Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Patriots 13, Dolphins 38 (9/21/2008)

Sorry this post is so late; big software deployment at work. The game was sort of similar to that -- big soft defense at work. Patriots gave up 5 touchdowns to a single player and over 200 yards rushing to the Dolphins team in a 38-13 loss at Gillette. The loss put them at 2-1, one game behind the improved Buffalo Bills. And with a bye week, they've got a long time to think about this one.

Let's make it short and sweet, shall we. Matt Cassel is not to blame for this loss. To win this game, the Patriots would have needed a monumental performance from the QB to overcome a phenomenal game from Miami running back Ronnie Brown and a terrible game by the Patriots defense.

It was inexcusable for the defense to be repeatedly confused by gadget plays (all five direct snaps to Brown accounted for either touchdowns or huge chunks of yardage), even worse not to get any pressure on the QB (zero sacks, 85% completions), and even worse than that to be gashed over-and-over by long passes and runs right down the middle of the field. Dean Pees, please, I'm begging you, when what you're doing isn't working, at least *try* something else. Go back to the old days with blitzers coming from everywhere, try the 46-defense, go with a two-man rush -- something!

So while the Patriots offense didn't take advantage of the great field position provided by the kick return teams, the defense just got man-handled. It reminded me of another beautiful fall day ruined when the defense couldn't get off the field and eventually wore out -- back when the Patriots lost to the Chargers in 2005 (link). I got sunburned that game, too, but nothing close to how the defense got burned play after play.

The bad performances were too many to mention, so I'll just let you know who played well. Adalius Thomas had a decent game and Jerod Mayo looked okay early in the game on defense. Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk were fine on offense. And Ellis Hobbs, and the return teams had a very good game, as did the kickers themselves. The coverage teams did well, except for a penalty on the play when they downed the ball at the Miami one yard-line.

The coaching is a little bit worrisome. It's the second time in four "real" games that they've been out-coached, failing to implement proper adjustments in this game and in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The Super Bowl loss was the first time in years that I'd see them get out-coached, and I'm hoping that twice in four meaningful games isn't a trend. We shall see.

So where does that leave us? Well, maybe I'll write more detail next week, when there won't be a big project at work to handle. Oh, right... next week is a bye week -- so maybe not after all. The Patriots have two weeks to think about that loss and make whatever adjustments they can to regain a competitive edge. I believe they will do that against San Francisco (the team they play after the bye), but after that the schedule gets a lot tougher.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The last time the Patriots have not held at least a share of the AFC East division lead was October 12, 2003. The team that was ahead of them then was... who else, the Miami Dolphins. [Note: turns out they were out of first place in October of 2005, too. Sorry about that, and props to Don Banks of SI.]

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe next time the Dolphins line up with their QB as a wide receiver, someone should just *level* him. Might make Miami think twice about using that formation again."

Give your faith a bye week --it deserves it,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Patriots 19, Jets 10 (9/14/2008)

My question to you is this: would you rather be the first place, 2-0 Patriots with a backup at quarterback, or the last place, 0-2 Chargers, Bengals, or Jaguars with the usual starter at QB? By season's end, things could look different, but the Patriots out-hustled and out-worked the Jets for a 19-10 victory in New Jersey. And at the moment, they are tied for first place in the AFC East (with Buffalo); while the Chargers, Bengals, and Jaguars are all dead last in their divisions. It's an interesting question... maybe they'd all take 2-0 with the other talent the Patriots possess.

The Patriots defied everyone (me included) and rode a competent performance by Matt Cassel, a sometimes punishing running game, and vastly superior special teams play to the top of the division. It isn't often you credit the special teams with a victory, but the Patriots average drive started on their 42 yard-line, while the average Jets drive started on their 21 yard-line. It was due mostly to very good returns and excellent kick coverage.

The Patriots did get one more turnover than the Jets, but looking for any other edge outside of special teams is futile. Rushing yards were even (Jets 104 to Patriots 104), passing yards were close (181 to 165), QB sacks were close (3 to 2), and there was just the one turnover. The most glaring differences favored the Patriots special teams: punting average was 50 to 40.5, and Kevin Faulk's 53 punt return yards to zero for the entire Jets team. Not saying that was the only reason they won, but it was a major factor.

New QB Matt Cassel was sacked on his first three passing plays of the third quarter, and it was the best thing that could have happened. Because he ate the ball, did not try to do to much or force a bad pass, and thus did not throw the killer interception that could have cost the Patriots the game. I wrote last week that the Jets would be patient and wait for Cassel to make the critical mistake. Looks like they'll have to wait nine more weeks, when they next play the Patriots in Foxboro.

The O-line did a serviceable job, despite giving up the three sacks early in the third quarter. They blocked well on the short screens and opened up running lanes late that helped them seal the deal. LaMont Jordan (11 carries for 62 yards) was their most effective running back, perhaps motivated by playing his former team. And Kevin Faulk threw in a three good runs (for 16 yards), none of which went for first downs but all of which helped get them close to first downs. The only receiver worth mentioning is Wes Welker, who caught them short, medium, and long -- and this week, he didn't fumble!

The defensive line and linebackers are playing very well indeed. The Jets couldn't run inside much, and the Patriots front line got pressure without blitzing, which had Favre throwing off his back foot all day. Ty Warren was the star of the game, and Richard Seymour continues to improve towards his pre-injury level of play. And I note that they continue to rotate linemen, which gives them solid play from Jarvis Green and Mike Wright.

Adalius Thomas played the best of the linebackers. He couldn't keep up with a Jets wideout early in the game, but aside from that he was great at setting the edge against the run and sacked Favre for a 20-yard loss late in the game. I think Tedy Bruschi was the second best of the 'backers, and he is clearly benefits from having Jerod Mayo next to him and Thomas and Mike Vrabel in their more dominant outside positions. It's been a struggle for #54 the past few years, but Mayo looks like he might stick (even though he reacts a bit too much to QB scrambles at this point). Heck, even Pierre Woods looks better with the revamped LB-corps.

With the front-seven playing so well, the defensive backfield is rounding into form. When the pressure doesn't get to the QB, there are still receivers running free. But Ellis Hobbs knocked away at least two passes, Deltha O'Neal cut off a passing lane and almost intercepted the ball, and last year's hands-of-stone nominee, Brandon Meriweather, finally picked off a ball. I don't see this unit being dominant this season, but if the front-seven is dominant, the defensive backfield should hold its own.

Special teams, you ask? Chris Hanson, 50 yards a punt. Stephen Gostkowski, 4-4 on field goals and 5-6 kickoffs went for touchbacks. Kevin Faulk I've already written about, but how about Ray Ventrone, who blasted the Jets only kickoff returner at the 20. Overall, the Patriots won this phase of the game decisively, and it might have made the difference between a win and a loss.

So where does that leave us? 2-0 and tied atop the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills. If Cassel can continue to play mistake free (or at least avoid the *big* mistakes), the Patriots could well contend for the division title. Hell, they're already one game ahead of where I thought they'd be :) Up next is a Miami team that has all the hallmarks of a major rebuilding program. This could be a dangerous game, but frankly it isn't nearly as dangerous as the Jets game should have been.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their first NFL starts, Tom Brady and Matt Cassel had amazingly similar statlines:
Brady went 13- 23, 168 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Cassel went 16-23, 165 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Even odder -- if you add up all the numbers from each stat line, you get the *exact* same total:
Now *that's* a little bit spooky, isn't it?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The NFL might be a quarterbacks league, but I think Carson Palmer [0-2 Bengals] and Phillip Rivers [0-2 Chargers] might like to trade places with Matt Cassel right about now."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Patriots 17, Chiefs 10 (9/7/2008)

Nice to get a win on opening day. That’s what I keep telling myself, nice to get a win on opening day. But somehow, it doesn’t help. The 2008 Patriots took their first step toward what is supposed to be a return to the playoffs, with a 17-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. But they apparently took a huge step backwards when (according to reports) franchise QB Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. Unlike Shawn Merriman, I wouldn’t expect Brady to play through it. As always, the tight-lipped Patriots said little to nothing about the injury. But suffice it to say that with Matt Cassel at the helm, the Patriots barely beat the Chiefs, who were 4-12 last season and might have gotten worse since then. Sounds like the Patriots have a chance to fall further than any team in NFL history – from 16 wins to… well, who knows where the bottom might be.

The Patriots offense started poorly. Wide receivers fumbled the ball on two consecutive drives to begin the game (Randy Moss' fumble coming on the play where Brady was injured). And on their third drive, they were backed up at their own end zone with Matt Cassel taking the snap on a third-and-12. Certainly disaster loomed; but Cassel lofted a beautiful 51-yard strike to Randy Moss, and the entire game changed. The Patriots scored a touchdown on that drive to change the momentum.

They did miss Kevin Faulk (suspended for one game), with Sammie Morris failing to recognize the blitz on more than one occasion -- including when Brady was injured. Morris ran fine (leading rusher with 53 yards), but until he steps it up in pass protection, he will remain a fill-in, not a starter. The actual starter, Laurence Maroney ran well and team racked up 126 yards on the ground.

As for the passing game, there isn't much to say. Brady got hurt, and Cassel had two long touchdown drives (98 yards and 80 yards) and not much else. Coming into a game like that is always tough; but he acquitted himself well: 13/18 for 152 yards and a touchdown. Other than that, he led four 3-and-out "drives" and a 34-yard drive for a field goal. Perhaps no INTs was most important of all. The receivers helped him some, with Moss' touchdown catch a tough one in the end zone and Wes Welker keeping the chains in motion. And tight end David Thomas even pitched in with 2 grabs for 24 yards. Now if Welker and Moss could just hold onto the ball, well... they might just make the team.

The defense was as advertized, shutting down the Chiefs main threat, running back Larry Johnson. He averaged just 3.7 yards a carry and was unable to dominate the game through the run -- which his team needed to have any hope of winning. But Johnson was regularly met by a member of the defensive line, most often by Vince Wilfork (6 tackles). The Patriots rotated their outside D-linemen more than in the past, helping keep them fresh and with a good burst at the snap. The line was stout, and with the linebackers buoyed by rookie Jerod Mayo, there were no cut-back lanes for Chiefs running backs.

Mayo himself had 6 tackles, and his presence inside allowed both Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas to roam the outside. Both men kept the heat on the opposing QB, Vrabel with two sacks and three QB Pressures and Thomas with one sack (that knocked the starter out of the game) and a QB pressure of his own. And Tedy Bruschi was in on more plays than he was in most games last year. Looks like Mayo might just work out.

The secondary did keep closer coverage than they did last year. But the Chiefs don't exactly have a bucket-full of talent at receiver. Tight end Tony Gonzalez was the main target, and he converted some first downs. But other than that, there wasn't much going on in the Chiefs passing game -- except when James Sanders thought he'd try for an INT and ended up allowing a 68-yard catch that almost cost the Patriots the game. Man, I wish no one had been here to learn Asante Samuel's bad habits, but maybe the new secondary coach can get Sanders to do his job.

The special teams were very good, with solid returns by Wes Welker and Ellis Hobbs. Based on this week, I'd say that Deltha O'Neal should stick to the secondary and leave the returning to those with some skills. Also, Stephen Gostkowski is still kicking all his field goals right down the center, and punter Chris Hanson had a 70-yard boomer with no return. I glitch here or there, but overall, much better than the pre-season game against the Eagles.

So where does that leave us? 1-0 and tied for the top of the division, but with more question marks than a Riddler costume. If Brady doesn't return, the team's playoff future would be in serious doubt. And if he does return, there will be some question as to how effective he can be. Next week, it's the Jets in New Jersey, and I think they'll need to get turnovers from Favre to win that one sans Brady. But we'll all know more by tomorrow. Brady is due for an MRI today, and even though they like to play games with the injury report, if he's out for the year, they'll let us know.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: If Brady is done for the year, he will finish 2008 with 391 fewer completions for 4,730 fewer yards, and 50 fewer touchdowns than he had in 2007. No doubt that would be the biggest drop-off in production this side of Children of Men.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Chargers lost, Colts lost, Browns lost, Seahawks lost, and Jaguars lost. Patriots won and everyone around here is panicked. Just shows you how important the NFL has made the quarterback."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. Believe it or not, 1-0!

Post-Brady Patriots

There are multiple reports that Tom Brady’s knee injury will knock him out for the 2008 campaign. Just last week I predicted the results of each of the Patriots games this season, with the caveat that “all bets are off if the Patriots don’t start at least one player named “Brady” (link). So I thought I’d take another look at the schedule, given that Brady might not suit up again this year.

(Note: there are also multiple reports that the Patriots are bringing in Chris Simms – which I think would be a good move. Doing so would obviously have an impact on how these results would go. But they haven’t signed him yet, so for now it’s on Matt Cassel’s shoulders.)

Matt Cassel’s first start on the road is next week against the Jets. The only way the Patriots win that one is if Favre throws at least two interceptions, and I don’t think he will. The Jets will be conservative and let Cassel make the critical mistake and will probably beat the Patriots. The Miami game should be a pitched battle, but I think the Patriots have enough talent to win that one.

After the Bye Week, it’ll be the battle of the unproven QBs in San Francisco – with the Patriots coming out on top. I already predicted a loss at San Diego and another one at home against the Broncos. I doubt that replacing Brady with Cassel will change things for the better, so I’ll stick with that.

The Rams will still be in a very tough part of their schedule, so I think the Patriots can win that one. The Colts will clearly beat the Patriots in Indy – provided their franchise QB stays healthy. I still think the Pats have enough firepower to beat the Bills, but the game should significantly closer than the 38-7 drubbing they gave them in Foxboro last year.

The second Jets game will likely be a rallying cry for the team, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance (at 5-4), and badly needing a win, I think they’ll muster the energy for a key division victory. I predicted a loss against the Dolphins, and I’ll stay with that. But oddly, I still think the Patriots will beat the Steelers. Don’t ask why, just a gut feeling.

Matt Cassel on the road in an extremely loud stadium in Seattle doesn’t inspire confidence, so that will put them at 7-6 with winnable games against the Raiders and Cardinals. I think they'll win those games to set up a showdown with Buffalo with the winner making the playoffs. Unfortunately, that is where the season will end, as the Bills come roaring out to get to the playoffs for the first time this century. So the Patriots could/should finish at 9-7 (or maybe 8-8, if my gut feeling about Pittsburgh is wrong), which I think puts them out of the playoffs.

I know that this morning 9-7 might sound like the rosy outlook of a huge Patriots fan. But even though I’m a fan, I will call it as I see it. The Patriots schedule is the easiest in the NFL (based on last year’s records), and they are still loaded on defense and at many other offensive positions. Belichick will likely treat Cassel the same way he did Brady in his first season as a starter. And the Patriots did okay that year. Not that I’m predicting that kind of performance again, or expecting it. Just stating facts in evidence.

Keep the faith, if you can!

- Scott


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Patriots 2008 Season Preview

Given all I've got going on (remember this?), this will be an abbreviated version of the usual block-buster season preview -- "...And there was great rejoicing!"

Here are some of the questions that illustrate how the Patriots need to improve, how they did improve, how they got worse, and how all that will affect their 2008 season.

What lessons can you learn from an 18-1 campaign?

Lesson #1 You should always get better as the season progresses

Long the hallmark of Bill Belichick teams, BB seemed to forget that mantra in the drive for a perfect season and as many offensive records as he could get. If the 2007 Patriots had spent more games developing younger defensive players or improving their defensive schemes, it might have cost them a game or two during the season. But it also might have prepared them to close the deal on the last drive against the Giants.

Lesson #2 You must always make adjustments -- 18 consecutive wins or not

No Brady-to-Moss jump ball can replace the recognition that double-teamed outside receivers means Brady-to-Welker and the running game are better options. Welker tied the Super Bowl record with 11 receptions. But IMO, he should have had 20 catches and had his tongue hanging out at the end of the game.

But the Patriots continued to call long pass plays against a defense designed to stop that specific tactic. It was just as arrogant as when the Rams refused to run the ball against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. The coaches and/or players should have adjusted to what the defense was giving them. And that failure cost them a 19-0 season.

3. Hiring coaches from outside your organization is healthy

For the first time in years, the Patriots hired a coach who wasn't a Belichick protege. Dom Capers has never coached with BB, and has had two stints as a head man himself. I don't really understand why he came to NE to coach the secondary, but I believe it is healthy to reach outside your organization to fill some coaching spots.

In the past, too many New England coaches learned everything they knew from BB. It worked out okay, but no Super Bowl victories since seconds-in-command, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, left. So it's probably time to try something new.

Anyone important show up since last year?

1. LaMont Jordan will provide depth at running back and a legitimate backup for Kevin Faulk. Faulk has been the man on third-down for years, but when forced to play too much, he can cough up the ball. So if the Patriots are throwing on every down, to catch up or to build a lead, they can insert Jordan to give Faulk a rest.

2. Linebackers Victor Hobson (from the Jets) and Jerod Mayo & Shawn Crable (both rookies) will have to shore up an aging unit that lost two starters from last year (Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin). In the pre-season, Hobson struggled a bit, but Crable looked good for a third-rounder and Mayo looked every bit the first-round pick, starting most games next to Tedy Bruschi.

And I think that more linebacker youth, a healthy Richard Seymour, and moving Adalius Thomas to outside linebacker will lead to vastly improved play from the line-backing corps. Overall, I expect better play from this unit.

3. There are too many new cornerbacks to mention, but in the pre-season, it appeared as though the first-teamers had closer overall coverage than they did on anyone last season. It's been a while since the team got game-changing plays from this unit. With so many new faces (including the secondary coach), that could change in a hurry.

Anyone important leave since last year?

1. The Pats spent their $9 million/year to re-sign Randy Moss. The Philadelphia Eagles spent their $9 million/year to take Asante Samuel away from the Patriots. Moss is clearly one of the best wide receivers in the league; Samuel might be in the top 25 cornerbacks in the league. I think the Patriots made the right choice, but they would still be a better defense with Samuel.

2. Sad to see Donte Stallworth leave; but I don't think the offense will suffer much without him. They don't have the same level of threat opposite Randy Moss, but they still have plenty of talent at wide receiver.

3. Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau -- thanks for the memories; sorry things didn't work out last year. Colvin showed flashes of brilliance over the years but was too oft-injured to really shine. And Seau definitely helped; but a 38 year-old body only goes so far these days.

How will the season go?

Here is my breakdown of the Patriots schedule. As you would expect (especially after *this* pre-season), all bets are off if the Patriots don't start at least one player named "Brady." But here is how I expect the campaign to unfold.

The Patriots will begin the season with a win over the Chiefs. Not only was KC a bad team last year, their head coach is 2-4 on opening day in his career. From there, they notch another W against the rival Jets. Brett Favre will still be learning the offense and is bound to make a mistake or two. NY will be more dangerous later in the season, but isn't much threat in week 2. Sort of the same thing against Miami in week 3 -- just too much talent differential to be a competitive game.

After the Bye Week, the Patriots should handle the 49ers in San Fran. Then comes a dangerous game against the Chargers, who play two easy "home" games (one in Oakland) before taking on the Pats, and who should be motivated from last year's loss in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots, OTOH, will be on their second consecutive west coast trip -- though they could stay out there for the week in-between. Sounds like their first loss of the season.

I hate to predict two losses in a row, but the Patriots *always* lose to the Broncos, and even though Denver has fallen on hard times, I don't see how that changes. Chalk up loss #2. After that, the St. Louis offense is good, and the Patriots will be on a short week (after playing Monday night). However, the Rams still shouldn't be any trouble -- they'll be in the middle of a killer schedule, playing their third straight 2007 playoff team (two of those games on the road). Patriots at Colts will be a barn-burner, but Indy will be on a short week (they play on Monday night the week before), and I have an inkling that Indy's time might be slipping away, so I'll go with the Pats.

That brings us to the Bills at home. Last year's average score between these two: Patriots 47, Bills 8.5. I don't think Buffalo has made up the 38.5-point differential -- and the Bills schedule before this game is San Diego and two division games (Dolphins and Jets). Pencil in another division win. The Pats then play the Jets, which would be more dangerous except that it's a home game for New England. Probably another win.

Then comes a danger game. The Dolphins will undoubtedly be better, the Pats haven't done well in Miami over the years, and it's a holiday week -- which can lead to distractions. Also, the Patriots play perennial contender Pittsburgh the next week, so this could be a trap game. Put them down for a surprise loss, unless Chad Pennington is injured for the Dolphins, then it'll be a cakewalk for the Pats.

As mentioned, the Steelers come to town after Turkey Day, and the Patriots are 7-1 the week after Thanksgiving under Belichick. I expect that trend will continue, and that the Steelers will continue their slow decline in the post-Cowher era. So even though Pittsburgh has ten days to prepare, that probably adds up to another win for the local 11.

The Pats finish up the season with three games against the very weak NFC West and one against their very meek division opponent Bills. The 12/7 road tilt against the Seahawks scares me, because it'll be the second straight week that their opponent has ten days to prepare, and the Seattle crowd will be rockin' the stadium. Feels like a loss to me. After that, the Raiders have too much dissension and should fold easily to the Pats. The only way the Cardinals win is if their playoff life is on the line *and* the Patriots have nothing to play for, which I don't think will be the case. And the Bills... well, I *still* don't think they've made up the 38.5-point differential from 2007.

So barring a late-season "rest period" for their starters or an injury to #12, the Patriots should finish the season 12-4, which will win them the division and put them in the running for a playoff bye.

And even though this would be four fewer wins than last year, I don't associate that change with the Patriots being worse than last year or to the rest of the league catching up to them. I really think Belichick will care less about winning every game at the cost of developing his young talent. The Giants won the Super Bowl last year with three rookie starters; whereas the 2007 Patriots had none. If the Pats use the regular season well, they could have two or three rookie starters for a potential playoff run (Mayo, Crable, and perhaps Terrence Wheatley). I truly believe the Patriots learned the most important lesson of all in 2008: It is better to lose a game or two with developing rookies than play the veterans all year and run out of gas in February.

Should be fun to watch how it all plays out.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Pats have the easiest schedule, based on last year's records. But the rest of their division has it almost as easy. The big difference is that the rest of the AFC East has to play the Patriots -- the Patriots don't."

(Amazing) Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady is an astonishing 40-2 on artificial turf in his career. Extra credit to anyone who can name both losses without researching it!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!