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 052013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Oct 222012
 

Let’s start with the positives for the New England Patriots: they won the game, beat a division foe, and took sole possession of first place in the AFC East. And for a few key moments at the end of the fourth quarter and in overtime, Tom Brady was clutch again. After that, it gets pretty hard to find positives from Sunday’s performance against the New York Jets.

It’s no secret that the Patriots have had a dreadful time closing out games on both offense and defense this season. In the three games won prior to today, the Patriots outscored their opponents by a total of 55 points. In the three games they had lost, they were outscored by only four points, lost late leads, and squandered opportunities to close out games, either through not converting first downs on offense, or giving up huge chunks of yardage on defense. And Week Seven against the Jets was shaping up a lot like the three losses.

And then Rob Ninkovich came to the rescue.

The converted long snapper to linebacker to defensive end had several big plays on Sunday, but none bigger than the sack and forced fumble that ended the game as the Patriots survived a sub-par effort and squeezed out a narrow 29-26 victory over the new York Jets.

The game started out as expected. The Jets drove 75 yards to open the scoring with a one yard touchdown run by Shonn Greene to put the Jets in front 7-0. From there the Patriots took control of much of the first half, with Devin McCourty returning the ensuing touchdown 104 yards to tie the game. After a Jets’ three and out, the Patriots then marched 58 yards, culminating in a Brady to Gronkowski touchdown and a 14-7 Patriots lead.

Early in the second quarter things went from bad to worse for the Jets. Starting on their oen 12 yard line, Mark Sanchez muffed a hand off to Greene and the ball rolled into the end zone, where Sanchez made a heady play and kicked the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a safety and a 16-7 Patriots lead. After a Patriots’ punt, the Jets once again started deep in their own end but had moved the ball to near midfield before Sanchez was late on a throw, allowing Alfonzo Dennard the opportunity to pick off the pass and thwart the Jets’ drive. The Patriots started the next drive at their own 2 and were able to punch the ball into Jets’ territory, aided by a facemask call against the Jets which otherwise would have had the Patriots punting from their own 32. The Pats pinned the Jets at their own 5 and looked ready to get the ball back and post another score before the break. But Sanchez and the Jets wouldn’t cooperate. Aided by Greene’s running, a 15 yard pass play to Dustin Keller, and a defensive holding call the Jets were able to drain the rest of the first half clock, ending the drive with a 54 yard field goal by Nick Folk to cut the Patriots lead to 16-10.

The Jets opened the second half by driving deep into Patriots territory with the aid of another Sanchez to Keller connection, and then surprisingly did not go for it on a fourth and one, opting for a 21 yard Folk field goal and closing the gap to 3. The Patriots’ offense then seemed to click into gear, at least momentarily, as Brady drove the Patriots 83 yards, primarily on the back of Stevan Ridley, before connecting on another touchdown pass to Gronkowski and extend the advantage to 23-13.

The Jets then went three and out on the next drive and the Patriots looked like they were on the verge of finally putting a close game away. Shane Vereen ripped off 24 yards on the next two plays to close the quarter, but then Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels’ play calling to open the fourth quarter seemed to tajke the wind out of the Patriots’ sails. After Vereen ran for another two and a Patriots first down, the next Vereen run also only netted two. Instead of looking downfield to the tight ends or Wes Welker on 2nd and 8, McDaniels tried a short screen to Welker, which the Jets blew up for a two yard loss. Then on third and ten McDaniels went back to the same well, trying another short pass to Woodhead which also got blown up for a two yard loss and forced a Patriots’ punt. The series was a bizarre set of downs and seemed to reinforce the notion that McDaniels can get too cute for his (and the Patriots) own good.

The Jets started the next drive again deep in their own territory, thanks to a poor decision by Jeremy Kerley to field the ball at his own 8. But Sanchez, looking like a far better quarterback on Sunday than the Patriots had seen in a long time, engineered a 14 play drive that featured a 17 yard pass to Stephen Hill, a 19 yard pass to Kerley, and another 15 yard pass to Hill before Sanchez connected with Keller for a 7 yard touchdown, cutting the Patriots lead to 23-20. the next Patriots’ drive opened with a push-off by Brandon Lloyd that was flagged for offensive pass interference, immediately putting the Patriots in a hole. Three plays later the Patriots punted again, and most Patriots’ fans around the country were undoubtedly having flashbacks to the Seahawks’ game (I know I was) as the Jets started at their own 35 and began moving in for the kill. Sanchez hit Keller for a 20 yard game before Joe McKnight reeled off a 12 yard run, and the Jets were off and running. Three plays later though Hill dropped a pass that would gave given the Jets a first down deep in Patriots’ territory, and the Jets had to settle for a Folk field goal and a 23-23 tie.

On the kick off, McCourty coughed up the ball, and the Jets recovered the ball at the Patriots’ 18 yard line. But the Jets stalled, picking up three yards on two plays before Sanchez was sacked by Dont’a Hightower. Folk then kicked his fourth field goal of the game to put the Jets up 26-23 with only 1:42 remaining. But that’s plenty of time for Tom Brady, and he smoothly connected with Gronkowski for 15 and then for 12 more, and then with Danny Woodhead for a 20 yard gain that got the Patriots to the jets’ 32 yard line. Two plays later Gostkowski exercised some demons by connecting on a 43 yard field goal that tied the game at 26 and sent it into overtime.

The Patriots won the toss and methodically drove the ball 54 yards on 12 plays before Gostkowski kicked a 48 yard field goal to put the Patriots up 29-26. The Jets then began at their own 15, and netted only five yards on their first two plays, them failed to convert on a long pass. But Dennard was flagged for defensive holding and the Jets got a fresh set of downs at their own 15. McKnight then got blown up by Ninkovich for a two yard loss, but Sanchez responded with a beautifully thrown 17 yard connection to Kerley to keep the drive moving. McKnight was then stuffed again by Vince Wilfork for no gain, before Sanchez dropped back to pass on the next play. Jermaine Cunningham got to Sanchez’ legs and held onto him while Ninkovich hit Sanchez in the chest and arm, forcing the ball out of his hands. Ninkovich then promptly pounced on the ball to end the game and snuff out the jets’ chances of an upset.

This game will do little to relieve Patriots fans who think that this team, which is capable of utterly dominating its opponents, has something wrong with it. Between the Patriots’ tendency to give up big plays on defense, and the offense’s ability to inexplicably fail to execute at key moments, and the recipe for disaster never seems far away. Add in Josh McDaniels own lackluster coaching performance, and I expect the Boston faithful to be up in arms this week despite the Patriots pulling out a narrow win in a game that they could have won handily.

This is to take nothing away from the Jets’ performance. Sanchez executed well all game and looked like a far more patient quarterback than normal, though he still missed connecting on a couple of key plays in addition to having his receivers drop a couple of important passes. The Jets’ defense was hardly spectacular, but it made key plays at key times to keep the Jets in contention. If nothing else, the jets proved that rumors of their demise are still premature, and that this team still has a lot of fight left in them despite the rash of injuries that has taken away some of their best players. It may not last long, but the reinvigorated Jets were tough to put away for this one Sunday in October.

When the Patriots ran:
For the most part, the Patriots were able to run the ball effectively on Sunday. They simply didn’t call running plays at the right times. Stevan Ridley gained 65 yards on 7 carries, well below his usual productive level. But Shane Vereen added 49 yards on just 8 carries and Danny Woodhead added 17 yards. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:
Once again, when the Patriots called the right plays they were highly effective. Although Brady only threw for 259 yards, he had two touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski and did not throw an interception, although Antonio Cromartie managed to drop an easy one. Gronk and Welker both had six receptions and Aaron Hernandez added five as Brady connected with eight different targets on the day. Advantage: Patriots

When the Jets ran:
Although Shonn Greene was able to carry the ball effectively on a few occasions, he had an unspectacular game, rushing for only 54 yards on 16 carries before leaving due to a head injury. He did return for one play but was then taken out again. McKnight provided a spark off the bench, with 23 yards on 7 carries, and five other rushers combined for 29 yards as the Jets tallied a total of 116 yards. It was more the timing of the Jets’ running game than the 3.5 average per carry that made the Jets’ ground game effective. Brandon Spikes was a beast against the run on Sunday, recording ten tackles and routinely stuffing the Jets’ rushers. Advantage: Jets

When the Jets passed:
Mark Sanchez threw for 328 yards with one touchdown and one interception. And while Sanchez’ own blunders and the mistakes of his receivers likely cost the Jets the game, it was the ability of the Jets to gain major chunks of yards through the air all day that kept the jets in the game at all. The Patriots gave up six passing plays of more than twenty yards and committed a slew of defensive penalties in the secondary that only served to underscore the current state of the Patriots’ secondary. Advantage: Jets

Special Teams:
Devin McCourty sparked the Patriots early with his 104 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, then nearly cost them the game with his kickoff return fumble late in the fourth quarter. Ghost connected on both of his field goal attempts and Folk on all 4 of his, but the real difference was in the punt game, where Zoltan Mesko routinely pinned the Jets deep and was aided by Jeremy Kerley’s questionable decisions to field at least two punts deep in his own end that might have resulted in touchbacks. In the game of field position, the Patriots won the day and were aided by uncharacteristic Jets’ errors. Advantage: Patriots

Key moment: Twenty yard connection from Tom Brady to Danny Woodhead to help move the Patriots into field goal range to tie the game before the end of regulation.

Game ball: Rob Ninkovich with four tackles, 1.5 sacks, another tackle for loss, a quarterback pressure, and the strip that ended the game.

Sep 162012
 

What Gronk giveth, Gronk taketh away.

Rob Gronskowski helped Tom Brady lead a feverish comeback against the Arizona Cardinals, overcoming multiple drops on the day, but then two late penalties against Gronk cost first a touchdown and then five yards on a missed field goal attempt that ultimately doomed the Patriots in a stunning 20-18 loss to the Cardinals in the home opener at Gillette Stadium.

Here is the game recap:

FIRST QUARTER

The Cardinals came out with a good game plan, trying to take whatever the Patriots defense would be willing to give. The Cardinals used a solid rcompleted tack, complemented by a Peterson wildcat and opportunistic passing to advance to the Patriots 20 yard line before being forced to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. On the first play of the ensuing New England possession, the Cardinals were able to turn a pass deflection  into an interception to takeover the at Patriots 36. But the Pats’ defense stiffened forced the Cardinals into another field goal and a 6-0 lead.

The Patriots came out with a mix of running and passing in their first drive, assisted by a key third down offsides by the Cardinals on their way to a 46 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, closing the gap to 6-3.  However, the drive resulted in the Los of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was assisted off of the field with what appeared to be a painful ankle injury.

The Cardinals were then forced into a three and out, with a key third down stop by Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots then closed the first quarter with two Stevan Ridley runs netting 21 yards.

SECOND QUARTER

The Patriots opened the quarter with two straight incomplete passes, forcing a Mesko punt. Chandler Jones began asserting himself on the next Cardinals drive,stuffing one run for a loss and drawing a holding call while relentlessly pursuing Kevin Kolb. The Patriots got a good punt return from Julian Edelman to start the next drive on the Cardinals side of the 50. Ridley began the next drive with four hard runs to bring the ball to the 16, before the drive stalled and the Patriots were forced into a field goal to tie the game at 6. The officials blew an obvious offsides call on the field goal that would have extended a drive with an automatic first down, annoying the faithful at The Razor. The Cardinals were executing a solid drive until the Patriots forced a turnover near The Patriots 40. Two big Patriots losses led to a safe third down draw and another Patriots’ punt.

Brandon Spikes opened the next possession with a sack, and Hightower added a key stop on third down. The Patriots started their next drive at their own 10 and went into safe mode, but a big connection to Welker after the two minute warning ignited some offensive movement.  After a near miss in the end zone to Gronk, the Pats stalled near midfield to end the half.

THIRD QUARTER

The Pats opened with a huge pass play to Welker for 36 yards. But the drive stalled at the 32 and the Patriots were forced to settle for a third field goal and a 9-6 lead.  The Patriots forced a punt on the next possession, with Dont’a Hightower making his presence felt. The Pat riots then suffered a three and out deep in their own territory, before the Cardinals blocked the punt and recovered at the Patriots’ 2 yard linE and turned a third down into a Cardinals touchdown and a 13-9 lead.

The Patriots went to the air attack on the next series, passing three times before Ridley hammered out a first down run. Then they went back to the air to Lloyd, before Ridley again moved the chains. Hilliard churned out the next first down before the Patriots again we shut down by the tenacious Cardinal defense forced a Patriot punt. The next drive by the Cardinals was a methodical march down the field, aided by a personal foul by safety Steve Gregory.

FOURTH QUARTER

The Cardinals’ drive was capped by a 6 yard quarterback draw by Kevin Kolb for a touchdown and a 20-9 lead early in the fourth quarter. With no choice left, the Pats went back to the air and in two quick strikes were in Cardinals’ territory. An acrobatic catch by Brand on Lloyd netted another nine yards, but a bad play call on third down forced another Patriots’ punt. Frankly, I found Belichick’s decision not to go for it on fourth down to be a questionable call given the ability of the Cardinals offense to execute all day.  Predictably, the Cardinals used the running of Beanie Wells to mete out a first down, killing time off the clock, before the Patriots stiffened on the next set of downs.

Julian Edelman started off the next series bringing the ball across midfield and then Brandon Lloyd made a catch for another first down. But poor play-calling on a second down run and a nice pass defense on third down led to another  Gostkowski field goal and a 20-12 deficit.

The Cardinals’ next drive was stuffed by the Patriots defense, after a review of a third down non-catch by Larry Fitzgerald. The Pats took over at the 35, and the ensuing drive was vintage Brady, as he carved the Cardinals’ defense before connecting with Rob Gronkowski for the touchdown. The Patriots were unable to convert the two point try, and the Cardinals’ lead was cut to 20-18.

The Cardinals ran the ball for almost five yards to bring the clock to 2:00, and then Ryan Williams slashed through the middle for a first down, essentially ending the game… or so it should have. On the ensuing third down play, the Cards inexplicably handed the ball off to Ryan Williams, who lost it on a hit by Brandon Spikes, and the ball was recovered by Vince Wilfork. The Patriots then seemingly won the game on a touch won run by Danny Woodhead, but the play was called back on a questionable holding call on Rob Gronkowski. While Gronk did turn the player and thus draw the flag, the call was likely one that would have gone as a no-call with regular officials (or dare I say, real ones). The Patriots then moved into easy field goal range but lost five yards on a false start penalty, again on Gronk. Still, the Pats were set up for a 42 yard field goal by Gosttkowski, which he promptly pulled left to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory.

FINAL SCORE: CARDINALS 20 PATRIOTS 18

Post- Game Analysis:

The Cardinals wanted tis game more than the Patriots, and executed their game plan almost flawlessly. They were able to effectively move the chains on offense, and defensively took the Patriots out of their own game plan. Aaron Hernandez’ injury seemed to have the affect of knocking the Patriots off kilter. Wes Welker picked up the slack for Hernandez, solitude Cardinals’ defense repeatedly punched the Patriots in the mouth all afternoon, and the Patriots had few answers until the closing minutes, and then a failure to execute routine plays cost them the chance at their comeback win.

Patriots’ fans can take heart in knowing that the last time the team lost a home opener was in 2001, when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl which, coincidentally, was in New Orleans.

When the Patriots Ran:

Stevan Ridley ran for 71 yards and Danny Woodhead ran for another 18, but the Patriots were unable to run at key times, or chose to run at times where a pass play was the better call. Despite the productive play, disruption caused by the Cardinals gives the cards the edge. Advantage: Cardinals

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady threw for 316 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Welker, Gronkowski, Lloyd and Edelman all had big receiving days in the absence of Aaron Hernandez. If anything, the Patriots didn’t pass enough today given the tempo of the day and the grittiness of the Cardinals’ defense. The Cardinals were able to apply consistent pressure on Brady, sacking him four times. Advantage: Patriots

When the Cardinals ran:

The cards used a balanced rushing attack, with five runners posting double digits in yards and outgaining the Patriots 105-86. It’s wasn’t an outstanding attack, but it was a consistent one. The error by Williams (really a play call error) nearly cost the Cards the game. That play had to be one of the worst play calls I have seen in recent years, as the Cards should have taken a knee to insure a punt and a long field for the Patriots. Advantage: Cardinals

When the Cardinals passed:

Kevin Kolb only threw for 140 yards with one touchdown and no interception, but it was his headiness that won the day for the Cards. Kolb made good decisions, took what the defense would give, and knew when to take a loss.  Todd heap caught five passes before leaving with an injury. Still, the Patriots once again kept their opponents from any long gains, holding the longest reception to 36 yards. The Patriots shut down Larry Fitzgerald (1 catch for 4 yards) but Kolb took advantage of his other options. Advantage: Even

Special Teams:

The Ghost made four field goals and two from beyond 50 yards, but missed a makable 42 yarder that would have won the game. The Patriots were able to contain the Cardinals’ return game, and Julian Edelman was the more effective returner today. Still, we will remember the last play as the key in the Patriots’ loss. The punt block was a key play, setting up the Cardinals on the Patriots’ two yard line, which the Cards punched in for a score. Advantage: Cardinals

Key Moment: Holding call on Rob Gronkowski that cost the Patriots a 30 yard touchdown by Danny Woordhead. While it was a questionable call, any holding was unnecessary on the play, as Gronk had effectively shielded his man on the play.

This week’s game ball goes to Calais Campbell, who registered seven tackles and two sacks

Sep 102012
 

It was really nice to have football back on my television this weekend after a seven month wait. Football season has taken on a new meaning for me with the invention of Gridiron Rats, as I live blogged the Patriots game while doing my best to stay on top of the other action (thank you, DirecTV). Here are some of my early take-aways from Week One, with Monday night games still on the way.

1. The officiating was not good. There were many blunders in the 49ers-Packers game, and in the Broncos-Steelers contest last night. Some were benign, like misplacing the two minute warning in the Broncos’ game, while others were rather impactful. Tennessee fans in particular might be upset today that Jake Locker got hurt on a play that should have been blown dead and likely would have been with regular officials. Peyton Manning also got burned by the officials on a play that was vintage Peyton and should have worked to his advantage. He quick-snapped the Steelers, who had players still rotating off of the field. With regular officials that would have resulted in a free play and a penalty, but the replacement officials didn’t see it. I guess Peyton has to dumb his game down until the replacement officials can catch up. And there was a particularly bad call over a fourth timeout in the Seattle-Arizona game that was not only wrong, but then explained incorrectly. In any event, Mike Pereira can make a living off of criticizing the new officials, and anyone with the NFL who says that the replacement officials are adequate should probably be drug tested.

2. The Jets shocked everyone yesterday by scoring 20 points in the second quarter on their way to a 48-28 blowout win over the Bills. this tells us two things; that the Jets offense isn’t as bad as it looked in the pre-season, and that the Bills’ defense isn’t nearly as good as advertised. Clearly, Mark Sanchez needed a game like this to keep the boo-birds at bay and the cries for Tebow at a minimum. Yet in every silver lining, the Jets manage to find (or create) a dark cloud. After the game, linebacker Bart Scott teed off on the media, calling for a “media mutiny”.  When approached by a reporter, Scott opened up.

“You guys treat us like we’re a (bleeping) joke,” Scott said. “You all want us to feed your papers, but then you all talk (bleep) about us. So why would I want to give you all quotes to sell papers with if you all treat us like (bleep)? That doesn’t make sense. You all talk stuff about us, and then when we win you flip the story. You all win either way. I’m just going to be quiet.”

Where do I begin with Scott? First off, genius, I am pretty sure you mean “boycott” and not “mutiny”. I will refrain from commenting on his Southern Illinois University education, as someone very close to me holds a degree from that school, and I do happen to believe that it offers an outstanding education. Perhaps Scott slept through any classes in high school or college that might have included any vocabulary terms. And his frustration about the Jets’ being treated like a circus rings hollow with me. Why? The Jets act like a circus, which is ultimately what led to them being treated like one by the media.  This is the dark side of life with Rex Ryan, and Scott just doesn’t seem to comprehend that the New York Jets ARE a circus, even by New York media standards. Finally, on Scott’s final point that he will just keep quiet… from his mouth to God’s ears, my friend… can’t wait!

3. It’s going to be a long season and we have only seen Week One, but after yesterday I am absolutely convinced (as I was throughout the pre-season) that the Patriots’ defense is far more improved than that of the Packers. I realize that Jones and Hightower are only one game in, and that teams will learn to scheme against them, but with players like Wilfork, Mayo, Cunningham, Spikes, and McCourty on the field, there are plenty of players to make big plays. The Patriots suffocated Chris Johnson and look to have one of the league’s best run defenses. They might still give up a lot of yards, but I suspect there will be a lot of garbage time passing yards once again as the Patriots establish early leads and force teams to  throw, throw, and throw. The Packers were the fashionable Super Bowl pick this year with the rationale that an improved defense would be enough to vault them to another crown, but it’s the Patriots defense that looks far more improved, at least at this point of the year…. there’s a long way to go.

4. Speaking of the Patriots, I am of the opinion that Wes Welker is on his way out of Foxboro, and sooner rather than later. I noted yesterday that he was a non-factor in the game, catching only three passes for 14 yards. What I didn’t realize yesterday was that he was schemed out of the game, splitting his snaps with Julian Edelman, who caught one pass for seven yards. But it is the addition of the promising young slot receiver Greg Salas likely means that the Patriots are probably sitting by the telephone, waiting for a good offer to unload an amazing player who made the mistake of making his contract dispute public, a major no-no in Bill Belichick’s world. It’s entirely possible that this is a one game anomaly as a result of a scheme developed for the Titans,  but I’ve seen the Patriots make enough surprising moves over the years to know that when you fall out of favor in New England. you find yourself wearing new laundry in short order. We’ll see what happens as the season progresses and the trade deadline gets closer.

5. Speaking of sitting by the telephone, I suspect the Patriots and Brian Waters will want to work out their contract differences this week. While the Pats’ offensive line had an outstanding game yesterday, depth looks to be an issue, as Connolly got hurt during the course of the game. Waters’ return would help shore up the front five.

6. Because I live-blogged the Patriots-Titans game yesterday, I actually found myself far more focused on collecting data about the game rather than on cheering for my team. Don’t get me wrong, I still cheered, but did so with a far more objective lens than I normally would. I think that was reflected in what I recorded yesterday, but I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide. By the way, thanks to my three readers yesterday! For everyone else, check out the blog and see if you’ll visit me when I do it again.

7. Finally, maybe it’s just his change of laundry, but why do I suddenly like Peyton Manning a whole lot more than I used to? I couldn’t stand the man when he was with the Colts, and when the Colts they were certainly a much tougher rival than the Jets. Part of it is that he came off (to me) as an oaf who could put up stats but couldn’t win the big game, especially not against Tom Brady and the Patriots. That changed the year the Colts won the Super Bowl, but even that was due to a monumental collapse on the part of the Patriots’ defense in the AFC Championship Game. Part of my disdain also goes to his father Archie, who I despise for acting like the ultimate helicopter parent in forcing Eli’s trade from San Diego to New York. Yet strangely I have never disliked Eli, even though his Giants have twice beaten us in the Super Bowl. But last night I admired his performance in returning from a year off of football to lead the Broncos to a dramatic win over the Steelers. Part of it is my disdain for the Steelers and for their quarterback, who I suspect is devoid of character. But a large part of it was the perspective that Manning portrayed in the post-game interview, where he seemed to be far more mature than the Manning I used to loathe, and who had a greater humility than I have ever seen him display. I made the comment to Rat’s Widow as we watched, and I suddenly found myself liking the guy after all of these years. I’m sure I’ll feel differently in Week Five when the Broncos visit Foxboro, and I am not sure if this says more about me or more about Peyton, but it was nice to appreciate his work last night and not root for him to lose.

See you next time!

Sep 092012
 

Week One provided its share of predictable outcomes and upsets, and it also proved that the NFL is in dire need of bringing back the locked out officials. While Wednesday night was a great night for the replacement officials (presumably because the NFL grabbed the ‘best’ of the replacements, the rest of the first week was not as kind. Particularly disastrous was the San Francisco at Green Bay game, where both teams had cause to be upset with poor officiating. otherwise, Sunday saw some strange officiating misfires, including several in the Sunday night showcase in Denver. Anyone (including the Commissioner and league owners) who says the officiating is just as good (or even close) was watching this weekend’s slate of games with their eyes closed.

Here’s your re-cap of the Week One games:

Still to Come:

San Diego-Oakland

 

Sep 092012
 

Welcome to our live blog of the Patriots-Titans contest. This post will be updated as game events unfold. Feel free to leave your comments below. Be kind. :-)

Three Keys for the Patriots

If you are a Patriots fan, here’s what you are looking for in Week One:

1. 3rd down defense; The Patriots were the worst in the league last season for getting off the field on third down. Will the new look defense with Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower be able to get the ball back into the hands of Tom Brady with more frequency?

2. Offensive line; The line had troubles in the pre-season and looks to be without Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters, but Mankins, Solder, and Vollmer are all back on the field. Will they give Brady the time he needs to pick apart opposing defenses?

3. Better secondary; The front seven has a lot to do with how good any secondary looks, but what about the performance of the Pat’s corners and safeties? Will McCourty rebound from a tough sophomore year? Will Dowling stay healthy? Is Dennard a diamond in the rough? Will Gregory, Wilson and Ebner be a step up from last year’s nightmare rotation at safety? Locker and the Titans should only be effective if Chris Johnson is having a monster game.

Three Keys for the Titans

1. Is Jake Locker ready? Look for the Titans to try and spread things out to give Locker opportunities to make plays with both his arm and his feet. Locker looked adequate in the pre-season but was not close to stellar.

2. Will Chris Johnson return to Pro Bowl form? Is a full training camp and pre-season all that Johnson needs to return to form? The Patriots defense projects to be stout against the run, but Johnson is capable of turning any play into a big gain. This is a good early test for both sides.

3. Is the defensive line as good as the Titans think it is? The Titans greatest weakness of 2011 might well be a strength of 2012, if the Titans can bring pressure to bear on opposing quarterbacks. Expect the strength of this unit to be up the middle as the defensive ends progress more slowly, but injuries may make the middle susceptible this week.

Note – the Titans will be without wide receiver Kenny Britt, who is serving a one game suspension.

PREDICTION: Patriots 28 Titans 17

Players listed as “Out” or “Inactive”  are:

Patriots –
DE Jake Bequette
CB Alfonzo Dennard
TE Daniel Fells
DL Marcus Forston
DL Justin Francis
OL Nick McDonald
RB Shane Vereen <sarcasm>shocker</sarcasm>

Titans –
QB Rusty Smith
RB Javon Ringer
LB Zac Diles
T Mike Otto
T Byron Stingily
DE Pannel Egboh
DT Sen’Derrick Marks

GAME BLOG

Pre-Game: CBS reporting more trouble coming for the beleaguered New Orleans Saints as a result of a DEA investigation. A civil settlement is being negotiated but this will no doubt carry more penalties from the league. Nice ship you’ve been running there, Coach Payton.

Pre-Game. The game hasn’t started yet and I already love NFL Sunday Ticket! Also, wearing the silver “54” Bruschi jersey today. Let’s see how it goes. :-)

FIRST QUARTER
15:00 – It’s officially New England football season!

Titans possession:
Good containment on first two plays. Good pressure on third down but Titans convert for 17 yard game. Same problem as last season on third down. PI against Dowling. So far the Titans are giving Locker short, safe plays. Titans go on fourth down after bad spot for Johnson. Great pass from Locker to Washington for big gain. Pats stiffen up but McCourty gets away with obvious PI. Titans get field goal for early 3-0 lead.

Patriots possession:
Begin at 26 yard line after McCourty return. Hernandez nice catch and run for 9. Ridley looks tentative on short carry, but then tears off a big gain for 17. Lloyd misjudged ball and misses an easy touchdown. Walker drops a sure first down to end drive. Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Tennessee starts on own 19 after short Mesko punt. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson for three yard loss. Run defense looking stout so far. On third and twelve Pats stop Titans for quick three and out.

Patriots possession:
Patriots get nice punt return from Edelman to start at the at their own 32 yard line. Brady hits Gronk for big 28 yard gain. Ridley rips off another big gain for 16. Brady to Hernandez for 23 yard touchdown strike! 7-3 Patriots.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18. Locker starts with three straight passes as Titans convert on third down again. Need to see where the coverage breakdown was. Fourth straight pass for four yard gain as Pats maintain containment.

END OF FIRST QUARTER

SECOND QUARTER

Titans possession:
Titans open with stretch pass for first down. Pats pick off Locker on next play In the end zone. Gift wrapped for Tavon Wilson – welcome to the NFL.

Patriots possession:
Pats start with acrobatic catch by Lloyd for 28, challenged by Titans. Bad challenge as Lloyd definitely caught the ball; play confirmed. Ridley gets 7 on quick pass before getting stuffed on the next play. On third down Brady gets sacked by Wimbley, forcing a Patriots punt, which the Pats down near the 10. Wimbley’s knee hit Brady in the face, drawing blood. Giselle is not going to be happy. ;-p

Titans possession:
Pats snuff run again after Washington drops an easy pass. Hightower looks good so far today. Pats strip Locker of ball, Hightower gets easy touchdown. Pats up 14-3. This defense is definitely looking like an improvement over the 2011 model. Chandler Jones forced the fumble. Good day for Pats rookies so far.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18 after blatant hold on return. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson on first down run. Short pass for two but Mayo shuts it down. Locker scrambles nicely for first down. Locker misses open pass after Pats shut down anoth run, bringing up third down. Johnson catches pass from Locker but comes up a yard short. Titans punt. Edelman muffs punt but the was pretty clear interference by the Titans. First down Patriots.

Patriots possession:
Ridley tears off 15 yard run to open drive. Sideline pass to Lloyd for 9. Brady muscles out first down on the sneak. Brady misses Welker on long pass. Woodhead makes smart play to create manageable third down. Injury timeout for a Titans defender. Hernandez takes direct snap for first down. Brady to Gronk for 7. Edelman for another first down. 5 more yards with connection to Welker. Woodhead runs it to the 10; third down. Titans confused on coverage assignment but Brady calls Pats first time out. Ridley takes it to the 2. First and goal. Brady to Gronk for two yard touchdown. Woot! Pats up 21-3.

Titans possession:
Cook stays in bounds after short completion but Reynaud gets out after first down catch. Locker sacked by Jermaine Cunningham. Williams catch brings up 3rd and 5 aft second Tennessee timeout (first used on challenge). Titans receiver Williams doesn’t use head on third down play, short of first down, forcing punt. Pats take second timeout.

Patriots possession:
Pats start at own 12 after short Edelman return. Pats take knee into halftime.

END OF SECOND QUARTER

Halftime reactions: Rookie defenders are looking great for the Pats. Troubling sign for Jake Bequette that he is inactive today. Locker doesn’t look bad at all, but Chris Johnson can’t find room to run on the defense and the Titans defense can’t keep up with Brady and Co. Ridley is looking like a premiere running back today. Patriots get the ball to start the second half.

THIRD QUARTER

Patriots possession:
Pats open on their own 20. Pass to Hernandez for 4. Ridley muscles out a first down- solid running day so far. Ridley another nice run for 7. Quick stretch play to Hernandez for another 12. Ridley loses one on nice play by Morgan. Brady misfires short on blitz. Edelman angry on called incomplete- looks like he caught the ball off his shoe. No challenge by Belichick and Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Locker opens with big 35 yard completion to Jared Cook. McCourty breaks up next Locker pass. Chris Johnson gets 15 on short pass. Locker to Washington on pretty play as Locker was on his way to being sacked. Pats 21 Titans 10.

Patriots possession:
Brady opens with a bounce to Lloyd. Ridley gets 4 to set up a long third down. Gronk saves a low pass for a first down. Ridley ridden down for 4 yard loss by Jason McCourty. Hernandez gets five back to set up another third and long. Another first down completion to Gronk. Brady to Lloyd for another 11 yards, then to Welker for just one. Hernandez for 7 more. Brady can’t find a receivers on third down and throws the ball away. Patriots punt and Mesko pins the Titans at the 9 yard line.

Titans possession:
Johnson snuffed on opening pass. McCourty picks off Locker on errant throw, but it is a questionable pick. Play being reviewed. Play overruled – good call by official. Third and ten. Designed quartback for big gain, but Titans held, so the play comes back. Titans stuffed at 2 yard line to bring up punt.

Patriots possession:
Edelman brings punt to the Titans 47 to set up the offense. Brady to Gronk for six yards. Ridley runs throu a big hole to get it to the Titans 26. Lloyd for six more, then Ridley pounds another first down. Ridley to the one yard line. Patriots wearing down the Titans front line. Ridley touchdown. Pats 28 Titans 10.

Titans possession:
Johnson hammered for one yard loss. Fans booing, but the Pats defense is just soffocating the run. Locker incomplete as Wilfork hammers him. Locker to Williams for the first down. Wright for 12 to end quarter.

END OF THIRD QUARTER

FOURTH QUARTER

Titans possession:
Johnson underneath for three. Free play (offsides) covered by Chandler Jones. Second and short. Nate Washington hammered after big gain, loses ball to Patrick Chung. Locker gets Hurts left shoulder during the tackle. Washington not getting up; injury timeout. Clean hit to cause the fumble. Play overturned as incomplete, but Hasselbeck on field. Good call on replay. Hasselbeck to Johnson for big third down conversion. Williams for seven yards, then Hawkins for a first down. Raynaud runs for two. Mayo PI for another first down. Stevens for five on a screen. Wright on a quick pass to the Patriot two. Johnson snuffed by Wilfork for loss off four. Johnson now has 11 carries for 4 yards. Wow. Hasselbeck misfires on second down. Incomplete on third down; good no-call on Chung. Titans nail field goal. Pats 28 Titans 13.

Patriots possession:
Ridley catches a pass out of the backfield for 20 yards. Woodhead for three and then Brady to Lloyd for a first down. Lloyd looks good today – 5 catches. Woodhead runs for two. Welker for 8 after Phil Simms calls the Titans defense cows standing in a pasture. Woodhead for six. Woodhead for two more. Ridley rips through the defense down to the 10 yard line. Ridley for one yard. He has 123 yards today (unofficial). Patriots take first time out with 4:33 left. Connolly in locker room – Brian Waters might be getting a call soon. Ridley for two as Titans take first time out. Brady scrambles out of trouble but misses Hernandez in he end zone. Ghost makes it a 31-13 margin with a field goal. 4:15 left.

Titans possession:
Titans start at the 20. Wright for four. Next an incomplete pass. Hasselbeck misfires on third down, forcing a fourth down attempt. Bad pass by Hasselbeck leads to turnover deep in Titan territory. I question doing that on fourth down. The game is decided and now they are inviting the Patriots to step on their throats.

Patriots possession:
Brandon Bolden for nine, then for two more. First down. Bolden for two more as the Patriots take it to two minutes. Looks like the Patriots are invoking the mercy rule. Bolden stuffed on next run. This is Brady’s 125th, moving his past Fran Tarkenton. Bolden loses ground to the 15. Ghost adds three more for 34-13 advantage. 31 seconds left.

Titans possession:
Titans run out the clock.

END OF FOURTH QUARTER

FINAL SCORE: PATRIOTS 31 TITANS 13

Post-Game Analysis:

The Titans are a good team and appear to be in the verge of being a contender, but they were simply no match for the Patriots today. The Patriots displayed excellent balance on offense, with Stevan Ridley racking up 125 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown, and the Patriots defense looked much improved over last season, stuffing the run and forcing the Titans into a one dimensional offense. This game set a good tone that the Patriots hope to follow up on next week.

When the Patriots ran:

As noted Ridley racked up 125 yards and the Patriots rushed for 162 yards overall as the caught the Titans off guard with their attack. Ridley ripped off several large chunks of yards as the Titans could not contain the Patriots’ attack. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady was his usual efficient self, going 23 for 31 (74%) for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Gronkowski and Hernandez each had six catches and Brandon Lloyd had five in his Patriots debut. The balance among receivers also had the Titans guessing all afternoon. Wes Welker had a quiet three receptions for 14 yards, and was a non-factor in the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans ran:

Chris Johnson finished with 4 yards on 11 carries, and the Titans only rushed for 20 yards. The Patriots front seven simply suffocated the Titans run game all day, and Titans had no answer for Vice Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Dont’a Hightower. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans passed:

Although the Titans were turned into a one-dimensional offense today, Locker performed admirably. He was 23 of 32 (71%) for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception before leaving with an injured left shoulder. Matt Hasselbeck went 6 of 11 for 43 yards when the game was well out of hand. The 272 yards of passing offense was commendable, but the Patriots limited the Titans to short catches for the most part, with the longest plays being for 35 and 29 yards. Advantage: Tie

Special Teams:

No major plays on either side, and no major blunders. Both kickers posted two field goals. Advantage: Tie

 

Key Moment: Chandler Jones’ strip of Jake Locker that Dont’a Hightower brought in for a touchdown

This week’s game ball goes to Stevan Ridley

May 222012
 

The New England Patriots finished 2011 one incomplete pass away from winning their fourth Super Bowl in eleven years and, judging by their aggressive off-season movements, seem intent to make sure that the next Super Bowl result isn’t nearly as close. Learning from the mistakes of 2011, Head Coach Bill Belichick is fulfilling fan wishes everywhere of improving a defense that simply could not get off the field in too many key situations last season. By getting off the field earlier and more often, the Patriots can provide more opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to roll through opposing defenses, and build leads that an aggressive defense can then help turn into a rout.

This is not to say that the Patriots are going to roll through the 2012 season like they did in 2007, blasting through a 16-0 season before falling in the final minute of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. But it is to say that conditions are favorable for a highly successful 2012 campaign. The offense brings back its major parts and has improved its receiving corps. The defense has improved at all three levels, and the special teams will to continue to excel, while the Patriots will benefit from a softer schedule this season, facing off against the AFC East, NFC West and AFC South in addition to their first place opponents Baltimore and Denver. Throw in the fact that this team is well aware that they were one play away from winning it all last year, and I expect a team bent on attending to unfinished business from last year.

Trying to predict anything that Bill Belichick will do is at best a shot in the dark. But when it comes to things like who Belichick will select in the draft, or who will make the Patriots’ roster, well that’s nearly impossible. Even the best Boston beat reporter gets things right only half the time, so this article is less about predicting who will make the final roster and more to give a semi-educated guess about who I think is the most likely to survive to the regular season.

Unlike the Jets, who look no better on paper than they did at the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant strides to improve the roster. Let’s take a look at the most likely prospects to make the opening day 53-man roster. I am in no way trying to keep up with all signed players, now that rosters have been expanded to ninety players. Almost all of that is roster fodder, though one or two unlikely candidate may emerge as we get towards the regular season. I will keep modifying this article until the first week of the season. Each update will be labeled so that it can be contrasted with my original projections.

Players in bold are projected as starters.

Quarterback (Grade: A)

Tom Brady is the incumbent and remains one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a capable backup who will likely be a future NFL starter for another team, as he is in the last year of his contract. Mallett appears to be the heir apparent in Foxboro.

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

Ryan Mallett

Running Back (Grade: B-)

The loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis meant that the Patriots would add a veteran back, and thus entered Joseph Addai. I have never been an Addai fan and didn’t think much of the signing, but accepted that it was a very practical and low-risk move. None the less, I don’t think Addai has much left in the tank, and will likely be beat out by younger players. Ridley is more explosive than Green-Ellis, but struggled to hold on to the ball last season. The Patriots seem very high on Shane Vereen, who was not able to get on the field much last season.

Danny Woodhead is a great change of back a la Kevin Faulk, and much younger than Faulk. While Faulk is a fan favorite in New England, his declining abilities make it unlikely that he will get signed and/or win a roster spot. Brandon Bolden is a candidate for the practice squad.

The Patriots have also signed several fullbacks coming into the 2012 campaign, including fan favorite Eric Kettani, who was able to get clearance from the U.S. Navy to re-join the Patriots. Still, Spencer Larsen and Tony Flammetta might have inside tracks to make the cut. Larsen’s versatility gives him the edge in this battle.

Stevan Ridley

Danny Woodhead

Shane Vereen

Spencer Larsen

Out: Joseph Addai, Eric Kettani, Tony Flammetta

Practice Squad: Brandon Bolden

UPDATE: Joseph Addai was released, as predicted.

Wide Receiver (Grade: A-)

Remember when Reche Caldwell was considered the #1 receiver? Me neither. The 2012 Patriots suffer from no such lack of depth at receiver. If anything, the camp battle is going to be fierce this summer.

Wes Welker returns as the best slot receiver in the NFL and is playing under a franchise tender. Personally, I think he has handled his contract negotiations all wrong. He was offered a two year, $16 million deal and turned it down last year, and is now surprised that the Patriots are offering him less this season. Yet he is a year older, and the play of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has taken away some of his leverage. Playing out his contract dispute in the media and through Twitter is also not his best move, and in truth I would not be surprised to see the Patriots take a trade offer for him before the 2012 season commences, perhaps nabbing a high round pick in the 2013 draft. Barring a trade however, the Patriots could once again slap Welker with a franchise tag next offseason if they are in the mood to add a few million to his current salary, and they just might.

Brandon Lloyd adds explosiveness to this group and is very comfortable working with Josh McDaniels. Deion Branch is a Brady-favorite, but the return of Jabar Gaffney could bring Branch’s tenure to an end. For the moment, I am projecting that they will both make the roster. Julian Edelman is not a sure bet to make the roster, despite his versatility. While I expect him to make it, Matthew Slater is a solid special teamer that will make the cut, and Jeremy Ebert may have a high upside.

Donte Stallworth seemed to have a chance to make it until the Pats signed Gaffney; I am convinced Gaffney will edge him out. Chad Ochocinco is unlikely to make it through camp. Despite his good work ethic and his ability to keep his mouth closed for the most part, he simply lacks production, and the Pats have brought back players who are proven producers. Gaffney’s signing convinced me that the Ocho experiment will be coming to an end.

Wes Welker

Brandon Lloyd

Jabar Gaffney

Deion Branch

Julian Edelman

Matthew Slater

Out: Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Britt Davis, Anthony Gonzalez

Practice Squad: Jeremy Ebert

UPDATE: Anthony Gonzalez was released on 5/29.

UPDATE: The Pats finally cut Ocho on 6/7.

Tight End (Grade: A+)

Providing they stay healthy, this is the best tight end group in the NFL, bar none. No training camp battles anticipated here.

Rob Gronkowski

Aaron Hernandez

Visanthe Shiancoe

Practice Squad: Brad Herman

Out: Nick Melilli, Bo Scaife, Daniel Fells

UPDATE: The Patriots signed Bo Scaife on 6/7. Not sure if he is insurance for Gronkowski, but unless there is an injury to the top three I doubt he makes the roster. Scaife had a solid 2008 campaign with Tennessee but declined after that before spending last season on injured reserve.

UPDATE: The Patriots released Scaife on 6/18. That was a short stay.

Tackle (Grade: B)

Solder and Vollmer look poised to anchor the ends of the offensive line for years to come as long as both stay healthy. The Patriots have yet to decide if Canon’s future will be as a tackle or as a guard. But we know the team values versatility, so he may well do both in the year ahead.

Nate Solder

Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Canon

Practice Squad: Markus Zusevics

Center/Guard (Grade: A-)

The key here is Brian Waters, whose return means the Patriots have great depth at the interior line positions. Waters had a fantastic 2011 season, and will start at right guard with the report that he plans to play again in 2012. Dan Connolly, projected to start at center prior to Koppen’s re-signing, now works into a rotation. Another major factor is the health of Logan Mankins, who is not expected to be ready for the start of the season and may start out on the PUP list. This necessitated the signing of Robert Gallery to fill in through Mankins’ absence.

Dan Koppen

Logan Mankins

Brian Waters

Dan Connolly

Robert Gallery

Ryan Wendell

Out: Donald Thomas

Defensive Line (Grade: B)

Chandler Jones was a great draft pick by the Patriots, and he will likely be given every opportunity to work his way into starting at the “elephant” position made famous by Willie McGinest. Wilfork is a beast in the middle who eats up blockers, and Deaderick is quickly coming along as a solid interior player. Fanene, Baquette, and Scott, provide a quality of depth that the Patriots have lacked in recent years. Andre Carter may still be signed if he is healthy enough, but my money is on his not returning to Foxboro in 2012.

Vince Wilfork

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Jonathan Fanene

Jake Bequette

Trevor Scott      

Chandler Jones

Out: Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Aaron Lavarias, Marcus Harrison, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Justin Francis

Linebacker (Grade: B-)

Much is still to be decided about who will play inside and outside, but Dont’a Hightower should see significant action as the year progresses, and offers the Pats a great deal of flexibility in the linebacking corps. However the positional battles shake out, look for a steady rotation to include Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich, and Carpenter. Jermaine Cunningham may wash out as a failed second round pick.

Dont’a Hightower

Rob Ninkovich

Bobby Carpenter

Jerod Mayo

Dane Fletcher (injured)

Brandon Spikes

Tracy White

Mike Rivera

Out: Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides

Practice Squad: Markell Carter

UPDATE: Markell Carter cut on 6/7. As much as the Patriots liked him in 2011, the offseason personnel improvements seem to have made Carter expendable.

UPDATE: Fletcher tore ACL is first pre-season game; out for season

Cornerback (Grade: B-)

Arrington and Moore both proved to be good corners in a much maligned secondary, and McCourty’s improvement over last year’s performance would do a great deal to bolster this unit. Will Allen offers great depth, and Alfonso Dennard will prove to be a steal if he can stay out of legal trouble.

Kyle Arrington

Devin McCourty

Ras-I Dowling

Sterling Moore

Will Allen

Alfonso Dennard

Safety (Grade: C+)

Well, at least the unit can’t get any worse after a nearly abysmal performance in 2011. Steve Gregory has been brought in to start, but he may only be keeping a seat warm for Tavon Wilson, who Bill Belichick seems very excited about. Chung is solid, and Ebner to looks have a good upside and will offer better depth than the Pats had last season. It’s still a possibility that the Pats could add veteran depth, such as former Jet Jim Leonhard.

Patrick Chung

Steve Gregory

Tavon Wilson

Nate Ebner

Out: Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Malcolm Williams

Special Teams (Grade: A-)

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and Mesko is not far behind as a punter. Finding return men for kicks and punts seems to be the only question as the Patriots look to 2012.

Stephen Gostkowski (K)

Zoltan Mesko (P)

Danny Aiken (LS)

Out: Chris Koepplin

Overall Offensive Grade: A

Overall defensive Grade: B-

Ultimately, the Patriots only need a “middle of the pack” defense to increase opportunities for a potent offense. If the 31st ranked defense from 2011 can even improve into the high twenties or low teens, the Patriots will rack up plenty of one-sided victories in 2012.

UPDATE: Just for giggles, let’s check back prior to the opening game against Tennessee to see how I did in projecting the roster versus Imala Weligamage over at the Bleacher Report. We have just a few differences, but it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.