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

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

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

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

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

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

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

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

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

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

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

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

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

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

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

3. Hold on to the ball.

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

Prediction

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

Sep 092012
 

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

Three Keys for the Patriots

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

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

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

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

Three Keys for the Titans

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION: Patriots 28 Titans 17

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

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

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

GAME BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF FIRST QUARTER

SECOND QUARTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF SECOND QUARTER

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

THIRD QUARTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF THIRD QUARTER

FOURTH QUARTER

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

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

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

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

Titans possession:
Titans run out the clock.

END OF FOURTH QUARTER

FINAL SCORE: PATRIOTS 31 TITANS 13

Post-Game Analysis:

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

When the Patriots ran:

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

When the Patriots passed:

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

When the Titans ran:

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

When the Titans passed:

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

Special Teams:

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

 

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

This week’s game ball goes to Stevan Ridley

Aug 252012
 

I missed writing up the Monday game against the Eagles, and with three games in ten days I was tempted to collapse all of the games into one article, but needing a break from doing real work at home,I will pause to look at the games against both the Eagles and Buccaneers. Just one more game until the regular season!

Pre-Season Game #2: Eagles 27, Patriots 17

Summary

The Patriots chose to rest many starters tonight, knowing that the team would be playing three games in the span of just ten games. And while the Patriots lost the game, the nigh has to be considered a victory of the Patriots because the Patriots second team looked solid in hanging with the Eagles throughout the first half. Nick Foles was able to come in after Michael Vick was injured to engineer a comeback win for the Eagles, aided by Patriots’ blunders on special teams.

The Good

Ryan Mallett (10/25, 105, 1/0) wasn’t fantastic, but we was good, and certainly outplayed Brian Hoyer (5/17, 55, 0/0). The front seven was active on defense, and the secondary, while giving up one 40 yard pass to DeSean Jackson, is showing clear improvement over last season.

The Bad

As noted, Brian Hoyer did not look as good as Ryan Mallet, raising the possibility that Mallett could beat Hoyer for the backup position to Brady. If this happens, Hoyer may find himself traded or released given that his contract was tendered at the second round in the off-season. The offensive line looked improved from the first game, but Marcus Cannon is clearly a better guard than tackle. The Patriots can’t get Sebastian Vollmer quickly enough. Special teams were miserable against the Eagles, muffing two punts during the evening.

The Ugly

The ugly actually came from Michael Vick, who once again found a way to get taken out of the game early. Vick got hammered on the sixth offensive play by Jermaine Cunningham, hurting Vick’s ribs. While Nick Foles looks like a great backup for Vick, the Eagles will go as far as their starting quarterback will take them, and Vick has a history of getting pounded.

The Pleasant Surprise

Reserve tight end Alex Silvestro caught two passes tonight, including an 11 yard touchdown from Mallett.

Pre-Season Game #3: Buccaneers 30, Patriots 28

Summary

Don’t let the score fool you; the Patriots didn’t look nearly this good last night. The Patriots fell behind early and needed a late surge to make the final score respectable in their match-up against the Bucs.  Brady was sacked twice and threw a pick six to spot the Bucs early. The Patriots finally got rolling at the end of the first half, with a scoring drive aided by a defensive pass interference call and a 29 yard run by Stevan Ridley, who eventually scored on a one yard run. Brady engineered another touchdown drive in the third quarter, connecting on a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski before giving way to Ryan Mallet, who led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and appears to have supplanted Brian Hoyer as the primary backup to Brady.

The Good

Stevan Ridley appears to have claimed the primary running back spot, netting 87 yards on 16 carries. Shane Vereen only carried twice before needing to leave due to injury. Aaron Hernandez caught five passes, and Marquice Cole had a great night on special teams and appears primed to claim a roster spot.

The Bad

The offensive line was awful tonight, leading to solid hits on Brady and a strip sack. While Logan Mankins returned to the line, the entire line struggled, with the right side getting beat like a drum throughout the evening. This team is ready for Sebastian Vollmer to return, as Marcus Cannon continues to struggle at right tackle.

The Ugly

Bucs guard Davin Joseph was injured and is lost (likely) for the season with a broken kneecap.

The Pleasant Surprise

Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps saw his first action tonight and was impressive. He returned one kickoff for 23 yards and rushed the ball three times for 41 yards, including a long run of 29 yards. Nate Ebner joined Marquice Cole as a force on special teams.

Next Up

The Patriots will be back in action on Wednesday, August 29th when they travel to New Jersey to face the Giants.

Aug 062012
 

So football is finally back with last night’s Hall of Fame pre-season game in Canton. While I only watched about five minutes of the game last night,  and I honestly can’t tell you much about what happened last night (other than Kevin Kolb getting hurt), it was simply enough to know that there was a game on; all felt right with the world again. The Saints beat the Cardinals 17-10, and this Thursday brings a slate of five pre-season games including my Patriots hosting those same Saints.

Speaking of the Patriots, they are looking a bit lean on the offensive line right now. Logan Mankins is still out and Robert Gallery retired after unsuccessfully trying to come back from an injury, while Sebastian Vollmer is still rehabbing and Brian Waters has yet to report to camp. The thought is that Waters has simply reached a private agreement with Belichick not to report until he has to, and the veteran guard played at a Pro Bowl level last season. But if Waters does not return this group could find itself in some trouble early on.

In other football news, the lockout with NFL officials still has not been resolved, so Thursday will see the first ever appearance by a female official. Replacement official Shannon Eastin will be one of the officials for the Green Bay at San Diego game. So it essentially has taken a negative experience (failure to reach an agreement) to see a good thing accomplished. Hopefully Eastin will be the first of many female officials to follow.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace still has had no contact with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and seems intent on holding out despite being under contract. Given that the Steelers awarded a large contract to fellow receiver Antonio Brown, this situation does not look like it is going to end well for Wallace in Pittsburgh. While Wallace is an excellent talent, his contract demands are preposterous for his resume.

Finally, a shocker…. Brandon Weeden is now the official starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. OK, maybe that’s not a shocker to me or you, but it is apparently a shock to former starter Colt McCoy, who seems to be under the impression that when the Browns told him he would have a fair shot at the job, that they meant he would have a fair shot at the job. Speaking with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, McCoy said, “I have not taken any snaps with the first group. I thought coming in it would be a competition.”Given the Browns’ treatment of Colt to date, it seems like a rather large leap of faith on his part to believe that he had any chance at all. While McCoy has not demanded a trade, a good pre-season showing might motivate another team to seek his services, and you can count me as one person who would really like to see that happen. The Browns don’t deserve McCoy, whether or not he ever proves to be an NFL starter. And this will only end with another miserable season for the Browns and a house cleaning by ownership in the next off-season. The Factory of Sadness just keeps producing.

On a final note, a shout out to the Rat’s Widow, who in addition to writing an excellent article for football widows everywhere, also bought me NESN (to see my Boston sports) and an improved sports package, as well as getting our NFL Sunday Ticket upgraded. Life is good. :-)

 

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.