Thursday, November 18, 2010

Patriots Midseason Analysis- How did we get here?!

The Rivalry Lives On!!!!
After their horrible Playoff collapse at the hands of Ray Rice and Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots were declared over the hill. They are rebuilding. They are too old. Tom Brady isn't an elite quarterback anymore. Belichick is trying to do too much- he thinks he's god. The glory days are over, time to start anew.

Here we are, 10 weeks into a wild 2010 season, and the over the hill Patriots sit atop the NFL standings (with the Jets and Falcons) sporting a shiny 7-2 record.


How did we get here? Weren't they washed up? This was the year the Pats would fall from the NFL's elite.

And then the season started.

The Patriots beat up the TOcho Show Bengals, whooping them defensively and dominating them offensively. That was just the beginning.

Actually, let's go back to the NFL Draft. The Patriots had the 22nd pick in the draft, and pick by pick, Dez Bryant remained available. My friends Sam and Josh were at Music City Radio Hall for the festivities. Coming off an awful loss to the Ravens, and the injury to fan-favorite (and 2 time Pro Bowl WR) Wes Welker, we were all getting excited for the possible arrival of Bryant, who was compared to Randy Moss and Terrell Owens before the draft. Sam and Josh must have each texted me every fifteen minutes: "he is still available! YES!" But, as Patriots fans under the Belichick regime, we should have known better. The Patriots traded the pick and drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick of the first round. Furious, we wondered whether Belichick had taken things too far. Why draft a special teamer when you can get a potential superstar WR? McCourty was called "versatile," "hard working" and "smart." Those are the keywords for any Belichick draft pick (with the exception of Brandon Meriweather, who couldn't be any dumber). Later in the draft, the Pats drafted Rob Gronkowski (didn't he just have back surgery that kept him out the whole year? huh?), Jermaine Cunningham (an undersized DE/OLB speed rusher), Brandon Spikes (Finally! A good draft pick! This guys is a beast), troublemaker Aaron Hernandez (tons of talent, drug problems. hmmmm), punter Zoltan Mesko (sweet name! Can he kick?) and much later, DE Brandon Deaderick.

In Belichick we trust.

The first place to look for this season's success is to the tremendous 2010 draft class. That is seven starters. SEVEN! Let's take a quick look at each player's contributions this season so far:

McCourty- Drafted as a special teamer, the Patriots couldn't have possibly imagined this kind of production from the rookie. After Leigh Bodden's season ending injury and Darius Bulter's fall from grace (Seriously, what the hell happened to him?), McCourty was all the sudden our number one Corner. And what a Corner he has been. Devin is fourth on the team in tackles, first in passes defensed, tied for the team lead in INT's, and has been on the field for all but ONE defensive play (he came off the field with the wind knocked out of him after a spectacular defensive play on a long ball to Percy Harvin). This kid is already very good, and he's getting better every game. He was one heck of a pick.

Gronkowski- Armed with a great nickname, "Gronk" put his talents on display during the Patriots prime time matchup against the Steelers. Hauling in 3 TD passes, Gronk now has 6 on the season, good for most on the team. It hasn't been all great with Rob, as his game against Cleveland was nightmarish. He screwed up a kick return, fumbled on the 1 yard line and dropped a few other passes- and was one of the players blamed for the crushing loss. But good players bounce back, and Gronk did just that. He is huge (6'6 270- imagine Lebron) and is great both as a blocker and receiver.

Cunningham- Jermaine started off the season hot, earning himself some valuable playing time. Unfortunately for him, a little slippage in his play, and the re-emergence of Tully Banta-Cain has him back in more of a reserve role. He did show flashes of effectiveness though, so expect him to be a part of this defense for years to come.

Spikes- Spikes has been slightly inconsistent, but this probably has more to do with the gameplan than his actual abilities. Against run-heavy teams, Spikes has been terrific, and is third on the team in tackles. His best game was against Ray Rice and the Ravens. Spikes stopped a few runs short of the line of scrimmage and was just a beast overall, compiling 16 tackles while playing most of the defensive snaps. He and Jerod Mayo are the ILB tandem the Pats have been looking for since Tedy Bruschi's departure.

Hernandez and Brady have become best buds this season.
Hernandez- Every other team in the NFL is probably kicking themselves for passing on the talented TE from Florida. The Pats may have gotten the steal of the draft with Hernandez. He is second on the team in every important statistic for WR's, and he is only 20! There have been some bumps in the road (Baltimore), but overall he looks like a number one WR/TE along the lines of a Dallas Clark or Antonio Gates.

Mesko- What more can you say about a rookie Punter? He has been awesome, not only as punter, but as a holder as well. Zoltan may have won the Patriots a game (Baltimore, again!), which is more than you can say about 90 percent of the Punters in the NFL. He's going to be punting here for a long time.

Deaderick- Already with 2 sacks, Deaderick is the most surprising contributor on this list by far. Drafted as a compensatory pick in the tail end of the seventh round, no one even expected him to make the roster. Guess who started last week?

OK. So there is the draft. That is only one piece of the puzzle.

The next part we have to look at is the health of Tom Brady and Jerod Mayo, both coming off of bad injuries.

Mayo had an ankle injury which limited him last season. He was a shell of his former Defensive Rookie of the Year self. This year he is unleashing his frustration on opposing running backs. Despite just 5 tackles against the NYJ in week 2, Mayo leads the NFL in tackles with 104. He has had games with 13, 16, 18, 11 and 14 tackles. He is the play caller on defense (he has the green dot on his helmet which indicates who receives the radio calls from the coaches) and the leader of the linebacking group. He has helped mentor Brandon Spikes, and has done a great job with surprising OLB Rob Ninkovitch. He and Wilfork are the keys to the defense.

Obviously Brady was recovering from knee surgery last year, and sometimes it wasn't pretty. But as the season went on, he started looking like the old Brady. After looking awful in the Playoff loss to Baltimore though, people were predicting his fall from the elite. Brady was unbelievable at the beginning of this season, shutting up all of the critics- until Randy Moss was dealt. For a few games after the trade, Brady was off target and he was frustrated. His receivers weren't getting open, and there were way too many three and outs. He had a few beautiful drives in the Baltimore game, and the offense looked pretty good against the Vikings (especially the offensive line), but there was something missing. The offense wasn't on the same page. Brady was throwing balls high, throwing low, far and short. But on Sunday night he reminded everyone just who he is. He was flawless against Pittsburgh throwing for 350 yards, 3 TD's, with a rushing TD as the cherry on top. He made some perfect throws, but mostly he just found the open man. Brady is in the conversation for league MVP, not only because he is leading the highest scoring offense in the NFL, or because the Pats are 7-2, but also because Brady's numbers have been fantastic. His 17-4 TD:INT (one of those picks was a hail mary) is out of this world, and he is making this all work with a new offense on the fly. He's incorporated 3 new TE's and a couple of new receivers without missing a beat. Tom Brady is back, and he is hungry for another championship.

The last couple of guys I want to talk about are Patrick Chung and BenJarvis Green-Ellis.

Chung and TBC having fun in the snow.
Tedy Bruschi talked last week on ESPN about how top defenses have a leader in each of the three tiers (Defensive Line, Linebackers, Secondary). Wilfork is clearly a leader on the defensive line and we talked about Mayo's leadership. Bruschi suggests that Chung is that third tier leader the Patriots have been lacking the last few years. He sure plays the part. Chung is a missile on the field. He is a sound tackler, and can make a WR pay if they come into his territory. His absence was sorely missed in the Cleveland debacle two weeks ago, but he came back in a big way against the Steelers, flying around the field, and putting tons of pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger. He had some trouble last season with his consistency, and a few people pegged him as a bust. But Pat came back with a vengeance, starting in training camp. With Chung and McCourty, the Patriots have two young, up and coming defensive backs who figure to be Pro Bowlers in the near future.

BenJarvis has a weird story because despite his production (4.2 YPC, 6 TD's in 8 starts), people don't think he can possibly be a long term option. They want the Patriots to draft Mark Ingram. They want more speed, more power, more talent. Well let me tell you something: BenJarvis gets the job done, and he gets it done well. He has had a few duds (NYJ, Bal, SD, Cle), but he has also won us a couple of games (Buf, Min), and he never fumbles (Laurence Maroney, anyone?). He has 212 career rushes, and ZERO fumbles. He also very rarely loses yards. Green-Ellis knows that he is lucky to have this opportunity, and he has a terrific motor. He is always moving forward. Also, he is the perfect compliment to Danny "Woodchuck" Woodhead. Together they form a pretty formidable rushing duo. Just ask the Steelers defense who let up more than 85 yards rushing for the first time all season on Sunday night.

The last thing I want to discuss before I get to my predictions for Week 11 is how terrific coaching, leadership and an emphasis on teamwork, has led to the Patriots success.

First things first. Bill Belichick is doing one hell of a job. People were calling for his head after last season. They questioned him for his fourth and two call, they said he was trying to do too much. He's the Head Coach, the Offensive Coordinator and the Defensive Coordinator? Is that even possible?

Well, the short answer is a resounding YES. With all of the turmoil both offensively and defensively, Belichick has done an unbelievably good job of keeping things simple (for the rookies) while simultaneously adding new wrinkles to the offensive and defensive game plans. The offense, aside from the seemingly devastating loss of Randy Moss, lost OL Nick Kaczur, RB Kevin Falk, and was missing holdout Logan Mankins until Week 9. On defense, there was the loss of veteran leader Ty Warren, number one CB Leigh Bodden and last year's surprise S Brandon McGowan. There was also problems with inconsistency from last year's starters Brandon Meriweather, Tully Banta Cain and Darius Butler. All of this meant nothing to Belichick and the Patriots who have made no excuses.

One of his greatest accomplishments this season was his ability to dispose all locker room distractions without missing a beat. He has turned the Patriots into a team in the truest sense. Besides Tom Brady, there really are no superstars (Vince Wilfork maybe?) on the team, but this just gives all of the players someone to look up too. Brady handles business like a true professional, and as he showed Sunday night, he is willing to go to war for each and every one of the players in his locker room. There are no excuses, no distractions.

All Hail the KING!
Despite years of brilliance from the mind of Bill Belichick, he continues to amaze with his preparation, game planning and ability to squeeze everything out of each of his players. The eventual loss of Belichick will have the same affect on this franchise as the loss of a superstar QB. There are only 1 or 2 other coaches in the world who you can say that about. Long live King Belichick.

With all of that said, the Patriots still have a long way to go this season. It is a wide open year in the NFL, and the Patriots are one of the favorites, but they must improve their third down defense and pass defense if they want to compete into February. If the defense continues to improve at its current rate, and Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots will have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. Get pumped! These next few months are going to be very enjoyable.


From now on, I'm only going to pick a few of the best games from the weekend.
Here goes nothing:

Oakland @ Pittsburgh

I don't think this is such a tough call, even though this is one of the more important games this weekend. Pittsburgh doesn't lose two in a row at Heinz Field, so despite Oakland playing its best ball in decades, I think Pitt will win a close one.
Pit 30 Oak 23

Houston @ NYJ

Another easy one. The Jets are coming off their second best win of the year, and Houston is coming off their worst loss. Houston has NO defense and have lacked consistency on offense, while the Jets have been a top defense and a mediocre offense. Look for a big game from LT. If the Jets can shut down Arian Foster, this will be a rout.
NYJ 27 Hou 17

Green Bay @ Minnesota  

Favre's final game against Green Bay is going to be a fun one. I expect Minnesota to play well at home, knowing this is Favre's last game against his former employer. Green Bay will probably be favored, and they certainly have earned it. Clay Mathews has been unstoppable all season (not something you usually say about a defensive player), and Aaron Rodgers is getting into a nice offensive flow. This will surprisingly be a defensive struggle.
Minn 23 GB 21

Atlanta @ St. Louis

Atlanta is on a roll, so despite a really strong urge to pick the upset, I'm sticking with them. St. Louis lost a tough one in SF last week, but look pretty strong with Sam Bradford under center. Atlanta doesn't usually play well on the road, but I think they are playing too well to lose to an inferior team.
Atl 31 STL 24
Never take a Peyton Manning-led team lightly. Ever.

Indy @ NE 

I don't expect this to be easy by any means. The Patriots are going to have to play close to perfect to beat Peyton Manning, but I think they'll do it. This is going to be epic.
NE 34 Indy 30

NYG @ Phi

Philly is coming off its best game of the season, and have played great two weeks in a row. Vick is getting a ton of publicity as an MVP candidate, so let's see what he can do against the Giants' fast, experienced defense. Expect Manning to throw the ball a lot to his favorite trio (Nicks, Smith, Manningham). This might just be a preview of the NFC Championship game. And what a game it will be.
Phi 37 NYG 34

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