Sunday, December 6, 2009

Patriots 21, Dolphins 22 (12/6/2009)

I hoped against hope that I'd be wrong, but these division road games after Monday Night games are just killers. (Note: as if admitting how tough this is, the NFL only scheduled it five times this year. And the Patriots are the only team that had to do it *twice*. Not that I'm bitter. BTW, trivia question: can you name the only team to *host* two division foes coming off Monday Night games this year? Answer below.) But knowing the difficulty of this situation, a gut-wrenching loss to Miami was foreseeable, and that is just what happened, with a final score of 22-21. The result is a much tighter race in the AFC East, with one game separating the Patriots from the Dolphins and Jets.

There is obviously something more going here than just the difficulty of the schedule. And when you lose four road games that you led at the half, it seems natural to blame the defense, which is exactly what most of the local media has been doing for about a month now. Couple those losses with the drubbing by the Saints, and the case seems airtight.

But I contend that it isn't the defense, but the offense that is the problem. Not the majority of the problem -- the *entire* problem -- in closing out those four games (forget the Saints game, they had no chance in the second half). And the reason to blame the offense is as simple as these numbers: 0, 0, 10, 7. That's how many points they scored in the second half of those games. Here are some of the underlying numbers that cost them the chance to win any of them.

Leading the Jets 9-3, in the second half the Patriots offense did the following: gained a *total* of 67 yards on five possessions, held the ball for just 12:09, completed 8 of 20 pass attempts, converted 6 first downs, did not move the ball into Jets territory at all, and scored zero points. In a game they lost by 1 touchdown!

Against Denver, it was even uglier. They had one 13 play drive (that resulted in a punt), and the rest of their possessions went like this: 3-and-out, 6 plays and a missed field goal, 3-and-out, 3 plays and a fumble. They completed only 5 of 15 pass attempts, had just 6 first downs, and held the ball for even less time (12:06). In a game they lost in overtime!

In the last two of these games (Indy and Miami) the offense has moved the ball but killer turnovers and the inability to convert first downs led to their ultimate downfall. Against the Colts, Tom Brady threw an ill-advised INT on a bomb to Randy Moss in the end zone (more on that later) and Laurence Maroney fumbled at the Colts 1 yard-line. Those turnovers took at least 10 and perhaps 14 points off the board. In a game they lost by 1 point!

Against Miami, they scored a fluky 81-yard touchdown on a 10-yard jump-ball-then-run by Sam Aiken, and followed it up with these stinkers: 3-and-out, 5-and-out, INT, 3-and-out, 3-and-out, INT. The offense scored no points in the last 27:02, Tom Brady's QB rating dropped from 142.6 in the first half to 61.4 in the second half. In a game they lost by 1 point!

Are you starting to see the same pattern I'm seeing here?

As for those asking where the defense was in all of these games, here is where they were.

When they were down by a touchdown to the Jets, the defense forced punts on consecutive fourth-quarter drives, a 3-and-out and a 4-and-out, while allowing the Jets to take a total of 3:26 off the clock. But the offense couldn't do anything.

In Denver, Tom Brady fumbled at the Pats 45 yard line with a minute left in regulation, and it looked like a gimme for the Broncos to pick up 10 yards and kick a winning field goal. But the Pats held them to 3 plays for -5 yards, giving the Patriots a chance to get to overtime.

The defense also stopped superstar Peyton Manning and the Colts on 3 of 6 second half possessions, including two interceptions. Fifty percent might not sound great, but against the Colts, in Indy, it should have been good enough.

And of course yesterday in Miami, we all saw them hold on fourth down at the 4:44 mark, setting up the offense with decent field position and only needing one or two first downs to ice the game. However, the offense came up small and the defense was thrown right back onto the field. But just because they couldn't hold Miami again doesn't negate the fact that they held them the first time.

There is one other reason the offense should be held to account here: the Patriots spent the majority of their salary cap money on offense, not defense. So you have to question the wisdom of how they spent their money, the will or talent of the players, or the offensive coaching staff. Take your pick (mine is the coaching). But the offense is almost solely to blame for four of the five road losses this year. The defense is just a convenient scapegoat.

So what are the problems on offense? Here are three, two of which can be corrected easily.

1. The Patriots miss Josh McDaniels more than they would ever admit. Under McDaniels, the set offensive records in 2007 and the team went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at QB. I never thought he was a great coordinator (his lack of adjustments in Super Bowl XLII was terrible), but he was creative in play design, kept the team focused on getting first downs, and was *vastly* superior in finishing drives.

Under current coordinator-in-waiting Bill O'Brien, their run/pass plays are too easily predicted by formation, there is too much reliance on jump balls to Randy Moss in the red zone, and they are just plain lousy at calling a run against a pass defense and vice versa. And they are currently ranked 25th in red zone efficiency (scoring touchdowns only 47.1% of the time they get inside the opponents 20 yard line) With the talent they have, not good enough.

2. Bill Belichick needs to pay closer attention to coaching each game for itself. He's said recently that every game is its own entity, but he took the same risk against Miami that he took against New Orleans, even though the teams are completely different. He went for it on fourth down near the Saints end zone because he was down by 14 points and knew the Saints would score more. Against Miami, he went for it on fourth down, even though he was up by 7 points and knew that Miami struggles on offense.

He needed to take the field goal there, to go up by two scores and keep the pressure on the Dolphins. Instead, the fourth-down call was terrible (the same play they ran twice the previous week), and it was easily shut down. Somehow I think those three points would have come in handy in a game he lost by one point.

3. Brady to Moss is the most dangerous combination in the NFL -- dangerous to the Patriots chances of winning, that is. It has become Brady's lazy play. Instead of reading the defense and following through with the play, he chucks it up to a single-covered Moss and hopes for the best. The fourth quarter INT was a ridiculous play given the situation. A field goal would have forced the Dolphins to score a touchdown for the win, so risking a turnover at that point was fool-hardy.

Brady needs to get back to being Brady, whether or not Moss complains. The team needs Ben Watson and Sam Aiken to produce if they plan to do anything in the playoffs, so it's time to start throwing the ball their way and get some rhythm and timing with them. And if Moss gives Brady any crap about it, have no doubt that Brady won't lose that battle -- he's got the entire locker room behind him.

So where does that leave us? Frustrated at another winnable game slipping through their fingers. At 7-5, the best they can do is match last year's record; though doing so would win the division. Next week it's Carolina coming to Foxboro with a young QB and very faint playoff hopes. The Panthers have given the Pats trouble over the years, but since it's a home game, it seems they should be able to get the win. If the offense shows up in the second half, that is.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Wes Welker leads the NFL with 95 receptions this year, despite missing two games to injury. That is an oddity because no other player in the top 10 has missed even *one* game this year -- *and* Welker is 12 receptions ahead of the second place player.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Good thing they won in London... 'cause other than that they are 0-5 on the road this year."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-5!

PPS. The Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Raiders and the Chargers after they had played on Monday Night the week before. Note that the Chiefs are so bad they actually *lost* both games!

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