FOXBORO -- And now, 358 days after Billy Cundiff went wide left -- touching off Mardi Gras at Gillette Stadium -- we are all back here once again.
After the Patriots humbled the Texans again in Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game -- dropping a 41-28 loss on Houston like the Road Runner dropping an anvil on the head of a clueless Wile E. Coyote (click here for the complete recap) -- it set the stage for New England and Baltimore to meet for the AFC championship for the second consecutive season.
It’s a great matchup, one filled with all sorts of great storylines, none of which involve a fundamentally inconsequential Baltimore special teamer who fired off a series of dopey tweets Sunday that will no doubt serve as the jumping-off point for those interested in the sideshow aspect of what will happen next weekend.
Instead, we should remember that it’s now the Ravens who have taken the place of the rebuilding Jets and Colts as the primary counterpoint for the Patriots in the AFC. And like the games with Indy from 2003 through 2007, every game with the Ravens over the last few years has been significant. (And if it hasn’t been significant, it’s still been a whole lot of fun.) “[Bleep] you, Mason. ... Can you look at the scoreboard?” Ray Rice goes 83 yards up the gut. “They talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.” “Sizzle, if you want to get a Hollywood actress, take my seminar on Saturday.” Bernard Pollard taking a whack at Rob Gronkowski’s ankle. Cundiff goes wide left. The missed field goal that wasn’t.
And now, they get to add another chapter to the rivalry, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. Just another year in what’s becoming one of the best rivalries in the league.
“I think the two best teams are in the finals,” Brady said after laying waste to the Texans again and passing Joe Montana to become the winningest postseason quarterback in NFL history. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it’s very fitting. We played them early in the year; they got us. We blew a pretty big lead there at the end. We’re going to have to play our best game this week.”
The Patriots will have to find a way to advance without Gronkowski, who will now reportedly be out for the rest of the year down after rebreaking his arm in the first half. (For what it’s worth, they didn’t seem to have much of an issue against the Texans -- possessors of one of the best young defenses in the NFL, Houston somehow allowed 457 net yards to a team that didn’t have Gronkowski or Danny Woodhead for most of the night. Time for Wade Phillips to go back to the drawing board.)
Meanwhile, as Ray Lewis continues his farewell tour, the Ravens are looking to keep their magic carpet ride alive. They went in to Denver on Saturday and upset the Broncos to advance behind another impressive postseason effort by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 331 yards in the victory (his seventh postseason win as a starting quarterback), as well as the remarkable Ray Rice, who added 131 rushing yards in the win.
“Great team,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo when asked about the Ravens. “These are the two teams that deserve to go to the AFC championship game -- Baltimore and us. They’re a great team [with] a lot of good players on both sides of the ball. It’ll be a challenge for us.”
After a year where they were challenged by the feisty young Texans and Peyton Manning-led Broncos, there’s just something that feels right about this. If the Patriots are going to get back to New Orleans, they are going to have to go through a proud old defense to do so. There’s a lot of respect for the Ravens in the New England locker room, and the feeling is that if there’s a worthy challenger to their crown as AFC champions, it’s Baltimore.
“We know Baltimore is tough,” Belichick said after the game. “We had a great game with them down there earlier in the season. We know that will be a great battle. We’ll enjoy this one for a little while and then get on to the Ravens [Monday].”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THEY HAVE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO LIVE WITHOUT GRONK
The big tight end busted his arm again on Sunday, falling out of bounds and crashing to earth right on the injured appendage that kept him sidelined for an extended period down the stretch in the regular season. After the injury, he was on the sidelines for an extended stretch, but quickly departed for the locker room. If he is indeed gone for the rest of the postseason, in his place expect a healthy dose of Michael Hoomanawanui. To be fair, he doesn’t exactly bring the same kind of oomph to an offense as the Patriots’ Viking Warrior of a tight end in Gronkowski, but at the same time he’s evolved into a dependable target in the passing game and a better-than-average blocker who did well in his place down the stretch in the regular season. (Hoomanawanui submitted another workmanlike performance Sunday, going just about wire-to-wire and helping keep J.J. Watt out of the New England backfield as a blocker.) As they did in the five games that he missed earlier in the regular season, the Patriots will demand more from the rest of their pass catchers, including Wes Welker (eight catches on 13 targets for 131 yards on Sunday) and Aaron Hernandez (six catches on nine targets for 85 yards). But it as was the case when he went down initially, it will take a total team effort to pick up the slack in his absence.
QUOTE: “It’s hard to replace a player like him because he’s a freak of nature. Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling. [When he’s in there], it definitely helps me out because so much attention is on him. But like I said, everyone has to step up. It’s a big loss, and you can’t replace a player like him.” -- Hernandez on the loss of Gronkowski.
WES WELKER IS AN ATHLETIC RECEIVER
The midweek comments from Phillips -- where the slot receiver was described as “a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy” were dismissed by the receiver as “a lot of noise” when he spoke with reporters after the game, but the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder looked plenty athletic when the Patriots got him in space late in the second quarter. That’s when Brady hit him on a 47-yarder down the New England sideline, a pass play that set up a New England touchdown. It was all part of an impressive first half for Welker, who had six catches for 120 yards in the first two quarters. (With the sideline grab, Welker set the Patriots franchise record for postseason receptions with 59. He took just eight games to pass the mark held by Troy Brown, who needed 20 games to set the previous mark.) He ended up with eight catches for 131 yards. As was the case during he regular season when Gronkowski went down, expect his workload to increase for the rest of the postseason.
QUOTE: “It was a great catch. Wes is a tremendous receiver, a great competitor. Again, we felt like at times there was a good matchup with him in the slot. He did a good job in there. Again, Tom made some good throws. Wes is quick -- he’s tough to cover.” -- Belichick on Welker’s 47-yard reception, as well as the rest of his performance on Sunday.
TOM BRADY KNOWS HOW TO BEAT WADE PHILLIPS
For the fourth time in fifth meetings, Brady smoked a Wade Phillips-led defense. The quarterback went 25-for-40 for 344 yards with three touchdowns and only one sack. There were no spirit-sapping drives on the night (only one offensive sequence went for more than 10 plays, and that one ended in a field goal) but Brady was able to orchestrate several impressive drives -- the best moments for the quarterback came at the start of the third: After the Texans ran off 10 points in 75 minutes at the end of the first half, Brady quickly righted the ship at the start of the second half, leading a seven-play, 69-yard drive that was highlighted by a 40-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez that got the Patriots into the Houston red zone. (It jumpstarted a stretch where he completed 8-of-10 passes.) Really, for the entire offense, the third quarter providing a master class in what a finishing move looks like: At the start of the third quarter, the Patriots were clinging to a 17-13 lead. By the end of the third, it was 31-13, and they were dancing in the aisles at Gillette Stadium.
QUOTE: “Yeah. I think that’s been the mark of our team. We’ve won 11 of 12. We were down 31-3 at home and battled back. I think we’re [always] going to be in it. We have a lot of tough guys, mentally tough guys. Whatever happens, like what happened on the first play of the game, you’ve got to overcome it. We made some key plays when we needed to. Shane [Vereen] made them, Wes [Welker] made them, Brandon [Lloyd] made them, so it was a great effort. Offensive line was awesome, as usual.” -- Brady on the mental toughness displayed by the Patriots on Sunday.
WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING THE BALL, THEY CAN ADJUST ON THE FLY
After they lost both Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead early on, the Patriots clearly spent a series or two as an offense in transition. Stevan Ridley didn’t get the start, but was on the field in relatively quick fashion once Woodhead went down. He finished with what can only be described as a Ridleyesque performance -- 15 carries, 82 yards, one touchdown -- but it was Shane Vereen who was the big surprise. The second-year running back out of Cal was a yardage machine, doing many of the things that Woodhead is well known for. Vereen finished with 82 yards rushing (and one touchdown on the ground) and 83 yards receiving (two touchdown receptions). The two young backs combined for 48 percent of the New England yardage on the evening, with both of them submitting impressive performances.
QUOTE: “We hate to lose Woody -- he’s such a key part of our offense. But at the same time, all the running backs hold ourselves accountable, to be able to step up when somebody does [go down]. The whole team stepped up. We were able to execute.” -- Vereen on the running backs.
THEY HAVE A GUY IN ROB NINKOVICH WHO IS WITHOUT PEER
The outside linebacker/defensive end/end-of-the-line defender has a knack for coming up big in important situations, and Sunday against the Texans was no exception. First, he managed to track down Arian Foster from behind after the running back burst out of the backfield on a swing pass. (He played it cool after the game, reminding me that he once tracked down Devin Hester from behind.) Then, he delivered the most important defensive play of the night: On a Houston drive late in the third quarter, quarterback Matt Schaub dropped back to pass. Meanwhile, Ninkovich dropped neatly into coverage and baited Schaub into a throw over the middle. The linebacker came away with the pick, changing the momentum once again. Ninkovich has been involved in so many big plays over the last two seasons, it’s hard to keep track of each one. But there he was again, coming away with the ball.
QUOTE: “It was just good execution on the play; me coming inside, reading the quarterback, dropping back into coverage. It was just a good play overall. [Jerod] Mayo made a good call, telling me to do that. I’m happy it worked out for us.” -- Ninkovich on the play.
THEY NEED TO WORK ON KICK COVERAGE
The Patriots coverage units really struggled against Houston kick returner Danieal Manning. Manning opened the game with a 94-yard kick return, and added a 35-yard return in the second quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, he ended up with a 69-yard return that set up Houston’s first touchdown of the second half. New England was one of the best teams in the league in the regular season when it came to kick coverage (teams averaged 20.5 yards per return against the Patriots, third in the league), but Manning’s four returns went for a total of 216 yards, an average of 54 yards per return. Not the kind of thing you want to see from your coverage units heading into the conference championship game, especially when you’re going up against a kick return unit that was the best in the league. The Ravens averaged 27.3 yards per kick return in the regular season, and were the only team in the NFL two return two kicks for touchdowns on the season.
QUOTE: “I guess we have to go look at it on tape and see what was happening, but it’s disappointing. The defense bailed us out. The offense bailed us out. If we keep playing like that we’re not going to get very far -- we’re not going to be playing a lot more football. We can’t give the opposing team field position like that and all, so we just got to look at the tape and see what’s happening and see where our breakdowns were and try and get it fixed.” -- special teams captain Matt Slater on the breakdowns in coverage.
MAYBE TOM BRADY NEEDS BROOMS OR PADDLES AT PRACTICE EVERY WEEK
J.J. Watt -- who only wagged his finger in New England’s direction once all night -- was again a handful for the Patriots’ offensive line. He had four tackles (one solo), with 1/2 sacks (for 4 1/2 yards), one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit. It will take a closer look at the film to determine just how they were able to slow him down, but the two-game total for Watt against the Patriots was as follows: eight tackles (three solo), 1/2 sack, four quarterback hits and one loogie on the Patriots logo before Sunday’s game (which he confessed to after the game, saying it was something he does before every game, “home or away.”) Not a bad performance, but he certainly wasn’t the kind of game-changing defensive monster we were led to believe.
QUOTE: “I do that every game, home or away. I go out to midfield, I jog out there, spit a little bit, wipe my feet off, and then I go through my stretches. No drama there -- that’s 100 percent what I do every game, home or away.” -- Watt on his pregame spit take on the Gillette Stadium Flying Elvis.
THEIR THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE IS HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Sunday night against the Texans, the Patriots were able to very nearly pitch a first-half shutout when it came to third-down defense. Houston was 4-for-15 for a pathetic 27 percent on third down, including 1-for-6 over the first two quarters. It was an impressive display of defense for New England, which has gotten better over the course of the season when it comes to getting off the field on third down. From the start of the year through Week 11, the Patriots allowed teams to convert at a rate of 44.6 percent. From Week 11 through 16, opposing offenses were at 33.8 percent, which dropped that overall total to 40 percent (82-for-205) for the regular season. If you figure Sunday’s numbers it that total, the number drops to 39 percent.
QUOTE: “All year, we’ve always talked about third downs and red area, certain situations and being able to get off the field. We’ve done a pretty decent job of handing third down and making some key stops when we need it. ... You can never be perfect, but at the same time you have to be able to make more plays than the opponent, and that’s what we did tonight.” -- Vince Wilfork on New England’s defensive performance.
MATT SCHAUB DOESN’T SCARE THEM
It’s probably a case of the quarterback getting too much of the credit and too much of the blame, but Schaub did nothing to dismiss the idea that he’s a better-than-average quarterback who cannot rise to meet the challenge of a big game again on Sunday. Other than one 75-second stretch at the end of the first half where he blitzed the Patriots for 10 points and a pair of garbage-time touchdowns that were too little too late, he showed very little. (And on those late drives, there was no sense of clock management -- it resembled New England’s drive to nowhere in the 2010 playoff loss to the Jets.) Ninkovich baited him into an interception, and he and the rest of the offense looked uneven most of the game. He ended the contest 34-for-51 for 343 passing yards, with two touchdowns, one pick and one sack.
QUOTE: “They’re a good group. We made a lot of plays and had opportunities to make plays. We missed on a few of them, but guys made a ton of plays for me and guys battled up front and ultimately we didn’t make enough as a group.” -- Schaub on his offense.