Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Patriots Lose Heart-breaker to Panthers, 24-20

The Patriots hung tough, but it wasn't enough, as the Panthers came out on top 24-20.  The loss puts the Patriots at 7-3, but with the Jets loss yesterday, they are still two games up in the division. Up next are the offensive juggnernaut Broncos, coming to Foxboro for yet another showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Let's start at the end, with the controversial final play of the game. Patriots at the Carolina 18 yard-line, needing a touchdown to win, and Brady threw into the end zone toward Rob Gronkowski, who was clearly interfered with. The flag came flying, and it looked like the Patriots will get another shot from the 1 yard-line. But wait; the referees conferred and decided to pick up the flag, essentially ending the game with a Carolina win.

Then a disembodied voice came on the television, it was former official Gerry Austin saying that the contact was in the back of the end zone and the pass was intercepted near the front, so it wasn't interference. However, the replays clearly showed that Gronkowski was illegally contacted five-yards into the end zone, and the interception happened -- you guessed it -- five yards into the end zone. The referees should have stuck with their original call and given the Patriots one more play for the win.

But that isn't why they lost.

On the previous drive, the Patriots led 20-17, but they were down to backup-backup-backup cornerbacks. Kyle Arrington was covering the fastest receiver on the field, Ted Ginn, Jr. on the outside. This was a mismatch given that Arrington is better against smaller, inside receivers, but Ginn had mostly been shut out and it appeared that rookie safety Duron Harmon was shading some help to Arrington's side.

However, at the snap, Harmon (along with a linebacker) covered the tight end over the middle, which left Arrington all alone. If you watched, you know that Ginn took a quick hitch, juked past Arrington, and scored a touchdown for the lead, instead of the Panthers having to kick a game-tying field goal. It was his only catch of the day.

But that isn't why they lost, either.

On the drive prior to that, the Pats had a third-and-one at the Carolina eight yard-line. The Patriots had averaged 4.3 yards a rush, but they went play-action to fool the Panthers. Unfortunately they were ready for it, and they covered the short-left route, leaving Brady to throw it out of the end zone. The Patriots kicked a field goal, and left 6:36 on the clock, leading to the Panthers winning drive.

If the Patriots picked up that first down, they would run another two minutes off the clock, and maybe get a seven-point lead instead of a three-point lead. They would also put pressure on Carolina to score a touchdown to tie (or win with a two-point conversion), and with two fewer minutes on the clock. But the play-call was wrong for the defense in place; and they should have called a time out or audibled into a more favorable play.

But even that isn't why the lost. Here is why they lost:

  1. Two stupid personal-foul penalties (Aqib Talib and Logan Mankins)
  2. A Stevan Ridley fumble in the red zone (where have I read that before?)
  3. No containment on the Panthers QB (who torched them for important first downs)
  4. Yet another lack-luster first half after a bye week (averaging 4.6 points per first quarter after a bye under Bill Belichick*)
  5. No forced turnovers

That is why they lost the game.

(Note: even with yesterday's minus-2 turnover ratio, the Patriots are second in the AFC with +7 on the year. Can you name the #1 team in the AFC in this category? Answer below.)

As for the ups and downs of the game, there are plenty. The Patriots ran the ball well, but running back LeGarrette Blount proved more productive (10 carries for 49 yards) and trustworthy (0 fumbles) than starter Ridley (10 carries for 48 yards, and 1 critical fumble). Ridley ran hard, especially after he got back into the game; but if he doesn't learn to protect the ball he'll be on a train out of town before he realizes it.

Quarterback Brady was sharper than sharp: 29 of 40 (73%), 296 yards, 2 sacks for 13 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 desperation interception, and a 91.2 QB rating. He was also well in command; changing plays to take advantage of defensive alignments, and shredding the defense on two consecutive drives to start the second half (9 for 9, 105 yards, 1 touchdown).

You'd think with decent running stats and a great performance by the quarterback, the offensive line would get some praise. Well, they'll get some, but they have to play smarter. Mankins' penalty was idiotic and cost the Patriots a chance at points. Marcus Cannon tripped a guy after he got beaten, Ryan Wendell missed assignments that allowed direct pressure on Brady, and Nate Solder gave an outside rusher a free shot at Brady because he was trying to block an inside blitz that never materialized. So a decent day, but still too many mental mistakes for this group.

As for the receivers, they mostly did a very good job. Even though he's a running back, Shane Vereen did a lot more damage in the passing game (8 catches for 65 yards) than the running game (1 rush for 7 yards). And in fact, he, Danny Amendola (6 for 75), and Gronkowski (5 for 59, 1 touchdown) had some crucial third-down conversions to keep the chains moving. The Pats converted 50% of their third-downs, which is good at home against a Panthers defense only giving up 35%. Also, it was nice to see Kenbrell Thompkins back on the field -- just 2 catches, but for 60 big yards.

The defensive line was the trick-or-treat unit of the day. They came up with 3 sacks, but also let Newton loose for 62 yards and three absolute *killer* first down conversions. Rob Ninkovich led the team with 9 tackles, and had 2 of those sacks, too (he also did a great job holding the edge and pushing the pocket).

The team moved Chandler Jones all over the field, some on the left, some on the right, and some plays at linebacker in pass coverage. He ended up with 5 tackles, 1 sack, and a QB hit. However, tight end Richie Brockel ate Jones' *lunch* on the pass rush, and Jones let Newton get outside of containment on his biggest third-down conversion of the day. It is interesting to watch how the team uses Jones; he's the first player since Tedy Bruschi or Willie McGinest to rush the passer, play inside against the run, blitz from the second level, and drop into pass coverage as a linebacker.

And speaking of linebackers, the loss of Jerod Mayo is really starting to show. Brandon Spikes (7 tackles) still guesses correctly often enough, but he came up short on a few plays that allowed the Panthers to keep the ball. And Dont'a Hightower (4 tackles) was too tentative or a step slow with Newton and the backs. All you need to know about the teams' linebackers is that not one other made the defensive stat sheet (Ninkovich plays defensive end mostly) -- it was all Spikes and Hightower -- and that isn't good enough.

The secondary fought valiantly, but in the end, the injuries were too much to overcome. Aqib Talib, for all his swagger, should have intercepted a first-quarter pass, though he had tight coverage most of the time (and 5 tackles and 2 passes defended). Unfortunately, he went down in the second half, so it was Kyle Arrington -- although he did a nice job in run support and was decent aside from the blown play on Ginn (he had 2 tackles, 1 for a loss, and 1 pass defended). The safeties played well, until they had to make up for having subpar corners, and that is when all hell broke loose.

On special teams, Tavon Wilson had a great day, with two big tackles on return-man Ginn. He and Nate Ebner are competing to dethrone Matthew Slater as best coverage man this year. Also, punter Ryan Allen did a nice job on one bad snap, and regrouped quickly on his own miscue to get it down for Stephen Gostkowski's last field goal (to take the lead). There wasn't much punting, so not much else to judge him on. And Gostkowski's kickoffs had great hang time, which helped keep Ginn's return ability in check.

The coaching staff needs to figure out why their offense stinks in the first quarter after every bye week. Their self-scouting has failed them here. And I wrote it last entry; Josh McDaniels needs to be better aware of game-situations -- they went for a pass on third-and-one, but he needed to have a decent run to audible to at that point in the game. Also, the defensive coaches probably stressed all week to keep Newton in the pocket, but the guys on the field did not execute that at all.

One last note, about the injuries. I wrote it to start the season and again in my last update: there is no depth on the defensive line or secondary. If Talib and Dennard stay on the shelf, the Patriots will be fortunate to win the division, but any first-round bye will be out of the question. And on the D-line, maybe they'll figure out how to integrate Andre Carter, but for the time being, it's two rookies and a lot of finger-crossing.

So where does that leave us? 7-3 dropped the Patriots into a three-way battle for the second playoff bye, with Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Both of those teams hold tie-breakers over the Patriots; so unless they stumble, the Pats are probably looking at a division crown and a first-round playoff game. But before that, they have a date with Peyton Manning again, next Sunday -- and if the Pats secondary isn't healthy, it could be a loooong night.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots failed to record a turnover for the first time in 36 games, which ended the longest current streak in the NFL.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It would be nice to have a defensive line that can rush the passer without turning him into Barry Sanders when he takes off?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  7-3!

PPS. Trivia answer: The Kansas City Chiefs have a +15 turnover ratio this season.

*Pats first-quarter scoring after a bye: 0, 10, 0, 0, 3, 7, 0, 10, 0, 0, 0, 14, 7, 0, 7, 7, 7, 3, 0, 14, 0, 14, 7, 0 (that is a lot of zeros, folks)

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