Friday, September 18, 2009

Week 2: Jets +3.5 vs. Pats

For my first pick of this blog, week 2 of the 2009 season, I'm going with the JETS at home, getting 3.5 points versus the Pats.

Here are my arguments:

1. The Pats defense was exposed against the Bills in week 1.

I expected coming into that game for the Pats to completely dominate. As Football Outsiders pointed out, the Bills started that game with the most inexperienced offensive line in over a decade. And it's not as though they made up for their inexperience with an overwhelming amount of raw talent or superior college pedigrees; only one player is a first-round pick, Eric Wood, who the Bills have converted from guard to center. In other words, this offensive line should have been completely overmatched. And this collection of unknown inexperienced lineman didn't even have an entire camp to gel as a unit, as they released their starting left tackle six days before game 1! And of course, they also released their offensive coordinator just before the season started.

Add it all up, and combine it with the fact that the Pats have totally dominated the Bills--winning 11 in a row dating back to the infamous Lawyer Malloy Game, including the 2007 Brady-led Patriots totally asswhooping the hapless Bills to the tune of 38-7 and 56-10--and you should have had a recipe for a total Patriots domination. But of course it was anything but, and the Pats barely scratched out a win. Had it not been for Leodis McKelvin's boneheaded return, the Pats probably would have lost to Trent Edwards, protected by the most inexperienced offensive line the NFL has seen in a decade, bereft of the protection of his starting running back. Think about that. The Pats barely beat Trent Freaking Edwards.

The reason that this should worry bettors: the Pats D was pretty atrocious. Trent Edwards hit 60% of his passes, had a respectable 8.48 yards/attempt, and had a TD/INT ratio of 2/0. How was he able to do this? The Pats hardly put any pressure on him! This was mindblowing, given that the Bills hardly had a running game (Fred Jackson, a mediocre second stringer, getting 15 carries does not a "running game" constitute) and, as I've said before, was protected by a suspect offensive line. But the Pats only generated 4 sacks, 2 of which came towards the very end of the game, and more tellingly, were not hurrying Edwards for much of the night. That's how Edwards was able to put up those numbers.

One would think that, since Belichick had a whole offseason to scheme for the Bills, he would have devised a defense that would have pressured Edwards and forced turnovers. However, other than McKelvin's screwup, they did no such thing. Instead, by all accounts, the Bills' inexperienced, only-installed-in-the-job-for-6-days offensive coordinator had the Pats on their heels the whole game. I don't think that it was evidence of Belichick losing his touch, as I continue to firmly believe he is the best coach in the NFL. But he has less to work with on defense now than at any point during his Pats tenure.

As everyone knows, he lost Jerod Mayo, perhaps the most important member of the defense. Richard Seymour is pouting in Oakland. The LBers that epitomized the Pats veteran Super Bowl savvy, Vrabel and Bruschi, are elsewhere. When you now scan the Pats defense, who scares you? Ty Warren and Vince Vilfork are very good players, to be sure, but the rest of the defense sure seems questionable. And they showed it on Monday night, in a game that they should have dominated.

I think this carries over for the rest of the season. The Pats defense, despite holding the Bills to a quasi-respectable 24 points, did not look good. They also have yet to face a good running game, which the Jets undeniably have. The Pats gave up 4.7 yards per carry in the opener, and face a Jets running attack that put up 190 yards in week 1. They also showed a dramatic tendency to play better against shotgun QBs last year, as they were one of the 5 worst teams in football against QBs that lined up under center. In other words, watch out.

2. The Jets are underrated this year, and they match up well against the Pats.

First of all, they destroyed what I think is a pretty good Texans team in week 1. Sanchez held up rather well against a solid front 7 featuring Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, and Demeco Ryans. Sanchez played a solid game, and although he did display excessive exuberance after one TD pass, he had reason to be proud of his performance. And the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington rushing tandem was fantastic, totaling 167 yards on 35 carries (4.71 ypc). The Pats were only a mediocre run defense last year, and losing both Mayo and Seymour--the latter of whom was replaced by Jarvis Green, a decent pass rusher, but at 285 pounds an undersized DE in the 3-4 defense who lacks Seymour's ability to anchor against the run--will likely make it worse. They are facing a Jets team who has two good backs, a good offensive line replete with high draft picks and Pro Bowlers, and a dedication to running the ball. Sorry Pats fans, but your ability to "hold" Fred Jackson, a mediocre backup that Scouts Inc has rated as barely adequate, to 57 yards is not promising.

But more importantly, I didn't love what I saw from Brady last week. As the MNF crew demonstrated throughout the game, Brady looked tentative striding forward into his passes. One can hardly blame him for that, given the horrific nature of the knee injury that he suffered. But it clearly affected him early in the game. The obvious counter is that Brady really put it together in his final two drives, looking like a good QB, leading some pundits to proclaim that Brady is just the same as he ever was.

But not so fast. Brady looked very tentative early in the game, and that hesitancy only wore off as the Bills lack of a pass rush became more evident. And their inability to generate pressure from their front 4 did not cause the Bills coaching staff to unleash any pressure packages, as the Bills only blitzed 15 times. But as anyone who has watched the Bengals over the past few years can tell you, that tentativeness (evidenced in Carson Palmer's play for a long stretch after he recovered from a very similar knee injury to Brady's) mainly rears its head when there is pressure up the middle. The Bills hardly generated any such pressure. The few times there were bodies lying around Brady's feet, when there were defensive players in his face, he did not look like the Brady of old. But here's the thing: the Jets are uniquely situated, both personnel-wise and scheme-wise, to generate that type of pressure. Of course much has been made about Rex Ryan's "exotic blitz packages," perhaps too much. But his Ravens defenses always gave Brady fits, and the Jets have a good chance to wreak havoc in the New England backfield.

Finally, I think the Jets have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Jets CB Darrelle Revis is one of the true shutdown corners in the NFL, and he demonstrated as much in week 1 as he totally stymied the Texans' sublime WR Andre Johnson. Kerry Rhodes is also a fine coverage safety. The Jets pass rush, and their good coverage packages, will allow them to defense New England's passing game, particularly with a Brady knee that has yet to be truly tested. And New England has not shown the ability to run the ball effectively in several years, which should allow Rex Ryan to unleash all the creativity he can muster.

3. The psychology of the game.

This game obviously means a ton to the Jets. Rex Ryan has been all over the news pumping his team up and talking about how they aren't going to concede to the mighty Pats. While it's true that this might serve to motivate the Pats, I think there's no question that the Jets will be amped up to play at home. The Pats were lucky to escape last week with a win, in Foxboro, against a bad team that is mired in a years-long pathology of losing. The Jets are young, they're exciting, they're playing for an energetic, fresh, and brilliant (read: the opposite of Dick Jauron) coach, and they hate the Patriots. The Pats, on the other hand, seem tired, old, and won a game they shouldn't have last week. The last time a team beat the Bills on Monday Night on a last second miracle by the score of 25-24? The Cowboys in 2007 (seriously: the same score, and similar special teams blunders). What did the Cowboys do the next week? They lost at home by 3 touchdowns. In other words, this has all the makings of an upset.

THE COUNTERARGUMENT: A rookie QB against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Are you kidding me?

'Tis true that Mark "Franchez" is likely to scare many gamblers off this game. But I don't think that ends up being decisive. I expect the Jets to have a game plan very similar to the Steelers in 2004 when Big Ben was a rookie; a solid 2-pronged running game, a safe and democratically distributed offensive passing attack, and an aggressive and daring defense. The result of that game? Pats lost handily, 20-34. And that was with Seymour, McGinest, Bruschi et. al. in their primes. This defense is not nearly as good, and is missing arguably its most important player. So put away the tired refrain that Belichick automatically dominates rookie QBs. It's true that Sanchez is likely to make a couple mistakes, but playing at home, with a good running game, against a suspect Pats defense....I think he'll be fine.

And even if the Pats pull out another last-second victory, which is possible, it's likely to be a close game either way. And the line for this game has shifted dramatically over the week, from Jets +6.5 to now +3.5, which is a sign that a lot of the smart money in Vegas is on the Jets to cover. And since the Jets can still lose by a FG and cover the spread, I just have one thing to say: J-E-T-S JETS!

Check back early in the week for my breakdown of this game, including an analysis of why the above prediction was either right or wrong! Until then, have a great weekend of NFL action, and good luck at the books (should you choose to engage in that sort of behavior).

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