Monday, January 29, 2007

Patriots 2006 Regular Season Awards (1/29/2007)

As happened last year, there was no playoff bye week for the Patriots, so I held this off until the season was over. I wanted to take a few minutes to honor the best regular season players of 2006. The team improved from 10-6 to 12-4, and there were some bright spots to provide hope for the future.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady

Honorable Mention: Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins

You might think "same as it ever was," since I tend to choose Brady every year. But he excelled this year even when working with a totally revamped receiving corps and injuries that kept him wondering who would play from week to week. His numbers were down, but even throwing to newcomers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, he managed to complete 62% of his passes and threw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (24 to 12). Only his coaches can tell you if this was his best year (I think 2005 was), but given the talent around him, it was an exceptional performance.

Koppen is the other half of Brady's brain on the field, changing protections, snap counts, faking snaps in the shotgun -- all the while trying to block the 350-pound tackles across the way. And if you need proof that Mankins is fast becoming one of the league's best linemen, I read several national columnists who think he should have been in the Pro Bowl this year.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Logan Mankins

Honorable Mention: None

Mankins was last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he was even better in 2006. He was a very good positional and power blocker on running plays, bringing the nasty attitude you need to run the ball and rarely taking off a play. By my count, he allowed only 1 sack for the season, and by the official NFL count, he committed only 5 penalties the entire year. Not bad given the pressure on the O-line -- as Brady and the receivers spent about 10 games getting in sync.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Laurence Maroney

Honorable Mention: None

Maroney really was in a class by himself this year. He showed flashes of brilliance early in the year, providing the Patriots with their first fast/slashing runner since Curtis Martin. He was second on the team with 745 yards, and would have led the team if a rib injury hadn't cost him a few mid-season games. He hit the rookie wall late in the year, so he'll have to improve his conditioning. But Maroney appears to be a running back who can do it all, so the future looks bright at that position.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Ty Warren

Honorable Mention: Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel

It was all about Ty Warren this year. He totaled almost as many tackles as his regular linemates combined -- Warren had 84, Seymour and Wilfork had 90 together. Seymour and Wilfork each had a season high of 7 tackles in a game (each did it only once); Warren had at least 7 tackles 6 times. It's rare for a lineman in the 3-4 to lead his team in tackles, but Warren did it in the Jets game (11 tackles). And in the playoffs, the Chargers and Colts both preferred to run at Seymour and away from Warren. This was quite a contract push by Warren. Here's hoping the Patriots pay him to stick around.

Asante Samuel had quite the contract push, too. He tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions, and threw in 2 in the post-season (both of which he returned for touchdowns). Mike Vrabel's versatility was key to the Pats defense. Without his switch to the inside (after Junior Seau was injured), the team would not have finished 2nd in the NFL in scoring defense -- because that unit would have been in shambles otherwise.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Asante Samuel

Honorable Mention: Ty Warren, James Sanders

Quite an improvemend for Asante Samuel this year. His 10 interceptions were 7 better than his previous high, and his 59 tackles and 14 passes defensed were also career bests. And if you need more proof that he has arrived, consider that with all the INTs and passes defensed, he was called for pass interference exactly *once* the entire year. In fact, he committed only three penalties for 18 yards in all of 2006; some accomplishment with the rules skewed the way they were against the defensive backs.

Ty Warren posted career highs in tackles, sacks (7.5), and passes defensed (4). James Sanders was a nightmare as an early year replacement for Eugene Wilson, but he was steady and consistent by year's end. He had career highs across the board, too. Maybe his play will allow Wilson to return to cornerback next year.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: None

Name me one Patriots rookie who played very much on defense this year, and I'll give that man the award.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Lonnie Paxton

Honorable Mention: Larry Izzo

Second year in a row that I can't remember a single bad snap by Paxton. And it was more critical this year than last, with a rookie placekicker, three punters, and three holders all in 2006.

As for Izzo; well, even in his 10th season, he still brings it like a rookie fighting for a roster spot.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

My lasting image of Hobbs's special teams play last year was his fumble in the Denver playoff game. This year, he returned fewer kickoffs but made them count more. He improved his return average by 50%, and of his 10 returns, 3 went for over 40 yards and one was returned 93 yards for a touchdown. And best of all, no fumbles the entire year -- woo-hoo!

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Stephen Gostkowski

Honorable Mention: Laurence Maroney, Antwain Spann

Gostkowski was supposed to replace Adam Vinatieri, so here's a comparison of the numbers (looks like the rookie did himself proud):

Vinatieri in 2005: 20 for 25 in field goals (80%), 61.7 yards per kick-off and 10 touchbacks.
Gostkowski in 2006: 20 for 26 in field goal (76.9%), 65.5 yards per kick-off and 12 touchbacks.

Maroney teamed up with Hobbs to put the spark back in the kick-return game. He broke several for over 40 yards, and more importantly, he made teams afraid to kick to him. Antwain Spann made several heads-up plays this year that distinguished him from the crowd of special teamers.

That's about it for this week. I'll send something next week about the team's off-season needs.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. My Super Bowl pick: Colts 31 Bears 17.

PPS. This is my 102nd Patriots Update. Thanks for your interest and for giving me a forum for the past three years.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Patriots 34, Colts 38 (1/21/2007)

Every time these teams play in Indianapolis, the score ends up 38-34. What's up with that? As you probably know, the Patriots built a huge lead (21-3 at one point) and then the Colts outscored them 35-13 the rest of the way to beat the Pats in the AFC Championship game. The game leaves us... well, nowhere. The Colts go on to Super Bowl XLI and the Patriots go home to lick their wounds and build a new team for next year.

The Pats had at least five chances to close out the game, and failed on all five of them (or you could say the Colts succeeded in stopping all five). It was frustrating because in the past, the Patriots always made those kinds of plays, but this time the Colts found ways to stay in the game. With the score 21-3 late in the first half, the Patriots got the ball at the Colts 48 and if they got a touchdown, it would have been a four-score lead and essentially "game over." But once they got into field goal range, they were called for two penalties, Brady was sacked, and they had to punt. On the Colts ensuing possession, the Colts had a 3rd-and-10 at their own 12 yard-line. A stop at that point and the Patriots would go into the half with a three-score lead. But Reggie Wayne got free for 18 yards, and the Colts got a field goal on that drive to bring the lead down to two scores.

After the Colts opened the second half with a touchdown (now a one-score lead), the Pats needed to get a few first downs to let the defense rest. But the play-calling was uninspired and Heath Evans couldn't gain a thing on a swing pass, so they punted it back to the Colts, who easily drove for another TD against the weary New England defense. (Note: at that point, they had played 34 of the last 37 non-special teams plays, so of course they were exhausted.) With the score tied 28-28, the Pats had a first down at the Colts 13; but a penalty cost them five yards and they had to settle for a field goal. Later in the game, the Pats had a three-point lead and held the Colts to a 3-and-out, and I thought they'd won the game. All the needed to do was get one first down to run out enough of the clock. But Heath Evans got an offensive penalty and the Pats couldn't overcome the 1st-and-15 and had to punt it away.

There were other chances: Reche Caldwell's two costly drops, a bad non-call when Jabar Gaffney was interfered with in the end zone, a bogus roughing the passer call that cost the Pats a chance at overtime, and very good field position that the team cashed in only two out of four times. But in my opinion, those five were the killers. Every one of them could have effectively ended the Colts season, and the Patriots missed on each and every one. Uncharacteristic and humbling.

It's tough to complain about an offense that put up 34 points... but let me give it a shot. Eight rushing yards in the second half -- you gotta be kidding me. Brady gets more than that on quarterback sneaks in some games. And the offense just didn't take advantage of the great field position they had all day. They started five possessions at or beyond their own 40 yard-line and got only 13 points out those drives. And lastly, how about some untimely penalties. Troy Brown had no business winding up and shoving a DB (though that is the first time this year I've seen the standard "pick" play called against the offense). And Heath Evans's "12th man in the huddle" and Jabar Gaffney forgetting to come to a stop after breaking the huddle were just stupid mental errors that had no business in an AFC Championship game.

In the final analysis, the offense had a good game but needed to do better. The Patriots probably win if they go 6-14 on third-down conversions instead of 5-14, or if they are 4 for 5 in the red zone instead of 3 for 4, or if they convert some rushing losses into short gains, or maybe change their couple of big runs into a few more medium-length runs, or maybe take a time out instead of giving up five-yards on the 12-men penalty, or make two catches on easy throws that were dropped. Woulda, coulda, shoulda... go home for the off-season.

As for the defense, I've got more complaints about the coaching decisions than the players. They were obviously afraid of what San Diego did against their run defense, so they demoted Tully Banta-Cain, moved Mike Vrabel back outside, and started Eric Alexander inside. Once the Colts figured out that Alexander couldn't cover anyone, they killed the Pats with passes to the tight ends (who totalled 8 catches for 174 yards). But this was a desperation move in the biggest game of the year. The Chargers ran the ball well because they have a great O-line and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. The Colts were never a threat to run the ball that way, and the Pats should have switched back to Banta-Cain once the Colts started to exploit Alexander.

Additionally, I thought their decision to blitz Peyton Manning almost every play was doomed to failure. The key with Manning is to confuse him: show him blitz and then drop into 8-man coverage; show him a 3-man rush, and then blitz the corner from his blind side; line up in standard alignment and use a zone-blitz; essentially do whatever it takes to make him question what he sees. Blitzing every time was foolhardy. And I've also read reports that the defensive coaches had them in a 3-4-4 at the end of the game, even though the Colts had very more trouble against the nickel package (3-3-5). The only way they should have chosen the 3-4-4 for the most important drive of the year is if injuries left them no choice -- but they ran the 3-3-5 on the Colts previous 3-and-out, so I don't see how that could be the case.

As for the players, Alexander had great stats, but got burned on passing plays all day. Rosevelt Colvin was a monster early on, but he injured his hamstring and barely played the rest of the day. The blitzing did put pressure on Manning (the linebackers got 3 sacks and the line was near Manning all day), and Asante Samuel returned an early INT for a touchdown. In fact, given all the blitzing, I thought the defensive backfield acquitted themselves nicely. As a unit, they totaled 18 tackles, 6 passes defensed, one interception, and only one penalty. I like the way James Sanders has developed this year; and it's good to have someone to step in for the aging Rodney Harrison. The defensive line and linebackers obviously wore down during the game, and Manning kept the pressure on by going no-huddle to limit their substitutions. But considering the coaching problems, injuries (both coming into the game and during the game), and the wear-and-tear of playing so many snaps in a row, I thought they held up as well as could be expected.

The special teams had a spectacular game, setting up great field position with some excellent returns, going 2 for 2 on field goals and 4 of 4 on extra points, and averaging 51.4 yards per punt without giving up any big returns. Too bad it came in a loss; but I think the Pats found their kickers for the near future.

Special teams notwithstanding, I do question the coaching decisions. The offensive staff hasn't made effective halftime adjustments all year, and it cost them on Sunday. They just don't seem to understand what defensive adjustments the opposition will make, and they rarely score coming out of the locker room. In fact, in 19 games this year (including post-season), they scored 24 total points on the first drive of the second half. Additionally, they had two turnovers, seven 3-and-outs, 11 punts on the first drive of the second half. Not good. Josh McDaniels did a better job this year than last, and he needs to continue improving to make the offense dynamic enough to keep the pressure on the opponent. As for the defensive coaching, Dean Pees did a better job this year than Eric Mangini did last year -- just not in the Colts game.

So where does that leave us. With a well-deserved rest after a frantic season. Lots of ups and downs, lots of excitement, and another year of Brady's career gone by the wayside without a championship. I suspect the Patriots plan to make a big splash in free agency, perhaps signing another big-time linebacker (a la Rosevelt Colvin) and/or defensive back. I'd like them to keep Asante Samuel, but I think another team will overpay him and he'll go the route of David Givens.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the season, it took me an average of 1.164 hours longer to send out the update when the Patriots lost than it did when they won (including this week).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gotta hand it to the Colts. They faced elimination about five times, and came up every time."

Keep the faith... well, keep it warm and toasty during the long, cold winter.

- Scott



Friday, January 19, 2007

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/19/2007)

So we meet again, my friend. It's Pats/Colts this Sunday in Indianapolis for the right to go to (and probably win) the Super Bowl. Patriots are playing for the chance to solidify their dynasty by becoming only the second team to win four Super Bowls in six years (the Pittsburgh Steelers did it from 1975 - 1980). The Colts are playing for a chance to build their legacy, attempting to crown their recent run of regular season success (60 wins in the past 5 seasons) with a Super Bowl championship.

The Colts won a regular season game against the Patriots, 27-20 on November 5 in Foxboro. And as is my standard practice in such cases, I will try to decide whether or not enough has changed since that game to give the Patriots a chance to make up the seven-point margin of defeat.

Point #1. Change of venue is exactly what the Patriots needed.

I know it sounds nonsensical, but the Patriots have a better chance to win this Sunday in the dome than they did at home in November. In the regular season game, the Gillette Stadium turf was all chewed up, and that slowed down the Patriots pass rush and gave the defensive backs fits. Between them, Colts receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne caught 14 balls for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns. You might think they'd be even more of a mismatch on turf. But beat up fields always favor the receivers who know where they're going over the defenders who can't cut or make up ground as easily once they recognize the play.

Additionally, Tom Brady is 10-0 in domes and 22-1 on artificial turf in his career (note: the November game was played on natural grass). And if you need more proof they are better off playing in Indy, they are 5-3 at home this season and 9-1 on the road. They showed last week they can handle a hostile crowd and thrive on the road.

Advantage New England.

Point #2. Don't be fooled by pretend-experts, the Colts cannot run the ball.

I'm still amazed at the number of media pundits who were impressed by the Colts running game last week. They gained 100 yards on 35 carries, but they only cracked triple-digits because they had so many carries. For the record, their 2.9 yards per carry was 12% lower than the 3.3 YPC the Baltimore defense allowed on the season *and* 28% lower than the 4.0 yards the Colts offense averaged. And in the November game in New England, their performance was even worse. In that contest, their 2.1 YPC was 46% lower than the 3.9 YPC allowed by the Patriots defense on the year and 48% lower than the Colts offense averaged on the year. And that was a game in which Richard Seymour was nursing a severe elbow injury and Rodney Harrison went out of the game after the first series.

The Colts will not run the ball well on Sunday, of that much I am certain. That makes the Colts offense one-dimensional; and historically, Belichick has feasted offenses like that.

Advantage New England.

Point #3. Once again, don't be fooled, the Colts can't stop the run, either.

Indy allowed an NFL-worst 173 yards rushing per game in the regular season, but in the playoffs, they've held opponents to 63.5 per game. So the press claims the Indy rushing defense is much better now, but I disagree. The Kansas City game was an aberration, with bad play-calling and dropped passes that limited KC's offensive chances (20:37 of possession time) and kept the Colts defense fresh. As for the Baltimore game, their running attack was overrated all year long (even by me, in my Playoff Preview). They ranked #24 in the league with 102.3 yards per game and #31 (2nd worst in the league) with 3.4 yards per carry. But even though they got only 83 yards last weekend, Indy allowed them to *increase* their YPC by 23% (to 4.2 YPC).

What does it all mean? That the press wants to believe the Colts defense is on the rise -- maybe because they want to fawn over the Colts during the two-week run-up to Super Bowl XLI. But the facts just don't support it, especially against Baltimore. Also consider that, even though the Colts had Hall-of-Famer-to-be Bob Sanders at safety in November, the Colts allowed 148 yards on the ground and 4.5 YPC. Those were increases of 20% and 15% over New England's regular season average, respectively.

Advantage New England.

Point #4. If it's all about the players, the Patriots are in good shape.

In the November game, the Patriots played without two of their best run-blockers (Stephen Neal and Daniel Graham) and still ran for 148 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. They also lost Rodney Harrison during the first drive of the game, and James Sanders was not very effective as an emergency replacement. I don't believe the rumors that Harrison will play on Sunday, but Sanders has rounded into a dependable safety who can make big stops in the running game and even rushing the passer (both he and Artrell Hawkins, the other safety, had sacks against the Chargers). In other words, he is a much better replacement now than he was when thrown into the fray in November.

Add to that the relative health of the team -- Harrison is listed as doubtful and the flu has made three players questionable, but they will play, count on it -- and it all looks good for New England.

Advantage New England.


A) New England is 5-0 in AFC Championship games, and that includes 3-0 on the road.

B) Tom Brady's average game the week after he throws at least 3 interceptions (as he did last week): 22 for 34, 234 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, 0.14 interceptions (that's 1 interception in 7 games), and 23 points. His record is 5-2.

C) This post-season, Brady has 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Peyton Manning has 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions.


I hated to do this for the Jets game, and I hate it even more now, but this game looks like a comfortable win for the Patriots. They are at the top of their game, their safeties are playing well and Asante Samuel is shutting down everything coming his way. All of the Chargers passing success came because the Patriots over-committed to stop the run (not that it did them much good), but they won't have to do that against Indy. If Ricky Proehl plays and is productive, that will even the game a bit more; but he's questionable.

I don't see how Indy scores on more than four of their drives, and that won't get it done with a balance and efficient Patriots offense going against a small and porous Indy defense. The Colts held it together against the poorly coached Chiefs and the unproductive Ravens. But the Pats QB/WR combination is coming together at the right time, the crowd noise rarely affects the Patriots offensive timing, and the Patriots have all their best run blockers back.. So I see a 10- or 13-point win. Something like 31-20 sounds about right.

(Amazing) Statistical Oddity of the Week: Two weeks ago, Asante Samuel became the first defensive player in NFL history to score in consecutive post-seasons (against the Jets this year and the Jaguars last year -- credit to for this tidbit). Think he'll get his payday in free agency?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots *have* to win on Sunday. Otherwise, it'll be two weeks of 'Peyton Manning' this and 'Peyton Manning' that -- to be followed by his epic collapse in the Super Bowl. Yuck!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 15, 2007

Patriots 24, Chargers 21 (1/14/2007)

Bill Belichick might be speechless, but not me... I've got *plenty* to say. That was by far the best game I've seen in two years, a scintillating 24-21 come-from-behind Patriots win over the first-seeded Chargers. It was hard fought and nerve-wracking to watch, but that's the kind of game that keeps me coming back to football year after year. The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship game this Sunday (6:30 pm) against Peyton "Cut That Meat!" Manning and the red hot Indianapolis Colts. More on that game later, but on to yesterday's amazing contest.

When I think about how the Patriots won, five things come to mind: they are a better coached team that had no stupid penalties and few dropped passes; there were five fumbles in the game and the Pats ended up with possession of the ball after every single one of them; the defensive backfield kept hitting and knocking down passes; the offensive line played lights-out the entire second half; and they have magic-man Tom Brady at quarterback.

You're going to hear a lot about Tom Brady's final two drives for the tying and winning points. But the offensive linemen were the real stars of the game. After some early pressure, they kept the sack-happy Chargers in check the rest of the game. It wasn't like the Minnesota game, where Brady was never touched, but with pass rushers like San Diego, there was no way that was happening on Sunday. But the O-line kept Brady upright and gave him enough time to score when needed. And when the coaches switched from maximum QB protection to wide open formations, ironically the O-line handled the Charger blitz packages even better. Kudos to Matt Light, Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, and Nick Kazcur.

As for the aforementioned Mr. Brady, he came through when it counted most. His numbers on the day were more like vintage Peyton Manning playoff numbers: 27 of 51 for 280 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. But with the team down by 8 points in the fourth quarter, he led his offense to 11 points and the victory. The running game was as mundane as Brady's numbers; 51 yards and a 2.4 per carry average. It was so bad, the Pats abandoned the run early, rushing seven times for six yards the entire second half.

Some of the biggest plays were made by the Patriots receiving corps -- and only some of them were receptions. Reche Caldwell had a touchdown to tie the game at 21-21, and a *huge* 49 yard catch to set up the winning field goal. But his biggest play in the game was recovering a fumble after a Brady interception on the aforementioned touchdown drive. And who do you think forced the Chargers defense to fumble that interception? Why it was another receiver, part-time defensive back Troy Brown, who stripped it away. Brown had little impact as a receiver, but that play gave the Patriots a chance to stay in the game. And lastly, backup tight end Dave Thomas had zero catches on the day, but he recovered a fumbled punt and the ensuing drive ended with a Pats field goal.

As for the passing game itself (where wideouts usually earn their keep), Jabbar Gaffney had his second straight 100-yard receiving game (10 grabs for 103 yards). He now has more catches in the playoffs (18) than he did all regular season. He also had four receptions, including the touchdown, on the Pats important scoring drive late in the first half. That drive kept the Pats in the game, changing a 14-3 rout into a 14-10 dogfight. And the tight ends contributed, with Daniel Graham's 19-yard catch changing field position on one scoring drive and Ben Watson's lone 9-yarder setting up another touchdown.

The defense never really stopped LaDainian Tomlinson (23 carries, 123 yards, 2 touchdowns), even though he appeared to be hurt in the first half. He consistently exploited the guard-tackle gap, and also hurt the Pats with a 54-yard screen pass that led to a touchdown. However, the defense got better against Tomlinson as the game went on, holding him to 4.4 yards a carry in the second half after he totaled 6.1 yards a carry in the first.

Rosevelt Colvin also got better, making a beautiful interception in the second half on the play that LT had burned him on earlier in the game. Overall, the linebackers were very hot-and-cold, missing tackles for big gains and then sacking the QB or stuffing the run just when they needed to do so. The defensive line didn't play particularly well, mostly getting pushed off the ball and not making many tackles at all. The Chargers attacked Ty Warren's side of the field, so he ended up with 7 tackles, Vince Wilfork with 3, and Richard Seymour with just 1.

The defensive backfield deserves most of the credit in this game. James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins had 13 tackles combined and each recorded a sack. And thank you, Ellis Hobbs, who had a couple of huge hits and knocked down four passes on the day (including a sure touchdown). In fact, all of the DBs hit and hit some more, creating problems for the San Diego passing attack. As expected, Chargers QB Philip Rivers seemed confused some of the time, but his miscues didn't cost the team as much as dropped passes did. The game verified what I wrote last week; the Chargers wide receivers are worse than the Patriots wide receivers. Vincent Jackson dropped at least three catchable throws, Keenan McCardell dropped two, even the Sainted Antonio Gates dropped one, and Eric Parker dropped four or five *and* topped off his day by fumbling a punt. Credit a hard-hitting defense for holding Gates in check and hitting the receivers until they couldn't even catch the ball. But also lay the blame at the feet of the receivers -- there's no excuse for playing that poorly in the biggest game of your career.

Special teams provided several highlights, including a recovered fumble, a two-point conversion on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk, and three pressure-packed field goals by rookie Stephen Gostkowski. The Chargers special teams played well, too, keeping the Patriots pinned back with several great punts (and one great play to down a punt at the three yard-line). Overall, a draw. But since the Patriots play again next week and San Diego doesn't, I was happy to see Gostkowski perform well in the playoffs.

Overall, I also liked the coaching in this game. They held the high-powered Chargers attack in check most of the second half. They stopped the Chargers on multiple drives in the middle of the field, instead of their habit of stopping teams at the goal line. And the switch to three-wideouts proved crucial, as it force the Chargers to use some of their worst backups (fifth and sixth defensive backs) instead of some of their best (fourth defensive linemen and fifth linebacker).

And as for the coaching on the other side of the ball; well, it was bad. Reportedly, Marty Schottenheimer could be fired soon, and he might just deserve it, even after a 14-2 regular season. Once again he coached an undisciplined team to the first playoff seed, and lost his first game. His team took too many stupid penalties and dropped too many easy passes. He should have tried a field goal on 4th-and-11 early in the game (instead he went for it and gave up a strip-sack fumble), and he should have run the ball more in the second half. And most important of all, he should *not* have challenged a fumble play late in the game, because it was obviously called correctly and the failed challenge cost him a timeout. That timeout could have saved his team 40-seconds of clock time -- which could have gotten his team a shorter field goal at the end. Instead, they missed a 54-yarder with time running out, and he's headed home for the rest of the playoffs. Just bad coaching.

So where does that leave us. Well, most important of all, the team is playing next week. It's on to Indy to take on Manning, Vinatieri, Tony Dungy and the rest of the Colts. "Can they win?" you ask. Well, you'll have to wait until later in the week for my thoughts on that. Just suffice it to say the teams played earlier this year (a Colts 27-20 victory in Foxboro), and *plenty* has changed since that game -- some of it good for the Pats, some of it good for the Colts. I'll check back with an update Thursday or Friday with my thoughts and (maybe) a prediction.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In his first 10 playoff games, Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. In his last 3 playoff games, he's thrown 5.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe they should use Troy Brown on the blitz. Who knows, he might strip-sack Manning for the game winning turnover."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Thursday, January 11, 2007

Patriots vs. Chargers Preview (1/11/2007)

Judging by the sound and the fury on both sides of this Sunday's game, it should be a barn-burner. San Diego comes into the game with ten straight victories, the most wins on the year (14), the #1 scoring offense (492 points, 65 better than any other team), the best scoring differential in the league (+189 points), the 2006 NFL MVP (LaDainian Tomlinson), the league's leading sacker (Shawne Merriman with 17), and home field throughout the AFC playoffs -- important because they went 8-0 at home this year. The Patriots, meanwhile, have won four straight, have the NFL's #2 scoring defense, are fourth in point differential (+148), have the best clutch QB in league history, have a head coach widely acknowledged as one of the best ever, and sport a 7-1 road record this year.

For every point, there seems to be a counter-point. Patriots fans point to Marty Schottenheimer's 5-12 playoff record, to the fact that twice before he entered the playoffs as the first seed only to lose in the first round, and to coach Bill Belichick's mastery over young quarterbacks. Chargers fans counter that Schottenheimer is 7-2 head-to-head against Belichick, that he's gotten away from the conservative "Martyball" that cost him dearly in previous years, or that mastery over young quarterbacks won't help the Pats stop Tomlinson.

With so many factors playing into the game, it will be tough determine how the game will play out, let alone who might win. But of course, that doesn't mean I won't give it my best shot.


Point #1. Play Martyball early and then let it fly.

Much has been made of Bill Belichick's talent for beating young quarterbacks in the playoffs. His defensive schemes are easily the most complex in the league, and the opponent never knows whether he will call for the 3-4, 4-3, 2-5, or 2-4-4-1 (two linemen, four linebackers, four defensive backs, and one Troy Brown). Add to the mix a young quarterback in his first playoff run, and there's bound to be confusion, which often leads to turnovers, which usually wins the game for the Patriots. This trend goes back a long way; for reference, check Byron Leftwich in 2006 or Ben Roethlisberger in 2005; or if you want to see more history, check Drew Bledsoe in 1994.

So I think the Chargers should use Martyball for the first two drives of the game. The Bill Belichick vs. Philip Rivers matchup calls for a more conservative, run-oriented start, until you get a few chances to see what the Patriots are doing on defense. If you want to throw early, make it a safe route or just have Rivers drop back, count to three, and then throw it out of bounds. The surest way to get in trouble is to have Rivers throw one or two interceptions -- then you will have to come from behind with a quarterback who's confidence is shaken.

I know many deride the idea of Martyball. But the Chargers should employ it for the first 8 - 10 plays of the game, and then take off the training wheels and go with the offense they think is best suited to win.

Point #2. The Chargers defensive front seven must dominate.

The Chargers led the NFL with 61 sacks, and their 3-4 defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 73.9 rating on the year. But neither of those stats has much to do with the secondary, which is probably best described as hard-hitting but the middle of the road. They've given up 307 receptions (16th in the NFL), 11.2 yards per catch (19th), 178 passing first downs (21st), 19 passing touchdowns (tied for 12th), and 16 interceptions (tied for 17th) . (Note: they rank lower than the Patriots in all of those categories. New England ranks 12th, 8th, 11th, 1st, and 4th respectively.)

So obviously, the strength of the Chargers defense is in their front seven -- and they need to dominate the game. The don't normally blitz a lot of guys, and they'd like to avoid it on Sunday. But if they have to blitz to stop the run and/or to get pressure on Brady, that exposes their middling secondary. So they have to stop the run early without committing extra guys and then get after the quarterback on passing downs. Otherwise, they will get worn down by the running game or they will get shredded by a great post-season quarterback.

Point #3. Let their talent win the day

For all my back-and-forthingabout this game, I wrote last week that the Patriots would need Rodney Harrison and Vince Wilfork back to beat either the Chargers or the Colts. Well, Harrison won't be playing, so the Chargers should be able to win by playing sound football and letting their talent win the individual battles and, in the end, the game. Without Harrison, both LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates could have big games, and if that happens, the Chargers probably win.


Point #1. Take advantage of Philip Rivers and grab an early lead.

For last year's playoff game, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich studied 12 games of film on the Patriots defense. It was his first playoff start, and he wanted to be ready for whatever defense they threw at him. But all that study didn't do him any good. He admitted after the game that he didn't see anything in the game that he'd seen in the 12 weeks of film that he watched. And in the game he was sacked 4 times, threw for 179 yards, zero touchdowns and 1 interception, and he posted his lowest passer rating of the year (61.9).

Leftwich was a four-year starter, so imagine the possibility of confusion for first-year starter Philip Rivers. If the Patriots can get an early turnover and get out to a lead, that bodes ill for Rivers. Even if he doesn't turn it over early, the Patriots are also very adept at waiting out a young quarterback and grabbing late INTs to turn the game in their favor. However, that strategy depends on them stopping the run to stay in the game, a tough task without Rodney Harrison on the field. The best way to stop the run is to get the lead and make the Chargers abandon the run to come back from a deficit, and the best way to do that is to take advantage of Philip Rivers's inexperience.

Point #2. And you thought the Patriots wide receivers were bad.

All year long, you've heard it over and over. "How could the Patriots let David Givens *and* Deion Branch go?!?!" The sky was falling, it was the end of the world as we knew it, Belichick had gotten too cocky and gutted the team so he could make a point about salaries.

Well, as bad as the media bleating has been, let me introduce you to the Chargers wide receivers. They had 6 -- count 'em 6 -- touchdowns from the wide receiver position this year, and second-year man Vincent Jackson had them all. The other three wideouts on the roster combined for *zero* touchdowns the entire season. Overall, the Chargers wide receivers put up the following numbers: 117 catches for 1,756 yards and 6 touchdowns. As for the much-maligned Patriots wide receivers, their combined numbers look like this: 156 catches for 1,798 yards and 15 touchdowns. Suddenly, they don't look that bad, do they?

The strength of the Chargers passing game is with the tight ends, where Antonio Gates and Brandon Manumaleuna combined for 85 catches and 12 touchdowns. But without the threat of a vertical passing game, it will be much easier for the Patriots to hold the Chargers tight ends and running game in check. And I don't think those wide receivers are suddenly going to become faster or better at getting open.

Point #3. The Chargers defense is very tough when they get ahead, so the Patriots can't let that happen.

Here's a stat for you: the Chargers had 61 sacks on the year, and only 7 of them came when they were behind (that's 11.4% of the team sacks). Need more? NFL sack leader Shawne Merriman had 17 sacks this year, and only 0.5 of them came with his team behind (3%). So San Diego's sack machine defense doesn't really help the team come from behind as much as it seals a victory once they are ahead. To counter this, the Patriots simply can't let the score get out of hand. If they get down by 14 or 17, the Chargers pass rush will be a-comin', and if the regular season games are any indication, there might be no stopping them.


A) Both the Patriots and Chargers were 2-2 against playoff teams this year. But the Chargers went 5-0 and the Patriots went 4-1 against common opponents (Denver, Buffalo, Tennessee, & Cincinnati).

B) Marty Schottenheimer has taken the #1 seed to the playoffs three other times, and twice his teams lost their first playoff game.

C) Looking for a fast start? The Patriots scored first in 10 of 16 regular season games (4 times on their first drive of the game). Looking for a faster start? The Chargers scored first in 11 of 16 regular season games (7 times on their first drive of the game).


The Patriots have their work cut out for them this Sunday. The Chargers are 8-0 at home (though the Pats are 7-1 on the road) and the game is on grass, where the Patriots are only 15-11 over the past two years. The great San Diego running game is up against the #7 running defense of New England, but that is probably still advantage San Diego. And the Patriots safeties against the Chargers tight ends looks like a significant mismatch in favor of San Diego. The only plus is that the Charger wideouts shouldn't do much damage against the secondary.

On the other side, the Patriots won't be able to pound the ball unless they can throw it first. San Diego is too big up front to push them around; so they need to pass to open up the run. If the Pats can get a few long completions early (or even pass interference calls), it could loosen up the defense enough to spring the running game. I also expect they will run some mis-direction screens -- just to slow down the pass rush. It is a daunting task, but not impossible, and it is where Tom Brady's playoff experience will be the most critical.

The game could go either way, but I think the winning margin will be 10 points or more. If I had to call it, I'd go with the Patriots 27, Chargers 17. But please do not gamble any money on this game. It could just as easily be a 20-point blowout for the Chargers.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tully Banta-Cain is tied for the NFL lead with two sacks in the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of course Philip Rivers against Bill Belichick is a mismatch. I just hope Antonio Gates against James Sanders isn't one."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 8, 2007

Patriots 37, Jets 16 (1/7/2007)

Did one loss change Jets head coach from "Man-genius" to "Man-doufus"? I guess I'll just call him Mangini until the New York Press chimes in with their label, following a 37-16 beating by the Patriots in Sunday's playoff game. The win sends the Pats to San Diego next week for a contest with the Chargers, number 1 seed in the AFC. More on that game in my next update, but for now, the Jets game ranks as the highlight of the year. It was a close contest that they blew open late so all involved could relax and enjoy the win.

The New England offense made terrific adjustments to the Jets pressure that gave them so much trouble in November. The plan called for a no-huddle attack to limit defensive substitutions and outside passes where there was no confusion about which players would rush the passer and which ones would drop into coverage. The results were impressive: 65% completions, a 101.6 passer rating, and 2 touchdowns (to go with no INTs) for Tom Brady; big days for wideouts Jabbar Gaffney (8 catches for 104 yards, and an unfortunate dropped pass in the end zone) and Reche Caldwell (5 for 50); and a stellar 11 for 16 on third-down conversions. Troy Brown contributed two huge first-down conversions, Ben Watson drew a long pass interference call to set up a field goal, and Daniel Graham made a very difficult touchdown catch to give the Pats the lead at the half.

In the running game, the team ground down the Jets front seven for 158 total yards and a 4.2 yard average. Corey Dillon gets a gold star, despite an early fumble; he averaged 5.3 yards a carry and got the team on the board with an 11-yard touchdown on the first possession. And after his fumble, he seemed to ramp up the intensity a bit, running harder and jetting toward the corner faster than he had before the miscue. Laurence Maroney showed no problems in his first playoff action, grinding out 69 yards, and Kevin Faulk made more crucial plays than his 6 carries might indicated, including back-to-back-to-back runs up the gut for 24 yards on a drive that ended with a touchdown.

All of this must mean the O-Line played well, and of course, they did. One sack of Brady, 4.2 yards a rush, 33:20 of possession time, and only one penalty all day (a false start on Logan Mankins) tell most of the story. They were disciplined, pushed the outside rush beyond the quarterback to create a solid pocket, moved the Jets smallish defense back most of the day, and didn't hurt the team with untimely penalties. Give a lot of credit to coaches Dante Scarnecchia (Offensive Line) and Josh McDaniels (Offensive Coordinator) -- good coaching often gets lost behind good performances.

The defensive gameplan for the Patriots wasn't especially complex; they just executed it well. It seemed to go something like this: pressure the quarterback with four men, make the tackle after any short completions, dare (Jets QB) Chad Pennington to beat you deep, slow the running game enough to make the Jets abandon it, and make the Jets settle for field goals in the red zone. And it was mission accomplished on all fronts. The only touchdown allowed was Jerricho Cotchery's 77-yarder that was a short pass and some bad tackles/angles -- but aside from that, the Jets had to work their way down field slowly, and they ended up with three field goals on drives that needed to be touchdowns for them to have any chance to win.

The D-line was very good, getting enough pressure on Pennington to force quick releases and slowing the run on enough plays to make the Jets throw more often than they wanted. The Jets play-calling was very imbalanced, with 44 passing plays to only 16 running plays, and that made them easier to defend. It helped to have Vince Wilfork back in there. The only running success the Jets had in the middle was when they doubled Vince; he stuffed just about everything when he went one-on-one. And he had the "Alert Play of the Game" when he scooped up what some thought was an incomplete pass and returned it 31 yards to the Jets 15 (it was actually a backwards pass, so it was a live ball) and the Pats ended up with a field goal on that drive. The team rotated linemen a lot, so it was tough to tell who was and was not having a good day. But it was my sense that Richard Seymour had a better game than Ty Warren and that Jarvis Green and Mike Wright were adequate in relief.

The linebackers... well, I'm having a tough time figuring out how they did. I didn't think they played all that well, allowing too many short passes over the middle and only Tully Banta-Cain applying consistent pressure (and getting two sacks of Pennington). But Rosevelt Colvin did have a big knockdown (on the Wilfork recovery play), and Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel led the team in tackles (with 9 and 8, respectively). I might try watching parts of the game again, but I didn't see a lot of stellar play from this group.

And the secondary had a nice game -- but mostly as a group. They had 21 tackles, 5 passes defensed, and a game-sealing interception by Asante Samuel. Most importantly, however, was that with a few exceptions, they gave up very few yards after the catch. If the gameplan was to make the Jets string together small plays to make long drives, the secondary was crucial to that plan. Samuel had 3 passes defensed, in addition to his interception, and James Sanders did a nice job covering the Jets tight ends (Chris Baker had 5 catches for 68 yards, and no other tight end caught a pass). Artrell Hawkins kept most every route in front of him (the exception being the 77-yard touchdown by Cotchery), and even Chad Scott contributed. I don't remember a lot of spectacular plays, but overall very solid and nearly penalty free (one holding call for five yards).

And special teams were very good indeed. Stephen Gostkowski went 3 for 3 on field goals and gave up only one good kickoff return. And Todd Sauerbrun punted only twice, one out of bounds and the other allowing only a 7 yard return. Nothing earth-shattering, but a good day against a team with very good kick return teams.

So where does that leave us. Well, the Pats basically held serve, winning at home against a team they should have beaten. Next up are the mighty Chargers, first seed in the dominant AFC, with a very good defense, the league MVP at running back, a first-year starter at quarterback, and a choker of a head coach. Will those last two factors override the first two and allow the Patriots to get out of town with a victory? Even I don't know if that's possible yet -- you'll have to wait until I do my research and write-up the next update. For now, enjoy the win against NY, and don't forget to enjoy the the playoffs. There were many years the team didn't even make the playoffs, let alone host a playoff game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Jabbar Gaffney had 11 receptions for 142 yards during the regular season. His numbers from yesterday were 8 for 104. (Sort of reminds me of Jermaine Wiggins, who had 14 for 133 during the 2001 season and 10 for 68 in the playoffs against Oakland that year.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of course I think the Pats have a chance next week. Schottenheimer is 5-12 in the playoffs, Belichick is 13-2."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Friday, January 5, 2007

2007 Playoff Preview (1/5/2007)

Welcome to the game of "Survivor" -- NFL style. Where weaklings and pretty boys are booted out early, the winnowing process is much faster (multiple teams are eliminated each week), and only one tired, dirty, sweaty team will be left standing at the end to be declared the champion. And if you think those are the only similarities, consider this: both the Super Bowl and "Survivor" take place in warm weather climates, they both feature catch-up shows halfway through, both "tournaments" are about the same length of time (35 days for the playoffs, 39 for "Survivor"), they both have scantily clad women parading in front of the cameras (can you say "wardrobe malfunction"), and both feature well-coiffed announcers who make obvious points the whole time.

Well, the tribes have merged, and our final contenders are ready for their close-up. Of course, some are more ready than others. Here's a breakdown of how I figure their chances of winning the whole thing. (Note: if you want to read about the Patriots/Jets game, skip down to the "Patriots vs. Jets" section below.)


1. The Baltimore Ravens have the best chance to win it all this year. Their defense leads the NFL in points allowed; they have a very good quarterback; and their coach has won it before. They've given up an average of 9 points a game over the past 7 weeks, lead the NFL in turnover differential (+17), and their defense can outscore you all by itself. If you had to pick one team to be left standing, this would be it.

2. The Chicago Bears have some trouble at quarterback, but they are the dominant team in sad-sack NFC. Their path to the Super Bowl is the easiest in the league, and if they follow form, it gives them a 50-50 chance to win it all -- because they'd be one of the last two teams playing. Add to a very good defense (ranked third in points allowed) and superb special teams play, and it makes a good possibility to go all the way.


3. The San Deigo Chargers have the horses to win it all this year, with a great rushing offense (featuring LaDainian Tomlinson) and a defense ranked seventh in points allowed. However, you'll have to forgive me for bucking the experts, who have overwhelmingly picked the Chargers to win it all. I don't trust quarterback Philips Rivers, who completed only 47.5% of his passes for a 65.96 QB-rating against playoff teams this year. And in the past, head coach Marty Schottenheimer been to the playoffs 12 times, and even though he's had the #1 seed three of those years, his record is 5-12. He is what he is -- until he wins it all. That's why the Chargers are a notch below the Bears and Ravens

4. The New England Patriots can win it all if they have both Vince Wilfork and Rodney Harrison back for the games after this weekend. Their defense is second in points allowed and they have both a good running offense and a great run-stopping defense, all to compliment championship-level coaching and quarterbacking. They are in the second group because their special teams are still suspect, and Harrison probably won't be back before the AFC Championship weekend -- and the Pats would likely need him to beat either the Colts or Chargers, should they prevail over the Jets.


5. The Philadelphia Eagles are coming on strong at the right time. They've won five in a row, but there's a problem. Their last three losses are all against teams from the AFC; so they could well make the Super Bowl playing against the inferior NFC. But their current winning streak is against bad teams, and on the year, they are tied for 15th in points allowed. Their chances of winning it all aren't great.

6. The Indianapolis Colts run defense is the seventh-worst in NFL history. So unless QB-to-the-gods Peyton Manning can make some tackles on defense, the Colts need everything to fall just right to get to the big game. There are just too many good running teams in the playoffs this year.

7. The New Orleans Saints have a bye week and a very good quarterback, a good one-two punch at running back, and are a nice story. But they went 10-6 in a very bad division, they are -4 in turnover differential, don't pressure the passer particularly well, and give up 4.9 yards per rush (31st in the NFL). And I also think their big passing numbers come from being behind all the time. Can't see them making it to the big game, let alone winning it, unless everything falls in their lap (read: if the Bears lose in their first game).


8. The New York Jets are also a nice story, with 10 wins in head coach Eric Mangini's first year, but their last two "big wins" have come in the rain and slop on terrible fields. And in each of those games, they needed a touchdown with about two minutes left in the game to eke out the win -- both times after what I would call "poor" offensive days. Their quarterback has limited arm strength, and I think they won their "big game" this year when they beat the Pats in November. They could possibly upset the Patriots, but they have no realistic shot at the Super Bowl.

9. The Seattle Seahawks are unlikely to make the Super Bowl, but given the state of the NFC, you can't discount last year's NFC Champions entirely. But they are not the team they were a year ago.


10. The Kansas City Chiefs have a great running game and very good overall offense, but not much else. They needed three teams to lose last weekend just to make the playoffs, so they'll probably be out this weekend (or next, should they get past the Colts).

11. The Dallas Cowboys are a mess, with a floundering first-year starter at quarterback, a receiving corps that talks better than it plays, and a defense that's been torn to shreds the past four weeks. Maybe next year... but not this time around.

12. The New York Giants make the Cowboys look stable by comparison. Locker-room diviosns, head coach sniping, and injuries, injuries, injuries. Tiki Barber could carry them to one victory, but key defender Michael Strahan is injured, and the team is 2-12 over his career when he doesn't play. Buh-bye.


And now to the main event, the breakdown of this week's game against the Jets (Sunday at 1:00, be there or be non-circular). As per usual, I'll look at the most recent game between the two teams and try to decide if enough has changed to alter the outcome. That last game was a 17-14 Jets win in Foxboro this past November. (If you don't want to slog through all this stuff, feel free to skip to the Conclusion section.)

Point #1. In November, the Jets were coming off a bye week, while the Patriots played on Sunday night.

The bye week gave the Jets extra time to plan and practice ways to slow down the Patriots offense, ways to attack their defense, and ways to beat their special teams. Well, 0.5 out of 3 isn't bad. They did a great job of frustrating the passing game, sacking Brady 4 times and holding the team to 25% on third-down conversions. What they failed to do was stop the running game (25 carries for 143 yards, 5.7 yards per rush), effectively attack the defense (6 drives with less than 3:10 of possession time, 161 net passing yards, and only 17 points), or win the battle of special teams (it was a draw).

Now contrast that with the Patriots, who played the Colts on Sunday night the previous week. That means they had a division game against the Jets after a shortened week, and an emotionally draining game against one of their biggest rivals. The Pats had no extra time to plan anything, and were *still* one Ellis Hobbs play away from winning anyway.

The November schedule the favored the Jets. But it's January now, and it favors neither team.

Advantage Patriots.

Point #2. The venue might be the same, but the field isn't.

In November, the game was played in perhaps the sloppiest conditions of any NFL game this season. And even though both teams played on the same field, I counted far more slippage by Patriots players than by Jets players. The field was so bad that the Patriots replaced it with artificial turf before the next game. And Tom Brady happens to be 22-1 in his career on artificial turf.

Advantage Patriots.

Point #3. Personnel changes will play a role.

The Patriots kept Ty Warren out of the earlier game as a precaution, and he might have been their best defensive lineman this year. With him in there, the Patriots have one of the most dominant lines in football. Without him, well, they went 0-1 this season :) Also, Richard Seymour played the last Jets game with a severely injured elbow, and the O-line also had injury trouble. Starting guard Stephen Neal was out for the game, Billy Yates (his replacement) went down during the game, and Wesley Britt (Yates's usual replacement) was also injured. Seymour is playing much better than he did then, and Neal will start this Sunday. And lastly, a little addition-by-subtraction -- Doug Gabriel won't be on the field to commit a costly turnover, like his fumble in November.

How about the Jets, you might ask. In November's game, they had two backup running backs out, and that was about it. In fact, one of the amazing things about the Jets season is they had an NFL-low number of man-games lost to injury (I believe it was 9 for the year, whereas the Patriots had almost 200 -- and no, that's not a misprint).

So what's the change for this game? The Jets are banged up, with 15 players on the injury report but all of the with at least a 50-50 chance to play. But more importantly, Warren will play, Seymour is healthier, Gabriel is gone, and Neal will be on the field -- as will Vince Wilfork and Kevin Faulk, both of whom missed parts of the last three games.

Advantage Patriots.


Add to those three changes the following quick facts:

Fact #1: the Patriots offense averaged 24 points a game this season, but almost 35 over the past three games.

Fact #2: even with all the ink wasted on the Patriots lack of a deep threat, they have more pass plays of over 20 yards than the Jets this year (46 to 38).

Fact #3: the Jets rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, rushing offense, rushing defense, and turnover differential.


I almost hate to say it because it could always come back to bite me, but I think this game has rout written all over it. It's not as much of a domination as last year's playoff win against Jacksonville (which ended up 28-3), but I think something like 27-14. The Jets offense simply doesn't have the deep threat to scare the Pats defense out of their probable run-stopping mode. And the Patriots offense has enough of a rushing attack to beat the Jets without ever trying the deep threat -- although I expect they will get some big gainers during the game. The Pats will be prepared for all the stuff that surprised them in the November game, and I don't think Mangini has enough other tricks up his sleeve to stop the Patriots again in the same season.

Look for the Patriots to play patiently, be careful with the ball, and use their superior talent to win the day.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: All four NFL teams with "new" in their name made the playoffs this year (New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, and New York Jets).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Let's just say the Jets offense doesn't scare me and the Pats can run on the Jets defense."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Patriots 40, Titans 23 (12/31/2006)

Almost everything broke right for the Patriots yesterday. They beat the Titans 40-23 to finish the year at 12-4 and make me a “genius” for predicting that record exactly (as long as you forget all my other, less accurate, predictions). Then the Broncos lost (sorry, Kevin), and they were the team I most feared because they always beat the Pats. Only the Colts didn’t cooperate, holding on to beat the Dolphins and take the third playoff spot that I so coveted. Sigh… guess you can’t have everything.

As for Sunday’s contest, it was decided largely by turnovers and red-zone efficiency. The Patriots won both battles, 3-0 in turnovers and 50% to 0% in the red zone. Couple that with more yards passing (414-342), more yards rushing (171-135), more sacks (5-2), and more penalty yards… wait, forget that last one. When you put it all together, it was good enough to beat an up-and-coming Titans squad on a messy field in Tennessee.

The O-line must have done a great job, as the Pats averaged 5.5 yards per rush, 8.1 yards per pass attempt, and gave up only 2 sacks on the day. Laurence Maroney (13 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown) and Corey Dillon (12-67-2) ran well, with both players showcasing breakaway speed on long touchdown runs of 31 and 21 yards, respectively. But almost as important was that they were dropped for a loss only once in the game, helping keep the team out of second- or third-and-long situations.

Tom Brady was both efficient and a deep-threat quarterback, completing 62.5% of his passes while piling up long throws of 62, 52, 49, and 23 yards, as well as a 39-yard pass interference call. Reche Caldwell was far-and-away the best receiver in the game, with 4 catches for 134 yards – a stellar 35-yard average.

As for the defense… ummm, Asante Samuel played well, with 4 passes defensed and 2 INTs (to finish tied for the league lead with 10 on the season). Other than that, there are two reasons they gave up the second-most points of the season. First, they couldn’t tackle, with fewer than half the plays ending on the first hit. Second, they freely committed penalties; big penalties; like 45 yards of penalties on a 68-yard drive by Tennessee. Now sure, Tennessee is well known for hitting after the play and generally being bullies, but eventually, you have to just walk away and get ‘em the next play.

And the tackling was atrocious. Thank goodness the best Titan receiver (ex-Patriot David Givens) was out of the game with an injury. Because if the Titans hadn’t dropped so many passes, the game could easily have been a loss. Here’s hoping the Pats regain their intensity in time for Sunday’s playoff game.

And the special teams has got some serious practice in front of it. They gave up multiple long punt and kick-off returns, had a blocked extra point (too much penetration on the right-side of the line), and then rookie Stephen Gostkowski missed a chip-shot 33-yarder in the third quarter. Usually, special teams don’t cost you games in the playoffs – and I hope that holds true this year. Because the Patriots are more likely to suffer problems than most of the other playoff teams.

So where does that leave us. 12-4 and a division championship for the fourth straight year (first time in franchise history) isn’t half bad. The Pats host the Jets in a playoff game this Sunday (1:00), the same Jets team that beat them in Foxboro in November. And with most division games being close, this should be an interesting game to say the least. I’ll send a breakdown of the game later in the week. Until then, enjoy being AFC East champs for a few days.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the first 34 years after the AFC-NFC merger, only once had every team in a division had given up more points than they scored during the season (the 1978 NFC Central). In the last 3 years, the NFC West has turned that trick twice (2004 and 2006) – they must be so proud ;)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Sure the Pats can win it all. They won the Super Bowl every year under Bill Belichick when they finished in the top six in scoring defense. And this year, they are second.”

Hope you all had a happy and safe set of holidays.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4!