Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Patriots 2005 Regular Season Awards (1/31/2006)

There was no bye week this year, so this is coming out a lot later than usual. I wanted to take a few minutes to honor the best players on the team for 2005. Certainly a drop from 14-2 to 10-6 means that some of the players had off years, but there were distinct bright spots and I don’t want those performances lost in the post-season disappointment.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady

Honorable Mention: None.

No Patriot was in the same class as Tom Brady this year. When faced with a brutal schedule and many key injuries, he engineered late drives against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Miami to win each of those games. He wasn’t perfect. But by winning those four games, he kept the team near .500 and their late surge (winning 7 of 8 games) gave them the division title. Without those early wins, they would have been 1-8 and would have missed the playoffs. He led the NFL in passing yards for the first time, and 2005 was simply his best regular season. It always amazes me that he gets better; but somehow he does it every season.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Deion Branch

Honorable Mention: Ben Watson, Patrick Pass, Nick Kazcur

Deion became the go-to receiver this season, more than doubling his number of catches (from 35 to 78), yards (454 to 998), and first downs (27 to 51). Granted, he played 16 games, as opposed to only 9 last year, but that durability was crucial this season, as Andre Davis was not an adequate replacement for David Patten and Bethel Johnson spent much of the year either injured or in the dog house. With all that uncertainty at wide out, Branch’s consistent, dependable, and sometimes spectacular performances were sorely needed.

Ben Watson improved by playing in 15 games instead of the 1 he had last year, and his 29 catches (22 for first downs) are better than what the Patriots have averaged from the tight end position the past few years. Patrick Pass ran for more yards, a higher average, and more first downs, and the fans chose him as the Pro Bowl fullback (though the players/coaches voting knocked him off the team). Anyone who saw Nick Kazcur in his first and last games this year (both against Denver) couldn’t help but see the vast improvement this rookie made.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Kazcur and Logan Mankins

Honorable Mention: None

I couldn’t choose between Kazcur and Mankins. Offensive line play is difficult enough to break down, and I can’t grade out individual linemen very well while watching the games. However, with both these rookies playing to Tom Brady’s blind side, the season could have gone down in flames early; but they overcame early difficulties and held it together enough to make a playoff run. Suffice it to say the future looks very bright along the offensive line, with young players at every position and depth galore on next season's roster.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Richard Seymour

Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel

Seymour’s 46 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4 passes defense don’t sound too impressive. But the guy simply can’t be blocked one-one-one anymore, and that always means either someone else is free to make a play or that Richard is free to make it. He possesses everything you want in a defensive lineman: speed, explosive strength, great instincts, leverage, discipline – did I miss anything? They say the proof is in the pudding, so consider this: from the time Richard was injured against San Diego until he returned, the team was outscored by an average of 31.6 – 21.7 per game, and allowed their two highest scoring totals of the season (41 and 40). After he returned, they outscored their opponents by an average of 24.0 – 14.8, and gave up their four lowest scoring totals of the season (3, 7, 0, and 3). And it wasn't just bad competition; the two excellent teams they played without Seymour averaged 40.5 points playing in Gillette Stadium (San Diego, and Indianapolis), while the only excellent offensive team they played without Seymour scored only 26 points, even though it was a home game for the opponent (in Kansas City).

Mike Vrabel’s versatility and ability were crucial to the Patriots late-season run. With Tedy Bruschi’s stroke, the Pats needed Vrabel to move to inside linebacker and replace Monty Beisel (who was stinking up the joint every week). All Vrabel did was have his best season ever, posting career highs in tackles (108), interceptions (2), and touchdowns (4, including three on offense).

Most Improved Defensive Player: Rosevelt Colvin

Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel, Ellis Hobbs, Vince Wilfork

The 2005 Rosevelt Colvin was the version we all thought we were getting in 2003, when the Pats signed him away from the Bears for big money. Alas, his 2003 season went up in smoke when he suffered a career-threatening injury in the second game. 2004 was like an extended rehabilitation; but he showed flashes toward the end of the year, notching one sack and two forced fumbles in his last four games. But in 2005, the old fire was back, with Colvin flying off the corner and busting through the middle for 7 sacks and many quarterback “pressures.” He was near his career high in tackles (60), and spent the second half of 2005 disrupting just about everything the opposition did.

For more information on Mike Vrabel, see above. Ellis Hobbs moved from rookie special teamer to starting cornerback, and his ascension to starter provided the stability needed to start dominating again. And Vince Wilfork improved from a non-performer early to a dominant nose guard late. Here’s hoping he comes out of training camp on fire next year.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

When Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay went down, poor Duane Starks was thrust into the starting lineup, and he was injured and he sucked. So about mid-season, the Patriots were desperate to plug that hole and they threw Ellis into the fray. By the end of the season, teams were purposely throwing and running away from his side of the field (Miami threw one pass his way, he knocked it down). Now that is respect. Need more? Okay, NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt named Hobbs a cornerback on the his All-Rookie Team (http://www.nfl.com/news/story/9169011). Still more? How about this: Sports Illustrated football writer, Don Banks, wrote a story about how the first round of last year’s draft would have gone if teams knew then what they know now. In the story (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/don_banks/12/29/draft.redo/index.html), Hobbs jumped from the 84th pick to the 15th pick, and was Banks’s second cornerback taken. Hobbs was one of the best rookies in the entire league; no way he’d lose this award on his own team.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Josh Miller

Honorable Mention: Michael Stone

Miller improved in almost every significant special teams statistic. Better average (from 42.0 to 45.1), more kicks downed inside the 20 (19 to 22), fewer touchbacks (5 to 4), fewer yards per return (11.8 to 9.6), and a better net average (33.7. to 38.3). He was fourth in the NFL in net punt yardage, and had only 4 touchbacks in 16 games – and trust me, he punted a lot in those games (20 more times in 2005 than in 2004). He was also the holder on field goals and I never saw him botch one.

I love seeing Michael Stone fly down the sideline and make a hit. Now if we can just keep him off the field during the regular defensive snaps, we’d be getting somewhere.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Josh Miller

Honorable Mention: Lonnie Paxton

For information on Miller, see above.

As for Paxton, I can’t remember a single bad snap this entire season. Not one. Add to that the five or six tackles he made and the two times he kept punts from going into the end zone, and he had an out-standing year for a long snapper. His snaps were all good in 2004, too; but he made more plays in 2005.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

Ellis Hobbs should not be remember just for the one fumbled kickoff return in the playoffs. He had a very solid 24-yard return average on 15 returns this season.

And that does it for the 2005 season. Everything from here forward will be looking ahead to 2006 and beyond.

My Super Bowl prediction: Seahawks 27, Steelers 17.

Enjoy the off season,

- Scott

Monday, January 16, 2006

Patriots 13, Broncos 27 (1/14/2006)

The self-inflicted losses are always the toughest. In a surprising role-reversal, your New England Patriots turned the ball over five times (yikes, was it *really* five?) and the Denver Broncos capitalized with a 27-13 win in Denver. Not that it matters now, but if the Pats had protected the ball and won the game, they'd host the Pittsburgh Steelers in next weekend's AFC Championship Game -- and I would have been there, dammit!! As you probably heard already, the loss sends the Pats home for the off-season, and here's hoping they hit a few free agency home runs and make another Super Bowl run next year.

As for this game, a lot of it came out the way I predicted it would (Broncos ran for only 96 yards, Denver held a halftime lead, Patriots came back in the second half), but a lot of it was beyond my powers as an NFL psychic. After six turnovers in their previous 10 playoff games, the Pats committed five in one game, and Denver was the beneficiary of their kindness. And it wasn't bit players; Kevin Faulk started the season of giving with a fumble just before the half; Tom Brady threw two INTs, and Troy Brown's devastating dropped punt was the final nail in the coffin. You know your team had trouble when the opponent scored on drives of 1, 1, 7, and 15 yards.

The offense was the main culprit. The blitz pick up was terrible all night, with Denver defenders flying free at the quarterback on half of the passing plays. Brady wasn't sacked, but he hurried many throws and threw off his back foot far too often. And the predictable results were throws that missed the mark and Brady's lazy interception late in the third quarter. That play changed the entire game. Instead of kicking an easy field goal to cut the deficit to 1 point (would have been 10-9), the INT led to a one-yard Bronco touchdown and a 17-6 Denver lead. The Patriots never recovered.

As for the running offense, it was okay at best. 79 yards and a 3.8 per rush average were good enough to keep the Denver defense honest, and both Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk helped some in the passing game. But Faulk's killer fumble with less than two minutes to play in the first half started a chain reaction that added up to a 10-3 halftime deficit instead of a 3-0, 6-0, or 10-0 halftime lead. The fumble (the only one that Denver really caused) was followed by a brutally bad pass interference call and then a one-yard touchdown plunge. Then, Ellis Hobbs fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and Denver kicked a field goal. 10 points for the half, all on turnovers, and all in the last two minutes. Just awful. The kind of playoff performance you expect from a first time entrant (like Jacksonville), not the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Lost in the defeat was a great performance by Deion Branch (8 catches for 153 yards). But then, most all great performances get lost when you team is done for the year.

The defense did everything they could, except force more turnovers. They held the Broncos vaunted running game to only 96 yard, a significant upgrade from the first game's 178 yards. (Note: Denver out rushed the Patriots 2-to-1 in the first game, but barely out gained them on the ground this time.) Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Mike Vrabel and the rest of the front seven made sure that Jake Plummer would have to win by passing, not with the steady pounding of the running game. The only way the defense could make up for the short field given up by the offense and special teams would be to get turnovers themselves. And that was not their strength this year; they had only 18 takeaways for the entire season, barely 1 per game. Well, they got their 1 interception this game (a great play by Asante Samuel), but it wasn't enough to make up for 5 giveaways.

The secondary did a decent job; intercepting once and keeping the Bronco receivers in front of them most of the game. This supposed weakness kept the Broncos in check for all but two sustained drives (an early 60-yard drive that ended with the Broncos failing on a fourth-and-one, and a late 61-yard drive that ended with a Bronco field goal). Again, without the short field, the defense played well enough to win, but no NFL team can consistently stop any other NFL team when start so close to their own goal line.

Special teams were especially horrible. Ellis Hobbs fumbled a kickoff when hit by the *kicker*, and Troy Brown muffed a punt that set up Denver's last touchdown and sealed the win for the Broncos. Troy's fumble seemed especially brutal when the Patriots next drive was 2 plays for 77 yards and a quick touchdown. If the same drive happened after a Troy Brown fair catch instead, the score would have read 17-13 Denver with almost 10 minutes to go -- *still* a winnable game, despite all the problems. Add to that Adam Vinatieri's missed 43-yard field goal (which would have made it a one-score game with almost 13 minutes to play), and it was a sorry, sorry exhibition of special teams.

So where does that leave us. Combined with a Pittsburgh win on Sunday, the Patriots would have hosted the AFC Championship game next Sunday. Instead, they will watch Denver host the game. They might be looking to replace defensive coordinator Eric Mangini (reportedly going to the Jets), and will undoubtedly hire a much needed offensive coordinator (they went without one this year). Free agency starts in early-February, and the draft is in April. Usually, we would wait a few more weeks before talk of reloading, but Saturday's loss leaves nothing else to talk about this year.

In the next week, I'll send my regular season awards email. Sorry I didn't send it sooner, but I never got the chance with all the action at the end of the year and no playoff bye week. Even though this loss is disappointing, the season had some bright spots. I'll try to highlight them in that email.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sometimes it isn't so much the turnovers as when they happen. The first four turnovers all cost the Patriots a lead or cost them a chance to make it a one-score game."

Keep the faith (for 2006),

- Scott



Thursday, January 12, 2006

Preview of Patriots vs. Broncos (1/12/2006)

Patriots/Broncos has to be one of the most lopsided rivalries in NFL history. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Broncos have a 16-5 record against the Pats, have never lost to them in the playoffs (1-0), and regularly beat the snot out of them (average score in their victories is 29-14). And it wasn't just a bunch of home games in the thin air of Denver; they won at home, on the road, early in the year, late in the year, when they went 5-9, when they went 14-2, with Craig Morton or John Elway or Brian Griese at quarterback, in the regular season, and in the playoffs... you name the circumstance and somehow they always seem to beat the Patriots. And that is really what makes this weekend's game in Denver so tough and so intriguing all at the same time.

I will break down this game the same way I did for last year's playoffs-- by using the earlier game between the teams (the Broncos won 28-20 on October 16, 2005) as a springboard to investigate any substantial changes that might play a role in changing the outcome. And note: even though the first game was an eight-point loss, I'm treating it as if it was a 14-point loss -- because the Broncos really did smack the Patriots around. And as usual, if you are short on time, you can skip forward to the Summary section for the main points in bullet-list format.

Point #1: The Broncos won't move the ball as easily or score as often as they did in October.

Here's a short list of the Patriots defenders who didn't play in October but will play on Saturday: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Ellis Hobbs, and Artrell Hawkins. Additionally, Rosevelt Colvin is playing at least twice as well now, Monty Beisel won't be starting (though he's playing much better in the substitution role), Chad Brown will see spot duty on passing downs, Jarvis Green can go back to being a backup, and Duane "Doh" Starks and James "Where am I" Sanders are out for the year. Also remember that the first Broncos game was Mike Vrabel's initial game at inside linebacker, and he's had 11 games to get better (and has he *ever* gotten better).

So don't expect that the Broncos will rush for 178 yards (the Pats have given up an average of only 42 yards in the last five games -- excluding the "pre-season" game against Miami) or that Tatum Bell will gash them for a 68-yard burst. And don't expect that Denver QB Jake Plummer will post a 134.4 passer rating or that Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie will run free for 50+ yard receptions.

No Monty Beisel or Duane Starks to abuse, vastly improved play in all phases of defense, and better defensive play-calling means less offensive output for the Broncos.

Point #2: The Patriots offense has improved, too.

Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk will play on Saturday (after missing the earlier game), and that means Patrick Pass won't lead the team in rushing and Amos Zereoue won't miss any blitz pickup on third down. And playing Troy Brown instead of Tim Dwight is trading a proven playoff performer for a guy with questionable hands. Logan Mankins, Nick Kazcur, and Russ Hochstein will anchor a much improved offensive line. Hochstein replaced center Dan Koppen because of an injury and the team has rushed the ball better ever since. Kazcur has improved almost every game since getting schooled by the veteran Broncos defensive line, and Mankins is unlikely to be ejected at the half again.

The Broncos defense is a little banged up, but even if it wasn't, I'd predict the Patriots would do better on offense. Getting Dillon and Faulk back is huge, and the O-line will definitely play better than they did in the first game.

Point #3: The Patriots need to keep the game manageable so they have a chance to close the gap in the second half.

Even with improved offense and defense, I still expect the Broncos to get a first half lead. In the five Patriots/Broncos games prior to Bill Belichick's arrival, the Broncos out-scored the Pats 52-13 in the first quarter. In the five games under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have won that battle 34-21. But they seem to have moved the carnage from the first quarter to the second quarter, where Denver only out-scored them 36-27 prior to Belichick but has pasted them 51-27 since. In fact, the Pats scored first in the game this past October, and even held Denver to zero points on three drives in the first quarter. But Denver's 21-0 second quarter put the game on ice before halftime.

The Patriots are a much better second half team this season. In 12 of 17 games, they scored more points in the second half. In 10 of 17 games, they gave up fewer points in the second half or had first half shutouts (three times). All in all, they've played about even in the first half (175-171), but they've dominated the second half (236-166). So if they fall behind early, there's no need to panic.

If the Patriots are within 10 points at the half, they should trust their ability to come back in the third and fourth quarters.

Point #4: Bill Belichick has a stellar record when playing a team for the second time in a year.

Including the playoffs, Bill Belichick's Patriots are 20-4 the second time they play a team in the same season. And two of those losses were meaningless games against Miami. It's obvious that Belichick uses the first game to learn about his opponents and then makes a better plan the second time around. Belichick's D always tightens things up the second time around, humbling everyone from league MVPs (Peyton Manning and Steve McNair) to NFL rushing champions (Curtis Martin).

Now, due to scheduling and injury factors, October's game against the Patriots was the first time Jake Plummer played a Belichick defense, and the defense he faced wasn't at full strength. But with the Patriots returning to their complex blitz packages, press coverage, and greatly improved run-stopping, Jake will have to produce more than he did in the first game. And that might be the crux of the issue; because the Broncos can't just force the run down the Patriost throat and the Pats pass defense will not be as easily beaten as it was in October.

All of which leads to the question of whether or not Jake can make big plays in playoff pressure situations. They didn't ask him to do much during the season; he had only 18 touchdowns for the year. By comparison, consider that Ben "the next big thing" Roethlisberger had only 17 touchdowns last season, and the Patriots toyed with him in a 41-27 blowout win in the playoffs. In fact, the more I think about this Saturday's game, it feels a lot like last year's Pittsburgh game.

Also noteworthy: Belichick's playoff record when playing a team the second time that year: 5-0.


1. The Patriots defense is much healthier now than they were for the October game, and they will not allow as many long plays or such an impressive quarterback performance this time.

2. The Patriots offense has also gotten healthy (although not to the same extent), and having Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, et al on the field will mean more time of possession (the Broncos won that battle 32:17 to 27:43 in the first game). And all of that translates into more points and a well-rested defense.

3. The Patriots need to keep the score reasonably close in the first half, because Denver is a better first half team and New England is a better second half team.

4. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are 20-4 when playing a team for the second time in a year. They are 5-0 in the playoffs.

Some other Quick Points:

A. Belichick used the season-ending Miami game and the Jacksonville playoff game as pseudo-bye weeks. He rested almost every starter against Miami and for most of the second half against Jacksonville, so the players should be fresh.

B. Denver's best chance to win is to build at least a 14-point first half lead. If it's closer than 10 points, the Patriots will likely come back to win.

C. For all the Patriots problems in the first game, they held the Broncos to 13 yards on the first two drives combined, but the offense let the team down by scoring only 3 points during that stretch.

The Bottom Line:

So where does that leave us. Well, I think that enough factors have changed since October to even up the blowout loss. Denver will still get out to a lead in the first half (otherwise, they're toast), and the Patriots will definitely mount a comeback, and the score will be close. I just think the Patriots defense is so much better against the run now than it was then, and Jake Plummer will have to beat them through the air. He did it in the first game with no pressure (only 1 sack of Plummer) against a bad secondary; but I doubt he can do it against a lot of pressure (Pats have 24 sacks in their last 6 games) and a vastly improved secondary.

The Pats can't stop the Denver running game, but Belichick will make it a priority to slow it down. And the Pats offense can score enough to make the Broncos take some chances in the passing game. Once that happens, it comes down to whether Jake Plummer reverts to form (150 touchdowns and 148 interceptions in his career) or continues to be the efficient/steady/mistake-free quarterback of the 2005 regular season. (BTW, he had similar stats two years ago and still lost big in the playoffs.) My bet is he'll revert to old habits when under pressure, and if the Patriots can keep him in the pocket, he won't beat them often enough to win the game. Call me crazy, but I'll take Tom Brady over Jake Plummer any day. Patriots win a close one, 27-21.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Since Belichick got here, the Patriots are 20-4 when they play a team for the second time in a season. That includes 5-0 in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 9, 2006

Patriots 28, Jaguars 3 (1/7/2006)

Now don't get me wrong; I don't want to go through the Wild-card round every year, but Saturday night was one last chance for the Patriots to exhibit total dominance over a lesser NFL team. As you probably know by now, the Patriots whacked the Jacksonville Jaguars and their feeble Super Bowl hopes 28-3. It was the exact same score as the first playoff game I ever attended (a 1996 rout of Pittsburgh in Foxboro Stadium), and was such a blowout that the stadium was half-empty when the fourth quarter began. The win combined with a Steeler win on Sunday sends the Patriots to Denver next Saturday for another prime time winner-advances-loser-goes-home game. That game won't be as easy as the Jags game, but more on that in my next email.

In Saturday's tilt, the offense had a mediocre first half (don’t they always?) and a stellar third quarter, with two touchdowns and a 2:1 time of possession ratio. For the game, the offensive line did a great job, opening holes for a 6-yard rushing average and often giving Brady time to look through all his options twice before throwing. Brady was sacked four times, but at least a dozen other times he stood back there longer than any quarterback should be allowed to. Statistically, Brady had an outstanding game (15 for 27 for 201 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs). But to be frank, he missed enough throws that I’m starting to wonder if his right shoulder really is bothering him. I mean, he is on the injury list... every freakin' week.

The running game didn’t exactly control the clock (118 yards on the night), but it was effective enough to slow the pass rush and keep the defense honest. Kevin Faulk played a great game, gashing Jacksonville for 8.5 yards a carry and making some crucial third-down receptions. The Jaguars often committed no more than five players to the run, obviously determined to stop the Patriots passing attack by blanketing receivers. But eventually the receivers got open enough and Brady hit them most of the time. Ben Watson had a terrific catch-and-run, breaking three tackles on the 63-yard touchdown.

However, the offense made enough errors that a repeat performance will undoubtedly cost them the game next week. Besides the aforementioned four sacks, they fumbled four times (fortunately recovering them all), the offensive line committed three holding penalties and a false start, and both Ben Watson and Deion Branch dropped passes they should have caught. And Branch’s was a killer because it was a certain touchdown at the end of the first half, which would have made it 14-3. No complaints about the outcome this week, but they need to shore up some things if they expect to beat Denver and continue in the playoffs.

The defense wasn’t perfect either, but it was a wonder to behold. They held the Jaguars to one third-down conversions (to go along with only one fourth down conversion) for the entire game, slowed the running game (only 87 yards), and allowed the Jags starting QB a paltry 61.1 quarterback rating (lower than his very bad 63.3 when he last played in Foxboro – as a rookie). There were a few too many receivers running free, and a half-dozen dropped passes by the Jags helped out. But the D was obviously stoked to stop the run and make Leftwich beat them, and when they made the Jags on-dimensional, it was all over.

Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel were a two-man wrecking crew on Saturday. Willie notched an NFL playoff record 4.5 sacks in the game (making him the all-time playoff sack leader with 16) and 8 total tackles. Vrabel led a linebacking corps that was missing Tedy Bruschi (did not play because of a calf injury), and he cleaned up in the running game (making four tackles on a single drive in the third quarter). The team notched six sacks, with the linebackers getting credit for 5.5 of them, so you know what a game they had. Even Monty Beisel and a rotation of Chad Brown, Matt Chatham, and Tully Banta-Cain filled in well for Bruschi; though I’d rather see Tedy back in there next week.

The defensive line and secondary worked in perfect sync to slow down the passing game. Time after time, Leftwich would drop back to pass and just as he wanted to throw, he’d stop and pull the ball down because the receiver was covered. And the extra second he needed to chose another target gave the line just enough time to get a sack, a hit, or to move him out of the pocket (where he was not effective throwing the ball). On the line, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork played well, with Wilfork coming out in the second half when it was obvious the Jaguars were no longer going to run (40 of their 87 yards rushing came on quarterback scrambles). Oh, and Eugene Wilson had one of those vintage Patriots secondary hits that forced a Jacksonville fumble and stopped another drive. Just a great overall defensive effort; one of the things that makes football such an enjoyable game.

The special teams were pretty special, too. Long-snapper Lonnie Paxton made a great tackle on the team's first punt, and on a punt by Adam Vinatieri punted (on a fake field goal), he barreled down field to keep the ball out of the end zone and helped down it at the 4. Michael Stone and Andre Davis had a couple of nice special teams tackles each (and Davis had a crucial fumble recovery on offense), and the team enjoyed field position almost 10 yards better than Jacksonville's.

As for the coaching staff, they put Asante Samuel in the perfect position to intercept Leftwich and run it back 73 yards for a touchdown, and their plan to rest during the Miami game so that they could play Jacksonville looks pretty smart. And of course, they took away what Jacksonville does well (run the ball and physically dominate) and made them try to win with passing and finesse. And as usual, no dice.

So where does that leave us. Well, the win puts them at 1-0 in the playoffs (11-6 for the year) and gives them a date with Mike Shanahan and his running brigade in Denver next Saturday. That game won't be easy, but as I said before, I'll look at their game from earlier this season and see if enough has changed to change the outcome (Denver won, 28-20). The Pats 10 consecutive playoff wins is a new NFL record, and Bill Belichick continued to build his best-ever .909 winning percentage in the post-season. And this weekend, the Patriots have a chance to make a little more history by winning two playoff games the year after winning a second consecutive Super Bowl. Not only has no team ever won three straight Super Bowls, no one has ever even come close to getting back to a Super Bowl. And the Patriots have a chance to get closer this weekend. Should be fun.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots tight ends have two of the best catch-and-run plays of this entire season. Daniel Graham's 'hurdle an offensive lineman and blast through two defensive backs' effort against Atlanta and Ben Watson's 'break three tackles and outrun the secondary' special this past weekend were amazing efforts."

(Note: not that I want to toot my own horn; but all four playoff losers from last weekend were listed in the "Lovely Parting Gifts" section of last week's playoff preview, even though three of them were playing at home. Woo-hoo!)

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Thursday, January 5, 2006

2005 Playoff Preview

Here we are; finally at the real season, the NFL playoffs. 12 teams vying to win enough games to play in the last game of the year in Detroit, Super Bowl XL, and of course, all hoping they can win that game, too. But as we know, not all playoff teams are created equal. Some are just about a lock to go to Detroit, others have no prayer, and still others could go either way. And I'm here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff. And so, here are my rankings of each team and why I think they can or cannot get to the big game in February. (Note: if you're only interested in the Patriots game, skip forward to the "Patriots vs. Jaguars" section.)

Cream of the Crop:

1. The Indianapolis Colts have the best chance to win Super Bowl XL. They have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, a great passing game, a very good running game, and a defense that is good enough to complement their amazing offense. Clearly the team to beat.

2. The Denver Broncos are slightly behind the Colts because Jake Plummer is still unproven. Plummer has been near-perfect for a lot of the season (18 touchdowns, 7 INTs), and the brilliant running game has allowed him to thrive. If Plummer can handle the increased stress of the post-season, the Broncos have a great chance to get to Detroit. But there's still an "if" at the front of that sentence.

Other Contenders:

3. Your New England Patriots got healthy and ended the season on a roll. The starting Patriots defense held their last four "real" opponents to an average of 31.25 rushing yards per game (excluding the Miami playoff tune-up), and the key to their post-season dreams is whether they can continue to stop the run with their front-seven. If they have to commit defensive backs to the run, they are finished; so the D-line and linebackers must play well.

4. The Chicago Bears have a bye week, home field for their first game, a savage and opportunistic defense, and they play in the NFC. The offense is the worst among the playoff teams, but never, never, never forget that defense wins championships (especially a defense that forces turnovers; the Bears had 32 this year). And also remember that a great defense can overcome uncertainty at QB.

5. The Seattle Seahawks have the game's best running back, a QB who completes 65% of his passes (and had only 9 INTs all year), and the seventh best defense in the NFL. So why are they at the bottom of the list of contenders? Because they played easiest schedule among the playoff teams (opponents winning percentage was .430), so they are not battle-tested, and their QB has proven nothing. In fact, if they didn't have a first-round bye, they'd be in the next category down.

Not Quite There:

6. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the running game to plough their way to the Super Bowl, but I don't think they can win it. You simply can't ride a running game to a championship; you need either a very good passing game or an historic defense (see the Chicago Bears, above). The Steeler defense simply isn't good enough to carry the offense, and the offense isn't diverse enough to carry the team.

7. Washington is the only other sleeper with a chance. Joe Gibbs has won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, and he's getting enough out of QB Marc Brunnel, receiver Santana Moss, and running back Clinton Portis to make some noise in the playoffs. The defense is a little suspect, but I'd give them a better shot than the five teams listed below.

Lovely Parting Gifts:

8. The Carolina Panthers are the only team out there that I don't think has gotten the proper respect. QB Jake Delhomme proved he could play with the big boys when he nearly pulled off a Super Bowl upset against the Patriots; I always thought DeShaun Foster was a better running back than Steven Davis, and WR Steve Smith is a monster to try to control. Their problem is their defense is banged up and they haven't beaten much of anyone this year. They've got a puncher's chance to make the NFC Championship game, but their road woes against good teams makes even that unlikely.

9. Cincinnati has a fantastic offense but can't stop anyone.

10. The New York Giants have Tiki Barber, but he's offset by Eli Manning. Manning might turn out to be great, but the Giants lack two things you need in the playoffs: a pressure-proven kicker, and the ability to stop the run. The Giants kicker is terrible under pressure and the defense recently gave up 156 rushing yards to Washington, 174 to Kansas City, and 175 to a bad Eagles team.

11. The Jacksonville Jaguars are like the Pittsburgh Steelers Light. They do everything not-quite-as-well as the Steelers, and their problems at QB will likely doom them in the playoffs. Besides, they have to travel north and win in the freezing cold this Saturday just to stay alive; and you know I would *never* predict they could do that.

12. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can't win this year. QB is too inexperienced, their running game is too easy to shut down, and their defense isn't good enough to counter those two problems.

Patriots vs. Jaguars

So now that that's out of the way, how will the game go this Saturday, you ask? Well, here are some points of interest.

Point #1: It's easy to claim the weather means nothing... until your January trip to Foxboro.

The Jaguars have a pretty good record in December/January games up north. They are 7-8 under such conditions, including wins in the playoffs. But they are 1-4 all time against the Patriots (their only win coming at home in the playoffs), and in his only game against the Pats, Byron Leftwich (Saturday's starting QB) salvaged his otherwise awful day by tossing a very late touchdown pass to lift his QB rating from a terrible 51.3 to a very bad 63.3.

Just for the record, the high temperature in Jacksonville today is 71; the high temperature during the game Saturday will be 26.

Point #2: The Patriots offense can't help but start the game faster without a bye week. Can they?

Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach, the Patriots have played eleven games after bye weeks. They have scored zero points in the first quarter in seven of them. They average less than 3 points per first quarter and less than 8 points per first half in games after a bye. Maybe it's the offensive timing, or the rhythm of playing every week, or maybe it's their bye week routine; but something slows them down when they wait an extra week. Now is the time to prove they can start fast and stay ahead; 'cause if they fall behind, it could be a very tough game.

Point #3: Quarterback uncertainty could unravel the Jaguars.

If there's one lesson from seasons past, it is this: don't change your quarterback late in the season if you expect to go far in the playoffs. Byron Leftwich got injured earlier this year, and David Gerrard is 5-1 since replacing him. But the Jaguars decided to put Leftwich back in for their first playoff game, which is insane. If this was November, you could still make the change and the new/old QB would have a month to get back in sync with the rest of the offense. But as a friend of mine pointed out, this would be like starting the 2002 "Snow Bowl" (vs. Oakland) with Drew Bledsoe under center for the first time in two months.

It might work this weekend; Leftwich could lead them to victory as they rally around him. But you basically give up any chance to win the Super Bowl, and that's what it's supposed to be about.

Point #4: The Jaguars are big and strong and will try to impose their will on the Patriots. But if that doesn't work, they have no backup plan.

One thing you need in the playoffs is the flexibility to change things if your initial plan fails. But the Jaguars simply don't have the speed or complexity on offense to change a failing game plan. Nor do they have enough flex on defense to change much if that fails. Granted, their defense is very good and their offense is pretty good. But if they can't run the ball up the middle or over-power the secondary with their big receivers, what will they try next? Screen passes? three-step drops? end-arounds? fumble-rooskie?


So here's how I see the game. The Patriots haven't played the iron of the league recently, but they did play teams with very good defenses (Miami, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and New York [Jets]). However, Jacksonville played some of the worst defenses in the NFL (Tennessee, Houston, San Francisco), so it's interesting to me that the Patriots offense still has a slight edge in almost every offensive category over the last five games:

Points: 136 to 126
First downs: 120 to 111
3rd-down conversions: 50% to 40%
Average total yards: 361 to 336
Average time of possession: 35:46 to 31:35 Fumbles lost: 0 to 4

I think that means the Patriot offense is playing significantly better than the Jaguar offense at this point in the season. The two defenses are probably about equal, but I think the Patriots will be able to score more easily and regularly, which will put the Jaguars into the precarious position of trying to come back on the road in the playoffs. And folks, that just doesn't happen very often.

The Jaguars are good at coming back; but their four losses this year were all to quality teams that they fell behind. Anyone can come back to beat the Browns or 49ers, but when the Jags started losing to the Colts and Broncos, they had no real answers. Their only comeback victory over a 2005 playoff team was a 23-17 win over Pittsburgh -- and they needed overtime to pull that one out.

No comebacks this week, no overtime, no miracles for the warm-weather Jaguars. Patriots 27, Jaguars 16.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Expect Indy, Denver, Seattle and/or Chicago in the big game this year. Since the NFL went to their current playoff format, 25 of the 30 Super Bowl teams have had a first-round playoff bye."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 2, 2006

Patriots 28, Dolphins 29 (1/1/2006)

This is just a place-holder email, because there is so little to write about the game. Your New England Patriots lost 28-26, but it didn't mean anything in the standings or as we go forward into the playoffs. The starters played the first three drives, and yet Miami (playing their starters the entire game) barely hung on for the win. Here's the quick-hit email, which will be followed on Thursday with a much more informative one in the lead-up to the Jacksonville playoff game (Saturday night, 8:00 -- make your plans early).

1. Matt Cassel acquitted himself nicely. 11 of 20 for 168 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no INTs. Much better than his disastrous performance against San Diego earlier in the year. (Note: New England's "other" quarterback finished with a league-leading 4,110 yards.)

2. Linebacker Matt Chatham might be a starter soon. He's usually on special teams, but had a great game once he was elevated to the starting role, leading the team with 8 tackles and even throwing in a sack for good measure.

3. I really like this guy, Michael Stone -- as long as he only plays on special teams. If he gets significant time at safety in the playoffs, the Patriots will not go far. Too many blown assignments, too easy to fake out, just not there yet.

4. It is somehow beyond me how Eugene Wilson could play the entire game and get only two tackles. Usually, that would be a good sign (fewer tackles by the safeties often means good play by the front seven), but it didn't look or feel like that to me.

5. I've seen too much of Tim Dwight at receiver. Bring back Troy Brown, and do it now!

6. Doug Flutie, what a kicker!

That really is about it. Not much to say after the fifth "pre-season" game this year. They are in the playoffs, will battle Jacksonville Saturday (I'll be there, screaming myself silly), and 10-6 was good enough to win the division so I guess they treated this week as their "bye."

Enjoy the next few days, and I'll fill you head with information this Thursday so you'll be ready to go on Saturday.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Dolphins won their last six games, but four of the six teams were terrible and the Patriots almost beat them with their second and third string. And next year's schedule won't be as kind to them, with games against Jacksonville, Indy, Pittsburgh, and Chicago,"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-6!