Sunday, December 21, 2014

Patriots Hold on for 17-16 Win Over Jets

The Patriots eked out a win, hanging on for a 1-point victory over the Jets in New York. The win guaranteed the Patriots a first-round playoff bye, and put them in position for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs -- if they can get either a Denver loss Monday night or a victory over Buffalo next Sunday. And by the way, Buffalo lost to the Raiders, so they are out of the playoffs and have nothing particular to play for next weekend.

This was the fourth straight Jets/Pats game where the margin of victory was three points or less, so everyone should have expected it to be close. (Trivia question: the Patriots have four straight games against another team that have all ended within four points, name the team... answer below.) Division games can be tricky, and I for one will be glad to see Rex Ryan take his talents elsewhere, because he always gives the Pats a tough time.

The Patriots offense stunk up the joint in this game. Any game where you average 3.7 yards per play is a very bad one. The line gave up way too much pressure; one stat from the television broadcast: Patriots had 19 drop backs in the first half, and gave up 4 sacks, 6 pressures, and 8 hurries. Do the math, and you'll quickly see they couldn't do much worse.

The Patriots were missing starters receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount, and guard Dan Connolly. And it showed; pressure came at Tom Brady from every angle, with multiple blown assignments. Missing his usual outlet receiver (Edelman), that pressure led to negative plays too often.

On one play, tackle Nate Solder was responsible for *three* Jets defenders, and all three rushed the quarterback -- the predictable result being another sack. That play wasn't Solder's fault, it was poor design and bad recognition by Brady. And it was emblematic of the day; the Patriots offense looked outnumbered most of the day.

Thankfully, for the second consecutive Jets game, the Patriots defense and special teams bailed out the offense. Danny Amendola returned a punt to the Jets 36 yard line, setting up the Patriots first touchdown. In the second half, Jamie Collins intercepted an errant throw and returned it to the Jets 38, which led to the Patriots second touchdown.

And in the fourth quarter, a Brady interception set up the Jets at the Patriots 30, and New York needed just a field goal to take the lead. But the Pats defense stiffened, stuffing the Jets for minus-four yards on three plays. And on their long field goal attempt, Vince Wilfork broke through the line to get a piece of the kick, which landed harmlessly and pretty much sealed the victory. Sounds a bit like week seven of this season, when Chris Jones blocked a kick to secure a victory over the Jets in Foxboro.

To combat the Jets running game, which gashed them for 218 yards in the first game, the Patriots deployed a 5-2-4 defense, getting more beef on the front line with five defensive linemen. And it worked to perfection; the Jets got 5.0 yards a carry, but only 116 yards. And when the Jets threw the ball, those linemen kept their lanes so Jets QB Geno Smith couldn't run for first downs, which he did four times in the first game but not once on Sunday.

The first two levels of the defense did a great job. Two of the interior defensive linemen, Wilfork (9) and Sealver Siliga (8), finished in the top five in tackles, extremely rare in the Patriots gap-responsibility defense. Siliga had a sack and two QB hits, too, and he's been outstanding since his return. Chandler Jones has also been amazing the last two weeks since returning from injury; he had 5 tackles and 2 QB hits and was very disruptive in the running game.

Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are more impressive every week. Collins made 11 tackles (1 for a loss), had a pass defended, and got the aforementioned interception. Hightower kept tight coverage on backs and receivers out of the backfield, and still managed to get 9 tackles (1 for a loss), 1 sack (10 yards), and a QB hit. Not much out of the other linebackers, but that was mostly because they didn't play, except on special teams.

The secondary was up-and-down. It was odd to see Devin McCourty close to the line of scrimmage so often, he is so good playing center field. He was up on the line when fellow safety Patrick Chung got beaten for a long touchdown pass -- giving the safeties a mixed review on the day. Cornerback Darrelle Revis continues his steady play, and made a few tackles in run support, too. Brandon Browner played well, but they have to find a better solution than corner Malcolm Butler, who got beaten repeatedly and contributed not a single tackle or pass defended on the day.

Brady did okay, considering how much pressure he was under. However, every time they tried to throw deep it was either covered, Brady missed the throw, or the pressure got to him first -- his longest completion of the day was 14 yards. He ended up with just 182 yards on 23-of-35 passing (66%), had a touchdown and a had one of his poorer throws intercepted (when he was under pressure, of course). He did have another big run, and took advantage of two short fields to get touchdowns. But not his best day.

The receiving corps was missing Edelman, but Danny Amendola stepped up his game to help out. Problem is, Amendola (8 catches, 63 yards) doesn't run Edelman's routes as well as Edelman (or Wes Welker before him). So when Brady was in trouble, there wasn't that easy outlet. Brandon LaFell had an excellent game, catching 7 throws for 64 yards and some big first downs. And even with the abuse and attention he gets, tight end Rob Gronkowski finished with 6 catches and a touchdown.

With Blount out, the featured running back was Jonas Gray, and he had 6 carries for 5 measly yards (blech). Later in the second half, Shane Vereen had more success running out of passing formations, 6 carries for 38 yards. And Brandon Bolden got 32 yards on 5 carries, 17 coming on the game-sealing drive. However, the backs had a lot of trouble in blitz pickup. Gray had two nice ones early on, but Vereen got beaten once and picked the wrong blitzer at least one other time.

And speaking of the offensive line; they were dreadful. Nate Solder was on two all-rookie teams in 2011, and he was near Pro Bowl level in 2012. But last year and this year he's regressed dramatically, and some of it appears to be mental mistakes, not physical ones. But he wasn't alone yesterday: Josh Kline started for Dan Connolly and did nothing to distinguish himself. And Marcus Cannon spelled Solder for a few series, and got his butt kicked just like Solder had.

In the final sign of surrender, the Patriots went back to the six-linemen alignment they had to use earlier in the year just to keep Brady upright. Their offensive line won't be a big strength this year, but they have to get more consistent play from this group. And not just when they have subs in there -- they haven't been good enough to win a Championship in about four weeks (Lions game).

Special teams set up the first touchdown, as mentioned earlier. Also, punter Ryan Allen pinned the Jets deep on the previous kick, setting up a great field-position trade that led to points. However, while Danny Amendola had some nice kickoff returns, one of his best got called back on a blocking penalty -- which amounted to a 38-yard penalty when you wiped out the return.

And of course, special teams might have saved the game with yet another blocked kick, their fourth of the season (including punts). One last thing; it appeared they had kicker Stephen Gostkowski execute shorter kickoffs with more hang time, which he did very well.

The coaching is a mixed bag. Geno Smith scrambles killed them in the first game, and the five-D-linemen set controlled that and the running game. However, they must have known the Jets would go with exotic blitzes and press coverage, but it took until the second half to try any screens or draws to slow the pass rush. The new O-line coach might end up being one-and-done here if he can't get better performance out of that group.

So where does that leave us? 12-3 and still with the inside track for home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. The Bills come to town on Sunday, and if the game means anything, count on a Patriots win. They are 21-1 in their last 22 games versus Buffalo.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: It has to be that the Patriots won two games against the same opponent with a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter of each game to protect the lead. How often has that happened in NFL history?!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "It's the Jets, of course it was close. Wait until next week; if that game means anything, it'll be a big Patriots blowout!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-3!

PPS. Trivia Answer: It's that other New York team, those pesky Giants, who have won 21-17, 24-20, 17-14, and lost 38-35 (games played in 2012, 2011, 2008, and 2007, respectively).

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