December 7, 2016

Second Look: Patriots at Cincinnati

Now THAT was a great performance. The Patriot have played some good games since their last Super Bowl win following the 2004 season. But they haven’t played any great games. One can pretty much place a caveat on almost any win they’ve had since dispatching the Eagles twenty months ago to win their last title. Whether it was the Bucs last year, a good win, but alas the Bucs are one dimensional and not good in cold weather. Or the Jets and Bills last year, big wins, but against bad foes. Or against the Jets and Bills again this year, good moments, but not dominating enough and inconsistent. Even the playoff win against Jacksonville last year, an up and coming opponent on the road not used to the glare of the playoffs and not quite ready for prime time. Always the footnotes.

But Sunday was different. That was the Patriots team we all remember from the glory years. That was the dominant, physical, smart, well-coached team fans have been waiting to see for some time. That was, simply, the single best game they’ve played since dispatching the Colts 20-3 and the Steelers 41-27 in overwhelming fashion in the 2004 playoffs. That was the Champion Patriots finally on display once again, playing Patriots football. It was good to see. Lets examine it positionally.

QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady was efficient and resembled his old self more often than not. He still missed a few throws and could have displayed more touch, but he also made some fantastic throws as well. He’s had moments this year when one thinks he has finally reaches a comfort level with all his new receivers and he’s going to play the best he’s ever played. Which is saying something. He’s also had some down moments, but they were less prevalent Sunday. And the trend is upward, not downward, which suggests the comfort in the passing game and with all the changes is coming along nicely. Lets see where he is with these receivers in another four games, with a bye thrown in for extra preparation time. All indications are, combined with this running game, the Patriots offense will be a major force to be dealt with in all phases by that time.

RUNNING BACKS: Wow this two-headed monster is impressive. Laurence Maroney is potentially among the elite backs in the NFL. In fact, he may already be there, at least in terms of being a break away threat. And Corey Dillon has run like a man possessed all season. I know I say that every week, but its really something to behold to watch a guy run with the force and effort he displays every week so far this season. I don’t think he’s quite the back, physically, he used to be. He’s lost a bit of speed and probably athleticism. But he is still above average in those areas and makes up for what he’s lost with pure desire. I love watching him literally bring defenders to their breaking point with his running style over four quarters. He is the one dishing out punishment the way he is running, not the defense. I believe his loss to injury was a major factor in the Denver loss last week and a major factor in this week’s win. And Maroney? What can you say. Its just exciting to see the ball in his hands every time he touches it. This combination could do special things this year. A note needs to be made about Heath Evans as well, who had his most impressive blocking week at fullback since joining the Patriots about a year ago. Sunday, he was dealing powerful lead blocks that sprung many big runs. That shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. He was good. Kevin Faulk’s role has been limited so far this year. He occasionally shows up in the passing game, but with the backs in front of him, there is only so much he can play. He remains a weapon, however, when needed and the coaching staff has found ways to get the ball into his hands additionally on special teams, where he has made some plays and did again Sunday.

WIDE RECEIVER: I have to say, I have been impressed with the professionalism and toughness of Reche Caldwell this year, save one play against Denver where I thought he hit the deck a bit too soon after a catch. But Sunday he didn’t do anything spectacular, but showed he is adapting to the way the Patriots do things and is not the soft player some portrayed him as when he came back to play after one of the more brutal hits to the head I have seen in some time. Very impressive. He’s been a solid player this year and his blocking downfield was also good on numerous run plays. I think he is going to be good the more and more comfortable he becomes in this offense. The same can be said for Doug Gabriel, who has a bit more natural ability than Caldwell and can be a big time receiver in the passing game with time. He has the speed, size and physicality to give the Patriots an element they maybe haven’t had since Irving Fryar. While David Givens brought a bit of what Gabriel brings in terms of physical play and size, he doesn’t have the speed Gabriel has. Still, while early returns are encouraging, Gabriel has a ways to go before he becomes the solid, dependable, comfortable receiver Givens was in this offense for three years from 2003-2005. Chad Jackson appeared a little gimpy still, though he played some. The hope for the Patriots is his health improves so we can see what he can offer down the road.

TIGHT END: A great day for both Ben Watson and, particularly, Daniel Graham. Watching Graham block and contribute in the passing game left me thinking following the game “damn, sign this guy up now….whatever the cost.” For my money, he’s worth more than a Deion Branch any day of the week and given what he brings when healthy, the only real problem he’s had at times since he’s been here, I’d say he’s more valuable and the player I’d rather have on the roster. An extension with him now would be a very positive thing with the Patriots, he is more valuable to them than anyone gives him credit for and his blocking is almost like having a sixth offensive lineman on the field. He’s that good.

OFFENSIVE LINE: As bad as they were in the run game against Denver, they were that dominant against Cincinnati Sunday. Stephen Neal, in particular, was extremely good, but the whole line was pretty damn impressive. Even rookie first-time starter Wesley Britt dominated his guy. They play like this every week, I don’t think there will be much complaining about the offense this year again.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A dominant performance here too. Jarvis Green came off a down week versus Denver to manhandle Bengals center Eric Ghiaciuc. The Patriots smartly moved Green inside against this inexperienced backup on passing downs and he got two of his three sacks thru him and almost added another, dealing physical punishment to Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer all day. The rest of the line was great too. Mike Wright had his best day as a pro in his hometown, but overall its hard to single out anyone. They all played well. You may notice a theme here, pretty much everyone had a good day and defensive line was no exception.

LINEBACKER: The two players I thought were not great, but merely solid, came at the linebacker position. Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi didn’t have tremendous days and didn’t hold up their gaps a couple time, allowing some good runs by Bengals running back Rudi Johnson. Mike Vrabel and Roosevelt Colvin made up the ground with much more solid play than against Denver, however, and Tully Banta-Cain played well in the second half.

SECONDARY: A very good day. Chad Scott had an outstanding day filling in at corner. He’s been very good this year. Rodney Harrison had easily his best day since returning from injury, despite one missed tackle on a Johnson run. And Artrell Hawkins came back nicely from injury. Overall, this patchwork unit held up pretty well, all things considered, and did their job. They can tighten it up a bit and perhaps had the weakest day of any of the offensive or defensive units. But they were still solid.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A good day for Josh Miller again and the coverage and return teams. Antwan Spann had two penalties in his Patriots debut, not good. But other than that all was well. Well, except for another missed kick by Stephen Gostkowski. I don’t think this kid has really been tested yet. One big kick and, with his leg, he could really turn things around for himself. Until he does that, however, its all speculation. He has the leg, but he’s not delivering right now. The kickoffs are good, but the kicks still an adventure. He needs to come on starting this week at home.

Miami comes to Foxboro this week and then the bye. Suddenly, things don’t look so bleak for the Patriots, do they? Funny how that works. Its going to be enjoyable watching this team come together and build on that big step they took Sunday. I’m already looking forward to watching the next step. It could be yet another fun season for Patriots fans and things finally looked back to the championship years for at least one week, after a very long absence. If they can continue that into the bye, watch out AFC.

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