September 23, 2014

About Dan Zeigarnik

Like Bill Belichick, Dan is a graduate of Wesleyan University. When he's not obsessing over the Patriots, Dan works as a project manager for a nonprofit organization aimed at helping Boston area youths. He has also managed a recent district political campaign.

Are The 2011 Broncos The 2010 Jets?

By Dan Zeigarnik

Does anyone remember how Patriots fans were taking a victory lap when they found out that they had to face the Jets in the playoffs last year?

New England was 14-2, clearly the best team in the AFC despite its bad defense, and had recently defeated the Jets by 42 points. The 2010 Patriots resemble this year’s Packers, not just because of their great offense, great record, and inability to stop their opponents, but because their fans have already mentally booked reservations for the Super Bowl. However, would anyone be surprised after the fact that like last year’s Jets, the Giants will come in and upset the Packers with a disruptive defense? The Giants have a history of this, as anyone who remembers the Week 17 barnburner against the undefeated Patriots that the Giants lost, only to get the last laugh a short month later. As a fan who has been burned the last couple of years by high expectations, I have appreciated the nervous tension that this year’s Patriots have provided.

This was the collective mood of Patriots nation for a good part of the season, but unfortunately there has been remarkable mood swing. Last week, everyone was petrified of the playoffs, because the team had a terrible month of December despite winning all of its games. The running joke was that they were the worst best-team ever.

Just looking back at the 5 games in December, the games that were supposed to be cakewalks and not prepare the Patriots for the grueling expedition that is the NFL playoffs, makes one wonder where all the newfound exuberance came from:

  • For starters, Patriots miraculously played only 2 teams with a winning record all year: Giants and Steelers and lost both of them. That’s right, just 2 games against teams with an above .500 record! For contrast Baltimore is 6-0 against playoff teams. The Patriots also have a 1-2 record against playoff teams this year, losing to the aforementioned Pittsburg and New York while defeating Denver which was 8-8.
  • The Patriots, in a pathetic display of mediocrity almost lost a game to the lowly Colts when they just installed a new starting quarterback, Dan Orlovsky.
  • They followed the game up with an embarrassing squeaker against the Redskins in which Rex Grossman looked like an All-Pro and had Washington inside the Patriots 10 with a chance to tie the game with seconds left in the 4th quarter, before he threw an interception to Jerod Mayo.
  • The next three games against Denver, Miami and Buffalo, saw New England give up big leads early, and only be saved by their opponent’s turnover riddled implosions.

This anemic performance in the month of December has squared perfectly with the criticism that the team has been unable to shed in the past couple of years. Yes, the team is an offensive juggernaut and when they are on a roll its hard to stop Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez. However, their defense is as porous as the Mexican border. They are 31st in pass defense and their vaunted bend-but-don’t-break defense is ranked 23rd in Red Zone defense, letting teams score touchdowns 55% of the time.

Despite all these issues, the team still won 13 games and finished first, but last week fans were incredibly nervous of New England’s ability to make it far in the playoffs, and that’s a good thing. The Boston area’s sense of sports entitlement is nauseating and actually takes away from the enjoyment one gets from rooting on their team. What’s the point of watching the whole season if all you care about is if they win the Super Bowl or not? There was a sense of uncertainty about whether the Patriots of could make it out of the Divisional round, and that’s great. Sports are supposed to have a high level of unpredictability, otherwise why tune in.

Now that the Tebow train is riding into town, everyone assumes that the Patriots will trounce them. Could this happen? Sure and it would be amazing, but I don’t see the reason for such a mood swing. How quickly people have forgotten the lessons from year’s past or even last month’s. Denver ran all over the Patriots until McGahee got injured. Then they proceeded to turn the ball over three times. Without these favorable proverbial bounces of the ball, the game could have turned out much differently.

So let’s hope for a Patriots trouncing of Denver, but to expect it and not take your devilishly-hot streaking opponent seriously is to fail to learn the lessons of history, and we all know what happens to them….

Tebow the Terribl……y Lucky

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

Considering that the mighty Curtis Painter has just been benched in favor of  UConn’s very own Dan Orlovsky, and that Vegas has taken the already ridiculous 21 point line off the board and is no longer taking bets on the game, I will take a stab at the national conversation. Now, don’t get me wrong there is always trap games and the Pats need to come in focused and ready to play, but other than that there isn’t really much to say.

However, there is plenty to say about the sainted one, Mr. Gospel Choir Himself, the one-and-only Tim Tebow. Despite the fact that everything in America has been politicized including, unfortunately, religion, I will try to be as fair to him as possible and focus on the on-the-field performance.

He was an amazing high school quarterback. He was an unbelievable college quarterback. He is clutch in the fourth quarter and had countless of comebacks including several in this year in the NFL. Everyone knows these facts and they are not up for dispute.

Along with his history or success, comes his style of play which is plainly visible to anyone who watches him. He is built like a running back, he runs like a running back, and most amusingly, he throws like a running back.

Now does that mean that he doesn’t have the physical, mental and mechanical tools to succeed in the NFL? Of course not. The quarterback position is a cerebral one and making the right adjustments before the snap and the ability to make your reads quickly is the biggest differentiator between the haves and the have-nots. So is Tebow going to be a successful quarterback in this league? He very well might be, but his impressive 5-1 record since taking over the starting job is much less predictive than everyone has let on to be.

Since Tebow took the helm:

  • Week 1: Defeated a god-awful Dolphins team in Overtime
  • Week 2: Lost emphatically to a decent Lions team 45-10
  • Week 3: Beat an Oakland team that had Carlson Palmer still shaking off the rust. He threw six interceptions in his first two weeks
  • Week 4: Beat Chiefs in a close game where Matt Cassel suffered a season ending injury. Also, the Chiefs were already a bad team and with Palko leading them have become a laughing-stock. They are currently in a four game skid, with no end in sight. Looking at their schedule, they will probably lose the rest of their games and finish 4-12.
  • Week 5: Beat a Jets team that is doing its best Eagles impersonation. Since week one they haven’t beat a single playoff team. Their two wins against the fading Bills and the Chargers don’t count.
  • Week 6: Speaking of San Diego, they are in the middle of a 6 game skid and are ready to give Norv Turner the very belated boot.

If the Patriots played a schedule like this, everyone would be saying how it doesn’t matter much. In fact, they are saying it right now about the Patriots remaining cupcake games which include Denver. Looking forward to the rest of the Broncos games, they are playing the Vikings, the Cutler-less Bears,New England, Bills and Chiefs. With a schedule like that they could easily finish the season out 4-1 and land a spot in the playoffs. Now, it’s pretty improbable that in the last 11 games of a season a team would only get two worthy opponents (New England and Lions). However that is exactly what happened to Denver.

So if they get blown out by the only two legitimate playoff teams that they faced, does that make them a good team? I, therefore, submit that Tebow’s performance has to be put in context. Can he become a good Quarterback in the NFL? Sure he can, but it’s not because he can beat a Raiders team that is starting a player just signed off the streets at quarterback and don’t have Darren McFadden. Let’s see how he does against New England in two weeks and decide then.

The Trap Of Finishing 13-3

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

It is amusing to hear all the ‘are the Patriots going to go 13-3?’ talk after Monday night’s pounding of the lowly Chiefs considering how dire the situation looked just a few weeks ago.

Don’t get me wrong, achieving a 13-3 or a 12-4 record is an amazing feat regardless of how it is achieved and it would be hypocritical to say otherwise. However, after being burned in recent years by a 16-0 and a 14-2 season, fans have been quite loudly yearning for playoff victories and getting their hands one more time on a Lombardi trophy before Belichick and Brady’s glorious careers finally sunset.

So with this in mind, can the cupcake schedule of facing Colts, Broncos, Redskins, Dolphins and the imploding Bills really prepare the Patriots for a playoff run?

Everyone is well aware of how beat-up the Patriots defense is and how they rank dead last in yards allowed, but fewer people are openly discussing the Patriots offensive woes. The Tom Brady-led high-powered machine, surgically cuts up opposing teams and usually has to wave off claims of whether running up the score is unsportsmanlike or not.

However the game plan to stop New England is pretty straight-forward:

  • Create pressure on the quarterback with just a four-man rush
  • Doubleteam Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski
  • Win time of possession battle by continuously converting third downs.

Tom Brady, like every other mortal, is much less accurate when he doesn’t get a chance to set his feet. The pressure also disrupts an already average rushing attack, forcing Brady to make the perfect pass every time. Obviously, this is much easier said than done, and can only really be accomplished with an amazing defensive line. However, some of the teams that the Patriots will have to face in the playoffs can execute the above stated game plan.New Englandwas bounce three times in recent history with just such a game plan. This year the losses to the Steelers and Giants were eerily reminiscent of the Patriots past January woes.

So how is playing some of the worst teams in football going to help the Patriots get ready for the post-season? Sure, they will be able to get healthy without losing ground in the standings, and their confidence and momentum will be high, which shouldn’t be understated. However, achieving a 13-3 or 12-4 record without facing a playoff team after Thanksgiving should give pundits and fans pause.

Therefore, we should not overlook the Eagles just because they are 4-6. They just beat a good Giants team and have a great defense when they’re not shooting themselves in the foot. For the Patriots sake, I hope that the Eagles don’t implode and are able to give the Patriots their last real test before the playoffs start.

Take A Deep Breath, Everyone

By Dan Zeigarnik. Patriots Daily Staff

What a whirlwind the last 3 weeks have been. I know that everyone talks about the ups and downs of an NFL season, but I don’t quite think that having our fans yo-yoing like an ADHD sugar-laden kid is what we had in mind.

"It is what it is."

Just a week ago all the focus was on the atrocious losses to Pittsburgh and Giants. The Patriots were gutted by the Steelers, who seemed to have broken historic ground by discovering that they could send a tight end right down the middle of the field and that the opposing defense, having never seen this kind of play before, would have no choice but to clear out. This was followed up by an eerie Eli Manning game winning drive that was topped off by yet another number 85’s gut-wrenching catch. Despite all this, I am here to say, ‘do not lose all hope, oh ye of lil’ faith.’

Since when have Patriots fans taken on the Yankee fan-like attitude towards local sports teams? Red Sox fans circa 2003 remember how much the New York’s championship-or-bust attitude was loathed. The most grating of which was the fact that they expected to be the predominant favorite going into spring training and then again at the All-Star break. Any kind of deviation from their inevitable juggernaut machine was met with panic, firings, and frantic over-purchasing of players. Red Sox fans, besides the obvious disdain, felt a kind of pity, because they understood that a true fan enjoys the ups and downs and isn’t just a auditioning for Extreme Hoarding- Championship Ring Edition. I hope that Patriot fans are better then that.

Then from the pits of this despair, a much needed win came against the Jets, an inconsistent team, headed by an inconsistent quarterback. For some inexplicable reason all is cured in Patriots land. Just a few weeks ago, 98.5 the SportsHub turned itself into a Center-For-Ridicule: a place to unload all of your anger and frustration. The hosts were insulting members of the coaching staff for the fact that some of them were at one time graduate coaching assistants in the NCAA’s. Fans were even calling into the station and demanding Belichick’s head.

Now, after sweeping the Jets in an incredibly satisfying fashion, the Patriots ‘have the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL’ and therefore it is a given that they will have homefield advantage in the playoffs. Everyone remembers slaughtering the Jets in Week 13 of 2010 by a score of 45-3 and how seamlessly that translated into the beat-down the Pats laid on them once again in the playoffs. Whoops.

It’s true that the Patriots remaining 2011 opponents (Chiefs, Eagles, Colts, Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins and Bills) aren’t exactly a murderers row. However, if the Patriots had lost to the Jets, would that schedule somehow gotten harder? Does beating the Jets somehow prove that the 2011 Patriots are for real? Does it eliminate the fact that New England has no deep passing threat, an inconsistent running game and an incredibly porous pass defense?

No it doesn’t. The 2011 Patriots are not an amazing team and that should be OK. They are 6-3 with an inside track of winning the AFC East which is laudable. They have swept the Jets and they did it without Spikes, Chung, and McCourty on defense. The rest of the regular season should be focused on getting healthy and hitting a hot streak in the playoffs.

Pats fans need to stop comparing their team to the ideal and start comparing the Patriots to the rest of the AFC Elite: Houston has lost Schaub for the season. Pittsburgh, despite crushing the Patriots, lost to Houston, got embarrassed by Baltimore, and barely beat Jacksonville and the Colts.

As far as the Bengals go, four of their wins were against basement dwellers Seattle, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis, so it won’t come as much of a surprise that they lost to Denver…..Sorry I just took a knee to pray for a second because the Bengals have two games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore still left on the schedule

Ravens looked like a beast against Pittsburgh, but lost to Jacksonville and Tennessee and needed a 21 point comeback against the lowly Cardinals. Their running game and defense is stellar but their quarterback leaves much to be desired.

Nobody is arguing that being the predominant favorites going into the playoffs isn’t a great thing. But let’s not turn into Yankees fans and throw hissy fits every time the Patriots lose its first regular season home game in 4 years or back-to-back games against two of the league’s better teams.

Just try to keep in mind that the 2010 Packers, 2007 Giants, and 2005 Steelers won the Superbowl as wild card teams. That’s 3 in the last 6 Super Bowls! So it’s all about making it to the playoffs and getting hot, and not because Eli Manning had a game-winning drive in Week 9 or whether the Patriots can clobber Mark Sanchez in Week 10.

Let us enjoy each week for what it is and not extrapolate too much from each win or loss. Otherwise we too might need a ritalin prescription.

Could Bill Belichick Go The Way of Terry Francona?

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

Horrified Boston fans have spent the last couple of weeks watching the disastrous Red Sox collapse in the standings followed by a significantly more despicable fallout. The amount of mud and accusations being slung around is fitting for our politicians but not our beloved sports teams.

If you told me last month that my friends and I would be dressing up as Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey for Halloween with the now requisite buckets of fried chicken and Natty Light as part of the new ‘Red Sox Uniform’ I would tell you that you would have a better chance of firing Tito and letting go of Theo.

So now, the Red Sox debacle has gotten me worried about the Patriots and whether or not the team could ever blow up in Bill Belichick’s face to the point of him getting unceremoniously let go by the Krafts.

The skeptics will point to the inherent differences between the NFL and MLB. They will say:

  • Contracts are not guaranteed in football, so underperforming players or clubhouse cancers can be cut. While in baseball, fans are forced to shovel Lackey’s abysmal performance down their throats and wonder whether he will outlast this Great Recession.
  • There is a salary cap in football, so teams cannot be expected to buy their way into the playoffs. This lowers the expectations for football coaches and gets them a pass from their fans for a bad year hear and there.

The same skeptics will then point to the glaring differences between the Red Sox’s front office whispering and back-stabbing campaigns and the Patriots sense of one-voice camaraderie. They will say:

  • Theo has always had a rocky relationship with the owners. He even left one year.
  • Tito was not a pure numbers guy like both the ownership and Theo would have liked him to be, and therefore there was always a bit of a disconnect.
  • Belichick and Bob Kraft seem to be a team, much like Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth or Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They depend on each other for success and it wouldn’t be the same if they were separated.
  • Belichick is a ruthless leader who garners respect by not taking any slack from anyone, while Tito is a ‘players coach’ which is a euphemism for letting them police themselves.

Despite all of this, I am still worried. I’m reminded of one of my favorite political quotes:

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.

Michael McFaul, National Security Council

In the aftermath of a second World Series victory in 2007, no one could imagined that in four short years, Manny Ramirez would be shipped out of town, that Theo Epstein would be described not as a wunderkind, but as a whiny “can’t go out to dinner in public” punk who forced bad free agent acquisitions down the owner’s throats. Could you have dreamed that loyal Tito, who took the team to the promised land twice, would be accused of being an unmotivated and undedicated, painkiller-addicted man whose marital problems got in the way of his job? This is before we even get to the fact that three starting pitchers refused to even watch the games, and instead chose to eat fried chicken, guzzle beer, and play video games in the clubhouse, away from their teammates.

Ever since Bill Belichick benched Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady, the motto “In Bill we trust” has been the standard cry from fans. However, with no championship rings since 2004 and a golden-boy quarterback in his ‘twilight years’ there is no predicting how the next few years will play out. Brady could have a falling out with his coach, or have another severe injury that will finally spell the demise of the team. Or Belichick’s poor drafting will continue and the team decides to go another route.

Obviously nobody even wants to consider any of these horrible turn of events, but regardless of how it will all go down, it’s important to consider how fragile any state of affairs is and how quickly things can disintegrate into debauchery. Despite this gloomy cloud over the future of the team, it makes me that much more appreciative of the current Patriots’ 5-1 record and enjoy these transient moments of success all the more.

Dan Zeigarnik’s Guide To Watching Football

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

Sundays are Holy days, with their special rituals that are not to be broken unless you are under extreme duress.

Naturally, I’m talking about NFL football devotees, embracing all denominations. (What did you think I meant?)

All fans have their well-rehearsed traditions of how they spend their fall Sunday afternoons. Some spend it battling their significant others for remote control access. Those of you in that predicament, I send my condolences to you.

Some of the more fortunate ones get to actually attend the games with all the pregame and tailgate festivities, and to them, I tip my hat, or rather offer a wool ski hat for those frosty December games.

The rest of us should treat the games like mini Super Bowls. There is no reason why these Sunday afternoon games cannot be a time for delicious food, great booze and sizzling conversation. Since you’re planning on spending the day on a couch anyway, why not combine your efforts and make it over to your friend’s or parent’s house?

Personally, I get to my Football Watching Station around 12-12:30 and start ordering or cooking food while catching up. The only rules are that the TV has to be large and High Definition and that everyone watching the game must be a football fan or be willing to shut up for the whole duration of the game. Is there anything more annoying then somebody discussing their list of chores (which should have done on Saturday) while you are concentrating on a key Patriots drive?

Finally, you need to banish the ‘football purists’ and the ‘traditionalists’, you know the ones:  They need to start the game on time and they hate you re-watching a play because they believe that the game was intended to be watched live. While I respect these people’s points of view, I can’t help but think that they have been suckered into the corporatization of sports.

The only reason why there are breaks in the action is so that TV stations and the organizations can stuff their advertising down your throats. There is no reason why you have to sit through a timeout, commercial, touchdown, commercial, kick-off, commercial. That’s 12 minutes of commercials for 2 plays of football. The only reason why one might think that it’s the right way to watch is because they had no options before and were forced to watch it that way and so it’s become a habit. Well it’s a bad habit and one that needs to be kicked. Maybe if enough people start DVRing their games and forgoing the commercials, the game itself will adjust and get revenue some other way that doesn’t involve football players just standing around on the field waiting for the TV timeout to end.

So start the game at about 1:30-1:35 pm. There is no reason for a die-hard fan to listen to Jim Nantz tell you at the start of the game for the 50th time that “Nobody believed in Wes Welker, as this undrafted free agents has really made a name for himself…..That Tom Brady sure is something isn’t he? Back to you Michelle Tafoya.” That gibberish lasts about 10 minutes before the kick-off anyway.

If you think about how many commercials there are in a half. 1 scheduled TV timeout per quarter, the 2 minute warning, the end of the first quarter and if the two teams combined for 4 scores, then that adds 8 more time outs, 4 for the scores and 4 for the kickoffs. That’s about 11 timeouts at about 3-4 minutes a timeout. So if you start the game 30-35 minutes late and re-watch some of the key plays so that you can see Logan Mankins earhole a corner back on a seal running play in slow motion, you can fast forward through all the commercials and the halftime show, and be live mid-way through the 3rd quarter.

This way you still get to build up the tension that end of the game commercials tend to build in close games, while boycotting the corporatization of sports and spending time with your family and friends. It’s a win-win and anyone who argues otherwise needs to try it out a few times.

Lastly, for all of you who have a compulsive need to check your fantasy line-up, you know that Patriots always come first, and that you can way until midway through the 3rd quarter to check and see if McFadden got you the 20 points you need him for or not. I have 4 teams and lots of money and bragging rights at stake, and if I can do it so can you. So enjoy the game, the food and the company and not the commercials.

Why Tom Brady Will Win A Super Bowl When He Is In His 40s

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

There has been a lot of rabble-rousing by the Boston sports media accusing the Patriots management team and coaching staff of being unappreciative of the dwindling window for a Tom Brady-led duck boat parade. The authoritative press’s logic runs something like this:

  1. Most players do not last much past their mid 30’s.
  2. Tom Brady is 34 years old and therefore only has 3 or 4 years left in the tank
  3. The Patriots Brass keeps trading down in the draft or even worse trading up into the following year’s draft.
  4. The front office traded Richard Seymour for a draft pick 2 years down the line.
  5. New England’s suits don’t seem to be sacrificing long-term viability for short-term bursts, by overpaying for hot free agents prospects, or keeping developmental projects like Price and Marcus Cannon.

This might seem like very sound logic on the face of it, but it seems like an antiquated model that no longer fits. Here is why:

  1. Brady does not have Michael Vick’s scrambling ability, or Brett Favre’s cannon or even Peyton Manning’s precision. Tom Brady’s spiral isn’t always very tight. However, his talent lies in his ability to read defenses and his intense workout effort. Tedy Bruschi said after Brady’s 517-yard game “The tough part was practice during the week. All he had to do was come out here and execute. He demands that from his teammates during the week in practice. I’ve seen him be fiery on the field, yes, but I’ve seen him even more competitive in practice situations. That’s when he does his work, during the week, off the field, all of the film work, then he gets out here, just lets it flow. The work is done. End result: 517.” Everyone always says that Brady’s favorite receiver is the open one, but few people ever mention the reason why he can always find that elusive chink in the opposing defense’s armor. It’s because he is so well prepared that he recognizes coverages better than anyone else in the game. This type of talent and film room study habit does not wither with age.
  2. Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl as a facilitator. He was a glorified Trent Dilfer. He just had an uncanny ability to instrument game winning drives. However, he still accomplished it by throwing screens to J.R. Redmond and the like. Since then, he has morphed into a high-octane offensive machine; producing a record-breaking 50 TD season, and a season in which he had 9-to-1 TD/Interception ratio that earned him the first ever unanimous MVP award last year. So even if his skills diminish with age, he can always revert back to his game management days and rely on a powerful defense to keep the games close, ala 2001.
  3. His 2 best seasons came at age 30 and 33 respectively. His much ballyhooed 2010 MVP award’s was earned despite loosing his over the top threat (Randy Moss) having 2 undrafted running backs (Law Firm/Woodhead), 2 rookie tight ends (Hernandez/Gronkowski), a diminutive wide receiver only 9 months removed from a torn ACL (Welker), and an aged mid-season acquisition (Branch). Not exactly an all-star lineup for what was arguably the greatest season by a quarterback of all time.
  4. The league now protects its quarterbacks a lot more than in years past, which limits the wear and tear on the star players.
  5. Medical advancement has been miraculous even in the last 10 years. Welker was able to come back for ACL surgery without missing a regular season game. Strasburg can still throw 100 miles per hour after Tommy John surgery. In all sports, players are able to stay on the field longer and still be effective. Kobe Bryant averaged over 25 points per game in his 15th NBA season. Wakefield won his 200th game at 45 years of age! Sure those are cherry picked facts but it still, but there is nothing in Tom Brady’s skill set that would make one believe that he couldn’t play until his mid 40’s.

So while Tom Brady might be getting longer in the tooth, he still has a lot more years left to play. His skills are more mental and preparatory in nature and the league will protect him from late hits, hits to the head, and hits below the waist. Brett Favre famously threw for 4200 yards, 33 TD’s and only 7 picks at age 40, and he was a reckless gunslinger whose bad habits got him into trouble in the playoffs. So while Brady’s skills will deteriorate, that by no means that he can’t helm a Super Bowl winning team. It just seems silly to talk about a man’s decline when he clearly better at age 34 then he was at age 24 or 28, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

As long as the Patriots keep building for the future and create another defensive juggernaut that can match the Patriots’ offensive firepower, there is no reason why Tom Brady cannot lead to more championships. Obviously, the team and the coaching staff could slink off into mediocrity, Tom could suffer another serious injury or just plain hang it up. There are no guarantees in sports, and that’s what makes it so exciting, but there is nothing inherent about Tom Brady’s age that will preclude him from winning a championship long after he has grey stubble.

 

Matchups Of The Week – Patriots at Dolphins

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

The start of the 2011 NFL season could not have come sooner enough for Patriot fans. It’s finally time to stop the navel gazing and the theoretical preseason debates, because now the answers to all the offseason quandaries will be played out on the field. This is an exciting time for Patriot Nation for there are plenty of new faces to get acquainted with, as New England gears up for yet another Super Bowl run.

While season openers inherently garner excitement for the new beginning and clean slate that they represent for the teams and the fans, there is still an opponent to face and one that shouldn’t be so quickly overlooked. The 2010 Miami team was disappointing mainly because their quarterback woes really hurt them. Despite this, they still beat Super Bowl champs Green Bay and the Jets, while losing to Pittsburg by the score of 22-23. This year, they will surely try to build on those wins, and in this topsy-turvy league a 7-9 team can easily finish 11-5 the following season.

When the Patriots played Miami on the road in week 4 of last year, victory was not at all guaranteed. In fact, there was a decent amount of consternation as the Pats were coming off a loss to the Jets and a lackluster win against Buffalo. New England did little to assuage these concerns when they headed into the tunnel at trailing at half-time 6-7. However, the second half proved to be spectacular, as Brandon Tate returned a kickoff, Pat Chung blocked two kicks and took an interception back for a TD and Rob Ninkovich piled on with 2 interceptions of his own. The result was a 41-14 rout, but it came about in one of the more unusual series of faux pas by the Miami offense and special team units.

So with this in mind, it will be interesting to see how New England looks in these 5 key matchups:

Patriots Secondary vs. Davone Bess and Brandon Marshall

James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are gone, so there will be a new face at safety to play along side Chung. If Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, or James Ihedigbo does not pan out there will be a lot of second guessing and questioning of Bill Belichick’s roster decisions. Also, Ras-I Dowling and Leigh Bodden will be patrolling the secondary along with Devin McCourty and it will be important for them to all be on the same page.

Patriots Defensive Line vs. Dolphins Offensive line

There are 3 new defensive linemen and a new 4-3 scheme in place this year. That’s a lot of change even for Belichick’s amorphous game planning style. Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter seem to be ready to set the edge and put pressure on the quarterback. This is something that has been missing for the Patriots in recent years, and fans will be keen to pay attention these 2 new additions. I would be remiss not to mention the Big Kahuna, Albert Haynesworth. Personally, I would only look for glimpses of greatness from him in the season opener as he is still playing his way into shape. If he shows glimmers of frustrating opposing offenses, then it will bode well for the Patriot’s playoff run.

Chad Ochoncinco vs. New England Sports Media

Is Chad frustrated? Of course, he is in a new offense and he is having growing pains for the first time in a long time. Is he suddenly a washed up has-been like Torry Holt and Joey Galloway? Child Please! Those 2 retired shortly after not making the Patriots. Do people honestly feel that Ochocinco wouldn’t be snatched up by another team if he got released? Give the man some time to get acquainted with the new offense. He has too much left in the tank, too hard a worker, too talented, and is too driven to affirm Bill Belichick’s vote of confidence in him to not have a productive year.

Gronkowski and Hernandez vs. Dolphins Linebackers

These 2 electrifying and unique tight ends are entering their second season in the NFL and have been having a great preseason. All signs point to them continuing their stellar performances. Look for them to be used in creative ways, and appreciate them as the anti-Ben Watson’s and Daniel Graham’s of the world.

Special Teams

The new rule about kickoffs being moved up to the 35 yard line is a bit strange. It basically eliminates kickoffs. It will certainly be a change, and it will make that extra commercial break sequence that much more irritating (touchdown, commercial, kick-off, commercial.) If the kickoff is just target practice for the field goal kickers as they try to boot it through the upright, then that break in the action will force more and more people to DVR their game and just start it 30 minutes late (that’s what I do).  Also, there seems to be some trouble brewing on the long-snapper front as the team keeps getting new ones after not signing Lonie Paxton to a long term contract. Hopefully that doesn’t cause costly botched snaps.

A Well-Timed Reality Check

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

Wow, what a difference nine days can make.

Following last week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New England Patriots were made out to be some sort of boogeyman that would appear in scary bedtime stories to burgeoning young quarterbacks.

“In the land called the NFL, it was the end of Week 2 of the 2011 preseason and much to everyone’s chagrin a 14-2 New England had gotten much better. Opposing coaches now had to contend with quarterback hunters Haynesworth, Ellis, Anderson and Carter now patrolling a revamped defensive line. This line would give the Patriots an edge they so desperately lacked in the previous few campaigns. As if this was not bad enough, New England’s secondary added Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden and James Sanders to an already quickly maturing group of corners and safeties. Not to be outdone, the Patriots offense added Ochocinco, drafted a surprisingly good Stevan Ridley and solidified their left tackle position for years to come.

What was poor Josh Freeman left to do, as he watched his offensive line overwhelmed while the score got progressively more lopsided?  After last week, there were even whispers of New England going undefeated.

This week, after a wretched performance against a very game Lions team, the tune has changed quite significantly. Now pundits are chattering about how:

  • The Patriots offensive line was exposed as unfit to protect Tom Brady long enough for him to make his reads.
  • They also couldn’t create any decent running holes for Woodhead and Green-Ellis to squirt through.
  • The corners couldn’t defend top tier wide receivers.

Now, I realize that it would be completely  hypocritical of me to read too much into this loss after writing last week’s article about how the preseason has little barring on the regular season. If winning big against a good Bucs team should be taken with a grain of salt, then so should a good drubbing by the Lions. Last year, the Rams demolished the Patriots in Week 3 of the preseason, and well, that didn’t stop New England from winning 14 regular season games.

I do find it interesting  however, to hear and read about how happy some people are about the fact that the Patriots were exposed and got a wake up call. It seems that people were yearning for the Patriots to be hungry and humble as opposed to the unstoppable juggernaut. There is an old sports adage that to be number 1, you have to train like your number 2.

Look for the Patriots to come out aggressively in Week 1 of the regular season, until then just enjoy watching some of the young pups give it their all in Week 4 of the preseason game.

Bah – Preseason Overhype!

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

Let me just get this out in the open: I thought the game against Jacksonville was atrocious.

Aaron Hernandez didn't get the preseason off to a great start.

Maybe that’s too harsh a criticism, especially for preseason standards, but despite the score to me it just did not feel like a dominant performance. Not to go all Captain Buzz-kill here, but I would just like to make a few observations about it:

  • Danny Woodhead fumbled once, only to be outdone by Aaron Hernandez’s two fumbles.
  • Taylor Price bobbled the ball twice, one of which resulted in an interception, and the other almost negated his own touchdown.
  • Brian Hoyer can’t throw a spiral to save his life. His throws look like someone throwing a Nerf football for the first time — it gets there but it’s not pretty.
  • Our defense got shredded and was only saved by the fact that the Jaguars kicked 4 field goals.
  • To top it off, their running backs, Jennings and Karim, looked like they were Barry Sanders truncated into Maurice Jones-Drew’s body and given a Michael Vick NOS booster shot. Somehow, I really doubt that they are that good.

Considering all of this, I was surprised to find out upon my return from a 2 week, internet-free vacation, how much Super Bowl hype there was around here!

Let’s pump the brakes a little bit here. Have people forgotten the loss to the Giants, or Tom Brady’s knee injury? It’s like we have instantly forgotten how arduous a task it is to take home the trophy, and how many things need to line up for it to actually happen.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all for enthusiasm and getting pumped for the upcoming season, but anointing Super Bowl favorites is not what the preseason is all about.

The preseason is all about getting a look at new acquisitions, 2nd year players who might have made ‘the jump’, and highly touted rookies whose draft grades you have spent hours reading and arguing about, despite never having seen them play.

This is the time to make judgment calls about which situational players you are excited about so you can point them out to your less-diehard friends. August is the time when you fall in love with unheralded youngsters like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and  Rob Gronkowski, and relentlessly call The SportsHub about them, and feel vindicated when they later become big contributors to the team.

Otherwise, the preseason performance matters little, as everyone knows that the 2008 Lions went 4-0, only to sputter to 0-16 in the regular season. This is especially true this season, where teams have to deal with a truncated offseason.

Beating Blaine Gabbert and Josh Freeman, both very young quarterbacks who are still learning and would have benefited greatly from OTAs, is completely inconsequential.

Anyways, again, don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited about the Patriots this season, and it was great to see Stevan Ridley’s breakout performance. I just think that everyone should just take some of Bill Belichick’s advice and focus on the next opponent and how the team can get better.

Speaking of which, it will be great to see how our offensive line, with the addition of first-round pick Nate Solder holds up against the unstoppable Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions. I can’t wait.

Waking Up From The Lockout

Now that the lockout has finally been lifted, there is a palpable sense of relief amongst Patriot fans. The horrid thoughts that were creeping into the collective mindset of the fan base have been quickly dissipating. Suddenly, NFL nation has been jarred awake by a truly frenzied free agency, and all that was once a reality during the 76-day lockout now feels like a hazy dream. Vague notions that once made sense during our collective slumber are quickly slipping away into absurdity just like most dreams. The notions, that getting your girlfriend to follow College Football or that collegian fantasy football is just as fun have now taken their rightful place on top of the laughably ridiculous pile.

It’s important that as we collectively rub our eyes and prepare for the coming months, that we get a lay of the land. So here are the things Patriot fans have to look forward to:

1) An improved pass-rush.

Now I know it sounds crazy considering all the hoopla that has been made about not drafting a great outside linebacker or defensive end, but here me out. There are 3 ways to improve the pass rush.

  • Improve the secondary. This gives the slowpokes up front enough time to chase down the quarterback. Devin McCourty, panned by the likes of Mel Kiper as an obscure ‘first round overreach’, has clearly been a steal and was a premiere shutdown corner in the league last year. He seems hungry, smart, and dedicated which is a great sign for those who are worried about a second year setback due to complacency. On top of that, the Patriots get back their best corner from 2 years ago in the form of Leigh Bodden. He missed a whole season due to a rotator cuff tear, something that I am all too personally familiar with. And if it took me 1 year to return to my NCAA athletic career, I’m sure Mr. Bodden will back in full force. The Patriots didn’t stop there, as they drafted Ras-I Dowling, who has one of the coolest names in the NFL, with the 33rd pick overall and will surely be someone to keep an eye out during the pre-season games. Add to these 3 corners, the maturation and emergence of Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington and you’ve got yourself a much improved and scary secondary.
  • Improve the Defensive Line. It collapses the pocket quicker, gives the linebackers more lanes to run through, and forces the opposing offensive lines to double team. Well last year’s serviceable D-line, got a big booster shot. The signing of Marcus Stroud,(note: reportedly released on Thursday) who used to be a beast and could still have a bit left in the tank, was a good pick up. Also, Ty Warren, who missed the whole 2010 campaign due to a hip injury, looks to be back to his formidable form. On top of this, Mike Wright, Ty’s very decent replacement, is back after suffering a concussion last year. So that’s three ‘new’ D-linemen, 2 of which, although not stars, are bona fide starters in the NFL. However, I know that ya’ll are much more intrigued by the trade for the disgruntled Albert Haynesworth. Here is the skinny on him—he doesn’t want to play nose tackle, and he is better in the 4-3 then the 3-4. Considering that we have Wilfork at nose, and that last year we played only 40% in our base 3-4 formation and couple that with the fact that we have a great history of rehabilitating malcontents, this should be a great bet and relatively inexpensive bet.
  • Improve Defensive Ends and Outside Linebackers. One way to do this is by cutting your best rushing linebacker, Tully Banta-Cain. Just seeing if you’re paying attention. Obviously losing him hurts, but not nearly as much as one might think. He was clearly losing favor with the coaching staff, and once Cunningham started performing, he really ate into Tully’s playing time. The trend was probably going to continue anyway, and considering that Tully just got surgery this week, he wouldn’t have been too productive at the start of the season. Either way, the free agency isn’t over, and while the Patriots clearly still need to sign a stud or at least add more depth to the position, the team seems to be in much better shape then last year.

2) A 14-2 team remains largely intact

There really aren’t any big departures from the team. The Patriots have Logan Mankins in camp after signing his franchise tender, and even if they don’t sign Light, they have Solder or Sebastian Vollmer to fill in.

3) A More Mature Team

Last year, there were something like 26 players on our 53 man squad that were in the league for less then 3 years. The Patriots went from one of the oldest teams in the NFL to one of the youngest teams, in a very short time. These players needed time to mature, and learn Bill Belichick’s complicated system. The growth was evident last year, with the likes of Chung, Cunningham, Arrington, Gronkowski, Vollmer, Hernandez and McCourty performing well. These players look to continue their growth, and if a few new guys step up or the likes of wide receiver Taylor Price makes the vaunted ‘second year leap’ then the team will be hard to beat.

4) The return of Stephen Gostkowski

Quick, who was the Patriots kicker in the playoffs? Don’t feel bad if you had to look it up. I did too. Considering that Gostkowski is one of the best in the league and that his replacement couldn’t get a kickoff past the 10 yard line, Stephen’s return will be a great improvement for the defense (better starting field position) and the offense (more field goals).

5) Wes Welker and Tom Brady’s ACL tears

It takes a while to return from ACL tears. Wes wasn’t even supposed to play last year considering that he tore his ACL in that ill-fated meaningless season finale 2 years ago. He will surely feel better, have crisper cuts and more explosiveness then he did last year. The same goes for Tom Brady. The ghost of Bernard Pollard will be less haunting as it fades into the rear view.

Matchups Of The Week – Jets at Patriots

By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

The jubilation is palpable in Patriots nation. Finally, a meaningful game is on the horizon, and it’s against the hated Jets. New York, who were once considered a Super Bowl favorite, is now viewed upon as the weakest team left in the AFC playoffs. It’s funny how quickly things change in the sports world. Last time the Jets were in town, fans were quivering in their boots about a possible New York sweep against their beloved Patriots and tumbling New England all the way down to the 5th seed. But a 45-3 blowout has made all the fans forget about how formidable the Jets were coming into that contest.

While the Divisional round might be a repeat of the trouncing, it could also mirror their Week 2 meeting. Regardless, it will be an exiting game, whose victor will be the team that gets the upper hand in these 5 matchups:

1) Jets Running Game vs. Patriots Linebackers

The Jets control the game with their running attack. This alleviates the pressure off of Sanchez’s green shoulders and keeps the ball away from Tom Brady’s deadly hands. The Patriots front 7 isn’t exactly the iron curtain, but they do get Brandon Spikes back as well as an extra weeks rest. However it’s not impossible to see that the Patriots defensive line, currently held together by duck tape consisting of Love, Deaderick, Moore, and Cohen splitting at the seems during the heated playoff atmosphere in a frigid Gillette Stadium.

2) Mark Sanchez vs. Bill Belichick’s schemes

Sanchez doesn’t have to throw the ball very often in order for the Jets to succeed. This is a good thing for the Jets, as he is prone to getting flustered and making costly mistakes. So, the more confusing Belichick’s schemes are, the more likely the young QB will make a bad decision.

3) Shayne Graham vs. Any Field Goal Attempt Over 35 yards

It would be nice to think that the Patriots will walk all over the Jets and will only need Graham to kick chip-shot extra points, but that is not how most playoff games play out. Patriots will at some point count on their kicker to make a clutch play, and so far Graham has not instilled much confidence. However, historically he is rather accurate which is should serve as some condolence to people who are worried about his obvious lack of range. Please don’t look up his historical stats! He is 3rd all time in field goal percentage behind Nate Keating and Vander-jerk (the 2 most infamously least clutch kickers in the last decade.)

4) Patriots offensive line vs. Ryan’s Blitz

Rex Ryan’s defenses always produce elaborate blitzes which force their secondary to play in man coverage all game long. If the Patriots stout offensive line can buy Tom Brady time to adequately make his reads, he will be able to pick apart any man coverage, which was evident in their last meeting.

5) Turnover Battle

Patriot fans have been living the twilight zone these past couple of months. New England is so stingy with the ball and force so many turnovers that opposing teams inevitably fall behind and are forced to air the ball out in order to get back in the game. Their playbooks become slimmer and their play-calling inherently riskier, resulting in even more turnovers. This self-sustaining downward spiral is impossible to get out of unless the Jets themselves start generating turnovers.  Let’s hope that the Patriots continue this Scrooge-ness, all the way to the AFC Title game.