Saturday, January 14, 2017

Texans Must Play Nearly Perfect Ball To Upset Patriots' Juggernaut

The Houston Texans have been called "Patriots' South" by more than one observant writer, and a quick peek at the coaching staff quantifies the axiom - but that doesn't mean they play anything like the Juggernaut Patriots.

Since the Texans showed former head coach Gary Kubiak the door following the 2013 season, no less than five former Patriots have populated their coaching ranks, starting with the hire of former New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as their head coach - the caustic O'Brien bringing in former Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell and quarterbacks coach George Godsey to man the same positions with Houston...
Patriots' power back Blount racked up 105 yards in week three

...and lining up former Patriots' players Mike Vrabel and Larry Izzo to be their linebacker's coach and Special teams coordinator, respectively, and also elevating Godsey to the office of offensive coordinator this past season.

So it goes to figure that there would be some similarities in the way the Texans are run, given the top shelf lineage from whence the powers-that-be spawned, but O'Brien has put his unique  stamp on his team to the point that only the manner in which he prepares his team - both in the classroom and the practice field - is similar to the philosophies that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick maintains, and has maintained for the better part of two decades.

The reasons are valid.  First and foremost, the offensive personnel that he inherited from Kubiac featured smallish, agile offensive linemen, a pedestrian brood of pass catchers and hard-running but injury prone power backs. Conspicuously missing from his bag of tricks, however, are two staples of the Patriots' offense: versatile passing backs and Tom Brady.

So it goes to figure that O'Brien would be forced into an offense - and, indeed, his entire team - that is suited for the personnel that he does have, which means running the ball with authority to set up a play action, employing a timing-based passing game, then trusting in a defense inspired more by a Seattle Seahawks philosophy of aggression than the Patriots' constantly evolving scheme.

There are certain nuances missing from the equation, particularly on offense, such as an elite quarterback and a power back that looks to punish defenders - and they will be hard-pressed to win anything more than a purple heart in tournament play until they solve their deficiencies.

Though they don't employ a passing back, per se, the Texans do get some production through the air with lead back Lamar Miller and, to a lesser extent, Alfred Blue.  Neither Miller or Blue are going to scare anyone, as they both tend to avoid contact at the second level, but their proficiency at pass catching gives the Texans an advantage in that the play action is always going to be effective if a running game has been established, and Houston has the eighth-ranked ground attack in the NFL despite being more of an in-space entity.

As far as the Brady reference, he is a once in a generation talent, so the Texans would have to settle for a steady gunslinger, which is what they thought they had in prize free agent Brock Osweiler, but the return on their massive investment hasn't been what they had envisioned in Osweiler's first season. He has the potential to be a very good starting quarterback, the evidence being what we all witnessed last season when he was under center for the Broncos for a good chunk of their season...

...and also in what we've seen from him in the past couple of games, coming off the bench in relief of Tom Savage in a season-ending loss to Tennessee and in a solid start against the Oakland Raiders in the wildcard round.

That said, Osweiler doesn't match up well against the Patriots. For starters, he rarely throws to his running backs, which New England has shown a propensity to struggle defending. Instead, he looks to his monstrous tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin on shallow crossers and to his deep threats, DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller, in the intermediate and deep zones.

Problem is, his arm to the deep sideline is shaky at best, meaning that New England's secondary can play their standard Big Nickle, the corners pinning the perimeter receivers to the sidelines while the safeties eliminate the tight ends - and all the while keep the Texans' running game in check with their athletic linebackers.

This is the very same game plan that the Patriots used against Houston earlier in the season, shutting them out in Foxborough - and should New England grab an early lead in the AFC Divisional round matchup on Saturday night, Savage is waiting on the sidelines.

At this point in their careers, Osweiler has made more headlines, but Savage may be the best option at quarterback against New England as he is steady in the pocket and won't take chances with the ball, and what the Texans really need from their offense is to protect the football, gain first downs and keep Brady on the sidelines, limiting his possessions, and therefore, his scoring opportunities.

Other than Savage getting a couple of late season starts, nothing has really changed for the Texans on offense since thier week three meeting, while New England has had tremendous turnover of personnel and have evolved into a top-10 unit, ranking 8th in total defense and a solid gold first in the NFL in points allowed, which, as everyone knows, is a compelling display of the effectiveness of the bend-but-don't-break philosophy employed by Belichick for years...

...all the while, the Houston Texans have been towards the top of the total defensive rankings, and actually ended the regular season as number one in yardage allowed, but have given up close to three touchdowns per game - a testament to their offense's propensity for turning the ball over and putting the defense in short-field situations.

If that trend continues against New England, the Texans don't stand a chance.

Turnover differential has been the bitch-kitty for Houston all season long, as they are in the bottom third of the NFL in opposition starting position, which would account for the disparity between total defense and scoring defense, but when the Texans are able to flip the script and force the opposition into more mistakes, it generally turns out well for them.

Defense is the Texans' calling card. Though they are ranked just twelfth against the run, they have overcome early-season troubles in that respect, and in the second half of the campaign have allowed just shy of 65 yards per game on the ground, far and away the best number in the league in that span, while their pass defense hasn't allowed a 300 yard passer all season.

But every defense in the league have had issues with the Patriots' offense - not so much because because their passing game is the reincarnation of the Greatest Show on Turf, nor because their newly-discovered power running game is dominating the opposition's front seven, but because of the Patriots' incredible balance.

That's right, the Patriots are winning ball games the old fashioned way, using their balance to keep the opposing defense back on their heels.

And why not?  Even with All World tight end Rob Gronkowski on the skids with a season-ending back injury, Brady still has one of the most dynamic offenses in the league - and perhaps the most versatile in franchise history. Funky free spirit Martellus Bennett is a fine fill-in for Gronkowski and is a top tight end in his own right...

...while perennial tough cover Julian Edelman is the most recognizable pass catcher on the team. But what makes the Patriots so difficult to defend in the pattern is actually a combination of he and slot man Danny Amendola taking care of the short reads, while newcomers Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd give the Patriots size and speed on the perimeter that they haven't had in nearly a decade.

Even that would be enough to task the Texans' secondary to the limit, but when you add in the three-headed Ghidorah of power back LeGarrette Blount and dynamic passing backs James White and Dion Lewis, it's just too much for defenses to handle - particularly since all of New England's receivers are capable of lining up anywhere in a spread formation.

So, how do the Texans combat such a juggernaut?

There is but one hope, and that is for their pass rush to get to Brady and force him off his mark, and to do it with just four pass rushers because Brady is at his best checking down against the blitz and finding his hot reads - and then when a team backs off to prevent the hot take, Brady will shred a secondary with his precision accuracy.

So it will take a complementary effort of the Texans' front three plus rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus getting past New England's eighth-rated offensive line to harass Brady, their fine set of run-plugging linebackers doing just that, and their equally fine secondary holding coverages on New England's pass catchers to have a shot at an upset - but it is a tall task indeed...

...as to accomplish this, they will have to get around left tackle Nate Solder and up the middle where Brady's pass protection is it's most vulnerable, they will have to fend off perhaps some of the best second level run blockers in the league in tackle Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason off the strong side and they will have to physically contain Brady's receivers.

But the key, as mentioned, is the pass rush.  If we hear the names of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Quinten Demps in abundance during the game, then we'll know that the Texans' defensive game plan has given them a chance, but if we hear Brock Osweiler's name in conjunction with interceptions or fumbles, their offense will have killed their chances.

It's a tight line to have to walk for Houston, but if they are to advance to next weekend's AFC Championship Game, they will need to be as disciplined on both sides of the ball as they have been all season - and then some.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Patriots Stomp Dolphins; Secure Top Seed, Homefield Advantage

The Miami Dolphins did what they always do.

Against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins got off to a slow start, but somehow managed to stick around and cut a three score deficit down to one early in the third quarter and had the Patriots in a third and long at their own 23 yard line, and the Miami fans in the stadium could feel the momentum shifting towards their Dolphins.

Then the Patriots did what they always do.

Julian Edelman caught a quick out from quarterback Tom Brady just across his own 30 yard line, made a quick move to the inside, eluding a weak attempt at an ankle tackle from Bacarri Rambo and split a pair of defenders who apparently thought Rambo would bring Edelman down - one of whom absorbed a savage hit from New England Patriots receiver Michael Floyd...

...a blindside job that liquefied Lippett's extremities and opened up the rest of the field for Edelman's 77 yard touchdown catch and run - Edelman saw the hit coming and even felt compelled to shift into an extra gear that he wasn't sure he had, because there wasn't much separation between him and Lippett, and Edelman didn't want any part of what was about to happen behind him.

Floyd had been working downfield, and when he saw Edelman split the defenders he took the angle toward midfield, where he collided with Lippett and left him prone and drooling on the Dolphins logo while the Patriots celebrated in the end zone.

Just like that, the score was 27-14, then 35-14 moments later as the Patriots' offense converted a seventy yard fumble return by linebacker Shea McClellin into a short LeGarrette Blount touchdown rumble, and the Patriots were headed back to Foxborough with the number one seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs, and fourteen days to prepare for their first opponent.

Floyd's posterization of Lippett was only the final act of his coming out party with the Patriots, as earlier in the game he had several key blocks in the running game, then executed a textbook in-cut to score his first touchdown for his new team, catching the ball just inside the Dolphins' ten yard line, cutting into a gaggle of defenders massed at the five, then fought his way to the end zone in an impressive display of strength.

The game was an encapsulation of how the season has gone for both teams.  For Miami, they always seemed to dig a big hole for themselves, but were able to hang around and crawl out of those holes ten times coming into Sunday's tilt with the Patriots, who always seemed to get out to fast early leads, sleepwalk into the room at halftime and stumble back out, then recover in time to score a decisive blow.

The pudding of proof  for the Dolphins lies in the fact that they have played so many one score games this season - ten of their sixteen, to be exact - that they could just as easily have been playing for a division title as playing out their string, with the latter being the more believable of the two. Four of Miami's six losses have been by more than two touchdowns, while only two of their wins have been of the same margin.

New England, on the other hand, had only four games decided by two scores or less, and were 3-1 in those games, their average margin of victory a robust 12 points despite scoring at a clip of 27.5 points per game - their lowest average points per game since the 2009 squad went for 26.5 - the 35 points scored against the Dolphins on Sunday representing their second highest point total of the season.

How they ended up winning fourteen games isn't exactly a secret, however, as the two main factors being their incredible balance in their offensive attack, and the resiliency of their defense - and both were on full display at Hard Rock Stadium.

New England opened the game with two consecutive touchdown drives, leaning heavily on the running game in each. Six of New England's 13 play calls on the first drive were handoffs to either Blount or Dion Lewis - ending in a Martellus Bennett backline score - and three of the five plays run in the second drive went to Blount exclusively, culminating in Floyd's power play - the combined 59 yards on the ground representing nearly half of the Patriots' rushing yards for the game.

In fact, the Patriots had 94 rushing yards in a first half that they dominated, and only 26 in a second half in which is was more about the defense coming up large, despite once again giving up huge chunks of yardage, only to stiffen when it mattered most.

The New England defense forced five punts on ten Miami possessions and caused two turnovers, the second of which sealed the game for the Patriots.

Following the Edelman touchdown, the teams traded punts on four consecutive series before the Dolphins got something proper started to begin the fourth quarter, driving to the New England nine yard line and threatening to shave their deficit down to a single score again - but on second and goal, safety Devin McCourty punched the ball away from Miami passing back Damien Williams...

...linebacker Shea McClellin scooping up the loose ball in the left flat and rumbling down the left sideline to set up New England's final score.

The fourteen points surrendered by the Patriots' defense lowered their league-leading points per game average to 15.6, assuring them that they will finish the season as the top scoring defense in the NFL - and they did it the way they've done it all season, shutting down the Dolphins' powerful rushing game and limiting big plays in the passing game - in essence forcing Miami to dink and dunk their way down the field, chewing clock the entire time.

Miami tried to counter the Patriots' game plan by going up-tempo, and it worked as they scored both of their touchdowns in the hurry up offense, but New England adjusted by going full shift-change in the waning moments to rotate in fresh personnel.

Now the Patriots wait, rest, heal and sharpen their technique and focus - watching to see who will be coming to Foxborough to challenge them in the Divisional round of the playoffs, with the lowest surviving seed between Houston, Oakland and Miami the candidates...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Patriots' Defense Elite; History, Philosophies Confirm

Todd Bowles said it wasn't about effort. Brandon Marshall said the loss was embarrassing. Sheldon Richardson said it was about effort and that Marshall should look in the mirror when talking about embarrassing.

Is it any wonder the New England Patriots blew the New York Jets right out of Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon?

The in-fighting in the Jets' locker room is nothing new, but a disappointing season in which New York has been a sideshow in the AFC East is a rich environment for discontent and even malcontents, and the Jets are going to have to figure out who is who on their team going forward - but that doesn't have anything to do with the Patriots.
Defensive end Trey Flowers (m) and Chris Long (r) lead a ferocious pass rush

The 41-3 shellacking that New England laid on the Jets in Foxborough is a lesson to all of those who still wonder, after all of these years, what makes the Patriots not just successful, but in the conversation for the Super Bowl every single year. It's not because they have had a franchise quarterback playing in the same system under the same head coach for the past 16 years...

....and it's not because they play in a pitiful division that has offered up only only token participation in the tournament, with the Jets making the post-season six times with 6 different coaches in that same span, next week's foe Miami has been just twice with six different head coaches and division doormat Buffalo hasn't been to the playoffs at all, and have had seven head coaches in Bill Belichick's tenure.

It's because of their unwavering dedication to their philosophies.

Now, this doesn't mean, for instance, that Tom Brady is a system quarterback, it just means that he's a quarterback who has been fortunate enough to work for an organization that values consistency.  It also means that he is the perfect quarterback to deal with Belichick's constant reinventing of his team each week, a process that sees him prepare every single player for one job on any given Sunday.

One job.  Maybe two, but that's it.  Belichick preaches "do your job", and he gives each player one or two specific tasks, and all he wants is for you to do the job you've been assigned and rely on the game plan to glue all of the pieces together. It sounds robotic, and sometimes it is, but you really can't argue with the results.

That's why as a fan, we shouldn't buy into the naysayers who will argue that while the offense has faced some stout defensive units - half of their opponents came into games with Top 10 defenses - the defense hasn't faced top offenses at all in 2016, and that their stats and status are inflated.

But here's the thing and there's no getting around it, they have done the things that they needed to do, and the competition is merely reduced to that week's game plan - and the result of last Saturday afternoon is a direct result of that philosophy.

Of course, you'd have to be crazy on acid to think that the talent level on the other side of the ball doesn't feed into the equation - and it certainly does - but it is also taken into consideration on the game planning level, which every week seeks to neutralize any perceived advantage that the bad guys hold, but for the most part the Patriots follow a defined template that prioritizes threats.

And every single week, the top priority is stopping the opponent's running game.

The 100 yard barrier is the accepted line between success and failure when it comes to stopping the opposition's ground attack, and New England's defense has risen to the occasion nine times in fifteen games this season with five of those instances in the last six games - allowing only the run-heavy Jets to accumulate over a hundred yards...

...simply because the Jets' passing game was pedestrian at best, two quarterbacks combining for a dismal 8 of 24 for 136 yards, three of their two dozen misses finding Patriots' defensive backs instead of New York receivers - lending credence to the notions that as stingy as the New England run defense has been, their pass coverages have been even more miserly.

Mostly due to the Patriots' game plan's second priority, which is to keep the opposing quarterback from stretching the field with long pass plays, happily giving up completions short of the sticks and letting their sure tackling pass defenders make plays to keep the opposing receivers from reaching the marker.

It has been an amazingly effective tactic, especially of late. For the season, the Patriots defense ranks seventh in the league in opposing quarterback rating at a respectable 83.8, but since the bye, that rating has dipped into elite numbers, their 66.8 quarterback rating allowed leading all of football in that time span.

In fact, let's drill down into Belichick's philosophy a little deeper. He has always said that he builds his teams throughout the season to ensure that they are playing their best football after Thanksgiving - and with that holiday being the line in the sand, we can see that the 2016 Patriots have taken Belichick's philosophy to the next level.

In the five contests since Thanksgiving, the Patriots defense is yielding just 62 rushing yards per game, the third best mark in football behind only the Texans and Rams (compared to 89.4 for the season), 216 yards passing (240 ypg for the season), 14 first downs per game, which is tops in the league (18 per game for the season) and have forced 12 turnovers, tops in the NFL for the time frame...

...so it is fair to say that the Patriots are playing at a level that transcends the negative thought processes, and that they will only improve going forward, as they have made themselves the victim of their own attrition, ridding themselves of "freelancing" linebacker Jamie Collins just before Thanksgiving, leaving first year Patriots to soothe the transition.

Thanks to recent pick up Kyle Van Noy, the integration of fellow linebacker Shea McClellin, and the emergence of second-year defensive end Trey Flowers as a pass rushing force, the Patriots' are reaching their sweet spot at just the proper time and are poised to make a run to a fifth trophy, with only three teams standing in their way - those being their two opponents in the AFC playoffs and whomever they meet in the Super Bowl.

In the AFC playoffs - assuming that New England does qualify as the top seed - of the other five teams in the field, those being Oakland, Pittsburgh, Houston, Miami and Kansas City - two will be eliminated by the time New England laces up for the divisional round in mid-January, with a wide open field now that the Raiders have lost their starting quarterback.

Until that point, the Raiders and New England seemed to be on a collision course in the AFC Championship game, the only question whether that game would be played in Oakland or in Foxborough.  But now, with all due respect to the Raiders' organization, the odds of that matchup happening appear bleak - at least in Oakland, anyway - with the Raiders poised to host the winner of a likely Pittsburgh / Miami wild card game...

...while New England hosts the winner of a Houston / Kansas City wild card tilt.  Of course, all of this is speculation until the last whistle of the regular season, but it seems likely that the road to the Super Bowl runs right through Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have a defense playing at its peak at just the right time.


Dolphins,Patriots Playing For Seeding, Will Not Rest Starters

Where would you rather have to play in the dead of winter in a one-and-done playoff scenario?

Your first choice is in a climate-controlled domed stadium against an opponent with a weaker record and who just barely qualified for the playoffs by winning the worst division in all of football, while your second choice is in an open-air stadium in the northeastern United States where the temperatures are liable to be in the teens with a windchill of negative connotations against a team that also just scraped into the playoffs, but are battle-tested in the tough AFC North.
Martellus Bennett is part of New England's downfield threat

If you are the Miami Dolphins and you have control over a scenario where you could go to Houston to face the offensively-challenged Texans in the Wildcard round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs, you do everything in your power to take that kind of favorable matchup - but if you don't, or can't, make that scenario come true, you will find yourself smack in the middle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania against a Steelers team that is operating on all thrusters and as dangerous as any team in the tournament.

All the Dolphins have to do on Sunday to win a trip to Houston is to beat the visiting New England Patriots.

The Dolphins need this game if they want the easiest path to the Divisional round and perhaps even to the AFC Championship game - the Patriots just need it, for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs - but there is a far more dark reason.

You see, the Dolphins represent the best on-field challenge for New England, which in turn will keep the team sharp going into their first-round playoff bye without being over-challenging in game-planning and preparation, since they are a well-known commodity in Foxborough.  Miami is relentless and plays with the heart of an underdog, and what they do well is what the other teams in the AFC East do when playing the Patriots: They find a way to hang around and give themselves a shot to win in the fourth quarter.

But unlike the Buffalo Bills, who have no defense, and the New York Jets who have no offense, the Dolphins have just enough of both to make things tough for New England on Sunday.

Much has been made of Miami's "prolific" running attack, led by second-year back Jay Ajayi, but the fact of the matter is that their ground game runs hot and cold.  For all of the coverage Ajayi received for topping 200 yards in consecutive games around midseason, the Dolphins as a team hit triple-digits on the ground only six times, going for two hundred against the Steelers and twice against the Bills...

...but in games against average to good run defenses, they sport an average of just 84 yards per game on the ground, which feeds into what the Patriots defense does best.

The New England run defense is ranked third in the National Football League, which illustrates how the Patriots approach each game - priority one being to stop the opposition's running game, which they have by holding nine of their fifteen foes under the century mark, and five of their last six, a period which has seen the Patriots surrender a league low 72 yards per game.

The New England pass defense gave up a season-high 387 yards to Miami in week two, but in truth 308 of those passing yards came during a furious second half rally which saw the Dolphins recover from a 24-3 halftime deficit, cutting the Patriots' lead to seven and knocking on their doorstep in the final seconds for the tie before centerfielder Duron Harmon ended the threat with a clutch interception at the New England nine yard line.

And therein lies the rub. Miami is not excellent in any unit on offense, but they are relentless with the style of a mean counter-puncher - and they have to be, because their defense, particularly their run defense, is absolutely atrocious, having given up nearly 150 yards per game since their bye.

Good news for a Patriots' team that sports a top-ten running game themselves, that has averaged 117 yards per game since their own bye week - and that phase of the offense is going to be important to the Patriots as they face a Dolphins' pass defense that is vertically challenged. Miami's opponents have demonstrated great balance on offense, and the ability to remain patient, knowing that their running game will set up their intermediate to deep passing game...

...which New England actually has this season. Since the departure of Randy Moss, the Patriots have relied purely on the short "Dink-and-Dunk" passing game, employing garden gnomes as receivers and monoliths as tight ends, and tying the entire thing together with prolific passing backs - but this season, with the addition of former Buffalo Bill Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, not to mention recent acquisition Michael Floyd, the Patriots have demonstrated a protracted ability to go over the top of defenses.

That makes New England's offense even more dangerous than they have been in previous meeting through the past few seasons with Miami, and affords them excellent balance and depth - which, despite the aforementioned struggles for the Dolphins on defense, will be as important as any other factor for the Patriots' offense, as Miami is tops in the league in their down defense, accomplished simply by bringing heat from their violent pass rush in obvious passing situations.

This game has all the makings of a classic Patriots / Dolphins showdown, but with much more on the line for both teams. Last season, the Patriots sleepwalked through their season finale and lost home field advantage throughout the playoffs because of it - and that in itself should tell you everything you need to know about this game...

...because if the Dolphins played that hard and that mean in a meaningless game for them to end last season, how much more motivated are they going to be when the game means the difference between going to a toasty warm Houston as the fifth-seed or to iced-down Pittsburgh as the sixth-seed, something that a win over New England will provide them.

But the Patriots are not without motivation either, as they well remember what that loss to Miami last season cost them in the playoffs. New England is in a similar boat this time around, in trying to fend off a challenge from the Oakland Raiders for the top seed in the AFC, which a victory over the Dolphins will give them.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Talking Floyd, Lewis, Jets In Advance Of Christmas Eve Tilt

The New York Jets have absolutely nothing to play for, which make them a very dangerous team for the New England Patriots.

This coming Saturday, the Patriots host the Jets in a game that means nothing to New York but has serious seeding implications that a loss would factor harshly. Look closely at that last sentence. The Patriots have won AFC East division titles in 14 of their last 16 seasons, including an NFL record eight straight, while the Jets have won division crown in that span - in 2002, while the Miami Dolphins took the 2008 title - and haven't seen the playoffs since 2010.
Flowers with one of this seven sacks

That's a long period of protracted losing, and it's important to observe that teams who have nothing to play for, a matchup with the hated Patriots provides a whole new level of motivation to a group of football players otherwise playing out the string.

You hear it all the time, that for an opposing team, playing the Patriots is their own personal Super Bowl, and to beat them, especially in Foxborough, is a launching pad to get a team's offseason rebuild off to a positive note. At least, that's the standpoint of the fans and management, but to the players it's a bit more personal than that.

Consider the Jets' middle-of-the-pack defense that was supposed to be an elite unit of speedy sack masters and dominating run pluggers - not to mention a shut-down secondary - but have been merely average and have given up the sixth-most points in the league. Their offense is even worse.

None of that ever seems to matter when the Jets and Patriots hook up, as New England's narrow victory over the Jets in November will attest.

It's good to be a Patriots' fan, and it has been that way for a long, long time. We are used to winning and sometimes hold our team to impossible standards. The Patriots make the Playoffs annually, the Jets and their fans were so confident coming into this season after their 10-6 showing last year, which makes this season even more of a disappointment.

But the Jets have heart and will give New England everything they have. Most likely will not be enough.

This week's questions:

Q - When week 17 comes, do you think that Bill looks against potential playoff matchups and "tanks" the game against Miami to get the Dolphins in?

A - I don't think Belichick wants any part of a divisional opponent in the post season, and will do everything in his power to eliminate the Dolphins. In fact, I think he'd rather set his nose on fire than see the Dolphins in the playoffs.

It's been a while since the Patriots have met another AFC East team in the playoffs, but in 2010 the Patriots got ambushed by the Jets in the divisional round, so it's not about trends nor about quality of opponent - it's about letting the other teams worry about themselves and the Patriots playing their game in a place where they haven't done all that well in the past couple of seasons.

It's never a good idea to face a division rival in the post season. I expect Belichick will do everything he can to make sure the Dolphins don't make the tournament.

Q - How vanilla will the Patriots' play calling be against the Jets, especially considering that Petty will be their quarterback?

A - I don't think they're going to be opening up the playbook any, if that's what you mean, but I think you're going to be seeing a regular offensive and defensive game plan, try to build a three-score lead, then call off the dogs in the fourth quarter - so I think you are going to see quick counts, maybe even some no-huddle, and lots of running right up the gut.

So if fundamental football is vanilla, then get ready for vanilla!

Q - Do you think Michael Floyd will have an impact through the remainder of the season?

A - I don't understand why he is even in Foxborough, but that's beside the point. Not because of his legal problems, and not because of his injury history and not because the intermountain west media is telling us that he checked out as soon as the season began, but because the Patriots were already all set at receiver.

As far as his legal troubles, many people throughout history have done some stupid things or are just bad people, yet still were very good at what they chose as a vocation - and football is no different. To a certain limit, I don't care what a person does with their spare time, but when it's time to get down to work, all of that gets put aside and we do the job - that's my question in regard to Floyd, when it comes time to do the work, can he put aside his individuality and do his job?

In reading the articles about him in the Arizona media, they seem to think that Floyd checked out while coach Bruce Arians is quick to defend Floyd by citing various maladies, such as a lingering hamstring, a bout of the grippe against the Vikings, and a bunch of physiological noise coming from "pressing" in his contract year.  That said, if Floyd is finally healthy and if Floyd is as focused in practice as quarterback Tom Brady says he is, then I can see him having a significant impact.

The one thing I worry about with him, is that if he was pressing because he's in a contract year, what is his psyche going to do with all of the negative stuff he's gone through in the past few weeks? Is he mentally tough enough to be a New England Patriot?

Q - Dion Lewis had the featured back role versus Denver, will that continue to be the case against the Jets?

A - LeGarrette Blount had an almost identical number of carries, but mostly in the four-minute offense when the Patriots were interested in first downs and chewing clock - they had different roles in the game plan, which is something that I addressed many moons ago...

In that article, we toyed with the idea that Lewis would be the lead back when he returned to full health, but that is going to be dictated by the game plan and in-game adjustments.  the one thing that that puts the situation in perspective is when weighing real-game snaps for Lewis to get him into football shape - that is, taking hits and getting used to the speed of the game - against sparing his legs for the post-season, where he could very well be a dangerous game changer.

So the answer is that Lewis may well indeed become the lead back, relegating Blount to an atypical closer role, where he has just as many carries, but in a different role and in more jumbo alignments. Lewis will be seen on early downs early in the game and in Pony Groupings with James White, who is poised to have the most prolific receiving season in franchise history.

Q - Do the Patriots need to win out for Brady to be seriously considered for MVP?

A- Probably so.

You see, the people that make that decision don't understand that the reason why Brady had what many are calling a "Pedestrian" effort against the Broncos is due to game planning, and not so much being limited by the Broncos' secondary, throwing just 32 times and turning to hand the ball off 39 times - it's called balance, and the voters don't want to hear that.

Currently, it is assumed that Brady is in a three dog race for the award with Matt Ryan and Ezekiel Elliott, while names like LeVeon Bell and Kalil Mack may surface when the voting takes place.  Make no mistake, Brady deserves the MVP award, but one thing that could work against him is how well the team performed while he was suspended, going 3-1...

...and while the definition of being the most valuable player is being the player is most valuable to their individual team, there is something to be said for the work that Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett did in the first four games of the season.

Q - Is this the rare occasion that New England will be able to beat a bad Jets' squad easily, or will this game end up a low-scoring, defensive battle as recent trends suggest?

A - Well, if you look at how the Jets' coaching staff is in disarray with Todd Bowles being hospitalized with an undisclosed illness - most likely that nasty flu going around - and the fact that Miami absolutely annihilated them last week despite having Matt Moore at quarterback, one could make a case for the Patriots blowing out the disappointing Jets.

But we all know that things don't work like that, one game doesn't translate to another - as there are different matchups in areas where the Jets are better able to exploit, or were, due to the state of the Patriots' offensive line - a line that all too often has been pushed around by the Jets' front seven - but this time, the line has a different feel to it.

But so does the Jets' pass rush.

New York is dead last in the NFL in sacks, dropping nearly a full sack a game from 2015, and their secondary is surrendering seven full completion percentage points over last season.  Their precipitous fall is due mostly to injury, but it really doesn't matter why it's bad, it just is.  The offense is in shambles and the Patriots come into the game with the Top 10 defense we've heard rumors about...

...complete with a newly discovered pass rush that is averaging three sacks per game since the bye, a stout run defense ranked fourth in the NFL and a secondary that is more a supporting cast for the work of the front seven, keeping coverage on the receivers long enough to let names like Flowers, Long and Ninkovich close in on the passer.

In the end, as long as the Patriots don't hand the ball over to them, they should easily overcome whatever the Jets throw at them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Brady, Belichick Deserve Post Season Awards; Patriots On Track For Fifth Trophy

What would be more appropriate in this 2016 National Football League season than Tom Brady winning the Most Valuable Player award?

Truthfully, winning the Super Bowl would be the most aesthetically pleasing for the general population, but as far as sticking things so far up someone's hind parts that you can see it when they smile, Brady taking the MVP trophy out of Roger Goodell's hands, would be considered karmic response of the highest order.
Brady (12), with Bennett

As most people in the civilized world and Canada know, Brady was suspended for the first four games of this season as the scapegoat for Goodell's old-fashioned sting operation, known universally as "DeflateGate", where Brady and the Patriots were set up by the league and the management of the Indianapolis Colts to take a hard fall for presumably deflating footballs in advance of the 2014 AFC Championship game...

...complete with a whirlwind, SWAT-style confiscation of footballs at halftime of the game and a very public indictment of the team and Brady via a constant stream of falsified leaks from the NFL offices - and when the smoke cleared, the Patriots had lost a million dollars, their first round draft pick for 2016 and their quarterback for the first four games of this season.

To quantify, that first-round draft pick is gone.  The million clams shelled out by Kraft has already gone to a charity of Goodell's choosing. Tom Brady has already served his suspension.

None of those things are coming back, so the next best thing is to get full value from the injustice that was - and always will be - the evil and wrong"Deflategate" saga. No one is really sure what the league got out of penalizing the Patriots for what amounted to a referee being unsure of which gauge he used to check the PSI of a football, which made the "evidence" that much more compelling.

Sure, there are questions as to why the league would purposely suspend the face of their product for something as frivolous as a few ounces of air pressure - kind of a "cut off your nose to spite your face approach" - and to this day no one really knows the answer to that, and the only tangible thing gained by anyone is that we all now know why the air pressure in our car tires decreases in cold weather...

...which thrilled most scientists, with the possible exception of Bill Nye, the Science guy.  Why, the league is so up to date on the Ideal Gas Law now that they now apparently wave off any notion of altered air pressure with the condescending air of men who are suddenly experts in theoretical physics.

Ignorance of the law is their excuse, though it is difficult to imagine that an entity that can afford to consult the brightest minds in law and science wasn't collectively aware, at the time, of the data - and since there was no baseline documented as to the pressure in the balls to begin with, Brady and the Patriots were screwed from the start.

It was a sting that failed so miserably that Goodell was forced to fall back on playing the media like a marionette would a brace of puppets to gain public opinion as to Brady's guilt, then eventually suspended him for impeding an investigation for destroying cell phones after hired gun Ted Wells assured Brady that the investigators didn't need them

It was a total job, prima facie absurd at every turn, and the Patriots could do nothing about it...

That is, until Belichick did do something about it.

The Dark Master went on a former high round round pick safari, bagging via free agency or trade tight end Martellus Bennett, offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Shea McClellin, then rubbing it in Goodell's face by making in-season moves to pick up linebackers Barkeveous Mingo and Kyle Van Noy, cornerback Eric Rowe and, just recently, wide receiver Michael Floyd.

All of the aforementioned athletes were drafted in either the first or second rounds by other teams, and all but Cooper an d Knighton are still on the roster. For those keeping score, that makes eight first rounders on the depth chart, and seven second rounders - most of the top talent residing on the defensive side of the ball.

You see, when Goodell took away the Patriots' first round draft pick, he took away something that Belichick cares about very deeply, something that he refers to as "capital", but he came away with so much in response that it could very well be considered that Belichick got full value from his vendetta with the league, and deserves not only to be named Coach of the Year, but also Executive of the Year, for his work as the team's defacto General manager.

In fact, full value in this context, means three things: First, Head ball coach Bill Belichick is named Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. Second, Brady wins the MVP. Third, the Patriots take home a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

The team is well on their way to another trophy, as a Patriot win against the Jets on Christmas Eve coupled with an Oakland Raiders' loss to those same Indianapolis Colts would ensure that the road to the Super Bowl goes straight through Foxborough, leaving only Brady's MVP candidacy - which needs no explanation at all, but let's do it anyway, because the numbers are amazing:

Despite missing four games due to Roger Goodell's ego, Brady has thrown for 3064 yards in the ten games he has played, which is good only for 22nd among all quarterbacks, but if those numbers are averaged out over the course of 14 games, Brady would be leading the conference in gross yardage, net passing yards and touchdown passes thrown...

...and he already does lead the conference in least interceptions thrown, completion percentage, yards per attempt, least times sacked, and quarterback rating.  If he is not the MVP of the league, there is no justice.  Oh wait...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Patriots' Defense, Running Game Key Old-School Win Over Broncos

The Denver Broncos knew coming into Sunday afternoon's game against the New England Patriots that they had to start fast on offense in the first quarter and finish strong in the fourth.

Mission accomplished - problem is, they forgot about the second and third quarters.

In reality, the Broncos did not collectively space out a full two quarters of a crucial matchup against their perennial nemesis, they just ran into a New England defense that is rounding into championship form at precisely the right time.
Dion Lewis carries against the Broncos

Denver moved the ball well between the twenties (where have we heard that one before?) in the first quarter, racking up 180 yards of total offense, then moved the ball well again against New England's three-deep prevent zone in the fourth, adding 103 yards to their impressive first quarter total - the problem was - and still is - that in between, the Patriots' defense forced five consecutive three-and-outs...

...allowing just 19 total yards in that span, smothering a Denver offense that did nothing to help themselves and made whatever the Patriots offense could muster against the Broncos' magnificent defense sure to hold up in the frigid cold of xxx field at Mile High.

As always against Denver, points were tough to come by, but the sixteen scored by the Patriots offense was more than enough to counter the lone field goal surrendered by New England's defense in a game reminiscent of last January's AFC Championship game, but with one very important difference:

This time, the Patriots took the points that were there for the taking, and didn't try to force the issue.

New England trailed the Broncos by eight points after Broncos kicker Brandon McManus'31 yard field goal made the score 20-12 with ten minutes left in that game - The Patriots but found their rhythm, going 63 yards in 11 plays and facing a fourth-and-one from the Denver 16 yard line...

...the try to Julian Edelman falling incomplete. They got the ball back with four-and-a-half minutes left and went 57 yards in eight plays and went for it on a fourth-and-six from the Denver 14, a pass to Rob Gronkowski falling incomplete - two long drives into the Bronco Red zone, but no points to show for it.

So when the Patriots got the ball back one last time with just under two minutes left, they needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie the game, but had they taken the points on the previous two possessions - assuming Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski would have made two chip shot field goals - they could have been driving for a game-winning field goal instead.

The Patriots lost that game when a two-point conversion try intended for Edelman fell harmlessly to the turf after a Gronkowski touchdown - so when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick was faced with similar decisions against the Broncos on Sunday, albeit under different circumstances, he proved that he learned his lesson.

This time, his Patriots took the points and, this time, the Patriots came out on top.

Back in January, Belichick said that he didn't think his offense could move the ball well enough to just take what points he could get - and lord knows that there was plenty of evidence early in the game to support that school of thought - so he gambled on fourth down and paid the price.

Not this time, however, as he called on Gostkowski twice deep in Broncos' territory - including a fourth and goal from the three yard line that had to be plenty tempting.

The 16-3 final score tells a story that is more an encapsulation of the Patriots' fortunes for as long as Belichick and Brady have been running things, that the offense finds ways to score just enough  against elite defensive units, while his defenses set that bar for the offense with a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that relies on clutch plays and generating turnovers to get them off the field.

That's a formula that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Championship Games and a couple of Super Bowls in that time span, and it's what has gotten the Patriots to a 12-2 record this season, winning their eighth straight AFC East division title and earned them their seventh consecutive first-round playoff bye.

The prescription for Denver's defense is to run the ball, then run the ball, then run the ball again to keep their elite pass rushers at bay, and sprinkling in play-action passes to keep the secondary honest - and Brady administered their medicine in the form of taking the snap and turning to hand the ball to Dion Lewis eighteen times and to seventeen times to LeGarrette Blount and 39 times overall...

...that compared to just 32 Brady throws - a far cry from the insane 56 he offered up in January, giving the Broncos only half as many opportunities to beat on him.

Brady's 177 passing yards is his lowest total for the season by a wide margin, but was more than offset by the 136 rushing yards produced by the running backs, with 95 of those courtesy of Lewis, whose short-area elusiveness made him a better choice as the featured back on Sunday, though Blount's bruising style was responsible for a two yard touchdown blast, the only six-pointer of the afternoon.

Denver's defense played like the top-five unit that they were entering the game and held New England's offense to a five-of-seventeen performance on third down conversions, not to mention their lowest output of yardage since Brady returned from suspension ten weeks ago - a fact not lost on Broncos' safety and resident goon T.J. Ward, who was spot-on in his analysis.

"We did dominate them," Ward told NFL.com, "But when they don't have to pass, 'No Fly' kind of gets eradicated, so we got to try to make plays in other areas."

Ward was speaking of the Broncos' run defense, ranked next to last in the league, and how that problem area affects the secondary, which the players refer to as a No Fly Zone. "teams don't even have to throw the ball on us. If they're not in a position to throw, it's hard to get an interception, and even when they run, their backs have two hands on the ball, so it's hard to make a play."

It's called ball security, and the Broncos are in a dry spell in creating turnovers - which is enough, obviously, to cause some frustration and apparently some divisiveness in the locker room. Ward has a point, because creating turnovers is how the Broncos raced out to a 6-2 record in the first half of the season, but are now 2-4 in games since as turnovers have taken a nose dive.

In games where the Denver defense forces a turnover, they are 8-2, and in games where they don't, they are 0-4. That's what happens when a defense is forced to live or die by the turnover. By contrast,
New England is 4-2 in games when the defense doesn't force a turnover, and 8-0 in games where they do.

Obviously, the Patriots' defense has a lot more going for it.

A staple of all Belichick game plans is to stop the bad guy's running game and to not let any of their speedy wide receivers get behind them, even at the expense of some intermediate routes picking up big chunks. That philosophy causes some bandwagon jumping during games, but just like on Sunday afternoon, it tends to work itself out through the course of a game.

For instance, in the five games since a turnover-fueled debacle against the Seahawks that dropped the Patriots to 7-2, the defense has allowed just one team to rush for over 65 yards - the 49ers dropped 122 on them, mostly in garbage time - and held those teams to an average of 65 yards per game on the ground, and only fifty yards per game in their last four.

In the passing game, it's more of the same. Since the Seattle game, they have allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for just 225 yards per game and just a 52% completion rate - so it goes to figure that since teams can't run against the Patriots' defense and only complete half of their passes for pedestrian yardage numbers, those teams become frustrated and impatient, and that's when the Patriots take charge.

The Broncos offense did very little against New England's defense, even considering that quarterback Trevor Siemian completed 25 of 40 pass attempts on Sunday and the running game generated just 58 yards on 17 attempts.

"We're having fun" said cornerback Logan Ryan, who picked off Siemian in the red zone to stop Denver's lone threat of the afternoon, "we're getting after the quarterback and playing great defense. We feed off of each other."

Ryan paused for effect, then smiled. "Plus, we've been doubted all year. You all (The media) said we sucked and we heard all about the Broncos secondary and their defense, so we wanted to come out here and prove something."

The defense did prove something, that they are improving by the week. Perhaps not against top-tier offenses, but they can't help who they are scheduled against, nor can they control how those teams perform against other teams - all they can do is to game plan for each opponent and take away what they do best.

The Patriots protracted success should tell anyone who questions their talent or resolve that it's a working formula, that not every team can be attacked or defended the same way, and that it's all about matchups - and on Sunday afternoon in Denver, the Patriots did what they do more than any other team in the National Football League.

They won.