Dec 142012
 

49ers - PatriotsWeek 15 features a possible foreshadowing of the Super Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers roll into Foxboro to square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday night. The Patriots are 10-3, riding a seven game winning streak including a 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday night, while the 49ers are 9-3-1, and coming off a win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday.

This game will not be a repeat of the blowout win over the Texans, but the match-ups are not dissimilar. New England features a balanced offense capable of running and passing effectively, against a San Francisco defense that is stout against both the run and the pass, but susceptible to throws to tight ends. On the other side, San Francisco has the second rated rushing offense but is going against a tough run defense anchored by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.  The 49ers passing attack is fairly weak, ranking 26th in the league, but Colin Kapernick is a mobile and unpredictable quarterback who can make plays with his legs as easily as he can with his arm. We won’t be seeing another 42-14 blowout, but the match-ups do seem to favor a New England win in what is likely to be a hard fought contest. The 49ers defense does not have the weaknesses that the Patriots are used to exploiting, but the big question is whether or not Colin Kaepernick can score the points that will be needed to win this game.

Here’s how the contest will break down.

When the Patriots run
This is a tough match-up for the Patriots, despite having a solid rushing attack this season. The Niners excel at stopping the run, and generally can do it with five defenders. Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith create a formidable wall, and are supplemented by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, so Stevan Ridley is going to find it difficult to find running room in the middle. But his bruising style is similar to those backs who have given the 49ers trouble this year, so expect the Patriots to test the middle early in the game. This seems like a game where the Patriots might rely more on Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden to find running room around the edges, but more than likely the biggest damage that Patriots’ backs will be doing is catching balls out of the backfield. Look for the Patriots to be below their season average of 140 yards, probably somewhere around 100. They do need to establish a running threat early in order to be able to sell play actions, but some of their better play actions against the Texans were on runs that appeared to be going outside, which could help sell the play action even without an effective ground game this Sunday. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots pass
New England is used to going up against defenses that are statistically excellent and then putting up both yards and points against them, and they have been doing so all season, even in their losses. The 49ers have perhaps the best pass rusher in the game in Aldon Smith, plus Justin Smith is a powerful bull rusher, but they will have to apply consistent pressure with only three or four rushers in order to avoid having Brady carve up the field the way he did against the Texans. The Patriots are known for making pass rushers disappear through flawlessly executed technique, so more than likely the 49ers will need to send more rushers to be able to get to Brady. This opens up the 49er defense to some mismatches.

One of those mismatches is Danny Woodhead, who will likely be active in the short passing and screen game. Woodhead will likely be covered by Patrick Willis (or Bowman) and should find success getting five to ten yards a connection. Aaron Hernandez will find himself getting attention from Donte Whitner, who is undoubtedly the weak link in the 49ers’ secondary. Whitner is the strong safety in the defensive formation, which is exactly where the Patriots like to throw the most. Look for Hernandez to be a frequent target. Another match-up where the Patriots seem to have an edge is Wes Welker against Carlos Rodgers. Rodgers struggles against speedy slot receivers, and Welker is among the league’s best. A steady rotation of passes to Hernandez, Welker, and Woodhead could give the 49ers fits in pass coverage. If Tarrell Brown is moved over to play Welker, then look for Brandon Lloyd to get some chances. Otherwise, Lloyd figures to have a quiet night.

At the end of the day, the 49ers are a solid pass defense, but the Patriots’ receivers are simply too talented to keep in check, particularly with Tom Brady’s ability to read and respond instantly to coverages. Look for Brady to throw in the neighborhood of 250 yards and two scores. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers run
The 49ers have the second best rushing attack, averaging 161.5 ypg, but are going up against a run defense that ranks eighth, yielding only 100.8 ypg. Moreover, the Patriots have a knack for taking away the opposing team’s greatest offensive threat, which in this case is Frank Gore. Gore has rushed for 1,035 yards this season along with seven touchdowns, and is the key to the 49ers’ attack. Vince Wilfork has been a terror inside over the past month and is playing some of the best football of his career. Look for Wilfork to routinely line up over the weakside guard in this contest. Kyle Love is becoming a tough inside defender and will play opposite Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones both excel at setting the edge and forcing the action back inside, so Gore is going to have to work hard for every yard he gets. Jerod Mayo is a solid run stuffer, as is Brandon Spikes, who is fighting off an ankle injury. Look also for the Patriots to sneak a safety into the box, confident in their ability to cover the 49ers’ receivers in man to man. Similar to the Patriots, look for San Francisco to only run for about 100-110 yards in this contest. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers pass
Jim Harbaugh has opted for Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith, and I still hold that Harbaugh is intentionally choosing long-term gain over short-term pain. In this game, the Patriots will focus on limiting the 49ers running game and seek to keep Kaepernick in the pocket, forcing him to beat the Patriots with his arm, something he has not yet been asked to do as a starting quarterback. Where Mayo blitzed frequently last week against the Texans, this week he will be assigned the “spy” role for both Gore and Kaepernick. Trevor Scott and Dont’a Hightower will be called upon to assist Ninkowich and Jones in setting the edge and keeping Kaepernick in the middle of the field.

Michael Crabtree has 66 receptions this season and will likely be drawing coverage from Aqib Talib (who is day to day) and Randy Moss may have to step up if Mario Manningham can’t go, but either would draw the coverage of Alfonzo Dennard, who is providing to be a steal from the 2012 draft. The tougher match-ups for the Patriots are in the flat, where Vernon Davis has the potential to do some damage, but has yet to emerge as a key Kaepernick target. Look for him to be much more active Sunday night. Delanie Walker might also see some targets over the middle. The 49ers don’t have much depth in their receiving group, and Frank Gore has only 23 catches this season, so the 49ers are not an overly scary passing threat against a Patriots’ secondary that has improved dramatically during their seven game winning streak. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kick returner who is capable of an occasional big play. Ted Ginn hasn’t done much in the way of kickoff returns this season. Wes Weler is both consistent and dangerous in the punt return game, while Ginn is again unremarkable but does get a respectable 10 yards per return. Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker who has had some occasional struggles this year, while David Akers has been struggling through injury and is not his usual self. Andy Lee is a solid punter and has the edge over Zoltan Mesko. Advantage: Even

Intangibles
The Patriots continue to dominate the turnover battle, with a +24 based on 34 takeaways and only 10 giveaways. The 49ers are roughly in the middle of the pack at +6 with 18 takeaways and 12 giveaways. Both teams protect the ball, but the Patriots are much better at forcing turnovers. Jim Harbaugh is a talented coach in his second year with the 49ers, but has not yet prove himself on the big stage. Bill Belichick excels at devising game plans that take away the opponent’s strengths, and I rather suspect that the Patriots will be focusing on how to control both lines of scrimmage. San Francisco has committed 94 (7.23 pg) penalties this season, compared to the Patriots’ 79 (6.08 pg). Advantage: Patriots

San Francisco wins if… they get consistent pressure on Brady with only four rushers, Frank Gore rushes for 100 yards, Colin Kaepernick protects the ball.

New England wins if… they keep Frank Gore under 100 yards rushing, create and take advantage of passing mismatches on offense, and keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.

Prediction
This is going to be a much closer game than Monday night, and the 49ers offer a much tougher defense than the Texans. This game will go down to the wire and will in all likelihood be within one score. What pushes me over the edge on this game is that I can see where the Patriots are going to get their points, as there are offensive mismatches to take advantage of. I am also fairly confident in the ability of the Patriots to make it a frustrating night for Frank Gore, and the 49ers don’t have the type of offense to be able to win a game with the Patriots through the air. I see Kaepernick creating a couple of big plays with his legs but having a frustrating night in the air, and I believe the 49ers are going to have a hard time producing points. Look for a bruising battle with the Patriots eventually squeezing out a win. Projected score: Patriots 24 49ers 20.

Oct 292012
 

The UK Patriots signs were in abundance at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday, despite the designation of the St. Louis Rams as the home team. At the end of the game, 80,004 fans saw the short-handed New England Patriots thrash the Rams 45-7 to go into their bye week on a positive note, and with a 5-3 record.

The highlight of the game for the Rams (3-5) came early. On the very first drive Sam Bradford connected with Chris Givens on a 50 yard touchdown pass to put the Rams up 7-0. Safety Tavon Wilson bit on a double move from Givens and the pass was an easy one for Bradford. After that the Rams would only connect for two passing plays of more than 20 yards as the Patriots’s defense shut down the vaunted St. Louis running attack and forced Rams’ mistakes for the rest of the afternoon.

On the Patriots’ first offensive drive, they tied the game at 7 after Tom Brady connected on a 19 yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd, capping an 8-play, 78 yard drive. After the Rams punted, the Patriots then drove 83 yards on 9 plays, with Shane Vereen taking the ball the final yard for his second touchdown of the season. The Rams then gave the ball back on another punt, and the Patriots drove another 78 yards on 9 plays, resulting in a 7 yard Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown and one of the better touchdown celebrations in recent memory. After the game, Gronk described the dance and spike as both a “palace guard” and as “the little Nutcracker dude, guarding the house.” In any event, the salute delighted the London fans, especially after spiking the mike in a pre-game rally.

The Rams then went on a 9 play drive that only resulted in 27 yards before a 54 yard field goal attempt was muffed and the Patriots started at their own 44 yard line. The Pats needed 9 plays to cover the remaining 56 yards, ending with a one yard by Stevan Ridley to close the half at 28-7 and effectively end the game by halftime.

The Patriots came out in the second hald determined to close the game, and exhibited some of the offensive swagger of previous seasons, going for the kill rather than playing conservatively on a big lead. The Patriots needed only six plays to drive 80 yards to open the second half, with Ridley gaining 30 yards on a long run before Brandon Lloyd caught his second touchdown pass of the day, upping the lead to 35-7. Chandler Jones ended the next Rams’ drive with a huge 17 yard sack of Bradford, and the Patriots drove 58 yards again before the Rams finally forced New England to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to end the third quarter with a 38-7 lead.

Brady played the first series of the fourth quarter, driving 55 yards on 6 plays and ending with a 14 yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski to close the scoring before Ryan Mallett came in for the final two drives. The Rams twice drove deep into Patriots’ territory in the game’s final minutes, and both drives ended with Patriots’ interceptions by Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson.

How the game broke down:

When the Patriots ran
The Patriots had no problem exploiting the Ram’s defensive line to spring outside runs. The Patriots hit their season average with 152 yards on the ground, and they were able to run for chunks almost at will. Stevan Ridley led the way with 127 yards and a touchdown while Shane Vereen added 22 yards and a touchdown. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed
The Patriot’ offensive line (even without Logan Mankins) was masterful against the Rams’ outstanding pass rushers, stopping the Rams from getting to Brady. There were no official quarterback hits and no sacks as Brady was able to patiently and consistently take advantage of mismatches, often involving Rob Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Brady routinely picked on cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who racked up three legitimate defensive pass interference calls, all on third downs. Wes Welker caught six passes and Danny Woodhead added five receptions as Brady used eight different receivers to rack up 304 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Rams’ defense had no answers for the Patriots’ spread attack, and Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer both did terrific jobs of negating the pass rush of Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Advantage: Patriots

When the Rams ran
As noted in the preview of this contest, the Patriots set out to shut down the Rams’ running game and did so convincingly. Daryl Richardson led the way for the Rams with 53 yards, but much of that was in “garbage time” in the fourth quarter. Steven Jackson was held to a paltry 23 yards while Isaiah Pead added 32 yards on three late carries. The Rams managed to squeeze out 107 yards on the ground, but they were meaningless stats in a blowout loss. Advantage: Patriots

When the Rams passed
For the first time since Week One, the Patriots actually notch a victory in this category. Sam Bradford was held to 205 yards, with 69 of those yards coming on the first drive of the game. After that, it was all Patriots. Lance Kendrick had four catches, and Chris Givens, Brandon Gibson, and Austin Pettis each had three for the Rams. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones each had keys sacks for the Patriots, who were able to deliver some timely pressure on Bradford. Sterling Moore had six tackles and one pass defensed, while Marquise Cole and Brandon Spikes each broke up two passes. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Make it a clean sweep, though special teams did not factor significantly into the outcome. The Patriots’ Zoltan Mesko was effective in his limited opportunities and Ghost added two field goals on two tries while the Patriots’ limited the Rams’ return game and kept field position in favor of the Patriots throughout the game. Advantage: Patriots

Key Moment: Pass interference call on Bradley Fletcher when the Patriots were already up 21-7. The Rams had botched a field goal attempt that would have made the score 21-10 and the Patriots’ drive appeared to come up short on a third down pass to Brandon Lloyd, but officials caught an obvious grab that put the ball on the Rams’ 20 yard line, setting up a one yard Stevan Ridley touchdown and effectively ending the game by the half.

Game Ball: Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, who negated the Rams’ pass rush and gave Brady enough time to shred the Rams’ pass defense. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves an honorable mention for an exceptional game plan on offense that built an early lead and helped take the pressure off of a secondary that has been under siege.

Note: The Patriots set an NFL record on Sunday for offensive productivity, recording their 17th consecutive game with at least 350 yards of offense, totaling 473 yards against the Rams. This surpasses the record set by the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams, then dubbed the “greatest show on turf.” The streak dates back to November 6, 2011 and includes the following totals:

11/6/2011 vs. Giants – 438 yards (332 passing, 106 rushing)
11/13/2011 at Jets – 389 yards (329 passing, 60 rushing)
11/21/2011 vs. Kansas City – 380 yards (223 passing, 157 rushing)
11/27/2011 at Philadelphia – 457 yards (353 passing, 104 rushing)
12/4/2011 vs. Indianapolis – 362 yards (289 passing, 73 rushing)
12/11/2011 at Washington – 431 yards (352 passing, 79 rushing)
12/18/2011 at Denver – 451 yards (310 passing, 141 rushing)
12/24/2011 vs. Miami – 400 yards (281 passing, 119 rushing)
1/1/2012 vs. Buffalo – 480 yards (360 passing, 120 rushing)
9/9/2012 at Tennessee – 390 yards (228 passing, 162 rushing)
9/16/2012 vs. Arizona – 387 yards (297 passing, 90 rushing)
9/23/2012 at Baltimore – 396 yards (319 passing, 77 rushing)
9/30/2012 at Buffalo – 580 yards (333 passing, 247 rushing)
10/7/2012 vs. Denver – 444 yards (193 passing, 251 rushing)
10/14/2012 at Seattle – 475 yards (388 passing, 87 rushing)
10/21/2012 vs. Jets – 381 yards (250 passing, 131 rushing)
10/28/2012 at St. Louis – 473 yards (321 passing, 152 rushing)

Both teams now go into their bye week. The Rams will visit the 49ers on November 11th while the Patriots will be at home against the Buffalo Bills.

Oct 242012
 

The New England Patriots head overseas for the second time in four years to match up against the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium this Sunday. The Rams enter this game as a much improved team over last season, sitting at 3-4 in the NFC West and with a much better defense than last year. The Rams have defeated the Cardinals and the Seahawks this season, two teams that were able to pull out victories over the Patriots. The Rams’ offense has little firepower beyond Steven Jackson and  Daryl Richardson, but their defense has kept them competitive in each of their contests.

Hmmm…. a good defensive team with a strong running game, an average quarterback and a limited receiving corps. What could possibly go wrong for the Patriots?

Oh wait…

Yes, Patriots’ fans… on paper this match-up offers potential trouble for the 4-3 Patriots, who last week barely managed to eke out an overtime win over a team with a very similar profile to the Rams. But while there are many similarities to the match-ups against the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, there are some striking differences that offer some hope for a Patriots’ team that is universally believed to be an underachieving squad so far in 2012.

Here’s how the teams match up:

When the Patriots run
The Patriots are fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 149.3 yards per game. Stevan Ridley has rushed for 589 yards and is 7th in the league, and the running back corps is deep with Brandon Bolden (likely out this week), Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead. How the Patriots choose to rotate their backs this week remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Patriots are committed to achieving a run/pass balance in their attack, even if the plays called don’t always appeal to the percentages. The Rams are 10th against the run, giving up only 98.9 yards per game so far this season. Because the Rams have effective edge rushers and marginal outside linebackers, expect the Patriots to try to grind out yards through runs designed to go outside. The Patriots’ offensive line is an excellent run blocking group, and it is reasonable to expect the Patriots to run up at least 125 yards this week in order to keep the Rams’ safeties guessing.

When the Patriots pass
Robert Quinn and Chris Long present challenges to the Patriots’ passing attack, as Quinn has seven sacks and Long has four. Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder are going to have their hands full, and the Patriots may need to keep in a running back or tight end to insure time for Brady to go through his reads. Courtland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are very good corners, but the Rams are vulnerable at safety. Expect Gronk and Hernandez to get lots of looks on Sunday, with Welker, Edelman, and Lloyd being used only when the match-ups are favorable. The Rams are capable of delivering the big hit and turning the momentum of the game with a forced turnover, so protection is critical. The Patriots of course have the top rated passing attack, but have struggled to utilize this strength in the fourth quarter when they are in a position to put games away. The Rams are ranked 14th against the pass, so expect that Brady will get his yards and likely a couple of touchdown completions. (Update: Aaron Hernandez is out on Sunday; Daniel Fells likely to see some snaps in his place, but Julian Edelman may see more snaps as well. This looks like a cautionary move given the Patriots’ upcoming bye week.)


When the Rams run

Steven Jackson is an excellent running back who has rushed for 380 yards so far this season. His production isn’t being maximized because Daryl Richardson has emerged as a solid complement, piling up 282 yards while averaging just over five yards per carry. However, the Rams’ greatest flaw is their offensive line, and the Patriots are famous for taking away an opponent’s greatest offensive strength. The Pats have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), and Shonn Greene (54 yards). The Patriots’ front seven is difficult to run against, as the Patriots have the 8th ranked run defense (86 ypg), and Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes are a formidable force. Expect Richardson have have a few successful runs and perhaps gain 50 to 60 yards, while Jackson will be fortunate to break the 50 yard barrier.

When the Rams pass
Sam Bradford is a decent quarterback with a depleted (poor) receiving corps. The Rams rank 24th in pass offense, generating 209 yards per game. So a cynic will expect Bradford to throw for 400 yards and six touchdowns given the way that the Patriots’ secondary has performed this season. Bradford has good arm strength and some mobility to extend or make plays, but his receiving corps is not a strength. Chris Givens is a deep threat who may well get several big catches this weekend, but he is not a disciplined route runner. Brandon Gibson and Lance Kendricks are most productive receivers with a combined 41 catches, but Danny Amendola still appears to be unlikely to play this weekend even though he has now returned to practice. If Amendola is able to play and is healthy, he will add a threat that Bradford will take advantage of.

Special Teams
Both Greg Zuerlein and Stephen Gostkowski are highly reliable kickers despite some early season troubles. Johnny Hekker and Zoltan Mesko are both good punters, though Mesko has been more consistent in pinning opponents behind their own 20 yard line. Chris Givens is a decent kick returner for the Rams, but Devin McCourty represents the greater threat for the Patriots. Wes Welker is a consistent punt returner for the Patriots, while Jenkins has been filling in during Amendola’s absence for the Rams. At least on paper, the Patriots seem to have a discernible edge on special teams.

Prediction
Jeff Fisher has the Rams playing with confidence, and they are entirely capable of pulling off the upset this week. The Patriots have a bye week coming up, so it’s hard to expect that many of their defensive struggles coming off of the Jets game are going to be completely fixed. The Rams will get yards through the air (expect around 280), but their inability to run the ball consistently against the Patriots will likely short-circuit some drives. The Rams are averaging 18.6 points a game, and they should at least match that this weekend. On the flip side, the Patriots are the top scoring offense, averaging 31 points a game. And while the Rams’ defense is a solid unit, the Patriots have been able to put up yards and points on the Jets, Seahawks, and Cardinals, the latter two of whom have better scoring defenses than the Rams. The Rams are giving up 20.1 points per game, but can expect to give up more this weekend, as they do not appear equipped to deal with the Patriots’ tight ends, and the effective Patriots run game should make the secondary vulnerable to some big plays. More importantly, the Patriots thrive on drives of ten or more plays, and the Rams do not force turnovers the way the Patriots do (+11 differential for the Patriots, +0 for the Rams). Looks for sustained Patriots’ drives and if the play-calling of Josh McDaniels improves this week, the Rams will be hard pressed to keep up, forcing them to abandon the run for the second half.

Patriots 31 Rams 20

Oct 142012
 

The Seattle Seahawks needed every break to go their way if they were going to pull off the upset against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon. And everything did. Despite dominating much of the afternoon, the New England Patriots squandered opportunity after opportunity, and the Seahawks offense took advantage of major coverage lapses to pull out the 24-23 victory over New England at CenturyLink Field.

The Patriots followed the expected script for most of the first half. After trading scores with the Seahawks, the Patriots found themselves down 10-7  before taking the ball down the field on a 15 play drive that ended in a Tom Brady to Aaron Hernandez one yard touchdown pass and a 14-10 Patriots lead. On the ensuing possession, Chandler Jones stripped the ball from Russell Wilson and it was recovered by Rob Ninkovich at the Seahawks’ 47 yard line. The Patriots then drove to within the 5 yard line before being forced to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 17-10 lead.

The game should have been decided on the next drive. After the Patriots forced the Seahawks to punt, punter Jon Ryan bobbled the ball and took a 14 yard loss, turning the ball over on downs at the Seahawks’ 24 yard line. The Patriots again drove inside the 10 yard line before a Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski was batted away, bringing third down with six seconds left. But on the next play, Brady threw the ball away without a receiver in the area, netting an intentional grounding call and a ten second runoff, ending the half without any additional points. This would come back to haunt the Patriots later in the game.

The second half began with the Patriots seemingly taking control of the game, as the Patriots forced a quick Seahawks punt and driving eight plays before being forced to settle for another field goal, upping the lead to 20-10. The drive was aided by a gritty 7 yard run by Danny Woodhead and a 35 yard pass play to tight end Daniel Fells. The next Patriots’ drive ended with an underthrown deep ball by Brady that was picked off by Richard Sherman, who had a big game for the Seahawks. After another Seattle punt, the Patriots were again driving deep in Seahawks’ territory when Earl Thomas picked off a misfired pass by Brady. It didn’t result in Seahawks’ points, as just three plays later the Seahawks would give the ball back deep in New England territory after a Zach Miller fumble, but it was another wasted scoring opportunity for the Patriots’ offense. The Patriots did capitalize on the Miller fumble, driving seven plays (with big plays from Brandon Lloyd and Woodhead) before settling with another Gostkowski field goal and a 23-10 lead.

The Seahawks started the next drive at their own 17, and on the first play Wilson hit Golden Tate on a long bomb, and a roughing call on top brought the ball to the Patriots’ 17 yard line. Four plays later Wilson hit Braylon Edwards for the score and the lead was cut to 23-17. The Patriots’ next drive short-circuited early with the aid of another intentional grounding call on Brady, forcing a New England punt. Three plays later New England had the ball back with the opportunity to close the game out, but two short runs and an incomplete pass later the Patriots’ were forced to punt. Lean Washington then raced 25 yards with the punt return, setting up Seattle at their own 43 yard line to start the next drive. After Wilson ran a keeper play for nine yards, the Patriots were forced to call their final time out when they had twelve defenders on the field. Lynch then ran for the first down, and on the next play Wilson hit Sidney Rice for a 46 yard touchdown pass that decided the game and gave the Seahawks a 24-23 come from behind win.

The Patriots can look all over the field for reasons they lost. Brady made several uncharacteristic mistakes, and Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson got beat routinely and badly in the secondary to allow Russell Wilson the opportunity to lead his team to the dramatic win. The Patriots were successful in shutting down Marshawn Lynch (41 yards on 15 carries) and forced the game into Russell Wilson’s hands, but the Patriots’ pass defense suffered breakdown after breakdown in blown coverages, getting beat to the ball, or committing penalties as Wilson passed for 293 yards and three touchdowns. Brady threw a career-high 58 times as the Patriots’ abandoned the ground game, with Brady throwing for 395 yards and two scores, but for two interceptions as well.  Wes Welker had 10 catches for 138 yards, his fourth straight game over 100.

How bad was the loss for the Patriots? The Pats ran 86 offensive plays to Seattle’s 57; a difference of 29 plays. And they still lost. That one number crystalizes the wasted opportunities that the Patriots left on the field on Sunday. Here’s how the game broke out.

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots didn’t rely on the run nearly as much today, as they seemed to like the match-ups against the linebackers and safeties with Welker, Hernandez, and Gronkowski. Bolden ran for 28 yards on 6 carries before leaving with an injury, and Stevan Ridley ran for 34 yards on 16 carries. Danny Woodhead added 25 yards on 4 carries. The Patriots were able to run at key times, but on the whole could never really get the run game started. Ridley held on to the ball today, but was never really able to get into the flow of the game. Advantage: Seahawks

When the Patriots passed:

Despite the mistakes, Brady threw for 395 yards, connecting with eight different receivers. Welker had 10 catches, Lloyd, Hernandez, and Gronk each had six and Woodhead added five. The Patriots were able to throw at will and took advantages of mismatches against the linebackers, as well as working Gronkowski against Kam Chancellor and Welker paired up against Marcus Trufant. But for the Brady mistakes the Patriots  could easily have surpassed 35 points today. Advantage: Patriots

When the Seahawks ran:

Marshawn Lynch was an afterthought today, running for just 41 yards on 15 carries. Robert Turbin was more effective with 5 carries for 27 yards, and Russell Wilson was opportunistic in gaining 17 yards on 5 carries. Like the Patriots, the Seahawks were able to get some good situational runs, but the overall running game was ineffective. Advantage: Patriots

When the Seahawks passed:

Brady may have thrown for more yards, but Wilson was able to connect on five passes of 20 or more yards, including the 46 yard touchdown to Edwards and a 24 yard touchdown strike to Doug Baldwin. The Patriots’ secondary was horrendous today, and even Alfonzo Dennard, last week’s pleasant surprise who eventually replaced Kyle Arrington after his struggles, looked miserable as Wilson picked them apart like he was Joe Montana in piling up 293 yards and three touchdown passes. Tavon Wilson regressed in his second start at safety for the Pats. Nate Ebner is a liability at this point and shouldn’t even be on the field. Advantage: Seahawks

Special Teams:

They say the last act is the one that is often remembered. Both squads has highs and lows today. Ryan botched the punt attempt that should have given New England a commanding halftime lead, but he also averaged 60 yards on 4 punts. Wes Welker had a good day returning punts (68 yards on 4 returns), and both kickers were perfect on the day. But it was New England’s return breakdown on the final punt that allowed Leon Washington the scamper 25 yards and get the Seahawks in great field position that will be remembered on special teams in this game. Advantage: Seahawks

Key Moment: Take your choice. Brady’s picks, the intentional grounding at the end of the first half, any of Wilson’s downfield throws that netted points, or Washington’s key punt return. Too many to call.

Game Ball: Russell Wilson, for stepping up in the clutch. The Patriots’ game plan was to force Wilson to win the game for the Seahawks, and that’s exactly what he did. It was a great performance by the rookie quarterback, aided by an historically awful performance from the New England secondary.

Oct 092012
 

It will be a battle of the irresistible force versus the immovable object when the New England Patriots square off against the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Seattle.  The Patriots boast the top offense in the league in both yards per game and points, while the Seahawks offer up the league’s best defense in yards per game and second in points allowed per game.

The game will also feature the Patriots future Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Belichick against the Patriots’ once upon a time coach of three seasons in the years that bridged the departure of Bill Parcells and the return of Belichick. Pete Carroll’s “rah rah” approach to coaching was a relative failure in New England, but Carroll seems to have honed his approach in the intervening years at USC and is inspiring a confident group of players in the 2012 Seahawks.

The Patriots rely on an opportunistic defense that surrenders yards but also forces turnovers, and the Patriots are tied for the league lead with a +10 turnover differential. The Seahawks use an active and energetic defense that also prides itself in forcing turnovers, but their offense is more charitable in giving the ball up, and the Seahawks are 17th in the league with a -1 turnover differential through the first five games.

On offense the Patriots are the class of the NFL, and this year are executing on the ground (3rd in NFL) as well as through the air (9th). The running back tandem of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead (and occasionally Shane Vereen) have gashed opposing defenses for big yards over the past two weeks, and I would expect the Patriots to adopt a slower paced game this Sunday in order to try to take the air out of an aggressive Seattle defense, as well as to take the air out of the 12th Man, the rowdy Seattle crowd that offers the Seahawks a discernable home field advantage eight times a year. Expect the Patriots to look to run off the right side, taking advantage of Seattle’s weaker defensive players. Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner patrol the middle and defensive right side for the Seahawks, and are the bulk of the unit’s production in sacks and forced fumbles. As always, the Patriots will complement the runs with short passes to Gronkowski, Welker, and Hernandez (who is looking ready to play this week), and they have the capability to stretch the field with Brandon Lloyd.

The Patriots will seek to keep the Seattle defensive unit off balance, but will likely do it through play selection, rather than with the hurry-up offense that we have seen over the past two games. Seattle only runs three basic defensive sets; this negates the advantage that the Patriots get from defensive mis-matches, but gives Brady the opportunity to pick apart those packages over the course of four quarters. The two starting corners for the Seahawks are dangerous (Browner and Sherman) but the safeties can be exploited by the Patriots’ offense and their play-action mechanics. Marcus Trufant will be given the tall order of defending against Welker. Kam Chancellor has the frame (6’3″, 232) to try and cover Gronkowski, but Gronk appears to have a decided advantage in both size and athleticism. As long as the Patriots hold on to the ball, they should be able to affect long scoring drives and wear the Seattle defense down. The Patriots are fourth in the league in converting third down opportunities, while the Seahawks rank 19th in giving up third down conversions. I expect the Patriots to look to create third and short opportunities all day to exploit with their cast of running backs.

On the other side, the offense centers around Marshawn Lynch, who has rushed for 508 yards (4.5 ypc) and two touchdowns, and the Seahawks are 7th in the league in rushing. That leaves rookie quarterback Russell Wilson the role of being an effective game manager, a role he has so far excelled in despite his 5 TD/6 INT ratio and overall lackluster 75.2 quarterback rating. The Seahawks will try to pound Lynch early and often on the Patriots, who rank eighth against the run. The Patriots know how to take away the strength of the opponent, and I would expect Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to work hard to contain the edge in order to force Lynch back into the arms of Wilfork, Love, Mayo, and Spikes. Where the Seahawks would normally like to utilize the run to set up opportunities to go downfield to Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Zach Miller, they may need to do just the opposite against the Patriots to free up running room for Lynch. And it is Bill Belichick’s goal to put the game into the hands of Russell Wilson, knowing that he will be able to bring pressure to bear on the rookie quarterback and be able to confuse his reads and force key turnovers.

Three Keys for the Patriots:

1. Control the ball

Even though Russell Wilson does not strike fear into the Patriots’ faithful, it’s still best to keep the opposing quarterback (and more importantly Marshawn Lynch) off of the field whenever possible. The Patriots will seek to duplicate the success they have had in directed 10+ play drives that consume five or six minutes off of the clock; the key is to duplicate this success in one of the more hostile road environments in the NFL. Balance is the new keyword in the Patriots’ offense, and I expect the Patriots to utilize situational runs, mostly to the right, to create short yardage situations as well as to keep the Seahawks honest.

2. Protect Brady

Hey, at least it dropped to #2 this week… But it remains true. The Seahawks can get after the passer. Chris Clemons is a beast, and Mebane and Wright are no slouches. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins will need to be on their game, and might even need running back or tight end help to keep Brady standing in the pocket. The Patriots are generally effective at protecting their franchise player, but suffered a lapse in the second half against the Broncos, with Sebastian Vollmer getting beat soundly on a couple of occasions. The Seahawks made target practice out of Aaron Rodgers a couple of weeks ago, but the Packers made good adjustments in the second half. Look for the Patriots to come up with some creative protection options out of the gate.

3. Make Russell Wilson win the game

The Patriots’ defense will be primarily focused on slowing down or shutting down Marshawn Lynch. Forcing Wilson to pass is inviting him to make mistakes against a defense that will be disguising its coverages in an attempt to create confusion. Devin McCourty is still struggling with technique, but his coverage skills are sufficient, and Kyle Arrington is a physical corner who can make big plays. The introduction of Alfonzo Dennard into the mix last week against the Broncos could be a sign of things to come, as Dennard was very effective in limited play. he could soon become a regular part of the rotation. More importantly, the Patriots have improved dramatically in bringing pressure to bear on the quarterback. While the Saints have generally been stubborn about giving up sacks (10 so far), it’s more about affecting the throw, forcing bad decisions, and providing opportunities for deflections and other big plays. Wilson is an effective scrambler, but doesn’t make his living running the ball downfield.

Three Keys for the Seahawks:

1. Run the ball

This is always Seattle’s key to offensive success, but it will be even more important against a team that has excelled in stopping the run. Lynch must be successful (more than 100 yards) for the Seahawks to have a realistic chance to win the game. Creating holes against a solid front seven is a tough challenge awaiting the Seahawks.

2. Stop Gronk, Hernandez, and Welker

Hernandez may or may not be ready to play on Sunday, but Gronk will be, despite the fact that is playing through heavy pain. Gronk looked healthy enough against the Broncos, but it was Welker who stole the show with 13 receptions. Pass rush really isn’t the answer to this particular riddle, as Brady doesn’t need much time in order to connect on short routes. Instead, the pressure is on the Seahawks’ secondary to step up and press the Patriots’ receiver, trying to alter them from their routes and otherwise give them little room to work in. The Seahawks are 5th against the pass at 192 yards per game, so it is entirely conceivable that they could make the Patriots work for every catch that they get. The trouble is, 192 passing yards is more than enough for Brady if the Patriots are also rushing effectively. Match-ups are key, and you can expect the Patriots to create mismatches all days against a talented but inexperienced group of linebackers. The Seahawks’ defense will have its hands full on Sunday.

3. Create big plays

The Seahawks are at home, where they historically thrive; they are clearly a better home team than road team. If statistics are not to decide this game, it will be because their opportunistic defense forces the Patriots to turn the ball over three or more times, while their offense cannot return the favor. If this happens, the Seahawks will get to control the tempo of the game, force the Patriots to deviate from their game plan, and make a Seahawks upset much more likely. On offense, occasional shots down the field to Rice or Tate may net big yards and/or penalties, as McCourty is having difficulty getting beat deep. One or two of those plays could have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

Prediction:

Because this game is in Seattle, I will expect that the Patriots’ offense may be thrown off its rhythm from time to time, and will even expect one big turnover the will lead to Seattle points. But it is simply hard for me to imagine the Seahawks being able to be able to run for big yards against the Patriots, and they don’t seem to have the weapons to compete through the air, where the Seahawks rank 31st in the league. Conversely, the Seahawks defense may be able to slow the Patriots’ attack, but not stop it. The Patriots have too many weapons to contend with, know how to effectively attack an opponent’s weakness, and have players they can exploit on the defensive side.

The game will likely unfold slowly, with both teams seeking to gain the advantage on field position, but I don’t think it will be long before the Patriots are able to establish some momentum and take the lead by halftime. I envision the third quarter being more of what we saw against the Broncos last week, with the Patriots sustaining long drives for scores, forcing the Seahawks to spend the fourth quarter trying to come back through the air. But Russell Wilson isn’t Peyton Manning, and the Patriots’ offense is far deadlier than anything the Seahawks have seen to date this season. Patriots 27 Seahawks 17.

Sep 252012
 

…maybe the replacements got it right, after all.

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

Go watch the video, and tell me you can see whether the defender caught the ball first, or if the ball was caught by both players at the same time. Even the announcers called it “simultaneous”.

But it was reviewed, you say?

Irrelevant.

A ruling of simultaneous possession is a judgement call — i.e., one that cannot be overturned on review. Replays can only be used to determine if a pass was complete or incomplete. So, the only way the referee could have overturned the score is if the video clearly showed the ball hit the ground. Since it didn’t, they had no choice but to award the touchdown — and the game — to Seattle.

EDIT: In light of the NFL’s statement, I stand corrected on this. Simultaneous possession is reviewable in the end zone. This changes my thinking somewhat, but my larger point still stands (read on).

In other words, the replacement referees made a split-second call (and anyone who says they saw an obvious interception at full speed is lying), a call the rules expressly prohibited them from changing upon review.

Blame the referees for making horrible calls all night, if you must. Seattle wouldn’t have been in the position to score if not for a very questionable pass interference flag a few players earlier. On the other hand, Green Bay’s only touchdown drive was saved by another, just as (if not more) questionable, penalty.

I’m not suggesting the replacement referees have been good. However, I don’t for a second buy the argument that it’s inevitable a “real” crew would have called the play correctly. I’d say the odds are 50/50 at best. If you remember, there’s a reason we have replay in the first place; the game is so fast that even those who have officiated games every week for years still get it wrong sometimes.

EDIT: This is where I stand by my thesis. If you honestly think every “real” referee would have overturned the call upon review, you haven’t been watching the same league I have. In light of the NFL’s clarification (above), I’d increase the odds to 60/40 or even 70/30 that the locked-out officials would have made the correct call, either initially or upon review, but no more than that.

The game last night was a godsend for the locked-out officials, in that one play has provided a focal point for all of the boiling anger and resentment by players, coaches, and fans alike. The NFL is all but certain to settle within weeks, if not days. That’s good news for everybody.

The better news for the officials and the league (and the bad news for fans) is the “real” guys weren’t on the field last night. That gives cover for what is an unacceptable state of affairs — namely, that in the age of dozens of camera angles and high-tech replay booths, the rules still prevent officials from correcting many of their “mistakes”. This is the most obvious place where a rules change is needed (aside from the forever-damned “Tuck Rule”).

I put “mistakes” in scare quotes because I have argued for years the mere existence of replay creates an unrealistic expectation of perfection. Referees, umpires, and back judges are human, after all — and while the past couple weeks have proven they are the best at what they do, they still can’t see what fans at home can see with their 90″ HDTVs and super-slo-mo. Frankly, I would be happier if replay was done away with completely, but I realize it’s here to stay. So, here are my humble suggestions:

1) Require reviews to be made at full speed, or at most, slightly slowed. If a call isn’t obviously wrong at 50% normal speed, then live with it.

2) Do away with limitations on what can and cannot be reviewed. I’m not sure where those limits come from, but if the referee can overturn himself, or a member of his crew, on a question of whether a player stepped out of bounds, it seems reasonable he can also overturn judgement calls like whether a cornerback made contact with a receiver too early.

3) Get rid of (or at least refine) the challenge system. If you want to get it right, get it right. Whether or not the opposing head coach wants to wager a timeout should have no bearing on the matter.

4) Finally, adopt the system in place in Canada, and have all replays reviewed centrally. This will ensure consistency (and remove any subconscious reluctance on the part of referees to overturn their crew members’ decisions).

In the end, I have to say no: the replacements didn’t get it right. That much is obvious. But the list of who got it “wrong” is much longer than the poor guys in the end zone last night:

  • An offense that scored 35 points a game last year could only manage a single touchdown, with the assistance of a phantom interference call.
  • The top takeaway defense in the league couldn’t manage a single turnover against a rookie quarterback.
  • The officials aren’t even in a position to make the call if M. D. Jennings takes Tom Jackson’s perennial advice in Hail Mary situations: “KNOCK IT DOWN!”
  • While it didn’t affect the outcome of the game, Mike McCarthy’s professionalism took a major hit when he and his team left the field before the game was officially over. Not a classy move, Mike.

I join my fellow Rats in imploring the league to get this mess over with as quickly as possible.

Sadly, I doubt the griping over the officials will end, one way or the other.

Sep 252012
 

“I am sick to my stomach” were the words used by Jon Gruden at the end of the Packers vs. Seahawks game last night. I could not agree with him more. The integrity of the game has been lost by the situation with the replacement referees. They are not getting it done. They cannot manage the game, make correct calls, or control coaches. Roger Goddell must rectify the situation with officials immediately. I cannot stand to see games decided in this manner. If I were a Packers fan or this happened to my beloved Browns, I would have lost my mind last night. I hope this is the tipping point and the real officials are back soon. To all the NFL fans, good luck with your teams this year, as we have no idea what we are going to get each game. 

Sep 252012
 

I grew up watching a variety of sporting events. One of the things I always appreciated was listening to the post game radio interview after a basketball game, and hearing a basketball coach refuse to blame the loss on an official’s call, or a missed free throw, shot or lay-up that had occurred at the end of the game. The coach on these occasions would point out that the failure to make plays at key moments throughout the game was the cause of the loss as opposed to an official’s call, a missed free throw, or a missed shot at the end of the game. Thus, potentially one of the most frustrating and disappointing things to come out of last night’s game is the opinion that this game was stolen from the Packers. I disagree with this popular sentiment.

The Seattle Seahawks are a gritty, tough, team, and they are a lot of fun to watch. The Seahawks are a play or two away from being 3-0. Who was not impressed by the inspired play of the Seahawk defense, and their plucky quarterback, rookie Russell Wilson? In addition, Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate were nearly equally as impressive. Consequently, the Seahawks collectively won this game, and let’s give credit where it is due.

In contrast, can the same thing be said about the play of the Green Bay Packers? Giving up eight sacks in one half of play is inexcusable. Yes, Mike McCarthy and his staff made some much needed adjustments at halftime. Further, the much maligned Packer defense has suddenly become a bright spot for the team. The Packers played winning defense, and Aaron Rodgers rendered the type of second half performance that we are used to seeing from him.

However, where was the Packer offensive line in the first half? The tackles were consistently abused and exposed throughout the first half, and the offensive line as a unit delivered a miserable performance. The unit improved its play in the second half, but was the damage already done? In the aftermath of the game, though, rather than some of the Packer linemen acknowledging that they could have played better, these players opted to blame the replacement officials and the NFL for the loss.

I will acknowledge that I am highly critical of Roger Goodell’s handling of this matter. It is my opinion that there has been a lack of leadership on his part in addressing and ultimately resolving this matter. The game and its reputation are being damaged given that it is apparent to all that the lack of quality officiating is damaging the brand of football that we have grown accustomed to watching.
This point is reinforced by what happened last night. Rather than acknowledging the fact that the best team last night won the game, we are blaming the officiating for the Packer loss. Based upon what I witnessed, the Seahawks were the better team and they won the game by virtue of being the better team last night. When it comes down to it, the Packers have no one to blame but themselves for the loss. If the Packers had made more plays throughout the game, the Packers would have won that game going away.

Yes, the failure of the officials union and the NFL to reach an agreement is ruining the game we love. This issue needs to be resolved today. As opposed to discussing what was a great football game last night, played by two pretty good to potentially really good teams, we are blaming the officials for a loss. This is not fair to the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and football fans as a whole.

Sep 252012
 

If the Baltimore win over New England was influenced by sub-par officiating, then the Seattle win over Green Bay was downright decided by it.

A replacement referee ruled that Golden Tate maintained simultaneous control of a last second 24-yard Hail Mary by Russell Wilson with Packers defender MD Jennings and ruled the play a touchdown, lifting the Seahawks to a thrilling 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers Monday night.

The only trouble with the call? There was never simultaneous control. Rather, it was clear on replay that Jennings first had possession of the ball and that Tate then fought to gain joint possession of the ball. A second official properly ruled the play an interception but was overruled on the field.

According to the NFL Rulebook,

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

Unless you are a Seahawks fan, this video can only show that Jennings secured control of the ball and even turned away from Tate before Tate was able to anchor an arm on the ball to establish mutual possession (not control).

Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy refused to discuss the officiating, limiting his comments to, “I was told M.D. Jennings had the ball. I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years in football.” Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the subject on right away. “”It was awful. Just look at the replay. And then the fact that it was reviewed, it was awful,” Rodgers said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

There was some dispute after the game as to whether or not the ruling was subject to review, though one would suspect that because all scoring plays are reviewed, the call could and should have been made to rule the play an interception. That was not done however, and it took the teams a full ten minutes to return to the field to complete the required extra point in order to end the game.

The play ruined what was otherwise an extraordinary football game that, while it suffered from some abysmal calls, was a fair and hard fought battle dominated by the Seahawks defense until the Packers struck late to take the lead. The Seahawks were able to pin the Packers deep in their own territory and force a punt, setting up the Seahawks in Packers territory to start the final drive. The Hail Mary occurred on fourth down, and Golden Tate got away with an incredibly obvious offensive pass interference in the end zone that also should have negated the play. While offensive pass interference is rarely called in such situations, this play was obvious to a blind chipmunk living in Maine watching the game on the radio. Unfortunately for the Packers, the chipmunk was not officiating the game.

The game’s bizarre ending had the ESPN analysts going off again, a scant one week after Steve Young’s justified tirade against the league. Tonight both Young and Trent Dilfer spoke eloquently about the harm that the league is doing to the game, and the insult that the league is paying to the fans, players, and former players. As Young noted, the league is destroying the esteemed place that the NFL holds in professional sports, all for the sake of beating the union and controlling the officials. In the interest of saving money and asserting dictatorial control, the league seems willing to demean its own product and render the games meaningless.

Sixteen hours of talks took place over the weekend with the involvement of both Commissioner Goodell and a federal mediator, but the talks broke down. Word is that the NFL is now trying to re-ignite talks, likely in the wake of a disastrous weekend for the replacement officials. But the NFL sent a memo to its clubs updating teams on the progress of the talks, which unfortunately read like a press release justifying the stance of the league, according to Pro Football Talk. Coupled with the revelation that the league has resisted the desire of players to have concussion experts on the sidelines, it is clear that Goodell’s proclamations about the importance and value of player safety are hollow, and the NFL is willing to sacrifice both the integrity of the game and the safety of the players on the field to maximize its own profits.

While I hope that the situation can be resolved with a positive outcome in the near future, all games played with replacement officials are a continued disgrace to the league. These officials are not going to get better, and the evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse by the game. Roger Goodell’s legacy is quickly being reduced to a monumental joke and one must begin to wonder that if this situation does not get resolved soon, if it is time not only for players, coaches and fans to call for a resolution to the lockout, but also call for the resignation of Roger Goodell.

And I imagine that nearly the entire state of Wisconsin is ready to sign the petition. I’m pretty sure they already have one circulating in Louisiana.

Sep 162012
 

What Gronk giveth, Gronk taketh away.

Rob Gronskowski helped Tom Brady lead a feverish comeback against the Arizona Cardinals, overcoming multiple drops on the day, but then two late penalties against Gronk cost first a touchdown and then five yards on a missed field goal attempt that ultimately doomed the Patriots in a stunning 20-18 loss to the Cardinals in the home opener at Gillette Stadium.

Here is the game recap:

FIRST QUARTER

The Cardinals came out with a good game plan, trying to take whatever the Patriots defense would be willing to give. The Cardinals used a solid rcompleted tack, complemented by a Peterson wildcat and opportunistic passing to advance to the Patriots 20 yard line before being forced to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. On the first play of the ensuing New England possession, the Cardinals were able to turn a pass deflection  into an interception to takeover the at Patriots 36. But the Pats’ defense stiffened forced the Cardinals into another field goal and a 6-0 lead.

The Patriots came out with a mix of running and passing in their first drive, assisted by a key third down offsides by the Cardinals on their way to a 46 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, closing the gap to 6-3.  However, the drive resulted in the Los of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was assisted off of the field with what appeared to be a painful ankle injury.

The Cardinals were then forced into a three and out, with a key third down stop by Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots then closed the first quarter with two Stevan Ridley runs netting 21 yards.

SECOND QUARTER

The Patriots opened the quarter with two straight incomplete passes, forcing a Mesko punt. Chandler Jones began asserting himself on the next Cardinals drive,stuffing one run for a loss and drawing a holding call while relentlessly pursuing Kevin Kolb. The Patriots got a good punt return from Julian Edelman to start the next drive on the Cardinals side of the 50. Ridley began the next drive with four hard runs to bring the ball to the 16, before the drive stalled and the Patriots were forced into a field goal to tie the game at 6. The officials blew an obvious offsides call on the field goal that would have extended a drive with an automatic first down, annoying the faithful at The Razor. The Cardinals were executing a solid drive until the Patriots forced a turnover near The Patriots 40. Two big Patriots losses led to a safe third down draw and another Patriots’ punt.

Brandon Spikes opened the next possession with a sack, and Hightower added a key stop on third down. The Patriots started their next drive at their own 10 and went into safe mode, but a big connection to Welker after the two minute warning ignited some offensive movement.  After a near miss in the end zone to Gronk, the Pats stalled near midfield to end the half.

THIRD QUARTER

The Pats opened with a huge pass play to Welker for 36 yards. But the drive stalled at the 32 and the Patriots were forced to settle for a third field goal and a 9-6 lead.  The Patriots forced a punt on the next possession, with Dont’a Hightower making his presence felt. The Pat riots then suffered a three and out deep in their own territory, before the Cardinals blocked the punt and recovered at the Patriots’ 2 yard linE and turned a third down into a Cardinals touchdown and a 13-9 lead.

The Patriots went to the air attack on the next series, passing three times before Ridley hammered out a first down run. Then they went back to the air to Lloyd, before Ridley again moved the chains. Hilliard churned out the next first down before the Patriots again we shut down by the tenacious Cardinal defense forced a Patriot punt. The next drive by the Cardinals was a methodical march down the field, aided by a personal foul by safety Steve Gregory.

FOURTH QUARTER

The Cardinals’ drive was capped by a 6 yard quarterback draw by Kevin Kolb for a touchdown and a 20-9 lead early in the fourth quarter. With no choice left, the Pats went back to the air and in two quick strikes were in Cardinals’ territory. An acrobatic catch by Brand on Lloyd netted another nine yards, but a bad play call on third down forced another Patriots’ punt. Frankly, I found Belichick’s decision not to go for it on fourth down to be a questionable call given the ability of the Cardinals offense to execute all day.  Predictably, the Cardinals used the running of Beanie Wells to mete out a first down, killing time off the clock, before the Patriots stiffened on the next set of downs.

Julian Edelman started off the next series bringing the ball across midfield and then Brandon Lloyd made a catch for another first down. But poor play-calling on a second down run and a nice pass defense on third down led to another  Gostkowski field goal and a 20-12 deficit.

The Cardinals’ next drive was stuffed by the Patriots defense, after a review of a third down non-catch by Larry Fitzgerald. The Pats took over at the 35, and the ensuing drive was vintage Brady, as he carved the Cardinals’ defense before connecting with Rob Gronkowski for the touchdown. The Patriots were unable to convert the two point try, and the Cardinals’ lead was cut to 20-18.

The Cardinals ran the ball for almost five yards to bring the clock to 2:00, and then Ryan Williams slashed through the middle for a first down, essentially ending the game… or so it should have. On the ensuing third down play, the Cards inexplicably handed the ball off to Ryan Williams, who lost it on a hit by Brandon Spikes, and the ball was recovered by Vince Wilfork. The Patriots then seemingly won the game on a touch won run by Danny Woodhead, but the play was called back on a questionable holding call on Rob Gronkowski. While Gronk did turn the player and thus draw the flag, the call was likely one that would have gone as a no-call with regular officials (or dare I say, real ones). The Patriots then moved into easy field goal range but lost five yards on a false start penalty, again on Gronk. Still, the Pats were set up for a 42 yard field goal by Gosttkowski, which he promptly pulled left to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory.

FINAL SCORE: CARDINALS 20 PATRIOTS 18

Post- Game Analysis:

The Cardinals wanted tis game more than the Patriots, and executed their game plan almost flawlessly. They were able to effectively move the chains on offense, and defensively took the Patriots out of their own game plan. Aaron Hernandez’ injury seemed to have the affect of knocking the Patriots off kilter. Wes Welker picked up the slack for Hernandez, solitude Cardinals’ defense repeatedly punched the Patriots in the mouth all afternoon, and the Patriots had few answers until the closing minutes, and then a failure to execute routine plays cost them the chance at their comeback win.

Patriots’ fans can take heart in knowing that the last time the team lost a home opener was in 2001, when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl which, coincidentally, was in New Orleans.

When the Patriots Ran:

Stevan Ridley ran for 71 yards and Danny Woodhead ran for another 18, but the Patriots were unable to run at key times, or chose to run at times where a pass play was the better call. Despite the productive play, disruption caused by the Cardinals gives the cards the edge. Advantage: Cardinals

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady threw for 316 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Welker, Gronkowski, Lloyd and Edelman all had big receiving days in the absence of Aaron Hernandez. If anything, the Patriots didn’t pass enough today given the tempo of the day and the grittiness of the Cardinals’ defense. The Cardinals were able to apply consistent pressure on Brady, sacking him four times. Advantage: Patriots

When the Cardinals ran:

The cards used a balanced rushing attack, with five runners posting double digits in yards and outgaining the Patriots 105-86. It’s wasn’t an outstanding attack, but it was a consistent one. The error by Williams (really a play call error) nearly cost the Cards the game. That play had to be one of the worst play calls I have seen in recent years, as the Cards should have taken a knee to insure a punt and a long field for the Patriots. Advantage: Cardinals

When the Cardinals passed:

Kevin Kolb only threw for 140 yards with one touchdown and no interception, but it was his headiness that won the day for the Cards. Kolb made good decisions, took what the defense would give, and knew when to take a loss.  Todd heap caught five passes before leaving with an injury. Still, the Patriots once again kept their opponents from any long gains, holding the longest reception to 36 yards. The Patriots shut down Larry Fitzgerald (1 catch for 4 yards) but Kolb took advantage of his other options. Advantage: Even

Special Teams:

The Ghost made four field goals and two from beyond 50 yards, but missed a makable 42 yarder that would have won the game. The Patriots were able to contain the Cardinals’ return game, and Julian Edelman was the more effective returner today. Still, we will remember the last play as the key in the Patriots’ loss. The punt block was a key play, setting up the Cardinals on the Patriots’ two yard line, which the Cards punched in for a score. Advantage: Cardinals

Key Moment: Holding call on Rob Gronkowski that cost the Patriots a 30 yard touchdown by Danny Woordhead. While it was a questionable call, any holding was unnecessary on the play, as Gronk had effectively shielded his man on the play.

This week’s game ball goes to Calais Campbell, who registered seven tackles and two sacks