Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Slammin' Sammy Morris

"Let's not let a good thing die."

So here we are, back again for another weekend recap.

First, I am not betting on the Big 10 ever again this season.

That conference is so awful that any team can win any given week. It's basically the NFC East of the college ranks. So, that's it for me. I'm sick of being made to look ridiculous..."and I will not be made to look ridiculous!" I totally forgot to throw in South Florida on Friday, which was such an easy call, so that hurt a little. However, N.C. State continued to carry my college picks, losing yet again at home.

GA Tech helped not only me, but BC as well, taking out Clemson, and putting the Eagles alone at the top of the Atlantic division of the ACC. The Eagles all of a sudden find themselves #7 in the country, and despite all of my nay-saying, technically do have a shot for a national title. Here's the thing though: Even if BC runs the tables, they are going to need a lot of help from all over the country to get to at least #2. The idea that four of the top five teams will be playing each other this year definitely helps the Eagles out. Think about it: If the top 5 stayed insulated from each other and did not square off, there would be much less of a chance that there would be any losses amongst them. Despite only having two currently ranked teams on their schedule, I still don't think that will hurt them in the long run. If they win at Blacksburg and Death Valley, then they should be in at least the top three. It's a long way to go to get to that point though, and you can't discount the "leap frog" effect. Despite the fact that the Eagles really need an LSU loss, if Florida wins at Baton Rouge this weekend, they will jump over BC because the Gators are right behind the Eagles, and a win at LSU will look a lot better than a win at home against Bowling Green. I'm pulling for them, but I just don't see them getting to the big dance this year. I think a BCS appearance will still go a long way for this program, and I hope they can shake the "Tom O'Brien" approach of tanking the last game, then playing a lesser team in a lesser bowl to keep their bowl win streak alive.

So let me get this straight: The Gamecocks lose on the road, then beat a team that's not that great at home, and now, they're ranked higher than they were before the LSU game?...that sounds about right. Now, USC has a huge game on Thursday against Kentucky, who have been steamrolling through their schedule, including impressive wins against Louisville (who apparently is not so great) and at Arkansas. Kentucky has looked great, but you really have to kind of appreciate what they have to go up against the next few weeks. First the Cocks on the road, then LSU and Florida at home. If you want to talk about leap frogs, if the 'Cats get through that stretch and come out undefeated, they should probably be the #1 team in the country. What concerns me about this game is that, once again, the Cocks will be without Jasper Brinkley, and they are going up against Rafael Little, who has averaged over 100 yards rushing per contest. In addition, Andre' Woodson, who is currently around 3rd or 4th in the Heisman race, has been outstanding once again. Not only does he have the ability the get the ball in the end zone (16 TDs, tied for third in the country), but has also been very efficient (67.1% completion rate, 1 INT, 163.32 passer rating). So the defense will have to play out of their heads to control UK. The good news is that USC comes into the game with the #2 pass defense in the country...that's right, in the country! Chris Smelley looked great against Mississippi St., tossing for 279 yards and two 2TDs. However, the key to beating Kentucky will be clock management and effective running of the ball. In the Arkansas game, the Razorbacks rushed for over 300 yards against UK. Now granted, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones could be the best 1-2 combo you may ever see...maybe even better than the Reggie Bush/LenDale White duo from a few years back, but Cory Boyd and Mike Davis make up a solid backfield, so I expect USC to keep the ball on the ground, and keep it away from their ball-hawking DBs, who have nine interceptions in five games. This will be USC's second attempt to get into the top 10, and this one will be at Williams Brice. I know how that place is on Thursday night games...Kentucky's going to be in for a hell of a game. I can't wait.

How about KC beating San Diego? Are you kidding me? You know there are few times in this lifetime that I will be right about anything, but calling San Diego "the most overrated team" in the NFL is looking really good right now. Norv Turner is almost like Dennis Erickson in that no matter how bad he does, he will somehow find a coaching gig somewhere because of things that he had done like 15 years ago. With Turner, his success in Dallas in the early 90s continues to carry him along the road of head coaching failure. Those Super Chargers are 1-3, and with Oakland all of a sudden coming around with new life, the Chargers are in the AFC West basement.

Speaking of which, Daunte Culpepper, who I predicted would be on the Raiders for months before it actually happened, has revitalized the Raiders, and after a beatdown of the Dolphins on the road, they're looking like they could finish around .500, and considering they had the #1 pick last year, and coupled with a coach who is so under-qualified for the job it's preposterous, that's not such a bad place to be. You have to wonder what the extent of LaMont Jordan's injury will be, and if Justin Fargas can even come close to what he did against Miami (179 yards). However, Dominic Rhodes will be coming back after being suspended the first four games, so their backfield will be pretty solid regardless.

I had a pretty good week in the pros. Going against Favre at Minnesota was a disaster. Apparently, I was missing something when the Bears went on the road and flopped against the Lions. The Seahawks looked great against the Niners on the road, while the Rams, yes, the same team I picked to win the NFC West, went to 0-4 after getting lambasted by the Cowboys on the road (at least Dante Hall took one back...that reminded me of good times...but still, the Rams' offense scored no touchdowns...seriously?). Home 'dogs, as predicted by Sports Guy, was the theme of the week, with Detroit, Buffalo, Arizona, Cleveland, Atlanta, and the G-Men all getting the job done...

...and then there's the Panthers...hahaha...

What a display by both the team and the fans on Sunday. First of all, that hit on Cadillac Williams was so ugly it was hard to describe. He's out for the year, so the Bucs will look to the Michael Pittman/Earnest Graham combo to carry them the rest of the way. To sum up Carolina's performance, someone actually said the words "bring in Weinke." Now I know he likely had a few in the hole before saying those words, but the fact that that was even thought of must be a horrifying feeling for Panther fans. Speaking of the fans, here's a thought: While this may not apply to all of them, I have to say that the Panther fans are the biggest bunch of fair-weather fans you may ever see. Why is it that this disease runs rampant in the southeast? Braves, Falcons, Marlins, D-Rays, Panthers...is it so horrible to actually stick with your team through and through? This is why I get so upset when the nation says that Red Sox and Pats fans are "spoiled." The Pats went to one Super Bowl in 30 years, and yes, they've been running hot lately, but that's because the fans have stuck by this team, even though they were terrible for a real long time. They packed into Sullivan/Schaeffer/Foxboro Stadium for years and years, sitting on aluminum benches in December. Panthers fans are leaving the game when their team is down 17-0 with 11 minutes to go in the game! Really? Is it so horrible to actually watch an entire game? So I know I work for them, but shame on a vast majority of you for leaving so early. Now, back to the guys on the field. The defense again looked dreadful at home. Two sacks in four games, and no interceptions? How is that even possible in this day and age? Also, giving up 189 yards rushing despite the fact that the #1 back went down with a severe leg injury is another discouraging item. What's even more perplexing is Carolina's ineffectiveness to play at home, while playing so well on the road. This Jekyll and Hyde situation could have a lot to do with the fact that they've pretty much played garbage on the road, and somewhat decent teams at home. Consider this: Against the run, playing two teams on the road that are known as pretty good run teams, especially Atlanta, the Panthers averaged 83.5 yards against. However, against Houston, who are trying to get by with Ahman Green and Ron Dayne, two guys are probably past their primes, and Tampa, who didn't have Caddy for a quarter and a half, they have given up 154 yards a game. The lowlight of the game for the Panthers had to be their botched flea-flicker attempt to Steve Smith, which was executed beautifully by the entire offense, and then a wide-open Smith dropped what would have easily been a 50 yard play at least. That drop killed any momentum the Panthers may have had. So now, it's off to New Orleans to play the lowly Saints. However, the Saints can't go 0-4...

Can they?...

Oh yeah, that other team I've heard so much about...

Morris Fills In Beautifully As New England Moves To 4-0

"You guys have really come up with somethin'." ~2001: A Space Odyssey

As news came down Monday that Laurence Maroney would not be active for the Monday night affair with the Bengals, there was definitely concern that New England would have a problem keeping the offensive balance they had enjoyed in their first three games.

Then Sammy Morris started running, and didn't stop until the final gun went off.

Morris ran for 117 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots once again bowled over another opponent, beating the Bengals 34-13. This is the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that a team has started off the season winning by 20 or more points in each of their first four contests, and the first since the 1920 Buffalo All-Americans to do so.

Cincinnati started off the game having only four active linebackers on the roster, and as the game progressed, two Bengals linebackers, Lamar Marshall and Landon Johnson both needed to be helped off the field. This led to the Patriots exploiting their depleted core, running the ball 34 times for 173 yards, a 5.1 per carry average.

Although they were very successful on thr ground, the Patriots immediately went after the Cincinnati defensive backfield on their first drive, passing on eight out of ten plays on their first drive, culminating in a Stephen Gostkowski 31-yard field goal to make it a 3-0 game. The Pats targeted the short and middle of the field, as Tom Brady, who had another outstanding game, attempted to lure the Bengals into a false sense of security by starting off with quick passes in the first series to set up the big plays to come later on.

The Bengals also were without their top running back, as Rudi Johnson was also inactive for the game with a strained hamstring. This marked the first time in 64 games that the Auburn standout was kept out of the starting lineup. The Bengals tried to make up for his absence with Kenny Watson, and tried to establish the ground game early, handing the ball off to Watson on the first three plays of Cincinnati's opening drive. However, once Carson Palmer decided to drop back and throw the ball, he was stymied by the Patriots' defense, as Adalius Thomas recorded his first sack of the year, abruptly ending the drive.

The Pats then tried to capitalize by again throwing the ball on the Bengals' secondary. This time, however, they were unproductive, as two false start penalties killed the Pats' chances of making any progress, and Chris Hanson made a rare appearance to punt the ball away. Hanson came into the game with only four punts on the year, marking just the third time since the merger that a team started the first three games of the year with four or less punts.

The Bengals again went silent getting the ball back, resulting in a three-and-out, as Palmer's attempt to establish the short passing game faltered. It seemed as though the Bengals and the Patriots both had the same kind of offensive strategy to start off the game. With both teams having numerous deep threats, both decided to establish a ground game and a short passing game in the early stages of the game. The Bengals' attempts were unproductive at the beginning, but would improve as the game went on.

Once Brady and company got the ball back on their own 35, they wasted no time in marching down the field. First, Brady found Donte' Stallworth down the left sideline for a gain of 14. Then, one of the key plays of the game was turned in by Morris, who, after receiving the Brady hand-off, surged through a massive hole in the right side of the line, and then put the jets on going down the right sideline. Morris showed impressive speed on the run, and was finally brought down by Madieu Williams after 49 yards at the Bengals' two yard line. Morris also showed great balance and footwork, tight-roping down the line to gain about ten more yards after the initial contact.

After two initial attempts by Heath Evans to get into the end zone, the Pats went to their old stand-by goal line play on third down, as Brady found Mike Vrabel in the back of the end zone. Vrabel has nine receptions as a Patriot (seven in the regular season, and two in the playoffs), and all of them have gone for touchdowns. The Pats have used this to their advantage over the years, using Vrabel as a decoy in goal line situations, but this time, once again, the defense was fooled, and Vrabel found himself open for the score.

As the first quarter came to a close, the Bengals were once again on the verge of going three-and-out, and were forced to punt as the second quarter began. After two passing plays, New England decided to pass again on third down. Although the Pats had 23 yards to go to make a first down, conventional wisdom would be to run the ball to get as much yardage as possible before an inevitable punt, especially when the offense is deep in their own territory, which the Patriots were at that time. Brady went back to find Wes Welker, who was running a crossing pattern over the middle, but underthrew him, instead finding Bengals rookie Leon Hall, who brought in his second career interception. This would prove to be Brady's only mistake of the night, and it was a costly one at the time.

The Bengals now showed new life after getting their best field position of the game at the Patriots' 35. Once again, Cincinnati came out running the ball on their first three plays, with Kenny Watson gaining 13 yards on the three carries. Then, on second and eight, Palmer found Chad Johnson on a screen play for his first reception of the night, breaking an Ellis Hobbs tackle and bringing the ball all the way down to the 1. Cincy then made a great call on first down, opting to run a play-action pass, which most of the defense fell for, as Palmer found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the score to make it a 10-7 game. The game was tight, and still most definitely within the Bengals' grasp, but it would not stay that way for long.

When the Patriots got the ball back, they again went after the Bengals' linebackers, or lack thereof, with Sammy Morris, who was called upon on eight consecutive plays, which ate up almost five minutes of the second quarter. It was clear that Cincinnati was still protecting themselves against a big play down the field, which left them vulnerable to the short run bursts that Morris was producing, as he literally carried the Pats down to the Bengals' 7 from midfield. The drive ended, much like others have, with a Brady to Randy Moss touchdown strike to make it a 17-7 game with little over four minutes left in the first half. The catch was one that only a guy of Moss' caliber and stature could make, jumping over Jonathan Joseph's right shoulder to haul in the pass.

The Bengals then attacked the Patriots secondary, opting to go no-huddle for their final series of the half. Palmer went 4/4 for 50 yards, getting Cincy down to the red zone at the two-minute warning. However, Palmer and Johnson had a communication breakdown, which led to an Asante Samuel interception at the two yard line, sealing the half for the Bengals. As the teams made their way off the field, the cameras showed Palmer and Johnson in a heated discussion, likely stemming from the turnover.

With the third quarter starting up, the Bengals were able to get to midfield on a couple of Palmer completions, but ultimately, a holding penalty on first down killed the drive, forcing another punt which placed the Patriots at the 19 yard line. In terms of the return game, Welker was not nearly as productive as he had been so far this season, but his presence would be felt on the next drive.

On a third and short play, the Pats again dug into their bag of tricks, and suckered the Bengals into a reverse play, which featured Morris pitching the ball to Welker, who blazed down the left sideline, gaining 28 yards, and more importantly, keeping the drive and the clock going. After a Randy Moss reception, coupled with an unnecessary roughness penalty against the Bengals, the Pats ran the ball four straight time, highlighted by a seven-yard TD run by Sammy Morris, his third of the season, giving New England a 17-point lead.

Cincinnati appeared to collect itself on its second series of the half, driving all the way to the New England 22. However, they would have to settle for three points. Tedy Bruschi made one of the better plays of the game on the third down play deep in Patriots' territory. Palmer was looking to once again convert a quick screen pass for a first down, but the ball was tipped by Bruschi at the line, leading to a Shayne Graham, 40-yard field goal, making the score 24-10 with little over four minutes to go in the half. Graham has the second highest career field goal percentage (84.21%) in NFL history (Mike Vanderjagt, 86.47%).

The Patriots' next drive took the game into the fourth quarter, as Brady hooked up with Moss on three occasions, and got the ball down to the Cincinnati, but a failed third down rushing attempt by Morris, which resulted in a five yard loss, forced the Pats to bring on Gostkowski, as he hit his second field goal of the game, returning the Pats' lead back to 17.

The final effort by Cincinnati came at the beginning stages of the fourth quarter. Being down by three scores, the Bengals had to rely on their passing game the entire series. While the game certainly wasn't over, it was clear that Cincy was going to need a quick score to at least keep the game within reach. However, their drive stalled out at the New England 30, despite a fourth down conversion on the previous set of downs. Graham again came on and connected on a 48-yard field goal, making it a 14-point deficit again.

The Pats knew that they had the clock on their side, and given how well the running game worked through the first three quarters, it was assumed that they would simply run the clock out, but once again, never try and peg Bill Belichick on anything, because you will likely guess wrong. Brady completed passes to Moss and Stallworth for 20 and 23 yards respectively. Then, they decided to slow the pace with three straight Morris runs which got them in the red zone, and after a Cincinnati timeout, Brady again found Moss in the end zone, this time much more open, to give the Pats a 34-13 lead, which would ultimately be the final thanks to a Randall Gay interception on the last Bengals drive of the game.

Much history was made in Monday night's game for the Patriots. Randy Moss had fourth 100-yard receiving game, which extends his record for most consecutive times a receiver has hit the century mark with his new team. Also, with his two touchdowns, Moss becomes the first Patriot since Ben Coates in 1993-94 to catch two TDs in three consecutive games. He is #1 in the league with his seven TDs on the season.

Tom Brady continues to be the gold-standard for quarterbacks this year. With his 25-for-32 (78.1%) performance, Brady tied an NFL record by completing at least 75% of his passes in four consecutive games while attempting at least 25 passes. If Brady is able to throw for at least three TDs in the next game against Cleveland, he will tie an all-time record, held currently by Steve Young, with three or more TDs in five consecutive games.

The Patriots not only have the record for most 20+ point wins in post-merger history, but also have scored in every quarter played this year, and 35 consecutive dating back to the playoffs and regular season of last year.

Next week, the Pats return home to face the Browns, who are coming off an impressive victory of their own, beating Baltimore at home 27-13. This will mark the first time Romeo Crennel has faced Bill Belichick as a head coach. Crennel was the defensive coordinator for the Pats from 2001-2004 before taking the Cleveland head coaching job.

The Pats have shown one incredible balancing act for their offense and defense. The offense (431.8 ypg) is currently only behind the Cowboys (440.8 ypg) for the most total yards per game, and ranks fifth in passing (274.8 ypg) and fourth in rushing (157.0 ypg). The defense again holds the top spot in total yards (226.0 ypg), while having the fourth best pass defense (156.2 ypg) and third best run defense (69.8 ypg).

With this team continuing their electric start, it's important not to look ahead to the potential "game of the year" matchup with Dallas in two weeks. As proven before, this is a team that likes to talk about just the next game, and bounces off questions about future opponents they receive from the media. While Cleveland may not be impressive on paper, they still have a chance to win. This is the NFL, and any given Sunday, on any given week, one team can beat another. So while people cannot wait to see the game at Texas Stadium, the focus needs to stay on the Browns. Once that game is over, then the Cowboy talk can begin.

For right now, it's back to Foxboro to play the Browns next Sunday.

Sox/Angels preview tonight, along with my thoughts on all the other series. For now, enjoy the few hours you won't be hearing from me. Peace.


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