Today was supposed to be a power rankings day, but then I realized that I never truly analyzed Sunday's game. There were two posts on this site yesterday dissecting Bill Belichick's play calling, but the other storylines remained uncovered. There are so many additional items that have been glossed over and still need to be discussed. Pats/Colts 2009 was just too big of a game to be left unfinished.
As a side note, I'm still in turmoil deciding how to rank the Top 5-6 teams in this week's Top 12. What do you do when an undefeated, yet over-rated team gets urinated on for 45 minutes by a better team with a worse record, but then rallies thanks to indefensible clock management by the superior team's coach? It's an extremely tough call, and one upon which my credibility and loyalties hang in the balance. Tune in tomorrow to see how it plays out...
Game Ball: I'm actually handing out two game balls this week. I'm pretty sure that team don't hand out game balls after a loss, but what else do I call it? Anyway, the game balls go to the two players who shut down the Colts' most explosive weapons on their respective sides of the ball: Sebastian Vollmer and Brandon McGowan.
We'll start with McGowan, who's proving to be tight end kryptonite. First he shut down Tony Gonzalez. Then it was Kellen Winslow. While he didn't "shut down" Dallas Clark, he certainly limited his impact. Four receptions for 65 yards clearly beats the 14 catches for 119 that Dallas put up the week earlier. McGowan obviously didn't do it alone as the Pats' entire defensive scheme appeared to be centered around slowing down Clark. Still, when somebody who was a relative uknown prior to this season is able to step in, win the starting corner job, and repeatedly contain your opponents' biggest threat, it's something pretty special. After a miserable season by the secondary last year, it's certainly refreshing to see our young defenders stepping in and making plays.
As far as Vollmer goes, the 6'8" gargantuan covered Dwight Freeney as well as any Patriot I've ever seen. Freeney tends to have the advantage against taller lineman, but Vollmer continually dominated the matchup, at least for the first three quarters. With Freeney contained, the Patriots were able to focus more attention on Robert Mathis, giving Brady the time he needed to hit Randy Moss for some huge gains. It's going to be really interesting to see how the situation plays out when Matt Light returns from injury. At the moment, Vollmer looks like a future Pro Bowler and is clearly going to play a major role on this team in years to come. This is almost Bledsoe/Brady-esque albeit on a much, much smaller level.
I give up. You want to know who the most relieved player in the Patriots' locker room was after Belichick's 4th and 2 call? Laurance Maroney. Had the Patriots lost by a 70-yard Manning drive after a punt, Maroney would've clearly been the game's goat after his fumble at the 1 yard line earlier in the third quarter. Granted, Wes Welker pulled off a fantastic punt return to set up another Patriots touchdown just minutes later, but it doesn't excuse Maroney's huge gaffe. It also doesn't excuse our "top" back averaging 2.4 yards per carry, by picking up a meager 31 yards from 13 touches - especially against a run defense as anemic as the Colts'.
The Patriots' passing game is so good, that they can still rack up points without a running game. Where their lack of a ground attack truly hurts them is when they get a big lead. In my opinion, the greatest Patriots team ever was the 2004 squad, mainly because of clock killin' Corey Dillon. When the '04 Patriots had a lead, even if it was seven points or less, the opposition was in trouble. Between Brady's accuracy and Dillon's ability to chew up yardage, New England was able to choke out their opponents. This year, all three of the Patriots' losses were ones in which they lost a lead. In both the Denver and Indy games the leads were both late and substantial. It's a troubling trend that is completely uncharacteristic of the Patriots.
I think the big change ultimately boils down to the Patriots' lack of a running game. The Pats won two Super Bowls with Antowain Smith, so it's not like they need a Pro-Bowl rusher to succeed. They just need some one consistent, and Maroney has proven to be anything but that. I thought Laurence was coming into his own the past few weeks with Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris out of the picture. Turns out, I was wrong. Maroney completely disappeared on Sunday night. As much as I disagreed with Belichick taking his foot off the gas in the 4th quarter, probably the biggest reason that strategy didn't succeed was that Bill got nothing from Maroney. You can't kill the clock without a dependable back. Until the Patriots find one, they'll need to gun for 60 minutes to avoid a repeat performance of the Colts game. Unfortunately, it's a need that won't be able to be filled until the off-season. I'm done holding out for Laurence Maroney.
So what? Yes, the loss this Sunday pretty much guarantees the Colts the #1 seed in the AFC, and could have potentially cost New England a bye. Still, the sky isn't falling in Foxboro. Even if the Pats lose another game, the AFC West Champion will probably be the fourth seed. If New England ends up third, they'll probably end up playing a reeling Ravens, Steelers, Broncos, or Chargers as the sixth seed. They may even end up playing Houston or Jacksonville. While certainly not as favorable as a bye week, I can't say that I'm worried about any of those teams coming into Gillette Stadium in January. Also, Cincinatti still has to play Minnesota, San Diego, and the Jets on the road. They're also still the Bengals. If the Patriots end up 13-3 or 12-4 there's still room for them to claim the #2 seed.
The bottom line is that the outcome of this game will likely only determine the location of the AFC Championship game, IF the Pats and Colts end up playing each other. If the Patriots get bounced out before that, it's a non-issue. Far more likely, in my opinion, is that the over-rated Colts get bounced out in the divisional round. However, for argument's sake, let's say we do end up with that Patriots/Colts AFC title game and it's played in Lucas Oil Stadium instead of Foxboro. So what? New England mopped the floor with Indy for three quarters. They were on pace to put up 60 at one point. It was turning into an embarrassment. The Colts' secondary isn't getting less depleted any time soon. You know Belichick is going to bring the hammer, the fist, and the kitchen sink into that game plan. The Patriots are the better team, hands down, and if it comes to a title game in Indianapolis, there will be no letting up this time.
I wrote in my mid-season report how the 2003 Patriots would've taken this four game stretch over Weeks 10-13 and used them to ignite a title run. In retrospect, that was pretty unrealistic of me. That '03 Patriots team was made of vets like Brucshi, McGinnest, Vrabel, and Harrison. They knew how to bend, but not break. This younger team, while certainly more explosive on offense, needs to model itself after the 2001 Patriots team. In '01 the Patriots were on the rise, still learnign to be great. They had several early miscues and the moment when theis season turned around was actually a loss. They held their own against the "superior" Rams team on Sunday Night Fotoball in mid-November but ultimately fell. After that difficult loss, the 2001 Patriots never lost again. They licked their wounds, learned from their mistakes, and peaked at just the right time.
If there was one nagging thought that I just couldn't shake as the Patriots cruised to a 31-14 lead, it was that we may be peaking too soon. It happened in 2007. It happens to a lot of teams every year. It's nearly impossible to stay at the top of the NFL mountain for 21 weeks. With week 10 fresh in the books, we're not even half-way there. This Patriots team still has a long way to go and a whole lot to learn. If nothing else, Sunday night's loss will make certain they won't forget that fact.