Monday, January 20, 2014

Broncos Take Out Patriots, 26-16

The Broncos whupped up on the Patriots yesterday, dominating the lines of scrimmage en route to a 26-16 win that put Denver in the Super Bowl and sent the New England back to the drawing board. The game wasn't as close as the final score indicated, even though a missed two-point conversion could have made it a one-score game. The loss ended the Patriots season, and there will be much soul-searching after another poor offensive performance in the playoffs.

Denver got out to a 13-3 halftime lead, and the Patriots fought them to a draw in the second half (13-13). And they did a decent job making the Broncos settle for field goals (4) instead of touchdowns (2). So the defense did what it could; but by the second half it was too late to play catch-up.

I've heard people say the Patriots didn't commit enough to the run. And I completely disagree with that assessment -- in fact, they should have run the ball less! They ran only 33% of their first half snaps, but that number should have been even lower. In 2006 they played a Vikings team that was stout against the run, and they ran only 15% of their first half plays. That is the kind of run/pass ratio they should have had in the game yesterday.

Their first half runs went for 0, 1, 5, 0, 3, 2, 0, and 5 yards (last play of the half against a prevent defense). In the second half, they threw 75% of the time, which is closer to where they should have been all game long. But even me, a lowly blogger, even I knew they'd never run effectively against Denver, at least not out of standard running formations. And it was frustrating to see them bang their heads against that wall over and over.

The other problem was, when they threw, quarterback Tom Brady was not sharp. In the first half alone he missed two long throws to wide open receivers (Edelman and Collie). And at least two other times he went with long passes instead of taking sure first downs to keep the drive alive. His worst choice was a long pass to Matthew Slater, who has one catch in his NFL career, instead of taking the first down with a check-down over the middle.

Brady ended the day 24 of 38 (63%), 277 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, and a 93.9 QB rating -- numbers that look decent. But it mattered not, because he left points on the field with those miscues in the first half. And after Denver scored a touchdown to start the second half, it was all over but the shouting at 20-3 -- when it should have been 20-9, 20-13, or even 20-17.

The receivers were okay, Slater aside. Julian Edelman ended up with 10 catches for 89 yards and the lone touchdown. Austin Collie had only 4 catches (57 yards), but he converted several important first downs late, and was open down the sideline near the end of the first half, but Brady missed him. And tight end Michael Hoomanawanui had a very nice case for a first down, though he ended up with just 2 catches for 33 yards.

The running backs are probably best not spoken of. Shane Vereen had more catches (5) than rushing attempts (4), though he averaged 8.5 yards a carry. Not to beat a dead horse, but his average was so high because he ran out of spread formations, which is the only formation they should have run from. Oh... and Vereen and Stevan Ridley did a nice job in pass protection.

The offensive line was too inconsistent. Nothing in the running game, and they gave up two sacks for 21 yards, 3 QB hits, and 3 tackles for a loss. Also, the second sack was a blown play by Logan Mankins on fourth down, and there was too much pressure coming up the middle all game long.

On the other side of the ball, the secondary apparently can't sustain an injury to Aqib Talib without melting down. For the second straight year, he got injured in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, and the other team picked the secondary apart in his absence.

Dennard switched to Talib's "cover Damarius Thomas" role, and he got beaten and beaten and beaten. Kyle Arrington missed an easy interception, and rookie Logan Ryan looked a bit lost in the big moment. And even though safety Devin McCourty led the team in tackles (9), he was late in coverage too often.

The linebackers actually played a decent game. Jamie Collins (7 tackles, 1 pass defended) and Dont'a Hightower (8 tackles) were both hot-and-cold, but each had short bursts where they dominated play. It showed that the team has a lot to build on there, especially if Jerod Mayo comes back strong from his injury. Not that any of that helped yesterday.

The defensive line just stunk the joint out. Zero sacks, zero QB hits, and Manning scanning the field all day, just slicing and dicing with pinpoint passes. Chandler Jones no where to be found, Rob Ninkovich was double-teamed and ineffective, and the inside men unable to get any pressure up the middle. A really, really bad game by all involved (except maybe for Sealver Siliga -- 5 tackles, one for a loss).

Special teams were unremakable. Aside from a Patriots pooch-kickoff, there were no kickoff returns in the game, with kickers putting the ball through the end zone every time in the thin air. Also, no punt returns. And the field goal units were perfect on both sides. So that was a wash.

The Patriots coaching staff did a decent job with the defensive plan, but a very bad job with the offense. On defense, the plan with Manning has to be to stop him when you can and make him take field goals as often as he gets touchdowns. Yesterday they made him take twice as many field goals (4 field goals to 2 touchdowns). So even with the injury problems, the defense did well enough to keep the game winnable.

However, on offense their plan coming into the game was flawed. No one has run on Denver lately, and the Patriots recent running success came in bad weather against teams not that great at stopping the run. And once the game started, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took much too long to adjust and start throwing.

So where does that leave us? Rooting for the hated Peyton Manning or the oft-derided Pete Carroll in the Super Bowl. I won't be rooting for anyone in specific; just for a good game so the entire day isn't wasted. Whatever you decide to do, hope your SB Sunday is enjoyable... after all, you've got two weeks to recover from this game before then.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady's numbers were decent, but Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio got his first victory over a Brady-led team.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The offense depends completely on Gronkowski, and the defense depends completely on Talib. That has to change next season."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-5 & 1-1!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Playoff Preview: Patriots vs. Broncos

So the Broncos held up their end of the bargain, knocking off the Chargers Sunday, to set up a showdown in Denver for the AFC Championship. Stop me of you've read this before; it's Manning/Brady in the playoffs, the third time with the Super Bowl on the line. They split the first two such meetings, so this one is for bragging rights.

The two teams went head-to-head most recently on November 24 of last year, with the Patriots overcoming a 24-point deficit to pull out an overtime win. As is my method, I'll look at that game and consider whether or not enough has changed to alter the outcome. And trust me, in this game there is plenty of change, the only question is, will the outcome change, too. Read on to find out...

Factor #1: Injuries, Health, and The War of Attrition

The Patriots lost more players before the Denver game, the Broncos have lost more since. The biggest loss recently for the Patriots was tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played the entire game in November and finished with 7 catches, 90 yards, and 1 touchdown. They also had corner Aqib Talib in-and-out during the game, but their cornerbacks are as healthy as can be expected at this point (though the safeties are banged up).

Since November, the Broncos got back tight Julius Thomas (and his 65 receptions and 12 touchdowns) and corner Champ Bailey, though he isn't up to his usual standard of play. But they lost two key defenders: their best corner, Chris Harris, was injured Sunday and is out for the year, and their second-best pass rusher, Von Miller was injured a few weeks ago, and he is also done for the year. Also, Wes Welker didn't seem like himself in the last game, after suffering two concussions this season.

The three losses for the Broncos are much more concerning than the one for the Patriots, especially given that Denver's injuries are all on defense. The biggest factor plus for Denver is the return of Thomas, who diversifies their passing game significantly and makes it tough on a Patriots secondary that is somewhat banged up. However, the losses on defense will make it tough to stop the Patriots offense, even without Gronkowski.

Advantage: Patriots

Factor #2: The Weather And Venue

The last game was a nighttime affair in Foxboro, the wind was a steady 22mph (gusting to over 30mph), and the wind chill was 6-degrees at kickoff (and got colder as the game wore on). In other words, a tough night to pass the football. In Denver this Sunday, it's supposed to be sunny, in the 50s with a light 9mph wind. In other words, about as easy on a QB as any late-January outdoor game could be.

The move to Denver could be a bit problematic for the Patriots offense, but that will be mitigated slightly because speed-rusher Miller is on the shelf. However, the biggest change with the venue is that Manning can make all his calls, switches, and do his pre-snap adjustments without being affected by the crowd.

Advantage: Broncos

Factor #3: "Fumble!!"

In the gamebook from November, there were 20 players involved in either fumbling, forcing fumbles, or recovering fumbles. The list takes almost an entire page in the document -- 11 fumbles, 6 lost to the other team, and 27 points scored off fumbles.

The Patriots fumbled three times in the first quarter, which constituted one-third of their entire season total. And that put them in a quick 17-0 hole.

The Broncos had two muffed punts in the game, which constituted one-third of their season total! And the last one cost them the game in overtime.

Trust me, it doesn't matter how much they grease up the pig(skin) this Sunday, there won't be nearly that many fumbles in this game. Count on it.

Advantage: Neither

Factor #4: Why The Patriots Will Pass, Not Run

The Broncos ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing defense, both in yards per carry (3.9) and yards per game (101.6). For context, you hear a lot about the dominant Seattle defense, but Denver tied Seattle on both counts for the season. And if you need more evidence of how difficult it is to run on Denver, San Diego averaged 122.8 yards per game this season, and dominated the Bengals on the ground two weeks ago (196 yards) -- but the Chargers could muster only 65 yards on Sunday against the Broncos.

The Patriots will run the ball some, just to keep the defense honest. But they can't steamroll the Broncos they way they did the Colts last week, not with the stout inside defensive line Denver has.

However, there is another reason you'll see a lot more passing than running from the Patriots this Sunday -- Tom Brady's record against Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio (in Denver and Jacksonville). Here is Brady's average game against Del Rio defenses:

24 of 34 (73%), 253 yards, 2.4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 118.3 QB rating.

You read that right, 235 pass attempts and Del Rio's defenses have yet to pick one off. Brady is 7-0 in those games, with an average final score of 29-14. So even though the Pats have run the ball well lately, in this game their best strategy is to spread the field and sling it.

Advantage: Patriots

Factor #5: Why The Broncos Will Pass, Not Run

To be fair, the Broncos will run some, but not as much as the last game. In November, the Patriots played mostly nickel and dime defenses, daring the Broncos to run. And run they did -- 48 of 86 total plays (56%) and 280 of 412 total yards (68%). And as mentioned in my earlier blog entry, this was the first time in eight years Manning had fewer passing yards than one of his running backs had rushing yards.

And the result was a loss, with Manning's lowest passer rating and yardage totals all year (including the final game, when he only played the first half).

So no matter what defense the Patriots play, expect the Broncos to throw much more often than last time. In fact, expect that 56/44 run/pass ratio to be reversed, as Manning takes advantage of having Julius Thomas and Wes Welker on the field.

Advantage: Broncos

Quick Hits:

A)  Patriots punter Ryan Allen suffered a shoulder injury last week, and he missed the rest of the game. And as of now, the Patriots haven't signed a replacement. If he can't go, the Pats have to sign someone to replace Allen -- they can't risk having no kicker if Stephen Gostkowski gets injured in the Denver game.

B)  Denver was 4-3 in games against playoff teams, the Patriots were 2-2 against playoff foes.

C)  Denver tied for the most regular-season wins in 2013. And including this season, Brady and Manning have each quarterbacked three teams that had the most (or tied for the most) regular-season wins in the NFL. However, in only one of those years did one of them win the Super Bowl, too. (Trivia question: name the year one of them led the league in regular-season wins and won the Super Bowl... answer below.)

D)  Brady is 4-1 against teams with Denver's John Fox as head coach. Manning is 6-10 against teams with Bill Belichick as head coach.

E)  Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins has been properly praised for a great game against the Colts. But don't get too far ahead of yourself on him; he's the same guy who got beaten badly a few times in the loss to the Dolphins a month ago. And if any QB can get him out of position, it's Peyton Manning.

F)  The loss of Harris can't be minimized. Here is Phillip Rivers' stat-line on the drives following Harris' exit from the game: 10 of 16 (63%), 173 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 138.8.


This is a really difficult game to call, but here is why I think the Patriots will win: Brady vs. Del Rio. Running the ball is great, but Sunday will be for passing, and I like Brady's chances against Del Rio better than Manning's against Belichick. Neither team will shut down the other, the QBs and offenses are too good. But in the end, the Patriots will stop the Broncos more often than the Broncos will stop the Patriots.

The Broncos' best chance is to score touchdowns and hold the Patriots to field goals. Denver has the clear edge in the red zone, with targets that can dominate physically and schemes that get guys open in tight spaces. They might be able to do this, and if so, the game will likely go Denver's way. I just don't expect them to score as many touchdowns as they need, not against an improving Patriots defense that gets very stingy in the red zone.

For a while I thought this would be the game where injuries caught up to the Patriots; and it might still be. But since the matchup in November, the Broncos got the worst of the injury bug, so on balance that long IR list doesn't mean as much now.

In either case, enjoy the game. And if you insist on betting for "entertainment purposes," I suggest you take the over.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-4 & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Brady's 2003 Patriots led the NFL with 14 regular-season wins and went on to beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 for their second Super Bowl victory.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Patriots Bowl Over Colts, 43-22

Smashmouth on both sides of the ball. The Patriots rammed it right down the Colts' collective throats, bullying their way to an impressive 43-22 win. The victory puts them in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth time in 13 years, a game they could host if the Chargers take down the Broncos today.

Linebacker Jamie Collins picked a good night to have the best game of any Patriots LB this year. He was all over the field, ending up with 6 tackles (2 for a loss), 3 QB hits, his first NFL sack (for 8 yards), and his first NFL interception. As a second-round pick this year, I wrote that Collins was brought in to help in pass coverage in the short-to-medium zones. He's worked all year to get to this point, and it paid off yesterday -- he was everywhere, and if the Patriots gave game balls, he'd get one.

Dont'a Hightower played extremely well, too. And he has been on the rise lately, with better pass coverage, despite a big miscue in the loss at Miami a few weeks back. Yesterday, he led the team with 8 tackles, and also notched his first NFL interception! He was a beast against the run, and made a few subtle adjustments just pre-snap that worked out perfectly.

In the secondary, the star of the game was cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. He defended four passes and had two interceptions, including one on QB Andrew Luck's second pass of the game. He was physical with the receiver on that one, and cut inside to take a pass that should never have been thrown by Luck. And that set the tone for the day; the Pats were physical with all the receivers, disrupting the timing of their routes, and it paid off with four total INTs.

Corners Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington played okay but struggled some. Talib shadowed Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, and that was a bad physical matchup. Hilton is more of a small, shifty, speed receiver, and Talib does better against larger, more physical receivers. Arrington got matched up on larger receivers too often, and it might have been better to switch the two defenders' roles. Still in all, they weren't bad; just not as dominant as Dennard.

The biggest problem in the game was the play of the safeties. The Colts did a good job exposing both Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty, sometimes completing long passes after sucking them in with play-action, sometimes getting matchups where one or both were covering speed receivers one-on-one. Luck's two touchdowns were long passes that attacked these two, and they have to up their game against either QB next week or it'll be a shootout from the get-go.

The defensive line held its own, and got decent pressure when they rushed at least four. When they rushed only three, they gave up big plays in the passing game. Chandler and Chris Jones did the lion's share of the good work in the game. Chandler got good pressure around the edge, although he lost contain on a few Luck scrambles. And Chris was the star inside, taking on multiple blockers to keep the linebackers free to make tackles.

On offense, the rest of the country learned what we've known for weeks: LeGarrette Blount is one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. He followed up his breakout game in the season finale with a 24 carry, 166 yard (6.9 ypc), 4 touchdown game (one of which was a 73-yard back-breaker), with no fumbles, decent blocking on passes, and a relentless drive that gave him just one tackle for a loss all game.

Blount's counterpart, Stevan Ridley got 52 yards, and two touchdowns. And one of the touchdowns (as well as the ensuing two-point conversion) was a will-against-will run where he just wouldn't be denied. One quick thought for next week: teams seem to have figured out the inside handoff to fullback James Develin on third- or fourth-and-short. But on the play he got stuffed, Ridley would have had clear sailing, maybe even for a long touchdown, as the entire Colts team collapsed on Develin. Might want to fake the inside handoff and pitch it to Ridley next week -- he could run you all the way into the Super Bowl on a play like that!

The offensive line did a great job in run blocking. Logan Mankins was a beast, with Dan Connolly a close second. Both were perfect in pulling to the other side, and both had multiple plays were they got blocks at two levels, springing Blount times for 7+ yards gains. The Colts threw extra defenders at the run, but it barely slowed down the Pats running game, which is testament to the offensive line. Also, Nate Solder had been battling concussions, but he played the entire game, and did a mostly very good job in both run and pass blocking.

Which brings us to quarterback Tom Brady, who was stealthily very effective. With the running game a-blazing, Brady used play-action to perfection, and hit the long passes by throwing them a bit short to make sure he got the completion instead of a long overthrow. (In contrast, Luck seemed to throw like he was in a dome, but the wind would knock it down, or push it out of bounds.) Brady's stat line is pedestrian by his standards: 13 of 25 (52%), 198 yards, 2 sacks for 13 yards, 0 touchdowns, and most importantly, 0 interceptions. However, he was in command of the situation at all turns, even audibling to inside runs when Indy went with extra defensive backs.

As for Brady's targets, it was receiver Julian Edelman's show for the most part. He had 6 catches for 84 yards, and made some great catches through tiny, tiny windows. And on a Brady scramble, he got open and then ran over two defenders for a big first down. Danny Amendola had 77 yards on just 3 catches, and those big plays were huge; but it was Edelman who kept the chains moving when they needed first downs.

On special teams there was very good and very, very bad. A bad snap went over punter Ryan Allen's head, and when he tried to recover and run with it, he suffered a shoulder injury as the ball got knocked out of the end zone for a safety. (Trivia question: the Patriots have surrendered four safeties in the playoffs -- including yesterday -- name as many of those other years/opponents as you can... answer below.) The good was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who's kickoffs were nearly never returned, and who averaged 41.8 yards a punt when subbing for the injured Ryan.

The coaching was nearly perfect. Running against a soft Colts defense was the right strategy, and they stuck with it even when the game got tight in the third quarter. The defensive attack, to hit the Colts receivers and disrupt their timing, all the while containing Luck in the pocket, it worked out perfectly. The only quibbles are putting the taller, rangier Talib on a quick, shifty receiver, and the botched time-management at the end of the first half (which didn't end up costing them). Other than that, a masterful game plan that netted four turnovers. Nice job by both coordinators, Josh McDaniels on offense and Matt Patricia on defense.

After the game, Luck said they couldn't get any offensive rhythm. And a look at the drive chart show you why; they only scored on two consecutive drives once in the entire game. Every other time they scored, the Patriots defense came up with a big stop, and the up-and-down nature of that obviously cost the Colts any chance to build momentum.

So where does that leave us? Awaiting the result of today's game, to see who they will play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Not a bad spot, especially given the number of key injuries they suffered this year. Neither of the teams will be easy to beat. Denver in Denver would be a shootout, but even if the Chargers came here, QB Phillip Rivers has lots of experience playing here and a very good running game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots six rushing touchdowns are the first time that's happened in the playoffs since San Francisco did it 21 years ago (credit to ESPN for this one).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The reason I want the Chargers next week is that warm-weather and dome teams can't win here in the playoffs. They're 0-11 so far, I'd say that is a trend."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  13-4 & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
1. Patriots vs. Giants, Super Bowl XLVI, 2/5/2012 (Brady grounding in the end zone).
2. Patriots vs. Broncos, Divisional Round, 1/4/1987 (Eason sacked in the end zone).
3. Patriots vs. Bears, Super Bowl XX, 1/26/1986 (Grogan sacked in the end zone).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Playoff Preview: Patriots vs. Colts

Buckle up, everybody, the playoff ride is about to begin! It's Patriots/Colts at 8:15pm this Saturday, in scenic Foxboro, Mass. I'd usually look at the last game between the two teams, but in this case it was in 2012, so it wouldn't mean much. Without that off of which to springboard, here is my best attempt to figure out how things are likely to go this Saturday.

1. Patriots Shut Down the Primary Receiving Threat

What do the Bengals, Saints, Panthers, Broncos, and Ravens have in common? Their primary receivers were controlled or outright shut down in games against the Patriots this season. And that was no easy task, given the Patriots injuries on defense, especially in the secondary.

Not that the Pats were perfect at it, Houston's Andre Johnson had 8 catches for 121 yards, and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez started slow but ended up with 12 for 149. But by and large Bill Belichick and his staff concocted plans to slow down or completely stop the main receiver on the other side of the ball.

Which brings us to the Colts victory over the Chiefs last weekend: T.Y Hilton had 13 catches for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns; the rest of the Colts team had 16 catches, 219 yards, and 2 touchdowns. The Colts offense has depended on Hilton since a season-ending injury to longtime receiver Reggie Wayne. Hilton led the team with 82 catches -- a whopping 30 more than the Colts second-leading receiver, and 53 more than the third-leading receiver (not named Reggie Wayne).

And that unidimensional offense is exactly the kind the Patriots shut down. The last few years we've seen the Patriots go into the playoffs with a two- or three-headed passing attack, only to see it shut down. That job will be even easier for the Patriots defense on Saturday, given the lack of even a decent second option for the Colts.

(Note: the Patriots need Devin McCourty to play if they want to make this work. His backups are inexperienced, and that is one place the Patriots can't afford a mistake -- at safety. One slip-up can cost you a touchdown, from anywhere on the field.)

2. Walking Wounded

Brandon Spikes was the latest Patriots addition to season-ending Injured Reserve. Already down three interior defenders (Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly), both of the starting safeties are dinged up, and there are injuries at almost every corner back position.

Additionally, the offensive line is perilously thin, the receiving corps is not only missing some key weapons, but those remaining are either young (Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce) or injury-prone (Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman).

Not that you should expect the Patriots to lose this game, but eventually those injuries take their toll. They leave the team vulnerable to the Colts running attack, if they are able to commit to it and stay with it.

3. The Elements

You hear it every year, lots of brash talk from teams that play in domes or balmy weather. When they have to travel north to play in Foxboro, they are certain the weather won't affect them. It's often the same platitudes: both teams have to play in the same conditions, it's mind over matter, we're a hard-nosed team.

But setting aside the talk, cold hard reality is that the last time a dome/mild-weather team won a playoff game in Foxboro was... well, it's never happened. Jacksonville in 1996, 2005, and 2007; Miami in 1997; Oakland in 2001; Tennessee in 2003; Indianapolis in 2003 and 2004; San Diego in 2007; And Houston in 2012. The Patriots beat them all -- that's ten up and ten down, which has to be a factor when a dome team like the Colts come to town.

4. Colts' Captain Comeback

Colts QB Andrew Luck seems more comfortable playing from behind than ahead. He has 23 NFL wins so far, and in 11 of those wins the Colts were either behind or tied in the fourth quarter. If the Patriots expect to win on Saturday, they need to get up on the Colts and bury them.

If you need proof, just ask a Kansas City fan if a 28-point lead is safe.

5. Pats Run vs. Indy Run Defense

The Patriots rank a surprising 9th in rushing offense (4.4 yards a carry, 129.1 yards per game). And they have been remarkably consistent all year, topping 150 yards in the first game and 250 in the last game of the season. On the other side of the ball, the Colts ranked 24th in stopping the run. Their defense is built on speed, not on being stout against the run.

And with heavy rain in the forecast, having an advantage in the running game could prove pivotal.

6. Quick Hits

A) Adam Vinatieri can certainly hit clutch kicks, but he was 18 for 19 in home games (95%) and only 17 of 21 (81%) on the road.

B)  Home teams in this round of the playoffs have won 73% of their games since 1990 (67-25).

C)  The Patriots offense traditionally starts slow the week after a bye, and the Colts have a knack for late comebacks. So don't expect to knock off early to get some shut-eye, this one could go down to the wire.

D)  The Patriots had the fewest turnovers in the AFC in 2012; but the Colts took that crown in 2013 (the four-turnover game last week was an aberration).

7. Bold Prediction

Look for a low-scoring first quarter (and perhaps first half). Turnovers are always key, but in cold, wet conditions, ball-security is even more important. Don't count on four turnovers from the Colts again this week.

The Patriots should win, simply because the Colts shouldn't be able to stop their offense. And they won't let Hilton run all over them the way the Chiefs did -- the Patriots adjust better than most teams, and that will be crucial in this game.

Patriots win, with a late turnover making the margin more comfortable than it seemed during the game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Patriots 2013 Regular Season Awards

Here is your Patriots fix for the Bye Week; my much-coveted Regular Season Awards for 2013.

The Offense 

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Julian Edelman

After all the offensive talent that left in the off-season, Brady was below his career average in completion percentage, yards per completion, touchdown percentage, took more sacks than any year except his first as a starter (2001), and had his lowest QB rating in 10 years. So how does he merit this award? With him at the helm, the Patriots went 12-4 and have a first-round playoff bye. Replace Brady with an average quarterback, and they go 5-11 and are out of the playoffs by November 4. That is the very definition of "valuable."

Julian Edelman took over Wes Welker's spot on offense, and he played more games (16 to 13), had more catches (73 to 105), for more yards (1056 to 778), and more first downs (54 to 43) than Welker. Edelman was instrumental in seven Patriots victories, and he was the one and only go-to guy in the passing game before/after Gronkowski (who was only in seven games).

Most Improved Offensive Player: Julian Edelman
Honorable Mention: Logan Mankins

Edelman had a 500% increase in catches (from 21 last year to 105 this year), and almost that much in yards (235 to 1056), which made this an easy choice. Not bad for a college quarterback -- who, by the way, is better after the catch than anyone else on the roster and also excels at punt returns.

Mankins had a down year in 2012, so his resurgence in 2013 was impressive. Reports are he was injured last year, but in 2013 he was the dominant interior linemen Patriots fans have come to expect. And he did a great job when he moved over to replace Nate Solder in the Baltimore game.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: LeGarrette Blount
Honorable Mention: Danny Amendola

When the offense struggled to pass early on, it was all about the running of Stevan Ridley. But when Ridley faltered (er... fumbled), LeGarrette Blount stepped in with sure hands and much quicker feet than you'd expect from a 250-pound back. He missed leading the team in rushing by one yard (772), averaged 5.0 yards a carry, and tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns. And when the team needed to win down the stretch, he had 265 yards on 32 carries in the last two games, and two great kickoff returns (not to mention some great runs) to keep the momentum in a defeat of Buffalo.

Amendola came in to much fanfare, but worked out just about as well as Brandon Lloyd last year. He played in just 12 games, and like Lloyd in 2012, he was second on the team in receptions (54) and yards (663). Not the difference-maker fans expected, but a solid contributor.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones
Honorable Mention: Aqib Talib

Ninkovich and Jones finished second and fourth in tackles (91 and 79), and second and first in sacks (8.0 and 11.5), respectively, on a defense where the D-line doesn't usually make a lot of tackles or get a lot of sacks. Jones is more athletically gifted and disruptive against the pass. Ninkovich holds the edge better against the outside run. Jones did better when asked to drop into pass coverage. Ninkovich is better at forcing fumbles. There just wasn't enough to separate them to choose only one, so Jones and Ninkovich are co-MVDPs this year.

Talib was often asked to shut down the best opposing receivers one-on-one, and he handled challenge incredibly well. And once teams realized how good he was, they stopped throwing at him, otherwise he would have led the team in interceptions easily (he ended up one behind Logan Ryan).

Most improved Defensive Player: Chandler Jones
Honorable Mention: none

Jones was a force his first 10 games last year. And then he and fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower tailed off, either due to injury or the famous "rookie wall." But Jones worked hard this off-season, and came back to be more consistent and more dominant for more of the year. His sacks were up from last year (6.0 to 11.5), and his tackles increased from from 45 to 79.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Chris Jones
Honorable Mention: Logan Ryan

Jones was one of two rookies who replaced Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelley when they went out of the year with injuries. And no offense to Joe Vellano, but Jones was clearly the best of the two. He rarely needed to be rested, playing 13 games and starting 11 of them. And he was good enough to make some All-Rookie teams by year's end. Jones wasn't perfect, but he helped shore up the interior defensive line when the team's run defense was in free-fall.

Logan Ryan stepped in when Talib and Alfonzo Dennard got injured, and it's a good thing he did. He had seven starts and played in all 16 games, and not only did he have 5 interceptions, he had 1.5 sacks and knocked down ten passes on the season.

Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Stephen Gostkowski
Honorable Mention: Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner

Gostkowski led the NFL in scoring -- for the third time in his career, by the way --  knocking home 92.7% of his field goals, 100% of his extra points, and allowing returns on only 33% of his kickoffs. He was also sixth in kickoff return average, fourth in touchback percentage, and had just one boot out of bounds (though it was a costly one against the Dolphins).

Slater was his usual, Pro-Bowl level self in kick coverage. The surprise of the season was Nate Ebner, who actually challenged Slater for the honorable mention here. Both were outstanding in blocking for kick returns and also in coverage, but a late surge by Slater brought him back to a tie-footing with the upstart Ebner.

The good news is that the players fed off each other, and they should make a great tandem for at least the next few years.

Most improved Special Teams Player: Nate Ebner
Honorable Mention: Stephen Gostkowski

Ebner for the reasons stated above. Anyone who can give All-Pro Slater a run for his money in this category is very good.

Gostkowski would have been the most improved, but he was terrific last year, too.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Ryan Allen
Honorable Mention: LeGarrette Blount

Ryan Allen not only had a great year punting -- 45.9 average, only 16% touchbacks, 29 downed inside the 20 yard line -- but he also had to hold on field goals and extra points for Gostkowski. There were a few hiccups in the preseason, but once the real games started, Allen was as flawless as Zoltan Mesko was the last few years. Oh, and Allen bested Mesko's net-average by 2 yards a kick (39.9 to 37.9).

Blount turned out to be quite the versatile player. Leon Washington was brought in to return kickoffs and punts, but injuries force the kickoff return role onto Blount. And he responded quite well, showed great instincts on when to bring the ball out, and as mentioned earlier, had to huge returns in the season-finale against Buffalo.

Those are the awards for this year.

Enjoy the games this weekend, and look for my preview of the Pats first playoff game some time next week.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!