Jan 162013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

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

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

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

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

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

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

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

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

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

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

Intangibles

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

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

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

Brady - VereenPrediction

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

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

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

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Jan 072013
 

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots 34 Texans 24

Jan 062013
 

Rat's Awards ImageNow we get to the top three awards, beginning with the DPotY. For much of the season, media and fan focus on defense was directed at the pursuit of the sack record by Aldon Smith and JJ Watt, with Von Miller not far behind. And while some consider sacks to be an overrated statistic (as it is not reflective of the amount of total quarterback pressure applied by a team), it is certainly something that grabs our attention and keeps us interested in defensive players. But there were many good defensive stories in 2012, and our nominees reflect the best defensive accomplishments across the league this season.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Our nominees in this category included NaVorro Bowman (SF), Chad Greenway (MIN), Tim Jennings (CHI), Luke Kuechly (CAR), James Laurinaitis (STL), Jerod Mayo (NE), Von Miller (DEN), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Aldon Smith (SF), and JJ Watt (HOU).

3rd Place – Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Smith finished second in the sack race with 19.5 sacks on the year, but is a disruptive presence well beyond his sack production. Smith tallied 66 combined tackles, one interception, and three forced fumbles in addition to his pursuit of Michael Strahan’s single season record. But playing alongside NaVorro Bowman, who racked up 149 combined tackles and who was also a disruptive presence for the 49ers’ defense, clearly hurt Smith in the voting.

2nd Place – Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Miller had 68 combined tackles to go along with his 18.5 sacks, one interception, and six forced fumbles as he helped bring the Broncos’ defense back to respectability after the unit struggled at the end of the 2011 season. Miller has quickly established himself as one of the game’s elite pass rushers, accumulating 30.0 sacks in his two NFL seasons.

JJ WattWINNER – JJ Watt, Houston Texans
If you look up “disruptive” in a dictionary, you just might see this picture next to the definition. Watt was an amazing force in 2011, particularly after the Texans lost defensive anchor Brian Cushing for the season. Watt amassed 81 combined tackles, 20.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, and an incredible 16 passes defended as the Texans posted a 12-4 record and won the AFC South for the second year in a row. In his two seasons in the NFL, Watt has established himself as a player for whom game plans must be developed. Because of his knack for batting balls down at the line of scrimmage, he was nicknamed “JJ Swatt” by former NFL head coach Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football.

Dec 172012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 032012
 

Week 13 served as a start reminder of how quickly lives can take a tragic turn. This Saturday, as I was home putting up a Christmas tree with my family and enjoying time with my loved ones, Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before going to Arrowhead Stadium. He encountered Chiefs’ GM Scott Pioli, who tried to calm him down. Head Coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were also brought outside to speak with Belcher, who thanked each man for the opportunities he was provided with. Then, when police arrived, Belcher turned the gun on himself.

Of all the things said this weekend, it was quarterback Brady Quinn’s comments that resonated the most. “The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn said after the game. “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?” Quinn continued with, “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

Well said, Brady. And with those words I hope to focus more on the people around me, and a little less on staying connected through my phone. In the final analysis, our lives are remembered and judged based on the relationships we have, and how much we commit ourselves to them.

Week 13 Recap

  • The Falcons top the Saints 23-13 in a game sure to be remembered as one of Drew Brees’ worst; Falcon’s defense comes through as Atlanta wraps up the division crown
  • Buffalo pounds Jacksonville 34-18 behind solid performances from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson; Bills rush for 232 yards in the win
  • Seahawks win away from home as they stun the Bears 23-17; Russell Wilson continues a solid rookie campaign with 293 yards and two touchdowns
  • Andrew Luck rallies the Colts to a dramatic last second win over the Lions 35-33; Lions’ defense squanders another monster game by Matthew Stafford and Megatron
  • Speaking of wasting great performances, Adrian Peterson rushes for 210 yards and a touchdown, but the Vikings fall to the Packers 23-14; Morgan Burnett picks off Christian Ponder twice in the win
  • The Chiefs overcome tragedy to pull off 27-21 win over the Panthers; Brady Quinn throws for two touchdowns and Jamaal Charles rushes for 127 yards
  • Patriots wrap up the AFC East with 23-16 victory over the Dolphins; Stevan Ridley and Jerod Mayo play key roles in the win
  • Greg McElroy comes off bench, leads Jets to 7-6 victory over the Cardinals;  Shonn Greene rushes for 104 yards as the Cardinals’ meltdown continues
  • The Rams have the 49ers number this season, as St. Louis edges San Francisco 16-13 in overtime; rookie Janoris Jenkins returns a fumble for a score
  •  The Texans whip the Titans 24-10 to clinch a playoff spot; rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus is merciless in recording two sacks and a fumble recovery
  • The Broncos lock up the AFC West with a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers; Manning throws for three touchdowns and Von Miller returns an interception for his first NFL touchdown
  • The Steelers stun the Ravens 23-20 with Charlie Batch throwing for 276 yards; Flacco not looking like an elite quarterback in the loss
  • The Browns win a second straight game with a 20-17 victory over the Raiders; Browns break road losing streak on the backs of Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon while Brandon Myers has 14 receptions in a losing effort
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushes for 111 yards as Bengals win fourth in a row, defeating the Chargers 20-13; Rivers continues turning the ball over at crunch time
  • The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33 as Dez Bryant catches two touchdown passes and Morris Claiborne returns a fumble by Bryce Brown for the decisive score
  • RGIII throws for 163 yards and runs for 72 more while Alfred Morris rushes for 124 yards as the Redskins edge the Giants 17-16 to pull within one game of the division lead
Dec 032012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 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.

Sep 302012
 

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

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

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

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

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

How the game broke down

When the Patriots ran:

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

When the Patriots passed:

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

When the Bills ran:

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

When the Bills passed:

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

Special Teams:

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

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

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

Game Log

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

FIRST QUARTER

Patriots defer on coin toss.

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots possession

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

SECOND QUARTER

Patriots possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots possession

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

THIRD QUARTER

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

FOURTH QUARTER

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

Patriots’ possession

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

Bills’ possession

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

FINAL SCORE: Patriots 52 Bills 28

 

Aug 102012
 

Pre-Season Game #1: Patriots 7, Saints 6

So what did we learn about the New England Patriots last night? Not much that we didn’t already know, but some things we already knew became a bit clearer.

To begin with, under the rules of the new CBA, the Patriots and Saints played last night’s game on fewer practices than they would have in previous years; teams are barely in real training camp mode at this point. Given that, play was a bit sloppy last night, though themes that were already emerging from training camp were reinforced last night.

Summary

The Patriots beat the Saints 7-6 last night, with two of the most powerful offenses in the NFL phoning it in while both defenses stepped up their games. Brian Hoyer led the Patriots on a third quarter touchdown drive culminating in a touchdown pass to Britt Davis, and the defense made the score stand up, yielding only field goals in the first and fourth quarters. Tom Brady had a pedestrian appearance of 4/7 for 30 yards, and gave up an ugly strip sack that resulted in the Saints’ first score. Jerod Mayo had a solid defensive evening, racking up three tackles, an assist, and a pass defense.

The Good

While Mayo was solid, it was rookie Chandler Jones who stole the show. Jones had a tackle and an assist, applied five quarterback pressures which netted two holding calls against Jermon Bushrod, one of the better left tackles in the league. Jones was also stout in run defense, played in multiple positions, and demonstrated why the Patriots are so high on the first round selection.

Beyond Jones, the Patriots pass coverage was improved last night, giving up 197 yards and holding the Saints to 33% efficiency on third down. The Patriots’ rushing game tallied 126 yards and was clearly an area of emphasis with the return of Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels as the Patriots rushed 31 times versus 41 passes.

The Bad

The offensive line did not look great last night, which was expected given the absence of Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, and Brian Waters. Nate Solder had a particularly difficult evening, netting two holding penalties and looking generally overmatched. The Patriots knew this was coming and historically have a solid offensive line, but it is clear that the Pats need their missing players back and need more time for their backup players to learn to work together. I suspect this problem will be fixed by the beginning of the year, but it is one area to be wary of.

The Ugly

Linebacker Dane Fletcher went down with a knee injury and it was discovered that Flethcher had town his ACL, likely meaning his loss for the season. Thankfully, the Patriots have depth in the front seven and this opens an opportunity for one of the bubble players to step forward, possibly giving Mike Rivera an opportunity to make the opening day roster.

The Interesting

The NFL lockout of officials meant Bill Belichick working the officials hard last night during the game. When asked about the officials in his post-game press conference, Belichick interestingly deferred to the opinion for Mike Pereira, the former head of NFL officiating. In that brief moment, Belichick made clear his feelings on the lockout, poking at the NFL to settle the contract issues prior to the start of the regular season.

The Pleasant Surprise

Running back Shane Vereen has not had a good training camp to date, and three other running backs saw carries before Vereen got the ball last night. But once Vereen did, he showed the flash that the Patriots drafted him for, picking up 64 yards on 11 carries. Coupled with Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead, the Patriots look ready to put a solid running back by committee on the field.

Next Up

The Patriots will be back in action on Monday, Agust 20th in a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles that will be televised on ESPN.

 

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.