November 05, 2006
Mistakes In Coaching, Execution Doom Patriots
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- The final indignity came after a sight rarely seen in Foxborough in the last ten years.
It was an evening of the unlikely, on both sides. It was perhaps fitting that, in this battle of NFL titans which featured flawed performances from both the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady would throw his fourth interception of the game, thanks to a tipped ball off a running back known for his penchant for fumbling, on the decisive play of the game. The Colts were able to escape Gillette Stadium with a 27-20 win over the Patriots on Sunday night, their second straight win over their former nemesis and giving Peyton Manning a little bit more balance in his career battles against New England.
The Patriots will look back on this game and only wince over what could have been. On a night where Adam Vinatieri comes back home and misses his first two field goals of the season, the last of which would have iced the game with 1:55 left, where Manning throws one interception, where Terrence Wilkins coughs up the ball on a kickoff return, the Patriots combined lousy execution, too many mistakes and some questionable game plans into a loss that may end up wounding their entire season. This loss becomes even more regrettable than the playoff loss to Denver in January.
The Patriots had at least overtime in their sights with 1:46 left in the game, perched at their own 36-yard line. Vinatieri, who will some day head off to Canton thanks to making so many kicks like these in a Patriot uniform, pushed a potential game-icing field goal wide right, his second miss of the evening (the previous miss, from 37 yards out, also was pushed right). Brady hit Ben Watson on a nifty 25-yard pass to the Colt 39, with plenty of time left despite no timeouts. On the next play, Brady tried to hit Kevin Faulk over the middle on a toss pass. On what should have been a very catchable ball, Faulk instead let the ball carom off his fingertips and into the arms of linebacker Kato June. It was June's second pick of the evening, and that sealed the win for the now 8-0 Colts, who are in firm control of the conference at the halfway mark of the season.
Brady's final numbers were indicative of games he tends to have on occasion, where he often times makes hasty decisions or makes plays he really shouldn't. He finished with an ugly passer rating of only 34.0, the second lowest of his career (only the 22.5 figure he got from the 31-0 season-opening loss at Buffalo in 2002 was worse). He was intercepted four times, threw no touchdown passes, and was 20 of 35 passing for 201 total yards. This marked the fifth time in his career that Brady threw four interceptions in a game, the last time coming on November 27th of last year, a 26-16 loss at Kansas City.
And it's games like this which will unfairly swing public opinion towards Manning and away from Brady, despite the fact that Brady still has a huge lead in head to head matchups and in Super Bowls won. Manning threw for 326 yards, one interception and two touchdowns, and had a passer rating of 93.1. Observers might now think that, while Brady is the right quarterback, Manning might be the "right now" quarterback, at least until the playoffs begin.
Before you throw Brady under the bus, there were some mitigating circumstances regarding his performance. Granted, one cannot expect to win a game, especially against the Colts, with a 4-2 turnover deficit. But of the four interceptions, two of them came off of tipped balls (the first June interception, earlier in the fourth quarter, was off a tipped ball by Robert Mathis at the line of scrimmage). The second pick was at the end of the first half, where Brady overthrew Watson deep and Bob Sanders picked it off at the Colt 3-yard line, but that was inconsequential as Manning took a knee and headed into the locker room for halftime.
It was the first pick which literally set the tone for the evening, and presented the Gillette Stadium crowd with the first sign that Tony Dungy and his assistants would win tonight's coaching battle. With a clear mandate to run right at the Colts and eat up clock, the Patriots were doing just that, despite the presence of Sanders, the hard-hitting second year strong safety who did make some good plays on Patriot runners throughout the evening. The Patriots took the opening kickoff and marched from their 19 to the Colt 34, making good gains along the way with both runs and medium range passes.
Then on first down at the 34, Brady dropped back and unleashed a long pass down the left sideline. Doug Gabriel was in double coverage, but Brady threw it that way anyway. The ball sailed over Gabriel and into the arms of Antoine Bethea, who managed to pick it off six yards deep in the end zone and still run it back to the Colt 32. With short passes and runs doing everything needed to be done, why even bother to call this deep throw. Was this a mistake by Josh McDaniels or a bad read by Brady? It shook up the Patriots and seemed to throw them off sync for the rest of the evening.
The play calling all night long was strange for the Patriots. At several points during the game, NBC's John Madden said "You know, the Patriots don't have to be this fancy! All they really need to do is run the ball right at this undersized Colt defense!" Madden also pointed out that the Colts defend screen passes well, and they succeeded in blowing up every attempt by the Patriots to dump off the ball on screen routes. The result was scoring only 17 points against a defense which should consider themselves lucky to have held the Patriots under 30.
The coaching questions also extend to the defense. One has to wonder where all the physical play was, as both Patriot cornerbacks, Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, gave ten-yard cushions all night long. Bill Belichick and Dean Pees obviously decided to blitz the tar out of Manning, a tactic which has shown in years past to work poorly for the Patriots against high powered pass attacks (to wit: 2001, the loss against the Rams with blitzing, the Super Bowl win against the Rams with physical attacks against the receivers). Instead of intimidating the receivers, Marvin Harrison was able to catch eight passes for 145 yards, and Reggie Wayne 6 grabs for 90 yards. The Patriots did manage to sack Manning three times and induce one interception, but the Patriots gave it right back to the Colts after the pick by Chad Scott in the fourth quarter (June's first pick).
To make matters worse, Rodney Harrison went down with an arm injury on the first Colt offensive possession of the game. It made it even more incumbent upon the cornerbacks to play more physical. Whether Harrison could have made a difference is subject to conjecture, but his presence was clearly missed, just like in 2005 when he was out for the season with the knee injury he suffered against Pittsburgh.
The Patriots were lucky that the score was not worse, given how many mistakes they made in coaching and execution. The Colts scored on all three of their first half possessions, but then suffered the two Vinatieri misses, the fumble by Wilkins on a third quarter kickoff, and the Scott interception. All the Patriots could do with those gifts was to muster six points.
The Patriots will look back on this game with deep regret. The road to the Super Bowl will now go through Indianapolis as well as Denver, if they get that far. Against a team they had prided in playing perfect football against in past years, the Patriots instead looked like the Colts used to look like against them.
Looks like the worm has turned. Maybe Manning would eventually win these games sooner or later. Patriot Nation had always hoped it would have been much later.
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