Sunday, November 25, 2007

TATB Live: Patriots 31, Eagles 28

While watching one of today's junior varsity games a few hours ago - the Chargers-Ravens, I think it was - the color commentator opined with a certain level of confidence and a high level of ignorance that no one will beat the Patriots this season, but that the Patriots "will beat themselves," his point being that they will suffer a mental letdown one of these Sundays, and that's when they will lose.

I'm not sure who said commentator was, but he clearly suffered multiple concussions at some point in his career. The 2007 Patriots will never lack for motivation. Because of the over-the-top fallout from the CameraGate nonsense, this is the most vengeful, focused, angry, motivated, downright pissed off football team you, me, and any other football-watcher is possession of a shred of common sense has ever seen.

They may lose somewhere along the road, though at the moment I tend to doubt it. But should it happen, it won't be because they beat themselves. And it sure as hell won't be tonight against A.J. Feeley and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Let's go for 11-0. Gentlemen, start your engines.

. . . And as I'm writing that intro/rebuttal, Asante Samuel picks off a Feeley duck and takes it to the house, becoming the 20th Patriot to score a touchdown this season. It's 7-0, New England, and Tom Brady hasn't stepped on the field yet. I believe we can file that one under "Going According To Plan."

Well, I guess I'm going to have to eat at least a few of those words I just wrote. The Eagles just strung together a 14-play, 77-yard drive featuring several quality throws by Feeley and capped off by a one-yard leap into the end zone by fantasy football franchise player Brian Westbrook, knotting the score at 7-7. "You'd have to call that shocking," Al Michaels says, and I think most Patriots fans are nodding in agreement right about now.

The Pats' offense takes the field for the first time tonight with 6:31 to play in the first quarter. Did I mention how impressive that Philly drive was? Dammit, it's only the first quarter, and I'm already exposed as a hypocrite.

Rodney Harrison has already limped off tonight (it didn't look serious, but you never know) and Brady has taken a hellacious hit that you could tell he was feeling. No, the karma definitely is not good thus far.

The Patriots come out in a hurry-up offense with four wide receivers, including Kevin Faulk lining up wide on at least one play. I'm getting Air Coryell flashbacks, and you know I'm digging it. Someone let me know if you see J.J. Jefferson.

Now that's what you call a goal-line offense: Mike Vrabel at tight end, Junior Seau at fullback in the I Formation, and Heath Evans at tailback. Surprisingly, the play that gives the Pats a 14-7 lead isn't a pass to touchdown-machine Vrabel, but a one-yard blast into the end zone by Evans. All in all, an impressive, effortless answer to the Eagles' drive.

Says John Madden: "You wonder, where is Laurence Maroney?" Actually, I'm not sure it was Madden. It might have been that Frank TV guy for all I know. But it's a valid point. It seems like a long time ago that we were giddy about Maroney's explosiveness and potential. I don't know if he needs to grow up or his nagging injuries are holding him back, but I sense that there are some doubts as to whether he is the back of the future here after all. Heck, he might not be as good as his U of Minnesota runningmate, Dallas's Marion Barber III.

Maybe it's because I watched so much horrendous quarterback play today - I just cannot believe Kyle Boller and J.P. Losman were ever first-round picks - but Feeley actually looks more than competent, just as he did in 2004 when he was in Miami and the Dolphins upset the Patriots in December. He and Westbrook have the Eagles moving the ball effectively again, and the Patriots' defense looks out of sync and a little bit slow right now.

Junior Seau on Westbrook: "He's one of those three-dimensional players you can't stop, you've just got to try to contain him." Somewhere, Dan Patrick nods in approval.

Well, well, what do we have here . . . a competitive ball game? I'm not ready to say the Patriots are in for a four-quarter battle just yet, but Feeley just connected with Greg Lewis on a dazzling deep ball right out of the Brady/Moss highlight reel - really, Feeley made a perfect throw and Lewis a sensational catch - and it's even at 14. I'll concede this much right now. The Pats aren't going to cover that 24-point spread.

The Eagles are playing like they have nothing to lose, attempting and recovering an onside kick after the TD. "They're taking it to them," Madden says, and there's something disconcerting about that truth. Fortunately, the Eagles go three and out after Feeley stunts the possession by falling for a sack on first down.

Brady has completed four straight passes, three to Moss. It's like Brady and the offense has suddenly switched into "Quit ------ around" mode.

Five straight . . . six straight . . .

The Patriots are moving the ball effectively, but Philly is getting a consistent pass rush off both ends. The Patriots' offensive line has been outstanding all season, but suddenly the tackles are looking a little Max Lane-ish. (You know, I take that back. Matt Light with two peg legs would be more effective tackle than Reggie White's whipping boy.)

I won't say a field goal that gives you a 17-14 lead is a lost opportunity, but with first and goal inside the Philly 10, you'd think the Pats would be able to punch it into the end zone. But Brady gets sacked, Welker can't bust a tackle on third down to get into the end zone, and Gostkowski bangs home the three. That should be Maroney territory, you know.

Feeley is picking apart the Pats' secondary. Jeez, now there's a sentence I didn't think I'd write tonight. But he's doing a great job of getting rid of the ball just before the Patriots' pass rush arrives . . . and dammit, he just did it again, hitting Lewis on a post pattern for the go-ahead score. It's 21-17, Eagles, and the Patriots have shown no indication that they're capable of stopping them. Better hope for some shrewd halftime adjustments, folks, because whatever they're doing right now is not working.

Lewis has as many catches tonight (5) as he had all season coming into the game. In a completely unrelated note, remember when Eugene Wilson looked like a future Pro Bowler? He's inactive tonight despite not being on the injury report at the end of the week. What an inexplicable fall from grace.

The Patriots have allowed scoring drives of 77, 76, and 70 yards tonight. To an offense led by A.J. Feeley. At this point I will note that I've seen more of Eddie Jackson and Rashad Baker tonight than I have Adalius Thomas and Richard Seymour, and I wish that were one of my usual exaggerations.

Despite Lito Sheppard and friends doing a decent job of keeping Moss from getting deep, it appears the Eagles can't stop the Patriots, either. With typical precision, Brady passes the Pats down the field (I don't recall a single running play on the drive, and Maroney, apparently the Gene Wilson of the offense, still has not seen the field tonight), and a strike to Jabar Gaffney gives New England a 24-21 halftime lead that it probably doesn't deserve.

Four quick halftime thoughts, one of which actually has to do with this game:

1. Feeley is playing admirably tonight, but you have to figure the Pats will solve him in the second half. Belichick is a master of adjustments, of course, and you have to figure Feeley really isn't that sharp given that he supposedly ditched US soccer babe Heather Mitts.

2. Costas, Collinsworth, and Olbermann (a hat-trick of look-at-me blowhards) make me long for the days of Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, and Irv Cross. Especially Phyllis George.

3. At this point, Archie Manning has to wondering if Eli is really the milk man's spawn.

4. If Peter King still claims Baltimore has a chance to beat the Patriots, he must be drinking crystal meth lattes these days. That team is excruciating, and Brian Billick owes his career to Moss.

Not exactly the way you'd draw up the first possession of the second half, with a penalty on the kickoff, a penalty on first down, a near interception, and a sack in which Brady got rattled by Darren Howard. Fortunately, Patriots punter Chris Hanson (who I'm assuming is a part-time employee) launches a bomb from the end zone, and the coverage team keeps the Eagles on their side of the 50. Time to see about those defensive adjustments . . .

. . . and a much-needed three-and-out by the Eagles, with Rosey Colvin, Ellis Hobbs, Thomas, and Seymour swarming Westbrook on third and 2. So far, so good.

How about taking a deep shot with Moss here? He'll strike at some point, right, or does Brady not have the time to let a deep play develop?

Damn, Wes Welker is just fearless over the middle. It is reminiscent of Troy Brown in his prime, except I don't remember ol' No. 80 taking the shots Welker takes. How does he get out of bed on Monday mornings?

Well, there it was - the deep shot for Moss, I mean. Damn near connected, too, except he couldn't quite hang on to what looked like about a 50-yard gain. Give the Eagles' DBs credit - they're not letting him beat them.

Third down . . , Welker . . . first down.

Dude, check it out - a Maroney sighting! He looks good, too, carrying the ball three times on this drive and hitting the holes with decisiveness rather than falling into his maddening Reggie Dupard happy-feet dance in the backfield. Perhaps sitting him out in the first half was all part of the plan rather than anything more sinister.

Wes Welker is just . . . well, he's just one hell of a football player. Taking a little screen pass from a pressured Brady at midfield, he turns upfield, ducks behind a beastly Stephen Neal block, and zips all the way to the Philly 4. He really does do all those Troy Brown things, doesn't he?

Now that is a wasted opportunity, one that will linger in the Patriots' minds should Philly somehow steal this game. On first down, a Moss touchdown was negated by an offensive pass interference call (which, to be honest, could be called on him much more often than it is). Brady, under siege, threw a pass behind Welker at the 5, and on third down he was hurried and underthrew Watson. It's to Stephen Gostkowski's credit that we assume the three points whenever he trots onto the field within reasonable range, but he hooked this one from 32 yards, and what should have been a 10-point lead is stalled at 3.

I'm not convinced Feeley is even an average quarterback - although considering what constitutes a starting QB these days, I might be selling him short - but I will say that he's playing better tonight than I've seen Donovan McNabb play in quite some time. Philly fans can have a quarterback controversy if they want one.

Michaels: "The Patriots find themselves in a dogfight." (Pause.) "Sorry, poor choice of words." And somewhere, a single tear rolls down Michael Vick's cheek as he snuggles his affectionate new roommate Bubba.

Sorry, no time for jokes. Philly is driving again, and as Madden points out, the Patriots are doing a poor job covering the in-cuts of the Eagles' receivers. Philly may well take the lead here, and at the least Gostkowski's lousy kick looms large.

Third and four at the Pats' 8. Huge, huge play. . . gotta be Westbrook, right?

Nope. Ten plays (all passes, Michaels points out) and 78 yards after the drive began, Feeley hits Reggie Brown on - you guessed it - an inside pattern, and the Eagles take a 28-24 lead. I feel like I'm watching a Pete Carroll team right now, with Randall Gay playing the role of Chris Canty.

Sure-handed Kevin Faulk drops a third and 3 pass deep in Pats territory, and this has officially gotten frustrating.

I've never heard of Nick Cole until this moment, but I'm glad I did. The anonymous Eagle, No. 59 in your program, is called for a neutral zone infraction before the punt, giving the Pats a first down. They must take advantage of this. It's imperative the way this game is going heading into the final 15 minutes.

Madden says he's suspects that the Eagles are frustrating Moss right now, and that leads to an interesting point: this is a great opportunity for Moss to prove that he can be depended on when things are not going well for his team. Because, let's face it, hanging in there during dire or frustrating circumstances has never been one of his personal attributes.

On fourth and 4 from the Philly 35, the Patriots go for it rather than have Gostkowski attempt a 52-yarder. I like the decision, though the play ultimately had no chance. Takeo Spikes, who has lost about three steps since his Cincy days, nonetheless gets to Brady on a blitz, forcing him to underthrow Moss on a short sideline pattern. And I'll say it again: The Patriots' line, fantastic all season, has been absolutely porous tonight.

Andrea Kremer - who isn't shy about giving Brady the ol' Moonie Eyes - informs us that Colvin (foot) and Gay (back) have gone to the locker room with injuries. Cruel as it sounds, I'd be more concerned if they were actually playing well.

Pats inside the red zone again, thanks to two more huge catches from Welker, including one on third and 9 that extended the drive. I think that gives him 11 tonight. I wonder how Moss likes being the decoy?

Okay, Kool-Aid (check out the ridiculous door on his ride), all is forgiven. Maroney blows through the guts of the Eagles' defense from nine yards out - seriously, it's the best run I can recall him making this season - and the Pats retake the lead, 31-28.

Just under seven minutes left. Philly starts inside the Pats' 10. A championship-caliber defense makes a play right here, doesn't it?

Maybe, but the current version of the Pats' defense doesn't. Feeley hits Lewis for 11 yards on third and 3, and the Eagles wiggle out of a bad situation.

Feeley is killing the Pats over the middle, completing three straight passes for three straight first downs well into New England territory. What the hell is this, a prevent?

God bless you, Asante Samuel. Pay the man, Mr. Kraft. Pay the man!

. . . and after No. 22's second pick of the night, running under a Feeley floater in the end zone like he was the intended receiver (now that's the A.J. Feeley I used to know), the Pats convert on third and 6 on a slant to Gaffney, who has been immense tonight. Philly has just one timeout remaining, so one more first down ends this thing, and we can all exhale.

"Who will cowboy up on Sunday Night Football"? Man, I hope Millar gets royalties for that commercial crap.

Philly gets it back after three Maroney runs take time off the clock, but Feeley, who apparently turned back into a pumpkin around 11:15, hits James Sanders in the numbers with his first pass, and that'll do it. The Patriots are unbeaten. Still.

A parting thought while we wait for the '72 Dolphins to put away the champagne glasses: I guess there are two ways at looking at tonight's developments. First, you have to figure there will be nights like this even if the Pats do ultimately run the table, and it is to the immense credit of Brady (who was outstanding tonight despite taking a beating that would have put Tony Eason in a permanent fetal position) and Wes Welker (13 catches, 149 yards), among others, that they won this game when it so easily could have been lost. Despite tonight's far from perfect performance, I still disagree with that nitwit broadcaster who said the Patriots will eventually beat themselves; they're the last team in the history of football that will beat itself. But that brings us to the other way of looking at this - Philadelphia followed the Colts' approach to attacking this team, and it damn near worked. They pressured Brady constantly, took advantage of the underbelly of the Patriots' pass defense (I wish they had just one more quality linebacker who can run), and had the talent in the defensive backfield to hassle Moss. So I guess the lingering question is this: Is there another team on the schedule who has the personnel, coaching, and discipline to pull off the "blueprint," as Madden called it? I still doubt it, but it certainly adds a little more intrigue to the next five weeks.

Wait! Four more things I forgot to mention:

1. The Patriots had one sack tonight. Feeley did a fantastic job getting rid of the ball quickly, but that's no excuse for Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, and Seymour to be invisible against the Philly passing game.

2. I was encouraged by what I saw from Maroney in the second half, and frankly, they are going to need that if this season is going to end with a victory. The Eagles obviously had little respect for the Pats' running game, and while the spread offense was effective in the first half, it's alarming that they had just one carry from a running back in the first 30 minutes.

3. Keeping Brady healthy is obviously the key to, well, everything, and he took way too many bone-rattling shots tonight. This simply cannot happen again.

4. Samuel really must be signed. He's convinced me. He's an elite cornerback, he does the things Ty Law used to do, and the drop-off from him to Hobbs and Gay is like going from Mike Haynes to Elvis Patterson. All right, so that's hyperbole (hey, it's late), but you get the point. He's essential, and he's as big a reason as anyone that they survived tonight.

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