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!

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