Did we miss something here? Or did the Patriots beat a 2-0 Atlanta team pretty handily on Sunday?
Judging by the reactions of much of Patriots Nation, you would have thought that Tom Brady was knocked out with an injury, that another season was destined for failure and that they had cut off beer sales at Gillette at the end of the first possession.
Instead of reveling in the 26-10 win over a solid Atlanta team that was led by a great young quarterback, Patriots fans seemed intent to focus on the superficialities of Brady’s relationship with Joey Galloway or the lingering rust on his once-shiny Ferrari offense.
Tough being spoiled, isn’t it?
The reaction in many corners of the fandom was lukewarm at best, centered around Brady’s continued inability to instantly recreate the magic of October 2007 here in 2009.
Here’s the bad news, folks: The Patriots will never recreate the magic of October 2007. In fact, maybe nobody will. Deal with it.
In case the short-term memory is fading, October 2007 marked the most prolific offensive explosion in pro football history: The Patriots scored 217 points in a single month — a stunning average of 43.4 points per game. (To put those 217 points in a single month into perspective, consider that the Bengals scored 204 points all of last year.)
But the 2007 season was like Halley’s Comet or the Kraft family missing an opportunity to squeeze you out of another buck: It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
So, it’s time to move on and play the hand on the table.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts, for our part, were fairly impressed by the win over Atlanta, which means you should be, too.
The victory doesn’t mean the Patriots are destined for the Super Bowl, and it doesn’t guarantee a win over Baltimore this weekend, but it was an encouraging victory for a team that, whether we want to admit it or not, is in the midst of a radical remake of its identity and, for all practical intents and purposes, is J-A-T (just another team) fighting to make a name for itself in the rough-and-tumble NFL — at least, until the evidence indicates otherwise.
Given that hand, here’s why you should be pretty excited by the outcome of the Atlanta game:
1. The 16-point loss was the most one-sided defeated the Falcons had suffered since the Michael Vick-Bobby Petrino debaclea of the 2007 season.
2. Put in terms that morning-guy Meter could understand, it was the worst loss Matt Ryan had suffered in a football game since he was a Boston College sophomore reserve in 2005, when the Eagles fell to Virginia Tech, 30-10.
3. We don’t have access to the stat sheets from Ryan’s high school career in Philadelphia with the mighty William Penn Charter School Quakers, but as far as we know, he had never started a football game and lost by 16 points until Sunday.
4. Ryan was held below 200 yards passing (199) and without a TD pass for the first time since the fourth game of his pro career last September. When you consider the still-questionable state of the New England defense, especially the pass defense (98.4 defensive passer rating), those numbers are very encouraging.
5. The Patriots marched up and down the field against Atlanta, while controlling the clock and the pace of play. If not for some lingering red zone kinks — kinks that we’ll bet the offense will ultimately work out of the system this year — they might have won by four touchdowns. That’s a blowout in any league, even in Pennsylvania schoolboy football.
If not a pretty victory, it was a very good victory by any rational, outside observation that takes into account the true state of the Patriots here in the early days of 2009.
Remember the 2003 Patriots, a team that finished 17-2 and won the Super Bowl? That team enjoyed just two victories by 16 points or more all season.
Bottom line: Sixteen-point victories over good teams and good quarterbacks don’t come easy and don’t come often. You wouldn’t know it from the tenor of the conversation around town this week. People need to change their expectations, because the current ones are not realistic.
THE GOLDEN NUGGETS AWARD
Bill Belichick earned the coveted Cold, Hard Football Facts Golden Nuggets award for eschewing the punt team on fourth-and-1 with the ball on his team’s own 24-yard line. It was the third quarter and the Patriots were clinging to a 16-10 lead.
Failure to convert could have been disaster.
Few coaches have the stones to attempt that move. Few coaches have the gravitas to attempt that move. Few coaches who have the stones to attempt that move have the gravitas to get away with it.
But Belichick is a not a riverboat gambler. He must have known something. Here’s what he knew:
1. The Patriots had gained at least 1 yard to that point on all but one rush attempt — a Kevin Faulk effort in the second quarter that went for no gain.
2. The Patriots might be the best team in football right now in clutch situations. They have converted 47 percent of their third downs this year. They’re also 3-for-6 on fourth downs — two on that same third-quarter drive — for a conversion rate of 26-for-55 that’s among the very best in football.
Put those two factors together, and what you had was not a risky bet, but a very rational decision based on the evidence at hand: The Patriots had an overwhelming chance of success on the play — and they succeeded.
The two fourth-down conversions on the same drive Sunday resulted in a field goal that gave the Patriots what proved to be an insurmountable 19-10 lead.
THE WEEK AHEAD
You know the Baltimore offense has improved quite a bit this year — the 34-3 win over Cleveland last week provided plenty of evidence.
But improved doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s more like a mild-mannered reporter from the Daily Pigskin Planet stepped into a phone booth and walked out with a flowing cape and a big bold 'S' across the chest.
Here’s a quick look at the Ravens through the colorful kaleidoscope of the Cold, Hard Football Facts' quality stats:
Baltimore ranks No. 2 on our "offensive Hog index," our measure of each team’s offensive line — easily the best performance by the team’s offensive front since we’ve been tracking the indicator.
Last year, the Ravens ranked a mere 23rd on the offensive Hog index. So the improvement there on the offensive line has been dramatic.
Baltimore ranks No. 6 in passing yards per attempt, the single most important indicator of offensive success. The Ravens average a very impressive 7.46 yards every time they drop back to pass (our indicator includes sacks and yards lost on sacks … so the Ravens are even better when Joe Flacco actually gets off a pass). To put that number into perspective, the record-setting offense of the 2007 Patriots averaged 7.79 ypa. So, Baltimore boasts a phenomenal rate of success getting the ball down field through the air.
Last year, the Ravens ranked 18th in passing yards per attempt (6.03). So, the improvement in this area has been dramatic, too.
Here’s the tough part for Baltimore’s opponents. The Ravens still play pretty stout defense.
They’re No. 4 on our defensive Hog index, our measure of each team’s defensive front, and they allow just 2.5 yards per rush attempt — a mark consistent with their great success stopping the run over the past decade.
Bottom line: The Ravens are a better team than they were last year when they reached the AFC title game, and they’re a better team than New England right now on both sides of the ball.
If the Patriots win, it’s a very, very encouraging sign that indicates they’re capable of beating every remaining opponent on their schedule this year. If they lose, the 2009 season will be a dog fight to the end.
FOUR THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE PATRIOTS
1. The Patriots might be struggling to get the passing game back into gear. But they have suffered just three negative pass plays on 143 dropbacks all season (1 sack, 2 INTs). That’s a negative pass play on just 2.1 percent of dropbacks — easily the best rate in football.
What it tells us: Brady may still have some rust, but the team’s ability to avoid the critical mistake in the passing game is proving a life-saver right now until the engine gets up and running at full speed.
2. New England has averaged 35 minutes, 55 seconds of possession this year. Only the 3-0 Giants — with a mind-blowing 38:12 — have held on to the ball longer than the Patriots this year.
What it tells us: The Patriots are still able to control the pace of the game, despite their limitations on both sides of the ball. That’s a sign of good coaching and a team playing within itself.
3. The Patriots average 24.7 first downs per game. Only this week’s opponent, Baltimore, is better (27.3).
What it tells us: New England’s offense has regained its clutch ability to make critical plays, even if they’re not game-breaking plays, on critical and third- and fourth-down plays.
4: Our studies have shown that each interception you make increases your chances of winning by 20 percentage points. The Patriots are one of three teams that have yet to intercept a pass this season. The others are the winless Dolphins and the winless and dying fast Browns.
What it tells us: The Patriots are 2-1 despite a defense that still can’t make big plays. They need to improve in this area to compete with the big boys and win games in December.
STATS AND STREAKS
A couple of quick updates on notable team streaks and achievements:
1. Brady attempted 42 passes in the win over Atlanta. He’s now 19-9 when he attempts 40 or more passes in a game — easily the best mark in the history of football. The only active QB who’s close is Donovan McNabb — 17-14-1 when attempting 40-plus passes. Teams historically win just 30 percent of their games when they attempt 40 or more passes in a game.
2. The win over Atlanta’s was New England’s 16th straight victory against an NFC opponent, the longest stretch of inter-conference success in NFL history. The last NFC team to beat the Patriots was Carolina, back in September 2005.
3. Brady’s Patriots have not lost a regular-season game outside the AFC East since Nov. 5, 2006.
4. If we include the playoffs, only five different teams have bested Brady’s Patriots since November 2005: the Colts (twice), Jets (twice), Broncos (twice), Dolphins (twice) and Giants.
5. Brady’s Patriots are 34-7 (.829) since the start of 2006.
AN IMPORTANT STUDY OUT OF BALTIMORE
Few modern thinkers were more familiar with Baltimore’s rich history of academic excellence than local postman Cliff Claven. Here are his thoughts, dutifully recorded at a Beacon Hill bar several years ago:
“Hey Norm, you hear about the studies being done at Johns Hopkins about the Y chromosome of persistent bar troublemakers? Yeah, they found a striking similarity between them and chronic droolers and idiots.”
Apparently Whiner Line callers weren’t included in the study.
ELSEWHERE AROUND THE NFL
The Cold, Hard Football Facts are thrilled by the great statistical bloodbath of Week 4: the Jets at the Saints.
The game didn’t look like much when the schedules came out back in the spring. It looks like a true test of manhood here in the early days of October. It’s one huge game that every Patriots fan should keep their eyes on this Sunday.
The Saints enter the game with what is easily one of the great prolific passing attacks in football. Thanks to Drew Brees, New Orleans leads the NFL with a 118.1 offensive passer rating — just a shade of ahead of Peyton Manning and the Colts (117.7).
The Jets, however, enter the street fight with their own statistical stiletto: a Rex Ryan-fueled unit that boasts a stifling 50.2 defensive passer rating. Only the Giants are better — and only slightly (49.2).
Something’s gotta give, and we want to know who’s going to buckle first in one of the first big donnybrooks of 2009.
Patriots fans could learn a lot. Remember, the Patriots face the Jets once again this year, at Gillette on Nov. 22, and then visit New Orleans the following week for a battle on Monday Night Football.
TAILGATING BALTIMORE STYLE
As you may know, the Cold, Hard Football Facts have a pretty lengthy collection of tailgate recipes from around the country.
When it comes to Baltimore cuisine, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned crab boil. I wanted to know how it’s done Chesapeake Bay style, so I contacted the folks at Obrycki’s Crab House, one of the iconic eateries in Baltimore's famed Lexington Market (the city’s version of Boston’s Quincy Market).
Like many of the best dishes out there — especially tailgate dishes — crab boils are really easy to do right. Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are not “in season” year round. But if you can't find them at your market, you can definitely order them online.
Once you get your crabs, here’s how to do ‘em up, courtesy of the gang at Obrycki’s.
•1 tablespoon white vinegar
•8 ounces of beer
•Crab seasoning (Obrycki’s sells its own, or use the Baltimore classic Old Bay, which I always have in the house and put on everything)
Keep the crabs on ice and make certain to wet them before you season them, so the seasoning will stick better. Place about 6 cups of water, the vinegar, and the beer in an 8-gallon stockpot fitted with a raised rack. If you don't have a raised rack, use bricks wrapped in clean cloth to raise your rack about 6 inches off the bottom. It is important that the crabs not get wet while they're being steamed. (Crabs also can be boiled directly in water that’s been salted and/or loaded up with plenty of seasoning.)
Make a layer of crabs on the rack, and cover them with a thick layer of crab seasoning. Bring the liquid to a boil. Once the steam starts to rise through the crabs, cover pot with lid, and steam for 30-40 minutes, or until the crabs are bright red.
While the crabs are steaming, spread out newspaper on your table. When crabs are done, dump them across the table. Once they cool, dive in. Serves about six.
It takes a bit of skill and patience to properly pick a crab — much tougher than a Maine lobster. The folks at Old Bay have a nifty video to help you do it.