Sunday, January 13, 2008

17 DOWN, 2 TO GO

The Jaguars executed their gameplan to near perfection Saturday night, taking away the deep threat, keeping everything in front of them, but they didn't count on two things:

1. Laurence Maroney cutting up their defense like a kid with ADD and a pair of scissors.

2. Tom Brady having a nearly perfect night.

In a strange statistical turn of fate, the Patriots outrushed the Jaguars 145 to 80. And the Jaguars outpassed the Patriots 270 to 258.

Tom Brady's 26 for 28 performance, for 262 yards and 3 scores was reminiscent of games played in 2001 and 2003, back when the Patriots had no deep threat, and every pass was to a check down receiver. By the way, Brady's numbers add up to a QB Rating of 141.36.

In the latest edition of Post-Patriots Sour Grapes, Jacksonville safety Reggie Nelson had this to say about Tom Brady's performance:

"He ain't all that He's all right. It was a check down game. Anybody can go 26 of 28 in a dump-down game"

I understand that Nelson must be frustrated, especially after helping to shut down Moss's downfield routes, then watching guys like Welker, Faulk, and Gaffney collecting yards underneath. But he really needs to grow up. Nevertheless, he's joined a massive and ever growing club of whiners that includes: every Oakland Raider fan in the universe, Bill Polian, Jerry Porter, Marvin Harrison, Eric Mangini, and Ladanian Tomlinson.

What did Bill Belichick have to say about Tom's day?

"It was a little disappointing he missed two."

The funny thing about that is if I didn't tell you Belichick was smiling, you probably would assume he was dead serious.

Although the game was 31-20, and the scores were close the entire night, the Patriots weren't in as much jeopardy as it may have appeared. They fell victim to several bang-bang plays, plays in which the Pats were inches from making a big play, but Jacksonville turned it around and made a big play of their own, also by inches.

Wisconsinan and the Boston Herald's resident BS pusher Michael Felger claims that "For arguably the fourth time in the past seven games, the Pats were played evenly up and down the field by an inferior opponent."

This simply was not the case. The Jaguars played a hell of a game, but at no point were they a threat to win. There were so many close plays, and a couple of bad/questionable calls. Even if the Jags did "play evenly up and down the field" with the Pats for 3 quarters, we all know that the 4th quarter is when losers fade and Champions are made.

The first Bang-Bang play came on Jacksonville's opening drive. On 3rd and goal from the 8, The Pats collapsed the pocket around Garrard. Vrabel got in on him and began taking the 245 pound quarterback down. Garrard's shin was half an inch away from the turf when the ball left his arm and found Matt Jones in the end zone for a touchdown. The Pats were millimeters away from a field goal forcing sack, and instead allowed a touchdown.

In the second quarter, Jacksonville had tied it up 14-14 with a 95 yard drive. The Patriots drove downfield, but the drive stalled, and Gostkwoski missed a 35 yard field goal, keeping the score tied. The Pats were unable to recover from a 15 yard chop block penalty. However, the refs missed what should have been a 15 yard facemask penalty on Terry Cousin as he yanked down Wes Welker by the grill on 3rd and 14. A personal foul would have given the Pats a 1st and goal opportunity from the 8. Instead, it was 4th and 6 from the 17, and Gostkowski's kick banged the right upright, keeping the score level.

In the 4th quarter, Ernest Wilford made a spectacular leaping catch for a gain of 15 yards. Rodney Harrison stupidly speared Wilford after he had been downed, which tacked on another 15 yards to the play. Later in the same drive, Harrison fell a few inches short of tying up Garrard by the feet. Then Garrard threw into triple coverage. Rodney got two hands on the ball, but Tedy Bruschi also got his fingertips on it, disrupting what would have been an interception in the end zone. Jacksonville kicked a field goal to make it 28-20.

On 2nd and 9 from the 21, Brady hit Stallworth with a deep pass up the sidelines. Stallworth did a great job tipping the ball against his facemask, then gaining control of it without breaking stride. But Rashean Mathis made a shoestring tackle to prevent the touchdown. Later, on 3rd and 1 from the Jacksonville 17, Brady threw to Welker, hitting him in the hands about neck high. But Wes took his eye off the ball for a second and dropped what would have been a 1st down reception at about the 13 yard line. The Patriots settled for a field goal, making it 31-20.

My point is this: although the game was tied 14-14 at half-time, and the game wasn't sealed until Rodney intercepted Garrard with 4:17 on the clock, it very well could have been an early blowout. Garrard's miracle touchdown pass to begin the game, a no-call on Welker being dragged down by the facemask, a missed field goal, some stupid personal fouls committed by the Pats, Harrison not intercepting the ball in the end zone, Garrard barely slipping away from sackers, and Welker's dropped ball were all contributing factors to the apparent tightness of the game. What was a 31-20 score could have very easily been a 42-13 game.

Moreover, Garrard's performance when forced to throw was atrocious. He threw the ball well all game, but that was because he didn't really have to. But their drive in the 4th quarter that ended with Rodney's pick was simply horrible. With no sideline threats, Garrard forced the ball and was nearly picked off twice before Rodney got the ball. He tried throwing over the head of Adalius Thomas, who tipped the ball high in the air and came a few feet shy of catching it himself. Another tipped pass slipped in and out of Brandon Meriweather's hands.

Had a few plays gone just a bit differently, and the Patriots had built their lead earlier, Garrard would have been forced into a pass only offense, and the Patriots probably would have made him pay for it.

But I'll give all the credit in the world to Jacksonville. They shut down Randy Moss. The only big passing plays they allowed were a 39 yard screen to Maroney, and a 53 yarder to Stallworth on an attempted screen play that had been busted up.

But I'll also give all the credit in THE UNIVERSE to the Patriots. Brady had one of his best performances of the season (how many times have I said that this year?). His favorite target was taken away, but he still had a spectacular game. He was 26 for 28, or 92.9%. That, by the way, is an NFL playoff record for completion percentage (minimum 15 attempts). And both incompletions hit the receiver in their hands. Brady also pulled off that fake direct snap play to perfection. Stuff like that is just fun to watch.

Brady didn't throw an incompletion until 10:37 in the 3rd quarter. He completed his first 16 pass attempts.

Maroney had his best game of the season. He had 162 total yards of offense, a rushing touchdown, and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. To put that in perspective, Taylor and Jones-Drew combined for 66 rushing yards (about half of Maroney's total of 122), and averaged 3.5 yards per carry.

Wes Welker had a decent day, although his slipperiness and evasiveness came and went. He had 9 catches for 54 yards, including a touchdown catch, and a 13 yard end around. He had a rare drop, and averaging 6 yards a reception is low for him.

Kevin Faulk had another great game. He made a touch one handed catch for a first down, and had 5 catches for 36 yards. He also picked up the pass rush as good as always.

Donte Stallworth led the Pats in receiving yards with 68 on 3 catches. He's been somewhat forgotten about this year, so it was nice to see him get a big 53 yard catch, that was one perfect tackle shy of going the distance.

Jabbar Gaffney had one of his best games all year. He only had 26 yards off 3 passes, but one of those catches was a 13 yard (half of which was from a dive) to set up 1st and goal. He also blocked extremely well, allowing Maroney to get to the outside with room to move.

Randy Moss's stat line looks sad. One reception for 14 yards. But that reception was on a 4th and 5, and it kept alive what would be a touchdown drive (Note: the rhyming in that sentence was unintentional). Moss also had some big blocks downfield springing Maroney several times for big gains.

Ben Watson was a victim of my criticism in the week 17 game against the Giants. But Saturday night he did his job perfectly. He had a pair of catches for touchdown passes. He used his size and speed in the end zone to get the small amount of separation a player like him needs to make a catch.

The absence of Ellis Hobbs was very noticeable. Randall Gay found himself out of position on short passes on the flat and across the middle. Hobbs is often lamented for being burnt deep, but he is a smart player that rarely finds himself out of position, unless a receiver has simply outrun him. That being said, Gay did break up a potential touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone.

Hobbs' absence was also visible on special teams. Chad Jackson was okay, averaging 19.5 yards per return, but he never threatened to get a big chunk of yards. Hobbs, every once and awhile, will return one 40 yards or so, putting the Pats in striking distance. Hopefully Hobbs will be able to play more snaps next week.

Seymour, Warren, and Wilfork had a solid game. Warren got the only sack of Garrard and also forced the fumble that set up a score. The Patriots' front three did a good job slowing up Taylor and Jones-Drew, allowing guys like Seau to rack up 10 tackles and Bruschi to get 7. They also did a great job of breaking off their blocks and helping take down the runner when they were held up at the linebacker level.

Rodney Harrison had a strange game. He made some bonehead hits that resulted in personal fouls. But he did a good job of blitzing Garrard, forcing incompletions and bad passes. He also wound up with the game sealing pick. Rodney has an interception in 4 straight playoff games, tying an NFL record.

The Patriots look to eliminate victim #18 next Sunday. San Diego comes to town, fresh off a grueling win in Indianapolis. The Pats destroyed the Chargers 38-14 in week 2, but this is an entirely different Chargers team. It should be a good game.

Oh, and by reaching 17-0, the Patriots have tied the 1972 Dolphins for most wins in a season.