The short, short version of this article would only have one bullet point: I liked that the team won. At the end of the day, that's all that really matters. But Sunday's game was a bit of a mixed bag for the Patriots, some good and some bad. And while I easily could have forwent re-watching highlights last night in favor of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which was on ABC Family and is in the top 3 of any normal person's Holiday Movie List, I decided to go back over the game instead to pay closer attention to some of the things that worked - and some of the things that didn't.
What I Liked:
Defensive communication. Apart from one play where Steve Gregory bit on the playaction and let Brian Hartline get behind him, the defense seemed to be relatively in sync for most of the game. I think much of that has to do with the secondary finally getting some consistency in terms of who is on the field; it seems that the starters from here on out are Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at corner, Gregory and Devin McCourty at safety, with Kyle Arrington in the slot. Pat Chung was used as an extra body in the box in dime packages, which seemed to suit him. Having the same unit on the field is going to make it that much easier to get on the same page, which should in turn limit the number of mistakes they make down the stretch.
Grind-out offense. There has already been a lot of talk about the long drive in the fourth quarter to close out the game, so I won't go into too much detail here. The only thing I will say is that those are the drives that separate good teams from championship teams; I know I'm running it, you know I'm running it, and that big fat guy in the silver facepaint in the stands knows I'm running it, but I'm still going to be able to move the ball. What I really liked about that last drive was that it was nothing special - no fancy play calls and no tosses, just a lot of runs to the left and hard-earned yards from Stevan Ridley. I honestly think that the Patriots could have gone to that style of run earlier in the game if they had just committed to it, but figured that spreading Miami out was the way to go. I'll be very curious to see how the New England run game fares against Houston, and if the offensive gameplan will commit more to a balanced attack.
Pass rush. Even without Jermaine Cunningham and Chandler Jones, New England's pass rush was solid all day on Sunday. Trevor Scott filled in admirably, and Brandon Deaderick made some huge strides. There was even Jake Bequette sighting - he was seen sprinting to the sideline as fast as he could as the Patriots got flagged for too many men on the field. Regardless, what was once a weakness on the team is starting to find some real consistency; combine that with a slowly gelling secondary, and good things could be on the horizon for this unit.
Winning ugly. Hey...they can't all be blowouts. Sometimes, you need to win ugly - and that's exactly what Sunday's win was. What separates this victory from some of the other close games the Patriots have pulled out was that there was no late offensive collapse that let the opponent back into it. On the contrary, the offense came alive late after struggling all game and finally took the pressure off the defense, which had been keeping the team in it for most of the contest. This game reminded me a lot of the 2004 Patriots, who won almost all of their games by finishing their opponents off late after the defense kept them in it. And while it didn't do my stress levels any good, I think that this one is a huge confidence builder.
What I Didn't Like
Offensive line. It's hard to knock the O-line too much, as towards the end of the game New England was forced to throw a few jerseys and a Halloween mask on a couple of tackling dummies in order to field a unit. However, the bottom line is that Tommy B was sacked four times and under duress all day. There are a lot of question marks surrounding who is healthy and who isn't, and with the fierce Texans pass rush coming to town, coach Scarnecchia is going to have his work cut out for him this week.
Receiver depth. I don't know what the extent of Julian Edelman's injury is, but based on the recent signing of Donte Stallworth, I think it's safe to say that we won't be seeing Edelman this week. Stallworth should be able to help the team fairly quickly, as he was with the Patriots earlier in the year, but it's never a good thing to sign a player on Monday and need him to make a positive contribution to your offense just six days later. This week will be a real test for Josh McDaniels, as his weapons are as limited as they have been all year.
Playcalling. There was a good portion of the game where it seemed like Tom Brady simply couldn't figure out what to do with the ball. A ton of credit goes to Miami's defense there, as they were able to bracket Welker, take away the middle of the field, and generate pressure with only 4 (and sometimes 3) rushers. What resulted was a bunch of short screen passes, which had mixed results, and a few deeper sideline passes, which were mostly duds. The Patriots didn't even try to establish the run early, choosing instead to attack the weaker secondary and almost conceding that the running game wasn't going to be effective. Houston, like Miami, will be able to generate pressure without sending extra rushers and limit the rushing attack, and so New England is going to have to take some lessons from this past game and make some adjustments.