The undefeated New England Patriots, winners of 19 games in a row, kick off a new four-game segment of their schedule this week against some of the NFL's mettle. Of the Patriots' first four wins, three have come against teams that reside in or near their division cellar. Of their next four opponents, three currently reside near or atop their division.
It starts with 3-1 Seattle, the NFC West leader who visits Foxborough Sunday at 1 p.m. on the heels of a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Rams in which they blew a 27-10 fourth-quarter lead. Despite that loss, the Seahawks are without question the most balanced team on the Patriots' schedule to date.
The Patriots have beaten a team with a strong offense, but no defense (Indy). They have beaten two teams with strong defenses but no offenses (Miami and Buffalo) and they have beaten one team that is neither strong on offense nor defense (Arizona). Seattle, which is ranked sixth on defense and 13th on offense, is the first team on the Patriots' schedule that can bring it on both sides of the ball.
"This is one of the most talented teams we've seen in a long time,"
coach Bill Belichick said to open his Wednesday press conference. "They
have a lot of talented players at every position. They're fast on defense and
turn the ball over. They're productive offensively and lead the league in points
off turnovers. Alex Bannister is an exceptional special teams player. They're
solid all the way through. I can see why everyone is so high on them."
When one considers that the Patriots have not yet played their best football, keeping their winning streak alive will be tough unless they pick this week to put things together and play a complete game in all three phases.
The problem in doing that is threefold. First, the defense is still depending
on a pair of nose tackles that are inexperienced at the position, which has
made New England vulnerable up the middle against the run, although rookie Vince Wilfork is certainly improving. The second hurdle to clear is an offense that
is shorthanded due to injury at wide receiver and maybe running back. And finally,
New England's special teams unit has been inconsistent at best throughout the
season's first month. So far, the Patriots have managed to get by, but can they
quickly clear some of those hurdles and start playing improved football?
"We haven't played an all-around great game yet," tackle Matt Light said. "We keep trying to work toward that. We need better communication, better preparation and we need to do the little things you have to do to steadily improve in this league."
The Patriots have faced only multi-faceted offensive attack this year, and that came in the opener against the Colts, who lit New England up for 446 yards but were undone by three red zone turnovers. Seattle isn't as talented offensively as the Colts, but does have a diverse passing attack and an impressive runner in Shaun Alexander.
Alexander may not be as known to the Patriots as Indy's Edgerrin James, but might just be the most unheralded star runner in football with 382 rushing yards and five touchdowns in four games after a season in which he earned his first Pro Bowl berth with 1,435 rushing yards. Alexander is the same type of runner as New England's Corey Dillon and can run with speed and power. Seattle will try to run him out of the I-formation up the middle over the nose and then get him to the outside at the second level, which means safety Rodney Harrison might need a big game to prevent Alexander from making the big play on the ground.
But speaking of big plays, those have been a problem for New England through the air. Through four games, the Patriots have allowed seven pass plays of 40 or more yards after allowing only five such plays all of last season. Combine that with a defense that allowed only 89 rushing yards per game last year and is allowing 122 per game in the early going this year and you have cause for concern with a playoff caliber team and NFC Super Bowl contender coming to town.
14th meeting. Seattle leads series 7-6 and has won the last five. The two teams haven't met since back in 1993 when they actually played twice with Seattle, with the Seahawks winning 10-9 at the Kingdome and 17-14 at Foxboro Stadium.
These are the difficult workweeks for the preparation-heavy Patriots. New England has not played Seattle in the Bill Belichick era and hasn't played it in 11 years for that matter. So there is no knowledge of the Seahawks personnel and no head-to-head tape to break down. Instead, the Patriots will have to go off what they have seen from Seattle and also from studying the coaching staff and their tendencies.
While both teams are on an equal playing field in that regard, it hurts the Patriots somewhat because they are such a game plan heavy team reliant on attacking weaknesses and making opponents go away from strengths to win. It's difficult to accurately assess those qualities without firsthand knowledge of a team.
The Patriots did lock horns with Seattle defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes when he held the same job in Denver back in 2001 and 2002 - the Patriots lost to Denver in both seasons -- and they are familiar with former New England defensive lineman Brandon Mitchell, now part of the Seahawks defensive line rotation. But beyond that, this is a different challenge than what the Patriots faced the last two weeks against division rivals Miami and Buffalo or even the first two weeks when it played the quite familiar Colts and Cardinals, who run an offensive scheme similar to that of the Colts, allowing for some preparation carryover.
"It's always tough playing a team we haven't played before. It's going to be a learning week for us," Light said. "You just have to get to know these guys and that's what this week is for. It's not a big problem' it just takes a great effort this week."
--Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck will be coming home to play an NFL game for the first time as a starting quarterback. Hasselbeck's father, Don, played tight end for the Patriots from 1977-1983 and Matt grew up in Westwood, Mass., before attending Boston College.
--Seattle is one of only two teams the Patriots have not played during the
Bill Belichick era. The other is San Francisco, who will also visit Foxborough
later this season. The Seahawks are also the only non-division team the Patriots
have played twice in one regular season, which took place in 1993, the only
year the 16-game schedule was played over 18 weeks with each team getting two
bye weeks. Both teams had rookie quarterbacks that year that were selected Nos.
1 and 2 overall with New England's Drew Bledsoe losing both times to Seattle's
Rick Mirer, who was the 1993 Rookie of the Year.
The last time the teams met, however, the Patriots were at the opposite end of the success spectrum. The loss to Seattle suffered Oct. 24, 1993 kicked off a seven-game losing skid that was part of a 3-26 span that touched three seasons. Today's Patriots are in the midst of a 25-4 stretch over 29 games.
There's more. Since the teams last met, the Rams moved to St. Louis, the Raiders moved back to Oakland, the Browns moved to Baltimore and the Oilers moved to Tennessee. The league then expanded from 28 to 32 teams, adding clubs in Jacksonville, and Carolina while putting new clubs back in Cleveland and Houston. Three different teams have won two Super Bowls in the 11 years between meetings (Denver, Dallas and New England). Mike Holmgren is Seattle's third head coach in that span while Bill Belichick is the Patriots' third.
--Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren is a member of the competition committee that issued the point of emphasis regarding defensive illegal contact that was arguably aimed at the Patriots in the wake of last year's AFC Championship Game. But that committee recently changed a rule two weeks into the season, one the Patriots just happened to use to their advantage in their first two games against Indy and Arizona. The change makes it a 15-yard penalty to call consecutive timeouts to distract an opposing player as New England did to throw off Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt. Previously, officials ignored the second timeout signal and did not award the stoppage in play. But since not every player in the league is familiar with the rules, the Patriots used the back-to-back timeout ploy to distract opposing field goal units.
"That's unsportsmanlike conduct. That's not a timeout thing," Holmgren clarified. "It was deemed on the committee that ... first of all, you can't call back-to-back timeouts. It's not to be ignored by the officials if it affects the other team. If it affects the other team and it was deemed to be specifically to disrupt the kick in this case, then that was deemed to be unsportsmanlike conduct, particularly after the offending team was warned after it happened.
"That's what happened in that instance. When I was told about that, they asked me what I thought we should do and I asked, 'Was the team talked to? Yes. And they still did it again? Yes.' Then it's unsportsmanlike conduct. That's the penalty. They can call unsportsmanlike conduct for a bunch of stuff. They don't do it very much, but that's why that rule is in there."
--The Patriots' 19-game winning streak has been marked by an even-keeled approach that defies human nature. It's a sign of the leadership in the locker room that the Patriots have maintained humility while accomplishing something no other team has while also winning a Super Bowl in the midst of the streak.
"We've stayed focused and not let any outside forces come in and break the chemistry up that we have," All-Pro Richard Seymour said. "We've won close games, we've won when we're supposed to win, we won the tough games, we won the overtime games and we made plays when we needed to make them. We never got too high or too low. We stayed even keel and we played consistent throughout. I think you can go a long way when you do that." Who could argue?
--The Patriots will attempt to keep a couple of other streaks alive this week.
With a win, they will tie the 1933-34 Bears for the longest regular season winning
streak of all time at 17 and will extend their home winning streak to 14 games.
Seattle and New England are remarkably even statistically through four games.
The Patriots have gained 1,382 yards to Seattle's 1,362. The Seahawks have allowed
1,168 yards to New England's 1,245. The biggest difference between the two is
that Seattle is plus-10 in turnover differential while the Patriots are plus-2.
--QB Tom Brady was asked by WBZ television reporter Steve Burton if he had
any advice for the Red Sox and starter Pedro Martinez, who started Game 2 of
the ALCS and Brady said, "Pedro doesn't need my help. C'mon, I'm thinking
BY THE NUMBERS:
114:24 - the total time in minutes and seconds out of a possible 1136:34 the Patriots have trailed games during their 19-game winning streak - 9.8 percent of the time. They have trailed in seven of their 19 wins.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"Wake up Monday morning and tell me that it's the dream job. No, it's a pretty cool job. I can see why someone would want to play quarterback even with the bumps, bruises and stitches." -- Tom Brady on appearing on the cover of Men's Journal for having the world's No. 1 dream job.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
WR Bethel Johnson claims he doesn't know why he was inactive for last week's
game against the Dolphins despite being one of the few healthy receivers the
Patriots have on the roster. But then again, maybe he does know.
"You have to perform. I guess I didn't have a perfect practice,"
he said as if that might have been the problem.
A Boston Herald report, citing multiple anonymous sources, indicated that Johnson might have balked when asked to learn some new plays with Deion Branch and Troy Brown out of action. He said he has no problem making changes because of the injuries.
"You have to adjust when guys go down, but my role has been the same.
I just go out and do my job. If (the coach) likes it, he likes it.
"I was surprised (when they told me I was not active)," he continued. "I just go by the decision. I don't ask questions. If you want to know why, you'll have to ask (Coach Belichick). I'm disappointed in some of the things I've done this year because I've worked hard. Mentally, it's been more challenging than my rookie year."
Johnson also was benched for a game his rookie year when he admittedly wasn't
giving the necessary effort to stay on the field. "I was a rookie. I've
grown," Johnson said.
Asked if the latest benching would serve as motivation, Johnson asked rhetorically,
"You think that works? It doesn't work for me. I'm not sensitive."
It remains to be seen if Johnson will be active this week against Seattle.
--WR Deion Branch remains doubtful for this week, a virtual certainty that
he will miss his third consecutive game. Branch continues to recover from a
knee injury that the Patriots hope will heal in time for him to contribute this
season. It has to be considered a positive sign for the severity of the injury
that Branch has not been placed on injured reserve.
--WR Troy Brown's shoulder injury is expected to keep him out of action for
second straight game. Brown has only played five of 20 quarters of football
--RB Corey Dillon, who is listed as questionable for the Seattle game, appeared
to be fine after tweaking his ankle in the third quarter of Sunday's win over
Miami. Dillon refused to talk to the media Wednesday but walked through the
locker room without a limp. Brown and Branch never appeared in the locker room
while it was open to the media. Dillon was not at practice, but rather spent
the session inside with team trainers.
--QB Tom Brady has five stitches across his chin after being knocked around
in the Dolphins game and he is still bothered by the shoulder injury that he
originally suffered in the 2002 season finale against Miami. Brady played all
of last season with discomfort before undergoing offseason surgery last February.
He remains on the injury report as probable with the shoulder injury and will
play, but he will once again have to find a way to get the job done with a shorthanded
offense in the face of the pressure defense have brought at him since Week 2
--CB Tyrone Poole missed last week's game with a knee injury but is not on
the injury report this week. Poole is expected to fill his starting spot opposite
Ty Law with Asante Samuel moving back to his nickel back role. Poole has been
susceptible to the big play this season and is likely to be challenged in that
area by Koren Robinson, who will certainly test Poole's knee.
A fast start is critical. That's what the Patriots will hope for against Seattle this weekend on both sides of the ball, especially defensively. According to Bill Belichick, the Seahawks score almost every time they get the ball at the beginning of a game orhalf.That'sawinningformula the Patriots themselves have mastered.
The Patriots have scored first in 16 of their 19 straight wins, including each
of their last 12. Belichick is stressing Seattle's ability to fire out of the
gates this week to make sure his team is prepared to play from the time it leaves
the locker room.
Look for the Patriots defense to start the game with eight defenders in the
box to put the clamps on Shaun Alexander while also bringing extra rushers at
Matt Hasselbeck to force the ball out of his hands early. In doing that, the
Patriot corners will need to by aggressive and physical to get a jam on the
receivers and disrupt the timing of a fast-tempo, West Coast passing attack
that is designed to deliver the ball quickly and in rhythm. Seattle has been
exceptional offensively in the red zone, an area where the Patriots have made
some big plays and where they will blitz Hasselbeck from the edges of the formation.
New England has to find a way to turn Seattle over as well. Hasselbeck has thrown
just two interceptions while the offense has lost just one fumble.
Offensively, the Patriots need to be productive on first down to avoid third-and-long
situations. Seattle leads the league with eight interceptions and has recovered
five of seven forced fumbles. They are a fast, ball-hawking unit that takes
advantage of advantageous situations.
"They lead the league in three-and-outs," Belichick said. "It's
hard to get past their front four. They have a lot of speed on the ends and
Ray Rhodes has a lot of zone blitzes that are hard to handle. They have good
corners in (Marcus) Trufant and (Ken) Lucas and then it's hard to attack their
nickel because it's hard to find a receiver that's better than Bobby Taylor."
So the key for New England will be to stay in situations that allow for balanced
play calling while taking their shots down the field. Charlie Weis likes to
take shots on first down, but this might be a game where he looks to get into
a convertible situation on first down and looks at second down for what he calls
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots DE Richard Seymour vs. Seahawks LT Walter Jones.
This is strength vs. strength. Jones has been to four Pro Bowls and plays beside Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson to form one of the best left sides in football. Seymour has been relatively quiet in 2004 with 13 tackles and two sacks, and this isn't the game where one would expect him to get himself back on track. He must hold his ground against the run and use some twists and stunts to generate pressure.
Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Seahawks C Robbie Tobeck.
Wilfork has come on of late and is third on the Patriots with 24 tackles. He has taken over the starting job earlier than expected, but will have his hands full against a powerful rushing attack that will target him in an effort to get through the front and into the secondary. He is coming off his best game, but he must occupy two blockers in this game to allow an inside linebacker to stop Shaun Alexander. This is a tough test for Wilfork and the Patriots front against one of the league's best offensive lines.
Patriots CB Ty Law vs. Seahawks WR Darrell Jackson.
Law is off to a slow start in 2004 with no interceptions and only one pass defensed through four games. He has been bothered by a sore hamstring, but hasn't missed any practice or game action. Jackson leads Seattle with 24 receptions for 336 yards and a touchdown, which came from 56 yards out. At 6-0, 201 pounds, Jackson presents a physical matchup for Law.
Patriots pass protection vs. Seahawks zone blitz.
Quarterback Tom Brady has taken some shots the last two weeks as teams come hard after him to disrupt the Patriots passing game and his five stitches provide the needed evidence. With Deion Branch and Troy Brown out of action, Brady is more susceptible to the blitz because his options are limited and easier to handle in coverage. Seattle can bring it with four rushers thanks to speedy ends Grant Wistrom and Chike Okeafor, but the Patriots must keep Brady upright in this game and give him extra time to find what receivers he has left. Seattle is averaging four sacks per game and limiting passers to a 61.8 rating. Brady is coming off the least productive day of his career, which Mike Holmgren said makes him nervous. The matchup here seems to favor Seattle.
If Corey Dillon joins Deion Branch and Troy Brown in street clothes, it could be a long day for the Patriots offense. Sure, New England has overcomes tons of injuries over their last 19 games, but enough is enough. Dillon has been a tremendous addition to the offense and there just isn't a proven back on the roster behind him that is capable of supplying a running threat. Dillon is listed as questionable and sat out practice Wednesday, but it's not yet known if he will play. Branch and Brown are long shots to return this week. Running back Kevin Faulk should be able to handle an increased workload as he works back into his normal role, but he certainly isn't ready to take over for Dillon. If Dillon can't play, Patrick Pass and Rabih Abdullah will share the carries.