Monday, January 30, 2012

Pats/Giants Super Bowl Breakdown Links

Hey guys,

I haven't finished my pre-Super Bowl update, but here are some links with interesting information and breakdowns of what to expect on Sunday: breakdown of specific matchups and schemes (five days worth, you'll have to click back to see Monday-Thursday, but well worth it):

Cold, Hard Football Facts on Passer Rating Differential:
and more on "peaking" and Passer Rating Differential:

Cold, Hard Football Facts post on the Patriots defense (just about melted my brain, so tread carefully):

That should keep you busy until I finish up my analysis.


- Scott

Monday, January 23, 2012

Patriots Survive and Advance, 23-20

In one of the best football games you'll ever see, the Patriots held on for a 23-20 win over the Ravens. The victory propelled them to Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants, who won their way into the big game with a 20-17 overtime thriller. More on that game later in the week; but first, let Nostrodamus (i.e. your humble blogger) walk you through yesterday's Patriots win.

First the self-congratulatory section of the email, a list of "as predicted here last week" moments from yesterday's game (if you don't want to read this, skip down 9 paragraphs):

The three dead-on predictions:

A. Baltimore running back Ray Rice was not effective in the ground game; the Patriots held him to 67 yards on 21 carries (3.2 YPC) and no touchdowns.

B. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was much more dangerous thanthan people thought. In fact, he was the best QB in the game. He went 22 for 36, 306 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 95.4 rating. He also ran for 27 yards on 4 carries, although he did miss some long bombs, mostly courtesy of the Patriots pass rush.

C. Baltimore receiver Lee Evans struggled against the Patriots, again. He had the winning touchdown in his hands and Patriots corner Sterling Moore knocked it away. For the record, here are Evans' numbers in 14 career games against the Pats:

Totals: 36 catches, 436 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 fumble lost
Averages: 2.6 catches, 31.1 yards, 0.07 touchdowns

And the two imperfect-but-close predictions:

D. I projected Patriots receivers Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez would have 18 catches, 238 yards, and 2 touchdowns. They had 18 catches, 206 yards, and no touchdowns. Not perfect, but pretty close.

E. I thought the game would be a 4- to 6-point Patriots win -- it turned out to be a 3-point win.
Thank you for indulging me. Now on to our regularly scheduled update.

The game was a contest of which team would screw up the fewest opportunities. Brady missed a wide open Gronkowski touchdown pass, and Gronkowski failed to get his second foot down (or so it was called on the field) on a first-down catch. The Patriots had to settle for field goals both times. And Brandon Spikes' interception went to waste when Brady threw his second interception on an ill-advised 50 yard bomb.

On the other side, Joe Flacco missed two wide open receivers on long passes, and the Ravens took a field goal on fourth-and-inches (whereas the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-inches and got a touchdown). The Ravens scored just six points off three New England turnovers, and lost despite clear advantages in time of possession, total yards, third-down conversions, and the turnover battle.

However, the biggest Ravens blunder was not calling a timeout before the game-tying field goal attempt. Being at the game, I saw kicker Billy Cundiff running to the kicking spot from 75 yards away. He was practicing kicks at the 20 yard-line on the opposite end of the field. And after all that running, the Ravens had only 10 seconds to measure the kick, get in position, and snap the ball. And the Ravens finished the season with a timeout they could have used -- I don't think they let you carry that over to next season.

The star of the day was probably the Patriots defensive front. They got a great push upfield for 3.5 quarters, forced three three-and-outs (for a total of minus-6 yards) to start the game, and had Flacco on the run all day long. Unfortunately, they let him break containment and run for chunks of yards, but overall it was a great day for them.

Vince Wilfork came up huge in the biggest game of the year. He had six tackles, including three for a loss, one sack, and helped clog up the middle so Rice couldn't get going. In fact, the entire defensive interior was great; Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love (who you *still* can't pick out of a police lineup), and subs Gerard Warren, and Shaun Ellis.  (Note: Didn't see much out of Ron Brace, but it was good to see him out there finally).

The linebackers cut off outside runs and the short passing game. Brandon Spikes lived up to his billing, nine tackles, one pass defended, and a crucial interception with the Ravens driving for tying or go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Mark Anderson got key pressures on the quarterback, with two QB hits, a sack for 7 yards, and other hurries that kept Baltimore off-balance. Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo combined for 15 tackles, and even though neither seemed huge in the game, both played their responsibilities well and made the Ravens earn every yard.

Only cornerback Sterling Moore distinguished himself among the secondary players. He saved the game with his strip of Evans, and knocked away another pass and had good coverage that led to at least two other incompletions. Safety play continued to be poor, even when Devin McCourty rotated in. James Ihedigbo got beaten for a long pass on the Ravens first scoring drive, and though he got 8 tackles and a sack, he was nowhere in the passing game. Patrick Chung was got beaten on two long pass attempts, but luckily for him they fell incomplete.

Overall, a strong front-seven made up for weakness in the back four. They won't try to play the Giants the same way; they'd get killed by Eli Manning. But that's a post for another day.

On offense, quarterback Tom Brady was lucky the defense played so well. Please hold your nose when you read this: 22 of 36, 239 yards, no touchdowns, 2 interceptions (one a terrible decision and throw), and a QB rating of 57.5. He missed Gronkowski on the possible touchdown, and was lucky to get back another interception on a penalty. The completion percentage and yards could be forgiven; but that second interception was bad for five reasons.

First, with 7:22 left and a 3-point lead, it was imperative to run some clock before scoring, but he went for a 50-yard bomb instead. Second, there were two receivers open for an easy 5- to 10-yard gain. Third, his intended receiver was Matthew Slater -- he of the one career reception. Fourth, Brady and Slater weren't on the same page, so the throw went right when Slater broke left. And fifth, it was a jump-ball situation at best, and Slater is not the player to trust in that scenario.

However, it was not all bad on offense. Despite Brady's struggles, and a miscue by Slater and Gronkowski, the receivers did a great job getting open against the aggressive Raven's defense. It was tight coverage all over the field, and the windows for completions were small. But Welker and Hernandez got the short throws, and Gronkowski was good for 17.4 yards a catch.

The running game was effective between the tackles, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis gaining 68 yards on 15 carries (4.5 YPC), with 1 touchdown. In fact, Brady might have been better running than passing -- 3 rushes, 1 touchdown. Danny Woodhead did okay on inside hand-offs, but was not as effective as Green-Ellis. However, tight end Aaron Hernandez looks more like a novelty out of the backfield (1 rush for 9 yards, 2 rushes for 0 yards).

And the offensive line did mostly a credible job. Logan Mankins and Brian Waters killed it again, and center Dan Connolly continued his underrated season replacing the injured Dan Koppen (remember him). However, the outside linemen -- Matt Light and Nate Solder -- were beaten for pressures in the game and only did okay. The center of that line is its strength; and they need to make sure they chip outside rushers in the Super Bowl.
Special teams were a mixed bag. Only one of Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs was returned, and it went for 20 yards (the other five kicks were touchbacks). And he went 3-3 on field goals -- which as the Ravens will tell you is important. But Woodhead had a fumble on one kickoff return, and that could have been devastating as it came just as momentum seemed headed toward Baltimore.

Coaching was very good for the most part. The only play-call I disagreed with was the long pass to Slater that was intercepted. But overall, the plan of using short passes and inside runs was very good. And they have definitely come up with a blueprint to stop Rice -- and they even adjusted well when the Ravens went away from tendencies in the running game.

So where does that leave us? Can't ask for much more than a trip to the Super Bowl. Gronkowski came up injured late in the game, so that will be important to watch. And Brady's shoulder appeared to affect his accuracy, so he'll need the next two weeks to get that healthy. But for the next week, it's all enjoyment and talk -- the serious stuff won't start until next Monday.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In 22 post-season games, Tom Brady has 3 games with a QB rating under 60.0. Yet somehow, he is still 2-1 in those games. (Trivia question: two of those games were against the Ravens, can you name the other team and year? Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "That wasn't luck, it was two great teams fighting to the finish. Glad we came out on top; but it could have gone either way."

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS. Trivia Answer:
Trivia Answer: Brady had a QB rating of 57.6 in the Divisional Round against the San Diego Chargers on January 14, 2007, and won the game 24-21 (thank you Troy Brown!).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Patriots vs. Ravens Preview

It's finally here, the AFC Championship Game. And for once it's a contest between the two teams that were clearly the best in the conference this season. This one appears to be a battle of the Patriots #3 scoring offense versus the Ravens #3 scoring defense. No doubt that subplot plays big; but to know how this one will go, it's important to understand where the rivalry has been and what's changed over the years.

They met once in the playoffs, but that was two full years ago (and I still think Ravens QB Joe Flacco played hurt in that game). The last time they played each other was October 17, 2010, and the Patriots eked out a 23-20 overtime win. A lot has changed in the 15 months since then; but there are patterns of play and habits of coaching that will surely come into play on Sunday. So here goes...

1. Forget Last Weekend

First of all, use caution in reading too much into the playoff games from last weekend. The Patriots defense looked like world-beaters, but they were up against a bad Broncos offense. Tim Tebow went 1-4 his last five games, and only scored 12.5 points per loss. Remember: the Patriots finished 15th in points allowed for a reason -- they are an average defense.

It's also popular to say the Ravens offense stinks; after all, they scored only 3 points in the last 46-minutes on Sunday, and their average scoring drive for the game covered just 28 yards. But that underestimates the Houston Texans defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed (17.4 points per game).

So forget last weekend's games. The Ravens offense scored a little more than the average given up by Houston. And the Patriots defense gave up a little less than what the Broncos had been scoring in losses. In the end, they'll probably be about what you expect -- average.

2. Gronkowski and Hernandez Have Arrived, and Welker is Back

In the October 17 contest, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were playing in just their sixth NFL games, and receiver Wes Welker was recovering from a terrible knee injury. Gronkowski and Hernandez were still learning the offense and trying to gain the trust of quarterback Tom Brady. And between them, they caught just 5 passes for 85 yards and no touchdowns.

Fast-forward to now, and both tight ends are considered in the top 10 (or even top 5) in the league, with Gronkowski universally praised as the best or second-best tight end in pro football. If both players contribute just an average game this Sunday, they would almost double their production of 15 months ago: 10.5 catches 140 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns.

As for Welker, limited by the effects of his knee injury, he caught 7 passes for 53 yards and no touchdowns in the October 2010 game. However, on Sunday if he turns in just an average game, it would look more like this: 7.6 catches, 98 yards, and 0.5 touchdowns.

So between these three receivers, the stat-lines could look like this:
10/17/2010 (actual): 12 catches, 133 yards, 0 touchdowns
01/22/2012 (proj.): 18 catches, 238 yards, 2 touchdowns.

That would be quite a difference. 

3. Ray Rice's Declining Numbers

The Ravens live by the mantra the Jets tried to co-opt: ground and pound. They control the ball with a punishing ground game, and they have Ray Rice, one of the NFL's best running backs. Those who follow the Patriots remember Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Ravens 33-14 playoff win in Foxboro two years ago.

What doesn't get much attention, however, is that after that run, Rice hasn't done much against the Patriots. In fact, since that carry he has been mediocre at best. Here are his numbers:

Ray Rice versus the Patriots:
- first 12 carries: 186 yards (15.5 yards per carry), 1 touchdown
- last 49 carries: 164 yards (3.4 yards per carry), 1 touchdown

Clearly the Patriots found a way to slow down Rice. He is a cut-back runner with a so-so offensive line; which plays into the Patriots disciplined defensive approach. And overall, the Ravens averaged 2.9 yards a carry (85 carries for 250 yards) since that 83-yard run by Rice.

The Patriots coaches have slowed down Rice, and that should put the game in the quarterback's hands. Unfortunately...

4. Joe Flacco's Improvement

Joe Flacco's has his critics. But he took lessons from his early games against the Patriots and dramatically improved in the game of October 2010. Here are his numbers in three individual games against the Pats: 

Game 1: 27 of 47, 264 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 78.7 QB rating
Game 2: 4 of 10, 34 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 10.0 QB rating
Game 3: 27 of 35, 285 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 119.3 QB rating

Personally, I think Flacco was injured in the second game (the playoff contest in January 2010), so I give him a bit of a pass on that one. And the 119.3 rating in the last game was no fluke -- Flacco was poised and played very well.

The bad news for Flacco is that Derrick Mason, his leading receiver that day, no longer plays for the team. Also, the top three receivers he has aren't really the type that can hurt the Patriots (note: this doesn't include running back Rice -- only wide receivers).

Torrey Smith is a speed receiver, but he's a rookie who had just one catch for nine yards last week. Lee Evans played many years for the Buffalo Bills, and thus has played 13 games against the Patriots; but he has just 1 touchdown in all those games combined. And Anquan Boldin has 4 career catches for 63 yards against New England.

But even though Flacco doesn't have the best weapons in the league, don't expect him to wilt under the pressure this Sunday. The more he's seen of the Patriots defense, the better he's played -- which is not good news for New England fans.

5. Quick Hits

A) In the last four games against the Ravens, the Patriots are 3-1, but were outscored 98-91.

B) The Ravens last four playoff losses all came to the eventual conference champions (trivia question: can you name those teams... answer below).

C) In 16 years of existence, the Ravens franchise has as many losses in the AFC Championship Game as the Patriots franchise has in 52 years -- one loss each.

D) Bill Belichick was fired by the Cleveland Browns in 1996, and the franchise was moved to Baltimore and renamed the Ravens. Since then, Belichick and the Ravens have combined for 19 playoff appearances and 4 Super Bowl Championships. In that same time frame, the Browns made the playoffs once, and lost their only game.

You've probably heard people talking about how the Patriots defense finally came together and played well against Denver. And those same people probably said the Ravens offense looked horrible last weekend -- so they predict a 10- to 14-point blowout victory. I disagree.

If the game is a blowout, it will likely be in the Patriots favor. But the Ravens are very good defensively and usually don't beat themselves offensively. Having three receivers at full strength certainly tilts things toward New England. However, this feels like a 4- or 6-point victory, and it would not shock me if the Ravens pulled the upset.

There are only very good teams left in the playoffs; so every team is vulnerable to a bad day. The Patriots shouldn't lay an egg on Sunday -- the 2009 playoff loss is too fresh in their memories. They should control the ball with the tight ends, and if the Ravens add defensive backs, the Patriots shouldn't be shy about running against a pass-heavy defense.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


Trivia Answer: The Ravens lost to the 2006 Colts, 2008 Steelers, 2009 Colts, and 2010 Steelers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Patriots Dispatch Broncos 45-10

"Orange Crush" had a different meaning Saturday night; it's what happened to the Denver Broncos, not what they did to their opponent. The Patriots drubbed them, 45-10, and in winning earned a home game next week for the AFC Championship. They will play the Baltimore Ravens, a team that beat them in the playoffs two years ago, so they'll have their work cut out for them. Baltimore brings a great defense and a very good running game, running game to the contest, so next week won't be as easy as it was against the Broncos.

The Patriots put on a first-half offensive clinic. They scored 14 points in 5:15 on two drives to start the game and 14 more points in 1:34 to end the half. They added another touchdown in-between; and meanwhile, Denver's only scoring "drive" of the half was 25 yards after Brady's only interception. 35-7 at the half and that was your ballgame. The second half was just running out time and trying to stay healthy.

There are so many hosannas you can sing about the Patriots in a game that lopsided; but here are a few of the standouts:

The Offense

1. Tom Brady threw five touchdowns in the first half (and NFL playoff record) and six overall. His stats for the game: 26 of 34, 363 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 137.6 QB rating (no easy trick to get a rating that high when you have an interception in the game). He was in complete control from start to finish, and a big reason why the Patriots got a fast start -- unlike the past 14 weeks, when they started slowly.

2. Aaron Hernandez had 9 touches (5 rushes, 4 receptions) for 126 yards and a touchdown; quite the Swiss army knife performance, and vital in the running game that opened up long passes.

3. Rob Gronkowski still poses problems that no one seems to be able to solve. Everyone knows he's a main target near the end zone; but he somehow he got 3 touchdowns, including an otherworldly grab in the corner of the end zone. Oh... and he caught 10 passes for 145 yards -- another day at the office ::yawn!::

The Ravens will have to do a better job against Gronkowski. He now has 21 touchdowns this season, despite extra defenders and game plans designed to shut him down.

4. Deion Branch caught a 61-yard touchdown down the sideline and averaged 28.3 yards per reception. With defenses concentrating on the short game with Wes Welker (6 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown), Gronkowski, and Hernandez, the Patriots have to complete long passes to keep them honest.

5. Offensive linemen Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, and Nate Solder. Brady dropped back to pass 35 times, and he was hit only twice, sacked zero times, only had to scramble out of the pocket twice all night, and the Broncos produced just one tackle for a loss. That is amazing.

The Defense

1. Vince Wilfork (3 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits) and Kyle Love (3 tackles) clogged up the middle and forced Denver to bounce runs outside all day. Those plays didn't always go in the Patriots favor, but it was clear early on that there would be no running up the middle on Saturday.

2. Rob Ninkovich made up for a terrible first game against Denver; he shut down the edge this time and got 1.5 sacks and 2 QB hits of his own. He also forced a fumble; not a bad day at the office.

3. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were all over the field and did a fantastic job shutting down the Denver option-run. Multiple times, these guys threatened to tackle quarterback Tim Tebow, forcing him to pitch the ball, and then they got in position to stop the man he pitched it to. It was textbook, and is exactly what Denver will face if they don't diversify the offense for next year.

BTW, Spikes' stat line is impressive: 6 tackles, 1 sack (4 yards), 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defended, and 1 fumble recovery.

4. Kyle Arrington was their best defensive back on the day; played most of the snaps and had 10 tackles on defense, 1 on special teams, and a forced fumble.

Special Teams

1. Zotlan Mesko booted the ball twice and both ended up inside the 20 yard line with no return yards. Punters aren't usually football heroes, but when the Patriots need a big punt in a big spot, they have the man for the job.

The Coaching

1. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia killed it again. He's been with the Patriots for over 25 years, and with four of five starters back, he put together a great plan to keep the speed rushers away from Brady.

2. Defensive coordinator-in-waiting Matt Patricia executed a great game plan, making Tebow beat them with short passes and sustained drives -- two things he can't do yet.

The Bad

The running backs did not measure up to the success of the overall team. They ran the ball poorly (22 rushes for 77 yards, 3.5 yards per carry), and rookie back Stevan Ridley fumbled for the second straight game.

So where does that leave us? Patriots versus Ravens should be quite a game. No doubt the Pats will have revenge on their minds; Baltimore knocked them out of the playoffs two years ago, handing Belichick and Brady their first home playoff loss at Gillette Stadium. Watch for my update later in the week for a breakdown of factors going into the game.

Statistical Oddities of the Week: How strange was this game? Aaron Hernandez led the Patriots in rushing yards (61).  Denver lost 45-10 but led in time of possession (33:23 to 26:37).  And Tom Brady led all players in punting average (48.0).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe Tebow should be a two-way player -- they could have used him at defensive back."

Keep the faith,

- Scott


Friday, January 13, 2012

Patriots vs. Broncos Preview

Last year I wrote that two weeks between games felt like too long.  Not this year; I'm barely getting this preview out before the game.  Another day and I'd have to pre-date the post to make it a preview at all.

So it's Patriots vs. Broncos for the right to go to the AFC Championship game.  As is my practice, I'll look back at the most recent game between the two teams and determine if enough changed in the interim to alter the outcome.  Shouldn't be too hard this time; the Patriots won 41-23 in a game played less than a month ago.

That game went Denver's way early and the Patriots way after that.  The Broncos led 16-7 after 17 minutes, but the Patriots roared back, turning turnovers and defensive adjustments into a 34-7 rout the rest of the way.

The Broncos ran for 167 yards in the first quarter.  But after the Patriots adjusted, they had only 85 in the rest of the game.  The Pats also forced two turnovers (and got one gift on a muffed punt), and the defense gave quarterback Tim Tebow only short passes.  Tebow had had just two completions that traveled over 20 yards in the air, as compared to at least five in last week's playoff win.

Meanwhile, the Patriots offense started very slowly in December, but they cashed in all three turnovers.  They they went no-huddle and used some nice play design (and some blown coverages) to sustain long drives and score touchdowns.  The Broncos slowed down Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski; but that left Aaron Hernandez to gash them for 129 yards (and 1 touchdown) on 9 receptions.

The Patriots clearly weren't ready to stop all the dimensions that Tebow brings to the game, and it took them a quarter to figure out how.  And the Broncos clearly were ready to stop the Patriots main two receivers, but they couldn't stop the third (Hernandez).

So what has changed between 12/18/2011 and 1/14/2012?  Has enough changed to give Denver a chance of turning around the final score?  Here goes:

1.  The Venue

The last game took place in Denver, a notoriously loud stadium that sits one mile above sea level. Many teams have trouble winning there, including the Patriots, who have a terrible record against the Broncos, especially in Mile High.

The teams will contest this game in Foxboro, a notoriously quiet stadium with artificial turf (as opposed to grass at Mile High). The faster track and surer footing will give the Patriots passing game an advantage. But Broncos runners will have surer footing, too, and that could be to their advantage.

There is also a perceived advantage to athletes who train at altitude. However, that will likely be offset by the short week for Denver (they played on Sunday and play again on Saturday) and the long rest the Patriots had during the bye week.

Not much there either way to turn things around; in fact, with the difficulty running offense on the road, it's probably an advantage for the Patriots.

2.  Health

Patriots who will play Saturday who did not play in the first game: Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Sebastian Vollmer, and Deion Branch. You can't overstate Chung's importance to the secondary; they are so thin at safety. Spikes is overrated (IMO), but the team plays better against the run with him in there, so his return will help.

Branch probably won't make much difference unless the Broncos somehow shut down all three main receivers. But Vollmer's return allows them to use tackle Nate Solder as an extra lineman/tight end, and that should slow down the Denver outside pass rush.

On the other side, Broncos safety Brian Dawkins missed the first game, and he looks questionable for Saturday. But if he can play, he could help neutralize the Patriots tight ends -- he's a veteran with great toughness and coverage skills. Unfortunately, they might have lost Eric Decker, their leading receiver this year. Decker suffered a knee injury early in the second quarter last week, and is reportedly out of the game this Saturday.

Most of this is advantage New England, although a Dawkins return is a wild card. He helped stop them years ago in the Super Bowl against the Eagles, and if he can cause problems, the Denver secondary is good enough to convert that into turnovers.

3. Adjustments

This plays to New England's favor for sure. Once they made their adjustments in the prior game, the Broncos had no answers on offense or defense. So even if the Denver braintrust comes up with a good game plan, the Patriots adjust as well as any team in the NFL, and they should be able to make the in-game changes this week, too.

The Broncos don't have as much to adjust with. Their running game is good, but it probably won't win the game without great play from the quarterback. And the quarterback is limited, which gives the Patriots less to adjust to.
The Pats might face an initial onslaught, but if they survive the emotional Broncos, they will adjust better and turn the game in their favor.

4. Confidence

After the win last week, Denver has to be brimming with confidence. Unfortunately, they can't play the Steelers at home again, otherwise they'd probably win again. Pittsburgh is poor at adjustments, they were beaten up so they couldn't substitute to keep players fresh in the altitude, and their quarterback was injured so he couldn't extend plays or throw on the run.

Confidence is great, and Denver certainly shouldn't feel *bad* about themselves after last week. But the last game was a perfect storm for the Broncos and they still needed overtime to win.

5. Quick Hits:

A) Patriots are now 16-4 after a bye week under Bill Belichick, but 0-1 this year (trivia question: can you name the team they lost to... answer below).

B) The Patriots had four players this year with more catches and more yards than Denver's top receiver. Wes Welker (122 for 1,569), Rob Gronkowski (90 for 1,327), Aaron Hernandez (79 for 910), and Deion Branch (51 for 910) all out-performed Denver's Eric Decker (44 for 612).

C) The Patriots have never beaten the Broncos in the playoffs (0-2).

D) Tim Tebow really is making everyone forget Kyle Orton. Even the NFL's official web site omits Orton from Denver's passing stats. Don't believe me, here's proof (or you can check yourself at


It shouldn't be close. The Patriots won't let Tebow beat them deep, and he hasn't shown the ability to sustain drives with short passes and score points. The Broncos defense is beaten up some -- in addition to the Dawkins injury, pass rushers Von Miller (thumb) and Elvis Dumervil (ankle) are limited. Add to that the fact that Vollmer absolutely *schooled* Dumervil in their only regular season meeting, and it could be a tough day for the Denver defense.

Additionally, the Patriots defense is healthy again, and moving Devin McCourty to safety solidified play against the deep pass. It won't help Denver that Decker is likely to be out. And the 34-7 score over the last three quarters looks more like preview than past.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS. Trivia Answer: The Patriots lost 25-17 to the Steelers after their regular season bye in 2011.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Patriots 2011 Regular Season Awards

The 2011 season flew by, a whirlwind of comeback wins and just three losses (by 15 total points). The Patriots set several records, mostly on offense but the defense was suspect from the beginning.

Before the Patriots start the playoffs, here is a look back a the best performers, newcomers, and most improved players of the 2011 campaign. 

The Offense 

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker 

Brady actually dropped off a bit from 2010, and it might seem like the easy road to choose him as the offensive MVP again. But frankly, without him as the triggerman, no on else on offense would look as good. His 105.6 rating ranked a distant third this pass-happy year, but he led the league in first-down percentage and had yet another season of over 3-to-1 touchdown to interception margin. He also had two of the top five receivers in the league (Gronkowski and Welker).

Brady is so good, his offensive coordinators keep getting high-profile promotions and great jobs. No one here wishes current OC Bill O'Brien ill as the new head coach at Penn State. But you have to wonder if that will work out any better than it did for Josh McDaniels or Charlie Weis once they didn't have Brady under center.

Gronkowski simply had the best season of any tight end in history: the most catches ever (90), the most yards ever (1,327), and the most touchdowns ever (18). His rise to superstardom was one of the biggest stories in the NFL, and not only does he have great stats, he's one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
Welker picked things up again, another year removed from his knee injury. He continued his energizer bunny impersonation, always working to get open and willing to take a hit and keep coming back for more. He led the entire NFL in receiving (122 catches), tied for the lead in first downs (77), and was second in receiving yards (1,569). 

Most Improved Offensive Player: Rob Gronkowski
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez 

Gronkowski more than doubled his receptions (42 to 90), yards (546 to 1,327), and continued his climb to the upper eschelon of NFL receivers (let alone tight ends).

Welker's numbers improved in catches (86 to 122), yards 9848 to 1,569), touchdowns (7 to 9), and games started (11 to 15).

Hernandez sort of got lost in all the Gronkowski kudos, but he went from 45 to 79 catches, started 7 games last year and 12 this year, and contributed more in the running game. A day might come when one of the tight ends decides to leave the team to become "the man" at tight end on another team, but it would be a mistake. The combination of these two, Brady, and tight ends coach Brian Ferentz is magic. 

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Brian Waters
Honorable Mention: Stevan Ridley 

The Patriots added guard Waters at the end of camp, after he was released by the Kansas City Chiefs. Usually, offensive linemen need time to learn the protections and gel with their fellow linemen, but Waters came from a similar system in KC and with the Patriots injuries, he had to play from the first game. And the results showed how well he adjusted.

He was their second-best linemen (to Logan Mankins), pass protecting well and blocking superbly in the running game (including pulls and plays in the second level). And with all the injuries along the offensive line, Waters' durability was key. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, Waters has played in 157 of 160 games. Not sure why the Chiefs let him go, but... well, it was nice of them to help the Patriots like that.

Ridley showed promise in the pre-season, but despite his one early game against Oakland (10 carries for 97 yards), the bulk of his work came late in the year. All that said, he ended up with 441 yards and ran for 5.1 yards a carry, and most teams are probably more afraid of his big-play ability than the other Patriots running backs. 

The Defense 

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter
Honorable Mention: Patrick Chung 

Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis didn't work out, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor were injured early, and that left the defensive line to Wilfork and Carter.  Wilfork was the lynchpin inside. Besides his usual stellar play against the run, he had the first two interceptions of his career, notched 3.5 sacks, and recovered a fumble in the end zone for his first touchdown. He also allowed the team to get away with a revolving door on the defensive line (think you can pick Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick out of a police lineup?).

Carter accounted for 25% of the entire teams sacks, totaling 10 in all. (Trivia question: kudos to you if you can name the last player with double-digit sacks for the Patriots; answer below.) Carter also proved adept at holding the edge in the running game, and he came up with two fumble recoveries. Oh, and four of his sacks game against the Jets -- that was a little bonus that put him over the top.

Chung's value was apparent in the eight games he missed. There simply was no "second-best safety" -- the rest of the crew got beaten deep repeatedly and miscommunication made journeymen QBs look like All-Pros (remember Dan Orlovsky?). Chung's return to the lineup for the Buffalo game settled down the defense, and it bodes well for the playoffs that they kept pass plays in front of them in that game. 

Most Improved Defensive Player: Kyle Arrington
Honorable Mention: None 

In 2010, I wrote that any NFL wide receiver versus Arrington was a mismatch in the receiver's favor. What a difference a year makes. Arrington tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, and he was thrown at less and less often as teams tried to avoid him later in the year.

His aggressive style is better suited to man-coverage; but without another man-corner, he had to play zone more. But it didn't matter -- the results speak for themselves. He's a lot like Wes Welker: an undrafted free agent who works hard to make the absolute most of his abilities, and who won't quit trying no matter the situation. 

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Andre Carter
Honorable Mention: None 

Carter for all the reasons detailed above.

No one else because the rest of the free agent signings, draft picks, and trades didn't work out well enough. 

The Special Teams 

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: Zoltan Mesko, Niko Koutouvides 

Slater gets the nod because he led the team in special teams tackles for the second straight year. And as special teams captain, he really did set the tone for one of the better units in the NFL. He never worked out as a receiver (one catch this season), but he's a demon on coverage teams.

Mesko had a great year, finishing fourth in the NFL in net average and pinning 42% of his kicks inside the 20 yard line. The yards-per-return against him are slightly up from last year, but he improved in every other way: average (43.2 to 46.5), net average (38.4 to 41.5), kicks inside the 20 (19 to 24), fair catches induced (14 to 18), and fewer touchbacks (from 5 down to 3).

Koutouvides has the second-most tackles on special teams, despite being signed halfway through the season. 

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Zoltan Mesko
Honorable Mention: Tracy White 

Mesko for all the reasons detailed above. Also, he handled his field-goal holding duties flawlessly, and that operation was not perfect last year.

White was the perfect compliment to Slater, the two of them fed off each other all year, celebrating each other's accomplishments and then trying to outdo each other the next play. White ended up third in special teams tackles. 

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Danny Aiken
Honorable Mention: Niko Koutouvides 

Aiken is the fourth long snapper the Patriots have used in two years, and he appears to be a keeper. He only had one bad snap all year, and he pitched in with five special teams tackles. It's a shame he isn't versatile enough to fill in for the center; the Patriots used four players at that position in 2011.

Koutouvides was a nice addition, no matter how much he struggled at linebacker.

So there you have it; the coveted regular-season awards.  Maybe next year I'll do a 10th anniversary "All Your Patriots" team.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS.  Trivia Answer: Tully Banta-Cain has 10 sacks for the Patriots in 2009.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 5 Patriots Stories of 2011

It was a tumultuous 2011 in the NFL. The Detroit Lions in the playoffs for the first time this century, the Green Bay Packers drive for immortality derailed by a non-playoff team with an interim coach (Kansas City), the San Francisco 49ers improved by at least six wins while the Indianapolis Colts dropped by at least seven, and the once-mighty NFC East stumbled to the finish with no better than 9-7 taking the crown.

No surprise that the New England Patriots provided a beacon of consistency in a league gone mad. Despite finally losing a game to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots wrapped up another division title early. And with a come-from-behind win over the Miami Dolphins last weekend, they nailed down a first-round playoff bye and can lock up the #1 AFC seed with a victory over the Bills this weekend.

However, 2011 was not all sunshine and adulation in New England. Head Coach Bill Belichick’s personnel decisions were questioned like never before, the defense has given up more yards than any other team, and some commentators wondered if there were too many “Yes Men” on the coaching staff.

With both naughty and nice things in mind, here are the top Patriots stories of 2011.

Story #1: Jets Beat Patriots in Playoffs

The Patriots rolled into the 2010 post-season. A 14-2 record gave them the #1 AFC seed; they won their last eight games, and beat six consecutive playoff teams (including a 45-3 dismantling of the New York Jets). Quarterback Tom Brady was on an NFL record streak of 348 passes without an interception, and his receiving corps rounded into shape nicely after the departure of Randy Moss.

None of that mattered. The Jets picked off Brady early and played mistake-free football in a 28-21 win that bounced the Patriots out of the playoffs. The teams appeared to reverse roles. New England turned the ball over, blew a crucial fake punt, and refused to run for three quarters against a defense that dared them to run.

After the regular-season loss, Jets head coach Rex Ryan had told Belichick that he’d see him in the playoffs. The Patriots' head coach reportedly just stared at him, dumbfounded. And “dumb” is how Belichick coached when Ryan’s prediction came true and they met in January.

The sting of that loss informed multiple off-season changes and decisions about how to improve the team. In fact, it led directly to the second Patriots second-biggest story of 2011...

Story #2: Robert Kraft Helps End Lockout

After seeing another year of Brady’s career end without a championship, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was clearly determined to have a complete season and a shot at another Super Bowl. And with labor negotiations breaking down, we now know that Kraft stepped in to restart them and see them through to a successful end. Both DeMaurice Smith (head of the Players Association) and Jeff Saturday (player representative of the rival Indianapolis Colts) said that without Kraft the season would have been lost.

The players respect Kraft as one of the few who view the owner-player relationship as a partnership. He built his franchise around high-profile stars and serviceable role-players groomed from within the organization, and Kraft has always worked with players on their personal charitable endeavors. And despite recent claims that he holds too firm a line on salaries, the players know that at least ten times Kraft paid players the top salary for their positions.*

Even though Kraft deflected praise after the the agreement was ratified, it’s clear the 2011 season would have been shortened or canceled outright without his work behind the scenes. And the fact that he did it all while shuttling back-and-forth from a wife who was dying makes it all the more impressive.

3. Big-name Busts, Little-known Gems

Once the lockout ended, the football world was abuzz over the Patriots' big-name acquisitions. They traded for defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and receiver Chad Ochocinco, the former a reclamation project and the latter a player long coveted by Belichick. Unfortunately, the Patriots' head man couldn’t work his magic with either player.

Haynesworth played better in the pre-season than he did once the real games started. He missed several weeks with a lingering back injury, and though he showed flashes of his pocket-crushing past, he finished with a disappointing three tackles and was cut after dogging it in the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants. Reportedly he argued with defensive coaches and was sent to the showers early.

Ochocinco never learned the offensive terminology well enough to be a factor. He continues to miss routes and barely gets any playing time. He also caused at least one Brady interception and has had words with the Patriots quarterback in most every game. All reports are that Ochocinco works extremely hard, staying after practice every day to learn more. But aside from a few first down curls or longer fly routes, he can’t master the intricacies of the Patriots' quick-hit offense.

On the other side of the ledger, the Patriots got great value from mid-tier trades and signings. Defensive end Andre Carter was a high-motor player, who not only got to the passer (10 sacks) but held the edge well against the run and reportedly played almost 80% of the defensive snaps. (Unfortunately, he is injured and out for the playoffs.)

And offensive lineman Brian Waters was a late addition to the roster. He stepped right in on opening day, no doubt helped by working in a similar system for the Kansas City Chiefs, and he has been the team’s second-best lineman all year. Waters is great at run blocking, and learned the protection schemes well enough to help cover for the four centers the Patriots have used this year. And no surprise: Waters is on his way to his sixth Pro Bowl after an outstanding season.

Story #4: Rob Gronkowski Achieves Superstardom

Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s historic 2011 season can’t be overplayed. He showed flashes of brilliance last year, but this season he tore up NFL defenses in ways no tight end ever has.

Gronkowski’s size and strength make him a match-up nightmare and allow him to get separation before catch and shed tacklers after. He is far and away Brady’s favorite target in the red zone, as evidenced by his 15 touchdown catches, an NFL record for tight ends. And ranks Gronkowski as the best run-blocking tight end in the game. To borrow a phrase, he is the total package.

In addition to the touchdown record, Gronkowski’s 1,219 yards rank seventh in the NFL -- and he’s just 72 yards short of setting the record for tight ends. Also, his 82 receptions are fifth in the league this year -- all the more impressive given that he shares the field with NFL leader Wes Welker (116 catches).

Gronkowski possesses acute football instincts, learning the offense right away (obviously not easy -- just ask Ochocino). And he and Aaron Hernandez (in concert with new tight ends coach Brian Ferentz) turned this once lackluster position into one of immense strength. Gronkowski is headed for his first Pro Bowl this year, and if he stays healthy, it will be an annual pilgrimage he will make for years to come.

Story #5: Belichick Under Fire

The fact that about 25 of the 32 teams would drop their head coach in a minute to hire Belichick did not insulate him from criticism this year. In fact, he survived more venom this year than any since Spygate, owing to the yearlong struggle in pass defense and some of the cuts made to start the year. Once an untouchable icon in New England, some rust started to show on his legacy.

Media pundits assailed Belichick for drafting poorly and for too many free agent misses. They faulted him for sticking with a “value signing” system in the face of supposed evidence that it hasn’t worked in years. And as evidence of poor drafting they cited the pre-season release of safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, corner Jonathan Wilhite, and receiver Brandon Tate.

Maybe more shocking were rumblings that the coaching staff had too many Belichick clones and that the man himself had begun to lose his touch on defense. Exhibit A was the team’s 32nd ranking in passing and overall defense, and Exhibit B was their poor offensive performances to start games (thought to show a lack of innovative preparation). It was theorized that his staff didn’t have the football knowledge or the guts to say “No” to the man who taught them everything they knew about the game.

The truth, of course, is more complex than those oversimplifications. Every upper-echelon team cuts the majority of their draft picks; there isn’t enough room on a talented roster for every young talent.. And at least the Patriots don’t overpay free agents, so if they don’t work out they can cut them without impacting the salary cap.

As for the defense, it is true the team ranks 32nd in yards allowed (note: the Packers rank 31st) and 24th in opponent passer rating (88.1). But the team is 14th in scoring defense (21.4 points per game), outperforming the Bears, Broncos, Jets and the Lions. Also, the Patriots are 3rd in turnover differential (+14), and they excel at stopping teams in the red zone.

But no matter where you fall on the pro- or anti-Belichick scale, the once unquestioned head coach caught a lot more heat this season than he has in years.

Underplayed Story: Continued Dominance

One underplayed story of 2011 is the Patriots somehow remaining dominant in the AFC. The Colts lost their quarterback and the season fell apart. The Baltimore Ravens looked unbeatable one week and unfathomable the next. The Houston Texans won their division but enter the playoffs with uncertainty at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Patriots handily but look like long shots to win their own division. And the Jets, who knocked New England out of last year’s playoffs, are even longer shots to make the post-season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots chugged along -- winning the AFC East for the ninth time in eleven years. They can secure the #1 seed with a win over Buffalo this weekend, and since  Belichick came to town, only once has any AFC East team won more games than the Patriots.

The team no longer plays the kind of defense it did in 2003-2004. But despite all the personnel miscues, the drain of coaching talent, and the pressure of being the team everyone wants to beat, the Patriots are in position to make another deep run in the playoffs. Their record speaks for itself, and it is especially underplayed when a 12-4 or 13-3 season and a first-round playoff bye registers barely 5% of the local sports coverage.


In a nutshell, those are the five biggest (and the one underplayed) New England Patriots stories of 2011. Stay glued to your television this January, you are bound to see the first of the “Top 5” for 2012 one weekend coming up. It might even happen in February, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A safe and happy New Year to you all, and thank you for stopping by.

- Scott

* For those of you scoring at home, here is the list of players Kraft signed to the richest deals (at the time) for their positions: Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Tom Brady (twice), Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Patriots Smoke Bills 49-21

The Patriots overcame an early 21-point deficit and ran away with a 49-21 win over Buffalo. The victory earns the Pats the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, assuring them of home field in any playoff games except the Super Bowl. They'd already earned a first-round bye -- their next game is January 14 at 8:00 pm, so set yourself a reminder.

For the second consecutive time, the visitor in a Pats-Bills game jetted out to a three-touchdown advantage, only to ride poor play and turnovers to an eventual loss. The Patriots defense looked horrible in the first quarter. They put no pressure on the quarterback, weren't close to any receivers, and gave up big yards on the ground. But the game came down to adjustments -- the Patriots made 'em and the Bills didn't.

The Bills benching of wideout Stevie Johnson for a foolish "excessive celebration" penalty was a big game-changer. He left after two straight scoring drives, and the Bills were outscored 49-7 the rest of the way. The Patriots biggest defensive adjustment was letting the Bills run more and going into four- and five-deep shells to keep plays in front of them. The strange alignment sometimes left them with no one in the linebacker position; but it worked.

As with all recent games, it started ugly. The Bills led 21-0 after 15:00, which means the Patriots have been outscored 51-7 in the first quarters of their last three games. But as usual, they settled down, made adjustments, and Tom Brady cleaned up his miscues in a comeback win. But it's probably not a good idea to try this in the playoffs -- those teams might not turn the ball over and go into offensive shells so the Patriots can come back and win. Just saying. 

Brady sported a 94.1 QB rating at the half, but it ballooned to 113.8 by game's end. He's been off early in recent games of late, and unfortunately his errors lingered into the third quarter this week. He finished with three touchdowns and an interception, giving him 39 on the year (against only 12 INTs). But the first two drives of the second half had passes that were off-target and some mis-communication and/or bad footing by his receivers.

Perhaps Brady's shoulder bothered him. But if that wasn't better by the third quarter it probably wouldn't have allowed him to finish the game with three touchdown drives. It's a puzzle -- one that the Patriots have two weeks to figure out before it can come back to bite them.

The season-long search for a third receiver to compliment Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski is officially over. Tight end Aaron Hernandez had 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown, and combined with Gronkowski (8 for 108, 2 TDs), and Welker (6 for 51), they accounted for 87.5% of the catches. The trio was also targeted on 88.9% of the Patriots pass attempts. Hernandez broke open the offense, and once the Bills started worrying about him, it opened things up for Welker and Gronkowski. Two receivers can be defended; three makes the Patriots much more dangerous in the post-season.

And speaking of receivers, how about running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis topping Welker in the yardage category. Green-Ellis had 1 catch, a screen pass that he ran for 53 yards. He didn't do as much in the running game (7 carries for 22 yards), but he got two touchdowns and was old reliable again. The new guy, Stevan Ridley (15 for 81 yards) was more trick-or-treat this week, getting stopped for no gain a few times, but showing great burst others. Oh, and he had his first NFL fumble -- welcome to the big leagues, rookie -- no do another lap!

The offensive line struggled again; obviously injuries are taking their toll. Buffalo isn't known for a great pass rush, but they sacked Brady four times and hit him three others. And without Logan Makins they've lost the ability to line up in a running formation and gain even a yard. The Pats will have to count on deception until they get Mankins back; although now that they have Matt Light back, at least they have players at their natural positions.

The linebackers sucked out loud in this game. Jerod Mayo got beaten repeatedly one-on-one by the running back, and the one time he knocked a pass away it was mostly blind luck. Rob Ninkovich reportedly played, but not a single play stands out enough to remember it. And we all know Dane Fletcher is limited physically, but this week he got beaten by scheme and being out of position. A week to forget for this group.

The defensive line got pushed around a lot and got little pressure early in the game. Of course it got a lot easier when the Bills had to pass the ball every down, and they ended the day with 2 sacks (by Mark Anderson and Brandon Deaderick) and 3 QB hits. However, they allowed Bills quarterback Ryan FitzPatrick to break the pocket and extend plays. It didn't hurt them today, but the playoffs will have lots of passers who can end your season on plays like that.

And in the secondary... well, it'll take some explaining.

First off, Patrick Chung returned to safety, and he was joined by James Ihedgibo and (cornerback) Devin McCourty. So starting cornerback Kyle Arrington worked with Antwaun Moulden, Sterling Moore, and (wide receiver) Julian Edelman.

Why all the shifting around, you ask? Here is my best guess.

The coaches know their corners are bad no matter what they do. But they realized they were getting killed by bad safety play -- too many big plays up the sidelines. So they put a healed Chung at safety with their best athlete, McCourty. McCourty's looked better in recent weeks, but he's been very bad at corner, so he's probably better suited to safety at the moment. And Edelman played the slot receiver because he has the quickness and toughness to cover those guys.

The strange thing is, it worked pretty well. The Pats gave up a long pass interference penalty, and there was a 29-yard sideline route in the second quarter. But other than that, there were a lot fewer long passes and hardly any Bills receivers being chased by both a short-coverage corner and an out-of-position safety.

No one knows for sure if the Patriots will continue this in the playoffs, but it's an option. For weeks opponents have gashed them with big plays, and the safeties got beaten over and over. So maybe they found a better solution, one that at least makes other teams work for their yards and points. Or maybe it's something they can try if things don't go well to start a game in the playoffs.

You're probably wondering how well the shifting around worked. Well, Moore had two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), Moulden had one, McCourty had one, and Kyle Arrington had one that was called back on a penalty. As a group, they had four passes defended, too. They gave up the pass interference call and a few illegal contact penalties, but nothing egregious. So overall, it worked pretty well; once they got the kinks worked out in the second quarter.

The coaches get props for the new defensive scheme and for recognizing and using Stevan Ridley more in this game. But they get points off for another poor offensive game plan to start the game. They've been shut out in the first quarter two weeks in a row, and five times this year. (Trivia question: can you name all five opponents... answer below.) 

So where does that leave us? Resting for a week and nervously waiting for January 14 to get here. Brady might need some rest, and reports are that Mankins might need time to heal, too. It also gives them two weeks to change what they do to start the game, and with luck, to score more points early in the playoff game. 

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Kyle Arrington hasn't intercepted a pass since November 21, and yet he tied for the NFL lead in that category with seven on the season. 

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The only scary team in the AFC is Baltimore, and if we're playing them it's in the AFC Championship Game. I'm alright with that."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-3!
(Just like I told you way back in September:

PPS. Trivia Answer:

These Steelers, Giants, Chiefs, Dolphins, and Bills shut out the Patriots in the first quarter of games this season.