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... 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, "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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Play Action Deadly For Ravens In Patriots Dominant Victory

The Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots have had some epic battles in recent history.

The Ravens have been viewed as more of a bunch of tough guys that win with their defense and running the football while the Patriots just kind of morph into whatever they need to be in order to compete with their opponent, and the results have usually been one-score affairs that raise the collective blood pressure of both fan bases.

That was the case on Monday night when the Ravens visited Foxborough on the weekly, nationally televised showcase of the National Football League - the fans got another nail biter, a drama-filled encounter that saw one team take a big lead, squander it, then deliver a decisive dagger just when things looked hopeless.
Chris Hogan hauls in a perfect Brady rainbow

But don't let the 30-23 final score fool you - the New England Patriots dominated the Ravens, and only the final score was close.

Coming into the contest, the Ravens sported the top defense in all of football, ranked first against the run and fourth against the pass, holding nine of their twelve opponents under 65 yards rushing and all but one foe under the 300 yard passing threshold, and that figured to hold, particularly since New England was missing their top offensive target in tight end Rob Gronkowski and their steady slot man in Danny Amendola...

...but Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady shredded Baltimore's secondary for more than 400 yards through the air and power back LeGarrette Blount punished the Ravens' run stoppers for 72 yards and a touchdown - setting career highs in both scores and rushing yards in a season as New England had their way with the stout Baltimore defense.

In fact, New England fell just shy of laying 500 yards of total offense on the proud Ravens' defense as Brady unleashed hell to the tune of 406 yards and three touchdowns - but it was the one pass that got away from him, a floater in the end zone intercepted by safety Eric Weddle, that started a string of errors that nearly doomed the Patriots or, at the very least, made the game a lot closer than it needed to be.

Up 16-0 and poised from the two yard line to tack on another seven and put the game, essentially, out of reach, Brady threw across his body to the left corner of the end zone, getting nothing on the throw due to no follow through whatever, Weddle picked it off cleanly and started in motion a series of Patriots' gaffes that allowed the Ravens to stick around and Patriots' fans to reach for the Xanax...

So instead of going into the room at halftime down 23-0, the Ravens managed a field goal to trail just 16-3, then followed up on their good fortune by taking advantage of two Patriots' special teams turnovers in the second half to close the gap to just three points with just over six minutes to play in the game and the Patriots' offense in a scoreless funk.

Clearly, impetus was on the side of the Baltimore Ravens - but just when you think you've got the Patriots on the ropes, they seem to be able to flip a switch and shut down the other guys' momentum.

Against the Ravens on Monday night, flipping a switch meant calming down and just running the offense that prior to the trifecta of errors was pretty much moving up and down the field at will - and that is important to remember going forward. Without tight end Rob Gronkoswki, the Patriots' offense is forced into a dynamism that puts more players in a position to make more plays.

Two plays come to mind immediately that sets the template. The first was an intermediate crosser that James White, who was split wide and isolated on a linebacker, took for 66 yards right up the seam. Not only is that a release route that Gronkowski has run a thousand times - and that tight end Martellus Bennett ran to perfection in the game as well - but because the big man is not on the field, the free safety reduced down into the box to double the slot and Brady got White the ball on an angle that helped him run right past him...

...but on the play that turned out to be the gamer, a wide open Chris Hogan glided underneath a perfect Brady bomb at midfield and then engaged the thrusters, easily outracing a stunned Ravens' secondary to break the spell that the Patriots had induced on themselves in the blink of an eye, 79 yards up the seam as Hogan split the safeties, both biting on the play action and causing a full ten yards of separation.

Why did the play action have such a devastating impact? The Patriots' commitment to the running game has been a refreshing development since the start of the season, a very viable protection plan initially designed to shield the wet-behind-the-ears quarterbacking tandem of third-year clipboard holder Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett during Brady's four-game suspension.

But a curious thing happened along the way. The running game was so successful - 135 yards per game worth of successful, even given that the Patriots' opponents knew the run was coming - that head ball coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels realized that they had a serious weapon on their hands and kept making it an integral part of the game plan for every game since.

And even though Brady returned in week five and has been playing at an All Pro level, it has been the threat of a running game that has helped along the way, the play action freezing linebackers and safeties alike, producing big plays and demoralizing opposing defenses - and the effect the running game has had on New England's offensive line can be directly attributed to this phenomenon... the line has allowed just one Brady sack in the last three games, and just twelve sacks total in the nine games he has started - a far cry from the absurd 42 times that the Greatest of All Time was sacked last season - that sack coming on one of Baltimore's 12 blitz's. For the game, the Ravens were able to only pressure Brady on 15 of his 39 dropbacks, and if one were to eliminate pressure off the blitz, it means that in standard pass rush instances, Brady was pressured just three times.

After Hogans' touchdown gave the Patriots a little breathing room with a ten-point lead, the defense held the Ravens to a field goal the rest of the way, and Blount did what Blount does, hammering out crucial yardage in the four-minute offense to close out games, a reality not lost on McDaniels.

"We feel like it is our (the offense's) responsibility to finish the game on offense with the ball by getting as many first downs as we need to get." McDaniels said in a conference call on Tuesday, adding, "We always talk about trying to be a tough football team, and I think there's no better measure of your toughness on offense that you ability to run the ball when the other team knows you're going to run it."

That toughness was front and center on the Patriots' final possession, as Blount picked up 18 of his 72 yards on four bruising carries, running over linebackers and safeties with collisions clearly audible above the din of the cheering crowd - encapsulating the resolve of a team that overcame a series of misfortune that would have buried just about any other team, but was taken as a challenge to the Patriots, who never back down from one.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Of Ponies And Unicorns - Patriots Simply Evolve Into What They Need To Be

Martellus Bennett was brought to Foxborough specifically for this eventuality.

Last season, the New England Patriots suffered a brutal string of injuries on offense that left it a literal shell of itself, causing a nose dive from the undisputed favorite to defend their world championship in Super Bowl 50 to a mix-matched motley crew that could barely squeeze out a touchdown here and there.

The issue, one that Patriots general manager Bill Belichick went to great lengths to repair this offseason, was a horrific lack of depth that greatly contributed to the Patriots finishing the regular season 2-4 down the stretch, then being eliminated by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
Blount, Brady, Bennett and Edelman (l to r)

In four consecutive weeks, the Patriots lost wide receiver Julian Edelman, passing back Dion Lewis, slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski - and while all but Lewis would eventually return, the loss of power back LeGarrette Blount in week 14 crippled the offense beyond any repair.

Going through such a debilitating string of injuries was unprecedented in team history, and hammered home the message that the Patriots' fortunes have always relied on the superficial, and Belichick lived dangerously for years with teams that looked awesome on the surface, but were about as deep as a conversation with a three year old.

In 2015, it came back to bite him in the ass.

With Lewis already gone for the season and passing back James White just getting his feet wet in the offense, the only options left for Belichick was Brandon Bolden and a clearly washed up Steven Jackson, and it absolutely killed them in the post season.  Without the threat of a running game - the 41 yards per game that they averaged in the playoffs can hardly be called a "threat" - the offense collapsed...

...just as it did in 2011 when Gronkowski suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game and was a shell of himself in the Super Bowl; just as it did in 2012 when Gronkowski was lost for the season with a broken forearm; just like it did in 2013 when Gronkowski had his knee shredded for him, losing half of his season and all of the playoffs.

You get the picture. But in each season since the debacle in the Super Bowl against the Giants, Belichick has brought in depth to guard against Gronkowski's annual blood letting, with Kellen Winslow, Jr. in 2012, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan in 2013, Tim Wright in 2014 and Scott Chandler last season - but none of the aforementioned offered a viable alternative to the massively structured and talented Gronkowski.

Which, of course, really didn't matter in 2014 as Gronkowski enjoyed a relatively healthy season and he absolutely dominated in the playoffs and the Patriots won their fourth trophy.

Coincidence? Perhaps, especially considering he was healthy last season, but with neither the Chiefs nor the Broncos having any reason at all to respect the run, they set their sites on Brady and gave him the beating of his life, especially the Broncos who loaded up the pass rush and sacked him four times, but hit him hard, times six.

Brady went to great pains - pardon the pun - to target Gronkowski, completing eight of fifteen passes to the monstrous tight end for 144 yards and a four-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left in the AFC Championship that put the Patriots just a two-point conversion shy of overtime, but he also put the Patriots in a hole by targeting Gronkowski in triple coverage deep in his own territory...

...Von Miller intercepting and the Broncos converting three plays later, taking an eight point lead that would haunt the Patriots the rest of the game - and, indeed, the entire offseason.

Curiously, Belichick didn't address depth at running back in the offseason, opting instead to trade for Bennett, who calls himself the "Black Unicorn", with some forethought to the fist month of the season, knowing that Gronkowski would play sparingly, if at all, during a period in which Brady would be playing commando on an Italian beach instead of quarterback in Foxborough, courtesy of Roger Goodell's ego.

He brought back Blount with the notion that he had Lewis healing and Tyler Gaffney sitting on the practice squad, and then set his sites on backing up the wide receiver corps, bringing in restricted free agent Chris Hogan from Buffalo and drafting Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell, then went heavy on defense to replace departed pass rusher Chandler Jones and retired linebacker Jerod Mayo.

But that is a subject for another time.  What matters in the here-and-now is that despite the Gronkowski Injury - and, of course, barring any injury to the backfield - the Patriots' offense is still loaded.

The protracted absence of Gronkowski is about to cause the remaining Patriots' skill position players realize their purpose on offense and, perhaps more aesthetically important, it is about to cause the fans to realize that at least this season, there is life beyond Gronkowski.

For example, while the threat of the 12 and 22 personnel packages - that is, the two-tight end sets - may be history, the 21 personnel - that is the two running back Pro set - is alive and well, and it's called the "Pony".

The Pony offense is actually a variation of the Pro Set, but instead of utilizing a fullback the Patriots will employ two passing backs on some plays, a passing back and power back on others, and a power back and a fullback on still others - and since all of the Patriots' running backs are capable in the ground game, the Pony alignment will keep the linebackers and safeties on their heels...

...and perhaps even more so than having two tight ends in the pattern. This is not to disparage the effectiveness of a Gronkowski in the passing game, but it is far easier for the team to replace his blocking prowess in the ground game than it is to replicate his production in the passing game - and since the Patriots have swing tackles that report eligible and also Bennett, a fine blocker in his own right in addition to being a talented pass catcher, the Pony alignment will cause greater confusion on the second and deep levels.

This runs counter to what every opponent has come to expect from New England, especially division foes that are so familiar with Belichick's schemes - not to mention teams like Denver and Pittsburgh, whom the Patriots seem to play every single season -  that they build their defenses each season to answer what they know, simply from a personnel standpoint, that offense is capable of.

But where these teams fall into trouble is that while almost all teams have one subsection of their arsenal that their opponents absolutely have to game plan for, the Patriots have three.

Most are resigned to the now-fact that Brady is prepared to play into his 40's, and is still perhaps the steadiest, most consistent quarterback in the league.  There are a ton of intangibles that make up the prototype, having the same head coach for his entire career chief among them. In a way, they define each other - and the only way to game plan for them is to take away their weapons...

...and even that doesn't work most days, but the Patriots are entering an era where they are going to have to win with their running backs.

Two of them, power back Blount and White, have two of the top four totals in yards from scrimmage on the team, with Blount seriously flirting with a thousand yard season. Lewis looks to be regaining the form that made him an explosive home run threat - so that three-headed monster is something that must be game planned for.

The third is the offensive line. Quietly but quite convincingly, Dante Scarnecchia has put together a solid, if unspectacular, line that has allowed Brady to be sacked just 11 times in eight games, but just three times since the bye week and none in the last two games, and a line that has also allowed the backs to grind out 119 yards per game, good for sixth in the entire league.

Also something to keep in mind is that we've barely scratched the surface of what is essentially a complementary set of wide receivers, with a rotation of Edelman, Hogan and Mitchell, multi-purposed rookie D.J. Foster and newly signed Griff Whalen, who will serve in the stead of Amendola, who is battling a bum knee.

Patriots' lore offers up a time when former New England clipboard holder and current radio announcer Scott Zolak exclaimed "Unicorns! Show ponies! Where's the beef" when Brady tossed a touchdown pass with no time remaining in a game against the New Orleans' Saints a few years back, and most of us laughed it off as Zo just being Zo...

...but now the Patriots have the "Black Unicorn" running routes, a brace of speedy show ponies curling out of the backfield and plenty of beef up front - so maybe, just maybe, in Zolak's excitement he inadvertently predicted the Patriots' offense of the future.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Boring" Patriots Stomp Rams With Workman Like Offense, Stout Defense

In all seriousness, the Los Angeles Rams were doomed from the second they stepped onto the field turf at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

On the very first Patriots' series, head ball coach Bill Belichick used all three of his running backs on a drive meant to destroy their morale and to put to sleep any notion that their defense was going to stop the New England offensive machine, forcing the Rams to bring their safeties up to help in run support which affected their seventh-ranked pass defense.

Passing backs Dion Lewis and James White lined up in the pony formation on the first play of the game - an alignment that we should see plenty of going forward - with Lewis taking a handoff and skittering to the left for four yards, then burly power back LeGarrette Blount took the next handoff for nine yards up the middle, then White replicated the production off left guard on the next play...

...and while the Patriots would have been content to rip off running plays for eight yards per carry and demoralize the Rams' run defense even further, they had to settle for a Blount 43-yard stomp to paydirt and an early 7-0 lead.

Settling, because the Patriots are all about methodically taking the opposition's will away, and really aren't given to the big play - for in reality, all the big play does is put your defense back out on the field without their proper rest, and they are not in that business.

The New England Patriots have to be the most boring team in the National Football League.

But that's not a bad thing, is it?

They don't have an explosive wide receiver that can break a game wide open - in fact their idea of a downfield passing game is finding a soft spot in the zone between the second level and the secondary. Their favorite passing play is a bubble screen, and they are thrilled when their power back cuts against the grain for four yards. They nickel and dime their way down the field, chewing up clock and before you know it, they've scored in the high twenties without you even realizing it.

They have a quarterback that runs his offense like he's a dispatcher at a public works facility.  They have a head coach who looks like you'd sooner see him in line at the Gut Truck outside a tire factory than you would on an NFL sideline. Their offensive coordinator is the young, hyper-active prodigy that needs to be reeled in and properly supervised while their defensive coordinator spouts off engineering jargon like most people casually chat.

None of them, from the owner to the 53rd man on the roster are people you would call the life of the party, except, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski - but Gronk is no longer on the active roster, courtesy of a slipped disc in this back which has landed him on the injured reserved list though Blount has had his moments, primarily celebrating with the End Zone Militia after a touchdown

The New England Patriots, as a team, approach each week as a business proposition.  They practice and ply their craft each day, always looking to get better individually, but always buying into their now-famous axiom, "Do Your Job", motivated and compelled to achieve that most celebrated company motto.

Blount's thunder roll touchdown was a direct result of establishing a running game from the start.  When the Rams' saw that Blount was in the game, they naturally had to at least respect the possibility of the run, but more than that, the short passing game combined with early success in the run drew the defense close to the line of scrimmage...

...and when Blount approached the line, the bottleneck caused by so many defenders in the box enabled right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback James Develin and tight end Martellus Bennett to seal off the edge against all eight defenders, leaving only the secondary to deal not only with with Blount's deceptive speed, but also his 6' 0", 250 pound frame, which replays show they wanted no part of.

To the credit of the Los Angeles coaching staff, they found a way to adjust to what New England was doing on offense and in the second half looked like a top-ten defense, but with only an anemic offense to hand the ball over to and facing a seventeen-point halftime deficit, the game was essentially over.

One didn't need a crystal ball to know what was about to happen to the Rams on offense. In the four games since their merciful bye week, the Rams' offense has scored a total of 19 points in the second half, and that includes a garbage time, last second touchdown against the Carolina Panthers four weeks ago.

Their running game, a strength last season, has been all but invisible this season and their passing game hasn't reached 200 passing yards in their last three games - and all of those trends would continue on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.

As they always do, the Patriots' defense concentrated on stopping the Rams running game, hoping to make running back Todd Gurley's presence inconsequential, while trying to put more pressure on rookie quarterback Jared Goff than they've been able to since their own bye week - and the result was utter domination of the hapless Los Angeles offense.

New England held the Rams to a season low in rushing (36 yards), time of possession (22:03) and first downs (7) while limiting their passing game to their second-lowest output of the season by one yard (126 yards), picking off two Goff passes - both tipped balls, one by defensive end Jaball Sheard - and holding them to just 1 of 13 on third down conversions.

Their lone touchdown was, you guessed it, a garbage time, last-second toss from Goff to wide receiver Kenny Britt, but that couldn't mask the fact that the Patriots' defense forced eight punts - six of them of the three-and-out variety - and didn't allow the Rams to reach 100 yards in total offense until after the two minute warning in the final frame after holding them to just 26 total first half yards.

So, the Patriots' offense didn't have to do anything special, and they didn't.  It was just another day at the office.

Quarterback Tom Brady led a conservative, button-downed "attack", throwing 46 passes - completing 33 - for 269 yards, posting a yards per attempt a full three yards worse than his season average of 8.6. Some of that was a natural consequence of  calling an absurd amount of screen passes that the Rams were prepared for, but rare was the occasion that Brady put the ball up for more than a half a dozen yards.

The week before against the New York Jets, Brady was hobbled with a knee injury that made it so he had a tough time pushing off of his right leg, physics dictating that he would overthrow his receivers  with a high trajectory release. He barely got away with it against the Jets, but the Rams' secondary would probably have made him pay for those errant throws, so perhaps Brady's knee is still an issue and the game plan - including the arcane number of screen plays - was a result of that.

Whatever the case, wide receivers Julian Edelman and rookie Malcolm Mitchell accounted for more than half of those passing totals despite being caught up in the screen-fest themselves, but it was Chris Hogan who scored the Patriots only passing touchdown, a fourteen-yard, back shoulder beauty that turned out to be the game winner, putting New England up 14-0 early in the second quarter.

The rest of the game was a coming out party for struggling place kicker Stephen Gostkowski - who found his missing mojo, nailing four field goals right down the middle - and a tutorial on directional kicking by punter Ryan Allen and in punt coverage, as the Patriots' special teams help Rams' lightning quick returner Pharoh Cooper to four yards on three returns.

Patriots' fans who pine for an explosive deep threat or for someone to replace Blount are going to have to get used to seeing what we saw on Sunday for the rest of the season - a workman like, ball control effort on offense that averages 27 points per game, and a bend-but-don't-break defense that surrenders just 17 points per game, which thus far has resulted in a 10-2 record and having the team on the cusp on yet another AFC East division title.

If that's not good enough, a lighter bandwagon isn't going to hurt the company's bottom line...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Opinion: Roger Goodell Has (Almost) Broken Football

Editor's note: The following is an opinion about the National Football League.  It is NOT a political piece, no matter how much you wish it to be.

Months ago, when the mud-slinging that became downright malicious in the Presidential campaign, eventual winner Donald Trump claimed that if he were elected, he would fire NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Well, he didn't exactly claim he would fire Goodell.  He more or less nodded and nervously grinned, cutting short an impromptu autograph session after a January rally in Massachusetts, when some douchebag lawyer from Maine asked him if he would promise to fire the NFL commissioner if elected President.

And why not? After all, the commissioner did oppress Trump's good buddies Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and nobody messes with The Donald's friends.  Besides, it was a hollow gesture in the first place, because there's no way in hell a naive Billionaire real estate developer with the verbiage of a sailor and the hands and attitude of Caligula would ever be able to leverage his way into the White House, right?

Of course, not even the President of the United States has the authority to unseat the commissioner of a sports league, regardless of whether his philosophies and doctrine border on delusions of grandeur.

The National Football League is experiencing a downward trend in popularity, as evidenced by plunging television ratings, the league pointing to competition for viewership with a compelling World Series and a soap opera-esque Presidential campaign between two nasty-tempered candidates, a phenomenon that captured the attention of the entire nation.

The euphoria of the Chicago Cubs actually winning a World Series championship is starting to subside and the election is over - and the NFL is hoping that the viewership will spring back to their 2015 levels.

Maybe they will and maybe they wont.  If they do, it will shield the fact that Goodell's policies and the cornucopia of  rule changes approved by various committees run by owners of the 32 individual franchises have done to professional football what the "kinder and gentler" policies of the various Presidential administrations have done to the United States.

The "Wussification" of the National Football League is ruining the sport.

"Thirty years from now, I don't think it (the NFL) will be in existence" bemoaned former Baltimore Ravens' safety Bernard Pollard, who during his playing days was known as one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. "It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going - where the NFL rule makers want to lighten up, throwing flags and everything else - there's going to come a point when fans are going to get fed up with it."

Since Goodell took office a decade ago, the league had experienced unprecidented growth, maintaining it's status as the most popular sport in north America, and perhaps evolving into a world-wide power as the league has set it's sights on globalization - and many of his policies were aimed at improving the excitement factor of the game...

...approving rule changes that favored high-flying passing offenses by restricting how defensive players were allowed to compete against pass catchers who, increasingly, are becoming bigger and faster and more explosive - and even though defenders complained about it bitterly, scoring was up as was the resultant viewership.

But it wasn't enough.  Starting in 2014, the league mandated that game officials strictly enforce pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding penalties - the result being an exponential increase in defensive penalties that slowed the game to a crawl and forced defenders to play inside a five-yard box from the line of scrimmage and leaving the rest of the field wide open for the receivers.

Apparently, he instructed the referees to be a little more liberal in their offensive holding calls as well, as the numbers this season show that holding penalties in 2016 have already surpassed those from any other season in NFL history, and offensive pass interference calls are on pace to top last year's high water mark of 53 by week eleven.

Goodell also seems intent on eliminating a good portion of special teams play, first by mandating that officials throw flags on an inordinant percentage of kick and punt returns, to the point where a penalty is expected on any return, then by "solving" this unsavory part of the game by initially moving kickoffs to the 35 yard line from the 30 in 2011...

...and then when that didn't produce enough touchbacks - that is, the returner taking a knee in the end zone to end the play - this past offseason he ratified a plan that he had shelved in 2011 as a leverage move, moving touchbacks from the 20 yard line up to the twenty-five, giving teams plenty of motivation to take a knee since starting on the twenty-five was a couple of yards better than the average NFL return produced.

But, let's take a break here for a second and question whether rule changes and the arcane number of penalty flags are even enough to devalue the product to the point where one in every ten football fan now opts for other activity on Sunday afternoons?  And Sunday nights? And Monday nights? And Thursday nights?

Time was, it was an honor to be selected to play on Monday Night Football, and when you were selected, it was because you earned the selection by building and maintaining success and/or an exciting collection of players that entertained audiences, and both actually worked hand in hand.

Take the Patriots for example.  There have been periods of time - protracted blocks of time, in fact - when the Patriots put a horrible product on the field.  They weren't nicknamed "The Patsies" for nothing, but in reality they were the very personification of inconsistency.

In that light, the Patriots of the early 1970's were so bad that it took three seasons for Monday Night Football to come calling, and even then it was because of some sort of weird rotation between a pool of teams that sucked, perpetually, as evidenced by the fact that it took three more seasons before they again appeared under the bright lights.

But when Chuck Fairbanks began digging the Patriots out of the AFC East cellar, the Patriots found themselves on Monday Night Football for seven straight seasons, as they experienced six consecutive winning seasons, had colorful characters on the team and set records on offense - including the most rushing yards in a season, a record that still stands today nearly four decades later.

They hit the skids again in the early 1980's, then elevated their game to another protracted streak of winning seasons, and went to their first Super Bowl, then bottomed out in the early 90's before rising to another Super Bowl and experienced another streak of good fortune in the mid-to-late decade - each of these peaks and valleys were reflected in the Monday Night schedule, including a six-year hiatus between 1989 and 1995.

That's where the Patriots' brand ceases to be a good example of the in's and out's of primetime television, as they were on the doorstep of an unprecedented run of success that continues to this day, a run that has seen them in at least one Monday night game each season since the turn of the century - but in 2006, just after Goodell took office, effectively came an end to the novelty that made primetime football - well - a novelty.

In 2006, the fledgling NFL Network and NBC began primetime broadcasts of their own - Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, respectively - while the Monday Night brand that had become both a staple and icon of American television ended it's run on commercial network ABC, with parent company ESPN taking over the broadcast.

There's a philosophy among sports purists that expansion waters down the overall talent level among all of the teams and cheapens the product, and the expansion of football primetime broadcasts has thinned the overall talent level and has cheapened the product.

Now, instead of being "honored" by the league by being granted an appearance on Monday Night Football, the league has adopted a policy of "spreading the wealth" with the creation of the Sunday and Thursday night brands, leaving schedule makers to fill in 34 slots created by the inclusion of the brands - and with the league consisting of 32 teams, the novelty of playing on nationally televised primetime games wore off quickly as every team, both good and bad, got a turn.

Most of the criticism has been leveraged towards the Thursday night brand, which came about as nothing more than a power play for Goodell to gain leverage with cable providers - and many have speculated that the Thursday night scheduling is also a bargaining chip to be used to entice NFL owners to approve Goodell's dream of an 18-game schedule.

As a move to "encourage" cable providers to carry the NFL Network as part of their standard digital lineup instead of pay-per-view packages, they anticipated that furor over the fans inability to see their teams play on Thursday night would force the cable providers to start carrying the NFL Network or face mass exodus from their subscribers.

Of course, the providers relented, but what we were left with was an inferior product, due to timing issues and general malaise that accompanies too much of anything.

But Thursday night was different. Teams still considered playing on Monday night an honor, or at least a vehicle to drive their own agendas, and Sunday nights became an even bigger draw, as anticipation among fans built all day on Sundays to settle down and finish their football viewing with mostly excellent matchups, based on what NBC called "flex scheduling", which allowed the network to replace poor matchups - based on records or waning fan interest - with more highly watchable games.

This was something that the league couldn't pull off on a Monday or Thursday night because the logisitics involved in flexing games out and in would prove to be near impossible, what with ticket purchases, travel and rest time for the athletes barriers to success, while NBC had the ability to draw from a pool of games scheduled for earlier in the day, with the only stipulation that the network required to inform the league and the participants 12 days in advance.

So with Monday nights already engrained in television lore and Sunday nights promising the most exciting matchups of the week, Thursday nights became a vortex that no player wanted to participate in, no coach wanted to prepare their team for and, eventually, no fan with a casual interest in the participants wanted to watch.

What it boils down to is that the current television contracts give football fans too much of a good thing, and fans have started to take football for granted.

Is there a way to fix all of these things?  Of course there are measures to take that would bring back viewership, but there has already been a lot of damage to the NFL brand, and no matter what Goodell does now, will be taken with a grain of salt, because he has shown no inclination to take suggestions and his behavioral pattern suggests nothing but self-edification.

The TV contracts run through 2022 and the combined networks (Including FOX, which shows only Sunday regional broadcasts) are under contract to pay the league a whopping $40 Billion for the rights to broadcast games, so Goodell is under no obligation to change anything - and he is actually constrained by the contracts to maintain the status quo.

But he does have plenty to say about the scheduling and about rule changes.

As far as the Thursday night brand, the scheduling can be constructed to coincide with each team's bye week, and actually make fans, players and coaches look forward to the mid-week contests.

If the league would schedule teams coming off of their bye weeks to play on Thursday night, it would give each team 10 full days to rest and prepare, then it would give those same teams 10 days after the contest to rest and prepare for the rest of their schedule.

The benefits would be enormous for all involved.  For fans of the teams involved, there would only be 10 days between seeing their team play as opposed to 14 under the current format.  Players would actually have more time to rest and heal and work on their individual technique, and coaches wouldn't have to scramble to put together impromptu, mostly vanilla game plans that are anything but exciting.

Casual fans would be treated to a better product, the league's safety protocol would be adhered to much more completely, and the players and coaches would be completely on board.

In the past couple of days there has been talk of the league looking to end the Thursday night brand, and that would be fine, were it not for the leverage that cable companies and the networks now own over the league, so for the next five seasons, Thursday Night Football will more than likely continue to air like some sort of preternatural participation trophy...

...appeasing Goodell's long-dead vision of parity in the league which, as a result, causes exactly the opposite effect.  Like it or not, the overwhelming number of primetime games that dilutes the talent pool are here to stay, and unless the league takes ownership of the Thursday Night brand and fills the slots with marquee matchups, the ratings will continue to decline.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Patriots Ground Jets Playing Clutch, Complementary Football

James White was a hero, then a goat, and then let off the hook.

So went the day for the New England Patriots.

It was enough that the Patriots were at MetLife Stadium and playing an arch-nemesis New York Jets that always plays New England tough, but to add a hobbled quarterback Tom Brady to the equation meant that the rest of the team had to pick up the slack - and they did.  Barely.

Facing a fourth and four at the Jets' 37 with just under three minutes to play and playing from behind a one-point deficit, Brady floated a short pass to White on a quick out - White took the pass on his inside shoulder, spun to square his shoulders upfield, and absorbing a hit from Jets' linebacker Darron Lee, White stretched as far as his 5' 10" body would go, picking up the vital first down.

From the spot where the play started, to settle for a field goal in that situation would mean entrusting shaky place kicker Stephen Gostkowski to nail a 54 yard field goal, but neither miss-or-make circumstance was plausible.
Long, silencing the crowd, ended the game with his strip sack

If Gostkowski missed, the Patriots would have been down by two points and the Jets would have taken over the ball at their own 44 and the Patriots with only two time outs to work with - but had he made it, the Patriots would have taken a one-point lead, but left Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets' offense nearly three minutes to drive for a game-winning field goal.

So it was all on White's shoulders to gain the first down.

"He made a great play because the ball was thrown short of the sticks" Brady said of White, "and if we don't make that play, it's hard to win the game - it was a game-winning play, a championship-type play that James made. He did enough to shake off the tackle and get the first down."

A deep pass to wide open receiver Chris Hogan on the ensuing play took the ball down to the Jets' eight yard line, and then Brady hit rookie Malcolm Mitchell for a touchdown pass at the left pylon to give the Patriots a five-point lead - then White took a motion handoff from Brady and crossed the same pylon for a two-point conversion to give the Patriots a seven-point lead...

...the only problem being, while White's body crossed the goal line before going out of bounds, the ball never did, so the Patriots were left clinging to that five-point margin and kicking the ball back to Fitzgerald and the Jets' offense with just under two minutes left.

But defensive end Chris Long stripped the ball out of Fitzgerald's hand two plays later and the ball was recovered by fellow defensive end Trey Flowers which meant that White and, indeed, the entire Patriots team, were let off the hook, leaving MetLife with a victory in a 22-17 street fight.

The Patriots, were expected to set scoring records this season - what with the virtual plethora of extraordinary talent at Brady's disposal - but after running roughshod over their opponents to take a 7-1 record into their week-nine bye, New England has stumbled out of their off week, looking sluggish for long stretches of each of their three contests, losing a heartbreaker to Seattle before posting a 30-17 win over San Francisco last week and winning by five points over New York.

The only thing that has been consistent in any of the three has been the Patriots' clutch play when it counted the most.

Brady looked every bit the hobbled old warrior on Sunday afternoon, his already limited mobility reduced to sloth-like trudging, but after throwing away the ball on five attempts simply because the Jets were sending extra rushers to force Brady's hand, and after overthrowing wide open receivers at least as many times, the quarterback that many consider the greatest to ever play the game summoned up his clutch nature on the last two possessions of the game.

Considered a game-time decision, Brady's right knee was so sore and swollen during the week that he didn't attend practices, and it was clear that the knee was still bothering him, and accounted for the seemingly endless collection of overthrows - when the quarterback can't push off well with his right knee, it affects not just the follow through, but also the release point of the ball, which will be slightly higher...

...but as the game reached it's pinnacle, Brady was able to adjust his mechanics to compensate for his bum knee, throwing strikes on the last two critical possessions, and at the same time earning him his 200th career victory, tying him with Peyton Manning for most all-time - and Brady can break that record with a win against the Los Angeles Rams next week in Foxborough.

Brady - who threw the ball a ridiculous fifty times, completing thirty for 286 yards and two scores - went four-of-six on an eight-play, fifty three yard drive that produced a field goal to get the Patriots within one point, then after the New England defense forced a punt after a short Jets' possession, Brady went five-of-nine on the game winner to take his team to a 9-2 record.

Rookie Wide Receiver Malcolm Mitchell hauled in both of Brady's scoring tosses, snatching a dart at the back of the end zone to cap a seven-play, fifty yard drive after the Patriots' defense forced a Jets' fumble at midfield in the second quarter to tie the game at ten, then the gamer to bring his touchdown total to three in the past two games as his playing time has increased due to injuries in the pass catching ranks...

...while power back LeGarrette Blount ran the ball eleven times for 67 yards and is closing in on 900 yards for the season with five games to play, scatback Dion Lewis adding 24 yards on six carries, including a nifty 15-yard job deep in Jets' territory that featured his trademark cut-on-a-dime elusiveness.

While the Patriots' offense again looked sluggish for much of the game, for the third straight week the defense has seemed lost in a fog until one takes a look at the stat sheet.

Giving up 17 points, which is one fewer than their season average, the New England defense held New York to 5 of 11 on third down conversions, forced four punts, caused two turnovers and allowed the Jets to venture into the red zone just one time - giving up plenty of yardage between the twenties, but hardly anything in scoring position.

The bend-but-don't-break philosophy that the Patriots defense has employed causes frightful tremors among their faithful, but the fact that it works for them is a huge consolation.

On the season, New England has surrendered 197 points on defense, good for third in the NFL, while giving up a whopping 3900 yards, which places them 13th in the league - the spread between these two stats probably have Patriots' fans reaching for bottles of Xanax, but it does indicate how very clutch the defense is when the game is on the line.

And no defender in recent history has been more clutch than cornerback Malcolm Butler, though he took his lumps against the Jets' gigantic wide outs, giving up six catches on as many targets for 106 yards and both of Ryan Fitzgerald's scoring throws - but the difference between what happened to Butler on Sunday and just plain getting toasted was verbalized by Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick after the game.

"Look, we're going to play against good receivers and good quarterbacks every week. That's what the National Football League is." said Belichick on his Monday morning conference call from Gillette Stadium, adding, "Malcolm competed hard, which he always does, and tackled and was competitive on a lot of those plays and was close. They made some plays and he made some."

They made some plays, and he made some.  The Jets made some plays and the Patriots made some.  Imagine that.  The Jets made plays all over the field, made plays that totaled 333 total yards on 56 plays, but only 18 of those yards and four of those plays came inside the red zone - otherwise, Fitzgerald hooked up with receiver Quincy Enunwa on a 22 yard miracle touchdown in the back right corner of the end zone that Butler couldn't have covered any better...

...and one Nick Foles field goal.  The rest of the Jets' ten possessions were a testament to the competitiveness that Belichick keeps speaking of, with the aforementioned punts and forced fumbles, and also an Alan Branch blocked field goal on a 54-yard Foles attempt.

That is the very definition of complementary football.  Can things be better? Rhetorically speaking, absolutely.  The offense could run the ball a little more to give the defense a bit more rest, and the defense could pressure more to perhaps give the offense a little better starting field position.

Other than that, your Patriots are fine, and are on to Los Angeles.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Patriots' Offense Rounding Into Form Despite Bumps In The Road

Right tackle Cannon has not allowed a quarterback hit or sack in the last four games
 Bill Belichick has long said that what his teams look like around Thanksgiving is as good as they are going to get.  This Thanksgiving, however, his New England Patriots are experiencing things differently than in any season past.

On defense, they have jettisoned their most physically gifted player, Jamie Collins, presumably for not adhering to the Patriot Way, and have spent the last two games scrambling to find their groove without their pro bowl linebacker, while on offense, the team has been slowly stabilizing as they get players back into the fold after missing significant time with one issue or another.

The blue liners have the Big Nickel alignment to fall back on, but things are not that simple for an offense that was predicted to be a literal juggernaut.  Given those lofty projections and with six games left in the season, the Patriots sit at sixth in the league in both total offense and scoring - disappointing, but there are reasons.

And it isn't as if the Patriots haven't been efficient on offense, but there have been issues with continuity, as several members of the squad have either missed good chunks of time this season, or are currently shelved - or both. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first three games of the season and is currently on the shelf and expected to miss his second consecutive game with a chest injury...

...while quarterback Tom Brady missed the first four games in Roger Goodell's dog house and electric passing back Dion Lewis came off the PUP list just two weeks ago and saw limited snaps in his first action of the season in last Sunday's win at San Francisco.  Essentially, Brady's internal clock is pretty much set to the second week of the season, if we count his fist four games as a sort of preternatural preseason.

Same with Gronkowski, and Lewis has just started his preseason - but the Patriots have proven that, unlike last season, this offense is capable of carrying them to the win column.

The best and most telling sign of this comes with the incredible balance that has become a calling card.  Last season and, indeed, for the past decade, balance on offense to the Patriots meant running the ball just enough to keep the threat of the run in the brains of the opposing pass rushers.

But this season, as the offense leaned on the running game to help the team compile a 3-1 record before Brady returned, they also received a real-life tutorial on the fundamental importance of the protracted usage of the running game. Indeed, the Patriots sport the sixth-ranked rushing game in the NFL, with power back LeGarrette Blount working on a career season where he is projected to end up with nearly 1300 yards and nineteen touchdowns.

Those yardage totals haven't been seen around Foxborough in a decade, and the number of touchdowns has never been approached, but the most amazing thing about it is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has learned that his running game is - to quote coach Herman Boone - just like Novocaine: give it time, it always works.

To Patriots' fans, there aren't too many things more beautiful than watching their 250 pound running back cut through a hole and get loose on the second level,  but is equaled in beauty by Gronkowski smothering the ball with his huge hands while sprinting up the seam, Lewis displaying his video game-quality elusiveness, James White's subtle electricity, Martellus Bennett's hand fighting at the line of scrimmage, and etc., etc.

But something is amiss in Foxborough.  Gronkowski is most certainly out this Sunday when the Patriots travel to New Jersey to take on the hated Jets, while fellow tight end Bennett and Brady were listed as questionable on the Thanksgiving injury report and did not participate in practice - which is particularly troublesome for Brady, as he's dealing with a bum knee and hasn't practiced for the past two days...

...and while Brady has such a grasp of the offense that he was able to step right in and start dominating after serving his four-game suspension to start the season, missing a couple of practices isn't a good sign. Fortunately, there's a somewhat seasoned Jimmy Garoppolo waiting in the wings in case Brady can't go against the Jets.

It's a unique situation that far sighted head ball coach Bill Belichick can use to his advantage. Garoppolo has already shown that he has a keen grasp of the offense and that he has all of the tools required of an NFL signal caller, throwing for 500 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while leading New England to two early-season wins - and if Garoppolo does indeed end up playing on Sunday, it just adds another length of game footage to an already decent film study to either entice quarterback needy teams in the offseason, or to give Patriots' fans solace in Brady's golden years.

So, worst case, Garoppolo at quarterback, a full complement of wide receivers and a backfield full of sick moves and "Blount" force are in store for the Jets, as the passing back combo of White and Lewis and the deep seam element provided by Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell can somewhat offset the loss of the two tight ends against the mediocre Jets' secondary.

Somewhat, because Patriots quarterbacks have targeted their tight ends with a full 40-percent of their pass attempts this season, and their passing backs - primarily White - another thirty percent.  So it remains to be seen if the wide receivers can have an immediate and forceful impact on an offense that has obviously gone heavy.

Of course, everything on offense is dependent on two critical factors - Brady getting the ball out of his hands and to the receivers as they make their breaks, and the offensive line - a unit that looks as if they have rounded into form and are playing their best ball at the right moment - giving him that time.

Led by - dare we say it? - right tackle Marcus Cannon, who hasn't surrendered a quarterback hit or sack in the past four games, the Patriots offensive line has very quietly become a cohesive unit that is getting better as the season progresses. In fact, if one were to look at the line in a purely statistical nature, the Patriots rank in the top 10 for the least quarterback hits surrendered (49, ranked 10th in the NFL) and sacks (20, ranked 9th).

Given those numbers, it isn't surprising that New England is ranked sixth in the league in passing, rushing, scoring and total offense, and has helped to introduce balance back into the Patriots' game plan.

Cannon and center David Andrews are both getting whispers of Pro Bowl notice, while left guard Joe Thuney has an inside track to making the league's All- Rookie team. Gigantic Cam Fleming has become a staple swing tackle and lines up as an eligible tight end on a good portion of snaps (When you ear the referee say "Number 71 is reporting as eligible, that's Fleming) and usually lines up on the weak side covering the outside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder.

Which is purposeful as the veteran Solder has been the weakest link on the line in 2016 and has been the culprit in several negative plays for the Patriots' offense in the past two games, including a holding penalty that negated a lovely 35 yard Blount rumble for a touchdown against the 49ers.

With so much talent on the Patriots' offense, finding a left tackle in the draft or free agency this offseason is probably going to be priority-one, but that is a subject for another time.

As it stands, the Patriots certainly have enough on both sides of the ball to take the Jets, whom they play twice in the final six games - even if Brady and Bennett join Gronkowski on the skids - but with the suddenly resurgent Miami Dolphins just two games back and representing the season finale for New England, the AFC East has the tightest race it's seen in almost a decade... every play counts, and every player is vital - and with a bevy of opportunists playing split wide, in the slot and in the backfield, there is no reason why the Patriots shouldn't come away with their eighth consecutive division title, and a decent shot at a first round bye.