Friday, February 1, 2013

Beer and football III — playoffs, week three
AFC Championship

The game: Ravens at Patriots
The beer: Great Divide Wolfgang Doppelbock Lager
The result: Fuuuuuuck
The commentary: In my spare time I make pizza. My daughter favors Boboli's whole wheat crust, onto which I dump a bunch (too much!) (but so good!) of pizza sauce and cheese all over it. The sneaky part, though, is the shredded carrots I hide under the sauce. It's not like she doesn't eat her vegetables, it's just that she can never have too many, right? A. and I are the best parents. The best, Jerry.

Pizza was on the dinner menu two Sundays ago. What else happened that night? Ohhh… the unpleasantness. G. goes to bed with a lead and the Pats score zero points after that? I wish I'd gone to bed too. Sportswriters, analysts and blogger hacks (!) can fret over the common denominator between this loss and the two Super Bowl ones against the Giants, even last year's playoff win against the Ravens: physical defenses that take away the middle of the field. Will Belichick address this in the offseason? Or will it continue to be a problem as the good guys cruise through the parity of the regular season before encountering bend-but-don't-break defenses in January?

In attempting to diagnose the root cause—and understanding that I know nothing about football—the key on offense might be to find a vertical receiver who doesn't immediately fall down after every catch. In the Spring and Summer there were concerns among the small number of educated local football observers that Lloyd wasn't quite the downfield threat he was made out to be. Those observers were correct. The PFW boys have joked for months about how every single one of his receptions was an event, like he makes some crazy leaping/twisting/falling catch that you can't even believe and then goes nowhere with it. Nowhere! The majority of Welker's yards come with the ball already in his hands. Hernandez and Gronkowski, too. But I'll be shocked if Lloyd totaled fifty after-the-catch yards all season, maybe four or five after-contact yards. We don't need a once-in-a-lifetime receiver like Randy Moss but we do need someone who can make plays when Welker (who I think will be back) and the tight ends are held in check while four rushers put pressure on Brady. Unfortunately Belichick's made some terrible decisions when it comes to drafting at this position—Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, the doomed Taylor Price, etc. He can get by for another year or two but he desperately needs to get younger players. Younger, talented players. In the meantime, Deion Branch will probably break my daughter's heart by bouncing on and off the roster all next season. Same thing with Edelman on the game-day roster—he does some good outside of punt returns but simply can't stay on the field. (Regardless, I think he'll be back too.) I wonder, though, what the depth chart will look like in 2015… anyone have Reche Caldwell's number?

From another point of view, it is hard to complain about an offense that performs so well year after year. They could trot out the same crew in September and be just as productive, even with the injuries that plagued them this season. Sometimes you just have a bad game. OK. Sometimes it ends your season. Well, shit.

So what now? Let's talk about the defense. Again. Talib goes down (seriously, his two injuries this season occurred on his two best plays) and suddenly special teamers are covering Anquan Boldin. It turns out the Jets made a good single-season move in signing LaRon Landry… maybe the Pats can go the free agency route too and talk Jarius Byrd into replacing former Oregon teammate Patrick Chung (who absolutely will not be back). Then they can spend one or two fewer picks on corners and safeties (still the top offseason priority) and target a can't-miss receiver and a safety or linebacker who can occasionally cover the middle of the goddamn field. (ESPN's James Walker, in counting down the top forty players in the AFC East, somehow placed both Talib and Spikes—an easy player to like when he's thumping running backs around the line of scrimmage but I doubt he could cover me twelve yards down the seam—ahead of Ninkovich, who is only the team's defensive MVP after Wilfork. Really guy? I'm not sure Talib and Spikes combined for as many snaps as Ninkovich played and I guarantee they didn't make half as many plays as he did. I love when people who watch one game out of every three let us know what's what.) Dennard was a pleasant surprise—even if some considered him a third-round talent I don't think anyone expected him to be the team's best cornerback next year (I don't see Talib returning). McCourty is locked in at safety. The rest of the secondary, in all its base, nickel and dime packages, is up for grabs as far as I'm concerned. The line is good and the linebackers are good enough (if Mayo didn't evolve beyond a tackle machine this past season then he never will). Corners and safeties: that's where improvement will make the biggest difference. "Two or three rookies who can start immediately." Dennard is one. How about one more? Two more? Don't forget "a receiver capable of playing significant snaps by Thanksgiving." Three players will get it done. And it's the same three players that would have put the Patriots in New Orleans this weekend!

Cue up the world's cutest toddler-sized violin (it's purple with sparkles): after reaching the Super Bowl in G's first season and the AFC Championship in her second, the Patriots have yet to win it all in her lifetime. Madness! But with this quarterback? This division? A worst-case-scenario home playoff game as a fourth seed? I like my girl's chances in 2013. And 2014. And 2015…

But man, look at her! She's almost two!

Up next: Maybe G. and I will do this again next season with new beer. Go Niners. Cheers!