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!

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