Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Jan 072013
 

Patriots - Texans 1In 2010, the New England Patriots routed the New York Jets 45-3 in their Week 13 match-up. Just six weeks later the Jets walked out of Foxboro as 28-21 winners in the divisional round of the 2010 season in the infamous “Wes Welker foot in the mouth” game. Such a cautionary tale is served up for anyone who thinks that a repeat of the Patriots’ 42-14 blowout win over the Texans in Week 14 is a sure thing.

For the Texans’ part, this Sunday’s match-up in New England offers Houston an opportunity for redemption. The team was outplayed in every aspect of the game in Week 14, as Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and the Patriots had a 21-0 lead before the Texans knew what hit them. The Texans had already been struggling, needing overtime to beat both Jacksonville and Detroit, but the loss to the Patriots sent them team into a full blown tailspin. The Texans dropped two of their last three games after the rout, falling from the first to the third overall playoff seed, and forcing them to beat the Bengals on Saturday in order to earn their chance at redemption.

The Texans’ performance against the Bengals was less than convincing, and Matt Schaub’s expression was one of relief rather than confidence as the Texans left the field with a 19-13 win over Cincinnati. While Schaub had a pedestrian day, going 29/38 for 262 yards and one interception (pick six), it was Arian Foster’s 140 yards and a stifling Texan’s defense that got the team to move forward in the playoffs. Moreover, it was poor play on the part of the Bengals’ offense that failed to adequately test a suspect Texans’ secondary that aided the Houston defense. That won’t be a problem this coming Sunday.

The Patriots are a team on a mission. They are 9-1 in their last ten games, the sole blemish coming when the Patriots’ barnstorming comeback fell just short against the San Francisco 49ers. Their offense is just as capable as ever, but it is the improving defense that has Patriots’ fans dreaming of a fourth Lombardi trophy. The Texans saw the newly improved secondary five weeks ago in the form of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard starting at the corners with Devin McCourty moving to safety, as the Patriots limited Schaub to a 19/32/232/1 interception performance, and limited Andre Johnson to eight catches for 95 yards. The Patriots’ run defense held Arian Foster to 46 yards on 15 carries, so both Foster and Schaub have plenty of motivation to play better this time around.

The Patriots will be on guard for a potential letdown as the coaches break out the racquetball rackets again in anticipation of JJ Watt. And the sound bytes to the media already tell you what the Patriots are going to be inundated with all week. “I think there’s certainly a lesson there about how the game that we play now doesn’t have much to do with the game we played before,” Head Coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s another example of that. … That is and always will be the case, there is little relevance to the previous game.” Tom Brady offered the same assessment. “I don’t think that game is going to have any bearing on what happens next week,” Brady said. “That was a big win for our season, it was a big win at that time, but this game is going to be entirely different and I think we need to put just as much preparation into the game as we did before … We know these guys. I think that’s the part that I enjoy, that I’ve already spent a lot of time preparing for them, so to have another week to do it, you feel like you’re going to know them that much better, so we still have to go out and execute against it. I know they felt like they didn’t play their best game against us, which they didn’t, and in a lot of ways, I think we can play better too and we need to play better, it needs to be our best week.”

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

When the Patriots run
In their first meeting the Patriots ran for 130 yards, with Stevan Ridley gaining 72 on 18 carries. The Patriots bring their full complement of running backs into this contest, with Ridley the main back and Danny Woodhead playing the role of scatback. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden offer a change of pace, with Vereen’s speed serving as a threat particularly in the screen game. The Patriots found their success running behind the guards in the first meeting, particularly pounding the ball behind Logan Mankins in the second half. The Texans boast the second best run defense in the league, yielding only 80 yards per game, but the Patriots’ short passing game opened up the Texans defense, particularly after the Patriots had established the lead. Bradie James and Barrett Ruud must limit Patriots’ runners to under four yards per carry, as the Patriots ripped off thirteen runs of four or more yards between the tackles in December. Look for the Patriots to offer a balanced dose of Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead to rush for around 120 yards as the run game serves to keep the Texans honest.

Patriots - Texans 2When the Patriots pass
In the first meeting between the two clubs Tom Brady went 19/32 for 232 yards and four touchdowns, and that was without Rob Gronkowski on the field for the Pats. Brandon Lloyd had an outstanding night, catching seven passes for 89 yards and a score, while Aaron Hernandez caught eight balls for 58 yards and two scores. Deion Branch replaces Donte Stallworth from the first meeting, while Wes Welker drew lots of attention from the Texans’ secondary and had a quiet night with only three catches. The Texans struggled in coverage all night long, and penalties aided three Patriots’ drives. This has to be a huge area of concern for the Texans, as the combination of Lloyd, Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez means that every play will carry some form of mismatch; it is simply up to the Patriots’ offensive line to give Brady the time to exploit it. The Patriots’ line did a fantastic job in the first game, holding the Texans to one sack, limiting pressure by the Texans’ pass rushers, and Ryan Wendell essentially removed JJ Watt as a factor from the game. Expect the Texans to make some adjustments to try and free up Watt, but the quick strike passing offense of the Patriots is not likely to be derailed this weekend. Expect Brady to throw for more than 250 yards as he takes advantage of a very suspect Texan’s secondary. Danieal Manning in particular had a rough outing against the Patriots last month and I expect the Patriots to go after Manning early and often on Sunday.

When the Texans run
The Texans bring in the fourth best rushing offense and one of the game’s most prolific running backs in Arian Foster. In the first meeting, Foster was held to 46 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown, and 15 of those yards came on one play. The Texans as a team were limited to 100 yards rushing, as Ben Tate also carried for 46 yards against the Patriots. The Texans’ performance was right on par for the ninth rated rushing defense, which yields only 101.9 yards per game, but it was also with the Patriots staked out to a huge early lead, essentially factoring out the Texans’ running game. The Texans will get their yards on the ground this week, but the Patriots’ solid run stuffers (Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes) should be able to keep big gains relatively in check. Foster was able to run for 140 yards against the Bengals by the Texan’s front line controlling the interior and staying away from Geno Atkins, but the Patriots have a better interior defense than the Bengals do. On the outside, the Patriots are effective at setting and holding the edge, courtesy of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Foster and Tate will find their running lanes far more crowded than in their win over Cincinnati.

Patriots - Texans 3When the Texans pass
Matt Schaub has good numbers this season (4,008 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) but seems to wilt under the spotlight in big games. Will this game serve as the moment where Matt Schaub stepped up, or will he begin to be labeled as a choke artist? Schaub is obviously most comfortable throwing to Andre Johnson, who had an outstanding season in 2012, and the Patriots will once again need to limit his production. Assuming everyone is healthy, look for the Patriots to leave Talib in single coverage on Johnson, occasionally offering safety protection over the top. More often than not however, the Patriots will need to bring a safety up for run defense, putting the pressure on Talib. Tight End Owen Daniels had 62 catches this season and is Schaub’s next favorite target, and the combination of Daniels and Garrett Graham (who missed the first meeting) could give the Patriots’ linebackers fits, as they occasionally struggled in coverage in the first contest without Graham playing. Kevin Walter is a dependable target, and Foster is a receiving threat coming out of the backfield. There is no doubt that the Texans have the tools to have a big game in the air, but they need Schaub to be a good decision-maker and to execute his throws. His interception by McCourty in the first game is demonstrative of the type of lapses that seem to hold Schaub from rising to an elite level of quarterback play. The Texans did a good job of protecting Schaub in the first game, despite the Patriots’ pouring on the blitzes. Schaub is likely to throw for over 250 yards in this game, but the key statistic is going to be his touchdown to interception ratio. Further, if the Patriots successfully limit the Texans’ rushing game, that will take away the play action pass as a significant threat. Without the play action, Schaub is simply not a great quarterback. The Patriots know this and took away Daniels in their first meeting, something the Texans need to correct.

Special Teams
Keshawn Martin is a dangerous return man for the Texans. Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. On the Patriots’ side, Stephen Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker, while Zoltan Mesko has had an inconsistent season. McCourty has been up and down as a kick returner, while Welker is always capable of breaking a big return in the punting game.

Intangibles
The Texans keep talking about contests as being the “biggest in franchise history.” My unsolicited advice to the Texans is to talk about any biggest games after they have won a Super Bowl, and not before. Such talk merely reiterates what the Texans have yet to accomplish, and serves as a reminder that in the “big game” department the Patriots have been there and done that. Mental edge to the Patriots.

Both teams are healthier this time around, and the Patriots have had an extra week of rest to get everyone prepared. Jermaine Cunningham is back and will aid in applying pressure to Schaub as well as stopping the running game.

In the turnover game, the Patriots and Texans were the best in the AFC, but the Patriots were the best in the league, coming in with 41 takeaways and only 16 giveaways (+25) while the Texans forced 29 turnovers while giving up 17 of their own (+12). This favors the Patriots, but both teams are good at protecting the ball.

Another intangible to keep in mind is that everything went right for the Patriots the first time around. Even when JJ Watt stripped the ball from Danny Woodhead, it was recovered for a touchdown by Brandon Lloyd. When the Patriots fumbled the ball early, Aaron Hernandez was able to rescue it and then score on the next play. Every break went the Patriots’ way, and the result was a blowout win. The Texans did not play with intensity in the first meeting, and know they must play a much better game to compete with the Patriots. Expect the Texans to show up on Sunday.

The Texans win if… Matt Schaub doesn’t make key mistakes, Arian Foster and Ben Tate are able to run for over 150 yards, Andre Johnson is able to exploit single coverage, JJ Watt is able to be a factor in the game, and the Texans’ secondary limits the Patriots’ passing attack.

The Patriots win if… The offensive line protects Tom Brady and keeps Watt from disrupting the passing lanes, the secondary is able to limit the production of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, the Patriots protect the ball, and the Patriots show up with the intensity to play four good quarters.

Prediction
This game is not likely to be a blowout, but rather a hard fought affair that won’t be decided until the fourth quarter. While the Texans have seventh best defense in the NFL, it is not a defense that matches up well against the Patriots massive amount of weaponry. As long as Tom Brady has time to make reads, he will complete passes; the Texans’ secondary is simply not as talented as the Patriots’ receiving corps and the Patriots’ top ranked offense. On the other side, the Texans have an explosive offense as well (7th in the NFL) but will be hard pressed to win a shoot-out in New England. The Texans will stick with the Patriots well into the second half before the Pats are able to create a big play and provide some separation. The Patriots ability to pound the ball late in games is a huge asset that will serve them well in this game. Schaub played scared against the Patriots in Week 14, and I don’t expect him to improve this quickly. The Texans, unlike the Patriots, use a similar offensive game plan for every opponent, and this is something that can aid the Patriots in forcing Schaub to make mistakes.

Patriots 34 Texans 24

Jan 052013
 

Rat's Awards ImageAlthough we ended up with a fairly clear winner for this award, the ten nominees drew sharply different rankings from our contributors. As a result, our second through seventh finishers were tightly packed in a competitive race.

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Our nominees included (in alphabetical order): Morris Claiborne (DAL), Quinton Coples (NYJ), Lavonte David (TB), Casey Hayward (GB), Dont’a Hightower (NE), Janoris Jenkins (STL), Chandler Jones (NE), Luke Kuechly (CAR), Harrison Smith (MIN), and Bobby Wagner (SEA). One receiver of a first place vote (Hightower) did not end up in our top three, highlighting how competitive the field was.

3rd Place – Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams
Jenkins finished with 73 combined tackles, four interceptions, three touchdowns, four passes defended in his first year as a cornerback for the resurgent 7-8-1 St. Louis Rams. Jenkins scored his first two touchdowns in a 31-17 win over Arizona on November 25th and added his third in a 28-13 win over Tampa Bay on December 23. Jenkins was considered a risky character pick for the Rams and was held out of the team’s first game against the San Francisco 49ers for violations of team rules, but the rookie had a solid season and set an NFL rookie record for defensive touchdowns with four, as he also returned a fumble for a score.

2nd Place – Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David wasn’t flashy in his first year as a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his play has already drawn comparisons to another Buccanneer linebacker, Derrick Brooks. While David had only two sacks on the season, one interception and five defended passes, he also led the team with 139 combined tackles as the Bucs put together the best run defense in the league in 2012.

Luke KuechlyWINNER – Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
All Kuechly did was to tally 164 combined tackles in his first year in the middle of the Panthers’ defense, along with one sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and eight passes defensed. In a 30-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14, Kuechly recorded a career-high 16 tackles and was honored as NFC Defensive Rookie of the Week. Kuechly received the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, recording a league-high 59 tackles over the final five games of the season.

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 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 302012
 

The New England Patriots clearly saw something in the Buffalo Bills’ defensive front seven of which they thought they could take advantage. And after struggling through an awful first half the Patriots got back to their game plan and asserted their will over the Buffalo Bills, crushing them 52-28 in Orchard Park, New York. The Patriots dominated the Bills on the ground, rushing for 247 yards. Undrafted rookie free agent Brandon Bolden carried the ball 16 times for 137 yards and one touchdown, while Stevan Ridley rushed for 106 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. But it wasn’t just the ground attack that shredded the Bills. Both Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski surpassed 100 yards receiving with Gronkowski catching one touchdown after both players lost fumbles in the first half.

The Patriots went into the half down 14-7 after missing two field goals and turning the ball over twice in the first half. Only a defensive blast by Brandon Spikes stopped the Bills from taking a 14 point lead into the half after his devastating hit knocked the ball out of CJ Spiller’s hands before Vince Wilfork came away with it. The Patriots went into the half looking vulnerable, after dropping the last two contests against the Cardinals and Ravens by a total of three points.

The second half started out the same way. After a Patriots’ punt to open the half, Ryan Fitzpatrick hit Donald Jones for a 68 yard touchdown pass and the Bills went up 21-7. It looked like the rout might be on. But eight plays later scrambled out of the pocket to find Danny Woodhead on his way to the end zone and the Patriots closed the gap to 7. After a Bills’ three and out, the Patriots started deep in their own territory, but again used an eight play drive to find the end zone, this time with Brady scrambling it in for a four yard touchdown. After a four play Bills possession, the Patriots were again on the march, this time resulting in an easy Brady to Gronkowski touchdown pass that pushed the Patriots ahead 28-21.

The Bills were reeling at this point, and three plays later Fred Jackson fumbled and the Patriots recovered at the Bills 42. Stevan Ridley scored six plays later for a 35-21 Patriots’ advantage. Three more plays later Devin McCourty picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick and returned the ball to the Bills’ 12, and Bolden scored to make it a 21 point lead. The Bills struck back on the next drive with a terrific play from Fitzpatrick to Brad Smith, cutting the lead to 42-28. But the Patriots struck back with a touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to seal the 52-28 win.

The win had many blemishes. Besides sloppy play, the Bills’ offense shredded the Patriots’ secondary for 350 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, though Fitzpatrick also threw four interceptions as Patriots’ pressure resulted in underthrown balls and poor decisions on the part of the Bills’ quarterback. Stephen Gostkowski had a forgettable game. After missing the game-winning kick against the Cardinals two weeks ago, the Ghost missed his first two attempts this week, pushing one kick to the right and pulling another to the left, before finally connecting on a 30-yarder in the games closing minutes.

How the game broke down

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots had a monster game on the ground, rushing for 247 yards and having two backs rush for over 100 yards, the first time the franchise has done that since 1980. Brandon Bolden blasted through the line at will, seemingly picking up big chunks on every play while Stevan Ridley rotated between sizable chunks and churning out tough yards for first down conversion. The front seven of the Bills, highly touted all week leading up to the game, had no answers for the Patriots’ devastating ground attack. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady was 22 of 36 for 340 yards, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Brady connected with seven different receivers, with Welker catching nine passes, Gronk six, and Brandon Lloyd snagging three. Good secondary play by Stephon Gilmore being the only thing that prevented a complete Bills’ meltdown as he defended well against Brandon Lloyd on the outside. Still, Brady shredded the middle of the field and the Bills had no answers thanks to the effective Patriots’ rushing attack that let Brady strike at will in the second half. Advantage: Patriots

When the Bills ran:

The Bills netted only 98 yards on the ground despite having both Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller in the line-up. Worse for the Bills, both players lost fumbles for Buffalo. New England’s front seven routinely blew up runners and Brandon Spikes had a big day, as did Vince Wilfork. Advantage: Patriots

When the Bills passed:

Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns, and seemed to hit big plays all day long against the Patriots’ secondary. Only Ryan Fitzpatrick’s lack of arm strength stopped the Bills from being even more effective, and his underthrowing contributed to four Patriots’ interceptions on the day. One could look at Devin McCourty and feel good about his two interceptions today, but on one of those he was clearly beat and Fitzpatrick threw the ball right to him. The Patriots were able to apply decent pressure on Fitzpatrick, but the Patriots coverage group broke down on numerous occasions. Advantage: Bills

Special Teams:

Close call here. The Ghost missed two field goal attempts but hammered kickoffs through the end zone. Zoltan Mesko was effective in giving the Bills difficult starting position. The shanked punt by Shawn Powell gives the Patriots the edge. Advantage: Patriots

Key Play: Brady’s four yard touchdown run to tie the game, which was upheld after review. As the play was upheld, Brady could be seen saying “F%#k you, B($#hes to no one in particular, which amused Wes Wlker to no end. Clearly, Tom was pumped and angry, and he fought to lead the Patriots comeback.

Game Ball: Brandon Bolden, who ripped through the Buffalo defense on his way to 137 yards and 8.6 yards per carry.

Game Log

Pre-game Notes: Gronk in. Hernandez, Edelman. Mankins out. These absences making the game a bigger challenge than it would already be. Expect heavy doses of Gronk and Welker today from the Patriots. Wearing the new official #12 game day jersey; let’s see how it fares!

FIRST QUARTER

Patriots defer on coin toss.

Bills’ possession

Jackson for a first down on the first play. Misdirection pass for another first – expect to see that a lot today. Jackson stuffed on the next play. Fitzpatrick scrambles for 7. First down to Chandler. Jackson for 5. Jackson for 3 more. Jackson stuffed for loss. Great play by Chandler Jones. Bills punt to New England 10.

Patriots’ possession

Fells across the 25 on first down. Vereen short catch for 6. Big play downfield to Gronk to the Bills’ 26. Gronk inside the 20. Ridley for a first down in the red zone. Walker to the 6 off play action. Ridley touchdown. Patriots take an early 7-0 lead. 90 yard drive in 7 plays.

Bills’ possession

Quick pass for 8. Spiller chased out of bounds for a loss by Hightower. Johnson for first down to the Bills’ 40. Short pass to Spiller for 3. Hightower takes down Fitzpatrick for one yard sack. Pick by Mao on a deflection by Wilfork.

Patriots’ possession

Incomplete pass batted down by Darius. Ridley for 8. Incomplete to Brandon Lloyd. Patriots punt to the Bills, 5, fielded by Matthew Slater.

Bills’ possession

Screen pass to Dickerson out to the 30. Jackson for 4. Jackson for another yard. Sack by Chandler Jones. Bills punt and Patriots start at own 29.

Patriots possession

Incomplete pass to Lloyd. Bolden runs for a first down. End of first quarter.

SECOND QUARTER

Patriots possession

Brady misses Welker for an incompletion. Bolden for 2. Woodhead reception short of the first down. Patriots punt to the Bills’ one yard line.

Bills’ possession

Spiller to the 3. Patriots call time out #1. McCourty picks off deep pass, who was beaten and came back for the under thrown ball.

Patriots’ possession

Bolden for 12. Gilmore hurt on play. Incomplete pass on first down under late pressure. Bolden for short loss. Deep pass to Lloyd is incomplete. Ghost is wide right by 49 yard field goal try.

Bills’ possession

Chandler crosses midfield on first down pass. Short loss for Jackson; holding against Bills declined. Fitzpatrick overthrows deep pass. Third down pass to Chandler incomplete. Bills punt fair caught by Welker at the 9.

Patriots’ possession

Short pass to Gronkntomthe 24; Gronk drops the ball and the Bills recover.

Bills’ possession

Fitzpatrick to Chandler for 24 yard touchdown completion. Patriots 7 Bills 7.

Patriots’ possession

Welker pass for 9. Ridley for another 8. Ridley for 7, and then another 6. Vereen for no gain. Intentional incompletion follows on broken screen play. First down pass to Lloyd. Incomplete pass on next play. Ridley pounds out 8 yards. Ridley runs to the 29, bringing up forth down. Patriots call time out #2. Gostkowski 42 yard field goal is wide left; three straight misses now for Ghost. Points being left on the field again today.

Bills’ possession

TJ Graham for 7 on quick pass. Jackson stuffed on screen. Great pass from Fitzpatrick to Fred Jackson to the Patriots’ 27. Spiller to the 20. Another Fitzpatrick touchdown pass to Chandler for 14-7 Bills’ lead.

Patriots’ possession

Ridley for no gain. Brady sacked for 7 yard loss, bringing up long third down. Welder take a pass to the 27, then fumbles it. Bills recover. It’s like the Pats are trying to implode before halftime.

Bills’ possession

Bills start at Patriots’ 21. Incomplete pass defended by Chung. Errant pass by Fitzpatrick on second down. First down pass to Brad Smith at the 8. Two minute warning. Spiller to the 4. Spiller fumble recovered by Vince Wilfork after huge hit by Brandon Spikes.

Patriots possession

Ridley to the 14. Ridley four more for first down. Patriots run out the clock, trailing at halftime 14-7.

THIRD QUARTER

Patriots’ possession

Patriots open the half lucky to not be down two scores. Pats start at their own 20. Welker big catch and run to the 46. Bolden for 2. Gronk drops a Sure touchdown after a hit by Glimore. Third down pass batted down. Patriots punt to the Bills’ 17.

Bills’ possession

Jackson taken down for no gain. False start sets Bills back five yards. Fitzpatrick pass to Chandler tipped away by Spikes. Screen to Jackson nets a first down. Jackson for 4. Fatzpatrick quick pass to Donald Jones goes for a long 68 yard touchdown. Bills 21 Patriots 7.

Patriots’ possession

Pass to Bolden for first down. Bolden big gain for 27 yards. Bolden for another first down run. Ridley for 7. Ridley for a first down. Gronk drops a pass at the 3 yard line. Ridley for 2 to the 17. Brady scrambles out of trouble to complete touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead. Bills 21 Patriots 14. Brady: 36 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.

Bills’ possession

Long pass incomplete with good coverage by McCourty. Spiller stopped by Wilfork for one yard. Pass to Chandler incomplete. Bills punt all the way to the Patriots 25, but penalty against the Patriots adds 10 more.

Patriots’ possession

Welker first down pass to the 28. Ridley for 1. Welker to the 45 yard line. Bolden rips off a 20 yard run. Bolden for 4 more. Brady to Welker to the 13; roughing gets the ball to the 7. Bolden to the 4. Brady runs it in for the score. Patriots 21 Bills 21.

Bills’ possession

22 yard pass to Jones to stat the drive. Jackson stuffed by Ninkovich for two yard loss. Ninkovich sacks Fitzpatrick and forces fumble, which Bills’ recover. Left tackle Cordy Glenn hurt on play. Fitzpatrick pass incomplete on third down. Bills punt is a shank to the Patriots’ 37.

Patriots’ possession

7 yard out to Welker. Ridley pushes for the first down. Gronk for 14. Ridley for 11. End of third quarter.

FOURTH QUARTER

Patriots’ possession

Brady splits the secondary for touchdown pass to Gronk. Patriots 28 Bills 21.

Bills’ possession

Spiller to the 36, but hurts shoulder on play. Jackson for a short gain. Jackson fumbles after hit from Spikes. Patriots recover at the Bills’ 42.

Patriots’ possession

Incomplete pass to Lloyd. Ridley runs it to the 29 for a first down. Bolden for another first down run. Bolden to the 2. Incomplete pass in end zone. Ridley for the touchdown. Patriots 35 Bills 21.

Bills’ possession

Wilfork blows up Donald Jones to blow up a first down screen. False start on Bills. Dropped pass on second down. Interception by McCourty, who returns it to the 12.

Patriots’ possession

Bolden to the 7. Bolden in for the touchdown. Patriots 42 Bills 21. Blowout now official after a rough start.

Bills’ possession

Graham for 9 yard completion. Johnson for a first down catch. Spiller catches pass for short gain. Fitzpatrick throws wide incomplete. Bills call a time out. Completion to Dickerson for first down at midfield. Pass play broken up Arrington. Quarterback draw to the 45. Spiller goes 8 yards for the first down. Pass to Johnson incomplete on missed opportunity. Fitzpatrick scrambles for three. Fitzpatrick to Smith for the touchdown. Patriots 42 Bills 28.

Patriots’ possession

Gronk recovers onside kick. Brady to Fells incomplete. Ridley for 1 yard gain. Brady complete to Welker at he 30 for a first down. Bolden for 7, then a one yard loss. Bills use last time out. Brady long pass to Lloyd for the touchdown. Patriots 49 Bills 28. The rout is back on, and the stadium is starting to look empty.

Bills’ possession

Tavon Wilson picks off Faitzpatrick on the first play of the ensuing series.

Patriots’ possession

Ridley for two yard loss. Ridley gets the two back on the next play. Lloyd to the 11. Two minute warning. Ghost puts it through the uprights for a 52-28 Patriots’ advantage.

Bills’ possession

Choice for a short gain. Choice runs for a first down. Screen to Choice for short gain. White runs for about 6. End of fourth quarter.

FINAL SCORE: Patriots 52 Bills 28

 

Sep 282012
 

The 2012 season certainly has not gotten off to the start that the New England Patriots expected. After winning their opening contest handily against the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots were narrowly upset by the Arizona Cardinals before losing an equally narrow contest to the Baltimore Ravens. Patriots’ fans can yell all they want about the cruddy officiating in Baltimore (and it was cruddy), but the Patriots have lost two straight because they have failed to take advantage of opportunities and the defense has back-peddled from a strong performance in Week One. So it is that a 1-2 Patriots team finds its way into Buffalo seeking to avoid dropping a third straight game.

The Bills are a dangerous foe. Buffalo is 2-1 after being pounded on opening day by the Jets, but then rebounding to beat the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Granted, these are the teams that the Bills “should” beat, but there are no giveaways in the NFL, and the way to the playoffs is to beat the teams that you “should” beat. The Bills boast a dominant front four on defense, anchored by off-season free agent signing Mario Williams, as well as a prolific rushing attack. But both CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are both hurt, and are game-time decisions.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Tom Brady

I know, duh. The rap on Brady is that he gets shaken when he gets hit. Yep, him and 31 other starting NFL quarterbacks. Pass protection is always a key. In this game it is critical, as the Bills’ front four will test the Patriots make-shift offensive line early and often on Sunday. Kyle Williams already has 3 sacks this season, followed by Marcell Darius and Mario Williams with 1.5 each. The linebackers are capable of bringing pressure to bear as well, and the Patriots will need to be disciplined in their blocking assignments. If the Patriots can protect Brady however, the Bills have already shown that they are susceptible to being picked apart, having given up 48 points to the Jets.  Look for play action passes and extra blockers to be utilized to take the heat off of Brady.

2. Make clean tackles

The Bills like to use a 1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB grouping that spreads the field and takes advantage of misdirection. The Patriots will have many opportunities to make one on one tackles, and must do so. But in order to do so, Patriots defenders will need to stay in their assigned areas. Arm tackles will not be a way to get the shifty Bills’ running backs to the ground.

3. Pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick

The flip-side of #1 is getting to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has been prone to getting rattled in the past and on the whole is known to be an inconsistent quarterback. The Patriots will need to cut down his ability to make good reads by applying consistent pressure. One key match-up will be between fellow rookies Chandler Jones and Cordy Glenn. Glenn has yet to give up a sack but might find Jones to be more of a handful than he has seen so far. Speaking of handfuls, look for the “real” NFL officials to be all over offensive holding this week.

Three keys for the Bills:

1. Pick on Devin McCourty

McCourty had a terrific rookie season before playing so poorly last season that he had to be moved to safety. Now back at corner, McCourty started off strong but had a miserable game last week, letting two interceptions go through his hands and being flagged for a blatant pass interference call that set up Baltimore for the game-winning field goal. McCourty seems to play better with people in front of him (at safety) and often finds himself playing catch-up with receivers; this is a technique problem that he has yet to correct. Look for Stevie Johnson to try to exploit this weakness all day.

2. Pound the ball

The Bills have an incredibly effective running attack, and their two primary backs have already rushed for a combined 439 yards in three weeks. Their two tight end sets provide plenty of blocking power, and will test the Patriots front seven. If the Patriots have to bring a safety up to assist in the run, look for Fitzpatrick to exploit that with passes to Johnson and Donald Jones.

3. Pressure Brady

Already discussed above, but the Bills’ defensive weakness is in their linebacker coverage and their defensive backs. Even without Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have too many weapons for the Bills to cover them all. If Tom Brady is given time, he will spread the ball between Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch, while changing it up with opportunistic runs for Stevan Ridley, who has proven a more than capable lead back.

Beyond these keys, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to trust the game plan that he develops, and trust Tom Brady and the other players on offense to carry it out. In each of the past two weeks McDaniels got “cute” with play-calling and squandered offensive opportunities. Leave Danny Woodhead on the sideline this week and trust in Stevan Ridley to pound the ball where the situation calls for it.

PREDICTION: Earlier in the week I thought the Patriots’ anger and determination would be an epic force that would carry the day, but reason has since prevailed. Chan Gailey is a smart coach who is intentionally trying to design a team to beat the Patriots, and they have the parts to do it. During last season’s Patriots visit to Buffalo, the Patriots jumped to a quick 21-0 lead, but four Brady interceptions later the Patriots found themselves on the losing side of the score. The Patriots have to (and will) take this match-up seriously. The Bills are dangerous at home and I expect this to be a tough contest. The Patriots can ill afford to go 1-3 to start the season and I expect them to come out focused. But focus hasn’t been their problem. Instead, the Patriots have suffered from a lack of execution at key times when a play needed to be made. Still, I look for the Patriots to rebound this week and pull out a close contest. I expect the offensive line to limit the number of hits on Brady, and for Brady to put up enough points to carry the day. I also expect Vince Wilfork and the defense to atone for last week’s awful showing against the Ravens, and make key plays that will seal the Patriots’ win. PATRIOTS 28 Bills 24

Side Note: Still undecided about live blogging this week. No doubt I will have my iPad next to me during the game, but Sunday is my birthday and I rather suspect the house will be a little hectic that day with five kids running around. If I don’t live blog, I’ll have a game summary up sometime early that evening.

Side Note #2: Tedy Buschi is predicting the Pats will lose this weekend.

 

Sep 222012
 

All of the experts it seems, with the exception of Mike Ditka and John Madden, are taking the Ravens to beat the Patriots this week. While both teams are coming off of disappointing losses in Week Two, New England’s upset loss to the Cardinals has people rightly wondering about the chemistry of the offense, particularly with Aaron Hernandez out of the lineup for the next month. With the game being in Baltimore, the home field edge in a close contest is enough to push most of the experts (including all but two GiR writers) to conclude that the Ravens will pull this win out.

But there is a perception out there that the Ravens have had the Patriots number of late, and should have won the AFC Championship Game last season save for a “drop” by Lee Evans and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. First, it wasn’t a drop, but rather a fine defensive play by Patriots’ defensive back Sterling Moore. Second, with the exception of the Ravens’ blowout win in the 2009 playoffs, the Ravens have never beaten the Patriots. Never. The Patriots are 6-0 against the Ravens in the regular season since the franchise moved from Cleveland to Baltimore. While the Ravens are a very talented and highly competitive team, to say they have had the Patriots’ number is a massive overstatement. They won once, and they have done a good job of keeping games close. But this Week Three match-up may well be Baltimore’s best opportunity to score its first regular season win in the series when the teams square off on Sunday night.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Rattling Joe Flacco. Although Joe Flacco perceives himself as the best quarterback in the game, he has not done anything yet in his career to establish that opinion as a debatable fact, and his performances lack consistency, as seen last week in the Ravens’ Week Two loss to the Eagles. The key (and this is true of any quarterback) is to rattle Flacco early and often, and force him to make mistakes. Left tackle Michael Oher is not a true left tackle, and struggles against the speed rush. Look for Chandler Jones to try and disrupt the offensive attack of the Ravens by getting shots at Flacco.

2. Can Brady be effective with his cobbled together group of receivers? Strangely, the Ravens offense is currently performing better than the Patriots’ offense and the Patriots defense is performing better than the Ravens. However, the Ravens have been susceptible to the big play, and the Patriots are a big play offense. But with Hernandez out and the Ravens being one of the best equipped teams to cover Gronk, Brady will have to utilize Brandon Lloyd (who is questionable to play), Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, the newly signed Kellen Winslow, Jr and the re-signed Deion Branch. That is a problem for the Patriots, who are facing one of the more talented secondaries in the NFL.

3. Running effectively. Given the list of receivers for Brady this week, running the ball is going to be an important part of their offense, and the Patriots run blocking is capable of opening big holes for Stevan Ridley. How will Ridley do against the slimmed down Ray Lewis?

Three keys for the Ravens:

1. Pressure Brady. I can just leave this here every week, can’t I? The Ravens’ defense has yet to really gel, and the Patriots’ offensive line did not have an exemplary game against the Cardinals. If the Ravens are going to win this game, they must take Tom Brady out of his game and not allow him the time to carve up the middle of the field.

2. Big plays on offense. The Patriots through two weeks have been able to prevent big plays when on defense, which is a major step forward from the 2011 season. Torrey Smith is a dangerous receiver who is likely to draw coverage from Devin McCourty. McCourty had a thoroughly forgettable 2011 but seems to have rebounded this season. This will be a key match-up when the Ravens have the ball.

3. Balmer’s Gronk. Tight End Dennis Pitta is a mini-Gronk but looks every bit as effective. Through two games, Pitta has 13 receptions for 138 yards and one touchdown. Just as Gronk provides a difficult match-up for opposing defenses, so too does Pitta.

PREDICTION: My head says that the Ravens have enough factors in their favor to pull out the win, or even blow the Patriots out this week. My heart says the Patriots are dangerous coming off a loss, but the Ravens are also coming off a loss. In this week’s picks, I took the Patriots, but that was more of an opportunity to gain an advantage in the standings should the Patriots be able to pull off the upset. In truth, this is a game between two very talented teams, neither of whom has gelled yet, and one of whom is going to start the season 1-2. I simply don’t want it to be the Patriots, but recognize that while the Week 17 or playoff Patriots are perfectly capable of winning this game, the Week Three Patriots are not far enough along yet in their development to hold off a Ravens team that has revenge in its sights. RAVENS 28 PATRIOTS 20

Finally, no live blog this week either for the game. It’s going to be a crazy weekend in the Ghost Rat household, so hopefully I can get back to a live blog in Week Four.

 

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