Tom Brady and the Patriots will need to play better than they did on Saturday in order to beat Pittsburgh. (James Lang/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — Clearly, the Patriots did not play their best football in Saturday’s win over the Texans at Gillette Stadium. While they won by 18 points — 34-16 — it was about as poorly as a team could play and still win by that much.
As Bill Belichick noted to his team after the game, if it plays like that again, the season will likely be over.
Here are five things the Patriots need to clean up when taking on the Steelers Sunday in the AFC title game.
The Patriots turned the ball over three times in the divisional round game against the Texans. If they do that again, there’s almost zero shot of them winning. Besides Tom Brady throwing two interceptions, Dion Lewis put the ball on the ground twice, but luckily the Patriots recovered one of them. Belichick constantly preaches to the team to play turnover-free ball, as that is the No. 1 stat that correlates to winning.
New England is 20-1 in the postseason when winning the turnover battle and also, since 2001 when not turning the ball over the Patriots are 91-10. If the Patriots don’t turn the ball over there’s a good chance they will be going to Houston for the Super Bowl, but if they do multiple times, there’s a good chance they will be watching the game from the couch.
2. Red-zone efficiency
There’s nothing more frustrating than leaving points on the board in the postseason. When the Patriots reach the red zone, they need touchdowns. Even further, when the Patriots have goal-to-goal situations, they really need touchdowns. Including Saturday against Houston, the Patriots have scored touchdowns in 11 of their last 16 red-zone opportunities, but have only eight touchdowns in their last 12 goal-to-goal chances.
The possession that stands out most was at the end of the first half against the Texans. The Patriots had first-and-goal from the two-yard line and came away with a field goal. Sometimes the offense tries to get too cute in these situations instead of handing it off to the NFL’s rushing touchdown leader in LeGarrette Blount. When the Patriots have a goal-to-goal situation, they need to come away with a touchdown.
3. Protect Brady
If there’s a way to beat Brady and the Patriots offense, it’s to frustrate the quarterback and opponents can do that by hitting him. Just look at what Denver did to the Patriots in last year’s AFC championship game when he was hit 20 times. Against Houston, Brady was sacked twice, but hit eight times, the most in a game since Week 8. While the Steelers won’t be able to do some of the things Houston did on defense, when given the chance, the Steelers can deliver a big hit — just look at Matt Moore two weeks ago on wild card weekend. Keeping Brady protected is one of the biggest keys to the offense against Pittsburgh.
4. Defending running backs
If there is one thing the Patriots defense has struggled with over the course of the season it has been stopping opposing running backs, particularly out of the backfield. New England’s linebackers have had issues in coverage, especially Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin. Roberts could be used more in this game because of his ability to stop the run, but then it leaves the defense vulnerable if the Steelers were to have Bell run routes out of the backfield. Bell also is one of, if not the best back in the league, and his patient running style is nearly impossible to stop. In the earlier meeting this season, Bell ran for 81 yards on 21 carries, while also catching 10 passes on 13 targets for 68 yards. In order to win, they will need to keep Bell in check.
5. No more bad penalties
New England committed five penalties for 50 yards in the win over the Texans, which is more than it would have liked. The biggest occurred on the third drive of the game for the Texans when they went three-and-out for a third straight possession, but cornerback Eric Rowe pulled Houston tight end Ryan Griffin out of a pile by his legs, which was a 15-yard penalty and gave Houston its first, first down of the game. The Texans had zero life to that point, but the penalty gave them a first down and eventually their first points of the game on a field goal. The play showed how much penalties can swing momentum in playoff games and the Patriots can’t afford to make the same mistake again.