Monday, December 31, 2007

Patriots 38, Giants 35 (12/28/2007)

Once again we were shown that there is a blueprint... a blueprint for keeping it close and then losing to the 2007 New England Patriots. The Colts, Eagles, Ravens, and Giants all played hard, got a lot of pressure on Tom Brady, and had second-half leads against the Pats. But as in the other contests, the New England defense stood tall and the offense took advantage of good field position and opportunities, as the Pats finished off the Giants to record the fourth perfect regular season in NFL history. In case you read that sentence too quickly, I'll say it again: you just witnessed the fourth perfect regular seasons in the last 88 years! The win didn't mean anything in the playoff seedings to either team, but the Patriots got out of the game injury free and now have at least two weeks to prepare for their first playoff game (which will be either January 12 or 13).

Old friend Tom Brady was absolutely brilliant, mixing short and long throws to finish 32 of 42 for 356 yards and 2 touchdowns (both to Randy Moss). His season total of 50 touchdowns is an NFL record (as is Moss' 23 TD receptions), and Brady overcame some early drops by Ben Watson and a late drop by Moss to record his best QB rating in four games. Moss' 6 catches for 100 yards should be considered secondary to the crucial role of Wes Welker (11 for 122) and the indispensable Kevin Faulk (8 for 64 and some absolutely huge third-down conversions). Watson played his way into form, grabbing four catches by game's end, and here's hoping the early drops were just rust after a few games out of the lineup.

And note that all of this happened with 40% of the starting O-line out of the game. Nick Kazcur and Stephen Neal were both out (replaced by Ryan O'Callaghan and Russ Hochstein), and that created some problems with protection and consistency in the running game. But for the game, Brady was sacked only once, and even though the team totaled only 44 yards, Laurence Maroney powered in two short touchdowns and a two-point conversion. That the team held it together with backups manning the right side of the line is testament to both the coaching and to the team's resilience -- but they won't go far in the playoffs unless they get at least one of those starters back.

The defense really stepped up in the second half, and it made all the difference -- for the tenth time this year. To update the stats from my earlier blog entry (click here), ten of the Patriots games were close at the half, and the defense allowed less than a touchdown per game (6.8 points) in the second half of those games. Without those outstanding performances, all the offense in the world would not have saved the undefeated record, and any critical mistake in any of those games could easily have led to losses instead of wins. So Dean Pees and the entire defensive staff and players can take a bow, because their adjustments and execution made 16-0 possible.

This was one of the Patriots patented "total team efforts" on defense, and it's hard to pick out one key performer. The best unit was the secondary, with Rodney Harrison getting pressure on the QB on several blitzes, and making a lot of tackles in the running game. If he could keep his temper in check, he might have gotten secondary performer of the game from me. But his 15-yard penalty in the fourth quarter with a perfect season on the line tarnished what was a very good game for him. IMO, the best secondary performance belonged to Ellis Hobbs, who secured the only turnover of the game -- a fourth-quarter INT that led directly to the winning touchdown. And after that, he had a pass defensed in the end zone and made two critical tackles in-bounds to keep the clock moving as time was running out on the Giants.

The D-line got very little pressure on Giant's QB Eli Manning in the first half, and so they called more blitzes (both linebacker and safety) in the second half. But overall, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren did a good job slowing the run, and in they used some zone-blitz looks (where a member of the D-line dropped into pass coverage) to break up plays in the fourth quarter. Of the linebackers, I noticed Adalius Thomas more than the others -- he got the team's only sack -- but Junior Seau is playing better by the week and Tedy Bruschi had a mostly solid game (two missed tackles were the only problem for him).

And for about the sixth straight week, special teams inconsistency plagued the team. Short kickoffs and a kickoff return for touchdown by the Giants were the negatives. Good kickoff returns, gutsy punt returns, and 3-for-3 on field goals (including a 45-yarder) were the positives. Maybe I just expect too much because the offense is historically good and the defense makes some of the best adjustments in the NFL, but if the Patriots could shore up this one area, they literally could be unstoppable.

So where does that leave us? 16-0, an historic season by any measure, will be a footnote unless the Patriots can win the Super Bowl. But to paraphrase an old baseball adage, they can't win three games this week. In fact, they can't win any games this week; they are off until January 12 or 13. They will likely take that time to get healed, work on the weakest aspects of their game, and be ready to come out at full tilt in two weeks. So take some time to bask in the glow of an undefeated regular season, and hope the team can close the deal with three more 1-0 weekends.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Giants scored four offensive touchdowns in Saturday's game -- one each on their first and last possessions of the first half and their first and last possessions of the second half.

Non-statistical Oddity of the Week: Early on in the movie "I am Legend," the crawl on a television screen reads, "Patriots beat Giants for second time this year." Given that the two teams are in different conferences, the only way that could happen is if the Patriots scored a victory over the Giants in the regular season and then won the Super Bowl against the Giants. So I guess that's one win down, one win to go :)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You might have missed it, but with the win over the Giants, the Pats broke their own record for consecutive regular-season wins. Saturday was their 19th in a row."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Happy New Year!

PPS. 16-0!

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