Monday, November 29, 2004

Patriots 24, Ravens 3 (11/28/2004)

This game was so great. It's so great to finally be 10-1 with a virtual stranglehold on the division *and* a first-round playoff bye, so great to beat "Talking Ray Lewis, with the Kung Fu Grip" and Brian "Of Course I'm a Genius -- Just Ask Me" Billick, giving them a taste of their own medicine with a suffocating defense -- well, I was so happy after the game that cried like a baby, water streaming down my face, soaking me from head to toe with tears of glee. Now... wait just one second... that was the *rain*, not tears. After all, there's no crying in football, is there?

Well, your New England Patriots did it again, beating up an inferior opponent and chugging right along toward the playoffs. They are 10-1 for the first time in franchise history, with a two-game lead in the division (over the New York Jets) and over their next closest rival for a first-round playoff bye (surprising San Diego). They did it with defense, defense and more defense in a game that should have been a shutout and that exposed the Ravens as a two-dimensional team (special teams and defense) in a three-dimensional league. If Baltimore could just get the NFL to spot them a touchdown every week, they might win some more games -- but until then, they'll be on the short end against teams that don't make mistakes with the ball.

And the Patriots are just such a team. On such a sloppy day, the most amazing statistics of the day were: the Patriots had zero turnovers; Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal. With the Ravens best running back out, Baltimore managed only 2.1 yards per run and barely had more total offense than Corey Dillon (124 to 123). And once the Patriots stopped their ground game, Ravens QB Kyle Boller simply didn't have the tools to win in through the air. Last week I marveled at Tom Brady's 11.4 yards per attempt, calling it other-worldly. Boller ended Sunday's game with 1.2 yards per pass attempt, one of the worst numbers I ever remember seeing. He was also sacked four times, was flushed from the pocket multiple times, threw an interception, and fumbled near his own goal line (recovered by Jarvis Green for a touchdown). And most of it wasn't his fault. With Boller's lack of downfield weapons, the Pats knew he couldn't hurt them deep, and with his lack of a running game, the Pats knew he couldn't sustain a drive. You know Baltimore's offense had a bad day when their only scoring drive reads: 6 plays, 12 yards, 22-yard field goal.

Of course, Boller and company had a lot of help in looking bad. The reconfigured New England secondary played a soft or medium zone, just keeping things in front of them to prevent the long pass. With Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Asante Samuel out, the Pats shifted Eugene Wilson to cornerback opposite Randall Gay (with old reliable Troy Brown as the third corner) and alternated linebacker Don Davis with Dexter Reid at safety. Only Rodney Harrison played his natural position, and yet the Pats held Boller to 15 completions in 35 attempts for 93 yards and one interception. Folks, 93 yards is a decent *quarter* for Tom Brady or any other elite quarterback. Given that he couldn't do anything against this patchwork secondary, I'd say this guy Boller just doesn't have it.

The Patriots defensive performance is a credit not only to the coaching staff, but to the Patriots front seven (lineman and linebackers). In the 26 years I've been watching the NFL, I can't recall a team that lost its two best cornerbacks and then went 5-1. It just doesn't happen unless you get great coaching, great replacement play, and have a great front seven to help cover the secondary's deficiencies. Richard Seymour doesn't have the numbers from last year, but he's being double-teamed a lot. Ty Warren has played his best three-game stretch the last three weeks; and his counterpart Jarvis Green stepped up big-time yesterday. The Keith Traylor-Vince Wilfork rotation makes you forget about Ted Washington, and Willie McGinest can sack the QB one play and then cover a wide receiver the next. Ted Johnson is having his best season in three years, Rosevelt Colvin is contributing after his awful hip injury, Roman Phifer continues to defy his age (the oldest Patriot at 36), and of course, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi are somehow always involved in those big plays.

On offense, the Patriots controlled the game on the ground. 144 yards rushing against the NFL's fourth best defense is something to crow about. It was 35 yards more than Baltimore's season average, and is a credit to the Patriots offensive line and to Corey Dillon. If we were still counting on Antowain Smith, this game would have been much more of a dogfight, but Dillon averaged 4.1 yards a carry where Antowain might have gotten 2.7 -- and that difference was huge, given the number of close third-down conversions the Patriots had. It's nice to see Daniel Graham continue to work his way back into the receiving rotation; but Sunday was not a game for great passing numbers. Brady didn't throw it as much as he had lately, and even so, the Ravens got significant pressure on him. They had linebackers and cornerbacks speed rushing from the edge and getting to Brady about half the time. Tom did a good job throwing the ball away rather than risking interceptions, and ended the game with a respectable 15 of 30 for 172 yards and no interceptions or fumbles. He was sacked once, and he got pushed around a bit, but in the end, the lack of turnovers is what won the game.

With the Baltimore offense held in check, and their defense unable to force a single turnover, the only way they could hurt us was with special teams returns. And they do have one of the best units in the NFL; but as with many things, the Patriots took away their opponents strength. Return man B.J. Sams never got much going, and never really changed field position in the game. Our punter, Josh Miller, had his worst day punting for us, and Kevin Faulk misjudged a punt, giving us possession at the 15 yard line. But the only time special teams changed the game for us was when we had 30 yards of penalties on a single punt play. That gave the Ravens their only score of the game. As for the other part of special teams, you just have to marvel at Adam Vinatieri and his partners in crime long snapper Lonie Paxton and holder Josh Miller. Some of Adam's most impressive kicks: 45 yards in the snow, 23 yards in the snow; 48 yards to win Super Bowl XXXVI; 46 yards to beat Tennessee in the 2003 playoffs; 41 yards to win Super Bowl XXXVIII. And while Sunday's 45 yarder in three inches of mud wasn't as pressure-packed as any of those others, it adds to his legacy as one of the great bad-weather kickers in NFL history.

So where does that leave us. Okay, the division title is just about ours. If we were somehow to go 2-3 over the last five games (doubtful), the Jets would have to go 5-0 to ensure they'd win the division. Since that won't happen, a division championship guarantees a home playoff game. The only real threat we have to a first-round playoff bye is the San Diego Chargers. They are two games behind us and could theoretically take the second seed if we started losing. But again, they'd have to go 5-0 or 4-1 to have much of a chance to catch us, and they still have games against Denver, KC, and on the road against Indy. (Speaking of Indy, they don't have much chance to take a first-round by from us -- they are two games back *and* we have the tie-breaker over them because we beat them to open the season.) So things are looking good for your hometown team.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats playoff success will be decided by how well Ty Law and Tyrone Poole play when they return. The team has held its own without them because they played flawed teams. But once you're in the playoffs, I don't think Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland can take you to a championship."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-1!

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