Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"2007 Patriots in Six Words" Contest (1/30/2008)

The Patriots appearance in Super Bowl XLII isn't the only exciting thing going on with me. Harper Perennial is publishing a book of six-word Memoirs next week, and they've made me one of their featured authors. The book is "Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Authors Famous and Obscure" (link), and mine will have page 21 all to itself, along with original artwork by yours truly.

So in honor of this (semi)acheivement, I thought I'd throw down a challenge of my own to find out just how wicked smart you guys are. And here it is:

I'm looking for the best six-word description of the Patriots 2007 season. You can submit one now, based on the regular season or the regular- and post-seasons to date. You can wait until the outcome on Sunday and send one about the overall season. Or you can show some real stones and send one that references your predicted outcome in the Super Bowl. But please send them, because the prize is worth more -- much, much more -- than those "Berry the Bears" shirts from Super Bowl XX (when the Patriots got slaughtered 46-10).

Here are two possible entries to give you an idea of the sort of thing I'm looking for (one if the Patriots win on Sunday, and one if they don't):
"Eighteen and one will always sting."
"'Any given Sunday' takes a holiday."

The spectacular prize package includes the following:
1. A copy of the Six-word Memoir book, autographed by me (or not, if you want it to retain its value).
2. Prominent placement of your winning entry on the blog (until I feel like taking it down).
3. An item given only to fans who attended the AFC Championship game at the stadium this year.

The entries will be judged on six-word-ness ("And the number of thine words shall be six!"), creativity, entertainment value, fun, accuracy, and my mood on the day of judging. You are not limited in the number of entries you can send -- bring 'em on -- and I encourage you to tell other Patriots fans you know who might be up to the challenge.

The contest will run until exactly one week after the end of the Super Bowl, and I will announce the winner in an update the following week. I will either judge it myself or come up with a list of finalists and have a neutral observer make the final decision. But in either case, the decision will be final and I will be in touch with winner to arrange delivery of the fabulous prizes.

One last thing, please send the entries to my bidemytime[AT]gmail[D0T]com account, as I could get in trouble for using my other email account to promote a contest. And one last note: if you post your six-word entry as a comment to this blog, I won't have any way to verify who you are or how to get in touch with you -- so those comments cannot be considered entries for the fabulous prize package.

Now get out there and create, and good luck to all!

Enjoy the game,

- Scott



Monday, January 28, 2008

Preview of Super Bowl XLII (1/28/2008)

Giants/Patriots in one of the most anticipated games in years on national television with the subplot of a perfect season on the line. Didn't we do this a month ago? The Giants played the Patriots about as tough as any team this season, and the New York crew is brimming with confidence after knocking off the #1 and #2 seeds in the NFC playoffs -- both on the road. Quarterback Eli Manning hasn't thrown an interception this post-season, and they are getting big plays from the receivers and decent special teams play (except for those two missed field goals). They run the ball well and get consistent pressure on the quarterback with their front four.

Add to that Tom Brady's questionable ankle, and you might think the Giants might turn their 3-point week 17 loss into a Super Bowl win. Well, it could happen, but I don't think it will. Not to throw cold water on the hopes of Giants fans everywhere, but several things have changed from New England's week 17 win over New York, and those changes are almost all in the Patriots favor. And given that the Patriots won the earlier game, the factors that have moved in their direction probably mean they will win this one, too. Not to say the Giants can't win -- they have a better chance than many have given them. However, it would be pointless sophistry to argue that they should be favored or "will definitely" win. And here are my reasons for thinking that.

Point #1. "Oh the weather outside was frightful, but inside is so delightful." (Everybody now!)

Their last meeting was outdoors, in the cold (44-degrees) and wind, and perhaps most importantly, with a partisan Giants crowd to annoy the Patriots offense. Cold, wind, and crowd noise all make it tougher to pass than do anything else in the game (except maybe kick). And the Patriots have made Tom Brady and the receivers their bread-and-butter this season, so those conditions definitely helped the Giants on December 29.

In fact, bad weather was a factor in almost every game in which the Patriots looked beatable this year. So far this season, the Pats have played nine games in good weather and nine in cold/windy/rainy/snowy weather, and their offense was demonstrably affected by the elements. In "nice" conditions, they scored 7.7 more points (39.4) than they did in "nasty" conditions (31.7), and their scoring differential dipped from 29.1 to 9.0 points per game when the elements were less than ideal.

I probably don't need to point out that the conditions inside the dome in Arizona won't be a factor in the Super Bowl. You already knew that, didn't ya?

Point #2. Two weeks is too much.

The recent Patriots/Giants game was played on a short week. It was a Saturday night road game for the Patriots, the week after a 4:15 Sunday game the week before. But this is the Super Bowl fortnight, with 14 full days of hype, footwear fashion tips, and travel planning that drives fans crazy but gives coaches lots of extra time to plan for the game. Now, the extra time is sure to help some coaches more than others, and that is where the two-week break gives the Patriots another edge.

Bill Belichick is a outstanding 12-2 after a bye week with the Patriots, whereas Tom Coughlin is a less-than-stellar 1-3 after a bye week with the Giants. And for those moaning that four games aren't enough to indicate a trend with Coughlin, he's barely above .500 in his coaching career after a bye week -- a mediocre 7-6 when you include his time with the Jaguars. It's been said that giving Bill Belichick two weeks to prepare is unfair to the competition, and in this case, the numbers prove it to be true.

Point #3. Double dipping.

Given that the Patriots and Giants played only a month ago, it is one of the rare cases when NFC and AFC teams will play each other more than once in a season. A coach can learn a lot in the up-close-and-personal experience of playing a game, and any information should give a good coach a leg up in the rematch. So another factor that could impact how the Super Bowl will play out is how each coach has fared when playing teams more than once in a season. And it's yet another factor that points to a likely Patriots victory.

Since he joined the Patriots, Bill Belichick is 25-10 (71.4%) the second time he faces the same team in the same season, including a 7-2 record (77.8%) in the playoffs (3-0 in Super Bowls). With the New York Giants, Tom Coughlin is a below-average 7-8 (46.6%) in the same situation, including a small-sample 2-1 (66.7%) in the playoffs (no Super Bowl appearances). Certainly this doesn't guarantee anything, but it's clear that Belichick discovers a lot about how to defeat a team in the first game and puts it to better use than Coughlin does in the second one.

Quick Points

A) Some think that the Pats regular-season win over the Giants gives them a big advantage in the Super Bowl. But don't you believe it. In Super Bowls where the two teams met in the regular season, the winner of the first game is under .500 (5-6) in the Super Bowl. (And you might recall that the 2001 Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI after losing to them at home in the regular season.)

B) The 2007 Giants have the same regular-season record as the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, 10-6. Why is that significant? Because in 41 previous Super Bowls, those 49ers are the only Super Bowl champions with a regular-season winning percentage as low as .625.

C) Good news for the fifth-seeded Giants: #1 seeded teams are only 1-6 against lower-seeded teams in the Super Bowl since the year 2000. Bad news for the Giants: the Patriots are the only first-seeded team to win under that scenario (a Super Bowl XXXVIII win over third-seeded Carolina).


By all indications, the Patriots should win this game. The Giants beat the Packers and Cowboys by hanging around and waiting for their opponent to fold, and I don't see the Patriots folding under any pressure situation the game could offer. And even though the Giants play the style of defense that has slowed the Patriots this season, and even though they aren't turning the ball over, the fact remains that the Patriots won the regular-season game under adverse conditions in a hostile environment. In this game, the Giants won't have the weather on their side. And even if their fans buy a bunch of the available tickets, there are too many neutral fans at Super Bowls, and most of them will root for the Patriots so they can witness history.

I hate to say it looks like a comfortable win, because my record in such predictions isn't that great. But that's what it feels like. Something like 35-24.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have never won a Super Bowl with the letter "I" twice in the number. They won XXXVI, XXXVIII, and XXXIX, but winning this Sunday would give them a Super Bowl victory with the letter "I" twice -- XLII.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "When the Packers and Cowboys lost to the Giants, they played some of their worst football of the year. What are the chances the Patriots do the same in the Super Bowl?" (note: you can wink after saying it if you like).

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 21, 2008

Patriots 21, Chargers 12 (1/20/2008)

The San Diego Chargers whimpered into Foxboro yesterday, so scared of the cold that they stayed in the locker room rather than take their pre-game introductions. And they slinked out of Foxboro with a 21-12 loss to the only team in NFL history to go 18-0. The win puts the Patriots where they’ve been pointing to for 365 days: back in the Super Bowl after failing to win last year’s AFC Championship. It also puts them one win from history, as a victory in Super Bowl XXLII will cement their status as one of the greatest teams ever to play football.

The checklist for a San Diego win was simple: windy conditions to slow the passing game (check); pressure Tom Brady (check); win the turnover battle (check); dominate with the running game (no check); don’t get beaten by big plays (check); make big plays on special teams (semi-check); and keep it close in the second half (check). But five-and-a-half checkmarks out of seven wasn’t good enough against a team of gut-check players, and the Patriots ended up with a comfortable win over a depleted Chargers squad.

The Patriots defense was the real star of the game. They limited the Chargers to 25% on third-down conversions, and made them settle for field goals on three trips inside the Patriots ten yard-line. And all three times, it was a different player who stepped up to stop the drive: a broken up pass by Tedy Bruschi, a tackle short of a first down by Ellis Hobbs, and a tackle for a loss by Junior Seau. Big plays by big-time players in critical situations – exactly what the Patriots do, play after play and game after game, while other teams hope they can do it often enough to derail the Pats.

The secondary came up huge in this one, with great play by Ellis Hobbs (8 tackles, 1 pass defended, and an interception), Asante Samuel (3, 2, and 1 beautiful, “I want it more” interception), and Rodney Harrison (7 tackles, and a huge quarterback hit to force fourth-down late in the game). Some will criticize them for allowing a few easy passes, but their job is to stop the opposition from scoring quickly and getting off the field on third-down. And to those ends, they allowed no touchdowns and Chargers QB Philip Rivers was 4-10 for 47 yards and 1 sack on third down, with only 2 conversions all day.

The linebackers played very well, too. Bruschi had eight tackles, and Seau had that aforementioned stop and a sack and two quarterback hits to boot. Mike Vrabel was limited most of the game, but his pressure on Rivers forced an errant throw on Hobbs’ pick. And the team of linebackers did a great job setting the edge to stop outside runs. They stuffed the run when they needed to, and stopped the short passing game that you knew San Diego would use in windy conditions.

On the defensive line, Vince Wilfork proved his Pro Bowl-worthiness in this game. He was up against one of the better centers in the league, and Wilfork consistently got penetration to redirect or tackle runners. Jarvis Green also did a good job in semi-relief on the right side, and Richard Seymour had a good game, also. The pressure on Rivers was no up to par, and none of the linemen got sacks. But they held up against the run while allowing extra defenders to drop into coverage, and it showed with Rivers’ 46.1 quarterback rating.

As for the offense, three cheers for the running backs! Kevin Faulk was the leading receiver, with 8 catches for 82 yards and two big-time, very difficult catches for important third-down conversions on the final, game-icing drive. Laurence Maroney “pitched in” with 122 yards on 25 carries that were a nice mix of juking cutbacks, outside beauties, and bone-crunching plow-straight-aheads. Even oft-forgotten Heath Evans had two first-down conversions on two carries, and all three blocked very well in pass protection

As for the receivers, well, I have a few complaints. Wes Welker had two or three drops, Randy Moss had two drops, and Donte Stallworth didn’t do anything to break up Tom Brady’s first interception. Aside from that, all three did solid blocking duty in the running game, and made catches when they needed to be made. Of course, part of the problem was the pressure on Brady, who had 3 interceptions and his second-lowest quarterback rating of the year (66.4). But with all that, Brady completed 67% of his passes and threw for two touchdowns. But suffice it to say that San Diego treats him as roughly as Miami does every year, and he’s probably glad to have the Chargers game in the rear-view mirror.

There was nothing remarkable to mention about special teams, except that the San Diego kicker appears to have a very weak leg but had four field goals under very difficult conditions. His kickoffs landed at the ten yard-line with the wind, and he had one land at the 30 yard-line into the wind – all of which gave the Patriots a short field too often.

So where does that leave us? Waiting 13 more days for the Super Bowl, I suppose. They appear to be healthy heading into the final “big game” of the season, and they beat the Giants in New York on the last weekend of the year. But that game was close (38-35), so don’t expect a walk-over. I’ll send a preview sometime next week, and might send along a little something prior to that – just to tide you over :)

Statistical Oddity of the Week (in three parts): It’s not often that a quarterback has more interceptions (3) than he had incompletions (2) the previous week. And I’d guess that you will never see a quarterback have 5.5-times as many incomplete passes one week (11) than he had the previous week (2). Bonus Oddity: Laurence Maroney had exactly the same number of yards (122) in each of the Patriots playoff wins this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “What was Norv Turner was thinking? Maybe he was saving that special play to go for it on fourth down in the Pro Bowl, I don’t know.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Thursday, January 17, 2008

Preview of Patriots vs. Chargers (1/17/2008)

To be honest, I wanted the Colts. Not because I'm a "you gotta play the best teams" or "it just won't be the same if we don't play the Colts" yahoo. I thought the Patriots would have whipped the Colts good. Indy without Dwight Freeney scares me a lot less than San Diego without Phillip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson. The reason is what I've been saying for weeks now; no team can hang with the Patriots unless they blitz the quarterback and play press-coverage on the receivers. The Eagles, Ravens, and Giants did just that and all of them almost beat the Patriots. And even though Indy is willing to blitz some, they never deviate from their "two-deep shell," and therefore, the Patriots would have scored at will against them.

The Chargers are a different animal. They often blitz and play tight coverage, and they led the NFL with 48 turnovers on the year (an average of 3 per game). Their cornerbacks are young and athletic, which means they are unpredictable -- which could be good or bad for the Patriots. Mind you, I'm not saying the Chargers will win, only that they present more matchup problems and less certainty than the Colts. Perhaps the Patriots defense will have more luck against the Chargers offense than they would have had against the Colts offense, but that is far from assured. And I suppose I should be glad there won't be any last-minute Peyton Manning drives to win the game. But no matter what Manning did, I was certain the Patriots would beat Indy. It's less of a sure thing against the Chargers.

The Patriots won a regular season game against the Chargers, 38-14 on September 16 at Foxboro. And as is my standard practice in such cases, I will try to decide whether or not enough has changed since that game to give the Chargers a chance to make up the 24-point deficit and possibly win the game.

Point #1. Turnover turn-around.

After starting the year causing fewer than 2 turnovers a game, the Chargers had 32 turnovers in their last 10 games (3.2 per game), twice notching 6 turnovers against teams that made the playoffs. All those forced turnovers coincided with their resurgence as a force in the AFC West -- where their 8-2 record in their last 10 contests won them the division by 4 full games.

Part of the improvement in turnovers was the emergence of cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with ten interceptions (and had one last week). His excellent play allowed the team to use longtime starter Drayton Florence to cover the opposition's third-best receiver, and that gave their blitzing linebackers more time to get to the quarterback.

This week more than any other, the Patriots must protect the ball. San Diego is back to their ball-hawking ways, and the Chargers' best chance to win is to force take-aways and turn them into points. They had three of them last week against the Colts; just another day at the office for them.

Point #2. Offensive no more.

The Chargers offense started out slowly, averaging 17 points in the first 4 games. However, since then, they are averaging 29 points a game, and perhaps more importantly, they haven't scored fewer than 17 points in any of their last 12 games. You can make numbers do a lot of things, but a 70% increase in offensive production looks pretty good no matter how you slice it.

Sometimes, the San Diego offense appears to be from another era, one where the running game was king. Their running game is very good (seventh in yards per game and yards per rush, and tied for second in rushing touchdowns), and they have one of the best tight ends in football, All-Pro Antonio Gates. But their wide receivers are sub-par, and their quarterback has been erratic -- all of which creates a lot of pressure to run the ball very well and use the tight end in the passing game.

To have any chance to win, the Chargers will have to run the ball effectively and get Gates involved in the passing game. Because if the Patriots can stuff the run, the Chargers offense could grind to a halt when receivers can't get open or drop passes. But there are problems with the running game and the tight end (read on for details)...

Point #3. Injuries are (a big) part of the game.

The Chargers have a lot of injuries to deal with. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is nursing a bruised knee that kept him out of the fourth quarter last week. Quarterback Philip Rivers has not one, but two knee strains (and I'm sure he'd have three if he had a third knee). And Gates is nursing a dislocated big toe, which limited him to 2 catches for 28 yards last week.

Rivers was never that mobile to begin with, but it can only help the Patriots that his plant leg is now hurting, which could cause trouble with accuracy and distance on his throws. The Chargers have no one on their roster to replace Gates, so if he can't go, it will be a big blow to their chances at an upset. And in a game where the Chargers must run the ball, they are fortunate to have Michael Turner (4.5 yards a carry in the regular season) to step in. However, the Patriots have more trouble with small, shifty runners like Tomlinson -- so if he can't go, it should be easier for the Patriots to stop Turner, who is more of a north-and-south runner.

Quick Points:

A) The weather on Sunday could actually favor the Chargers. Sure, it will be cold, but if the forecast for wind is correct, it could slow the Patriots passing game and make interceptions more likely.

B) If Billy Volek plays instead of Philip Rivers, don't be celebrating too early. Some of the closest games the 2007 Patriots played were against backup quarterbacks:

- A.J. Feeley (Eagles) pushed them to the limit before losing 31-28.
- Kyle Boller (Ravens) also pushed them to the limit before losing 27-24.
- Backups Chad Pennington (Jets) and Trent Edwards (Bills) performed much better than the starters in games against the Patriots this year.

C) Watch the kickoff return game. San Diego was third in the league with 25.5 yards per return, and they fumbled no kickoffs for the season. If the Patriots are forced to have Chad Jackson return kicks, this could be an area of great advantage for the Chargers.


All that said, between injuries, playing their third game, the shocking change in weather they face (60-degrees in San Diego, 16-degrees in Foxboro), and the overall health of the Patriots -- I just don't see San Diego winning this game. If it's windy and/or they can get some turnovers, they could pull the upset. But the local 11 are too talented and too focused to let this one get away from them. 361 days ago, they lost to the Colts in the franchise's first failure in the AFC Championship Game. And for every one of those days, they have been working to get back to this game and win it. Their off-season moves were designed to prepare them to beat anyone who opposed them, and so far, it's worked out as planned.

It might be closer than people think, but there's just as much chance that it will be a blowout. I'd say the former; with the final score something like 34-24.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Chargers forced more turnovers in their last 10 games (32) than the Patriots did all year (31).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Repeat after me: 'All I want for Christmas is just two more wins, just two more wins, just two more wins!'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 14, 2008

Patriots 31, Jaguars 20 (1/12/2008)

A phenomenal offensive game + a stingy second half defense = another victory for your New England Patriots. This time, Jacksonville limped home with a well-earned 31-20 loss that put the Patriots in the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year. Also, the Colts lost to San Diego, so that means the Pats will play the Chargers on Sunday -- a team they beat in the post-season last year and in the regular season this year.

The Jacksonville defense tried to stop the Pats by doing what they do best, rushing four and dropping seven into coverage. Admirable to try what got you to the playoffs, but foolhardy against a Patriots team that waxed every single team that did that in the regular season. For weeks, it’s been obvious that you can’t stay close to the Patriots without blitz pressure and tight coverage on the receivers.

So how did that plan work? With barely a whiff of pressure, Tom Brady went 26 of 28 (an NFL record 92.9 completion percentage) for 262 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He controlled the game with pinpoint throws to Wes Welker (9 catches for 54 yards and 1 touchdown), and running backs Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney (a combined for 7 catches and 76 yards). And he threw two short touchdowns to long-forgotten Ben Watson (his first touchdown grabs since November 18).

Overall, the receiving corps had one of the best games I’ve ever seen a group of receivers have. They helped control the game with short receptions, dropped only two passes, didn’t fumble once, and blocked extremely well in the running game and the short passing game. Donte Stallworth had two huge catches late in the game (a third-down conversion and a 53-yarder on the Patriots last scoring drive). But his blocking on Wes Welker’s quick-hitch and screen passes was the best I’ve seen him all year, and often turned losses into gains. Randy Moss had only one catch, an important fourth-down conversion on the team’s first drive, but his blocking helped spring Laurence Maroney in the running game.

And with the great passing to loosen up the defense and great blocking (by both the receivers and offensive line), the running game had its best performance in any close game this year. Maroney was a beast out there, notching 122 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He ran with an attitude, pushing the pile for extra yards more than once. And overall, the Patriots out-gained the vaunted Jacksonville running attack, 145 to 80. And with just one sack and two quarterback hits allowed and 145 yards on the ground, the O-line should get some credit. So here I am, giving them some. Good job, guys.

It was a dominating performance by the offense. They had scoring chances on six of seven important drives (one missed field goal), converted 60% on third down, averaged almost nine yards per pass attempt, had just one penalty, and held a five-minute advantage in time of possession. Want more proof, take a gander at the Jags defensive line: 1 sack (4 yards), 2 quarterback hits, zero interceptions, zero passes knocked down, and zero forced fumbles. That’s a lot of zeros for a playoff team.

To stop the Jaguars running game, the Patriots started James Sanders and Randall Gay, both of whom are better in run support than the usual starters (Eugene Wilson and Ellis Hobbs, respectively). Sanders responded with eight tackles and Gay had seven. Rodney Harrison dropped one sure interception and got the game-sealing pick later. But he has to stop the foolish personal foul penalties – three of them in the last two games.

There has already been some sports-talk buzz about poor play by the secondary, as Jacksonville threw the ball at will. But in this game, the idea was to stop the run first, and then make sure the Jaguar receivers didn’t get behind the defense or make yards after the catch. And you can’t argue with the results -- Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for 19 carries and 66 yards, 65% below their average output and numbers they topped *individually* 13 times this season.

Of course, the front seven “pitched in” to stop the run, too. Junior Seau (10) and Tedy Bruschi (7) led the linebackers in tackles, and Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas did a great job setting the edge and forcing the run back inside. Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour (who is indeed starting to play better) had 5 and 4 tackles, respectively, and Ty Warren added a sack, a forced fumble, and 2 quarterback hits to his 5 tackles. So very solid play by the line, nothing flashy and no big plays allowed.

Special teams gave their usual up-and-down performance. They covered well, especially on a reverse on a kickoff return (nice job by Heath Evans and Kelley Washington). And given the explosive nature of the Jacksonville special teams, we should probably be happy there were no big returns against the Patriots, but here are two nitpicks. Chad Jackson averaged six-yards less per kickoff return than usual return man (Ellis Hobbs), though thankfully, he didn’t fumble after being on the bench most of the year. And Stephen Gostkowski just has to be able to make a 35-yard field goal. It was his first playoff miss, and here’s hoping it’s his last.

The coaches put together a great game plan, and stuck to it when others might have panicked. It was the reverse plan from the 1990 Super Bowl, when the Giants defensive coordinator (some guy named Belichick) told his team that to beat the Buffalo Bills, they would need to allow the Bills to run the ball all they wanted, but stop the pass. This time, it was the run that was the threat, and the Patriots took that away instead. Also, some special praise for defensive coordinator Dean Pees. His halftime adjustments have been crucial to the Patriots success. In the 11 close games this year, the defense has allowed only 6.7 points per second half (including 6 in Saturday's playoff game).

So where does that leave us? 1-0 in the playoffs must mean we’re on the field again next week – woo-hoo! It’ll be the Patriots vs. Chargers in the AFC Championship game this Sunday at Foxboro (3:00). To be honest, I was hoping to play the Colts, because they play a similar defense to Jacksonville’s. But it’s probably just as well we don’t have to worry about a last-minute comeback by Peyton Manning.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: David Garrard threw three interceptions in the regular season and three in the playoffs. Not quite as magical as Tom Brady, after all.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Maybe Jack Del Rio [Jacksonville head coach] doesn’t know how to blitz. I mean, you’d think he would make some changes after Brady started out 14 for 14.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Preview of Patriots vs. Jaguars (1/8/2007)

The Jacksonville Jaguars are coming to town, and they are not your father's Florida team. The aren't affected by weather (they beat the Steelers in the snow a few weeks back), they dominate with the run, have huge receivers, and a very physical defense. Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor are play-makers at running back, and their defensive line is massive and can stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback without blitzes. Jacksonville finished the season 11-5, and led the league in scoring the second half of the season (32 points per game). They recorded road wins against three playoff teams (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh) and they won't be intimidated by what mother nature has in store this Saturday.

So I guess the Patriots shouldn't show up, eh? No chance of that -- after all they're the #1 seed for a reason. With last week off, they should be healthy for the first time in a few weeks (all reports are that Ben Watson, Kyle Brady, Stephen Neal, and Nick Kazcur will be ready). In the regular season, the Pats had highest scoring offense and gave up the fourth-fewest points. They are solid in the kicking game and are undefeated in home playoff games under Bill Belichick (6-0). Confidence should be at an all time high, and weapons like like Brady, Moss, and Welker should help put a decent number of points on the board (which could bode well, as it might make the Jags abandon the run for the pass).


Point #1. One if by land.

At times this season, the Patriots struggled to stop the run, though it was mostly against teams with balanced offenses. If the Jags run the ball well, they can force the Patriots to adjust their defense, thus leaving single coverage on some of the Jacksonville receivers. That would be a mismatch they can use to their advantage as the game goes on, but it is all predicated on running the ball. Jacksonville can (and probably will) pound the ball -- it's the strength of their game. They averaged 149.4 yards a game and 4.6 yards a carry, notched 22 rushes of over 20 yards, and even though they ran the ball 522 times (second-most in the league), they had just 4 fumbles all season.

The problem with continually running the ball is New England's offense. If the Patriots come out of the chute quickly, the Jags could fall behind, and it is imperative that they don't panic if that happens. It would help if their defense could stop the Patriots early, to give their offense a chance to get a rhythm going. But hey don't have the quarterback or receivers to get into a high-scoring game with the Patriots, so patience with the run is paramount.

Point #2. Don't depend on the kindness of strangers.

Jacksonville should keep in mind that, unlike Pittsburgh, the Patriots probably won't turn the ball over four times, won't have as much trouble moving the ball as the Steelers did, and won't make mistakes on two-point conversions and play-calling late in the game. So if the Jags have the lead in the second half, they have to stay aggressive and keep trying to score, because the Patriots offense will get plenty of points. And if the Jags get behind -- as they did late in the game last week -- they can't wait around for the Patriots to self-destruct. The Patriots are far less likely to make crucial mistakes to help the Jaguars get back in the game. For example, if the Patriots are leading by one point and can kill the clock with another first down, they probably won't call three running plays in a row (the third being a QB draw on third-and-six), and then punt the ball back to the Jags. Just saying, I don't see that happening.

Point #3. Let David try to slay Goliath.

Five weeks ago, the Steelers came to Foxboro to with a stellar running game and thought they'd beat the Pats by ramming it down their throat and playing solid defense. They did run the ball well -- 32 carries, 181 yards, 5.7 yards a carry. But their quarterback could muster only 187 yards through the air and had only one big play, and the Patriots coasted to a 21-point win. The lesson of that game is that no team has stayed close to the Patriots by just running, and even with their vaunted ground game, the Jaguars will be no different.

Eventually the Jaguars will have to get good plays in the passing game from quarterback David Garrard to win. When they almost beat the Patriots in 2006 (they lost, 24-21), they had big plays on all three scoring drives, and two of the three came through the air. This season, Garrard posted the second-best quarterback rating (102.2), the fewest interceptions (3), and was just .1-yards from being tied for third most yards per attempt (7.7). He's not playoff tested but he has started 31 games (including last week) and should be ready to lead the team.

So take the training wheels off of David Garrard, if you hold out any hope of winning on Saturday.


Point #1. The Jaguars are already out of their comfort zone -- keep them there.

Jacksonville likes to play their base defense and pressure the quarterback by rushing four down linemen and no blitzers. They also prefer to play their corners off and keep passes in front of them, although they have shown of a willingness to bring them up in tight coverage. The problem is that not blitzing and playing off the receivers has been completely ineffective against the 2007 Patriots. The teams that stayed close to the Pats blitzed from all angles and played press coverage on the receivers. And Jacksonville is a team that (a) doesn't do that very much and (b) doesn't have the personnel to pull it off when they try it.

If they bring their corners up to press the receivers, they are vulnerable to the deep threat, because their corners aren't good enough to hold that coverage down the field. And if they play off, the Patriots offense will nickel-and-dime them down the field. And if they can't get pressure and then have to start blitzing, it opens them up to all kinds of havoc, with players either out of position or holes in the defense for Tom Brady to exploit.

Jacksonville might well try to blitz and/or play tight on the receivers, but it isn't what they do best. So before the Patriots even take the field, the Jags will almost certainly try some things they aren't used to doing. Belichick likes to take teams out of their comfort zones, but in this game, Jacksonville should start the game that way -- it will be the Patriots job to keep them there.

Point #2. Score early, score often.

It isn't critical to get an early lead, but if the Patriots do, they will be more than half way to winning. This year, the Patriots have allowed only 2 of 16 opponents to score on the opening drive. Conversely, the Patriots have scored on their own opening drive 13 of 16 games this year. That means the Patriots had early leads in 13 of 16 games this year, and nothing about Jacksonville would make you think it will be any different in this game. In fact, Jacksonville scored on only 6 of 16 first drives this year, one of the slowest starting teams in the NFL.

Falling behind might not be that bad... when you're playing, say, the Kansas City Chiefs. But if the Patriots get out in front, they won't be shy about keeping the pressure on by scoring more and more (just ask Joe Gibbs). And a large deficit would make the Jaguars more likely to pass, which they aren't accustomed to doing. So scoring early and often would put the Jaguars in the position the Patriots would love the most -- trying to win with their second- or third-best options.

Point #3. The regular season is over, but 16-0 still means something.

The Patriots rank first or second in most offensive categories, Jacksonville ranks sixth or seventh. The Patriots have eight Pro Bowl players, the Jaguars none. The Pats beat the Colts and Steelers (easily), while Jacksonville lost twice to the Colts and needed late comebacks to beat Steelers. The Patriots finished five games ahead of Jax, are playing at home, and should be well rested. And perhaps most important of all, the Patriots are 14-3 in the playoffs under Belichick (6-0 at home), and the Jaguars are only 1-1 under Jack Del Rio.

The Patriots won't win this game if they don't play well, but they don't have to play a perfect game to win. On the other hand, the Jaguars do have to play a perfect game to win. The talent disparity is that substantial.


A) Against the Steelers last week, the Jaguars had 19 guys playing in their first playoff game. On Saturday, the Patriots will likely have 3 -- Kyle Eckel, Brandon Meriweather, and Mel Mitchell (all part-timers and special teams guys).

B) Don't be too concerned about the way Jacksonville handled the Steelers. Pittsburgh was only 3-2 versus teams with a winning record, and lost to the Cardinals (8-8), Broncos (7-9), Jets (4-12), and Ravens (5-11). Blech!

C) The Patriots and Jaguars have met twice in the playoffs, with the home team taking each game. The Jags beat the Pete Carroll-coached 1998 team, 25-10; the Pats beat the Jaguars 28-3 after the 2005 season.


That Patriots will have to play well to win on Saturday, but all signs point to a victory. They were better in the regular season, have an absolute boatload of playoff experience, scored more points and gave up fewer than Jacksonville. The Jags will present some problems with their running game, and it will be imperative to maintain discipline in plugging holes and not overrun the play. But no team is better at making the adjustments needed to stop what their opponent does best. Jax could also spring some surprise blitzes to confuse the Patriots. For that, the Patriots need to be ready to call timeouts and/or make adjustments quickly to handle that pressure. Fortunately, they are the best in the NFL at changing their plans on the fly -- however, they'll need to be careful not to turn the ball over while they are figuring things out.

If the Jaguars stick with their normal pressure package, the game could be easier than most people think. The Pats shredded teams that tried the bend-but-don't-break defense, and there won't be any noise to distract the Patriots offense (what with the home crowd and all). So if you see four-or-fewer Jacksonville pass rushers, prepare for a good offensive day. The Patriots will use the running game sparingly (as usual), and eventually, the Jaguar pass rushers will start to tire of chasing Brady, which could make it even easier for the NFL MVP.

I don't envision a blowout, given Jacksonville's tendency to slow the game down with the running attack and their hesitance to veer from their game plan. The only blowout scenario I can envision is if one team gets behind and tries to pass to get back into the game and that leads to turnovers. It could happen, but I wouldn't predict it. More likely is a tough, hard-fought game with a final score like Patriots 31, Jaguars 20. But win-by-1 or win-by-21, I just hope I'll have to use my tickets for the AFC Championship Game the next week :)

The Most Ridiculous, Astounding, Stupendous, Jaw-dropping, Insane, You-Just-Can't-Believe-It, You-Gotta-Be-Frickin'-Kidding-Me Statistical Oddity of All Time: The Jacksonville Jaguars have more losses on artificial turf this year (3) than Tom Brady has in his career (2). Brady is an abacus-melting 35-2 on the fake stuff in his career. (And take note, Saturday's game is on artificial turf.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "There is something magical about the season David Garrard had. I just hope it isn't the same kind of magic Tom Brady had in 2001."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Monday, January 7, 2008

2007 Regular Season Awards (1/7/2008)

Here are my Patriots awards for the 2007 regular season. I always like to recognize how the players improve from year-to-year, and going from 12-4 to 16-0 means someone must have played better. Given that first year players only sporadically make significant contributions to the team, and there were very few (if any) impact rookies this year, I renamed the "rookie of the year" award "newcomer of the year."

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, The O-Line

Brady set a new NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (50), and oversaw an offense that set a new standard for points in one year (589). He's won 77.3% of his regular season starts and 87.5% of his playoff starts, and he was so good this year, the Patriots had the fewest punts in the league (44). But perhaps most important this year is the effect he had on Randy Moss. Moss was a lost football player in Oakland, but many have reported that he has been reborn in no small part due to Brady's calm and focused personality. Brady's won this award from me four other times, and this was his best year yet. He won the NFL MVP over the weekend, so this choice was easy for me.

Moss set an NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season (23), and gave Brady a deep threat he's never had. Welker set the Patriots record for receptions in a season (112) and was invaluable in keeping the chains moving with third-down catches. And with the talent upgrade at receiver, Kevin Faulk played a lot more as the offense went four- and five-wide a lot. That put more pressure on Faulk and the O-Line to handle the complex blitzes and screen calls, and they all handled the job well enough to help Brady set a career low in sacks (21).

Most Improved Offensive Player: Kevin Faulk
Honorable Mention: Jabar Gaffney

Faulk's stats are better than last year, but it's really in the amount of time he was on the field and how often he made the right play just when the Patriots needed it. His uncanny knack for squeezing out that one more yard for the first down or crossing the formation to pick up a corner blitz kept drives alive all year. He was almost offensive lineman-like, in that the less you heard about him, the better he was doing his job. He also had twice as many carries, yards, and first downs as he did in 2006.

Not only did Gaffney defy the odds to stay on the team, he started seven of the last eight games this year. He also notched 36 catches (up from 11 in 2006), 5 touchdowns (1), and 21 first downs (9).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Randy Moss
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker

What don't you know about Moss already? How about that 75.5% of his catches went for first downs. And here are his stats for the 2007 season (as compared to his time in Oakland): 98 receptions (102), 1493 yards (1558), 23 touchdowns (11), 9 catches of 40+ yards (5), and 74 first downs (75). Oh, and in case you didn't remember, those Oakland numbers are for *two* seasons, not one.

What don't you know about Welker already? Perhaps that in addition to being a receiver, punt returner, and kickoff returner, Welker (Mr. Versatility) has also kicked a field goal in the NFL. He hit a 29-yarder in 2004, so if Stephen Gostkowski goes down, the team is all set :)

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel

Why Vince over Mike? It was a real toss-up between those two, but when I checked all my updates for the year, there were several games where I thought Vrabel was sub-par, whereas Wilfork was a model of consistency. Apparently Vince lost some weight in the off-season (at his wife's urging), and it showed in his quickness. He had 36 tackles and 2 sacks, and had a career game against the Steelers -- when he recorded 7 tackles and was all over the field (even running down a ball-carrier at the sideline, almost unheard of for a nose tackle in the 3-4). He made his first Pro Bowl this year, and if he keeps the weight off, it could be the first of many.

Mike Vrabel also made the Pro Bowl, a long overdue honor. Depending on which page you read at, he had 11.5, 12.0, or 12.5 sacks on the year, and had an absolute monster game against Washington (3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a touchdown reception).

Most Improved Defensive Player: James Sanders
Honorable Mention: Randall Gay, Vince Wilfork

James Sanders is really coming along as a safety. He was an adequate replacement when Rodney Harrison served his four-week suspension, and when Rodney returned, Sanders was actually an improvement over Eugene Wilson (who was apparently hurt). Sanders' 52 solo tackles and 2 interceptions both doubled his production from last year, and he also had the first 5 passes defensed of his (admittedly short) career. But the stats don't do him justice, as he was just around the ball more and rarely got beaten for long passes. With him coming on, Rodney Harrison's eventual retirement seems more survivable.

Last season, Randall Gay played in only 3 games due to injures. But he bounced back nicely in 2007, matching or exceeding most of his career-best stats. Note: most of those career bests were from his 2004 campaign -- the last year the Patriots won the Super Bowl. And Vince Wilfork might have topped this category, but he played pretty darned well in 2006.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Adalius Thomas
Honorable Mention: None

Thomas arrived on the scene as the most coveted linebacker in free agency, and he didn't disappoint. Initially, he played inside, allowing Mike Vrabel to move outside and have an absolute monster year. And when an injury knocked Rosevelt Colvin out for the year, Thomas moved outside and has played even better. He rushes the passer (6.5 sacks), makes tackles (78, 57 solo), can defend the pass (8 passes defensed, 1 interception), and can take over a game if needed. He was often among the best defenders on the field, and without him, the Patriots would be in big trouble at linebacker.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Larry Izzo
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker

Twelve-year vet Larry Izzo continues to fly around like a rookie on coverage teams. He's the special teams captain, and his steadying influence contributes to the overall performance. He didn't have a career year in special teams tackles, but teams have to account for him and that opens up opportunities for others (such as Kelley Washington and Willie Andrews).

Wes Welker's stats don't jump out at you, but he solidified the kick return game and took pressure off other starters by returning punts (specifically Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown). He had only 7 fair catches on the year, and always got extra yardage when it counted.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Chris Hanson
Honorable Mention: Kelley Washington

Chris Hanson was signed in the off-season, and though his number of punts was down, he averages almost a yard more per punt and gave up zero returns for touchdown (he had two last year). He also brought stability to a position where the Patriots had trouble the last few years, with some injuries and inconsistent play.

Kelly Washington had two tackles on special teams for the Bengals last year. He had 16 this year, and was a major contributor in areas where the Patriots improved.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Wes Welker
Honorable Mention: Kelley Washington

Both for reasons mentioned above.

That's about it. Hope this holds you until my blockbuster mid-week update on the Patriots/Jaguars game. Until then...

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Friday, January 4, 2008

Playoff Preview 2008 (1/4/2008)

So now the real season begins. Oh joy! Oh rapture! And as always, questions abound: Should the Giants have rested their starters? Should the Patriots have rested theirs? Is Jeff Garcia going to be rested or rusty? How effective can Marvin Harrison be? Are the Steelers contenders or pretenders? Is Jacksonville really that dangerous? Should Seattle even show up? Which is worse, Romo's thumb or T.O.'s ankle? Does Green Bay have enough of a running game? Is Norv really better than Marty was? Vince Young or Kerry Collins in Tennessee? Jason Campbell or Todd Collins in Washington? Jack Daniels or a Tom Collins if your team wins?!?!

31 days of wondering, worrying, wishing, wailing, and watching. 31 days until the book closes on what will be either an historic regular season or one that Comic Book Guy would call "Best Football Season -- Ever!" 31 days before I stop pestering you with updates and cajoling you to watch even though I already know you will. 31 more days... and then we can finally get some rest. Here are the teams we'll be talking about for the next 31 days, listed in order of their chances to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on February 3:

The Faves

1. The Patriots are the clear favorite and should be. They are 6-0 versus the other playoff teams, and had one of the most dominant regular seasons in the history of team sports. They pass better than any other team and run better (and are healthier) than any of their previous Super Bowl-winning teams. They were fourth in points allowed (even with teams desperately trying to catch up late in games) and are riding the longest winning steak in NFL history (19 regular season games and counting). If they get decent play from dinged-up tight ends and decent coverage from the defensive secondary, if they avoid injuries at quarterback and linebacker, and of course, if they avoid windy weather, they are the odds-on favorites to go all the way.

2. The Colts are a clear second, as these two teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league. The regular season meeting between New England and Indy went down to the wire, and if I'm not mistaken, the Colts are still the defending champions. I place them slightly below the Patriots for three reasons: first, they lost to the Patriots in the regular season; second, their receivers and running back are banged up and they lost their best defensive lineman (Dwight Freeney) to injury; and third, any game between these two would be in New England -- where the Patriots are 6-0 in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. If the Patriots stumble on January 12, the Colts would become the prohibitive favorite to win it all, and rightfully so.

A Notch Below

3. The Pack is back, and playing better than ever! Well, maybe not better than ever, but... well, I guess I got overexcited there for a second, but there's a lot to like about the Packers. Green Bay is third in yards per pass attempt and QB Brett Favre's 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio would be stellar in most seasons (you know, like seasons when Tom Brady didn't post a ridiculous 5.5-to-1 ratio). And though there's been much hand-wringing over the lack of a dominating Packer running game, they averaged a decent 4.1 yards per rush. Add to that a very good defense (6th in the league in points allowed, and 32 turnovers on the year) with sound play at cornerback and young, athletic linebackers, and it could be a very long and successful playoff run for the Titletown 11. In fact, the only reasons they rank below the Big Two are their poor performance in first downs allowed, their tendency to have a lot of penalties, and Favre's occasional reversion to bad form.

4. Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably aren't on your radar screen, but they have many of the components needed to win a Super Bowl. In 2002, they rode a suffocating defense (with a great turnover ratio), an efficient passing game, and a very good running game to a championship under Gruden. This year, they are third in points allowed (and fourth in turnover ratio), eighth in yards per pass attempt and passer rating, and seventh in yards per rush (just ahead of Green Bay). It all sounds so familiar. And in fact, I would rate them even higher, if they hadn't posted a 2-3 record against teams with winning records this year.

5. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the latest team to be predicted to take out the Patriots, and that's ironic given that three years ago, the Patriots lost the season's final game on purpose so they could play the Jags in the first round of the playoffs (note: Pats won 28-3). The Jaguars running game is dominant, near the top in total yards, rushing attempts, yards per rush, and first downs via the run. However, what gives them a chance at a ring is quarterback David Garrard's lack of interceptions and 7.5 yards per attempt (6th in the NFL). The Jags can't expect to win a Super Bowl by running the ball all the time and playing solid defense, so eventually they will need Garrard to make plays. And at the moment, his lack of playoff experience is the team's achilles heal. But if Garrard can come through in his first playoff action (sort of like the way some guy named Brady did a few years back), Jacksonville becomes a very dangerous team.

A Puncher's Chance

6. The Dallas Cowboys are the #1 seed in the NFC, but just like San Diego last year, they aren't as good as their record indicates. After bolting out to a 11-1 record, here's how their last month played out: should have lost to the Lions, lost at home to Philly, barely won at Carolina, lost to Washington (meaningless end-of-year game). More importantly, after quarterback Tony Romo injured his thumb, his QB rating went from a Peyton Manning-like 107.7 in the first 13 games to a Vince Young-like 50.7 the last 3. Add to that inconsistent team play and a one-and-done playoff system, and the Cowboys look like a #1 seed that could pull up lame at just the wrong time.

7. I like what the Chargers have done lately, but there are two reasons they are ranked this low. First, their current six-game winning streak was built on the backs of five bad teams and one decent team (Tennessee). Second, eventually their playoff hopes will rest on the right arm of Phillip Rivers or the headset of Norv Turner. To win the Super Bowl, they have to win four straight games without that coming back to bite them, and I don't think it will happen.

8. The Pittsburgh Steelers just don't have it this year. Their premier running back is out for the year, their defense is all banged up, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't playing all that well, and they'd have to get past either Indy or New England to get to the promised land. Looks like first-year head coach, Mike Tomlin, might have to plan for next year. The only reason they didn't drop a level is that if they take care of business this weekend, they can stay with Indy (should they play them) and hope someone else upsets the Patriots.

Soon to Receive Lovely Parting Gifts

9. The Seattle Seahawks gave up 44 points to an Atlanta Falcons team that averaged 13.5 points per game in their other 15 contests. Even if Seattle rested their starters, they gave up over three-times as many points as the Falcons averaged prior to that game. You can bet on the Seahawks, if you like, but I'd stay away from them.

10. The New York Giants should have rested their starters last week. They had several injuries and will likely have to play three road games just to get to the Super Bowl. I don't see them winning those games, not three in a row. They might not even get past this weekend when Eli Manning and a depleted corps of receivers face the No. 3 scoring defense in Tampa Bay. And if New York loses in the first round, it could put Tom Coughlin's job in jeopardy (I can hear my friend Mike hoping against hope!).

11. Earlier in the year, Washington lost to the Patriots by 45 points (52-7), and no Super Bowl winner has ever lost a game that season by more than 32 points (the 1994 49ers lost 40-8 to the Eagles, the 2003 Patriots lost 31-0 to the Bills). So the Team that Daniel Snyder Bought has very little chance to win it all. The reasons they are eleventh instead of twelfth is that they have Joe Gibbs (who has won three Super Bowls) and they have changed quarterbacks since the Patriots game.

12. The Tennessee Titans are hoping Vince Young can catch lightning in a bottle. And I think they have a better chance of him literally doing that then of winning the Super Bowl. In fact, for this playoff run, they might be better off with Kerry Collins at quarterback. Maybe next year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I know Dallas and Green Bay finished three games ahead of the rest of the NFC. But watch out for Tampa Bay, Washington, and Seattle. I think the NFC is more wide open than the experts do."

Keep the faith,

- Scott