion Branch out of Sunday's game, and the injury to Bethel Johnson on Sunday.)

Corey Dillon was sort of give-and-take against the Bills. He had a great touchdown run right up the gut early in the game, and then fumbled at the 2-yard line (and had an uncalled fumble later on). The fumble was part of two "14-point swings" in the game: one where the Dillon fumble cost the Pats a touchdown and led to a Buffalo touchdown; the other when Drew Bledsoe's fumble cost Buffalo a possible touchdown and was directly converted to Richard Seymour's touchdown (more on that later).


The defense probably surprised the Bills by not blitzing for the first three quarters. The Pats stayed in their base defense, concentrating on making Buffalo sustain long drives to score, and for the most part, it worked. The Bills had one very long drive (96 yards) -- that was aided by a misplayed punt that went for a 34-yard gain, but most all their other drives stalled out eventually. The secondary did a better job tackling than covering, and they got two Bledsoe turnovers (interception early, fumble late). And once the Pats were ahead late and they knew the Bills would pass almost every down, the Patriots blitzed and had a man coming free on Bledsoe every down.

The D gave up only ten points (the other seven were on special teams). Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Eugene Wilson, and Rodney Harrison deserve special mention. All played well (especially Seymour, who continues to draw double- and sometimes triple-teams), although I wish Harrison didn't have to work so hard against the run. The D notched seven sacks and about twice that many pressures, and that led to many mis-thrown passes or wrong decisions by Bledsoe. And even when the Bills did complete passes, the defenders were right there to make the tackle, so there were very few yards after the catch for Buffalo. And of course, the Bruschi/Seymour combination on the fumble return for a touchdown was great. Buffalo's O-line blew the assignment, with the guard switching out to take Willie McGinest (who dropped into coverage instead of rushing) and the running back missing the assignment switch to take out Bruschi.

The Pats run defense continued to struggle, giving up 138 yards and a 5.3 per rush average. The only time they seemed to stop the run cold was when Vince Wilfork (who is getting better by the week) and Keith Traylor are on the field at the same time -- or when the running back fell down on his own. Sometimes playing Ted Johnson helped, but when he's on the field, teams usually switch to a pass play because he's weak in coverage. The Bills were committed to the run, and that made it more difficult; but when the Patriots play the more balanced offenses of Seattle and the NY Jets, they'll have their hands full if they can't stop the run with their base 3-4 (i.e. with either Wilfork or Traylor in the game -- but not both at the same time).

Special Teams

My mother always told me if I didn't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Good thing she's not on this list. The Patriots special teams got their assess fed to them at gunpoint by Buffalo. The Bills ended up with more return yards than passing yards (213 to 199), and out-returned the Pats almost two-to-one (213 to 117). A lot of those yards were on the 98-yard return by Terrence McGee, but the next four Patriot kickoffs resulted in the following field position for Buffalo: Bills 40, Bills 41, Bills 42, and Bills 39. They might as well have kicked all of them out of bounds (which Vinatieri did once) with those results.

The Patriots lost outside contain on a botched punt (which the punter ran it for 34 yards to keep an eventual touchdown drive alive), gave up two 10+ yard punt returns, and had two botched punt returns by Tyrone Poole. They did get a few good kickoff returns, but it did little to offset the yardage given up to Buffalo. Just a disaster for the Pats and their special teams coach Brad Seeley. I have a lot of respect for the Bills special teams coach, Bobby April (who ran the out-standing St. Louis special teams the past few years). But I know Bill Belichick will have everyone working on this all week, because Miami's special teams are historically among the top ten in the league. Look for more starters on special teams if things don't improve against Miami.


Buffalo is the ultimate Forrest Gump team: you never know what you're gonna get. Their defense is very fast and hard-hitting, but they gave up a lot of stupid of penalty yards; the offense ran well, pass-protected poorly, and came up with only ten points; and the special teams rocked most of the game but a penalty on a Pats field goal allowed the Pats to score a touchdown instead. It was a nice divisional win, but the Pats still have too many penalties (10 for 77 yards), are giving up too many yards on the ground, and need to be more careful with the ball (Brady could have thrown two INTs, and Dillon had two fumbles).

If they play the same type of game against Miami, it won't cost them a loss, because Miami's strong defense, they can't beat you if they can't score. However, the Pats better get their act together for the run against Seattle, the NY Jets, and then some tough road games. But of course, all-in-all it's nice to get a win. 18 straight and if they win next week, they will own the NFL record all by themselves. Sorry about the delayed update, but I was renovating my home this weekend and was exhausted Monday morning.

(The return of) Your Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Looks like Buffalo made a real mistake not waiting to hire Charlie Weis [Patriots Offensive Coordinator]. If they'd waited until after the Super Bowl, they could have had a great offensive coach who might have turned their program around. But they rushed the decision and now they're 0-3 and look like they hired a guy who's in over his head [Mike Mularkey]."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-0!