Monday, September 24, 2007

Patriots 38, Bills 7 (9/23/2007)

Feels like a magic carpet ride, doesn't it? Three straight dominant performances, three straight games with 38 points scored (still on pace for an NFL record 606 points in a season), and three straight games where there "risky off-season moves" have all paid off handsomely. The Pats pasted Buffalo, 38-7, and now have a two-game lead over the New York Jets and a three-game lead over the rest of the AFC East. The only fly in the ointment right now is that their opponents are a combined 2-7, so the Pats *should* be 3-0 at this juncture. We'll see how it goes when they play the good teams on their schedule: Dallas, Indy, surprising Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.

The offense is just humming along. They even overcame a stupid penalty (Laurence Maroney's spike of the ball), a stupid turnover (Tom Brady on the QB sneak near the goal line), and a stupid lateral (Wes Welker didn't need to do it with the game well in control). Brady had the highest passer rating of his career (150.9), but it wasn't really his best performance. He had a few passes behind open receivers and a few that were thrown too low to be caught. His main targets were still Randy Moss (5 catches for 115 yards and 2 more touchdowns) and Wes Welker (6 for 69). Kevin Faulk was the mystery guest to the passing game and had some terrific runs after a few of his 5 catches (for 38 yards). Faulk was especially effective on a screen pass and in converting third-downs.

But for all the gushing over Randy Moss and the passing game, the Pats ran more than they threw (38 to 29). That differential gave them almost 9 extra minutes of possession time (34:19 to 25:41), and allowed them to control the game with a balanced attack. Maroney had the second 100-yard game of his career (19 carries for 103), and he seemed to hit the hole more quickly than usual. And of course, none of this could happen without stellar play from the offensive line. They gave up one sack and only a few pressures, and paved the way for 9.5 yards per pass and 4.7 yards per rush. And that is even more impressive when you realize their starting Right Guard was out (Stephen Neal was replaced by Russ Hochstein). On the season, the offense has scored 13 touchdowns and lost only 2 turnovers (1 fumble and 1 interception) -- which is pretty much domination personified in the NFL.

Defensively, it was a complete mismatch. Buffalo QB J. P. Losman went out early, and his backup didn't perform well at all (a pathetic 65 net yards passing and 1.7 yards per pass play). The front seven blew up most plays before they really got started, and the secondary covered well when the Bills got time. Jarvis Green had the best game of the linemen, and I thought Junior Seau was surprisingly effective when he was in there. The Bills did gain some traction on the ground, but aside from their one scoring drive, I think that was largely due to the Patriots defense playing mostly against the pass.

Ellis Hobbs had a very good day in the secondary, notching his first NFL sack (and causing a fumble on the play), making a solid knock-down in the passing game and blowing up a few outside running plays. Asante Samuel is rounding into form, too -- with some solid coverage play and his first INT of the year. But the real revelation of the game was the play of James Sanders. He didn't get a ton of tackles, but his was instrumental in stopping the Bills short passing game. Several times, he forced plays back inside so a teammate could make the tackle, and his best play was where he shut down a screen pass before it could get going, stopping the Bills on third down and forcing a punt. With Sanders playing better, it's possible Eugene Wilson could be on the bench when Rodney Harrison returns.

Special teams were pretty special. Wes Welker continues to impress on punt returns (3 returns for 72 yards), and the Pats contained the dangerous Bills return teams. The punter hasn't been great, but he's only kicked four times this year, which isn't really a large enough sample to judge him. Also, it seems like they are babying Stephen Gostkowski, in this game, that meant going for the first down instead of trying a make-able 41-yard field goal early. I hope that isn't because they are worried that he can't kick from that far; but I note for the record that this is exactly how they treated him last year, and he was 8 of 8 in the playoffs.

The coaches didn't make any mistakes or cause any distractions this week. In fact, it seems the team was lethargic after their drubbing of the Chargers, and Belichick rode them hard for three days to keep them sharp. Whatever he did, it worked to perfection.

So where does that leave us? Well, the Pats are sitting pretty at 3-0, and they've got a Monday Night game next week in Cincinnati. They beat the Bengals last year, and I don't think think Cincy has improved enough to overcome the deficiencies exposed in that game. So I expect they will win that game, although the Bengals do have the offensive firepower to hang with the Pats, if the game becomes a shoot-out.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady completed 79.3% of his passes on Sunday, and his completion percentage for the season went *down*. I would venture to guess that no QB in NFL history has ever had that high a percentage in one game actually bring down his season percentage. (PS, I refuse to research this, because I just can't imagine it ever happened before. So if you can find an example, let me know and I'll apologize next week.)

Statistical Oddity of the Week 2: You've no doubt heard the Pats have scored 38 points in each game so far this year. What you probably don't realize is that next week, they travel to Cincinnati, where they scored... you guessed it... 38 points against the Bengals last year. This was just too good not to have a second Oddity this week.

Funniest Line of the Week: My friend Al asked me what they trade for Randy Moss. I told him it was a fourth-round pick, and he retorted, "Man... that was *way* too much."

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats are looking good, but their opponents so far are only 2-7 on the year. Wake me when they beat a decent team, *then* we'll really know where they stand."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 3-0!

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