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!

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