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!

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