Dec 082012
 

My friends often call me a “homer” for the Patriots, and the accusation is both understandable and at the same time unfounded. While I pick the Patriots to win nearly every contest that they play, that’s also because I have the benefit of being a fan of the winningest team on the NFL over the past decade. They win most of their games, so it’s easy (and mathematically pragmatic) to pick them almost every week. And because the Patriots have not lost a game in the second half of the season in more than two years, it would be tempting to look at this contest and think that the Patriots are going to find a way to win this game at home, because that’s what they normally do.

But in truth I actually feel more confident about next Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers than I do about this week’s contest with the Houston Texans. While the Niners are seen as a more physical opponent, they are inconsistent performers and are relying on an inexperienced quarterback. The 49ers make mistakes, and the Patriots are a team that capitalizes on mistakes; just ask Mark Sanchez. The Texans however, are not prone to making many mistakes, and have been a very consistent team this season, even if they are not flashy. Although their defense has struggled in recent weeks, this is due to injuries, and the Texans have still have a way to win the contests they were in, just like the Patriots do. And like the Patriots the Texans are a solid running team who also excel at stopping the run. Finally, for more similarity, Houston is an efficient passing team that also struggles against the pass. This is the type of match-up that the Patriots are entirely capable of winning, but the Patriots are very banged up right now, and are more focused on having healthy players for the post-season than they are in rushing players back for a Week 14 contest. In short, anyone who thinks I am going to be a homer this week is in for a disappointment.

When the Patriots run:
Stevan Ridley has emerged as the Patriots’ lead back this season with 1,010 yards (7th in NFL) with a 4.5 ypc average and nine touchdowns. He is complemented by Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden, who is returning from a suspension. While the Patriots have the 8th best rushing attack in the league (140.8 ypg), they will likely find it difficult to run consistently against the Texans, who only give up 87.6 ypg. Shaun Cody is back from a serious injury at defensive tackle and is strong against the run. He is flanked by JJ Watt and Antonio Smith. Tim Robbins and Barrett Ruud are the inside linebackers, and are a far cry from where the Texans started the season with Brian Cushing inside and Brooks Reed outside. Expect the Patriots to seek to exploit the edges and take advantage of the pass rush to find running room. The Patriots should be able to rush for about 120 yards this week.

When the Patriots pass:
This is normally an automatic advantage for the Patriots, who rank sixth in passing. The Texans are not strong against the pass, and Jonathan Joseph is returning this week but is not having a great year. He is playing opposite Kareem Jackson, who has four interceptions this season. Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn struggle to cover in space, so the Patriots should be able to exploit a mediocre secondary. The trouble for the Patriots is who is left to do so? Welker and Lloyd are the primary receivers, while Hernandez is playing his way back into shape after an extended absence. Edelman is done for the season, so the Patriots signed re-tread Donte Stallworth, who can play both outside and in the slot. I would expect to see the Pats throw in a heavy does of screens in an attempt to get the ball into the hands of Vereen in space. Watt and Smith both excel at bringing pressure, and Connor Barwin also gets in on the action. It is critical that the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line be up to the task of neutralizing the pass rush, which will be aided if the Patriots utilize the spread formation. While Logan Mankins is expected back, Sebastian Vollmer’s back seems to be bothering him, as he did not look sharp last Sunday against the Dolphins. Look for Brady to throw for over 260 yards, but also look for the Texans to create a big play off of a Watt deflection or off a sack.

When the Texans run:
Arian Foster is one of the best in the game, and he currently ranks fifth with 1,102 yards this season, along with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. He is complemented by Justin Forsett, who has rushed for 364 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots are solid against the run. Wilfork generally requires double coverage, and Mayo and Spikes are big hitters who force turnovers; the Patriots should be able to stuff the middle. They are however, susceptible to edge rushing. Foster has great vision and burst, and has tackle-breaking strength. Look for Foster to rush for over 100 yards as he rips off several big gains.

When the Texans pass:
Matt Schaub isn’t heralded as an elite quarterback, but he is certainly one of the best. Schaub has a passer rating of 94.5 with 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He is not prone to making big mistakes, so the Patriots pass rush, which is inconsistent at best, will have to force Schaub to make errors. Chandler Jones is looking like he might return this week, which would be big for a team that is struggling to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. Andre Johnson is having a solid year with 74 receptions for 1,114 yards and three touchdowns, while Owen Daniels has 50 receptions. Arian Foster is often the third option in the passing game, and Kevin Walter is a sturdy and reliable target. The Texans like to use two tight end sets, and could take advantage of the Patriots’ linebackers and get some big gains down the field. The Patriots’ secondary is starting to gel, but they will be challenged by the Texans, and Schaub is not likely to miss the types of throws that Ryan Tannnehill missed last week. McCourty is a more natural fit at safety, while Talib and Dennard are both capable of making big plays, but also can get burned. Talib will be matched up with Johnson, and must have a good game for the Patriots to slow down the Texans’ offense. Arrington is looking much better now that he is playing a more limited number of snaps. Expect Schaub to throw for around 250 yards.

Special Teams:
The Patriots’ kicking game is good but not great. Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker who has struggled this season, while Mesko doesn’t have a booming leg, but can pin opponents deep. The Patriots’ return game took a hit with the loss of Edelman, while Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner who can occasionally rip off a big return. For Houston, Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. Keshawn Martin is a dangerous returner, particularly in the punting game.

Intangibles:
Injuries are never an excuse for losing in the NFL, and the Patriots historically personify the concept of “next man up” better than any team in the league. None the less, the Patriots will be tested to stay competitive in this contest. Rob Gronkowski remains out, while Aaron Hernandez is still playing his way back into game shape, and the loss of Julian Edelman hampers the receiving corps. The offensive line can’t seem to stay intact for an entire series, let alone an entire game, so the Patriots will be challenged to stop Watt and the Texans’ pass rush. On defense the Patriots are healthier, particularly in the secondary, but the loss of Jermaine Cunningham to suspension while he was having his best season raises concerns for the Patriots’ pass rush. The Texans have already adapted to life without Brian Cushing, and are getting healthier in the secondary with the return of Jonathan Joseph, and otherwise appear a bit healthier coming into this contest. The war of attrition slightly favors the Texans.

With regard to turnovers, the Patriots are the league’s best, with 33 takeaways and only 9 giveaways this season, for a difference of +24. The Texans are tied for second in the league with 26 takeaways and 12 giveaways, for a difference of +14. Both teams know how to create turnovers and how to protect the ball, but the Patriots get a slight edge here.

The Texans win if…
Arian Foster gets some early yards, forcing the Patriots’ safeties to bite on play action. Matt Schaub is more than capable of putting the ball over the top to beat one on one coverage. The Texans also win if they force multiple Patriots’ turnovers.

The Patriots win if…
they beat the pass rush by spreading the field to pick apart a weak Texans’ secondary, complemented with screens and single-back draws. Forcing Arian Foster to put the ball on the ground would be very helpful as well.

Prediction:
If these two teams meet in the post-season with Gronkowski, Cunningham, Bolden, and Hernandez in the line-up along with a healthier offensive line, I will pick the Patriots because I am confident that the Patriots’ passing attack would be the difference. As it is I really want to believe that the Patriots are going to find a way to pull out a win, but there are simply too many question marks across the team to allow me to go there. In Week 14, with the Patriots’ seriously banged up, and with this being the team’s first look at the Texans, I think the advantage goes to Houston. Look for JJ Watt to be a disruptive force against the Patriots’ line, pressuring Brady and challenging his passing lanes. Brady looked decidedly uncomfortable last week against the Dolphins pass rush and was was not as effective as usual as Miami recorded four sacks, and I expect Houston to be just as disruptive to the New England passing game. The depleted receiving corps offsets an advantage that the Patriots would otherwise have against the Texans’ secondary. After Welker, who is going to step up? On the other side of the ball, Arian Foster is exactly the type of running back that can drive the Patriots’ defense nuts, and Justin Forsett is a very capable change of pace back. Matt Schaub is having a solid season throwing the ball, and while the Patriots’ secondary is improving, Schaub is far better equipped than Ryan Tannehill was last week to take advantage of the Patriots’ lapses and miscues. Look for Schaub to throw for more than 250 yards, and look for Foster to be the second back to rush for 100 yards on the Patriots this season. I look for a conservative first half before the Patriots make a mistake or two (or the Texans create one). The Patriots will play catch up in the 4th quarter, but I am expecting a 31-27 game in favor of the Texans.

Nov 022012
 

The New England Patriots enter the bye week at 5-3, a mildly surprising development that is made more surprising by the teams that the Patriots have lost to so far. While the thought of a loss on the road to the Ravens at the start of the season would have been considered a “quality” loss, the fact that the Patriots should have put that game away makes the loss a tough one to swallow even weeks later. Such was also the case in the Patriots’ effort against the Seattle Seahawks, where the Patriots had control of the game and allowed the Seahawks the opportunity to pull off a dramatic come from behind win. The loss to the Cardinals would be the one game that most could swallow, given that the Cardinals outplayed the Patriots for much of the contest. But the Patriots had their opportunity to pull out the win at the end, only to be held back on two calls against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal that sealed the deal.

Three of the Patriots’ five wins have been dominating performances (Titans, Rams, and second half against the Bills), but the two others have left Patriots’ fans just as frustrated as with the losses. The win over the Denver Broncos was a decisive victory in terms of the Patriots outplaying the Broncos, but a game effort by Peyton Manning made the game much closer than it should have been. Even worse, the Patriots struggled mightily at home against the Jets, allowing the Jets to hang in the game long enough to nearly pull off a comeback win. Only late heroics from Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski saved the day for the Pats, while the secondary continued to struggle. Although the win over the Rams was a well needed boost going into this week’s bye, the secondary remains a huge question mark for the second half of the season.

With all of that said, the signs are present that the Patriots could well be primed for a second half run that would result in their sixth appearance in the Super Bowl in 12 years. Let’s take a look at the factors that might give Patriots’ fans cause for hope in the second half of the season.

History of second half runs

Looking back at the Patriots’ history since their run of Super Bowls began, New England has a history of making improvements over the course of the season, often despite significant injury concerns. Here is a look at their records since 2001:

2001 – 4-4 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2002 – 4-4 n first half, 5-3 in second half (no playoffs)
2003 – 6-2 n first half, 8-0 in second half (Super Bowl champions)
2004 – 7-1 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2005 – 4-4 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in Divisional Round)
2006 – 6-2 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in AFC Championship)
2007 – 8-0 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)
2008 – 5-3 in first half, 6-2 in second half (no playoffs)
2009 – 6-2 in first half, 4-4 in second half (Lost in Wildcard Round)
2010 – 6-2 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Division Round)
2011 – 5-3 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)

In total, during this time the Patriots have gone 61-27 (.693) in the first halves of seasons and 73-15 (.830) in the second halves. In addition to its mastery of making adjustments during the course of a season, Bill Belichick’s squad also has a schedule that lends itself to a string of Patriots’ wins. After the break, the Patriots face the Bills, Colts, Jets and Dolphins, a series of four very winnable games. Their next two games are against the Texans and 49ers, two very tough games, but both at home in prime time. The Patriots then wrap up the regular season with games against the Jaguars and Dolphins. Looking at the schedule, the improvements that can be expected in the second half (detailed below), and a history of strong second half performances, it is not a stretch to imagine the Patriots going 7-1 the rest of the way through the regular season, and finishing 12-4 with a first round bye.

Dynamic offense

While much of the early season struggling is due to a defense that is still learning to play together as a unit, not to mention the hesitancy of the coaches to allow the Patriots to blitz more given the porous secondary, a fair amount of the struggle can also be traced to an offense that has failed to put away games that they should have put away. I will attribute much of this to the play calling of Josh McDaniels, who it seems is still trying to figure out how to use all of the weapons at his disposal. Even though Stevan Ridley has established himself as the primary running back, McDaniels has gotten “cute” with play calls in key moments when the best option was to slam Ridley through the line. In other cases, McDaniels has gone to trickery such as end arounds and low percentage screen plays in situations where the best option was to stick with passes over the middle that put them in the position to win the game to begin with. While there is great value at the end of the season and in the playoffs to make sure that all of the players have contributed to the offense, crucial moments in the game are not times to start trying to pull rabbits out of hats.

The dominating 45-7 win over the Rams is exactly what the Patriots are capable of doing on a weekly basis. Not so much in score as in the method of staking the team to an early lead, giving the defense some room for error, and then putting the game away when the opportunity presents itself. Until the defense is capable of winning games, and we appear to be at least a season away from that, it is critical that the offense be exacting and unrelenting in pushing the ball down the field. While I could wax wishful and make the case that the Patriots “should” be 8-0 at this point, Tom Brady is right when he says that the Patriots are exactly what they are, a 5-3 club trying to get better every week.

It is often said that any team with Bill Belichick as the Head Coach and Tom Brady as the quarterback has a chance to win the Super Bowl. The truth is far more complicated than that. While NFL is widely regarded as a passing league, the 2012 Patriots understand the importance of offensive balance as a part of the equation for winning a Super Bowl. The Patriots possess the league’s top offense (440.8 yards per game and #1 in points scored), but are not just doing it through the air. While the Patriots have the 5th ranked pass offense (291.1 ypg), they also possess the game’s 5th best rushing attack (149.6 ypg). The Patriots’ use of the short yardage passing game over the middle, and in particular their highly disruptive tight ends, are a nightmare for opposing defenses, and keep opposing safeties and linebackers off balance throughout a game. Their offensive packages are designed to create and take advantage of personnel mismatches, while limiting the opposition’s ability to make substitutions; it’s truly an offense that gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, that is when they can sleep at all. Even in their losses this season, the Patriots have not struggled to move the ball down the field, but instead have struggled on occasion to produce touchdowns. Once McDaniels is fully proficient in his play-calling, look for the Patriots to start winning games in convincing fashion, as they did against St. Louis. We may well hear claims and complaints as the second half unfolds that the Patriots are running up the score, which would be a very positive development in New England.

Improving defense

Stopping the running game is still a key to defensive success, even in a passing league. The Patriots possess one of the league’s top rushing defenses, and have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), CJ Spiller (33 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), Shonn Greene (54 yards), and Steven Jackson (23 yards). Only Ray Rice of Baltimore has eclipsed the 100 yard mark against the Patriots (101), who rank 8th against the run, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. The combination of possessing an explosive offense that stakes the team to a lead, coupled with a stout run defense, turns opponents into one dimensional teams.

The secondary remains the team’s greatest weakness, and the unit is still a work in progress. The Patriots ranked 31st against the pass in 2011, with only the Green Bay Packers faring worse. The Patriots aren’t a ton better in 2012, ranking 28th while giving up 281.1 yards per game through the air and, even worse, routinely giving up twenty or more yards in a single play. Although Bill Belichick is a fan of “not giving it all up on one play”, we may be seeing a shift in his reluctance to bring a blitz to apply quarterback pressure. The Patriots blitzed Sam Bradford last Sunday far more than they have blitzed in recent weeks, and the increased quarterback pressure led to mistakes by the Rams’ quarterback, missing open receivers and not being able to go through his progression of reads. Understanding that his secondary is giving up yards in chunks anyway, why not blitz and give his beleaguered secondary some assistance so that they can play tighter coverage and limit big play opportunities for opposing offenses? Additionally, the Patriots played a gamble this week and traded next year’s fourth round draft pick in order to acquire troubled cornerback Aqib Talib (and a seventh round draft pick in 2013) from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib is currently serving a four game suspension for taking Adderall without a prescription, and the 2008 first round draft pick has had a difficult history both in college and in his time in Tampa. However, there is no denying Talib’s talent, and he could be an instant upgrade in the secondary. Talib is known for great coverage and ball skills, and has recorded 18 interceptions so far in his NFL career. Talib’s addition could allow the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety, a position he seems to have a more natural talent for. The trade for Talib is not without risk, but has a high potential upside. There is little doubt that the Patriots will set a one-strike policy for Talib, and he will have to grow up if he wants to revitalize his career with the Patriots.

Flawed AFC competition

Aiding the Patriots is that all of their competition in the weakened AFC is flawed. In the East, the Dolphins are performing admirably but have too many holes to make a serious run at the division title. The Ravens’ defense has suffered serious blows and looks incredibly vulnerable. There is strong doubt that the team can win the North after being staked out to an early lead. The Steelers are the prime competition in the North, but it seems we never know which Steelers team is going to show up. Truth be told, the Steelers don’t match up well against the Patriots; their revived defense will likely give up 30 or more if they face the Patriots in the playoffs, and their offensive line would struggle to open up running lanes or protect Big Ben. In the South, the loss of Brian Cushing is a serious blow to the Texans’ defensive unit. Houston remains the greatest threat in the AFC, but giving Bill Belichick a second look at a team like the Texans has me feeling pretty good about the Patriots’ chances. Finally, Denver is a real threat out of the West. As their earlier game demonstrated, there is a discernible talent gap between the two teams that favors the Patriots, but Patriot fans know all too well that anything can happen with Peyton Manning on the field, and the defense – while far from stellar – is disruptive enough to give the Patriots problems. Right now I’d have to give the “sleeper” nod in the AFC to the Broncos.

For their own part, the Patriots have been plagued by numerous minor injuries to players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung, Logan Mankins, and others. But they have so far avoided the season-ending crushers at key positions that they have had to deal with in years past. While the team needs to use its bye week to get its players healthy, the Patriots are in far better shape than some of their opponents. This could be a key ingredient in a deep post-season run.

Conclusion

There is no guarantee that the Patriots will go on a second half tear and end up as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. But history tells us not to bet against it. The Patriots were one play away from winning the Super Bowl in two of the last five Super Bowls while possessing seriously flawed defenses. The question has always been, “how much does the Patriots’ defense have to improve for them to win it all again?” And we may get the answer to that question this season. The key for the Patriots is to put together a team that is in possession of the ball with two minutes left and with a lead in the Super Bowl, rather than having their secondary try to prevent a very talented quarterback from driving the field in the closing minutes. And in that respect, Patriots’ fans have to feel pretty good about their team’s chances.

Oct 082012
 

Week Five saw a record setting performance by Drew Brees and the renewal of the Tom Brady – Peyton Manning rivalry, as well as upset wins by the Rams, Colts, and Dolphins. The Bills gave up 45 points to the 49ers on Sunday, meaning their defense has surrendered 97 points in just two games.  On the otjher side of the extreme, no touchdowns were scored in the Ravens-Chiefs battle, while the Seahawks’ defense’ suffocated Cam Newton and the Panthers.

Here are your Week Five Results: