September 25, 2016

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.

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