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 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.