By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Damn, what is it with these Pats/Colts games, class? Why can’t there just be a blowout? What do they all have to be so stressy? So gullet chunky? So chest painy? Sitting through a Pats/Colts game is an emotional, physical, life experience, and that description hardly does it justice. Sunday’s renewal of the rivalry naturally lived up to the hype, yet another instant classic to be observed in some separate space/time continuum by curious observers who want to study the game of football and why it’s so magical, right along with 2003, the 2004 AFC Divisional Playoffs, the 2006 AFC Championship Game and 2009 (aka fourth-and 2). This time around, the Pats finally got the Colts in Foxboro, for the first time since 2005. But despite the change in venue, the game played out a lot like last season’s, with the Pats racing out to a big lead, looking invincible up three scores in the fourth quarter, then hanging on for dear life as Indy QB Peyton Manning surgically dissected the young defense as the chunks rose and the hearts raced within the collective bodies and souls of Pats fans everywhere. The difference this year though, was that the defense, so maligned and picked on all year long, was able to reach down deep and make one last stop, one last big play, to preserve a 31-28 win and keep any of those fans in danger of spinning of their axises on at least somewhat of an even keel. In this one, the Pats offense was great, until it wasn’t, which nearly cost them the game. But the defense, shredded for a truckload more yards and third down conversions, somehow managed to stem the tide when it mattered most, an occurrence that can only breed optimism for the unit’s overall prospects going forward. There’s a lot to get to in examining this one, so with that, let’s get to this week’s report card – breathing exercises, heavy meditation and deep knee bends highly recommended.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
For three quarters plus five minutes, it was a borderline A+. The Pats dominated the game offensively, exquisitely balancing the run and the pass, almost entirely neutralizing the Colts demonic pass rushing tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and basically just doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to. Then, with a 17-point lead and just over 10:00 left on the clock, they got nervous. The play-calling got stale. The execution went out the window. It seemed at times that the Pats were afraid to screw up which in turn made them appear scared to win. When Tom Brady’s third down pass to Julian Edelman sailed right through the the receiver’s hands, forcing the Pats to take a 25-yard field goal and a 31-14 lead instead of the 35-14 lead a TD catch would have provided, the tide turned. It didn’t help that CBS’s Jim Nantz (and I, sadly, to my viewing mates) pointed out that 31-14 was the score last year when the Colts started their fateful comeback in the fourth-and 2 game. And while the players surely didn’t hear that reminder, you have to assume that some of them knew it already (even late game hero James Sanders was quoted after the game that the fourth quarter felt a little like “deja vu”). The offense had the ball two more times, ran seven plays and punted twice, forcing the defense to have to stop a suddenly red-hot Manning instead of simply closing the game out itself. If it hadn’t been for Manning making a boneheaded decision with 28 seconds left and Sanders making a great, athletic play on his interception, the discussions today would focus on some entirely different matters, starting with the offense getting blasted with blame. But, in a huge sign of how much different this year’s team is from last year’s, we didn’t have to travel that road again, the offense was absolved and the Pats escaped. As they get ready for Thanksgiving in Detroit and the following Monday Night against the Jets, this group should feel good about what it’s capable of, but has to figure out how to close a game out with more authority, especially when it’s presented with as many chances as it was on Sunday in Foxboro.
Brady was terrific for the most part. Coolly efficient for the first three-plus quarters, he looked a little unsteady himself down the stretch, whether it was pressure or questionable play calling or what have you. Still, his worst throw of the day was inexplicably not picked off despite hitting Colts linebacker Tyjuan Hagler in the hands, shoulder and face before falling harmlessly to the turf, the first of two huge, late-game breaks for the Pats. Overall, he calmly completed 76 percent of his passes for 186 yards and two TDs while getting through yet another game without turning the ball over. His command of the game plan was outstanding most of the day and like last week in Pittsburgh, he made all of the throws. His first quarter TD pass to Wes Welker was a lot like Rob Gronkowski’s first score last week, a laser beam, back shoulder throw put where only Welker could make a play on it. Then early in the second quarter, he finished off a picture perfect 15 play, 87-yard drive on which he completed passes to five different receivers with a dart to Aaron Hernandez, who ran across the formation, took the pass in stride and crashed into the end zone. It was the 244th career TD pass for Brady, good for 15th in league history and it gave the Pats a 14-0 lead. Again, he could have been better over the Pats final two drives. But he mastered the Colts almost effortlessly up to that point and was more than good enough to earn his 25th consecutive regular season home win., tying him for an all-time record. Oh and by the way, on the season, Brady now has thrown 19 TD passes against just four INTs, one of which was on a Hail Mary. That, class, is pretty good.
Running Backs: A
It’s often noted that the NFL is a copycat league. In that case, expect to see a lot more teams use a tandem of undrafted, free-agent running backs going forward. Why wouldn’t they? It works for the Pats and it works beautifully. Rudy 2, better known as Danny Woodhead and the Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, continued their amazing, out of the blue seasons on Sunday, combining for 165 yards on 28 carries (5.9 yards per attempt) and two TDs in shredding the Colts already porous run defense. Woodhead, still as dynamic as he is diminutive, had the run of the year in the third quarter, a 36-yard scamper that could have been cut short a couple of times before he hit paydirt if not for his remarkable agility, toughness and low center of gravity. On the play, he reached the line of scrimmage, bounced away from some dead space up the middle, broke to the right side of the line, turned on some speed, somehow kept his legs churning despite two Colts defenders trying to wrap him up, used a crushing block from Deion Branch to get to the sideline then followed Welker’s lead into the end zone. It was a fantastic, special kind of play that came out of nowhere, kind of like Woodhead. The fact that he punctuated the run with some serious, riding-the-donkey styling in the corner of the end zone, then made a sensational open field tackle on the ensuing kickoff only added to this kid’s growing legend. Man, I can’t wait to see what he does next. Woodhead now had 529 yards from scrimmage and four TDs this season. Not too shabby. As for BJGE, he continued to bruise and batter all comers up the middle with another powerful performance. He rolled up 96 yards on 21 carries and a score, continuing to look like the next coming of Corey Dillon in the process. Law Firm now has 568 yards on the ground with seven TDs, the first Pats player to rush for at least seven scores in a season since, guess who? Dillon. When these guys run like they’ve been running, it opens up the passing game immensely, particularly the play-action stuff, which Brady is a master of employing. All those other teams can take their first-round picks and high-priced talents in the backfield. We’re good with Benny and Woody.
Wide Receivers: B+
It was the Welker and Branch show with Brandon Tate slowed by the flu and Edelman a complete non-factor. Again, Welker’s first quarter TD was gorgeous, not just because of the throw from Brady but also due to his strength and desire, dragging two Colts defenders with him to the goal line. Welker finished up with five catches for 58 yards and that score as he continues to work his way back to full strength; these last two weeks for him have arguably represented his two best games of the season thus far. As for Branch, he owned it for good stretches of the game. The Colts played a lot of intermediate to deep zone coverage in the game and Branch took advantage, routinely finding soft spots with ease and producing 70 yards on seven receptions. On one of the Pats two ill-fated, fourth quarter possessions, he and Brady were not on the same page on a third down, quick out pattern which led to an untimely punt. But that was pretty much the only thing that went wrong for either of the Pats top two guys at the receiver slot. It would have been nice to get something, anything, out of Tate or Edelman, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Oh yeah, and those blocks on Woodhead’s TD run. They must be mentioned again and about another hundred times after that. Outstanding team football. Sick.
Tight Ends: B+
A much lighter load for these guys this week, with Gronk and Hernandez each only making one catch. But each of them were massively important, not just Hernandez’s sticky handed TD grab on which he lit up his man before burning into the end zone. Gronk’s was a 25-yard pickup on which he loped by a linebacker up the seam then turned to his left to find a Brady bullet waiting for him. The play was the second of a 65-yard scoring drive that was the ideal response to the Colts scoring their first TD of the day, and put the Pats up 21-7. Gronk and Alge Crumpler played the third and fourth most snaps on offense, according ESPN Boston ace Mike Reiss’s chart, likely a result of the running game being featured so prevalently. It sure is comforting to know that even on a day on which they aren’t as involved in the passing games as most weeks, this group can still be leaned on heavily in other areas and still perform with excellence.
Offensive Line: A
One of the biggest tormentors of the Pats over the years is Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. He doesn’t get as much publicity as Freeney, who plays on the other side, but he’s pretty much as fast, quick, agile and good at getting to the QB. In last year’s game, Mathis so thoroughly beat the shit out of Nick Kazcur, that Kazcur was never the same again, looking tentative and weak as he labored through the Pats final seven games of the year. On Sunday, it was Sebastian Volmer’s task to stay with Mathis. So what happened? Mathis did diddley poo, that’s what. He had two tackles on the day but he never got within a mile of Brady and as far as I can remember, I don’t think Nantz or Phil Simms said his name once all day. Vollmer completely swallowed Mathis whole and that was one reason that the Pats were so successful on offense for most of the day. On the other end, Matt Light let Freeney beat him once but considering how good Freeney is and how much trouble Light has had with him in the past, holding him to one noticeable play all day long constitutes a win in that matchup. Still, the story of the line on Sunday was the run blocking, particularly by Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly, filling in for the injured Stephen Neal at right guard. The strength of the Colts defense is in their team speed, so the Pats simply ran the ball up the middle and down their throats. Mankins and Connolly (along with Crumpler) were pulling inside all day and the result was Woodhead and BJGE barrelling for 114 of their 165 yards on runs up the middle. It was beyond awesome watching those guys dominate throughout the game; the Pats imposed their will up front for almost the entire day, doing whatever they wanted in the running game for the second straight week. It’s probably no secret that the superb rushing performances of the past two weeks have come with Mankins back in the lineup – he’s always been an outstanding run blocker and having not played until Week 9, he’s surely operating at peak strength and energy. Brady compared him to John Hannah after the game. Hannah is only one of the two or three best offensive linemen in NFL history. Nice to have you back, Logan.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B
I know, I know. 467 total yards allowed and getting off the field after only 3 of 14 third downs feels more like a C- or worse. But that wasn’t remotely the whole story for the Pats defense on Sunday. Against a quarterback like Manning, when you’re running rookies and second-year guys out there at nearly every position on nearly every snap, holding him under 30 points and forcing him into three turnovers, each in incredibly timely fashion, warrants some serious props. In a year marked by the process of bending but not breaking, Sunday’s game was the ultimate testament. Twenty-four yards away from another brutal, humiliating, potentially season-defining el foldo, Sanders read Manning and made sure he was in the right place at the right time to make a massive play, closing out a game full of them. Sure, Manning was complicit in his team’s downfall; with the Colts already in field goal range and down just three points with two timeouts left and with a first down, the throw that Sanders picked off was hardly necessary. But that’s not the point. The point is that this group, despite being positively dismantled in the fourth quarter, still managed to rise up just enough to make a play that last year’s group couldn’t make. These defenders are going to have problems stopping opposing offenses all year, especially when they are led by QBs destined for the Hall of Fame. But on Sunday, they had to have learned first hand, once and for all, that they can make plays when they need them most. Enough being hard on this defense – it’s time to give them credit for winning a game. The defense bailed out the offense on Sunday. Doesn’t that just sound so sweet?
Defensive Line: A-
The Colts aren’t a particularly good running team anyway, especially with two of their top three backs injured. But except for one play, they did absolutely squat on the ground. Colts running back Donald Brown broke one fourth quarter run for 36 yards. On his 16 other carries, he managed just 32, or two yards per attempt. The Pats employed their usual strategy of shuffling linemen in and out and in and out and once again, it worked. Given the magnitude of the game, it’s hardly surprising that Vince Wilfork, the best of the bunch, had the best game of them all. Wilfork’s six tackles, including one on which he was in the backfield and eating Brown alive as he was taking the ball out of Manning’s hands, all mattered, as did his continued ability to take up enough space and occupy enough blockers to allow guys like Gerard Warren, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to make stops. Ron Brace was also big for the Pats, creating even more space between himself and Bill Belichick’s doghouse. The D-line continues to be the strength of this defense. It’s been pretty damn hard to run on it all year long. Sunday was no exception and it all started with big Vince.
Of all the youngsters on the Pats D not named Devin McCourty, I think my favorite is Jermaine Cunningham. He was drafted out of Florida to be a pass rusher off the edge but he’s proven well equipped to be solid against the run as well. He was good in both areas on Sunday, making a couple of nice plays against the run and providing a Best Supporting Actor worthy performance on the play of the game. Cunningham exploded off the left edge on the final Indy offensive play of the day, getting to Manning just as he released the ball. It was hard to tell whether Cunningham made any contact with Manning, but the quickness with which he got there at the very least forced Manning to unload a touch earlier and with a little less behind the throw than he’d have liked. It was a perfectly timed rush, executed brilliantly and it contributed a ton to Sanders making the game-sealing pick. After Cunningham, there’s not much to write home about concerning the linebackers. Spikes made a couple of nice tackles against the run. Mayo had a lot of tackles, none particularly impactful. Gary Guyton looked a little better again, but considering he’s the middle linebacker in the Pats pass defense packages and that’s the area of the field that gets exploited more than any other week after week, especially on Sunday, I’d say he still has a long way to go. Rob Ninkovich just missed a big sack of Manning in the first half but was otherwise invisible. And Tully Banta-Cain won the knucklehead of the week award with an inexcusable, woefully stupid, unnecessary roughness penalty after the whistle had blown on the Colts second TD drive of the final quarter that turned an 18-yard completion into a 33-yard play. It would be nice to see this group defend the short and intermediate middle of the field a little more effectively on a more consistent basis. Just growing pains, I guess. Show me that smile again…
Defensive Backs: B-
If you had told me the secondary would be getting anything better than a C against Manning and the Colts offense, I would have… well, I would have disagreed. And probably laughed. And maybe even told you that you’re dumb. But these guys showed up, and made enough plays to be successful, no matter how many yards the Colts gained through the air. It started early, when Brandon Meriweather fielded a bad Manning overthrow and ran it back 39 yards to set up the Pats first score. Say this for Meriweather: he may not know how to tackle or take the right route to a ball carrier in the open field or be that fast or be sensible enough to not constantly call attention to himself during games or even seem to really understand how to play football in general. But he can catch a wobbly, overthrown pass with the best of them. McCourty made another wildly athletic pick late in the third quarter that led to the Pats final scoring drive of the day. He also pretty much controlled the right side of the field for the majority of the game; Reiss pointed out on his blog that when Manning threw to the right side, where McCourty lines up in most situations, the Colts QB completed less than half his passes and threw two of his three picks. Kyle Arrington didn’t have such a good day, badly missing a tackle on a short pass from Manning to Reggie Wayne in the second quarter that led to a long run, then being beaten on a TD throw to Wayne later in that same drive (though in Arrington’s defense, that pass was about as perfect as a pass can be and Wayne made a spectacular catch). Arrington also made news by lining up at defensive end on some second half snaps, a scenario that looked almost as bizarre as it sounds. And due to an injury to Jonathan Wilhite, who has played much better the past couple of weeks, Patrick Chung found himself in pass coverage a fair amount, an area that is certainly not his strength. Chung was the nearest defender on both of Manning’s two fourth quarter TD passes to Blair White and although he was right there on the second one (White made an excellent, diving catch), he was torched on the first one as well as on a huge third down completion to Wayne right before the final INT. Tough going for Chung, who has made a huge leap this year and looks to have the makings of a top-flight safety. He shouldn’t have to cover wide receivers one-on-one, but with Wilhite out, the Pats were playing three safeties all day and I guess there was more faith in Chung to be on the line of scrimmage and covering than Sanders or (gulp) Meriweather. Sanders, of course, was the hero in the end and it was his second straight week with a huge INT. He’s the old man of the Pats defensive backfield and it’s been a treat to see him lead that group as they get wiser, better and more experienced on a weekly basis. These guys, for the most part, should feel really good about themselves. So they let one of the greatest QBs of all time throw for almost 400 yards. Big deal. They made the plays when the plays needed to be made. Their collective confidence should be soaring. And in most of their cases, they’re only going to get better.
Special Teams: B
Nothing too big or too small out of this unit. Tate had one really nice kick return that went for 32 yards. Shayne Graham can’t kick the ball further than the opposing team’s 10-yard line but he made a field goal and luckily didn’t miss any more extra points. Our man Zoltan averaged 44 yards on three punts. There were no long snapping issues for the second straight week. The Colts didn’t do anything all that exciting in the return game. Pretty standard stuff here all the way around..
I wonder what Brady and de facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien talked about on the sideline in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Could the Colts have figured out how to stop every single thing the Pats had done for three+ quarters completely out of the blue at precisely the right moment? Did the offensive players suddenly forget how to execute? Or did the play-calling, so dynamic, original and perfectly balanced for 50 minutes of game action suddenly go stale and conservative? Yes, the Pats tried to come out throwing on that first lousy drive and they came out running on the second one. But it felt off somehow. It was like O’Brien, likely with the blessing of Belichick, just tried to get the game over with instead of continuing to take it to a Colts defense that had to have been wiped out by that stage of the game. There was no counter-punch to the Colts fourth quarter rally and if anyone out there has a guess as to why, please raise your hand. Before that, the game plan was masterful. Balance between power running and quick, play-action throws on offense. The Colts couldn’t stop it. They looked lost. So why change anything? The Pats are 8-2, tied for the best record in the NFL. They will likely play at least one playoff game at home and at this point, are probably a Super Bowl contender. They have gotten here in no small part through excellent, top level coaching. They just need to figure out how better to finish games off. One of Belichick’s staples is always being sure that his players are in the best possible position in order to be successful. He and his staff, particularly on offense, need to do a better job of that late in games. This isn’t the Browns or Lions having the Jets beat in the last couple of weeks only to completely crap out near the end of the game and give it away. Let’s hope it never goes that far. Keeping the pedal to the floor, even with a 17-point lead with 10 minutes left, is a good place to start.