Sunday, January 20, 2008
The Patriots are going to the Fiesta, I mean, Super Bowl in Glendale two weeks from now, thanks to a strange 21-12 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Once again, the opposing quarterback threw for more yards than Brady. Once again, the Patriots outrushed an opponent whose bread and butter is running the ball. And once again, the Patriots came out on top.
Another surprise was the play of the Patriots defense. All season, the offense has been glorified, while the defense has been ignored, and even criticised by some. This was probably due to the offense being so overwhelmingly amazing, that a solid defense looked weak in comparison. Moreover, we're used to seeing the Patriots win BECAUSE of their defense (See: 21 game win streak in '03 and '04, and Super Bowl XXXVI), not because of their offense.
On Sunday, the defense came up big, especially when put in uncomfortable positions due to a mediocre offensive performance by Tom Brady.
The Chargers were also banged up and hurting before they even took the field. Tomlinson tried to play, but didn't have much to offer. He had a pair of carries for 5 yards, and a 1 yard screen reception, but didn't look like the LT we've seen in the past. He wasn't bad, he just couldn't get to the next level. He also whiffed on a blitz pickup of Rodney Harrison in the red zone, which allowed Rodney to pressure Rivers, forcing an incompletion.
As much of an unlikeable dink Phillip Rivers is, you've got to give him credit for playing hurt. Unlike the national media, I won't say he had a good game (19/37, 211 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT is not good), but he made an effort, and that's respectable.
Tom Brady had his worst game of the season, going 22 of 33 for 209 yards, 3 interceptions, and 2 touchdowns. Perhaps this lackluster outing was due to his ankle injury. More on that later.
This was another Patriots victory that was much closer than it could have (and should have) been. Big miscues on offense prevented the Pats from exploding to an early lead and putting San Diego away before half-time.
After San Diego's first drive was stopped, they punted and Welker returned it to the 50. But a running into the kicker penalty allowed for a rekick (and came half a yard shy of giving the Chargers a 1st down). The second punt was fair caught by Welker on the 27, a 23 yard change in field position thanks to the silly penalty.
The Patriots' first drive was bizarre. First and 10 saw a relatively long pass (20 to 25 yards) attempt to Kyle Brady along the seam. He was in between two Chargers, and the ball was overthrown, almost as if Tom Brady thought Kyle had 4.4 speed and would accelerate to catch it. Third and 7 was another interestingly thrown ball, this one an incomplete to Moss.
The Pats' second drive came to an end at the New England 34, when Brady threw just behind Welker on a short route on 3rd and 2. It was a conversion we're just accustomed to seeing made all the time this year, and it was blown.
After failing to do much of anything in two posessions, the Pats' third drive would actually do something. But it wasn't good. Brady threw a Godawful pass intended for Stallworth. Brady apparently hoped to anticipate the movements of Quentin Jammer, but he anticipated wrong. Jammer sat on the route and picked the ball out of the air, giving San Diego posession on the Patriot 40.
An uncalled for 15 yard facemask penalty gave San Diego even better field position. The Chargers got as far as the 8 yard line before the defense clamped down and held them to a field goal. It was 3-0 Chargers but very easily could have been 0-0.
The Pats got back on the ball, and Maroney scored a touchdown to put the Pats up 7-3. This lead would not be relinquished, but it would take some doing to build it up.
San Diego once again drove down to the Pats' 8 yard line, where they ran into a wall and were forced to kick another field goal. It was 7-6, as close a game as you'd like.
On the ensuing posession, Brady threw to Moss on 3rd and 5, but Jammer was right there, batting the ball away and preventing the New England drive to continue. It was another misguided decision as Jammer was all over Moss, and is a good enough corner not to be muscled around.
After Rivers' first INT, Brady and the Pats executed a two play, 24 yard scoring drive, with Gaffney bringing it in. 14-6 Pats, but it could have been 14-3. What's the difference? 14-6 is a one score game, 14-3 is a two score game. That's a significant difference.
Then Rivers was picked again, but the Pats weren't able to do anything with the ball. Once again a failed 3rd and short conversion was the culprit. Brady threw about two inches ahead of Welker, who got the tips of his fingernails on the ball, but not much else. A well thrown pass would have allowed the drive to continue. Instead, the Pats were forced to punt into the wind, giving San Diego the ball back at their 35.
Thanks to a pair of Darren Sproles runs (one for 8 yards, the next for 26), the Chargers were able to kick yet another field goal. The score of the game going into half-time was 14-9. It very easily could have been 14-3, or 17-3.
On the first drive of the second half, Brady threw an interception on 3rd and 12. Granted, it was a tipped ball, but Brady was trying to force it into Stallworth. Instead of an incomplete pass and a punt into the win which would have pushed the ball back 30 yards or so to the San Diego 20, the Chargers got the ball on the New England 47. San Diego drove down to the Pats' 4 before being forced to kick yet another field goal. It was now 14-12, but very easily could have been 14-3.
The Pats drove down to the 2 yard line, thanks in large part to Laurence Maroney, who sliced up the defense for 39 yards on 6 carries in the drive. On 3rd and goal from the 2, Brady failed to see Antonio Cromartie underneath, and a pass intended for Watson was picked off in the end zone. The Pats could have tried running the ball in, but decided to throw it. Brady just didn't see Cromartie sitting underneath the pass. The Pats could have been up 17-3 or even 21-3 by this point.
The Patriots got into the end zone on their next drive, making it a 21-12 game. But it was still within reach for San Diego with 12:15 left on the clock and a 9 point deficit. It could have easily been 28-3 by this point. In other words, the game could have been all but over.
The Pats got the ball back with 9:13 and didn't give it up, driving for 15 plays and 56 yards, ending the game with kneel downs.
Obviously the 3 interceptions by Brady were the most glaring mistakes, but the Pats' performance on 3rd downs was equally inadequate. They converted 7 of 13, but 4 of those came on the final drive, making them 3 for 9 before that long game ending possession. Here were those 9 third downs, and the result of each play:
3rd and 7, NE 30: Incomplete intended for Moss
3rd and 2, NE 34: Incomplete intended for Welker
3rd and 1, NE 44: 3 yard run by Evans
3rd and 1, SD 16: 8 yard run by Maroney
3rd and 3, SD 40: Incomplete intended for Moss, broken up by Jammer
3rd and 2, NE 31: Incomplete intended for Welker
3rd and 1, NE 48: 4 yard run by Evans
3rd and 12, 50: Interception by Florence intended for Stallworth
3rd and G, SD 2: Interception by Cromartie intended for Watson
The three times the Patriots attempted 3rd down runs, they got the 1st down. They'd get two more such conversions in the 9:13 drive, making them 5 for 5 on the ground on 3rd down. This also made them 2 for 8 in the air, with one of those being a superhuman effort by Faulk and an 11 yard pickup almost all of which came after the catch.
On 3rd and 5 or less, the Pats were 3 for 7 before that lengthy 4th quarter drive. That's simply inexcusable. A team with an offense this good should convert almost every time it is 3rd and short.
As mentioned earlier, Brady had a bad day, but he's had random bad days in the past. Remember when he first broke into the League, and every 15 games or so he'd have a 4 interception outing? This was that kind of day. And on some of these drives he looked good enough. I'm not worried.
Kevin Faulk was perhaps the best player on the field. He led the team in receiving with 8 catches for 82 yards. Those catches came in big situations, keeping drives alive. A caller to WEEI after the game suggested we call third down "3rd and Faulk" from now on. I think it's a fantastic idea.
Laurence Maroney had another great day. He carried the ball 25 times for 122 yards (4.9 YPC), and had a 9 yard reception. He was the key to that clock devouring drive at the end of the game, getting big first down runs. This was his second 100+ yard effort in the playoffs. He only had 3 100 yard games in the regular season.
Randy Moss was once again quieted, this time by a combination of good defense, and poor passing. He only had one grab for 18 yards. But he did have a good run on a reverse for 14.
Wes Welker had a decent day, 7 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. This could have been 10 catches for 70 or 80 yards, but Brady kept missing him. Welker also added his trademark block on a punt return, preventing the opposing gunner from downing the ball inside the 10 yard line.
Statistically Heath Evans had a quiet day, 2 carries, 7 yards, 1 catch, 13 yards. But both carries came on 3rd down and resulted in 1st downs, as did the 13 yard catch. Evans also did an amazing job blocking for Maroney, both inside and outside. It was a good fullbacking day for Heath.
Asante Samuel had a Pro Bowl calibre day on defense. He had an interception, and broke up several potential big passing plays. The fact that he had a mere 3 tackles tells you that the Chargers simply did not throw it much in his direction.
Ellis Hobbs also had a good day. Although he was thrown at a great deal, and allowed some big pass plays to guys like Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers. He did outmuscle Chambers for his interception. He also was surehanded at tackling, reducing the damage of completions against him.
Tedy Bruschi was huge. He racked up 8 tackles, and did a good job of covering Antonio Gates in the red zone. He broke up what would have been a touchdown to Gates, forcing a field goal attempt.
Rodney Harrison was the best defensive player on the field. He blitzed so perfectly. Although he never sacked Rivers, he forced some big incompletions, including one on 3rd and goal. He also got some nice shots on Rivers. And hey, no personal fouls this time!
Junior Seau looked really good out there. He got a sack, which was really thanks to Thomas and Vrabel. But he also made a good pursuing tackle from behind of Michael Turner on 3rd and goal, preventing a touchdown.
Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel may have not gotten to Rivers that much, but they put on enough pressure to force incompletions and bad throws. With an injured Rivers, just forcing him out of the pocket was a victory for the pass rushers, and Thomas did this a few times.
So the Patriots could have won this game 28-3, but instead played poorly (comapred to what we've seen this season) and beat a banged up Chargers team 21-12. But hey, the Colts didn't even beat a banged up Chargers team.
And now it's a rematch against the Giants. This is actually the 3rd time the Pats and Giants will be meeting on the same field (and it's the 3rd different field, as well). They met in pre-season at Gillette, then in week 17 at Giants Stadium, and now at the Super Bowl in Glendale.
The Giants gave the Pats their biggest challenge. It should be a fun and anxiety filled 2 weeks leading up to the big game. Early prediction: Patriots 24, Giants 13.
But for now, let's revel in our 4th AFC Championship in 7 years, and our 6th ever.