Saturday, December 29, 2007
Yes, I know I am one of ten billion bloggers, sports writers, commentators, and pundits who will use the phrase "Sweet Sixteen" in reference to the Patriots going 16-0. And I don't care.
This may have been the most hyped game in regular season history. The Patriots going into the Meadowlands to face the playoff bound Giants, with innumerable individual records at stake, and a perfect season on the line. The game was on the NFL Network, CBS, and NBC. Fans in parts of eastern Massachusetts were able to choose from five different stations to watch the game: The NFL Network, WCVB 5 Boston, WHDH 7 Boston, WJAR 10 Providence, and WBZ 4 Boston.
For the record, I chose WJAR 10 because WCVB's lottery updates pushed the scoreboard off the screen, and 10 had the best picture/sound quality on my crappy low def TV.
And now, here comes my most in depth game summary in my short history as an amateur sports writer. But don't worry, there'll be plenty of pictures.
The Giants started the game with a touchdown drive, punctuated by two big plays. The Patriots clearly came into the game with stopping the run in the forefront of their minds. So when Eli Manning play action passed in the second play from scrimmage, the Patriots pass rushers bit. Manning then hit a leaping Plaxico Burress, who had a quarter step and eight inches of height on Ellis Hobbs. The play was good for a 52 yard gain.
But the Patriots defense appeared to bear down. A pass was bobbled by Steve Smith as he hit the ground, and after a silly challenge by Tom Coughlin, it was 2nd and 10. Then Ty Warren introduced himself to Brandon Jacobs at the line of scrimmage, making it 3rd and 10. Despite the 52 yard pass, the Patriots seemed on the verge of a red zone stop.
On 3rd and 10, the Pats blitzed, but were unable to get close to Manning. Eli found Burress 10 yards and 1 foot downfield, and the G-Men moved the chains. Jacobs ran on 1st and goal, gaining one. Then Manning dumped it to him in between the has marks, and the big halfback rumbled into the end zone. 7-0 Giants. Lead change #1.
Then the TV timeouts started. I absolutely HATE when there’s a touchdown, a commercial break, the kickoff, then another commercial break. And trust me, AT the game, those sandwiched breaks are even more frustrating.
Coming into this game, the Patriots had scored in 12 of 15 opening drives for the season. They scored 8 TDs (a record for the opening drive), and 4 field goals. The theme would continue.
Within two plays, the Patriots had penetrated Giants’ territory, as Moss and Welker each got 14 yard receptions. The catch by Welker was his 102nd of the season, a new Patriots record.
The Giants defense also seemed keyed on the run. Maroney was brutally stuffed at the line. On 2nd and 10, Watson dropped a flanker dump pass in the flat. On 3rd down, Brady hit Faulk on a screen. It was brilliant play calling. In that part of the field, a field goal is too long and a punt is too short. The Pats were trying to set up a 4th and short, and they did, Faulk got 8 yards on the play. Moss caught a 5 yard pass to give New England a new set of downs.
On 2nd and 8 at the New York 19, Brady’s pass grazed the fingertips of Watson, but once again, the tight end was unable to haul it in. On 3rd and 8, Moss was overthrown. Gostkowski came in and kicked the field goal. 7-3 Giants.
The Giants tried running the ball on their second possession, with no success. Ty Warren devoured Jacobs at the line once more, and Seau led a swarm of tacklers on 2nd down. Amani Toomer dropped what would have been a 1st down, and the Giants punted.
The Patriots had good field position at the 50, thanks in part to Welker’s 8 yard punt return (most players would have gotten 2 or 3 on that play). But the offense went backwards. Maroney was enveloped 4 yards behind the line (why they called for a HB Toss at that point, I have no idea), then Brady was sacked for an 8 yard loss. BUT, there was a flag in the defensive secondary. Corey Webster got called for illegal contact, giving the Pats an automatic first down. It would prove costly to the Giants.
A 13 yard pass to Stallworth, a 19 yarder to Welker, and an 11 yard catch by Faulk had the Patriots at the 4 yard line. On the play to Faulk, Moss was stuck in the helmet by a DB’s helmet. The hit rang Randy’s bell, but he returned for the next play, which was also the first play of the second quarter.
Brady threw to Moss, who was once again wide open in double coverage. Randy leaped into the air, ripped the ball down, and had himself a touchdown. The score was a record breaker. The Patriots broke the record for most points scored by a team. Randy Moss tied the record for TD receptions. Tom Brady tied the record for TD passes. Most importantly, it gave the Pats a 10-7 lead. Lead change #2.
Then came one of the worst flags I’ve seen all year. You know, Randy Moss hasn’t done the kind of celebrating we’ve seen from him in the past. There’ve been no incidents this season. His pants have stayed up. He hasn’t even really danced all that much. So when he tied the record for TD receptions, the play AFTER he got his clock cleaned, I think he’s entitled to a little dance and a spike of the ball.
But that’s not why the unsportsmanlike penalty was called. Laurence Maroney moved his hips a little bit, along with Moss. The ref threw the flag for this “group celebration” which is forbidden by the NFL ever since the Rams did that bob and weave stuff.
It was one of the most ticky tacky penalties you’ll see. Shawne Merriman can do his spastic embolism dance after getting a sack, and he doesn’t get penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. And if a “beloved” player had gotten some sort of record, like Brett Favre or Peyton Manning, the refs would allow any and all forms of celebration. Hell, Favre INVOLVED the ref in a celebration during a game Sunday and didn't get flagged.
But the Patriots had the lead, and what harm could a 15 yard penalty assessed on a kickoff do?
I’m not blaming the officials for the 74 yard kickoff return, but they certainly helped. With the touchdown, the Giants retook the lead, 14-10, lead change #3.
The Patriots maintained their composure, and put together a nice little drive, although it could have been much nicer. Maroney finally found some holes, and had a 13 yard run to start things off, then another carry for 5 more. Faulk caught a pass on the flat for an 8 yard gain, and Welker - whose new name is Big Slick because he always eludes the first man - had a 13 yarder.
The drive stalled in Giants’ territory when Maroney was brought down for a loss of 3. The Patriots tried the WR Screen one times too many as Welker had a reception for a 1 yard loss. On 3rd and 14, Brady had plenty of time, but he quickly delivered a low pass to Faulk a mere 2 yards downfield. When Faulk was tackled, the Patriots were forced to try yet another field goal. Giants 14, Patriots 13.
The Giants were once again stopped by the defense. Bruschi made a great diving tackle of Jacobs to string him up near the line and hold him to a 3 yard gain. Rodney Harrisson broke up a 3rd and 7 pass, forcing a punt.
On the punt, Wes Welker demonstrated why he is becoming the quintessential Patriot. The ball was headed for the end zone. Welker had already given up on catching it. Nevertheless, he got in the way of the gunner in order to prevent him from keeping the ball out of the end zone. It would have been a touchback but the effort and the awareness to do that was still impressive.
The Patriots adjusted the Giants’ aggressive defensive line by allowing them to go up field, past the runner, thus allowing Maroney some maneuvreing room. On 1st and 10, Maroney got 10. He had three more carries in the drive, each for 4 yards.
The Pats penetrated deeply once more. On 2nd and 6 at the New York 21, Brady hit Stallworth in the slot on a quick pass. Aaron Ross made a great ankle tackle to keep Donte from getting more than 2 yards.
On 3rd and 4, Brady threw to Moss in double coverage. However, that double coverage included linebacker Gerriss Wilkinson, who didn’t even turn his head to play the pass. The ball bounced of Wilkinson’s helmet, and fell out of bounds. The Pats once again settled for a field goal, making it 16-13 in their favor. Lead change #4.
What you have to love about Tom Brady is that even though this was their fourth trip into the Giants’ side of the field and they only had one TD to show for it, he went to the sidelines and laughed with Moss about the double covering linebacker whose skull broke up a touchdown pass.
The Giants got the ball back with 1:54 on the clock. They started from their own 15, and to their credit, they were after another score. On 2nd and 10, the drive nearly ended. Jarvis Green and Ty Warren each fell at Eli Manning’s feet. Manning scrambled and found Kevin Boss 23 yards downfield at the sidelines. The Patriots fell a mere foot or two short of sacking Manning and effectively ending the drive. Instead, the Giants would score a touchdown. 21-16 Giants, lead change #5.
Going into half-time, the Giants had a 4 point lead over the unbeaten Patriots. But it was a slim 4 point lead. The Giants had made some big plays - the 52 yard pass to Burress, the 74 yard kickoff return, the 23 yard pass to Boss - and the Patriots had failed to take full advantage of the opportunities given them - four trips into Giant territory, only 16 points.
But the Patriots had succeeded in stopping the run. Brandon Jacobs had 7 first half carries for 7 yards. You don’t need to bust out a calculator to figure out how many yards he averaged per carry.
The Patriots were also moving the ball effectively, they just hadn’t been able to get to the promised land as often as they should have.
But the 3rd quarter did not start off well for the Patriots. After going 3 and out, Brandon Jacobs ran all over the New England defense, carrying for 4 yards, 16 yards, and 15 yards. On 3rd and 9 from the 19, the Giants baited Samuel to jump a short route, leaving Burress with an open lane to the end zone. Manning found him and it was 28-16 Giants.
The 12 point deficit was the largest faced by the Patriots this season. But with guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Kevin Faulk, and of course Tom Brady; 12 points is nothing.
The Patriots started their next drive with a run by Faulk. Actually, it was more of a fall down and get tackled by Faulk as the backside linebacker screamed across the play and ripped Kevin down. But the play calling told the Giants, and everyone watching, that this team was not worried, nor were they impatient. It was such a confident play call, down two scores on the road. It let everyone know that there was no rush.
On 2nd and 12, Brady dumped to Faulk in the flat for 4. On 3rd and 8, Watson was wide open on the sidelines (thanks in large part to Moss and Welker). The reception was good for 15 yards, and only 15 yards. Had Watson been able to stay in bounds, it might have been a 20 or 25 yard gain. Then again, at least he caught it.
On 1st and 10 at their 44, Brady hit Welker down the right for a 28 yard gain. Welker caught a short one on the left for 4 more, then a short one on the right for 8.
From the New York 16, Brady threw a ball to Moss in the end zone. Once again, Wilkinson was there as part of the double coverage. Once again, his back was turned to the ball. But this time, his arms were draped over Moss’s facemask and shoulder pads. That’s pass interference.
After an illegal formation penalty, it was 1st and goal from the 6. Welker set a nifty block from the slot, going inside to catch a linebacker, springing Maroney in the process. Laurence bowled into the end zone for the score. 28-23, Giants.
Domenik Hixon had a good return, giving the Giants great field position at their 40 yard line. On 1st and 10, Jacobs dropped a screen pass, which came on a safety blitz. In other words: the perfect time to try a screen. Toomer caught a few passes and the Giants entered New England territory.
On 2nd and 8 from the Patriot 41 yard line, Adalius Thomas had his biggest sack of the season. He got free of the O-line and kept forcing Manning back. Unlike more clever QBs like Peyton and Brady - who are slow but evade sackers by stepping up - Eli Manning’s only response to pressure is to run backward. And guess what, Adalius is faster than him. The sack resulted in a loss of 14 yards, and it shut down New York’s drive. On the ensuing 3rd and 22, Rodney Harrison got in Eli’s face before Manning dumped it off. It was the first time that the Patriots had gotten consistent pressure on the deer-eyed Manning boy. And it may have been the death knell for the Giants.
The 4th quarter was all Patriots. Kevin Faulk made a terrific effort on 3rd and 9, shaking free of two tackles to get 10 yards and the 1st down. Watson caught a screen pass, but tried turning the corner instead of running upfield. As a tight end, he should be squaring his shoulders and forcing defenders to try to tackle him, not running toward the sideline and allowing defenders to shove him out of bounds. The play resulted in a loss of a yard. After an incomplete, the Pats were forced to punt.
The Giants unraveled on their ensuing drive. They had an opportunity to score and put the game all but out of reach, or a the very least get a few first downs and run off the clock. Manning fumbled the snap, and although he recovered, it was apparent that the Giants had fallen apart.
On 2nd and 11, Adalius got his mitts on a ball and tipped it. On 3rd and 11, the G-Men tried a quick pass to the wideout, but he was surrounded and taken down. The Giants drive lost a yard and consumed a meager 1:04 of clock.
The Patriots got the ball back on their 35. On 2nd and 10, Brady threw a bomb that was short of Moss. Randy nearly made a shoestring grab, but he slipped just enough to prevent him from coming up with it.
The Pats tried the same play, this time Brady hit Moss in stride, and the big receiver sprinted into the end zone with his 23rd TD catch of the year. It was also Brady’s 50th of the season. More importantly, it gave the Patriots a 31-28 lead. It was the sixth and final lead change of the game.
Only the Patriots could try the same play twice and make it work. Moss had been running underneath routes all night, so when he went deep the first time, he was wide open. The second time, the Giants seemed to anticipate that it was a ploy, and the DBs were burnt by their assumptions.
The Patriots went for 2, and Maroney got in on a draw. It was a beautiful 2 point play, with Moss, Welker, and Stallworth garnering the attention of the defense, and a Giants front 7 which had been worn out in the 4th.
On 1st and 10 from their 23, Jacobs gained 6 yards. Then he gained 9, but the play was called back thanks to a blatant hold by Toomer on Hobbs. On 2nd and 6, Eli Manning remembered who he was, and threw a pick to Hobbs.
The interception was thanks to double coverage by Hobbs and Harrison. Rodney was underneath Burress, and Hobbs was on top, sandwiching Eli’s primary target. It was a poor decision to throw into this situation, especially on 2nd down, but that’s what Eli is known for.
The Patriots now had a chance to all but ice it. In a matter of 3:00 of game clock, the entire contest had turned on its head. The Giants had once been in position to end the game, now it was the Patriots who were on the verge of finishing things. The way each team handled these crucial moments is why the Patriots are the Patriots, and the Giants are the Giants.
On 1st and 10 from the 48, Brady stepped up in the pocket and whipped a semi-sidearm bullet to Stallworth for 17 yards. How he knew Donte was there (and open) nobody knows. Reggie Torbor sacked Brady on the next play, pushing the Pats back 10 yards. But they responded in vintage Patriot style. On 2nd and 20, Welker caught a short pass and got his token bonus yards, gaining 9 instead of 3 or 4. On 3rd and 11, Faulk mustered a superhuman effort and got 13 yards and a massive first down.
The Patriots faced another 3rd and 9, but Welker was able to move the chains thanks to his inhuman abilities. Welker’s moves are like ones you’d see in a poorly designed and unrealistic video game. He gets so low to the ground and turns himself into a torpedo, but can quickly bust out of that posture, make a move, and get back into it. Another possible nickname for Welker: Twitch.
On 2nd and goal from the 5, Maroney hauled it into the end zone. He was assisted by Moss, who was covered by a CB, as well as the safety on the left side of the ball. That’s exactly where Maroney took it, and there was no-one there to stop him. Patriots 38, Giants 28.
New York attempted a half-assed hurry up, complete with running plays, receivers not trying to get out of bounds, and kicking the ball after the referees had set it. The Giants were able to score, but it took 3:22 for them to do it.
One helpful play was a personal foul on Rodney Harrison. I loved Belichick’s response to that. He didn’t chew Rodney out on the sidelines, he just took him out of the game and sat him on the bench for a few plays. Belichick knows Rodney is smart enough to realize what he did wrong, so he let him do it on his own.
The onside kick was poorly placed by Tynes, but well played by the Patriots. The hands team on the left side didn’t stand on their backfoots, waiting for the Giants to try to mow them down and get to the ball. Instead, they aggressively went after the coverage team. Vrabel pulled it in and the game was over. 38-35, 16-0.
Brady and Moss had phenomenal days. Brady wound up going 32 for 42 (76.2%), for 356 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Moss had 6 catches for100 yards and two scores. Wes Welker put on a brilliant show, with 11 catches for 122 yards.
The Pats only managed 44 yards on the ground (48 if you take out Brady’s 4 kneel downs) on 26 carries (22 really). That’s a very humble 1.7 average (2.2 if you remove the kneel downs). But what they did by running was keep the defense honest, punish guys like Strahan and Umenyiora for flying upfield, and set-up play action pass. And remember, the Patriots scored two rushing touchdowns, and a 2 point conversion on the ground.
The defense allowed 35 points, but 7 were from a kickoff return, 7 came off of two big plays, and 7 came in a prevent. It was hardly their best performance as a unit, but they did some things well. They held Jacobs to 67 yards on the ground. They eventually got to Eli Manning and appeared to rattle him. And they forced the game’s only turnover, which set-up what turned out to be the game winning touchdown.
So the Patriots are 16-0. They’ve won 19 straight regular season games, breaking the previous record of 18 (which was theirs). They’re the first team to win 16 regular season games. They’re only the fourth undefeated regular season team, and the first in 35 years.
I’ll talk more about going 16-0. It’s a long two weeks before the Patriots play again. I, for one, cannot wait!