Regular perfection: New England Patriots 16-0 after beating New York Giants 38-35

New England Patriots finished their 2007 regular season a perfect 16-0 after beating the New York Giants 38-35 in a hard fought game on the road. Patriots trailed 28-16 in the third quarter but were once again able to rally for the victory.

The offensive line had a tough outing, in part, probably, because backup Ryan O’Callaghan had his first start of the season at right tackle, in place of the injured Nick Kaczur. Russ Hochstein struggled at right guard. On one particular play, the second in the third quarter, Hochstein and left guard Logan Mankins pulled right into each other. Left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen also had their hands full. Certainly throughout the first three quarters the line had difficulty getting their pass protection reads right which resulted in pass rushers occasionally getting clear shots at Brady. Koppen did yet another masterful job of shotgun snapping.

Runningback Laurence Maroney had the best game of his career even though he was often decked in the backfield because of the line’s inconsistent blocking and the Giants quick, strong and aggressive front seven. Maroney finished with a lowly 46 yards on 19 carries. He scored two touchdowns and with the exception for one odd, busted-looking draw play he ran hard throughout the game and he hit the holes when they were available and did his best to move the pile when they weren’t. He also scored a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter. His stats weren’t spectacular but his play was.

Also spectacular was quarterback Tom Brady. He completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns, setting a new record for most touchdown passes by quarterback in one season (50). Among the attributes that makes Brady the best quarterback in the NFL is his ability to stay in the pocket and deliver the ball almost no matter how hard the pass rush. Brady displayed that ability repeatedly against the Giants, including on one play in the fourth quarter where he deftly eluded the pressure by stepping up in the pocket and throwing the ball to wide receiver Donte Stallworth, seemingly without even looking for him.

Patriots have so many weapons in the passing game it’s almost impossible to shut it down. Wes Welker caught 11 passes for 122 yards, Faulk eight for 64 yards, Watson four for 38 and Stallworth 3 for 32. It was, however, wide receiver Randy Moss who had the biggest night. He hauled in six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including a 65-yard bomb down the right sideline on a 3rd & 10 play in the fourth quarter when the Patriots trailed 28-23. Moss said after the game that the Giants had ran a “trap-coverage” on Welker at the sticks, leaving the safety hopelessly out matched and Moss wide open. With the score Moss set the record for most touchdown receptions in a season (23).

A couple of things surprised me. One was that the Patriots didn’t use a single four wide-receiver set. Instead they would used Watson in spread formations. The Patriots also didn’t use the no-huddle offense in an attempt to gas Giants’ pass rushers. On the ground, the Patriots did a lot of zone-blocking when traps, pulling linemen and man-blocking perhaps could have been more successful against the Giants’ hard-charging defensive line.

Patriots also used tight-ends in pass protection substantially more than they usually do, which is to say they did it a small number of times. Watson did a good job on at least one occasion on helping Light block defensive end Osi Umenyiora. His performance in the run blocking was less impressive. On one play Michael Strahan pushed Watson straight back into Maroney.

For all of Patriots struggles up front Brady was only sacked once and it was probably Maroney’s fault and not the line’s. Giants sent six pass rushers and Maroney picked up a defensive back rushing on the outside instead of Reggie Torbor who shot the gap between Koppen and Hochstein.

On the 65-yard bomb to Moss Giants threw a clever blitz scheme at the right side of Patriots offensive line with Torbor looping inside the defensive end and a cornerback rushing the edge. O’Callaghan and Hochstein managed to steer the inside rushers in front of Brady and Faulk knocked the cornerback out of the blitz lane, all of which resulted in Brady getting enough time to chuck it deep.

Giants did good job keeping the game close by protecting their quarterback Eli Manning and by protecting the ball. Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie did a good job keeping outside linebacker Mike Vrabel from getting to Manning. The Patriots did, however, create enough pressure on the pocket to prevent Manning from stepping up to throw the ball which helped bring about a few incompletions, and linebacker Adalius Thomas sacked Manning once. What helped Manning greatly was the fact that the Giants held the lead for much of the game which forced the Patriots’ defense to think run first (add it to the famous Blueprint: To beat the Patriots, hold the lead for 60 minutes). Even so, Manning lead a successful two-minute drive that resulted in a touchdown in spite of his team trailing 16-14 at the outset of the drive.

The Giants were also able to take advantage of the personnel disarray on New England’s kick-coverage teams. The Patriots missed gunner Willie Andrews and wedge buster Kyle Eckel and the Giants capitalized by breaking a kick-off return 74 yards for a touchdown.