Nuts and Bolts
Looking ahead to the AFC Championship game
Count me among those stunned at what unfolded Sunday in the RCA Dome when the Chargers upset the Colts.
I really thought the game was going to be a blowout in the other direction. Maybe 40-10 Colts. I guess I overrated the Colts.
Seeing that performance reminds me that what we've witnessed to this point in the Patriots' season has been off-the-charts special. Every team has a letdown or off day at some point -- or some breaks or tipped balls go against them in critical situations -- but the Patriots have not been knocked off course.
So it's the Chargers, not the Colts, coming to Gillette Stadium for the AFC Championship game. I personally like the unexpected change-up.
This San Diego team is a great story. Earlier in the season I was talking with Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper, who hails from Wareham and played at the University of Maine, and it was clear to me that the team was still searching for its identity under first-year coach Norv Turner. At that time, I questioned whether the team would succeed, but that's why sports are the greatest. You can never predict the ending.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, I believe, also deserves a great deal of credit for making an unpopular decision last year (firing Marty Schottenheimer) because he felt the biggest obstacle facing the team was the playoffs (not the regular season) and that Schottenheimer didn't have what it takes to get the team over the hump.
As for this week's mailbag, it includes a little bit of everything. Some looking ahead. Some looking back.
Let's get on to the questions.
Do you feel that the Pats match up better with the Chargers? You've said a few times that you viewed a Pats-Colts game as a 50-50 proposition. What percent chance do you think the Pats have of beating the Chargers?
Michael McWherter, Rowlett, Texas
A: I think it's better than 50-50, for sure. The main reason I felt the Colts matchup was a pick 'em was the presence of Peyton Manning. If he gets hot, I feel he alone can beat a team. I thought it would be a track meet of who could score the most, and who would have the ball last. As for the Chargers, you look at their personnel and say 'Wow, what athletes.' It now looks like those athletes are playing pretty well as a team. I can see where they would cause an opponent considerable problems. That being said, I think it's a better matchup for the Patriots than the Colts would have been. If the Patriots' pass protection holds up, I think they'll win the game by 10.
What is the health of the Pats after the Jags game?
A: Looks to me like the Patriots came out of that game as clean as a team could hope to be. There could always be something that slips under the radar, such as Ellis Hobbs (groin) last week, but I don't see big issues on the health front.
I haven't been following Charger football of late. What kind of offense do the Chargers play? On defense, I think they play 3-4. Do you see them coming up with new wrinkles to limit Moss or blitz Brady? How do the Chargers' corners match up against the Pats' WRs and vice versa?
A: Thought this article might be a help, as NFL coaches from all three sides of the ball shared some insight on the Chargers. The CliffsNotes version is this: When healthy, the Chargers are a tough matchup because of the presence of running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Teams that load up to stop Tomlinson can be hurt by Gates. Teams that cover Gates with an extra defensive back can be hurt by being light in the box against Tomlinson. San Diego's offensive line is strong, which plays into the matchup problem as well. Defensively, it's a 3-4 pressure-based scheme, so they'll stress an offense in pass protection. They'll come with the blitz and play some man coverage, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie is one of the rising stars in the game. One of the big subplots of the game will be whether the Patriots can convert against the blitz and man coverage.
It seems that the biggest difference between the first half of the year and the latter is the defense. Early on, we scored tons of points because the defense was able to keep the opposing offense off the field more. As the season has progressed and into the postseason, it seems that the basic philosophy is that the defense is porous, and has to do just enough so that our high-flying offense can outscore opponents. As long as Brady's passer ratings are in the 100-plus range and his completion percentages are 70 percent or better, I guess it can work. It is a risky gamble. I just don't see BB coming out and saying our defense is mediocre and a problem area. There seems to be some resignation to the reality that the offense is just going to have to carry us through and the defense will have to do what it can with the weapons it has. Your thoughts?
A: I think this is a fair point, Alan, and one that Bill Belichick has spoken about in the past -- complementary football, with the offense, defense, and special teams all playing off one another. To me, the Patriots' defense is playing with a much larger margin for error because of the explosiveness of the offense. I asked former NFL coach Dennis Green about this the other day. Told him I sensed some concern among the fan base about the team's defense and he let out a hearty laugh. "They're 17-0," he said. "Look, every defense can be scored upon, but to me, I think the question is how often and how long does it take them to score. Jacksonville had to work very hard to get their points on the board. For the Patriots, that coordinated with the offense. Once they scored one more time and they go up, Jacksonville had to go away from the run and become more one-dimensional because they were behind and didn't have sufficient time. Then you saw the defense starting to make some more plays."
Week after week I hear criticism of the Patriots' defense. Does anyone out there realize that at this time of year everyone gets tested on defense? All the teams that are playing at this stage have very well-drilled offensive units. While I don't think this is the Patriots' best defense, I do think it is considerably better than a lot of observers realize. That Jacksonville team they held to two touchdowns had been the best offensive team in the league over the last two months. What is your take on this?
Kim Brown, Waterbury Center, Vt.
A: A few thoughts that immediately come to mind are: 1) I didn't think the defense played a complete game against the Jaguars; 2) I give the Jaguars and quarterback David Garrard credit for that, as they made plays I wasn't expecting them to convert; 3) Looking for more play-making from Adalius Thomas; 4) The defense's ability to adjust is probably its greatest strength, and that is a hard trait to appreciate because adjustments are sometimes hard to detect; 5) I looked back on a few articles late in the season and found this one from Dec. 17 that reinforced my thoughts about how the Patriots have evolved from a club whose defense used to dictate games to a club that now leans more heavily on its offense.
You have to check out the YouTube clip of Igor Olshansky right after the Colts game. He said the Patriots are the ones that should be worried this week. Just another classy move by a classy organization.
John Wilson, Wheeling, W. Va.
A: While I'm almost certain that clip of Olshansky will find its way onto the projector screen in the Patriots' team meeting room at some point this week, and it wasn't the smartest thing to do, I'm going to cut the guy some slack when it comes to calling it a classless move. The Chargers had just pulled off what I felt was the upset of the season, and the comment came on the field, right as the game ended. That's raw emotion, and I see it as a player getting caught up in the excitement of the moment, not so much taking a shot at the next foe. Again, not a smart thing to say and certainly it was disparaging to the Patriots, but I look at it more as getting caught up in the moment. If it were a measured comment that came after deep thought during the week, I might feel otherwise.
After we beat the Chargers last year, so much coverage was given to San Diego calling the Patriots classless for celebrating on their field. This season, we have repeatedly seen the Chargers running their mouths (e.g., Rivers yelling at the crowd after Sunday's game) but other than Scott Van Pelt briefly saying "Philip, you're better than that," on "SportsCenter,'' nothing has been said of San Diego's classless demeanor. Why the double standard? And do you think the Patriots look forward to the opportunity to shut them up once and for all on Sunday?
Dave, Reston, Va.
A: I haven't taken stock of the coverage to gauge the reaction to the Chargers' chatty ways. But I know LaDainian Tomlinson was asked about it Monday, so it's not like it's been overlooked. Here was his response when a questioner brought up the perception that the Chargers are a trash-talking team: "I think we are perceived as a trash-talking team and I hate that because that's never been my style to really trash-talk and what have you. The only thing you can do about that to change it is to play the game and really quit talking about different things. Don't trash-talk at all; just play the game and eventually it'll go away. But you have to win also because the problem that happens is when you trash-talk and you lose, obviously people say, 'This team, all they do is talk and they can't back it up.' I've heard that this year already."
Mike, You were one of the few who didn't give up on Maroney during the year. Over the past 2 months, Maroney has made enormous strides with his hard downhill running and that has really balanced the Patriot offense. I know it's not really a question, and a comment, but wanted to point out Maroney's contributions.
Nick Marotta, Montreal
A: Hey, Nick. Overall, I think there is a rush to judgment on a lot of things these days, things are moving so quickly, and there is a feeling that an opinion must be made now! Maroney is a young player and injuries have played a big part in the early portion of his career. Now he's healthy and I think we're seeing what he can do. All that being said, while I think Maroney has made strides, I'd also point out that some of his best performances have come when opponents have played the pass with extra defensive backs, so he should be able to run rather effectively against those packages.
Was Saturday night Brandon Meriweather's coming-out party? He was flying all over the field, at least noticeably compared with his anonymous participation earlier this year. I thought he'd showed flashes with his play. Solid effort. Looks like if he can just hold onto the football that he might be a playmaker. Nonetheless, don't you think his play bodes well for the future?
Tim Phillips, Providence
A: Meriweather played as part of sub packages, coming onto the field with cornerback Ellis Hobbs and defensive lineman Jarvis Green. The Patriots didn't call on the sub defense that much, and I did not chart the actual participation, so I'd estimate Meriweather was on the field for about 20 of 56 plays, with the bulk of his time coming later in the game. He definitely looks more comfortable on the field. I would agree that it bodes well for the future. Now he just needs to catch the ball.
Mike, in your blog, you put Randall Gay as a downer from last week. I beg to differ. Because the Jags' game plan was pass, and because the Pats failed to sustain a pass rush against the Jags most of the night, the secondary was under pressure. Gay did a good job considering and I do see what you mean about being a step behind. However, when he was a step behind there was no pass rush and Gerrard was on the money with some great throws. Also, did you see the defense RG played in the end zone on a toss to the back right corner in the fourth quarter? He's got to get credit for that, no? I want to see Gay do well because he may be a starter next year (as he was before) and we may end up losing Asante. What are your thoughts about Gay's game last week and his future with the Pats, as well as Asante's?
Matt Bryant, Vermont
A: I think you bring up an excellent point, Matt, about how the pass rush is tied into the coverage. Usually a stronger pass rush will make the coverage look better. And in turn, blanket coverage (e.g. Jacksonville's first defensive play) can make a pass rush look better. The Patriots did not have a great pass rush in this game, which taxed the secondary. Overall, this is one of the difficult aspects of covering football as a reporter -- you don't always know the play call and assignments, especially in the secondary. So you've effectively pointed out a significant flaw in the idea of posting "ups and downs" after each game, with limited information. Based on the information I have at this time, I have to rely on the words of Bill Belichick, who in his weekly interview on WEEI said Garrard "did a good job but we'd like to think we could get on the receivers a little bit tighter, so it was probably a combination of both. We just have to match some of those routes a little bit tighter than we did and make the throws a little bit harder." To me, this was an indication that while the rush was not great, the coverage was also not up to par.
Patriot fans like myself were very disturbed watching slow-footed Jags receivers running routes virtually uncovered all evening. Short 10-yard outs showed no defenders within 7 yards. If the Patriots play Green Bay in the Super Bowl, wouldn't Farve have a record day against this secondary and aging linebackers?
John Kruszyna, Housatonic
A: I hear what you are saying, John, but I don't think the game plan would be the same against the Packers. Mainly, I think the Patriots had their corners playing off against the Jaguars with the idea that safeties were supporting the run, and there wasn't as much help over the top. The Jaguars could hit the big play deep, but weren't as likely to make yards after the catch. So I think the corners were playing conservative. From afar, I don't think the Patriots would sacrifice as much to stop the Packers' running game, and would instead focus on their passing game.
In the Jags game, Asante got burned on 2 touchdowns. First, he bit on Garrard's scramble and then he was way out of position on the other one. If he's looking for big money after that type of performance, I say let him go. What are your thoughts?
Dave Garber, Ballston Lake, N.Y.
A: My initial thoughts are that one performance shouldn't impact a contract. You want to look at the overall body of work, and Samuel has had a very solid season. As for the coverage against the Jaguars, Belichick noted on WEEI that the overall coverage could have been tighter. As for how much responsibility falls on Samuel, it's always hard to tell. It looked like he was out of position on the Jaguars' fourth-down conversion on the opening drive. It also looked like he didn't play the proper leverage Ernest Wilfork's 6-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, as he gave up the outside position (although Garrard had plenty of time on that one, and it's tough to cover for that long). On the plus side, while Rodney Harrison is being lauded for his late-game interception, Samuel was blanketing intended receiver Matt Jones and he deserves credit for that.
Do you have a total number of snaps that Ellis Hobbs played Saturday night? Will he be sufficiently recovered to start Sunday against the Bolts?
A: I did not chart defensive personnel in this game, but noted that Hobbs was part of the sub defensive package, coming onto the field with Brandon Meriweather and Jarvis Green in obvious passing situations. The Patriots didn't call on this too often until later in the game. I'd estimate 20 of the 56 Jaguar plays. I do think Hobbs will start against the Chargers. I thought Bill Belichick's comments after the game were telling: "Ellis is our starting cornerback." Belichick said it was a "combination of things" that led to the decision to play him in the sub defense and if I had to hypothesize, I think part of it was having him ready for kickoff returns the following week.
After watching the divisional round, I have much better appreciation for Bill Belichick not to let off the throttle even when they have a big lead and they have secured all playoff positioning. The two bye teams that lost over the weekend were the teams that adopted the mantra of resting players in the final games when there is nothing to play for. Like everything else, playing football can't just be switched on and off at will. The players worked hard all season to generate the momentum. It is hard to turn it back on after it is throttled down; especially in the playoff it is a one-game season. The Giants are another example of this. They did not rest their players in the New England game. See how well has this paid off for them? Every time when Colts had a bye and rested their players, they did not reach the Super Bowl. They won the Super Bowl when they had to play in the wildcard round. Your thoughts?
Jeff Huang, Cypress, Texas
A: I couldn't agree more. And I couldn't have been more wrong earlier this year when I said I would have rested players if I was coaching. If there is one aspect of the 2007 NFL season that I will carry forward, it is this part of the game. In the past, I would have said resting players is the way to go. I have now changed my thinking.
Two questions from a fan in Finland. First, there was a lot of talk about Brady forcing the ball to Moss toward the end of the season, yet we didn't see this against the Jags. Could this have been on purpose, to make the other team put two or three guys on him and make more room for the other receivers? Second, how much of the success of the Pats' running game against the Jags do you think can be attributed to the Jags' linebackers dropping into coverage on most of the plays? Thanks for the great and insightful analysis and news.
Antti Vanhanen, Helsinki
A: Greetings to Finland, Antti. Nice to make the connection. I'm glad you brought up the forcing-the-ball-to-Moss topic, which I think now has more context around it. I don't think Brady was purposely forcing balls to Moss in late-season games against the Jets and Dolphins to dictate future defensive coverage, but I do think he was forcing it to him at times in an attempt to get him the NFL record for touchdown catches in a season. If he wasn't, why wouldn't he have taken the check-downs like he did against the Jaguars? As for the Patriots' running game, I do think some of the success is based on defenses playing lighter, five-defensive back packages. The Jaguars, for example, played nickel and dime defenses with five and six defensive backs, and the Patriots should have success running against that. That's why I've maintained that a good running performance can be measured in many ways. I still think one of Maroney's best performances of the season came against the Steelers, when he had eight carries for 18 yards. He had a rumbling 10-yard run in the first quarter on first-and-10 when the Steelers were playing run, and also had a 2-yard run on third-and-1 in a power-on-power situation. I felt those two decisive runs alone set up play-action the rest of the day.
Am I the only one who thinks Del Rio had the best defensive plan he could have with his personnel? What other D could he have played?
Cynthia Pleach, Canton
A: I'm with you, Cynthia. I loved the plan. Slow the game down and make them be patient, and hope for a break. As we saw in the Colts-Chargers game, all it takes is a tipped ball to change things. My only criticism would have been to subtly attempt to mix in a blitz from time to time in hopes to disrupting Brady's rhythm, just like you take a shot on offense with a deep pass once or twice in a game.
Re the Jags game ... Was it just me, or did the Patriots run substantially more plays with Brady under center than they have in past weeks?
Brian Keegan, Attleborough
A: I had charted this through the Pittsburgh game and had the Patriots running 74 percent of their pass plays out of the shotgun, and 49 percent of their overall plays out of the 'gun. I haven't updated the numbers since that time. But just for perspective, the Patriots had 58 snaps against the Jaguars, and 34 came out of the shotgun. Of the 30 pass plays (including one sack and one Brady scramble), 27 were out of the shotgun. Seven designed running plays came out of the shotgun. So actually, the numbers might have been a bit higher than the season average. I think what you may have noticed was the first half, when only 15 of 30 snaps came out of the shotgun.
Who would the Pats plug in if an ILB goes down with an injury. Alexander doesn't look like a good option. Do you see AD going back inside to be replaced with Woods or Rodney outside.
Patrick Sullivan, Palmyra
A: Another option, and possibly the most likely, is a switch to the 4-3. That would appear to me to be the next layer of depth. But if staying in the 3-4 was the choice, I think Woods would come on at outside linebacker and Thomas would slide back inside.
Mike, Since Troy Brown isn't really being used, do you think it was a mistake to activate him versus a defensive or special teams player?
JoNewell, Dillsburg, Pa.
A: Brown was active for Saturday's game but did not play. He was one of three players -- along with backup quarterback Matt Cassel and tight end Stephen Spach -- who did not play in the game. But I don't think it was a mistake. My colleague at The Boston Globe, Christopher L. Gasper, said that Brown had been practicing on defense last week and was prepared to play in that role if necessary. He also was a backup on special teams, so I still see him bringing value to the game-day roster.
Hi, Mike. Bob Sanders' sweet nothings in Nate Keading's ear immediately made me think about someone we have at home -- Rodney Harrison. Don't get me wrong -- Rodney is among the best safeties to suit up, but he has cost his team 15 yards more than twice on unsportsmanlike conduct, facemask, and other flagrant fouls. Belichick has appeared unable to control this from the sidelines, especially against a motor-mouth team like the Chargers who can up the ante any time when "charged up" so to speak. Such penalties could be costly. What do you think? Have you talked to the team and Belichick about this?
Ram Krishnan, Nashua
A: Bill Belichick was asked about this by Pete Sheppard on his weekly radio interview on WEEI this week. This was his response: "We had four 15-yard penalties in the game, three on defense and one on offense. Those plays, we want to eliminate and we'll work hard to eliminate from our game. We can't afford to give our opponents those second-chance opportunities. ... I think when you look at all those plays [penalties against Harrison], they're close. But they call them and so it doesn't really matter what we think of them. What we have to do is play within the rules and whatever they are, and if that's the way they're going to call them, we have to play in a fashion that doesn't allow them to make those calls. We have to do a better job of that. Hopefully we will. I agree with you -- there isn't anything about 15-yard penalties that I am in favor of or I condone. We have to eliminate them."
This week there has been increased attention toward injuries of the San Diego Chargers. What are the NFL's rules governing the injury report?
Palo Peirce, Glastonbury, Conn.
A: Here is a story from the Globe last year that details a bit on injury reports in the NFL. I hope it answers your question, Palo.
Will we see Chad Jackson as a surprise weapon opposite Randy Moss, given the deep threat he presents?
A: I don't think so, Darwin. If anything, Jackson might have played his way off the game-day roster next week with some tentative running on kickoff returns. Also, Jackson actually plays Moss's position on offense, so I think the only way we'd see him is if Moss was hurt.
Do you know the name of the song that is played when the Patriots first enter Gillette? It's kind of Gothic-choir-sounding. Also, do you think Rodney Harrison will play again next year?
Mike Katz, Dover, N.H.
A: I checked out thePatriots' official website and this is what I found: The intro is "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff, followed by "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne.
Can the Patriots introduce Anna Grant -- the 14-year-old who won the NFL's Punt, Pass, and Kick competition -- at the AFC championship game since she was booed in Indianapolis on national TV?
A: I wouldn't be surprised if that happens, as the Kraft family usually has a keen sense of doing the right thing in situations like that. I thought it was ridiculous stuff from the Indy fans on that one, although if we call them out, I think Patriots fans who were throwing snowballs at the Jets on Dec. 16 should be held accountable for those actions as well.
Can you go back and look at the missed field goal (during the Jacksonville game), during the replay I thought I heard two thuds (meaning that it was blocked). When I reviewed the play a few times you can see someone in the backfield, it hit his hand, and the ball changed directions. It seemed it was missed during the game. Thanks!
A: Watched it again, and CBS had a super angle of it, and I didn't think it was blocked. Just not hit well. There was some pressure to Stephen Gostkowski's right, but the rotation of the ball was such that I don't think anyone got a hand on it.
This question may seem off topic given the Pats will be playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, but it's gnawing at me. In the season finale against the Giants, Randy Moss was penalized for dancing in celebration of a touchdown. This week in Dallas, Brandon Jacobs, after scoring, trotted out of the end zone and flung the ball at the game clock. Thinking of the Moss penalty a few weeks earlier, I waited patiently for a flag to be thrown. Nothing. I don't have a problem with what Jacobs did, but surely it warranted a penalty more than Moss dancing in the end zone, right?
Chris Walsh, Washington, D.C.
A: The penalty on Moss was because Laurence Maroney joined in the celebration and the rule specifically states there can be no choreographed celebrations. That being said, I think the officials realized that was a ticky-tack call against Moss/Maroney and that the league instructed the official to keep his flag in his pocket if it was such a minor infraction as we saw that night in New York.
Can you give us a sense of what impact the loss of Tom Dimitroff will have on the Patriots' scouting and drafting?
A: At this point, I see the impact as minor. One of Dimitroff's primary jobs was to help narrow down a massive list of prospects each year to a more manageable number. So the Patriots would start the year in April -- after the draft -- with about 4,000 names. The idea is to get the number down to a more reasonable level and Dimitroff was instrumental in that regard -- scouting players, combing over medical records, looking at a player's past, etc. That process is done for this year, so the real impact, in my mind, comes after the 2008 draft. I don't think Dimitroff was directly involved in the team's decision making. One final note on Dimitroff's departure -- I think the Patriots not only lost a good talent scout, but a good person. It's another reminder to me that the Patriots' brand is tremendously strong across the NFL. What I mean is that because of the team's success and winning environment that has been created, those who work under Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli are held in high esteem and it opens career opportunities for them.
Hey Mike, whatever happened with Bethel J.? Did the Pats not like what they saw, and now the door is shut?
A: After seeing Ellis Hobbs show up on the injury report with a groin injury, I think they brought him in as a just-in-case type of situation. I wouldn't say the door is shut.
So what's going on with Eugene Wilson and the Pats? I noted in chat you said that Geno would go elsewhere after this season to "get a fresh start." He was inactive for the playoff game, but apparently not injured. His attitude? The Pats' attitude?
Bruce Wolf, Tyngsborough
A: Not sure on this one, Bruce, but a question I have as well. Wilson was a starter on Super Bowl teams in 2003 and 2004, and now he can't beat out Brandon Meriweather on Randall Gay to even play in sub defenses. It's been a hard fall for him. One part of me wonders if it's strictly a game-plan decision, but based on the quality of player I think he is, I can't imagine Wilson would be inactive solely based on a game plan. So maybe I can add some more insight into this next week.