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Sunday, January 30, 2005 

Scouting the Opposition

This season, New England and Philadelphia shared 4 common opponents, courtesy of the NFL schedule makers who matched up both the AFC and NFC East against the AFC North this year.

New England
10/31 at Pittsburgh 20-34
11/28 Baltimore 24-3
12/5 at Cleveland 42-15
12/12 Cincinnati 35-28

10/24 at Cleveland 34-31 (ot)
10/31 Baltimore 15-10
11/7 at Pittsburgh 3-27
1/2 at Cincinnati 10-38

Obviously, you have to throw out Philadelphia's game against Cincinnati, since none of their starters saw much action. It is interesting that both the Patriots and Eagles gave up 35+ points against the Bengals.

The other 3 games provide a dramatic contrast.

Cleveland had such a poor season that I'm tempted to ignore these games. New England dominated that game, with 412 yards of total offense, 225 on the ground, 27 first downs, and 39:08 time of possession. And it wasn't turnovers - both teams lost 2 fumbles, while Tom Brady threw one interception compared to Cade McCown's two picks.

But the Browns were 3-9 after that game and in full free fall mode after head coach Butch Davis resigned; by contrast, they took a 3-3 record into their game against the Eagles a month and a half earlier. That game was as even statistically as the score. Philadephia gained more yards (488, 367 passing, 121 rushing) than Cleveland (394, 229 passing, 165 rushing) but had fewer first downs (23-27) while time of possession was basically even (34:33 PH, 35:25 CL). McNabb lit it up for 376 yards, including 100+ each to Terrell Owens and Todd Pinkston. But even a 3-1 edge in turnovers nearly wasn't enough when Jeff Garcia ran for the tying TD with 30 seconds left in regulation. It took a 50 yard field from David Akers midway through overtime to win it for the Eagles.

Baltimore is a strange team. They were just 3-5 on the road this year, which kept them out of the playoffs with a 9-7 overall record. I thought good defenses overcame home-field advantage? The two games New England and Philadelphia played against Baltimore are a more interesting comparison than the Cleveland games because Baltimore entered both games playing well.

Against Philadelphia, the Baltimore offense actually outgained the Eagles 327-298, and held the ball for nearly 34 minutes, but that game was a perfect example of a "bend-but-do-not-break" defense that turns statistics on their heads. The Eagles led 9-3 in a battle of field goals early in the fourth quarter, when a McNabb-to-Owens TD extended their lead to 15-3 with 9:12 left. A Baltimore TD just over 3 minutes later made it a 15-10 final.

When the Patriots played the Ravens, it was billed as one of the top games of the year. CBS even rescheduled the game to a 4:15 ET start to build a bigger audience. The Ravens were 7-3, the Patriots 9-1. The conditions were awful, with heavy rain throughout, but the Patriots dominated in a 24-3 rout. Pick any stat you want, it wasn't close: NE 314-124 total yards, NE 144-77 rushing yards, NE 18-8 first downs, NE 35:54 time of possession and +2 turnovers.

Pittsburgh was red-hot when they knocked off both of these previously unbeaten teams in back-to-back weeks. The Eagles offense was dreadful in their game, managing just 113 yards (and 7 first downs) including a meager 23 yards rushing on 9 carries. Both QBs threw an interception, and the Eagles did cough up a fumble, so the Steelers won the turnover battle - but not as dramatically as they did against the Patriots the week before (+4). By comparison, the Patriots gained 248 yards and 19 first downs. But both teams held the ball for under 19 minutes (17:02 NE, 18:11 PH), and were never in either game after a poor start. If you're wondering about Terrell Owens, he had 7 catches for 53 yards, but his first catch came after the Steelers had built a 21-0 lead.

I'm sure Philadelphia would have done better the second time around against Pittsburgh, just like New England did, but there is a pattern of Philadelphia struggling on offense against good defenses. The question is, can Philadelphia's defense make a few big plays and hold New England in check too?

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