September 29, 2016

Patriots Midweek Report: Quick Jets Review and Miami Preview

Apologies to readers on the late Jets review. Its been a hectic week at this address with the holidays. But, with that game firmly in the rearview, it does not require a thorough review anyways. Suffice to say, I thought the ABC Monday Night team of Al Michaels and John Madden had a rare cogent point when they talked about the methodical domination the Patriots were displaying over the Jets. With those comments, they were right on point. The Patriots did little spectacular in the game, but they dominated every inch of it. It was death by 1,000 paper cuts for the Jets, with the Patriots a little at a time inflicting all the wounds.

There were some areas that caused a bit of concern. The running game, while steady and mostly productive, still seems to be missing that explosiveness and the ability to rip off occasional long gains it had last year. It has been exceedingly good in short yardage and goal line situations of late, but one wonders if the lack of…..I don’t know, something…..perhaps big play capability, will hurt them down the line. It would be nice to see them rip off a few more twenty plus yard gains come this week and the playoffs.

I also felt the pass protection was less than stellar at times against the Jets. John Abraham is without a doubt tough to handle on the pass rush, but some of the other lesser Jets players were putting pressure on as well. It could have merely been an off game, as the protection has been in general good this year with an occasional exception like the Kansas City game.

The defense was pretty much dominant for 2 quarters and 10 minutes. After that, they gave up a few plays, but it was mostly garbage time. Mainly the offense was so dominant the first three quarters, the defense didn’t have much to do most of the game. But when they were called upon, they shut the Jets down cold. One clear revelation that has occurred to me these last four games or so is how valuable Richard Seymour is. Sure, we say it all the time. We all know how good he is. We all know what he adds to the defense. But I think the point has really been hammered home what a special, unblockable, dominant player he has this season in particular. Its clear he makes every single guy around him better and that was on display again Monday night.

So that brings us to the Miami game. There has been considerable debate about how the Patriots will approach this game. I think they’ll play it to win and only get the starters out if they have a comfortable second half lead (or trail substantially in the second half). The only thing to gain is the difference between being the three seed and the four seed in the playoffs. There is a significant element of fans and media people out there who feel the Patriots are actually better off with the four seed. The main underpinnings of this theory is that Jacksonville is the easiest team in the playoffs to beat and every precaution possible is required to make sure the Patriots win that opening playoff game at home.

I personally feel the Patriots should beat at home any of the possible home opponents that opening week, Kansas City (which will likely be out anyways), Pittsburgh or Jacksonville. In some ways, I feel Jacksonville is actually more capable than Pittsburgh of hanging around in a close, conservative game and beating the Patriots at the end. And its been proven the Patriots can beat Pittsburgh, having done so on all but one occasion in the Belichick era. Pittsburgh has shown zero ability to stop the Patriots when the Patriots spread the field, the Patriots will be at home and Pittsburgh is an exceedingly one dimensional team that will likely get exposed as the Patriots feast and having been feasting on teams like that, like Tampa Bay, when you take their strength away. Either way, if the Patriots can’t beat either Pittsburgh at home or Jacksonville at home, well they weren’t going anywhere anyways.

So I feel the better option for the Patriots is to get the three seed. The NFL playoffs aren’t played on paper. As Forest Gump once said “*&%^ happens”. And should it come to pass the Patriots end up playing Cincinnati in the final game for the AFC, well, I’d prefer it to be in Foxboro over Cincinnati. This would require really only one upset. The Patriots should take care of Pittsburgh if they’re the three seed and Cincinnati would beat Jacksonville at home, you’d have to think. The Patriots are going to have a hell of a tough game, if they get there, the second round whether its against Indianapolis or Denver, but in this scenario its Denver. If the Patriots are going to do anything these playoffs (and I am still not convinced they will get by the second round), they’ll have to take out one of those tough teams on the road. In the three seed scenario, that’s Denver.

So that leaves Cincinnati playing Indy. Is it that improbable the Bengals could pull the upset? One single game? One single upset? I don’t think so. It was a one score game last time these two teams matched up earlier this year and I think the Colts have been somewhat exposed since then. They aren’t invincible. The Bengals will certainly put up points and are very balanced with two 1,000 yards receivers and a 1,400 yard running back. Throw in the typical Peyton Manning choke fest in the playoffs possibility and, yeah, I give the Bengals a puncher’s chance in that game. Obviously the Colts would be favored, but its not beyond the realm the Bengals could pull the stunner. If that plays out, the Patriots need the three seed to have the Bengals at home the next week. Given the tough match the Bengals gave a better Patriots team last season, and they’re better themselves, the home field could make all the difference. I’ll take the three seed.

For this Sunday, I expect the Patriots to play it pretty straight up. Without the dominating defense from the Dolphins of past years, the Patriots should be able to move the ball. They should score somewhere between 20 and 27 points you’d think at home against a decent, but no longer great defense. Meanwhile, the Patriots on defense will be put to the test with a revitalized Ricky Williams running the ball. Predictions of Williams’ demise seem to have been greatly exaggerrated. All around the media this offseason, his return was largely dismissed as a farce to simply get money and pay his bills by the so-called experts. Little chance of him returning as a productive back was seen. I recall in particular local media personality, Bill Burt, who regularly appears on WEEI’s “Big Show” predicting he would be cut by the Dolphins, end up out of the NFL, had lost too much weight to be effective and was merely showing up at camp to avoid forfeiting his signing bonus. Listening soothsayer’s such as this, one could lose a fortune in the stock market in a hurry.

Williams ran for 172 yards last week, finally back in his old starting role. He appeared every bit the dangerous runner he was in his prime, carrying the offense on his back and running hard. If anything, he appeared quicker than his old self, probably the result of the lost weight, and was making some tremendous cuts. He’ll be the stearnest test for the Patriots defense to stop since they faced Larry Johnson in Kansas City and how well they do it should say a lot about how real this defensive turnaround has been for the Patriots.

In the end, the Patriots should do a decent job against Williams. With Seymour in the lineup, their defensive turnaround I believe is more real than mirage. They may give up some plays, but they can probably force some turnovers too. Particularly from Miami quarterback Gus Frerotte if they pressure him as they have other quarterbacks in recent weeks. In the end, it’ll be enough in a game that ends up harder fought and played more straight up than many expect to see before hand. The Patriots win 24-16.

Patriots at NY Jets Preview

Just a quick preview of this game as the Patriots travel to the Meadowlands to meet the Jets this Monday Night for the second time during this month of December. The Patriots come into this game having wrapped up the division title, but with possible achievements still obtainable. With two wins and a Cincinnati loss the Patriots can still be the number 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, instead of number 4. That would be a nice achievement considering how much they struggled thru the first half of the season.

On offense, it would be encouraging to see the Patriots run the ball better this week. That is one area of last week’s impressive win versus Tampa Bay that did cause some concern. With defensive linemen Shaun Ellis and Dwayne Robertson out for the Jets, it would be troubling if the Patriots didn’t run the ball effectively again this week. Additionally, Nick Kaczur returns and that could help give the running game a boost along the offensive line.

It would also be a good sign, now that all three tight ends are healthy, to see the Patriots incorporate their tight ends into the offense in a rare game where they all play. Some spreading around of the ball to both Daniel Graham and Ben Watson could give pause to future playoff opponents trying to prepare for them in upcoming weeks. The Patriots also need to be aware of Ty Law, as all fans of New England know, as he remains a playmaker capable of changing any close game with a big play.

On defense, the Patriots need to recognize the Jets are playing better now than they were at the time of the last matchup. Jets quarterback Brooks Bollinger appears to be gaining some confidence and has improved the last few weeks, having his best outings of his young career. Curtis Martin, the Jets long-time running back, is out, but his replacements Cedric Houston and B.J. Askew have been running hard trying to make a name for themselves. For the first time in a long time, the Jets have found some rhythm on offense and they rolled to nearly 400 yards of offense last week. Tight end Doug Jolley has finally made some plays as the Jets had hoped he would all season when they acquired him from Oakland in the offseason. He appears finally comfortable. Receiver Laverneous Coles is always dangerous and has had big games against the Patriots in the past.

The Jets are still susceptible to the sack however and remain banged up on the offensive line. With the way the Patriots have dominated along their front seven in recent weeks, it would be very disappointing to see them not shut down the run against the Jets and harass Bollinger all night long. If Roosevelt Colvin continues playing linebacker as he has been for awhile now, this could be his coming out party on national television for all the NFL to see just how well he’s playing.

The Patriots should play this game straight up to win with possible advantages still up for grabs in the playoffs. They also want to roll into the playoffs playing well and a setback here could slow momentum. Look for the Patriots to control the game throughout and easily handle the undermanned Jets 27-6.

Tampa Bay at Patriots Review: A Little Caution, But Definite Optimism

Saturday’s Patriots game was the type of dominating performance over a good team fans have wanted to see all year long. It was as close to perfect a game as they have played. All signs continue to point to this team gelling as the season goes on and there is, with good reason, hope now that the playoffs could prove better than anyone had the right to expect at midseason.

Still, a word of caution. They were playing a team that had been on the road three straight weeks. They were playing a team that is not a powerhouse offensively. They were playing a team that has also lost to San Francisco and the Jets. They were playing a team that was missing its starting quarterback and replaced him with an inexperienced quarterback. They were playing a team that was without one of its top three defensive players. And they were playing a team that, while it would have been nice for them to win it for their own playoff hopes, if they were going to lose one the AFC game was the best choice.

What happened Saturday was the Patriots made that weak offensive team one dimensional. The Bucs are essentially a team that likes to run the ball and has only one true threat in the passing game, Joey Galloway. By taking away the run, the Bucs never had a shot. Once they were one-dimensional, and it was clear they would be early on, it was over.

But give the Patriots credit. The Bucs are a good running team. And once they get it going, their west coast passing offense becomes difficult to defend. The Patriots never gave them a chance and both their offense and defense helped in that regard, the offense by getting an early lead and big halftime lead, the defense by absolutely smothering the run.

The progress the Patriots have made from adequate against the run (which in truth they were for most of the season, it was their pass defense that killed them) to dominating coincides with a number of factors. The return of Tedy Bruschi, who had his best and most active game since him comeback Saturday. The return to health of Richard Seymour is another factor. He has simply been unblockable of late. Ty Warren has more resembled the last season Ty Warren in recent weeks and that is a good thing. Vince Wilfork has gone from inconsistent in the middle to a rock that can’t be moved or run inside on, with only some slight variations in technique as the apparent cause.

At the other linebacker spots, Roosevelt Colvin continues to resemble Lawrence Taylor in his prime. Mike Vrabel has seemingly adjusted to his move inside and is looking more comfortable and making more plays every week. Willie McGinest has his best game of the season Saturday and he and Colvin are making very dangerous bookends.

In the secondary, things have settled down. You have to like the physical, veteran presence Artrell Hawkins has displayed, even at his smallish size. Ellis Hobbs has done an excellent job at one corner and seems to improve weekly. Asante Samuel has been beat at times this year, usually matched up on the other team’s best receiver, but on the whole has been good and far better than some of the corners who were playing earlier in the year. Eugene Wilson looks more like his borderline Pro Bowl-self lately as well. Of course, its come against less than top quarterbacks, but they are dominating those quarterbacks as they should.

On offense, it wasn’t quite as great a performance. The running game struggled. They had the nice first drive, but then struggled for several drives in a row until they got some penalties on Tampa and some short field situations. Tom Brady wasn’t quite as sharp as he had been the week before and there was some heavy pressure on him there for awhile. Tom Ashworth is doing a capable job at left tackle, but you really need a more physical, dominating guy at that position and it’ll be nice to get Nick Kaczur back there or even, possibly, Matt Light at some point.

The special teams struggled a bit Saturday. A couple dumb penalties and coverage mistakes hurt them. They were fortunate to draw a penalty on Tampa Bay on a punt that went for a touchdown and was called back. The punting was not as strong as it has been, possibly affected by the cold weather. They’ll need to perform better on special teams in the playoffs.

Despite the drum beat that the Patriots are back, all problems are not solved. Obviously, they are playing much better than they had been. There is at least the chance they can do some damage and, perhaps, make a run for their third straight championship. But beating Tampa Bay was not unexpected. Perhaps the dominating fashion was unexpected, but as pointed out up the top, there could be reasons related to Tampa Bay that affected the manner the Pats won.

The playoffs are going to be an entirely different story. They’ll face tough teams, probably twice on the road. They’ll have three games total to even get to the Super Bowl. That isn’t an oft-traveled road for most Super Bowl teams. Even one off game can sink you. Every game is another chance to just be off your game slightly and you’re done. They still need to keep getting better. They still need to keep playing their prime players most of the time to stay cohesive and improving. There are areas to work on, their pass defense, their special teams, their running game in particular. This teams’ holes have NOT gone away, they have simply closed a bit. They have to continue to close them. But they’re headed in the right direction. They need to dominate the Jets and play well against Miami to end the season strong. Then they’ll head into the playoffs with confidence and flying high. It’ll make for an interesting January.

Tampa Bay at Patriots Preview

Tampa Bay comes to Foxboro this Saturday in what should prove the Patriots last playoff-caliber test prior to the playoffs actually starting. Expect the Patriots to play this game like a playoff game as well. With the division not officially clinched, Bill Belichick will play everyone capable of playing and in every way play this game as if it is a one game elimination game. If they win, you may see some resting of players or caution next week against the Jets and even more the following week against Miami. But this week, expect them to try to guage exactly how much progress they’ve made in recent weeks against a very tough opponent.

On offense, the Patriots will be facing one of the better defensive units in the league in Tampa Bay. While not quite up to their Super Bowl level defense of a few years ago, the Bucs still represent one of the faster, tough to attack defensive units in the NFL.

On the ends up front is where the Bucs generate most of their pass rush. Simeon Rice and former Patriot Greg Spires are smaller ends, but very quick with lots of pass rush moves and relentless. Fortunately, a strength of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is stepping up in the pocket to avoid these type of rushers. However, if forced to wait a little longer than normal, and Tampa does have among the best pair of corners in the NFL, Rice and Spires could still find the time to get to Brady and cause havoc. In the middle, stout run defender Booger McFarland is likely out for Tampa, but Chris Hovan and Ellis Wyms are capable players. Both can rush the passer, though neither’s stats really reflect it this year. Still, with McFarland probably out, that is a lucky break for the Patriots which will hurt Tampa significantly. He is an excellent player.

The Bucs 1-gap defensive style has always favored smaller, fast linebackers and that is exactly what Tampa has. Derrick Brooks, an 8-time Pro Bowler headed for his 9th, is among the best ever of that style linebacker in the history of the NFL. Too fast to get outside of on wide runs, great in coverage, a blitzer and playmaker, Brooks is a guy you have to watch on every play. He is just an excellent all-around player who can change a game with his playmaking. In the middle, Shelton Quarles is actually the Bucs leading tackler and a solid player. The other linebacker Ryan Neece, Ronnie Lott’s son, is a solid player, but the least active of the three.

If there is a way to attack the Tampa front seven, its with a power running game. They have smaller ends whose strength isn’t run defense in Rice and Spires. Their three linebackers are weigh 235, 225 and 224 respectively. They can be overpowered at times with a patient effective running game. The problem is, with their 1-gap pentrating style and quickness, they do have a tendancy to drop backs in the backfield on occasion to create unfavorable down and distance situations. So, you may have a nice run for 7 on first down, decide to be consistent with it and run again on second down and find they penetrate effectively and drop the back for a two yard loss. Now its 3rd and 5 and they have you one dimensional like they want. For that reasons, draws, sweeps and misdirection plays may not be as effective on the Bucs, though if the Pats are going to run outside (and they’ll have to try some to keep Tampa honest), its better off to do it to the strong side with the tight end that Neece plays, as he isn’t the player Brooks is on the other side. More likely, the Pats will run mostly quick hitters and blasts and try to overpower the smaller Bucs defense.

When in passing situations, the Bucs have perhaps the best corner combo in the league with Ronde Barber, a great player, and the very solid Brian Kelly on the other side. Barber is just a great corner, one of the best in the league, if not the best. He is also an extremely dangerous playmaker and always has been. He has 5 interceptions already this year. Brian Kelly is almost as good and also a playmaker. He has 4 interceptions. The two safeties, Jermaine Phillips and former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, in his second tour with the Bucs, are solid, though not great players.

The key to throwing on the Bucs is probably to do it on earlier downs so its not predictable and their sub-packages aren’t in where they bring in pass rush specialist DeWayne White and let Spires and Rice tee off. Throws to the back matched up on Neece and tight ends on the safeties may be the best options, though Kelly can occasionally be beat as well. When the Bucs sub-packages are in, the Patriots may look to see who the sub-corners are matched up on, likely Troy Brown and Andre Davis, as those guys (Torie Cox and Juran Bolden) are just average players.

When the Patriots are on defense, the Bucs are easier to attack. What the Bucs will likely want to do is run Cadillac Williams, their stud rookie running back, until he’s ready to drop (or the Patriots defense is) and take the occasional long shots down the field the Patriots have had trouble defending this year. If you have watched Williams this year, its amazing how dramatically his stats have improved in some games during the fourth quarter. It seems to be the Bucs run him and run him and run him and then wear the defense down and with his speed and moves, he breaks a few longs one as the game goes into its final frame and that seals it for Tampa. That is why it’ll be critical for the Patriots to get off the field most of the time on third down early in the game so that they are still fresh later in the game.

The Patriots blitzing style of recent weeks should be effective this week. Bucs QB Chris Simms is not mobile, holds the ball too long at times, makes poor reads on occasion and has been susceptible to sacks. But, he has done a good job overall and can be an effective game manager if the Patriots don’t put an good pass rush on him. He is accurate when he has time and can pick a passive defense apart. Therefore, the Patriots must continue their strategy of recent weeks of coming after opposing quarterbacks all out. It seems likely Bill Belichick will try to shut down the run, come after Simms all out and dare him to beat the blitz on passing downs. Its unlikely he’ll do so, but it would only take one or two good throws to Joey Galloway, the Bucs receiver who seems to have found the fountain of youth at age 34 and has had an excellent year, to win a close, tough fought game.

The Bucs are going to try to control the game on the ground, take a few downfield shots and hope they hit a couple, keep it close on defense and then win it late behind Cadillac Williams. I expect a farily conservative game on both sides as these two playoff caliber teams slug it out on a cold day. Special Teams could hold the key. Both teams punters have been excellent this year, but obviously you have to like Adam Vinatierri in one of these types of games over Bucs kicker Matt Bryant. Bryant is also battling a hamstring injury and hasn’t practice much this week. Keep that in mind when he lines up to kick Saturday in cold, windy weather. Tampa does give up nearly 10 yards per punt return and has given up a kickoff return for a TD. It may be time for Tim Dwight or Bethel Johnson to break one and change the game as it seems they have been fairly close to doing so on a number of occasions recently.

In the end, this should be a slug fest. Moving the ball on Tampa will not be easy for the Patriots, but they should put a number of drives together with the way their offense has been clicking lately. Tampa also will have trouble moving the ball, their offense is far from a juggernaut. But they could hit a long pass or two. They could have an effective long drive or two if Cadillac Williams gets rolling. That is how they’ll try to win the game. But it seems likely that Matt Bryant will miss at least one field goal and the Patriots should be able to put together a few drives and win the game. I expect a close contest with the Patriots coming out on top 16-13.

Patriots at Buffalo Review: Still Improving

The Patriots are finally coming together in a fashion long awaited from fans used to near perfection from their football team. And to be sure, some of the recent good play these past two weeks is due to the inferior competition they have faced. But to simply write it off as just that isn’t fair to what they’ve accomplished any more than it was accurate to dismiss losses simply because they were injured and playing good teams earlier in the year. When they play well, you can see it. When they don’t, you can see that as well. That is regardless of the competition. Right now, they are in their best groove of the season so far.

So, while its true tougher games await the Patriots, including this week and then even tougher ones down the road in the playoffs, sometimes good play that starts against weaker opponents snowballs. Sometimes it picks up speed. Sometimes what started as a little progress becomes a tsunami and before you know it, a team that struggled and appeared to have weaknesses earlier in the season is knocking off juggernauts come playoff time.

Some signs of that have been on exhibition for the Patriots these last two weeks. Its too early if you are a Patriots fan to get too excited or even think they’ve improved enough to become a true threat, but there are at least indications its possible. We saw last week an improved running game, better third down play on both sides of the ball, an agressive, attacking defense that seemed to help cover up the injuries and weakness they do have on that side of the ball. Add onto it an offense that seems to be finding its rhythm and is controlling the clock and there is at least a recipe there that one could see working.

Yesterday, on offense, the Patriots had their way from the third drive on. Buffalo was powerless to do much to stop them. The Patriots clearly came out wanting to run the ball and being thwarted as the Bills anticipated that and committed a lot of people close to the line of scrimmage. By the third drive, the coaching staff adjusted and hit Buffalo with a controlled, diverse passing attack that featured almost all their weapons and Buffalo had to back off. A nice mix of the pass and the run followed and Buffalo was on their heels the rest of the day. New playcaller Josh McDaniels seems to be finding his way and yesterday appeared to me to be his best game of the year play calling wise. The numbers bore it out as well with a Patriots record thirty-two first downs produced.

Those who had games of note are many. Quarterback Tom Brady, save one errant read late in the first half that resulted in an interception, was near perfect. Some of the tight throws he made into close coverage that still resulted in catches and first downs were amazing to watch and had to frustrate Buffalo. Running back Corey Dillon, while probably still not one hundred percent, does appear to be improving all the time and is still an effective threat. He topped one hundred yards. Kevin Faulk with his performance the past two weeks should have removed any doubt (if there was any, and there wasn’t here) about his value to the Patriots as a weapon. Add in some nice play from tight end Ben Watson early on and a good day from the top three receivers, Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown and Buffalo was doomed. Troy Brown in particular has had an excellent year this season and still is chain mover on third down even after all these years.

The offensive line should be complimented as well. Tom Ashworth, filling in for injured Matt Light and his replacement, Nick Kaczur at left tackle held up well. Steven Neal struggled a little bit early on a couple running plays at right guard, but found his way later and made some excellent blocks on runs and screens as the game went on. He really gets out in space, because he is so athletic, as well as any guard in the NFL. At right tackle, Brandon Gorin continued to show he is a bruising run blocker and did a decent job on the pass as well against a tough Buffalo pass rush from the edges. A special word needs to be said about Gene Mruczkowski who came in cold for a banged up Logan Mankins at left guard (not his natural position) and made a killer block, perhaps the block of the season, on his second play in to spring Corey Dillon for a nice TD run that made the score 14-0. The line is playing well right now and if they get Kaczur and Light back at some point, could be a real strength for the team.

On defense, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini seems to have found a formula that is finally working as well. Blitzing on virtually every play, the Patriots harassed, hammered and haunted Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman into a nightmare of a day that had him scrambling for his life most of the time. Watching the tape of the game, only one instance of no blitz was noticed by these eyes and that play resulted in one of the few long third down conversions Buffalo had all day.

Particularly dominant yesterday were Richard Seymour on the defensive line, who Bills linemen seemed unwilling or incapable of blocking and it was like a jailbreak for him on almost every play. Roosevelt Colvin at linebacker once again played like a man possesed, as he has for at least four or five games in a row now, and he has had a borderline Pro Bowl season. Tedy Bruschi continued to work towards his old self and seems to be getting better each week. Overall, its hard to point out anyone who wasn’t dominant among the front seven yesterday and they shut down the running game as completely as you’ll ever see in the NFL.

In the secondary, Ellis Hobbs continues to come along and looks like he is developing into a very good corner. He’s not perfect and is sometimes overagressive, which will draw him a penalty or two, but more times than not he does a good job and also appears to be somewhat of a ballhawk. Assante Samuel had one poor play in which he didn’t give Bills receiver Lee Evans enough respect for his blazing speed, but he learned that lesson well and did a good job the rest of the day. The rest of the secondary was solid and seems to be gelling at least to a degree. Getting veteran Artrell Hawkins back soon should help. The secondary remains the Patriots weakness and probably will be until the end of the season, but at least they are improving and the aggressive front seven is starting to cover up for it a bit.

So, on they go against Tampa Bay, a much stiffer test. Is this team gelling at the right time or is it a mirage created by the weak competition? Is this collection of winners and champions, albeit banged up and depleted, finally finding their game this season? It remains to be seen.

But, if we think back on the history of the Patriots, the signs are there. We have seen good, but not great, Patriots teams go on runs before in which they may not have been the best team top to bottom, but were playing the best when it mattered. They got a roll and it was like a downhill runaway train for awhile. We saw it in 1986, 1996 and again in 2001. The 2001 train rolled all the way to a championship. This Patriots team could, COULD, be like those three teams and unlike the 2003 and 2004 teams, who truly were the best teams in the NFL top to bottom.

This year’s team, with all their losses, are not the best team, though still very good and excellent in some spots. They have holes that have opened up this year and been exposed in painful fashion. But if they get on a roll, if they get hot as they appear to be doing, they just may cover up those holes for awhile and see where it goes. If they win over a good team this weekend, that phenomenon will only pick up momentum as confidence breeds these kind of runs in December and then only builds more confidence. But we won’t know for sure until they play Tampa Bay. If they can play a solid, strong game like they have the past two weeks and come out with a nice win over a very good team, then we’ll know for sure this season could be on its way to being a lot more enjoyable than it looked like it would be a month ago.

Patriots at Buffalo Bills Preview

The Patriots head into another cold weather game this weekend up in Buffalo coming off an excellent, complimentary game last week that suits this time of year perfectly. Amazingly, despite this inconsistent season, they are in position to clinch the AFC East with a win and a Miami loss. And that will be the most important thing they are searching for this weekend, besides a win, consistency. With a good, consistent performace, there will remain hope they are gaining momentum towards a possible playoff run. With a setback, it’ll appear almost assured this season will end without much noise being made in the playoffs.

The early forecast for Buffalo on Sunday calls for snow showers and temperatures in the low thirties at game time. That is very similar to the weather the Patriots played in last week against the Jets. And they’ll want to play a similar game with a similar game plan as a result.

The Bills rank second to last in the NFL this season against the run. They give up a whopping 140 yards per game rushing. This needs to be a focus of the Patriots game plan. Not only because they can do it with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk now back at running back, but because they need to continue to help out their struggling defense which finally showed signs of starting to come together next week.

One of the reasons the Bills have such a hard time against the run are their linebackers are extraordinarily weak. With Takeo Spikes out, they start Angelo Crowell and Jeff Posey at two spots, two atrocious options as starters. Even in the middle, the smallish London Fletcher’s reputation far outweighs his actual playing ability. He doesn’t do much to help against the run. The ends, while good pass rushers, are also smallish. The end result is the Patriots should be able to run at will on this team if Dillon and Faulk haven’t had any injury setbacks.

This could set up a short passing game involving the tight ends and wide receiver on shorter routes. If the Patriots want to occasionally go a bit longer downfield, and this could depend on the wind which is often vicious in Buffalo in December, they may get some shots on play action after the running game clicks a bit early on. This is because to stop the run, Buffalo may have no choice but to sell out altogether at some point. A lead by the Patriots could contribute to this possibility and the killer blow to put the game away for the Pats could come on a longer downfield pass.

On defense, the Patriots of course will want to stop Willis McGahee, who has been struggling for some time now, but is always capable. He really runs hard and physically and if the Patriots let him get in a groove, he’ll help keep the game close by helping create long grinding drives on Buffalo’s side. The other danger is Lee Evans has definate deep downfield ability and if its a close game, that could be the difference. Buffalo will undoubtedly take several shot to Evans deep given his speed and ability downfield and the struggles the Patriots have had with it all season.

Bills quarterback J.P. Losman has struggled most of the year and is inexperienced. His completion percentage is very low. But he has improved somewhat in recent weeks and also is mobile and could scramble for a few first downs if the Patriots let him. That is something they’ll want to keep an eye on on third downs and if they let him get away with it, he could keep the chains moving with his feet.

The Bills feature two excellent kickers in Brian Moorman, the punter, and Rian Lindell, the kicker. Moorman has an amazingly strong leg and can kick the Patriots into definate field-position disadvantages that could hold the key in a close game. Lindell hasn’t been nearly as inconsistent as in past years and has a very strong leg and could connect on long field goals to win a close game if needed. Special teams are in the Bills favor as they also have good returners and do a good job in coverage. The Patriots could lose the game here if they don’t significantly outplay Buffalo on defense and offense.

Buffalo plays far better at home than on the road. And they nearly beat the Patriots in Foxboro a month ago. They are 4-2 at home, 0-6 on the road. Clearly, the Patriots will have their hands full this weekend. Still, the progress shown last week by the Patriots is encouraging, as is the somewhat steady return of key players from injury they’ve had in recent weeks. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do just enough to get the needed win 20-13 and more than likely clinch the division later in the day when Miami loses at San Diego.

New York Jets at Patriots Review: Best Game of The Year

The Patriots played their best game of the year yesterday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. They finally played a game the way you have to play if you are going to have any real success in the NFL. It was easily the most complimentary and error free game of the year and, in the end, the game that should give fans the most hope something good still may happen this season.

First a word about the Jets. Yes, its true, they are not a very good team. But, while I think its okay to be disappointed or pessimistic about the Patriots when they haven’t played well, and we certainly have done that in this blog, I don’t think its quite fair to dismiss yesterday’s win just because it was against a struggling team. If we’re going to minimize defensive performances in wins because they give up 300+ passing yards to Kelly Holcomb and Gus Frerotte, then we should equally praise them when they do exactly what they’re supposed to do by shutting down a weak offense and quarterback and holding it to 3 points and under 200 yards offense. The Patriots defense played a good game yesterday. That it was against the Jets of course should be taken into consideration, but it does not change the fact the Patriots played their best and did their best job scheme wise on that side of the ball than in any other game this year. And they did it for a full sixty minutes, which is a first for the year.

Leading the charge was Roosevelt Colvin, who really has played very well this year, especially since being moved into the starting lineup. Also with strong games were Willie McGinest who always plays hard and is as disruptive a player as there is when he is on his game. Ty Warren continued his strong second half performance against KC with his best game of the year. And Jarvis Green also had his best game of the year and the comment was made to me it was the first time in weeks he had his neck brace off which could be a sign his health is improving.

In the secondary, Ellis Hobbs and fellow corner Assante Samuel kept the bad plays to a minimum. New starting safety Artrell Hawkins (by my count the sixth safety to start alongside Eugene Wilson in twelve games this year) had a nice game. He showed despite his smallish frame he isn’t afraid to hit. Its an interesting alignment, since Hawkins is essentially a corner, as is Wilson in reality. The effect of the lineup is the Patriots essentially start with four corners on the field in their base defense. Perhaps Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini have seen the atrocious pass defense they’ve displayed in almost every game and have said to the front seven “screw it, you guys will have to stop the run, we need four corners on the field at this point.” If so, it seems a wise gamble to me. The Patriots have a very talented front seven who, if challeneged, should do more than a solid job against the run.

By getting four corners on the field even in base defense, they may be a step ahead of the curve once again, just as they were when they essentially started playing with three corners (with Eugene Wilson moving there) in 2003. Hawkins is a fairly talented guy who was a high pick, has started a lot in the NFL at corner and has good skills. An injury in camp in August while with Washington was the only reason he was available once he was healthy. If the four corners alignment can improve the railing pass defense, it may be the type of innovative thing the Patriots coaching staff has become known for in past years.

On offense, I was also encouraged. The game plan was more suited to helping the defense and what I wanted to see. I have no problem with occasional medium and long shots down the field, the play to Watson was a thing of beauty. I have just come around to the thinking perhaps they were a little too enamored of that. The nice complimentary running game, screens, draws, short passes to Brown, Givens and Branch led to exactly the kind of offensive game needed to control the game and help the defense. Kudos to both players and coaches on that side of the ball.

In the end, what I think this team needs is a little more conservative a philosophy on offense, which they did yesterday and a little more aggressiveness on defense, which they also did. A little more of 2001 on offense I think would serve this team well. And why? Well, they do have injuries. They do need to help the defense. They do need to control the clock. I don’t advocate a total return to the 2001 game plans, Tom Brady has become too good for that and you don’t want to handcuff him. But they need to throttle it in a bit, know they aren’t quite as good as in 2003 and 2004 and have to try to play it somewhat close to the vest and win close, tight, hard fought physical games with a ball controlling offense.

On defense, they clearly aren’t as talented as in 2003 and 2004. Mostly due to injuries, retirements, coaching losses, etc. They need a little bit more agressiveness on this side of the ball as a result. A little bit of gambling can sometimes carry a slightly inferior team a long way if its well planned, timed and executed. They have lost too much manpower on defense to just line up and stop people on defense this year. They’re going to have to take some chances. They may get beaten some, but at least they’ll go down fighting and not just with a passive plan.

And who knows. With their big game experience, a modified game plan, maybe this time truly they are on the right path. With this group of winners and veterans, maybe they do have a puncher’s chance after all.

On to Buffalo.

Midweek Thoughts

A few thoughts on the KC game, which I attended this past weekend. But first, I ‘d like to thank Scott for filling in on last week’s preview and game review in an encore performance for GDRV. As usual, both were outstanding. They were also much appreciated as with my travel and a couple busy days at work on my return, it really was a great help. Hopefully Scott will continue to be willing to make the occasional guest appearance on GDRV in the future, which I think is something readers want if he is willing.

A few words on Arrowhead, the Chiefs and the city of Kansas City. This is a pretty good take for a football fan. I am not sure when New England will be visiting the Chiefs again, but the stadium experience is similar to the excellent experience I expected. Lots of friendly, passionate Chiefs fans tailgating early, cooking their BBQ and other foods and having an all-around good time. The stadium itself is not quite as nice as Gillette, of course it was built thirty or more years earlier, but nevertheless has excellent vantage points to watch the game. The honored names of past Chiefs are an interesting feature, though I thought the fifty or so names honored by the Chiefs was a bit much. The reputation for noise is deserved, though the constant drum beat and self-promotion by the fans and the scoreboard at the stadium that its “the loudest stadium in the NFL” seemed a bit too self-congratulatory. In addition, its not quite accurate as the loudest stadium I have ever heard, by far, is in Tennessee which I visited in 2002. The fans in KC do make a lot of noise, but not especially more than many other venues I have been to and, amazingly, I found it odd they do not generally stand up on big third downs by the opponent (or at least not as consistently as I am used to at Gillette).

The city itself is decent, if a bit slow. Some good restaurants. We visited two bar districts, one was the Westport area and the other was The Plaza area. Both provided some good times, but are in general small areas that would represent probably just a small, non-descript few bars in Boston yet qualify as “entertainment districts” in Kansas City. There are also four casinos, one of which we visited for a few hours on Saturday. Overall, Kansas City is a nice town, a bit slow, but probably a nice place to live. The fans were friendly. Despite my Patriots hat I wore to the game and a Patriots wool pullover, I did not get one bit of grief from the fans there and most I spoke to were very respectful of the Patriots despite their poor performance Sunday. Good fans out there who love their team and respect the opponent and opposing fans was the impression left.

On to the game. As Scott detailed, it was abysmal and was just as bad in person as it must have appeared back here on TV. I was amazed at how poorly Tom Brady played. I would have to say, its the worst I have ever seen him play by far. It didn’t show up on TV as well, but even on some completions including the ones late in the game when they actually scored, he was electing to throw to shorter open receivers over ones who were more open further downfield. Perhaps it was the read, but having seen Brady play so many times now, I have never seen him miss so many open receivers so blatantly, even on some of the throws which ultimately ended up in completions elsewhere.

On the plays that ended up in sacks and interceptions and overthrows, well that was obvious as well. The throw down the middle on the first interception was a horribly forced throw that had no chance of success. The overthrow on the second interception sailed over Troy Brown’s head when Brown was wide open for an easy first down. The first field goal drive featured Brady missing a wide open Ben Watson who would have had a TD with a good throw. On and on it went like that all day for Brady. I couldn’t believe my eyes as its been a long time since he had a game this bad, if ever. Even last year against Miami down there when he played poorly it wasn’t that bad until the final four minutes. This was just bad all day.

Some of the excuse has to go to the receiver corp being a bit banged up. David Givens was out, which left a large role for Andre Davis. With his speed, Davis can be an occasional weapon for the Patriots, but its clear he is no David Givens and can’t be the consistent threat Givens is. Throw in a banged up offensive line which had three of their five starters out and a Kansas City team that started blitzing from the start and never stopped and it made even the usually calm Brady a bit antsy. This was the most rattled I have seen Brady since perhaps his second start ever versus Miami in 2001. And Kansas City blitzers and an apparent man on a mission in Jared Allen, never let him off the hook. They hammered him all day. All in all, it was a pretty humiliating performance from the offense.

And then there was the defense. This is the worst Patriots defense, so far, I have ever seen. I feel comfortable saying that. Worse than the 1-15 defense in 1990. Worse than the 2-14 defense in 1992. Worse than the 2-14 defense in 1981. Its horrendous. Right now, the secondary is not even NFL level. It is not competitive. Up front, the linebackers and linemen slept walked thru the entire first half, making few plays, getting blown off the ball and just embarassing themselves out there. The front seven did improve in the second half, even playing well at times and providing the first dose of consistent pressure seen since perhaps the Super Bowl last year. In particular, I thought Richard Seymour, Roosevelt Colvin, Monty Beisel and Ty Warren played well in the second half. For Warren, it represented his first appearance of the season as he spent the first 10 and a half games being present physically only.

Despite the improved second half play from the front seven, the Mickey Mouse secondary gave up enough awful, ridiculous gaffes in coverage to make any hopes of a comeback impossible. Nobody played well back there. Nobody. As we have seen week after week for some time now, the opposing QB seemed to toy with the Patriots defensive backs most of the time. Rarely having to look off to a second read, the first read is usually wide open by a few yards beyond the first down marker on every critical third down. If it even gets that far. Its maddening.

It got a bit annoying at the game hearing Patriot fan after Patriot fan make excuses to inquisitive Kansas City fans regarding what was wrong by focusing on injuries (I even heard one Patriots fan claim at the game to a KC fan “we have 18 of 22 starters out” at which point I got into a brief discussion with him that was incorrect. Not convinced, the debate continued with him until I pointed out about 13 or 14 starters who were, in fact, playing for the Patriots such that he had to concede the point). So, I got to thinking, who exactly was out for the defense Sunday?

Obviously there was Rodney Harrison. That’s a major loss. Huge. No debate there. But who else? I think Assante Samuel would have been a starter regardless of what other corners were healthy. He was for the vast majority of last year and they won the Super Bowl with him starting. At the other corner, who really would have been that big an upgrade over Ellis Hobbs? Ty Poole? Surely the 2003 Ty Poole, but that guy hasn’t been seen in two seasons now and wasn’t needed last year to win a Super Bowl. Randall Gay? Please. Yes Gay did a good job last year, is a nice player and prospect, but the revisionist history amongst rose colored glasses Pats fans regarding his value is amusing. At this point, there isn’t a significant difference between Gay and Hobbs and both are at similar points in their career. Gay is not a shutdown corner, nor would he make a significant different were he healthy and playing. Yes he would help. A little. But I venture to say almost every team in the league (save Indianapolis who never seems to get any injuries) are missing numerous Randall Gays. Just check the IR lists for each team.

Up front, who was out against Kansas City? No one. Not a single significant player. They were all there. And don’t give me Ted Johnson. Again, lets be realistic. Johnson was a good, solid player and much admired. But missing him is not the answer to what is wrong with the Patriots defense. If anything, its allowed Roosevelt Colvin to get on the field more and Colvin has been one of the few defensive players who has been mostly good this year. The answer isn’t Johnson.

So is it Harrison? Surely in part. But its not the difference between a Super Bowl defense and the worst Patriots defense in their history, at least since I have been watching (30 years or so). It just can’t be. Its impossible. And there were signs things were wrong before Harrison went out. Think of the first drive of the year versus Oakland. Think of the long pass to Moss. Think of the long pass to Proehl against Carolina. Think of the eighty something yarder versus Pittsburgh before Harrison got hurt. Just those three passes alone would be out of character for an entire season of the past few Patriots defenses. Yet those three alone happened in the nine quarters Harrison WAS on the field early in the year. Something was wrong even then.

So what is it? To some degree, its everything. Its Harrison. It is Gay and Johnson and other injuries a little bit (but only to a limited extent as discussed above). Its the strong opponents. Its the lack of confidence. Its the injuries and non-production on offense. Probably a hundred other things as well.

But for all those things, its also the coaching. Eric Mangini simply has not done a good job this year. There is no other way to spin it. I doubt he feels he has. He can’t. The results are simply not there where anyone could be satisfied. Yes he has somewhat been a victim of the injuries and every other thing that has gone wrong this year, but he hasn’t found a way to figure it out or even to show much improvement or stability as the season has gone on.

One problem is, I believe, Mangini has been exceedingly conservative with his defense this year. I find it hard to criticize this because I have totally bought into the philosophy the Patriots have had in the past of conservative defense, stopping the run, not selling out to rush the passer and patience while waiting for the opponents mistakes. They’ve also picked and choosed exceedingly well in past years their times to be aggressive, and I believe there is a time for that.

But this year, they have taken conservative defense to a new level, at least lately over the last few months. Early in the season I criticized Mangini in this blog that he was blitzing too much and at the wrong times. Now my complaints have shifted to the polar opposite. They do nothing and haven’t in weeks. They rarely blitz. They rarely challenge receivers. They rarely seem to give different looks. They do nothing. They come out and give one look and play it the entire game no matter how bad things start going. The few times they have blitzed in recent weeks the results have seemed better than the vast majority of time when they weren’t.

Perhaps Mangini is just frustrated. He is thinking, geez, early in the season I was blitzing a lot and trying different things and we were giving up long play after long play so I’m not gonna do it. To some degree, I can sympathize with that thinking, especially when they did get hit with a few injuries as the season went along. And although I think some of the problem was WHEN Mangini chose to blitz early on, nevertheless, I can see why he may be a bit gun shy.

But the problem I have with that is at some point in some of these games you got to try to do something. You can’t just sit there all day long and let Peyton Manning and Trent Green pick you apart and still be gun shy. They both score on the first drive. They go up 10-0 or 13-3 or 16-3 or 19-3 or by the time it gets to 26-3 you have to be thinking, hmmmm, maybe I won’t be able to just sit there in a soft base zone all day and get away with it. Or at least you’d think so. But the change up to something, anything, has seemed to come too slow in a lot of these games.

At some point you’d think Mangini would see them convert third down after third down in game after game and say, okay, scrap that idea, lets do something. But it never comes until the fourth quarter with six minutes left in the game down two scores like against Kansas City. And its too late by then. If they don’t start getting a little more bold on defense and taking the fight a bit more to the opponents, I don’t care if its Peyton Manning or not, its going to be too late for this entire season as well, if its not already. You can’t play the entire season scared. Its not working anyways.

For much of this season, I have dismissed criticism against the offense. I am not sure that was correct anymore. The way I saw it, the offense has been acceptable most of the time. They have been productive for periods of time, put some points up, had some impressive moments. Clearly they have not been the Dr. Richard Kimball gets tangled in a bus crash/flaming train wreck can’t take your eyes off the screen disaster the defense has been.

But despite that, perhaps more consideration and blame needs to be put on the offense and coaching there as well. Clearly, Sunday, they were way too ineffective until it was too late to escape blame. Now, some consideration has to be given to their injuries on this side of the ball. They are missing two significant running backs (and missed a third for a few weeks until recently), they are missing a top notch receiver, three linemen of note and have had some of their tight ends in and out of the offense as well.

But perhaps there is something to the notion that the playcalling has no rhythm and this causes inconsistency. The one criticism of the offense I have noted for some time now is they do appear to disappear for significant periods of time in almost every game, while also having periods of consistency and production in most game. That is the very definition of inconsistent, it would seem.

And, so, I took a look at some stats. Two things I looked at were three and outs (or less) on offense and drives with time of possession of less than two minutes on the theory that if you are sending your defense back out there in less than two minutes, most of the time that isn’t going to be what you really want on offense. Then I compared it to last year.

The three and out (or three or less play) drives really haven’t changed significantly. I went thru the drive charts of every game this year and last. In 2004, the Patriots had 52 drives of 3 plays or less or about 3.3 per game. This year, they have had 36 in 11 games or about the same average, 3.3. Now keep in mind, some of these are drives they actually scored in three plays or less, so that isn’t all bad. But both years featured a few of those, so the average is about the same either way.

Okay, so that isn’t it. How about the under two minute drives? I took a look at that. By my count, the Patriots have had 63 drives of two minutes or less in time of possession this year, an average of about 5.6 per game. Last year, the Patriots had 67 such drives in 16 games or 4.2 per game. So they are only 4 drives away from their 2004 figure for 16 games heading into week 12. Assuredly, they’ll easily eclipse that number this year. And interestingly, 14 of those 67 less than two minute drives in 2004 came in the Patriots only two losses against Pittsburgh and Miami. So when you take those out, they averaged 3.3 of those drives in their 14 wins last year, between 2 and 3 drives per game less than they are averaging this year. That could be significant. Too many short drives is killing them and the defense.

I also took a look at average drive length this year versus last year and found only marginal difference. Last year, the Patriots averaged 33.96 yards per drive, good for 6th in the NFL. They also averaged 2.37 points per drive, good for 5th in the NFL. This year, there has been some slippage, but not disasterous. They are averaging 30.59 yards per drive this year, good for 9th in the NFL. They are scoring 1.86 points per drive, 12th in the NFL. I will note their time of possession ranks 27th in the NFL and they are holding the ball approximately 5 less minutes, on average, than their opponents. So again, this points to their drives are too short this year, time wise, even if they aren’t resulting in that significant a drop in yardage.

So what is the answer to all this? Its not clear, but I do think there is at least a slight trend in the numbers that the Patriots are not or are not attempting enough to hold the ball longer. Obviously, the main goal on offense is to score and that is what they attempt every time they get the ball. But maybe their play calling isn’t quite the design to have the more plodding, consistent drives they have had in past years. Even if they are succesful at moving it at times and racking up yardage, the shorter drives that come with it at other times, i.e. the inconsistency, is hurting them and the way offense relates to the defense. Perhaps a more focused attempt to run, or even on a shorter, more controlled passing game, which will surely become easier when Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk return, can help lengthen time of possession, lessen the three and out killer drives and in some ways assist a railing defense regain its confidence. Just food for thought.

I’ll be back with a Jets game preview on Thursday or Friday. Thanks.