Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Morning Coffee - Christmas Edition

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

First off, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Fantastic Festivus, Krazy Kwanzaa, and a Happening Hanukkah to all as we roll into the last days before the madness of Christmas.  Here South of Boston we're looking at a potential white Christmas and left wondering why the NFL took control of Thanksgiving but gave Christmas to the NBA?  At least ESPN has a quintuple-header lined up all day.  Christmas is all about family and friends that are as close as family, and that's how the day will be served up from dawn to dusk.  My shopping for the lovely Mrs. B is done (and wrapped! Thank goodness for unused vacation time!) and even though there is a lot of wrapping to do for the spoiled brats kids, we still have a few days to get it done. May the holiday season wrap all in its love and pageantry, and now onto the sports:

PATRIOTS:

It's easy for the Patriots to look past the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins these next two games.  Hopefully, they can get out to big leads and let the bench get some action.  The offense and defense still have a lot of work to do to get ready for the playoffs, so these two games need to focus on fixing their flaws against flawed squads.  The offensive line is struggling to get in rhythm with guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly back in the line-up along with tackle Sebastian Vollmer.  Hopefully, their time off for injuries this year keeps them fresh in January and allows them to run defenses off the field with the no-huddle.  The no-huddle is a huge weapon. With the success on offense with Nick McDonald and Daniel Thomas at guard, it almost makes sense to continue to work them into the game, even playing a few series or coming on in the 4th quarter to help keep the line fresh.

The defense got away from making stops and defending the big play until San Francisco went into their "prevent offense" in the 3rd quarter.  No one confuses this defense in New England with the 1980s New York Giants with Bill Belichick at the helm, but they are better than they have played.  These last two weeks are chances to add some confidence to a unit that needs it going into the playoffs. Jacksonville, with no Maurice Jones-Drew or Rashad Jennings, could be a team to get some confidence against.

Expect the Patriots to try to start early, punch the Jaguars in the mouth, and then work on getting consistency on both sides of the ball.  Expect the same game plan next week at home against Miami.

* * *

I think if I am Bill Belichick, I am trying to pry Mike Pettine away from Rex Ryan and the Jets this off-season, to fix the defense.  Belichick needs to be a head coach, not the defensive coordinator.  Short of burying the hatchet and bringing back Eric Mangini (NEVER going to happen) it is time to admit that, like many second round draft picks the past five years, defensive coordinator Mike Patricia is not cut out for his role and move on.  The players are there. The weakness is the caching staff.  Pettine has proven himself in New York, taking a squad with (outside of the cornerbacks) next to no talent into a perennial top defense. The Patriots need to be as open to change as possible to fix this team and get back to a dominant squad like the were early in the Belichick era.

* * *

MISC NFL:

Speaking of the Jets, the Jets are a mess.   Rex Ryan won't, but should be fired. He lost control two years ago and has no prayer to get it back. He should be a defensive coordinator. General Manager Mike Tannenbaum is a goner, and expect the Jets to try to keep him on to manage the cap. Someone has to take the hit for quarterback Tim Tebow and the Mark Sanchez insane contract extension.  I think both deserve it, but only one will go.

More proof Ryan needs to go? What in the world was he doing hiring a special teams coach who got a job in Miami as a FOB (Friend of Bill, as in Parcells)? Did Rex Ryan owe the Godfather, Bill Parcells, a favor?  Tony Sparano was an abject failure in Miami, was ostensibly brought in to run the wildcat offense with Tim Tebow, which never happened.  The Jets would have been better off with ANYONE at offensive coordinator.  But, owner Woody Johnson, thanks from all the Patriots fans.  We appreciate you screwing over your team this season with all your inane moves.  Keep up the good bad work.

* * *

I hate Eli Manning.  Forget the two Super Bowls. One of my fantasy football teams was in the playoffs and I made the indefensible move of benching Ben Roethlisberger and playing Eli last week at QB.  I have no idea what made me do it. I lost by 5 points. Roethlisberger scored over 20 fantasy points, Eli pooped his pants and got me all of 4 points.  So instead of two championship games this week, I have one and a consolation game. 

In my Yahoo head-to-head league I finished in 9th place with the 3rd most total points.  How did that happen? Straight up bad luck.  My team was one of the best, but just ran into hot teams at the wrong time.  Week in, week out, the team was so much better and consistent, but couldn't put together wins.  Frustrating as all get-out, but nothing to second guess about 3rd most points. 

* * *

CELTICS:

I'm trying not to watch the Celtics this winter, but with the NHL strike (and my eleven-year old son's interest in the NBA) I keep putting the games on and raising my blood pressure. This team doesn't miss Ray Allen at guard; they miss Avery Bradley. The team needs a big body in the middle, and as much as I hate to admit it after defending the move these past two years, Danny Ainge may have made a mistake trading Big Kendrick Perkins away for forward Jeff Green.  They lack a shot-blocking big body in the middle to clear space and punish guards driving the lane.  Kevin Garnett is a power forward who belongs on the wing playing smothering defense.  They miss a big body of ANY kind in the middle on defense.

Green is lost on the court. I don't think his game fits an offense with Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Jason Terry and Courtney Lee are lost on both sides of the ball at guard.  Neither is playing defense (which the return of Avery Bradley solves) and nor are they comfortable on offense.  They cannot get in rhythm and look like a team battling for the last playoff spot, not a title contender.  They have stopped NOBODY on defense, and don't have the offense to  stay with anyone and run and gun.  This team is stuck in neutral, and almost 30% of the season gone by, I don't see it getting much better from just bringing back Avery Bradley.

* * *



Saturday, December 22, 2012

Offseason Red Sox Review

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

There are one-hundred days until opening day of the new and (not-quite) improved MLB season with inter-league games each and every day as the borders between the American and National League break down further.  With the Houston Astros moving to the American League to balance the two leagues at 15 each, this season seems set to be a bit different than any before. Also putting this season on an uneven kilter, the favorites in the American League East are the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. Grab the flannel shirts already, it's the early 1990s all over again.

The Boston Red Sox waved the white flag on the Theo Epstein era last August, unloading a boatload of contracts in the washed-up Josh Beckett, the over-paid Carl Crawford, and the over-rated Adrian Gonzalez.  In order to rid themselves of the horrors of Bobby Valentine as manager, the Sox traded their starting shortstop (Mike Aviles) to pick up the manager they wanted (former pitching coach John Farrell) who was already on his way out in Toronto.  Keeping their mouths shut for awhile may have got them Farrell for nothing, but the wanna-be Liverpool lads couldn't keep their intentions secret. 

Recent news has the Red Sox trying to fix their gaping hole in the back of the bullpen with a trade for Joel Hanrahan (Jonathan Papelbon looks like a deal right now, eh?) created by trading for an injury-prone closer in Andrew Bailey for which they received a whole 15 ineffective innings and a season of Alfedo "as crazy as Izzy Alcantera" Alceves closing games.  With Bailey still an unknown and "shoulda been closer" Daniel Bard struggling all season in Pawtucket trying to fix the nightmare issues with control that came back after an ill-advised move to the rotation. So, in hindsight, for a few million dollars, the Sox could have kept Papelbon at closer and kept Bard at set-up and not screwed up their biggest strength in 2009 to 2011: the back-end of the bullpen. Heck, coughing up for a free agent closer instead of trading for Bailey, the Sox could have kept the status quo and won a bunch more.

Also, the Sox first base issue (remember, they traded Kevin Youkilis for no good reason for nothing in return) is still open with reports of issues with the physical for Mike Napoli.  Without Napoli at first, there is no real option available in-house.  Assuming Napoli eventually signs onto a modified deal, they have a decent, power-hitting first baseman who can fill in at catcher in a pinch.  If the Sox keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher (and other than the fact that he is a "Theo Epstein guy" why would they actively shop him?), that leaves him and David Ross to carry the load and leave Napoli at first base.  Ross, if nothing special, is at least a decent backup at catcher. Second base and third are locked in with Dustin Pedroia and future star Will Middlebrooks.  At shortstop, the Sox filled the gaping hole from the trade of Aviles with injury-prone Stephen "brother of J.D." Drew.  Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly good.  

Pedroia and Napoli are grinders, seeing a lot of pitches, getting on base, providing a little pop.  Middlebrooks is the top prospect in the organization and expected to provide middle-of-the-order power.  He showed a lot before being injured last year.  Drew is an enigma (gee, that phrase sounds familiar to Red Sox fans!).  After being injured a good chunk of the last two seasons, but could be a good complement at shortstop to Pedroia.  Last we saw him on the field for an extended period, Drew had a good bat, a little pop, lots of doubles, decent glove, and a good fit for a top or bottom of a line-up.  He is not going to grind out at bats like his older brother (and drive the WEEIdiots insane: "Why don't he swing da bat more? Walks are for losers!"), but should be a great fit for Fenway Park and pound doubles off the green monster like Pedroia has done.

Outfield is a mess.  Gone is the long tradition of great left fielders in Boston (Ted Williams begat Yaz who begat Jim Ed Rice who begat...uhh, forget about Mike Greenwell...who begat Manny Ramirez) and the Sox turn from Carl Crawford to.. Jonny Gomes? I ranted about Gomes previously, as he is not someone who is going to bring a team to the level of contender; however, he may hit better at Fenway (although not facing Sox pitchers brings the stats down a bit).  He can fill in at DH, but with David Ortiz already there and more inter-league games leading to less games with a DH (any road game versus an NL team), there is little need for him there.

At least center field has a Scott Boras client in a contract year (Jacoby Ellsbury) which is like holding a 30-30 guarantee. With Shane Victorino set to play a poor man's J.D. Drew in right field (moving to center whenever Ellsbury is dealt/leaves), the Sox also have Ryan Kalish to work into the mix.  Kalish has potential to be a Josh Reddick type outfielder (as Bob Lobel would say: How come we don't get players like that) and at least give Sox fans desperately missing Trot Nixon (for whatever reason) a similar player to cheer for in 2013.  Expect Ellsbury to be traded in July and Victorino to move to center field if the Sox are out of contention again near the trade deadline.  

The starting rotation is set with Ryan Dempster brought in to join fellow mid-thirty-something, overpaid, back of the rotation local hero (SARCASM ALERT) John Lackey. The Sox are hinging the next two years on new manager John Farrell getting young starters Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester back into the 15 win, 200 innings, 150 strike-outs, sub 4.00 ERA range.  Anything short of these two being #1A and #1B starters have the Sox looking at a battle for fourth place the next couple of years.  Mixed with the hopes for the future and the middling veterans is Felix Doubront, a big lefty with decent stuff who, in a best case scenario, can be a 12 win 3rd starter who matches up against lefty-heavy line-ups (Yankees...cough-cough).  Add in Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves as long relief/swing starter/depth and the starters, if healthy, have the POTENTIAL to improve.

The bullpen needs Joel Hanrahan (or anyone else with closing experience) if only to not depend on Andrew Bailey again.  The real need is for Daniel Bard to get his head on straight and his mechanics back in whack so he can go back to his 6th/7th/8th inning stopper role.  Why the Sox took him out of his comfort zone with his history in the minor leagues for having not been able to keep control outside of the bullpen is a mystery to this day. Their best weapon (a reliever coming in to get strike-outs with runners on base is the most valuable relief pitcher, not a closer getting three outs against the bottom of the order with a three run lead) was gone last year and it showed.

The rest of the bullpen is a crap shoot every year.  Do you find an Allen Embry, or is it another Jeff Grey?  Craig Breslow, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, and Junichi Tazawa could come in and be light out, or could all have plus 5.00 ERAs.  There is no real projection of relievers year to year short of the pitcher being the type to have a consistent record of success with an "out pitch" that bails them out of tough situations.  Any of these pitchers could succeed, and all are just as likely to be in AAA by the end of May.  The good news is the signing of Koji Uehara who actually is a consistent reliever who should help the bullpen plenty.  Uehara, beside being set-up man insurance for Bard, was successful in Japan, was successful in the majors, and is safe, inexpensive pick-up.  Mark this down, Uehara is the best free agent pickup by the team this year.

The team is set for 2013 for all intents and purposes.  Sure, things will change a bit before Spring Training and there are always unexpected injuries, but the team is basically set for the time being barring a major change. Love them or hate them, these are the 2013 Boston Red Sox.

* * *

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rear View Mirror

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The less said about the Patriots loss to the 49ers, the better.  The Patriots came out with their absolute worst performance of the season, losing their third game of the season to the NFC West. All three phases of the game were abysmal, as the Patriots were 
beaten soundly on offense, defense and special teams.  They trailed 31 to 3 in the early third quarter and were a total mess from the onset.  

The game started with running back Steven Ridley fumbling (which was overturned by review) and then getting stuffed on 3rd and 1.  Punt. 49ers march down the field (coverage switched to the President speaking about the horrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, which was more important than the game--I was surprised that the NFL didn't stop the game and broadcast the President on the big screen) and Randy Moss catches a touchdown burning the "new and improved" secondary.

After trading punts, the turnovers began: Brady intercepted trying to throw deep to Welker, and then San Francisco fumbles. It's still a game, when the first special teams failure mistake rears its head: fake punt by the 49ers which led to a missed field goal and another opportunity for the Patriots to miss out on. After running back Shane Vereen coughed up the ball, the 49ers offense continued to shoot themselves in the foot and allowed the Patriots to kick a field goal and stay in the game.  San Francisco scored twice (TD pass to tight end Delanie Walker and field goal) and it was only 17 to 3 at the half.  

When safety Devin McCourty picked off 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the end zone, it appeared the Patriots were ready to make their move. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong direction. A fumble by running back Steven Ridley and an interception by quarterback Tom Brady turned into two quick scores for San Francisco and it was 31 to 3.  

Yes, the Patriots came back and tied the score while San Francisco took their foot off the pedal and Brady got into rhythm, but when they needed it most in the clutch, all three areas of the game blew it again.  First a special teams breakdown allowed a long kick off return to completely turn momentum.  Then, an all-out blitz failed to get to Kaepernick, horrible cornerback Kyle Arrington missed a tackle, and the Patriots were back in a hole.  The offense had two shots to tie, and shot themselves in the foot each time.  

To say the game was frustrating is an understatement.  To say it was encouraging to see the team come back and it's a "good loss" is delusional.  The team threw their helmets out on the field and thought they were invincible. They got smacked across the face, just like they did int he Super Bowl last year and in 2007.  It's tough watching a team that made its bones in 2001, 2003 and 2004 by being the "Smackers" now being the "Smackees".  The team got beat up, snuck back in, and then got gobsmacked when the game called for toughness.  This team needs to get into playoff mode ASAP.  Last Sunday night was a playoff game, and the Patriots got knocked-out. 




Sunday, December 16, 2012

Patriots Preview: Best of the NFC

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

What a great game for NBC on Sunday night.  Two teams building their defense around big, athletic linebackers, and with creative, outside-the-box offenses;  Balanced offense, play action, and gadget plays are on display with each team; Hard-hitting and opportunistic defenses on each squad: Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick have a lot of mutual respect for each other, and rightly so.  This game matches the best the NFC has to offer against a team that just dismantled a team in the Houston Texans that was supposed to have passed the Patriots as the best of the AFC.

PATRIOTS DEFENSE VERSUS 49ers OFFENSE: 

The 49ers have the controversial Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB, benching Alex Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage and in his last start before being injured, set an NFL record for completion percentage in a game with more than 20 pass attempts.  Kaepernick is a new-age college QB who can run the pistol, has a gun for an arm, and runs like a gazelle when he gets outside the pocket.  Kaepernick comes across like a gadget-QB, Tim Tebow 2.0, but really seems to be more like a west coast RGIII.  The problem with Kaepernick is that he is young, inexperienced, and not polished.  Is he the future for San Francisco? Sure. Is he getting them to the Super Bowl this season? I doubt it. 

The NFL Network had a a great stat up on Kaepernick, who has gone 31 as a starter beating New Orleans, Chicago, and Miami, while losing to St. Louis: 8-17 in the Red Zone; 20-54 on 3rd down.  Those types of numbers are going to kill a team going against Tom Brady on the other side.  Kicking field goals and/or turnovers and punting is what puts teams in a deep hole early and takes a team off its game plan, just ask Matt Schaub and Houston.  Kaepernick will make some plays, he is a play-maker, but he is not a pocket passer who can read the defense on 3rd down and make the right call and convert third downs over and over again to move the ball down the field against New England. With wide receiver Mario Manningham out, the 49ers are looking to extend drives with Randy Moss (yikes) and Michael Crabtree out wide. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker had better show up (and Kaepernick had better have him in his sights) because San Francisco needs yards in the air to convert third downs.

Against the Patriots, running the pistol is playing to the strength of the Patriots linebackers.  This lets New England play Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker all game and let them diagnose Kaepernick and put some hits on running backs and a running quarterback.  Last year, the Patriots faced Denver and Tim Tebow and destroyed him both times.  Letting this defense play downhill and get in the backfield is not what a team needs to do to win against New England.  Can 49ers running backs Frank Gore and 

With Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory established at Safety, the Patriots pass defense is set in the secondary and not giving up the big plays that Brandon Merriweather 2.0 (I mean, Patrick Chung) gave up earlier in the year being out of position again and again. Cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie surprise Alfonzo Dennard have settled in on the outside, allowing Kyle Arrington to play his natural position covering the slot receiver. This has the Patriots secondary in position to be a strength and not a weakness.

The Patriots defense has made huge strides in the past four weeks since settling the secondary after acquiring Aqib Talib from Tampa. Last week against Houston was a huge test, which they passed with flying colors. This week is a new challenge in San Francisco and their multiple offense looks. As good as the 49ers defense may be, holding Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to under 30 points at home is not likely to happen. This offense needs to move the ball and convert third downs, convert in the red zone, and keep the Patriots offense on the sidelines. I can see Colin Kaepernick coming out, throwing 3 interceptions and get blown out, but if they can click and keep the Patriots offense grounded and grind out long drives, I can see Kaepernick keeping the 49ers in the game and stealing a win on the road.   

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VERSUS 49ers DEFENSE: 

The Patriots offense against Houston found wide receiver Brandon Lloyd after he'd disappeared the last few weeks. While still not running out their two-headed monster at tight end (Rob-Aaron Gronkandez?), the Patriots offense still comes out with wrinkles that create big plays against mismatches.  Houston was supposed to have a defense that would take the Patriots offense out of their game and get them off the field, which they did in the middle of the game, but for the first time all season, the Patriots defense picked up the offense and held a big lead and never let Houston back into the game. What Houston could not do, was to come up with the big plays on defense and special teams to turn the game around. 

Credit the quarterback first and foremost.  Watching other teams with quarterbacks not named Peyton Manning, it is astounding how Brady and Manning take over a game pre-snap and identify and dissect the defense in front of them.  Very rarely is the wrong protection called, and when it it, Brady can throw the ball away knowing that one missed tackle on the next play is all it takes some days to keep the drive alive.  Tom Brady rarely makes a mistake throwing an interception. He still has the arm strength and smarts to get the ball where it needs to be.

His offensive line is getting healthy at last and will again face a big test as the 49ers bring the Smith boys around the corners. Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are premier pass rushers. The Patriots balance needs to be on display to off-set the pass rush much like they did last week. Expect to see the quick slants to the tight ends and slot receiver Wes Welker and screens to the running backs (especially Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen) to slow that pass rush.  Having running back Brandon Bolden back from his idiotic suspension for PEDs may be a boost to the running game, as his style is similar to Steven Ridley's (one cut and go hard) and can make an impact in a hurry.  Expect to see the Patriots continue to run the ball on second and long, as it has worked well for them all season long.

While the 49ers have a big pass rush outside, they are probably the only NFL team that has linebackers similar to the Patriots. The 49ers have their own Jerod Mayo in ILB Patrick Willis. Willis can cover in space in a zone defense, pick up a running back or tight end in man-coverage, and play downhill and find the running back and bring him down time and time again. The Patriots can only hope that linebacker Dont'a Hightower develops into a facsimile of NaVorro Bowman.  Bowman is yet another great Penn State linebacker who does everything on the field that his coaches ask of him. He is an all-pro machine who mirrors Willis on the field.  Tom Brady is going to be busy to identify Willis, Bowman, Smith, and Smith each and every play.  It is hard to believe Ahmad Brooks is the forgotten man in the 49ers linebacking corps with his 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick six so far this year.  

If there is a weakness to the defense in San Francisco, it is the secondary. When the safeties have to come up in run support and the pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback, they can be beat. Cornerback Carlos Rogers seems to shoot his mouth off more than make plays on the field lately, and on the other side, Tarell Brown is hardly a shut-down corner.  The safeties are the stars of this secondary, as Donte Whitner is a familiar face to the Patriots having played five years in the purgatory of Buffalo.  49ers Safety Dashon Goldson is hands-down the best player in the secondary, and if San Francisco cannot lock him up long-term, is going to be a hot name on the free agent market after being franchised last offseason.  Goldson is 28 and in his prime, can cover and tackle, and is a rare safety who can ball-hawk and run-stuff.  He is a beast (and would look great in the red, white, and blue of New England, hint, hint).

Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is the X-Factor on offense for the Patriots.  The 49ers were ripped in their tie (ugh, how embarrassing) against St. Louis by slot receiver Danny Amendola last month. The Welker clone caught 11 passes for 102 yards and gave the 49ers fits all game long.  No doubt, former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been running the tape of that game and taking notes all week long. The Patriots can stretch out the 49ers horizontally and pick apart the match-up all night long. Add in the weather, and that is a huge advantage for New England.  Wet field and ball favors the wide receivers and offensive linemen.  New England and Bill Belichick learned many years ago that running into the line is the worst game plan in existence when the weather is bad, yet teams not used to the elements do that consistently in some weird belief it is "conventional wisdom".  

Expect the Patriots to move quickly, not to get the 49ers caught substituting, but to wear down the defense and slow the pass rush.  A balance of mixing in runs on 2nd down and passing on 1st down inside to Wes Welker can put the Patriots in a position to dictate field position and force young 49er QB Colin Kaepernick into playing from behind and making mistakes.  Either way, I'll be waiting all day for Sunday night!



Saturday, December 01, 2012

Saturday Morning Patriots Preview

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

A cup of coffee or three (oops, this is cup number four), a sleeping dog, a cat or two lounging around, wife hard at work (sorry, Honey), morning exercise completed, and a huge footy match-up on the telly (Everton vs Manchester City) and the kids sleeping in and relaxing as the snow flurries fall outside the window as New England welcomes December in style: Sounds like a recipe for a lovely Saturday morning to put aside my Baseball Mogul computer game and time-consuming obsession (SportsMogul  puts out baseball and football games where you take over a franchise, play general manager, play seasons...yes, it is an addiction that takes up way too much of my time, but it is a great game for know-it-all people like me who want to show that they can run the Red Sox better than these current bozos. And no, they don't pay me or anything, I just love the games. They don't cost much [less than $30.00] and they allow you to download a demo version to try out before buying the game.) and touch base on a few thoughts on the Patriots game coming up Sunday:


  • PATRIOTS GAME PREVIEW: SUNDAY, 12/02/2012 AT MIAMI DOLPHINS:
    • First things first, all Patriots fans who remember the 1980s and Don Shula at the helm and Dan Marino behind center are automatically queasy about the Patriots going on the road to Miami. It becomes something like a fight or flight primitive reflex where the bile rises just hearing "Patriots play on the road in Miami". In the pre-Belichick and Brady era, the greatest win ever (seriously, there is no debate to this) was the "Squish the Fish" game on the unexpected journey to Super Bowl XX behind coach Ray Berry, Tony Eason and Steve Grogan splitting time at quarterback, Craig James and Tony Collins at running back, and deep threat Stanley Morgan at wide receiver. The Patriots, against all odds, went down to Miami in the playoffs (after beating the Raiders and their linebacker Matt Millen clubbing team general manager Pat Sullivan after the game). No one expected the Patriots to win in the Orange Bowl in the AFC Championship game.
    • The Dolphins are--surprisingly--the second-best team in the AFC East. Now that may be damning with faint praise, but the Jets imploded at long last and the Bills proved once again (see Philadelphia Eagles, 2011) that spending in free agency does not equal success in the NFL.  Miami at least went out this off-season and traded away the malcontents and brought in a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.  I don't believe Tannehill is a superstar in the making and was an end-of-first-round pick, but kudos for the Dolphins for going out to make an attempt to address a position where they desperately needed help (Jay Fielder, Cleo Lemon, Matt Moore, Trent Green, Chad Henne, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper and Gus Ferrotte took snaps for the Dolphins in the last ten years).  Why the Dolphins didn't get into the Robert Griffin III derby is beyond my understanding. I still think that in the long run, as good as Andrew Luck is going to be, RGIII is going to better. I said it before the draft, and I have seen nothing to change my opinion. Both great, yes, but RGIII has that something special. Ryan Tannehill, unfortunately for the Dolphins, is not on the same level as those two rookie QBs.  In fact, he's battling Russell Wilson in Seattle for the title of third best rookie QB.  
    • The Dolphins offense is running back Reggie Bush. Wide receivers Brian Hartline and Devone Bess are just adequate, no more or less. Tannehill has struggled lately, as the league has learned his tendencies and adapted their defense. He is not sneaking up on anyone anymore.  The Patriots have done well containing Reggie Bush in the past, and like they did with CJ Spiller against Buffalo, the defense has to find him on each play and contain him as their focus.  With the secondary showing signs of settling down in the past two weeks, the Patriots need to get their run defense back on track.  Hard to believe, but the Patriots have missed Chandler Jones as much if not more so in the run defense rather than generating pressure on the QB.
    • The Patriots defense also has to generate pressure on Tannehill to keep forcing turnovers for the offense. Without defensive ends Chandler Jones (injury) and his back-up and surprise contributor Jermaine Cunningham (suspension for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs), the Patriots will test their depth again with former Raider Trevor Scott likely getting a number of opportunities to rush the quarterback.  The losses on the defensive line of free agent signing Jonathan Fanene (released prior to the regular season due to undisclosed injury) and Myron Pryor (injured reserve) leaves the Patriots cupboard thin.  If I'm Tully Banta-Cain I would be hitting the gym and having my agent get the Patriots front-office on speed dial.  The Patriots are an injury to Scott or Rob Ninkovich from calling up Tully. 
    • On offense, the Patriots need to keep doing what they've been doing. No tight end Rob Gronkowski again, but Aaron Hernandez should be available.  All four wide receivers are dinged up, but all should play.  Yes, the numbers are short, but expect Deion Branch to return when healthy.  I am sure there was a wink-wink-nod-nod agreement to free up a roster spot until he is healthy.  If not, he'd be in the hideous green of the New York Jets running routes for them.   As long at Tom Brady is behind center, the best QB in football should give the Patriots the chance to put up a large number of points, even against the Dolphins good defense.
    • The running game of the Patriots is again key. Running backs Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley have taken over from suspended Brandon Bolden, departed Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis and suddenly losing snaps Danny Woodhead. Ridley and Vereen have been ridiculously good on second and long this season, and who can blame any defense for not dropping seven or eight into coverage when it's second and long?  The Dolphins need to get the Patriots in third and long and unleash their pass rush on Brady to have a chance to win. Defensive end Cameron Wake is a beast and one of the best pure pass rushers in the league.  The Patriots need to stay out of the pass rush's wheelhouse and in second and third and short situations like they have done these last few weeks. 
UPDATE: Sad,sad news this morning to report as well in an unrelated note: Per various reports Kansas City Cheifs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then at the Arrowhead practice facility committed suicide shooting himself.  Just horrible news. 
  


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