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!

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