Monday, December 29, 2008

Patriots 13, Bills 0 (12/28/2008)

Well known philosopher Sir Michael Phillip Jagger once said, "You can't always get what you want." And alas, Patriots fans know that all too well today. The Patriots did their part, beating the Bills 13-0 in windy Buffalo. But neither of the other teams that could help them secure a playoff berth cooperated; as the Ravens and Dolphins both won to finish with at 11-5 (as did the Patriots) and knock out our local heroes on tie-breakers.

So we get a great stretch run but no playoffs, which is better than about half the NFL teams. Matt Cassel, Wes Welker, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork are rising stars in the league, and some of those aging defensive players are sure to retire this year (Rodney Harrison, anyone?). Bill Belichick did one of his better coaching jobs this year, though I think 2001 and 2004 were both better. Those years had just as many challenges and both resulted in Super Bowl wins. Maybe the difference was Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennal, but who knows.

Yesterday's game looked like bloody hell to play in. The wind was a steady 30-35mph, with gusts up to 55mph during the game. And it showed. Two field goals were blown wide right, an extra point went through the uprights and almost blew back before falling juuuust over the crossbar. And punting was an extra special problem, so much so that three times the Pats went for it on fourth down. (BTW, Matt Cassel was the leading punter, with a 57-yard quick kick that was downed at the Buffalo 2.) And there were only 33 passes attempted in the entire game, with the Bills responsible for 25 of them.

The big sequence came when Jarvis Green forced a fumble that Mike Vrabel recovered at the Bills 43. It was the only turnover of the game, and driving into the worst of the wind the Patriots set aside kicking and went for it twice on fourth down. Cassel's fourth-and-five pass to Welker (the first pass into the wind all day) gave the team a first down at the Buffalo 2, and LaMont Jordan pushed it in from there. Given that the teams were about to switch sides, setting the Bills into the wind for the fourth quarter, that touchdown pretty much sealed the victory.

On the day, the Patriots ran for 168 yards, with Sammy Morris (24 carries for 85 yards) and Jordan (20 for 64) splitting time. The Pats continued to use guard Russ Hochstein as a blocking back, and it helped the Patriots control the clock 32:00 to 28:00. Cassel had a huge fourth-down conversion on a quarterback draw, and completed 75% of his passes, even though it was only 6 out of 8. And even with so few throws, Matt ended up with a QB rating over 100 for the third straight week in very poor conditions.

On defense it wasn't looking so good. Fred Jackson gashed them for five yards a carry, and without Richard Seymour to hold the end of the line, it looked like the Bills would just run it on Jarvis Green all day and eventually wear the Pats defense down. But after the Pats scored to make it 13-0, the Bills had to pass into that wind, and that was pretty much game. The ball was flying all over the place all day long, and even when they got a decent throw, some of the receivers dropped the ball. Just not a good day for Dick Jauron's team.

The coaching might have been the story of the day. The Patriots were 2 for 10 on third down, and with the bad punting conditions they went for it on fourth more often (went 3 for 3, actually). And once they had a decent lead, Belichick realized the most likely way for Buffalo to get back into the game was on special teams. So he took that away by having Cassel punt once and then punting on third down, which didn't allow Buffalo to have their standard return team on the field. Really smart stuff.

So where does that leave us? The 2008 Patriots are officially the second 11-5 team to miss the playoffs, and the first in 23 years (Broncos in 1985). A tough pill to swallow, to be sure, but if Ben Watson doesn't fumble against the Jets, if Jabar Gaffney catches an easy touchdown against the Colts, or if Randy Moss catches an even easier touchdown against the Steelers, the Patriots could have finished 12-4 and gotten in to the playoffs. But that's the way it goes. The most interesting off-season question will be about Tom Brady's health, and I'll have an email detailing that and other 2009 concerns soon.

Statistical Oddity of the Week, Part I: Since I was the first one to give it to you (10/27), I might as well round it out. The Patriots did indeed set a new NFL record for fewest penalties in a 16-game season, with 57 on the year.

Statistical Oddity of the Week, Part II: That other oddity was widely reported today, so here's another one. The 2008 Patriots rushed for 2,278 yards -- more than any Patriots team since 1985 (there's that year again...). It's the 23 year gap that makes this an oddity.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I wonder if Cassel will get more free-agent interest as a QB or a punter." (follow it with a wry smile)

Keep the faith warm during this long winter,

- Scott

PS. 11-5!

PPS. Go Celtics!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Patriots 47, Cardinals 7 (12/21/2008)

The 2008 Patriots have done everything anyone could have hoped for. Tom Brady played 7.8 one-thousandths of the season, and his replacement is considered a Pro Bowl snub. They went half the year before getting their best starters together on the O-line, and they're tied for the division lead. The defense ended the Seattle game with only four opening day starters healthy, but squeaked out a win to finish 4-0 against the NFC. And they played back-to-back games on the west coast *twice*, yet are undefeated in December and have made the last month of the season actually mean something.

The Patriots overwhelmed the Arizona Cardinals 47-7 yesterday. That set them up so if they beat Buffalo next Sunday, they have a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs. A win over the Bills (whom they've beaten 10 straight times) would put them in the playoffs if the Ravens or Dolphins lose or tie their last game(s) of the year. And BTW, it's a scoreboard watchers dream -- all three games start at 1:00! Where will *you* be sitting when it all gets decided??

As for yesterday's game, I heard that Arizona hadn't played in the snow since 1983, and it showed. I saw cardinals outside my *window* that looked more comfortable than the ones at Gillette Stadium. Dropped passes, bad play calling, sluggish running plays, quarterback hits galore, bend-and-break defense -- doesn't sound to me like they'll be a force in the playoffs. Especially when they travel to New York or Carolina for that second game. They are 0-5 in the eastern time zone this year.

A few Matt Cassel thoughts on the last two games, one in a driving rain storm and the other in a driving snow storm. He has 7 touchdowns and 1 interception (on a tipped ball by Ben Watson), no fumbles, has taken only 4 sacks, and has back-to-back QB ratings of 108.1 and 116.1. Those would be stellar stats for any quarterback under pristine conditions. But to do that in the rain and snow is amazing. I know the Raiders and Cardinals aren't that great, but it's still NFL players and coaches on the other sideline.

And a random Wes Welker thought: where the hell would the Patriots be without this guy? Jabar Gaffney (5 catches, 90 yards) and Randy Moss (2 for 87) had gaudier numbers than Welker (7 for 68) yesterday, but Wes has done this game after game. He truly is the new Troy Brown, fearless over the middle and always able to get that extra yard for the first down. He's got only one game with 10+ catches, yet he leads the NFL in receptions. No doubt Gaffney played a huge game against the Cardinals, chewing up yardage with long catches down the sideline. But Welker's contribution in every one of their games has been consistently amazing.

As for the details of yesterday's trouncing, it went something like this. The Cardinals tried to run the ball and couldn't. Then they tried to pass the ball and couldn't. Then they tried to stop the run and couldn't. Then they tried to stop the pass and couldn't. Other than that, they were dominated in field position by the Patriots superb special teams play. And the guy Matt Cassel backed up at USC came in to mop up for no-longer-an-MVP-candidate Kurt Warner. Oh, and the team looked cold.

One thing of note: this game had my absolute favorite play of the year. First play of the second half, Patriots break the huddle in an offset-I formation. Cassel steps back from center and directs Heath Evans to move to his right, appearing to set up run blocking in that direction. Further evidence that this will be a run comes when Benjamin Watson goes in motion to the right, and so the Cardinals send extra defenders to stop the anticipated run. Cassel takes the snap, fakes to the right and then throws a quick screen to Moss on the left. With fewer defenders on that side and everyone close to the line to stop the anticipated run, Arizona is stuck in pursuit of perhaps the fastest man on the Patriots. Moss takes it down the sideline untouched for six points.

I loved this play because it was a great combination of the following elements: halftime adjustments; the conditions (which made it tougher for out-of-position defenders to recover); anticipated game situation (with a 31-0 lead, most teams would start running out the clock); and faux confusion (I don't believe for a second that Evans didn't know where to line up). Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

So where does all that leave us? Well, on Sunday you should first hope the Patriots take care of business and win in Buffalo. Then, keep an eye on the scoreboard to see if you'll be watching more football in January or reading my "2008 New England Patriots Awards" email. Remember: it's Jacksonville over Baltimore or New York over Miami. 11-5 is usually good enough to get in, but no guarantee this year. So keep those fingers and toes crossed!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Eight of the sixteen games this Sunday have playoff implications. Seven of those games start at 1:00, and the other one starts at 8:15. That means you can take a break during the 4:15 games -- because neither of them has any affect on the playoffs at all. Nice job with that schedule, NFL.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I guess some of the Cardinals hadn't seen snow in their lives before this road trip. Hope they have fond memories of the winter wonderland we call Gillette."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-5!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Patriots 49, Raiders 26 (12/14/2008)

Sorry this is so late and so... incomplete. But things got out of hand on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon I was flat on my back with a nasty (non-computer) virus. I'm still recovering, so there won't be any detailed breakdown of this game. The most important thing now is how can the Patriots make the playoffs. So I'm going to skip the usual stuff and go directly to...

So where does that leave us? To have any real shot at the post-season, the Patriots must win their last two games and finish at 11-5. So let's assume they do that, and consider the four other teams fighting with the Patriots for three playoff spots: Indy, Baltimore, Miami, and the NY Jets. Unfortunately, the Pats lose most tie-breakers to those teams, so they need to finish with a better record than three of them to get into the playoffs. Here are the possibilities, in the order from most likely to least likely (IMO).

Possibility #1: Baltimore could lose one of its last two games (most likely being at Dallas this Sunday). That would get the Patriots into the post-season with at least a wild card berth and possibly a division title, provided they finish at 11-5.

Possibility #2: Either the Jets or Dolphins lose this weekend and then win the last game of the year when they play each other. That would leave both the Jets and Dolphins at 10-6, and the Patriots would be division champs at 11-5.

Possibility #3: If the Jets *and* Dolphins lose this weekend, Patriots would win the division if they finished at 11-5.

Possibility #4: Finally, we get to the fourth team, Indianapolis. If the Colts lose their last two games, the Pats would be in the tournament at 11-5, either as a wild card or division champ.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Want proof that you get what you pay for? Check out this 'Patriots Update.' Talk about lame."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-5!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Patriots 24, Seahawks 21 (12/7/2008)

A win is a win and at this point in the season you'll take one any that come your way. Patriots prevailed 24-21 over Seattle, and with the Jets loss and Dolphins win, all three teams are now tied at 8-5 for first place in the division. Difficult to think you're going much of anywhere when you struggle to beat a 2-11 team. But the win keeps them one game back for a wild card and gives them a legit chance at a division crown, which would guarantee a home playoff game.

Sunday's game was in doubt until the very end. The Pats got their first lead of the game with less than three minutes remaining, on a fourth-down leaping touchdown by Sammy Morris. And Seattle got close. Driving to the Patriots 43 with 2:00 left, they were only 10 yards away from being able to attempt a tying field goal. But the Patriots, with over half of their regular defensive starters out of the game, gutted out the win when Brandon Meriweather knocked the ball loose on a safety blitz and the Pats recovered to seal the game.

Not many teams would have held on, especially with names like Warren, Wilfork, Bruschi, Vrabel, (Adalius) Thomas -- players with 11 Pro Bowls between them -- missing action during the game. Nice that they were able to plug in a player with more Pro Bowls than that to replace Bruschi -- namely Junior Seau (he has 12 Pro Bowl appearances). Seau didn't exactly light it up, getting beaten for a touchdown pass and over-pursuing Deion Branch on his 63-yard catch and run that led to another TD. But with injuries to the starters *and* backups, it definitely helped to have both Seau and Rosevelt Colvin to pitch in relief.

Overall the defense counted on Seattle's general incompetence as much as their own skill. But even so, they did what the needed to do late in the game. They had a few key third-down stops, just enough pressure to mess up the timing of plays, and even with Wilfork out they stuffed the run in the second half. Down 21-13 in the fourth quarter, they simply had no choice in the matter. If they couldn't stop the Seahawks, time was going to run out on them.

On offense, it's shaping up to be an amazing race for MVP of the team. Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk -- where would the Patriots be without either one of them. These were instrumental in the strategy of keeping third down to manageable distances. Consider Welker's catch-and-run and two-point conversion on the last touchdown drive, and he forges ahead. Look at Faulk's overall share of the running yards, his 6.1 yards per carry, and his obvious value as a safety valve for Cassel, and maybe he inches ahead. Suffice it to say that I'm glad they are on the team I root for.

And even though I sometimes bristle as his pass coverage, Ellis Hobbs had a big 55 yard kickoff return just when the Pats needed it. The short field led to the team's first touchdown, and made it a within-reach 14-10 at the half after a bad first 30:00. Stephen Gostkowski also contributed with a 50-yard field goal (and was 3-for-3), and *almost* had his the first fumble recovery of his career.

So where does that leave us? It could be that only the AFC East champion will play in the post-season, which means that even if the Patriots win 'em all, they could be on the outside looking in. I still don't think it will happen -- 11-5 is almost always enough to get it -- but then there's no guarantee of anything. At least the Pats made next week's game mean something, because if they'd lost this one, the playoffs were probably out of the question.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: While most people weren't looking, the Patriots set yet another NFL record winning streak -- 14 consecutive wins over the NFC is an all-time record. They now own the longest overall winning streak (21), two longest regular season winning streaks (19 & 18), longest playoff winning streak (10), and the aforementioned 14 game streak over NFC teams. Now that I think about it, maybe this shouldn't be under the heading "Oddity" at all.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "While the announcers were praising Deion Branch, the guy the Pats got in that trade didn't do too bad. Might have been Meriweather's best game to date, with three tackles for a loss, two passes defended, and the game-sealing forced fumble."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-5!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Patriots 10, Steelers 33 (11/30/2008)

Sorry there was no update yesterday, but I was just trying to fit in. I figure if Randy Moss, Jabar Gaffney, Benjamin Watson, and Matt Cassel are all dropping the ball, well... then so should I. With turnovers on five consecutive possessions, the Patriots went from 10-10 at the half to a 33-10 drubbing at home by the Steelers. The first place Jets lost, too, so they remain one game back in the AFC East race, and at 7-5 need to win the last four games to be sure of a playoff berth.

I don't really have time for a full blown update. (Too busy looking for silicone gloves, so I can drop passes *just* like my heroes ::snicker snicker::) Suffice it to say that you don't win very often when you lose the turnover battle 5-1. It started off well, with Mike Vrabel picking off a pass early and the offense converting that to a touchdown just three minutes into the game. Who knew it would be the last touchdown for the Patriots on the day.

The game itself turned on three plays:

1. With time running down in the second quarter, Randy Moss dropped an easy touchdown that would have made it 17-10 at the half. He had a shot at another touchdown on the next play, but it was a good defensive play. And then Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal, so the game was tied after 30 minutes.

2. On their first possession of the third quarter, the Patriots were driving and had a second-and-one in Steeler territory. But Cassel held the ball too long on the next play, and was sacked for a six-yard loss, and his third-down pass fell incomplete. That sack really hurt, because it made third-down more difficult *and* knocked them out of field goal range.

3. Pittsburgh took the ball there and drove down for a field goal, to make the score 13-10. And on the ensuing kickoff, Matthew Slater muffed the kick and the Steelers recovered at the Patriots eight yard-line. Slater's big mistake (once he fumbled) was that he tried to recover the ball. It was bouncing toward the sideline, and since he didn't have a clear recovery opportunity (he arrived at the same time as a Steeler player), he should have punched or pushed the ball toward the sideline. If it went out of bounds, it would have been Patriots ball. But instead, two plays later, it was 20-10, Steelers.

After that, it was all turnovers and stat-padding for Pittsburgh. Sure, there was Gaffney's drop in the fourth quarter, but who's to say that the Patriots could have scored two touchdowns *and* two two-point conversions. Maybe... but that isn't what cost them the game. It was like the Miami home game, where it looks like a huge blowout final score, but it was a momentum game that the Patriots could never get in their favor.

In fact, several of their games have been the same. The 48-28 win over Miami was much more competitive for much longer than the final score would indicate. This year's Patriots cannot turn momentum with incredible defensive stands, quick-strike touchdown drives, or timely kick returns. They are like much of the league -- if they miss their early opportunities, they just aren't good enough to overcome it.

So where does that leave us? At 7-5, the Patriots have to win the rest of their games to be certain of a playoff berth. One more loss would put them at 10-6, and they would have a shot, but several of the tie-breakers do not favor them. And as the mantra of the team ("one game at a time") will tell you, they can't go 4-0 if they don't go 1-0 this weekend. Fortunately, they play an NFC team, and they have an excellent recent record against the NFC. Unfortunately, it's the beginning of their second two-week west coast swing of the season. And they split the games the first time they did this; so no telling how things will go. But then again, that's why we watch, isn't it ;)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In their wins, the 2008 Patriots have an eight-minute per game advantage in time of possession. In their losses, they have a four-minute per game disadvantage.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I just hope the Pats can win the next few games, so that the final week in Buffalo means something."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!