By Greg Doyle
Well, here we are, heading into the second half of the season with the Patriots coming off a poor and disappointing performance against the Colts. Fear not, things rarely end up in the NFL how they appear at midseason. That could be good, it could be bad. But its unlikely to stay the same. Lets see what is happening around the Patriots this week.
It appears Rodney Harrison will be lost for an extended period of time. How will the Patriots deal with this loss?
Greg: I expect we’ll see some of Chad Scott at safety. He’s played well this year and it’ll be nice to have him on the field more. Obviously, though, you’d still rather have Harrison out there. Getting Eugene Wilson back will help a lot as well. And hopefully Harrison will be back in a month or so. Luckily for the Patriots, besides the Bears game, the schedule isn’t too tough the rest of the year.
Scott: The hard part here is that Artrell Hawkins – who filled this role decently in 2005 – is over covering for Eugene Wilson, who may be headed for a lost season. On Sunday night, the Pats moved another veteran, Chad Scott, into Rodney’s spot, but damn, Scott was just starting to look good at corner. Judging from the results last week, they could use the help there too. It seems their hands are tied – James Sanders has yet to give them any real alternative to moving Scott back there. This hurts them either way. Who’s helping Hobbs and Samuel now? The Pats just waived Antwain Spann, the only other CB on the roster.
Another thought: this is two years in a row that Rodney has suffered a significant injury. Not to offend, but the day may be coming when his body will no longer do what his head and his heart tell it to do. The Patriots have GOT to more seriously address their safety position this off-season. Michael Lewis, the 5th year strong safety from the Eagles, is slated to be a free agent at the expiration of his rookie deal. Dare the Pats try turn the tables and steal away another team’s emerging star? And since I’m so far off-topic already, I’ll also remind the Patriots that they need to figure out if there’s ANYthing in their conditioning and/or practice routines and/or position techniques that is making their defensive backs more suceptible to injury. Commission a study, or something, for crissakes. This is ridiculous.
Bruce: Actually Scott, our own Bill Barnwell did try and take a run at figuring out the Patriots secondary injuries, it’s in the post right below this one. It’s interesting, but of course doesn’t help the current situation. They’re going to have to hope that they can keep the rest of the guys healthy, otherwise they’re going to have to go with players who haven’t played much at all, or hope to pick up the next Artrell Hawkins off the scrap heap somewhere. With Samuel and Hobbs at the corners and Hawkins and Scott manning the safety spots (I’m not counting on a Wilson return just yet) they’re pretty thin back there. I think it’s possible that when Wilson does come back he plays more corner than safety. (Funny – isn’t that the opposite of what I said all preseason – but I turned out to be right then.)
How has Peyton Manning managed to improve his performance against the Patriots the past two seasons?
Greg: A big thing is it hasn’t been the playoffs. Combine that with injuries, decimating ones last year and a few this year as well, and the Patriots haven’t done as good a job. Still, Manning is more than overdue for his next horrible performance against the Patriots. Maybe it will come again at playoff time.
Scott: I suppose the standard answer is that the Patriots players aren’t as good as they were a couple of years ago (because of Belichick’s cruelty and Kraft’s thriftiness!!!!): the X’s and O’s miss the Jimmys and Joes, as it were. That’s not a point I care to argue. But I don’t think that angle takes into account the possibility that after repeatedly getting their brains beat in by the Patriots, Manning and Tom Moore and the rest finally figured out a way they could move the ball on the Pats defense, and most importantly, Manning has been executing it. That has to be factored in there somewhere. I’ve been most impressed by his composure when the Patriots combine a good rush with disruptive coverage. Before, that was most often a frustrated throw away, a brutal sacking,or even a humiliating turnover. Now he takes a step or two sideways and dumps it underneath for first downs. Is that because the coverage isn’t as good, or is it because he now understands the coverage well enough to beat it?
Bruce: Well, as with most things, I don’t think you can pin it on any one thing, even though that’s what the media tries to do. It’s a combination of Manning getting better and the Patriots stepping back slightly. I don’t think he’s overcome it all completely though, and his comments after the game about the Chad Scott interception were slightly cocky (essentially saying that Scott messed up the coverage and got lucky) which could bode well for the Patriots in the future. Lull him into some false sense of security or something like that.
Despite the bad performance by the Patriots this week, was there anyone who played well and deserves a game ball?
Scott: Troy Brown. I love to tell people that I was in the stands for Troy Brown’s first NFL play (home opener, 1993): an opening kickoff return that he fumbled into a Detroit Lions touchdown, a play that inspired a guy a few rows ahead of me to scream “SAME SHIT, DIFFERENT UNA-FAWMS!!!!”. Brown got waived a year later, thtough he ultimately returned. So he started from the bottom: first on special teams, where he quickly became indispensable. Then a mid-career blossoming as’go-to’ receiver, where he piled up 281 catches between 2000-2003. All of it done in the most competitive, professional manner, with great humility, the way you wish everybody would. Now he’s the leading Patriots receiver of all time, fittingly.
Bruce: Artell Hawkins. Love that guy. It’s hard to believe he was out of the league much of last season, and now he’s become a really solid piece to this Patriots secondary. He’s more than a fill in, he adds something to the club. I think even if Wilson returns to full health, Hawkins might own a safety spot for the rest of the year.
Greg: I’ll go with Junior Seau. He’s really been very solid in the middle this year and done a great job solidifying things. Good game from him again the other night. He gets my game ball.
Why did the Patriots go away from the run the other night in the second half?
Greg: Some of it was just poor decision making on the playcallers parts. That has gotten a lot of attention. But some of it was situational. For example, their first play of the second half Corey Dillon fumbled. Next thing you know, they’re down ten. Who is to say they wouldn’t have gone on a long, run-oriented, clock killing drive to take the lead had the fumble not occurred? We’ll never know. Next time they get the ball, they pass for a first down. Run for a loss of one and now are looking at 2nd and 11. Do you want to run there? Maybe, but they choose to pass and after an incompletion, its third and long. The next drive, they are down ten and try one run that goes for no gain. It wasn’t like they were ripping off big runs there first three drives of the second half. They got on their run attempts to start a fumble, a loss of one and a no gain. As I said, somewhat situational.
Bruce: Is it possible that they out-smarted themselves? “The Colts are going to think we’re going to run here, so lets try to do THIS, and really surprise them…” It seems unlikely, but who knows…I was more surprised that I was sitting there in agreement with John Madden who was saying that the Patriots could just line up and run and the Colts wouldn’t be able to stop them.
Scott: I mentioned this Sunday: the worm has turned, and now its the Patriots’ turn to play nervous, fidgety Felix Unger to the Colts’deadpan Oscar Madison. Turnovers (HONK!), penalties (HONK!), referees (HONK!). I may be crazy, but didn’t the whole operation feel a little harried on Sunday? They certainly weren’t the confident, composed Patriots, either on the field or on the sidelines. Did they come in there thinking they had to score every time they touched the ball? It felt like it. Using Greg’s example, I don’t see what’s so bad about running on a couple of those 2nd and 11 situations. There was seven minutes left in the 3rd quarter. It seems to me that an extended methodical drive would have come in handy at that point. Give your defense a rest and put the pressure back on the Colts offense to defend a late three point lead. But instead the Patriots acted like they were 10 points down with seven minutes left in the FOURTH quarter – which they eventually were.
Okay, so who is the mediot of the week?
Greg: Oh, I don’t know. Lets go with Tony Kornheiser. Not for anything Patriots related, just that he is so damn painful to listen to and annoying on the Monday night broadcasts.
Scott: I would really like someone to ask Bill Belichick about Eric Mangini. Because I am so freaking fascinated with the subject. But the New England football scribes are notoriously obsessed with the esoteric game strategy stuff, leaving no time for the red meat that we crave.
Bruce: How about the entire media universe…including us…who picked the Patriots in a rather easy romp for Sunday night. I should’ve known…the dreaded reverse-lock theory always holds true.
Last week saw Greg go 4-1, Bruce also go 4-1 and Scott with the 4-1 Trifecta. Lets look at these games this week: Buffalo at Indianapolis; Kansas City at Miami; San Diego at Cincinnati; Houston at Jacksonville; Denver at Oakland and New Orleans at Pittsburgh.
Greg (4-1 last week, 27-25 overall): Indy is playing well. Buffalo is not very good and Losman is a poor QB, the verdict is in. Indy wins. Miami got on a bit of a roll last week, lets say they continue it at home versus KC. San Diego takes out the overrated Bengals, Jacksonville cruises at home against Houston, Denver beats up on the horrible Oakland offense and Pittsburgh rebounds to beat New Orleans.
Scott (4-1 last week, 31-21 overall): I expect Indy will find a way to beat the Bills. Just think how embarrassed we’ll be if they don’t. I’m going to take a shot and say Miami is buoyed enough by their huge upset of Chicago to handle the Chiefs. I’ll take the steady Chargers over the Bengals – Cincinnati seems intent on making it all the way to the bottom of the bowl. Jacksonville will lock down the Texans (yawn), Denver will win in Oakland (yawn), and I’m going to gamble that the Saints aren’t yet good enough to walk in to Pittsburgh and win.
Bruce (4-1 last week, 37-15 overall): Indy wins, but Anthony Thomas shows how poor the Colts run defense really is. Kansas City can outscore Miami. San Diego over the Bengals, Jacksonville over the Texans, Denver over Oakland, and New Orleans over the defeated Steelers.
So who wins the Patriots-Jets game?
Greg: Got to go with the Patriots to rebound here. They are better than the Jets and won’t play poorly two weeks in a row. Patriots 23-13.
Scott: I’ll take the Pats, but you know, the offense played so poorly the other night that I can’t predict they’ll have a lot of breathing room in this one. Pats 17-13.
Bruce: Patriots, 31-17.