My colleague Ben Volin and I analyze the result of the AFC Championship, a 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos.
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots finish the season on a strong note, downing the Buffalo Bills, 34-20, while securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Now, the Patriots can rest up and get healthy for their next opponent, either the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, or Kansas City Chiefs.
Here are our five takeaways from the game:
1. Bullish on Blount — It’s not too often that one player can affect a game so dramatically in at least two phases, offense and special teams. LeGarrette Blount, with his punishing running style and ability to gain yardage after contact, was able to do just that. He ran for a career-high 189 yards on 24 carries and added 145 return yards for a team record 334 all-purpose.
“I’m feeling good,” said Blount, with a crowd of reporters leaning on his every word. “I mean, especially after getting the win and performing like that. I’m feeling amazing. I don’t have words to explain it.”
The Patriots ran a season-high 43 times with Blount and Stevan Ridley (17 carries, 64 yards) getting the bulk of the load. The team finished with 267 yards, a season high. But it was Blount whose mix of speed and power that stole the show, breaking away for touchdowns of 36 and 35 yards.
While for the span of the season observers of the Patriots have considered Stevan Ridley as the most talented running back on the team’s roster, Blount’s increased role as the starter has given those same observers cause to re-think that assertion. Because of injuries and Ridley’s benching, Blount was at one point the de facto lead running back. But now, after such a vivid performance, he can truly be considered the featured back.
2. Whatever is needed, any given game — The Patriots have an ever-changing offense, geared weekly for each opponent. That ability to game plan, using a motley crew of receivers and running backs, has allowed the Patriots to flip from being a running-dominated team, like Sunday against the Bills, to a pass-happy team whenever necessary.
There were doubts at different points this season whether the Patriots could stick with the running game, but with the rain on Sunday, they had to force themselves to feed Blount and Ridley. The results just happened to be fantastic.
“It was tough to throw the ball, tough to catch it,” Belichick said. “We saw a bunch of balls on the ground, more so than usual. That was definitely a factor. It got worse as the game went along. Yeah, it was definitely a running game.”
That kind of flexibility, to rely on different aspects of the offense and players each and every week, makes the Patriots a dangerous opponent in the playoffs.
See all of my takeaways in the original post on Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.
In the latest Patriots midweek report, the Patriots (10-4) get ready to visit the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) Ravens on Sunday. With a win, the Patriots can clinch the AFC East and secure a playoff spot. It’s also a rematch of the last two AFC Championship games and, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the team’s players, comes at a time when the Ravens are on the rise. Interviews with Belichick, Tom Brady, Steve Gregory and Logan Mankins.
The 10-3 Patriots visit the 7-6 Dolphins on Sunday. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Sealver Siliga and Dont’a Hightower all spoke on Wednesday. Boston.com’s Zuri Berry reports from Patriots practice.
FOXBOROUGH — Continuing a streak of faulty first halves and extraordinary comebacks, the Patriots beat the Cleveland Browns 27-26 Sunday night in what I’ll personally term as an instant classic.
Any time you have a successful onside kick recovery — which was the first in Patriots franchise history to lead to a game-winning touchdown — you have to consider where the particular contest in question rests on the pantheon of great wins. In this case, for a team as lauded and trophied up as the Patriots, we’ll just wonder aloud where Sunday’s game ranks in terms of regular season victories.
So far this season, they’ve had a number of compelling candidates, including the team’s thrilling come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints. But that was two months ago. There’s been plenty of excitement since then.
Sunday’s comeback comes on the heels of superb wins over the Denver Broncos (34-31) and Houston Texans (34-31).
While the talent and expectations of the competition has varied, each win has inserted a level of football titillation that only those sensitive to cardiac arrest might disapprove.
It’s just been that kind of season. And Sunday’s game was no different.
With that in mind, here’s my five takeaways:
1. Losing Rob Gronkowski only seemed devastating — Gronkowski’s loss to a leg injury in the third quarter was profound for a number of reasons. There was the instant worry of his health, which is still in question, and then there was the long-term concerns for the Patriots’ offense, which struggled mightily this season without him despite winning five of six games. His presence in the red zone has been the most striking, with the team boosting its touchdown rate from 40.9 percent to 67.9, no doubt because defenders have to account for him.
But on Sunday, the Patriots seemed to find poise in dealing with the aftermath of his dramatic injury. At the time, they were down 12-0 to the Browns. But on the team’s very next offensive series, they marched 68 yards down the field for their first points, a 33-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. On their next series, they took only three plays before Shane Vereen ran in a 6-yard touchdown. The Patriots would go on to score on their next three drives, five in a row in all, to take the game.
After enduring such a devastating injury to one of the team’s integral players, the Patriots flashed what appeared to be the mental composure of a championship contender. There was mettle and there was grit. And even a little luck on their side. That’s got to count for something as the team goes forward.
2. The role falls to James Develin, Matthew Mulligan — Right away, the Patriots needed to find out if they had dependable tight ends that can get the job done with Gronk out. They won’t be asked to perform at his high level of offensive production, but they have to be capable and handle the not-so-glamorous role of blockers and check-down options in the passing game. It appears that Mulligan and Develin are up to the task. The duo have already been primarily used as blockers, but each has shown flashes of their other talents. Develin caught a 31-yard pass and Mulligan added a 15-yard reception.
“Honestly, I’m kind of surprising myself a little bit,” Develin said of his receiving skills. “I haven’t done these things since high school. It’s been kind of fun discovering that as well.”
The two take the loss of Gronkowski seriously, with Mulligan saying he would pray for his teammate. But Gronkowski’s injury provides an opportunity that neither can ignore.
“Having Gronk go out like that in the game was tough,” Develin said. “He’s a huge guy in our offense. But the NFL is such a next-man-up kind of thing and so when my number was called I just knew that I had to go out there and do the job. I’m thankful that our coaches prepare us for any situation, so I felt comfortable going in there and trying to do the thing.”
Patriots fans will have to get comfortable with it, too. The team’s only other experienced tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, is still out with a knee injury.
See all of my takeaways from the game on Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.
Highlights from the MIAA high school state football championships at Gillette Stadium, brought to you by yours truly.
HOUSTON – The Patriots snapped a three-game road losing streak, which is probably the most notable side accomplishment for a team that just clinched its 13th straight winning season.
Beating the Houston Texans (2-10) certified New England’s status as a team with no quit. They outscored their opponents 27-14 in the second half to win 34-31 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. That’s two weeks with come-from-behind wins. The networks must love the Patriots.
As usual, there were a number of interesting tidbits from the game. Here are some that I thought were most noteworthy.
1. Defense when it matters — It’s not shocking that the Patriots are giving up an alarming amount of rushing yards in these games. The Texans managed 121 against the Patriots, with Ben Tate accounting for 102 on 22 carries to go along with three touchdowns. It’s an improved effort from last week, when the Patriots defense allowed a whopping 280 yards on the ground. But what can you expect from a team that has lost its top two defensive tackles to injured reserve as well as the team’s top linebacker. Those are legitimate excuses. But what we’ve seen instead from this team, outside of the glaring running lanes for opposing backs, is a candid ability to stop the big play at the most timely moments. The Patriots were able to hold the Texans to a three-and-out with 6:54 left in the fourth quarter and follow it up by forcing Houston quarterback Case Keenum into making three bad throws, including one under pressure from Andre Carter and Chris Jones. Moments like these, which came with a little more than two minutes left, are pivotal in one-possession games. The Patriots excel in this environment.
2. Edelman over Amendola — Julian Edelman is at it again, usurping the luster over another coveted receiver. While he is sometimes overlooked because of the allegedly more talented and experienced slot receivers in front of him (see Wes Welker), he’s built a steady rapport with Tom Brady over his five seasons that has made him invaluable to this offense. So when you see that he has 12 targets Sunday, while Danny Amendola has five, there should be a clear understanding of who is a larger part of this Patriots offense and identity.
Edelman, who officially got the start Sunday, now has 70 receptions this year for 711 yards and four touchdowns. On Sunday, he caught nine passes for 101 yards. Because he has 70 receptions on the season, he has hit his contract incentive for an extra $250,000, maxing out his 1-year deal to $1.015 million. What a bargain.
See the rest of my takeaways on Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.
In the latest Patriots midweek report, the team is doing its best not to overlook the 2-9 Houston Texans, some awards were dished out, and another update from practice. Watch the report above.
FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots 34-31 overtime win over the Denver Broncos was the team’s largest comeback victory in franchise history.
Let that sink in.
It was a bizarre game, marked by the cold (22 degrees at kickoff, a record at Gillette Stadium for a regular season game) and 11 fumbles – none bigger than Tony Carter’s, who was hit by a bouncing football in overtime while working on the punt return unit. (Wes Welker frantically tried to get him to move away.) Nate Ebner recovered, setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning 31-yard field goal.
Down 24 points to the league’s top offense, and more specifically to quarterback Peyton Manning, the Patriots seemed doomed. But something clicked during halftime that allowed the Patriots to turn a page. And in doing so, they toppled the best team in AFC and likely the NFL.
Here’s my takeaways from the game:
1. The Patriots take the wind, win the game — To start overtime, Bill Belichick instructed his captains to defer, putting the Patriots in the awkward position of having to defend against Manning and the NFL’s top-ranked offense, a move that could very well have been a self-inflicted wound. But it was clear that Belichick had opted to have the wind at his back because of how the gusts, which reached up to 20 or more miles per hour, had affected the game.
“The wind, it was a strong wind,” Belichick explained. “We just had to keep them out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant.”
The Patriots were able to hold the Broncos in OT twice before their special teams error gave way to Gostkowski’s game-winning kick.
“The wind was pretty good and anytime the temperature is lower and the wind is higher, the harder it is to kick,” Gostkowski said. “Luckily we had the wind behind our back on that last kick. Obviously you could tell, kickoffs going one way were going five yards out of the end zone and they were going to the 10 [yard line] the other way. It’s tough, but it was a lot of fun. Ryan [Allen] and Danny [Aiken] did a great job on the last kick, the line obviously blocked really well. It was just sweet. Definitely going to enjoy this one for a couple days.”
2. Wes Welker’s return minimized — The former Patriots receiver caught four passes for 31 yards, but he’ll more likely be remembered for dropping a pass on third and 8 in overtime that would’ve given the Broncos a first down and field goal position, and then failing to step up to catch the muffed punt.
“I felt like there was a lot of traffic and it was a high ball,” Welker said of the game’s fateful play. “I didn’t want to get into a situation where someone was running into me or something else, and I ended up with the situation I didn’t want to happen in the first place. I have to do a better job of getting up there and getting those guys out of the way and making sure it doesn’t hit them.”
Patriots punter Ryan Allen said he tried his best to let the ball hang, making it more difficult on the Broncos’ return game. The hanging punt certainly created this situation, where Welker’s decision-making was more prominent in his first return to Foxborough than any heroics.
For the rest of my takeaways, visit Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers held on to beat the Patriots, 24-20, thanks in part to a controversial non-call as the game concluded.
Was it pass interference? The officials say no. Was it holding? I say yes. Is there more for the Patriots to hang their hats on after such a disappointing loss? Of course. Let’s take a look at the takeaways:
1. The controversy – There are two trains of thought following the picked-up flag. One of which is, obviously, that the flag should not have been so easily dismissed, given the implications for the game at that time.
(Just FYI, I’m not a member of the “rules only apply during certain times” cabal. That’s just cheap.)
The other is that the officials failed to recognize that there was another significant penalty that occurred: defensive holding. How is it possible, given the video evidence and the immediate nature of the flag, that the officials could pick up a flag after the kind of bear hug Luke Kuechly put on Rob Gronkowski? Answer: It’s pretty absurd. There was no other penalty even considered, according to the pool report.
Wherever you stand on the call, it doesn’t look good.
2. Broken containment and coverage – When the Patriots look back on Monday night’s loss, they’ll most likely be concerned with the way Cam Newton was able to get into the second and third levels of the defense without a Patriots jersey around and also with the breakdown in coverage at the end of the game. As the pocket collapsed on Newton, there was no one to spy on the athletic quarterback as he scrambled and ran for 62 yards to lead all rushers.
“It’s just a tough situation where you got to contain a quarterback that can run the ball, that can throw the ball,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “So it’s our job as a defensive line to keep him in the pocket. So if we don’t do that, bad things happen. And I hold myself accountable for a quarterback that scrambles. That’s on everybody on the d-line. We’re not supposed to let that happen.”
The Patriots played mostly in a 3-4 with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones operating as the outside linebackers. So containment was huge with a big emphasis on those two players. But the Patriots also relied on inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower to be able to provide coverage in passing situations, something they are not necessarily well versed to do.
And then there’s the matter of the go-ahead touchdown. Kyle Arrington found himself beat on a hitch route with no immediate help on the inside, allowing for Ted Ginn Jr.’s 25-yard score.
“I just got to make that tackle, I just got to make that tackle,” Arrington explained. “We were in Cover 1 so he ran a simple hitch route. Cam [Newton] just threw it inside, so as [Ginn Jr.] came back he came back into it. I just have to make that tackle.”
There were no excuses for the veteran cornerback and for the team. But that still doesn’t explain the lack of help.
For the rest of my takeaways, visit Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.