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AFC Championship Preview: Patriots @ Broncos

Two HOF quarterbacks will be facing off in the greatest rivalry of the past decade

For the third straight year, the New England Patriots are just one win away from another trip to the Superbowl. Are you surprised? This has been a roller-coaster of a year. Who’s standing in the way this season? Old nemesis Peyton Manning and his record-breaking 55 TDs and 5,477 yards will host the quarterback with the most wins (18) in NFL Playoff history, Tom Brady. Peyton Manning is 10-11 in the postseason.

In the Superbowl era, Belichick & Brady have had more games together (191) as starting QB and head coach then Shula & Marino (184) and Noll & Bradshaw (158). The Patriots have gone 148-43 (.775) since 2001, an incredible accomplishment. Their improbable 12-4 regular season record is a true reflection of the “system” Belichick has put in place for the past dozen years. It’s no secret that rookies and reserves have stepped up in absence of multiple key starters being lost for the season (Wilfork, Mayo, Vollmer, Gronk, Welker, Hernandez). While Brady versus Manning is still the main attraction of Sunday afternoon, there are a bunch of impactful story-lines and keys to victory in this matchup of epic proportions. In the past 62 games, the Patriots have only been outscored by 8 points or more in just 2 games (Steelers 2011 and Ravens AFC Championship 2012). This will be a tight game with a small margin for error on both sides of the ball. Check out my collection of notable areas to keep an eye on during the AFC Championship:

1) Red Zone Efficiency: The Broncos are 1st in the NFL having scored a touchdown in 76.6% of their trips inside the 20-yard line compared to the Patriots’ 57.8% clip. Holding Denver to a few field goals is integral for New England. Manning lead his squad to a NFL record 606 total points for, averaging out to 37.1 PPG. Despite being held to 13 against the Jets and 6 points against the Bengals, the Patriots rounded off the year averaging 28.6 PPG and 35.1 PPG over their past 9 games – Indianapolis included. If the New England defense can make a few plays in their own territory with their backs against the wall, it will bode well for another chance at snagging the Lombardi trophy. Assuming the Broncos receive the opening kick-off, going down a few touchdowns on the road is not a good look.

2) Time Management: Keeping the ball out of Peyton’s hands is inevitable; however, controlling the clock is not. The Patriots have developed a signature style of smash-mouth football over the past few weeks lead by impressive performances from the ever-consistent offensive line and LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots are 3rd in the NFL in 4th quarter time-of-possession at 55.1%, compared to the Broncos’ 50.8%. New England and Denver both score the most at 11.2 points per 4th quarter, which is interesting considering the Pats are 23rd in the NFL in the 2nd quarter scoring an average of 6.5 compared to the Broncos’ 9.7. Time management is crucial but Demaryius Thomas can break one at the blink of an eye. The key is for the defense to put the offense in a position to pound the rock and burn the clock.

3) Special Teams: A wild sequence of events lead to a Colts safety, Ryan Allen injury, Brady PAT holding and Gostkowski’s first career punts. In an analysis put together by Dallas News’
Rick Gosselin, the Patriots rank 1st overall in Special Teams. The stat includes 22 different categories but this is no surprise to the New England faithful. Belichick preaches execution in all three aspects of the game every week. Gostkowski had a career year kicking38/41 FGs and stepped up admirably averaging 41.8 YPP on 5 punts and a long of 53 yards in the Divisional Round. Ryan Allen is back to practice and is expected to play on Sunday. Football is a game of inches and whether it’s a punt pinned inside the 5 or a PAT hold, every play matters. A clean special teams performance will put less pressure on the offense and defense.

Stay tuned on game day for part two of my preview and a final score prediction!

NFL Week 9 Preview : Steelers @ Patriots

Gronk has been denied a touchdown in his first two contests, will the Steelers be able to make it three in a row? Odds are not in Pittsburgh's favor.

Gronk has been denied a TD in his first two contests, will the Steelers be able to make it three in a row? The odds are not in Pittsburgh’s favor, as they travel into Gillette Stadium for a nationally televised 4:25 CBS game.

Coming into the 2013 NFL season, this matchup promised to be an early November battle of two AFC heavyweights. With the Steelers currently sitting at (2-5) and the Patriots looking like a (2-6) squad with a (6-2) record, both teams find themselves in unchartered waters. After losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins, Big Ben (8 TD, 7 INT, 46.7 QBR) has struggled without a consistent rushing attack to fall back on. Pittsburgh averages just 68.7 YPG on the ground, good for 30th in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell has flashed signs of greatness since making his rookie debut in Week 4 but has not broke a run longer than 11 yards.Better yet, the Steelers have just 1 rush longer than 20 yards. Look for the Steelers to try and exploit the absence of Wilfork and Kelly, as well as the inexperience of recently acquired Isaac Sopoaga.

Still 2 games atop the AFC East, it’s no secret Tom Brady (9TD, 6 INT, 48.6 QBR) is not playing at an elite level. Yes, he lost weapons in the offseason but TB12 continues to feel the injury bug wrath that has plagued the Patriots all season long. Amendola has missed 4/8 games and Gronk is finally back on the field for the 3rd straight week. What seemed like a rough 17-3 start to last Sunday turned into 24 unanswered points in the 2nd half. What was the deciding factor in the 27-17 victory; the (3-1) give/take ratio (3-1) in favor of the Pats. New England has forced a turnover in a remarkable 35 games in a row, look for Belichick to keep the aggressive defensive schemes rolling in Week 9. In order to stay undefeated at home and move to (7-2) before the bye, these 3 keys to victory will be imperative come Sunday at 4:25 on CBS.

1) Get Ridley going early: Enough of the disciplinary/Belichick shenanigan ghost starts in the 2nd quarter and beyond. Yes, Stevan had a rough start to the season and fumbles will most likely always haunt the back. But when it comes down to production, Ridley deserves more snaps, earlier in the game. After coming back from his early-season injury, the LSU alum has scored in 3 straight games – averaging 5 YPC on 45 carries for 225 yards and 4TD. Seeing Vereen back at practice this week is a positive sign towards his Week 11 availability coming off IR. He will slide right into the “passing back” role, currently occupied by Brandon Bolden who has played 51.3% of the snaps over the past 4 games. Pittsburgh has surrendered an average of 121.9 YPG on the ground (27th in NFL) but thrive through the air, only giving up 181 YPG (2nd in NFL). If the Pats can get it done on the ground, early and often, I don’t see this sputtering Steelers squad scoring enough points to win. Big Ben and company have scored 10 points or less in 3 of 7 games this year, yikes.

2) Finish strong:  The Patriots can take a page out of the World Series Champion’s book for this one. An ideal combination of starting fast and finishing strong is obvious; however, let’s get a bit more granular. There have been too many times on 3rd down that the first tackler gets dragged and better yet, whiffs all together. When New England starts hot, they let teams back into competition. If they get off to a slow first half, they turn up in the 3rd and 4th quarters. The Patriots have not pieced together a full 60 minutes all year, Belichick will be the first to agree. This goes for special teams as well. Old friend Zoltan Mesko returns to Gillette, replaced by rookie Ryan Allen who has filled his shoes admirably. Gostowski is back to his Pro Bowl ways, converting on 20/21 field goals and making some huge kicks late in games. On the contrary, Amendola needs to peel it back a bit. We are half way through the season and we need him for the playoffs. The white chalk is your friend, run out of bounds once in a while.

3) Disrupt Big Ben: Roethlisberger is the king of escaping sacks due to his pure strength and large frame. The Patriots blitzing schemes were impressive last week, bringing down Ryan Tannehill 4 times. The Steelers’ offensive line is vulnerable, allowing 26 sacks through 7 games, close to 3 a game. Brady hasn’t been too elusive himself, going down 23 times thus far. Chandler is playing like a Pro Bowler and the bearded Nink remains consistent. The surprises to date are the play of rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, the recent Isaac Sopoaga trade and the injury of defensive captain Vince Wilfork. It seems as if New England has weathered the storm. Get in Big Ben’s face and the rest will play out accordingly.

Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are the weapons the Patriots need to contain. The cornerback play has been solid without Aqib and Devin McCourty has found himself at safety. Limiting these two playmakers is key and if only one finds the endzone, I like our chances. Patriots move to (7-2), win 27-17 and head into the bye clicking on all cylinders. Oh and Vereen in Week 11…

NFL Week 4 Preview: Patriots @ Falcons – SNF

Chemistry is the study of change. Belichick and Brady head into Atlanta for the game of the week on Sunday Night Football.

Chemistry is the study of change. Belichick and Brady head into Atlanta for the game of the week on SNF.

New England has won their first three games to kickoff the 2013 season in uncharacteristic fashion. It’s no secret the Patriots have been hindered by a lack of production from the TE and WR position. Checking in at last in the NFL in red zone TD conversion and 22nd in passing offense, Tom Brady and company face their most talented offensive unit to date. Despite the Pats’ struggle, Julian Edelman is tied as league leader with Falcons stud Julio Jones for receptions (27), both have 2 touchdowns. Only problem is, Edelman has 201 yards which is good for 172 yards less than Jones who sits at the top of the totem pole with 373 yards.

Atlanta lost to New Orleans and Miami, both by one score on the road. They took care of business against the Rams (31-24) in the Georgia Dome but did not look convincing considering St. Louis’ embarrassing performance last night against the 49ers. The Falcons will face their second AFC East opponent in as many weeks as New England marches in for Sunday Night Football on NBC at 8:30. Tom Brady has never lost to Atlanta in his career, taking 2 games on the road in 2001/2005 and 1 at home in 2009.

Recently acquired RB Steven Jackson has been out of practice with a thigh injury and expects to come back around Week 7. WR Roddy White has been hobbled by an ankle tweak limiting him to 7 receptions and 56 yards thus far. This leaves the Patriots in an advantageous matchup early in the season. The Falcons are 1-2 without being able to spread their wings to full potential just yet. In their toughest task to date, New England looks to stay undefeated and display their true colors. Check out these five keys to victory for the Pats:

1) Start Hot: The Patriots struggled hard in the first quarter against the Bucs. After just one first down on their first drive, TB12 was sacked twice and New England punted on their first three possessions. Lucking out with a missed field goal and a fourth down stop, Josh Freeman could not convert in the red zone at Gillette. K Ryan Lindell put three points on the board with two minutes left in the first quarter, little did they know it would be their only points of the afternoon.

Blessed by home field advantage and a currently benched quarterback, the Patriots were able to outscore the Buccaneers 17-0 in the second quarter and take control of the game. Do you see this same scenario panning out against the high-octane offense that is the Atlanta Falcons? Matt Ryan is not an elite quarterback, yet, but ATL is an elite team that should not be discounted. They are 1-2 and chasing the Saints, the Falcons are hunting for prey in their own backyard Sunday night. It is integral for the Patriots to put some points on the board early on the road.

2) Protect Brady: With Sebastian Vollmer out, Marcus Cannon will receive some serious reps against Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux and the rest of the Atlanta defensive attack. Brady was only sacked once after the first quarter, 3 in total, but the Patriots will need to score more than 23 points to win on Sunday night. This all starts with the hogs up front building a nice pocket for TB12 to have enough time to find his amateur receivers. Brady has been sacked 7 times through the first 3 games and both ATL and NE have 7 sacks on the season. This is not rocket-science but the chemistry in terms of hot reads is just not there yet. Tom needs more time and protection in the Georgia Dome.

3) Convert in the Red Zone: Aforementioned above, the Patriots are at the bottom of the pack in red zone TD conversions. This may sound shocking, but New England has not scored a rushing touchdown in the red zone. TB12 has thrown  4 out of his 5 touchdowns inside the 20 and this is becoming a trend the Pats need to break. TE Zach Sudfeld was a full participant in the most recent practices; however, the double TE sets fans are accustomed to have vanished. What to do? Pound the rock with the hot hand Bolden and sprinkle in some Ridley and Blount. Get in the end zone Patriots!

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NFL Kickoff Weekend: Patriots @ Bills

It's the start of a new era for Brady with no Welker, Hernandez and a limited Gronk. How will he perform in Week One? Just fine.

It’s the start of a new era for Brady with no Welker, Hernandez and a limited Gronk. How will he perform in Week One? Just fine.

Year after year New England takes on their central New York division rivals, Buffalo, at the beginning and end of each season. In 2013, the Patriots will travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium for a 1:00 CBS showdown in Week One. Since 2001, the Bills own a 2-22 record against the Patriots. Although the most recent match-ups have provided an actual sense of entertainment, it’s no secret New England is the favorite (-9.5), even on the road, with a banged up rookie QB E.J. Manuel at the helm.

Drafted ninth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, RB C.J. Spiller broke out last year with 1,244 rushing yards, 6 rushing TD, 459 receiving yards and 2 receiving TD filling in for the hobbled Fred Jackson. Limiting #21 is a priority on Sunday afternoon, it is imperative to remove their dynamic playmaker from open space. Given their shaky quarterback situation, a heavy dose of Spiller is exactly what the doctor will prescribe in a few days. Take a look at three other keys to victory for the Patriots this weekend:

1) Disrupt E.J. Manual: Although Jermaine Cunningham has been in Belichick’s doghouse for a couple years now, it was still somewhat surprising to see the former 2nd round pick, as well as Justin Francis released this past week. Adding seasoned big boy veteran Tommy Kelly next to Vince Wilfork is an intimidating presence up front. Throw in the promising Chandler Jones, the ever-consistent Rob Ninkovich, a few hybrids and this defensive unit is poised to cause a similar ruckus to last season’s turnover forcing machine.

Although New England struggles here and there against mobile quarterbacks, the Patriots’ success is contingent on containing Manuel in the pocket. Setting the edge and making him beat the defensive backs with his arm and reads is the goal for Sunday. Belichick usually has his way with inexperienced shot-callers, expect a few QB hurries that end up in wobbly gifts to the defense. It is E.J. Manuel’s first NFL start and while that may provide low expectations form the media, do not be fooled by his talent. He shined in the preseason and has the intangibles to lead any team to victory. If New England can make E.J. play catch up by going ahead early, the Bills are in serious trouble.

2) Protect Tom Brady:  The pathetic four turnover first quarter preseason performance against Detroit exposed a glaring weakness in the Patriot’s front line. TB12 was forced to make quick decisions as defensive tackles and ends floated through the flood gates early and often. New England makes Sportscenter highlights when Tommy Boy is standing tall in the pocket and delivering his fastballs with time to spare. The young core of receivers do not have the chemistry with Brady to break off hot routes just yet and need those few extra seconds to execute plays.

Keeping Blount on the roster over Washington puts extra emphasis on establishing a balanced offensive attack in 2013-2014. We saw multiple drives this preseason where the majority of play calls looked like a smash-mouth football approach. Combining that with a no-huddle keeps the defense on their heels. None of this can be achieved without the five hogs up front paving the way for a fluid play-calling scheme.

3) Protect the Football: If the above segment wasn’t enough emphasis, I’d like to reitirate the obvious – wins and losses come down to turnover ratios. The Patriots lead the NFL in turnover ratio last year with a ridiculous +25 figure. This key to victory is contingent on the offensive line’s ability to protect TB12; however, ball security has been an issue this preseason. We’ve seen Zach Sudfeld, Shane Vereen and others cough up the rock at untimely moments. It’s been a few years since kung-fu grip RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis was on the squad and even thousand yard rusher Ridley had some issues last year.

These keys to victory are not the only equation to earning win one on Sunday afternoon. Will the young and promising receiver corps live up to their preseason hype? Will the defensive backs be able to muster up another overachieving season? Will our defensive line stay healthy and disrupt quarterbacks all around the league?

There are many questions marks for all teams entering Week One but I see the Patriots handling the Bills with ease, 35-17 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. What do you think?

NFL Preseason: Patriots vs. Giants – 5 Things to Watch For


Can Kenbrell Thompkins parlay his preseason success into the regular season?

Can Kenbrell Thompkins parlay his preseason success into the regular season in 2013?

After embarrassing themselves with four turnovers in the first quarter last week against the Lions, the Patriots look to get back on track against their enemies in their preseason finale tonight at Gillette Stadium. While ball security was not an issue in 2012, this young offensive unit has one more week to get it together.

New England will benefit from this shot in the foot moving forward. Per usual, staying healthy in week four of the preseason is a priority. Do not expect to see many starters this evening. Despite the lack of excitement, this game will be a make or break situation for some players who are on the 53-man roster bubble. Keep your eyes locked on these five areas tonight at 7:30.

1) Tim Tebow: Logging a big fat goose egg in terms of snaps last week has most analysts/fans convinced the Bible thumper will not make the Patriots’ final roster. With TB12 staying safe tonight, could this be the last chance for Tebow to redeem his early preseason woes? It’s certainly something to watch for, but it’s also a valid concern given Gronk’s increase in training camp activity. If Rob does not start the season on the PUP, that’s one less roster slot.

2) Adrian Wilson: With hopes of receiving a Rodney Harrison type veteran from the Cardinals this offseason, the verdict is still not decided on this 6′ 3″ enforcer. Steve Gregory has solidified his role as a smart and solid safety, but lacks the athleticism and big-time play ability to recover from one small misstep. This news is surprising in nature and I still think Wilson can make an impact in the box and blitzing in 2013.

3) Defensive Line: With Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis still nursing injuries this week in practice, don’t expect to see these boys lining up in the trenches tonight. Reserves such as Marcus Forston, Marcus Bernard, Scott Vallone and Gilbert Pena will get their opportunity to showcase their talents to earn playing time behind starters Wilfork and Kelly. Creating pressure off the edges has been a challenge for the Patriots but if Ninkovich and Jones can stay healthy we should be in good shape.

4) Kenbrell Thompkins: After nagging 8 balls for 116 yards on 12 targets last week, it’s no secret Brady has a new best friend. What’s next for Kenbrell? Will he emerge as a consistent WR2? His success is contingent on Amendola’s production. If Danny strives deep down the field or even in the slot, Thompkins can use his tall frame to be Brady’s security blanket on the outside. Things are looking up for the Patriots offense with this development, let’s hope Gronk is ready to rock and roll by Week 6 and Sudfeld holds onto the ball.

5) Offensive Line: Detroit Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley manhandled the Patriots hogs up front last week, forcing Brady into some rushed decisions and subsequent turnovers. Tommy boy is not getting any younger people and his mobility was never his strong suit. It is the pocket presence he possesses and ability to “feel the rush” that has set him apart as an elite QB in the NFL. With all starters returning, this should not be a large concern – but more of a priority. Brady needs to be able to stand tall and have the time to read the defense and deliver a rocket. Leaning on Ridley and the run game will open things up too.

The Patriots have played the Giants a handful of times over the past few years, this matchup being the most meaningless. A win tonight means no one got injured on both sides of the ball. Cheers to football next Thursday!


NFL Preseason: Patriots @ Lions – 5 Things To Watch For

TE Zach Sudfeld is not Gronk but may be able to provide exactly what the Patriots need

TE Zach Sudfeld is not Gronk but may be able to provide exactly what the Patriots need

After taking care of business against the Buccaneers with a 25-21 victory at home last Friday, the Patriots take on the Lions tonight in Detroit at 7:30. Game 3 of the preseason usually results in a heavy dose of the starters but no one knows with Belichick. What we do know is that WR Danny Amendola, DE Jermaine Cunningham and CB Brandon Jones were absent from practice this week. Furthermore, DE Justin Francis, OL Marcus Cannon, TE Daniel Fells, CB Ras-I Dowling and WR Kamar Aiken were all limited in practice Tuesday. With only two preseason games left, you can count on Belichick taking a hard, long look at his reserves against Detroit tonight and the Giants a week from today. If you’re tuning in to the game, check out these five things to watch for.

1) WR Corps: With Danny Amendola banged up for the week, the Patriots’ raw talent will get to showcase their talent tonight. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson should get ample opportunity to build upon their solid preseason campaigns. Although Julian Edelman remains the punt returner, let’s not forget how valuable he is with the ball in his hands. Belichick is the master of putting players in a position to succeed, the system tends to always work only because Bill utilizes each player to the best of their abilities. Expect to see some new names getting some burn on the edges. To add some confidence to you guys out there, we have not had a pro bowl WR during our three Super Bowl victories.

2) Defensive Backs: After getting burned by DeSean Jackson in Week 1, CB Aqib Talib and the Patriots last line of defense stepped it up despite a 41-yard pass to old friend Tiquan Underwood. S Devin McCourty has yet to play in the preseason and will hopefully make his debut tonight. It feels like stone ages ago (and it is) when premiere CBs Ty Law and Asante Samuel were valuable pieces to the puzzle. Is this the year that New England sees someone like Alfonso Dennard or Tavon Wilson breakout? Keep an eye on the fiesty, turnover hungry defensive backs tonight.

3) Chandler Jones: The sophomore from Syracuse University got to Josh Freeman last week earning a couple QB hurries. While it would be nice to see him replicate that against the Lions, his health is the number one concern. Don’t be surprised to see Rookie Jamie Collins get some extra reps with his hand down as Cunningham was absent from practice this week. If New England can keep up the QB pressure they will be a VERY dangerous team this year.

4) Zach Sudfeld: Despite featuring the TEs in last week’s preview, this beast deserves some appreciation. He only recorded two catches for 32 yards but made an impressive TD grab on a tipped ball. It’s no secret we are thin at the position and those hands are needed as a security blanket for TB12. I don’t know what it is about this kid. His massive frame? His warrior like hair? His american name? Whatever it is, I dig it and need to see more of this animal.

5) RB Corps: Brandon Bolden led the way last week, gaining 38 yards on six carries – including a 25 yard scamper. Although the Patriots brought on Leon Washington and LeGarrette Blount this offseason, something has got to give. Vereen may line up in different positions this year given our weaknesses, making room to keep all of these reserves. Washington adds value to the KR game but that’s about it. This position is a hot topic in my opinion, as you can never have too much RB depth. Our offense is complex in nature, turning on a no-huddle like it’s nothing and jamming it down opponents’ throat with the run or the pass. As long as Brady, the God according to Lion S Louis Delmas, is at the helm, I’m not worried.

It would be a real treat to see a full half of starters tonight but it seems unrealistic under the Belichick way. Tune in locally at 7:30 tonight as the Patriots look to improve to a 3-0 preseason record. Last preseason, New England also faced the Buccaneers, Eagles and Giants but ended up with a 1-3 record. Only time will tell who will get some burn tonight, who do you think is an important player to keep an eye on?

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