Monday, February 4, 2008

Patriots 14, Giants 17 (2/3/2008)

I said all along that I'd rather the Patriots go 10-6 and win the Super Bowl than 16-0 and lose it. Well, maybe next year... sigh. The Giants rode heavy defensive pressure to a 17-14 victory for their first Super Bowl championship in 17 years. The loss was New England's first of the season and dropped them from possible immortality to a second straight year losing on a last-minute touchdown drive by some guy named Manning. I know that uncertainty is central to what we like about sports (otherwise we'd all watch wrestling instead), but it doesn't make it any easier when your team is on the downside of it.

In a game of opportunities, the Patriots didn't take anything close to full advantage of theirs. After an Ellis Hobbs interception, the offense lost a yard on two running plays into eight- and nine-man fronts and then punted. A second-quarter hold by Ben Watson cost them a first down and they ended up fumbling the ball away. On a third-quarter drive, a Giants penalty gave them new life, but the Pats ended up going for it on fourth-and-13 instead of kicking a 49-yard field goal (in a game they lost by 3 points). And they continually tried to throw deep when Brady didn't have enough time. And so the team that won eighteen straight games by adjusting to what the other team would give them failed to adjust and lost the most important game of the year.

The offensive line played their worst game since the Baltimore tilt in December. Stephen Neal only played about a half, and his replacement, Russ Hochstein couldn't handle the inside rush. Meanwhile, tackles Matt Light and Nick Kazcur couldn't stop the outside rush, and that left Tom Brady nowhere to hide. Six weeks ago, I chided the Dolphins "inept offense" for allowing 20 quarterback hits. Well, our offense just gave up 14 "official" hits (5 sacks, 9 QB hits), though the Fox coverage said it was at least 3 more than that. In addition to all the pressure on Brady, the team ran for an anemic 2.8 yards per rush, and committed two false start penalties that really hurt. Oh, and that rushing average and number of QB hits tells you what kind of day the running backs had, too. Not good.

As for Brady and the receivers, the numbers look decent. Tom was 29-48, 266 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. But I think he didn't do enough checking off of plays. The Giants could have been had with short passes, but far too often, Brady ran the ball into stacked defenses or tried long passes against blitzes. Not a good game by him or offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. They looked as hubristic as Rams coach Mike Martz did against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, and they suffered the same fate: a three-point loss. Wes Welker (11-103) and Kevin Faulk (7-52) were as reliable as ever. And Randy Moss finished strong, with 4 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown in the second half. But as a group, they didn't do enough to get open on short routes to take the pressure off Brady, and frankly they had a bad day blocking (especially on WR screens).

But don't think that the offense was all to blame for the loss. The defense had three chances to close out the game on the Giants final drive, and missed all three. Both Adalius Thomas and Jarvis Green let (Giants QB) Eli Manning slip through their fingers and Manning completed a pass to the Patriots 25 yard-line. Earlier in the drive, Asante Samuel dropped a sure interception, and Brandon "hands of stone" Meriweather let another potential pick go through his hands (that was the sixth or seventh one he's missed this year). And in the first half, Pierre Woods should have recovered a fumble, but the Giants Brandon Jacobs wanted it more and simply took it away from Woods.

Overall, the defense played a decent game. They held the Giants to 17 points, and that performance would have won all eighteen other games this year. The front seven got more pressure in this game (3 sacks, 5 QB hits) than they did in the last game (1 sack, 2 QB hits). Adalius Thomas was the man up front, and you could see why they signed him in the off-season. He had two sacks, a forced fumble, and five solo tackles. And Tedy Bruschi acquitted himself nicely, but his partners in crime, Junior Seau and Mike Vrabel were controlled by the Giants all day long. On the D-line, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork played quite well, plugging up gaps in the middle and slowing down the run. But Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green, and Le Kevin Smith were basically absent for the day. I hope Seymour returns to his old form next year, because his knee injury obviously hurt him a lot more than he let on.

With the exception of Ellis Hobbs, the secondary played a very good game, especially when compared to their prior game against the Giants. They got an interception, knocked down seven other passes and hit hard enough to jar the ball loose at least three times. Rodney Harrison had 12 tackles, and James Sanders (4) and Brandon Meriweather (3) pitched in with some big hits and a few passes knocked down. The coverage was very tight on a lot of plays and then non-existent on others. But for the most part they didn't allow big plays (a 45-yard catch-and-run by Kevin Boss was one exception), and their performance should have been good enough to win. And if Asante or Brandon could just have caught a football, it would have been.

The biggest special teams play of the game was the one that Bill Belichick didn't call. Leading 7-3, he eschewed a 49-yard field goal attempt to go for it on 4th-and-13. Now, if it had been 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2, I could see it. But I think it revealed Belichick's lack of faith in kicker Stephen Gostkowski. And in a three-point loss, it's tough not to look back on that play. Other than that, the coverage teams were good, and they got one big kickoff return from Laurence Maroney. Gostkowski did send one kickoff out of bounds, and punter Chris Hanson sent one off the side of his foot. But the Giants didn't score on either of the ensuing drives, so no harm, no foul.

And now to the coaching. Belichick should have tried the field goal. Josh McDaniels should have kept true to his adjusting-self -- not become the reincarnation of Mike Martz and go for long passes when short ones would do. The offense's poor performance and his unwillingness or inability to adjust his play-calling probably cost the Patriots the game. And since he gets so much praise, I think offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia deserves some blame. If he couldn't protect Brady, he should have employed more protectors or used "chipping" running backs or tight ends.

So where does that leave us? Awaiting the return of Rosevelt Colvin and (rookie) Oscar Lua to shore up an aging linebacker corps. Perhaps looking for another cornerback and safety to spell Rodney Harrison. Fine-tuning an offense that scored over 20 points in every game except the Super Bowl. Pining for sought-after free agents who want one shot at a ring. And with one more year of Tom Brady's career gone by the books with no ring. 18-1 wouldn't be bad for most teams, but you never want the "1" to come in the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In a year of firsts, the Patriots had yet another one -- first team in NFL history to win 18 games in a season and not be crowned champions.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, I heard all year about how the Patriots adjust better than any team in the NFL. So where were the offensive adjustments in the frickin' Super Bowl?! I mean, I could see the eight- and nine-man fronts on television -- couldn't they audible to a play-action pass?"

Keep your faith warm for the Winter. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so we probably have at least six more weeks.

- Scott



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