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!

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