Monday, December 25, 2006

Patriots 24, Jaguars 21 (12/21/2006)

If you didn't already hear, the Patriots beat the Jaguars yesterday to clinch a the division title and a spot in the playoffs. They have an outside chance at the third-seed (the Colts have to lose to the Dolphins and the Patriots have to beat the Titans); but they play a home game the first weekend of the playoffs.

I didn't see the game yesterday, and I won't be seeing it until at least mid-week. So I won't have an update for you -- perhaps I'll do a season-ending update on both the Jaguars and Titans games together.

Hope you have a nice holiday season and that you get some restful time off.

- Scott

PS. 11-4!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Patriots 40, Texans 7 (12/17/2006)

Now I know why they call them "laughers" -- because you spend the second half joking and smiling with your friends, as your team beats the opponent into submission. A 40-7 pasting of the lowly Texans might not tell you much about the Patriots, but they had zero turnovers, grabbed four interceptions, and had only only two penalties for ten yards. That would be good news for any NFL team, but with the Patriots recent problems with turnovers and penalties, it was might have been better news than the win itself (note: I said, "might have been"). The win maintained the team's two-game lead in the AFC East, and kept them within striking distance of a playoff bye, if one of the contenders stumbles.

I think this update will be a little shorter than usual, because there wasn't much to criticize and there was too much to compliment. What I liked was that they played excellent football across the board, with big plays on special teams and defense and steady (if not spectacular) plays on offense. Special teams led the way twice in the game. First, they had an important stop on a fake punt on Houston's first drive (tackle by Larry Izzo); and the offense turned that into seven easy points on a run by Kevin Faulk. And then, the special teams came through again with great blocking on a kick-off return that sprang Ellis Hobbs for a touchdown. That came after Houston scored on their first drive of the second half; and it killed any momentum Houston might have thought they had. Even Stephen Gostkowski got into the action, going a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals and on extra points.

The offense was very good, though their average starting field position was the Texans 49 yard-line, so the yardage totals weren't too impressive. The screen pass to Kevin Faulk was an inspired call against a near-all-out blitz (and resulted in an untouched 43-yard touchdown scamper), and the offense took advantage of their whopping nine first-half possessions to build a 27-0 lead (their biggest at the half since December 2003). They had only two three-and-outs for the game, even though everyone in the stadium knew they would run the ball most of the second half. They committed zero turnovers, and Houston notched just one QB sack and knocked down only one pass for the entire game. My favorite play of the game was when Reche Caldwell took a short pass and dragged a defender four yards to make it an eight-yard gain on third-and-seven. He just wouldn't be denied, and the Pats scored on that drive -- showing once again the importance of keeping the chains moving.

The defense was spectacular. They picked off Texans QB David Carr four times, Richard Seymour's tip to himself play being the best of the bunch, and limited him to 57% completions. He came in at nearly 70%, but yesterday would reach that number only if you include the four he completed to the Patriots. The defense gave up some running yards, owing mostly to Vince Wilfork's absence, but it didn't matter in this game. 4.8 yards per carry is nice; but when it's coupled with 2.9 yards per pass attempt, it's probably in a losing cause. I just hope Vince is back for the playoffs; because those teams will all be able to run *and* pass. The D kept constant pressure on Carr (4 sacks for 34 yards), and the receivers were harassed all day, averaging only 2 catches each on the day. Asante Samuel got his eighth pick of the year (still tied for the league lead), but perhaps more importantly, James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs got one each. The team will need everyone in the secondary to contribute if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

My only two complaints were the continued bad punting of Ken Walter and the overall run defense. Walter won't get any better, so I think the Pats should try out possible replacements for the stretch run. And the run defense might not get Wilfork back, and that worries me. Mike Wright is no Vince Wilfork; and if they have to switch to a 4-3, that will expose the secondary. So they really need either Wilfork or Rodney Harrison back; and they won't go far unless they get at least one of them.

So where does that leave us. Well, pending tonight's Indy game, the Pats currently own in the fourth playoff spot. If they can't get a first-round bye (highly unlikely, as they'd have to win the next two and have the Ravens and Colts *both* lose two games), they probably want to fight tooth-and-nail to get the third seed. That would mean a home playoff game followed by a likely trip to play the Ravens in Baltimore, which is a better matchup than going to San Diego to play the Chargers. The Ravens don't have the offensive balance to hurt the Pats; the Chargers do. So root, root, root for an Indy loss tonight, and then hope the Pats can win out and the Colts lose at least once more.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their six seasons under Bill Belichick, they Patriots have ranked #17 in points allowed three times (2000, 2002, & 2005). The other three years, they ranked #6, #1, and #2 -- and won the Super Bowl each year. Don't look now, but this year, they are #2 again :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I think the Pats should use the salary cap space they were going to use to re-sign Deion Branch to get Asante Samuel and Ty Warren under contract right now. Those guys are having two of the great contract-year pushes in Patriots history."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-4!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Patriots 0, Dolphins 21 (12/10/2006)

Say “good-bye” to the Bye. The Dolphins severely damaged the Patriots chances at one of the first two playoff spots with a 21-0 undressing in Miami. At 9-4, the Pats maintained their two-game lead in the division (thank you, Jets), but any hope of catching the Ravens or Colts is just about gone (essentially two games behind with three to play).

I guess that’s what happens when you can count the good plays on one hand and all of them were on defense. Tough to win when you can’t score, and the offense was bad, worse, and worst all day. 66 net yards passing, 5 sacks, 3 fumbles, 4 badly timed penalties for 20 yards (and a nullified touchdown), and a paltry 3.3 yards per play (including 2.0 yards per pass attempt). Did I leave anything out?

To repeat, the offense was awful. The O-line looked like they were playing five-against-ten, with rushers coming free play after play. It looked like Nick Kazcur and Matt Light were in their first professional games. Neither could stop a power rush or slow down a speed rush. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor even beat a two-offensive-linemen double-team by just splitting them up the middle and crashing into Brady. Don’t be fooled by the rushing stats (123 yards, 4.9 average); the offensive line stunk up the joint.

As for the running backs, Dillon was fine (79 yards on 16 carries), and Kevin Faulk did okay work both running and passing. Unfortunately, the Pats couldn’t keep it on the ground because penalties and negative plays kept them in long-yardage all day. And Faulk messed up a crucial play when threw a forward pass to Brady instead of a lateral, which nullified a touchdown that would have made the game 13-7 with ten minutes to go. Instead, Brady was strip-sacked three plays later and the game was over.

Rosevelt Colvin and Ty Warren were the defensive stars of the game, and Colvin is coming on as the season closes just like last year. The team held the Dolphins to 1-6 on third-down conversions and only 6 points in the first half, but it just didn’t matter. With the offense playing like it was the pre-season, the defense needed to get a turnover in the first three quarters to really make a difference. And they couldn’t do it.

To top it off, Vince Wilfork was injured in the third quarter, and the Dolphins took advantage, running enough to draw the Pats defense up and then burning them with deep passes for 32 yards (a touchdown) and 26 yards (which led to a touchdown). If Wilfork can’t come back, the Pats are in trouble, because their remaining road games are against two of the top rushing teams in the NFL (Tennessee averages 4.5 yards per rush, Jacksonville 4.4). Be well, Vince… be well.

And Ken Walter, your 34.1 yard gross average and 29 yard net average just don’t cut it when your counterpart gives his team 41.2 and 37.7, respectively. Show us your rehab is complete, kick just one 50-yarder to restore our confidence, will ya?

And I’ve got one complaint for Josh McDaniels. I thought his double-lateral-Brady-pass that resulted in the called-back touchdown was great, and they ran enough to keep the Dolphins off-balance. But whomever decided to throw it 30-yards down field to Ben Watson on third-and-eleven must own up to it. It was still a 6-0 game, and you needed a first down – so if you called for the 30-yard pass, then stop it, and if Brady decided to throw it, then tell him to stop it. Nothing has killed you guys more this season than long pass attempts on third-and-manageable downs – long passes that end drives if they are off by six inches.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The three best Patriots offensive plays of the day were a 21-yard pass to Troy Brown, a 17-yard run by Corey Dillon, and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on the Dolphins.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The Patriots are tied for the fifth-best record in the league. Why does it feel like they’re almost out of the playoffs?”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Correction from last week: I said the Patriots had nine turnovers in two games -- it was really eight.

PPS. 9-4!

Monday, December 4, 2006

Patriots 28, Lions 21 (12/3/2006)

In a game that had as many bad plays as good ones (or maybe it was more bad ones than good), the Patriots outlasted the Lions 28-21, eking out a win over a perennial NFL sad sack that currently sports a 2-10 record. The turnover-fest gave the Patriots a sweep of their four games with the NFC North, and put them at 9-3, which helped maintain their 2-game lead in the division and keep hope alive for a first-round playoff bye.

Call it what you will: the Letdown Bowl, the Eked-it-out Bowl, the Frustration Bowl, the Up-and-down Bowl, a "trap" game. I call it the Whew! Bowl, because I was relieved the Pats found a way to win despite all the turnovers and penalties. It's rare that your quarterback completes 70% of his passes for over 300 yards and the game is this close. But the Pats had badly timed penalties and some poor plays that allowed the Lions to keep control of the football and stay in the game. A playoff performance like this almost always sends you home early, so here's hoping they've gotten it out of their system.

Brady did have one really bad play, a rookie-level interception in the second half where he didn't even look off the defense. Fortunately, he was superb down the stretch (14 for his last 15), and he got them the points they needed to win. So I'll give him a mulligan on his worst INT since the Miami game in 2004 (if you don't remember that one, he threw it while being sacked and the Pats ended up blowing an 11-point lead to a 4-12 Dolphin team). The trouble for most of yesterday's game was that Brady was under a lot of pressure. He was barely touched by Chicago's defense, but a Lions team that averages only two sacks a game was in the backfield all day long. Couple that with a mediocre running performance, and the O-line drops from an A- last week to a D- this week.

The running game was hampered by the loss of Laurence Maroney, who trotted off the field in the first quarter and never came back. Reportedly, he was "shaken up" and should be fine (if you believe the Patriots on such matters). As a team, they had only 79 yards on 24 carries, but Corey Dillon had 3 rushing touchdowns (2 of them within 6:00 of game time in the fourth quarter). Again, overall, not a stellar performance. Reche Caldwell continued to improve, with 8 catches for 112 yards, and most important of all, after every catch, he smothered the ball with both hands and took whatever yards he could. No fumbles for him this week -- he must be sick of Belichick yelling at him. Kevin Faulk was the other receiving star, with 8 catches of his own for 59 yards. But Ben Watson took a step back, with only 3 catches for 41 yards and a game-endangering fumble in the fourth quarter.

The defense played a very up-and-down game. Mike Vrabel missed a lot of pass coverage over the middle, but made up for it with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Rosevelt Colvin missed a *huge* tackle to allow Detroit to convert on 3rd-and-22, but also had two sacks and did a good job on outside contain. Asante Samuel had a penalty called against him to allow Detroit to keep the ball in the first half, but also had another interception and four passes defensed. And Tedy Bruschi led the team with 11 tackles, but he was out of position and/or missed the coverage several other times. Like I said, very up-and down.

With Junior Seau out for the year, the changes at linebacker caused problems stopping the passing game over the mid-range middle of the field. The Lions feasted on 10- to 15-yard slants and in-cuts all day, and the Pats were lucky they kept trying less successful long bombs and had plenty of penalties themselves. The D also gave up first-down conversions on 3rd-and-9, 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-22, and also let Lions gain 17 yards on 3rd-and-21(which allowed them to kick a field goal instead of punting). The D-line appeared to turn their energy off-and-on when they felt like it, alternatively dominating the point of attack and giving up chunks of yardage on simple trap-blocking plays. Just not a good defensive day. I think they need Rodney Harrison back in the secondary before the playoffs -- just to solidify things enough so their front-seven can return dominance.

As for special teams, nothing to report. For the second straight week, they didn't give up any big returns, nor did they get any themselves. Not much was asked of them, and they didn't have to do much... so no harm, no foul.

So where does that leave us. If the playoffs started today, the 9-3 Pats would be the fourth-seed in the AFC, behind the 10-2 twins, San Diego and Indianapolis, and losing a tie-breaker to the 9-3 Ravens (5-3 conference record vs. Baltimore's 6-2 mark). To get one of the first two spots, the Patriots will have to win out and hope that two teams in front of them stumble -- unlikely if you ask me. In fact, they might not even win out. Given all that, the Pats need to take care of business this weekend and win at Miami, to keep their stranglehold on the division title. The Jets are two games behind, but their remaining schedule is easy enough that they could overtake the Pats if they don't focus on the job at hand.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the first time under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have nine total give-aways in a two-game stretch. Somehow, they won both times.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Did you know that Asante Samuel is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-3!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Patriots 17, Bears 13 (11/26/2006)

Sometimes defensive football isn't pretty. And with two teams that shutout their previous week's opponents and that led the NFL in fewest points allowed, everyone got what they expected yesterday -- a 17-13 game that was won by the team that made the most big plays, i.e. your New England Patriots. The win helped them keep pace with the upper-echelon of the AFC (they are now behind only Baltimore and San Diego for the coveted second playoff spot), and maintained their two-game lead in the AFC East. With a home contest against the Lions next Sunday, they look good to continue the current streak before traveling to Miami for their final division game of the year.

Sunday's game reminded me of Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, with two teams just whaling the crap out of each other for 60 minutes. That game had more scoring (it was a 32-29 final), and this one could have been just as high-scoring if not for turnovers. Usually the give-away/take-away ratio tells the story, but it became almost a non-issue because both teams had so many (the Bears turned it over four times, the Patriots five). And I can't remember a game with so many turnovers inside the opponent's 20 yard-line, which is the real reason the final score was 17-13 instead of 34-31.

Brady started his post-game press conference with, "Must be the turf," a reference to his amazing 20-1 record on artificial surfaces. (Quick trivia question: do you remember the one loss? I'll never forget it; answer below.) But it wasn't the turf; it was the sparkling performance of the five layers of protection in front of him, the offensive line, that explains his gaudy stats. Well, gaudy might not be the right word, maybe effective works better. He competed two-thirds of his passes (22 of 33) for 269 yards and posted a QB rating almost 20 points higher than what the Bear defense usually gives up. He got a late touchdown (the winning points) and had two INTs on tipped balls. His receiving corps continued to solidify their current pecking order -- with Watson and Caldwell the preferred targets (combining for 146 yards on 9 catches) and Kevin Faulk this week's mystery guest receiver (37 yards on 6 catches).

But to get back to the offensive line, they gave up zero sacks on 33 pass attempts and Brady was hurried on only three passes all day. Even when tackle Ryan O'Callaghan was injured early in the second quarter, the line held off rushers to keep a nice pocket for the QB and to allow for extra time on plays that were just killers (Ben Watson's late 40-yard grab on 3rd-and-3 comes to mind). Their run-blocking left something to be desired, with a 2.5 yard per carry average for the game. But on this day, they bottled up the Bears pressure and kept Brady upright long enough to make enough big passing plays to win. In fact, the best offensive plays by the Patriots were passes with very little QB pressure. Contrast that with Chicago's best offensive plays -- long throws under pressure that ended in questionable defensive penalties.

The other reason the running game was stuffed all day was unimaginative play-calling (again). Once the Patriots got the lead, they fell back into the old run-run-pass pattern that can't continue if they hope to do anything in the playoffs. Add to that at least four times in the game the Patriots threw long passes on third down with short distances to go -- and only one of those plays worked (the aforementioned Watson catch) -- and you've got questions about the play selection. Josh McDaniels needs to manage the game as well as his QB does -- try some play-action passes on first-down, go for the big plays on second-and-short, and go for first down on third-and-manageable. It's not rocket science, and the playoffs are coming, so get to it, Josh.

The defense had consistently excellent play for almost the entire day. Asante Samuel was the obvious star, with three interceptions, nine tackles, and three passes defensed. He started things right with an early INT and finished the Bears for good with a late INT -- nice bookends on a performance that gives him a legitimate chance at the NFL Defensive Player of the Week award. The rest of the secondary played okay, with some solid hitting from James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins, but both Hawkins and Ellis Hobbs were flagged for pass interference (for a total of 75 yards, on very questionable penalty calls), and Hobbs had a bogus holding call against him that set up a Chicago touchdown that tied the game. The only reason I called their performance "okay" is that I think all three penalties were bad calls -- but they've got to do a better job defending without drawing flags.

The linebackers were outstanding all day long. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi alternated between taking away the short passing routes and pressuring Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Grossman was forced to throw long, and even though it meant giving up a lot of yards on bad penalty calls, it worked well in the end. Rosevelt Colvin was his usual disruptive force, both on the pass rush and in pass coverage. Junior Seau broke his arm in the second quarter, and they moved Vrabel inside to replace him and brought in Tully Banta-Cain to replace Vrabel. The results were mixed, with better play against the pass and worse against the run. That situation will bear close scrutiny, as Seau is out for the year.

And the defensive line... well, what can I say. The wrecking crew of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren are simply the best three-man line I've seen in years. Teams can't run between the tackles when Wilfork is in there, even when they double-team him, and Vince even slid over to provide pass coverage on two plays yesterday. And Ty Warren has been the leading D-line tackler in six of ten games he played this year, even though he left one game injured and played at less than 100% in two others. He is likely in line for a significant pay raise this off-season. And Richard Seymour is a future Hall of Famer for sure, so enjoy watching him while you can. There are very few defenders who merit a double-team when the offense is running *away* from them; but I've seen it happen to Richard. That, boys and girls, is called "respect." Add backup Jarvis Green and it's one of the dominant units in the NFL. Mike Wright is not a great replacement for Wilfork; but he's good enough to hold his own if the Pats switch to a 4-3 when he enters the game to give Wilfork a breather. I think they should try that.

The special teams had a really strange day. They blocked and early field goal (Seymour got it) and deflected a punt (Mike Wright), and after Chicago called a last-second timeout to ice kicker Stephen Gostkowski, he nailed a 52-yard field goal just before the half. In a game decided by four points, those plays loomed large. New punter Ken Walter averaged 37.3 yards a kick, only one yard less than the Bears punter on the day, which I guess is okay. However, his average was significantly lower than Josh Miller's 46.6 yard average (before he was injured). The kickoff coverage team kept a very good Bears return team in check all day, so I guess on balance they had a better day than the Bears. But it was a strange one for sure.

Aside from my earlier comments on the offensive play-calling, I have nothing big to say about the coaching staff. The special teams coach has gotten it together nicely the past two weeks. And the defensive game plans and play-calling under new coordinator Dean Pees are much better than last year. At this point, the Patriots probably have a championship-level defense; the question is, will the offense get their game together in time to make themselves championship-level, too.

So where does that leave us. At 8-3, the Pats are one game behind both San Diego and Baltimore for the second playoff seed, but they have no chance to catch Indianapolis for the #1 seed (the Colts are two games ahead and they hold a tie-breaker over the Pats). With winnable games the rest of the way, the Pats could end up 13-3, which would give them a great position going into the playoffs. However, with road games against Jacksonville, Miami, and (especially) Tennessee, they will more likely end up 12-4. That will certainly win the division, but it won't get them a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At a McDonalds just outside Gillette Stadium, the cheeseburgers cost more than the double-cheeseburgers -- $1.05 vs. $1.00. (Thanks for lunch, Al!)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots might be the fourth or fifth best team in the AFC, and they just beat the class of the NFC. I might watch the conference championship games and skip the Super Bowl, because the NFC has no chance at all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Answer to the trivia question; the Patriots lost 31-0 in Buffalo on opening day of the 2003 season, giving Brady his only loss on artificial turf so far. You might remember it as the "Lawyer Milloy Bowl," as the former Patriots safety ended up in Buffalo after being cut by the Pats at the end of the pre-season. The Pats got their revenge, however. They beat the Bills 31-0 to end that season and won their second Super Bowl.

PPS. 8-3!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Patriots 35, Packers 0 (11/19/2006)

So now we know:
"A very good team that needs a win to get back on track"
+ "A rebuilding team that currently the youngest average age in the NFL"
= 35-0.

That was about the story yesterday, and from the outset, it seemed like a mathematical certainty the Patriots would win. The Pats should have beaten an undermanned Packer team, and they did so convincingly. And that performance, coupled with the Jets loss, put them two games up in the division and within striking distance of the second playoff seed -- although they are behind three teams for that honor (the 8-2 Ravens, 8-2 Chargers, and 7-3 Broncos [due to the tie-breaking procedures]).

Brady was back to his old form yesterday, with crisp play-action fakes and some long passes to take advantage of the creeping safeties. He hit Ben Watson for 36 yards to set the tone early and a wide-open Reche Caldwell for a 54 yard touchdown later in the game; both times after very nice run-fakes that created openings in the secondary. Brady finished the game with 4 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 128.2 passer rating, and he didn't make any bad decisions that I saw and only had a few poor throws. It probably helped that he was sacked only once on the day. And he seems to have settled on two favorite receivers: over the past five games, Caldwell has 25 catches for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Watson has 23 catches for 299 yards, and 3 touchdowns. That's 43% of the catches, 46% of the passing yards, and 45% of the touchdown passes for the entire team over that span.

The Patriots 8 for 17 performance on third-down conversions (and 2-2 on fourth down) was central to their control of the game. They wore down the strength of the Packer defense, their front seven, with a 39:10 to 20:50 time of possession advantage, all while giving up only two sacks, even with the long passes being thrown. And with the Packer defense on the field for so long, the Patriots actually ran the ball more effectively in the second half, even though everybody knew they would run the ball. Laurence Maroney had a good day (19 carries for 82 yards, and 4 catches, including a nifty catch-and-run for a touchdown). Corey Dillon fumbled for the second time in three weeks, and it earned him a trip to the bench for a quarter -- and his production was much lower as a result (12 carries for 31 yards and 1 touchdown).

The defense played much better this week, limiting the Packers to 1-13 on third-down conversions and only 2.5 yards per pass attempt. Ty Warren makes a big difference on the line (he had 1.5 sacks and redirected running plays all day), and he and Richard Seymour got consistent pressure against the patchwork (and rookie-laden) Green Bay offensive line -- with the team totaling 4 sacks and 2 injured quarterbacks. Some of Brett Favre's early throws were off target, even with open receivers (which points out that the Pats secondary is still vulnerable). But Favre gave them a better chance than backup Aaron Rodgers, who came in after Favre was injured and whose best play was a scramble for his team's only third-down conversion. The two Green Bay QBs combined for a 46 passer rating, with no touchdowns and they completed only one-third of their passes.

The linebackers played a stellar game, with Bruschi covering the mid-level passing lanes, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin stopping the run before it could get started, and even Tully Banta-Cain contributing a sack. Junior Seau had only one tackle; but I didn't see him out of position all day, which I count as progress. The Pats secondary was as patchwork as the Packers secondary; but they held it together better than Green Bay. I'll say again that there were open Packer receivers, but the quarterbacks missed them more often than not (usually because of pressure). Ellis Hobbs got away with a pass interference penalty, but given that they were missing Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, and Eugene Wilson, I'd say they acquitted themselves nicely.

And special teams... well, they must have spent extra time on kick-off coverage this week, because that unit was excellent. They gave up an average of 19 yards per return, and most importantly, the longest Green Bay return of the day was only 26 yards. This has been a sore spot for three weeks, and it was nice to see them get it shored up. The Patriots own return game was good; Kevin Faulk had a long punt return of 36 yards.

And as for the coaching staff... they obviously know how to get the Patriots up for teams they should beat. It remains to be seen if they can do the same for a good team, when they get their next chance this weekend against the Bears. But they pushed all the right buttons this week, and the receivers, linebackers, and kick-coverage team all responded with their best game in a month.

So where does that leave us. Well, the big showdown is this weekend is the battle of something's-gotta-give teams. The Bears come to town 5-0 on the road, whereas Tom Brady is 18-1 on artificial turf, which is what the Patriots installed over the past two weeks. Also, for the first time in recent memory, both teams shut out their opponents the week before playing. And this game might tell us a lot about the NFC vs. the AFC. The NFC held the early lead in the inter-conference record; but lately, it's gone almost totally toward the AFC. And last year, the sixth-seed in the AFC beat the first-seed in the NFC in Super Bowl XL. If the 7-3 Patriots can beat the 9-1 Bears, it will be clear which conference is better.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: One week after noting that the Patriots averaged the same number of yards per passing play as they averaged per rushing play, Green Bay did the same thing (a 2.5 yard per-play average). Maybe this isn't as unusual as I thought it was -- except, of course, the Patriots hadn't done it in over six years.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Chicago game won't be easy. Two of their major strengths play into Patriot weaknesses -- they've got a great return game and very big, physical receivers. The Bears also feast on take-aways, and the Patriots have been fumbling the ball lately. The good news is that Brady's 18-1 on artificial turf."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-3!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Patriots 14, Jets 17 (11/12/2006)

Do you recognize this? "Somehow, we've got to recreate our offense, because right now, we're not doing anything that gives us a chance." That is a paraphrase of former Patriots head coach, Pete Carroll, during the 1999 season. Only a few months later, he was fired. I hope current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has taken note, because if he doesn't call a better game and get back to fundamental football, he will suffer the same fate as Carroll.

The Pats offense came out flat, didn't adjust well, turned the ball over, and played slipshod football -- and it cost the Patriots the game, a 17-14 loss to the division rival Jets. It also cost them a chance to wrap-up the division early and now puts them in a dogfight for the AFC East crown. It also put a serious hurt on their chances for a first-round playoff bye. No, the offense wasn't completely to blame, but as I said during the game, when I can predict if it will be run or pass, I think the other team might have an idea, too.

Except for the scoreboard, the Patriots topped the Jets in every significant statistic except two (1 to 4 in sacks and 25% to 46% in third-down conversions), but it didn't matter because the Jets made plays when they had to and the Patriots didn't. The offense was just maddening. Their best three plays of the game were a 50-yard run by Corey Dillon, a tipped pass that Reche Caldwell caught (and then scored a touchdown by making two guys miss and out-running two more to the end zone), and a Jets roughing-the-passer penalty that wiped out a terrible Brady interception.

The team's pass protection was laughable, with free blitzers on many plays and confused linemen and backs just spectating as Tom Brady got hit multiple times beyond the four sacks. With all that pressure, it took some great catches to move the ball at all, two by the lone offensive bright light, Reche Caldwell. Daniel Graham's return helped in the running game. But Brady's play-action fakes have become lazy, so they didn't take maximum advantage of the running game by using it to set up the pass. Maybe the coaches don't want Brady turning his back to the defense (there are a lot of injuries on the O-line). But the entire defense comes barreling toward the line when Brady hands off, so they could get *huge* yardage on play action.

I can't really fault the defense in this game, excepting Ellis Hobbs's bad play on the Jets last touchdown. They gave up one long drive for a touchdown; but they inherited bad field position on four other drives (one INT, and two bad kick coverages) and did well to hold them to 10 points on those possessions. They obviously missed Ty Warren, as most of the Jets running yards came right at his replacement, Jarvis Green. They also got a turnover, and most importantly, they kept the anemic offense in the game until the final gun. Junior Seau played more disciplined this week (finishing with 15 tackles), and Rosevelt Colvin was very good against the run and when he rushed the passer (but not so good in coverage). The chronically under-manned secondary played okay, and even though they got some timely help in the form of dropped passes by Jet receivers.

Special teams performed their specialty, giving up two long kickoff returns. The difference this week was that they didn't produce any long returns of their own to make up for it. If this continues, Brad Seely (special teams coach) might find himself next to Josh McDaniels in the unemployment line.

And as for the coaching... well, I think they need to do the following: better self-scouting to break them out of their offensive patterns; better play-action fakes and some up-the-field throws to make the other team pay for over-reacting to them; perhaps a day off for the players, because right now, they appear burnt-out; throw the ball long, even if it's incomplete, just to make the defense back off a bit; spend extra time on offense and kick coverage, because they killed you two games in a row.

So where does that leave us. Even with a one-game lead in the AFC East, their remaining opponents record (a .404 winning percentage) and their schedule (4 road games, and they are 4-0 on the road this season) still gives them an excellent chance for the division title. They play in Green Bay this weekend, and all you need to know about the Packers is they have won 3 of their last 4 while the Pats have lost 2 in a row (for the first time in almost 4 years). And as Sunday's loss points out, there are no gimmies this year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots had the same yards-per average both passing and running (5.7 yards per attempt). The last time they did that was the opening week of the 2000 season, when they rushed and passed for an average of 4.2 yards per attempt against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Reche Caldwell is becoming Brady's go-to wideout, but the team needs either Doug Gabriel or Chad Jackson to get with the program. Gabriel's fumble was a killer. They were headed in for a 10-0 lead, but after the fumble, the Jets scored and we were down 7-3."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-3!

Monday, November 6, 2006

Patriots 20, Colts 27 (11/5/2006)

Well, I hope the Colts are happy they ruined my night :(

Actually, I’m sure they are happy about it, after handling the Patriots 27-20 to remain undefeated and open a two-game lead in race for the #1 AFC playoff seed. The loss put the Pats at 6-2 on the year, tied with the Broncos, Chargers, and Ravens for second place in the AFC – although they are still firmly in command in their division.

I also hope the Colts are happy with the win; because the Patriots defense easily played well enough to beat them, but the offense and special teams let them down. The defense was in bend-but-don’t break mode, giving up an relatively high 7.7 yards per pass but forcing the Colts into 4 field goal attempts (of which they missed 2), an interception, a fumble, and a punt. The Colts scored only 50% of the time they had the ball (they average a score 55% of the time), even though the Patriots offense and special teams gave them a short field on four of their ten drives.

Manning and company picked on the outside coverage, Asante Samuel (who had limited underneath help on Reggie Wayne) and Ellis Hobbs (who had deep help on Marvin Harrison). Combined, the two receivers had 14 catches for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns (one on a spectacular catch by Harrison) against coverage that was close-but-no-cigar all night. But even with that, I didn’t think they played that poorly. Some of the best plays by the secondary were wiped out by penalties (at least two interceptions and some nice passes defensed) that gave the Colts automatic first downs. And you just can’t give the Indy offense extra sets of downs. But all-in-all, not a bad night against an excellent Colts offense, especially when they lost their starting safety (Rodney Harrison) three plays into the game.

Six of the defensive front seven played well, too. They didn’t help a whole lot in coverage; but they got more pressure on the QB as the game went on, forcing Manning into short incompletions and an interception (to go along with the two potential INTs mentioned earlier). Manning made some fantastic plays in the face of that pressure. But the pass rush made him throw off his back foot, or throw earlier than he wanted to, a lot more often than he usually does, and he was sacked three times and hit a bunch more. The one front-seven player who didn’t play well was Junior Seau. He made one or two plays in pass coverage and in the running game, but for most of the night, he dropped coverage too early or blitzed himself out of the play when the Colts ran. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except for his incessant celebrating after even his worst plays. Nothing like pumping your fist when you miss a tackle in the backfield and the running back goes for eight yards up the middle.

Now for the bad news: the defensive players did not play on offense. Tom Brady was off all night, and some of his errant throws became interceptions. He wasn’t totally to blame – three of his four picks were tipped balls – but he didn’t switch from run to pass or pass to run when surveying the defense pre-snap. As a result, the Colts defense looked like world-beaters against the pass, but they’re really just a bad defense that ran into a bad offense. The Pats ran 33 times for 148 yards, and at 4.5 yards a clip, it’s unclear why they didn’t just continue to pound the ball. The Colts scored only 10 points in the second half, so it wasn’t like the game was out of reach.

Perhaps the coaching staff was afraid when the special teams gave up big returns, unduly worrying that the game would get out of hand. I said it at the bye week, the Patriots have to shore up their kick coverage teams or they will pay for it in the playoffs. Special teams coach Brad Seeley had better get his charges fired up and playing better, because that’s multiple weeks with 60+ yard returns against. And BTW, give rookie Stephen Gostkowski all the practice you can on in-game field goals. He missed from 36 yards, and that should be automatic.

And as for coaches, they deserve just as much blame as the players for this loss. I wrote last week that the Patriots won the Minnesota game with a great game plan, but they just as clearly lost this one with a bad one. Indy can’t stop the run and the Patriots were gaining 4.5 yards a carry. There was no excuse for not staying with the run, especially when Brady was suffering from Monday Night Hangover. Even with multiple short fields, Manning put up “only” 27 points, and the Patriots could have outdone that if they’d run 75% of the time instead of only 50%. They weren’t shy about throwing 75% of the time against the Vikings, and they should have done the same thing with the run against the Colts.

So where does that leave us. It leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth; because I know that if the offense *or* special teams played well, the Patriots would have won. However, 6-2 at the halfway point projects to 12-4, a pretty fine year by most any standard. And the Jets are coming in next Sunday to get slaughtered by the Pats, and that should cement the division title.

Statistical oddity of the week: the Minnesota Vikings came into last week’s Monday night game averaging 20 points a game. They’ve scored only 10 in the past two games, and 7 of those on a punt return.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Think there’s no such thing as the Monday Night Hangover? This year, teams that played on Monday Night Football are 7-12 the following week.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Patriots 31, Vikings 7 (10/30/2006)

So much for pretender-to-the-thrown #2. The Patriots ground the Minnesota Vikings into a fine purple powder, whipping the latest young guns 31-7 and cementing their place among the 2006 NFL elite. The Vikes followed the Bengals as supposed contenders who were exposed by a superior team, with the Patriots destroying the two of them by a combined 69-20 in bookend wins to begin and end October. The win gives the Pats a 6-1 record, second best in the conference to... the Indianapolis Colts (7-0), who travel to Foxboro for a game this Sunday night.

Little did anyone know, but the Pats had the Vikings game won last Wednesday, when the coaching staff showed their brilliant game plan to the players. The plan surgically removed the two Viking strengths; by passing instead of going against a strong run defense, and then by scoring enough to force the Vikings to abandon their running game and play catch-up with a 37-year-old QB. Bill Parcells might think it’s a dumb-ass thing to say, but the Patriots out-coached the Vikings by a wide, wide margin.

Of course, all of that scheming can’t work without great execution by the players, and at the top of the list last night was Tom Brady. I know QBs get too much credit when the team wins, but the entire plan depended on his ability to read defenses quickly and find the right receiver each time. Well, he completed 67% of his passes for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns to just 1 interception (his only bad throw of the night). Considering that the game was played the Thunder-dome in Minnesota, with fans making verbal communication all but impossible, this might have been Brady’s best performance as a pro.

And I think he and his receivers have officially developed plenty of chemistry. Ben Watson had 7 catches for 95 hard-nosed yards (man, he just plows through guys) and 1 touchdown. Reche Caldwell went 7-84-1, with two important third-down catches that kept a scoring drive going late in the first half – a drive that made it 17-0. And Doug Gabriel had 5 catches for 83 yards, and perhaps the most important catch-and-run of the game when he turned a third-and-10 at the Patriots 14 into a first-and-10 at the Vikings 41.

The running game was an afterthought (even though the Pats ended up with 85 yards on only 15 carries). But props go out to the running backs and offensive linemen, who combined to give Brady time and keep him upright for most of the game. Brady was sacked three times, but two of them were obvious coverage-sacks.

And naturally, the team couldn’t have won without another outstanding game from their defense. The Vikings prided themselves on their running game, but they didn’t stick with it too long. The big early deficit forced Brad Johnson out of his comfort zone (does *that* sound familiar?) and he cracked under the pressure, throwing three terrible interceptions and admitting after the game he was confused by the defensive scheme (even though he’s a 14-year veteran).

On the line, Richard Seymour played hurt (and acquitted himself well), but still took up his usual two players so his teammates could get the glory. Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren collapsed the pocket play after play, keeping the Viking QB on the run all night. Tully Banta-Cain and Rosevelt Colvin held a clinic on how to beat a big offensive line with outside speed, alternating their pass rush between outside speed and fakes/spins back to the inside. Banta-Cain had his best day as a Patriot, notching two sacks and numerous other pressures, and while Colvin missed his one chance at a sack, he helped disrupt the timing in the passing game.

In the secondary, Rodney Harrison, Chad Scott, and Ellis Hobbs must have been jealous of Asante Samuel’s penchant for interceptions, because they all got one last night. Along with Mike Vrabel’s INT, they helped stop the Vikings from scoring a single point on offense. They forced long drives by keeping receivers in front of them and making sure tackles. Johnson has a weak arm, so the Patriots made him throw long passes by forcing his receivers toward the sidelines. (Note: a 25-yard pass down the middle travels only 30 yards, accounting for the drop-back. A 25-yard pass to the sideline travels over 40 yards, and that’s beyond Brad Johnson’s throwing range.) Again, a QB out of his comfort zone places the Patriots defense squarely into their own comfort zone.

Make no mistake about it, this is a championship level defense. They are now ranked third in the NFL in points allowed (87) and point differential (scored 80 more points than they’ve given up).

Penalties were a problem for the Pats, with 9 infractions for 85 yards, and some stupid ones, too boot (Vince Wilfork roughed the passer and Logan Mankins had a taunting penalty). And special teams had its share of problems with penalties, but atoned for the mistakes with some big plays. The Pats started their first two drives deep in their own territory because of penalties. And they gave up a punt return for a touchdown to account for Minnesota’s only points. But Laurence Maroney answered that punt return with a 77 kick-off return – the second week in a row that he gave the Patriots a short field just in time to kill the other team’s momentum. And the kick-off coverage team used shorter-but-higher kicks by Stephen Gostkowski to bottle up Bethel Johnson for a 20-yard average.

As for the coaching, refer to the top two paragraphs. Suffice it to say, they only care about winning the game in front of them, and they have some of the most creative solutions to what the problems other teams present. The Patriots obviously want a team with maximum flexibility, so they can beat a range of opponents from week to week. And as of now, they have a team that can stop the run and/or the pass, and that can control the ball and score with the run, the pass, or both. If they can shore up the kick-return game, they could be in for another deep playoff run.

So where does that leave us. Well, Denver lost, which leaves the Pats alone in second place in the AFC. Only the Colts (at 7-0) have a better record, and they have a game in Foxboro this Sunday that could even the teams at 7-1, if the Patriots can win. Indy’s run defense is suspect, so you might see the exact opposite of the Vikings game, with the Pats running 75% of the time. Who knows. But where it really leaves us is where we wanted to be. If the playoffs started today, the Pats would have a first-round bye – which is what you play for the entire year.

Statistical oddity of the week: Seattle and St. Louis are tied for the NFC West lead with identical 4-3 records. But both teams have scored fewer points than they’ve given up. Go figure.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Brad Johnson just can’t throw the long ball. Both teams ran 61 plays on Monday, but the Pats had almost 150 more yards.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-1!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Patriots 28, Bills 6 (10/22/2006)

What an exhilarating, glorious, wonderful, scintillating, super-fantastic… ummm, weekend it was. The game, not so much. But the Patriots did topple the Bills in Buffalo, a thoroughly boring 28-6 thrashing. The win put them at 5-1 (4-0 in the division) and helped them keep pace in the AFC East, with a 1.5 game lead over the victorious Jets. It also put them in a first-place tie for the second-best record in the conference (Denver is also 5-1, and they hold the head-to-head tie breaker -- Indy leads the AFC at 6-0).

The offense was far from perfect, but the passing game showed signs of breaking out. The team did extra work on that element during the bye week and it showed. Reche Caldwell and Brady hooked up for three of those famous short screens, and Doug Gabriel and Chad Jackson both caught long timing-pattern throws (Jackson’s for a touchdown). Ben Watson chipped in his usual five catches, and Troy Brown caught (yet another) 9-yard pass on third-and-8. But the passing yards were still too low to consider them championship level. However, if the receiver/quarterback connection continues to improve, it will open up the running attack again and transform the Patriots into the balanced team they always aspire to be.

Oh, and speaking of the running attack, it’s clear the other teams won’t let the Patriots win the game on the ground. The Pats had 94 yards, but their yards-per-rush average has dropped ever since they scorched the porous Bengals defense for 5.8 yards per carry. Dillon is better at finding a few yards when things are bottled up, and Maroney is a better outside threat. But they need the passing game to make other teams play them honestly. Yesterday, the Bills sometimes had 8 or even 9 men near the line to stop the run. An SUV couldn’t gain much against that.

All-in-all, the sputtering on offense didn’t matter much, though, because the defense was busy establishing itself as one of the best in the NFL. They are fourth in the league in points allowed, and third in point-differential (having scored 56 more points than they’ve allowed).

Asante Samuel was the shining star in the secondary, with an interception to kill a Buffalo drive, three passes defensed, and some terrific run support. The Bills do have decent receivers, but Samuel, Chad Scott (who is playing his best football in years), Ellis Hobbs (back from a wrist injury), and Rodney Harrison make it tough to gain long yardage in the passing game. In fact, the only long pass Buffalo completed all day was a short pass to Willis McGahee that he ran for an extra 50 yards.

It seemed like the Pats were giving up a lot of rushing yards, but at the end of the day, it was only 75 yards with a 3.0 average per rush. Mike Vrabel (one sack, with a forced fumble) and Junior Seau were the leading tacklers, with Rosevelt Colvin still playing hot-and-cold and Tedy Bruschi mostly helping against the pass. The team was clearly more concerned with the passing game, so they dropped more players into coverage and blitzed less often. The line did a decent job pressuring Losman, often forcing him to throw just a bit early and off-target. And by game’s end, he was running for his life on every down, as the line applied plenty of pressure all game long.

Maroney made his presence felt on special teams. He broke loose on a kick-off return and took it 74 yards, which led to an easy touchdown to answer Buffalo’s first field goal. The Patriots attempted no field goals, and their punt and kick-off coverage was good overall (with one 47 yard return the only blemish). And they did what you need to do on a raw, rainy day… they held onto the ball.

So where does that leave us. Well, they scored a touchdown on their first possession after a bye week for the first time in the post-Charlie Weis era. That makes me happy. Also, their 5-1 is their best start under Bill Belichick, and sets them up well for a division crown and (possibly) a first-round playoff bye. This is their toughest stretch of the schedule, with another road game against improved Minnesota and then at home for a tilt with their rivals, the Colts. With the Vikings playing better than I thought they would, next Monday’s game should be a good test of where the Patriots stack up against good competition.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Looks like wide receivers are finally figuring out the offense. They scored two touchdowns in Sunday's game. First time they did that all year.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-1!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Patriots 2006 Bye Week Update

Okay, so here's what's up at the 5/16th point of the season.


I promise to stop telling you the AFC East is a terrible division. It's obvious that the Patriots will win the division by default and the rest of the division will struggle just to reach mediocrity.

I promise to stop bashing the Dolphins for their strange off-season moves. Everyone knows they should have signed Drew Brees instead of Dante Culpepper, and eventually, everyone will know they never should have hired Mike Mularkey to run their offense. It was a match made in -- well, made in an extremely warm, subterranean world -- that has set Miami back at least a year, maybe two or three years.

I promise not to overreact to Patriots losses. They are building their team as the year goes on; so it doesn't profit us much to bash them when they lose to one of the best teams in the AFC (the Broncos).


The Patriots have improved in several areas from last year; here's my breakdown:

1. Their rushing offense is significantly improved. Through the bye week last year, they averaged only 82.5 yards per game rushing. This year it's 139 yards, a 68% increase in production. And they have one of the most dynamic running back combinations in the league (named the second-best combo in the NFL by Sports Illustrated), with rookie Laurence Maroney complimenting Corey Dillon perfectly.

2. The defensive line is a bone-crushing bunch of men-among-boys. Ty Warren had eleven, count 'em ELEVEN, tackles against the Jets -- a number I don't remember ever seeing for defensive lineman. Vince Wilfork has blown up more running plays in five games that he did in two previous seasons. Richard Seymour can't be blocked by one player. All three of them rank in the top 10 in tackles for the Patriots this season, and backup Jarvis Green leads the team in sacks. It's almost unfair to have this much talent. Almost.

3. Their record is better this year. At last year's bye week, they were 3-3, and in the powerful AFC, that almost guaranteed them no first-round bye in the playoffs. At 4-1, and playing in a... not-so-great division (gotta keep that first promise), they have a legitimate chance for a playoff bye this year.


They fell backwards in a few areas, too:

1. The passing game suffered from the loss of David Givens and Deion Branch. Pre-bye week last year, they averaged 295.5 yards passing a game -- this year, it's 206.2 (a 30% drop in production). As the season progresses, the new receivers will develop better timing and chemistry with Tom Brady and the offense. But the team needs rookie Chad Jackson and veteran Doug Gabriel need to step up their games in a hurry to help open things up for the underneath patterns.

2. Not only has Stephen Gostkowski failed to live up to Adam Vinatieri's lofty status, if he were a veteran, he might have been cut by now. Five out of eight just doesn't make the grade -- although he's done better after starting the year zero-for-two. His kick-offs are high and much deeper than Adam's were. But someday soon, he'll have to kick one to win a game; then we'll know if the Patriots made the right decision.


1. They can trade for a receiver or hope that the ones they have improve; but the passing game must be better by the end of the year if they want to contend for a Super Bowl.

2. The linebackers need to improve. Junior Seau isn't quite there, and Rosevelt Colvin is off to his normal slow start. If they don't play better as the year goes on, the Patriots will be vulnerable to balanced offenses in the playoffs -- and for the most part, that means every team in the playoffs.

3. Gostkowski needs to settle down and start kicking better. Again, in the playoffs the team will eventually need him to kick a big field goal, and he has to respond. In a one-and-done format, the team can't afford to be weak in any area; and that job is another obvious place for improvement.


The Patriots are virtually certain to win their division and be in the playoffs. And if they can correct the things I listed above, they have a very good chance to advance to the Super Bowl. But that's only partially due to their own play; it's mostly due to the problems that other AFC contenders have. Here's my breakdown of the other AFC contenders:

1. The Denver Broncos might have the best chance to win the AFC, mostly because of their suffocating defense. But their offense has taken more than a half-step back since Gary Kubiak left to coach the Houston Texans. If they can improve on offense during the year, then they'll be the team to beat. But that improvement is critical, and I don't see a lot of ways they can improve between now and the end of the year.

2. The Jacksonville Jaguars are playing very well on defense (two shutouts already); but they lost a close game to Washington and won a close one against Dallas -- two second-tier teams in the NFC. I don't think they have quite enough; especially since my last memory of them is the pounding the Patriots gave them in last year's playoffs.

3. The San Diego Chargers are playing better than any other AFC team right now; but their head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, is the most likely to choke under pressure.

4. The Baltimore Ravens are still all-defense-no-offense, and that only wins when you have an historically good defense, which I don't think they'll have by the end of the year.

5. The Indianapolis Colts can't stop the run, and that's all you need to know. Every team in the playoffs can run the football, and they'll just wear the Colts down.

6. Ditto for the Cincinnati Bengals; if you can't stop the run, you can't go far in the playoffs.

7. The Pittsburgh Steelers could put it together and win down the stretch. Their schedule has been tough; but almost every year a team that starts 1-3 makes the playoffs. I just don't think their QB is back to normal (after an off-season motorcycle crash) and their running game isn't as fearsome as it has been.

I stand by most of my predictions in the Season Preview, the two exceptions being that Chicago will be tougher (but the Pats still win it) and the Pats should beat Tennessee. That would put them at 14-2 (or 13-3 with one stumble), which will easily win the division and likely get them the first-round playoff bye that every team covets. Here's hoping it's another great stretch run and the Patriots make it interesting.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe we shouldn't read too much into that thrashing the Pats gave the Bengals. Cincy lost to Tampa Bay last weekend, and they're showing signs of team disharmony."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-1!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Patriots 20, Dolphins 10 (10/8/2006)

On a day that started with me scraping ice off my windshield and ended with me getting a sunburn, the Patriots played a hot-and-cold game and came away with a 20-10 win over the Miami Dolphins. The win brings them into the bye week at 4-1, with a two-game lead in the division and victories over every other AFC East foe.

At the end of the game, a lot of the statistics looked even, but the Pats cashed in all three turnovers for 17 of their 20 points. Miami had an 80 yard touchdown drive but didn’t have another drive of more than 50 yards. And if you don’t get turnovers and can’t drive a long field, it’s going to be a long day.

The player of the game was Asante Samuel, who had two interceptions that set up fourteen easy points and six solo tackles to tie Chad Scott for the team lead. With Ellis Hobbs mostly MIA and Eugene Wilson out again, the secondary played pretty well, with Rodney Harrison forcing a fumble and continuing his improvement from last year’s injured knee.

But the story of the defense was the defensive line. They used a rotation system to keep the players fresh on a hot day, and they just dominated. When he was on the field, Vince Wilfork had a Pro Bowl level game, blowing up just about every running play before it even started making an unusually high six tackles from the nose guard position. Ty Warren and Richard Seymour continued to play excellent gap control; Jarvis Green got another sack (he now leads the team with 4.5 on the year) and Mike Wright even pitched in to keep the pressure on while his teammates rested. They notched only the one sack, but the line pressured the QB enough to force quick throws for short gains (allowing only 5.3 yards per pass play).

The linebackers did well, with Bruschi’s ten total tackles leading the team. They rotated linebackers, too, which gave Don Davis and Eric Alexander more snaps. But I expected more from Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau. It might have been the quick passing of the Dolphins, but both of them seems a step slow at times. Fortunately for the Patriots, the Dolphins are still the Dolphins, with some dropped passes, some penalties, and a poor offensive game plan.

The offense… ummmm, they didn’t pass the ball well or run the ball well… but aside from that everything was fine. Troy Brown was the best receiver on this day, with 5 catches for 58 yards and an important touchdown. Ben Watson turned a 4-yard catch into a 9-yard gain on third-and-eight, and he had two crucial catches as the Pats were winding down the clock. And that was about it in the passing game. Brady missed some receivers high or low, and a bunch of his passes were knocked down at the line (I counted six). His weekly injury status of “Probable – shoulder injury” might not be subterfuge after all; I suspect he might have just such an injury.

Now, if the Patriots want to save Brady the trouble of throwing all the time, they have to run the ball better. They had only 79 yards on 34 carries, and rookie Laurence Maroney looked like a rookie this week. At least Corey Dillon (10 rushes for 45 yards) could make a few yards when the running lanes were clogged; Maroney averaged only 2.1 yards a carry and didn’t have a catch all day. Miami does have a good running defense; but the Patriots O-line didn’t open nearly enough holes or get a decent push off the ball. All-in-all, a day to forget.

But even with the offensive problems, they took advantage of the short field when the defense got turnovers. Their scoring drives averaged 30 yards, with three coming after Dolphin turnovers. And that was good enough to win by 10 points.

The special teams were also hot-and-cold. They blocked an Olindo Mare field goal attempt and tackled the punter with the ball later in the game. But Kevin Faulk gave Miami their only turnover when he fumbled a punt late in the game Then again, rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn’t miss any field goals this week. That’s progress, right?

So where does all that leave us. Well, the Pats are on their way to their fourth straight division crown. They are tied for the third-best record in the NFL (tied with five other teams, sure, but still tied) in a division where every other team is below .500. They’ve got a bye week and then their toughest stretch of the season, with road games in Buffalo and Minnesota and then a home game against Indy (why, oh why, do the Colts always seem to play us here?). So things are looking bright and sunny for the time being. I'll write up some mid-season observations for next week, and then we'll see how they do coming out of the bye week.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Tell me again why the Dolphins were supposed to be Super Bowl bound. They beat five cupcake teams to end last season, and they have a new QB and a new offensive system for the third straight year. I mean, they lost to Cleveland 22-0 last year… how could anyone think they were good?”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-1!

Monday, October 2, 2006

Patriots 38, Bengals 13 (10/1/2006)

They just don't lose two games in a row... they just don't. The Patriots vanquished the latest pretenders to the thrown, casting the Bengals out of the penthouse suite to sleep with the fishes after a 38-13 trouncing that left even big-mouth bass Chad Johnson speechless. Coupled with the Jets loss to Indy, the win propelled the Pats into the AFC East lead all alone, and re-cemented their status as one of the great bounceback teams in NFL history. They have now played 53 games without losing two in a row -- the second-longest post-merger streak in the league.

There were many keys to this game; but without the defense, it could have gotten out of hand before it really started. The Patriots offense struggled early on, and in the meantime, the Bengals drove down the field with seeming ease the entire first quarter. But when they got close, the Pats defense stiffened and held them to two field goals, making it a 6-0 game instead of a 10-0 or 14-0 game. The six-point deficit allowed the Patriots to hammer away with the running game, and that gave them control of the ball, the clock, and ultimate, the football game. 226 yards rushing was their highest total in over a decade, and it exposed Cincinnati's weak run defense like no other game has.

The Pats offense started and ended with rookie Laurence Maroney and the running game. Maroney ran for 125 yards on only 15 carries (a stellar 8.3 yards per rush), stiff-arming, plowing, and sprinting his way to two touchdowns. Corey Dillon contributed 67 tough yards and a touchdown of his own. Heck, Tom Brady even ran for a career high 22 yards on one of his carries. The blocking was superb, with Daniel Graham and Ben Watson sealing off defenders and the running backs hammering defensive backs trying to fill the holes. They even ran behind the rookie who replaced a rookie at right tackle (Wesley Britt, who replaced the injured Ryan O'Callaghan), with no drop-off in production.

The running game allowed the Pats to build advantages in time of possession (33:56 to 26:04), rushing yards (236 to 71), third-down conversions (6-13 to 2-11), total plays (67 to 56), and yards per play (6.3 to 5.0). And as is always the case, the good running game was the quarterback's best friend. Tom Brady posted season highs in completion percentage (57.7), and QB rating (89.9), and his only interception was on a tipped ball, and it led to zero Cincinnati points. The receivers also played better, making crisper cuts on the artificial turf and dropping very few catchable balls. Doug Gabriel seems to be developing some chemistry with Brady; and rookie Chad Jackson even contributed. Nothing spectactular; but who needed it with the defense playing so well and Maroney controlling the clock.

And oh that defense... what a performance it was. They kept switching things up on the Bengals, going from the 3-4, to the 4-3, to the 4-2-5, and even the 4-2-4-1 (that's four defensive linemen, two linebackers, four defensive backs, and one Troy Brown). The defensive backs jumped routes and jammed receivers to break down the timing of the passing game. And that gave the D-line and linebackers enough hesitation to sack Carson Palmer four times, and cause two Palmer fumbles, both recovered by the Patriots. Jarvis Green had three sacks and Ty Warren had the fourth, and each man recovered the fumble he caused. The D-line dominated at the point of attack, pushing the Bengals offensive line into their own backfield to stop the run and knifing through any cracks in the pass protection.

Overall, it was a brilliant game plan, designed to stop the big play and force the Bengals to work the ball down the field patiently (which they rarely did). Chad Scott played over and above what I thought his abilities were, and with five DBs, they had the Bengals panicking once they fell behind. Now, I'm the first to admit that the Patriots were aided and abetted by Cincinnati's poor play-calling. With the game still close in the third quarter, the Bengals gained eight yards on first down and then threw twice (both incomplete) on second- and third-and-two, before punting from the Patriots 43. That series was just fine with me, but I'm rooting for the other side.

And I give the Patriots offensive and defensive coaching staffs a lot of credit. They stayed with the run even when they fell behind early, and that decision allowed them to dominate the clock and keep the Bengal offense on the sideline. And once the Cincy offense did step on the field, there were a lot of covered receivers and a shell-shocked QB who didn't have a clue how to attack a defense he'd never seen and likely never will again. It's a Patriots trademark by now. Give them something they've never seen, and they will have to think instead of playing -- and that's when you have them right where you want them.

The local 11 also had a significant advantage in special teams play. Cincinnati's best field position to start a drive was their own 40 yard line. The Patriots started four drives with better field position (two on turnovers, two on kick returns). The Bengals had only 7 punt return yards, while the Patriots had 43. And rookie Stephen Gostkowski continues to pin 'em deep, with four touchbacks on kick-offs. However, I am concerned with the field goal kicking; Gostkowski missed another one this week, wide-right -- way-right, Mike Vanderjagt-right -- from 48 yards. That's no gimmie; but he needs to get his house in order or people will definitely start giving the team a hard time about letting Adam Vinatieri go.

So where does that leave us. Well, as noted earlier, the Pats lead the AFC East at 3-1, and at that rate, they'll end up 12-4 for the year and win the division easily. Their next opponent, the Miami Dolphins, was supposed to challenge them for the division crown; but at 1-3, the 'Phins look like no threat at all. They've got an immobile QB going against a Patriots defense ranked in the top 10 in sacks. Doesn't look good for Miami, especially playing in Foxoboro.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats should beat the reeling Dolphins at home next week. Then they've got a bye and two winnable road games (both Buffalo and Minnesota play on artificial turf, and Brady is 17-1 on that surface). That means they could enter the Indy game with a 6-1 record, and it could be one of those showdown games in Foxboro again. Man, I'm almost *glad* the Red Sox got eliminated... well, not really."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-1!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Patriots 7, Broncos 17 (9/24/2006)

"Patriots offense fall down and go 'boom!'" Sorry if I've taken any action over my lifetime that made you more likely to watch that poor excuse for a football game. The Broncos scored plenty to keep an inept New England offense at bay, and notched a 17-7 win over the hometown 11. The loss dropped the Pats to 2-1 and into a first-place tie with the NY Jets, and with a tough game against the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday, it might be difficult to maintain that first-place status. More on that later.

The Pats actually played well in two of the three phases of the game. The punting unit often pinned the Broncos deep, and allowed minus-3 yards on 3 punt returns while gaining 32 yards on their own 3 returns. The kickoff stats were closer, but the Pats gave up a big return late in the game and had a field goal blocked in the first half (Stephen Gostkowski's plant foot slipped). On balance, the kicking advantage went to the Pats; but the Broncos made plays when they had to.

And the Patriots defense was sorely tested all night, with the offense unable to move the ball for nearly three quarters. They gave up scores on only three of eleven drives, slowing the run just enough to make the Broncos pass, and then frustrating Jake Plummer just enough to hold them to 17 points. Sadly, it was the first time in Brady's NFL career he'd lost a game as a starter when his defense held the opposition to 17 points or less (he is now 50-1). In fact, the defense has been a model of consistency, giving up exactly 17 points in each game this year. Most times, that's enough to win, but the Pats offense is a work-in-progress, and they didn't have nearly enough to pull it out this time.

The offense was anemic, making only 4 of 16 third-down conversions and rushing for a mere 50 yards. Heck, they had more penalty yards than that. Trying to work in a new receiving corps during the year is taking it's toll, and the margin for error is so thin that the pressure on Brady to hit every open receiver is immense. With Ben Watson and Troy Brown getting most of the defensive attention, Daniel Graham and Doug Gabriel have to step up their games. Gabriel finished the game with six catches, but he was shut out in the first three quarters. Oh, and it would be nice if the 36th pick in the draft (Chad Jackson) could get on the field. Maybe it's time to bring preseason standout Bam Childress off the practice squad.

I also have a few suggestions for the offensive coaching staff. Guys, when I can correctly predict if the Pats are about to run or pass, the play calling needs more imagination. That predictability, coupled with a receiving corps under construction, allowed the Broncos to load up against the run and cover the pass on the fly. Under that scenario, the passing game should have destroyed Denver; but it still looked bad. Do some self-scouting and figure out how to break your patterns, or you might be outta here at season's end.

The defense is improving week-to-week. Better tackling and pass defense this week; but some inopportune run blitzes that backfired and a pass rush that got there a fraction too late about half the time. On Denver's 83-yard touchdown pass, Richard Seymour was a milli-second late to Plummer and the coverage was a half-step late to Jevon Walker; and it cost them seven points and sealed the game for Denver.

The only players I thought played well the entire game were Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and (surprisingly) Junior Seau. If Seau continues to improve at this pace, the Pats front seven will be the best in football by year's end. Asante Samuel played well most of the time, as did Mike Vrabel and Ellis Hobbs. On the minus side, James Sanders is not an adequate starter -- I'd rather see Tebucky Jones out there. And they gave up over five yards per rush, which will lose you the game 49 out of 50 times. With all the talent on the defensive line, I'd like to see them switch between the 3-4 and 4-3 multiple times a game, just to keep the other team off balance.

And with all due respect, Bill Belichick should hire a former NFL coach to break down every game he's ever coached against Mike Shannahan. Have someone make a database of all those games with tendencies, areas that each play attacked, how the game plan changed from year to year, and which schemes frustrated Shannahan's offense. The Pats built their great teams to take a lead and pounce on teams when they tried extra hard to come back. But he's 2-5 against the Broncos, and in four of those five losses, the Broncos held the lead at the half. Something should change the next time they play.

So where does that leave us. The Patriots best hope for a win at 3-0 Cincinnati is that the Bengals are emotionally drained by last week's division game against the Steelers. Cincy has surrendered some sacks and their run defense is suspect, but their offense gives the Patriots fits and their defense will have an easy day unless the Pats offense can turn it around. The other thing to remember is that rarely does a Belichick-coached team lose two in a row. Doesn't that give you hope? Yeah, me neither.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If things go according to form, the entire AFC East could be 2-2 by next Sunday. The 2-1 Pats and Jets have tough games against Cincy and Indianapolis, the 1-2 Dolphins have an easy game at Houston, and the 1-2 Bills have a home game against a dome team, Minnesota."

(Try to) Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Sorry this was late; I was sick on Monday.

PPS. 2-1!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Patriots 24, Jets 17 (9/17/2006)

Well, I hope you've been good boys and girls while I was gone. The Patriots sure were, pulling out wins the first two weeks to lead their division at the crucially important one-eighth-of-the-season point. Sunday's scintillating and then nerve-wracking 24-17 win over the Jets came courtesy of early defensive domination and late defensive incompetence -- sprinkled with a nice ground game and a sporadic passing attack.

You've got to give the team credit; they saw what happened last year when Tom Brady led the league in passing -- an early playoff exit. So they drafted Laurence Maroney and made sure Corey Dillon got healthy, and it's working out perfectly. Dillon (153 yards) and Maroney (151) are #14 and #16 in the NFL in rushing yards, respectively, and that puts *both* of them on pace to exceed 1,200 yards for the season.

The offensive line blew away the Jets defense most of the day, and surprisingly, they ran to the right behind rookie Ryan O'Callahan just as often as to the left behind veteran Matt Light. The line gave up only one sack and only a few pressures, and the holes were gaping early on and still big enough when the Jets knew the Pats were going to run late in the game.

It was nice to see some new receivers get started, but Doug Gabriel needs to either make a catch (he dropped two catchable balls) or knock down a potential interception (which he didn't on Brady's only pick). Rookie Chad Jackson had a touchdown grab and not a whole lot else. Brady himself needs to improve a bit. He floated a few early passes and on a few third downs he forced passes to his more familiar targets -- even when they were well covered. And on his INT, I think he was expecting Deion Branch to jump higher than the defenders and make the play. Take note, Tom: Deion is gone, time for him to be forgotten.

On defense, the Pats line dominated like I've rarely seen. They went with a 4-3 alignment and overpowered the Jets offense all day. Richard Seymour was his usual monstrous self, Vince Wilfork was rarely controlled by New York, and Ty Warren is becoming a real force. Jarvis Green even got into the act; and all that superb line play made it easy for the linebackers.

Tedy Bruschi was back (and even had a late interception), and he played well. Junior Seau improved from the Bills game, and apparently, he's doing more film study than anyone else on the team. Pretty obvious he wants to win a championship and retire on top. Mike Vrabel had an up-and-down game, blitzing himself out of a few plays and slamming right into the heart of a few others.

But when it comes to inconsistent play, no one topped the Patriots secondary on this day. As a unit, they held the Jets to 97 net passing yards through 38 minutes, only to give up two times that in the final 22 minutes. The coverage was okay, they simply forgot how to tackle, with Eugene Wilson suffering the ultimate indignity when he missed the tackle twice on the same play (a 46 yard touchdown by Laveranues Coles). Rest assured that Belichick will hammer the fundamentals all week.

Special teams were also up-and-down, with a decided advantage in punting and punt returns, a slight deficit in kickoffs, and a blocked field goal that would have sealed the game. A bit more work, to be sure, but I think Brad Seeley's up to it.

Note #1: for the record, the Patriots could have won both of these games much more handily. They had the ball in prime scoring position at the end of each game, but played clock management to seal the wins. The passing game is a work in progress, but the running game is third best in the league.

Note #2: even though Deion Branch was traded, the Patriots will feel the loss of David Givens more this year. He was more dependable on third down and had the speed of a wide receiver and made the tough catches you'd expect of a tight end. He is what Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be, only quieter and harder working. I can't remember the last time he dropped a pass on third down.

Note #3: the Bills are a more dangerous team than the Dolphins this year. Young teams win with special teams, ball control offense, opportunistic defense, and mistake-free play -- and that is Buffalo so far. The Dolphins have a new QB, new offensive coordinator, new offensive system, and one fewer running back (Ricky Williams is suspended for the year). It will take them until at least November to get their offense in sync (if they ever do), and by then, they will barely be in playoff contention.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Pats have the best record possible after two games, and their first stern test will be this Sunday against Denver. The teams are #3 and #4 in rushing yards so far, and Denver always, always plays tough in Foxboro. I won't be there, but my more-than-capable brother will take up the slack.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Bills and Jets play each other this week, and one of them will end up 2-1. So if the Pats want to stay ahead of the pack, they have to beat the Broncos."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Friday, September 1, 2006

Patriots 2006 Season Preview (9/1/2006)

Hi all,

This is going to be a shortened version of what I usually send around before the season (I can hear the applause from here).

Quickly, here are the important changes the team underwent this off-season.

The Draft

The draft brought improvements at running back and tight end. Laurence Maroney stood out all preseason, running, catching, and blocking. And even undrafted rookie Patrick Cobbs is threatening to make the team. And with Ben Watson's improvement and two draftees to join him and Daniel Graham, tight end could be one of the strongest positions on the team. Lastly, kicker might not be better than when Automatic Adam strolled the sidelines, but rookie Stephen Gostkowski hit one from 54 yards last night and his kickoffs have been consistently deeper than Adam's were.

The Offense

It'll be more running and less passing than last year; you can bank on it. They've got the horses to run (though Maroney missed last night's game with a reported knee injury) and don't have the horses to pass all the time. Of the significant 2005 receivers, only Troy Brown returns -- that is until Deion Branch comes back.

The O-line kept its most important component, coach Dante Scarnecchia. There will be some plug-and-play with lineman moving in and out; but the team ran pretty well and protected Tom Brady very well in the preseason. The balance on offense and depth at running back will help keep Brady healthy, which is important since the plan appears to be to have only two quarterbacks on the roster.

The Defense

Junior Seau played in only a few plays in the preseason -- and he ran himself out of about half of them -- so he'll have to buckle down and play his role to be of much help. Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel kicked hiney so far, but the team really needs Tedy Bruschi to return to form. Monty Beisel just hasn't worked out (and he could reportedly be cut by Saturday) and Tully Banta-Cain hasn't improved enough yet.

The D-line is dominant when they all play (as they should be -- they were all drafted in the first round). They completely stymied the Giants run and pass games last night, right up until they took out Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour. Seymour remains the most important player on defense, but with Wilfork's play improving and no backup, he is getting to that same status.

The secondary hasn't improved much, and they will depend on the front seven to slow down or stop other teams. Asante Samuel continues his solid play, and with Rodney Harrison back at strong safety, Eugene Wilson looks more confident back at free safety. But Ellis Hobbs hasn't improved over last year and Randall Gay looks lost out there.

Special Teams

I don't want any whining about Adam leaving. I think he wanted to leave, so he got what he wanted (and is reportedly nursing a broken bone in his left foot, injured on the turf at Indy -- does that define "karma" or what?). The coverage teams have been very good in the preseason, and we will just have to wait and see how Gostkowski performs in the clutch.


They named an Offensive Coordinator (Josh McDaniels) and a new Defensive Coordinator (Dean Pees). McDaniels had some fun with multiple tight end sets in the preseason and Pees called a good enough game to shut down the first offense of every team they played so far.

Time will tell on this one, too.

The Schedule

The Pats start off easy, with Buffalo at home and the Jets in NY. The Buffalo game could be dangerous because it's a new coaching staff and offensive and defensive systems; but I give the win to the Pats, who have 10 days to prepare against a team with a bad quarterback. The Jets are rebuilding, and I don't expect them to beat the class of the division right away. I'm a little iffy about Denver, because they play so well against the Pats. Let's just say the Pats will go 1-1 against Denver and Cincinnati, but I can't decide which game they lose. Denver has an easy schedule prior to this one, but the Pats have revenge and home field on their side. Cincy's balanced offense has given the Pats fits recently, and the game in in Cincinnati. But the Bengals have two division games leading up to the game in New England, including an emotional roller coaster at Pittsburgh the week before.

The Pats should handle Miami at home. I'm not sold that the Dolphins are as improved as many say they are; and the Pats nearly beat them with second stringers last year. And Buffalo has the unenviable task of playing the Pats with 10 days to prepare (to start the season) and 14 days to prepare (after the Pats bye week). At Buffalo? still no problem -- pencil in another W. At Minnesota? Again, no problem. The Vikings are a trainwreck of a team, with uncertainty at just about every offensive position. Indy at home should be a good game. Pats have a short week, but the Colts play in Denver the week before. Pats haven't improved the secondary since getting waxed 40-21 by Indy last year, but the Colts lost Edgerrin James (and now James Mungro). My gut tells me the Pats will win, even though it might be time to put them down for a loss. Okay, it's a win ::crossing my fingers and holding my breath::

On November 12, it will still be 2006, so the Jets will still be rebuilding, so that's another win. At Green Bay should not be any problem, the Packers have been bad lately and the weather there won't be to the extreme yet. Chicago at home gives Belichick something he loves -- a one-dimensional offense to stop and a small-but-quick defense to plow through. That sounds like a win to me. Detroit at home? Try again next year -- it's a W.

The home stretch begins with a game in Miami. Given the easy games they should have had prior to this one, I'll give the Pats the nod. Houston hasn't improved enough to make things tough on the Pats in Foxboro, so that should be a win. But something tells me the team might finish with two losses. The Patriots destroyed Jacksonville at home in last year's playoffs, but that was with a hobbled Byron Leftwich in freezing Foxboro. This one is a home game for the Jags and they will have revenge on their side, so I can see the Pats dropping this one. Furthermore, if form holds, the game in Tennessee against the Titans won't mean anything by this point in the season. If it counts for something (playoff position or a bye week), then the Pats will win. If not, I think Tennessee will pull it out.

One last piece of information; something tells me the Pats will lose a game somewhere between the Indy game and the second Miami game. Beyond the Colts, the teams in that stretch shouldn't give the Pats too much trouble; but something is telling me they'll lose one. Maybe it'll be the Colts and that will end the suspense.

So with one loss mid-season, that makes the Pats 12 - 4 (or 13 - 3 if they can avoid the letdown). That will easily give them another division title and put them in the running for a playoff bye week.

My personal schedule in September is very busy, and I'll be semi-incommunicado for the next two weeks. So there won't be any summary after the season opener in Buffalo and might not be one after the Denver game. I could always send out an archival summary those weeks, just to keep you on your toes. Let me know if you want that, and I'll let popular demand decide the issue :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Announcer: 'Deion Branch, your holdout netted you nothing and you're far from being in football shape, what are you going to do now?' Deion Branch: 'I'm going on injured reserve!'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!