Thursday, February 10, 2005

Patriots 24, Eagles 21 (2/6/2005)

Wow. Going to your first Super Bowl blows you away. It's a once-in-a-lifetime never-to-be-duplicated experience that you strive for with hope and reach with a bit of disbelief. At least it was for me. When they finally scanned my ticket and said, "Enjoy the game," I wasn't sure I should walk toward the stadium. I sort of wanted to go out again and make my way through the line a second time, just so I could remember *exactly* what it felt like to cross that threshold. The only thing better was having the Patriots put down the Eagles to secure their third Lombardi Trophy in four years and to walk out serenaded by chants of "Dy-Nas-Ty!" "Three-Of-Four!" and the obligatory "Yankees Suck!"

It's over for another year, folks, and your New England Patriots are Champions of football, with a 24-21 win over the best the NFC had to offer, the Philadelphia Eagles. With the win, they are 34-4 over the last two years (the 34 wins are a new NFL record), 9-0 in the playoffs over the last four years (tying the NFL record for most consecutive post-season wins), Bill Belichick is 10-1 in the post-season (best record in NFL history), and Tom Brady is 9-0 in the post-season (tying the NFL record for most consecutive wins and breaking the record for most consecutive playoff wins to start a career). Perhaps most amazing is this: in 39 Super Bowls, there have been only five decided by three points or fewer; the Patriots have won three of those five in the last four years. Clutch, just clutch.

So how'd they do it, you may ask. Well, I didn't see the game in the usual way, so I don't know how valuable my information might be. I watched from an odd angle (all the way at the end of the sideline seats at the very tip-top of the stadium), and I don't have a videotape of the game to watch -- at least not yet. I was surrounded by Eagles fans, and I do mean surrounded -- about 50 Eagles fans for every Patriots fan in my section -- so I spent more time defending myself and my team than usual. I'd had about 6 hours sleep in the previous two days, and I was badly sunburned because in Florida they "don't sell sun block in the wintertime." But I guess I'll give it my best shot.

On defense, the Patriots played the odd 2-5-4 alignment almost exclusively: two defensive linemen, five linebackers, and four defensive backs. And they lined them up in a 4-3, with two different linebackers on the line each time. They must have known going in that the Eagles wouldn't or couldn't run the ball, so this defense gave them maximum flexibility to blitz (which they did a lot) or drop a boat-load of guys into coverage. Turned out the Eagles couldn't run the ball at all. In fact, when you take out the meaningless 22-yard jaunt at the end of the half, they had only 23 yards on 16 carries. Pretty bad.

So with no running game, it came down to Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. And he was never the factor the Eagles needed him to be. He threw some of the most pathetic interceptions I'd seen since Scott Secules left the Patriots in 1993. He was obviously confused and he never beat the Patriots by scrambling and/or buying time. In the first quarter, he led the team to the Patriots 8 yard line before being sacked for a 16 yard loss, throwing an interception that was called back on a Patriots penalty, and following that up with a hideous interception by Rodney Harrison. Pretty much tells you how his day went. He was under constant pressure from different players every time; he was sacked four times on the day and threw three interceptions and almost lost a fumble.

The Eagles did get some decent performances by Brian Westbrook and Terrell Owens. But with McNabb stinking up the joint, the Eagles had no realistic chance to win. Too much Bruschi, Seymour, Harrison, Vrabel, and Colvin.

As I predicted, the Patriots sputtered on offense early, getting one first down in their first four drives and fumbling deep in Philly territory on their fifth. Their last drive of the first half got them back to a 7-7 game, and I was extremely confident at that point. If you remember, I said the Eagles had to have a 10- or 14-point lead at the half to win the game, so a tie was in the Patriots favor. In fact, that last drive of the first half and first four of the second half are where the Pats won the game: touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, field goal -- all 24 points they scored on the day. Brady was perfect (2 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a bunch of good decisions), Super Bowl MVP Branch was unbelievable (11 catches for 133 yards), the screen pass wore out the Eagle defense, and while the Patriots were lighting up the scoreboard, their defense held Philly to 7 points.

The ball game was basically over by then. McNabb threw two more interceptions and was physically unable to run a hurry-up offense, so their last touchdown was meaningless because they'd used too much time. Only an onside kick recovery would help them, and they didn't even come close. We might never know if it was McNabb who couldn't run the offense because he was exhausted (my personal theory) or if the Eagles coaches just froze under pressure. Either way, it's another championship for our boys in red white, and blue, and I'm sure they'll take it with no regrets.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Patriots have lost their two coordinators: Charlie Weis is the new head coach at Notre Dame, and Romeo Crennel will take the same job with the Cleveland Browns. This will certainly be the toughest challenge since the Patriots began this championship run. Historically, defenses often play better with a new coordinator because it takes the opposition a while to figure out what they're doing. Additionally, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick cut his teeth on the defensive side so he can help out with that side of the ball. On the other hand, offenses often struggle for a year under a new coordinator, even if the same basic system is kept intact. Offense requires more timing and chemistry than defense, and it's difficult to maintain that with a new guy.

I disagree with some who say the entire offense and defense should stay the same. I think you if you hire a new coordinator you should trust that he will make the right decisions for the team. So if Romeo's replacement thinks a particular defense is too risky in the secondary, it should be adjusted. And if Charlie's replacement thinks Corey Dillon is underutilized, then that should be adjusted. After the Super Bowl, I told some Eagles fans (the few who were nice to me during the game) that next year is their best opportunity to win it all because the Patriots are unlikely to make it back with all the coaching changes. Given what I know about the history of new coordinators, I still believe that. But I leave open the possibility that the Patriots could overcome it and even thrive. They've been too good at adjusting for me to doubt them very much.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "In Conference Championship and Super Bowl games, Donovan McNabb's quarterback rating is 62.2. Tom Brady's is 98.9 in similar games. Maybe the Philly fans were right to boo McNabb when he was drafted."

Hope you enjoyed the season as much as I did. Thanks for tuning in.

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Patriots vs. Eagles Super Bowl Preview (2/2/2005)

If you haven't already drowned in the pre-game hype, here's my Super Bowl preview to add to the national bluster.

In previewing the last two playoff games (Colts and Steelers), I relied heavily on games the two teams played earlier in the season. Well, there was no Patriots/Eagles game this year, and I don't really think the most recent one (September 2003) is very relevant, so I can't do the same with this one. So what I'll do is write more generally on how their strengths and weaknesses match up and how that's likely to shape the outcome of the game. And as always, if you don't have time to read this entire email, you can skip to "The Bottom Line" section at the end for a summary.


Point #1. The Eagles defense is the type that Tom Brady struggles against the most.

The Eagles are good on the defensive line, strong at linebacker, and excellent in the defensive backfield-- much like the Miami Dolphins, who always give Brady trouble. Honestly, most quarterbacks have a tough time against teams like that because they can get after the passer with or without blitzing and the corners usually cover long enough for a sack, an incomplete pass, or at worst a completed pass with no yards after the catch. So don't expect too many of those 60-yard bombs to Deion Branch on Sunday.

The Patriots might have trouble scoring to start off, as they adjust to what the Eagles throw at them early in the game. And if that happens, it could prompt the Patriots to take more risks to move the ball and that could lead to turnovers, especially against the talented Philly secondary. I think the Pats would be well advised to run a lot early and throw only on obvious running downs (first down, third-and-short, that kind of thing) because the most important thing to avoid is giving the Eagles a short field with interceptions or fumbles. But if Brady audibles into passing plays a few times before he's gotten a real good look at how Philly is playing on defense, it could spell trouble.

So Tom Brady has to play carefully to make sure the Patriots don't fall too far behind early in the game -- because...

Point #2. The Eagles are 9-0 after a bye week, and the Patriots offense has struggled after a bye week in the playoffs.

Since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots, they have played four playoff games after a bye week: Raiders in 2002, Titans and Panthers in 2004, and the Colts earlier this year. And all told, the first halves of those games were some of the Patriots worst post-season offensive performances. Here are the first quarter scoring totals: 0, 7, 0, and 0. They've averaged only 8.5 points in the first half of those games and that includes 14 points in the last 3:00 of the 2004 Super Bowl. And while the Patriots have won all those games, three of the wins were by three points and only the Indy game from this year was a decisive victory. The Patriots defense has played well in those games, but if the offense gets off to a slow start, it could mean trouble for the Patriots.

On the other hand, the Eagles usually come out smoking after a bye week. As I said, they are 9-0 under Andy Reid after a bye, and that includes 3-0 in the playoffs. In the three playoff games, they've averaged 14 points in the first half (almost 6 more than the Patriots) and have spread that scoring out more evenly (17 in the first quarter and 24 in the second quarter). The Eagles coaching staff seems to come up with a good plan of attack when they have the extra week, and I expect them to do the same here. If the Patriots don't score much in the first half, that is when the Eagles have their best chance to take the game away by building a large lead.

So if the Pats offense comes out flat, if they turn the ball over, or if they fall behind by 10 or 14 points (as they did to the Raiders in 2002, for example), it will be tough for the Pats to come back because Brady struggles against this type of defense and it's difficult to run the ball when you're down by two touchdowns.


Point #1. The Patriots defense versus the Eagles offense is a *huge* mismatch in the Patriots favor.

The Patriots defense shut down a great passing game (Indianapolis) and a great running game (Pittsburgh) in the past month; they've been shutting down the run for two months now; the defensive line and secondary are playing their best of the year; and their linebackers give them flexibility by covering the run and pass equally well without changing personnel. Romeo Crennel and his staff are at the peak of their powers, the players all know their assignments and execute them well, and they are a very physical team that wears down the opposing receivers and backs by hitting them every single time they release from the line.

The Eagles have a more balanced offense than either the Colts or Steelers, but it isn't the kind of balance needed to combat the Patriot defense. They are a finesse running team that tries to trick you with draws and quick sweeps to the outside, and that plays right into the Patriots strength and discipline on the defensive line, speed at linebacker, and hitting ability in the secondary. Philly's offense can't out-muscle the Patriots defense and that bodes ill for their chances to establish the run. As for the pass, their receivers are small and shy about contact, and the Patriots just love to get out and hit guys until they won't run across the middle any more. The Pats dominated the Colt receivers, and this group is the same type of players -- except they aren't as talented. Only Terrell Owens is big and physical enough to give the Pats trouble, and he probably won't be too much of a factor if he does play. And even if he does play and is a factor, that gives the Eagles one weapon and a bunch of no-name mid-level receivers and backs. And we all know what the Patriots do to teams with one weapon -- shut it down and make you beat them some other way.

Point #2. Corey Dillon doesn't struggle against *any* defense.

If this were last year, I might worry that the Patriots would have trouble scoring. The Eagle defense attacks from all angles and gets pressure on the QB week in and week out, and no quarterback plays well when they're getting hit all the time. But the Patriots now have Corey Dillon, and I expect #28 to get a lot of early carries. He's a punishing runner who, along with his offensive line, can over-power a defense and wear it down. The Eagles are very good a getting after the quarterback, but they're nothing special against the run. And the run is how you control the clock and the game, forcing the other team to alter their defense, which always opens up holes for you to exploit.

Combine Dillon's power running with some quick outs and wide-receiver screens, and the Eagle defenders will have to creep closer to the line. And that's when Brady can do his damage, with 10- to 15-yard patterns over linebackers who are out of position trying to stop the run. If Dillon runs 15+ times in the first half, the game will be going the Patriots way. If Tom Brady throws it 20+ times in the first half, it probably plays more into the Eagles kind of game. Philly likes to get out ahead and force you to throw into the strength of their defense. So if the Patriots give them a big does of Corey Dillon to the right, left, and up the middle, it could be a long day for Eagle fans.

Quick Points:

A) Everyone says that Donovan McNabb has to have a big game for the Eagles to win. I think he'll play well, but his receivers need to step up for that to happen. The Patriots front seven is too quick and disciplined to allow McNabb to beat them running the ball consistently.

B) Experience counts. In last year's Super Bowl, everyone said the kicking game was even. But Panthers kicker John Kasey booted a kickoff out of bounds late in the game, giving Adam Vinatieri a chance to kick the game winner at the end. You never know when pressure will get to your players. The Eagles have blown a lot of big games in the past four years, the Patriots haven't.

C) Even against Andy Reid's staff, the Patriots have the coaching edge. There's no one in the NFL over the last 20 years that I'd rather have on the sideline for a Super Bowl than Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis. They're innovative, thorough, precise, and they have a knack for getting their players to play their best on Sunday. You've probably hear it already, but here it is once more: Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick have the same post-season record at 9-1. Would you prefer someone else to coach your team in the Super Bowl?

The Bottom Line

So the Eagles can win if the Patriots come out flat on offense, as they have done recently after a playoff bye week, and the Eagles come out hot early on, as they have done after a playoff bye. Philly will have to score early to get the Patriots to abandon their running game to keep up, and that could lead to turnovers and possibly more points for the Eagles. On the other hand, the Patriots can win by sticking with the running game to draw defenders out of position and open up the passing game. If they don't fall far behind early, the Patriots should be able to win because they have the better overall team, and they will be able to attack the Eagle defense and offense more effectively with their in-game adjustments.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots scored 51 more points than the Eagles this past year, and that was against some of the best defenses in the NFL. The Pats faced a top ten defense seven times this year; the Eagles only four times. With that schedule, they should have scored more than the Patriots, not the other way around."

Keep the faith and enjoy the game,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!