Monday, January 28, 2013

Boston Sport Daily -- 01-28-2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The big news in Boston is all about the Celtics.  The Patriots are out of the playoffs licking their wounds and watching the NY Jets get a head start of dysfunction for next season.  The Red Sox are gearing up for spring training in only a few weeks.  The Bruins are flying out the gate of the abbreviated season and trying to fill the void of the empty dog days of the time between football and baseball.

NO GO RONDO:

The Boston Celtics had a huge victory on Sunday afternoon, beating the world champion Miami Heat and ruining the return of departed free agent and former “Big 3” guard Ray “No Respect” Allen.  Allen shot his way out of town, turning down twice the money from Boston for the “respect” that comes with playing in Miami.   The Celtics were without guard Rajon Rondo with a knee injury; unfortunately, word came at halftime it was an ACL injury that would require season-ending surgery.  

Against Miami, the Celtics ended a six game slide by gutting out a double-overtime win against the defending NBA champions.  Despite apparently trying to give the game away at the end of the fourth quarter, the Celtics shook off their double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks (where they had blown a 27 point lead) to hold on and hold off the Heat.  Suddenly, a big win seemed a bit of a downer, as attention turns to whether this team makes a run for the eighth seed and a first round loss to the Heat.

This team was on the bubble of the playoffs to begin with, and now the team front office needs to look hard and long about blowing this team up.  In fact, they should have already been considering the idea.  General Manager Danny Ainge has to draw up a short list of core building blocks and then unload everyone else.  

The Celtics were going nowhere this season, and now without Rajon Rondo, they are officially in what should be rebuilding mode.  I know it’s sacrilege to suggest, but forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce should be on the trading block.  Add in forward Brandon Bass, veteran guard Jason Terry, and useless guard Courtney Lee, and the Celtics have the pieces to make two huge trades and start the process of getting this team on the road to a lottery pick, financial flexibility, and young, athletic players growing into a contender down the road.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

New England Patriots: No Salary Cap Crunch Here

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots have a a few key free agents this offseason (check out my awesome article over at Musketfire.com--yes, that was a shameless plug for which I feel no shame whatsoever), and are currently about $18 million under the salary cap (all Patriots cap numbers from NYJetscap.com--yes, I know the URL seems odd, but these guys are great and are on top of the entire AFC East).  This is important as the Patriots need to reload this offseason to get back to winning Super Bowls. Cap space is in the news with the talk of the New York Jets possibly destroying any chance of being competitive and trading super-human cornerback Darrelle Revis.  As a Patriots fan, I can only hope the Jets are short-sighted and ignorant enough to pull the trigger. If Revis is available, Bill Belichick should be telling the Jets to take all the draft picks they want in return for him.


Of course, this being the NFL, the cap numbers are hardly “real” at any time.  For example, if a team needs cap space, they can simply convert a player’s base salary into a “guaranteed bonus” and free up money on that season’s salary cap by .  Once that is done, the amount is pushed out along the length of  the contract (teams often extend the contract with non-guaranteed years that the player will never play to lessen the amount each year).  Yes, that can leave teams with dead money on the cap at the end of the player’s time on the roster, but that is something teams have to face.

The Patriots are very disciplined in their front office and don’t overly rely on free agents and create huge amounts of dead money like the free-spending Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and Oakland Raiders.  That said, the Patriots have a very small window of opportunity with quarterback Tom Brady at the top of his game.  The Patriots need to be aggressive right now after stretching their run of “disappointing losses to end the season” to eight (2005 Divisional Round loss to the Denver Broncos; 2006 AFC Championship game loss to the Colts when they blew a 21-6 halftime lead; 2007 Super Bowl loss to the Giants; 2008 simply not making playoffs with Matt Cassel after winning the last four games of the season counts in my mind; 2009 Wild Card round blown out at home by the Baltimore Ravens; 2010 Divisional Round loss to the freaking New York Jets; 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and now 2012 AFC Championship game loss to the Baltimore Ravens).  

So the Patriots have $18 million, need to sign offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib, and probably wide receiver Wes Welker, as well as adding to their team on defense and offense.  If the Patriots need more cap space there is plenty available.  Check out these base salaries that can be converted to bonuses and free up cash for right now: quarterback Tom Brady, base salary: $9.75 million; defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, base salary: 6.5 million; offensive tackle Logan Mankins, base salary 5.75 million.  That is an additional $20 million in cap space just from these three players.  For the players, there is no downside to converting salary to bonus because that only guarantees the money, so for the player it’s a no-brainer to take the guaranteed money and help the team acquire more help.  

So throw away any salary cap concerns, the Patriots are looking at having all the money they could possibly spend available.  Salary cap space is NOT an issue this offseason.  Every free agent/trade should be on the table and weighed only as “can this player help the team win the Super Bowl in the 2013 season?”

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Boston Sport Daily - 1/25/2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

Welcome back to the Boston Sport Daily (daily in theory, at least!) feature, as I swing through the going-ons in the Boston sports scene with quick-hit opinions, analysis, and commentary. Checking in on all things Boston sports in a Manti Te’o-free zone with absolutely no fake dead girlfriends.

CELTICS LOSE AGAIN:
The New York Knicks came to town and just pulled out a three-point win over the Celtics on Thursday night as the Celtics again played well enough to hang in until the end, and just bad enough to lose.  The bench again betrayed Boston, as the Knicks were able to pull away at the end of the third quarter and hang on.  Celtics Guard Rajon Rondo had a hollow triple-double as he again padded his assists with unnecessary passes.  Celtics forward Paul Pierce again looked slow, old, and out of sync.  Pierce has no explosion and really has lost the quickness that allowed him to create his own shot.  As a catch-and-shoot forward, he is fine, but driving the lane he plows into opposing players desperately trying to draw a foul.

Celtics guard Courtney Lee continues to seem lost on the court.  Whatever he did in years past that made him look so good is non-existent when he dons the green and white.  He was a -17 in 15 minutes of court-time Thursday night.  That means New York outscored Boston by 17 points in the time Lee was on the court.  If there was a key to Celtics losing a tough game where they put out good effort, that was it.  The season is half over and Lee just seems lost on defense and hesitant on offense.  With everyone waiting for him to acclimate himself to the team, the season is half gone.  The time has come for general manager Danny Ainge to cut bait with Lee while there is still a team willing to trade for him.

BRUINS LOSE TO RANGERS:
On Thursday night, the Boston Bruins lost their first game of the young NHL season to a fellow-powerhouse squad, the New York Rangers in overtime 4 to 3.  The Bruins tied the game twice and got to overtime before the Rangers were able to deliver the knockout blow. Despite giving up four goals, goalie Tuukka Rask had an outstanding night in goal yet again, making saves like he was Tim Thomas and keeping the Bruins in position to come back and steal a point.

The best sign so far this short season featured the Bruins power-play, long a weakness under coach Claude Julien.  Against the Rangers, rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton lined up at the point in Ray Bourque’s old spot and let one rip that was tipped in by Brad Marchand.  A little more Dougie (there’s the phrase to use in the Bruins marketing department) on the power play should lead to more scoring opportunities and less of these 1 for 5 for the game like last night.  C’mon, more Dougie and forward Tyler Seguin on the ice on the power play!

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP BOLOGNA: THE TOM BRADY SLIDE INTO ED REED:
So the pretty-boy Patriots act a little “aggressive” and the NFL offices over-react.  First the kicker gets fined $15,000 for a horse-collar tackle and now the quarterback gets fined $10,000 for sliding into Baltimore safety Ed Reed like he was Ty Cobb, spikes up as he protects himself.  C’mon, NFL.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.  Brady gets hit plenty of times without getting a flag, so what’s to stop a cheap shot when the game is out of reach like that?  I say too bad he did not connect to Reed’s groin like a Looney Toon or 3 Stooges short.  That would have been some great football follies replay.

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LAST THOUGHTS:
Some great tennis down under in Australia.  Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in a great semifinal match.  Add in Serena Williams falling to teenager Sloane Stephens as well, and after a slow start, the tennis season has been fantastic. Murray versus the Djoker, Novak Djokovic in the men’s final, and Belorusian Victoria Azarenka across the net from Chinese native Li Na. Two great match-ups not to be missed.

Bruins vs Islanders tonight. Have a great night and weekend. Thanks as always for reading, I appreciate your support!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Boston Sport Daily - 01/22/2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS SEASON ENDS, TIME TO CATCH-UP WITH THE BOSTON RED SOX:

The Boston Red Sox finally have signed first base/catcher Mike Napoli today after word initially came out on December 3, 2012--a full 50 days later.  The Red Sox had withdrawn a 3 year, $39 million contract after issues with Napoli’s hip surfaced during his routine physical.  The Sox effectively removed Napoli from the job market, and signed him to a team-friendly, 1 year, $5 million contract. With incentives, Napoli can earn up to $13 million according to published reports.

This finally ends the “Who’s on First?” drama in Boston.  The infield is intact at last with Napoli at first base, incumbent second baseman Dustin Pedroia, “Brother of J.D.” Stephen Drew at shortstop, and the return of top prospect Will Middlebrooks at third base.  The infield is loaded with “ifs”: If Napoli can stay healthy and return to his 2011 production; If Pedroia is an MVP-caliber second baseman second only to the Yankees Robby Cano and his power numbers spike back to 2011 levels; If Stephen Drew is healthy at last and back to his 2010, pre-injury production; and, finally, If Will Middlebrooks can stay healthy, avoid the sophomore jinx, and grow that .835 OPS from last year.

The Red Sox also finished off their arbitration signings by inking lefty reliever Craig Breslow to a 2 year deal.  While hardly noticed in the pre-AFC Championship Game build-up, the Sox inked all 8 arbitration eligible players extending their streak of arbitration-free off-seasons (last hearing: 2002, pitcher Rolando Arrojo). The Sox signed catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, relievers/closers-by-committee Alfredo Aceves, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Daniel Bard. Washed-out, recycled former prospects and potential swing starters/long relievers Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales.

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IT’S TUUKKA TIME, IT’S TUUKKA TIME:

Hey, hockey is back! At last. Somehow that all happened while everyone (me) was engrossed in all football all the time.  The Bruins, returning almost the same squad from last year, have blasted out two quick wins.  The team looked like the same old Bruins, with a crisp, 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers on opening day, followed by the MLK Day shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets in the shootout after being tied 1-1.  

The roster changes include bringing back the “oh my gawd, we missed you last year” forward Nathan Horton, superstar rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and, of course, goalie Tuukka Rask taking over for departed/hold-out/locking himself in his bomb shelter in Michigan goalie Tim Thomas and rookie Anton Khudobin as back-up.  Tuukka has stepped in goal and looked strong so far this season.  As the big question of the extended off-season, the job by Tuukka re-taking his number one goalie position back has been much anticipated.

The Bruins are 2-0-0 coming out of the gate so far this young, abbreviated season.  A good start, with much more hockey to come.

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CHANGING THE GREEN:

The Boston Celtics have, to be nice, been extremely inconsistent.  They have alternated between horrible one game, to world beaters the next. After ripping off 6 impressive wins in a row, the Celtics went back into their shell of shame and lost 3 in a row including getting blown out by the Detroit Pistons Sunday night.  Losing to the Pistons by 15 was no shame, in 1988.  Today, it is time to panic.  The Celtics dropped back to .500 at 20-20. What now? How about it being time for patented Danny Ainge blow-out sale.

Start in the backcourt with guard Courtney Lee.  Halfway through the season and Lee just is not comfortable on the court.  He looks lost on defense, and is overly hesitant on offense and unsure of his role.  Throw in malcontent guard Leandro Barbosa and possibly big men Chris Wilcox and forward Brandon Bass and there may be a way to package this group for another guard who can defend and a big body to throw around and eat some fouls and rebound.

Who, when, how? No idea, but that’s why Danny Ainge gets the big bucks. Something needs to change on the team.  Yes, they are much improved with guard Avery Bradley in the lineup, but they still  have no size, limited rebounding, and inconsistent scoring off the bench.

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SPOILED BY SUCCESS:

The New England Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game.  Predictably, the airwaves filled with a Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Bill Belichick Must Go whine-a-thon.  Football is simply human beings playing a game with an oblong ball and competing against 31 other teams of great players and coaches driven by the same goal.  As smart and prepared as a team may be, the other team is smart and prepared as well.  Winning championships are not easy, and take work, timing, strength, study, and some luck.

The talking heads are berating the Patriots for not doing well in the playoffs, against good defenses.  Wow, good defenses beat good offenses.  What insight.  Do these idiots remember how the Patriots frustrated the heck out of Peyton Manning and the record-setting offense of the Indianapolis Colts?  Tough defense is always key in playoffs.  The Patriots had a defense built around linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel, safeties Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison, defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, and cornerbacks Ty Law and Asante Samuel.   That defense had as much to do with the 3 Super Bowl victories as much as quarterback Tom Brady, if not more so.   

What the Patriots need to do now is to take the next step and build their defense back to Super Bowl winning level again.  There are some pieces to build around, but a lot of work still to be done.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Spare Neurons - 01-16-2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans last Sunday in an exciting win 41-28. I've added a couple of stories on MusketFire.com where I am contributing to their Patriots coverage (you can read the articles here and here), but as always, there are other stories from the game that overflow.  This is all Patriots right now as the Patriots and the NFL Playoffs are dominating my attention, but have no fear, I will soon touch on more general Boston sports events including the hoopla regarding the MLB Hall of Fame inductees (or lack thereof), the surging Boston Celtics, and the return, at long last, of the Bruins and NHL Hockey.


New England Patriots:
There were three points of emphasis coming out of the Patriots win over the Texans that stood out to me: 

  • Secondary play/Aqib Talib slowing/stopping Andre Johnson
    • The Patriots secondary had a decent showing against Houston last week. Certainly, they did not shut down the high-octane offense of the Texans, but they did slow it down.  I hate the idea of a defense being "bend but don't break", but that is what the Patriots are going to be.  The elite defenses are hard to find. The Texans were supposedly elite, and the Patriots put up 40 points twice this year. The San Francisco 49ers are probably the best in the NFL in regards to talent and scheme, but they gave up 28 straight to the Patriots this year and almost blew the game (to say nothing of not being able to beat the St Louis Rams in either match-up).
    • The NFL wants offense, and they have tweaked the rules to make it so.  Think back to the 2001 Patriots, that defense would be taken off the field in handcuffs considering the amount of contact allowed by the defensive backs. Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy would owe the NFL millions in fines playing today like they did then, just 10 to 12 years ago.  Patriots coach Bill Belichick was at the head of the change, and has adapted, building an elite offense these past 5 years.  Considering that, it makes the play of the Patriots secondary this second half of the season even more impressive.
    • By importing cornerback Aqib Talib and moving Devin McCourty to safety, the Patriots get 2nd round mistake Patrick Chung off the field, and 2nd round not-yet-ready for prime-time Tavon Wilson off the field. Add in diamond in the rough Alfonzo Dennard (7th round pick starting in the AFC Championship game--that's impressive) and free agent pick-up Steve Gregory able to play closer to the line, and the secondary is at minimum adequate and really above-average at this point. 
    • Although they had trouble matching-up with the tight ends and running backs, the Houston receivers were largely kept in check.  Talib and McCourty trailed Andre Johnson all over the field and kept him from making any big, explosive, game-changing plays.  In today's NFL, that can be just enough to be what is needed.
  • Pressure versus sacks on defensive line/linebackers
    • Funny how the pre-seaon was dominated with the gloom and doom of the Patriots pass-rush not being able to execute without defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.   Well, Carter was invisible in Oakland (once he got healthy) and Anderson was trumped as "worst contract of the off-season" as he gave the Buffalo Bills almost zero production for a good-sized chunk of their salary cap.  Meanwhile, outside linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich and rookie defensive ends Chandler Jones and Justin Francis picked up the slack this season.  Ends Jermaine Cunningham (pre-suspension) and veteran Trevor Scott (when called upon) filled in ably as well. 
    • The Patriots defense also brought pressure this season from blitzing linebackers once they solidified the secondary and were comfortable to match-up man-to-man on occasion.   In addition, they were able to get some pressure on the quarterback, even if they did not generate a sack, but got three quarterback hits and got Texans quarterback Matt Schaub off his spot a few times.  Schaub seemed very aware of pass rushers, and even seemed to get some passes off in a rush with phantom rushers near him. As the game progressed, and the Texans were in obvious passing downs, predictably the pressure increased. 
  • Offensive Line quietly excellent
    • The Patriots allowed only one sack, but seven quarterback hits on Sunday. Yes, they gave up some hits, but the one sack was when they whiffed on the fake stretch play that netted a touchdown against the Texans in the regular but this time they let two rushers in almost untouched.  Other than that one sack, the offensive line did a great job keeping quarterback Tom Brady on his feet.  Brady is always going to take a few hits a game, no matter how good the protection may be.  He is going to hold the ball until the last second available in order to wait for a receiver to get open, regardless of the number of pass rushers.  
    • What has been most impressive with the Patriots offensive line this year has been their ability to plug in back-ups and not miss a beat.  The Patriots have lined up Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald up and down the line. Marcus Cannon has also jumped up to fill in when right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed some time. Add in center Ryan Wendell beating out long-time center Dan Koppen at center in the pre-season, and left tackle Nate Solder stepping in for the retired Matt Light, and what was often referred to as a weakness all pre-season turned out to be a strength yet again. 
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Monday, January 14, 2013

Big Time

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

An exciting day here at BostonSportPage.com.  Yours truly was invited to join a great website dedicated to all things New England Patriots: MusketFire.com.  My initial post is up on the site. You can read it here: 
New England Patriots’ Depth Highlights Keys To Victory In AFC Divisional Playoff Game

Don't worry, I still have plenty of words, thoughts, ideas, and the usual Boston Sports rantings and ravings to go around, and this site is not going anywhere.  Check it out, thanks for reading, and I cannot express how much I appreciate each and every eyeball that reads this site. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Morning Coffee - 01/13/2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

  • Christmas is over; 
  • the New Year grinds forward; 
  • yours truly has aged another full year inching towards the big 4-0; 
  • Two big cups of coffee so far this morning; 
  • NHL hockey is finally officially back and the Bruins are finally going to return to the ice this week; 
  • the Celtics have run off five straight games as guard Avery Bradley has been a spark on both sides of the ball; 
  • and the Patriots are in a huge match-up against the Texans for the right to host  the surprising, return participant Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. 

SATURDAY'S NFL DIVISIONAL MATCH-UPS:

The Broncos and Ravens game seemed to go on forever.  Just when Denver pulled away, the Ravens clawed their way back into the game.  I was shocked watching the game that Peyton Manning just did not look like the same player that had played all season and is likely going to win an MVP that most deservedly belongs to Patriots QB Tom Brady who continue to define "most valuable".  Credit the Ravens defense, but it was criminal that Denver Coach John Fox played the game like he had Tim Tebow, and not Peyton Manning, at quarterback. For example, at halftime, they got the ball back with 0:36 seconds left in the half and did not even try to go and score. Then, trying to run out the clock, 3rd and 7 right after the two minute warning and Fox took the ball out of Manning's hands and ran into the line and punted, setting up the Flacco Fling over the heads of the Denver secondary for the miraculous tie. Finally, after all that,  at the end of regulation with 0:31 seconds left in the game and did not do anything but take a knee. Denver played not to lose, instead of playing to win, and that is how teams lose in the playoffs. 

The San Francisco 49ers combined their explosive pistol offense and at times dominating defense to crush Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick shook off early jitters to have a record-setting game against Green Bay.  Green Bay fumbled he ball away too many times, and much credit to the San Francisco defense: Aaron Rodgers is so good that people sometimes forget that slowing him down is a major accomplishment.  The Packers defense was (as usual) their downfall.  I don't know what was going through the mind of Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers, but the players on the field seemed shocked that Kaepernick was taking off and running with the ball.  It was criminal that there was no safety or linebacker to spy on Kaepernick and take away those 20+ yard runs.  San Francisco truly looks like the cream of the NFC crop as they wait to see if they get nose-diving Atlanta or face Seattle for the third time this season.

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PATRIOTS-TEXANS: A FEW MORE NUGGETS:

I touched on the Patriots-Texans preview yesterday  (Check it out here). The Patriots have to mix doing what brought them here and worked all season with new wrinkles the Texans defense may not be ready to defend.  I expect the Patriots offense to throw in a few more wrinkles with including the running backs in the passing game.  Running back Danny Woodhead is always a factor coming out of the backfield, but backs Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen are X-Factors in the passing game.  Ridley would be great on some screens early on  to slow the Houston pass rush, and Vereen is a weapon in the passing game who has yet to have his coming out party. 

On defense, the Patriots have their entire defense healthy for the first time all season.  Defensive end Chandler Jones needs to be both patient and disruptive.  He (and fellow ends Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, and Trevor Scott) must set the edge and remain patient in the running game.  All eleven need to maintain their gap discipline to slow Texans running back Arian Foster and not allow him to cut back and make big gains and get the safeties and linebackers jumping up on play-action fakes.  Jones also needs to create pressure on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub on passing plays.  Sacks are nice, but hurries and knock-downs are just as important.  Moving Schaub out of his comfort zone is important.  If the Patriots can get the Texans into third and long, they can get back to their best rush set by having all of their ends available to have fresh legs coming off the edge, and then moving Cunningham inside next to Vince Wilfork to get pressure up the middle without needing to blitz.  

4:30PM cannot get here soon enough!  Patriots-Texans for the right to host Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Playoffs?

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

As former Colts coach Jim Mora said back in 2001: "Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?!? I just hope we can win a game!".  Well, the playoffs are here.  Joe Flacco and the Ravens roll into frigid Denver to take on Peyton Manning in what should be a cake-walk to a home game for the AFC Championship for the Broncos.  Expect Ray Lewis to go out with his head hung low as Manning is likely salivating thinking about attacking Lewis on the field in man-to-man and zone match-ups, like the Colts did last week. Saturday night marquee has the mighty San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers in an epic battle of the top defense against an explosive offense. For San Francisco, the defense has create turnovers, and take over the clock and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines with Frank Gore because an untested Colin Kaepernick is going to have his hands full in his first playoff game.

Sunday brings the surprising Seattle and rookie Russell Wilson face off in Georgia against the heavily-favored, famously flailing in the playoffs Atlanta Falcons who are already down John Abraham on defense and look like they may forget to show up in the playoffs for the third year in a row.   Then, the rematch! Houston versus New England; One up, one down; or, as Admiral Ackbar shouted in Return of the Jedi: "It's a trap" (game).

One problem in sports is having a team ready to play with confidence versus over-confidence in the playoffs. On the sports talk radio dial, the 2010 season versus the Jets in the AFC Divisional Round has been bandied about, and with good reason. Like the Jets in 2010, the Texans did not look dominant in the Wild Card round, as the Jets barely edged a flawed Colts team and the Texans hung on against a self-destructing Bengals squad last week.  Like in 2010, the Patriots hung 40+ points in a blow-out (45-3 in 2010 versus the Jets, 42-14 just one month ago on Monday night against the Texans).  What the Patriots have to have done these past two weeks (nothing now is going to change it) is to have buried that game in December.  Maybe pull out the old trick from 2001 when he buried the football labeled 1-3 and had players kick dirt on the hole to symbolically bury the past (Rex Ryan actually stole this trick for the 2010 AFC Divisional Round match-up burying a game ball from the 45-3 debacle). 

The Patriots have their biggest problem when they are heavy favorites and an expectation of victory.  In 2010 versus the Jets, remember that was the stupid Wes Welker
foot fetish joke leading to him being benched the first series. They came out and Brady threw that stupid interception to LB David Harris and sacks allowed, bad passes, and non-typical ineptitude on offense.  Typical over-confidence and then inability to recover once they got punched in the mouth.   What the Jets did in that playoff game in 2010 was mixing their blitz looks against Brady.  Just as what the Patriots did to Peyton Manning and the Broncos early in the season this year, they show blitz and then drop back into extra coverage.  Against the Jets, Brady's pre-snap reads were wrong as blitzers backed into coverage and Brady spent too much time holding the ball waiting for someone to try to work open.  


Expect Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and Texas to try to modify that game plan by disguising blitzes and dropping multiple defenders into coverage.  I expect they will blitz, but selectively.  Rather, they will try to get pressure with 3 or 4 rushers and flood the zones to take out Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez.  With Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph healthier than he was last month, that is another weapon for the defense against the Patriots.  No one has been talking about this, but Joseph is a top cornerback, one of the best in the game, and was severely limited when he tried to play last month.  Now much healthier, the Texans have a real weapon in the secondary that was missing in the second half of the season.  Ask Cincinnati, who had problems finding their top weapon A.J. Green last week in the Wild Card round as Joseph had him locked down.

On offense, the Patriots need to do what they do best: Run when the run is there, and take advantage of match-ups in the passing game.  Glover Quin is a good coverage safety for the Texans, but if Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy enough, Quin is going to learn the difference between Gronk and that joker tight end in Cincy, Jermaine Grisham who couldn't even catch a cold.  Of course, if Quin is on Gronk, who covers the elusive other tight end, Aaron Hernandez?  Having both tight ends back on the field finally allows the Patriots to utilize their best weapons with the two tight ends, Wes Welker inside, and Brandon Lloyd on the edge, likely left one-on-one with Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph with safety help focusing on the middle of the field.

Brady has to continue to be quick with his decisions, and the running backs have to stand out.  Not just rushing the ball, but catching the ball.  Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen can catch the ball and make plays in space, but to really take it to the defense, Steven Ridley has to be able to get open when coming out of the backfield and make plays when given the opportunity.  Scoring early and often is huge against the Texans, as they are built to get a lead, and then work the clock with running back Arian Foster and utilizing their tight ends in the short passing game to convert first downs and eat the clock.  

The Texans are going to take shots deep against the Patriots secondary (they would be stupid not to do so) and run Foster on the stretch play again and again.  If the Patriots defense is playing with a lead, they tend to better settle down and be patient in their rush reads. Gap control and setting the edge is no doubt being hammered into the Patriots front seven in the film room and on the practice field.  The Patriots need to take away the cut-back lanes for Foster, and then attack the football and try to force turnovers when they have the chance.  Turnovers have been the bread-and-butter of the defense all year: That needs to continue to get a short field and easy points for the offense.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in one of those "enigmas wrapped in a riddle" quarterbacks.   Does he come out an throw four interceptions? Does he come out and throw four touchdowns? Consistency can be an issue.  He looked uncomfortable against the Bengals last week, and the best way to keep him that way is to get some pressure on him.  Hit him early and often, and get him rattled.  If Schaub gets comfortable and in rhythm, he can put up 400 yards passing.  Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones needs to make plays in the backfield when the opportunity presents itself.

No one should expect the Patriots to win 42-14 again.  It is possible, but not likely.  The Texans have the advantage of seeing everything they did wrong, as well as what they did right (remember those 4 straight three and outs on offense by the Patriots in the middle of the game).  At this point, the 8 best teams are playing, and the games tighten up.  Execution on offense and defense (and solid special teams play) are what wins.  Take advantage of turnovers by the defense and prevent them on offense.  The Patriots have the weapons to win, but they cannot be overconfident coming into the game.  If they focus and execute, they should be ready to pack their bags for Denver next week. 

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New England Patriots: On Vacation as Free Agency Begins - Full Press Coverage

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