Sunday, January 28, 2018

Patriots Super Bowl 52 Preview

One week to go until the big game, and I have a confession to make: I haven't seen the Eagles play this year. Life circumstances and time constraints make this the first time I'll publish a preview of the Super Bowl without at least seeing the opponent in the NFC Championship Game. So please take what you are about to read with a grain -- make that two grains -- of salt.

The Bison In The Room

Philadelphia's starting quarterback in the Super Bowl won't be the guy who started the season, former North Dakota State University star Carson Wentz ("Go Bisons!"). Wentz was on his way to a possible MVP when he was injured against the LA Rams and placed on season-ending injured reserve. So it'll be Nick Foles at the helm on Sunday.

It's been four seasons since Foles' breakout campaign in 2013 (27 touchdowns, 2 interceptions). And the results haven't been great since then: 58.8% completions, 6.43 yards per attempt, 28 TDs, 22 INTs, a 78.1 QB rating, and a 13-10 record (including 2-1 this year). He is a streaky player, who thrives when things are going well and tightens up when they go poorly.

He can throw short but loves to throw long. Against the Patriots, he would be well-advised to keep the ball in the short zones, attacking the Patriots linebackers in pass coverage. The Eagles have two excellent tight ends and at least one receiver who are very good in the short zones. They don't throw much to their running backs; but they have the players to exploit the Pats weakness at linebacker.

The Pats secondary is much more talented and their safeties could feast on the long ball if Foles can't stick with short routes. So he must remain disciplined to give the Eagles a shot.

Can The Eagles Stop The G.O.A.T.?

Philadelphia had the ninth-best passing defense in the league, as measured by giving up just a 79.5 QB rating to all quarterbacks they faced this year. But they didn't face anyone having a year close to what Tom Brady had in 2017.

To answer the question of whether Philly can slow down Brady, consider the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville led the league by allowing just a 68.5 QB rating by their combined opponents this year. And Brady torched them for a 108.4 rating, a higher rating than Jacksonville had given up in any regular-season game this year.

So it's nice that the Eagles have a good pass defense. But if Rob Gronkowski returns from concussion protocol, the Patriots have plenty of weapons to put the hurt on the Philly defense. Just ask Jacksonville.

Offensive Efficiency Dead Heat

If you think the Patriots are vastly superior to the Eagles on the offensive side, you might want to think again. Here are the two teams game statistics compared from the regular season.
  • Points Scored: Patriots 458, Eagles 457
  • Plays From Scrimmage: Eagles 1,073, Patriots 1,070
  • Third-down Conversions: Eagles 42%, Patriots 41%
  • Fourth-down Conversions: Eagles 65%, Patriots 62%
It is true that many of these stats were put up by Wentz, not Foles. But still pretty amazing to see such a close race between the two teams.

Coaching Mismatch A Lot More Than Experience

It's pretty easy to look at the head coaches and see a huge disparity. Philadelphia's Doug Pederson has coached two playoff games, and in fairness, he won them both (the last two weeks). Bill Belichick has coached 38 playoff games and won 28 of them.

Everyone knows Belichick will leave no stone unturned in his preparation and that he will not panic under any circumstances in the game. No one really knows what Pederson will do before or during the game on Sunday.

But the additional mismatch is the coordinators. Pats DC Matt Patricia and OC Josh McDaniels are reportedly gone after the season, taking head coaching jobs with the Lions and Colts, respectively. So neither of them has any reason to leave any bullets unfired in this game. If they have an exotic blitz or a special offensive play, they might as well use it in this game -- because next year they will be gone.

Interestingly, this is the exact situation as the last time the Pats and Eagles played in the Super Bowl. Back then it was Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis leaving after the big game. And both came up with masterful gameplans and stellar adjustments to changing game situations. (Trivia question: name the coaches who replaced Weis and Crennel at their respective positions for the 2005 season. Answer below.)

Quick Hits:

A) Gronkowski participated in practice today and appears on schedule to return for the Super Bowl.

B) The Patriots will likely test the Philly kickoff return game. The Pats kicked it inside the five yard-line against most teams, whereas the Eagles had the fewest kickoff returns in the league this year (18).

C) The thinking seems to be that Philly needs to get pressure with their front four; but that won't be easy. The Eagles had a middling pass rush this year, getting 38 sacks on the season, tied for 15th in the NFL.

D) The Eagles did have a stout run defense though, giving up an average of 3.8 yards per carry (tied for 6th in the league). Meanwhile the Pats gave up 4.7ypc, second-worst in the league.

Statistical Oddity: Under Belichick, the Patriots have played 15 teams in the playoffs that they had not faced in that regular season. They are 15-0 in those games. 15-0! (Credit to, sorry for the repeat for those on Twitter and Facebook.)

Water-cooler Wisdom: "The team might think of this as a business trip, but I'm nervous as hell!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-3 & 2-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
In 2005, Eric Mangini replaced Crennel as defensive coordinator. But no offensive coordinator was named -- I know, trick question :P

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Patriots Advance To Super Bowl With 24-20 Win Over Jaguars

The Pats capped their fourth-quarter comeback with a 24-20 win over Jacksonville Sunday. The victory put them in the Super Bowl for an NFL record tenth time, and another NFL record eighth time for head coach Bill Belichick and quaterback Tom Brady. More on the Eagles soon, but first, Sunday's win...

You've no doubt heard a lot of analysis already (sorry this is late), but there are a few tidbits that haven't been mentioned much. (1) For every Danny Amendola great catch, there were equally great throws. (2) The Patriots made outstanding halftime adjustments. (3) How/Why Jacksonville went conservative and then blew it under pressure at the end.

Without Amendola the Patriots do not win this game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was ruled out of the game with a concussion in the first half, and usually dependable James White had two drops, one of which he allowed to be knocked away with poor technique. Chris Hogan didn't appear to be himself, and Brandin Cooks was fine on deep routes but sub-average on short ones. Add to all that the lack of a running game, and it was mostly Amendola keeping the chains moving in the second half.

The Pats receiver had just two catches (for 28 yards) in the three quarters, including one on the critically important touchdown before the half. But in the last 15 minutes, he had the 21-yard grab on third-and-18 grab for a first down. A diving grab for another first down inches from the ground. And then the ridiculous back of the endzone Spiderman catch where his barely got the second foot down as he floated out of bounds.

Two drives later, Amendola returned a punt 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30, and it appeared all but preordained that the Patriots were going to score and win. Two more completions to Amendola, and it was Patriots 24-20, and the ballgame. Without his contribution, the Pats would not be in the Super Bowl.

And none of this is meant to minimize how well Tom Brady played, especially with his 12 stitches in his right hand. A few of his early throws weren't up to his usual standards, particularly the touch throws to the flat. But once he got rolling in the second half, he was as accurate as he's been all year.

Four of the throws on their first fourth-quarter touchdown were outstanding. His dart to Amendola on third-and-18, down low where only his receiver could get it, but high enough to get over the defensive line. He followed that up with a quick-snap flea flicker (hand off to James White, who pitched it back to Brady). And he put that pass right on the money where Phillip Dorsett could leap up to make the play over the defender.

After that, his pass over the middle near the end zone, where he waited an extra half-beat and then threw about one inch past the defender where Amendola could only get it -- an absolutely unfair throw! And even the touchdown to Amendola, where he waited for the short routes to clear, stepped up to avoid pressure, and put it where there was no risk of a turnover but his receiver could make a play; what a brilliant throw.

Then there were the halftime adjustments. Reportedly the Patriots had to throw out 80% of their offensive game plan when Gronkowski was injured. So they mostly scrapped the running game and worked enough of the sideline to open up some throws over the middle later in the second half. It helped that Jacksonville played more zone, but that doesn't explain the increased production on its own.

The first half defense was just plain bad. They lost outside contain on multiple running plays, allowed the quarterback to complete 87% of his passes and convert 67% of the third downs, and barely grazed him beyond the one sack they had.

In the second half, it was different. They brought pressure, and pressure from odd places and strange angles. They got burned early on a delayed blitz up the middle, so they came with outside corner- and safety-blitzes that flustered the young QB. These also came in handy when the Jags tried to run outside, bring an extra defender to hold the edge or blow up the play.

In the last 30 minutes, Jacksonville averaged only 2.7 yards per carry and went 10 of 21 passing. The Patriots had figured them out, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia once again shut down a team in the second half. He has a habit of doing that -- the Pats gave up an average of 8.3 points in the second half of games this year. And that tendency will be missed when he's gone (reportedly the new head coach in Detroit after the Super Bowl).

Which leads us directly to how Jacksonville lost the game. First, after a dominant first half, they only led by four points. They had a delay of game coming out of a Patriots timeout (what?!), which negated a first-down gain and forced them to punt with about 2:00 left. And of course, the Patriots scored a touchdown easily against the Jags prevent defense.

Then, to compound the mistake, they knelt on the ball with 0:55 left and two timeouts! The Patriots would never have done that, and I'm sure Belichick was grateful that Jacksonville didn't go for the knockout touchdown or at least a field goal.

In the second half, the Jaguars were way too conservative on offense, with too many first-down runs. They ran on first down five times on seven second-half possessions, for a grand total of four yards. They needed to stick with short throws over the middle to attack the vulnerable Patriots linebackers. But they apparently thought the game was in hand, especially given that their defense was one of the league's best this year.

In retrospect, that was an obvious mistake.

Other stand-out performances:

  • Kyle Van Noy, who had 9 tackles, 1 sack (for 9 yards), a pass defended, and a forced fumble. Their only good linebacker had a good game.
  • Dion Lewis: 32 yards receiving and 34 yards rushing, including 18 big yards to ice the game.
  • Brandin Cooks had 100 yards receiving and 68 yards on two penalties against the Jaguars defense.
  • Phillip Dorsett, who not only had a 31-yard reception but did a great job chipping the Jacksonville ends to slow their pass rush.
  • Stephon Gilmore, with five tackles and two huge passes defended (including a late one to give the ball back to the Patriots).
  • Trey Flowers, except for the time he lost outside contain on a 10+ yard Jacksonville run.
  • James Harrison, but only when they had him rushing the passer and not against the run.
So where does that leave us? In the Super Bowl, baby! Gronkowski is in the concussion protocol and Brady's hand is still healing. Those are the only real unknowns; so enjoy the two weeks!

Biggest on-going concern: Back to the linebackers in pass coverage.

The Eagles won't attack them with running backs, but they have two good tight ends and at least one wideout (Alshon Jeffery) who can exploit the Pats linebacking deficiencies with short crossing routes.

Non-Brady MVP: Amendola, a monster game.

Statistical Oddity: The difference between Jacksonville's first and second halves, courtesy Matt Patricia's defensive adjustments. (Note: numbers projected from each half to a full game, for easy comparison.)

First half projections
  • Rushing: 34 for 120 yards (3.5 yards per carry)
  • Passing: 26 of 30 (87%) for 310 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 sacks (12 yards), 131.9 rating
  • Game Stats: 28 first downs, 8 of 12 on third down (67%), 4-4 in the red zone, 418 net yards

Second half projections

  • Rushing: 30 for 82 yards (2.7ypc)
  • Passing: 20 of 42 (47.6%) for 276 yards, 0 touchdowns, 6 sacks (40 yards), 69.1 rating
  • Game Stats: 16 first downs, 4 of 18 on third down (22%), 0-0 in the red zone, 330 net yards
  • 330 net yards

Bonus Statistical Oddity (courtesy of ESPN): Teams trailing by 10+ points in the 4th quarter of a playoff game in the last 10 seasons:

  • Patriots: 3-4
  • Rest of NFL: 3-70

Water-cooler Wisdom: "Gilmore signing was worth it just for that last play!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-3 & 2-0!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pats Ice The Titans, 35-14

The Patriots did what they were supposed to do, crushing the Tennessee Titans 35-14 to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday (3:05pm EST). This is more than we can say for the "Second Round Steelers," who failed to hold up their end of the bargain. So it'll be the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

As for Saturday night's game, the Titans were completely overmatched. And it started with the opening coin-flip. The Patriots won the toss, but instead doing the usual thing and deferring to the second half, they took the ball. That meant the Titans chose the goal to defend, and they put the Patriots into the wind in the first quarter.

What this did was allow the Patriots to control the game by matching their style to the wind direction. In the first quarter, they only took about 6:00 off the clock, but they pinned the Titans back inside their own ten yard line for both of their "with the wind" possessions. So even though Tennessee scored first, they used the entire quarter to get one touchdown.

When the Pats got the wind in the second quarter, they went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, while Tenn. went punt, punt, failed fourth-down conversion. This basically ended the game. However, even if it hadn't, the Titans got the ball first in the second half, but the Pats forced them to go into the wind, throwing the ball to catch up.

This was a master-course in how to manage game situations by Belichick. When the team had the wind, they went up-tempo and threw a lot. Against the wind, they kept the ball on the ground or threw short passes, and they used the entire play clock. Amazing strategy against a weak-armed quarterback. By the time the Titans got the wind in the fourth quarter, they were down 35-7. Game. Set. Match.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the Patriots guy played pretty well. Tom Brady completed 66% of his passes, including some pinpoint strikes in the red zone and a ridiculous cross-body, cross-field throw to Danny Amendola that fell right into his breadbasket. Brady controlled the line of scrimmage, audibiling to the perfect play time and again, and never once putting the ball in harm's way.

Amendola led the receivers in catches (11) and yards (112). He also did a fantastic job receiving punts on a very windy night, never bobbling a single one. The passing attack also featured running backs Dion Lewis and James White, with 9 catches for 79 yards, and 4 for 29 yards respectively. You had to know that was coming, as Tennessee was the worst team in the league versus pass-catching running backs.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski had 6 grabs for 81 yards, with a couple where he got position and Brady through it where the DB couldn't get to it. Gronk also did a nice job blocking for running plays, and helped protect the passer with some well-timed chips of outside rushers.

The biggest surprise of the game was the lack of pressure on Brady. The offensive line was outstanding, although aided and abetted by a defensive scheme that mostly sent three rushers. Brady was hit four times and sacked not once. And he had upwards of six or seven seconds on a few plays. Pair that with 4.3ypc by the running backs, and it was one of the best games this year for the O-line.

The running backs did well in the passing game, and showed explosion when needed in the running game. White scored two touchdowns (one running, one receiving), and Brandon Bolden had what must have been the easiest touchdown of his career to ice the game. (He ran untouched into the end zone, right up the middle of the defense.)

The second-biggest surprise of the game was the pressure applied by the Patriots defensive line. Here are the sack totals from that group:
Trey Flowers: 1 for 7 yards
Deatrich Wise: 2 for 12 yards
Geneo Grissom: 2 for 12 yards
Adam Butler: 1 for 5 yards
Ricky Jean Francois: 1 for 8 yards

Grissom was the emotional spark, firing up the team after some near-miss sacks (before he got two). And Butler should get credit for two of the other sacks, as he flushed Marcus Mariotta out of the pocket so others could get the on the stat sheet. It was a shockingly dominant performance; the unit even added 9 of the 10 QB hits!

It was nice to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy back. They didn't need him much to cover the running backs (they aren't much of a pass receiving threat), but it will help for him to have reps before facing a tougher Jacksonville squad this Sunday.

In the defensive backfield, the safeties worked to keep things in front of them, but there were some communication breakdowns. Corner Stephon Gilmore had the only two passes defended in the game, and it was unsettling to see some of the Titans wideouts running free. Fortunately they had enough drops to make up for it.

Punter Ryan Allen led the special teams units. Not only did he pin back the Titans early, but he handled at least one bad snap on a field goal/extra point attempt. Stephen Gostkowski continued his stellar use of the short-but-high kickoff to keep teams inside their own 20 yard line.

However, there were at least three bad long-snaps from Joe Cardona. Allen handled all three, two of which were on punts, and it might have owed to the frigid conditions. It was not a problem Saturday, but something to keep an eye on moving forward.

The coaching was a complete mismatch. The Patriots were cool and calm and stayed within their game plan. The Titans looked lost, called timeouts when they should have held onto them, and had 10 penalties for 62 yards.

A sequence at the end of the first half was particularly telling. They gained 9 yards to give themselves a fourth-and-1 (really a half-yard) near midfield. Coach (now former coach) Mike Mularkey decided, correctly, to go for it. But he burned his last timeout before the play... however, if the Titans ran for the first down, he would have needed that timeout to stop the clock again or lose any realistic chance to score.

And then after the timeout, they promptly ran a wide toss to the left... which of course lost five yards and gave the ball back to the Pats. He was clearly overmatched, and Tennessee fired him today as a result. (And they have their eye on Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, by the way.)

So where does that leave us? Another AFC Championship Game sounds just about right. It's their seventh in a row and twelfth of the Brady/Belichick era. Unfortunately for us, it'll be warm -- Florida teams don't do well in January when the thermometer dips into the teens.

Biggest on-going issue It is no longer the linebackers, simply because the teams that could have exploited their weakness in pass coverage all lost this weekend (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Atlanta).

It is actually team focus at this point. The Patriots are excellent at ignoring the noise. But with both coordinators likely gone, maybe the heir apparent DC gone (linebackers coach Brian Flores), and with all the crap about Brady, Belichick, Kraft, and the TB12 stuff, I'm actually worried about focus.

I do think the release of a Patriots hit-piece the morning of the Super Bowl in 2008 affected their focus. And they lost that game by three points, so it could have cost them another title and a perfect season.

We all expect them to keep their focus, and they probably will. But on the field, there just isn't much to worry about at this point. All the high-flying offenses are gone, and the Patriots are clearly the best team remaining in the field.

Non-Brady MVP: Amendola, a great game!

Statistical Oddity: The Patriots are going to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game. No other team in the NFL has a current streak of at least seven straight winning seasons. Think about that for a second...

Water-cooler Wisdom: "At least the Titans fired their coach for malpractice... what's the Steelers' excuse?"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-3 & 1-0!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Patriots 2017 Regular Season Awards

Yep; it's that time of year, folks. Time to reflect on the best the Patriots had to offer in the 2017 season... before we move forward to the up-coming playoff run!

Here are my regular-season awards for the 2017 season. (Note: lighter on the text and research this year; just don't have the time I used to have.)

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Rob Gronkowski
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady and Dion Lewis

Brady has won this award 10 times in 12 years, but this season, Gronkowski was even more valuable than Brady. Sure, you can make the argument that the QB is always the most valuable player. For the counter to that argument, go back and watch the second Miami game, when Gronk sat. The offense completely stagnated.

Gronkowski was also the third-best run blocker on the entire team (after an offensive lineman and a blocking back who does nothing else). And when he's blocking well, it opens gaping holes for the backs. Haven't seen Brady do that in a while ;)

With Julian Edelman out for the year and Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola missing significant time, the team simply wouldn't be anywhere near a playoff bye without Gronkowski.

Gronk barely edged out Brady, who had a down year and will only win the MVP this season :D

Lewis gets honorable mention for much the same reason as Gronk; the other injuries made it essential that he step up -- and he did, big time!

Most Improved Offensive Player: Dion Lewis
Honorable Mention: Shaq Mason and James Develin

Lewis tripled his carries and running yards, double his catches and receiving yards, and score six touchdowns versus zero last year. Without Edelman the team depended more on running backs in the passing game. And Lewis not only came through in that area, but his ability to make the first tackler miss kept the chains moving and drives alive all year.

Mason was a beast in run blocking and was the most dependable O-lineman this year. This award could have gone to center David Andrews, but he missed a few games, thus limiting the most important ability of all: dependability.

Develin was one of the best blockers on the team this year, and even caught a few passes to boot!

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Rex Burkhead and Brandin Cooks
Honorable Mention: None

This is a tough choice. Cooks was more consistently productive (65 catches, 1082 yards, and 7 touchdowns), while Burkhead had a big impact in the few games he played (8 touchdowns in 10 games).

Cooks would have this award to himself if he would fight more for the ball, not quit on routes, and been willing to sacrifice comfort for some important catches. He wasn't a bad player, but his impact was felt in about as many games as Burkhead's was. So it's a tie.

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Trey Flowers
Honorable Mention: Kyle Van Noy

Flowers led the defensive linemen in tackles, led the team with 6.5 sacks, and added 2 forced fumbles. He also played some linebacker when the team was thin there, and was easily the Pats most consistent defender this season.

To understand Van Noy's value, just watch the linebacker play in games he missed. And also consider that he was third on the team in tackles, even though he essentially missed four entire games.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Van Noy
Honorable Mention: None

Van Noy started twice as many games and had over twice as many tackles, and added in 5.5 sacks (after notching just 1.0 last year).

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Deatrich Wise, Jr.
Honorable Mention: Stephon Gilmore

Wise, Jr. gets the nod almost by default. Five sacks in your rookie year isn't half bad; and he will make an able replacement for Alan Branch when they cut his ass in February.

Gilmore came in with high hopes, but had just two interceptions and took over half the season to learn the defense. But he was okay enough to get an honorable mention.

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Stephen Gostkowski
Honorable Mention: Ryan Allen

Gostkowski had by far the most kickoffs returned (58 versus 46 for the second-most), and that was by design. He kicked high and short so other teams would have to return the kick instead of taking the ball at the 25 yard line on a touchback. And it worked like a charm. The Pats were third in the league, with opponents starting at the 18.6 yards line on average.

Note #1 for the playoffs: all of Gostkowski's missed field goals were between 40-49 yards this year. So maybe go for it on fourth down if that's the situation... just sayin'. Note #2: please have him practice onside kicks; it's the one real flaw in his game.

I have no stats to back up my choice of Allen. But stats don't tell the whole story when the offense always has you punting from near midfield. I just remember the game where three punts in a row were inside the other team's five yard-line, and I think he deserves honorable mention just for that game.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: None
Honorable Mention: Gostkowski and Allen

If there was a seriously improved player, I must have missed it. Gostkowski and Allen get the honorable mention because both slightly improved over last year.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Johnson Bademosi
Honorable Mention: None

Bademosi had 24 tackles on the year, and it felt like half of them were on special teams. (Wait, not sure that's a good thing.)

That is all for now. Enjoy the prep time for the Titans game, and keep an eye out for my pre-game breakdown!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-3 & 0-0!