Monday, December 19, 2005

Patriots 28, Buccaneers 0 (12/17/2005)

When the Patriots clinch an AFC East title at home, they play The Who’s famous line “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss” over the PA. Seemed appropriate to hear it Saturday, when your hometown Patriots dismantled the Tampa Bay 28-0 and won their sixth division crown in Bob Kraft’s twelve years of ownership. The win gives them a home playoff game the weekend of January 7-8, and it looks like the Jacksonville Jaguars will be visiting that day. (BTW, didn’t the Patriots just win a Super Bowl in Jacksonville’s home stadium?)

On Saturday, the Tampa defense was loaded up to stop the run and get after the QB, but fortunately the Patriots drafted some guy named Tom Brady late in the 2000 draft and he just carved the Bucs to pieces. 20 for 31, 238 yards and 3 touchdowns reads like a line from last December’s stat-sheet, and performances like that coupled with the Colts loss yesterday might give him a leg up in the NFL MVP voting. David Givens was the Pats best receiver, accounting for 137 of those yards (and 19 yards on two end-around runs), and making two crucial catches -- one to keep their opening drive alive and the other a 31-yarder to change field position late in the first quarter. The tight ends are banged up, and so Christian Fauria had the only two catches from that position. The team will need more production from there if they expect to do anything in the playoffs.

The running backs contributed seven important catches, and 83 hard-nosed yards with zero fumbles (in fact, no turnovers on the day). The offensive line did give up a sack and Tampa got some hits on Brady, but overall their pass protection was good and the run blocking decent. Not stellar, but they are on their third left tackle, second center, second right tackle, and they've got a rookie at left guard. And of course, the shining star on the line was Tom Ashworth (no. 68 in your program), who snagged his first NFL touchdown – he lined up at fullback and caught a one-yard pass in the end zone.

But the Patriots defense was the unquestioned story of the day. All four starting linebackers had at least one sack (Bruschi and McGinest had two each and Colvin and Vrabel had one each), and two of them teamed up for a sack that forced a fumble (Vrabel) and recovery (McGinest) late in the first half. Bruschi looks like he’s all the way back, and Colvin and Vrabel continue to play out of their minds. Vrabel tackled everyone in his path and that freed Colvin to roam – and he seems to be everywhere all the time. Bruschi's stroke recovery aside, this has been the healthiest unit on the team all year, and they are rounding into playoff form nicely.

However, the linebacker play wouldn’t have meant much without stellar defensive line play. Richard Seymour is back to his All-Pro form, throwing aside linemen to make tackles in the running game and collapsing the pocket with brute force on passing plays. And Vince Wilfork (of all people) is finally holding his own in the middle. The team has been rotating Jarvis Green for Vince on obvious passing downs, and it has worked to perfection. Tampa couldn’t move Wilfork at all, and that meant no running room inside the tackles, which is where Tampa makes most of their yards. The Bucs gained only 30 yards on the ground, their lowest total of the season.

And finally, kudos to rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs. The Buccaneers were running and passing away from his side of the field, which means they thought they had a better chance attacking veterans Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. That’s when you know you’ve arrived in the NFL, when the opposition designs their game plan to avoid you. And Hobbs backed it up, with three passes defensed in four attempts to his receiver.

The special teams numbers were a mixed bag. For the third week in a row, they gave up a big play (luckily, the 81-yard punt return was called back on a penalty); however, the kick-off coverage was very good (Tampa’s average starting position after kick-offs was their own 28). But some of the kicking game problems come with the territory when you play outdoors in cold, snowy, windy weather, and a lower punting average can sometimes be more circumstantial than you think. Adam Vinatieri hasn’t done anything but kick-off and "add the extra point" in two weeks; so I suppose he’ll be well rested for the playoffs.

As for the coaching, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has pushed all the right buttons for three straight weeks. But the offensive play-calling gives me a bit of worry. The Pats had 11 possessions, and six of them were three- or four-plays and a punt. With drives like that, they can still prevail against lesser teams and against better teams in Gillette. But to get to the Super Bowl, they will have to win either one or (more likely) two games on the road against the best in the NFL. And I just think they need to be more productive than that against the iron of the league.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Patriots have a 5-1 record in their last 6 games, and seem destined for a date with the Jaguars in three weeks. They should have a decent chance to rest Brady (or anyone else who’s injured) because there are no realistic possibilities to move up in the playoff seedings. The Jets are next on the schedule (Monday at New York), and they have played better the past two weeks and could give the Pats a run for their money. Well… maybe not. So just enjoy the ride until the end of the year. Playoffs, here we come!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The Pats defense has dominated lately. They gave up 485 yards in the last three games combined. That’s less than their own offense had in the snow at Buffalo (494 yards).”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

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