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!