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!

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