Monday, October 18, 2010

Patriots 23, Ravens 20 (10/17/2010)

A great game yesterday between two of the top franchises of the past decade, with the Patriots coming out on top of a 23-20 overtime thriller.  The win puts the Pats at 4-1, tied for the second best record in the entire NFL and a half-game behind the Jets for the AFC East lead.  And on deck is a trip to the west coast to take on a reeling San Diego team.

There is a theory among some that you do whatever you can to avoid playing your way out of the playoffs in the first half of the season.  Dig an 0-6 hole, the theory goes, and you'll never climb out, but go 2-4 and you can still make a playoff run.  Well, the Patriots applied that thinking to the game yesterday, surviving first half domination to trail only 10-7, giving themselves a chance to make a run in the last 30 minutes.  Or make that 43 minutes, including a wee bit of overtime to decide the issue.

I don't have time for an in-depth breakdown of the game; so here are a half-dozen observations.

1.  The Patriots showed a more diverse offense with Randy Moss out of the picture.  Deion Branch caught 9 for 98 yards, including a crucial touchdown and two important grabs in overtime.  When the inside running of BenJarvus Green-Ellis stalled, they ran Danny Woodhead to the outside with success, and they called several misdirection plays, always good against an aggressive defense.  They went no-huddle for a while and got good blocking from the tight ends.

Bill O'Brien's play-calling displayed real imagination.  A particular favorite was the fake screen and pass up the seam to tight end Aaron Hernandez out of the bunch formation.  Not only did it gain good yardage, but it gives upcoming opponents something to think about before they jump the screen from that formation -- and it's *always* good when a defense thinks instead of reacts.

2.  They miss Kevin Faulk; but Woodhead and Hernandez pick up enough slack to make the loss tolerable.  Woodhead is small and plays with his pads low, making him very difficult to stop on initial contact.  He's quick around end and his improvement in the passing game was obvious yesterday (5 catches for 52 yards).

Hernandez has played four positions: wide receiver, slot receiver, tight end, and sometimes halfback, and they got him the ball from each of those spots.  The opposition doesn't seem to know quite how to handle Hernandez; he beats linebackers and slowish safeties, but teams don't want to commit a corner or even a nickelback to the tight end.  Quite the conundrum; should be fun to watch Hernandez punish teams for the rest of the season.

3.  The O-line deserves praise for giving Brady all day on some plays (including the touchdown to Branch) and for excellent scheme and execution in the outside running game.  But a closer look reveals three sacks and several free blitzers that busted up plays and led to Brady's only "real" interception.  The inside run was non-existent, too.

Overall a below-average performance.  Communication problems that lead to free blitzers are to be expected in road games when you can't hear... they should not happen at home.

4.  The Patriots defense can't stop both the run and pass out of their base set, but the substitute packages are doing better.  Replace Mike Wright with Ron Brace to beef up the line and it's tough to run against the Pats.  Replace Wilfork with a linebacker and Brandon Spikes with Gary Guyton and it's tough to pass.

The problems come when they don't guess right.  They can still stop the run okay with the pass-stopping package, but when their run stoppers are in the game they can't stop the pass at all.  Brandon Spikes is getting better and better at anticipating run or pass, and Jermaine Cunningham disrupts more plays each week.  But their base defense just can't defend both aspects of the game.

Baltimore doesn't have a balanced enough attack to really attack this defensive weakness, but several of their up-coming opponents do.  Pittsburgh, Indy, the Jets, and Green Bay all have the firepower to make the Pats pay when they are in the wrong substitution package.  Heck, San Diego might.

5.  Can we finally put to rest the idiocy of "the Ravens and Ray Rice ran all over the Patriots" in the playoffs last year?  Rice started that game with an 83-yard touchdown.  Since then, here are his numbers over two games:

49 carries for 164 (3.3 average, long run of 16 yards)

So please spare me how the Ravens out-toughed the Patriots and imposed their will on them last January.  It was more a poor performance by Tom Brady that cost the Patriots so dearly in that game.  The fact is the Ravens have been ineffective running the ball against the Patriots for over two full games now (including overtime yesterday) -- so the media can stop harping on the Pats for something that just isn't true.

6.  Stephen Gostkowski channeled Adam Vinatieri yesterday.  On a windy day he went 3-3 on field goals, dead-eying one to tie the game late and one to win it in overtime.  He also stuck 5 of 6 kickoffs into the end zone.  If you think that's no biggie, remember that his opposite number booted one out of bounds and the Patriots cashed in the advantageous field position for their only second-half touchdown.

Note: punter Zoltan Mesko changed field position three times in the game, with a 54-yard boot and a pooch punt when the Patriots were holding on by a thread in the first half.  And his most important punt this year was the 65-yard bomb in the fourth quarter, just when it appeared the Ravens were going to get good field position.

So where does that leave us?  There are only 3 teams in the NFL with just a single loss, so 4-1 is pretty good.  San Diego might be desperate for a win next Sunday, and they have often beaten the Patriots in the regular season.  But without some of their weapons from yesteryear, the Chargers might have more trouble this time than in the past.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Seattle Seahawks are the only team in the NFC West that has scored more points than they have allowed this season.  And they are only +1 on the year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Expect the Ravens to see a steady dose of outside runs and misdirection plays.  The Pats killed them with that stuff."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  4-1!

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