Monday, December 13, 2004

Patriots 35, Bengals 28 (12/12/2004)

I know some people have been bored by the Patriots lately because they never lose; but I don't think anyone was bored by yesterday's win. An up-and-down the field battle with over 800 yards of offense, an INT return for a touchdown, another INT in the end zone, a fake field goal for a touchdown, and some helmet-jarring hits in the secondary should never be called "boring." So your New England Patriots held serve at home and kept the good times rolling with a 35-28 win over the Bengals. It was quite an improvement over the pre-season game where the Bengals starters wiped out the Patriots starters 31-0, and yesterday's win put the Patriots in the playoffs for the third time in four years. Later in the day, the Jets loss to the Steelers guaranteed a third division title in four years -- so there will be at least one playoff game in Foxboro. Not bad.

As for the game, it was closer than a lot of people thought it would be. In fact, the Bengals were either tied or ahead in almost every statistic there is: first downs, third-down conversions, return yards, time of possession, total yards, rushing yards, passing yards, and average gain per play. So how did they lose? Well, they lost in two major categories: turnovers (3-0) and penalties (9 for 75 yards versus 2 for 13 yards). The turnovers and penalties are mostly concentration errors where the Patriots just paid closer attention to taking care of the ball and not committing costly penalties. However, the Bengals did a good job overcoming their penalties, although 75 yards versus 13 is a really big differential. The real killer was the timing of their turnovers. Their fumble and one interception came with them poised to score, and their other interception was returned by Asante Samuel for a touchdown. That accounts for 21 points (14 they potentially lost and 7 the Patriots gained), which is huge when you lose by a touchdown.

The Patriots defense did not play very well overall. I know, I know, they played an explosive offense and still won. But this game was like a companion piece to the KC game from earlier this year: the Chiefs exposed the Patriots secondary with long passes; the Bengals did the same with short passes. And just like that KC game, the Patriots defense came up with enough timely plays to win the game, which has been their modus operandi for two years now. It's just that with every other team gunning for them (because they are the defending Super Bowl champions), eventually that formula will fail against the better teams in the playoffs. So they've got to get healthier in the secondary to make a serious run at another championship.

I was glad to see both Asante Samuel (full-time) and Tyrone Poole (part-time) return for this game. Samuel had the aforementioned touchdown return, but the secondary seemed confused overall. Maybe it was too much to bring back both players in the same game and not expect some miscommunication. Samuel played pretty well overall, and I'm sure he will get better with more snaps and better health. He had an injured shoulder but didn't shy away from contact or tackles. Rodney Harrison played his usual great game, even helping out with a run blitz or two. And Richard Seymour was an absolute monster on defense. I counted at least four plays when he was *triple-teamed* by three offensive lineman. Usually, a triple-team is a lineman, a tight end, and a running back; but the Bengals were so worried about Richard that he was constantly double- or triple-teamed by lineman. And he still made some great plays. Oh, and Troy Brown is now tied for the team lead with three interceptions -- not bad for an old geezer, eh?

I thought with all the double- and triple-teams that Seymour faced, the Pats should have gotten more pressure on the Bengals QB. But once it was clear that long passes would be difficult in the wind, Cincy switched to a short passing game, so the ball was out to the receiver before they could pressure the QB. Couple that with a strong running game, and the Bengals offense seemed to move it at will for long stretches of the game. And once again, the Patriots gave up lots of yards but not as many points as those yards should have created. Somehow, some way, they always make a play to preserve the win. When the defense plays like they did yesterday, I get nervous; but it's 27-1 in their last 28 games, so they must be doing something right.

The Patriots offense was very impressive. Tom Brady's QB rating was a gaudy 127.1, with 70% completions and 10 yards per attempt. He had zero turnovers (and no really close calls), with his two best passes being the long touchdown to Patten into the wind and a 15-yard completion to Patrick Pass while Brady was sitting on the ground -- something I've never seen before and don't expect to see again in an NFL game. With Daniel Graham out, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver got into the game (five receptions for 47 yards between them); and with David Givens missing the game, the rest of the receivers pitched in for 13 catches and 213 yards. I think the running game missed Graham's superior blocking, accounting for only 94 yards on 29 carries. But Cincinnati came into the game second in the AFC in turnovers caused (second, of course, to the Patriots), and the Patriots zero turnovers were the key to the win.

So where does that leave us? Well, only the Jets are a real threat to beat us for the remainder of the regular season. The Dolphins and 49ers are both 2-11, and the Patriots get an extra day to plan for their Monday night game with Miami. The Jets are playing well and the Pats and Jets have oftentimes split the season series. So since the Pats beat them earlier in the year, you might expect the Jets to win the game two weeks from now. However, if Tyrone Poole is back and healthy *and* the game means something to the Patriots (e.g. home field throughout the playoffs is still up for grabs), expect the Patriots to win that game. They are superior to the Jets, and the Jets are unlikely to have any playoff positioning on the line -- so I'd expect the Patriots to win a close one if it means anything to them.

Also, heading into the playoffs, the Pats face their first real distraction in two years: offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has signed on to be the next head coach at Notre Dame. He promised to work mostly for the Patriots until their season is over, and I hope he holds to that promise. I'm sure if Bill Belichick senses that Charlie is distracted by Notre Dame stuff, he'll either get him back in line or let him leave, perhaps taking over the OC job himself for the duration of the playoffs. But for the moment, the Patriots are the second seed in the AFC, and one more win would make it practically impossible for them to lose that first-round bye -- the only other scenario would be San Diego running the table and the Patriots losing the rest of the games, which would include a home loss to San Francisco. And even then, it would come down to fourth tie-breaker and that might still go the Patriots way. In other words, looking good for a week of rest before the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "This injury thing is getting ridiculous. Now, their starting tight end [Daniel Graham] and wide receiver [David Givens] missed the Bengals game. And their secondary took yet another hit when their starting safety [Dexter Reid] went down in the second half. The Pats might need that bye week just to get 45 players healthy for the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-1!

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