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!

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