Jun 182013
 

Mike McCoy11. San Diego Chargers
Head Coach: Mike McCoy
2012 Record: 7-9
2012 Offense: 350 points scored, 20th in points, 31st in yards (24th passing, 27th rushing)
2012 Defense: 350 points allowed, 16th in points, 9th in yards (18th passing, 6th rushing)

Key Additions
Head Coach Mike McCoy, T Max Starks, LB Dwight Freeney, G Chad Rinehart, T King Dunlap, CB Derek Cox, RB Danny Woodhead, G Rich Ohrnberger, DE Jarius Wynn, LB Thomas Keiser, LB DJ Smith, DB Cornelius Brown, DB Johny Patrick, T DJ Fluker, LB Manti Te’o, WR Keenan Allen, WR Luke Tasker

Key Losses
T Jared Gaither, WR Michael Spurlock, TE Randy McMichael, TE Dante Rosario, T Kevin Haslam, G Tyronne Greene, G Rex Hadnot, G Louis Vasquez, LB Shaun Phillips, LB Takeo Spikes, LB Demorrio Williams, CB Chris Carr, CB Antoine Cason, DB Quentin Jammer, DB Corey Lynch, LB Antwan Barnes, DB Atari Bigby, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Vaughn Martin

Why 2013 will be better
The Chargers are getting a lot of hype for a solid draft class that includes Fluker, Te’o, and Allen. Allen and Tasker offer relief to Malcolm Floyd, assuming the revamped line can keep Philip Rivers on his feet long enough to find them. The defensive line features seven new defensive ends going into camp, but the Chargers give the appearance of throwing bodies at their pass rush issues, hoping that someone will stick. Running back Ryan Matthews is loaded with talent but has underachieved so far, meaning new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt needs to motivate Matthews to do better while they hope he stays healthy. Woodhead is a great change of pace back with reliable hands and big play potential. Still, “better” in the case of this year’s Chargers might simply mean another 7-9 season.

Why 2013 will be worse
I happen to love visiting the city of San Diego, but my friendly Chargers’ fan friends who reside there may be in for another long season. The roster changes for San Diego look like “garbage in, garbage out.” The offensive line, which yielded 49 sacks in 2012, did not get dramatically better with the additions of Starks, Rinehart, and Dunlap. DJ Fluker looks poised to grab the right tackle spot, but it looks like another year of living on the edge for Rivers. The line also failed to open running lanes, as Chargers’ running backs were held to just 3.6 yards per carry a season ago, second worst in the league. The line will need to improve dramatically if the 31st ranked offense from last season is going to fare any better in 2013. Starks played every game for Pittsburgh last season, but will not be much of an upgrade. He struggled in the Steelers’ passing game last season and has never been an exceptional run blocker. On defense, the Chargers were the fourth worst team in the league on third down conversions, and the turnover on linebackers to bring in Freeney and Te’o as complements to Donald Butler and Jarret Johnson may work out for San Diego, but it seems to have just as much potential to implode, especially after the Chargers lost LB Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL this spring.

Outlook
It seems very hard to make the argument that the Chargers got noticeably better over the course of the off-season. Mike McCoy has his hands full this season, trying to fix a broken offense while trying to maintain a decent defense that is undergoing significant turnover. San Diego seems to be in a re-building phase in a division where the Broncos are dominant and the Chiefs are improving. A window of five to seven wins seems likely.

Mar 142013
 

The sky is fallingYesterday’s signing of Wes Welker by the Denver Broncos has prompted quite an outcry of hysteria from Patriots’ fans, and from the Boston media in particular. I know I will find myself in the minority view on this one, but I am shedding no tears over Welker’s departure.

I hold no malice towards Welker, and think he has been a sensational player while in New England, racking up Hall of Fame caliber numbers while revolutionalizing the slot receiver position. An unproven talent coming out of the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins franchise, Welker caught 672 passes in six seasons with the Patriots for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. In the post-season Welker has been equally deadly, catching 69 balls in nine game for 686 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in Welker’s reliability as a punt returner, and it is clear that the Patriots have had the luxury of having one of the best all-purpose players in the NFL for the last six years. Critics will note that Welker led the league in dropped passes this season and has had some big post-season misses, and this is a fair criticism, but not one that suggests that the Patriots would be better off without Welker on the roster.

So what has changed?

Wes WelkerThere were a number of factors that led to Welker’s departure from Foxboro. From a strictly business perspective, the Patriots were not thrilled with spending over $9 million on a franchise deal last season after the Patriots offered Welker a two year deal worth a reported $16 million. Welker wanted a three year, $22 million deal, but the Patriots seemed concerned with a player on the wrong side of 30 in an offense that was designed to become less reliant on his talents. Welker chose not to take $8 million a year when it was offered, setting the stage for the showdown this off-season.  In the end Welker lost leverage and money, averaging just over $7 million a year for three years when he would have gotten $16 million from the Pats in two years and still had an opportunity for an extension. By contrast, the Patriots landed Danny Amendola for five years at $6.2 million per year, less than what Welker was initially offered, but more than he was offered ($5 million a year for two years) after the Patriots (from their perspective) overpaid in 2012. Like it or not, the Patriots are cold calculators of positions and talent, and felt that Amendola, a more proven but less durable receiver than Welker, was worth the risk.

One can also not know whether or not Welker had worn out his welcome with Bill Belichick. Welker famously got into trouble for his foot comments in the 2010 post-season, and was benched for the first drive of the Patriots’ divisional game against the Jets, a drive that resulted in a Brady interception on a play where Brady normally would have been looking for Welker. The drive helped set the tone for an embarrassing playoff loss. And while many fans were angry with Belichick for the benching, the head coach had been explicit in instructing his players to avoid the topic of Rex Ryan’s personal woes at all costs. Then we had the contract dispute last season, followed by Welker being miffed over the expansion of Aaron Hernandez’ and Julian Edelmans’ roles in the slot early in the season. At the end of the season Welker quipped how good it was to “stick it” to Belichick with his productivity, and I have no doubt that those words still linger in Bill Belichick’s memory.

Danny AmendolaEnter Danny Amendola. The Boston media is in hyperbolic full throttle about how Amendola will never “replace” Welker, and isn’t fit to hold his jock. While I can’t form an opinion on the latter part of that, the former is obvious. Of course Amendola will never replace Welker. No one could. But we need to consider what it means to “replace” Welker in the NFL’s best offense.

In his best season in New England (2009), Welker caught 123 passes in only 14 games. Last season, Welker was destined to see fewer balls thrown his way until injuries to Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski deprived Tom Brady of key targets. He ended the season with 118 receptions. So, just for giggles, let’s assume that the Patriots are looking to replace 120 catches in Welker’s absence. So where is that coming from?

In 2010, when Amendola was healthy for every game, he caught 85 paases (for 689 yards and three touchdowns). Amendola has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in just twelve games over the past two seasons. But in those games has has caught 68 passes. When he is on the field, Amendola is money, and easily worth the financial investment made by the Patriots to secure a younger (27) and taller, slightly quicker talent. Yes, he hasn’t proven to be as durable as Welker, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. And Amendola is more proven as a receiver than Welker was when the Patriots acquired him for a second round pick, which at the time was viewed as a wild gamble on the part of Belichick.

Let’s assume that Amendola catches 80 passes in 2013; we can argue higher based on being in the Patriots’ (and Josh McDaniels’) “system” or we can argue lower based on injuries. But 80 catches seems to be a good place to start. That leaves us 40 more to find. Our eyes next fall on Aaron Hernandez, who caught 51 passes in 10 games last season after struggling with an ankle sprain. Assume Hernandez, who is a hybrid tight end and slot receiver, plays 15 games this season. On last year’s pace, that puts Hernandez at 75 catches, netting 24 more from last season and leaving us looking for another 16. Rob Gronkowski caught 55 balls in 11 games, so let’s assume he plays in 14. Gronk should be expected to catch 70 passes next season, and we are suddenly only one reception off of what we had with Welker. The jury is out on Brandon Lloyd, who had a solid season with 77 catches, but was deemed to be a “problem” in the locker room. Still, with Josh McDaniels as the coordinator, I rather suspect the Patriots will pay the $3 million roster bonus to keep Lloyd and his acrobatic catches in town. The only question left is who plays opposite of Lloyd, and the Patriots are likely to look at a number of players, including Donald Jones (scheduled for a visit), David Nelson, and possibly bringing back Julian Edelman. Throw in the fact that the Patriots have a very talented backfield duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and the idea that this offense is any less dangerous without Welker is a big stretch. Vereen’s play-making talent is extraordinary, and may well let the Patriots walk away from Danny Woodhead in the off-season. Leon Washington is being considered to replace Edelman and Welker on special teams, as well as to be a third running back.

All of these numbers are speculation, of course. But the fact remains that the league’s best offense in 2012, as good as it was, did not live up to its potential, particularly in big games.  Meanwhile, this wise expenditure of resources leaves the Patriots with enough cap room to bring in a small draft class (five picks) and still improve on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots’ defense is again on the rise, and there is every reason to believe that the Patriots will again contend for another AFC Championship and Super Bowl bid.

Finally, there is the whole angle about the “sacrifice” made by Tom Brady to clear up cap room to retain Welker. With all due respect to Tom Brady (and a LOT is due), Brady freed up cap money to improve the team, not just take care of his friend. And improving the team means continuing to improve the defense, maintaining a potent offense, and getting younger as a team. And just for the record, Brady did not “sacrifice” money; it just got paid out to him up front. Not dissing on Brady, mind you, but instead suggesting that the anonymous source “close” to Brady who is spouting off against the Patriots  really needs to get a grip. I’m sure Tom will when training camp rolls around.

Wilfork jerseyFew Patriots players (Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, and hopefully Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork) make it to the end of the road as Patriots. Just ask Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Asante Samuel and many others. The Patriots’ business model says they would rather get rid of players a year too early than a year too late, and that model has served the Patriots well, as they continue to dominate the AFC East and are perennial championship contenders. We cheer for the laundry, folks, and any attachment to the players comes at our own risk as fans.

I greatly value the contributions made by Wes Welker and thank him for his service to the Patriots’ organization, the team that I love. I also wish him well in Denver, though I will hope he drops a key Peyton Manning pass in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship to seal a Patriots’ win. :-) Still, it is time to move his jersey to the back of the closet until he retires, when I can once again wear it with pride. And if Wes Welker does make it to the Hall of Fame (and he should), I fully expect him to be enshrined as a New England Patriot.

And now I finally have my justification to buy a Vince Wilfork jersey. I wonder if my loving wife will fall for that.

Mar 122013
 

Mike WallaceWe will continue updating this article for the next few days until may of the top tier free agents have landed. Some may get their own article, but this spot will keep track of the major comings and goings of players as the free agency period begins.

 

Tuesday, March 12

– Prior to the start of free agency today, the Jets released defensive tackle Sione Po’uha, who had a base salary of $4.9 million for the upcoming season, creating $3.8 million in cap space. No word yet on whether or not he is expected to re-sign at a lower price.

– The Panthers released linebacker James Anderson, whom they had overpaid for last season to the tune of 5 years and $22 million.

– The Chargers released tight end Randy McMichael.

– The Rams released safety Quintin Mikell, and have now parted ways with both starting safeties from last season.

– Word is that Wes Welker is still waiting to hear the Patriots’ first contract offer before free agency begins.  Tom E. Curran suggesting it is hard for the Patriots to know what the market for Welker will look like, but Welker is likely to wait for offers to increase his leverage. The soft market for wide receivers doesn’t help the Patriots. The Colts and Broncos may well rival the Patriots for Welker’s service. The Pats are risking not making the highest offer to Welker, and it might come back to bite them. Perhaps the Patriots are heading in another direction? One thing is for sure… Bill Belichick has ice water in his veins.

Tony Gonzalez looks like he is heading back to the Falcons.

– The Texans have released receiver Kevin Walter.

– The Vikings have re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson for one year. Meanwhile, the Steelers are giving Plaxico Burress another shot (drum roll).

– Safety James Ihedigbo has re-signed with the Ravens, insuring another year of him being able to drop to the ground in pain after every play.

– Linebacker Larry Foote has worked out a deal to stay in Pittsburgh. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has also agreed to restructure his contract.

Santonio Holmes has worked out a deal to restructure his contract and remain with the Jets.

– Cornerback Antoine Winfield has been released by the Vikings.

– Running back Beanie Wells released by the Arizona Cardinals.

– The Rams reach a deal to keep defensive end William Hayes in St. Louis.

– As expected, the Eagles have released cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha from their famous “Dream Team”

– Prediction 14 minutes before free agency begins, though not a stunner. Wes Welker is not returning to New England, and the Patriots don’t appear too concerned about losing him, despite numbers that put him on a path to the Hall of Fame.

– Giants sign cornerback Aaron Ross, who did not have to wait for free agency to begin as a result of being released by the Jaguars and going unclaimed.

– Vikings keep tackle Phil Loadholt just before free agency begins.

And now free agency begins…

Paul Kruger looks like he is headed to Cleveland… major surprise that the Ravens couldn’t get this one done. New word is that he has officially signed.

– The Bengals re-sign defensive end Robert Geathers.

– The Broncos steal away guard Louis Vasquez from the Chargers.

Mike Wallace appears set to make $13 million a year with the Miami Dolphins.

– Tight end Delanie Walker agrees to a deal with the Titans.

– The Bills have cut quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. I guess that prank phone call caused some embarrassment in western New York. Talk about addition by subtraction.

– The Chiefs have agreed to a deal with tight end Anthony Fasano.

– The Alex Smith to Kansas City trade is now official.

– Are the Colts set to steal both Talib and Welker from the Pats? A tweet from the Colts’ bizarre owner seems to go in this direction.

– Former Bills guard Andy Levitre headed to Titans on a six year deal.

– Or is this what Irsay was talking about? The Colts have reached agreement with offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus. Does he really merit that many exclamation points?

– Quarterback Chase Daniel agrees to terms with Chiefs.

– No, this is why Irsay is excited. The Colts have agreed to terms with cornerback Greg Toler. It’s a good move by Grigson.

– The Colts are on a roll. Linebacker Erik Walden has left Green Bay to join the Colts. Good moves by Indy, even if they aren’t sexy.

– Ah, the Colts did steal a Patriot! Guard Donald Thomas is headed to Indy.

– Punter Sav Rocca is staying with the Redskins.

– Elvis Dumervil now appears willing to take pay cut from Broncos; the two sides are apparently negotiating according to Ian Rapoport.

– Another Ravens loss: Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe reaches agreement in principle with Miami Dolphins.

– Colts make it five Day One signings as they pen linebacker Lawrence Sidbury from the Falcons. Busy day for the Colts.

Taking a dinner break now… will be back later.

Back from a long dinner break, and lots more has happened…

– Safety Darius Butler will be remaining with the Colts.

Martellus Bennett has landed with the Bears, with the tight end signing a four year deal.

– The Ravens signed defensive lineman Chris Canty to a three year deal.

– The Vikings re-signed fullback Jerome Felton to a three year deal.

– The Dolphins dumped linebacker Karlos Dansby, who started all 16 games last season playing with a torn biceps muscle and racking up 134 tackles. Ouch. They added linebacker Phillip Wheeler and re-signed safety Chris Clemons.

– The Rams are poised to sign the coveted tight end Jared Cook, formerly of the Titans.

– The Eagles get into action by signing former Patriots’ safety Patrick Chung (good riddance) and former Panthers’ linebacker Jason Phillips, as well as tight end James Casey from Houston.

– The Eagles keep it coming with former 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoga and former Rams’ cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

– The Raiders released receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and safety Michael Huff.

– The Chiefs have stolen away a Jets’ favorite by signing defensive tackle Mike DeVito.

– Apparently Warren Sapp doesn’t think much of covering Bill Belichick on the NFL Network. Or maybe he just doesn’t think.

– The Browns get another one with the signing of defensive tackle Desmond Bryant.

The pace is slowing down a little at 8:30 pm Central, but there may still be a few transactions before the end of the night. In the meantime, the free agents that we are waiting to see what transpires with on this thread include (in no particular order):

Cliff Avril (Det / SEA)
Wes Welker (NE / DEN)
Jake Long (Mia)
Greg Jennings (GB / MIN)
Aqib Talib (NE)
Dashon Goldson (SF / TB)
Osi Umemyiora (NYG)
Steven Jackson (StL / ATL)
Ed Reed (Bal)
Danny Amendola (StL / NE)
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Phi / DEN)
Sebastian Vollmer (NE)
Connor Barwin (Hou / PHI)
Adrian Wilson (ARI / NE)
Andre Smith (Cin)
Cary Williams (Bal / PHI)
Brian Urlacher (Chi)
Dustin Keller (NYJ / MIA)
John Abraham (ATL / NE)

– Last one for tonight – offensive tackle Sam Baker is staying with the Falcons, signing a six year deal. See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 13

A few early tidbits before the action begins again in earnest.

Wes Welker and the Patriots are described as very far apart on terms, with the Patriots maintaining an offer on the table. It will be interesting to see how this develops between now and the weekend.

– The Redskins signed defensive tackle Kedric Golston to a new three-year contract on Tuesday.

Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma are taking big pay cuts to stay in New Orleans.

– The Chargers signed former Eagles tackle King Dunlap to a two year deal.

– The Browns signed free agent linebacker Quentin Groves, who played in Arizona last season.

– The Jets housecleaning is in full swing. And even with Revis likely on his way out of town, it didn’t stop the the Jets from restructuring the contract of cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Baby Mamas should beware.

More to come as the day develops!

– The Ravens have just released safety Bernard Pollard. Is he worth a look in Foxboro?

Mike Giardi is tweeting that Wes Welker drew some attention, and those offers have impacted negotiations with the Pats. Expect the Patriots to move on and find a new slot receiver.

– The Lions have re-signed cornerback Chris Houston.

– The Broncos have guaranteed the salary of Peyton Manning for the next two seasons.

– Linebacker Manny Lawson has signed a multi-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.

– Some very interesting chatter about where Wes Welker may be going. Due to the source I won’t share where, but this is going to be a very interesting thing to watch. Plus I am going to lay $5 on my info.  I know, I know… big spender. :-)

– The Steelers have signed quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to a three-year deal.

– The Jaguars have waived wide receiver Laurent Robinson one year after signing the former Cowboy to a huge deal.

Wes Welker’s agent has described the Patriots’ offer to the wide receiver as “laughably low.” Sounds like all sides are ready to move on.

– The Giants have signed kicker Josh Brown.

– Former Colts’ receiver Donnie Avery is joining the Kansas City Chiefs.

– The Ravens have re-signed offensive guard Ramon Harewood.

Reggie Bush is the new lead back for the Detroit Lions.

– Word is that the Patriots offered 4 year, $32 million to Wes Welker and the Welker camp is unhappy. Suitors may be down to the Broncos and Pats, though I am hearing there are two dark horses, at least one of which has made a better offer than New England.

– The Arizona Cardinals agree on a one-year deal with former Steelers’ running back Rashard Mendenhall.

– A big one is off the market; the Rams have signed offensive tackle Jake Long to a contract. Update: Correction; an offer has yet to be made or accepted (as of 1:56 pm Central).

– It looks like the Broncos are working hard to get a deal with Wes Welker done today. I’m going to lose my five bucks.

– The Detroit Lions have added safety Glover Quin, formerly of the Texans; this is a big upgrade in their secondary.

– The Buccaneers have signed former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson to a five year deal.

– The Jaguars signed former Bears free agent linebacker Geno Hayes to a one-year deal.

– The Wes Welker to Denver deal is looking close to done.

– The 49ers have agreed to a contract with former Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

– The Titans have reached agreement on a three-year, $10 million deal with former Jets’ running back Shonn Greene.

– According to WEEI, Wes Welker’s camp has brought the Broncos’ offer back to the Patriots to give New England a chance to match. My guess is no, but this shows where Wes’ heart really is.

– The Broncos announce one-year deal with linebacker Stewart Bradley.

– Running back Lex Hilliard has signed a one year deal to stay with the Jets.

– Cornerback Drayton Florence has agreed to a one year deal with the Panthers. It looks like the corners are now going to start to go.

– Defensive tackle Samie Lee Hill has reached agreement on a three-year, $11.4 million deal with the Titans.

Wes Welker has agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos. Clearly, the Patriots declined the offer to match. It is only a two year deal, so it must be coming down to guaranteed money. Waiting for the details.

– Details on Wes Welker… it is “only” two years, $12 million. Must be fully guaranteed, and it must be that the Patriots set a value for the position and would not exceed it.  Sounds like the Patriots had already determined that Welker was no longer “Plan A.” Patriots have yet to make major moves, but it’s in the air. The next couple of days should show us the Pats’ off-season approach.

According to Greg Bedard, Patriots initial offer to Wes Welker was two years and $10 million with incentives. Albert Breer accurately notes that the Pats likely see Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker as redundant, and Hernandez is much younger and at least as difficult to cover. This deal underscores how much the Miami Dolphins, who have agreed to shell out $30.55 million over five years for Brian Hartline, overpaid for a number two receiver.

– Quarterback Drew Stanton signed a three year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Here’s hoping they don’t trade for Tim Tebow.

– The Broncos have signed former Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

OK… time for another dinner break… and to make sure I move the Wes Welker to the back of my closet.

– The Oakland Raiders signed linebacker  Kaluka Maiava and defensive tackle and defensive end Pat Sims, as well as defensive end Jason Hunter.

– The Arizona Cardinals signed cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Yeremiah Bell.

– The Seattle Seahawks have landed defensive lineman Cliff Avril, who provides an instant upgrade to the Seahawks’ pass rush.

– Not waiting long to respond to Wes Welker’s deal with Denver, the Patriots have signed wide receiver Danny Amendola to a five year, $31 million deal,, with $10 million guaranteed.

– The Titans signed linebacker Moise Fokou, formerly with the Colts.

– The Broncos complete a successful day by reeling in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a one year deal.

– The Colts have signed former Jets free agent safety LaRon Landry

That’s all for tonight…. more to come on Thursday!

Thursday, March 14

I’m expecting today to be a little bit slower as the agents and teams take a breath and assess where they are, and as remaining players line up visits with teams.

– Former Seahawks’ running back and return man Leon Washington will visit the patriots, who just lost their punt returner yesterday (what was his name again?). Washington has also been connected to talks with the Bucs.

– Cornerback Derek Cox has signed a four year, $20 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

– Running back Chris Ogbonnaya will be staying in Cleveland, agreeing to a two year deal.

Greg Jennings will be visiting the Minnesota Vikings, who seem to be the front runners (along with Green Bay) to land the veteran wide receiver.

– A mystery suitor for Wes Welker has been revealed by Adam Schefter.. the Tennessee Titans. I rather suspect we will learn of one or two more teams in the coming days.

Great article from Mike Reiss details that Wes Welker went back to the Patriots with the Broncos’ offer, only to be later informed that the Patriots had already made a commitment to another player (Danny Amendola).

– The Chiefs have released Matt Cassel. Is a homecoming a possibility in Foxboro?

– The J-E-T-S are trying to build leverage by suggesting that they are not actively trying to trade Darrelle Revis.

– The Panthers are keeping quarterback Derek Anderson for another year.

– Cornerback Sean Smith has found a new home in Kansas City, agreeing to a three year deal.

– It turns out that the Patriots signed Danny Amendola on Tuesday, a full day before the Wes Welker drama took place. Anyone else think the team hadn’t already decided to move on?

– The Redskins and offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood have reached a deal.

Kevin Kolb is about to be released by the Cardinals, and his next destination appears to be the starting quarterback of the J-E-T-S.

Ricky Jean Francois has agreed to a four-year, $22 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts.

– The Vikings have landed quarterback Matt Cassel, who was just released from the Chiefs.

– The Eagles have added cornerback Cary Williams and safety Kenny Phillips .

– Cornerback Keenan Lewis has agreed to terms with the New Orleans Saints on a five year deal.

– The Falcons have landed running back Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner in Atlanta.

– Linebacker Connor Barwin leaves Houston for Philadelphia and a six year deal.

– The Patriots have landed kick returner and running back Leon Washington.

– The Buccaneers have signed wide receiver Kevin Ogletree.

 Friday, March 15

We’ll wrap this thread up with a recap of last night’s signings and some look at today.

– The Jets are close to signing running back Mike Goodson. UPDATE: Goodson has signed.

– Defensive end Michael Bennett has agreed to a one year, $5 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers may be an early favorite for the Super Bowl, but right now they appear to have serious competition to win the NFC West.

– Former Vikings’ linebacker Jasper Brinkley has agreed to a two year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.

– John Elway says that defensive end Elvis Dumervil’s salary is “out of whack.” From a business perspective Elway is right, but does anyone seeing a change of location coming for the pass rushing star?

– The Jaguars re-signed cornerback Antwaun Molden to a one-year veteran minimum deal.

– The Rams have re-signed defensive end William Hayes and defensive tackle Jeremelle Cudjo.

– The Bears re-signed defensive tackle Nate Collins to a one-year contract.

– Former Bears’ linebacker Nick Roach has joined the Oakland Raiders.

– Adam Schefter is expecting cornerback Aqib Talib to return to the Patriots, as the cornerback market is not drawing the same dollars it was just a year ago.

We’ll keep updating the list presented at the end of Day One, but we will only be posting updates for bigger news the rest of the way out.

– OK, this is worth an update. According to PFT, the 49ers are in “serious discussions” with cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Charles Woodson.

– The Patriots have signed former Bills’ wide receiver Donald Jones.

– Tight end Dustin Keller has joined the Miami Dolphins, who appear to be cementing second place in the AFC East.

Kevin Kolb is being released in Arizona. Is New York next?

– Cornerback Kyle Arrington has re-signed with the Patriots and a four year deal.

– Running back Danny Woodhead has signed to two year deal with the San Diego Chargers.

– Offensive Lineman Willie Colon has joined the Jets.

– Safety Louis Delmas has signed back on with the Detroit Lions.

– Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy has a one-year deal in Arizona.

– Huge drama surrounding Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil agreed to a salary reduction but the paperwork did not get filed on time by his agent. The Broncos were seven minutes late filing, and Dumervil has been officially released. The release, along with Welker’s new deal, has just created a cap problem in Denver. The Broncos can likely still work out a deal, but they now have a huge financial mess on their hands. UPDATE: The release creates $4.87M in dead money for this season, meaning Denver will be hard pressed to bring Dumervil back. Question: Why are teams in a multi-billion dollar industry still relying on fax machines?

– While fax machines are being flung out windows in Denver, defensive end John Abraham officially becomes a member of the New England Patriots.

– Eagles announce they acquired wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a former 2nd-rd pick, and 7th-rounder from Tampa Bay for a 2013 6th-rounder and 2014 conditional pick.

– Wide receiver Brandon Gibson is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.

– Running back Justin Forsett has agreed to terms with the Jaguars.

– Big news breaking that the Patriots have signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, which is undoubtedly front-loaded with case. The cap-strapped Pittsburgh Steelers now have a chance to match the offer. It’s been a big day for the Patriots.

– The Cardinals agree to terms with cornerback Antoine Cason on a one year deal.

– Safety Adrian Wilson has signed a three year deal with the New England Patriots. Right now Bill Belichickk is looking like a salary cap genius.

– Big news in Minnesota… the Vikings have signed wide receiver Greg Jennings away from Green Bay.

– The Jets signed defensive tackle Antonio Garay to a one year deal. That’s two good moves in the same day, Jets’ fans.

– The Ravens signed defensive lineman Marcus Spears to a two year deal.

Saturday, March 16

– Per Adam Schefter, the Patriots have not signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet… yet. They are mulling over the possibility. That may be a cap issue, or it may be an issue of whether or not they believe they can fit Sanders in with Lloyd, Amendola, Jones, Gronk, Hernandez, and Balllard. The Pats have also been quiet on the re-negotiations with Lloyd, so that may be part of the calculus.

– Hearing that something is likely forthcoming on cornerback Aqib Talib’s return to the Patriots. All is still quiet on the Sebastian Vollmer front.

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 142013
 

Atlanta FalconsWe had one more great game on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 after surging out to a 20-0 lead, then squandered the lead in the final minute, only to come back with a late field goal and emerge victorious. The later game was not nearly as dramatic, as the New England Patriots overpowered the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Seattle Seahawks 28
Pete Carroll’s attempts to freeze the kicker backfired as Matt Bryant’s first attempt was wide right, but then he connected on his second try as the Falcons came back in the game’s final seconds to beat the Seahawks.

The Atlanta Falcons wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to an early 10-0 lead en route to a 20-0 halftime advantage. The Seahawks missed an opportunity to score at the end of the first half when Russell Wilson was sacked and the Seahawks, with no timeouts remaining, failed to get another play off. The teams then traded touchdowns in the third quarter before Seattle scored three straight touchdowns in twelve and a half minutes to take a 28-27 lead.

But starting on their own 28 yard line, the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards in 18 seconds, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning 49 yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff was botched and the Seahawks recovered the ball at their own 46 yard line, but were unable to get in field goal range. A desperation pass by Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Jones to end the game.

Matt Ryan had a mixed day at quarterback, but was successful in getting the playoff monkey off of his back. Ryan was 24/35 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards as the Falcons were able to effectively pound the ball on the Seahawks, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards.

For the Seahawks, Wilson ended his rookie season with a 24/36 performance for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as 60 rushing yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. The Seahawks were never able to get Marshawn Lynch integrated into the game, and Lynch was limited to just 46 yards on 16 carries. Zach Miller had a big receiving day for the Seahawks, catching eight passes for 142 yards and a score, while Golden Tate added six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

New England Patriots 41 Houston Texans 28
Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots once again overwhelmed the Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries, but didn’t miss a beat as Shane Vereen ran for once score and caught two more playing out of Woodhead’s spot. Stevan Ridley rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries, while Vereen added 41 yards. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez teamed up for fourteen receptions for a combined 216 yards.

With the victory, Tom Brady became the winningest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history, passing Joe Montana with his 17th post-season win. Brady currently has a 17-6 post-season record.

Arian Foster led the Texans’ offense with 90 yards and a score on 22 carries, but Matt Schaub suffered through an inconsistent and inaccurate day as the Patriots’ secondary was once again up to the task of playing tight man to man coverage on the Texans’ receivers and tight ends. Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels caught eight and nine passes respectively for 95 and 81 yards, but were limited in yards after the catch and were unable to produce big plays. The most effective receiver was Foster himself, as he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a score.

Rob Ninkovich once again came up big for the Patriots on defense. The linebacker had four tackles, two passes defended, one quarterback hit, an interception, an onside kick recovery and a tackle for a loss. Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory both had active days with ten tackles each, and Devin McCourty had another solid day at safety and in special teams, where he prevented the game’s opening kickoff from being returned for a touchdown. Danieal Manning had a fantastic day returning kickoffs, averaging 54 yards on four returns, including the 90 yard return to open the game.

The Patriots, who held a 17-13 halftime advantage, scored the first 21 points of the second half to take a 38-13 lead. The Texans were able to add 15 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap, but the context was never seriously in doubt after Vereen scored his third touchdown with 13:07 remaining.

The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in the AFC Championship.

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

Dec 172012
 

Frank GoreThe San Francisco 49ers cruised out to a 31-3 lead against the New England Patriots, then saw the lead disappear as Tom Brady led the Patriots in a frantic comeback before Michael Crabtree’s touchdown put the 49ers ahead for good in a 41-34 win on Sunday night. With the victory, the 49ers clinched a spot in the NFC playoffs.

The game did not go according to any pre-game script, and was an ugly affair early as both teams struggled to hang on to the ball in a steady rain at Gillette Stadium. New England’s opening drive set the tone for a strange evening as the team’s three and out was made more interesting by a Stevan Ridley fumble that never was. Ridley was clearly down on the play, but the officials ruled it a turnover before reversing it after booth review. But it was an omen of things to come, particularly for the first half.

After a Patriots’ punt, Colin Kaepernick needed only six plays to connect with Randy Moss on a 24 yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers up 7-0. On the next series Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 23 yard gain on the first play, but then went three and out. Punter Zoltan Mesko then pinned the 49ers at their own 8 and the Patriots’ defense forced a three and out of their own when Kaepernick could not handle a snap from center on third down to force a San Francisco punt. But Andy Lee’s booming 56 yard kick, complemented by a holding penalty, set the Patriots back to their own 20 and wiped out their field position advantage.

On the next play Brady tried to force a deep pass to Wes Welker and Carlos Rogers came away with an easy interception as he out-positioned the receiver and then returned the ball to the Patriots’ 5 yard line. But the 49ers would waste the opportunity when Delanie Walker dropped a short pass and Aqib Talib recovered  to thwart the threat. Two Stevan Ridley runs gave the Patriots a 3rd and 1, but Brady’s pass to Aaron Hernandez could not be handled and the Patriots were again forced to punt. Two plays later Kaepernick fumbled again, but the ball was recovered by Frank Gore. San Francisco was able to move the ball to the Patriots’ 21 yard line, but David Akers missed a 39 yard field goal attempt to the left, squandering another 49ers opportunity. Three plays from scrimmage later, the Patriots were facing third and long when disaster struck again. Shane Vereen caught the ball on a screen from Brady and as he was fighting for room to run had the ball jarred loosed by NaVorro Bowman, which was recovered by Chris Culliver at the New England 34.

The New England turnover however, would simply turn into another wasted opportunity, as four plays later the 49ers faced a 4th and 1, as Kaepernick mishandled another snap and the 49ers turned the ball over on downs. This sparked New England, as the offense finally seemed to find a rhythm in an effective 16 play dink and dunk drive that was stopped on a Ray McDonald sack of Tom Brady that forced the Patriots to settle for a 32 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, cutting the lead to 7-3. But the new-found confidence wouldn’t last long. A pass interference call on Talib netted the 49ers 35 yards, and then three plays later Kaepernick hit Walker for a 34 yard touchdown, increasing the lead to 14-3.

After the 49ers forced a three and out on the next Patriots’ drive, Mesko’s punt appeared to brush the front of the ankle of Ted Ginn, and the ball was recovered by Marquice Cole of the Patriots. But the ruling on the field was that the ball never touched Ginn. Bill Belichick challenged the call, but it was upheld and the 49ers maintained control of the ball. It took ten minutes to sort out the situation since each one of Ed Hochuli’s explanations seemed worse than the last, and both benches were upset as Patriots’ fans led Hochuli know what they thought of the call. The 49ers then used 15 plays and the rest of the first half to march to the Patriots’s 2 yard line, where they were forced to settle for a field goal and a 17-3 halftime lead.

The 49ers then took the second half kickoff and were driving into Patriots’ territory before Devin McCourty picked off a Kaepernick pass in the end zone to end the San Francisco drive. After a 29 yard pass to Brandon Lloyd opened the next drive, the Patriots again found a way to implode, as four plays later Ridley put the ball on the ground and Dashon Goldson ran the ball back 66 yards to set the 49ers up with a first and goal. Kaepernick then lost another snap, but Frank Gore picked up the loose ball and ran it in to the end zone, extending the lead to 24-3. Three  plays later Brady threw a short pass to Hernandez, who was unable to put the ball away, and the ball was picked out of the air by Aldon Smith. On the very next play, Kaepernick his Michael Crabtree for a 27 yard touchdown, and the rout seemed to be on. By this point, the Burn Notice marathon on CLOO was starting to look like an attractive alternative, particularly after Ghost Rat’s pen went flying across the room and the Rat’s Widow was growing alarmed.

Brandon LloydBut the Patriots weren’t quite done yet. Seeming to ignore the score, the Patriots marched 13 plays down the field in methodical form, first having a touchdown nullified by a penalty before Danny Woodhead started to take over the game, first with a 15 yard run and then a 6 yard touchdown run to give the Patriots their first touchdown of the night. Rob Ninkovich almost single-handedly shut down the next 49ers offensive series, forcing a punt. The patriots then drove 86 yards on 9 plays with Brady taking the ball the final yard to cut the lead to 31-17, bringing the soaked crowd at Gillette very much back into the game.

After a 49ers’ three and out, Brady went back to work, throwing six straight passes and connecting with Aaron Hernandez for a five yard touchdown reception, and suddenly it was a game again at 31-24. The touchdown pass marked Brady’s 46th straight game with at least one touchdown pass, and his 4th 30-touchdown pass season. On 2nd and 9 from their own 26, Ninkovich sacked Kaepernick for a huge 13 yard loss, and the 49ers were again forced to punt. They pinned the Patriots back at their own 8 yard line,  but Brady hit Lloyd for 10 yards and then a big 53 yard gain down the sideline to get deep into San Francisco territory. Four plays later Woodhead took the ball in for the score, and the Patriots had fought back to tie the game 31-31.

However, the joy in Foxboro would be short lived. On the ensuing kickoff return, LaMichael James took the ball 62 yards, setting the 49ers up at the Patriots’ 38 yard line. On the next play, Kaepernicjk hit Michael Crabtree, who got away from Kyle Arrington to take the ball in for a score and a 38-31 lead. Two 49ers sacks of Brady stifled the next New England, and the Patriots were forced to punt, nearly catching a break when Ted Ginn muffed the catch but recovered his own fumble. The 49ers went three and out and the Patriots could  do little deep in their own end, choosing to go for it on 4th and 1. Woodhead ran and 8 yard route and was overthrown by Brady, setting the 49ers up to add a field goal that increased the lead to ten. The Patriots then used an 11 play drive to add a field goal of their own and close the gap to 41-34, but were unable to recover the onside kick, sealing the San Francisco win.

When the Patriots ran
Danny Woodhead ran for 61 yards and two scores on 12 carries as the Patriots ran for 95 yards and three touchdowns on the night, but Stevan Ridley’s fumble in the third quarter was a killer as it set up a 49er touchdown. Woodhead was able to find running room, but Ridley was largely a liability on this night. The running game was largely shelved once the Patriots fell into a deep hole. The 49ers defensive front came up big against the run throughout the evening. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots passed
Tom Brady threw a career high 65 passes for 443 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in the loss. Brady was out of rhythm for much of the first half and the beginning of the third quarter, but then hit his stride and torched the San Francisco secondary. The pass protection was good for most of the night, though Brady was sacked three times and subject to sporadic pressure throughout the game. Brandon Lloyd was the surprise star of the evening, catching 10 passes for 190 yards as he seemed to have no problem working against Tarrell Brown while making acrobatic catches along the sidelines. Aaron Hernandez also caught ten passes, and Woodhead and Welker each caught five as the Patriots took advantage of mismatches in the secondary throughout the second half to get the Patriots back into the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers ran
Frank Gore failed to reach the 100 yard mark, which I believed was going to be a key stat on the night, but the 49ers had no problems running the ball. Gore ran for 83 yards, and Goldson added 31 on a fake punt, as the 49ers ran for 180 yards on the night. Double teams on Vince Wilfork helped the 49ers open up some holes in the middle of the field, and timely runs by James and Kaepernick aided scoring drives. Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes had busy nights, but 49ers play design seemed to keep the Patriots guessing as the 49ers built a huge 28 point lead. The 49ers had difficulty running to close out the game, but overall had the advantage on this night. Advantage: 49ers

Michael CrabtreeWhen the 49ers passed
Colin Kaepernick only threw for 216 yards on 14/25 passing, but it was his effective reads and manipulation of the Patriots’ secondary that allowed him to throw for four touchdown passes on the night. Michael Crabtree had a big night with seven catches for 107 yards and two scores, including the touchdown that decided the game. Moss and Walker each added touchdown catches as the patriots’ secondary seemed to bite on every piece of deception that Kaepernick would bait them into. His biggest mistake on the night was the pick by McCourty, but he showed excellent poise and maturity througfhout the game, not even losing confidence despite numerous botched snaps. Advantage: 49ers

Special Teams
Ted Ginn nearly cost the 49ers twice on punt returns. Both Ghost and Mesko had solid nights, as did Andy Lee, while David Akers connected on two field goals after missing an easy one. But it was LaMichael James’ kickoff return that really turned out to be a key play in the game, and the deciding play in this category. Advantage: 49ers

Intangibles
New England turned the ball over four times on the night, a startling number for a team that had only turned the ball over ten times in thirteen previous games, while the 49ers turned over the ball twice despite fumbling the ball six times. Points off turnovers were a huge factor, with the 49ers winning that battle 21-0. The 49ers won despite only a 25% success rate in the red zone, versus 80% by New England. The Niners committed six penalties, while the Patriots were flagged eight times. Advantage: 49ers

Key Moment: LaMichael James’ 62 yard kickoff return with 6:43 left in the game

Game Ball: Michael Crabtree with 7 receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns

Quote of the Game: “We just spotted them 28 points. We fought hard, but you can’t play poorly against a good team and expect to win. We can’t miss plays that we have opportunities with.” (Tom Brady)

Dec 032012
 

It wasn’t a pretty win. Nor was it a particularly efficient one.

But the New England Patriots, short-handed on both lines, battled through injuries and inefficiency to grind out a 23-16 win at Sun Life Stadium.

The win clinched the AFC East for the Patriots, and gave Tom Brady a record tenth division title, passing Joe Montana. The Patriots also moved at least temporarily into the second seed in the AFC playoff race, courtesy of a superior conference record over both Baltimore and Denver who, like New England, are now 9-3.

The Patriots took advantage of a Miami miscue to get an early lead. Brandon Fields bobbled a punt after Miami’s first drive, and the Patriots forced a change of possession at the Dolphins’ 12 yard line, scoring five plays later on a two yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley.  After a Miami punt the Patriots drove to the Miami 31, but Stephen Gostkowski missed a 49 yard field goal to the right, continuing his struggles. The Dolphins were not able to take advantage of the field position, but Brady committed a rare miscue on the next Patriots’ drive, trying to force a pass to Aaron Hernandez despite excellent coverage by Reshad Jones, who picked the pass off and gave Miami the ball at the Patriots’ 34 yard line. The Dolphins were forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the Patriots’ lead to 7-3.

New England responded, as it often does, with a classic drive going 13 plays and using 5:40 off the clock to march down the field before Brady connected with Wes Welker on a 7 yard touchdown and increased the lead to 14-3. Then, on the next possession it looked like the Patriots would put the game away early when Trevor Scott sacked Ryan Tannehill and forced the ball out of his hand, which Vince Wilfork promptly recovered at the Dolphins’ 25. But the Patriots could not take advantage of the short field and were forced to settle for a 43 yard field goal to increase the lead to 17-3.

The Dolphins then responded with an impressive drive of their own, with Tannehill navigating the Dolphins on a ten play, 80 yard drive that took up almost all of the time remaining before Tannehill ran the ball in from two yards out, cutting the halftime lead to 17-10.

The third quarter saw the game develop into a defensive struggle, as neither team could sustain drives. The Patriots got things moving at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, putting together a 13 play drive, but again needed to settle for a field goal after a sack by Koa Misi ended a Patriots’ threat. The Dolphins struck back with a field goal to make it a one score game, but then the Patriots executed probably their most important drive of the day, using 16 plays and 7:18 while handing the ball off to Stevan Ridley ten times. The Patriots added a field goal with 1:15 left to extend the lead to 23-13. The Dolphins tacked on a late field goal, but Brandon Lloyd recovered the ensuing off-sides kick, effectively ending the game.

When the Patriots ran:
The announcers made a big deal out of the Patriots only rushing for ten yards in the first half, but the Patriots only ran the ball eight times; the run was schemed out in the first half. As the game moved on and it was clear that the game would go down to the wire, the Patriots shortened the game by pounding the ball effectively against the Dolphins. While the 108 yards gained by the Patriots wasn’t overly impressive, the fact that the Patriots ran the ball when they needed to, against one of the top run defenses, tilts this to the Patriots. Ridley ran for 71 yards on 19 carries, and went over 1,000 yards for the season. Danny Woodhead added 24 yards on 6 carries. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:
For as bad a pass defense as the Dolphins have, the Patriots simply could not take control of the game through the air on Sunday. Brady was was not particularly sharp, missing throws while also under regular pressure from the Dolphins’ front seven. Brady was sacked four times but seemingly under pressure all day, as the Dolphins limited Brady to 24/40 for 238 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Wes Welker, the ultimate Dolphin killer, had twelve receptions for 103 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added 8 catches for 97 yards, but both Welker and Hernandez dropped balls that should have been caught. Advantage: Dolphins

When the Dolphins ran:
The Dolphins rushed for 101 yards, just seven fewer than the Patriots, but unlike the Patriots could not sustain drives with the run when they needed to. Reggie Bush was routinely stuffed in the second half as the Dolphins’ offense struggled to find any traction. Bush rushed for 64 yards on 16 carries, and both Tannehill and Daniel Thomas rushed five times each for a combined 29 yards. Advantage: Patriots

When the Dolphins passed:
Ryan Tannehill did not look sharp on Sunday, going 13/29 for 186 yards. He was stripped on one sack, though he avoided throwing any interceptions. Tannehill twice missed an open Brian Hartline deep, and was also undone by drops. The Patriots recorded three sacks on the day, two by Trevor Scott, but the pressure sometimes aided Tannehill as he was effective creating plays with his legs. At first blush the Patriots secondary played well, though Tannehill failed to take advantage of the lapses in New England’s coverages. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Ghost missed yet another field goal, his sixth of the season, but connected on three others. His kickoffs resulted in five touchbacks as the Dolphins’ return game was neutralized. Carpenter went 3/3 on field goals, and added three touchbacks. Mesko had a mediocre punting performance, while the game turned in part on the performance of Fields, who was solid in pinning the Patriots deep in their own end twice, but whose early mishandling of a punt turned out to be a key play in the game. Slight edge to the Pats based on that.  Advantage: Patriots

Intangibles
The Patriots showed gutsy determination in putting away a division foe that has historically given them trouble, pounding the ball throughout the fourth quarter to put the game away. For their part, the Dolphins staved off being blown out in the first half, and Ryan Tannehill kept his composure and kept the Dolphins in the context until the end. The turnovers were even, with each team turning the ball over once. Advantage: Even

Key Moment: A Jerod Mayo sack on 3rd and 7 with 8:53 remaining in the game ended a Dolphins’ drive and forced them to settle for a Dan Carpenter field goal.

Game Ball: Wes Welker with 12 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown

Nov 122012
 

There were two important lessons that came out of the Patriots’ 37-31 victory over the Bills on Sunday.

First, the decision to move Devin McCourty to safety was a good one. McCourty undercut a route in the end zone late in the fourth quarter to pick off a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass and seal the Patriots’ win. McCourty seems to play better when he can see the play developing in front of him and then react, although he still has a ways to go in run defense, as he looked out of position on occasion, most notably on a 14 yard touchdown run by Fred Jackson in the second quarter. Overall, the Patriots’ defense continued to struggle on Sunday, yielding 337 passing yards and 162 rushing yards to a Bills’ team that nearly pulled off the upset win.

And that brings us to the second lesson of this game; the Bills will simply never be a good team as long as they continue to defeat themselves on the field. The Bills committed 14 penalties for 148 yards, stalling out drives on offense and setting up easy Patriots’ scores on defense. The Bills also turned the ball over three times, as Fitzpatrick threw the late interception to McCourty and had the ball stripped from him on a sack in the first quarter that led to a Patriots’ touchdown. Fred Jackson also fumbled at the Patriots’ one yard line, squandering a key scoring opportunity in the second half.

From the outset, the game looked like it would develop into a slugfest. After the Bills stalled out their own first drive through three straight penalties, the Patriots drove to the Bills’ 25 before being forced to settle for a 43 yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead. Two plays later Fitzpatrick was sacked and stripped of the ball by Vince Wilfork, which was recovered by Jermaine Cunningham at the Bills’ 13 yard line. Five plays later Stevan Ridley took the ball in on a one yard touchdown run and the Patriots were up 10-0.

The Bills then went on an 11 play drive which stalled at the Patriots’ 23 as Rob Ninkovich sacked Fitzpatrick and forced the Bills to settle for a field goal, cutting the lead to 10-3. The patriots struck back by executing a eight play, 83 yard drive that was capped by a 15 yard run by Danny Woodhead for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Early signs were looking good for the Patriots, and a blowout seemed like a distinct possibility at the time.

The Bills struck right back, driving 80 yards on the back on two key passes to tight end Scott Chandler, and Fred Jackson eventually finished the drive with the 14 yard run where McCourty found himself drawn into the middle rather than protecting the edge where Jackson eventually found room to run. The brought the score to 17-10, but the Patriots continued the offensive onslaught, needing only six plays to drive 82 yards. The first three plays of the drive were incomplete passes, but the Patriots were saved by a pass interference call against Jairus Byrd. Two plays later Stephon Gilmore was also called for interference, moving the ball to the Bills’ 1 yard line, and Tom Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski on a pretty two yard pass to put the Patriots up 24-10.

But the first half scoring was not over. The Bills used the next three minutes to go on an 11 play drive, with Fitzpatrick eventually connecting with Chandler on a three yard touchdown pass to bring the deficit to seven points at the half.

Midway through the third quarter the Patriots struck again after a poor Buffalo punt and personal foul set up the Patriots at the Bills’ 39 yard line. Four plays later, Brady connected with Woodhead on an 18 yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 31-17. But no sooner did the Patriots increase the lead than the Bills cut back into it, as Fitzpatrick carved up the Patriots’ secondary on an 11 play, 84 yard drive that resulted in a 1 yard Fred Jackson touchdown to close the gap to 31-24.

The next Patriots’ drive started out strong as two quick passes netted 18 yards before Ridley tore through the Bills’ defense for a 24 yard gain. But the drive stalled at the Bills’ 30 and the Patriots settled for a 48 yard field goal by Gostkowski, increasing the lead to 10. The next drive saw the Bills start at their own 6, but they drove to the Patriots’ 13 aided by penalties to Cunningham and Brandon Spikes. Fred Jackson then ran 12 yards to the 1, but lost control of the ball, which was stripped by Devin McCourty and recovered by Kyle Arrington at the Patriots’ 1. The Patriots were then forced to punt after three straight incomplete passes that only consumed 19 seconds off the clock, and the Bills’ needed five plays (again aided by two Patriots’ penalties) as Fitzpatrick closed the drive with a 2 yard touchdown pass to Donald Jones, narrowing the lead to 34-31. The Patriots’ offensive possession prior to the Buffalo score is one more example of Josh McDaniels over-thinking his play calls in a situation that demanded the Patriots run the ball against a vulnerable run defense while working the game clock.

The scoring barrage continued on the next drive. Passes to Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd helped the Patriots move the ball down the field, but Ridley had a tough time finding running room and incomplete passes to Deion Branch and Woodhead forced the Patriots to settle for Gostkowski’s third field goal of the day, extending the lead to 37-31, but leaving Buffalo the opportunity to win the game.

The final drive began at the Bills’ 20, and Fitzpatrick hit Steve Johnson on a key third down conversion for a 21 yard gain to get the Bills out to the 42. Fitzpatrick then connected with Jones for another 14 yards to get into Patriots’ territory. Two plays later Spikes forced another Fred Jackson fumble, but the Bills were able to come away with the ball. Fitzpatrick then connected with Chandler for a first down, getting the ball to the Patriots’ 29. CJ Spiller then took a short pass for 14 yards, halving the distance for the Bills. After Fitzpatrick failed to connect with Chandler in the end zone on first down, he went looking for receiver TJ Graham on the next play, and McCourty picked it off to seal the win.

The Patriots move to 6-3 on the season with a two game lead over Miami in the AFC East. Buffalo now sits at 3-6, tied with the Jets for last place in the division. The Patriots now look forward to activating newly acquired cornerback Aqib Talib as they seek to shore up their secondary next weekend against the surging Indianapolis Colts. The Bills have dropped three straight and will face the Dolphins next weekend.

When the Patriots ran:
The Patriots ran for 117 yards, below their season average. But Stevan Ridley rushed for 98 yards and was able to pick up big chunks of yards to key Patriots’ drives. Woodhead had only one carry, but it was a big 15 yard touchdown. Slight edge to the home team. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:
Brady threw for 237 yards, two scores and no picks on the day. He was able to pick apart the Bills’ defense at times but struggled at others. He had some miscommunication with his receivers, most notably Julian Edelman, and Wes Welker dropped two passes, including an easy touchdown pass on the game’s opening drive. Welker still led the team with six catches for 74 yards. Again, only a slight edge to the Pats. Advantage: Patriots

When the Bills ran:
Fred Jackson ran for 80 yards and CJ Spiller another 70 as the Bills gashed the Patriots for 162 yards on the day on only 28 carries. The Pats had trouble with Jackson but he was once again his own worst enemy, as he fumbled twice, losing one. Advantage: Bills

When the Bills passed:
Once again, Ryan Fitzpatrick had a good statistical game against the Pats, throwing for 337 yards with two touchdowns and one key interception. Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones both caught six passes, and Jones and Chandler each had a touchdown reception. The Patriots were able to prevent one shot big plays, but still gave up a host of passes over twenty yards. Advantage: Bills

Special Teams:
The key distinction on special teams was starting position on kickoffs. Stephen Gostkowski forced six touchbacks, and the two kickoff returns the Bills brought out resulted in the Bills starting at their own 16 and their own 6. Advantage: Patriots

Key Moment: Interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty

Game Ball: Danny Woodhead, for one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown

Week 10 Recap

 Posted by
Nov 122012
 

What did Week 10 teach us?

First, that no one is going undefeated this season now that the New Orleans Saints have taken out the Atlanta Falcons to drop them to 8-1.

Second, that Rex Ryan seems to be determined to get fired alongside Mark Sanchez at the end of the 2012 season.

Finally, that the Bears have a much better chance of winning games when their defense is on the field.

Here are the Week 10 results: