September 28, 2016

Niner Watch, Week Thirteen

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

Damn you, Neil Rackers.

That’s the story this week, as Pro Bowler Rackers hooked a 32 yard field goal in overtime, opening the door for the San Francisco 49’ers to capture their third win of the season (against eight losses) with a dramatic decision over the Cardinals in Arizona.

End result: if the 2008 NFL Draft was held this weekend, the Patriots would have the 4th pick, as opposed to the 2nd selection that they held at this time last week.

Further compounding our suffering were the 2-9 New York Jets, who got back on the losing track by laying down for the Cowboys, 34-3, on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. The loss pulled New York from the 5th pick last week into the 3rd slot this week, one choice ahead of the Patriots.

St. Louis’s 4th quarter home loss to Seattle brought them back into the 2nd slot. The Rams, 2-9, get the edge over the Jets by virtue of a slightly easier schedule at this point in the season.

San Francisco wins the tiebreaker over Atlanta and Oakland, also 3-8, for the same reason. The Niners’ creampuff schedule, the easiest of all of the contenders on our list this week, still positions them well for any ties should the Rams and Jets misstep in the weeks ahead.

Here’s the chart for Week Thirteen.

Meanwhile, on this week’s slate, three of our spotlight games feature five of the ten worst teams in the league.

SMALLEST GAMES OF THE WEEK

Jets at Dolphins – The Bizarro Big Game to counter the AFC South showdown between the Jags and Colts in Indy. You watch – the Dolphins WILL win their first game of the season this weekend. The Fins have been getting closer every week lately, and the Jets continue to get worse. Maybe Kareem Brown can find a way to help the Pats somehow. He owes them – his agent even said so.

49’ers at Panthers – I don’t like the way this is going. The Niners will likely be emboldened by their road win last week, and there are few teams that are as bad at home as the Panthers. By the way, why do people still think of John Fox as one of the better head coaches in the league?

Falcons at Rams – The Rams had won two straight before losing that divisional battle with the first place Seahawks last week, so there’s a good chance they will draw even with the Niners again, allowing San Francisco to slide ahead of them with that Strength of Schedule tiebreaker. Have to watch these Falcons though – they’re a sleeper in the Race to the Bottom. In fact, they’re just about in a coma.

Broncos at Raiders – Denver is still in the race for the division title, just behind the Chargers, providing further reason for us to pull for an Oakland win here. The Raiders could have driven the Niners down the the 5th pick this week, but they blew it by actually beating the Chiefs in Kansas City. Let’s hope they’re on a roll.

If the AFC Playoffs Began Today; Week Thirteen

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

The AFC’s potential playoff field is thinning as we head into the stretch run with just five games left.

This week the Big Board says goodbye to the Chiefs and Ravens, who both dropped to seven losses on Sunday, which gives me all the reason I need to ditch them. I never liked them anyway. You can’t see me, but I’m making that big ‘L’ with my thumb and forefinger right now.

Two big stories this week:

1) The New England Patriots, who we’re not biased towards at all, became the first team to formally grab a playoff spot by winning the AFC East and tying a league record for the earliest division clinch, and;

2) Cleveland Browns have ascended to the second wild card spot (necessary caveat: IF the playoffs began today) with their Sunday win over the Houston Texans. They jumped over the reeling Tennessee Titans, who I think we jinxed by starting up this weekly column. When we launched a few weeks ago, the Titans were a sparkling 6-3, but when word of this column reached Nashville, they promptly dropped three straight.

Just as well. I don’t like them either, especially Jeff Fisher. And I say that with full knowledge that the Competition Committee will probably come after PD in the off-season, just like they did Bill Belichick, by making fan blogs illegal or something. Because after all, people only serve on the NFL’s rule-making body to do one thing: settle old scores with people they can’t beat on the field.

It sure as hell isn’t to straighten out the pass interference rule.

Anyway, the Brownies are doing the whole Cinderella thing, which has got to make you feel great, with old friends Romeo Crennel, Willie McGinest and Ethan Kelley (look it up) leading the charge. That’s my version of events anyway, like when I point out that the only time the Chiefs were any good this year was when Damon Huard was their quarterback. Anyway, I am delighted at the prospect of a Wild Card Weekend featuring the Browns at the Steelers. Or vice versa. Especially vice versa.

I’m getting all misty here. We better go to the chart.

So status quo from last week’s chart, save the emergence of the Browns. The Pats hold on to the top spot, where they enjoy a three game cushion over the Colts (the Pats have to lose three of five while the Colts win out in order to lose the top seed). The Steelers hang in at number three, although that ought to be taken away from them on principle alone. They’ve played the two worst teams in football over the last two weeks and have tied them by a combined 19-19 score. But I’m sure they’re just bored by the lack of competition or something. It can’t be that they’re puffed-up fakers. Not the Steelers.

San Diego and the red hot Jags round out this week’s field. Let’s see what this weekend has in store.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

Jacksonville at Indy – Marquee matchup. The surging Jaguars can pull into an AFC South tie with the Colts, though Indy would still get the temporary edge with the better division record. Still, this is what December is all about. Kudos to David Garrard for his effiecient play this season. No interceptions in eight games? It’s kind of encouraging to see, actually, with so much poor quarterbacking going on this fall.

New England at Baltimore – The Pats begin life after Colvin (and blueprints) with their third straight prime-time game. By the way, Peter “Nobody gets up for a prime-time, nationally televised game like the Ravens” King, some BSMW pals looked it up this week, and Baltimore is 2-6 in those games since 2005. You were saying?

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh – Cincy blasted the Titans but good last week, so let’s hope they still have a little spoiler left in them for this trip to Pittsburgh.

San Diego at Kansas City – I see this as yet another litmus test for these Chargers. They’ve been abysmal on the road, but this time, they’re lucky enough to draw the Chiefs, losers of four straight. If San Diego can get out of there without incident, they could very well win the West decisively after all. One foreboding note for the Bolts: Damon Huard is back!

Cleveland at Arizona – I’m still pissed at the Cards for finding a way to lose to the Niners last week, knocking the Pats 08 draft pick down a peg or two. So we’re sending Romeo out there to straighten them out.

Houston at Tennessee – Me last week, on the Titans-Bengals match-up: “A legit group should be able to manage the 3-7 Bengals.” Enough said. I should probably add that I hope to be able to use this same line next week as well, if you know what I’m saying.

Tune in later today for another edition of Niner Watch.

Jaworski’s Thoughts

With the Patriots/Ravens game being shown on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, analyst Ron Jaworski had a conference call this week with the media to talk about the game. You’ve read bits and pieces of his comments in different stories, here’s a collection of his thoughts from the conference call:

On the potent Patriots offense …
“Quite honestly this is the best offense I have ever seen. They are going to score points. … This is an offense that is going to move the football. They believe in being aggressive in the first half. They had 29 plays called (against the Eagles) – 28 were shot-gun passes. They are aggressive in the passing game because their offensive line is playing well. They have every dimension at the receiving corps that a quarterback could want. They have an excellent receiving back in Kevin Faulk, particularly a great screen back. They are going to score points.” jaworski.jpg

On performance of Randy Moss last week vs. Eagles …
“When I went through the tape, it was the first time that I was personally disappointed in a Randy Moss performance. I did not see the same energy on every single play that I had seen so far this season. When he was the No. 1 go-to guy on a route, he gave great effort and hustle. There were some plays on the back side, when he wasn’t the primary receiver, I did not see the great effort. Knowing how the Patriots handle things internally, I’m sure there have been some discussions on Randy, ‘Every snap, we need 100 percent out of you.’ I thought a few times Tom (Brady) tried to get him involved in the game and tried to force some balls in to him.”

On how best to attack the Patriots’ defense …
“If there is a weakness where you can attack, it’s the linebacking corps on the passing game of the Patriots. They are very stout against the run – the front seven, three down-linemen, four linebackers, particularly (Tedy) Bruschi on the inside and (Junior) Seau and now Adalius (Thomas) will be moved to the outside. They are really, really good against the run, but if you can get some isolation routes on them in pass coverage, I think you can take advantage of it. And, if the quarterback reads that coverage quickly, because they do a great job of disguising what they want to do, you have the opportunity for some big plays.”

Comparing the ’72 Dolphins to the ’07 Patriots …
“The biggest disparity is how the game is played nowadays. You look at Shula’s undefeated team in ’72, it was a ball-control team. It was real ‘blacksmith football’. They were just going to hammer you with the running game and play that good solid defense. The Patriots are just the opposite of that. This is throw-ball, ‘we’re just going to keep scoring and scoring and scoring’ (team). It’s really two different football teams in two different eras.”

On whether the Ravens can duplicate the Eagles success against the Patriots last week …
“The Eagles may not have that No. 1, go-to wide receiver but they do have a pretty good receiving corps where they can bring in three, four receivers. But what you really have to factor in there is Brian Westbrook, who is a big-play difference-maker. I don’t see where the Ravens have that kind of player who is going to give a defense that kind of matchup problem. … A.J. Feeley did a very good of making the read, quickly processing information and then getting the ball out of his hand right away. And I don’t think that Kyle Boller, at this point in his career, can necessarily do that.”

On Hall of Famer Don Shula’s planned visit to ESPN’s MNF booth Monday in Baltimore …
“The one thing we know about Coach Shula is that he will not hold anything back.’’

Outside Foxborough – The Ravens Curious Trade for Willis McGahee

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

The Ravens’ acquisition of Willis McGahee this offseason was a curious one. It wasn’t unexpected on McGahee’s behalf, as the then-Bills running back had expressed his interest in leaving Buffalo by criticizing its women. Furthermore, the Ravens understandably wanted an upgrade on Jamal Lewis, who seemed washed up despite only being 27 years old.

What made it strange was that the Ravens, of any team, should have seen how fungible running back performance was. After drafting Lewis in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft, the Ravens allowed him to start while benching their previous starter, Priest Holmes. Holmes served as Lewis’ backup before departing for Kansas City, where he put up several historic seasons as part of the offensive juggernaut there. Holmes’ replacement as Lewis’ backup was Chester Taylor, who then departed for Minnesota after his rookie contract expired and proceeded to put up a 1216-yard season. mcgahee.jpg

Still not convinced of the suitability of any back to fill in within their offense, though, the Ravens acquired McGahee for two third-round picks and a seventh-round pick. At the time, I wrote:

McGahee has the cachet of being a star running back, but he isn’t. Astute observers would note that his two 100-yard games in 2006 came against the Jets, who had the worst rush defense in football last season. His DVOA, which has remained remarkably consistent for his three seasons ( 0.4% in 2004, -1.3% in 2005, and -1.6% in 2006), isn’t the stuff of star players — it’s the home of guys like Vernard Morency, Greg Jones, and Artrose Pinner. While the price the Ravens paid wasn’t that expensive, the contract they gave McGahee was. Durability concerns alone would make the contract ill-advised, but the running back the Ravens are getting is not the one they’re paying for.

Essentially, what I saw in McGahee was a back that had simply not developed as a runner. Although he wasn’t playing in front of a great offensive line, according to the Adjusted Line Yards statistic we track at FO that measures offensive line performance without including the long runs by running backs that offensive lines have little to do with after the first few yards, McGahee’s new offensive line was actually slightly worse than the one he was leaving. Buffalo’s line ranked 23rd, while Baltimore’s was 25th; in addition, Baltimore lost a starting lineman in the offseason, while Buffalo added two.

Either way, the difference between the offensive lines wasn’t dramatic, but adding McGahee should have at least been a step in the right direction, right?

Well, not necessarily.

There are several questions that come up in relation to such a move, and we have the data set to answer them all. First, let’s define a group of backs similar to McGahee — since 1988, exactly 30 backs have moved from one team to another over an offseason and been the starting running back (defined as the back with the most carries on the team) for both. Those will be the 30 backs we’ll be looking at.

First, do those running backs offer an improvement over their predecessors? The answer is, well, a little bit. When those 30 running backs went to their new teams, their yards per carry was .12 yards higher than the previous back. However, that’s almost wholly attributable to Marshall Faulk, who replaced the absolutely execrable Robert Holcombe, who averaged 2.35 yards per carry in his year as the Rams’ most frequent ballcarrier. Faulk, of course, got that up to 5.46. If you take Faulk out and look at the other 29 backs, the average yards per carry is only .02. Of the 30 backs, 16 registered an improvement over the previous backs, while 14 declined. Regardless, it’s a small step in a positive direction.

If we look at DVOA, things are relatively similar. Since we only have DVOA data stretching back to 1996, our data set is limited to 17 of the 30 backs, but of the 17 backs, nine registered an improvement for their team’s rushing over the previous year, while eight declined. The backs saw their new teams’ rushing DVOA increase by an average of 3.8% with the new players as starters.

What about the players themselves, though? Did they improve and, with that in mind, should we have expected bigger numbers from McGahee? The answer appears to be no — of the 30 backs, their yards per carry average actually dropped .01 points from their previous season. In other words, there was almost no effect whatsoever. 15 of the backs improved their new team, while 15 of them saw the new team decline.

Currently, McGahee’s putting on a performance markedly similar to those he did in Buffalo, with the main difference being that the former Miami star has remained healthy. His yards per carry are up, but that appears to be more of a virtue of his usage pattern, seeing more carries in 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. His DVOA has actually dropped to – 10.5%, and his success rate, which tracks how successful a runner is at achieving the yards needed to stay on track towards or actually reach a first down, is a below-average 44%. McGahee may not be playing much worse, but his situation has changed, and although we can make excuses for his quarterback situation, it ignores a bigger point while proving it: Adding a big-name running back is rarely the solution to solving a problem within a team’s running game, and Willis McGahee, talented as he is, wasn’t the man who was going to save the Baltimore Ravens offense.

Shut the Gates

logoby Dan Snapp
[email protected]

Arizona may have lost in OT, but it wasn’t in vain. For unknowingly, those scrappy, noble Cards provided the league with the blueprint for beating the San Francisco 49ers:

Don’t suck worse.

The league’s collective mood brightened Sunday night. See, while the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t actually win, they revealed the path to not actually winning by a smaller margin than by what previous Patriots foes didn’t actually win.

See the significance? Three points! Why, it’s even within “They must have cheated to win” range. Moreover, it proves the Patriots are mortal. That they, too, bleed. Add the sad news of Rosevelt Colvin’s season-ending injury, and surely the Pats are seen as downright vulnerable.

What heady times we live in when the worst they can throw at us is how empowering a three-point loss is to the opposition. Let’s hope the Patriots empower the remainder in similar fashion.

After the Eagles surged for their final lead Sunday, my sister-in-law called.

“Is your family safe?” she goaded. “Are there any sharp objects in your immediate vicinity? Should we call anyone?”

“I’m not worried,” I told her. “They’ll still find a way to win it.”

Perhaps Ellis Hobbs said it best: we’ve been spoiled by the blowouts. But how comforting that the constant sense of security never went away. It’s surely a residual from the 2003-04 championship years, the feeling of confidence that the Patriots would always find a way to prevail.

Everybody’s thinking the Eagles did the league a favor, illuminating the Pats’ vulnerabilities – and maybe to a degree they did just that. But they did the Pats a favor as well. They reminded  them of the greatness they’re still capable of when not everything’s going their way.

They gave Bill Belichick the fodder with which to belittle his charges. Meanwhile, they gave the rest of the league hope. Tell me, which is more likely to breed overconfidence?

Let ‘em have their moral victories. We’re in it for the actual ones.

The Eagles also did Pats fans a favor. Finally, a week where we’re not besieged by Spygate accusations, running-up-the-score moralists, or body language experts disseminating post-game handshakes.

The blowouts and the mad charge toward the record books have been fun, but they messed with our expectations. Instead of focusing on the important things – locking up the division, securing a bye and home field advantage, and winning the Super Bowl – we’ve been force-fed these purely cosmetic goals repackaged as the Holy Grail.

It created an impossibly high ceiling, and with it came a rabid mob salivating at the prospect of the Pats falling short. The perfect season, the team records, the individual records – they should all be “Who cares?” items, purely gravy if they come to fruition, and no big whoop if they don’t. The Pats have bigger fish to fry.

So now maybe the Eagles game will help us get our priorities straight again. We’ve been held hostage all season by the media storylines.

Let’s shut the gates. All of ‘em.

We can find comfort in the fact those storylines never set foot in Bill Belichick’s kingdom. Witness this from his Monday press conference:

Q: Does it amaze you the expectation level that seems to be attached to your team? People expect blowouts.

BB: We expect to win every week. I’m not saying we expect to win every game, but each week we prepare for the game, we expect to win that game. That’s the way we prepare for it. You don’t go into any game thinking we don’t win it. We’ll go into this game preparing for it and expecting to go down there and play well and beat Baltimore. That’s the way we go into every game.

Q: But the fact that a lot of people on the outside –

BB: I don’t care what everybody else thinks. I can tell you what this team thinks. Right now we’re thinking about getting ready for Baltimore. That’s how we approach the game. I can’t tell you what anybody else thinks. I don’t care what everybody else thinks. It doesn’t make any difference.

People on the outside? In Belichick’s world, there is no outside.

Colvin Done, Troy Not

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

The Patriots today placed starting linebacker Rosevelt Colvin on injured reserve with an as-yet unspecified injury that has ended his season.

In an unrelated move, New England released ’07 fourth-rounder Kareem Brown and activated veteran Troy Brown from the physically unable to perform list, giving the team seven receivers on their 53 man active roster.

The team apparently hopes to move the rookie lineman – who was impressive at times during the pre-season – to the team’s practice squad, but as of this afternoon, he is eligible to sign with any team.

Despite the sentimentality associated with the activation of Troy Brown, one of the franchise’s most beloved figures, the loss of Colvin is the major news today.

Colvin was reported to have suffered a foot injury during Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, though soon after, reports surfaced that the injury was to his arm.  Coach Bill Belichick did little to clear up the confusion during press sessions on Monday.

Veteran Chad Brown, who has been with the Pats on and off since the 2005 season, was signed Tuesday to take Colvin’s place on the roster. However, the move does little to assuage concerns about the team’s linebacking corps, which now finds itself precariously thin with the loss of Colvin.

Adalius Thomas, who recently enjoyed success on the outside after manning one of the inside spots for most of the season, seems a likely candidate to move to the edge to replace Colvin. If it’s not Thomas, it’s hard to say who it would be – Chad Brown and special teamer Pierre Woods are the only other outside linebackers on the current roster.

Yet if Thomas is moved to the edge on a more permanent basis, that will leave only Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau and Eric Alexander to cover the inside spots. Perhaps another alternative might be greater use of the four-man line that the team has used to great effect at points throughout the season.

Troy Brown is as revered here as much as anywhere, and we wouldn’t put it past the Pats Hall of Famer to find a way to make a contribution as the team attempts to win its fourth Super Bowl of the decade. But let’s be serious – it’s a minor footnote to the much larger news of a lost starter on what may be the team’s most suspect unit.  There is little that Troy Brown can do to help them with that.

Inside Gillette

logoby Christopher Price
[email protected]

Tom Brady doesn’t list his lucky number in the Patriots’ media guide, but it’s a safe bet the New England quarterback is partial to 83.

When Wes Welker arrived in a deal for a pair of draft picks on March 5, he was given No. 83. It was the same number (and locker) as Deion Branch, who had been dealt away at the start of the 2006 season. Branch and Brady were real tight, and when Branch — his favorite receiver — was traded to Seattle in September 2006, the loss hit the New England quarterback hard. Brady and Branch had the sort of relationship quarterbacks and wide receivers dream of — the two were able to communicate in shorthand, exchanging signals with nothing more than a series of quick glances. It paid off when Branch was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, finishing with 11 catches for 133 yards in New England’s win over Philadelphia.

But in his short career in New England, Brady and Welker are establishing a relationship that will lead to Welker likely surpassing anything that Branch did in his four years in a Patriots uniform: In 11 games this season, Welker has a team-high 81 catches to go along with 878 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. In his best season with the Patriots — 2005 — Branch finished with 78 catches for 998 yards and five touchdowns.

There’s a new No. 83 in town, and his name is Wes Welker.

“I think that he’s a really good player,” wide receiver Donte Stallworth said of Welker. “He knows how to play, and having a guy like that on the team is fun. He’s always going to do his job, and you can rely on him.”

Welker and Branch are very similar: Both were relatively unheralded coming out of college — Branch was the 11th wide receiver taken in the 2002 draft out of Louisville, while Welker was signed as a rookie free agent by the Chargers out of Texas Tech before being released and picked up by the Dolphins. The two are undersized overachievers (both are 5-foot-9). And both of them would run through a wall for Brady.

“Tom doesn’t lose any sort of poise or anything,” Welker said after Sunday’s game. “The dude is on top of it.”

Welker’s receiving numbers are impressive, but his biggest impact has been when it’s come time to move the chains. Forty-eight of his 81 catches this year have gone for first downs, tying him for eighth in the AFC entering last night’s action. That puts him in a neighborhood with traditional go-to guys like LaDainian Tomlinson, Chad Johnson, Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne.

Much of Welker’s overall impact on the New England offense can be traced to the presence of Randy Moss. Throughout much of his career in New England, Branch was asked to be the No. 1 receiver, while Welker is usually the third option in the passing game behind Moss and Stallworth. But at the same time, with so many opposing defenses now geared toward stopping Moss, it has been Welker who has stepped up and made the plays when called upon.

“I think you have to be ready for it every time you step on the field,” Welker said of the opportunities. “I think that’s what all of us try to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

He was at his best Sunday night. On an evening where the Eagles were able to mostly neutralize Moss but the Patriots still wanted to pass first, Welker was a reliable presence underneath. He ended up with 13 catches and 149 yards, both career highs for the Oklahoma native.

His star turn came midway through the third quarter when he gathered in a quick screen from Brady and took it 42 yards down the near sideline to the Philadelphia four. Picking up a convoy of blocks along the way, he maneuvered neatly downfield, allowing offensive linemen get out ahead of him to create a path.

Learning how to successful execute a screen pass is a tricky thing for a receiver or running back — you have to have the requisite amount of patience to make it work.

“Those are tough. You just have to trust the offensive linemen getting out there,” Welker said. “They do a great job on screens and things. You just have to have that patience to stay behind them and, in some situations, you have to go. But I felt like that situation, I could get behind them and get a solid block.”

Despite the big numbers, there were some missteps for Welker, including a dropped pass in the second half that will haunt him … until he steps on the field Monday against the Ravens.

“There are still a few plays that I feel like I left out there — and I won’t be able to sleep tonight because of those,” he said late Sunday. “But, there are things I can get better on and do a better job on next time.”

FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK

1. Troy Brown. At his daily press conference Monday, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick promised some news on the veteran wide receiver sometime Tuesday. New England must make a decision on what to do with him this week — either activate him, release him or place him on season-ending injured reserve. If they activate him, the short list of potential candidates who might be asked to wave farewell, at least temporarily includes wide receiver Chad Jackson (who would be placed on season-ending IR) or fullback Kyle Eckel (who would likely join tight end Marcellus Rivers on the unofficial shadow roster).

2. If the Patriots shuffle some of their movable parts along the offensive line. The o-line has been a strength through much of the season for New England, but right tackle Nick Kaczur has struggled lately, allowing four sacks over the last three games. He allowed a pair of sacks to Indy’s Robert Mathis back on Nov. 4, as well as one to lineman Juqua Thomas and another to linebacker Chris Jocong against Philly on Sunday night. The Ravens are not the pass-rushing terrors of old (they have just 22 sacks this season, with linebacker Terrell Suggs leading the team with four), but are still capable of bringing enough heat for the Patriots to consider going to backup right tackle Ryan O’Callaghan.

3. If the beef between Ray Lewis and Adalius Thomas is truly over. The two were involved in a memorable war of words earlier this season over Thomas’ comments about how much things are different with the Patriots as opposed to the Ravens. It appears things are now cool between them — Thomas told the NFL Network recently that “its water under the bridge” — but it still bears watching.

4. The Ravens’ offense. “Anemic” would be a kind way to describe this year’s Baltimore offense. They’ve managed just 182 points through 11 games — to provide some sort of context, offensively-challenged teams like Miami, Tampa Bay and Oakland have all posted more points this year. During their current five-game losing streak, they’ve been outscored 143-72. In a 32-14 defeat at San Diego on Sunday, Baltimore managed only 210 yards and committed two turnovers. Ravens quarterbacks have lost 10 fumbles, and the team has a minus-11 turnover differential. Don’t look for it to get any better this week — Head Coach Brian Billick told reporters yesterday that he intends to stick with Kyle Boller at quarterback.

5. Talk of Brian Billick’s job security. The one-time boy genius who led the 1998 Minnesota Vikings’ offense into the record books as a coordinator is now a man fighting for his job. Billick and owner Steve Bisciotti have engaged in some public disagreements over the last few seasons — including one two years ago where Bisciotti demanded Billick transform his management style and become less confrontational with the media. The 4-7 Ravens are in the midst of a five-game losing skid — if Baltimore doesn’t finish strong, he could be out the door.

STAT OF THE WEEK

3. According to Metro Boston’s Jeff Howe, only three active offensive skill position players have failed to score touchdowns for the Patriots this year — wide receivers Chad Jackson and Kelley Washington and No. 3 quarterback Matt Gutierrez.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Usually, when I get hit — I’m very bony, so if they hit me on my bones it hurts. If they don’t hit me on my bones I’m usually fine. I’m like Gumby, I just dead-leg everything. That’s why I just fall down when people hit me.” — Quarterback Tom Brady, discussing his process for absorbing a hit.

Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].

Bullet Dodged

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

So much for the 24 point spread, huh?

Random thoughts from last night’s narrow 31-28 Patriots win over the upstart Eagles:

*First, all due credit goes to Philly for this one. I don’t know about you, but I sure underestimated them. The Eagles probably had more success carrying out their game plan than the Patriots did.

*I’m sure we’ll hear how the Eagles have given the rest of the league a blueprint on how to beat the Patriots. News flash: the Patriots won. Lost in the blueprint stuff will be the fact that for the second time this month, the Pats took a solid punch and remained standing. That’s twice in the last four weeks they’ve rallied to win in the fourth quarter, with late plays being made on both sides of the ball. Oddly, you might think more of the Pats for winning this kind of game. That they walked out of there winners after looking like upset victims all night says everything about their mental toughness.

*I have to thank the Eagles, though – last week, I was having a hell of a time staying with that rout over the Bills. Didn’t have that problem last night.

*Slants and in-cuts – THAT WAS THE GAME! It all started with the Philly o-line – they rolled the Pats d-line pretty good in this one, and AJ Feeley had plenty enough time to find the holes in the Pats secondary, of which there seemed to be many. The Pats never mounted a consistent pass rush, and they left their defensive backs to take a pummeling. I thought John Madden was extra sharp on explaining how the Pats would give away the inside to protect against the big play. The Eagles were happy to take it, and it almost won them the game. When they tried to get to the perimeter late, the Pats took the ball away twice. Why did the Eagles do that, by the way, when they had owned New England between the numbers?

*The Eagles were intent on stopping Randy Moss, and did so admirably, which had a trickle down effect on Tom Brady and rest of the Pats offense. Philly put a lot of heat on the MVP quarterback (three sacks) with their typical array of blitzes, which disallowed any of the deep throws that had been the Pats hallmark through the first ten games. The end result? The high flying Pats offense was held to – gasp – just 24 points.

*Speaking of Moss – do you think the NFL came right out and said to their officials, “Mr. Polian wants you to call more offensive pass interference penalties on Randy Moss,” or did they try to straight-face it with some ‘general’ language instead?

*So with the chips down, Wes Welker saved Brady and the Pats (Jabar Gaffney with the assist). Remember there were a few days there after the trade when we fretted over whether New England really had to give up the second rounder for Welker? Seems even more ridiculous now. Didn’t he go over EIGHTY receptions last night? Would the Patriots have won without him? Oh, and one more thing: LOVE the little screen play with him coming in motion and then taking the quick pass behind two receivers on the edge. That’s as good as a running play.

*Which they otherwise had little interest in pursuing. The Pats had 13 carries by people not named Tom Brady (who was the team’s best runner on the night). I liked how Laurence Maroney hurled himself at the end zone for the winning points, but on the final possession, he seemed to think he was helping by being tackled as quickly and as passively as possible. He couldn’t be less of a factor in the Patriots offense.

*Both Rosevelt Colvin and Randall Gay left with injuries, which figures since the Patriots went into the game the healthiest they’ve been all season. Gay’s injury forced Eddie Jackson into regular action after a long layoff, and it showed. Ellis Hobbs and Rodney Harrison both hobbled off as well, but both returned. We’ll hear a lot about New England’s secondary being “exposed”, I think (despite three picks, two by Asante Samuel), but again, I go back to the pass rush. I’ve said it before – there’s a good bit of the team’s money tied up in that front seven, and as a result, they’re the ones who have to make the plays. They didn’t tonight, for the most part.

*So the Pats have clinched the AFC East and, at mimimum, the third playoff seed (they can’t finish behind West leader San Diego now). In the race for the first seed, it comes down to this – the Colts and Steelers have to hope the Pats lose three of their last five if either is going to have a shot. I suppose they’ll look at tonight’s result as evidence it could happen, but as mentioned above, I think they would be reading that entirely wrong.

*Back on ice for another week, antique Dolphins. You AND your champagne.

Record-Setting Pats Clinch East, Playoff Berth

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

The New England Patriots captured their fifth straight AFC East title, and the first berth awarded to the 2007 NFL playoffs, when the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Buffalo Bills 36-14 this afternoon in Jacksonville.

The clinch, which comes some four hours before the Pats take the Gillette Stadium field against the Eagles, ties an NFL record for earliest division clinch since the 16 game schedule was instituted nearly 30 years ago.

The fifth straight AFC East crown is also record for that division. It is the sixth division championship for the Patriots this decade.

The Sunday Links

logoby Scott Benson
[email protected]

It will be another looooooong Sunday for New England football fans as the 5-5 Philadelphia Eagles arrive in Foxboro tonight for the Pats’ second consecutive appearance on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

This is the price we pay for being granted this rare football team, I guess – a prime-time schedule to rival that of Dateline NBC. And there’s more to come – next Monday night, the Pats will be in Baltimore for Monday Night Football, their third straight prime-time game.

At least the Giants game – the regular season finale – is on a Saturday. Doesn’t seem half as bad. These Sundays and Mondays are killers.

Still, we trudge ahead. At least we have a hat and t-shirt game to watch in the interim – if the Jaguars can beat the Bills at 1:00 PM (CBS), the Patriots will win their fifth straight AFC East title. If Jacksonville comes up short, the Pats can do the job on their own by beating Philly later.

Let’s get the day started with a look at the morning papers.

In the Globe, Chris Gasper and Jim McCabe ponder the divergent paths taken by the Pats and the Eagles since their last meeting, in Super Bowl 39. Gasper recounts the charges against Public Enemy #1 (was this even necessary, AGAIN? Yeah, I’m concerned about the Pats image in the eyes of their opponents) and McCabe wonders how difference between the teams went from 3 points (January ’05) to 24 (tonight’s point spread)

Gasper’s notebook has Donovan McNabb out and AJ Feeley in for the Eagles. An upgrade, as far as I’m concerned. Jim McBride likes the Eagles to cover but the Pats to win by three scores anyway. In his weekly league notes, Mike Reiss talks with Bill Parcells about the disparity between the NFL’s haves and have nots, which the legendary coach attributes to quarterback play. That’s true, coach, but as I mentioned earlier – we won’t have to suffer through another McNabb performance tonight.

In the Herald, John Tomase says it’s on the great Brian Westbrook to ensure the Eagles don’t get blown out tonight. Tomase says watching to see if the Eagles can overcome the 24 point spread is one of five things to look for tonight. John goes on to inventory the team and individual records that the Pats will pursue over the final six games, and wonders if the NFL community can stomach giving coach of the year honors to the formerly-rebuked Bill Belichick.

Karen Gurgeian closes out the Herald coverage with her Pats notebook, where she catches up with forgotten man Jabar Gaffney, who is still hanging on to a role in the Pats offense.

In the ProJo, Shalise Manza Young says the Pats #3 ranked scoring defense has been challenged infrequently this season, but its members don’t doubt that it will respond when called upon. SMY goes on to chat with Donte Stallworth in her weekly Up Close segment (whatever happened to his alter ego, anyway?) and Jim Donaldson writes a column that somehow ends with a persistent “Wilhelm Belichick” challenging Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. See, because he’s always serving up the Humble Pie, even to the Perfect Pats. I am not making this up.

Elsewhere, Douglas Flynn of the MetroWest Daily News reminds us that the Eagles took a very Steeler-like approach to the Spygate scandal, instead of just keeping their traps shut. That may cause them a few added problems tonight. Eric McHugh of the Patriot Ledger says he won’t question the Pats when they sign Pac Man Jones this spring, not after witnessing the resurrection of Randy Moss in New England. In the Courant, David Heuschkel says the 24 point spread is a whole new level of respect for the often-disrespected Pats. In Portland, the Sunday Telegram’s Mike Lowe visits with special teams captain Larry Izzo.

That’s it for this morning. Perhaps we’ll be able to return around 4:00 PM to declare the Pats AFC East champs.

Patriots Buffet Table 11/25/07 Patriots vs. Eagles

Patriots Buffet Table 11/25/07 Patriots vs. Eagles
by Patriots Daily Kitchen Staff
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This week the Patriots have an 8 o’clock game against Philadelphia. Philly is well known for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, needing a jail inside the stadium, and Philly Cheesesteaks. We’re hoping Santa brings the Buffet Table a new grill this year, so we’ll be holding off on pelting Old Saint Nick or spending any time in jail. The cheesesteaks on the other hand we can do.

Philly cheese steak
In Philly they use Cheeze Whiz as the “cheese” on their cheesesteaks. I don’t know exactly what Cheeze Whiz is made of, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t cheese. We’re going to make our own beer cheese sauce. People at home can make it on game day, tailgaters can make it the day before and refrigerate.

Beer Cheese Sauce:
1 pound cheddar cheese, shredded
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bottle pilsner

Add the garlic and pilsner to a pot and heat over low heat. Once you see the beer start to boil add 8 ounces of cheese. Whisk that for a few minutes until it combines. Once that is done, add the other 8 ounces slowly, about 2-3 ounces at a time, only adding more as the previous addition has fully dissolved. Once you see that the whole mix is combined and consistent, remove from the heat and put it into a container. This recipe makes 4 cups of sauce.

This sauce is useful for more than just cheesesteaks. The sauce works as a cheese dip for pretzels. It goes great over eggs, potatoes, burritos, grilled chicken, and pretty much anything else you can think of. By using only 1/2 bottle of beer plus 4 ounces of cream cheese you would have a cheese spread or cold sandwiches or crackers. Take this recipe as a base and feel free to add whatever spices you like, or switch the type of beer and cheese used. The version here is a good base and works well with the steak.

Sandwich steak:
2 pounds shaved steak
1 onion, sliced
2 peppers, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
6 sub rolls

If you are at home:
Add the cheese sauce to a pot and heat over low heat, stirring often.
Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and peppers. When the onions are translucent add the shaved steak. The steak will cook in a few minutes. You can then put the steak onto the rolls and spoon the cheese sauce over the top.

For the Tailgaters:
We’ll be using the foil pouch method. Use Heavy Duty Aluminum foil. Allow the container with the cheese sauce to come up to room temperature. Form a pouch and add the oil, onions and peppers. Seal and add to the grill. Prepare a second pouch, add the shaved steak, and add to the grill. After 20 minutes, open the pouch with the vegetables and check to see if the onions are translucent. Open the pouch with the shaved steak and pour the vegetables over the top.

Spoon the cheese sauce over the top and allow to heat through. It will be thick at the start but will become more speadable as it warms. Move the pouch off the grill and onto a baking sheet. Use tongs or a metal spoon to spoon the mixture onto the rolls.

If you have a griddle, you could use that instead of the pouch. Heat it directly on the grill, drizzle a couple of ounces olive oil and add the steak and vegetables directly to the griddle in separate areas. When they are cooked through (they will cook more quickly on a griddle than in a foil pouch) spoon the cheese sauce over the top and allow to remelt.

Time for a drink!
As you may have guessed from the cheese spread, we’re going with Pilsner this week. Pilsner is a clean, crisp and refreshing beer, and when done right is as good as any other beer style.

The first light colored beer, Pilsner started a revolution amoung brewers and beer drinkers. Glassware had become cheaper and now people could see what they were drinking. Appearance became more important than when beer was served in stoneware tankards. A clear, light golden beer was visually appealing.

Older beer styles began to be pushed out as pilsner took over, not so different as would happen in America in the 1900’s as the big light beer makers such as Anheuser Busch eliminated smaller breweries.

Pilsner is based on four ingredients. Czech Saaz hops, so prized there was a death sentence or anyone caught smuggling their rhizomes out of the country. Pilsner malt, particularly from Bohemian or Moravian barley. Soft water, low in alkalinity. Finally, Bavarian Lager yeast, smuggled out of Germany by a monk in 1842. These ingredients all came together in a town called Pilsen in what is now the Czech Republic.

Saaz hops are very aromatic, floral and flavorful, but low in bittering oils. A brewer can use more Saaz hops than most others, increasing flavor and aroma without the same increase in bitterness. The lightly kilned Pilsner malt and soft water combine perfectly. Malt enzymes require a certain pH and temperature to convert starch into fermentable sugar. Light malt is less acidic than darker malt. The water used to make beer with light colored malt must be less alkaline. Lager yeast, works slowly and at low temperatures, producing clean and crisp beers with little unfermented sugar.

These clean crisp flavors will match well with the bold flavors of cheese and steak. The very bready Pilsner malt will remind us of the rolls. The dryness of the beer matches the salty and savory cheesesteak in a way a wweet beer could not.

The pick this week is Prima Pils from Victory Brewing. Hailing from Dowington, Pennsylvania this multiple award winner may be the best pilsner made in America. A fellow Pennsylvania brewery, Stoudt’s offers Stoudt’s Pils.

There are not many local breweries producing Pilsners. You can always try your local brewpub. Rock Bottom
in Braintree, MA sometimes has an excellent “Czech Mate” Pilsner. Going outside New England, an easy one to find is Brooklyn pilsner and it is an excellent example of the style. Any listing of Pilsners would be incomplete without the original Pilsner Urquell. Be careful of the usually skunked green bottles, the cans are better. Another excellent Czech example is the real Budweiser, Budweiser Budvar from Budweis, Czech Republic.

College Scout Will Return

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

The College Scout has gone on holiday break for now, but Greg will return in a couple of weeks with a comprehensive bowl preview just as soon as all the matchups have been announced. Stay tuned, and as always, I’ll be back tomorrow morning with the Sunday Links.

In the meantime, gear up for tomorrow’s matchup with Philadelphia by making some authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, paired with the perfect brews over on the Patriots Buffet Table.