by Greg Doyle
A second look at Sunday’s game between Denver and the Patriots on tape reveals it to be the definite off-performance it appeared to be initially. Still, I don’t think it was nearly as disastrous as some of the gloom and doom prognostications you heard floating around in the wake of the game. The Patriots played an off game, got beat by a good a team and still could have won if you just change a couple plays, a couple interpretations by the officials or a couple areas of execution by the Patriots just a tad. Or maybe just add in a mistake or two by Denver which, to their credit, they avoided. A few inches here or there and its a 10-6 win for the Patriots and nobody even notices they didn’t play a stellar game. But that’s football.
Its early. The Patriots are going to be alright. They are going to win a lot of games and those who were just frothing at the mouth, media and others, to jump on them at the first opportunity are going to be disappointed if this team can stay healthy. Those who were so looking forward to a bad performance to prove how bright they are, will eventually go silent when they win the division again and have a shot in the playoffs. They’ll probably claim they knew they’d turn it around all along.
Lets look at each unit.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady wasn’t nearly as bad as is being portrayed by many following the game. Football makes me laugh sometimes. Or at least those who watch it. You see it with all sports to some extent, but it seems football has a unique ability to make people search for the most inane reasons for losses. They didn’t play with fire is a common one. He didn’t want to be there is another. He’s lost his passion. He misses his binky. He’s pissed at management. Whatever. Sometimes the other team is good. Sometimes athletes have off nights. Sometimes the execution isn’t what it can be or will be because of injuries, new personnel, good scheming by the other team. There are lots of legitimate reasons. The most overlooked by tunnel vision fans or media with agenda is good play by professional, skilled opponents. That usually barely gets lip service, at least compared to “he’s pissed about the salary cap so that is why he missed that throw on third and 9.” Its like the opponents are all the Washington Generals to hear some people talk or write.
The soap opera explanations are usually the least valid. Actually, strike least. They’re usually absurd, ridiculous, idiotic and not in the slightest bit valid. Head Coach Bill Belichick actually said today he thought the passing game had its best game so far this season. The reason for the failure was the complete collapse of the running game, in my opinion. For this particular game, I think the loss of Corey Dillon to injury was huge and put a big dent in the Patriots game plan. They clearly came out determined to run the ball and had a few decent runs while Dillon was in there. But it seems to me Dillon’s style was more fitted to play Denver than Laurence Maroney’s. Dillon is a power back and Denver is a smaller, fast defense that is more vulnerable to Dillon’s style than the quicker, more elusive Maroney’s. When Dillon went down, it seemed to me to basically destroy the Patriots game plan. Yet, they stuck with it too long, which has to be a demerit to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. How does this relate to the quarterback? Well, he was in way to many long, less manageable third down situations. And those are hard to convert. I’m not saying Brady didn’t have an off game. He did. I’m not saying there still is a lack of comfort and/or familiarity with his new receivers. There is. But you got a good defense on the other side who managed to stuff the run and take away the Patriots game plan and force difficult situations much of the game. Credit Denver, not blame Brady. He wasn’t that bad. And he’ll be fine as the season goes along. The passing game will continue to improve and according to at least Bill Belichick, it did and had its best game last night. Do we doubt his ability to judge these things? Should we believe Michael Felger over Bill Belichick? Or maybe Bill Burt? Lets be serious, its game three and they were held to 7 points by a pretty good defense. It’ll come around and already is.
RUNNING BACK: As mentioned above, Dillon actually looked pretty good early on. But then he got hurt and the Patriots had to rely almost exclusively on Maroney. He had some decent plays in the passing game, but didn’t have the room to do much in the running game. Again, his style didn’t really fit this game either. At least without some compliment from Dillon. Perhaps, if the Pats were determined to stick with their plan, a dose of the rugged Heath Evans may have been a change up that was suited to try against the quick, but smaller, Denver defense. But alas, they never tried anything different until it was too late. For this reason, Kevin Faulk wasn’t much of a factor until too late, not really thru any fault of his own but due to the lack of early emphasis on passing except on third and longs.
WIDE RECEIVER: Not a horrible day in my opinion. I will say this, if I never see Jonathan Smith in a Patriots uniform again, it won’t be too soon. I think I know what the Patriots were thinking in releasing Bam Childress from the active roster for Smith. Smith looks the part more. Childress basically is a smallish, inside guy who plays the position Troy Brown plays. Since they already have Brown and Childress has practice squad eligibility, they went with Smith since he can play the outside position where they have some new faces and some injuries. That’s just great. But there is only one problem. Childress makes plays and Smith never has, save for one nice punt return he had against the Patriots a few seasons back. That one play seems to have inordinately occupied the Patriots mind a bit in regards to Messr. Smith. The guy played a significant amount as the third receiver last night for two and a half quarters. I think I was more open in the stands surrounded by 68,000 people than he was on the field with only 11 Broncos around. Its no coincidence when they finally said “screw this” and tried Doug Gabriel as the third receiver, it started clicking. Gabriel can actually play. Now that you have figured that out, Patriots, could you please dump Mr. Smith and bring back that other guy who can actually play, no matter how he looks, Bam Childress? Thank you. As for Gabriel, a nice performance. I hope that eases whatever worries the Patriots had and they use him now. And when Chad Jackson comes back, after not playing this week due to injury, this crew can actually be decent. Troy Brown still can be a good possession guy and was last night. Reche Caldwell appears to be what he is, decent and solid most of the time, but not a game breaker. I was a little disappointed in the toughness he showed by hitting the ground after a nice second quarter 23 yard gain on 3rd and 7 without being touched by a Bronco player. C’mon Reche, that was a nice play, but how about a little toughness and fight for 3 or 4 extra yards? But overall, he was open some and could be a solid contributor once they get everyone back and clicking together. It’s just going to continue to take a bit of time.
TIGHT ENDS: Ben Watson had some good plays, but one egregious drop. He is basically in his second year and on a pace to catch 70 balls. That isn’t too shabby and save for those occasional lapses in concentration, he is a growing weapon for the Patriots. Daniel Graham had an off night and wasn’t his usual dominant blocking self.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Good job pass protecting. Horrible job run blocking. That goes for all of them. None of them stood out and most were pushed around in the running game, save for a few plays here and there. This is surprising considering the usual physical, tough nature of the Patriots line. Very surprising.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Ty Warren had a stellar game, which is becoming routine for him. Vince Wilfork seemed to out physical Denver center Tom Nalen and he was forced into several holds which he got called for. Probably a few more he got away with. But a disappointing showing for the rest of the line. Richard Seymour needed to have a Richard Seymour dominant game and he didn’t. The rest were non-descript. They got gashed too much in the running game, couldn’t seem to contain outside when they needed to and only got mediocre pass rush on Denver quarterback Jake Plummer most of the night.
LINEBACKER: Junior Seau had a very nice game. Tedy Bruschi was okay, especially considering his limitations with a cast on his hand. The rest of this unit was horrible. Roosevelt Colvin did nothing, got sucked inside too often and let Broncos running back Tatum Bell get outside on him. Mike Vrabel was unusually invisible. Tully Banta-Cain too. The talk today seemed to be the defense did okay because they only gave up 17 points. By my view, they let Denver stay on the field too often, allowed them to change negative field position into decent field position too often, even if they didn’t score. They allowed them off the hook too often and allowed them to run too much. They generated little pass rush and couldn’t get stops when and where they really needed them. They had some penalties, albeit a couple questionable ones. And they created no turnovers. The linebackers were a big part of that. A very off night for them, again, except for Seau.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: I thought Eugene Wilson was having a good game until he got hurt in the second half with what appeared to be a right hamstring injury as I saw him grabbing at that area on the sidelines. He saved a touchdown early in the game with a nice open field tackle on Bell when Bell broke free up the middle from the front seven. Chad Scott also had a nice game and some good hits in limited action. Rodney Harrison was okay, particularly in the running game. Besides that, not much to like here. Ellis Hobbs got beat for a touchdown. Asante Samuel gave up plays too. James Sanders made some big mistakes, including missing a tackle on Javon Walker’s game break 82 yard touchdown which made it 17-0. Not a good night overall.
KICKING GAME: Stephen Gostkowski again kicked the ball too low after appearing to slip a bit on the wet turf. That is the way the fields are up here and in fact will only get worse. I will say though that the unit as a whole let the guy come in from the right side untouched who got the block and you could sort of see it coming almost immediately from the snap. The snap wasn’t great either. There appears to be issues with this whole operation, not just Gostkowski, that needs to be addressed. Decent night kicking from Josh Miller and some nice coverage from Randall Gay. But too many penalties again and it cost them field position which could have made a major difference in the game several times.
On to Cincinnati. I don’t think the Patriots match up well here, particularly on the road. So it may get worse before it gets better. But I remain convinced it will get better and this team will be fine. Its early, every loss hurts. But I suppose wins sometimes can get blown out of proportion how good they really were. And losses can get blown out of proportion how one sided they really were. A lot of time, a few plays here or there, a few changes and the whole perception is different without really changing much in the level of play. That is what happened here. The Patriots will be fine. They’ll eventually get some turnovers on defense. They have mostly good players and they won’t always have off nights. The passing game will click. They’ll win their division and a lot of games. They’ll be around come playoff time. Its not time to panic, and that will remain true even if they lose this week to the Bengals, which I suspect they will.