Monday, November 27, 2006

Patriots 17, Bears 13 (11/26/2006)

Sometimes defensive football isn't pretty. And with two teams that shutout their previous week's opponents and that led the NFL in fewest points allowed, everyone got what they expected yesterday -- a 17-13 game that was won by the team that made the most big plays, i.e. your New England Patriots. The win helped them keep pace with the upper-echelon of the AFC (they are now behind only Baltimore and San Diego for the coveted second playoff spot), and maintained their two-game lead in the AFC East. With a home contest against the Lions next Sunday, they look good to continue the current streak before traveling to Miami for their final division game of the year.

Sunday's game reminded me of Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, with two teams just whaling the crap out of each other for 60 minutes. That game had more scoring (it was a 32-29 final), and this one could have been just as high-scoring if not for turnovers. Usually the give-away/take-away ratio tells the story, but it became almost a non-issue because both teams had so many (the Bears turned it over four times, the Patriots five). And I can't remember a game with so many turnovers inside the opponent's 20 yard-line, which is the real reason the final score was 17-13 instead of 34-31.

Brady started his post-game press conference with, "Must be the turf," a reference to his amazing 20-1 record on artificial surfaces. (Quick trivia question: do you remember the one loss? I'll never forget it; answer below.) But it wasn't the turf; it was the sparkling performance of the five layers of protection in front of him, the offensive line, that explains his gaudy stats. Well, gaudy might not be the right word, maybe effective works better. He competed two-thirds of his passes (22 of 33) for 269 yards and posted a QB rating almost 20 points higher than what the Bear defense usually gives up. He got a late touchdown (the winning points) and had two INTs on tipped balls. His receiving corps continued to solidify their current pecking order -- with Watson and Caldwell the preferred targets (combining for 146 yards on 9 catches) and Kevin Faulk this week's mystery guest receiver (37 yards on 6 catches).

But to get back to the offensive line, they gave up zero sacks on 33 pass attempts and Brady was hurried on only three passes all day. Even when tackle Ryan O'Callaghan was injured early in the second quarter, the line held off rushers to keep a nice pocket for the QB and to allow for extra time on plays that were just killers (Ben Watson's late 40-yard grab on 3rd-and-3 comes to mind). Their run-blocking left something to be desired, with a 2.5 yard per carry average for the game. But on this day, they bottled up the Bears pressure and kept Brady upright long enough to make enough big passing plays to win. In fact, the best offensive plays by the Patriots were passes with very little QB pressure. Contrast that with Chicago's best offensive plays -- long throws under pressure that ended in questionable defensive penalties.

The other reason the running game was stuffed all day was unimaginative play-calling (again). Once the Patriots got the lead, they fell back into the old run-run-pass pattern that can't continue if they hope to do anything in the playoffs. Add to that at least four times in the game the Patriots threw long passes on third down with short distances to go -- and only one of those plays worked (the aforementioned Watson catch) -- and you've got questions about the play selection. Josh McDaniels needs to manage the game as well as his QB does -- try some play-action passes on first-down, go for the big plays on second-and-short, and go for first down on third-and-manageable. It's not rocket science, and the playoffs are coming, so get to it, Josh.

The defense had consistently excellent play for almost the entire day. Asante Samuel was the obvious star, with three interceptions, nine tackles, and three passes defensed. He started things right with an early INT and finished the Bears for good with a late INT -- nice bookends on a performance that gives him a legitimate chance at the NFL Defensive Player of the Week award. The rest of the secondary played okay, with some solid hitting from James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins, but both Hawkins and Ellis Hobbs were flagged for pass interference (for a total of 75 yards, on very questionable penalty calls), and Hobbs had a bogus holding call against him that set up a Chicago touchdown that tied the game. The only reason I called their performance "okay" is that I think all three penalties were bad calls -- but they've got to do a better job defending without drawing flags.

The linebackers were outstanding all day long. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi alternated between taking away the short passing routes and pressuring Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Grossman was forced to throw long, and even though it meant giving up a lot of yards on bad penalty calls, it worked well in the end. Rosevelt Colvin was his usual disruptive force, both on the pass rush and in pass coverage. Junior Seau broke his arm in the second quarter, and they moved Vrabel inside to replace him and brought in Tully Banta-Cain to replace Vrabel. The results were mixed, with better play against the pass and worse against the run. That situation will bear close scrutiny, as Seau is out for the year.

And the defensive line... well, what can I say. The wrecking crew of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren are simply the best three-man line I've seen in years. Teams can't run between the tackles when Wilfork is in there, even when they double-team him, and Vince even slid over to provide pass coverage on two plays yesterday. And Ty Warren has been the leading D-line tackler in six of ten games he played this year, even though he left one game injured and played at less than 100% in two others. He is likely in line for a significant pay raise this off-season. And Richard Seymour is a future Hall of Famer for sure, so enjoy watching him while you can. There are very few defenders who merit a double-team when the offense is running *away* from them; but I've seen it happen to Richard. That, boys and girls, is called "respect." Add backup Jarvis Green and it's one of the dominant units in the NFL. Mike Wright is not a great replacement for Wilfork; but he's good enough to hold his own if the Pats switch to a 4-3 when he enters the game to give Wilfork a breather. I think they should try that.

The special teams had a really strange day. They blocked and early field goal (Seymour got it) and deflected a punt (Mike Wright), and after Chicago called a last-second timeout to ice kicker Stephen Gostkowski, he nailed a 52-yard field goal just before the half. In a game decided by four points, those plays loomed large. New punter Ken Walter averaged 37.3 yards a kick, only one yard less than the Bears punter on the day, which I guess is okay. However, his average was significantly lower than Josh Miller's 46.6 yard average (before he was injured). The kickoff coverage team kept a very good Bears return team in check all day, so I guess on balance they had a better day than the Bears. But it was a strange one for sure.

Aside from my earlier comments on the offensive play-calling, I have nothing big to say about the coaching staff. The special teams coach has gotten it together nicely the past two weeks. And the defensive game plans and play-calling under new coordinator Dean Pees are much better than last year. At this point, the Patriots probably have a championship-level defense; the question is, will the offense get their game together in time to make themselves championship-level, too.

So where does that leave us. At 8-3, the Pats are one game behind both San Diego and Baltimore for the second playoff seed, but they have no chance to catch Indianapolis for the #1 seed (the Colts are two games ahead and they hold a tie-breaker over the Pats). With winnable games the rest of the way, the Pats could end up 13-3, which would give them a great position going into the playoffs. However, with road games against Jacksonville, Miami, and (especially) Tennessee, they will more likely end up 12-4. That will certainly win the division, but it won't get them a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: At a McDonalds just outside Gillette Stadium, the cheeseburgers cost more than the double-cheeseburgers -- $1.05 vs. $1.00. (Thanks for lunch, Al!)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots might be the fourth or fifth best team in the AFC, and they just beat the class of the NFC. I might watch the conference championship games and skip the Super Bowl, because the NFC has no chance at all."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Answer to the trivia question; the Patriots lost 31-0 in Buffalo on opening day of the 2003 season, giving Brady his only loss on artificial turf so far. You might remember it as the "Lawyer Milloy Bowl," as the former Patriots safety ended up in Buffalo after being cut by the Pats at the end of the pre-season. The Pats got their revenge, however. They beat the Bills 31-0 to end that season and won their second Super Bowl.

PPS. 8-3!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Patriots 35, Packers 0 (11/19/2006)

So now we know:
"A very good team that needs a win to get back on track"
+ "A rebuilding team that currently the youngest average age in the NFL"
= 35-0.

That was about the story yesterday, and from the outset, it seemed like a mathematical certainty the Patriots would win. The Pats should have beaten an undermanned Packer team, and they did so convincingly. And that performance, coupled with the Jets loss, put them two games up in the division and within striking distance of the second playoff seed -- although they are behind three teams for that honor (the 8-2 Ravens, 8-2 Chargers, and 7-3 Broncos [due to the tie-breaking procedures]).

Brady was back to his old form yesterday, with crisp play-action fakes and some long passes to take advantage of the creeping safeties. He hit Ben Watson for 36 yards to set the tone early and a wide-open Reche Caldwell for a 54 yard touchdown later in the game; both times after very nice run-fakes that created openings in the secondary. Brady finished the game with 4 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 128.2 passer rating, and he didn't make any bad decisions that I saw and only had a few poor throws. It probably helped that he was sacked only once on the day. And he seems to have settled on two favorite receivers: over the past five games, Caldwell has 25 catches for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Watson has 23 catches for 299 yards, and 3 touchdowns. That's 43% of the catches, 46% of the passing yards, and 45% of the touchdown passes for the entire team over that span.

The Patriots 8 for 17 performance on third-down conversions (and 2-2 on fourth down) was central to their control of the game. They wore down the strength of the Packer defense, their front seven, with a 39:10 to 20:50 time of possession advantage, all while giving up only two sacks, even with the long passes being thrown. And with the Packer defense on the field for so long, the Patriots actually ran the ball more effectively in the second half, even though everybody knew they would run the ball. Laurence Maroney had a good day (19 carries for 82 yards, and 4 catches, including a nifty catch-and-run for a touchdown). Corey Dillon fumbled for the second time in three weeks, and it earned him a trip to the bench for a quarter -- and his production was much lower as a result (12 carries for 31 yards and 1 touchdown).

The defense played much better this week, limiting the Packers to 1-13 on third-down conversions and only 2.5 yards per pass attempt. Ty Warren makes a big difference on the line (he had 1.5 sacks and redirected running plays all day), and he and Richard Seymour got consistent pressure against the patchwork (and rookie-laden) Green Bay offensive line -- with the team totaling 4 sacks and 2 injured quarterbacks. Some of Brett Favre's early throws were off target, even with open receivers (which points out that the Pats secondary is still vulnerable). But Favre gave them a better chance than backup Aaron Rodgers, who came in after Favre was injured and whose best play was a scramble for his team's only third-down conversion. The two Green Bay QBs combined for a 46 passer rating, with no touchdowns and they completed only one-third of their passes.

The linebackers played a stellar game, with Bruschi covering the mid-level passing lanes, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin stopping the run before it could get started, and even Tully Banta-Cain contributing a sack. Junior Seau had only one tackle; but I didn't see him out of position all day, which I count as progress. The Pats secondary was as patchwork as the Packers secondary; but they held it together better than Green Bay. I'll say again that there were open Packer receivers, but the quarterbacks missed them more often than not (usually because of pressure). Ellis Hobbs got away with a pass interference penalty, but given that they were missing Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, and Eugene Wilson, I'd say they acquitted themselves nicely.

And special teams... well, they must have spent extra time on kick-off coverage this week, because that unit was excellent. They gave up an average of 19 yards per return, and most importantly, the longest Green Bay return of the day was only 26 yards. This has been a sore spot for three weeks, and it was nice to see them get it shored up. The Patriots own return game was good; Kevin Faulk had a long punt return of 36 yards.

And as for the coaching staff... they obviously know how to get the Patriots up for teams they should beat. It remains to be seen if they can do the same for a good team, when they get their next chance this weekend against the Bears. But they pushed all the right buttons this week, and the receivers, linebackers, and kick-coverage team all responded with their best game in a month.

So where does that leave us. Well, the big showdown is this weekend is the battle of something's-gotta-give teams. The Bears come to town 5-0 on the road, whereas Tom Brady is 18-1 on artificial turf, which is what the Patriots installed over the past two weeks. Also, for the first time in recent memory, both teams shut out their opponents the week before playing. And this game might tell us a lot about the NFC vs. the AFC. The NFC held the early lead in the inter-conference record; but lately, it's gone almost totally toward the AFC. And last year, the sixth-seed in the AFC beat the first-seed in the NFC in Super Bowl XL. If the 7-3 Patriots can beat the 9-1 Bears, it will be clear which conference is better.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: One week after noting that the Patriots averaged the same number of yards per passing play as they averaged per rushing play, Green Bay did the same thing (a 2.5 yard per-play average). Maybe this isn't as unusual as I thought it was -- except, of course, the Patriots hadn't done it in over six years.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Chicago game won't be easy. Two of their major strengths play into Patriot weaknesses -- they've got a great return game and very big, physical receivers. The Bears also feast on take-aways, and the Patriots have been fumbling the ball lately. The good news is that Brady's 18-1 on artificial turf."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-3!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Patriots 14, Jets 17 (11/12/2006)

Do you recognize this? "Somehow, we've got to recreate our offense, because right now, we're not doing anything that gives us a chance." That is a paraphrase of former Patriots head coach, Pete Carroll, during the 1999 season. Only a few months later, he was fired. I hope current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has taken note, because if he doesn't call a better game and get back to fundamental football, he will suffer the same fate as Carroll.

The Pats offense came out flat, didn't adjust well, turned the ball over, and played slipshod football -- and it cost the Patriots the game, a 17-14 loss to the division rival Jets. It also cost them a chance to wrap-up the division early and now puts them in a dogfight for the AFC East crown. It also put a serious hurt on their chances for a first-round playoff bye. No, the offense wasn't completely to blame, but as I said during the game, when I can predict if it will be run or pass, I think the other team might have an idea, too.

Except for the scoreboard, the Patriots topped the Jets in every significant statistic except two (1 to 4 in sacks and 25% to 46% in third-down conversions), but it didn't matter because the Jets made plays when they had to and the Patriots didn't. The offense was just maddening. Their best three plays of the game were a 50-yard run by Corey Dillon, a tipped pass that Reche Caldwell caught (and then scored a touchdown by making two guys miss and out-running two more to the end zone), and a Jets roughing-the-passer penalty that wiped out a terrible Brady interception.

The team's pass protection was laughable, with free blitzers on many plays and confused linemen and backs just spectating as Tom Brady got hit multiple times beyond the four sacks. With all that pressure, it took some great catches to move the ball at all, two by the lone offensive bright light, Reche Caldwell. Daniel Graham's return helped in the running game. But Brady's play-action fakes have become lazy, so they didn't take maximum advantage of the running game by using it to set up the pass. Maybe the coaches don't want Brady turning his back to the defense (there are a lot of injuries on the O-line). But the entire defense comes barreling toward the line when Brady hands off, so they could get *huge* yardage on play action.

I can't really fault the defense in this game, excepting Ellis Hobbs's bad play on the Jets last touchdown. They gave up one long drive for a touchdown; but they inherited bad field position on four other drives (one INT, and two bad kick coverages) and did well to hold them to 10 points on those possessions. They obviously missed Ty Warren, as most of the Jets running yards came right at his replacement, Jarvis Green. They also got a turnover, and most importantly, they kept the anemic offense in the game until the final gun. Junior Seau played more disciplined this week (finishing with 15 tackles), and Rosevelt Colvin was very good against the run and when he rushed the passer (but not so good in coverage). The chronically under-manned secondary played okay, and even though they got some timely help in the form of dropped passes by Jet receivers.

Special teams performed their specialty, giving up two long kickoff returns. The difference this week was that they didn't produce any long returns of their own to make up for it. If this continues, Brad Seely (special teams coach) might find himself next to Josh McDaniels in the unemployment line.

And as for the coaching... well, I think they need to do the following: better self-scouting to break them out of their offensive patterns; better play-action fakes and some up-the-field throws to make the other team pay for over-reacting to them; perhaps a day off for the players, because right now, they appear burnt-out; throw the ball long, even if it's incomplete, just to make the defense back off a bit; spend extra time on offense and kick coverage, because they killed you two games in a row.

So where does that leave us. Even with a one-game lead in the AFC East, their remaining opponents record (a .404 winning percentage) and their schedule (4 road games, and they are 4-0 on the road this season) still gives them an excellent chance for the division title. They play in Green Bay this weekend, and all you need to know about the Packers is they have won 3 of their last 4 while the Pats have lost 2 in a row (for the first time in almost 4 years). And as Sunday's loss points out, there are no gimmies this year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots had the same yards-per average both passing and running (5.7 yards per attempt). The last time they did that was the opening week of the 2000 season, when they rushed and passed for an average of 4.2 yards per attempt against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Reche Caldwell is becoming Brady's go-to wideout, but the team needs either Doug Gabriel or Chad Jackson to get with the program. Gabriel's fumble was a killer. They were headed in for a 10-0 lead, but after the fumble, the Jets scored and we were down 7-3."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-3!

Monday, November 6, 2006

Patriots 20, Colts 27 (11/5/2006)

Well, I hope the Colts are happy they ruined my night :(

Actually, I’m sure they are happy about it, after handling the Patriots 27-20 to remain undefeated and open a two-game lead in race for the #1 AFC playoff seed. The loss put the Pats at 6-2 on the year, tied with the Broncos, Chargers, and Ravens for second place in the AFC – although they are still firmly in command in their division.

I also hope the Colts are happy with the win; because the Patriots defense easily played well enough to beat them, but the offense and special teams let them down. The defense was in bend-but-don’t break mode, giving up an relatively high 7.7 yards per pass but forcing the Colts into 4 field goal attempts (of which they missed 2), an interception, a fumble, and a punt. The Colts scored only 50% of the time they had the ball (they average a score 55% of the time), even though the Patriots offense and special teams gave them a short field on four of their ten drives.

Manning and company picked on the outside coverage, Asante Samuel (who had limited underneath help on Reggie Wayne) and Ellis Hobbs (who had deep help on Marvin Harrison). Combined, the two receivers had 14 catches for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns (one on a spectacular catch by Harrison) against coverage that was close-but-no-cigar all night. But even with that, I didn’t think they played that poorly. Some of the best plays by the secondary were wiped out by penalties (at least two interceptions and some nice passes defensed) that gave the Colts automatic first downs. And you just can’t give the Indy offense extra sets of downs. But all-in-all, not a bad night against an excellent Colts offense, especially when they lost their starting safety (Rodney Harrison) three plays into the game.

Six of the defensive front seven played well, too. They didn’t help a whole lot in coverage; but they got more pressure on the QB as the game went on, forcing Manning into short incompletions and an interception (to go along with the two potential INTs mentioned earlier). Manning made some fantastic plays in the face of that pressure. But the pass rush made him throw off his back foot, or throw earlier than he wanted to, a lot more often than he usually does, and he was sacked three times and hit a bunch more. The one front-seven player who didn’t play well was Junior Seau. He made one or two plays in pass coverage and in the running game, but for most of the night, he dropped coverage too early or blitzed himself out of the play when the Colts ran. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except for his incessant celebrating after even his worst plays. Nothing like pumping your fist when you miss a tackle in the backfield and the running back goes for eight yards up the middle.

Now for the bad news: the defensive players did not play on offense. Tom Brady was off all night, and some of his errant throws became interceptions. He wasn’t totally to blame – three of his four picks were tipped balls – but he didn’t switch from run to pass or pass to run when surveying the defense pre-snap. As a result, the Colts defense looked like world-beaters against the pass, but they’re really just a bad defense that ran into a bad offense. The Pats ran 33 times for 148 yards, and at 4.5 yards a clip, it’s unclear why they didn’t just continue to pound the ball. The Colts scored only 10 points in the second half, so it wasn’t like the game was out of reach.

Perhaps the coaching staff was afraid when the special teams gave up big returns, unduly worrying that the game would get out of hand. I said it at the bye week, the Patriots have to shore up their kick coverage teams or they will pay for it in the playoffs. Special teams coach Brad Seeley had better get his charges fired up and playing better, because that’s multiple weeks with 60+ yard returns against. And BTW, give rookie Stephen Gostkowski all the practice you can on in-game field goals. He missed from 36 yards, and that should be automatic.

And as for coaches, they deserve just as much blame as the players for this loss. I wrote last week that the Patriots won the Minnesota game with a great game plan, but they just as clearly lost this one with a bad one. Indy can’t stop the run and the Patriots were gaining 4.5 yards a carry. There was no excuse for not staying with the run, especially when Brady was suffering from Monday Night Hangover. Even with multiple short fields, Manning put up “only” 27 points, and the Patriots could have outdone that if they’d run 75% of the time instead of only 50%. They weren’t shy about throwing 75% of the time against the Vikings, and they should have done the same thing with the run against the Colts.

So where does that leave us. It leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth; because I know that if the offense *or* special teams played well, the Patriots would have won. However, 6-2 at the halfway point projects to 12-4, a pretty fine year by most any standard. And the Jets are coming in next Sunday to get slaughtered by the Pats, and that should cement the division title.

Statistical oddity of the week: the Minnesota Vikings came into last week’s Monday night game averaging 20 points a game. They’ve scored only 10 in the past two games, and 7 of those on a punt return.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Think there’s no such thing as the Monday Night Hangover? This year, teams that played on Monday Night Football are 7-12 the following week.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-2!