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!

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