Monday, November 19, 2007

Patriots 56, Bills 10 (11/18/2007)

At halftime, Bob Costas said the Patriots were "toying with" the Bills, and I can't think of a more accurate description. The "Big Dog" Patriots scored a convincing 56-10 victory over the "chewed up tennis ball" Bills. The win all-but sealed the AFC East division crown, which the Pats will clinch with their next win or Buffalo's next loss. And their stranglehold on the #1 AFC playoff spot is now a three-game lead over the Colts (two games plus a tiebreaker) and Steelers (three full games back). Not bad for about 25 minutes of actual work (the game was 28-7 at that point, and for all intents and purposes, over).

The Patriots offense invited everyone to the party last night. They ran the ball effectively, especially in the second half, when Buffalo knew they were going to run but couldn't stop them. They scored touchdowns on their first seven drives, with each mixing in more running with the pinpoint passing game. With Laurence Maroney either banged up or just resting, Heath Evans had his second-best day as a Patriot (10 carries for 56 yards) and Kyle Eckel chipped in, too (10 for 40 yards and a touchdown). I don't know for sure if Maroney was injured, but he didn't play in the second half. Kevin Faulk was out, and my guess is that Maroney was being saved for third-down passing plays, but they just didn't have any in the second half while the starters were in there. Time will tell with Maroney, but I hope both he and Kevin Faulk are okay. Oh, and by the way, the reason I think Maroney might have been slated for third-down play is because earlier in the game, Heath Evans blew a blitz pickup and got Brady hammered after the throw.

Speaking of Brady, he's playing like Superman right now. 31 for 39, 373 yards and 5 touchdowns, and it didn't look like he broke much of a sweat. Amazing what great receivers and offensive line play will do for you. Randy Moss is slowly making the case that he was worth that fourth-round pick we traded for him. Maybe if he breaks the record for touchdown receptions in a season, *then* I’ll sign off on that trade. Last night's evidence in his favor: 10 catches for 128 yards and 4 touchdowns. Wes Welker (7 for 78) and Donte Stallworth (5 for 56) "chipped in" with numbers that are surprisingly close to what our leading receivers did last year. Ben Watson returned to full-time action, and had a nice touchdown and an important third-down grab to extend the Pats second scoring drive. He also blocked very well, as did the entire offensive line.

And speaking of the O-line, when your QB takes two hits and you score 49 offensive points, you gotta give ‘em some credit. Billy Yates missed his block on a screen pass, but other than that, I have nothing negative to say about the O-line. 4.4 yards a rush, 9.3 yards a throw, and plenty of time for Brady to find receivers. The Bills defense usually relies on speed to get around blocks, but not on this day. Brady got slammed on the aforementioned Heath Evans braincramp, and was grazed one or two other times. But for the most part, his day was "drop back, keep on my toes, survey the field, pat the ball, survey the field, step up in the pocket, call GEICO to save a bunch of money on car insurance, survey the field, throw for a completion." And the offensive line deserves the lion's share of the credit for that. (Note: no word on whether or not Brady will split his car insurance savings with the O-line, but I think he should.)

The defensive line was dominant. Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork plugged up the middle all day, and collapsed the pocket on many pass attempts. Richard Seymour continued to split time with Jarvis Green, who had 4 tackles and a forced fumble. In point of fact, 4 tackles tied Green for the team lead, with the defensive snaps limited by the their own (and the offense’s) great performance and the tackles spread throughout the defenders. And also, I considered Adalius Thomas a part of the defensive line, since he rushed the passer on most of the snaps.

And speaking of Thomas, he was by far the brightest star of the day. The Pats are starting to use him in interesting ways, inside, outside, covering the tight end, rushing from the edge, all over the place. He entered the game with 0.5 sacks for the year, and he had 2.5 sacks in the game (to go along with 4 quarterback hurries and a pass defensed). Mike Vrabel added another sack from the edge-rusher position (and is closing in on double-digits, with 9.5 on the year), and both Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau played the middle extremely well. Rosevelt Colvin didn't seem to be in the action much, but it was my impression that Buffalo ran their offense in the other direction most of the day.

I thought safety James Sanders had the best game in the secondary, with solid tackling, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. Ellis Hobbs returned that fumble for a touchdown, and he was good the rest of the game, even though he was beaten for the Bills only touchdown (a play on which he was in great position but the ball was underthrown and the receiver made a great play). Asante Samuel's statline looked boring, but they didn't throw much in his direction, and he almost picked one off when they did. And of course, the only INT of the day belonged to old friend Randall Gay -- starting cornerback for the last Patriots Super Bowl winning team, in case you’d forgotten.

The special teams were nothing really special. They had a lot of kickoffs, but I thought their coverage was spotty, giving up a pair of 29-yard returns and a 16 yard return on a short kick designed to limit return yardage (the ball ended up at the Buffalo 43). It might be quibbling, especially given the Bills excellent special teams, but when things are going well, you’re going to get the small complaints. On the plus side, Kelley Washington has been very good on special teams all year long, and Kyle Eckel is starting to show something, too.

So where does that leave us? Well, with a 10-0 record, the Patriots are in the driver’s seat for both a division crown (a foregone conclusion) and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Three more wins would force either the Steelers or Colts to win the rest of their games to snag the #1 seed, so winning that many would probably seal the deal for the Pats. And along those lines, there are three more teams the Patriots should beat if they don’t turn the ball over: the Ravens, Jets, and Dolphins – so the #1 seed is easily within their grasp. I refuse to predict that they could run the table, because the last time I even hinted at that, they lost the next game. So don’t look for any season-long pronouncements from me. And the Eagles game probably hinges on the health of Donovan McNabb – if he can’t play or isn’t 100%, the Patriots will probably win. But remember, Brian Westbrook gives the Patriots fits, and he’s playing well right now.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots scored their most points in a game (56) on the fewest drives in a game (8).

Weekly Serving of Humble Pie (new feature for this week, spoken in deadpan monotone): “Well, it looked like Evans missed a block and got the quarterback hit, and someone ran the wrong route on a Brady scramble. There were those dropped passes, and the long kickoff return before the half… we kinda messed that up. Tom’s intentional grounding… I don’t know what he was thinking on that play. And Asante might’ve missed an interception, and he’s got the ball skills to make that play. We didn’t make every tackle, and we sorta let the Bills back into the game on that pass over Ellis. Other than that, I’ll have to check the tape.”

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “The scariest thing about this team is that they have the 2004 Colts offense and the 2003 Patriots defense. No wonder they’re kicking the crap out of everyone.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-0!

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