Sunday, January 14, 2007
FINDING A WAY TO WIN
Wow! WOW! As much as my heart was racing in anticipation of this game, it got faster as time went on. I have to say that for 90% of this game, perhaps more, we looked terrible. But in that 10%, we played our hearts out and earned a victory over the 14-2, #1 seeded San Diego Chargers.
For a great majority of this game, I was planning a losing post. This is one of those "Here is why we lost" types of thing that I hate to write. I was planning to don my Brady jersey tomorrow in order to show everyone that I still loved the Pats. Now I will wear it out of pride for our team, and I will write a regular post about why we won, why we COULD have lost, and what is up ahead.
Let's start with before the game. Everyone, and I mean everyone was talking about LT and how the Patriots would try to stop him. I didn't think we'd be able to keep him to a bad game like 15 carries for 50 yards, or anything like that. I figured LT would have a great day, but we could win. It all depended on what we did on offense, and what we did with the opportunities given to us. The Chargers were going to blitz the crap out of us, and how we played against the blitz would be a big factor in determining the game. Would we give Brady enough time, and would our receivers get open against one-on-one coverage.
The game started with, guess what, LT running. He got some good blocking from his tackle and tight end that created a pinhole that he made look like a black hole. He ran for 11 yards and a 1st down. He got 3 on the next play and Rivers threw to Neal for 11 more. LT got 3 on the next play. To me, these 3 run yards were huge. LT had so many carries that could have been stopped for a loss or no gain, but he is so hard to bring down that he gets a few extra yards. He uses his speed to get 20 when he should get 3, and his strength to get 3 when he should get none. He is the MVP, without a doubt.
After that run, Rivers threw to Parker who was stripped before having control by Hobbs. Not being able to hold onto the ball would be a trademark of Chargers receivers throughout the day. On the next play chad Scott made a nice open field tackle on Antonio Gates to force a 3rd down and a punt. However, the drive had successfully gotten into our territory to the 43 yard line. The Chargers ensuing punt was fair caught by Troy Brown at the 10.
The Patriots had a three and out. They tried spreading the field a bit, but things just weren't working. Sauerbrun punted to the 50. LT and the chargers were unable to get a yard, and punted. Faulk fair caught it at the 7. Even though we had just made a good defensive stop, I was worried. Things were looking like the Miami loss when we couldn't get anything going on offense, and were constantly defending a short-field.
Brady hit Reche for 3, then scrambled for 4 more. On 3rd and 3, Merrimen defensed (I love that term) a pass intended for Faulk. Steroid Shawne wouldn't be heard from much the rest of the day.
Speaking of roids, Sauerbrun had a nice 56 yard punt and the Chargers would start their next drive at the 35. The Pats had a chance to make some progress in the field position battle. But then LT ran for 15 yards. After a pair of incompleteness, Rivers hit Parker for 21 yards. A reverse got blown up by Colvin, Warren, and Phil Rivers for a 7 yard loss. LT got 6, but the Chargers couldn't convert on 3rd and 11. The Chargers went for it on 4th down instead of a 47 yard field goal attempt. However, Vrabel got in on Rivers and forced a fumble. After we recovered, we finally had the ball to start a drive past our own 10 yard line.
On 1st and 10 on the 35, we ran three straight plays. Dillon for 3, then 3 again, then Faulk for 5 on 3rd and 4. The Patriots made their first penetration into Chargers territory with a 9 yard pass from Brady to Brown. Dillon got the 1st down on the next play. After Dillon was stopped for a 1 yard gain, Brady overthrew Gaffney in the end zone. Jabbar had a step and a half on his man, but Brady just put a bit too much under it. On 3rd and 9, Brady threw a conservative pass to Brown, who was tackled shy of the 1st down, but the play allowed us to attempt a 50 yard field goal which Gotskowski nailed. 3-0 New England
After a good kickoff return, the Chargers tried an all Tomlinson drive. LT got 16 on the first play to end the 1st quarter, then was stopped at the line. He caught a 6 yard pass, then a 3rd and 4 incomplete forced a Chargers punt. On 1st and 10, Maroney got 5, but was swarmed in the backfield on the next play and lost 4. An incomplete was followed by a punt.
LT got 5, then 4, then Neal was stuffed. The chargers went for it on 4th and 1, and Turner got 17 before Sanders wrapped him up. Rivers threw to Gates who seemed to catch it at the 2, then seemed to fumble it. Vrabel seemed to fall on it, but the play was challenged by San Diego and the pass was ruled incomplete. It was a good reversal, though, as Gates never did a "football move." Rivers hit Gates again for 9, then Rivers was flushed and forced to scramble for 2. He then hit Neal for 9. On 1st and goal from the 2, LT easily took it in for a TD. 7-3 San Diego.
After a 15 yard face mask penalty, the Patriots had their best starting field position on the 43. Then Brady and Graham hooked up for the biggest offensive play for the Patriots for 19 yards to the charger 38. Then Brady threw a pick. It was probably the worst time to throw it. We had just fallen behind 7-3, but seemed to have a little bit of momentum about to build up. Brady seemed to think that Edwards would follow a receiver who ran in front of him, but he stayed put and jumped up to catch the ball. Just a stupid INT.
The Chargers blitz was preventing Brady from making complete throwing motions and following through. They did a good job of forcing Brady to make decisions, and on this play, Brady made a bad one.
The defense stood up nicely after the INT. This would be a theme. Even though we had difficulty holding onto the ball, we did a good job of not allowing turnovers to kill us by allowing points off them. Hawkins capped off the defensive stand with a sack for an 11 yard loss. However, give credit to Rivers who did a good job of holding onto the ball. If he fumbles right there, it's a HUGE turnover.
Although the Patriots forced a 3 and out and allowed 0 points off the interception, the turnover still hurt us. We had gotten to the San Diego 38 yard line with a chance to penetrate even further. After the Chargers punted, we had the ball back at our 33. That's a 29 yard difference, and yards weren't exactly coming cheaply against the Chargers defense.
After gaining 0 yards, Sauerbrun punted a 52 yarder and after the 8 yard return, San Diego would start at their 23. This was their worst starting field position at this point in the game. It didn't seem to matter, though.
LT ran up the middle for 11, then again for 2. He caught a screen and exploded for 58 yards. It was just a display of a great football player making a great play.
Asante Samuel finally dragged down Tomlinson at the 6.
Probably the weirdest "tackle" of Samuel's career as he essentially tripped up LT enough so that he fell down. Turner took it into the end zone on the next play. 14-3 San Diego. Things were looking bleak.
The Patriots had 2:00 and some timeouts to try to get some points on the board. But things didn't look good. We were down by 11 against a defense that hadn't allowed us to do anything consistently. We were also against a team with a sensational running game that could drain out the clock with ease.
The Pats started from their 28. Surprisingly, Faulk got the ball for 7. Then he got it again and got 7 more. These two plays allowed us to continue the drive further. After a holding penalty on Mankins, Brady hit Gaffney on a sideline route for 17. Jabbar got it again for 16 more to the Charger 32. This was our deepest penetration to that point. After an incomplete, Faulk ran for 5 and Caldwell caught a 9 yarder. With 0:17 on the clock, Gaffney had a 7 yard reception, moving the ball to the 11. An offside penalty moved the ball to the 6, Brady hit Gaffney in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, 14-10 San Diego.
The Pats went into the locker room with some momentum, and had the game close against a tough blitzing defense and a strong running game.
The teams exchanged punts to open the 2nd half. On a 3rd and 10 play, Brady threw a ball that was intended for Brown but was picked off by the Chargers. They started the drive from our 32 and moved the ball forward 11 yards before a holding penalty pushed it back. This meant they were on the edge of field goal range. After an in-completion and a Tomlinson run for 2, Rivers was sacked by Sanders for a loss of 10. This knocked San Diego out of field goal range and they were forced to punt.
Even though we kept San Diego from scoring, the turnover hurt us. Their punt was downed at the 2 yard line and we'd once again have a long field. In the 2nd half, to this point, neither team was really winning or losing the field position battle. But after the pick, we were definitely losing it.
After an incompletion on 1st and 10, Brady hit Brown for 12 yards. Faulk got 6 up the middle, but after an incomplete and a run for a 2 yard loss, the Pats were forced to punt. Sauerbrun booted a 51 yarder, which was muffed by Parker. Instead of trying to collapse on the ball, Parker then seemed to try to pick it up so that he could return it. This allowed the coverage team to envelop him and David Thomas to fall on the ball.
Now we had the ball on the Charger 31. San Diego gave us 5 more yards with an illegal contact penalty. After an incomplete pass to Graham, the Pats tried a play-action pass to Faulk, who was stopped at the line. Mankins was called for pass interference. Now, I haven't done any research on this to confirm it, but this is the first and last time Logan Mankins will be called for PI.
Brady hit Brown for 7 on the next play, but was sacked from the blind-side and the ball popped out. Matt Light caught it, though, but he was unable to advance anywhere near a 1st down. Florence head-butted a Patriot after the play and was flagged for it, which gave us a 1st down and another shot at the end zone.
Maroney ran for 4, then was stopped at the line. Mankins was called for holding which moved the ball back to the 24. Brady then threw too low for Watson, who could have walked into the end zone. On 3rd down, Brady hit Gaffney for 8, which I felt was a good play because it made the field goal attempt easier. Gostkowski nailed the 34 yarder. 14-13 San Diego.
We took advantage of San Diego's mistakes, which were numerous on this drive. This was something the chargers hadn't really been able to do to us.
The Chargers seemed to respond nicely on offense. Rivers threw to Jackson for 12. Tomlinson ran for 9, then Neal got the 1st down with 2. The Chargers ran a screen to LT on the flat, but Colvin was in between Rivers and Tomlinson. Rivers tried lofting the ball over Colvin, but Roosevelt tipped it up, then came down with it.
For a linebacker not named Vrabel, it was a dam good catch. Tomlinson seemed to have his hands on Colvin's face mask, but the flag thrown by the officials was picked up. I felt it should have been a 5 yard incidental penalty, but no penalty was assessed.
We didn't score off the turnover, but we were able to move the ball as far as San Diego's 41. After driving, we punted the chargers back to their 17, their worst starting field position to that point.
LT moved the ball to the 30 with a 17 yard run. Turner was held for 1 on the next play, but then Rivers hit Gates for 19 at midfield. The chargers converted a big 3rd and 7 when Rivers hit Gates for 12. LT ran for 1, then Jackson caught a 31 yard pass at our 3. LT easily took it into the end zone on the next play.
21-13 San Diego.
8:35 left in the 4th quarter and we needed 8 points to tie. I'm not going to say I was confident we'd win at this point, but I didn't doubt it much.
We started the drive at the 37, thanks in large part to a Chargers personal foul on the extra-point. This drive needs to be divided play by play.
On 1st and 10 at the 37, Brady threw incomplete intended for Brown, defensed very well by Polk.
On 2nd and 10, Brady found Gaffney for 17 yards in the middle of the field. These 10-19 yard passes were the bread and butter of the Patriots the past two years.
On 1st and 10 from the San Diego 46, Brady hit Faulk for a modest gain of 5. Even though there was just under 8 minutes on the clock, the Patriots needed to be quick. Even if we scored a tD, we also needed to make the 2 point conversion, and if we failed, we'd need the ball back with time.
On 2nd and 5 from the Charger 41, Brady threw to Brown deep down the sideline, but the ball was overthrown, which was good because Brown was pretty blanketed.
On 3rd and 5, Brady was pressured out of the pocket. He seemed to want to run, but Merrimen's steroid fueled legs allowed him to converge on Brady at the line of scrimmage and the hyped up linebacker made his only noise of the game with a "sack" that resulted in a loss of 0 yards.
The Pats were forced to go for it on 4th down, and what happened was one of the greatest plays in Patriots history.
Brady threw to Brown in tight coverage. Marlon McCree intercepted it, and Troy Brown stripped him. Reche Caldwell fell on the ball and it was 1st and 10 Patriots at the San Diego 32. For some reason, the chargers challenged the play, but it was clearly an interception, then a fumble, then a Patriots recovery.
This play shows what it means to be a Patriot. Brown isn't going to be named to any All-Star teams any time soon, but he is capable of making amazing plays when confronted with tough situations. This is what the Patriots do!
The challenge was also one of the weirdest decisions I've seen a coach make to challenge a play. The ruling on the field was upheld and San Diego was charged a timeout.
On 1st and 10, Brady hit Gaffney for 7 yards. Gaffney has become a favorite target of Brady the past 2 weeks, with 18 total catches against San Diego and New York, compared to 11 during the regular season.
On 2nd and 3 from the 25, Brady threw incomplete to Watson. Despite being thrown to, Watson had yet to make a catch and he let this one go underneath his fingers.
On 3rd and 3, Brady hit Gaffney yet again for 12 more yards.
On 1st and 10 from the 13 and 4:46 on the clock in the 4th, Watson caught his first pass of the day for 9 yards.
On 2nd and 1 from the 4, Brady looked right, then to the middle, then to the right, then looked left and saw Reche Caldwell all alone in the end zone. Brady threw it, Reche caught it, touchdown. 21-19 San Diego.
We had to go for 2 to tie it.
My roommate said as the Patriots lined up for the attempt "I like seeing trick plays."
To which I replied "Well, you're about to see one."
Kevin Faulk had lined up as a receiver, but came in motion and wound up next to Brady, who was in the shotgun. Instantly, every Patriots fan is thinking direct snap to Faulk. That's what happened. And Faulk took it in to tie the game.
It was 21-21 with 4:36 on the clock. But we still had to stop the Chargers from scoring. If we stopped them quickly, we could get the ball back and a chance to win it.
LT ran for 5, then Rivers threw incomplete. Asante Samuel made a great play on the ball to force an in completion on 3rd down and force a punt. The 3 and out took a total of 60 seconds off the clock. Great stop by the defense.
We got the ball back on our 15. We moved the ball to the 34 when Brady hit Graham for 19. Brady threw Graham's way again and it was nearly picked off, but Graham was able to break up the play enough. After Brady threw incomplete to Faulk, the risk of blitzing was demonstrated fully.
Why don't teams blitz on every play? Well, it leaves receivers on islands with their DBs in one-on-one coverage. If the blitz is sufficiently picked up, and the receivers are able to create any kind of space, they will be burnt. If the QB has enough time to look, he will find an open man. This is exactly what happened on 3rd and 10. Brady found Caldwell in one-on-one coverage. Caldwell had beaten his man. Brady hit him in stride, and Caldwell tight-roped up the sideline for 49 yards.
The ball was on the San Diego 17, in field goal range. With 2:31 on the clock, the game was now about running off time and setting up a field goal attempt.
Dillon got 2 and the Chargers used a timeout. Dillon then got 3 and the 2 minute warning stopped the clock. Dillon was stopped for a loss of 1 at the 13 and the Patriots ran off the clock before calling a timeout. Then the rookie kicker took the field, and nailed a 31 yard field goal.
24-21 New England. This was our first lead since 7:19 in the 2nd quarter, or nearly 40 minutes of game clock.
There was 1:14 on the clock, still plenty of time for San Diego.
After the kickoff and return, San Diego had the ball on their 25 with 1:05 left. Rivers hit Gates for 14 yards. The play took 25 seconds. Ball on the 39, 0:50 on the clock. For some reason, Rivers hit Gates near the middle of the field for 4 yards. Clock continues moving. Ball on the 43, 0:24 on the clock. After a spike, Rivers hit Parker at our 36. This was at the edge of field goal range. They spiked the ball with 0:08 on the clock. They attempted a 54 yard field goal that was short and to the right. Game over.
This wasn't the cleanest of wins, and we should thank San Diego for helping us out with dropped balls, silly penalties, and turnovers. But I think the Patriots earned this victory. Despite all their miscues, the Chargers are a dam good team. And it wasn't like they all played like crap, either. LT had 187 yards of total offense and 2 TDs. As a team, San Diego rushed for 148 yards against us. They forced 3 picks. They won the field position battle throughout most of the game with 5 punts inside our 20, and 3 inside our 10.
We took advantage of San Diego's miscues, and we limited the damage of our own mistakes. That's New England Patriots football.
Tom Brady had one of his worst playoff performances for about 90% of this game. He threw 3 picks, and threw about half a dozen balls off target, including an overthrow of Gaffney in the end zone. He also had a fumble. His stat line looks like a Drew Bledsoe one (no offense, Drew, and we all know you're better than Tony Romo). 27 for 51 (yes, 51!), for 280 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs. But in the end he orchestrated some nice drives.
The Patriots running game was non-existent. The Chargers did an excellent job of stopping our run. Faulk led the team in rushing with 25 yards on 6 carries. Dillon had 8 carries for 18 yards, Maroney 5 for 5, and Brady 2 for 3. Our running backs had a total of 19 carries for 48 yards. That's 2.5 yards a carry. Not good. Compare that with San Diego's backs who had 29 carries for 152 yards (5.2 a carry). Faulk was the only back who caught passes, he caught 2 for 11 yards. San Diego's backs had 84 receiving yards on 4 catches. No running back fumbled the entire game on either team.
Jabbar Gaffney had his second straight career game. He had 10 catches for 103 yards and a TD. That's 18 catches and 207 yards in these last two games. But I guess he wasn't good enough for Houston or Miami. Great find by the Patriots to pick this guy up.
Reche Caldwell had a great game with 7 catches for 80 yards and a TD. His 49 yard reception and run set-up the game winning field goal. Reche also recovered Troy Brown strip in the 4th quarter.
Troy Brown. You simply can't say enough about Troy. He had 5 catches for 39 yards. Perhaps more importantly, he stripped McCree after Brady threw an INT. The play allowed the Patriots drive to continue and they eventually tied it up. He's such a Patriot, and by that I mean he's a great team player.
The tight-ends didn't make a whole lot of noise in this game, partially because they were kept in on pass protection on a good number of plays. Graham had two big receptions for a total of 38 yards. Watson only caught the ball once after being thrown to several times, for a 9 yard gain. David Thomas might have had the best game out of all of our TEs with a muffed punt recovery.
Stephen Gostkowski had a very nice day. His only blemish was a kickoff out of bounds. However, he made 3 field goals, including the game winner, and including a 50 yarder, and kicked an extra point. Can we finally stop all the whining about losing Vinatieri's clutchness. I know Gostkowski's kick in the 4th wasn't exactly the hardest in the world, but he still nailed it to win the game. He also nailed that 50 yarder in the 1st, and in a close game like this, every single point counts.
Our return game was non-existant. We averaged 17.5 on kickoff returns, and had 1 punt return for 0 yards. Credit the Chargers punter and coverage team for this.
Saurbrun had a decent day with a 44.7 yard average and 1 punt inside the 20. He had a few 50+ punts, which was good because we were losing the field position battle for most of the game. Maybe he and Merrimen started another cycle.
The Pats defensive line had a decent day. Their job is to eat up blocks both on pass and rush defense, and they did that. It's just that LT got to the outside on us so well and eluded the tackles of our linebackers and defensive backs.
Our linebackers were beaten by LT a few times, but so wasn't every linebacker in the NFL that played San Diego. Colvin only made noise on one play, but he made a lot of it with a brilliant pickoff of a screen intended for LT. Bruschi did a good job of gang tackling in the middle. Banta-Cain had a fumble recovery, and Mike Vrabel was the one who forced the fumble with a sack of Rivers.
Our DBs had a solid game, as well. Notice how you didn't really see Asante Samuel that much? That means he was doing his job. We did see him a few times, and he did a good job of playing the ball and breaking up plays. Ellis Hobbs also had a few good plays on the ball that broke up some pass plays, including one that would have been a San Diego touchdown in the 1st quarter. Artrell Hawkins made some nice "last-chance" tackles on LT and by in large did a good job defending. He also had a sack rushing off the edge. Sanders also sacked Rivers, but he got burnt a bit more in run stopping by LT. We really missed Rodney Harrison in this game because he does such a great job of finishing off tackles and stopping the run in the middle of the field.
All things considered, the offensive line did well. Mankins had a few penalties, but Light had a great game. You didn't see Merrimen much, even when he was on the field. They even moved him away from Light. Matt also recovered a fumble which allowed a Patriots scoring drive to continue. The line didn't get much push for the running game, and they bent to the blitz a few times, but we must remember that San Diego has a very good defensive front.
So we beat the best team in the NFL. Imagine if the NFL had a BCS type of system, Baltimore and San Diego would be playing as the 1 and 2 teams. Instead, it's the 3 and 4 teams. We go to Indianapolis next Sunday. We can win that game, but I'll talk about that in another post.
After the game, Tomlinson remarked about the Patriots players imitating Shawne Merrimen's "lights out" dance.
"You guys know me, im a very classy person," Tomlinson said. "They showed no class, and maybe it comes from the head coach."
Just a few thoughts.
1. Classy people don't usually call themselves classy. LT doesn't dance in the end zone and doesn't talk trash, but it is weird when someone says "I'm a classy guy" to reporters after a game.
2. Imitating a dance is not classless. If it is, then the dance itself is classless. That would mean that Merrimen is classless. If you're going to have a special little "trademark" dance like some sort of stripper with a special move, then prepared to have it imitated. People do the Mile High Salute in Denver to make fun of the Broncos, and many, many other celebrations have been imitated.
3. I thought that given Merrimen's history with steroids, it would have been even funnier to start a modified Lights Out dance by injecting one's arm with a fake syringe. But I guess that would be even more classless according to LT. But not as classless as TAKING STEROIDS AND CHEATING!
4. I know I'm biased, but the Patriots under Belichick are some of classiest players and coaches you'll see in the NFL. We don't talk trash all week leading up to a game, we don't talk trash after a game, and we don't have choreographed and planned celebrations after making a freaking tackle. We play, we win, we keep our mouths shut, and our celebrations spontaneous.
5. Your team showed no poise, and maybe it comes from the head coach.
Anyway, LT will probably apologize. I know he was probably frustrated after having such a great game and still losing. But hey, it's the NFL, it's a team game, and you lost fair and square. Enjoy the off-season, and have fun with 8 of your teammates at the Pro Bowl.