Monday, September 28, 2009

Patriots 26, Falcons 10 (9/27/2009)

I'm going to make this short and sweet, because I predicted pretty much what happened in my 2009 Season Preview. And the only thing more boring than writing it again is you having to *read* it again.

The Patriots beat the Falcons 26-10 yesterday, with an offense that ran the ball well and started finding its bearings in the second half, coupled with a defense that slowed the Falcons running game and confused their second-year QB. At 2-1, the Pats are a game out of first place in the AFC East.

The Falcons scored on two of their first three drives and then the Patriots adjusted and it was lights out for the game. Mostly it was the Patriots defense doing what it needed to do, two examples being the Brandon McGowan's forced fumble and Adalius Thomas' tackle for a loss -- both of which killed drives.

Overall the defense played very well, shutting down an excellent running attack even after Vince Wilfork went out, which when combined with Jerod Mayo's absence could have been devastating. But Mike Wright and a combination of the two rookies (Myron Pryor and Ron Brace) and some linebacker patching held the Falcons to 58 yards, about *half* their average yards.

The most encouraging defensive news of the day was how the secondary played, because Atlanta can be very dangerous through the air. They gave up some of those third-and-seven plays early, but they are consistently breaking up about 30 - 35% of the passes, showing very good closing speed and some nice combination coverages that probably confuse both the QB and receiver. I like the way Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are picking things up, and even though Jonathan Wilhite didn't play yesterday, I think he will continue his progress toward becoming Asante Samuel II. And the surprise of the year might be Brandon McGowan, who bring a lot to this defense, including the huge forced fumble on Sunday.

The Falcons don't blitz much, so they were the perfect cure for what ailed the offense, giving Tom Brady time to rebuild coordination with the receivers. Wes Welker was out again, so it fell to Randy Moss and... well a bunch of other guys. Moss had ten catches, and the other seven receivers each had three catches or fewer. Brady did overthrow Moss and Ben Watson, so he wasn't perfect. But it's nice to see him get back to spreading the ball around. BTW, even Joey Galloway seems to be running the correct routes now, though he had at least two big drops on Sunday. Maybe he'll round into form; but I'm not holding my breath.

The Falcons are also undersized on defense, so I don't read a lot into the 104 yard day for Fred Taylor. One thing you can read into it is that Laurence Maroney might be edging closer to the bench, due to injury and ineffectiveness. Taylor is the perfect fit, giving them the option to go five-wide with their base offense, keep him in the backfield in the shotgun, power run, or stretch a run to the outside where he can use his elusiveness. It's sort of like having Kevin Faulk on the field all game without having to wear Faulk out. So don't be surprised if you see #39 on the bench more and more this year.

And of course, there is no running or passing game without the offensive line. They did a much better job this week, plowing ahead on running plays and keeping Brady upright almost the entire game. The official stats have Brady being hit twice and not sacked at all. Tackles Matt Light and Nick Kazcur were outstanding in pushing the speed rushers past Brady, and with 4.3 yards per rush it's clear the O-line had a great day. One last note: the offensive line did not commit a single penalty on the day -- a big change from the previous week in New York.

The biggest concern on offense is that the Patriots continue to struggle in the red zone -- going 1-for-5 yesterday, and now 4-for-13 on the year. The hope is that as Brady and the receivers develop better timing and coordination they will get touchdowns rather than incompletions and field goals. But they were 3-for-5 the first week, which makes them 1-for-8 the last two games, so they might be headed in the wrong direction on that. Perhaps better play-calling might help. No offense to a team with no offensive coordinator -- just saying :)

Special teams are a growing concern. They helped win the first game with a timely fumble recovery, and Gostkowski is his usual self in field goals and kickoffs. But the punting has only been okay, and the coverage teams are playing poorly. The first returns of the second half this week and last week featured porous coverage and the kicker making the tackle. And in the Jets game the return led to the only touchdown; this week the defense bailed them out with a stop.

With a new special teams coach and lots of new personnel, it can take time to gel. But if they can't cover kickoffs consistently, they should have Gostkowski kick higher/shorter so the players can get down to cover it. Giving the opposition the ball at the 30 every time is preferable to making them start at the 20 half the time and the 40-or-beyond the other half.

And as for the coaching, it was another nice job of confusing a young quarterback. The offensive play-calling was a bit better and they were flagged only twice on the day (for ten yards). So just about everything that went wrong against the Jets was fixed this week. Hope that translates into having things go well again next week.

So where does that leave us? At 2-1, the Patriots are a game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East. And they face another blitz-crazy team this week, when the Baltimore Ravens come to Foxboro. However, young quarterbacks who have played more than eight or nine games usually struggle against the Patriots, because Belichick has plenty of film to study to break them down. Also, the Ravens had a division game last week and have another one after the Patriots, so this would be a classic "trap" game for them. Only time will tell, but it should be interesting.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Two guys with bad backs had great days. The first guy, Randy Moss, nabbed 10 catches for 116 yards. The second guy, my friend Al, attended the game with a bad back, but was still able to be the Weather God -- commanding that there be only slight rain for very little of the game, which is exactly what happened, despite forecasts of up to two inches of rain. (Note: If you have an outdoor celebration and need to bright sunshine, let me know and I'll pass along your request to the Weather God himself.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Did you see Fred Taylor on Sunday? Yep... might be time to sell that #39 jersey." (Note: say it with a wry smile.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-1!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rex Ryan auditions for WCW

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan made headlines over the summer when he said he "never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's... rings" (link). The press had a field day with that, calling it trash talk and saying he'd regret angering a man who owns five of those coveted Super Bowl rings. Well, he didn't have to eat any crow, as his Jets beat the Patriots 16-9.

But a funny thing happened as this was all dying down. Ryan fired another salvo at a different team, and this time there is no mistaking that it is *definitely* trash talk.

The Jets have been accused of tampering with the 49ers #1 draft pick, Michael Crabtree. Rex Ryan denied the report in an interview the next day, and if he left it at that it would have been fine. But Ryan went on to say this: “I think it’s ridiculous, personally, but again we’ll let the NFL figure that one out. . . I wish we were playing them [i.e. the 49ers].”

Here's some unsolicited advice, Rex. Stick a sock in it. You are a head coach in the National Football League, not a manager or wrestler in World Championship Wrestling.

"I wish we were playing them"... what the heck did *that* mean? You gonna open a can of whoop-ass on the 49ers front office? Maybe pay a bonus to players who insult the mothers of San Fran's coaching staff? Or was it your way of challenging Mike Singletary to a mud wrestling match at mid-field?

You are allowed to motivate through whatever means you like, but remember that you're in the NFL not WCW. Disputes among front offices happen, it doesn't mean they're disrespecting you, it doesn't mean you know which side is right, and it doesn't mean your players will get motivated to defend the honor of your general manager or owner.

You got a pretty tepid handshake from Bill Belichick last Sunday, and you might expect the same from Mike Singletary. But since the Jets aren't scheduled to play the 49ers until 2012, you'll have to hold onto that anger for four years, unless you guys meet in the same Super Bowl before then.

Personally, I think you have a better chance of meeting Singletary in the ring than you do on the field. Trash talk is fine; but you have all the earmarks of a coach who starts fast and burns out. I say that as head man in New York don't make it to the Super Bowl *or* 2012. Wanna challenge me to a duel?

- Scott

Monday, September 21, 2009

Patriots 9, Jets 16 (9/20/2009)

If you read this blog then you were in the know about this one. The Patriots dropped what appeared to be a winnable game, losing 16-9 to the Jets in New York. The loss set them into a way tie for second place (though at the moment they hold the tie-breaker over Buffalo), trailing the Jets and a half-game ahead of Miami -- who play Indy tonight.

Truth is the Patriots offense came out flat on offense and that cost them the game. How out of sync where they? Three trips to the red zone, three field goals no touchdowns. Their first scoring "drive" featured two penalties and two incomplete passes and covered -10 yards. They had four delay of game penalties, including two on back-to-back plays -- which I've *never* seen before in an NFL game.

Brady misfired on some throws and had his worst statistical performance since his last loss -- in December of 2006. With Wes Welker out, rookie Julian Edelman took on the role of slot receiver. And though he led the team with eight catches, seven other throws in his direction went incomplete, so he and Brady weren't quite in sync. The Jets double-teamed Moss into irrelevance (4 catches for 24 yards), and with Welker out, Ben Watson didn't pick up any of the slack (3-23). Brady is obviously working off the rust, and should be better in a few weeks; here's hoping they don't go 0-3 while that happens.

(Two notes about new players. First, speaking of not being in sync, Joey Galloway should spend more time in the film room and studying the playbook. Half the time he looks like he's running whatever route he wants, and another quarter of the time he turns the wrong way and misses complete-able passes. And he threw in a illegal formation penalty this week -- sheesh! Second, new tight end Chris Baker was supposed to push Ben Watson and take on some of Wes Welker's over the middle route running burden, but so far Baker has been invisible. Unless you count his holding penalty that made the first field goal 10 yards longer. Snap out of it, man!)

Part of the reason for the poor passing day was pressure from the Jets. But I don't want to completely blame the Patriots O-line (which did a better job than they did against the Bills). Most of the heavy pressure came when the Jets rushed six men and the Pats had only five blockers. I thought they should have adjusted the scheme to keep one more man in. However, if the Pats insist on going empty backfield with free releases for the tight ends, then teams can cover five-on-five and rush six, giving them a free blitzer whenever they like. In the past, Brady would have burned them, but until he's back to form, I think they should use the tight ends to chip pass rushers and keep a back in for blitz protection.

And speaking of backs, the running game had decent stats, but is still incapable of just lining up and power running for a yard or two. Fred Taylor (8 rushes for 46 yards) looks to be working his way into the offense, and I think by the end of the year he and Kevin Faulk could be the featured backs in a 100% shotgun/spread offense. But until then, maybe they should bring in Sammy Morris or BenJarvus Green-Ellis for short yardage. Because Laurence Maroney and Fred Taylor got shut down in that scenario the past two weeks.

I hear a lot of whining about the Pats defense, but I thought they were pretty good. Some of the choice first half stats: Jets had -2 yards passing, 20 total offensive plays (to the Patriots 40), and were 0-4 on third down conversions. The Pats also forced two fumbles and held them to just four first downs. That performance should have been good enough for a 17-3 lead at the half -- but the offense was out of sync, with misdirected passes, lots of holding penalties, and just a 9-3 lead.

The six-point deficit allowed the Jets to keep rookie QB Mark Sanchez under wraps until they made their halftime adjustments, and even after the half they kept tight control of what they had him do. And it worked, with a quick touchdown drive right out of the gate and two sustained drives for field goals that gave us our final score. To beat a young QB you have to force him to try things he isn't comfortable with. The Patriots did not open up enough of a lead to force the Jets to take risks, so they stuck with their running game and safe passes, and it was enough to win.

The only real star on defense was Vince Wilfork, who was his usual disruptive self, despite being double-teamed often. Ty Warren played okay, but too many of his six tackles game down the field. Mike Wright forced a fumble on the Jets first series, and got decent pressure during the game, and my rookie favorite, Mike Brace, got on the field for a few plays. But overall the D-line needs to work better as a unit and might lack the talent to absorb the loss of Richard Seymour. Not that I thought Seymour was at his best the past few years; but his absence allows teams to double Vince and send running plays away from Ty Warren toward Jarvis Green and Tully Banta-Cain (both of whom are better against the pass).

Speaking of Banta-Cain, it was a little scary when yesterday's announcer said, "With Seymour gone, Banta-Cain is the Patriots best pass rusher." I don't agree (Adalius Thomas is better), but it's just frightening to believe that statement is somewhat true. And speaking of linebackers, with Jerod Mayo out Gary Guyton led the team with ten tackles. Not much else to say; Thomas missed an interception that would have completely changed the game, and well... the rest of the linebackers didn't make enough plays to make mention of them.

Same with the secondary. A good but not great performance, with no missed INTs that I saw, no big hits like we saw against Buffalo, some plays with tight coverage and knocked down passes, usually followed up with an easy completion for a first down. Last year the Pats got killed on third-and-five or longer, and at the moment it looks like more of the same this year. Here's hoping that the young players can find some of that upside I've been touting, and that they find it in time for the Falcons game this Sunday -- because Atlanta has some weapons on offense.

Special teams were a wash. They had some nice returns and gave up some nice returns. Gostkowski was 3-3 on field goals but the special teams units had four penalties. They sort of mirrored the overall team -- not a great day, not a terrible day, just happened to be playing a fired-up team that performed well.

And finally, a word about the coaching. They put in a few innovations for this game. On defense they had safety Brandon McGowan "spying" Leon Washington about half the time (i.e. he shadowed Washington wherever he went). And that might have slowed Leon down, at least on offense.

The other thing they did was on offense. Apparently they wanted to run the no-huddle all game, but thought Brady might not be able to get the calls to all the receivers. So they gave every receiver and running back the same "wristband" that Brady has, with lists of plays that are numbered and coded. Then, they used sideline signals to indicate which play was called, so the backs and receivers would know without getting the word from Brady. Even though the offense didn't do that well, I wouldn't discount the possibility of them doing this again in loud stadiums. It could work -- just need Wes Welker and Tom Brady back to full health :)

All that aside, the coaches did not make great adjustments during the game. The Jets first drive after the half was 3 plays, 56 yards, and a touchdown. The Patriots first drive of the second half was 3 plays, zero yards, and a punt. That my friends, is being out-schemed and out-coached in the locker room at the half. Nothing to be ashamed of; but it happens more and more frequently these days than it used to. I still think Belichick hires too many clones of himself for his staff, and needs offensive and defensive coordinators he can trust. But hey, he's got the Super Bowl rings and all I have is this little blog. So we'll see how it goes.

So where does that leave us? As reported before, in second place with a difficult game at home this week. I expect I'll get my rah-rah voicemail from Bill Belichick sometime around Wednesday (LOL)... but I won't need it. I'll be loud and proud at the stadium six days from now. Atlanta is better than I thought, but I'll stick with the prediction of a win. After all, it's no fun to go to a game when you've admitted you think they'll lose :)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: All three Patriots field goals came either one or two plays after incomplete passes to Julian Edelman. "Welker! Get back in there!!"

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You aren't going to win many games when you score 9 points."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-1!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Will Rhodes be the real embarrassment?

You probably heard that New York Jets safety Kerry Rhodes launched another trash talk bomb at the Patriots. He talked about wanting not just to win but to embarrass the Patriots, knock Tom Brady around, and send a message (article here).

I hate to break it to Mr. Rhodes, but the only embarrassment possible on Sunday is if the Jets lose to the Patriots. There are many factors working against the Patriots in this game, as I detailed in my 2009 Patriots Season Preview (link). Here are the reasons the Jets should prevail on Sunday:

1. The Jets had a full week of preparation and are at home. The Patriots had a short week of preparation because they played on Monday night, and they are on the road, shortening their week even more with a travel day.

2. The Patriots don't have much historical tape on the Jets rookie quarterback. Belichick and his staff do a great job defending quarterbacks when they have enough game film to break down their tendencies and comfort zones. But rookie Mark Sanchez played his first game last week, so there is precious little tape to study and digest.

I liken it to what happened against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. Ben had started only four games when the teams played on Halloween, and the rookie QB torched them in a 34-20 drubbing. However, in the playoffs, the Patriots had 14 games of film to study, and they confused Roethlisberger and won going away, 41-27.

So if you extend that idea, Sanchez should do well against the Patriots Sunday, but might struggle in their November game when the Patriots will have nine weeks of film to study.

3. The Jets have no significant injuries, the Patriots do. Starting ILB (and defensive signal caller) Jerod Mayo is out for 6-8 weeks, and Adalius Thomas did not participate fully in practices this week, further weakening an already thin linebacking corps. Also, Wes Welker only played about 2/3 of the offensive snaps last week due to a lingering injury and might do the same this week.

On the other hand, the Jets are getting back former Pro Bowl defensive end Shaun Ellis from a suspension, and they have no significant injuries on their official Injury Report.

4. The Patriots are playing younger guys this year with an eye toward being better at the end of the season. The past few years the Pats flew out of the gate, winning games by playing veterans at the expense of developing young players. Now they are back to the way things were in 2001, 2003, and 2004 (all Super Bowl winning years). But that might cost them some early games, which is why the Jets should be able to take the game Sunday.

All of this should add up to a Jets victory. If it does, I will tip my hat to them and await the next meeting. But if they don't, the embarrassment for the Jets will be multi-fold. Not only will it be yet another disappointment, but given all the factors in their favor and the fact that they talked trash all week, it might go beyond simple embarrassment to full-on humiliation.

Eat hearty Sunday morning, Mr. Rhodes. Because there's not much nutritional value to the crow you might be eating after the game.

- Scott

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Patriots 25, Bills 24 (9/14/2009)

Sorry this is a day late; I spent so much time writing the 2009 Season Preview that I was a little burned out trying to get this out yesterday. As you must know by now, the Patriots barely took care of business, eking out a 25-24 win over division rival Buffalo. It puts them atop their division, tied with the Jets at 1-0, with a Sunday showdown in the Meadowlands for very early supremacy in the AFC East.

Coach Belichick beat me to the punch about Monday night's game, saying it reminded him of games from 2001. The early struggles, the late charge, and the important break that gave them an opportunity to win. It reminded me of another game against Buffalo, late in 2001, when a Patriots receiver (I think it was David Patten) was knocked unconscious but was touching the ball and the sideline so his fumble was nullified. That is only a slightly less likely way to win than scoring twice in 76 seconds with a fumbled kickoff recovered by your kicker in the middle.

One under-reported thing about the game is that it was the offense that really put them in a jam. Two missed fourth-down conversion attempts, a short field goal that went wide right, and a bad interception that was returned for a touchdown. That gave Buffalo plenty of time to get their sea legs under them, and the Bills led at the half despite having fewer rushing yards, passing yards, poorer kick returns, a lower third-down conversion rate, and running fewer than half as many offensive plays.

Brady looked rusty early on, helped along by a poor performing offensive line and very good play by the Buffalo defense. Brady missed some receivers badly, and missed the timing on throws to Wes Welker and Joey Galloway -- probably owing to too little playing time for all three in the preseason. But the O-line improved in the second half and Brady started getting more time. They also switched to more shotgun and hurry-up in the second half, and that tired the Bills defense.

(Note to the Patriots offensive coaches: if Matt Light is getting beaten almost every play, rotate a running back or tight end his way. Don't just challenge Matt to do better; the guy he's protecting [Brady] is too important to put at risk for false bravado.)

The receivers had a great night overall. Moss, Welker, and Watson dropped important passes. But Moss and Welker ended up with 12 catches each (for 141 and 93 yards, respectively), and Watson came through in the clutch, grabbing the final two touchdowns to win the game -- the second one an outstanding catch. Kevin Faulk also came through in the passing game, converting some important third downs (two on the fourth-quarter drive that put the game within reach). And believe it or not, I saw Randy Moss run patterns over the middle *and* block down field. Woo-hoo!

I've heard people say they thought the running backs did well. I disagree. Looked like mostly more of the same from Laurence Maroney (though the O-line didn't help early on), and Fred Taylor was average at best. But in all candor, the team isn't counting on the running backs for much yardage production; that should come mostly through the air. So a team total of 73 yards on 23 carries is fine, as long as the blitz pickup and screen passes go well.

I thought the defense had a very good day overall, giving up only 17 points. The Bills brought in Terrell Owens so they'd have dual outside threats. But Owens and Lee Evans had fewer catches and yards than Randy Moss alone, and were non factors most of the evening. The defensive backs hit hard and actually knocked a few passes down, unlike recent years where they just made the tackle after the play. It wasn't perfect, with a few third-and-long conversions, and too much dependence on Buffalo shooting itself in the foot with penalties. But it was better than it was in 2007 or 2008.

Special props to Brandon Meriweather, who set the tone with bone-jarring hits and was in on the crucial forced fumble that gave the Pats a chance to score for the win. Meriweather's taken a lot of criticism in the press, but if they really watched last year they should have seen that he was coming on big time. And his defensive backfield mates, Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs (surprising to even me), and Jonathan Wilhite showed toughness in playing bump-and-run coverage and speed when closing to the ball in zone coverage.

The linebackers looked a little lost. Well, maybe a lot lost. Stud in the making Jerod Mayo went out with a knee injury, and Gary Guyton and Tully Banta-Cain got pushed around a lot. (I heard Derrick Burgess was about the same, but I don't remember any plays by him until the Bills were in desperation mode late in the game... which probably tells you all you need to know.) Adalius Thomas had some nice plays and threw in an badly timed roughing the passer penalty for good (or bad) measure. If Mayo doesn't return, it'll be a scramble at 'backer; probably forcing the team to go with four D-lineman and three linebackers.

And speaking of the D-line, they did miss Richard Seymour, but not as much as you might have thought. Simply put, Richard's absence allowed the Bills to double-team Wilfork and Warren more often, and that gave the Bills a boost in the running game and sort of gave the Patriots fits in the first half when they tried to pressure the quarterback. They eventually figured it out, though every time Mike Wright came on the field I winced (sort of like "Five Yard" Freddy Smerlas). But they've got some work to do to get pressure out of their front seven. Perhaps more rotating linemen and some corner or safety blitzes to keep the other team off balance.

Special teams was not a big positive or negative. Gostkowski missed his first field goal attempt of the season but he came up with a key fumble recovery and booted the ball 10+ yards deeper on kickoffs than his counterpart on Buffalo. There were some decent returns, and they only gave up one big kickoff return -- on a play where they forced another fumble but the Bills recovered. Overall it looks like they're going for more turnovers on special teams, which I welcome, given the paucity of such plays over the years.

So where does that leave us? Like I said earlier, 1-0 atop the AFC East with a showdown against the Jets on Sunday. It also leaves them with some work replacing Mayo (reportedly out 6 - 8 weeks), getting their D-line rotation in place, and making earlier adjustments to the offensive blocking schemes. The Jets have a lot of good defensive players, so this will be a good test of the Patriots offense.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: I know the NFL doesn't track this stat and it's a little convoluted, but I think it further illustrates how consistent the Patriots have been under Belichick. The Pats are now guaranteed to hold the record for most consecutive games with a non-losing record. The last time the Patriots were under .500 was September 7, 2003, when they started the season 0-1, losing to these same Buffalo Bills (31-0). Since then, they have been at or above .500 every single week -- and win or lose to the Jets , Sunday will mark the 65th straight game that has been true, longest streak in NFL history.

Ironically, the team that held the old record was... drum roll please... the Buffalo Bills -- 64 straight games (from 1988 - 1993).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If you have no defensive backs, you might as well play the young guys with some speed. At least they can close on the ball and they have a lot more upside than a veteran retread."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Patriots 2009 Season Preview

It doesn't just seem like a long off-season, it *was* one. The 2008 Patriots failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years, cutting two - five weeks out of what we are used to. So it was all over before the important games started in January. After posting a decent 11-5 record, they missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker -- which, interestingly enough, is how they missed the playoffs the last time, too (lost out to the Dolphins last year and the Jets in 2002).

So how do they avoid tie-breakers entirely and make it to the playoffs this year? The watchword is the same as always: change. All teams lose players and coaches and still have to innovate and adapt their strategies, schemes, and expectations from year to year. Change is inevitable, so the best teams anticipate it and do their best to take full advantage of it.

The Patriots have had their ups and downs with change. They changed the quarterback in 2001 and won a championship. They changed five players on defense in 2003 and won the next two Super Bowls. However, they replaced their offensive and defensive coordinators in 2005 and haven't won one since.

But remember this most of all: they made significant changes every single year they won a Super Bowl. And they basically tried to stand pat in 2002 and 2008 and missed the playoffs both times. So let's embrace change, relish it, revel in it, even look forward to it. Because if history is any guide, the changes the Patriots made this off-season should lead to the post-season in 2009.

Anyone important arrive since last year?

1. After a brutal year defending the pass, they brought in about a hundred defensive backs and drafted a safety and another corner. Two of the veteran corners made it through training camp, but I wasn't impressed by Leigh Bodden or Shawn Springs. I was similarly lukewarm about the play of drafted safety Pat Chung; though he may improve as he learns the system.

However, second-year corner Jonathan Wilhite does give hope, with his youth and his improvement from last year to this preseason. Not to put too much pressure on him, but he reminds me of Asante Samuel, who improved dramatically his second year. And rookie Darius Butler played better than Bodden or Springs, so that... well it isn't saying much, but at least he has a decent upside.

2. After a brutal year defending the pass, they got younger in the front seven. Gone are veterans Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour. They re-signed linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and have two second year players starting at inside linebacker, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Mayo has a chance to be a special player and Guyton was good last year before being injured. And Banta-Cain knows the system and was blossoming here before getting big bucks to sign with San Fran.

On the line, the team kept two rookie backups, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. I didn't see much out of Pryor the last four games, but I thought Brace was terrific when he was on the field.

So youth is served on defense; though it remains to be seen how it works out. But Seymour hadn't been the best D-lineman on the team for some time now, and a first round draft pick from Oakland was just too much to turn down. Bruschi just flat out couldn't run any more, and Vrabel couldn't hold the edge on running plays. I don't like to see veterans go, but it looks like it was time for these three, unfortunately.

3. It looks like their offensive changes will work out pretty well. Backup QB Brian Hoyer looked pretty good, and Chris Baker gives them a tight end who can create separation and get open in the end zone, so finally someone can take the pressure off of Wes Welker. And Joey Galloway is a definite upgrade from Jabar Gaffney -- no offense intended to Mr. "dropped a pass to lose the Indy game in a season where we missed the playoffs by one game, so I'm off to Denver to hide behind Josh McDaniels for a while."

Fred Taylor can spell Kevin Faulk and replace oft-injured Laurence Maroney if he falters again. And my fave -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- plowed his way to the team lead for rushing yards in the preseason. He also scored *all* of their preseason rushing touchdowns, too. All of 'em.

4. Special teams didn't stand still, either, replacing the coach, the long snapper, and adding rookie Julian Edelman for kick returns. All three worked out pretty well in the preseason; but time will tell once the regular players are in on special teams starting tonight!

5. Oh, and some supermodel-dating king-of-the-world-wannabe named Brady is the starting QB. You probably heard, right?

Anyone important leave since last year?

1. In addition to Seymour, Bruschi, and Vrabel, there were five significant player losses since last year. Rodney Harrison retired, Matt Cassel was traded to Kansas City, and Ellis Hobbs joined his running mate Asante Samuel in Philadelphia. On special teams, captain Larry Izzo went 200 miles southwest to join the Jets, and long snapper Lonie Paxton went 1,900 miles west (and 1 mile high) to Denver after being here for years.

Harrison wasn't the player he'd been, but he knew the defense so well that his leaving will hurt. In a pre-salary cap world, the Pats could have kept Cassel and Brady, but not any more, so Matt had to go. Ellis Hobbs played hurt and played sort of mediocre; but he was never a legit starter even though injuries and poor personnel decisions forced him into that role.

And Izzo and Paxton... what can I say. They were both great while they were here and neither showed any signs of slowing down. So I wish them well in their new roles -- except when they play the Patriots :)

2. There were also some significant changes to the coaching staff. Josh McDaniels went to Denver and looks over matched, leaving QB coach Bill O'Brien as the de facto OC here (he'll call the plays, though he has not been promoted). Special teams coach Brad Seeley joined the Cleveland Browns staff. I always wondered how good he was, now I get the chance to find out.

And interestingly, they added an assistant to the Strength and Conditioning coach. I've always thought they had way too many injuries and should consider replacing Mike Woicik. This might be a move in that direction.

Any other changes I should be aware of?

1. After a brutal year defending the pass (notice a pattern here?), they might be switching to the 4-3 defense. They played more 4-3 in the preseason, and new linebacker Derrick Burgess isn't really a linebacker but a pass rushing specialist -- so even when there are four linebackers, it might still be a 4-3.

2. After three years of playing all veterans early in the year and working in younger players as injuries sidelined the starters, they appear ready to give young players a chance right out of the gate.

I personally applaud that, because the Pats used to care more about how they finished the season than how they started it. And giving the youngsters more playing time gives them a better chance to contribute this year, rather than the more recent system that basically made them non-factors until their second year. Also, fewer snaps for veterans should mean fewer injuries, too -- which can only be a good thing.

3. They just might succeed in their mission to keep Brady healthy this year, for two basic reasons. First off, the running game has a chance to be decent. With two third-down type backs (Faulk and Taylor) they can do more running out of the shotgun formation, at which they've been extremely good. And north-south runner Green-Ellis will push for playing time and force Maroney to play better, and that could be a deadly combination.

Secondly, it looks like Brady has recommitted himself to the play-action pass. In the preseason his fake hand-offs and pump fakes were much crisper and more deceptive than they'd been lately. I know it's a little thing, but I've been bemoaning his lackadaisical fakes for a few years. And I'm glad to see him get back to basics, because defenses are going to come after him and nothing slows them down like decent running game and a play-action fake.

So how will the season work out?

With all that in mind, including that they might give young players more snaps, that they might not pass as often so the games could be closer, and also that the special teams are a real wildcard this year, there is more uncertainty early in the season than there has been since 2003. But given all that, here is how I see the season playing out:

First Quarter

Week 1: The Patriots should open with a win against the Bills tonight. I know Buffalo added T.O. to match Lee Evans as another outside threat. But it's still Trent Edwards at QB, and the Patriots beat them twice last year with Matt Cassel behind center. So shootout or defensive struggle, the Patriots should handle the Bills.

Week 2: They then have a short week and travel for a game against the Jets. This one is a tough call for a lot of reasons. There isn't much tape on rookie QB Mark Sanchez, but Belichick defenses have traditionally feasted on young quarterbacks. New York has some talent on offense and a new defensive attitude/scheme under rookie head man Rex Ryan. And of course, they beat the Patriots in the biggest game of last year *in* Foxboro. So it'll be close, but I'll say the Patriots will lose this one -- just not enough info available about the QB or defense yet.

Week 3: The following Sunday the Atlanta Falcons (and I) travel to Foxboro for what I expect will be a loss for the visitors (not me, the Falcons). Matt Ryan played great as a rookie, but he's guaranteed to see some confusing new defenses the first time he plays the Patriots. It'll be a shootout, but I don't think the Falcons defense has enough to stop the Pats from out-scoring them. (Note: put this down as a guaranteed win if the Patriots lose to the Jets in Week #2).

Week 4: The Ravens matchup is an intriguing one, with the same QB situation as the Falcons (second year man who hasn't played the Patriots yet). The defense is a year older and will probably slip some with Rex Ryan gone, but the Ravens should have revenge on their mind since the last time they played Ryan called time-out that allowed the Patriots to remain undefeated in 2007. All that aside, Baltimore has two division games sandwiching their match with the Patriots, so I give the edge to the home team in this one.

That would make the Patriots 3-1 at this point in the season.

Second Quarter

Week 5: At Denver, at Denver, at Denver... what can I say about playing the Broncos. Oh, I know... I *hate* playing the Broncos! Luckily, the new head man there appears to be drowning and they are rebuilding, so I expect the Patriots superior talent gives them the edge to win this one. But it'll be closer than you think -- the Broncos always give us a hard time.

Week 6: The Tennessee Titans will give the Patriots a stern test. Sure, they have two division games just before this one, but their bye is right after this game and Jeff Fisher will have his charges ready to rumble (and will probably promise them extra time off if they win). Their defense is one of the NFL's best, and is physical enough to give the Pats a lot of trouble. The question is whether or not the Titans can out-score the Pats... and I think they can. Mark down the second loss.

Week 7: The game in London against the Buccaneers is a sure win for the Pats. They always do a great job of handling the strange venue and unusual games, and the Bucs have a rookie QB and fired their offensive coordinator 10 days before the season started. Too much disarray for Tampa, put it in the Win column for the local 11.

Week 8: No loss this week... it's the bye. Rest up everyone :)

Week 9: The Dolphins game in Foxboro will be a win for the Patriots. The Pats come off a bye week and will want revenge for last year's embarrassing loss at home. The Dolphins will be playing their second consecutive road-division game, and they don't have the talent to keep up with the score-all-the-time offense of the Patriots.

That would put the team at 6-2 halfway through the year.

Third Quarter

Week 10: The Colts would seem to have everything in their favor for the November 15 tilt in Indy. Playing their third straight game at home (with two chump teams before the Patriots), under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football, the Patriots playing division foes in the weeks before and after the game. But remember that the Pats outplayed Indy in Indy last year with Matt Cassel at the helm, and there's a new coaching system in place there. So even though all signs point to a loss, something in my gut tells me the Patriots won't overlook this one and will pull out the win.

Week 11: At this point, the Patriots will have eight weeks of film on young Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Trust me, it'll make all the difference. Pats beat the daylights out of 'em!

Week 12: At New Orleans for a Monday night game against the Saints is one that the press is pounding as a sure-fire loss for the Patriots and perhaps a passing of the torch to a younger generation of quarterbacks. Don't buy it -- the Patriots defense should be gelling and playing better by then, and with a pseudo-bye week against the Jets, the Pats should be rested and ready to go. A shoot-out, no doubt. But the Pats should stop the Saints more often than the Saints stop the Pats.

Week 13: With a short week after the Monday game and a road tilt against the rival Dolphins, sadly I see this as a loss. It's always been tough for the Pats to play in south Florida, and this one just feels like another loss.

That would make the team 9-3 at the three-quarter pole of the season.

Fourth Quarter

Week 14: Traditionally the Carolina Panthers have given the Patriots a difficult time. But Jake Delhomme continues to regress as a quarterback, and they don't have the weapons they possessed when the teams met in the Super Bowl -- over five years ago now. Besides, the Patriots have won 15 straight regular season games against the NFC. And given that the Panthers play a division game the week before and then travel to Foxboro for this one, I think the Patriots pull this one out. But it could be closer than you might think.

Week 15: The Pats then play the Bills. In Buffalo. In December. With the wind howling and perhaps snow on the ground. Sounds like the perfect conditions for T.O. to curl up in the fetal position and whine about how it was warmer in Dallas. The new-and-improved passing attack? Should be a non-factor for much of December in Buffalo, whereas the controlled passing game of the Patriots will work well in those conditions. Game to the Patriots.

Week 16: I love the Patriots chances when a warm weather team like the Jacksonville Jaguars come to town in late December. The other team always talks about how it doesn't matter, but QB David Garrard completed only 50% of his passes yesterday in a *dome* -- so how poorly will he play in Foxboro two days after Christmas... probably with nothing to play for, too. Patriots win!

Week 17: The Patriots travel to Houston to take on the Texans, in a game that could be a lot tougher than people think. The head coach in Houston ran the offense in Denver for years... the same offense that killed the Patriots with the stretch running play time and again. The Texans also have a monster at wide receiver (Andre Johnson) and an efficient, if not spectacular, quarterback -- who, btw, came off the Atlanta bench to nearly beat a very good Patriots team in 2005. I'll say this... if the game means anything to the Patriots, they will win. If not, they still win unless the game means something to the Texans (i.e. a playoff berth or positioning).

I think that last game will mean something to the Patriots, which puts them at 13-3, or more likely 12-4 with one stumble along the way. Either record will get them in the playoffs and might snag a first-round bye if they are fortunate.

Anyhow, that's how I see it. Hope the team stays healthy and the young players come along so we can watch important games next January... unlike last year!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!