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!

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