Sunday, November 30, 2014

Patriots' running game, defense give them edge over Packers

The mystique surrounding the Green Bay Packers seems to precede their physical presence.

And why not?  Perhaps one of the most storied franchises in National Football League history, it is the Packers - not the New England Patriots - whose logo arises in the psyche of football fans everywhere when considering that history.

It has been said that if one listens very carefully within the confines of Lambeau Field, you can almost hear Vince Lombardi giving the business to a referee and Bart Starr's gruff cadence - and with the notoriously frigid temperatures that invade Wisconsin from the arctic, the perception is that the Packers are invincible, particularly at home...
The power duo of Gray and Blount are key against Packers' defense

...which is bullshit, of course, but not a bad image to carry into a game, particularly a marquee contest such as when they host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon - but reputation and image gets one only so far.

Similar to the Patriots, the Packers struggled out of the gates to start the 2014 season, beginning the year losing two of their first three games before righting the ship and going on a tear that has seen them win seven of their last eight, making them the second hottest team in the league.

The hottest? Right, those dastardly New England Patriots.

The Patriots have won seven straight heading into Lambeau Field late on Sunday afternoon - running the table in impressive fashion, which includes blowout wins over six different division leaders and all three of Green Bay's NFC North division rivals.  The Patriots offense leads the league in points scored, while the Packers are right on their heels, so there is no doubt that both offensive entities are able to put up points.

But that is where the similarities end.

The focus in this contest will be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Patriots have an emerging beast of a secondary that can take away the opposition's top two targets, forcing the opposing quarterback to go to his third and fourth reads, many times having to scramble from the pocket to give himself enough time to do so.

Having cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and an over-the-top safety presence like Devin McCourty gives head ball coach Bill Belichick flexibility that he hasn't had in the past, and a direct beneficiary of that is that it allows the Patriots' "Cloud" defense both the ability to disguise where their pass rush is coming from, while leaving the box heavy in run support.

How fortuitous is it for the Patriots to have Revis and Browner in coverage?  Through 11 games, New England has allowed only two quarterbacks to throw for over 300 yards, and both of those signal callers - Denver's Peyton Manning and the Colts' Andrew Luck - enjoyed most of that success in garbage time as the Patriots had big leads and backed off in coverage to make sure neither could could beat them deep for a quick score.

As a result, New England has been able to utilize the base Cloud, rotating in a combination of coverage 'backers and the big nickle to also shut down the opposition's ground game.
Akeem Ayers' pass rush, edge-setting vital against Rodgers

New England's defense has given up over 100 rushing yards just four times this season, and the results have been predictable.  In both of their losses, a narrow win over the Jets, and a blowout of a terrible Bears' team, the Patriots surrendered an abysmal 192 rushing yards per game - in their other seven wins, a stout 60 yards per game.

Obviously, stopping the run coincides with New England's overall success.

That said, it should be noted that, after a slow start, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy has been the catalyst for a Packers' ground attack that has averaged 126 yards per game - but even that comes with a caveat in that Green Bay is renowned this season for jumping out to substantial leads in the first half of their ball games on the strength of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' arm, then they turn to the four-minute offense to to run down the clock... the key for New England is to not allow the Packers to jump out to a quick lead through the air by forcing them to become one-dimensional - and the Patriots have the talent on defense to take their pick of which area to shut down at any given time.

But if there is anything that the Patriots' defense hasn't figured out yet is how to cover the bigger, more athletic tight ends and containing the quarterback when the pass rush forces him to leave the pocket.  Against the Packers, the former isn't as much a concern as the latter, as Green Bay's tight ends are used sparingly in the passing attack, but Rodgers has a knack for extending drives with his legs.

But if Revis and Browner effectively shut down the dynamic pass catching tandem of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers become underneath options, as does Lacy out of the backfield.

This makes the Patriots' linebackers the key to this game.

Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins provide solid interior presence in the 5-2 Cloud, and rue the pass catcher who attempts to slither across the middle - but the mid-season acquisitions of weaksiders Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas have strengthened the corps on the edges, with Ayers playing a stand-up, end-of-the-line role that sees him rushing the passer and setting the edge...

...while Casillas handles running backs swinging out of the backfield most often, but has also been used as a shadow on mobile quarterbacks on occasion, something that will most likely be employed by Belichick on Sunday afternoon.

Green Bay's slot receiver Devante Adams becomes important in this scenario as a third option, but the combination of slot corner Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan have proven to be able defenders in this area as well, and give up very little to a linebacker or safety in run support.

Conversely, the Packers' defense is not even in the same class as what New England brings, though their secondary should not be overlooked.

Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are a terrific duo of cover corners and are baked up with decent safeties in Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde, with rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the mix as well - but after them, there is little imposing in regard to what the Packers' will be able to match up with what the Patriots bring to the field.

At least one of those safeties and a linebacker will be occupied with Patriots' All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski, leaving holes underneath and in the intermediate areas for receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell to settle into, and with the added presence of emerging tight end Tim Wright and with the always dangerous Shane Vereen curling out of the backfield, they force the opposition to play in sub-packages for most of the game...

...setting up a light box for New England's power running game to take advantage of.

Most of Green Bay's opponents have run right at weakside linebacker Julius Peppers and defensive end Mike Daniels, taking advantage of Peppers' aggressive pass rush and beating him between the left guard and tackle to the tune of a whopping 5.25 yards per carry.  Opponents are also finding room up the middle to maneuver for 4.25 yards per carry.

Trying to go right on Green Bay is little more difficult, as they have surrendered only 3.2 yards per carry to that edge - but fortunately for New England, most of their running plays go left or straight up the gut, which means that the power back tandem of Legarrette Blount and Jonas Gray could have a field day against the Packers' weak front seven.

So this gives the Patriots a choice of how to approach the game offensively.

The age-old standard of establishing the run to set up the play action pass doesn't necessarily apply to New England, as quarterback Tom Brady can sell the play action better than anyone else in the NFL, and on more than one occasion offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has approached an opponent by going up top to help set up the powerful four minute offense.

This is the hallmark of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that the Patriots employ, the mantra being "Pass to score, run to win.", so it goes to figure that Brady will come out slinging, softening up a Packers' defense that will be struggling to stop the running game as it is, forcing them into a sub nickle or dime, then running straight into the teeth of their lighter box.

But all of this means nothing if New England turns the ball over.  The Packers lead the league in turnover differential, causing 23 turnovers - though ball security hasn't really been an issue with the Patriots this season, with only Brady and Edelman putting the ball on the ground - meaning none of the running backs have fumbled at all.

All of this said, the Patriots appear to have a solid chance of winning handily, even on the intimidating frozen tundra of Lambeau Field - just running the ball with authority, stoping the run and hanging onto the football should ensure a convincing New England victory.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Patriots take down another division leader; stomp Lions 34-9

The Patriots went to their four-minute offense on Sunday to close out a big win over the Detroit Lions

Lions and turnovers and penalties, oh my!

The New England Patriots committed 11 penalties on Sunday afternoon, one of them negating a would-be 74 yard punt return for touchdown by Julian Edelman, and quarterback Tom Brady threw a goal line interception that wiped out another New England scoring opportunity - but all those things did was turn a rout into a simple blowout.

Brady more than atoned for his ill-advised gaffe by completing 38 of 53 passing attempts for 349 yards and two touchdowns and newly re-signed Legarrette Blount scored twice up the gut from short range as the Patriots continued their impressive streak of dominance against division leaders, this time stomping the even more mistake prone Detroit Lions 34-9 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Danny Amendola returns a kickoff 81 yards to set the up the Patriots' second score

With the win, New England has now defeated the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals to start their current seven-game winning streak, then adding wins over the AFC West leading Denver Broncos and AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts in successive weeks leading into Sunday's showdown with the NFC North co-leading Lions, winning all four by an average of 40-17.

Needless to say, these New England Patriots are on a serious roll - and Brady acknowledged as much in his post-game presser.

"I'll let this one settle in a little bit" Brady said of the win over the Lions. "Then tonight I'm sure I'll get after it.", meaning starting preparation for the Patriots' next opponent, the Green Bay Packers. "They are a great football team.  We seem to have played a lot of them lately.  They are the next ones on the schedule, so it will be a great challenge for us."

Newly re-signed running back Legarrette Blount picked up right where he left off last January for the Patriots, rushing 12 times for 78 yards, most of those coming on bursts of 23 and 33 yards as the Lions had a tough time tackling the 250 pound steamroller.

"He's a big guy, he runs hard," Brady said of Blount. "and once he breaks your defense, he got a little bit of explosion so it was great to see on a couple of those big runs."

The Patriots ran the ball 20 times - which is right on the average that teams try the ground game against the Lions' top-ranked rush defense - and averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a team, second only to what the New York Jets put on them back in Week 4, but this game was all about Brady and his plethora of excellent pass catchers...

...with Edelman putting in his usual yeoman's effort with 11 balls for 89 yards to go along with Brandon LaFell's 9 for 98, while tight ends Rob Gronkowsk and Tim Wright logged five a piece with Wright being on the business end of Brady's two scoring tosses.

In stark contrast to the Patriots' efficient attack, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford suffered through a miserable afternoon, hitting on just 18 of 46 attempts for a pedestrian 264 yards and one interception - but it certainly wasn't all on him as his receivers dropped many balls in crucial situations.

"I think we moved the ball pretty well, and we had opportunities to catch balls in the end zone" Lions' coach Jim Caldwell said in his post-game comments. "We didn't make plays, and when you don't make plays, it obviously looks like you are inept in that regard."

Of course, it wasn't all just not making plays, as the Patriots' defense had something to do with a lot of what went wrong with Caldwell's offense.

Darrelle Revis was sensational once again, covering Detroit's Golden Tate for much of the game - and while Tate caught four balls for 97 yards, Revis knocked away four others.  Brandon Browner took on the persona of Optimus Prime, punking "Megatron", receiver Calvin Johnson, and dogging his every move - and any pass catcher that dared cross the middle got a taste of Jamie Collins...

New England's once porous run defense enjoyed their third straight solid outing, with veteran tackles Vince Wilfork and Buffalo retread Alan Branch clogging the middle, while linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins mopped up just about everything else - and with safety Patrick Chung continuing to impress in his second go-around with the Patriots.

The unit may have given up 91 yards to the Lions, but when taken in proper context, it was far more viable than those numbers suggest.

Lithe runner Joique Bell took 19 of Detroit's 25 total running plays - many of them right into the heart of the New England run defense - and paid the price with 2.5 tough yards per carry resulting in 48 of the Lion's rushing total. Theo Riddick was serviceable as a change up to Bell, carrying twice for 12 yards...

...the rest of their ground production coming via a Golden Tate reverse for 13 yards and three Matthew Stafford desperation scrambles for another 15.  Given the sources of the production, the New England run defense bottled the Lions up pretty tight.

But something that probably doesn't get discussed as much as it should is the positive impact special teams have had on the team all season long, and it again showed up in force on Sunday afternoon, what with Danny Amendola's impromptu 81-yard kick return that set the Patriots up for a touchdown...

...but also the clutch play of punter Ryan Allen, whose veteran play in a potentially disastrous scenario saved New England from having to play catch-up.

With the Patriots offense stymied early by the Lions' defense and looking up at Detriot three point lead, Allen fielded a bad snap from long-snapper Danny Aiken at about his own six-yard-line, taking it on the short hop with just enough time to get the kick away - and what a kick it was.

Going 78 yards in the air, Allen's net of 66 yards got the Patriots out of a deep hole and completely switched field position in their favor - backing the Lions up to their own 20 when their starting point for the ensuing drive should have been 20 yards further upfield.

"Sure was, sure was" Belichick smiled when asked if Allen's punt was a big play in the game. "Big field position play, yup."

When Allen was asked about it, he cited working on fielding purposeful bad snaps in practice and the work of his coverage units as the key to the unit's "Good Operation" - and when one of the beat writers mentioned that the celebration that the unit had on the field after that play had the look of a scoring play, Allen endeared himself to Belichick's dark heart...

"We celebrate good field position.  That's what we celebrate."

In two short sentences, Allen summed up this Patriots' team attitude.  Everything is important, and there is no such thing as a trivial detail - these guys are all business, and thus far into a season full of promise, business is pretty darned good.

End game etiquette epitomizes direction of Patriots, Lions

One play.  That's all it took to define these New England Patriots.

As for the Detroit Lions, well, they were the same old Lions.

While the Patriots haven't necessarily been searching for an identity on offense - and why should they when, as Detroit Lions' safety James Ihedigbo said after New England had just hung 34 points on his defense, "When you have a quarterback like Tom Brady, you can do whatever you want." - and they really can't be pinned down to any particular motif.
Blount scores his second touchdown of the game

So what they gained with 1:53 left in a blowout win over the Lions wasn't an identity that had any sort of tangible entity with a statistic tied to it.  Rather, it is a reputation - a reputation that will precede the Patriots by six days to the locker room and meeting rooms of every next team that they're on to, and will settle in and foul the hearts of their fans like a disease.

Leading 27-9 and having just taken possession of the ball at their own 34-yard-line (courtesy a Logan Ryan interception of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford), Brady got under center with every intention of running some clock.  Behind him, fullback James Develin with newly re-signed power back Legarrette Blount dotting the "I"...

...Brady took the snap from rookie center Bryan Stork, turned to his right holding the ball tightly against his chest pads as Develin rifled past him, then extending his arms to tuck the ball into Blount's breadbasket.  Following Develin through the hole created by left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Ryan Wendell, Blount hit the second level, let a few would-be tacklers bounce of off his 250 pound frame, then exploded toward the left hashmarks.

Thirty-three yards later, the Patriots were in business at the Detroit 33-yard-line.  Brady, Blount and the rest repeated the process six more times, with varying degrees of success and a clutch third-down pass and catch to Brandon LaFell sprinkled in - the four minute offense working just the way it's drawn up until the Patriots found themselves lining up for a chipshot Stephen Gostkowski field goal on a 4th and goal from the two.
Blount takes off for 33 yards deep into the 4th quarter

Gostkowski drilled the kick, but Lions' tackle C.J. Mosely cracked long snapper Danny Aiken on the top of the helmet, driving him to the ground and producing yellow flags for committing a most egregious personal foul.  Things had been getting chippy all the way down the field as the Lions appeared not not appreciate that New England was challenging their run defense... defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the most vocal of the Lions, at one point shouting his disapproval into the Patriots backfield and letting them know that they would not be doing any more running on them - the issue, as apparently Suh and the rest of the Lions' defenders felt, was that the Patriots had already proven their point and should have had the decency to take a knee and run out the clock.

But Suh's constant chirping compelled Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to take the three points off the board, pull the field goal unit off the field and send his offense back out, with a 1st and goal at the Detroit one.

Blount off guard, right at Suh, would cover the yard and pound his way into the end zone on the next play, adding insult to the beating that they had just laid upon the tired Detroit defense - but not without encountering a little thuggery that the Lions were infamous for under former coach Jim Schwartz, linebacker Tahir Whitehead pinning Blount's helmet to the turf.  Blount jumped to his feet like a jack-in-the-box and gave Whitehead an emphatic shove in retaliation.

There are two schools of though when it comes to end-game etiquette.  First, is the one that Suh apparently subscribes to, in that teams that are blowing out the other should take a knee and not run up the score - the other side of that notion is that taking a knee is actually more of an insult to the team that's getting their heads handed to them.

So while it is uncertain as to which end of the spectrum Belichick was leaning toward as the clock ran down to that point, Suh's mouth pretty much left him no choice but to step on the Lions' collective throat - and the chippiness didn't quite end there, as Lions' center Dominic Railoa decided that his team had been disrespected by the Patriots' refusal to show mercy, and took a cheap shot at the knees of Patriots' rookie defensive lineman Zach Moore on the ensuing Detroit possession.

And that was after he used Moore as his personal punching bag, slugging Moore in the back of the helmet a couple of times and then smacking him in the face a few plays earlier leading up to the cut block at his knees.

"It is what it is. I didn't feel nothing" Moore said of the abuse, "At the same time, just got to keep my composure and stay cool. If you look at the score, I'd be mad too."

Raiola drew no flags for his dirty deeds, even though the Lions were in the process of taking a knee just to get the heck out of Massachusetts, but the league might have something for him come Wednesday, when the NFL's weird and un-disciplined discipline process distributes their weekly list of fines...

Belichick has a long-standing policy that his teams play until the final whistle.  Sure, there have been times that he'll have Brady take a knee, though this season he let's rookie quarterback Jimmy Garappolo have the honors while Brady yuks it up on the sidelines - and he may have been willing to just go ahead and settle for the field goal under normal circumstances, or even to take that knee...

...but when players on the other team take to disparaging remarks and dirty play, his conscience won't allow him to advise his players to just take the abuse, so he evokes his old axiom of, "You don't want us to score, then stop us."

The bad blood actually spilled over into the post-game pleasantries, Blount, joined by defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty, was still engaged in some jawing with Suh - separated by a few coaches and a referee - evoking memories of the scene on the blue turf at Boise State University in 2009, when Blount decked the Broncos' Bryan Hout after the defensive lineman got in his face after Boise State had defeated Blount's Oregon Ducks.

The exchange between Blount and Suh never reached the point of becoming physical, and we may never know what was actually said between the two, but we can speculate:

Suh: "You left the game early last week and got rewarded by being signed by the best team in the league."

Blount: "Well, you left today's game early. Were you playing?"

So much for etiquette.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Patriots need to exert will in run game against top-ranked Lions defense

"Life, as in a football game, the principal is: Hit the line hard; don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard." - Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt was a tough bastard.

The 26th president of the United States was nothing if not the roughrider that history bestowed upon him as the leader of the 1st United States Volunteer Calvary, a group of ragtag soldiers of whom all of his leading officers listed "football player" as their occupation on their application for the elite volunteer corps.
Newly re-signed Blount will probably see plenty of action Sunday

He's what is known as "Old-school tough", and as such, his motto for living life is exactly what that quote implies, and nary a challenge did he back away from - so what would he think of today's football?  After all, it was Roosevelt stepping in and reforming football back in 1905 that has lead to the game that we know today, his proposed rule changes initiating safety protocol and ushering in the passing game...

...a rule change that spared the lives of both running backs and offensive linemen - 19 died that year alone from injuries sustained in scrums in the middle of the field - by implementing the forward pass, a ploy that really didn't catch on until the 1920's, but created positions like wide receiver and tight end and helped spread the field out so that all 22 players on the didn't meet in a big pig pile in the middle of the field.

These changes made the game more exciting, more specialized - and opened up the field for the running game to be more exciting and specialized.  Of course, it's rarely an easy venture, as the rules also made it critical for the opposing defense to employ large, mean individuals to clog as much space as they could to make up for losing personnel to pass defense...

...and the biggest and the best of the best these days reside in Detroit, where the Lions lead the NFC North division of the National Football League, with their top-ranked defense leading the way.

The Detroit Lions lead the National Football League in rushing defense.  The New England Patriots are 13th in rushing offense - a statistical fact that has most media experts and many fans clamoring for the Patriots to spread the field and avoid butting their heads against the Lions' brick wall of a front seven.

But a closer examination of the statistical facts suggest that for New England to concede the running game before even taking a snap feeds right into what has made Detroit successful against the run in the first place.
enduring a rough week, Gray will be counted on vs. Detroit

The Lions have faced just 227 rushing attempts in 11 games, an average of a fraction above 20 carries per game, good for second fewest in the NFL.  But while it's true that the Lions also lead the league in yards per carry against at 3.0, it is equally true that it really all depends on where you attack them.

In the last four games that they have played, the Lions have given up five yards per carry to the Saints, 3,5 to the Falcons, 6.75 to the Dolphins and 4.2 to the Cardinals straight up the gut.  The edges?  Well, that's where teams get into trouble.

In those same games when the opposition have tried off the tackles and around the edges, they have run into trouble amounting to less than three yards per carry.  That said, why would the Patriots want to avoid sending their bruising back straight into the heart of the Lions' front seven?

Lord knows, the Patriots haven't been very consistent on the ground this season - but he also knows that, just as in years past, the New England running game really doesn't get fully untracked until the second half of the season - with 2013 being the latest example.

Last season, the Patriots running game suffered through an up and down start to the year, but turned it on in the second half of the season in averaging nearly 160 yards a start, with a switch from Stevan Ridley as the lead back to big power back Legarrette Blount appearing to be the catalyst - while the Lions faded into oblivion in the second half of their season, their run defense surrendering big chunks to the Eagles, Ravens and Vikings in losing four straight to end the year...

...and before that occurred they lead the league in rush defense.

This is not to say that the Lions are going to collapse this season as they did last, nor does any of this mean that the Patriots are going to go on a tear and average 160 yards a game on the ground - but what it does mean is that it would be a mistake to become one-dimensional against Detroit based on season-long reputation alone.

Particularly now that Blount got himself fired from the Pittsburgh Steelers just in time to re-join the Patriots for their stretch run, and also now that Jonas "Sleepy" Gray has tasted his first real success in the NFL and is poised like a shark that smells blood in the water - and with the dynamic Shane Vereen as a change-up to the bruising styles of the other two, the Patriots may just have the best kennel of young greyhounds in the league.

But, as always, much of the success of the running game has to come from the big uglies up front, and against a run defense like the Lions offer, Sunday afternoon's battle in the trenches has all the makings of an all out war.

Which is what offensive linemen live for, right?

This is their time.  Physically, the offensive line has been as big a reason as any why New England has won six straight and have become the second-ranked scoring offense in the NFL.  Physically, they have had their way with some decent defensive lines in the six-game run, so this isn't about physicality.

No, this is about the psychological impact that generating a running game against Detroit would have on the unit going forward into real football weather - particularly on the interior.

Guards Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were both supposedly on their way out of town in training camp, but both showed the heart of a warrior in not only surviving camp, but for staking claim on those starting positions by ripping them away from younger, more athletic options - and along with rookie brawler Bryan Stork at the pivot, it as mean and nasty an interior unit as you'll find.

No?  Tell me then, when was the last time you heard the name of Logan Mankins?

But also part of what has made the Patriots successful on the ground is that head ball coach Bill Belichick has sacrificed receiving options on the outside in favor of employing a sixth offensive lineman, a strategy that allows for one of the tackles to pull and push the opposing nose tackle right out of the play from an angle, forcing the linebackers to make the play three or more yards up the field....

...and usually having to contend with one of the guards that have broken free from an interior double team at the same time - the only problem with that this week is that the sixth lineman, rookie tackle Cameron Fleming, is out with a bum ankle and his back up, Marcus Cannon, is questionable with a hip injury.

Jordan Devey has been inactive since the coaching staff's failed experiment at trying him at right guard early in the season, the coaches universally acknowledging that at 6' 6" and 320 pounds, Devey is a tackle, and an athletic one at that - and if the Patriots wish to stick with what's been working for them, that seems to be their option.

Granted, Devey isn't as massive as either Fleming or Cannon, giving up 20 pounds to each, but it's either him or trying 6' 3", 295 pound Josh Kline.  Whatever he decides to do, Belichick also has the fortune of having the best all-around tight end in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski - who is generally considered an excellent blocker - and also 6' 3", 255 pound H-back James Develin, who lives for opening holes.

Also to be considered is that New England has one of the best play action quarterbacks in the game in Tom Brady, and that his laser arm and plethora of able receivers is the perfect compliment to help the running game be successful in an attempt to achieve overall balance.

Belichick is not one to shy away from a challenge, either, but he is smart enough to know when he's in over his head.  Known as the best on-the-fly tacticians of all time, Belichick is known for targeting the opposition's weakness on defense, just as he programs his defense to eliminate the top weapons on his foe's offense - and his timing in taking shots at an opponent's strengths is impeccable.

Of course, a successful game is one that ends with a win no matter how it happens, but why not try to run on the Lions?  If they can't, no loss because no one really has and Belichick knows that he can beat Detroit in other ways - but the impact on the team if he can establish a running game and force that Lions' pass rush to bite on the play action and hesitate for a split-second would mean a resounding victory for New England...

...and an injection of confidence for the offensive line in knowing that if they can run block and impose their collective will on the Lions, that might be all this team needs to find itself in Arizona come February.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Blount Force Trauma" meets "Gray Matter"; Patriots suppliment power running game

Legarrette Blount rejoined the New England Patriots on Thursday, adding beef to their power running game

Legarrette Blount, meet Jonas Gray.

No need to walk you around the facility, nor to introduce you a bunch of other folks, because you know the place pretty well, and the people are mostly the same...

Blount, the former New England Patriots running back was re-signed as a free agent on Thursday morning, just days after the Pittsburgh Steelers waived the 6' 0", 250 pound bulldozer, inking him to a two year deal for the veteran minimum salary with incentives that could elevate the money involved to nearly $4 million.

Never mind the reports that he left the field early on Monday night in the Steelers win over the Tennessee Titans, nor that Blount fled New England in free agency to team up with Le'Veon Bell in the Pittsburgh backfield - as the promise of more carries that the Pittsburgh coaching staff offered Blount never materialized.
Teaming Blount with Gray give New England a potent 1-2 punch

Pittsburgh had a golden opportunity to feature the heftiest, most powerful running attack in the NFL with both Bell and Blount, but once the season started and Bell became the "Bell Cow", it was just a matter of time before the lack of playing time for Blount became a problem - and it came to a head on Monday night when Blount received no carries, on top of getting just two the week before.

What Blount had in New England last season was a renaissance of sorts, carrying just 177 times, but gaining 944 yards for a 5.3 yard per carry average, scoring eleven times - all while splitting carries with Stevan Ridley.  But where Blount's true value shined through was when the weather turned bleak and the northeast winds blew.

In a three game span that included season ending blowouts over the Ravens and Bills combined with a complete dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs, Blount carried 64 times for a whopping 431 yards, and average of nearly seven yards per carry.

And in case you haven't been outside in the past month, the weather has turned bleak and the northeast winds are blowing.

"He's a hard guy to tackle in good conditions" Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick mused last season around this time, "But when everything is wet - when he's wet, when the tacklers are wet and they can't grab onto anything - tackling him can be very challenging in those conditions."

"I think a lot of it just gets down to fundamentals" Belichick continued, "Body lean and just good fundamentals of running including ball protection, body lean and trying to keep the tacklers from getting to your legs and keeping those moving."

Those are also traits shown by emerging talent Jonas Gray, who had 201 yards in a powerful display of tough running against the Colts on Sunday night, though their running styles are as different as night and day.

Blount is a glider who slips through holes and who is most dangerous once on the second level, where his low center of gravity and sheer mass makes him akin to a bumper in a pinball machine, defensive backs and linebackers bouncing off of him like a pinball...

...while Gray is pure power, a one cut downhill bruiser that picks up nearly half of his yardage after contact and. like Blount, scored four touchdowns against Indianapolis.  Combine those two with a smaller yet more conventional passing back in Shane Vereen and the Patriots may suddenly have the best stable of running backs in the league.

Now, add to that the tremendous improvement along the offensive line since the five starters were settled on and the fact that New England is not afraid to go with Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman to pull and open holes up the gut - along with James Develin at fullback and Rob Gronkowski being excellent in run blocking as well - and opposing defenses better pack a lunch, because they're going to be on the field all day long.

The move for Blount feeds into the need for the four minute offense, used last season by the Patriots to grind the game clock down, both to limit possessions and to secure victories - a staple of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, the motto of which is "Pass to score, run to win,"

The Patriots can do both, they have done both.  What the acquisition of Blount means is that Gray won't have to go 38 times in a game, and that the Patriots have two backs that can excel in the four-minute offense.

They were scary before, now they're downright horrifying.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Patriots ride running game, Gronkowski in rout of Colts

New England Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski got the best of the Colts' Sergio Brown on Sunday night.
Everyone knows that Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in football.

No need to qualify that statement with the "arguably" clause, because there is no argument to be had -and when the New England Patriots invaded Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday night, all 67,000 fans in attendance and millions more in the national television audience saw plenty enough evidence to justify that claim.

The Indianapolis Colts got a closer look than they probably wanted.

Gronkowski was part of a run blocking scheme that overpowered the Colts' run defense all night, while also asserting his will over their pass defense, swatting away defenders like they were flies as he rumbled 26 yards for the game's final points, his Patriots bullying the the Colts as if they were playground weaklings, the 42-20 final score giving New England firm control of the American Football Conference.

Gronkowski even got a measure of revenge in the win, engaging in a ferocious block against safety Sergio Brown - the man who broke the man-child's arm two years ago during a try for point after a touchdown - driving him off of the field of play and into a camera cart well out of bounds after running back Jonas Gray has scored his fourth touchdown of the evening - the fifteen yard unsportsman like conduct penalty and probable fine from the league a small price to pay for true retribution.

"He was just yappin' at me the whole time" Gronkowski explained, "so I took him and threw him out of the club."

The Patriots have now beaten the other three AFC division leaders, including the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals in addition to Sunday night's thrashing of the Colts, blowing out all three and now holding the head-to-head tiebreaker on virtually every contender in the conference - and if that isn't enough to scare the rest of the teams in the NFL, the fact that the defense shut down the top scoring club in the league should be...
Jonas Gray celebrates one of his four touchdown runs

...not to mention that quarterback Tom Brady was merely ordinary in the first half, looking frazzled and making a couple of bad decisions that ended up in the hands of Colts' defenders, and that the running game more than picked up his slack.

But once Brady got those couple of bad throws out of his system, the Patriots' offense was unstoppable - especially considering that of New England's eleven possessions in the game, they scored six touchdowns, ran out the clock in both halves on two other possessions and were forced to punt just once.

Despite his shaky start, Brady ended up going 19 of 30 for 257 yards and two scores - one to tight end Tim Wright and the other to Gronkowski - but it was really what the Patriots did on the ground that defined this win, and along with the defense allowing a scant 1.1 yards per Colts' rush, perhaps defines the team as a whole.

Forget Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck throwing for 300 yards, and instead remember that he was Indianapolis's leading rusher with 15 yards on three desperate scrambles, while his running backs split 14 carries right down the middle, for a grand total of four yards - and that's around 5 inches per carry for those keeping score.

Luck's 303 yards were hollow, given the fact that nearly all of those were provided by tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver Reggie Wayne, as Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick's game plan to stop the run and keep the ball out of the hands of the Colt's dangerous speedster T.Y. Hilton worked to perfection, and left Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano reaching for answers.

"We felt like going in that we could, we knew we had to run it and stop it, and we did neither" Pagano said, shaking his head sadly. "I think they finished with at least 250 yards on the ground. Anytime that happens, you're going to get beat like we got beat today."

Gray scored on four short downhill bursts, his 199 rushing yards more a matter of the New England offensive line exerting their will and Gray hitting the hole hard than any indictment toward the Colts' defense, who entered the game in the top half of the league in run defense but left with a rash of fresh teeth marks.

"They were picking me up after each play" Gray said of the linemen after the game, "picking me up off the ground, telling me 'good run', giving me little pointers here and there, what they wanted me to do, a lot of communication up front and guys just doing their jobs."

How dominant was the New England ground game?  Of the 33 first downs created by the Patriots' offense, 17 of those came courtesy of the run between the tackles - as many as the Colts had combined all evening.

"We didn't stop the run." Colts' safety Mike Adams sighed. "Especially on first down which makes it a short third down. It was like third-and-two, third-and-three like six or seven times. We can't put ourselves in that hole."

But they did, and now the Colts have an even bigger hole to climb out of, that being two games behind New England and down the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Patriots that essentially puts them three games down with six games left to play.  But all hope is not lost for a top seed in the AFC as the Colts sit just a game back of the struggling Denver Broncos, though the Broncos also hold a head-to-head tie breaker over them.

"We all knew Denver lost" Adams continued, referring to the Broncos' loss earlier in the day that dropped them to 7-3 and just a half game up on Indianapolis for the second seed in the conference. "I can't speak for anyone else, but we needed this game.  We needed it bad."

The loss dropped the Colts to 6-4 and suddenly into a dogfight in the AFC South with the surging Houston Texans, so while the loss prevented Indianapolis from positioning themselves for the second seed in the conference, more importantly it has allowed the Texans to climb back into contention for the division title.

Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots' pass catchers got off to a slow start against the hometown Colts - not because of anything Indianapolis was doing but mostly because the Patriots' running game was in full steamroller mode and tearing off nearly six yards every time quarterback Tom Brady turned to hand the ball off... those paying attention had to settle for watching the Patriots' excellent offensive line run block for running back Jonas Gray, who was in control of said steamroller and was punishing Colts' defenders like they were treehuggers defending the rain forest against urban sprawl - but once the running game had asserted its dominance over their foe and the defense had gotten the best of Luck and his weapons, the Patriots stood at 8-2 with another division leader on their horizon, a showdown with the NFC North leading Detroit Lions next Sunday.

After that they get that division's co-leading Green Bay Packers on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, so the next couple of weeks feature two high powered offenses and stout run defenses that will put New England's rolling juggernaut to a stern test, particularly the Packers, who are scoring points at a breakneck pace and trampled the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

That said, if there is a more complete team in the National Football League, they are going to have to beat the Patriots to prove it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Patriots' Mid-season Forum, Part 1 - Pats roll into the bye winners of five straight

New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady shredded the Broncos' defense for 333 yards and four touchdowns
Bill Belichick is quick to tell anyone who questions his methods and personnel moves that he builds his teams to be playing at their best after Thanksgiving - and if Sunday's performance is any indication, his New England Patriots are few weeks ahead of schedule.

Even more scary is the thought that they probably haven't reached their full potential yet.

In a resounding display of will mixed with emerging talent and nearly flawless execution, the Patriots put a letter in the mail to the rest of the National Football League that stated in no uncertain terms that they are every bit the juggernaut that their opponent claimed to be, with quarterback Tom Brady playing the postmaster general and canceling the Denver Broncos like a stamp.

Brady has emerged from the ashes of a 2-2 start to his season like the mythical Phoenix, regenerating himself each week, getting stronger and stronger with each bout of adversity and is suddenly the venerable old gunslinger who still has a few bullets left in the chamber...

...and when he was finished with the Broncos' defense he had fired 53 rounds, finding his target 33 times for 333 yards, standing tall in the pocket, cocking his arm and stepping into some dazzling spirals that cut through the steady tempest blowing through Gillette Stadium just as easily as he did Denver's secondary, finding paydirt four times as his Patriots stomped the Broncos by a score of 43-21.

And after gunning down the Broncos pass defense, if Brady wasn't in the conversation for league Most Valuable Player, he certainly is now.

"Brady, man, on third and long he killed us" Broncos' cornerback Chris Harris said after the game in a somber visitors' locker room. "You can't make any mistakes out there, and he makes you pay when you do."

It wasn't just third and long, and it wasn't just the Broncos, as there were a couple of times that he almost killed his own receivers when he let one of those pigskin projectiles off the chain, stepping into throws in the red zone and firing into the end zone.  Brandon Lafell couldn't quite handle one in the back of the end zone, but Edelman absorbed one for a quick six.

And that has been the difference in the past five weeks, that Brady has had the room in the pocket to step into and follow through on his throws as his offensive line has gelled to the point that that the certain first-ballot Hall of Famer has been able to stand tall, go through his progressions and fire the ball to the open man.

How good has his protection been?  During the dismal four game stretch to start the season Brady was sacked 10 times, hit three times that many and he threw two interceptions as the Patriots went 2-2, but in the five games since the debacle at Kansas City, Brady has been sacked just six times, hit only twice as many times and has thrown one pick, a deflection off Danny Amendola on Sunday night.

The running game is still a work in progress as the road graders are still trying to find the proper push to open up some holes more consistently but, just like Brady on third down, the line makes the hole when they absolutely have to, which is another good sign.

Brady now has 22 touchdown passes on the season and also threw just his third pick, completing nine passes each to both tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, and also six to Brandon Lafell and five to Shane Vereen - and each found the end zone.

So the Patriots' offense is officially the mythical juggernaut, defying all of the negativity among the fan base and the media - but with all kinds of room to get even better, particularly in the running game - though it should be noted that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appears to have learned his lesson in regard to abandoning the running game, keeping the play action viable by continuing to call running plays regardless of the level of success.

But what should have all of the six weird little states that comprise the New England region buzzing is Matt Patricia's version of the Nickle Cloud defense that shut down the Bronco's vaunted power running game and made Manning double clutch so often through the game that his shoulder will probably be sore for a couple of days.

The Nickle Cloud features the look of a press nickle with the requisite five defensive backs, but with the other six defensive players in the box featuring a four man front and two linebackers within three yards of the line of scrimmage that gives the appearance of a jailbreak blitz, but when the ball is snapped, only four players are rushing the quarterback while two drop into the middle zone...

...the key being to not to tip off the opposing quarterback as to which of the six are going to be coming and which are going to be dropping into coverage, causing carnage at the point of attack and indecision with the quarterback about who may be lurking underneath to pick off his pass - say, someone like Rob Ninkovich.

On the second play of the second quarter and the Patriots trailing 7-6, Ninkovich was in his standard end of the line defensive end spot, but dropped off the line at the snap of the ball while linebacker Jamie Collins got pressure up the middle in his stead, forcing a quick throw from Manning, who never saw Ninkovich.

Four plays later, Brady found Edelman with an armor-piercing round and the Patriots had a lead they would never relinquish - and when that defense forced the Broncos to punt after a brief possession on the next series, Edelman fielded the kick at the New England 16 yard line, got a big block on the gunner from Danny Amendola, juked to his right where Tim Wright sprung him with a huge seal block on the numbers and 84 yards later the Patriots were up 20-7 and the rout was on.

In fact, the Patriots rattled off 24 consecutive points in the second quarter and took a 20 point lead into the locker room at halftime, and after Manning found tight end Julius Thomas on an 18 yard wobbler to get them within 13 midway through the third period, a Brandon Browner interception of a Wes Welker deflection set up Brady on the Denver ten, where he hit Lafell to seal the game.

The rest of the game was an embarrassment of riches for the Patriots' defense, as while Manning was throwing for a game high 438 yards, more than half of that total came in desperation, the Broncos throwing everything they had at New England's frustrating stoppers for the final quarter-and-a-half - the 260 yards that Manning threw for in what was essentially garbage time coming between the 20's, but the Bronco's would ultimately stall and get no closer to the end zone.

In fact, at one point in the fourth quarter, the Patriots forced a turnover on downs on three consecutive Denver drives, the Broncos going 0-4 on fourth down on the evening - and when added to the fact that Denver went just 3 for 11 on third down conversions, Manning's 20% conversion rate tells one just about all they need to know about the surging Patriots' defense...

...just about, but it would be remiss to ignore the fact that the six-man Cloud was also responsible for stuffing the Broncos' running game, a light box that surrendered only 43 yards on 17 carries to a unit that had been averaging over 120 per game, and that 18 of those came on three carries as the Broncos stayed on the ground to run out the clock and end their misery.

That's 25 yards on 14 carries when the carries really mattered, a stout 1.7 yards against for a New England run defense that had taken its lumps both from the opposing teams and the media in recent weeks - the difference this week being the defensive scheme that dared the Broncos to run the ball against a front six that had received timely reinforcement in the past two weeks.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  For the following nine days, we will be visiting each position grouping from the Patriots 53 man roster, comparing it to the bold statements made in our season previews and taking a look ahead at what very well could be the most difficult remaining schedule in the league as the Patriots trudge forward toward the playoffs.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Patriots' resolve, Mother Nature likely to cause Broncos' setback

The interior line of Stork, Wendell and Connolly are the key to a New England victory against the Broncos on Sunday

In its most fundamental form, football is a simple game.

If you can run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, your odds of winning a football game are incrementally better than a team that relies primarily on the pass.  That said, the Denver Broncos can do it anyway you want.

They can beat you passing.  They can beat you running the ball.  They can beat you on special teams and they can beat you with defense.  Statistically, the Denver Broncos are the best team in the National Football League and their record details the same, so why is it that the Las Vegas sports books have the juggernaut Broncos as just a three-and-a-half point favorite this Sunday?
Covering pass catchers like Denver's Julius Thomas is why Browner is here

It could have something to do with the fact they are playing the New England Patriots.  And also for what Mother Nature has waiting for them.

Much the same as their meeting in Foxborough last November, the forecast for Sunday afternoon calls for intermittent rain and snow showers that will decrease by game time, leaving a raw, gusty wind for both teams to deal with - and while Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady may be the best bad-weather quarterback in league history (certainly he is currently), Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning has a long, well-documented history of having his problems in blustery weather.

Forget about how cold it's supposed to be - low 30's with a wind chill in the low 20's - because Manning has won in the cold.  What he hasn't been able to do is to win when the northeast wind blows, even with a good running game.

You see, Manning throws what can only be described as a "wounded duck", an ugly, wobbling floater that somehow has enough force behind it that he is deadly accurate with in the right conditions, but in the gusting wind, it becomes the equivalent of a Tim Wakefield knuckleball, and you never really know where those are going to end up.
Revis should play primarily to Manning's right to take away his comfort zone

Case in point: Last November Manning and the Broncos jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead in a driving wind, capitalizing on fumbles by the Patriots' offense on three consecutive drives to open the game that gave Manning excellent field position, and with their defense returning one of those fumbles for a score, Manning was able to turn and hand off to his backs, whose 137 yards more than doubled the Broncos' passing yard total for the first half.

So when the Broncos went into the locker room with a 24-0 lead at the half with nearly 140 yards rushing, many thought the game was over because now all Denver had to do is run the ball and kill the clock, New England's offense not even getting a sniff of the end zone...

...that is until Brady and his laser guided missile launcher of an arm easily sliced through both the wind and the Denver secondary to score 31 consecutive points on five consecutive drives to start the second half.  So now down 31-24 late in the contest, Manning was forced to the air, his first pass toward his tight end Jacob Tamme ended up in the hands of New England corner Aqib Talib.

Of course, Talib was called for defensive holding and Manning dinked and dunked his way down the field - aided by timely runs from Knowshon Moreno - and the Broncos were able to sustain one second half drive to tie the score in a game where the Patriots eventually came away with a 34-31 overtime thriller - a game that, in reality, would have been a resounding Patriots' victory had they been able to hold onto the ball.

Lost in all of this is the fact that when Manning was forced to the air in the second half, he completed only 9 of 20 wobblers for 73 yards, all but 20 of those yards coming on that desperation drive to tie the game - the fact of the matter is that the weather affected Manning more than the Patriots' pass defense did that day, and now he's coming back to Foxborough to face the the same weather, as well as a much improved Patriots' secondary.
Lafell could find roomover the top with the Broncos focused on Gronkowski

That said, Denver also appears to be better, and on both sides of the ball, though certainly not infallible.

The Broncos stumbled out of the gates to begin the season, taking narrow home victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs before dropping an overtime contest at Seattle, the wins over the Colts and Chiefs not decided until late in the game - but in coming off their bye week after dropping the game to the reigning World Champion Seahawks, John Fox' charges have come out swinging.

In those three games before their bye, Denver looked like anything but a juggernaut as they could neither run the ball effectively, nor stop the run, which naturally lead to their passing game struggling as well as their pass defense.  But the Broncos came out of the bye like a pack of greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit and stand at 6-1 after winning four straight...

...blowing out an excellent Cardinals' team at home before struggling with the Jets in New York, returning home and routing the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers in succession by ramping up their running game by nearly fifty yards per game and reducing the yardage given up on the ground by a pornographic sixty yards per game.

Much of that improvement can be attributed to the fact that in those four games, the Broncos raced out to a big lead and forced their opponents to the air - which with the quality of the Broncos' pass rush was like signing a death warrant for the opposing quarterback, so the first key for the Patriots is to not fall behind and, if at all possible, to score early to keep their running game valid...
Gronkowski should be the Broncos' main focus

...because the Broncos can be run on if a team sticks to their running game, which doesn't happen very often.

Abandoning the run has been a common theme for Broncos' opponents, as none of their foes since the bye have reached the 20 carry plateau, the most yardage gained a mediocre 62 yards by the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago - and almost all of it straight up the gut, where Denver is surrendering close to four yards per carry.

On the edges, however, teams have had next to no success at all as the speedy Broncos' linebackers set a mean edge that is allowing less than a yard a carry. Those kind of numbers do not bode well for a Patriots' team that don't necessarily have the speed to gain the corner to begin with, but for the Patriots to have a chance against perhaps the most complete team in the National Football league, they are going to have to run the ball, and keep running right up the gut regardless of level of success.

This will be no small task with nose tackle Terrence "Pot Roast" Knighton and his imposing 6' 3", 335 pound frame about as stout a run stopper as the Patriots will encounter this season.  Knighton anchors a line that includes the slightly smaller (6' 2", 315lb) Sylvester Williams as the rush tackle with Derek Wolfe and former Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware as the book ends...

...while Von Miller, perhaps the most dynamic and versatile strong side linebacker in the league, setting the edge and rushing the passer from the left, where it will be tasked to Patriots' right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to slow him down.  One thing that could lean in the favor of New England is if Miller is called upon to help cover New England tight end Rob Gronkowski at times, depending on the formations.
Gray has the bulk and power to have a big game against Denver

Nate Irving and speedy weaksider Brandon Marshall fill out the remainder of the linebacking corps while former Patriot Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are the corners and Rahim Moore and the hated T. J. Ward mop up at safety.  Smallish rookie Bradley Roby has been handling the nickle duties and figures to see a lot of Julian Edelman out of the slot.

In order to implement their power running game against such a talented unit, the Patriots have two choices.  The first is to go heavy with tight ends, presumably Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui at or close to the line and James Develin flanking Brady as the up back, with either first year load Jonas Gray on veteran slashback Shane Vereen toting the rock and seeing how far New England gets by punching the Broncos' front seven in the teeth...

...or by spreading the Broncos out by going with three wide and Gronkowski set as the flanker and Brady working from a single back set, forcing Denver into a nickle - or perhaps even a dime - and running up the gut against a lighter box.

The Patriots don't have to gain four yards a carry to be successful in this scenario, they just have to keep calling running plays, as just the threat of the run should slow down Denver's speedy sack artists long enough for Brady to find his receivers down the field.  This would be the more prudent choice as Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has had success in the past spreading out Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's defenses.

The only question after that is how do the Broncos defend the Patriots weapons amongst the pass catchers, with the smart money being on Talib and possibly a linebacker or safety drawing Gronkowski, Harris on Brandon Lafell and the aforementioned Roby on Edelman, while Marshall deals with Vereen circling out of the backfield - that or a combination of zone and man coverages.

But make no mistake and be under no delusion, the Patriots must establish their running game to take the Broncos to the mat, and in the interior offensive line of rookie Bryan Stork at the pivot, bracketed by tough as nails veterans Dan Connolly at left guard and Ryan Wendell at right, New England may have found the proper combination to do just that

As for Denver's offense, it is certain that they will try to establish the run against New England's much-maligned run defense, because they really may have no choice.

The bad weather deficiencies that Manning exhibits is not some turgid story line, it is fact.  Forget the cold weather, below 40 and below 30 crap, because that's what it is.  Manning's real nemesis is the wind - and if the tempest comes through the man-made win tunnel that is Gillette Stadium at any speed greater than twenty miles per hour, expect to see the Patriots get very physical with the Broncos' pass catchers and attempt to keep them in a phone booth...

...which wasn't going to be that much of a stretch to begin with, as Manning and his ducks rarely fly much past twenty yards downfield - his average of 85% passes going to his underneath receivers is the greatest percentage in the league - throw a stiff breeze into the equation and what he has going is the equivalent to a salmon swimming upstream with hungry bears lying in wait.

Another thing that the Patriots are no doubt aware of is Manning's penchant for throwing to his right, as 70% of his short throws end up going to that side, which makes left edge-setter Rob Ninkovich one of the big keys to the game

Expect the Patriots to employ a mixture of man coverages off the line with the linebackers holding their ground in a zone read, lurking underneath and ready to knock the chocolate out of any Broncos' receiver that manages to get loose in the scrum - and a scrum is exactly what it will be.

With Manning handicapped by Mother Nature and being pressured up the middle by a combination of Big Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones and either Casey Walker or newly signed Alan Branch, and with Patriots' cornerback Darrelle Revis holding down the right side of the field and Ninkovich pressuring from the same, Peyton will be forced out of his comfort zone...

...whether that means enough for him to make a mistake or two to the left remains to be seen, but it worked like a charm last November, when Logan Ryan had one of his best games as a pro in picking off Manning on a short dump off to Eric Decker, and had three other passes defended.

Decker is gone, replaced by speedster Emmanuel Sanders - and Ryan will likely get the call on him off the line, while prudence dictates that Revis cover whomever lines up on the right - most likely Demaryius Thomas - to ensure that Manning won't have it easy going to that side, and a well-rested Kyle Arrington hammers aging slot receiver Wes Welker as well as adding a physical presence in run support.

All of these matchups void each other out, which leaves the Broncos' most lethal weapon, tight end Julius Thomas, matched up with big, violent corner Brandon Browner - and if Browner can get his jam on with Thomas off the line and keep him in the proverbial phone booth, that will disrupt Manning's timing with him and perhaps give the pass rushers a chance to get to Manning.

The trio of Wilfork, Jones and Walker/Branch should be enough to counter Denver's running game up the middle and with the defense collapsing on anything going right, the onus falls on rookie defensive end Zach Moore to set a solid edge to the left, so that either linebacker Akeem Ayers or Jonathan Casillas can blow up screens and handle running back Ronnie Hillman swinging out into the flat.

Sound complicated?  It's really not so much, as both teams rely on fundamentally sound execution and, with all things being equal, so are the two combatants.  But everything isn't going to be equal if Mother Nature shows up as anticipated, and if that indeed happens, it gives New England a big edge.