Monday, October 22, 2007

Patriots 49, Dolphins 28 (10/21/2007)

Sometimes, I can't believe I'm writing things like, "Patriots 49, Dolphins 28." The Pats didn't just destroy the Dolphins on Sunday. They crushed them, smashed them into little pieces, and fashioned them into a decorative mosaic for floor of the new Patriots Hall of Fame. The Pats have won games by 21+ points before (6 times this season, in fact), but I never remember them imposing their will on another team the way they did on Sunday. The win kept them undefeated and maintained their 4.5 game lead over the "surging" Buffalo Bills (now 2-4).

In the past, Miami has given Tom Brady trouble, mostly by pressuring him with their front four. But not in this game. Brady was barely touched (even with some complex blitzes), and he threw away only two passes and was sacked just once. He completed his first 11 passes, and finished 16 of 19 for 291 yards and 5 touchdowns. Finished the *first half*, that is. For the game he was 21 of 25 for 354 yards, 6 -- count 'em -- 6 touchdowns and a perfect QB rating of 158.3. His favorite targets were Wes Welker (9 catches for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns), Randy Moss (a ridiculous 30.5 yards per catch and 2 spectacular TDs), and Donte Stallworth pitched in with another tackle-breaking run-after-the-catch for a 30-yard touchdown. Brady's heave-ho throws for Moss touchdowns were not great, and he won't get away with them against a much better secondary next week. But it was nice to see them take the calculated risk against an undermanned defense and to have Moss there to make the play.

But Brady owes everything he got in this game to the O-line. They kept Brady clean and let him stand back there and slice-and-dice the Dolphins D. Only a few players came free on blitzes, and Brady got rid of the ball when they did. For the most part, the pocket was picture perfect and the QB had time to look over the whole field more than once. The Pats didn't do much in the rushing department, but after they got the big lead, the Dolphins loaded up to stop the run. Laurence Maroney returned for limited duty (6 rushes for 31 yards), and the Patriots were actually out-rushed 179 to 84 -- not that it mattered much.

The defense featured a resurgent Tedy Bruschi (12 tackles), Rodney Harrison (8 tackles and 1 sack), and steady play from Adalius Thomas (7 tackles). Vince Wilfork played about half the time, and along with Ty Warren, he gave the Dolphins fits in the running game. The 'Phins got most of their rushing yards against second-teamers and nickel and dime packages in the third- and fourth-quarters. The secondary made some nice plays: Asante Samuel knocked down a few passes, Randall Gay intercepted a throw in the end zone, and Rodney Harrison was good in run support. But overall, I'd give the defense a B+ on the day. They had a fair number of missed tackles, and even though they were in a prevent defense, Miami had too many easy plays in the second half. Also, Ellis Hobbs looked a step slow, and James Sanders was alternately very good and lost.

Special teams played very well indeed. Backup CB Willie Andrews was the star of the day, with a kickoff return for a touchdown and a great play to down a punt at the 1 yard-line. Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs were consistently touchbacks, and the punt and kick coverage made the Dolphins work a long field all day. Miami's average starting point was their own 18 yard-line, and they never started a drive beyond their own 26.

The coaching was very good. A solid game plan and nice adjustments on defense. Some have questioned whether or not the Patriots are running up the score, but I thought Belichick's explanation was perfectly valid. Lest we forget that three short years ago, the Pats lost in Miami after leading 28-17 with just over 2 minutes left in the game. Maybe the fake-spike play was bush-league, but I think Brady called that, not Belichick, and it was a heat-of-the-moment decision not a calculated one.

So where does that leave us? Again, the AFC East race is effectively over; the Patriots are 7-0 with a 4.5-game lead over their nearest rival. In baseball terms, that would be like the Red Sox having a 45-game lead after 70 games -- utter domination. Things do get tougher in the up-coming weeks (Washington and Indy). Washington has a very good defense and one of the best secondaries in the league. Their coach, Joe Gibbs, is pulling things together nicely, working with a young quarterback and a solid running game. It should be an interesting matchup, but I expect the Patriots will come out with a win at home, perhaps by forcing mistakes from a QB facing Belichick for the first time.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have outscored their opponents by 159 points this year, far and away the best point-differential in the NFL. Interestingly, it's exactly one point more than the second- and third-best differentials in the league combined (Steelers at 82 and Colts at 76).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "On 10 possessions to end the Dallas game and begin the Dolphins game, the Pats scored 8 touchdowns and 2 field goals. That's beyond domination, it's full-blown mastery."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-0!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Patriots 38, Cowboys 27 (10/14/2007)

Maybe "Big D" stands for "Dominated." The Patriots rolled to a 48-27 win over the best the NFC has to offer, the (formerly undefeated) Cowboys in Dallas. It was New England's first victory in Dallas, and the win vaulted the Pats to an obscene 4.5 game lead in the AFC East (after only 6 games). It also kept them at the front of the group seeking a first-round playoff bye, though that is a long way away.

The way they won was a simple as tic-tac-toe:
(tic) Patriots offense converted 68% on third- and fourth-down, while the Patriots defense held the Cowboys to 36%.
(tac) With the ability to hold the ball, the Pats ran 75 plays to the 'Boys 44 (and held the time-of-possession advantage 38:15 to 21:45).
(toe) With all that in place, the Pats only needed to take care of the ball and play smart, and they did (1 turnover and only 5 penalties to the Cowboys 12).

For the second straight week, Tom Brady wasn't at the top of his game early, missing several long throws to open receivers. But as the game wore on, he used short passes and great play-action fakes to sustain drives. The offense had 49 pass plays and 29 running plays, and it worked just like the imbalance in last year's 31-7 rout of Minnesota (46 passes to 14 rushes). Brady torched the Cowboys with a career-high 5 touchdowns and no interceptions (for a total of 21 TDs and 2 INTs on the year). With Randy Moss double-covered most of the day, the receiving stars were Wes Welker (11 catches for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns, and about 1,000 other great plays) and Donte Stallworth (7 for 136 and 1 spectacular 69-yard touchdown catch-and-run). And Kevin Faulk pitched in with a critical 18-yard catch to convert a 3rd-and-10.

The Pats didn't have much of a running game on Sunday, settling for "just enough to keep the Cowboys defense honest" -- i.e. 2.6 yards a carry. That was largely due to injuries, with Laurence Maroney out for the third week in a row and Sammy Morris missing almost the entire second half with a chest injury. But the running backs did what they had to do; converting several third-downs, and helping in pass protection for a team built to attack through the air. The O-line did an admirable job, with a few mistakes early (and, as always, good adjustments) but good enough protection for most of the game. The Dallas defensive front is much better than most of what they've faced so far this season, and Brady was sacked as many times in the game as he'd been sacked all year (three). And there have been several injuries along the front line, which showed up as some confusion and penalties (2 for 15 yards).

The defense played really well at the beginning and end of the game, but gave up three long scoring drives to end the second quarter and begin the third. Without those drives, the Cowboys offense looked like this for the day: 6 drives, 18 plays, 24 yards, and 3 points. (BTW, that won't get it done when your opponent closes with 5 drives, 37 plays, 254 yards, and 27 points.)

The stars of the day were Ty Warren, Tedy Bruschi, and the combination of Adalius Thomas, Rodney Harrison, and James Sanders. Warren continues to draw double-teams and still make plays, and most teams run away from him. Tedy Bruschi did an effective job clogging the middle, and on a critical Dallas 4th-and-1 attempt, he beat his man at the snap, forcing him to commit a hold that pushed Dallas back to 4th-and-11. Dallas punted, and it was pretty much "game over" for them. And Thomas/Harrison/Sanders pushed tight end Jason Witten around all day, holding (Cowboys QB) Tony Romo's favorite target to three catches. Overall, a good defensive plan to have two strong safeties in the game, and these guys played it to perfection.

On the bad side, both Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel had a tough time setting the edge against the run, though Colvin did get some pressure on the quarterback. Also, Vrabel blew it on Terrell Owens's touchdown; he looked like he wasn't sure if he should blitz or drop into coverage, and Owens ran right past him. Between them, the duo ended the day with 1 tackle between them, and that tackle was Vrabel's. Additionally, there were a lot of missed tackles. On one Marion Barber run, the Pats defense had five or six chances to tackle him (including three clean shots -- two of which were in his own end zone) and they missed every one of them. There were also a few too many yards after catch, so I'd call the tackling mediocre.

The kick return game worked well, with solid contributions from Welker on punt (and one kickoff) returns and some nifty runs by Ellis Hobbs on kickoff returns. Chris Hanson had only 2 punts, and his 41.5 yard net average was a vast improvement over his 30.7 last week. The kickoff coverage team did give up one 72-yard return; but it was late in the game and resulted in only a field goal. But for the most part, Stephen Gostkowski's kicks were high and deep, and he did make his longest field goal of the year (45 yards). So some things to work on for next week, but overall, a good performance.

Coaching, you ask? Well, I thought the defensive game plan worked well, and with some surer tackling, they would have held the Cowboys below 20 points (even with the fumble return for a touchdown). Also, the offensive line was rattled early on, but they made great in-game adjustments and gave Brady the time to just kill the Cowboys all day long. I'd say it was solid A- work, especially on the road against a very talented Dallas team.

So where does that leave us. How about 6-0 with a 4.5 game lead in the AFC East. Sounds so good, I'll say it again. How about 6-0 with a 4.5 game lead in the AFC East. They will not overlook this Sunday's game in Miami, because the Dolphins might be 0-6, but they always, always give the Patriots trouble. Need proof? Okay, how about the 2004 Patriots (who finished the year 14-2 and won the Super Bowl) losing to the Dolphins (who finished the year at 4-12). That proof enough for you? The Dolphins are a desperate team, but if the Patriots prepare well, they should win this one going away.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the first time in recent memory, a Patriots defensive starter did not show up in the official game statistics. Rosevelt Colvin had no tackles, sacks, QB hits, INTs, passes defensed, forced fumbles, or fumble recoveries -- on defense or special teams. Congratulations Rosie!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I wouldn't get too cocky about going undefeated until the Indy game. Belichick is only 2-5 in Miami since he got here, and one of those wins was in overtime."

- Scott

PS. For those who have been wondering, I did the math and the Patriots can't possibly clinch the division until their tenth game of the season (11/18). Not that I expect it to happen; just that some of you have been asking.

PPS. 6-0!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Patriots 32, Browns 17 (10/8/2007)

Trust me, not all 17-point wins are equal. The Pats slept through the third quarter and still won by three scores, slapping the Browns to the tune of 34-17 and building their AFC East lead to four games after only five weeks. But they did fall into the trap of overlooking Cleveland -- their offensive production and special teams mistakes showed it loud and clear. And a similar effort next week will very likely give them their first loss of the season against a 5-0 Dallas squad.

I won't go into all of the gory details, but the Pats offense was not nearly what we've come to expect this year. 2 out of 12 on third-down conversions was just terrible, and there were unnecessary penalties and too many missed connections between Tom Brady and the receivers. Some of it was dropped passes (Heath Evans and Donte Stallworth spring to mind) and some were bad throws by Brady (overthrew at least five passes, even when not pressured at all). The Browns defense was a part of it, but there was no excuse for bad passes or missed reads on critical third-down plays. Converting 16% of your third downs is just plain awful for an offense this talented.

Thank goodness for Ben Watson, who played like this was his own private game of Madden 08. He had 6 catches for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns, and was joined by Stallworth (4 for 65 and 1 TD) as the top receivers of the day. Sammy Morris rushed for over 100 yards for the second straight week, and when the coaches remembered the running game, it was effective (4.6 yards per carry). And they did control the clock for more than half the game (32:27 to 27:33). But they had four drives that gained less than five yards each and ended with punts, and that won't get it done against good offensive teams.

Which brings us to the defense, and I'd give them a pretty good grade. They had three interceptions, one of which stopped a Browns drive just short of the end zone, while the other two set up the short field and the Pats cashed in both for touchdowns. Asante Samuel tipped one pass for Junior Seau's first INT (he got his second later in the game), and Samuel had an INT of his own. Add to that Randall Gay's strip of the ball late (which he picked up and ran for a touchdown) and Eugene Wilson's six solo tackles, and I'd say the secondary had a very good day.

Vince Wilfork had the best day on the D-line, with six total tackles and a sack from the nose tackle position (no easy task in a 3-4 defense). The rest of the pain was delivered by the linebackers, with Seau's two interceptions, two sacks by Tedy Bruschi, and tipped passes by Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas (both intercepted). The Pats didn't blitz a lot, but they applied consistent pressure with the front three or four all day. And that's really about it; there weren't any other real standouts, and Rodney Harrison's return was sort of mediocre, so stay tuned to see how he works back into the secondary rotation.

Special teams... well, what to say. Gostkowski was fine, and the punt/kickoff coverage and return teams were solid if not spectacular. But with the exception of one punt downed inside the Cleveland 20 and the first punt of the day (45 yards, no return), Chris Hanson has been very bad. Reminds me of Ken Walter, in his "36 yards a kick" heyday. The Pats cut Danny Baugher before the season, and he just crushed the ball all pre-season. It might be time to have him back for another try. I suspect the Pats were scared off by his inexperience, but he can't possibly be worse than the 12 yards a punt they gave up yesterday. Can he?

As for the coaching, Josh McDaniels needs to calm down his play-calling sometimes. The offense ran multiple long throws on third-and-medium to short yardage, and not one of them worked out. And at least three times, there were receivers open for first downs but Brady went long instead. So McDaniels also needs to calm down his quarterback, too. Everyone knows Randy Moss is a great receiver; but when he's covered, you have to hit the open man. On the flipside, to McDaniels's credit, on Stallworth's catch-and-run for a touchdown, the coach didn't high-five the players as they left the field. Instead, he called over both Ben Watson and Randy Moss and was giving them instructions on either missed routes or blocks on the play. The best teams don't celebrate when they score, not if there is an opportunity to correct a mistake instead. And McDaniels showed he will do that when needed.

So where does that leave us? Well, at 5-0, the Patriots couldn't be doing much better in the wins-and-losses category. They've got a tough road game next week against Dallas (also 5-0, but they just squeaked one out Monday night). The Pats avoided losing their trap game, now we'll see how Dallas handles the Monday Night Hang-over. The Pats offense will have to play better to win on Sunday, but the defense is still shutting down teams that have good offenses, so I don't expect Dallas will hang a 35-point night on them.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: As a team, the Patriots have accounted for more if their entire division's wins than any other team in the NFL. They have 5 wins and the rest of the division has only 2 (that's 71% of the AFC East wins so far). No other team accounts for even 50% of its division's total wins for the year. And making matters worse for the AFC East is that the Jets and Bills got their only wins against divisional opponents (the Bills win came against the Jets and the Jets win came against the 0-5 Dolphins). Blech.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The real season starts now. The Pats first five opponents are only 7-17 on the year. But three of the next four teams they play are a combined 13-1 (Dallas, Indianapolis, and Washington). Let's see where they are after that stretch."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-0!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Patriots 34, Bengals 13 (10/1/2007)

Q: How do you know your team is kicking ass? A: When the game is so out of hand that the announcers spend the entire second half pondering whether or not your team can go undefeated. The Pats manhandled the Bengals, 34-13, in a game that wasn't nearly that close. The win puts them at 4-0, and gives them a three-game lead over their nearest division "rivals" (the Jets and Bills are tied for second place at 1-3). They've won their games by an average of 25 points, and the margins could easily have been much larger. Hence all the talk about how great they are and a possible undefeated season.

So it's all wine and roses, and Championship poses right? Uhhhh... not quite. I don't want to rain on your (possible Super Bowl) parade, but the Patriots *should have* won all four of those games. I'll give you a quick lowdown on the Bengals game, and then tell you why the 4-0 start isn't as impressive as it looks and where the danger games really are. And trust me, they aren't just the ones the national media thinks they are.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the absolutely dominant New England Patriots offensive line: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein, Nick Kaczur, Stephen Neal, and Ryan O'Callaghan. In this game, Tom Brady dropped to pass 33 times and was sacked once and pressured only 3 other times. For the season, those numbers are 123 drop-backs, 3 sacks, 12 pressures -- simply astounding. No wonder the QB leads the league in just about everything. Featured back Laurence Maroney missed the game, and the O-line opened up some *huge* holes for Sammy Morris (21 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown), and the team averaged 5.9 yards a carry (not including kneel-downs by Brady and Matt Cassel)! And perhaps most impressive is that they still gained lots of yards when the Bengals knew they were going to run the ball. Sure, they got their first holding call of the season, and added a few false-starts, but the O-line has played exceptionally well so far. They are a very large part of the reason the Patriots are #1 in the NFL in time-of-possession (averaging almost 35 minutes a game).

Brady had his worst day of the year so far, a mere 78% completions, 3 touchdowns, and a 115.0 quarterback rating. I can already hear the home crowd chanting, "Cass-ell, Cass-ell!" Moss killed again, with another 100-yard day and two more touchdowns -- one on an absolutely unfair jump-ball in the end zone. Donte Stallworth finally got into the act (4 receptions for 49 yards), and Wes Welker contributed as much with his 27 yards on a reverse as he did in the passing game.

As great as the offense has looked, I've been even more impressed by the defense. They've allowed 14, 14, 7, and 13 points in the four games so far. Looks like that Adalius Thomas guy might work out. He got his first sack on Monday, and he already has 9 passes defensed, 22 tackles, an interception return for a touchdown, and he can take some credit for Mike Vrabel's great start (since Thomas allowed Vrabel to move back to outside linebacker). The front-seven is just rock solid, and if Richard Seymour returns before week 10, they will be that much better for the anticipated playoff run.

Against the Bengals, they used a 4-3 (instead of their traditional 3-4), and only blitzed a few times. They were obviously willing to give up some rushing yards to stop the pass, and with at least seven men dropping into coverage on most plays, they did just that. Carson Palmer's 0-7 on third downs shows the effectiveness of that strategy. And Palmer's no slouch -- he's probably one of the five or six best QBs in the league. The secondary gave up the underneath routes, and made the tackle for short gains (the exception being James Sanders, who whiffed twice). Asante Samuel got his second INT of the season, and Randall Gay got his first. But Ellis Hobbs played just as well, fending off a third-down pass and coming up big in run support on several plays.

Special teams was like a reliable old car. No big mistakes, no huge plays, no turnovers, no missed field goals or extra points. Much better than they were two weeks ago, when I said they had some work to do.

So where does that leave us? Well, here's where the Patriots stand. They have beaten the following teams: a Jets team that they beat twice last year and that was a marginal 2006 playoff team that did almost nothing to improve in 2007; a Chargers team that over-achieved during the 2006 regular season and that the Pats beat in the playoffs in San Diego -- a team that then lost its head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator, and then had to travel to New England for the "playoff rematch;" a Bills team that they swept in 2006 and that lost its two best defensive players and was decimated by injuries in the first two weeks; and a Bengals team that they beat 38-16 in Cincy in 2006 and that lost almost its entire linebacking corps and its featured running back before the Patriots arrived for the Monday Night Beatdown.

Does all that mean the Patriots aren't good? Nothing of the sort. But just to keep things in perspective, the combined records of the vanquished Patriots opponents is 4-12. Now, they wailed the crap out of 'em (a 25-point margin is nothing to sneeze at), but the bottom line is that they should have beaten them. The only game that should have been a test was the Chargers game, and San Diego has fallen flat on its face.

Now, given all that, there are games that could give the Pats trouble, and I'll list them in chronological order:

1. October 7 against the Browns. That's right, this Sunday's game could be trouble because it's a classic "trap game" with the twist of a brand new quarterback thrown in. The Pats have a short week (due to the Monday night game), the Browns scored even more points (51 -- yikes!) against the Bengals than the Pats did, the Browns could very easily be 3-1 instead of 2-2, and the Pats have a road game against currently undefeated Dallas the following week. This weekend's game is the one where they'd be in the most danger of losing their focus, so it worries me more than other games. Also, the Pats have had trouble against young quarterbacks who haven't played very many games. The best example was Ben Roethlisberger, who beat them in his fourth career start (10/31/2004) and then lost badly to the Patriots once they had 15 games of film on him. (Note: that's the regular film, not the illegal film from the sideline.)

2. October 28 against Washington. Another "trap game," with a division foe the week before and the currently undefeated Colts the week after -- Washington has some big play ability, and they might just slip under the radar and come in for an upset. As with the Browns game, maintaining focus is the key to winning this one.

3. November 4 at Indianapolis against the Colts. For all the reasons others have mentioned, this could be a tough game. The good news for the Patriots is that they almost won in Indy last year and they've added Adalius Thomas, Junior Seau, and Rodney Harrison to their defense and Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Laurence Maroney, and Sammy Morris to their offense. So if they don't make mistakes and come up with a good defensive scheme, they could turn the tide against the Colts (who have beaten the Pats the last three times they played).

4. December 9 against the Steelers. Another "Monday Night Hang-over" game, with a game against a very physical Baltimore Ravens team the week before. The advantage they have in this game is that they'll have enough film on the Steelers new defense to have good strategies to counteract it. And of course, it's a home game.

5, 6, & 7. December 16 - 29 against the Jets, Dolphins, and Giants. If the Pats continue unbeaten until late in the season, these games might be meaningless to the Patriots, with a division crown almost assured and with games against all their AFC rivals in the books. If the Pats have wrapped up a first-round playoff bye, they will most certainly rest their starters toward the end of the season, and that could mean a loss in any one of these games.

So when the national media (or anyone else) tells you the Patriots could go undefeated, remember all the pitfalls and traps that are out there for them. The undefeated Miami team of 1972 played one of the easiest schedules in NFL history, but this team won't have that luxury. The beginning and end of their schedule are relatively easy, but with two trap games and tilts against two currently undefeated teams (Colts and Cowboys) and another AFC power (Steelers), the middle 9 games are pretty brutal.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Is Chris Hanson new Hunter Smith of the NFL? Hanson is the Patriots punter, and he's kicked only five times in four games. Even Colts punter Hunter Smith (sometimes called "The Maytag Repairman of the NFL") never punted at a rate as low as 1.25 kicks per game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Patriots looked great against Cincy. But the Browns are in town this weekend, and they scored *51* points against the Bengals."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-0!