Once again, the NFL divisional playoffs did not disappoint. We got three great games to lead up to the Patriots/Texans, and every single game was entertaining. First, we get Denver and their absolutely unforgivable pass defense being exposed by Joe Flacco and the Ravens followed by a nightcap of Colin Kaepernick running wild on the Packers non-existent run defense. On Sunday we get to watch one of the best comebacks in playoff history, and it just happened to be led by a rookie considered “too small.” Not to be outdone, Matt Ryan turns around and matches the rook, shakes off the label of “Peyton Manning Jr.” and leads the Falcons to a place they haven’t seen since the 1998/1999 season- the NFC Championship Game. Get all that? Good.
Now, those games were great, but there was one game in particular that I was focused on, that being the Patriots versus the Texans. I didn’t think the Texans matched up and in the words of Denny Green, “they are what we thought they were.” The difference is, I am saying it with a smile. Gronkowski breaks his forearm again? Tough loss, which means Aaron Hernandez and Michael Vowel (I can’t spell or say his name) needed to step up, and they did. Danny Woodhead hurts his thumb on the second play of the game, and his replacement, Shane Vereen, comes in and not only does the job blocking, he scores three touchdowns and is an x-factor for the Patriots offense. The Patriots have never let injuries be an excuse, even in 08 without Brady, so why would that change with Gronkowski or Woodhead? It won’t, and the Patriots won’t let it come between them and winning.
Houston did come in fired up, opening the game with a 94 yard kickoff return, but the hustling Devin McCourty stuck with the play and kept the Texans from reaching the end zone. When the Patriots held them to three, that took some wind out of the Texans; on the ensuing three and out to open the game, the Texans had a chance to regain the momentum they got from the kick return, but the Patriots defense simply would not allow it. Many will point to the final score and total offense of the Texans and say the Patriots defense still got gauged, but that is the farthest thing from the truth.
One of the keys to every football game is success on third down, on offense and on defense. In all the years that Tom Brady has been a Patriot, third down on offense, for the most part, has been strong. The reason why New England hasn’t won the elusive fourth title is because they can’t get off the field on third down since, really, 2005. The Patriots simply outscore teams and try to give up field goals instead of touchdowns. I have some good news though- the trend is changing. On Sunday, the Texans were 4-15, which equals out to 26% on third down. That not only was a huge factor in the game, it was THE factor that won the Patriots the game. It took the Patriots offense some time to get their feet under them, especially after they had to adjust their game plan when Gronkowski and Woodhead went down, and it was the defense that was getting stops that never allowed Houston to get the momentum they so desperately needed to have any shot to win this game.
The final score was also bloated for the Texans due to some awful kickoff coverage, mainly due to guys not staying in their lanes. Sounds basic, and it is, but it is also the fundamental way to stop kick returners. As Belichick always says, “do your job”, play sound and good things happen. With Jacoby Jones coming to town next week, be sure that BB will find a way to fix this issue. The Patriots were strong all season with kick coverage, but they were exposed in the Miami game and my guess is Houston saw something on tape that they took advantage of. The addition of Brian Daboll to the coaching staff will help because he has scouted the Patriots as an opponent. Just because a guy is labeled as an offensive coordinator doesn’t mean he can’t contribute on special teams, and his addition will help to clean up some of these areas that need it.
Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Shane Vereen all had strong games, but the running of Stevan Ridley was what allowed the Patriots to open things up on offense. JJ Watt may have had his Dikembe Mutumbo moment, but overall, the Patriots ran very well on a Texans team that typically defends the run with the best of them. That says something for both Ridley and the strong and athletic Patriot offensive line, not to mention the best offensive line coach in the game, Dante Scarnecchia. In the first quarter, it felt like the Patriots were getting away from the balance that made them so impossible to defend, but late in the first when Ridley showed the explosion he has all year, the offense got back to being themselves and the Texans had no chance. One key stat to remember is the Patriots are 13-0 when they break the century mark on the ground and they are 0-4 when they don’t. Don’t tell me the NFL is all about passing.
The Patriots move to 13-4 and get ready to host their new AFC rival, the Baltimore Ravens, for the chance to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII. It is the Patriots ninth overall AFC Championship appearance, the fifth in Foxboro and fourth at Gillette. Overall, the Patriots are 7-1 in AFC title games, with a 4-0 record in Foxboro and the Ravens are 1-2. This is the first championship rematch game since 1986 and 1987, when John Elway and the Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns both years, with 1986 being remembered for “The Drive” and the 1987 being remembered for “The Fumble”. If the Patriots win, they will tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for most AFC titles with eight.
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