Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pats Vs. Texans

I’m trying something new for this blog post. Don’t know why this occurs to me now, but I’m going to blog the Patriots vs. Texans Monday Night Football Game. Obviously, I’m not liveblogging the game, since it’s Friday and the game was played on Monday, but rather recording my thoughts and then putting them in the context of the conclusion to maybe learn something, at the very least, about the two teams that played. I typed as I watched and then edited this post into something coherent.

I don’t watch a lot of NFL games. I work on Sundays and somehow the 3 ½ hours of DVR time doesn’t seem worth it. My partner is also, to use the rhetorical device of understatement, not a fan of watching football, so if I’m going to watch a recorded game, I’m going to do it alone. So very alone. But I keep enough track of the general story lines that I’m not totally lost when the Pats play a late game on Monday Night, which I means, I know how interesting Monday night against the Texans was supposed to be.

The Patriots are now the pinnacle of NFL excellence. It took them losing two of their first three to really hammer home just how good this franchise has been for over a decade. It had been about that long since they were last under .500. They’ve already clinched the AFC East (again) and have a pretty good shot at securing home field advantage (again) and a decent shot at winning the AFC (again). After starting 3-3, in six very strange games, they figured out a run game, sorted out their secondary reasonably well, and have developed a debilitating run defense, all while Tom Brady continues to eviscerate defenses no matter who is running routes for him. Though there have been moments when the Patriots haven’t looked like T1000s, they are still the team to beat in the NFL.

Football fans have wondered when the Texans would bring it all together and compete for a Super Bowl. They just had so much raw talent, especially on defense, that it was only a matter of time before they replaced the Ravens and Steelers as one of the teams nipping at the Patriot’s heels. The Patriots are 9-3 and the Texans are 11-1 (though they really should be 10-2) and it’s always interesting to see what happens when an excellent defense plays against the Patriots, but in anticipation of the game, there is one storyline in particular I can’t wait to see play out. Tom Brady vs. J.J Watt.

Brady succeeds because he is almost always able to find an open receiver underneath the coverage. He hits guys when they’re open deep, but the Patriots generally deal death by a thousand cuts. Six, seven, eleven yard completions. Every defense has soft spots and in the modern NFL the softest is almost always a linebacker in coverage underneath. But J.J. Watt completely changes the underneath game because he is so adept at blocking passes, not just because he’s 6’5” and can jump, but also because he knows when to break off a pass rush and settle into a passing lane. No matter what else happens, his unique skill set might be enough to throw a monkey wrench into the Patriot offensive juggernauts. (Editor's note: Don't tell the rest of the NFL but apparently you can game plan for J.J. Watt's pass blocking, as proven by the fact that I never bring it up again.)

You Can't Show Up 15 Minutes Late to a Patriots Game: Despite (or perhaps because of) their best efforts, the Texans were not mentally prepared for the game. Even though they all referred to it as the most important regular season game in franchise history (which it was) they still were mentally about 15 minutes late to the game. They weren't sharp on defense or offense and the result was a 21-0 score and a real risk of being completely embarrassed. On defense in particular it was little mental mistakes that undid otherwise successful plays. A good example is the pass interference call that extended Patriot's third drive. After a penalty extended the first drive, you'd think the Texans would've snapped to it, but instead, some careless contact with Welker extended another drive and lead to another touchdown. The call I think, is debatable as the pass was probably uncatchable, but the onus was still on the defender. Sure, the referee probably made a glamor call, but you still never run into a receiver mid-route. Those first few mental mistakes were enough to turn the Texans from the best team in the NFL to just another Patriots victim. The defense eventually stepped it up and actually put together a solid 20 minutes or so of game time, but the Texans offense never got it together. Partly that was because Schaub wasn't quite sharp enough and partly it was because...

Vince Wilfork is a Force of Nature: If “Tackles Made While a Blocker is Draped All Over You Like a White Sheet Before a Big Reveal” were a stat, I'm pretty sure Wilfork would be leading the league in it. In the past, Wilfork specialized in holding his ground, gumming up the opponent's plays by being an immovable object, but this season he's demonstrated a range of motion that is downright terrifying. He is shedding blockers and getting up and down the line of scrimmage. Last year he was a mountain on the line; this year his is some abominable meterogeological monstrosity crossing a mountain and a tornado. Perhaps what he has developed is what is often obscurely referred to as a “nose for the ball,” which is really just the defensive equivalent of “reading the coverage.” Wilfork has learned how to know where and when to break off his blockers. In some ways this doesn't take a lot, the difference between going right and going left. Go left, there's a gap, go right a tackle. And the ultimate result is that Arian Foster (of 1,148 yards this season fame) gained 46 yards rushing.

What We Learned from Two Fumbles: It could have all been very different, if the Patriots had lost that fumbled on the opening drive. The Texans came up with a big time play to strip the ball, but couldn't recover the fumble and the Pats scored on the next play. Part of that goes back to the whole Texans showing up late point, as one of them had a chance to jump on the ball, but part of this reveals the depth of mental perfection the Patriots really show. When I played football in high school, there was pretty much one fundamental technique for recovering a fumble; fall on it. If you try to scoop up the ball, it will only end in tears. Sure, sometimes you've got enough space to take your time and really get your hands under the ball, but if you have to rush at all, you fall on it. Texan linebacker tried to scoop it. Super star tight end Aaron Hernandez fell on it. Execution of a fundamental football technique. I don't think it's a coincidence that, after demonstrating some give you up your body commitment, Brady threw to him on the very next play for the touchdown. The second fumble recovery also revealed something about the Patriots (and maybe about the Texans). Even though the game was pretty much over. J.J. Watt made a huge play to force that fumble. Not only did he have to run down Woodhead, who had just made several tacklers look ridiculous, he also had the presence of mind to go for the ball, and the solid technique that if he'd missed the strip, he still would've brought Woodhead down. In a different situation, it would have been a game changing play. But what is revealing about this fumble is that only Patriots were around the ball. The ball flew out of Woodhead's hands and all you saw was blue. Part execution of the blocking scheme and part hustle, that little moment explains exactly why the Patriots are so dominant in take aways. Nine times out of ten, every Patriot on the field is in the right place and working as hard as he can.

It's Kinda Sad, that Some People Still Can't Live with Belichick as the NFL's Greatest Coach: About two weeks ago Donte Stallworth was not on the Patriots. On Monday night he caught a 63 yard touchdown pass, a huge play as the Texans were close to stopping the Pats for the 5th straight drive. When Talib, often in single coverage against Andre Johnson (of 1,209 yards receiving fame), was injured, Dennard stepped right in and continued shutting down Andre Johnson. Dennard? John Gruden had to keep correcting his pronunciation of the name because he didn't expect to have to say it. And how many of you were expecting Arrington to have the monster game he did? And now that we've opened this vein of investigation we might as well ask Danny Woodhead? Julian Edelman? Wes Welker? Ten straight years of 10 or more wins, one of which without Tom Brady? How successful was Charlie Weiss outside the organization? Or Josh McDaniels? How many Super Bowls did Parcells win without him? Whenever this era of dominance is finally over, as all things must some day end, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick will arguably be the greatest professional sports organization in history, rivaled only by the golden age Yankees, and this is in part because it doesn't seem to matter who takes the field for Belichick. He has established organizational excellence top to bottom that allows them to move players in and out without any negative consequences. Gronkowski who? Perhaps some resistance to Belichick comes from the fact that in many ways the Patriots are boring. The Packers in Favre's heyday were almost as good, but many times they relied on Favre's creativity after broken plays, scrambling around in the pocket and ducking tackles before finally finding someone open. It makes for exciting football. The Patriots don't have broken plays. Boring perfection.

A Few More Random Observations: The Pats did not hand the ball off once on a stretch play and yet executed the play action pass off a fake stretch play so well, it was a big play every time they ran it. To reiterate, to make it clear just how weird that was, the Patriots repeatedly and convincingly faked a play they never actually ran. The game was already out of reach when a shot before commercial showed Wes Welker absolutely furious because he dropped a couple of passes. Perfection expected by everyone. Corollary to the the Belichick haters, why people still gotta hate on Tom Brady? How can you not love a guy who is at a point in his life where he has TWO Super Model Baby-Mammas, THREE Super Bowl rings, a raft of records, is in the act of CRUSHING the best team in the NFL, and can still be totally stoked to run for the first down on 3rd and 5? Sure, he models for UGG, but don't you think he looks at the stills for the day's shoot and says, “That's not good enough guys. I wasn't good enough and you weren't good enough. So set those lights back up and lets take some pictures like we actually want people to buy these fucking shoes!” The real loser of this game was Ryan Mallet. He finally gets to pass a ball, makes a perfect throw, the receiver muffs it, the ball pops up in the air for the interception. It was the only Patriots turnover and lead to Texans second touchdown. You just feel bad for the guy.

One Remaining Question: Watching the Patriots thoroughly undress the best team in the league (How'd they do against Denver? Oh that's right, crushed them too.) does raise one question, a question that will haunt Pats fans until New England wins another Super Bowl. How the hell did the Giants beat them?

(Wilfork and Brady pictures from SI photos tumblr)

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