Rethinking the Patriots
Watching the Pats-Jets game Sunday, it dawned on me that’s it’s been a full season-plus since I’ve needed to take an interest in how the Patriots won, as opposed to by how much. Let’s be honest: the 2007 season was surreal. But it didn’t end with a title. Conversely, what the 2001, ’03 and ’04 campaigns lacked in showy predictability, they made up for in hardware.
Technically, all New England did in ’07 was prove beyond a reasonable doubt that talent alone doesn’t win championships in the NFL. The irony being that they fell victim to the very tenet that they themselves established earlier this decade.
When those Patriots won a record 21 consecutive games from the beginning of the 2003 season through the middle of ’04, their average margin of victory was roughly a touchdown. Their formula for success was simple, yet effective: control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, force turnovers and capitalize on them, gain a lead and turn to the ground game to protect that lead, seal the game with one decisive stop on defense.
With Tom Brady running a smart and efficient offense, the Patriots were able to set a new standard for winning. As spectacular as the Patriots were last year, they didn’t resemble anything close to the team that went three out of four.
Upon learning that the league’s MVP would be sidelined for the year, it became immediately clear that if the Pats are to have success this year, they’ll have to revert to “the sum is greater than its parts” mantra.
With that in mind, let’s break down New England’s Week 2 performance in a way that hasn’t been necessary in a long time.
Considering Matt Cassel hadn’t started a game at quarterback since high school, he did a formidable job of leading the offense. He clearly has the intellectual capacity and longevity to handle the system. However, two of the most critical aspects of the quarterback position — pacing and field vision — are skills that can only be honed through live action.
There’s little doubt that Brady is the standard-setter when it comes to managing the clock and seeing the whole field. Cassel did those things well Sunday. He consistently got the unit up to the line of scrimmage in the face of a bloodthirsty crowd, and didn’t hesitate to use a timeout when the play clock was winding down. Much of the game plan was centered around short, quick passes to Wes Welker and the running backs, which Cassel executed with crispness and precision. He exhibited good field vision in the red-zone on third-and-6 of the Patriots’ final drive. Out of the shotgun with three receivers to his left — including Randy Moss in the near slot — Cassel saw tight end David Thomas on his right slip past the coverage and head to the corner of the end zone. He made the adjustment and tried to hit Thomas but the ball was tipped. A good sight adjustment nevertheless, considering the play was meant for Moss.
As for the running game, the four-headed monster of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and LaMont Jordan was up to the task of assuming the brunt of the offense. Maroney missed a good chunk of the game with a shoulder but returned at the end and took a big hit in stride. Morris got the tough yardage and scored the unit’s only touchdown. Faulk had 66 total yards (including receptions) out of the backfield. And a revitalized Jordan came in on fresh legs late in the third and assumed the “clock-killin’ Corey Dillon” role, churning away at the fatigued Jets defensive front for 62 yards on 11 carries.
Lots to address here, all good. The D-line was stout in the trenches, with the immovable Vince Wilfork anchoring a run defense that will undoubtedly be tops in the league this year. Richard Seymour, who was just never right last year, finally appears to be healthy. Whenever plays end and Seymour is strutting back to the line of scrimmage from the backfield, twitching his left shoulder pad, it’s a sign he’s feeling good. In nine games last season, he recorded 15 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks. He had two solo tackles — including a huge tackle for a loss on the goal line — and a sack Sunday.
For the second week running, rookie Jerod Mayo played every defensive snap and was among the team leaders in tackles. Ellis Hobbs had two passes defended and seems ready to undertake the duty of number one corner. Brandon Meriweather snatched his first career interception. Then there was Adalius Thomas, who made the play of the season thus far, sacking Brett Favre along with his blocker, Leon Washington for a 20-yard loss that iced the game on the Jets’ final drive. The man is a freak. You will be seeing that play on the 2008 highlight reel come January.
Stephen Gostkowski, who is suddenly a much bigger piece of the offensive equation than anyone could have imagined, did his job in spades Sunday. He was a perfect 4-for-4 in field goal attempts and booted a few of his kickoffs into the Hudson River. And Kevin Faulk returned three punts, each one into Jets territory, for a combined 53 yards.
It may have been a bit unnerving and new, but Patriots 19 Jets 10 was a Patriots victory. There was no Brady-to-Moss, but there was Moss saying this after the game: “The New England Patriots [are] 2-0. We got one in the division, so all you haters keep hating. We’re coming.”
Week 3 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)
NEW ENGLAND over
NY GIANTS over
SAN DIEGO over NY Jets
Last week: 9-6