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



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