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!

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