Monday, November 10, 2008

Patriots 20, Bills 10 (11/9/2008)

As Fall moves toward Winter and the days get shorter and shorter, you gotta love those 1:00 games that end before 4:00. Patriots needed just 2 hours 42 minutes to dispatch the Bills, 20-10, keeping them in a first place tie with Jets (who they play this Thursday). And the time of the game left me with time to do some chores around the house: yard work; winterize the A/C unit; bring the summer/fall yard tools inside; finish some indoor fixes; and (of course) write a blog! Man, the NFL should mandate that *all* games be this short!

The win was completely predictable. The Bills are sort of like the Patriots, with less talent, and they've lost to their "older brother" 10 straight times since the "Lawyer Milloy Bowl" on September 7, 2003. BTW, those games weren't even close; the aggregate score is 308-96 (got some numbers now, Lawyer?). But even with that history, the Bills continue to wait around for the Patriots to fold under pressure or make the big mistake -- because that's what they do to *every* team. But that only works to beat teams that are worse than you, not those more talented and disciplined. Head coach Dick Jaroun needs to open things up if he hopes to salvage the season and make a playoff run.

Matt Cassel continues to improve. An effective 23 of 34 for 234 yards, he ran for his first touchdown and completed at least two throws on the run for first downs. His only mistake was trying to throw the ball to Kevin Faulk as he was being sacked -- ended up fumbling it away for the only turnover of the game. But he stepped into his throws, and mostly hit his target or threw it away. Of course, he was helped by the Energizer Bunny of receivers, Wes Welker (10 catches for 107 yards), Jabar Gaffney (4 important catches for 36 yards), and Randy Moss (5 for 53). And when Moss came up gimpy, Sam Aiken stepped in and converted a huge third down with a catch deep in New England's own end of the field. After that conversion, the Patriots continued the drive for 16 more plays and a game-icing touchdown.

On to the running game, and an overdue shout out to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Since being elevated to the starting role (four weeks ago at Denver), he's done two things that are vital to success: (1) he hits the hole where the play is designed to go, saving any moves for after he gets past the first wave of defenders; and (2) he keeps mistakes and negative plays to an absolute minimum (no fumbles, no penalties, and has let no blitzers touch the QB on his watch). Yesterday was his first game with 100+ yards (26 carries for 105) and his fourth straight game with a touchdown. Not bad for an undrafted free agent rookie that started the season on the practice squad.

As for the rest of the offense, it's really good to have Stephen Neal and Nick Kazcur back. Neal is so good at seal blocks, and Kazcur just has a nasty streak that allows him to dominate in the running game. And note that since these two returned to the starting lineup against Indy, the team has allowed one sack in two games, after giving up four a game prior to that. And of course, no summary would be complete without mentioning Kevin Faulk, who did his usual great job in the passing game. Not as many running plays or yards for him, but that's better. He always excels when used only on third-down and hurry up situations.

The Bills got a garbage time touchdown after a very long kickoff return. So the Patriots defense basically held them to 3 points. Some observers have said that since the Bills can't run the ball it's easy to stop the pass, but I still think the Patriots defense did an excellent job all day long. The Patriots used a 4-3 a lot in this game, and the entire D-Line did an excellent job of stuffing inside runs. Ty Warren was always around the ball, and Richard Seymour continued his excellent play. Vince Wilfork was more up-and-down, with some nice plays holding the middle and a few where he got pushed around. Oh, and along with some blitzing linebackers, they got consistent pressure on the Buffalo QB, sacking him only once, but hitting many other times.

And speaking of linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Mike Vrabel starred from that unit. Mayo had a number of read-and-react plays where he came clean to make a tackle. And he even added a deflection in pass coverage. Vrabel did an outstanding job in outside contain against the run *and* rushing the passer, shrinking the pocket time and again with speed rushes that powered toward the
quarterback at the end. Two pieces of bad news from the linebackers. First, Adalius Thomas went out in the second quarter and did not return. Sources tell ESPN that he broke his arm and might be done for the year. Second, Pierre Woods missed three sure tackles and sometimes still looks lost, so the replacement scenario if Thomas it out for while is probably rookie free agent Gary Guyton. That isn't *all* bad news, Guyton is playing well. But I'd expect Woods to be better after 1,000 years on the team.

(BTW, you could make the argument that the last three Patriots seasons started to come apart when featured linebackers were injured in November. Rosevelt Colvin was the injury last year, and that elevated Junior Seau to the starting role and he and Bruschi wore down quickly as the season drew to a close. And remember how they couldn't get a stop on that final drive in the Super Bowl.)

As for the secondary, with all that pressure on the QB (and a little help from the wind), the Patriots defensive backs had two interceptions. Ellis Hobbs' pick was the wind-aided one, and he undercut the route nicely. Deltha O'Neal had the other INT, and of course, he giveth and taketh away -- with poor coverage one play and a great knockdown on the next. He's up-and-down more than (wait for it) your 401k (rim shot, please). Also, Brandon Meriweather played well, with big hits and some help stopping the run. The one injury I thought would hurt the second most (aside from Brady) was Rodney Harrison; but since he went down, the secondary has gotten better. I don't think Rodney was the problem, just took longer than expected for the players to gel.

Special teams were outplayed by a significant margin in this game. No surprise, really. The Buffalo special teams are annually among the best. But the Bills thrice started at the 40+ yard line after kickoffs, and the Buffalo punter had two booming kicks into the wind and killed two more inside the Patriots 15. Gostkowski also missed a 49-yard field goal, but with the wind whipping, it was a less than 50-50 shot anyway.

And as for the coaching, this was a total mismatch. The Bills couldn't run the ball, but rarely went with a spread formation and never used the hurry-up. The Bills couldn't get to the Patriots QB, but refused to adjust by sending more pass rushers. The Bills ran no mis-direction plays, rarely used a even a draw play to slow down the pass rush, and their screen passes were all sniffed out by Patriots defenders. The Patriots were simply much better prepared and made better adjustments than the Bills.

So where does that leave us? 6-3 and atop the AFC East sounds pretty good. Three days to prepare for the suddenly red-hot Jets... not so good. At least it's a home game; but it should be interesting to see our improving secondary against an improving Brett Favre and company. Programming note: if you don't get the NFL Network at home, the game is being broadcast locally on WCVB, channel 5 in Boston. And of course, there's always your local sports bar!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: A stark a reminder how lucky you are to be a fan of the Patriots and not the Detroit Lions. Detroit is currently on the losing end of the *three* longest active home winning streaks over one opponent in the NFL. They've lost their last 11 trips to Minnesota, their last 17 trips to Green Bay, and their last 21 trips to Washington. Meanwhile, your Patriots have lost two games in a row *once* since 2003 -- that's once in five-and-a-half seasons!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Pats really need to win this Thursday. Even when the Dolphins stink they hardly ever win in Miami, and the Dolphins are good this year. And losing two of three division games would not bode well for any playoff asperations the Pats have."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-3!

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