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Patriots Cruise to 30-17 Win Over 49ers

Monday, November 21, 2016 5:28
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As they often do, the Patriots played down to their competition for a half and then turned up the intensity to pull away for a 30-17 victory in Santa Clara over the 49ers.  The win temporarily gives the 8-2 Patriots the best record in the AFC, as Kansas City lost and the Raiders play tomorrow night. Next week it’s off to New York to play the hapless Jets, although it’s dangerous to overlook division games.

Don’t let the final score or the stats fool you; this game was much closer than it should have been for the first three quarters. In slick conditions, the Pats defense allowed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to complete 8 of 9 passes and notch a 155.8 QB rating for the first half. They simply couldn’t cover the short zones, and even though they had five sacks at the half, they were lucky the 49ers shot themselves in the foot to stall several drives.

Meanwhile, the offense was a strange tale of two halves, but not in the usual way. In the first and fourth quarters (including the first play of the second quarter), the Pats ran 45 plays for 336 yards, one punt, and all 30 points. In between, they ran 27 plays for 108 yards, four punts, and zero points. That was one vast canyon of lousy offense in the middle of the game.

The Pats best linebacker, Dont’a Hightower spent most to the game rushing the passer, and he got a sack and forced a fumble. However, this left the short zones undermanned, and Kaepernick freely attacked them with crossing and out patterns that kept the chains moving.

Elandon Roberts was out of position too often and had just one assisted tackle yesterday, and Rob Ninkovich just isn’t working that well at linebacker — he should be moved back to defensive end ASAP. Shea McClellin got four tackles and newcomer Kyle Van Noy made his debut, and actually looked okay in limited action. However, as the defensive lapses pile up, the Jamie Collins trade looks worse by the week. 

Safeties were the top three tacklers for the Patriots: Patrick Chung had eight (plus a sack), Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty had six apiece. You know the linebackers stunk up the joint when three safeties lead the team in tackles, because they were stuck cleaning up the mess the LBs left.

And even with the 49ers gaudy passing stats, I thought the cornerbacks played pretty well. Logan Ryan got beaten at least twice when he had tight coverage, and he still knocked away two passes. And Malcolm Butler wasn’t targeted much, and the one pass he gave up was a bad decision by Kaepernick that somehow inched over Butler’s hand to the receiver. All in all, I even thought Eric Rowe looked decent.

Jabaal Sheard was a healthy scratch from the defensive line, a unit that was inconsistent against San Francisco. Trey Flowers got four tackles, which is impressive from a Pats D-lineman. But interior linemen Alan Branch Malcom Brown didn’t do enough to slow down the run, although they did a decent job pushing the pocket back. Just not one of their best games, overall. Oh, and Chris Long just can’t seem to figure out how to set the edge against the run; just isn’t in his game.

On offense, the final stat sheet looks amazing. Quarterback Tom Brady grew up 25 miles from SanFran, and he enjoyed his return: 24 of 40 (60%) for 280 yards, 4 touchdowns, and a 114.6 QB rating. He wasn’t as consistent as usual, but twice he scrambled around in the pocket to buy time and then made amazing throws for touchdowns.

His TD pass to receiver Malcolm Mitchell was incredible, just high enough to get over the defender’s outstretched hands, and in stride so Mitchell could run for a 56-yard touchdown. A thing of beauty.

With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the bulk of the receiving chores went to Julian Edelman, who was targeted 17 times, but hauled in just 8 for 77 yards (1 TD). Mitchell ended up with 4 catches for 98 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. But aside from that, the best receivers seemed to be…

The running backs.  James White caught all six passes thrown his way (63 yards and a TD), and the returning Dion Lewis caught three of five targets (26 yards). So the completion percentage to running backs was 82%, to everyone else it was 52%. Note to Josh McDaniels, put in more swing passes and wheel routes to your running backs.

As for the running game itself, the Patriots dominated when they did run: 171 yards and an average of 5.7 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount did the heavy lifting, as usual: 19 carries for 124 yards (no touchdowns this week). Lewis was his usual shifty self, gaining 4.6 yards a carry in limited action.

The offensive line opened gaping holes in the running game. I only wish the team stuck with it more; they could have physically dominated and worn down the 49ers defense. There were a few penalties on the O-line (I’m looking at you, Nate Solder), but for the most part, the pass protection was good enough, giving Brady time to work through all his reads. Although sometimes no receiver was open, but that’s not on the O-line.

On special teams, rookie Cyrus Jones had some nice kickoff returns, and Danny Amendola returned the first punt of the game 30 yards to set up great field position. However, kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another extra point, pushing his first attempt wide-right. After that miss, they moved to the left hashmark for subsequent attempts, and he was perfect. Maybe the field was bad on that spot, but something has to be done before Gostkowski costs the team a game.

The coaches didn’t make adjustments as quickly as usual. Perhaps in trying to replace Collins they have to run more experimentation and/or give players more latitude than usual. But in the past, they would usually have done a better job shoring up the short defensive zones and would have stayed committed to the run longer.

So where does that leave us? 8-2 isn’t a bad place to be, but letting a bad 49ers team hang around for three quarters wasn’t great. The Jets are always dangerous in NY, so the Patriots will have to play better for 60 minutes, not just for 30, if they expect to get to 9-2.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: A close call, but James White gets the nod; for his production in the passing game and nice job picking up the blitz. Could have gone to Blount, but the long runs didn’t make up for his 11 plays of two yards or less.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: For the second time in three games, there were no turnovers by either team. (Trivia question: name the last year the Patriots had two such games in one season… Answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “It was good enough to beat San Fran, but they gotta figure out the linebackers or that defense will get ‘em killed in the playoffs.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 8-2!

PPS. Trivia answer:
This will make you happy, the last time was the 2014, season, when the won the Super Bowl!


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