It must be pretty difficult to talk about an undefeated, nationally praised NFL team, right? Tommasse from Pats Pulpit has graciously stopped by this morning to do just that: I asked him five questions about his Patriots as they pertain to the season to date and this Sunday's game, and he provided us with some interesting responses. As always, be sure to check out Pats Pulpit later on today to see my reciprocating interview. To the questions (they're in bold)!
Bill Belichick has always been a coach who knows how to prioritize - it's apparent in his building of the roster and his game-planning. Where then, on Belichick's list of priorities, do you believe going 19-0 lies?
PP: I think it's now on the list, but I don't think it's very high yet. While the rest of the world started wondering after Week 3, I'm pretty sure Belichick has been employing his usual week-to-week, one-game-at-a-time mentality. After the Indy game, things change a little -- a little. Asked about it over the last few weeks, he said it's not even a consideration.
Now it's on the radar, but the next four teams pose very legitimate challenges, and he's concerned with about winning Sunday, the next game on the schedule. Even after Dec. 9 (Pittsburgh), should New England still be undefeated, earning the top seed will still be a priority.
But when there's "nothing left to play for?" Belichick, as much as he is a coach, is a football historian. A team wins the Super Bowl every year. No team has ever gone undefeated in a 16-game season. But until Week 17, it's week-to-week, one-game-at-a-time.
The Pats have taken a lot of flack for "running up the score" and keeping their starters in late. There's something to be said for playing a full 60 minutes, but at what point does the risk of injury trump keeping players such as Brady and Moss in the game?
PP: Every situation is different, but in general not until the last half of the last quarter of any game (so, the last 7:30). We saw briefly what Life Without Brady could be like when Matt Cassel entered the Miami game in relief and promptly gave up 7 points. Yes, an injury to Brady would result in that reality, but never, ever do you play football thinking about getting injured. When you start "playing safe," that's when you invite mistakes, that's when you invite injury.
The only other exception is if it's a very physical game and opposing players start "bending rules." You'd hate to see any player on any team taken out with a cheap shot. Most players realize that these are guys' careers and livelihoods, and they will be made to answer by the league and by other players (you never know who will be a future teammate -- or a future opponent), but it's happened before.
Other than Brady - whose numbers at this point can only be described as "ludicrous" - who has been the Pats' MVP to date? Moss? Samuel? Vrabel? Other? (For the record, from an outsider's view, my vote would be Wes Welker.)
PP: I think you absolutely have to go with Randy Moss. Never mind the stat sheet, which is plain and clear enough. What makes moss the MVP is what he forces other teams to do just because he's on the field. He helps every facet of the game plan. He's so much of a threat that teams feel it necessary to double-cover him on almost every play. Never mind that he often makes the play anyway, but that extra player on him means one less guy covering another receiver, or playing zone, or defending the run, or blitzing. In that manner, Moss might be the Patriots' best blitz blocker. And while some of that might seem obvious, consider how much pressure that takes off the offensive line. Consider how much pressure that takes from Brady, or the running backs, or the other receivers. Less pressure means fewer mistakes and probably fewer injuries.
On top of all of that, the better the offense plays, the less pressure there is on the defense. While New England has shown the ability to score very quickly, they've also ground out their typical long, methodical, punishing drives that fatigue opposing defenses. The difference, especially with Moss, is that there is little doubt as there has been in the last (like last year) that they can sustain those drives.
Welker has been amazing. I thought he was fantastic with Miami, and I couldn't believe they traded him to New England. But Welker doesn't do what he does if Moss doesn't do what he does. I hope New England finds a way to keep both of them.
Looking at your team's remaining schedule - as well as possible playoff opponents such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, etc. - is there any team that scares you?
PP: I don't know. I'm more scared of simply playing the games than of the teams. There's simply not a team in the league that matches up, and that's not being egotistical or a homer. That's just the way it is. The other reason other teams don't scare me is that Bill Belichick is one of the elite coaches in the game. I can probably count on both hands the number of major coaching mistakes he's made since he's been in New England, and this is his eighth year.
If anything, I'm worried (but not scared) of a key player suffering an injury or of the players who have made this season so successful simply having a bad game.
But the games that concern me the most include this weekend, depending on the status of Marshawn Lynch (let's face it, if Lynch is out, the Patriots will have to play very poorly). Pittsburgh and the Giants are probably the only other two, but Pittsburgh is in Gillette Stadium, so I think that tips the scale decidedly. Indy has never really scared me in a fair game, and without Freeney, even less so.
If the Patriots get that far, I think playing Dallas would be a challenge, because they could be a different team in February than they were in October.
Obviously, it's going to be somewhat difficult for a young Bills squad to stick with a team as talented and veteran as New England on Sunday. Speaking objectively, if you were game-planning to play the Pats, what would be your strategies?
PP: First, I'm really glad that I don't need to actually do this the way, say, Perry Fewell does.
I think an offense needs to do two things to beat the Patriots defense: run the ball, and on passing downs get rid of the ball quickly. Buffalo's success running the ball will probably depend greatly on whether or not Lynch plays. The Bills' effectiveness running the ball is less important than that they keep doing it. Get the Patriots playing run and, more importantly, wear down the front seven as much as possible.
Don't wait for plays to develop in the passing game. Lots of short, high-percentage passes that keep the drive alive and chew up time and yardage. You can pick your spots to do deep, but the short passes will make the Patriots front seven less effective, because they won't get to the QB, and wear them down because they'll have to chase ball carriers and not just rush the QB.
Defensively, do what New England did to St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI: bump the receivers at the line, throw them off their routes, disrupt timing. Brady will kill you with short passes. He's done it his entire career, so pressure and blitzing typically don't work unless you have some elite d-backs to go with it. Keep a linebacker on the Patriots running back, whether it's a running play or a passing play, especially if it's Kevin Faulk.
I just don't see that it's possible to stop New England. Contain them the best you can, and depend on the offense to get their job done, too.
Thanks again to Tommasse for stopping by and giving us the low-down on the Pats (not that the national media hasn't covered every finger-sucking angle of this story already). For some of the most cutting-edge Pats coverage out there, stop by Pats Pulpit as we get nearer to game day.