Monday, December 3, 2012

Patriots Win 23-16, Clinch Division Crown

The Patriots stayed pretty conservative and outlasted the desperate Dolphins for a 23-16 victory.  The win clinched their ninth division title in ten years and guaranteed their 12th consecutive winning season.  The win also tied them with the Baltimore Ravens, who lost to Pittsburgh and are now tied with the Patriots and Broncos at 9-3.  When considering a playoff bye, the Patriots hold the tiebreaker over Denver, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots, and the Broncos and Ravens play in a few weeks.  So rather than write 2,000 words about the possibilities, better to wait until after that game to figure it out.

This win didn't come as easily as might have been expected, but a road division win is always tough.  And the Pats have traditionally had more trouble winning in Miami than in New York against Buffalo or the Jets.  The Patriots have a lot more firepower than Miami, but they mostly held it in reserve, choosing to go with safe passes and throw-aways rather than risk big plays down the field.  Given the lack of Dolphins deep-threats, the strategy seemed sound, and it worked pretty well.

Miami played tight to the line to stop the run and disrupt the timing of the passing game, and it had the desired effect.  Tom Brady was sacked 4 times, posted his lowest passer rating of the year (74.8) and his lowest yards per attempt this season (5.95), and threw his first interception in six games.  In his defense, it seemed the game plan was to stay conservative.  All eight pass plays of 11-yards or more were short passes that went for more yard after the catch.  And in fact, Brady's INT came on one of his few long pass attempts, up the sideline to a blanketed Aaron Hernandez.

Among receivers, Hernandez came up big in this game, 8 catches for 97 yards and some key yards-after-catch.  He and Wes Welker (12 for 103 and 1 touchdown) were the receiving stars, targeted 31 times between them and accounting for 10 of 14 passing first downs.  Welker tied the NFL record with his 17th game with 10 catches or more (trivia question: who shares that record with Welker; answer below).  The rest of the receivers were nondescript, with Julian Edelman leaving with a foot injury and Brandon Lloyd completely silent until the very end of the game.  And you know the receiving corps is getting thin when Matthew Slater comes off the bench to fill in.

The running game didn't help much, at least early in the game.  The Pats couldn't run outside and the O-line really misses the blocking ability of Rob Gronkowski (out with a broken arm).  The Patriots netted just 10 yards rushing at the half.  They did get it together for a game-sealing 16-play drive that consumed 7:18 of clock time and all three Dolphins timeouts.  They succeeded by abandoning the idea of running wide and simply pounding it straight ahead with a combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead.  After just 46 yards through three quarters, they came up with 62 in the final stanza and were blowing the Dolphins off the line.

The offensive line misses Logan Mankins' toughness and ability and (as mentioned) Gronkowski's blocking.  Donald Thomas receives a lot of praise, but frankly I don't see why.  He gives up too much pressure in the passing game, and the team has a lot more success running to the other side.  Not to denigrate Thomas; he's a fill-in for a reason.  But the offensive line had an up-and-down game, giving up too much pressure and providing no running game until the end.  Oh, and some of that was on the offensive play-calling -- more on that later.

On the defensive line, Trevor Scott improved on suspended Jermaine Cunningham's improvement from last year.  Scott got two sacks, one QB pressure, and forced a fumble.  Rob Ninkovich is coming back to reality from his stellar first half, and Vince Wilfork continues to drive hard to the end of the season, making plays that don't always show up on the stat sheet but that are very effective at stopping drives.  The rest of the line played only okay, losing outside contain several times and giving up some big runs -- but overall, they mostly contained the quarterback, which was probably their job for the day.

The linebackers played very well, with Brandon Spikes starring against both the run and pass.  And Jerod Mayo got six tackles and a huge sack that forced the Dolphins to take a field goal.  It wasn't perfect, with a few long runs squeezing through, but the team held Miami to 3.7 yards a carry and receivers made big plays mostly on long passes that were the secondary's responsibility.  Miami might have lacked the underneath play-makers to attack the linebackers vulnerability against the pass, but even so, the middle-zones were controlled much better this week.

The secondary was trick-or-treat.  Aqib Talib was close on several plays but not quite close enough.  And the safeties took a step back in covering the deep ball, arriving late on several outside passes and getting beaten on two plays where the Dolphins QB simply missed the receivers.  If those plays had been completed, the game could have gone against the Patriots.  Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard compete like demons out there, but there's no hiding the reasons they were an undrafted free agent and a seventh-round pick, respectively.  The team needs Patrick Chung back and more playing time for Steven Gregory to get back into the swing of things.  That would allow them to move Devin McCourty back to corner, and he'd be an improvement over anyone not named Talib.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another make-able field goal, and no blaming the snap or hold this time (which were both perfect).  He clearly has some confidence problems, and he needs to straighten that out before the playoffs.  Post-season games are usually close, and missed field goals can cost you a game.  So you can survive them now, but in the playoffs, it can cost you your season..  On the plus side, Edelman had two nifty punt returns before leaving with his injury.

The offensive play-calling was suspect in the first half.  Too many outside running plays and not enough no-huddle.  Although the fake end-around/screen pass to Vereen was such a beautifully designed play that you could give coordinator Josh McDaniels a pass on the bad running calls.  And one strange thing was that most everything worked better out of the spread offense, including inside handoffs.  Lined up in the I-formation or in the standard pro set, the Pats had a lot more trouble moving the ball.

On defense, the most curious coaching decision of the day was to run stunts against a mobile quarterback.  On multiple occasions, this left 350+ pound Kyle Love chasing the nimble Ryan Tannehill, a race that Love had no chance to win.  The better plan against mobile quarterbacks is probably to keep the fastest guys (Rob Ninkovich and Justin Francis/Chandler Jones) outside and let the big guys push up the middle.  Or at least put Scott and Ninkovich on one side and let them stunt -- neither of them is the behemoth that Love (or Wilfork or Brandon Deaderick) is.

So where does this leave us?  Seven weeks ago, the entire AFC East was tied at 3-3.  Since then, the Patriots are 6-0 and every other team is 2-4.  The Pats have an extra day to prepare for their next game, and they'll need it for the Monday night tilt with the AFC-leading 11-1 Houston Texans.  The division championship is to be savored, but the Patriots have to refocus on Houston quickly if they entertain any ideas about a first-round playoff bye.

Statistical Oddity of the Week:  The Patriots have a chance to sweep the division this season, having gone 5-0 so far with one game remaining against the Dolphins.  The only other time Tom Brady achieved this was 2007, the year the Pats went 16-0 in the regular season.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Yesterday marked Brady's first December victory in Miami.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "With a solid defense, imagine how much better the Dolphins could have been if they chose Matt Ryan instead of an offensive lineman with the first pick way back when.  Parcells picking the groceries..."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  9-3!

PPS.  Welker tied none other than Jerry Rice with 17 games of 10+ catches.

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