Monday, January 24, 2005

Patriots 41, Steelers 27 (1/23/2005)

Who knew the shortest route to Jacksonville goes through Pittsburgh?
Well, that's the way the Patriots got there, with a 41-27 drubbing of the Steelers in yesterday's AFC Championship game. The win puts the Patriots in the Super Bowl two Sundays hence in Jacksonville, Florida against the Philadelphia Eagles, and gives your local 11 a chance to solidify their status as a bona fide NFL dynasty.

In many ways, the game was a mirror image of the last previous tilt with the Steelers (a 34-20 Steelers victory). Both times, the winner led 24-3 and simply milked that lead to a two-touchdown win. Both times, the losing QB threw bad interceptions that cost his team points and both QBs had one turnover returned for a touchdown. And like the first game, this one wasn't as close as the final score indicated. As I wrote last week about the previous game, it was an ass-whippin' of the first order.

The Patriots did what they always do, taking away the other team's strength. All week I heard the Steelers would run the ball even if they didn't gain many yards; just to wear down the Patriots defense. So what do they do on their first third down opportunity? (Big) Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception, a harbinger of things to come. The Patriots wanted to stop the run to put the game in the hands of the Steelers's less-than-capable rookie QB. Instead, the Steelers did it for them, with totally predictable results.

The Pats defense played very well, stuffing the running tandem of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley for 90 combined yards, and holding Big Ben to a
58.3 passer rating (down just a smidge from his 126.4 of the earlier meeting). The Steelers averaged 4.4 yards a run, but the D-line along with the versatile linebacking corps stopped them when it counted and made them try to win through the air.

And when they tried passing, Roethlisberger looked confused and frustrated, a typical rookie reaction to seeing the Patriots defensive schemes. Heck, the Pats stopped Peyton Manning, what chance did Big Ben
really have. They picked on Asante Samuel much of the day, and he came
through with great closing speed and a bunch of passes defended.
Randall Gay's name was rarely called, with the Steelers showing him respect not usually given to a rookie by throwing to the other side of the field, and Eugene Wilson picked of two passes. Perhaps the biggest turnover of all was Rodney Harrison's INT and return for touchdown, but every single INT or fumble meant another drive stopped and another opportunity for the Pats offense.

And the "O" usually cashed in. The team scored 24 points off of turnovers, with a couple of quick-strikes down the field. The Pats obviously decided to attack the deep middle, and the O-line blocked admirably against the relentless Steelers blitzing. And Tom Brady made that extra time pay with 207 yards, 2 touchdowns, and (most important) no interceptions. Deion Branch had the biggest receiving game (4 catches for 116 yards), and he, David Givens, David Patten, and Christian Fauria made tough catches at important moments. The Pats did give up two sacks, but overall the passing game worked great.

As for the anticipated showdown between Corey Dillon and the Steelers defense, well the Steelers won the battle most of the time. Dillon finished with 73 yards on 24 carries, with one touchdown. Take out Deion Branch's 37 yards on two reverses and the Pats were under 100 yards for the day. However, just the threat of the run seemed to open things up for long passes. Whenever the Steelers overcommitted to play-action fakes, the Patriots gave Brady just enough time to beat them with the pass.

The special teams were nothing special. They gave up a lot of return yards and only twice had very good returns of their own. Adam Vinatieri did kick a 48-yard field goal (tying the longest in the history of the stadium), but his kickoffs were short and some were short and low - a deadly combination. I assume this phase of the game will be better for the Super Bowl, because the ball won't be frozen in Florida.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention what a great coaching job the Pats did. They always give the other team something new to adjust to, and they always come out with a plan to score early and often (they scored first 17 times in 18 games this year). Charlie Weis will leave at the end of the year for the head coaching position at Notre Dame, and there's a good chance that Romeo Crennel will become the head man for the Cleveland Browns. So enjoy this while you can; the team might look a lot different next year.

So where does this leave us? Well, the Patriots are off for a few days before beginning their preparation for the big game against Philadelphia. The Pats beat the Eagles in 2003, but I don't suppose that will have much of an impact on the one coming up. Brady is now the only QB in history to win his first eight playoff games; Belichick is now tied with Vince Lombardi for the all-time best playoff winning percentage (9-1); and should the Patriots win the Super Bowl, they will break the record for most wins over a two-season span in NFL history (34).

As the defending Super Bowl champions, I like their chances, but I probably won't send my Super Bowl Preview email until next week. Until then, I'll probably spend most of my time scrambling around to find tickets (note: any help in that area will be rewarded with my eternal gratitude - and maybe a finder's fee), arranging for time off and coverage for my 2/8 helpdesk shift, and hoping against hope that Terrell Owens misses the game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, Bill Cowher just doesn't get it.
The night before the game, he showed his team a tape of their October victory over the Patriots to remind them of how great they are. Bill Belichick showed the Patriots the same tape to remind them of how much work they have to do."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Patriots vs. Steelers Preview (1/20/2005)

It’s here again, folks. Yooooouuuuurrrrr New England Patriots play this Sunday for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl; and according to many pundits, the right to just show up and win the Super Bowl, given the lack of talented teams in the NFC. But first things first, what to make of the 16-1, 15-game winning streak, undefeated rookie QB, #1 NFL defense, #1 NFL rushing offense – and yet somehow still the “underdog” – Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well, since last week’s approach to previewing playoff games was so successful, I thought I’d try the same thing with this weekend’s game. As you’ll recall, I considered two things before the Indy game: the September game between the Pats and Colts; and what had changed since then that was likely to have an effect on the game. So now I'll consider the October game between the Pats and Steelers and ponder what might have changed since then that might alter the outcome.

Pittsburgh won the earlier game, 34-20, and it could easily have been 41-20 as the Steelers sat on the ball toward the end rather than score another touchdown. They ran the ball right down the throats of the Patriots defense, churning out 221 yards on 49 carries. And wonder-rookie Ben Roethlisberger completed 75% of his passes, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 126.4 (better than Peyton Manning’s season-long rating), and perhaps most importantly, he was rarely pressured and never sacked in the game.

It was an ass-whuppin’ of the first order, and the Patriots first double-digit loss in 27 games (since the 31-0 beating they took at Buffalo in 2003). Now if this game was the week after that loss, the Pats would be in real trouble. Fortunately, two-and-a-half months have passed since then, and in fact, almost all the changes since that first game favor the Patriots. The question is, has enough changed to overcome a 14-point loss?

Well, here goes...

(Note: if you don't have time to read all this, feel free to skip forward to "The Bottom Line" below.)

Point #1: The running games are likely to be much more even this time.

In the first game, the rushing yards were Pittsburgh 221 and New England 5. On that day, Duce Staley did most of the damage, with 125 yards on 25 carries, Jerome Bettis contributed 65 yards on 15 carries, and the Steelers seemed to rush at will and then pass for big yardage when the Pats moved more guys up to stop the run. The Patriots played the game without Corey Dillon, and they fell behind by 21 points early and had to abandon the running game (only six carries for the entire game).

Three things have changed in New England's favor in the running game since October. First of all, Jerome Bettis is starting on Sunday, not Duce Staley, and over the years the Patriots have owned Bettis even more than Peyton Manning. Against the Pats, Bettis has rushed for less than 50 yards a game and less than 40 yards a game in the playoffs. Staley has at least averaged a decent 78 yards a game, in limited action against New England.

Secondly, the Patriots averaged 142 yards a game with Corey Dillon playing. And as a team the Patriots have rushed for 55% more yards this season when facing a team for the second time (449 yards in first games, 698 in second games). The addition of Dillon and the fact that this is the second game against Pittsburgh mean the Patriots should see a significant increase in their rushing output Sunday. And with a better rushing attack, you won't see the Pats fall behind 21-3 early on, and that will mean Pittsburgh won't have the luxury of running the ball 49 times to wear down the defense.

And lastly, when the Steelers do run, both Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor are playing much better now than they were in October. This simply means the Pats should be able to contain the run without committing extra defenders to the line of scrimmage. And if Pittsburgh tries to just run the ball to wear out the defense, the Pats can rotate these two nose tackles and their deep linebacker corps to keep them rested.

Point #2: Ben Roethlisberger has come down to Earth, and Belichick will likely bring him down even further.

Roethlisberger played in 14 regular season games and one playoff game this year. In the first seven games, his QB rating was 105.2, in the last eight (including last weekend's playoff game), it was 84.5. His touchdowns were down from 11 to 7, his interceptions were up from 5 to 8, his yards per game are slightly down, and just generally, he had more trouble winning games. In his first seven games, the Steelers had five double-digit wins, in his last eight games, they had only three. Not a precipitous fall, but significant all the same. Consider also that he had his worst game of the year last week against the Jets, where he looked confused and threw two really bad interceptions.

Also consider that in the October game, the Patriots had only 4 game films of Big Ben to study; now they have 15 game films, including what has worked to slow down or stop him as the year wore on. Belichick and Romeo Crennel will find tendencies and flaws, they'll identify what makes Roethlisberger most comfortable and take it away, and they'll find out what he likes the least and make him do that to beat them. And their record in second games against a quarterback in a season stands at 13-0. This exact scenario is what the Patriots coaching staff is best at, and you can be sure they'll come up with something. If the Patriots get the lead in the second half, it will be very interesting to see how the rookie QB reacts to having *real* pressure on him late in a playoff game when a Super Bowl berth is on the line.

Point #3: The Patriots can game-plan knowing that Ty Law and Tyrone Poole will be out.

One thing that really hurt the Pats in the first game was they made their plans believing that Ty Law would be in the game. When he was injured in the first quarter, the Steelers went right after his replacement and scored a quick touchdown. This forced the Patriots to adjust their game plan and cover up for the rookie cornerback, opening things up for the running attack, and the Steelers ran 49 times and wore down the Patriots defense. The Pats would probably been okay if they'd had Tyrone Poole to cover one side of the field, but he was injured and out of the game entirely.

In this Sunday's game, the Patriots obviously know that Ty Law and Tyrone Poole won't play, and even if there are injuries during the game this Sunday, the drop-off from the current starters to their backups won't be as severe as it was when they switched from Pro-Bowler Ty Law to unproven rookie Randall Gay. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay are now proven NFL commodities (Gay not as good as Samuel), Troy Brown has made amazing strides at nickel back, and should the Patriots need more help there, they now have the option of shifting Eugene Wilson to corner. Because they had to try so many combinations during the season, the Patriots will have more options come Sunday, a luxury they didn't enjoy in the first game.

Quick Points:

A) Once again, the Patriots have the special teams advantage. The Steelers gave up a punt-return touchdown in last week's playoff game with NY, and their coverage teams are in the bottom-half of the league.

B) The Steeler defense isn't as healthy as some would have you believe. Two of their linebackers are hobbling, and their starting nose tackle and corner are both out.

C) The Patriots might be favored, but the pressure is really on Bill Cowher. He's hosted four AFC Championship Games and is 1-3. If he loses this one, winning 20% of the championship games *at home* looks pretty bad. Oh, and the Patriots are 5-0 in AFC Championship games.

D) No rookie quarterback has ever led his team to a Super Bowl. Ever. Hey, records were made to be broken, but that's an awful lot of pressure on Roethlisberger.

The Bottom Line

This game is a heck of a lot closer than the Colts game. The Patriots took a beating in the earlier game, but excepting the next week against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh hasn't played as well since then. Their running star against the Patriots in October (Duce Staley) has been in and out of games with injuries, and his replacement (Jerome Bettis) hasn't historically done well against the Patriots. Their rookie quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has more interceptions than touchdowns since playing the Patriots, and the Patriots usually feast on teams that turn the ball over. And the Patriots have more proven cornerbacks to replace Ty Law than they did in October, making it more difficult for Pittsburgh to attack down the field, thus meaning the Patriots can commit to stopping the Steeler run in ways they couldn't before.

Add to that the pressure on Bill Cowher (currently 1-3 in home AFC Championship games) and Ben Roethlisberger (no rookie QB has ever taken his team to the Super Bowl) and the fact that the Patriots are 5-0 in their history in AFC Championship games and under Belichick they've played their most impressive playoff games in this round, and it looks like a lot is going the Patriots way. Will it be enough to overcome the 14-point margin of the first game? I think so. After all, if the Patriots simply hadn't turned the ball over, the Steelers probably would have scored 14 fewer points right off the bat, and with all the other factors that have changed in the Patriots favor since then, it looks like the Pats will indeed win. This is one of those games I wouldn't bet on no matter what -- too much uncertainty -- and I won't predict a blowout. But I can see a seven- or ten-point win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Peyton Manning couldn't figure out the Patriots defense, how can Ben Roethlisberger? Sure, the Steelers will run a lot, but the Patriots offense is good enough to score about half the time on the Steeler defense. So if the Pats can get a lead and the Steelers can't score by running, then it will be up to Big Ben, with a Super Bowl berth on the line. I like the Patriots chances."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Patriots 20, Colts 3 (1/16/2005)

That is why they say, “To be the champ, you gotta beat the champ.” For the third time in 12 months, your New England Patriots defended their turf against the Indianapolis Colts with a 20-3 domination of the “greatest no-show on grass.” The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship game next Sunday at Pittsburgh against a Steeler squad that bested them 34-20 in October.

So how did the Patriots stop the Colts offense? Again? Well, I hope you read last week’s update and told all your friends what was in it, because you’d look like a genius if you did. Re-read the “Bottom Line” section and it’s all pretty much there: Pats already beat the Colts in September and things have changed in their favor since then; Pats run defense is vastly improved (202 yards in the first game, 46 Sunday); Patriots were healthy overall; the Colts are worse outdoors (3-4 this year), the Patriot offense had a bigger mismatch than the Colt offense did, and finally, the "Patriots should win this one without too much difficulty."

One last time and forever, please repeat with me: “Great defense beats great offense.” Next time some amazing offense comes along, and your friends claim that *this* is the year offense wins it all, remind them of Pats/Colts in consecutive playoff years: aggregate score, New England 44, Indianapolis 17. That is a 72% drop from the Colts two-season scoring average (31 points a game), so remember, defense usually trumps offense, and defense wins championships.

So how did the Patriots defense do it? They rushed 3, dropped 8 into coverage, hit the receivers at the line to slow them down and disrupt their timing, hit the receivers trying to catch the ball, and tackled them before they gain any extra yards after the catch. They sent one more pass rusher once in a while to keep Peyton Manning off-balance, let the defensive line and linebackers handle the running game, and waited for the Colts to self-destruct. So simple you’d think every team would do it, but not every team has the players to pull it off.

This was truly a team win, and there are too many defensive players who had great games to go over them all, so here’s a short list for those who had the really big games. Tedy Bruschi had seven tackles, disrupted the middle-short passing game all day, and caused one fumble and recovered two. Mike Vrabel made eight tackles and his speed rush from the outside made Manning move up so the inside guys would pressure him to throw it early. Roman Phifer had his best game of the year in pass coverage, breaking up several passes and making sure there were no yards after a catch was made. Asante Samuel covered Marvin Harrison for much of the day, and Marvin had only 5 catches for 44 yards (long of 18). Rodney Harrison did his usual spectacular job of holding together the patchwork defense and somehow worked in ten tackles. And of course, Troy Brown got picked on all day in his coverage of Brandon Stokley, and while Stokley came up with 8 catches for 64 yards, Troy knocked down a few passes and made the tackle right away after almost every Stokley catch.

But this was so much more than individual performances. The physical nature of their play led to six or eight dropped passes by the Colts and there were very few yards after the catch and the tackle was usually a big hit. The defensive line didn't sack Manning much, but they just pushed the Colts line back into Peyton, making him move or throw off the back foot. Manning had to ground the ball about five times the ball due to confusion or a Patriot defender right next to his target, and the audible-all-day strategy didn't seem to get the Colts into any decent plays. There were at least three times the Patriots left receivers uncovered at first because they knew which play was coming and that the player would come across in motion before the snap.

And I might be the only one to tell you the following: the Colts did not lose because of Peyton Manning. Sure, he was confused and frustrated at times. But by my count, he dropped back to pass 43 times and made only 3 mistakes. His throw to Marcus Pollard early in the game was off-target; he threw short to Brandon Stokely when Marvin Harrison was open for 20 yards and a first down, and he missed a semi-open receiver to the left when he threw into the endzone with 2 seconds left in the half (the pass that was almost intercepted by Eugene Wilson).

Other than those plays, I thought he made the right decisions and delivered as well as you can in that weather. He had at least three incompletions where he threw at the receivers feet, but on all three plays, the receiver was covered and it would have been a dangerous throw. When Tom Brady does that, it’s a sign of his football intelligence; same thing with Peyton.

So who on the Colts is most to blame for their offensive problems? Five players: Dallas Clark, Dominic Rhodes, Marcus Pollard, Edgerrin James, and Reggie Wayne. Clark had two drops, and Rhodes caught a ball and then let Tedy Bruschi take the ball away. Pollard dropped a 10-yard gain, and the Colts had to punt. Edgerrin James just wasn’t into the game: two drops, and a number of “Gee, I just don’t know where to go” plays. And Reggie Wayne fumbled to kill the Colts last chance to get back into the game.

There are your culprits, folks. Did they hear footsteps? Were they worried about running after the catch? Was the cold ball too tough to handle? Big game jitters? We may never know, and the national pundits won’t bother considering the questions. Peyton Manning was their story coming in, and he’ll get all the blame for the loss. That’s the life of an NFL quarterback.

The Patriots offense had some trouble getting going in the first half, but once they started rolling, there was nothing Indy could do to stop them. They had their three lengthiest drives *of the year* in this one game (9:07, 8:16, and 7:24), combining for more time of possession in those three drives than the Colts had in their ten possessions for the entire game (24:47 to 22:17). Corey Dillon made his playoff debut well worth the wait, with 23 rushes for 144 yards and 5 receptions for 17 yards. He and the rest of the Patriots offense rolled over the Colts for a rushing total of 210 yards and 37:43 seconds of possession time.

The Patriots pass offense gained a paltry 4.2 yards per pass attempt, but it didn’t matter because they were just playing keep-away from the Indy offense. They were great on third down conversions, keeping their long drives going and keeping the clock moving. On their three long drives, they converted 7 for 8 third downs and scored all three times. And perhaps most importantly, they committed zero turnovers. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the adjustments the offensive line made. The Colts got pressure on Brady in the first half, but never really got near him in the second half. Aside from Brady, there were no real stars in the passing game, but Kevin Faulk, Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria, Corey Dillon, Patrick Pass, David Patten, and David Givens all had one critical catch in the game – how’s that for spreading the glory.

A great coaching job, good special teams coverage and some nice returns, clock-eating and very effective offense, and a suffocating defense. As Bill Belichick put it: "That second half was our best football of the season." No argument here.

So where does that leave us? 15-2 and tied for the most regular season and playoff victories in a two-year span (32) in NFL history, and one win away from a chance for that third ring. We've got a tough game against Pittsburgh this Sunday with a berth in Super Bowl XXXIX at stake, and that game promises to be a real old-fashioned grind-'em-out defensive struggle cold weather football game. Should be fun. Seems clear that Kevin Faulk and Bethel Johnson will play, but Richard Seymour's status is under wraps for the time being. I'm sure he'll be a "game time decision" when the Pats release their injury report on Wednesday, and we could really use him in trying to slow down the Steeler running attack. I'll have a preview of the game out by Wednesday or Thursday, and here's hoping the Steelers rookie QB (Ben Roethlisberger -- and no, I didn't have to check the spelling) plays like he did against the Jets. Two interceptions by Big Ben, and the game is almost assuredly ours.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Those Steelers better hope that Duce Staley is healthy, because the Patriots have *owned* Jerome Bettis ever since he got to Pittsburgh. Against the Pats, he's averaged less than 50 yards a game, and less than 40 a game in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/12/2005)

Did Sherman just crank up the "way back machine"? Did Doctor Brown just zip by in his DeLorean at 88 miles per hour? Did we just blast through some Star Trek worm hole? Somehow, we seem to be back in January 2004. The new and improved Peyton Manning is coming to town, and you better lock up your Super Bowl rings 'cause he's here to take down the local 11.

One year ago, I read all the same stories ("No one can stop Manning"), heard all the same stats ("Look at Manning's unbelievable run"), read all the same pronouncements ("This is the year offense wins the Super Bowl" and "It's Manning's time now"), read all the same posts ("INDY WILL CRUSH YOUR PATSIES"), and heard all the same questions ("Can anyone stop this offense?" and "How many times can Bill Belichick pull the rabbit out of the hat").

Well, the best way to answer those questions is to play the game, and they will do so this Sunday. The Colts romped over the Broncos last weekend (making me 0-4 in predicting games last weekend... thank you very much), and set up a showdown with their nemesis -- yoooouuuurrrrr New England Patriots! -- Sunday at 4:30. It makes for great theater and gives the sports press something to blab about for a week. But I'm here to help you sift through all the claims and counter-claims so you know what is likely to take place at the game. So here goes. (Note: if you don't have the time to wade through all this stuff, you can skip to the "Quick Points" and "Bottom Line" sections below.)

I believe the best way to think about this game is to consider recent history and update it with any factors that might have changed. And the best recent-history indicator is the Patriots opening day 27-24 win over the Colts. The game was in Foxboro this past September, and it should give us the best indication of what Sunday's game will look like. So the question is, what has changed that might affect the outcome of this game? The answers are below.

Point #1. The Manning will have more pass attempts and more passing yards, but the Colt offense won't necessarily score more touchdowns.

Manning is playing better than he did at the beginning of the season. He uses the no-huddle to identify defenses and then changes the play to attack the defense he sees; his receivers are all comfortable in the offense; his reads are quicker; and he makes fewer mistakes. Combine that with the Patriots woes at defensive back (both Ty Law and Tyrone Poole -- September's starters -- are out for the entire playoffs), and it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

However, the venue and the Patriots style of pass defense both favor the Patriots. Against Manning, the Patriots have not blitzed much; they've jammed receivers at the line and dropped into a zone. This has proven to be the best way to slow down Manning, because a seven- or eight-man zone can cover four or five receivers pretty well. And as the Broncos showed us last weekend, the a blitz has to get to Manning within 1.5 seconds or the ball is usually on its way to a receiver. Well, the Pats won't blitz much, perhaps sending as few as three pass rushers for the majority of the game and flooding the backfield zones with eight men.

In addition, the Patriots defenders hit and hit and hit, and the Colt receivers don't like to be hit. Even against the Broncos, you could see them diving to the ground to avoid contact. The Patriots will hit them at the line, hit them when they try to catch the ball, and hit them again on the tackle. And in cold weather, those hits hurt a lot more and the sting lingers for longer. The temperature at kickoff will be under 30-degrees, and the sun will already be down so it will only get colder as the game goes on. The Colt receivers aren't used to it, but the Patriot defenders thrive on it, and I think it will be a factor as the game goes on.

Peyton threw two touchdowns in the opening game. He might get three in this game, but it'll only be trouble if he gets four or five.

Point #2. The Colts will not run the ball well, unless the Patriots let them.

In the season opener, the Colts ran for 202 yards, and might have won the game if Edgerrin James hadn't fumbled twice inside the Patriots 20 yard line. The Colt offensive line toyed with the middle of the Patriot defensive line, and the bulk of the yards came up right up the gut. In fact, the Colts ran the ball 42 times in the game and passed only 30. The Patriots played a seven-man backfield, so with the Colts easily blocking the Pats defensive line, it was a quick 5-10 yards every time for Edgerrin James.

So why will it be different this time? Two words: Wilfork and Traylor. In that first game, both these guys looked like rookies (even though Keith Traylor is a 14 year veteran), with Jeff Saturday pushing them around like tackling dummies. But since then, Wilfork has progressed to the point that he takes up two offensive linemen and can still stop a running back or pressure the QB. Traylor needs more rest than Wilfork, but he also takes up the required two defenders and can make plays on a running back. With Wilfork and Traylor slowing down the running game, the Patriots will be free to drop more defenders into pass coverage, which is where they want them. In September, the Pats had no choice but to help the defensive line by bringing up more linebackers and safeties -- and given all that, they were lucky to escape with a 27-24 win -- but in this game, the defensive line won't need as much help.

The Pats won't stop the Indy running game, but they will slow it enough with their front line to force the Colts to pass into a defense with more defenders poised to defend the pass.

Point #3. Contrary to published reports, the Patriots offense and Indy defense will play this Sunday.

The Patriots have a pretty nifty offense, and the Colts have beatable defense. The Pats scored 27 points a game (fourth best in the NFL), rushed for over 4 yards a carry (first time in 20 years) and 2,134 yards for the year (with a team record 1,635 for Corey Dillon -- good for third place in the NFL), finished in the top 10 in time of possession (Indy finished in the bottom ten), and had some guy named Brady who was the eight-highest rated QB this season. In the first game, the Pats topped 400 total yards and gave up only two sacks in 40 attempts, and as I remember it, they moved the ball up and down the field with ease. Oh, and Dillon ran for 5.7 yards a carry.

To add to Indy's woes, not a single player on their defense plays better outdoors in the cold than he does in a heated dome. Their pass rush is slower, their defensive backs can't react as quickly, and their linebackers don't pursue as well. When Corey Dillon comes around end and barrels toward a safety, the Colt defender is less likely to put a hurt on Dillon as Dillon is to put a hurt on the defender. And the Colts just don't have the talent to keep up with the Patriots receiving corps. In the September game, the receiving numbers went as follows: Branch, 7 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown, Graham 7-57-1, Patten 4-86-1, and Givens 4-80-0. That's 14 yards a catch and three touchdowns with just those four. Brady completed almost 70% of his passes, and ended the day with a 111.2 rating and almost 9 yards per attempt. To put a fine point on it, Brady outperformed Manning in every significant stat. And since that game, Indy replaced their strong safety and one starting cornerback with rookies (Bob Sanders and Jason David, respectively) and they lost their second best pass rusher, Robert Mathis.

The only mismatch bigger than Manning vs. the Patriots depleted secondary is the Patriots offense vs. the weak Colts defense.

Point #4 The Patriots are healthier than you think.

Sure, the Pats have injuries at cornerback, Richard Seymour might not be 100%, and Kevin Faulk, Eugene Wilson, and Bethel Johnson are a little banged up. But aside from the cornerback position, the Patriots enter the playoffs relatively healthy. They have adequate replacements for Seymour (Jarvis Green and Ty Warren have both filled in admirably this year), Deion Branch is back, Troy Brown has played more the past three games, Corey Dillon, Tom Brady, Johnson, Wilson, and Faulk have all had two weeks to rest up from nagging problems, and Rosevelt Colvin is back for limited action with a linebacker corps that has avoided injury all year long. In fact, given their health at linebacker, it wouldn't shock me to see them play with 5 linebackers and two defensive linemen.

It's true that the Patriots enter the playoffs with injury concerns. But wasn't it the same thing last year? Remember: Colvin and David Patten were out for the year, Damien Woody and Ted Johnson hardly played in the playoffs, and Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson were injured during the Super Bowl. At this point, the only injuries we know for sure are Tyrone Poole and Ty Law are out of the playoffs. We went 8-1 in games without them this year.

With both Law and Poole already out, the Patriots beat the Rams, Chiefs, and Bengals -- all of whom have explosive offenses and bad defenses. I see no reason they can't do the same to the Colts?

Quick Points:

A) The Patriots have a decided advantage in the kicking game. Adam Vinatieri is the unquestioned best kicker in the game. He missed only two field goals all year and neither cost the team a game. The Colts Mike Vanderjagt missed five field goals *and* an extra point, and his miss at Foxboro in September cost his team the chance at overtime.

B) The Colts play worse outside than inside. They went 3-3 outside this year, and over the last three years, they have scored five fewer points and given up four more points per game outdoors. That's a nine point swing, which is significant in a game deemed to be this close.

C) All the pressure is on Peyton Manning; if he can't beat the Patriots with Ty Law and Tyrone Poole out of the game, he might never do so. And he hasn't exactly risen to the occasion in pressure situations.

D) As for clutch performers, who have proven they can play well under pressure; it's no contest -- the Patriots have them all and the Colts have none. If they win on Sunday, then maybe the Colts players will emerge as pressure players, but to this point they have not.

E) For those really interested in the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning debate, here are links to two stories that break it down statistically and anecdotally. Very interesting stuff.

Bottom Line

The Patriots won the September season opener and since then more factors have changed in their favor than in the Colts favor. The Pats run defense is vastly better with improved play from their nose tackles, so the Colts come into the game one-dimensional on offense. Aside from the defensive secondary, the Pats are very healthy with a full complement of running backs, receivers, linebackers, and maybe defensive linemen (come on Richard Seymour), whereas Indy just lost their second-best pass rusher (allowing the Patriots to double-team Dwight Freeney) and have replaced their starting strong safety *and* right cornerback with rookies. The injury factor alone makes New England's offense vs. Indy's defense a bigger mismatch than Indy's offense vs. New England defense, but that's not the story you hear from the press.

Add to that the Patriots superior kicking game, the Colts failures outdoors (3-3 this year), the pressure of the playoffs (and who has more pressure-tested players), and you get the same result as the last five times these teams have played. Patriots should win this one without too much difficulty. (Note: I know I was 0-4 picking last weekend's games, and I considered picking the Colts just to guarantee a Patriots win. But I just couldn't do it; the more of this update I wrote, the clearer it became that the Patriots would win. I apologize in advance if this pick jinxes the team.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Looking for that last little tidbit about this Sunday's showdown? How about this. Indy and New England had two common opponents this year: both played Baltimore at home and Kansas City on the road. The Patriots beat them both by a combined score of 51-22, Indy beat Baltimore and lost to KC; their combined score was 55-55."

Enjoy the game and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Friday, January 7, 2005

Patriots 2004 Regular Season Awards (1/7/2005)

Before we start looking ahead to next weekend's match up, I thought I'd take us down memory lane for a moment and recognize some of the best players on the 2004 Patriots. They weren't the best team this regular season, finishing one game behind Pittsburgh. But they scrapped their way to another stellar 14-2 record, and that means their players were among the league's best. So here's my take on who was the best of the best on the Patriots this year.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Corey Dillon

It was a closer call this year, but Tom Brady continues to be the one irreplaceable cog in the Patriots offense. The team's receivers, tight ends, running backs, and offensive linemen were in and out of games, shuffled from position to position, injured, and sometimes inconsistent. But through it all, Brady was the constant on a team that scored the fourth most points in the NFL this season and second most points in their history (437 in 2004, 441 in 1980). He improved from 2003 in yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and quarterback rating. He also worked to strengthen his upper body and improve his technique to reduce his fumbles and it worked like a charm: he fumbled only about half as many times, from 13 down to 7. And if you need more proof of his value to the team, his two worst games of the year were the Patriots two losses. Oh, and he made the Pro Bowl again.

Corey Dillon brought balance to the Patriots attack this year. He was instrumental in helping the Pats drop their pass/run differential from 106 more passes in 2003 (578 to 472) to only 6 more passes in 2004 (530 to 524) and to improve their time of possession advantage from 1:40 a game to 2:44 a game. He also set a Patriots record with 1,635 rushing yards and helped the Pats achieve 4 yards a carry for the first time in 20 years. Not bad for a supposed malcontent from a franchise with exactly *zero* winning records in the past 15 years.

Most Improved Offensive Player: David Patten
Honorable Mention: Daniel Graham, David Givens, and Stephen Neal

If this was Most Improved Offensive Position, then Corey Dillion would win it hands down, but that's not the way I see this category. David Patten was injured for the bulk of 2003, and he came back in 2004 with a vengeance. He had career bests in touchdowns (7) and yards per catch (18.2), and came within a whisker of his career highs in yardage (824 in 2002, 800 in 2004) and first downs (39 versus 37). But this is mostly about his improvement from 2003 to 2004, and it was astounding: games played (from 6 to 16), starts (5 to 11), receptions (9 to 44), yards per catch (15.6 to 18.2), touchdowns (0 to 7), and first down catches (6 to 37). Many experts thought Patten might be cut during the pre-season, and few if any gave him a chance to play much, let alone start. Just goes to show that you never know with the Patriots coaching staff.

Daniel Graham's statistics improved, but mostly this is a gut feeling of mine that he has become more dependable. Brady throws to him more, and he rarely drops a catchable ball now. All you need to know about Stephen Neal are the following facts: he outplayed Super Bowl starting guard, Russ Hochstein, replacing him before the season began; and he started zero games in 2003, 14 in 2004. He will sometimes commit silly penalties, but pretty good improvement. David Givens improves every year, and he's the one guy the other teams don't seem to have an answer for. He caught 56 passes this year, 47 of them were "Good for another Patriots... FIRST DOWN!"

Offensive Rookie of the Year: No Winner

The Pats had only two rookies play on offense this year. Ben Watson played one game, had two catches and one first down and was injured for the rest of the year. Cedric Cobbs played in three games and ran for 50 yards. Maybe one of them will win Most Improved next year.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Tedy Bruschi
Honorable Mention: Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Rodney Harrison

Tedy Bruschi finally gets is due. I've long said that Bruschi's versatility makes him the key to the Patriots defense, and it was never more evident than this year. He plays the run and pass equally well, and that gives the Pats coaching staff the freedom to play either run or pass against almost any offensive player grouping. Spread the field with five wide receivers? no problem, Bruschi plays the middle alone in case it's a draw play and drops into coverage to help the defensive backs. Bunch everyone up to confuse the DBs? Bruschi's got it covered, directing traffic until the snap, hitting anyone who comes over the middle, and then covering the running back in the flat. He finished 2004 with 122 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles, and played on special teams every single game. And no one made a more important play this year than Bruschi's interception early in the Jets game. It set the tone for another win -- just like Bruschi does every week.

Willie McGinest is becoming one of those ageless wonders. Who knew when Parcells drafted him that he'd lead the Patriots in sacks (9.5) in his eleventh season, even though he dropped into pass coverage more this year than the last two years combined. He had 51 tackles, four passes defensed, and an interception; and they all seemed to be big plays. Richard Seymour had another Pro Bowl year, although his numbers were down from his monster 2003 season. He had five sacks and controlled his half of the offensive line week after week; and he's still the defender the opposition has to game plan around. And Rodney Harrison continued his revival tour, leading the team with 138 bone-jarring tackles and, perhaps most importantly, holding the secondary together through all their injury problems. I'm hoping to play San Diego in the playoffs, just to see Rodney play "angry" against his old team.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Ted Johnson, Tully Banta-Cain, and Troy Brown

Unlike last year, when the winner (Willie McGinest) showed the most year-over-year improvement with the Patriots, Vince Wilfork showed the most improvement within the season. In the season opener, the Colts ran for 202 yards, with Vince taking about 40% of the snaps at nose tackle (sharing time with Keith Traylor). At the time, I hoped that Vince would get better as the year progressed, and he did. In that first game, he was played to a stand-still by the Colts center, which is unacceptable for 3-4 defense; the nose tackle must force a double-team *or* make the tackle himself -- and Wilfork did neither. But he came on as the season went along. He had sacks in the first two games of October, which brought the double-team the middle of that month. By mid-December, he was working through the double-team to make the tackle or pressure the quarterback. He finished the year with two sacks, and it seemed like he was very close about eight other times. With Vince, Richard, Jarvis Green, and Ty Warren all four years or fewer in the league, the defensive line could be dominant for a while to come.

Both Ted Johnson and Tully Banta-Cain are more intuitive choices on my part. Both had better stats, but it was more than that with them. I don't recall seeing Ted out of position, missing a tackle, or being beaten for a big pass play all year, and those problems were his downfall in the past. He always had the physical skills, and now that he's improved his pass coverage and is playing more within the system, he is rock solid. And Tully, well, I'm not sure what to say except that he seemed better at the pass rush than either McGinest or Seymour this year. He was just always around the ball making plays, and of course, he's one of those wedge-breaking maniacs on special teams.

As for Troy Brown, when you start your defensive career at age 93 and can still keep up with the young guys, it's says a lot for you. FYI, he finished with as many interceptions as Deion Sanders (3), and had 9 more tackles and as many passes defensed as Neon Deion. Troy Brown might have been the best fifth DB in the AFC. Astonishing.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Randall Gay

For info on Vince Wilfork, see the above. He has a chance to be something very special in this league for a long time.

Randall Gay was one of those Nick Saban (former head coach at LSU) recommendations that the Patriots took a chance on. Aside from Jarvis Green, those gambles hadn't paid off yet; but it was worth the wait with Randall. With the injuries to our secondary, Randall stepped in and played like an experienced fifth defensive back. And when the injuries got worse, he stepped into the starting role and only gave up a few big plays all year. (For contrast, think back on what Earthwind Moreland did when he was forced to start. Go ahead, think about the Kansas City game, I'll wait... Okay then, now you realize how bad things could have been.) He learned the complex defensive schemes quickly, was rarely out of position -- although he was physically beaten a few times -- and was a sure tackler. If Ty Law and/or Tyrone Poole leave next year (or are asked to leave), expect Randall to play full time.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Adam Vinatieri
Honorable Mention: Larry Izzo, Je'Rod Cherry, and Josh Miller

With his back totally healthy, Adam returned from a sub-standard 2003 to lead the NFL in scoring (141 points) and field goal accuracy (93.9%). He really is Mr. Clutch, missing no important field goals and using his directional kickoffs to help the Pats coverage team. I can only remember two games where their kick coverage team was significantly outplayed, and Adam's kicks have been higher and just a bit longer than in past years -- just enough to help out in this critical part of the game. Oh, and he finally made the Pro Bowl this year, something that's way overdue. And he did throw the only touchdown by a kicker to a part-time defensive back this year.

Larry Izzo made the Pro Bowl again, as he continued to excel with downfield coverage and in captaining the special teams. He's been in the league 9 years, but plays like a rookie trying to win a job. Je'Rod Cherry was cut and re-signed about 80 times this year, but when he played, he made it count. Just last week, he downed two punts inside the five yard line against the 49ers, which (as I said at the time) is a very good season for most players. And Josh Miller gave us a 42 yard average (up from Ken Walter's 37.7) and had only five touchbacks on 56 punts.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Adam Vinatieri
Honorable Mention: Lonnie Paxton

For info on Adam, see above.

Lonnie was hurt toward the end of last season, and with him back and a new holder, the Pats had their most accurate field goal kicking season ever. Guess his rehab was a success.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: None

There weren't any rookies who stood out on special teams. Vince Wilfork played some in field goal defense units, and Dexter Reid did some kick coverage. But overall, the Patriots played mostly veterans on their kicking units. I know they wanted to give P.K. Sam a chance to unseat Troy Brown on punt returns, but a pre-season injury put that on hold until next year.

Well, that's about it. Hope you enjoyed watching these guys play as much as I did. Here's hoping we get to see them at least three more games (Super Bowl, baby!). And I hope the lack of an offensive and special teams rookie of the year isn't a bad omen for this year's draft. They did get good production out of their defensive rookies, and some of the others will return from injury next season. Keep those fingers crossed.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

Monday, January 3, 2005

Patriots 21, 49ers 7 (1/2/2005)

14-2 has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? That's two straight years with 14 wins, although it was only good enough for the second seed in the AFC playoffs this year. But that's okay; the Pats could be on the brink of setting yet another NFL record; this time for most wins (regular season and post season) over a two year span. If they win two more games (which would give them the AFC Championship), it would catapult them to 33 wins in the past two years; one more than the 85-86 Bears and 89-90 49ers. Of course, that's not relevant to the cause at hand -- namely, winning a third championship -- but it is another sign of their dominance during the past four years.

I won't bore you with much about yesterday's game. The 49ers weren't much competition, blah, blah, blah. The Patriots offense and defense did well enough to win, blah, blah, blah. They got out of the game injury free, blah, blah, blah. Let me just give you a few quick things I noticed and then get on next weekend's playoff games.

Belichick would likely have pulled his starters out of the game had they played better in the first half. However, it was tied entering the third quarter, so he left them out there to get themselves together (particularly on offense). Among playoff teams with nothing of note to play for, I think he played more starters than the others. That might have been a reaction to how flat the Pats played in their first three regular season games after he gave *all the starters* the final pre-season game off.

On offense, Jed Weaver had a breakout game. He and Christian Fauria had 7 catches for 99 yards between them, and the two combined will be serviceable replacements if Daniel Graham can't play in the post-season.

On defense, it seems that Earthwind Moreland has been demoted from cornerback to safety. And in fact, he was the backup to Don Davis, who was the backup to Dexter Reid, who was the backup to Eugene Wilson. Looks like Earthwind might be the first player sent to NFL Europe by the Patriots this off-season.

With Troy Brown playing so much defense and Kevin Faulk inactive for the game, the punt return job probably defaulted to Bethel Johnson. He did okay, but if he wants the job permanently, it needs to catch the ball every time. No bobbles, no drops.

Je'Rod Cherry played a great special teams game. Downing two punts inside the five yard-line is a very good season, let alone a single game.

Corey Dillon, I respectfully request that you HOLD ONTO THE BALL please. Thank you, sir.

Now on to the playoff games and scenarios.

Saturday is the day of "who cares" games. Someone has got to win each of the games, but I don't expect the winner to do much in the playoffs beyond that single win.

The Seattle Seahawks won their division at 9-7 and play the 8-8 St. Louis Rams in the Yawner Bowl. I saw both teams this year and I think the Seahawks are the more complete team. But they lost both games with the Rams this year, and the Rams have a lot of offensive talent that can hurt you from anywhere on the field. However, it isn't easy to win three games over one team in a single season, and I don't think the Rams can do it against the Seahawks, who are playing their first home playoff game in 20 years.

Also on Saturday is the NY Jets at the San Diego Chargers, in what I would call the Reverse Bowl. Both teams reversed their records from 2003 to 2004, the Jets going from 6-10 to 10-6 and the Chargers from 4-12 to 12-4 (and a division title). The Chargers are this year's 2001 New England Patriots, moving from worst to first and improving from the beginning of the year to the end. Drew Brees has been inconsistent this year, with some of his worst games against bad defenses in Denver and Oakland, But his good games are extremely good, and he could be dangerous in the one-and-done NFL playoffs. The Jets beat the Chargers 34-28 in the second week of the season; however, I don't see the Jets doing much of anything in these playoffs. Their defense is okay, but the Chargers won't allow Curtis Martin to run the ball consistently. San Diego is ranked third in the NFL in rushing defense, and with Pennington unable to throw long, the Chargers should be able to handle the Jets at home.

Sunday's games are much more interesting.

The 12-4 Colts play at home against the 10-6 Denver Broncos -- who beat them yesterday -- in the Don't I Know You Bowl. I've got a bad feeling about this one for the Colts. It was probably a mistake to rest their starters for 3/4 of the game and allow Denver to play them two weeks in a row. Denver's head coach, Mike Shanahan, is very good at devising offensive schemes to beat teams and defensive schemes to slow them down. And since he's playing Indy two weeks in a row, he will have a lot of time to study the Colts and break down their offensive patterns and defensive deficiencies. And giving a team two weeks to study the Colts offense just makes it easier to understand. Denver has the kind of running game that frustrates the Colts smallish defense and controls the clock. The only question is whether or not the Broncos can slow down Manning and company. My head tells me they won't, but my gut says this game will be a lot closer than people think. I can't pick the Colts to lose, but I won't be shocked if they do.

And finally, the 8-8 Minnesota Vikings travel to 10-6 Green Bay to take on the Packers in the Frigidaire Bowl. Minnesota's annual nosedive is as predictable as the sunset, and their 1-4 record in their last five games leaves no room for encouragement. Their only chance to win this game is to get nice weather in Green Bay and have a great passing day from Duante Culpepper. But the predicted high temperature is 32 degrees, and it will be colder than that when the game starts at 4:30 -- and colder still as the clock ticks toward 8:00. The Vikings running game scares no one, and their defense is historically among the worst in the league. OTOH, Green Bay is in the top three in rushing and passing offense in the NFC. And while their pass defense isn't very good this year, I can't imagine the Vikings throwing too much in the howling wind and cold of Green Bay in January.

Now, you're probably asking that all-important question: how does this effect the Patriots? Well, if Indy wins, they travel to Foxboro to play the Pats on Sunday, 1/16 at 4:30. If not, Denver will travel to Pittsburgh and the winner of the Chargers/Jets tilt will play here on Saturday 1/15 at 4:30 instead. Neither the Jets nor Chargers scare me much. We handled the Jets with ease twice this year, and after their 4-12 record last year, the Chargers will probably be happy just to win a single playoff game. Do the Colts scare me? Sort of. I still won't believe all the Peyton Manning hype until he does it in the playoffs in adverse conditions. He's too quick to get frustrated and just won't stick with the running game long enough to wear a defense down. In fact, didn't we hear how last year was the year Manning would get the Belichick monkey off his back and go to the Super Bowl? If I recall correctly, the Patriots won that game, not the Colts.

In the playoffs, you have to be able to run and to stop the run. The Patriots and Colts can both run the ball, but only the Patriots can stop it. The Pats give up only 97 yards rushing a game, while the Colts give up 127 -- and that's mostly against teams passing to try to catch up to them. The only chance the Colts have is to exploit the Patriots banged up secondary, which they could do. But when I consider the conditions at Foxboro and the home field advantage, if Ty Law and Asante Samuel start the game, it looks a lot like the Patriots will make it five in a row over Indy.

As for the Patriots chances against Pittsburgh in a potential AFC Championship Game, I refuse to look ahead. On game at a time, please.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Patriots win two playoff games, their 33 wins in two years will be a new NFL record!"

- Scott

PS. 14-2!