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!

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