The New England Patriots delved deep into their roster to defeat the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Round 41-28 to move on to a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game next Sunday. After struggling with injuries all season, the Patriots finally suited up their full 53 only to see injuries to key players once again force coach Bill Belichick to draw upon the back-ups to help carry the load. Depth was one of the keys to victory for the Patriots, but it was only one of many. In fact, it was one of the many keys that highlighted the New England Patriots being able to move on in the playoffs and host the AFC Championship game in Foxborough, MA on Sunday. Here are the three keys that stood out as the driving factors in victory for the Patriots:
1. The Patriots lost running back Danny Woodhead immediately, as the starter at running back left with a left thumb injury on the first offensive play after carrying for no gain. On the second offensive series, tight end Rob Gronkowski re-broke his forearm diving for a pass on the deep, right sideline. Two series, two offensive starters down for the Patriots. Add in rookie defensive end Chandler Jones leaving the game in the second quarter after playing almost exclusively the entire first half. Jones missed the entire second half of the game with the ankle injury and his status for the rest of the playoffs is still in doubt.
As always it seems with a Bill Belichick-coached squad, the “next-in-line” philosophy had replacements ready to go. Undrafted rookie free-agent Justin Francis stepped in for fellow rookie defensive end Chandler Jones over Jermaine Cunningham and veteran Trevor Scott for most of the game. Francis showed he could hold his own on the big stage contributing a tackle and one of the three quarterback hits.
The Hoo-man (Michael Hoomanawanui) stepped in for Gronk, and while he did not show up on the stat sheet, he allowed the Patriots to stay in the two tight end set and allow for match-ups like Texans middle linebacker Barrett Ruud covering running back Shane Vereen one-on-one on the outside. Hoomanawanui also chipped in blocking (helping keep J.J. Watt to just 0.5 sacks) and clearing space in the running game.
1A. The aforementioned Shane Vereen was so dominant that he gets his own mention as a key element to victory, as he showcased skills hinted at and teased occasionally as a runner and receiver while seamlessly taking over for Danny Woodhead as the dual-threat running back in passing situations. Vereen stepped-up and the ball carrier delivered on the ground and through the air on Sunday. Vereen had a 5.9 yards per carry average on seven rushes and scored once on the ground. He further stepped up for Woodhead and distinguished himself in the Patriots aerial assault as he added five receptions for 83 yards and two touchdowns. It was truly impressive how the the offense did not miss a beat without their regular third-down/hurry-up back. Vereen was a headache for the Texans defenders wherever he was lined-up on the offense as he gave their defense fits coming out of the backfield or splitting out wide. Joe Soriano has already further detailed Vereen’s contributions here on Musketfire.com.
2. The Patriots defense may have given up 28 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter as the Texans tried to make it a game, but overall the defense, especially against the run, was stellar. Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster caused some damage coming out of the backfield in the passing game, but other than one series in the second quarter when Foster carried all five plays of the drive for 47 yards and a touchdown–including back-to- back runs of 21 and 19 yards–he was pretty well held in check by a total team effort in the running game. A total of 22 rushes for 90 yards (4.1 yards per attempt) is hardly a great day for a back of Foster’s caliber. Yes, he had some big plays in the passing game (7 receptions for 63 yard and 1 touchdown), including being inexplicably uncovered out of the backfield on more than one occasion, but overall the Patriots defense shut-down one of the best running backs in football.
The Patriots had some interesting run blitzes on defense to defend Foster, including sending linebacker Brandon Spikes crashing through the line on multiple occasions. Pro Bowl inside linebacker Jerod Mayo also found his way Foster as the Patriots’ “SEC linebacker trio” were again strong against the run. The secondary, as is required by a Bill Belichick coached defense, was active in the running game as well. One reason the Patriots secondary is often fighting injuries is their expected role to contribute in the running game. They often are physical, and the memory of cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith coming up to the line of scrimmage to deliver a hit on a running back is part of the cultural memory of the red, white and blue defense. Cornerback/Safety Devin McCourty is of the same ilk and was a frequent contributor to stopping the Texans rushing attack.
On the defensive line, Chandler Jones was out of position and not strong on the edge a few times in the early going before leaving with an ankle injury, but outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich was his usual under-rated pest getting into the backfield in the rushing and passing game. All-Pro defensive lineman Vince Wilfork again anchored the defensive line and held strong against a very good Houston offensive line. Defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love split snaps pretty equally next to Wilfork and were solid.
3. Turnovers are always spoken to as a key in the playoffs by the talking heads on the television, and on Sunday it again played out. What is often missed in the discussion is the ability to not only create turnovers, but also to prevent them. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker deserves tons of credit for holding onto the ball and not fumbling despite the bone-crunching hits he received on multiple occasions on Sunday night. Running backs Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen held onto the ball and never put it on the carpet despite multiple Texans defenders holding onto them and trying to rip the ball from their grasp in an attempt to swing momentum. Quarterback Tom Brady brought out his laser-sharp focus and accuracy and stayed away from any interceptions. Very few throws were of the low percentage variety. Most throws he missed were low and away from the defender. No freebies sailing over the heads of receivers into the waiting arms of a safety.
The Texans had three fumbles and lost none of them. The ball did not bounce the Patriots way yesterday; That is part of the unpredictable nature of sports. However, the Patriots did get a huge interception by that pesky outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich in the third quarter on a critical third down and eight. The Texans, after picking up two first downs and driving into New England territory and behind 24-13 and looking poised to make it a game, emptied the backfield. The defense had stuffed Texans running back Arian Foster for a one yard gain and followed on second and nine with great play by Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib to come up and stop a Foster reception out of the backfield for a one yard gain. With quarterback Matt Schaub in the shotgun and five receivers, Schaub tried to work the middle of the Patriots defense, eyeing tight end James Casey as the Patriots blitzed inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. Schaub’s pass was picked by an athletic play by Rob Ninkovich as he leaped and caught the pass after sliding from outside linebacker into the middle of the zone in a modified zone blitz. The Patriots drove down and capitalized on the only turnover of the game as Brady found wide receiver Brandon Lloyd for a five yard touchdown and instead of 24-20 or 24-16 game, it was 31-13 and the Patriots had breathing room and the Texans only had 16 minutes left to play and down 18 points as the third quarter was nearly over.
The Patriots were hardly perfect against the Texans, and no doubt coach Bill Belichick will be driving home that point all week at practice as the Patriots prep for the Baltimore Ravens, fresh off their upset victory over the Denver Broncos. However, they stepped up and did what they needed to do to win the game despite a tough Houston Texas squad with play-makers on both sides of the ball. Next week presents new challenges, but for this week, the Patriots found the keys to victory and used them to drive the AFC Championship game back to Foxboro