Monday, December 14, 2015

Patriots Smother Texans, 27-6

The Patriots defense pitched a second-half shutout, and the team won convincingly, 27-6 at Houston. The victory puts them in the playoffs for the seventh year in a row, and they are also atop the AFC alone, as the Broncos and Bengals both lost. The Tennessee Titans come to Foxboro next week, and if history is any basis, Marcus Mariotta's first game against the Patriots won't go his way.

(Note: this loss puts the Texans at 6-7, but somehow they are still tied for the division lead. Trivia Question: name the NFL team with the worst record that is still mathematically alive for the playoffs. Answer below.)

As for the game, the New England defense was suffocating all game long. The Texans' tenth-longest play of the entire game went for just six yards. And in fact, they had only five plays that went for 10+ yards. They ended up with only 189 yards of total offense, and almost half of it (89 yards) came on two pass plays. And they went just 3-16 (18.75%) on third- and fourth-down attempts.

The defensive line did a great job with gap responsibilities and setting the edge to stop the run. Houston had a 37-yard run, and 50 yards on 21 other carries, thanks to the likes of Malcom Brown and Aikeem Nicks inside, and Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard outside. Sheard's stat line is impressive: five tackles, two sacks (for 34 yards in losses), three QB hits, and forced fumbles on both sacks! And Nicks had two sacks of his own, to go along with six tackles. Ninkovich had one sack and some big plays against the run, although he did lose contain on at least one big run.

Two linebackers led the team in tackles: Jamie Collins (9), and Jerod Mayo (8). Both players are rounding into form nicely after injuries, Collins' earlier this year and Mayo's from last year. Mayo showed great burst at the line and his instincts on play-reads are as honed as ever. He was a step slow in the Denver game, but not last night. And Collins does so many things so well he can make opponents change offensive schemes.

If Collins' can return to dominance, he's as big an X-factor on defense as Rob Gronkowski is on offense. He can rush the passer, stuff the run, knife in to make tackles in the backfield, cover backs or tight ends, reads screen passes with the best of them, and can line up anywhere on the field. Put him next to Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower (still out with a knee injury), and the linebacking corps is as potent as any in the league.

None of the front-seven would have done as well without great play from the secondary.  Corner Malcolm Butler neutralized Houston's second-best receiver, and Logan Ryan played an excellent game against their #1 guy, albiet with help of the top. But the surprise of the week was newcomer Leonard Johnson, who knocked away two passes on critical plays. He's already a big upgrade from other third corners the Pats have played, so here's hoping it isn't just a one-game thing with him.

The safeties let up two long passes, and unfortunately, Devin McCourty left the game late with an injury. But Patrick Chung held up his end of the bargain, as always. Eight tackles (including one for a loss), and he knocked away a long pass up the seam that could have gotten the Texans close in the third quarter.

Quarterback Tom Brady was only hit three times and sacked three others, a stark contrast to the 36 QB hits and eight sacks the previous three games. And his numbers reflected it: 22 of 30 (73%), 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a 116.8 QB rating. He had good pocket presence, never panicked in the face of "phantom pressure," and never once putting the ball anywhere near an interception.

Brady was obviously helped by his offensive line, at least some. Each player took his turn having at least one bad play, but the big worry was center Bryan Stork, who was either injured or benched late in the game. It wouldn't surprise me if he was benched, he'd played the worst of any of the linemen to that point. But in either case, switching centers and shuffling the offensive line yet again is bad at this point in the season. After all, his replacement, David Andrews, was benched against Denver for poor play.

The number of receivers who catch passes is dropping game by game. Only five players caught Brady passes this week, led by Danny Amendola's six catches for 46 yards. However, Gronkowski did more damage: four catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. And sneaking into the conversation for third receiver is Keshawn Martin, with three grabs for 23 yards. Not that he'll be returning punts any time soon (more on that in a bit).

The running backs helped control the game, totaling 116 yards on 31 attempts.  LeGarrette Blount (10 carries for 53 yards) did most of the damage early, but when he went down with an injury, Brandon Bolden stepped in with 16 carries and 51 yards of his own. James White didn't run much, but his only carry was the touchdown that sealed the game.

One other note on the offense. The balance in this game (31 rushes, 33 pass plays [including sacks]) is what I believe they were striving for in the Eagles game. Unfortunately they got away from it too early in the second half of that game, but expect a more balanced offense until they get receiver Julian Edelman back. 

Which brings us to special teams, where they had a blunder for the third straight week.  This time is was Martin, who fumbled a punt in the third quarter, giving Houston excellent field position. Fortunately the dominant defense bailed him out without giving up a point. But his improved play on offense was overshadowed by this mistake. Also, before that fumble, he'd averaged 11.5 yards on four returns. (BTW, does anyone else miss special teams coach Scott O'Brien like I do?)

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was money on two kicks again this week (ho hum), and punter Ryan Allen did a great job pinning the Texans back drive after drive. So it wasn't all bad.

A special shoutout to the coaching staff. They came up with a great plan to neutralize Houston defensive end J. J. Watt, and did an exceptional job in planning how to stop the Texans' offense.

So where does that leave us? 11-2 ain't half bad, especially when it's good enough for the #1 seed in your conference. A win over the Titans this Sunday would nearly guarantee a first-round bye (given that Cincinnati and Denver play each other). Also of note: if the Giants beat the Dolphins on Monday night, the Patriots are division champs again.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Including last night's game, McCourty has more one-tackle games this year (3) than he had in his entire career prior to this season (2). (Note: he has never had a zero-tackle game in his NFL career.)

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Jabaal Sheard took advantage of some poor blocking schemes and dominated a 15-minute stretch of the game that put it out of reach.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If the Pats get Hightower and Edelman back for the playoffs, they should be favored to win it all again."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:  The 4-9 Dallas Cowboys are still alive for a possible playoff berth.

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