Monday, December 25, 2006

Patriots 24, Jaguars 21 (12/21/2006)

If you didn't already hear, the Patriots beat the Jaguars yesterday to clinch a the division title and a spot in the playoffs. They have an outside chance at the third-seed (the Colts have to lose to the Dolphins and the Patriots have to beat the Titans); but they play a home game the first weekend of the playoffs.

I didn't see the game yesterday, and I won't be seeing it until at least mid-week. So I won't have an update for you -- perhaps I'll do a season-ending update on both the Jaguars and Titans games together.

Hope you have a nice holiday season and that you get some restful time off.

- Scott

PS. 11-4!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Patriots 40, Texans 7 (12/17/2006)

Now I know why they call them "laughers" -- because you spend the second half joking and smiling with your friends, as your team beats the opponent into submission. A 40-7 pasting of the lowly Texans might not tell you much about the Patriots, but they had zero turnovers, grabbed four interceptions, and had only only two penalties for ten yards. That would be good news for any NFL team, but with the Patriots recent problems with turnovers and penalties, it was might have been better news than the win itself (note: I said, "might have been"). The win maintained the team's two-game lead in the AFC East, and kept them within striking distance of a playoff bye, if one of the contenders stumbles.

I think this update will be a little shorter than usual, because there wasn't much to criticize and there was too much to compliment. What I liked was that they played excellent football across the board, with big plays on special teams and defense and steady (if not spectacular) plays on offense. Special teams led the way twice in the game. First, they had an important stop on a fake punt on Houston's first drive (tackle by Larry Izzo); and the offense turned that into seven easy points on a run by Kevin Faulk. And then, the special teams came through again with great blocking on a kick-off return that sprang Ellis Hobbs for a touchdown. That came after Houston scored on their first drive of the second half; and it killed any momentum Houston might have thought they had. Even Stephen Gostkowski got into the action, going a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals and on extra points.

The offense was very good, though their average starting field position was the Texans 49 yard-line, so the yardage totals weren't too impressive. The screen pass to Kevin Faulk was an inspired call against a near-all-out blitz (and resulted in an untouched 43-yard touchdown scamper), and the offense took advantage of their whopping nine first-half possessions to build a 27-0 lead (their biggest at the half since December 2003). They had only two three-and-outs for the game, even though everyone in the stadium knew they would run the ball most of the second half. They committed zero turnovers, and Houston notched just one QB sack and knocked down only one pass for the entire game. My favorite play of the game was when Reche Caldwell took a short pass and dragged a defender four yards to make it an eight-yard gain on third-and-seven. He just wouldn't be denied, and the Pats scored on that drive -- showing once again the importance of keeping the chains moving.

The defense was spectacular. They picked off Texans QB David Carr four times, Richard Seymour's tip to himself play being the best of the bunch, and limited him to 57% completions. He came in at nearly 70%, but yesterday would reach that number only if you include the four he completed to the Patriots. The defense gave up some running yards, owing mostly to Vince Wilfork's absence, but it didn't matter in this game. 4.8 yards per carry is nice; but when it's coupled with 2.9 yards per pass attempt, it's probably in a losing cause. I just hope Vince is back for the playoffs; because those teams will all be able to run *and* pass. The D kept constant pressure on Carr (4 sacks for 34 yards), and the receivers were harassed all day, averaging only 2 catches each on the day. Asante Samuel got his eighth pick of the year (still tied for the league lead), but perhaps more importantly, James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs got one each. The team will need everyone in the secondary to contribute if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

My only two complaints were the continued bad punting of Ken Walter and the overall run defense. Walter won't get any better, so I think the Pats should try out possible replacements for the stretch run. And the run defense might not get Wilfork back, and that worries me. Mike Wright is no Vince Wilfork; and if they have to switch to a 4-3, that will expose the secondary. So they really need either Wilfork or Rodney Harrison back; and they won't go far unless they get at least one of them.

So where does that leave us. Well, pending tonight's Indy game, the Pats currently own in the fourth playoff spot. If they can't get a first-round bye (highly unlikely, as they'd have to win the next two and have the Ravens and Colts *both* lose two games), they probably want to fight tooth-and-nail to get the third seed. That would mean a home playoff game followed by a likely trip to play the Ravens in Baltimore, which is a better matchup than going to San Diego to play the Chargers. The Ravens don't have the offensive balance to hurt the Pats; the Chargers do. So root, root, root for an Indy loss tonight, and then hope the Pats can win out and the Colts lose at least once more.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their six seasons under Bill Belichick, they Patriots have ranked #17 in points allowed three times (2000, 2002, & 2005). The other three years, they ranked #6, #1, and #2 -- and won the Super Bowl each year. Don't look now, but this year, they are #2 again :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I think the Pats should use the salary cap space they were going to use to re-sign Deion Branch to get Asante Samuel and Ty Warren under contract right now. Those guys are having two of the great contract-year pushes in Patriots history."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-4!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Patriots 0, Dolphins 21 (12/10/2006)

Say “good-bye” to the Bye. The Dolphins severely damaged the Patriots chances at one of the first two playoff spots with a 21-0 undressing in Miami. At 9-4, the Pats maintained their two-game lead in the division (thank you, Jets), but any hope of catching the Ravens or Colts is just about gone (essentially two games behind with three to play).

I guess that’s what happens when you can count the good plays on one hand and all of them were on defense. Tough to win when you can’t score, and the offense was bad, worse, and worst all day. 66 net yards passing, 5 sacks, 3 fumbles, 4 badly timed penalties for 20 yards (and a nullified touchdown), and a paltry 3.3 yards per play (including 2.0 yards per pass attempt). Did I leave anything out?

To repeat, the offense was awful. The O-line looked like they were playing five-against-ten, with rushers coming free play after play. It looked like Nick Kazcur and Matt Light were in their first professional games. Neither could stop a power rush or slow down a speed rush. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor even beat a two-offensive-linemen double-team by just splitting them up the middle and crashing into Brady. Don’t be fooled by the rushing stats (123 yards, 4.9 average); the offensive line stunk up the joint.

As for the running backs, Dillon was fine (79 yards on 16 carries), and Kevin Faulk did okay work both running and passing. Unfortunately, the Pats couldn’t keep it on the ground because penalties and negative plays kept them in long-yardage all day. And Faulk messed up a crucial play when threw a forward pass to Brady instead of a lateral, which nullified a touchdown that would have made the game 13-7 with ten minutes to go. Instead, Brady was strip-sacked three plays later and the game was over.

Rosevelt Colvin and Ty Warren were the defensive stars of the game, and Colvin is coming on as the season closes just like last year. The team held the Dolphins to 1-6 on third-down conversions and only 6 points in the first half, but it just didn’t matter. With the offense playing like it was the pre-season, the defense needed to get a turnover in the first three quarters to really make a difference. And they couldn’t do it.

To top it off, Vince Wilfork was injured in the third quarter, and the Dolphins took advantage, running enough to draw the Pats defense up and then burning them with deep passes for 32 yards (a touchdown) and 26 yards (which led to a touchdown). If Wilfork can’t come back, the Pats are in trouble, because their remaining road games are against two of the top rushing teams in the NFL (Tennessee averages 4.5 yards per rush, Jacksonville 4.4). Be well, Vince… be well.

And Ken Walter, your 34.1 yard gross average and 29 yard net average just don’t cut it when your counterpart gives his team 41.2 and 37.7, respectively. Show us your rehab is complete, kick just one 50-yarder to restore our confidence, will ya?

And I’ve got one complaint for Josh McDaniels. I thought his double-lateral-Brady-pass that resulted in the called-back touchdown was great, and they ran enough to keep the Dolphins off-balance. But whomever decided to throw it 30-yards down field to Ben Watson on third-and-eleven must own up to it. It was still a 6-0 game, and you needed a first down – so if you called for the 30-yard pass, then stop it, and if Brady decided to throw it, then tell him to stop it. Nothing has killed you guys more this season than long pass attempts on third-and-manageable downs – long passes that end drives if they are off by six inches.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The three best Patriots offensive plays of the day were a 21-yard pass to Troy Brown, a 17-yard run by Corey Dillon, and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on the Dolphins.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The Patriots are tied for the fifth-best record in the league. Why does it feel like they’re almost out of the playoffs?”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Correction from last week: I said the Patriots had nine turnovers in two games -- it was really eight.

PPS. 9-4!

Monday, December 4, 2006

Patriots 28, Lions 21 (12/3/2006)

In a game that had as many bad plays as good ones (or maybe it was more bad ones than good), the Patriots outlasted the Lions 28-21, eking out a win over a perennial NFL sad sack that currently sports a 2-10 record. The turnover-fest gave the Patriots a sweep of their four games with the NFC North, and put them at 9-3, which helped maintain their 2-game lead in the division and keep hope alive for a first-round playoff bye.

Call it what you will: the Letdown Bowl, the Eked-it-out Bowl, the Frustration Bowl, the Up-and-down Bowl, a "trap" game. I call it the Whew! Bowl, because I was relieved the Pats found a way to win despite all the turnovers and penalties. It's rare that your quarterback completes 70% of his passes for over 300 yards and the game is this close. But the Pats had badly timed penalties and some poor plays that allowed the Lions to keep control of the football and stay in the game. A playoff performance like this almost always sends you home early, so here's hoping they've gotten it out of their system.

Brady did have one really bad play, a rookie-level interception in the second half where he didn't even look off the defense. Fortunately, he was superb down the stretch (14 for his last 15), and he got them the points they needed to win. So I'll give him a mulligan on his worst INT since the Miami game in 2004 (if you don't remember that one, he threw it while being sacked and the Pats ended up blowing an 11-point lead to a 4-12 Dolphin team). The trouble for most of yesterday's game was that Brady was under a lot of pressure. He was barely touched by Chicago's defense, but a Lions team that averages only two sacks a game was in the backfield all day long. Couple that with a mediocre running performance, and the O-line drops from an A- last week to a D- this week.

The running game was hampered by the loss of Laurence Maroney, who trotted off the field in the first quarter and never came back. Reportedly, he was "shaken up" and should be fine (if you believe the Patriots on such matters). As a team, they had only 79 yards on 24 carries, but Corey Dillon had 3 rushing touchdowns (2 of them within 6:00 of game time in the fourth quarter). Again, overall, not a stellar performance. Reche Caldwell continued to improve, with 8 catches for 112 yards, and most important of all, after every catch, he smothered the ball with both hands and took whatever yards he could. No fumbles for him this week -- he must be sick of Belichick yelling at him. Kevin Faulk was the other receiving star, with 8 catches of his own for 59 yards. But Ben Watson took a step back, with only 3 catches for 41 yards and a game-endangering fumble in the fourth quarter.

The defense played a very up-and-down game. Mike Vrabel missed a lot of pass coverage over the middle, but made up for it with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Rosevelt Colvin missed a *huge* tackle to allow Detroit to convert on 3rd-and-22, but also had two sacks and did a good job on outside contain. Asante Samuel had a penalty called against him to allow Detroit to keep the ball in the first half, but also had another interception and four passes defensed. And Tedy Bruschi led the team with 11 tackles, but he was out of position and/or missed the coverage several other times. Like I said, very up-and down.

With Junior Seau out for the year, the changes at linebacker caused problems stopping the passing game over the mid-range middle of the field. The Lions feasted on 10- to 15-yard slants and in-cuts all day, and the Pats were lucky they kept trying less successful long bombs and had plenty of penalties themselves. The D also gave up first-down conversions on 3rd-and-9, 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-22, and also let Lions gain 17 yards on 3rd-and-21(which allowed them to kick a field goal instead of punting). The D-line appeared to turn their energy off-and-on when they felt like it, alternatively dominating the point of attack and giving up chunks of yardage on simple trap-blocking plays. Just not a good defensive day. I think they need Rodney Harrison back in the secondary before the playoffs -- just to solidify things enough so their front-seven can return dominance.

As for special teams, nothing to report. For the second straight week, they didn't give up any big returns, nor did they get any themselves. Not much was asked of them, and they didn't have to do much... so no harm, no foul.

So where does that leave us. If the playoffs started today, the 9-3 Pats would be the fourth-seed in the AFC, behind the 10-2 twins, San Diego and Indianapolis, and losing a tie-breaker to the 9-3 Ravens (5-3 conference record vs. Baltimore's 6-2 mark). To get one of the first two spots, the Patriots will have to win out and hope that two teams in front of them stumble -- unlikely if you ask me. In fact, they might not even win out. Given all that, the Pats need to take care of business this weekend and win at Miami, to keep their stranglehold on the division title. The Jets are two games behind, but their remaining schedule is easy enough that they could overtake the Pats if they don't focus on the job at hand.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the first time under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have nine total give-aways in a two-game stretch. Somehow, they won both times.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Did you know that Asante Samuel is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-3!