Mar 152013
 

John AbrahamThe New England Patriots’ improving defense may be getting an influx of veteran leadership, as the Patriots are bringing in safety Adrian Wilson (Arizona) and defensive ends Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis) and John Abraham (Atlanta).

The Patriots and Freeney know each other well. Freeney was the leader of the Colts’ defense that battled the Patriots throughout the past decade. He did not fit neatly into defensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ new defensive scheme in Indy, and is now looking for a new home. The eleven year veteran has seen his production diminish in recent seasons, but his leadership could be a boon to the Patriots’ young pass rushing talents. Similarly, Patriots’ fans are well aware of Abraham, as he spent his first six seasons with the Jets before spending seven years in Atlanta. Abraham had ten sacks for the Falcons last season and is still seen as a disruptive presence on the defensive line.  He would seem to be the better grab for the Patriots if they can land him. Abraham has 122 career sacks, while Freeney has collected 107.5.

Safety Adrian Wilson has spent his entire twelve year career with the Cardinals, and while lacking the physical nature of Bernard Pollard, he would be a stabilizing force in the secondary, where he could potentially play alongside Devin McCourty. That requires the Patriots to stabilize their cornerback situation, which is in flux right now given the free agent status of Aqib Talib and the forthcoming criminal sentencing of Alfonzo Dennard. Wilson has 27 interceptions and two touchdowns in his NFL career.

It looks like the Patriots have good plans for the money recouped through the restructuring of Tom Brady’s contract.  We will keep following this to see if the Patriots reel in any of the three.

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)

Nov 232012
 

At the end of the first quarter, the game was scoreless, though the New England Patriots were driving deep in Jets’ territory. Just ten game minutes later, Stephen Gostkowski was kicking an extra point to push the Patriots’ lead to 35-0 while the Jets and their faithful looked on in stunned disbelief.

Thus is the tale of two NFL teams headed in very different directions.

For the Patriots, last night’s 49-19 blowout win was their fifth straight victory, locked up the AFC East except for the technicality of math, and cemented the Patriots as a favorite entering the final five games of the season in preparation for the playoffs. For the Jets, the crushing loss confirmed that big off-season changes can be expected for a franchise that has collapsed under its own weight in each of the last two seasons. Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan, and Mark Sanchez all have their jobs on the line as the Jets come to terms with the fact that they simply not a good team.

The game started as a defensive struggle as the teams exchanged punts before the Patriots drove to the Jets’ 21 yard line, but the Patriots came up empty when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 39 yard field goal. The miss seemed to spark the Jets, who rode Shonn Greene’s running and some short passes to the Patriots’ 23. But then Sanchez was fooled by the New England  secondary on the next play, and Steve Gregory picked off a pass intended for Bilal Powell, ending the threat. The Patriots offense then got into synch, as the Patriots drove 84 yards on 15 plays, with Tom Brady connecting to a wide open Wes Welker for a three yard touchdown and a 7-0 Patriots lead.

The Jets tried to answer back on the next drive, using Bilal Powell’s running  to push into New England territory. But on fourth down at the Patriots’ 31, the Jets called Greene on a very obvious run play up the middle, which was stuffed by Brandon Spikes, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Gregory at the New England 17. On the very next play Brady connected on a short pass with Shane Vereen, who outraced the Jets’ defenders for an 83 yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

After a touchback and a quick pass for 11 yards, Sanchez made a mental error and turned the wrong way to hand the ball off. Finding no running back to hand off to, Sanchez ran to the line, seeking running room. But Vince Wilfork manhandled Brandon Moore, shoving him back into Sanchez and forcing Sanchez to fumble the ball. Gregory continued his banner night by picking up the ball and racing 32 yards to extend the Patriots’ lead to 21-0.

But wait; there’s more…

On the ensuing kickoff, Joe McKnight got lit up by a shot from Devin McCourty and the ball popped into the air, landing in Julian Edelman’s arms as he returned the fumble 22 yards for a touchdown. The score was now 28-0, and the rout was on. Rex Ryan could be seen on the sideline shaking his head and muttering “bleeping unbelievable.”

The Jets tried to calm the game down on the next drive, seemingly more focused on preventing disaster than in striking back. Greene was finding room to run and rushed for 19 yards on the drive, but a Jerod Mayo sack snuffed out the drive and forced a punt. The Patriots then needed only four plays to cover 77 yards, as Brady hit Julian Edelman for a 56 yard touchdown pass and a 35-0 lead. The Jets would end the half with a field goal to get on the board, but the Jets’ fans booed loudly as the teams went in for the half, with some calling for Tim Tebow to replace Sanchez.

The Jets were forced to punt on their opening drive of the second half and the Patriots went back to work. New England drove again into Jets’ territory and seemed well on its way to another score before Eledman got hammered by LaRon Landry, forcing the ball out of his hands and knocking Edelman out of the game. The Jets then drove to the Patriots’ one yard line, but Greene was again stuffed by Spikes on a run, turning the ball back to the Patriots. However, on the next play Stevan Ridley was called for a chop block in the end zone, netting a safety and turning the ball back to the Jets. The Jets, now seemingly playing for pride, then drove 71 yards on 4 plays, ending with a Bilal Powell 4 yard touchdown and cutting the Patriots’ lead to 35-12.

Then, just as Al Michaels and Chris Collingsworth began filling the Jets’ fans heads of visions of a comeback, the Patriots marched methodically down the field, going 17 plays and using seven and a half minutes off the clock with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a score and a 42-12 lead. On the next play from scrimmage, Alfonzo Dennard stripped the ball from Chaz Schillens and Rob Ninkovich recovered at the Jets’ 37 tyard line. Brady then hit Welker on a 28 yard pass play before Ridley scampered the final 8 yards and a 49-12 Patriots’ lead. The Jets would add a late touchdown pass from Sanchez to Keller to close out the scoring, but it did little to mitigate the completeness of the Patriots’ domination of the game.

When the Patriots ran

Stevan Ridley ran for 97 yards on the night, never rushing for more than 9, but getting consistent chunks all night long. The Jets were soft up the middle, and Vereen added 42 yards as the Patriots amassed 152 yards on the night. The Patriots’ balance on offense kept another opponent off balance throughout the evening. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed

Brady threw for 323 yards and three scores, but could have had much more as he missed several open targets during the course of the game. None the less, the Jets had little answer for the Patriots’ passing attack. Welker caught 7 balls and was the primary target on the night, as Lloyd caught 3 passes and Vereen, Edelman, and Hernandez each grabbed two while Brady spread the ball to seven different receivers. Brady’s long connection to Edelman and Vereen’s big run after the catch on the way to his 83 yard touchdown helped pad Brady’s numbers for the night. The make-shift line did a great job protecting Brady, as the Jets rarely pressured Brady and did not register a sack on the night. Advantage: Patriots

When the Jets ran

The Jets found running room in the middle early, but then Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes seemed to will themselves to shut down running lanes and intimidate the running backs. Greene was able to gain an impressive 71 yards on the night as the Jets ran for 119 yards. Although productive early, the Patriots’ huge lead took the Jets out of their running game, although they were able to use it for some success in the second half. But the inability to convert on fourth and one on two occasions killed any hope the Jets might have had. We’ll call this one a push. Advantage: Even

When the Jets passed

Sanchez was able to throw for 301 yards, but much of this was in “garbage time” as the game was already out of reach and the Patriots were simply limiting damage.  Kerley caught seven passes on the night, while Keller added five and Jeff Cumberland caught four. The Patriots gave up yards but the secondary also broke up several passes, and Dennard forced a fumble after he had been beaten on one play. Steve Gregory’s interception was a beautiful job of baiting Sanchez into throwing an ill-advised ball. Kyle Arrington had a better performance last night than in the previous outing against the Colts. Slight edge here to the Jets. Advantage: Jets

Special Teams

The Patriots created a touchdown on special teams by forcing a Joe McKnight fumble on a kickoff return. This negated an otherwise decent performance by the Jets’ return unit. Malone was the better of the punters this night and Ghost missed a field goal, but McKnight’s gaffe tips the balance towards the Patriots. Advantage Patriots

 Intangibles

The Jets needed to win the turnover battle to have a fighting chance. Instead, the turnover difference was +4 in favor of the Patriots as they affected big plays on defense and, with the exception of the Edelman fumble, protected the ball on offense. The Patriots did commit eight penalties to the Jets five, but this game was decided by turnovers. Belichick and his staff did the superior coaching job this night as well, as Rex Ryan must now be scrutinized for his refusal to make personnel changes despite  some awful offensive performances. Advantage: Patriots

Key Moment:  Vince Wilfork creating a Mark Sanchez fumble that was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Steve Gregory. Sanchez never really looked confident after that play, it put the Patriots up by three scores and utterly demoralized the home crowd.

Game Ball: Steve Gregory for his interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

Notes: As noted by Patriots Life, Last night marked Bill Belichick’s 200th NFL coaching win, and marked the first time ion NFL history that a team has scored 100 or more (108) points in a five day span. Finally, the Patriots scored 35 points in the second quarter despite only possessing the ball for 2 minutes and 14 seconds. That is an amazing accomplishment.

Nov 212012
 

In Week 7 I chose the Patriots to wallop the Jets. As it turns out the Patriots won, but only as a result of a last minute regulation comeback and a field goal in overtime to edge the Jets 29-26. And while one could argue that a game being played five weeks later in the New Jersey and without Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski could yield a different result, that seems like an unlikely outcome for two teams that are headed in different directions.

Jets’ Head Coach Rex Ryan seems to understand this, given his very conscious decision to rein in the smack talk this week, to declare Tom Brady a once in a lifetime player, and to defend Bill Belichick’s decision to keep Gronkowski in on a special teams play that resulted in Gronk breaking his arm and missing at least the next three to four weeks. It took the New York media to start the hype, thanking Bill Belichick (in turkey form) for leaving Gronk in. Newsflash to the New York media: no coach selectively pulls players off of special teams in a blowout win, and the play was a fluke. Gronk had a better chance of breaking his arm on a touchdown spike than he did on special teams. As Bill Belichick said on WEEI this week, show me the player that we know is going to get hurt on this play, and we’ll pull him out of the game.

None the less, Gronk is out for this contest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean good news for the Jets. Aaron Hernandez, a healthy scratch for the past couple of games as a result of an abundance of caution, will return. The Jets likely won’t find Hernandez much easier to cover than Gronk, particularly when he is complemented by Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, and Danny Woodhead. The players may change from week to week, but the offensive assault remains.

In truth, the Jets fired their best shot against the Patriots in Week 7, and they came up short. Don’t expect the Patriots to let them hang around as long this time around. The Jets have tanked since the last match-up, coming out of their funk long enough to beat the Rams last week in St. Louis, but the Rams aided the Jets’ effort by turning the ball over three times, something the Patriots generally do not do. In a battle of turnovers, expect the Patriots to get the best of the contest. A Patriots win would further separate New England from the rest of their divisional foes, and would also likely end any hope of the Jets making the playoffs this season. Finally, a Patriots’ win would be the 200th of Belichick’s career.

Here’s how the game will likely break down:

When the Patriots run

The Patriots running game went to sleep last week against the Colts, in part by design and in part because of a solid effort by the Colts’ defensive front. But the Jets are giving up over 140 rushing yards per game so far this season, and the Patriots are averaging right about the same on offense. The Patriots ran the ball for 131 yards in the first contest, and I expect that Shane Vereen will get more opportunities this week, given how well he performed in Week 7 (8 carries for 49 yards). Expect the Patriots to come in around the 130 yard mark again on  Thursday night, as the Patriots are likely to focus on exploiting the Jets’ secondary. Ridley will once again not get close to 100 yards, but should be able to net consistent gains.

When the Patriots pass

The Jets possess the third best pass defense (200.1 ypg) in the league and the Patriots own the fourth best passing offense (289 ypg), so something has to give. Tom Brady had a sub-par performance in Week 7, going 26 for 42 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Since then Brady has started to look sharper, and the Patriots are likely to run a pass-heavy attack on the Jets. Gronk, Hernandez, Welker and Woodhead all did the damage in the first meeting, and this week Edelman and Lloyd will both get more looks with Gronk sidelined. Antonio Cromartie has the ability to shut down the man he is covering, but he can only cover one at a time. The Patriots will seek to create mismatches against safeties and linebackers and exploit those for consistent chunks of yards. The Jets have probably realized that their new safety tandem of  LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell is not an answer to shutting down the tight end and slot attack of the Patriots.  Look for Brady to be closer to the 300 yard mark on Thursday night. The Jets’ pass rush did sack Brady once in the first meeting, but the Jets will generally have to sell out in order to apply pressure to Brady, which typically results in big Patriots’ gains. Even without Logan Mankins out of the lineup, the Patriots offensive line is more than a match for the Jets’ defensive front.

When the Jets run

Ground and pound is what the Patriots do, not the Jets. The Jets are 15th in rushing with just over 108 yards per game, and the Patriots possess the 10th ranked run defense, giving up 99 yards per game. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes know how to fill running lanes and stuff the run, and Spikes has a knack for jarring the ball loose. Shonn Greene has had one game of over 100 yards this season, but has otherwise looked very pedestrian and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry. He ran for 54 yards in the first meeting and will likely come in somewhere near that number this week. Greene has a habit of putting the ball on the ground, but has not lost any fumbles yet this season; that will be a key factor if the Jets expect to have a chance of winning this game. The bigger threat is Bilal Powell, who gets fewer carries but has greater big play potential. Joe McKnight is an inconsistent runner, but is capable of an occasional big play as well. The Jets ran for 106 yards in the first meeting, and should be close too that number this week as well.

When the Jets pass

This is where we can expect to see the biggest difference between Week 7 and Week 12. In the first meeting Mark Sanchez was accurate, focused and poised (until the last play) while passing for 328 yards and a touchdown. But he also made key mental mistakes that seem to be the unfortunate trademark to his career as an NFL starting quarterback. Jeremy Kerley and Dustin Keller both had big days, each catching seven passes, while Greene caught six passes out of the backfield. The Jets are still likely to rack up yards on Thanksgiving, but not likely to match their Week 7 performance. Aqib Talib is working into the secondary rotation and will likely have safety help when he matches up against the Jets’ receivers, presumably matching up against Kerley. Alfonzo Dennard is turning out to be a seventh round steal in this year’s draft as he has established himself as a solid contributor in the secondary despite having a long way to go in his development. Kyle Arrington has been symptomatic of the struggling secondary, but moving McCourty to safety on a permanent basis will improve the secondary in the long run. The improvement in the secondary seems to be giving Bill Belichick the willingness to blitz more to improve the pass rush, and this will be important with rookie Chandler Jones out of the lineup this week. The Patriots racked up four sacks in the previous meeting. Vince Wilfork is playing like a man possessed, Rob Ninkovich is simply a playmaker, and Hightower and Jermaine Cunningham will likely get opportunities to take shots at Sanchez. Look for Sanchez to be closer to 200 yards this time around, with turnovers coming from quarterback pressure via strip sacks or errant throws.

Special Teams

In the first meeting the Jets surrendered a 104 yard kickoff return by Devin McCourty, though McCourty’s kickoff fumble in the fourth quarter nearly cost the Patriots the contest. The Patriots possess the superior return units, and the Jets have been plagued with special teams problems throughout the season. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots gain the field position advantage through special teams and perhaps pull off another big return. Julian Edelman is a dangerous punt returner.

Intangibles

Which Mark Sanchez shows up this week? The one who throws with 75% accuracy (v. the Rams) or the guy who has thrown with 53.5% accuracy on the year. As the Jets’ media is pointing out, the Jets’ lack first tier starters and solid depth on the roster. Bill Belichick’s team is perfect in the second half of the season going back through 2010, and Belichick is deadly when he gets a second look at an opponent in a season, even a divisional one. The revamped secondary may be the coach’s means for delivering a big headache to Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez on Thursday night. Finally, the Patriots are +20 in turnover differential this season, best in the league, while the Jets are at +1, 6th in the AFC.

Prediction

It’s entirely possible that the Jets could win Thursday night, and they have the advantages of no Gronk, a home game, and knowing that they gave the Patriots all they could handle in Week 7. But the Patriots are a better team now than they were five weeks ago, whereas the Jets are a team verging on a full-blown meltdown; a meltdown that becomes more likely if the Jets get blown out on Thursday night.

I am not expecting a Patriots’ blowout of the Jets, but do find it more likely than a Jets’ win. More likely we will see the similar script that has played out in recent Patriots’ contests; an early exchange of scores followed by a slow but inexorable assertion of the Patriots’ will in the second and third quarters before closing the game out in the fourth. In this case however, I think Gronk’s absence does help the Jets linger for the better part of three quarters before the Patriots put the issue to rest. Look for mismatches involving Edelman, Welker and Hernandez to allow the Patriots to sustain long scoring drives, while the Patriots defense  continues to both give up chunks of yardage and find ways to take the ball away from the opposition, offering up a short field to the offense. Predicted Score: Patriots 30 Jets 17.

Nov 142012
 

Through ten weeks, there is one thing for certain; there is no dominant team in the NFL this season. Just when we thought the Falcons might make it a couple of more weeks without a loss, they fall to the Saints. The Texans took care of business against a tough Bears team, but the 49ers flopped against the Rams, salvaging a tie in a game they should have lost. The Patriots won, but not without great drama, and the Steelers struggled against the hapless Chiefs, escaping only because of a penalty. The Giants look pretty bad at this point in the season, but they always look bad at this point of the season. As a result, our power rankings fluctuated mightily this week.

Here are our Week 10 Rankings:

1. Houston Texans (8-1, +1) – The Texans rolled into Soldier Field and took care of business; how will they do against a team with a better offense?

2. Atlanta Falcons (8-1, -1) – It was a game they could have won, but no real harm done to the Falcon’s ambitions

3. San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1, U) – The Niners are still a favorite in the NFC, but they need to demonstrate some consistency; Quarterback Concern #1 of the week, though Alex Smith might be ready to return

4. New England Patriots (6-3, +2) – The win over the Bills was not an impressive win by any stretch of the imagination, but the Patriots are on a three game winning streak and now hope to improve their beleaguered secondary with the move of McCourty to safety and the acquisition of Aqib Talib

5. Baltimore Ravens (7-2, +3) – Still not convinced their defense will hold up against better offensive teams, but their schedule makes the division title looking like a good bet

6. Green Bay Packers (6-3, +1) – Can they play the second half of the season the way they finished the first?

7. Chicago Bears (7-2, -3) – Quarterback Concern #2 of the week; even though the Bears would rather have their defense on the field all game, the Bears with Jay Cutler are better than the Bears without Jay Cutler

8. Denver Broncos (6-3, +2) – Manning and the Broncos getting better every week; this is a dangerous team if their defense holds up

9. New York Giants (6-4, -4) – The Giants are just out of sorts right now and Eli is playing without confidence; is this is this a real problem or do they just have the rest of the league exactly where they want them?

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3, -1) – Quarterback Concern #3 of the week; the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger are better than the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger

11. Seattle Seahawks (6-4, U) – This team just stubbornly refuses to go away

12. Indianapolis Colts (6-3, +1) – Playoffs? You’re talking about playoffs? Yes, they really are

13. Minnesota Vikings (6-4, -1) – Solid win over the Lions means the Vikes are legitimate playoff contenders; that will hold up as long as Adrian Peterson does

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4, +4) – Doug Martin looks like a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate; Bucs looking like a legitimate threat

15. New Orleans Saints (4-5, +8) – They probably should have been ranked higher last week, but we will correct that now that they took out the Falcons; playoffs still appear unlikely

16. Detroit Lions (4-5, -2) – Just when the offense starts waking up, the defense lets them down

17. Arizona Cardinals (4-5, -2) – You know what a bye week is? In this case, it could just be a week between losses

18. Dallas Cowboys (4-5, +3) – Another team trying to steer its way back into the playoff race; beating the Browns would help, though it’s exactly the kind of game they are capable of losing

19. Cincinnati Bengals (4-5, +3) – Just when we get ready to write them off, they spank the Giants and thrust themselves back into the playoff picture

20. San Diego Chargers (4-5, -4) – The Norv Turner watch is now officially on; a loss to the Broncos just might be the end of his run

21. Washington Redskins (3-6, -4) – They are building a good base for the future; but it’s not a team that is going to make waves this season

22. St. Louis Rams (3-5-1, +4) – What a difference an Amendola makes

23. Miami Dolphins (4-5, -4) – At least when they got pummeled by the Titans they didn’t have Tony Sparano fist-pumping after the field goal like it was a major accomplishment

24. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6, -4) – Quarterback Concern #4 of the week, though in this case Nick Foles looks like an improvement over Michael Vick; the Reid and Vick eras are coming to a close in Philly

25. Tennessee Titans (4-6, +4) – Jake Locker and Chris Johnson are doing their best to try and get this team back to respectability

26. Buffalo Bills (3-6, -1) – This team is its own worst enemy

27. New York Jets (3-6, -3) – If the Jets are lucky, they can put themselves in a position to draft Matt Barkley, another USC quarterback who is less accurate and less athletic than Mark Sanchez

28. Cleveland Browns (2-7, -1) – They even lose ground in a bye week

29. Carolina Panthers (2-7, -1) – Who would have thought that offensive production was going to be their primary problem this season?

30. Oakland Raiders (3-6, U) – They are one Carson Palmer away from being hapless

31. Kansas City Chiefs (1-8, +1) – They finally got a lead against the Steelers, and should have had a victory; moral victories don’t count for much, but this was a huge improvement

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8, -1) – It’s like they’re not even trying; expect some big-time house cleaning in the off-season

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

Nov 022012
 

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

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

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

History of second half runs

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

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

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

Dynamic offense

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

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

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

Improving defense

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

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

Flawed AFC competition

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

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

Conclusion

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