Sunday, October 19, 2014

Patriots Survive Jets, 27-25

Sorry I didn't get this out earlier, but some personal matters got in the way.

The Jets made NFL history last Thursday, becoming the first team to lose a game in regulation when they had 40+ minutes of possession time and 200+ yards rushing. The Patriots held on for a 27-25 win, in a game that underscored both Rex Ryan's brilliance and incompetence. The win puts the Pats at 5-2, atop the AFC East, with a 1-game and 1.5-game lead over victorious Buffalo and Miami, respectively.

If this game was any indication, the linebackers are in trouble without injured star Jerod Mayo. Running plays that went for 2-3 yards with Mayo went for 7-9 yards with Hightower at middle linebacker. He just can't shed blockers as effectively as Mayo, so his first contact is much further downfield. Jamie Collins is ill-suited for inside play, and after those two, the Patriots have lots of inexperienced players. So the coaches have some tough choices to make there.

Note that even though Hightower and Collins tied for the team lead with 13 tackles, it was not a productive day for either of them. The Jets ran 43 times for 218 yards (5.1 yards per carry), and they controlled the clock for 40:54. If not for defensive stinginess in the red zone, and several bonehead plays by the Jets, this could have been a blowout loss instead of a 2-point win.

Along with the linebackers, the defensive line didn't have a great day, either. Chandler Jones got mostly consistent pressure, when the Jets threw the ball. He had 1 sack for 15 yards, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hits. There is little in the way of stats for the rest of the D-line, and some weeks that is okay -- it's the design of this defense. But they mostly got pushed around in the running game.

The secondary pretty much saved the defense's bacon. It wasn't perfect, with several ill-timed penalties, and they gave up 11.3 yards per catch. But the only passing touchdown was given up by safety Patrick Chung, and on the very next play, he had great coverage on the same tight end to stop a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Chung was also key in keeping the Jets from breaking big runs, coming up as an extra man to make sure the 7-yard gains didn't become 27-yarders.

Safety Devin McCourty had his usual solid game, though with few Jets passing attempts, he had just 3 tackles. Logan Ryan and Darrelle Revis got beaten a few times, but as with Chung, they battled back to knock down other passes or force the Jets to throw the ball away. Again, not perfect, but with some well-played downs at critical times, they forced the Jets to settle for field goals twice as often as they scored touchdowns.

Some in the media characterized the defense as porous and awful. But what I saw was a team missing its defensive captain and trying to hold it together on a short week of preparation. We'll know a lot more about the Patriots defense after next week's game against Chicago. Last Thursday was an AFC East war of attrition that went the Patriots way because the Jets reverted to form late in the game.

On offense, the Pats had just 15 running plays to 38 passing plays. So their strategy was obvious from the beginning. In fact, running back Shane Vereen had a 49-yard touchdown pass just 1:29 into the game, the Jets defense losing him when the quarterback scrambled and leaving him free down the right sideline. Vereen also got a three-yard swing pass for another touchdown. I say all this because there just wasn't much else to say in praise of the running backs: 63 yards and a decided disadvantage in time of possession tell you that either the coaches didn't want to run or the O-line and backs couldn't make it work.

Speaking of the offensive line, their stats look better than they did. They gave up just one sack, but seven other QB hits. And quarterback Tom Brady on the run a lot more than usual. They were missing two starters on the short week, so there probably isn't much to learn from Thursday's game. Well, except Marcus Cannon is *not* the answer at tackle; he looked awful in his few plays in place of Nate Solder.

Brady had a very good game. The initial touchdown was a nicely thrown pass to a wide open man, something he sometimes overthrows. And he made great decisions throughout the game, even if the decision was to throw the ball away. He finished 20 of 37 for 261 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 103.5 QB rating.

And don't look now, but Brady has gone 109 passing attempts without an INT, and he has the fourth-lowest interception total among NFL starters this year with just two for the 2014 season. And despite all the hand-wringing over his play, that is tied for the fewest interceptions after seven games in his career. (Trivia Question: which other year did Brady have just two interceptions after seven starts? Answer below.)

At receiver, 20 completions wasn't a lot to go around, but it went mostly to tight end Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 58 yards), receivers Brandon LaFell (4 for 55) and Julian Edelman (4 for 44), and of course, running back Vereen (5 for 71, 2 touchdowns). Gronkowski is getting closer and closer to full strength, barreling through more tackles each week. However, the usually reliable Edelman had two drops, one on a key down that would have helped run time off the clock in the fourth quarter.

Danny Amendola made a terrific catch for the last touchdown, on a third-and-goal from the 19-yardline. He is getting a lot of praise for showing up this game, but in the end he had more impact on special teams, returning 4 kickoffs for 105 total yards. His catch was a great one, and important to the win. But one catch isn't quite what the team needs -- and the fact that is an improvement from recent weeks shows you how far he had fallen.

Special teams were excellent for most of the game. Punter Ryan Allen averaged 44.8 net yards per kick and twice they were downed inside the 20. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski got touchbacks on 3 of 5 kicks, but one that got away was a 62-yard return by the Jets -- the only blemish on special teams. And nailing every field goal was crucial in a tight game.

And the special teams play of the night goes to King of Redemption, Chris Jones. Last year against the Jets, he was called for an obscure new penalty on a Jets field goal attempt in overtime. That kick was no good, but the penalty gave the Jets another chance, and the second kick was good, handing the Patriots a bitter loss. (Note: that penalty has never been called again in any NFL game. Ever.)

So when Jones got up high enough to block the 58-yarder that would have won the game for New York, it had to feel like redemption for last year. And even if it didn't feel like redemption to him, it did to me -- so there!

Coaching was perhaps the most interesting match of the day. The Jets' Rex Ryan had a better plan coming in, dominating on the ground and with time of possession, while limiting the Patriots offense and shortening Brady's time on the field. But on game, day, the Jets called stupid timeouts multiple times, leaving them with only one when they needed all three late in the game.

As stated above, no team had ever been this dominant on the ground and lost the game. Ryan will likely be fired at the end of the year, but he'll be in the record books forever now. Because it's difficult to believe any team will duplicate that dominance/incompetence combination any time in the near future.

So where does that leave us? Everyone else in the AFC East chasing the 5-2 Patriots -- sounds like the universe is back in balance. The Bears game next Sunday won't be any easy task. They have dynamic playmakers all over the field. But with 10 days to prepare, and with Bill Belichick's historical dominance of the NFC, it should be a home game they can win.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the last five seasons, the Patriots boast a winning record (3-2) in games where they give up 200+ yards rushing.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "When it comes to winning, Belichick has a PHD, and Ryan has a GED."

Keep the faith!

- Scott

PS.  5-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer: Brady had just two interceptions through seven games in 2007. In fact, he didn't throw his third INT until his ninth game that season, so he's got some work to do to keep up his own pace.

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