Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots calls an audible during NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York.
(September 24, 2011 – Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images North America)
New England Patriots (2-1) at Oakland Raiders (2-1)
(PhatzRadio / SI) — The Patriots are coming off a shocking loss to division rival Buffalo that saw Tom Brady throw four interceptions, matching his entire total from 2010. The Raiders, meanwhile, are relevant for the first time in a long time after downing the Jets.
Three Things You Should Care About
1. The Patriots have the best offense in the NFL … and the worst defense. Didn’t hear too much about the holes in that red-white-and-blue sieve of a unit through the first two weeks. It was all about the greatness of Tom Brady, who shredded the Dolphins for 517 passing yards in Week 1 and the Chargers for 423 more in Week 2. Rightfully so.
Throw in the 387 yards Brady amassed last weekend at Buffalo and you have more yards (1,327) than any quarterback has totaled through the first three weeks of a season. Congratulations. Unfortunately, the Patriots can’t throw out Brady’s four interceptions, which gave the Bills the extra possessions needed to rally from a 21-0 deficit for a thrilling 34-31 comeback for the ages.
So the talk in Boston this week (before the Red Sox played Wednesday, that is) was of a Patriots defense surrendering 468.7 yards per game, having given up a league-worst 23 plays of 20 yards or more.
Now, are those numbers inflated because Brady has staked his team to big leads in all three games and opponents have been in catch-up mode? Of course. Is Brady going to throw four interceptions very often? Of course not. In fact, Brady likely will light up a Raiders’ 28th-ranked defense that has trouble getting off the field.
But what about opposing quarterbacks completing 67 percent of their passes against the Patriots? Or second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowl pick as a rookie first-round pick, falling off and struggling so much in coverage thus far? Or the slew of mental mistakes, like when safety Josh Barrett simply lost Bills tailback Fred Jackson on a short pass route that went for 38 yards to the New England 1 with less than two minutes to go to set up the game-winning field goal?
Belichick has some serious issues on that side of the ball.
2. If the “Da Raidas” are truly back, it won’t be because of the long ball. Unless we’re talking about spectacular touchdown runs like Darren McFadden’s 70-yarder in the second quarter last week, which started a spree of 24 unanswered points in Oakland’s 34-24 of the New York Jets. The Raiders’ rally didn’t have the thrills quotient of what the Bills did to the Patriots, but it certainly came against a much better defense.
And it came because of what Oakland can do on the ground.
Al Davis always has had an affinity for mad bombers and blazing wideouts, so let’s give coach Hue Jackson some credit. He knows his greatest weapon is McFadden, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound stallion who has blossomed into the type of franchise tailback the club envisioned when they picked him out of Arkansas with the fourth overall choice in the 2008 draft. After years of Davis trying to force-feed a big-play passing game on the offense, Jackson seems to have sold Davis on the notion the Raiders have their best running back since Marcus Allen and, thus, an identity that actually fits the personnel.
After his career-high 171 yards against the Jets, McFadden leads the league in rushing and is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt. Those numbers mesh nicely with Jackson’s not-so-nice vow to become “the bully” of the AFC West again and return to the mindset that made the silver and black feared so long ago. What better way to impose your will on opponents than to run the ball down their throats?
The Raiders, after rushing for more yards (234) than any other team against a Rex Ryan defense (previous high was 154 by the Saints in ’09), lead the league with 185 ground yards per game. That will go a long way toward taking the pressure off quarterback Jason Campbell, who is far better suited in a caretaker’s role than that of a pressure-packed playmaker (Note: Oakland was 0-for-8 on third down last week, with Campbell going 2-of-7 for 18 yards).
3. Nice to see you again, “Big Rich.” There are six players on New England’s roster who alongside Richard Seymour won at least one Super Bowl with the Patriots. There are three — Brady, running back Kevin Faulk and offensive tackle Matt Light — who won three titles together and obviously were around to say goodbye to the stalwart defensive lineman when he was traded to the Raiders for a first-round pick in 2009.
This is Seymour’s first meeting against his old teammates and he’ll go to battle with a unit that is giving up 410 yards and surrendering 27.3 points per game. But he’ll also come with some inside knowledge of what Brady and friends like to do.
“I think the whole time [Richard] was here, he brought a lot to our practices and, obviously, our defense and the overall scheme,” said Light, who was drafted in the second round in 2001 out of Purdue, 42 picks after New England selected Seymour with its No. 1 choice (sixth overall) out of Georgia. “He’s a great player and has been a great player in this league a long time.”
Light and Seymour won the Super Bowl as rookies and lined up across from each other at practice in Foxboro for eight years. Light doesn’t see Sunday’s reunion as such a big deal — “It’s nothing rare in this league.” — but he does see Seymour’s imprint on a Raiders defensive line that is very deep, very talented and very much enamored with its veteran mentor with the three Super Bowl rings.
“The heart and soul of that defense starts on the defensive line and he’s the leader,” Light said. “When you have a lot of really good players up front and you’re rotating them in and out, you have to have a lot of communication going on. He’s obviously a big part of keeping them all together.”
On The Horn With … Tommy Kelly
Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly will tell you he didn’t take his craft as seriously as he should have the first few years of his career. That an undrafted (and sometimes unmotivated) free agent from Mississippi State managed to stick around that long before figuring things out speaks to his abilities, the likes of which he unleashed in a 60-tackle, seven-sack 2010 season when the Raiders finished 8-8 (their first non-losing season in eight years) and Kelly was a Pro Bowl alternate. Here are excerpts of an SI.com chat with Kelly:
There’s a “Raiders Are Back” buzz out there. We’ve heard it before, but this time seems a little different. Is it?
“Yeah, but at the same time you can’t drink the Kool-Aid. They may all be patting us on our backs, but they’ll be talking bad about us again if we go out Sunday and lay an egg against the Patriots. So at the end of the day, if you can’t get up to play New England — with all we got going for us — you don’t need to be on this team.”
Why is this team different than recent others?
“People ask me that and I just tell them, ‘Man, we got better players.’ We’ve had some big names here before, but as a whole team we didn’t have enough. Right now, Hue and Al have done a good job of picking the right guys up and we’ve done our part with just doing our jobs. Don’t worry about anybody else’s job. Handle your business and everything else will work out.”
You play next to Richard Seymour. What has he meant to the development of this team, the defense and the locker room? Oh, and what will he be like Sunday?
(Laughing) You know it means a lot to him. He’s going to say all the right things, but he’s going to be fired up Sunday. … ‘Big Rich’ is just an example. He doesn’t do a bunch of talking for no reason. He leads by example — and his resume. He’s won Super Bowls, so you listen to him and respect whatever comes out his mouth. … When I line up next to Rich, I don’t worry about him. I worry about me doing my job because he’s going to hold up his end. He makes you raise your play. I don’t want to be a weak link.”
What’s next for you and this defense?
“I think I can take my game to the next level. I can’t fall into a run where I think, ‘I got my [stuff] down. Have to get better. … We all do. We have to make some corrections. Most of the time, when we mess up, it’s not them making a play. We’re giving them a play. Nobody’s overpowering us. At the end of the day, it’s about winning the game.”
Last week, the Jets. This week, the Patriots. You guys can make a statement.
This is a game, man, you just dream about playing in something like this, especially with the way our team is going. We’re not 0-3 and struggling. We’re coming in confident. It’s a matter of believing in ourselves, trusting what the coaches are asking us to do and executing the game plan. Do that, when it’s done, maybe, just maybe, we might be a little better than people think we are.”
Chart Of The Week
In yet another example of how evenly matched and utterly explosive these two teams appear, it’s only fitting the NFL’s co-leaders in total yards from scrimmage will be on the field together. Yes, co-leaders. Both have the exact same number of yards through three games. OK, which of these two players would you rather see get the ball from his quarterback?
Darren McFadden vs. Wes Welker
Player Yards Touches Rushing/Receiving TDs Yards per Touch
Darren McFadden 477 72 61-393/11-84 4 6.6
Wes Welker 477 32 1-19/31-458 4 14.9
Hard to imagine Brady, who is making a homecoming to the Bay Area, not being super-focused on shaking off last week’s uncharacteristic display. And assuming Brady takes care of the ball, it’s just as hard to imagine a Raiders defense that already has given up 84 first downs putting up much resistance. Yes, we could say the same thing about New England’s dreadful defense, but raise your hand if you think a Campbell-led offense can match scoreboards with a Brady-led one.
Pick: New England 35, Oakland 31
Last week’s pick: New Orleans 30, Houston 23
Last week’s result: New Orleans 40, Houston 33
SI.com’s season record: 3-0