Friday, January 30, 2015

Super Bowl Preview: Patriots vs. Seahawks

Well folks, it’s finally here. After two weeks of more PSI than YAC, the Super Bowl is this Sunday, kicking off around 6:35 pm. Not as much hype this year, with discussions side-tracked by deflated footballs and a non-talking running back.

It is tough to predict how this game will go, because the teams haven’t met in over two years. That game ended with a rookie Wilson (Seahawks quarterback Russell) beating another rookie Wilson (Patriots safety Tavon) on a last-minute touchdown to win the game 24-23. Both players are improved since then, the QB becoming a star and the safety becoming a part-time player who doesn't get beaten deep any more.

Given that I haven’t watched a lot of Seahawks games, I’ll concentrate more on how I see the Patriots attacking them, on both offense and defense. And without further adieu, here are five questions that make up my Super Duper Super Special Super Bowl Preview.

Is the Seahawks defense as good as advertised?

The Seattle defense gets a lot of pub, and most of it is earned. They are the first team since the 1985-86 Bears to allow the fewest points and the fewest yards two seasons in a row. In 2014 they ranked #5 in opponent QB rating, #2 in yards-per-completion against, allowed the fifth-fewest plays of 40+ yards, and gave up the third-fewest first downs.

They did have surprisingly few interceptions (17, ranking them #18) and sacks (37, ranking them #20). And to be fair they faced some real dreck at the quarterback position this year. Arizona and St. Louis put up backup QBs in both division games with Seattle, and they played Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) twice, and he had his worst year as a pro. They also got to rout old friend Marc Sanchez with Philadelphia.

But you can only play who is on your schedule, and the Seattle D earned respect no matter who they faced. They even do well against the run. They ranked #2 in yards per carry against (3.4 ypc), and they only gave up a rushing touchdown every other game (eight on the year).

So even if you think the Patriots diversified offense will find a way to attack this defense, don’t for a second think Seattle’s D is overrated.

Is the Patriots defensive plan as simple as 5-2-4?

In week 16, the Patriots employed an unusual defensive alignment to stop the Jets: five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs. This 5-2-4 defense gave them more players at the line to stop the Jets running attack and more pass rushers to collapse the pocket without allowing the quarterback to escape.

It worked very well. From the first game to the second one, the Jets rushing production dropped from 218 yards to 116. And QB Geno Smith, who ran for four first downs in the earlier game, ran for none in the second one.

Seattle plays a similar style of offense, albeit with much better execution and quarterback play than the Jets.

The Seahawks boast an excellent running attack and a quarterback who is better when improvising outside the pocket. Running back Marshawn Lynch averaged 81.7 yards a game (4.7 ypc), and their second leading rusher was Wilson with 53.1/game (7.1 ypc). And Wilson is okay in the pocket but much more dangerous on the run, especially when his receivers break patterns down the field.

I think it’s likely the Patriots will use the 5-2-4 to combat Seattle’s offense. They can always switch out of it, but it seems perfectly suited to slowing down the Seahawks running attack and containing Wilson in the pocket.

If the Pats decide to use a more conventional defense, look for more zone than man-to-man to start the game, as that helps them against the run. Either that or you’ll see more single-high safety with Patrick Chung near the line to help in run support and Devin McCourty playing centerfield.

Also, if they go with a more standard defensive set, discipline is the key. Lynch thrives on contact, so the Patriots have to tackle well. Wilson excels outside the pocket (running or throwing), so maintaining rushing lanes and collapsing the pocket is more important than knifing in for a big play.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Patriots go more conventional at first. But if Lynch or Wilson start to crank it up, look for the Patriots to beef up on the line to slow them down.

Will Blount force soften Seattle’s defense?

Four times this year the Patriots played teams with quick-but-small defensive fronts. And all four times they loaded up with extra offensive linemen and a second and/or third tight end, and they ran the ball at will. And it just so happens Seattle's defense is quick-but-small, especially up front.

The first such game was in Minnesota, where they ran for 150 yards on 37 carries (4.1 ypc).  Three weeks later the Patriots racked up 220 yards on 46 carries (4.8 ypc) in a pasting of the Bengals. And in two games versus the Colts, the Pats gained 423 yards on 84 carries (5.0 ypc).

The Patriots didn’t just run the ball when they had a big lead; in all those games they used the rushing attack to bludgeon the opponent into submission. And 42 carries per game might be the most important stat of all. It shows how the Patriots tailored their game plan to defeat a specific weaknesses: a size mismatch.

In those four games, they averaged 42 carries for 198 yards (4.7 ypc). In their other twelve games they averaged just 22.6 carries for 78 yards (3.5 ypc). So they saw a weakness on the other team and switched to a power running game for just that week.

How long they stay with it mostly depends on how effective it is. And even if it is successful, eventually they’ll use play-action passes to attack deep. But if the New England running game gets going, it’ll be tough for Seattle to stop it -- they just don’t have the muscle up front.

And no doubt the Patriots will give this a try. After all, the aggregate score of the Patriots four run-heavy games was 160-51!

How will they stop Gronkowski? And Edelman? And LaFell? And Amendola?

The Patriots offense is an absolute nightmare for most teams. Too many formations, too many players shifting pre-snap, too many options out of every set, different pace, changing up without substituting, and a quarterback as good as anyone who’s ever played the game.

Seattle for their part likes to line up in Cover-3 or Cover-1 and beat you with superior talent, speed, and technique. They won’t shift much with pre-snap motion or formation changes, they’ll adjust who is covering whom but they won’t move people around a lot. And once the ball is snapped, they’ll be ready for whatever comes.

The problem for Seattle is that the Patriots are far more diversified on offense this season, especially in the passing game. In past years I bemoaned how they’d become too dependent on Gronkowski and Edelman (or Welker), and how that made them to easy to defend in the post-season. Most playoff teams have enough secondary talent to take two receivers out of the game, and the Patriots lacked a third or fourth threat in the passing game.

Not this year. In the last four games in which all of their top receivers played (excepting the Jets and Bills games in December), here are the number of receptions for each of those players:


So even if Seattle concentrates on Gronkowski and Edelman, that will leave LaFell and/or Amendola one-on-one or even open in zones. Last year it would have been enough to stop the Patriots top two receivers, but not this year. The Seahawks don’t like to mix it up on defense, but they’d better consider it on Sunday. Otherwise, once the Patriots figure out what they are doing, they’ll find the open man and slice down the field one 5- to 8-yard pass at a time.

Quick Hits:

A) For all their physical play, the Seahawks committed the fewest defensive penalties (70) in the league this year. Ironically, their offense committed the most penalties, 130.

B) Seahawks ranked a surprising twentieth in Red Zone defense, giving up touchdowns on 56.8% of opponent trips inside the 20 yard line. Patriots ranked sixth in Red Zone offense, scoring touchdowns 62.3% of the time.

C) Seattle outscored opponents 255-123 in the second half of their games (including playoffs). New England outscored opponents 265-157 in the second half of their games (including playoffs). Sounds like those two might offset each other.

D) Seahawks defenders will push the limits of what’s legal. In the NFC Championship Game, corner Byron Maxwell committed at least five penalties but was flagged just once. And defensive end Cliff Avril was cited for illegal hands to the face twice in the first half.

BTW, even though every call was obvious, both players complained to high heaven after the flags were thrown.


I’m predicting a Patriots win, by 10+ points. Not because the Patriots offense will dominate, but because the Seattle offense will struggle against the Patriots defense. For all the pre-game questions about how the Patriots will score, I don’t see how the Seahawks score more than 20 points without getting turnovers. And they are much more likely to score 13-16 points, IMO.

Note #1: for the record that every time I think a playoff game should be a “comfortable win” for the Patriots, it turns out to be a nail-biter where the Pats are as likely to lose as win.

Note #2: I am 15-3 predicting the victor in Patriots games this year, and 16 of those predictions were made before the season even started :D

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Both teams have played 18 games this year, but the Patriots have given up fewer fourth-quarter points (65) than the Seahawks (80).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Too bad the NFL botched their investigation. It would have been fun to talk about the actual matchup for two weeks."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-4 & 2-0!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Patriots Dismantle Colts, 45-7

The Patriots blew the doors off the Colts last night, smashing them 45-7 and earning a trip to the Super Bowl. It's the eighth trip to the big game for the franchise, and the sixth trip for Tom Brady, an NFL record for a quarterback. The opponent will be the #1 seed in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks, who rode a furious comeback (and several Green Bay miscues) to punch their ticket to Arizona.

More on the Super Bowl later in the week. But for tonight, what a performance by the Patriots. This might be one of the shorter updates ever, since the Pats did exactly what we all thought they would -- they dominated on the ground and handled the weather better than their dome-team opponent.

Two side notes on Andrew Luck's struggles against the Patriots. First, he has played them much more competitively in the first half of games, with an average deficit of just 19-11.5. But in the second half of games, he's gotten steamrolled: the average second-half score is 28-7 Patriots. Second, the average rushing-yardage disparity in his four games against the Patriots: 193 to 72.5. Neither of those seem to be on Luck specifically: one is on poor in-game adjustments, and the other is on the GM and coach for not narrowing the rushing-yard gap.

(Trivia question: when was the last time Andrew Luck led a game against the Patriots? Answer below.)

The game plan was solid, the execution was nearly flawless, and both the offense and defense got better as the game progressed. The decision to put corner Kyle Arrington on the smaller Colts receiver, T.Y. Hilton was brilliant; much better than the previous week when Darrelle Revis covered the smaller receiver against Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. The coaches even threw in another trick-play wrinkle; with tackle Nate Solder catching a touchdown pass late in the game.

Offensively this game resembled every game since Colts quarterback Andrew Luck entered the league. The Patriots ran it down their throats again, with running back LeGarrette Blount leading the way (30 carries for 148 yards, and 3 touchdowns). In two playoff games against Indy, Blount has 54 carries for 314 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 7 touchdowns. It was all on Blount, too; Tom Brady was the second leading rusher on the night (3 carries, 13 yards).

The offensive line did a great job in pass protection and a decent one in the running game. There were good running holes about half the time, and the other half, Blount ran guys over to get extra yards. The Patriots mostly ran to the right, to avoid Colts defensive lineman Arthur Jones. But they also employed the six- and seven-linemen formations that proved dominant over Indy in the past. The smallish Colts line and linebackers simply can't hold up under that kind of size deficit.

Brady was kept mostly clean, sacked just once and hit only two other times (though one was a high-low shot after he should have been on the sideline, more on that in a bit). He was off early in the game, but he got himself on-track faster this week than last. The final numbers look pedestrian, but bear in mind that the rain and wind made things difficult and there were several dropped passes. Brady went 23 of 35 (65.7%), 226 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 100.4 QB rating.

The dropsies were mostly shared between receivers Brandon LaFell (4 catches for 28 yards) and Julian Edelman (9 for 98). LaFell had one and was out of the offense for a while after that. Edelman had one and they went right back to him; which shows you where those guys are on the pecking order. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted 8 times, but had only 3 receptions (for 28 yards and a touchdown). Brady has a habit of trying to feed Gronkowski, throwing his only interception on double-coverage on the tight end.

The reception-distribution was good again this week. Against Baltimore the Patriots threw the ball more, so the numbers won't equal what they did in that game. But they had four receivers with at least 3 catches, and they targeted Danny Amendola three times, though only one of them was complete. They have to keep this up against Seattle in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks' secondary is too good to get beaten by one or two receivers on a regular basis.

The biggest stat of the game was this: the Patriots only had to make 27 tackles all game long. In 11 years of blogging, this is the lowest number I remember seeing. They were superb on third-down (allowed just 3 of 11 conversions), they had two takeaways, and of the 27 tackles, only 2 were assisted -- which means the first hit was usually the only one needed to bring down the ball-carrier.

The defensive line did a great job holding the edge and collapsing the pocket on Luck. They wanted to make him beat them from the pocket, and by the third quarter it was obvious he couldn't. Outside rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich didn't have stand-out stats. But their upfield rushes pressured Luck into quicker throws or throw aways. Ninkovich ended up with 3 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, and 2 passes defended; not bad.

Jamie Collins paced the linebackers again this week. He led the team with 4 tackles, had a QB hit, an interception, and a pass defended. A well-rounded day. Dont'a Hightower had 3 tackles and -- wait a second... sorry, I got distracted, the Colts just dropped another pass! Where was I, oh, right -- Hightower also did a nice job stuffing the run and getting into the drop zones once the game was all-pass-all-the-time for the Colts.

In the secondary, Darrelle Revis had an interception and two passes defended. And the aforementioned Arrington was great jamming Hilton at the line. He was the Colts best receiver this year, but he caught just one pass on six targets last night. That was largely due to Arrington pushing him around at the line and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung helping bracket Hilton. Revis missed one series with an injury, but even when he went out, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler didn't get beaten deep once.

Special teams didn't do anything stupid, and they got a terrific return by Julian Edelman that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown. Contrast that with the Colts: they muffed a punt and the Patriots recovered it, and the Colts missed a field goal in the first half.

The coaching was excellent in this game. The plan to start the game was great; they kept the Colts offense completely under wraps until Brady's interception. And the offense started out much quicker this game than last one. They also won the adjustment battle; as the Patriots outscored Indy 28-0 in the second half.

The only coaching quibble was not getting the starters out of the game earlier. It's okay to leave in Brady if all he's going to do is hand off the ball. But he got crushed with about 6:00 left in the game, even though the result was no longer in doubt. Brady shouldn't have been on the field, let alone taken a shot like that.

So where does that leave us? With a very enjoyable two weeks to look forward to. Lots of Patriots talk, discussions about legacies and dynasties, and debates on which team should be favored and/or will win. Enjoy it while you can; the two week run-up to the Super Bowl is booooring when your team isn't in it!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Both the AFC and NFC Championship Games features touchdown catches by offensive tackles. Gary Gilliam of the Seahawks got his on a fake field goal. And Nate Solder of the Patriots got his on a tackle-eligible play.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe Boomer Esiason is right; maybe this is the most complete Patriots team since 2004!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-4 & 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: In Luck's first start against the Patriots, he held the lead with 12:13 left in the second quarter. That is 222 minutes and 13 seconds of game time ago.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Playoff Preview: Colts at Patriots

It’s Patriots/Colts for all the AFC marbles this Sunday, third time they’ve played for a Super Bowl berth, and fifth time they’ve met in the playoffs. In fact, it was exactly 11 years ago this Sunday that they played in the postseason for the first time, the first playoff matchup of two guys named Brady and Manning. Brady versus Luck doesn’t have the same ring to it, but give it a few years and it might.

The best place to start analyzing this game is their most recent regular-season contest. They played on November 16, 2014, and the Patriots ground the Colts to dust with a 201-yard, 4 touchdown performance by Jonas Gray. The game was close at the half, but the Pats steamrolled them 28-10 in the second stanza.

With that recent game in mind, the question is whether enough has changed from that first game to change the outcome of the AFC Championship Game. Here are some answers.

1. No Luck Against the Patriots

In a lot of ways, the November game was typical for Andrew Luck, because he got waxed all three times against the Patriots. The aggregate score is 144-66, and Luck’s numbers are downright bad: 70 of 130 (58.3%), 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a 67.6 QB rating. And even though he’s known as a quarterback who can run, Luck was sacked as many times as he ran the ball: five.

As for the post-season, his numbers and performance are better this year than in the past. In two playoff games this year, Luck completed 67% of his passes and sports a 90.3 QB rating. Those numbers should be encouraging to Colts fans hoping this will be the week Luck puts it together against New England.

On the other hand, the first two games have been in the friendly confines of his home dome and in 40-degree weather, with no precip and very little wind in Denver. Now we come to Foxboro: 33-degrees and freezing rain or snow during the game. No doubt that weather will slow down the Indy passing game; and they don’t have much of a rushing attack to fall back on.

2. Can Pagano Stop the Patriots Offense?

Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was on staff in Baltimore from 2008-2011, when the Ravens first tasted success against the Patriots. The teams played four times during that span, all in Foxboro. And even though Pagano’s team went 1-3, they outscored the Patriots 94-87, held New England 25% below their season scoring average, and in 2010 they handed the Pats their first home playoff loss since 1978.

Baltimore had always been capable of stopping the run. But Pagano dramatically improved their secondary play and pass defense immediately upon arrival. In his first year, the Ravens went from 29th in the league to 2nd in yards allowed per pass, and from 24th to 1st in opponent QB rating. In other words, Pagano knows his stuff.

That’s why it’s so odd the Patriots continually thrash his Colts. The Pats have averaged 48 points a game against Pagano, post Baltimore. And last weekend the Patriots more than doubled the average points allowed by the Ravens this season -- against a Ravens defense that is miles better than the Colts defense.

If Pagano channels his inner secondary coach and slows down the Patriots short passing game, his team has a chance to win. It might seem weird to target the passing game, given the Patriots recent success running on the Colts (480 yards and 8 touchdowns in their last two meetings). But they have to start somewhere.

Maybe returning safety LaRon Landry will help enough in the secondary. And maybe returning defensive run-stuffer Arthur Jones will slow down the Pats running game. But the betting here is that they won’t stop either.

The Patriots offense is just a bad matchup for the Colts, as currently constituted. If Pagano gets better players, he’s shown he can coach them well. But this game is Sunday, not next year, so he’ll have to go to battle with what he has. And that is unlikely to be good enough.

3. Rushing-Attempt Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

If you think the Patriots 13 rushes for 14 yards were low last week, don’t be surprised if Indianapolis goes even lower on Sunday. The Patriots gave up on the run because they couldn’t gain any yards against the Ravens. The Colts might give up because they had no success in the November tilt with the Patriots, and because they are running out of healthy backs.

The Colts gained just 19 yards on 15 carries in 42-20 loss to New England, with 15 of those yards coming on Luck scrambles. And 13 of the 19 carries were by Ahmad Bradshaw (now on injured reserve) and Trent Richardson (a healthy scratch last Sunday). The team might have to activate Richardson, just to give back Dan Herron an occasional breather.

The problem with the Colts' lackluster rushing attack is it bodes ill in a game that will feature rain, sleet, and snow. The Patriots have shown they can grind out yards on the ground against Indy. The Colts have nothing to show on the ground; and that might cost them in this game.

4. Vinatieri Or Gostkowski?

Adam Vinatieri is a legend in New England. He played an integral part in all three Super Bowl wins, including getting them to the first one with two clutch kicks in the snow. He lifted weights with the linebackers, and he once chased down running back Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff return. Vinatieri left the Patriots as the most accurate kicker in team history (81.9%) and with the undying admiration of a generation of fans.

Stephen Gostkowski came along to replace Vinatieri nine years ago. And now he is the most accurate kicker the Patriots have ever had, and third-best in NFL history (86.8%). His kickoffs go further than those in Vinatieri’s dreams, and he’s led the league in scoring four times, including the last three consecutive years.

So why do I think that if it comes down to one kick, a money kick for a trip to the Super Bowl, in sloppy conditions in Foxboro -- why does that sound like a tailor-made scenario for Vinatieri? Maybe because he is the all-time leader with 30 postseason games, the all-time playoff scoring leader with 233 points (lapping the field with 33% more than second-place), and the kicker with the most Super Bowl rings in history with four.

Gostkowski has been great, nearly everything you could ask in replacing a legend. But for all he’s accomplished, Gostkowski has a tendency to whiff at big moments. Just this past season, against Green Bay he had a 47-yarder to make it a 2-point game late in the fourth quarter. He missed it wide right.

With the game on the line, who would you rather have? The younger guy with the big leg and more impressive stats? Or the older guy with so many clutch kicks you can’t even remember them all?

5. Dome-field Disadvantage

Face it folks, the elephant in the room is the change of venue. The last time a warm-weather or dome team came to Foxboro and won a playoff game was the aforementioned loss in 1978 (trivia question: name the team, answer below.)

Since 1978, eleven such teams have flown to New England for the playoffs. All eleven came in blustering about how the weather wouldn’t affect them, pointing out that both teams had to play in the same elements, and assuring their fans that they were built for that kind of weather. And all eleven flew home to dust off their golf clubs.

The latest Foxboro forecast is 35-degrees and a 90% chance of pouring rain at kickoff. No doubt it will affect both teams. But if history is any guide, playing outdoors in freezing rain favors the home team. Numbers don’t lie, and an 11-0 Patriots record makes a pretty compelling case.

6. Quick Hits

A) Patriots are 7-3 in AFC Championship Games, average win is 27-16 and average loss is 31-21. The Colts are 4-3 in AFCC Games, average win is 32-17 and average loss is 22-10.

B) Of the teams left in the playoffs, only Indianapolis has a negative turnover-differential. They finished at -5, whereas the Packers were +14, the Patriots were +12, and the Seahawks were +9.

C) Also, the Colts tied for an NFL-worst 15 fumbles lost on the season, not a good sign when there’s rain and snow in the forecast.

D) Two teams meeting three times for the AFC Championship in 11 years might sound impressive. But two other pairs of teams met three times in even closer proximity: the Broncos and Browns played in the AFCC Game thrice in four years (1986, 87, & 89), and the Steelers and Raiders played in three consecutive AFCC Games (1974-76)!

7. Prediction

The Patriots running game won’t dominate like it did the last two games. With Arthur Jones back for this game, there’s pretty much no chance for another 200+ yard rushing performance. Though the Patriots will run more than last week, without a doubt -- if only because 14 yards is pathetic.

And weather notwithstanding, those eleven warm-weather/dome teams lost by an aggregate score of 278-138, an average of 25-12.5 per game. And the Colts themselves have lost three playoff games in Foxboro, by an average of 29-13.

History like that doesn’t foretell the future, but it should not be ignored. The Patriots won’t roll like they did in November. But they should get the W.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-4! & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: the Houston Oilers beat the Patriots 31-14 in Foxboro on December 31, 1978.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Patriots Top Ravens in 35-31 Thriller

Bye Bye, Birdie... don't let the elevator door hit you on the way out. The Patriots overcame two 14-point deficits, injuries, incompetence, and seemingly every conceivable bad break to beat the Ravens 35-31 last night. The game puts them in the AFC Championship Game for the fourth straight year (Trivia Question: name the last team to do that, the ironic answer below).

It looked bleak early, as the Ravens scored touchdowns on their first two possessions. But the Patriots switched from zone- to man-coverage and held Baltimore to just 17 points the rest of the way. Meanwhile, the Patriots tossed the running game out and went almost exclusively with the pass. And it paid dividends, with five touchdowns and just enough points to emerge victorious.

Quarterback Tom Brady was bad to start the game. He missed two open receivers on the first drive, and his lone interception came near the end of the half, when he threw into triple coverage (and that INT was turned into 7 points by the Ravens). His final numbers looked good: 33 of 50, 367 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 INT, and a 99.3 QB rating. But the furious comebacks wouldn't have been necessary if he'd been better to start the game.

However, once the team was behind, Brady was masterful at bringing them back. When the Ravens dropped eight players into coverage near the end zone, Brady ran up the middle for the Pats first points of the game. He was masterful, manipulating the formation to get good match-ups and hitting receivers in ridiculously small windows -- including on the game-winning touchdown to Brandon LaFell.

The receiving corps played exceptionally well. LaFell not only had that crucial touchdown, but four of his other five catches resulted in first-downs. Danny Amendola (5 catches, 81 yards, 2 touchdowns) made a great play on his first touchdown, shedding a tackler and diving into the end zone. He also had an absolutely critical third-down conversion on the winning touchdown drive, where he stretched to get to the marker. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had 7 catches for 108 yards, even though he faced double- and triple-teams most of the night.

But Julian Edelman was the receiver of the game. Six of his eight receptions went for first downs, he ended up with 74 yards receiving in the game, battled three Ravens to recover his own fumble, had some nifty punt returns, and threw his first NFL pass for a touchdown on a flea flicker. Unsubstantiated rumors are that he left the Stadium and leaped over a building in a single bound.

Also of note was the way the Patriots spread the ball around. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and running back Shane Vereen had four catches each. That makes six players with four or more catches, distribution not seen around here very often. The team often becomes Edelman and Gronkowski centered. But attacking with more receivers makes the other team work that much harder to stop you, and it most definitely helps in the playoffs.

The running game and the offensive line can be summed up in one word: invisible. The Pats rushed for 14 total yards, -3 yards in the second half (where they had one Brady scramble and three Brady kneel-downs). And in pass "protection," Brady was under constant pressure, and only the switch to short passes made it possible to complete something before he was flushed from the pocket or tackled.

The Ravens possess one of the better front-sevens in the NFL. But you still can't give them free shots at your QB, and you have to be able to do better than 14 yards rushing. The line did have one significant injury: center Bryan Stork went out with a knee problem. Here's hoping he is okay for next week, because the starting five on the line is the only line-up that has any shot of protecting Brady.

(Note: more on the novel four-man O-line later in the coaching section.)

The defensive line didn't get much pressure on Baltimore's quarterback: zero sacks and two QB hits. But they got enough to force a few bad throws, two of which were picked off. They would get a decent grade if they'd been effective against the run, but alas they were not. Chandler Jones lost outside contain a few times, and though Rob Ninkovich kept his outside leverage, the Ravens back cut inside for chunk yardage. On the day, Baltimore had 136 yards on 28 rushes (4.9 per run); nothing to write home about.

The linebackers redefined hot-and-cold. They failed multiple times to pick up running backs in the flat, at least five of those plays going for big yards against seemingly no defenders. However, Jamie Collins was great at making Flacco throw early the few times he blitzed, led the team in tackles (11), and was terrific in pass coverage. And when the Ravens targeted Dont'a Hightower in the passing game, it wasn't perfect, but Hightower got it done about 50-60% of the time.

The secondary held all the intrigue of the night. They started out in zone (reportedly to make it easier to stop the run) and they got torched for two straight touchdowns. Once they switched to man-coverage, the Ravens scored on just 33% of their drives, one of those a field goal and another on a short field after an interception. (Note: that doesn't count the one-play Hail Mary "drive" at the end of the game).

Kyle Arrington was the favorite guy to pick on, going with their third- and fourth-receivers. And he gave up some plays, but nothing huge, and he was great in run support and on special teams. Corner Darrelle Revis gave up three or four completions when they played zone, and just a holding penalty and no passes after they changed to man-to-man. And reports are that safety Patrick Chung had his best game of the year, though I remember him getting burned a few times. The Pats did mostly take the Ravens tight ends out of the game, perhaps Chung was doing that and I didn't notice it.

The biggest deal was when corner Brandon Browner got injured and left the game. The Pats moved safety Devin McCourty to corner, and put him on the inside against Daniels. Daniels had some success, but mostly McCourty did a nice job of making tackles after catches so the damage was limited. They also put in Logan Ryan outside, and despite his poor reputation, the Ravens never found a way to exploit him.

Chung and Arrington finished third and fourth in tackles, with seven and six respectively.  McCourty had a nice interception and two passes defended. Browner did a very nice job while he was in the game, his customary pass interference penalty notwithstanding. And replacement safety Duron Harmon had the semi-game-sealing interception when Flacco was pressured into a bad pass at the end of the game.

Special teams were very good, if not the performances we're used to seeing. Stephen Gostokowski's kickoffs were high but shorter. But the Pats clearly planned it, high-fiving Gostkowski every time he came off the field. This was obviously to combat the excellent Ravens return game. Same went for punts; Baltimore got very little in return yardage all game long. And the Patriots return game did better than the Ravens, which is all you can ask for.

The offensive and defensive coaching staffs should take a bow. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's halftime adjustments are nearing the realm of folklore. The Patriots have allowed just 32 second-half points in their last 8 games (that's 4 points a game for the mathematically challenged). Switching from zone- to man-defense was just the beginning of his excellent adjustments against the Ravens.

Patricia moved McCourty to cornerback when starter Browner got injured, something I thought they should have done the last two AFC Championship Games when Aqib Talib got hurt. And the shaky safety tandem of Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson held up just fine;  with McCourty near the line there were no long passes completed over either safety.

On offense, Josh McDaniels certainly exorcised those demons. However, the impressive part was how he did it. He called 38 passes and 1 run in the second half, leaving himself to serious second-guessing if it didn't work. But the offense controlled the action once they flushed the run. And when the Pats had a second O-line injury, he compensated, not by putting in an even lesser lineman, but by sending in receivers and backs to report as "ineligible receivers" to fill the extra spot on the line.

The strategy worked wonders. Baltimore was confused, and continued to cover the ineligible players, opening up easy completions to the eligible ones. It worked so well, Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh lost his cool and got an "un-sportsman like" penalty for ripping the officials. (Note to Harbaugh, if your team continues to cover an ineligible receiver, it's your fault, not the officials' fault.)

Lastly, McDaniels called a trick play we've been waiting 5+ years to see: a Julian Edelman flea-flicker pass for a touchdown. It came at the perfect time, was reportedly against the perfect defense, and it worked perfectly. Edelman was a quarterback in college, so you knew the pass would be on target. And for those of you like me, who clamored for an Edelman flea-flicker sooner, it was worth waiting for this moment, a playoff game where you needed to build momentum to see it.

Two notes about the chess match between the two teams:

1. All season long the Ravens employed a stretch-concept in their running game, made famous by the Broncos when Ravens' offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was there. But they obviously thought the Patriots defense was too disciplined for that to succeed. So in one week, they transformed from stretch-runs to a standard running attack. And they got great results, so nice job by them.

2. Ravens head coach shouldn't whine about the Patriots four-linemen offense. It's a legal tactic, and nothing in the rule book says the referees have to give you time to adjust after the player reports as ineligible. They announce it to the crowd and to your team, and then it's game on.

If your team was confused, you should have called timeout and told them what to do. Whining about it was silly in the moment, and it comes off as sour grapes after the fact. Let me give you a hint: the NFL will investigate it and say that it was legal. Do a better job in game-management next time.

So where does that leave us? 13-4 hosting the AFC Championship Game against a team they beat already this season (either Denver or Indianapolis). There are some health concerns: Browner and Stork both suffered knee injuries, and only Browner has said that he'll play. But if you had to hope for good health for only one of them, hope for Stork -- the offensive line isn't the same if even one of the five is injured.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Colts and Broncos play today, and the Patriots beat both teams this season, in back-to-back games, by exactly 22 point each.

Bonus Statistical Oddities: Patriots are the first team to win a playoff game by overcoming multiple 14-point deficits. And Julian Edelman's first NFL pass was a touchdown in the playoffs, and his QB rating is 158.3 -- the highest you can attain.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I wasn't nervous at all... you know, once the final gun sounded."

Keep the faith

- Scott

PS. 13-4 & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: The Buffalo Bills went to the AFC Championship Game from 1990-1993. Note: the irony is that they currently have the longest streak of seasons without even making the playoffs (15 years).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Playoff Preview: Ravens vs. Patriots

The good news: at long last, the wait is over -- the Patriots start their playoff run this Saturday at 4:35pm! The bad news: it’s the worst possible AFC opponent, the Baltimore Ravens. That’s right, the team that beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in 2012, and should have done so in 2011. They are coming to town, and trust me, they do not fear playing in Foxboro (they are 2-1 in the playoffs there).

I’d usually consider insights from the most recent game between the two teams, but it was over a year ago, and it was a 41-7 thrashing by the Patriots. In fact, some guy named Tyrod Taylor got his only NFL playing time late in that game, completing one pass to his team, and one to the Patriots.

But even without that as a springboard, here are my thoughts on how the game will go this Saturday.

1. Healthy at the Right Time

The Patriots enter the game as healthy as they’ve been all season. If tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman play as expected, the team will only be down only two significant players from the start of the year: running back Stevan Ridley, and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Running back LeGarrette Blount was signed to replace Ridley, and the linebacking rotation hasn’t missed a beat without Mayo.

The Ravens used 12 cornerbacks this season, most notably losing starting corner Jimmy Smith mid-season. But all that turnover hasn’t slowed them down lately. They’ve won 5 of their last 7 games and they held Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sub-80.0 quarterback rating just last week. Also, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata returned from suspension for the Pittsburgh game, and he didn’t look like he missed a beat.

2. Baltimore Front-Seven is Better Than the Patriots O-Line

The Patriots offensive line problems have been a recurring theme all year long. And here come the Ravens, sporting stout inside linemen Ngata and Brandon Williams, and fast/strong linemen and linebackers outside, led by linebacker Terrell Suggs. They have exactly the kind of front seven that’s given the Patriots fits over the years -- even back when their offensive line was excellent.

The Ravens’ defensive line advantage was the main reason I thought this was the worst matchup in the AFC for the Patriots. Not only will they likely stuff the Patriots running game, but Tom Brady won’t have much time to throw the ball. However, Baltimore might be missing the one thing they need to make this advantage pay off: corners who can play press-man at the line of scrimmage.

If the Patriots receivers get open quickly, the short passing game could be their salvation. And I don’t think the Ravens have the corners to bump them at the line and then stay with them. The Ravens will likely play bump-and-run; it’s their best chance to win. And if their corners hold up, it could spell doom for the Patriots.

This will be the chess match to watch on Saturday. If the Pats passing game is in gear early it could be a long, cold night for the Ravens.

3. Patriots Second Half Defense

The Ravens trailed at the half in six of their last seven games (and held a slim one-point lead in the other one). It shows resilience to come back in such situations, but it likely won’t go well if they fall behind on Saturday. Because the Patriots second-half defense has been stellar all season long.

As noted here last week, the Pats gave up 24 fourth-quarter points in their two September losses combined (Miami and Kansas City). And they gave up only 38 fourth-quarter points in the other 14 games combined. They’ve also given up just 16 points in the second halves of their last six games combined -- including three second half shutouts!

The Ravens might not panic when they fall behind, but they’d be well-advised not to let the gap get too big against the Patriots. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done a masterful job with halftime adjustments this season, and it is by far his best coaching year so far.

4. Is Flacco the New Joe Cool?

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last five playoff games. Additionally, here are his QB ratings from those five games:

In the playoffs, against the best of the best, Flacco is 10-4 with 21 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. And post-season QB rating is 10% higher than his career rating in the regular season (88.2 vs. 80.1). He might not be elite September through December, but once January rolls around, he elevates his game and doesn’t make mistakes.

5. Josh McDaniels Versus Dean Pees and Steve Spagnuolo

This time of year Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is frequently mentioned as a head coaching candidate. And if he wants to impress potential employers, he could start this Saturday by exorcising some of his past demons.

Current Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees held the same title when his charges shut out McDaniels’ offense in the second half of the AFC Championship Game two years ago. And Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator of the Giants team that derailed the Patriots offense in the almost-perfect 2007 season.

Pees and Spagnuolo outcoached McDaniels in the biggest moments. And both won Super Bowls the seasons they schooled McDaniels on the gridiron.

If McDaniels wants to improve his position in the head-coaching derby, he needs to overcome two men who have stood between him and the ultimate prize. He’s got all his weapons this year, so no excuses. Put up points now and some owner will put up cash next month.

6. Quick Hits

A) The Ravens put their long-snapper, Kevin McDermott, on injured reserve a few weeks ago, replacing him with first-time NFLer Patrick Scales. It hasn’t affected them so far. But the Patriots blocked five kicks this season, so long-snapping could be more important than usual.

B) The Patriots are 8-3 versus Baltimore all time, but 1-2 in the playoffs (all three games in Foxboro).

C) Baltimore went 1-6 against teams that ended 2014 with winning records. The Patriots were 5-3 against teams that ended 2014 with winning records.

D) In 2014, the Patriots and Ravens gave up 7.2 yards per pass completion. But the Patriots were better in QB rating allowed (84.0 to 90.6), completion percentage (59.6 to 62.4), passing yards allowed per game (239.8 to 248.7), and interceptions (16 to 11).

7. Bold Prediction

I hate to say it, but it feels like a 10+ point win by the Patriots. Not because their offense will dominate, but because I don’t see how the Ravens score many points at all. The Pats front seven has been great against the run, neutralizing the Ravens' Justin Forsett. Add corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to equation, and it’s tough to see how Baltimore scores. And no team has yet come up with a way to control Gronkowski, save for double- or triple-teaming him.

The Ravens can win if the Patriots don’t take care of the ball. But without turnovers, the Patriots should win comfortably.

Keep the faith, and enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!