Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Patriots Narrowly Preserve Perfect Season, "Charlie" Browns Lose and Chad Johnson Racks up Some Empty Yards

The Patriots are no longer blowing teams out but after a 27-24 win in Baltimore they are still undefeated. The new, overused buzzword now is "blueprint": is there a "blueprint" to beat the Patriots? As usual, ESPN analyst Steve Young cut through the nonsense and hype and got right to the heart of the matter, noting that football always comes down to fundamentals and physicality. The Ravens pounded the Patriots with their running game to the point that Young felt that they were on the verge of making New England crack; however, Young added that New England deserves much credit for getting off the mat and doing just enough to win the game. In the fourth quarter, Baltimore missed opportunities to win the game on offense and on defense. Willis McGahee gashed the Patriots for 138 yards on 30 carries overall but in the final period he only had four yards on six carries.

Back when Mike Tyson was invincible, he used to always say that everybody has a plan until they are hit in the face. Football is much the same way. It is a violent, brutal game. I have to laugh when people say that Tom Brady or Peyton Manning sometimes make poor decisions if teams hit them a lot; there is not a quarterback alive who plays as well under constant physical duress as he does when he has good protection. The Eagles and the Ravens each slowed down the Patriots a bit because they have defensive coordinators who specialize in bringing pressure on quarterbacks (and because they have the necessary personnel on their rosters to execute such a game plan). Looking at the Patriots' remaining games (home contests versus Pittsburgh, the New York Jets and Miami followed by the finale on the road at the New York Giants), the Steelers and the Giants are also teams who can put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks--but there is no magic going on here; whether or not the Patriots go 16-0 will be decided by how well they execute football fundamentals and whether or not they are more physical than their opponents.

A lot of attention is being focused on what supposedly is ailing the Patriots' offense but Young made some more cogent observations when he pointed out that even in New England's two "bad" games the Patriots have still gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points; what has changed dramatically is how many yards and points the defense is giving up, which of course limits the amount of time that New England's offense is on the field. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin is out for the season, so it will be up to Bill Belichick to go back in the lab and patch up his defense a bit for the stretch run.

Young concluded by saying that every great championship and playoff team that he was on in San Francisco went through a lull during some part of the season. What is remarkable about the Patriots is that, as he put it, they have had the "benefit of 'losing' two games without actually losing them." In other words, they have made enough mistakes for Belichick to feed them tons of the "humble pie" that his players joke about, yet they still have the chance to make history by winning all of their games. We are also seeing why it is so tough to have a perfect season; teams must overcome injuries, mental and physical fatigue and also the worsening weather that can act as an equalizer in the latter part of the season. The Miami Dolphins may have a "perfectly imperfect" 0-16 season, yet the weather and field conditions were so bad in Pittsburgh that they had a good chance to upset the Steelers. Similarly, the fierce, howling winds in Baltimore had an effect on New England's high powered passing game, though of course Belichick and his players would not use that as an excuse.

It will be interesting to see how the bookmakers react to New England's "setback." The Patriots have been favored by ridiculously large point spreads in recent weeks because the bookmakers have been trying to balance the action and get people to bet against New England. Depending on where the line goes, New England could be a good value next week against Pittsburgh. A lot of people are going to assume that the third time against a blitzing defense will be the charm and that the Patriots will lose but look for Belichick to make make one or more of the following adjustments: (1) flood the Pittsburgh secondary with five receivers and have Brady pick the defense apart just before the blitz reaches him; (2) entice the blitzers forward only to throw screen passes over them to running backs Faulk and Maroney; (3) keep the blitzers on their heels by running right at/past them with Maroney. Pittsburgh has been a subpar road team all season, so a game that is going to be touted all week as an upset in the making will turn out to be a 14 point New England win. You heard it here first.

Right after the Cleveland Browns gave their long suffering fans reasons to believe, they went to the Arizona desert and turned into Charlie Brown after Lucy pulled the football away. Things went south for the Browns as soon the game began: Derek Anderson received an intentional grounding penalty on the Browns' first offensive play and soon after that he threw an interception that Rod Hood returned 71 yards for a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Browns defensive back Leigh Bodden received a delay of game penalty for kicking the football after the Browns stopped the Cardinals on third down; Arizona eventually converted that gift into a touchdown, taking a 14-0 lead en route to a 27-21 win. "Just dumb," Bodden said of his mistake, an apt description that also fits the Browns' other gaffes, including several turnovers, mental errors and penalties.

This loss is not the end of the world for the Browns, though; they are still holding on to the sixth and final AFC playoff berth and they showed a lot of determination by battling back from the early deficit to have a chance to win on the final play of the game. Tight end Kellen Winslow made a great catch but could only get one foot down in the end zone after being pushed out of bounds. A force-out situation is not reviewable, so the call on the field stood. "If we'd have gotten that call, I'd have said the Browns are going to the Super Bowl. We've been getting every call, it seems. We didn't deserve to win," Browns receiver Braylon Edwards said. Edwards had another big game, catching seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. The Browns shot themselves in the foot before their last drive when Simon Fraser received a personal foul call on a kickoff return play; Cleveland sure could have used those extra 15 yards.

Next week the Browns travel to New York to battle the 3-9 Jets. Obviously, that is a very winnable game but keep in mind that last year the Jets were a playoff team and the Browns were not but the Browns beat the Jets anyway. After that, the Browns have a vitally important home game against the 6-6 Buffalo Bills, who are contending with Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tennessee for the two AFC wild cards. The Browns close out the regular season by visiting the disappointing Cincinnati Bengals and hosting the downtrodden San Francisco 49ers.

Speaking of the Bengals, they took the first step toward not fulfilling receiver Chad Johnson's vow that they would run the table, losing 24-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson led the Bengals with six receptions for 86 yards, but he did not have a touchdown and the best receiver on the field was Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, who caught 11 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. Ward's main claim to fame is being the MVP of Super Bowl XL; he is tough and he is a complete player, equally adept at catching and blocking. Johnson's main claim to fame--other than his "celebrations," which for some reason generate less criticism than those of the more accomplished Terrell Owens and Randy Moss--is becoming the first player since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to lead a conference in receiving yards for four straight seasons (2003-2006; he ranks third in the AFC behind Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss this season). While this accomplishment does speak to Johnson's durability and consistency, it is not really the top achievement of its kind; Don Hutson led the entire league in receiving yards for four straight seasons (and a record seven times overall) and Jerry Rice led the NFL in receiving yards for three straight seasons (and six times overall). In contrast, Johnson finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2003, 341 yards behind Torry Holt and nearly 300 yards behind Moss, who also had 17 touchdowns compared to 10 for Johnson. Johnson ranked sixth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2004 and third in the NFL in receiving yards in 2005 before capturing his first NFL receiving yards title last season. Why bring this up now? One, it is important to provide some context to this oft-touted record of Johnson's. Two, a play late in the Pittsburgh game provided a great example of how Johhson is a guy who puts up numbers but does not necessarily help his team win games. The Bengals faced fourth and 17 from the Pittsburgh 44 with 1:24 remaining. Johnson ran a 13 yard pattern, caught a Carson Palmer pass and went out of bounds. NBC's John Madden said that he could not understand how a player could run a 13 yard route on fourth and 17; as he noted while play by play man Al Michaels chuckled, there is a huge marker on the sideline indicating where the Bengals had to go to get a first down, so there is no way that Johnson could not see it. In the boxscore and in the final season statistics, that play counts as a 13 yard reception but in reality it was a dumb play. Looking at the Bengals' record during Johnson's career, one suspects that there is a lot of similarly empty yardage in his conference-leading totals. In contrast, Hutson, Rice, Owens, Moss and Holt each played in at least one Super Bowl or NFL Championship Game.

Moving outside of the AFC North, much has been made of the final play of Buffalo's 17-16 victory over Washington when Hall of Fame Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs received a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for calling consecutive timeouts to ice Bills' kicker Ryan Lindell. Obviously, Gibbs should be familiar with the rule but what everyone (other than J.A. Adande on "Around the Horn") seems to have overlooked is that right after Gibbs called the first timeout Lindell nailed the kick from 51 yards. Gibbs took the blame for his gaffe but even without the timeout fiasco Lindell showed that he was capable of winning the game from the longer distance.

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