Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Patriots 31, Jets 21 (12/26/2005)

There might not be enough synonyms for “domination” to write my usual update. You just don’t usually see ass-whoppins like that in the NFL, but the Patriots completely "own3d" the Jets, dealing them a 31 to 21 loss that felt more like 31 to 2.1. The win moved them to 10-5 on the year and kept alive their chances for the third playoff seed and a first-round game against Pittsburgh instead of Jacksonville. Not that that’s a good thing (for reasons I’ll delve into later), but the higher your seeding, the better your chances of hosting more playoff games. And of course, you never want to head into the playoffs on a losing streak.

The offense seemed bored at times, as if they were more interested in wearing down the Jet defense than scoring. They had 50 rushing attempts (versus 33 pass plays), and even when facing 8- and 9-man fronts they ran effectively enough to keep the ball for 43:21 (72% of the 60 minutes in the game). Corey Dillon ploughed for 77 tough yards, and Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass were effective as change-of-pace backs (13 rushes for 52 yards). The O-line didn’t get a huge push, but they did move the Jet defenders backwards. Special mention goes to offensive lineman Tom Ashworth, who played a lot of fullback and has made his transition to that role seamlessly. Tom Brady was sacked three times but faced only nominal pressure the rest of the game. He was very efficient (18 of 29 for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns); his only braincramp led to a Ty Law interception return for the Jets only score of the first three quarters.

The receiving corps was mostly unremarkable, which is expected with only 18 complete passes for the game. But two things stood out for me. First, Mike Vrabel will soon be drawing double-coverage. He’s got eight NFL receptions – all for touchdowns, and is now tied for second on the team with four touchdowns for the year. And second, Ben Watson may be learning how to get open. One of Monday night’s replays revealed that he let the defender hit him downfield and then Watson used his strength to push the DB away *just* before the ball arrived for a 23-yard reception. Plays like that can be penalties either way, but they are rarely called and are exactly the technique used by the best tight ends in the league.

As for the defense… well, I don’t want to praise them too much for stopping a very bad Jets offense – one of the worst I remember seeing in the last 10 years. A one-dimensional offense has no hope against the Patriots; but a no-dimensional offense is a chance for Patriot defenders to pad their stats. Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Hank Poteat added a sack each, Ellis Hobbs added 4 tackles and a couple of passes defensed, and Monty Beisel and Chad Brown even saw significant action (5 and 2 tackles, respectively). The only real defense concern is the health of Asante Samuel and Tedy Bruschi. Samuel took a knee to the head and Bruschi left with a leg injury. Neither player returned to the game. By all accounts, Bruschi is fine, but if Samuel is out for the playoffs, that might be the defensive injury that breaks the camel's back.

But mostly, it was a great team performance. In the first half, the Jets offense tallied four three-and-outs and threw an interception, had a QB rating of 10.71, got zero first downs, netted 18 yards, and held onto the ball for only 6:26 out of 30:00. It looked like they were playing seven-against-eleven, and the Jets got their first first-down with only 20 minutes left in regulation. For the game, the Pats held the Jets to 171 total yards, the fourth consecutive game of less than 200 yards allowed -- and the cumulative QB rating against them for the past four weeks is 51.51. The defense is razor sharp, stopping the run cold (an average of 31 yards against over the last four games), and creating heavy pressure with only limited blitzes. The Jets ran only 40 offensive plays, and if you take away the two garbage-time touchdown drives, the Jets had only 38 yards on 19 plays. All of that is a tribute to the Patriots rushing offense and smothering defense.

Special teams were okay but not great. When going with the wind, Adam V. put his kickoffs into the end zone, but the other direction was another matter. His first kickoff into the wind was returned past the Jets 40, and after that he kicked high and short to avoid long returns. The Patriots return game was very good (average starting position was their own 44), and Adam tried only one field goal (good from 26 yards, into the wind).

And I think the coaching staff deserves kudos. They recognized the Jets wouldn't be a threat as long as they protected the ball. So they ran and ran and ran, substituting in fresh running backs and sprinkling in enough passing to keep drives going. They rested some starters and protected their QB as they head into the playoffs, which is the right call at this time of year.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Pats can still get the third playoff seed with a win over Miami this Sunday (very likely) and a Cincinnati loss in Kansas City (also likely, given that the Chiefs have won 18 consecutive December home games). Should that happen, they'd draw either the Steelers (whom they beat this year) or Chiefs (to whom they lost this year) instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars (who are struggling with an unproven QB). Now, I'd rather face the Jags in the first round, but facing the Steelers or Chiefs means avoiding Indy the next week. However, avoiding Indy means playing the Denver Broncos (who beat the Patriots this year). No great options, but if forced to choose, I'd take the Jaguars and Indy over the Steelers/Chiefs and Broncos. I just think the Patriots stand a better chance of beating Indy in a dome than Denver at their place because since 2001 Tom Brady (9-0 record) and Adam Vinatieri (perfect in non-Houston domes) play other-worldly football inside.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Going for it on fourth down four times shows how much faith Belichick has in his defense. And if he believes in them, who would disagree?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Patriots 28, Buccaneers 0 (12/17/2005)

When the Patriots clinch an AFC East title at home, they play The Who’s famous line “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss” over the PA. Seemed appropriate to hear it Saturday, when your hometown Patriots dismantled the Tampa Bay 28-0 and won their sixth division crown in Bob Kraft’s twelve years of ownership. The win gives them a home playoff game the weekend of January 7-8, and it looks like the Jacksonville Jaguars will be visiting that day. (BTW, didn’t the Patriots just win a Super Bowl in Jacksonville’s home stadium?)

On Saturday, the Tampa defense was loaded up to stop the run and get after the QB, but fortunately the Patriots drafted some guy named Tom Brady late in the 2000 draft and he just carved the Bucs to pieces. 20 for 31, 238 yards and 3 touchdowns reads like a line from last December’s stat-sheet, and performances like that coupled with the Colts loss yesterday might give him a leg up in the NFL MVP voting. David Givens was the Pats best receiver, accounting for 137 of those yards (and 19 yards on two end-around runs), and making two crucial catches -- one to keep their opening drive alive and the other a 31-yarder to change field position late in the first quarter. The tight ends are banged up, and so Christian Fauria had the only two catches from that position. The team will need more production from there if they expect to do anything in the playoffs.

The running backs contributed seven important catches, and 83 hard-nosed yards with zero fumbles (in fact, no turnovers on the day). The offensive line did give up a sack and Tampa got some hits on Brady, but overall their pass protection was good and the run blocking decent. Not stellar, but they are on their third left tackle, second center, second right tackle, and they've got a rookie at left guard. And of course, the shining star on the line was Tom Ashworth (no. 68 in your program), who snagged his first NFL touchdown – he lined up at fullback and caught a one-yard pass in the end zone.

But the Patriots defense was the unquestioned story of the day. All four starting linebackers had at least one sack (Bruschi and McGinest had two each and Colvin and Vrabel had one each), and two of them teamed up for a sack that forced a fumble (Vrabel) and recovery (McGinest) late in the first half. Bruschi looks like he’s all the way back, and Colvin and Vrabel continue to play out of their minds. Vrabel tackled everyone in his path and that freed Colvin to roam – and he seems to be everywhere all the time. Bruschi's stroke recovery aside, this has been the healthiest unit on the team all year, and they are rounding into playoff form nicely.

However, the linebacker play wouldn’t have meant much without stellar defensive line play. Richard Seymour is back to his All-Pro form, throwing aside linemen to make tackles in the running game and collapsing the pocket with brute force on passing plays. And Vince Wilfork (of all people) is finally holding his own in the middle. The team has been rotating Jarvis Green for Vince on obvious passing downs, and it has worked to perfection. Tampa couldn’t move Wilfork at all, and that meant no running room inside the tackles, which is where Tampa makes most of their yards. The Bucs gained only 30 yards on the ground, their lowest total of the season.

And finally, kudos to rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs. The Buccaneers were running and passing away from his side of the field, which means they thought they had a better chance attacking veterans Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. That’s when you know you’ve arrived in the NFL, when the opposition designs their game plan to avoid you. And Hobbs backed it up, with three passes defensed in four attempts to his receiver.

The special teams numbers were a mixed bag. For the third week in a row, they gave up a big play (luckily, the 81-yard punt return was called back on a penalty); however, the kick-off coverage was very good (Tampa’s average starting position after kick-offs was their own 28). But some of the kicking game problems come with the territory when you play outdoors in cold, snowy, windy weather, and a lower punting average can sometimes be more circumstantial than you think. Adam Vinatieri hasn’t done anything but kick-off and "add the extra point" in two weeks; so I suppose he’ll be well rested for the playoffs.

As for the coaching, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has pushed all the right buttons for three straight weeks. But the offensive play-calling gives me a bit of worry. The Pats had 11 possessions, and six of them were three- or four-plays and a punt. With drives like that, they can still prevail against lesser teams and against better teams in Gillette. But to get to the Super Bowl, they will have to win either one or (more likely) two games on the road against the best in the NFL. And I just think they need to be more productive than that against the iron of the league.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Patriots have a 5-1 record in their last 6 games, and seem destined for a date with the Jaguars in three weeks. They should have a decent chance to rest Brady (or anyone else who’s injured) because there are no realistic possibilities to move up in the playoff seedings. The Jets are next on the schedule (Monday at New York), and they have played better the past two weeks and could give the Pats a run for their money. Well… maybe not. So just enjoy the ride until the end of the year. Playoffs, here we come!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The Pats defense has dominated lately. They gave up 485 yards in the last three games combined. That’s less than their own offense had in the snow at Buffalo (494 yards).”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Patriots 35, Bills 7 (12/11/2005)

Yikes, did the Jets switch uniforms and play the Patriots again this week? The 35-7 final doesn’t even come close to describing how soundly your New England Patriots thrashed the Buffalo Bills yesterday. The win maintained the Pats two-game lead over Miami in the division, and set them up for a clash with the 9-4, division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Saturday in Foxboro. And any win by the Patriots or loss by Miami gives the Pats their third consecutive AFC East title (and fourth in the last five years).

As for yesterday's game, the offense was simply brilliant. The semi-patchwork O-line (Nick Kazcur was out) consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage, kept Tom Brady upright, and pushed Bills all over the joint the entire game. 69% on third-down conversions, 75% pass completion rate, 80% red zone efficiency, 41:59 of possession time, 494 total yards (159 of them rushing), and only one sack (for one yard), and a franchise record 32 first downs -- all a credit to the run and pass blocking of the offensive line. Their dominance was so complete the game wasn’t in question the entire second half, and it speaks volumes that they scored 28 points against a Bills defense that stymied them for three-and-a-half quarters only six weeks ago.

Corey Dillon ran for 102 yards, only the second 100 yard rushing performance for this year's team (Dillon had 106 at Atlanta). He ran with more authority, as the line blew big holes and sealed the corner for several outside runs. Every week he looks more like the Dillon of last year. And Kevin Faulk did well as a change-of-pace back, the two of them combining for 10 catches for 100 yards. The running game was a vital component to the win because it was snowing and windy in Buffalo. And despite the bad conditions, Tom Brady killed the Bills with tough passes into tight spaces, and the receivers didn’t drop anything remotely close to catch-able… well, except for Michael Cloud’s tipped ball that was intercepted. Brady’s other interception was a miscommunication in the Buffalo end zone, but for the most part, he and his receivers were in perfect sync. David Givens looked like his old self, making the tough catches in traffic, and that opened up things for Deion Branch (5 catches for 83 yards) and Troy Brown (6 for 45 yards and a touchdown).

Add to all that a Patriots defense as ferocious as the weather, and the game wasn't even close. The defense mercilessly attacked the line of scrimmage, holding a decent Buffalo running game to only 14 yards on 12 carries and hitting QB J.P. Losman just about every time he dropped back to pass. All told, they forced seven drives of three or fewer plays, got three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), and held the Bills to 183 total yards (109 of them coming on two pass plays).

Richard Seymour has been on fire lately, disrupting plays before they even get started, and with Vince Wilfork now holding his own on the nose, the line stopped the run cold. And of course, that freed things up for the linebackers, which benefited Rosevelt Colvin tremendously. Colvin is finally playing up to his contract (after a season-ending hip injury in early 2003), pressuring the QB off the edge and sniffing out the run like a bloodhound. And when Willie McGinest comes from the other side, it just gives the other team's offense fits. With Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi prowling the middle, there isn't much the front seven can't handle.

However, the real improvement has been in the secondary. Rookie Ellis Hobbs is now the team's best cornerback (another INT yesterday), and with him and Asante Samuel outside, and Eugene Wilson and Michael Stone or Artrell Hawkins at safety, the Pats have some stability in the defensive backfield. With Hawkins out, Stone gave up his customary two big plays -- he missed the coverage on Lee Evans's long catch and missed the tackle on Josh Reed's short catch and long run. But the rest of the secondary obviously did a great job, because the Pats were running all kinds of blitzes and gave up only those two long passes. The blitz packages are starting to get to the opposing QB, and just in the nick of time. Without consistent pressure on the quarterback, the Patriots were going absolutely nowhere in the playoffs.

Not much to report on special teams. The Bills one great kickoff return was called back on a penalty, and there one great punt return put them in position to score. But alas, the Patriots' James Sanders returned an interception for a touchdown on the next play, so no harm, no foul.

The offensive and defensive coaches did a great job yesterday. The offense was imaginative, and the play-calling was dead on. Only a few plays looked doomed from the start, and any time you go 69% on third-down conversions, you are doing a lot of things right. And with the improvements on the defensive line and in the secondary, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini is starting to call some interesting blitzes. The healthier they get, the more interesting their post-season possibilities.

So where does that leave us. Eight wins in the AFC East just about seals the deal. With three games to go, the Dolphins are two games back, so any win by the Patriots or loss by Miami gives the Pats the division. And the Pats are too far behind the other division leaders to believe they'd end up with anything better than the fourth seed in the playoffs. The Patriots have now won four out of their last five games (including three division wins), but their four wins were over teams with a won-lost record of 16-35 (31.4%). This Saturday's contest with Tampa Bay (9-4) will be the kind of test they need before the post-season starts, and it will tell you a lot about how far they've come recently. I think they can win that one because the Buccaneers have been so awful in the cold, but even if they lose, they will finish with two wins and be 10-6.

Just as a side note, many people were rooting for a Miami loss yesterday, so the Patriots could clinch their division and rest their starters. But I'd rather see both San Diego (lost to Miami) and Kansas City (lost to Dallas) out of the playoffs. My dream scenario is where Pittsburgh and Jacksonville are the wild cards, with the Patriots hosting the Steelers in the first round and Jacksonville going to Indianapolis to play the Colts in the second round. That would give the Patriots their best chance to go far in the playoffs because Jacksonville plays the Indy tough, and the Patriots already beat Pittsburgh this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I'm rooting for Pittsburgh. The Pats lost to both San Diego and Kansas City, so I'd rather face the Steelers in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-5!

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Patriots 16, Jets 3 (12/4/2005)

Not a whole lot to say about the game. When you play a terrible offensive team, you usually win if you avoid turnovers and big returns in the kicking game. The Patriots did give up a few big returns (one called back), but they coasted to an easy 16-3 win over the offensively challenged New York Jets. Their 7-5 record looks a lot better when you consider they've won three of their last four games, two within the division. They've got a chance to make it four out of five with a 4-0 division record when they travel to Buffalo next Sunday to battle the Bills.

Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk returned just in time to give Patrick Pass and Heath Evans a break (Pass and Evans were injured and inactive). They combined for 100 yards, and the running game provided 8 of the Patriots 24 first downs and helped the Pats control the clock for 38:10. They tried something new on offense, using a sixth lineman as a blocking halfback on certain plays (instead of a defensive lineman or tight end). Dillon ran well, hitting holes quickly and getting outside several times, and even though the line gave up two sacks, they kept Tom Brady clean for most of the game. A pretty good performance given that the Jets defensive front seven is considered their greatest strength.

Tom Brady fared better this week than last (he is now 4-0 the week after a four-interception game). he was sharp early, and would have had even better statistics without several dropped passes, and I'm still trying to figure out how he got one pass to Kevin Faulk through double-coverage for an important first down early on. The return of David Givens and the running backs were crucial to the team's improvement. No receiver had breakout numbers, but in an homage to their "everything is team" attitude, Givens, Deion Branch, and Troy Brown combined for 15 catches for 135 yards and the generic "running backs" contributed 8 catches for 65 yards. The passing game was smooth and efficient, and with the Jets obviously taking away the deep bomb, the Patriots still average twice as many yards per pass as the Jets did (6.4 vs. 3.2). And even though the Jets boast the sixth-best pass defense in the league, Tom Brady and company hit them for 100 yards more than they usually give up passing (271 total), and they never got a turnover even though they average 1.5 a game.

How thoroughly did the Patriots defense dominate? The Jets averaged only 18.2 yards per *drive*. Against many other teams, I would call the Patriots defensive performance dominant -- giving up three points in an entire game is nothing to scoff at. But the entire AFC East is quarterback-poor, and the Jets O-line is beat up and their receivers are sub-par; so I'd be worried if the Patriots gave up much more than they did. The middle of the D-line played better, with Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green rotating at nose tackle. They really clogged things up and the linebackers stopped the running game cold (41 yards). Rosevelt Colvin and Tedy Bruschi continued their disruptive play, busting into the backfield to slow the run before it started or pressure the QB into a quick throw. Both Colvin and Mike Vrabel were unblocked on blitzes right up the middle, and they both blasted Brooks Bollinger. Add Jarvis Green's sack, and the Pats got Bollinger twice and knocked him to the turf at least a dozen other times.

And the secondary played much better. They are starting to gel a bit, with Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Eugene Wilson starting three straight games and James Sanders and Hank Poteat mercifully returned to their roles as fifth and sixth defensive backs. Hobbs, a rookie, is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and even though he's still learning, he might be playing better than two-year starter Samuel, who appears to be nursing a leg injury. Eugene Wilson was back to his old self, prowling the deep middle and letting the D-line and linebackers handle the run. Even though the Jets offense is bad, I was watching the Patriots secondary and they weren't letting guys run free in this game -- pretty tight coverage overall. So I guess I'll take the improvement and see how it works going forward against the Bills.

The special teams were great on field goal attempts, but not so great in kick coverage. Adam V. nailed three-out-of-four field goals (and in the process, became the Patriots all-time scoring leader), and the kick off and punt averages were good. But they gave up a 49-yard punt return, another long return was called back, and one of Josh Miller's 45-yard punts was a 20-yard shank that bounced 25 more. It's always difficult to kick in the wind, but it won't get easier; so the special teams still need some work.

I thought the coaching staff did a good job of preparing some special defensive packages, at least three times they had blitzers unblocked (Colvin, Vrabel, and McGinest), and the mixed maximum pressure with maximum coverage nicely. And they also called a good offensive game, not trying to win with one play but staying with the short gains that made up long drives. I will say I prefer to judge them when preparing for a real NFL team, so maybe more next week...

So where does that leave us. The win, coupled with Buffalo's loss, just about locks up the AFC East and the fourth seed in the AFC (just too many teams in front of them to get the third seed). To lose the division, the Pats would have to go 1-3 while Miami went 4-0 (including a victory in Foxboro on 1/1/06). So with their playoff future set, the Pats should get as healthy as they can for the post-season and perhaps experiment with some new offensive looks and defensive blitz packages. I'm personally hoping the Steelers rebound so we can host them in the first round. But failing that, let's hope for Jacksonville -- because Kansas City, Denver, and San Diego already beat us this year, and Cincinnati would do the same.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You gotta give the Jets credit; they gave the fans what they wanted. The fans blamed the kicker and the offensive coordinator for last year's playoff problems and so the team fired them both. Now they're playing for the first pick in next year's college draft. Hope the fans are happy."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Patriots 16, Chiefs 26 (11/27/2005)

For those of you with little time, let me summarize Sunday's 26-16 loss to the Chiefs. Re-read my Patriots/Broncos recap from earlier this year (10/16) and substitute the starters from both teams. In both games, the Patriots: (a) gave up tons of first-half points to fall into a huge hole; (b) turned the ball over early; (c) could stop neither the pass nor the run; (d) gave up a lot of QB pressure and created none of their own; and (e) lost by a score that was not indicative of how thoroughly they were dominated. Welcome to the land of 6-5... a mysterious place where the Patriots are a model of mediocrity and are almost certainly destined for an early playoff exit.

It was a team loss, and as such, here are suggestions for just about everyone on the team:

Tom Brady, too many high passes that landed in KC's hands (three on deflected balls); try stepping into the throw. O-Line, not enough pass protection or run blocking (three sacks and a lot more hits, and too many one- or two-yard gains); you should learn how to do at least one of them well. Ben Watson and Daniel Graham, learn how to get open in traffic -- otherwise the team will draft yet another tight end next year. Patrick Pass, after six years in this offense, you should know where to go on a screen pass. Heath Evans, blitz pick up is "Job #1" and don't ever forget it. Bethel Johnson, you're not at talented as Terry Glenn, so you can't get away with the same crap -- get off the bench and out of the dog house and contribute. And to David Givens, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, and Corey Dillon, get well soon.

Michael Stone, if you are supposed to stay deep, then stay deep; the team is better off giving up a 10-yard run than a 52-yard touchdown. Same to you, Ellis Hobbs. Eugene Wilson, you were a cornerback in college, so covering a tight end should be right up your alley. Tedy Bruschi, a quarter-step slow is too slow against good teams; but keep trying, you're almost there. Rosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest, no matter what you do, you guys aren't getting pressure on the QB, so stop blitzing yourself out of running plays. Vince Wilfork, work harder next off-season or you'll be on the street in two years. Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, and Mike Vrabel, nice game.

To the kickoff coverage team, you can't give up big returns in critical situations. After the team's last touchdown on Sunday, you promptly gave KC the ball near midfield, thus making any comeback next to impossible. Same thing happened against New Orleans last week, and it almost cost you the game. Wake up out there!

To the coaches, Bill Belichick is right, you have to coach better. This season, the Patriots have been out-scored 149 - 92 in the first half, but they've out-scored their opponents 151 - 130 in the second half. So clearly, the in-game adjustments are pretty good; it's the preparation during the week that's falling short. The game plan is something the coaches can impact every single week, and they have to do a better job if the Pats have any chance to make noise in the playoffs.

So where does that leave us? Well, the team is riding high in the QB-starved AFC East. 6-5 is two games better than the next best record in the division -- Miami and Buffalo are tied at 4-7, and the Patriots have already beaten each of them. They go for the trifecta this weekend with a winnable game against their other division foe, the New York Jets. The Jets have no offense at all, so the Patriots should be in good shape at home. Protect the ball and don't do anything stupid, and they should walk away with a win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The AFC East had two playoff teams and one that just missed the post-season last year; this year three teams are just about guaranteed non-winning seasons. Miami and Buffalo won't run the table, so the Pats can win the division with only three more wins and a 9-7 record."

Keep whatever faith you can,

- Scott

PS. 6-5!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Patriots 24, Saints 27 (11/20/2005)

You may have heard the rumors, and of course, they turned out to be partially true. I was indeed a late addition to the Patriots injury list last Friday, having suffered a throat injury in the Colts game when I yelled myself silly for all 36:41 of Indianapolis possession time. I was hopeful that the doctors were wrong and I'd be in peak form by game time this past Sunday, but alas, I was in the same boat as Troy Brown -- made the trip to the stadium, suited up, but was never a factor in the game. Fortunately, I brought along a friend loud enough to bellow for two, and he did an admirable job making up for my absence. My medical staff has assured me that I'll be ready to go by the December 4 game against the Jets. Thank you to everyone who sent along their cards and well-wishes. With your support I'll be healthy in no time.

Now, on the the game. The only thing pretty about Sunday was the weather. But the Patriots thrashed the Saints early and held on for a nail-biting 24-17 victory. They are now in the midst of their first winning streak of the season, and coupled with losses by all other AFC East teams, the Pats are two games ahead of their nearest competitors for the division title. That home playoff game feels closer and closer every day (and so does the playoff ticket invoice -- yikes!).

The offense started well, with a 16-play, 98-yard drive for a touchdown and a drive about half the size (5 plays, 48 yards) for another touchdown -- the first time they've gone touchdown-touchdown to start the game since the last regular season game of 2003 (31-0 win over Buffalo). The running back tandem of Heath Evans and Patrick Pass went for 127 yards on 29 carries (a healthy 4.4 yards a rush), and the O-line provided some gaping holes, which were combined with timely play-calling that gave them 4 carries of over 10 yards. Ben Watson had one of his best games, leading the team with 66 receiving yards and making his second outstanding catch in two weeks (a back-twisting stab in the first quarter). No TDs for Ben, but he's taking up Daniel Graham's slack nicely.

Tom Brady was Mr. Mediocre, with okay stats and no interceptions. He had a fumble that was mostly not his fault, and his play-action fakes are improved. But he over- or under-threw about six long passes, and if he connected on just half of them the game would have been a laugher. It was windy out, but that doesn't explain the passes coming up short and long going in both directions. He was just off, and the fact that those long strikes were simple incompletions meant the Saints didn't have to adjust their defense. And while the long ball was obviously part of the Pats game plan, someone needs to tell them that a 50-yard bomb isn't called for on third-and-four. Get the first down and take your shot on the next play; but above all GET THE FIRST DOWN. In that situation, something short and certain beats a 50-yard incompletion, so some of those stalled drives were the coaches' fault.

The defense helped Aaron Brooks look better than he really is, just like they helped Gus Ferotte last week. But in both games, the Pats worked hard to stop the run and they let up more passing as a result. Sure, the secondary is injured and in disarray, but for two weeks they've bent but not broken -- which is how the Patriots won all those games the past four years. I'm starting to like the improvement I see from new safety Michael Stone (seven tackles) and cornerback Ellis Hobbs (not afraid to hit); and as they improve, it seems like Eugene Wilson is playing a little better. Not Harrison/Wilson/Poole/Law yet, but better than previous weeks (although I admit it's easier to do this against the Saints than the Colts). Hobbs and his partner in crime Asante Samuel played okay but not great games. No picks, and some missed coverage, but overall they made the Saints work the ball down the field slowly. And often enough the Saints self-destructed; just like the Dolphins did last week.

Willie McGinest had a nice game (a sack, five tackles and two passes defensed), and Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi clogged up the Saints favorite running lanes. The Saints had been averaging 122 yards rushing a game, and the Pats held them to only 87. The front three/four needs to get more pressure on the quarterback, but I don't think that was a big part of the plan for the Saints game. And if you'll indulge me for a moment, Tedy Bruschi is a football genius. I watched him on one play, and he faked the blitz and then dropped back two yards and cut off a slant route at the *exact spot* where Aaron Brooks almost tried to deliver the ball (Brooks pulled it back at the last second and then threw it away). Bruschi's instincts are outstanding, and he's getting to his spots quicker every week.

The special teams were quite something in that wind. Adam Vinatieri kicked well into and against the wind, they had *zero* penalties on special teams, Josh Miller continued his Pro Bowl-caliber season with five boots for 47.5 yards a kick (while New Orleans averaged only 32.2). Their only blemish was a 46-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter; a play that helped the Saints get back into the game but did not prove fatal. But overall, with the wind swirling around, a very good day.

One coaching note: in case you hadn't heard, Steve Belichick (Bill's father) died of heart failure this past Saturday night. I hope you'll join me in sending my sincere condolences to Bill and his entire family.

So where does that leave us. Well, at 6-4, the Patriots are clearly the class of the AFC East. Leading the division by two games and having a 2-0 record within the division is about as much as you could hope for in a season like this. Next week's contest against the Chiefs in Kansas City is their toughest game left this year. KC has a balanced offense (which has given the Pats fits), so they can't load up to stop the run or the pass. Getting more pressure without committing more blitzers will be critical, so Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Rosevelt Colvin, and Willie McGinest will be on the hot seat. So enjoy the streak while it lasts; it could easily be over by next Sunday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "In the first 8 games, the Patriots averaged 78 yards rushing a game. The last two? 112 yards. Thank you Miami Dolphins for Heath Evans. Now if they could just release a few defensive backs, we'd be in business."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-4!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Patriots 23, Dolphins 16 (11/13/2005)

What a difference an opponent makes. Last week, the Colts go pass happy, rack up 453 total yards and score on nearly every possession, and they smoke the Pats 40-21. This week, the Dolphins go pass happy, rack up 437 total yards, but score on hardly any of their possessions, and lose to the Pats 23-16. Not exactly a barn-burner for most of the game, but the Pats defense showed signs of life and their offense woke up just in time to claim the lead twice in the fourth quarter and hold on for the win. A win is a win, and 5-4 sounds a lot better than 4-5.

The offense was almost as beat up as the defense for this one. The following players were inactive: running backs Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass, linemen Tom Ashworth and Matt Light, tight end Daniel Graham, and wide receiver David Givens. Recent addition Heath Evans (cut by Miami in October and signed by the Patriots two weeks ago) was the game's leading rusher, with 84 punishing yards. He also picked up the blitz well and had blocks on two screen passes. The Dolphins double-teamed Deion Branch the entire game, and Tim Dwight and Ben Watson helped pick up the slack. Dwight had his best game as a Patriots, out-muscling a defender for a 59-yard pass on the game-winning drive and making two other tough catches in traffic. Ben Watson had only three catches, but two were for touchdowns, and the second TD was one of the best catches you'll see a tight end make this year.

The O-line appeared to figure out how to run-block, but it was more likely that they had a healthy running back for a change. In fact, there were some gaping holes, with Evans running 10 to 15 yards untouched. And Russ Hochstein filled in well when center Dan Koppen went down with an injury in the third quarter. (Note: with both Koppen and Corey Dillon injured during the game, the Patriots ended the game with only four offensive players from their starting 11 in week one.) Pass blocking was more of an adventure, but considering that they had rookie Nick Kazcur alone against pass-rushing specialist Jason Taylor, I thought the line did a decent job in pass protection. Tom Brady waited until the end to pull his traditional heroics (that's 21 fourth-quarter comeback wins). But he did cut his interceptions in half from the last time they played (from 4 to 2), and he made the gutty throws when he had to. Not his best performance, but enough to win once the defense clamped down.

And speaking of that defense, they improved for sure. It helped to play the Dolphins, with Gus Ferotte and Chris "I can't believe I dropped another one" Chambers in the starting lineup, but you can't dismiss what they did against the run or the red zone. For the first time this year, the Pats stopped an opponent from scoring when they were inside the Patriots 20 yard line. I wish they'd started eight games ago, but with their divisional schedule coming up, I'm glad they started it now. Tedy Bruschi still looks a step slow to me, but he turned back one drive with a touchdown-saving tip near the endzone. And rookie Ellis Hobbs played well in the secondary, with an interception, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles, and some huge passes defensed late in the game. He also brought a lot of attitude and emotion to the game, and it was an even bigger lift because his counterpart, Asante Samuel, played the best game by any Patriots DB this season. Samuel had several nice plays in pass coverage, was important in containing the outside run, and just leveled Ricky Williams on one run. He has three of the best four hits by any Patriot this season.

Richard Seymour returned, and suddenly the Patriots stopped the run with ease. Miami averaged 116 yards rushing prior to yesterday; the Patriots held them to just 77. Vince Wilfork played better, and the linebackers (Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel especially) did a great job of taking away the cutback lanes. Colvin had a huge game, with an all-important forced fumble (with Miami driving toward a 14-0 halftime lead), some serious pressure on the QB, and some nice coverage and tackles in the passing game. The Patriots never sacked Ferotte, but they were in his face and got him on the run often enough. Willie McGinest knocked down a pass at the line and the Pats had several other tipped balls (one of which was intercepted by Hobbs). And even though it's scary to watch him flying through the air, Tedy Bruschi got Ferotte out of the pocket twice.

As for special teams, it was up and down. All-world punter Josh Miller killed another two kicks inside the 10 yard line, and all-time-great Adam Vinatieri nailed every field goal and consistently put his kickoffs deep. In fact, now that I think about it, special teams weren't up and down, they were an overall strength. I recall a couple of penalties, but on balance, they were a net positive.

My coaching gripes aren't specific to this game but more general. They are not adjusting in-game as well as they have in the past. Too many long spells without decent offensive production, and not enough defensive adjustments during the first half. They usually come out with better plans on both offense and defense after the half; but in the past they made those adjustments *during* the first half. Maybe it's the absence of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, but somehow they aren't getting the job done until the half. Which doesn't make them bad, it just makes them like the rest of the league.

So where does this leave us? Well, for the fifth time in ten weeks, the Patriots are one game over .500. And for the tenth consecutive week, they are in first place in a very weak AFC East. I was frankly surprised that so many people picked Miami to win because their offense is so bad. I know the Dolphins have had success against us in Miami, but if Tom Brady didn't throw four INTs last year, this would be three straight wins down there. Next week, the Patriots will break their "W-L" pattern with a victory over the Saints at home, and that will give them six victories for the season. Four more and they'll most certainly be in the playoffs; so all is not lost yet.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of the two new players in the Miami game, (defensive back) Ellis Hobbs is more important to the Pats playoff chances than (running back) Heath Evans. All three of the Patriots injured running backs could return this season. But none of the five DBs on injured reserve will be back this year, so they need help in the secondary more than they need running back help."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-4!

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Patriots 21, Colts 40 (11/7/2005)

For those not keeping score at home, it is now WWWWWWWW vs. WLWLWLWL. Look up consistency in the dictionary and you're bound to find reference to the Colts (for consistently great play and eight straight Ws) or the Patriots (for consistently mediocre play and four straight WLs). Either way, the game came out as a 40-21 loss for the hometown team, and the Patriots slipped perilously close to the pack in the AFC East, with a big "showdown" next week against Miami (one game behind).

Over the years, I only remember one other game that was basically decided on single play. On 12/2/1990, the Patriots lined up against a Kanas City Chiefs team with a punishing running game. I thought the Pats only chance was to hold that running game in check, and make the Chiefs pass to win. So on the first play of the game, KC's Steve DeBerg hit Stephone Paige on an 86-yard touchdown bomb, and thus, after only 25 seconds, the game was essentially over (KC prevailed, 37-7). Well, after 15 years, it happened again yesterday. Trailing the Colts 14-7, the Patriots Mike Vrabel intercepted Peyton Manning, and the Pats had great field position. They drove the ball to the Indy 17, and then the Colts recovered a Corey Dillon fumble with 2 minutes to go. Predictably, the Colts drove for a touchdown, 21-7, pretty much the ball game.

Sure, the Patriots lost for a ton of other reasons, but a 14-14 game at the half, with the Patriots getting the ball to start the third quarter, and Peyton Manning perhaps questioning whether it was about to happen to him again -- all of that was the Patriots only realistic chance of winning. They had no pass rush, the secondary was alternately mediocre and terrible, and the linebackers couldn't stop anything for fewer than five yards. So the Patriots had to beat them in a shootout; stop the Colts for a field goal once or twice and make sure their own offense scored nothing but touchdowns. Their last possible plan to win fell from their grasp with that fumble.

On offense, the line pass protected okay but not great and run blocked poorly for the game. Dillon had some 10-yard gashes, but that would be followed by a 3-yard loss when four Colt defenders would come through unblocked. I don't think the Colts run defense is so much better than last year as much as I think the Pats O-line just blew a lot of assignments. Too many bad passes and dropped passes, too many tackes for a loss, just too many problems. I don't even know who to blame for the offensive woes; the whole offense was subpar. Guess I'll just move on.

Oh, that's right... the defense was worse than the offense, so I should probably skip them, too. But I won't. It was nice knowing you, Duane Starks, but it's time for Ellis Hobbs to show what he can do. Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson were all huge contributers in their first years, so let's hope they got it right again with Hobbs. Time to see what he can do, 'cause Duane "The Pain" Starks isn't the answer, long- or short-term. With Randall Gay back, the Pats now have three secondary players who at least know their assignments (Gay, Samuel, and Wilson), so put them out there with Hobbs and see what happens. Can't be any worse than this, can it?

Tedy Bruschi looks a step slow (which is to be expected), and the D-line just can't get enough pressure on their own. The Pats best pass rusher last night was Rosevelt Colvin, but the more I watched him, the more I realized he was guessing run or pass and hoping he was right. He blitzed himself out of running plays as often as he pressured the QB; so even though he looked like the defender of the night, he was like the rest of the team, up-and-down. I give Asante Samuel a lot of credit; he at least kept close coverage -- sometimes the passes were just too good. But the entire secondary (Samuel included) gave way too much pre-snap ground. On third-and-three, you can't give a seven-yard cushion. You just can't.

The one nice part of the evening was watching the special teams in their limited-engagement revival of "The Keystone Cops." When your kickoff returner runs into his own teammate more often than the other team makes the tackle, you've got trouble. I wonder if Larry Izzo got credit for those two tackles on the Patriots kickoff return team. Could put him in line for some kind of bonus... from the Colts, that is.

As for the coaching... nevermind. No wait a minute. I said before the season that Belichick is the only head coach who would change things in mid-season if they weren't working out. Well, guess what, we are now exactly halfway through the Patriots season. Bill, here is your mission, should you choose to accept it: (a) elevate someone to offensive coordinator, (b) ask special teams coach Brad Seeley how he intends to fix things, and if the answer is "I don't know," fire him and take over the job yourself, (c) hire someone to coach Vince Wilfork one-on-one, (d) start scouring the league for a new defensive backs coach, because Eric Mangini's replacement is no Eric Mangini.

I know I usually have more stats, so just to keep you happy, here are a few: first downs 28 to 17 Indy, third-down conversions 71% to 36% Indy, time of possession 36:41 to 23:19 Indy, turnovers 2 to 1 Indy, total yards 453 to 288 Indy, rushing yards 132 to 34 Indy, passing yards 321 to 254 Indy, yards per pass 8.7 to 6.0 Indy, sacks 2 to 0 Indy... hold on, I'm out of breath. Want to know the only significant category where the Patriots outplayed the Colts? Penalties, 4 to 7 Patriots.

So where does that leave the team? Aside from being in first place at 4-4, the Patriots are basically biding their time. They will win the division but it's highly doubtful they'll get a first-round playoff bye, so they'll have to go on the road if they want to repeat as champions. But the question of how they'll do in the playoffs is basically one of health. If January brings back Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and the 2004 versions of Corey Dillon and Tedy Bruschi, then they have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. Otherwise, expect Tom Brady to suffer his first playoff defeat in 2006.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats are still going to win the division, bank on it. But if they don't get healthy by the playoffs, it could be one and done."

(Try to) Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-4!

Monday, October 31, 2005

Patriots 21, Bills 16 (10/30/2005)

As a public service to those of you who fell asleep before the Patriots scored a single point last night, they did win the game 21-16, with two late touchdowns and some nail-biting on defense at the end. Not a work of art by any means, but the local 11 made more of the important plays than they had been and got the other team out of their comfort zone -- something they've done only two other times this year, against Oakland and Pittsburgh. At 4-3, the Pats are atop the mighty AFC East, and the rest of the division is faltering (1-3 in non-division games over the last three weeks, and winning only 36% of their games for the season).

The offense was just inept for most of the game, and I was very disappointed. My long-time readers know that I was hoping the departure of Charlie Weis would mean the Patriots would score more points early in games after a bye week. But that certainly didn't happen last night. Under Bill Belichick, here's what they've scored in the first quarter of their games after a bye week: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0. That my friends, is a lot of zeroes. And even though they compiled a 9-2 record, it's still a lot of zeroes. And all those zeroes bring the average down to less than a field goal per quarter -- blech!

So my hope was that a new offensive coordinator would change bye week practices or work to develop a better plan of attack. Something, *anything*, to improve. But alas, in the first half the Patriots had the ball for less than 8 minutes, ran only 20 plays (to the Bills 39), and scored yet another big fat zero. Now, with the injuries on defense, I thought the Patriots would have to win some high-scoring, shootout type games. But they'll have to do better than 1-7 third down conversions, 20:40 of possession time for the game, and counting on opposition penalties for first downs.

The offense did end up with decent (if unspectacular) numbers: 4.2 yards a rush, 273 total yards, 7.5 yards per pass. Deion Branch caught one touchdown pass and had crucial catches in both other touchdown drives (for 37 and 22 yards, both excellent catches). Corey Dillon left his cane on the sideline and ended up with 72 yards and two touchdowns -- even though he was supposedly only 80% healthy -- and Dr. Brady sliced up the Bills late to end up with an efficient 14 for 21, 199 yards and the Branch touchdown. Brady did, however, miss several seemingly easy passes, threw a few screens at the receivers feet or over his head, and he had a fumble.

The O-line didn't really protect him well enough, giving up three sacks and multiple other pressures. Seems like Nick Kazcur might not be the answer at left tackle, and I encourage the Patriots to think again about putting Russ Hochstein in there. The O-line performed much better in the second half against Denver when Russ replaced Logan Mankins. The tights ends had some nice seal blocks, and Ben Watson in the backfield was one of their most successful formations. But overall, their problems on offense were spread evenly among the line, backs and receivers, and quarterback. The entire first half they were in a fog, and somehow they always ended up with an untimely penalty, bad pass, or sack.

So with 22:00 on the field in the first half, how did the defense hold the Bills to 3 points? Well, I thought they played pretty well under the circumstances, with an offense that couldn't give them a break or a lead. They returned to their bend-but-don't-break style, which can sometimes be frustrating but is far more effective than the don't-bend-just-break style that lost them the San Diego and Denver games. Three 11-play drives isn't what you hope for, but only three total points on those drives is better than you could expect. But you know it's a tough day at the office when a safety (Eugene Wilson), a cornerback (Asante Samuel), and a guy who had a stroke this year (Tedy Bruschi) are your surest tackers. Asante had a very good day, defensing a few passes, making tackles against the run, and recording the first secondary interception this year.

A lot of the rest of the defense was a mess, but I'd chalk about half of it up to being on the field for two-thirds of the game. Mike Vrabel had a lot of tackles but missed several. Vince Wilfork and the rest of the linemen got blown off the ball and pushed into their own linebackers, and that's just a recipe for disaster. (When Richard Seymour returns, can he play nose tackle? And defensive end? At the same time? Pretty please?!?!) Weekly whipping boy Duane Starks continues to build his reputation as Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick's worst pickup; I wouldn't be surprised to see castoff Hank Poteat or rookie Ellis Hobbs take his place soon.

But never forget to judge a defense on how many points they give up and how many turnovers they create. The Pats gave up 16 points (their first under-20 effort of the year), and they created two turnovers -- the last one allowing the offense to score the winning touchdown. Rosevelt Colvin was absent much of the game and had a stupid special teams penalty. But when a play had to be made, he stripped the Buffalo QB and recovered the fumble; and that was something missing from the first six games.

Special teams? They held Buffalo's return game pretty much in check and didn't have too many bad penalties. But that is overridden by boneheaded play at the end of the half. They tried to kick a field goal with as little time left on the clock as possible; but instead of calling a timeout when the play clock got near zero, they snapped the ball -- but it was just a second too late. Adam's field goal was good, but a delay of game penalty set them back five yards and he missed the next kick. Now, it might not seem like much, but those three points would have eliminated the need for the last Colvin caused-and-recovered fumble, as the Patriots would have led 17-16 after their second touchdown. But more importantly, you just don't want brain cramps to cost you points. And there's no excuse for this after the bye week.

So where does that leave us? Well, if Richard Seymour, Randall Gay, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and Matt Light continue to be missing from the lineup, it's going to be a tough road. The team really needs all of them back, but no one more than Richard. Their defense is hurting, and they need Richard to help pressure the quarterback. Give Peyton Manning 22:00 of first half possession, and I doubt you'll hold him to 3 points. The Patriots first place lead is a single game, and there's a showdown in Miami the week after the big Monday Nighter with the Colts. After that, the schedule gets easier, and I still think they'll win the AFC East by default. But a loss to Indy and/or Miami will make it much tighter than you'd like.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Under Belichick, the Patriots have scored no points in the first quarter 7 of their 11 games after a bye week. Isn't it about time he finally addressed this area of continuing concern?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-3!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Patriots Bye Week Update (10/26/2005)

So 6/16ths of the season is the books, and as you might expect with a 3-3 team, there's good news and bad news. Let me give you one piece of good news for each win and one piece of bad news for each loss.

Good news #1: They are 3-3, not 1-5. The Patriots could easily have lost the Pittsburgh and Atlanta games, and they'd have a huge hole to climb just to get to the playoffs. But at 3-3, they are atop the weakest AFC East I ever remember, and with an easier remaining schedule look poised to be in the hunt come January.

Good news #2: They can't help but get healthier. The names expected back soon are sorely needed: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Randall Gay, Tyrone Poole (at least I hope so), Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, and Troy Brown. Add to that some of the recently signed players who haven't played much, and this was the perfect week for a bye. The hurt players get extra time to heal and the new ones get extra time to prepare for the complexities of the offense and defense.

Good news #3: The offense and defense are still very good at in-game adjustments. Aside from the San Diego game, the Patriots are still the masters of in-game defensive adjustments, giving up 75 points in the first halves and only 48 in the second halves. Conversely, they scored only 48 points in the first halves of those games, and 73 in the second halves. They need is to do a better job with their game plan and/or early adjustments, but they still get better as the game go along.

Bad News #1: Big plays are killing them. For four years, the Pats have forced the opposition to work the ball downfield slowly. That worked because the more plays the other team runs, the more chances for a penalty, turnover, or for the drive to just stall. But when you give up plays of 50+ yards... well, all that planning kind of goes out the window, and the other team usually scores quickly. The Pats are in the middle of the pack, allowing 35% of third downs to be converted (15th), but when your opponents take big chunks of the field, they don't have very many third downs.

Bad News #2: They are producing no turnovers. What do Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, Duane Starks, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson, Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, and Willie McGinest have in common? They all had at least one potential interception in their hands, and they all dropped it. After six games last year, the Pats had turned the ball over 10 times; this year it's 9. So why has their turnover differential gone from +2 to - 6? Plain and simple, this year they haven't made the play when turnovers were available. And they need to start making those plays.

Bad News #3: Rodney Harrison isn't walking through that door. Every team has injuries, but the Patriots started exactly half their Super Bowl starters in the same position against Denver, and that's just ridiculous. Last year, the national media cited injuries when praising the Carolina Panthers for coming back from a 1-5 start to make a run at playoffs. Without a doubt, the Patriots have had it worse this year. Fortunately, they're 3-3 and still have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.

So for the Patriots to use that opportunity and actually *get* to the playoffs, here's what I think has to change:

1. More running. Tom Brady has dropped back to pass 67% of the time this year, and the team's 494 yards rushing projects to 1,317 for the year. Compare that to the Atlanta Falcons, who have exactly 1,317 rushing yards in seven games, and you know the Pats need to run more. In their three wins, they controlled the clock, averaging 33:23 in time of possession and 98 yards rushing. In their three losses, it was 26:22 and 67. More running means more time of possession means more control of the game. Simple as that.

2. Utilize the tight ends in the passing game. The tight end position has accounted for only 15 catches for the year -- six of them coming in the Atlanta game. And forgotten man Christian Fauria has zero catches. The Pats need Bethel Johnson in the game, running a fly pattern every down, just to clear out some of the underneath coverage so the tight ends can make hay over the middle. I didn't think the Pats would miss David Patten, but with Johnson out so often (reports are he's in Bill Belichick's dog house), it's difficult to keep defenses honest.

3. Protect Tom Brady. He hasn't been sacked much, but he has been beaten up a lot. A stronger running game and a defense that doesn't put the Pats in a hole would be a nice start. But overall, the three new O-linemen need to pass block better. A good sign was how well Russ Hochstein played after Logan Mankins was thrown out of the Denver game. I expect to see more of Russ in the second half of the season.

4. Get healthy. This is especially true in the defensive secondary, where they barely dress enough players to use the nickel or dime defenses. But the absence of Seymour and Bruschi left two gaping holes in the front seven, leading to less QB pressure, more holes in the running game, and fewer turnovers. Get these two healthy, and the D-line will be fresher because they can rotate, Chad Brown or Mike Vrabel can return to outside linebacker, and the safeties can stay back in coverage rather than over-commit to stop the run. Bruschi can't play D-line or safety, but his presence can inspire enough confidence among the other players to allow them to just do their job and not worry about doing anyone else's.

5. Take the ball away. The football belongs to the team ends the play with it, not the one that starts the play with it, and a negative turnover ratio spells trouble for any chance the Pats might have to go far in the playoffs. There have been too many missed opportunities, and those misses have extended drives, which in turn tires out the defense, and all that snowballs into losses like the 41-17 Chargers game. Take the ball away, and get yourself off the field.

6. Don't panic. They lost the Denver and Carolina games because they did little things wrong. The linebackers over-pursued and opened up running lanes, and David Givens & Deion Branch dropped passes late in Denver. And Ben Watson fumbled away their chance to tie the game late against Carolina. A break here or there and they could have been 4-2 or 5-1. So don't panic; make small adjustments and when you're in a position to make the play, make it.

Change all that and the Patriots probably run the table and go 13-3. But chances are, they won't get everything fixed in a week, so here's how I see the rest of the schedule:
vs. Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present much of a threat. W
vs. Indianapolis, the Colts will be a touch challenge, especially if the Pats secondary isn't healthy. L
at Miami, this one feels dangerous, but I'm hesitant to predict two losses in a row. W (unless they beat Indy)
vs. New Orleans, Patriots win simply by outclassing the Saints. W
at Kansas City, balanced offenses have given them trouble. L
vs. New York Jets, division game at home against an inferior opponent. W
at Buffalo, the Bills just aren't good enough to present... wait, I think I already said that. W
vs. Tampa Bay, the Bucs are always, always terrible when the temperature is low. W
at New York Jets, late road division games are tough, but NY has no QB. W
vs. Miami, unless it means nothing to the Patriots, pencil in a win. W

That would get them to 10-5 or 11-5 (depending on the first Miami game), either of which should win the division. The AFC East just isn't that good right now.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gotta love the AFC East. Patriots take the week off and they gain ground on all three of their division rivals."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Patriots 20, Broncos 28 (10/16/2005)

Boy, it's tough to know what to say about that one. The Patriots gave up some huge plays and dug a 28-3 hole from which they couldn't quite extricate themselves. The final was 28-20, but the game seemed like a massive blowout for the first three quarters. The loss gets the team to the bye week at 3-3, tied for first place in the AFC East with Buffalo, who beat the Jets on Sunday.

With all their success in recent years, the Pats still can't play *their* game against Denver. Under Bill Belichick, the team has thrived on getting a lead and forcing the opponent to take risks to come back -- and the Pats usually turn those risks into turnovers and even bigger leads. But I have to give the Broncos credit; head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always devise good offensive game plans that give them the early lead, thus negating New England's greatest strength. It was the same old story yesterday, and it's why the Broncos are always tough on the Pats.

Given the absence of Corey Dillon, the Patriots actually ran the ball okay. Not a lot of running, mind you, but 4.7 yards a rush is pretty good; although 89 yards is less than you'd like. And you might hope for some more rushing yards early, but without Dillon, they'll take them wherever they can get them. Patrick Pass and Amos Zereoue were the only Patriots running backs to play, and Pass played the second half injured -- a gutty performance that shouldn't get lost in an otherwise poor offensive day. The O-line could not protect Tom Brady, Brady himself did not throw well early, the receivers ran some bad routes, and they also had some uncharacteristic drops. I'm talking about you, David Givens and Deion Branch. Branch's dropped touchdown pass didn't cost any points (the Pats scored two plays later), but both he and David Givens dropped passes late in the game with the Pats needing a play to keep their chances alive. And both were passes that I believe Troy Brown would have caught (Brown was out with a foot injury).

And Brady doesn't escape criticism either. His poor throwing early helped the Broncos build a 25-point lead, and his bad throws and a killer intentional grounding penalty late cost the team a chance to come back. Granted, he took some big hits, and it's tough to throw while lying on the turf, but not all the errant passes can be explained by the pressure. 52% completions just won't cut it, and to see receivers running open and the ball hitting five-yards in front of them was to know it would be a bad day. The one bright spot on offense was the play of the line in the second half. Maybe Russ Hochstein should replace Logan Mankins (who was ejected at the half) every week, because the line played much better with Hochstein in there.

The pass defense gave up big plays, just like last week against Atlanta. I would daresay the Patriots have already given up more plays of over 50 yards than they did all last season. The Patriots seemed to be trying a new defense, the 4-4-3 -- where they move a safety into a linebacker spot and leave their cornerbacks to fend for themselves. Granted, Duane Starks had another rough day, but how do you provide no safety help for a corner covering the Broncos best receiver over half the field? And how do you do the same thing against the Broncos second-best receiver on the next bloody drive??!! That secondary coach isn't doing the job Eric Mangini did last year, is he?

As for the non-existent run defense, it's discipline, discipline, discipline. The Broncos double-teamed Vince Wilfork on the nose all day long, so linebackers Mike Vrabel (switched to inside this week), Monty Beisel, and Chad Brown should have cleaned up in the running game. Unfortunately, they overpursued and left huge cutback lanes that the Bronco running backs gashed for 178 yards (twice the Patriots output for the game). Even without Tatum Bell's 68-yarder, the Pats gave up too many 8 - 15 yard runs -- and staying disciplined in your assignments is crucial against Denver. They feast on cutback lanes, and the Patriots kindly provided them at every possible moment. The Patriots linebackers are all veterans and should know better than to overpusue, especially against Denver.

Oh, and the pass rush wasn't anything spectacular, either. Given the commitment to stopping the run, you'd think there would enough players near the line to disrupt Jake Plummer, but of course, that was not the case. His uniform looked pretty clean at the end of the game, and several times he faked a handoff and swung back to the other side to find no one within 20 yards of him. That gave him plenty of time to find a receiver, throw it away, or run it on his own. Again, it's about staying within the scheme of the defense. When you leave your responsibilities because you don't trust the other players to take care of theirs, it's 11-man chaos.

Special teams must have played well, because they drew the bulk of the Bronco 11 penalties. Denver's best starting field position was their own 28, and they started four drives inside their own 20, three inside their 10. Didn't do much good, but it was very good special teams coverage. On the downside, Adam Vinatieri missed a difficult field goal just before the half that would have helped a lot in their attempted comeback, and the return game never provided any spark, despite having lots of practice returning kickoffs.

The coaches? Let me list the coaches doing a good job: defensive line coach Pepper Johnson and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels. The rest of them have not kept the team focused and disciplined enough in any of the past five games. The D-line and QB won the Pittsburgh game, and the QB won the Atlanta game. Without their stellar work in those two games, the Patriots could be 1-5. That's Arizona Cardinals territory, folks.

So where does that leave us? Well, as I said before, the Patriots are 3-3 and tied with Buffalo for first place atop the juggernaut AFC East. But they have an all-important, just-in-time, and much-needed bye week. I'll write up a semi-mid-season report as to the state of the team for next week, including a breakdown of what Tedy Bruschi's possible return could mean to the team. I'll also revisit the schedule given what we know about them and their opponents that we didn't know before the season started. Until then, enjoy the fall weather, get those outside chores done, and get ready for Halloween. Here's hoping the season isn't as scary as the annual "Simpsons Treehouse of Horror."

Weekly water-cooler wisdom: "Talk about a mediocre team. When you include the pre-season, the Patriots have gone: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. Can 8-8 possibly win the AFC East? Mmmmmmmm... could be."

Keep the faith (for the time being),

- Scott

PS. 3-3!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Patriots 31, Falcons 28 (10/9/2005)

A few more games like that and I’ll be checking into a Meditation clinic or a hash bar. I mean, will these guys win an easy game this season? It’s another week of heart-stopping action for your New England Patriots: up by 14, then up by 1, then up by 15, then tied, then a last second field goal to beat Atlanta 31-28. The injured players didn’t return (for either team), and the win didn’t come easy, but it does put them into first place in their division. That’s something, right?

The Patriots offense was a big-play machine. Brady threw long passes to Deion Branch (51 yards), Daniel Graham (45 twice), Ben Watson (33), and Bethel Johnson (55), and he threw in a few 15 – 30 yarders for good measure. The Pats QB averaged a whopping 12.2 yards a pass, his best performance since… anyone want to guess… his best performance since… since… the fourth start of his career against the Colts, early in 2001 (12.5 yards a pass). And he did it yesterday under constant pressure and while taking solid shots half the time he dropped back.

The O-line did a fair job in pass protection, but earned their keep run blocking, with special assists from the Daniel Graham, David Givens, and Deion Branch, all of whom helped seal the corner for Corey Dillon to break outside. The Pats running game sprang to life, ripping some big gains and ending the day with 141 yards, all the while setting up the play-action fakes that allowed that 12.2 yards a pass. With both the running and passing games in sync, the Patriots could have blown the Falcons out if not for a tipped-ball INT and some poor officiating (I’ll get to that later).

The Patriots defense was obviously thrown by the absence of Michael Vick. He was injured last week, but was expected to play; right up until the night before. As often happens, his replacement benefited from having very little playing time, thus the Patriots could not study film and game plan for him. In a similar situation last year, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers hammered the Pats in the regular season. The replacement QB (Matt Schaub) played well, hitting some deep seam patterns and making the Patriots pay for loading up against the run. In fact, I daresay the Patriots would have had an easier time with Vick, because at least they knew what he’d bring to the game and they had planned for it all week. And Vick is not a strong pocket passer.

Given all the uncertainty, and the continued injury status of the Patriots secondary (three of four Game 1 starters were out) and the fact that Richard Seymour didn’t play either – I think all in all the defense held up as well as could be expected. They played 4-3 most of the game, and held the league’s #1 rushing team to 116 yards (85 less than their season average coming in). Jarvis Green was serviceable in relief of Seymour, Willie McGinest was okay, and oft-beaten Duane Starks even made some nice plays. Hey, someone out there in Patriots uniforms held Atlanta to 5 of 13 third down conversions and less than 28 minutes of possession time.

But let’s face facts; if the Atlanta receivers didn’t drop 5 easy passes, we might have seen a different outcome. The secondary needs to get healthy and do it fast. Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay returned to practice last week, and they need at least one of them back on the field so they can move Duane Starks or Asante Samuel (who seems to have lost his way) to nickel back. And Monty Beisel and Chad Brown need to start earning their keep – no more excuses, guys, just make the plays in front of you. Next week in Denver, the Pats will face a balanced offense, which is what gave them fits against the Chargers, and if the Pats secondary is still hurtin’ and their linebackers don’t improve, it could be a long day.

As for the officials (I promised I’d get back to them), this was probably the worst officiated game I’ve seen in a few years. They blew at least two calls in Atlanta’s favor: on Atlanta’s first scoring drive, a bogus holding call changed an third and goal from the 8 yard line to a first and goal at the 2; and on their second one, they neglected to call an intentional grounding penalty just before Atlanta attempted their first field goal (a 33-yarder that would have been at least 40 yards with the penalty). They also messed up a simple out-of-bounds call that would have given Atlanta a chance to score with about 7:30 left in the game; and then had the audacity to claim it could not be reviewed because of a seemingly instantaneous whistle. Inadvertent whistle I’ve heard of, but I can’t see how an official can see a foot out of bounds and blow the whistle in the third-of-a-second the player needed to fall forward for the first down. Oh, and that’s not to mention the multiple holding calls they let Atlanta get away with on offense or the ticky-tack interference calls against the Pats. Just a bad day, I guess. Maybe they’ve got some injuries that we don’t know about – I just hope they get things straightened out before the Pats see this crew again.

The Pats actually had a great day on special teams. They hit so hard the Atlanta punt returner decided to fair catch twice when he didn’t have to and committed a personal foul on a third punt. The Falcons have very good return teams, but the Pats coverage was very good almost all the time. And then there was Adam Vinatieri, who came through in the clutch again. 19 game winners in his career – he has to be a hall of famer at this point, just has to be.

So where does that leave us? Well, Miami lost to Buffalo, which puts the Patriots alone atop the division at 3-2. They’ve got a tough game in Denver next week, and then their bye week. Again, I have an office mate who’s a Bronco fan, so I will not predict a Patriots loss next week. Just don’t be the mortgage on the Pats this week. Oh, and hope for Tyrone Poole, Randall Gay, and most of all, Richard Seymour to return for the game. But until then, enjoy the view from the top. The Patriots cannot enter their bye week at anything worse than 3-3, and the schedule is much, much easier after that.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Still too many penalties, still too many big rushing plays, still too many injuries, still not creating enough turnovers. Still got Brady, Belichick, and Vinatieri. I guess that’s enough.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-2!

Monday, October 3, 2005

Patriots 17, Chargers 41 (10/2/2005)

Let me be the first to report that the Patriots finally, *finally* took my advice and got the pesky penalty situation under control. After weeks with 7, 12, and 10 penalties, the Pats worked hard and committed only 4 penalties this week against the Chargers. 4 penalties!! That's a six fewer than they'd been averaging for the season, and I'd call that progress. Well, I'd call it progress if they hadn't gotten spanked by San Diego, 41-17, in the worst drubbing they've ever suffered at Gillette Stadium and their worst loss since 31-0 on opening day 2003.

Yesterday reminded me of the old days, the 1-15 days, the days when I'd trek out to the stadium and scream like a maniac, trying to exhort the defense, and all I'd get for my trouble was... well, a sore throat. The longer the game went on, the easier everything got for the Chargers, scoring on five straight possessions at one point, and the tougher everything got for the Pats. And the up-coming schedule is getting tougher, too. Two more road games before they get a bye week to lick their wounds and start the home-heavy part of the season (6 of their last 10 games will be at home).

For the offense, it was a tale of two halves. They were effective and efficient in the first half and downright pathetic in the second. In the first half, if not for a missed field goal, they would have scored on four of five possessions, they had no turnovers, zero penalties, and had a nice run/pass balance. But their opening second half drive was killed with a Corey Dillon 7-yard loss and a Ben Watson penalty. Two plays later they were punting the ball. And it didn't get better, with drives of 3, 5, 1, and 4 plays that all gave the ball right back to San Diego. And the Chargers took advantage, with long drives that gave them a 20:45 to 9:15 time of possession advantage for the half.

The O-line allowed a lot of pressure (though only one sack) and didn't open up many holes for the running game. Tom Brady was a bit off, but I can't remember too many bad decisions, and it's tough to throw when you're constantly getting hit. Honestly, aside from the line I didn't think the offense executed that poorly overall, so I suppose a lot of the blame should go to the non-existent offensive coordinator. So far this year, the Patriots opening drives have been fine, but they aren't adjusting as well as they have in the past. And they haven't used Corey Dillon or their tight ends nearly as much as they should. I think they should consider changing things up in the offensive coaching staff because they don't have the same edge they did in past seasons. Maybe just name someone interim offensive coordinator so everyone knows who is in charge. By the way, if you need more evidence of their poor adjustments, consider that their one (that's right one) third-down conversion in the second half was a pass by backup QB Matt Cassel.

The defense was obviously spent midway through the third quarter, and they had the offense to blame for some of that. But they didn't tackle well enough to get themselves off the field, and they have produced only three turnovers in four games (by comparison, they forced nine turnovers in the first four games of 2004). The secondary was in disarray yesterday, with Duane Starks, Chad Scott, and the usually steady Eugene Wilson making critical errors. Wilson was called for pass interference, but if he'd turned around he would have had an interception instead. Starks and Scott made one very good play and about five bad ones between them. They need Tyrone Poole to start playing or Randall Gay to return from injury; and they need them fast. And they might want to move Wilson back to Strong Safety, especially next week against another talented tight end. Starks or Scott are probably fine nickel or dime backs, but not ready for prime time, so getting starters healthy will be the best medicine for them.

As for the linebackers, only Willie McGinest (a monster early, invisible late) and Mike Vrabel had decent days. And even though Monte Beisel and Chad Brown didn't sign on to replace Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, someone needs to tell them they have the starting job and need to make some plays. I think each had one decent play and spent the rest of the afternoon plugging the wrong hole, over-pursuing the play, and sucking wind like the rest of the defense. The vaunted defensive line wilted in the early-October sun, victims of their own inability to pressure the quarterback or slow the running game. Vince Wilfork spent most of the day pancaked by the Chargers center, and a cutback runner like LaDainian Tomlinson will always find holes in an over-pursuing defense. The Patriots rotated their D-line to keep them as fresh as possible, but to no avail. Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green were wasted by the end of the day.

Special teams had a mixed day, with the missed field goal but some outstanding kickoff coverage and some nice punting. Nothing special; no penalties of note; just sort of there.

So where does this leave us? Miami had a bye week, so they fall into first place by default (2-1 versus the Patriots 2-2). The rest of the division is just awful (as predicted), and the Pats will still likely outrun the competition for the division crown this year. But for the moment, they are in danger of finishing the first six weeks under .500. They're about to face the #1 and #3 rushing offenses in the NFL (Atlanta and Denver), so this might be a good time to switch to the 4-3 until they find a way to stop the run consistently. I think they'll take Atlanta, because they're one-dimensional (all run, no pass), and I'll let you know what I really think of the Broncos in next week's update.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots are lucky to be 2-2. They're last in the NFL in rushing offense, last in the AFC in scoring defense, and 14th in the AFC in giveaway/takeaway ratio. They played like crap against Oakland and could easily have lost to Pittsburgh."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-2!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Patriots 23, Steelers 20 (9/25/2005)

Hope you enjoyed yesterday’s game, because games that entertaining don’t come along every day. Hard-fought, smash-mouth, in-your-face, hard-hitting, a contest of wills – choose your own worn-out cliché, but I would call it a statement game. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was the Patriots making the statement, winning a 23-20 road decision win over the favored Steelers. A quick glance at the stat sheet might trick you into thinking the Pats laid another egg. 10 penalties for 118 yards, 2.7 yards a run, and 3 turnovers (2 inside the Steelers 10 yard line) could easily have cost them the game. But 35:23 in time of possession, 8 of 16 third-down conversions (while holding Pittsburgh to only 3 of 13), and 4 sacks and a dozen QB pressures were just enough to save their bacon.

The Pats offense started fast again, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, But after that they went into a coma for two quarters, scoring no points despite three trips inside Steeler territory. Kevin Faulk’s two fumbles were killers, and Brady’s lone interception came during that stretch. But they righted the ship as the third quarter came to a close and scored on each of their last four possessions.

Brady’s passing line was 31 of 41 for 372 yards, but it told only part of the story. He was harassed for much of the game, but never made the critical mistake (the INT was a tipped ball). He waited and waited until the Steeler defense was tired and after their pass rush slowed just a bit, he went 12 for 12 with 165 yards in the fourth quarter. Kevin Faulk wiped out what could have been a great day with two fumbles, and the offensive line was headed for disaster early when Nick Kaczur (Matt Light’s replacement) looked lost. But by the end of the game, the O-line had worn down the Steelers front seven, and it was easy passing yards from then on.

And I can’t say enough about the receivers. They took huge hits after almost every catch, and they held onto the ball and even made catches that I had a hard time believing they’d made. David Givens led with 9 grabs, and Deion Branch and Troy Brown caught some dangerous passes in traffic. The Steelers like to intimidate receivers, but with these guys, they should try another tactic. Just doesn’t happen. The tight ends were mostly shut out of the passing game, but did yeoman’s work in the running game and in pass protection.

The defense played a great game. The D-line was ferocious, dominating Pittsburgh for the final three quarters, holding Willie Parker to 55 yards, and sacking Ben Roethlisberger 4 times (no easy task to tackle Big Ben, as the 5 missed sacks will attest). And if Richard Seymour had held onto a sure interception, he might have the inside track as the NFL MVP (and no, I’m not kidding). Vince Wilfork got bopped around a bit, but he always took on two men so others could make the play – and Jarvis Green, Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, Ty Warren, and Monty Beisel all took advantage, each seeming to get pressure at least twice in the game. And to top it all off, they stopped the NFL’s #1 rushing team; and stopped them cold. Just a great overall effort.

And I would say that the secondary held up pretty well, what with Rodney Harrison out in the first quarter and Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay not making the trip. Eugene Wilson made a bad read on the long touchdown, but aside from that the subs (Ellis Hobbs, Duane Starks, and Chad Scott) played admirably. Mike Vrabel played inside, outside, and even at safety, and the banged-up secondary held coverage long enough to make Roethlisberger look like a bad QB.

If the defense can continue to improve like this, it will be another fun second half of the season.

As for special teams, Adam impressed, as always. He kicked three field goals, including the game winner, and over half of his kickoffs were so deep they were unreturnable. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were a little better, but they gave up a crucial 44 yard return to allow the Steelers to tie the game too easily. And there were still some untimely penalties (thank you, Tully Banta-Cain). Still some work to do, but overall some improvement.

And finally, the coaching staff was better than against Carolina. After the early strike by Pittsburgh, the defensive adjustments basically held them in check until late, and while the offense struggled through the second quarter, they had some chances cut short by turnovers. At least they were moving the ball, something they couldn’t do against the Panthers. I think they can still improve their play-calling. For example, I thought the blitz that led to a pass interference penalty against Chad Scott late in the fourth quarter was just too risky. And they should have called more screen passes to keep the Steelers defense honest. But I am hopeful that they’ll get better as the year progresses.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Patriots are now tied for first place in the AFC East with the Miami Dolphins, and next Sunday they’ve got a much-needed home game against the San Diego Chargers (who got their first win yesterday). I like their chances in this game and think the up-coming schedule is pretty favorable, even though both the Atlanta and Denver games are on the road. And beyond the Dolphins, the rest of the division looks pretty shabby, with huge QB questions for both the Bills and Jets.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Do you think Richard Seymour could make a run for NFL MVP? I know the NFL hasn’t had a defensive MVP in almost 20 years (Lawrence Taylor in 1986), but he’s been a monster in the first three games and with the dearth of great QB numbers, could this be the year it happens again?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Patriots 17, Panthers 27 (9/18/2005)

Did yesterday’s 27-17 loss give you déjà vu, too? Seemed like the Raiders traveled to Carolina in Patriots uniforms. The team committed way too many penalties, got a long pass that led to a touchdown, had a bunch of dropped passes, committed a late turnover that led to an opponent’s touchdown, couldn’t do anything offensively for most of the game, and lost by 10 points. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote something similar to that about the Raiders after the Pats beat them in the season opener.

The Patriots offense… tsk, tsk, tsk… where to start. Penalties put them in too many first-and-long situations, which in turn forced them to abandon the run and pass the ball 75% of the time (46 passing plays, 16 running plays). Seemed like every offensive lineman had a false start, and Dan Klecko’s holding penalty on 2nd-and-inches at the Carolina 23 was a killer. It led directly to Tom Brady’s only interception on a drive that could have given the Patriots the lead and momentum.

Brady was off most of the day, missing at least five open receivers, and the receivers dropped at least five catchable passes (two by Deion Branch) to go with Ben Watson’s late fumble. But it all started on the offensive line, and after some stellar pass protection early, they didn’t pass protect or run block very well at all (39 rushing yards for the game). The Pats converted only 4 of 14 third downs, which is just bad, bad, bad. They’ve got to get their discipline back to keep themselves out of long yardage, and they must do it quickly because the schedule is not getting easier. I guess we’ll know soon whether the superb play of the last few years was more Dante Scarneccia (offensive line coach) or more Joe Andruzzi and Damien Woody (offensive linemen who signed with Cleveland and Detroit, respectively).

The defense played pretty well, but was not the dominating group we’ve come to know and trust. They had one bad drive early (too much blitzing got them burned), and gave up touchdowns on “drives” of 13 and 12 yards (after a long punt return and a fumble recovery). But they added some inopportune penalties (Rosevelt Colvin negated a Patriots interception) and gave up some big passing plays. And no one had scored three rushing touchdowns on them in years. Also, with Tyrone Poole out of the game, the injury to Randall Gay forced rookie Ellis Hobbs into the fray. It didn’t cost the team dearly, but the pattern of defensive back injuries is now three years and running.

On the defensive line, Richard Seymour continues his dominant play, and Vince Wilfork is getting better. Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest made some big plays, and Monty Beisel is playing better in the 3-4. But Chad Brown still looked lost, new safety Gus Scott got burned at least twice, and the Patriots used the blitzed too often, becoming predictable and allowing Carolina to make big plays. You gotta take the good with the bad, but the Patriots usually don’t make those crucial mistakes.

Special teams continues to be an area of great concern. They gave up a huge punt return that led directly to a Carolina touchdown, and they were consistently bested by the Panthers on both punt and kickoff returns. Josh Miller outkicked his coverage three times, and Tim Dwight had a meandering punt return for zero yards. In fact, Carolina won the battle for punt return yardage 128 to 0. On the plus side, Adam Vinatieri’s kickoffs were consistently to the goal line, but the Carolina return teams still provided great field position for their offense.

And the coaching staff deserves their share of the blame for this one. They abandoned the running game too quickly, blitzed too often, and didn’t prepare the team adequately for the hostile environment they would face. The players made the mistakes on the field, but the special teams and offensive line coaches need to get back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling.

So where does that leave us. Well, how about tied for first place in the mediocre AFC East. Every team in the division has one win and one loss. They’ve got a tough game in Pittsburgh, at team that seems to have righted their ship after a very bad pre-season. Their running game is back and Ben Roethlisberger has excelled, although the competition hasn’t been great.

But this type of game is just the kind where Bill Belichick has pulled out an unexpected win. Just when people were ready to write off a game (Tennessee in 2003, St. Louis in 2004), the Pats came through. Roethlisberger might wilt a bit going against a better defense, and the Patriots might switch to the 4-3 defense to slow down the running game. Of course, only time will tell. But the team is still tied for first place in the division. That’s something, isn’t it?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The AFC East is the definition of parity. Not only are all four teams 1-1, but as a division they’ve scored 137 points and given up 134.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!