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Ravens Shock Patriots, Return To Super Bowl

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the game for the Ravens.

Tom Brady sits on the ground following the interception that sealed the AFC Championship game win for the Ravens.

Remember when Tom Brady in the postseason was as sure as death or taxes? His 9-0 start to his postseason career had people all over New England thinking that this late-round diamond in the rough could never do any wrong. Three championships in his first four seasons.

None in his last eight.

Maybe it was payback. Maybe it was destiny. Whatever it was, Joe Flacco outplayed Brady, the Ravens defense outplayed that of the Patriots and as banged up as Baltimore  had been this year, it was the home team and favorite that felt the blows when it mattered most. Oh, and Ray Lewis, with the help if his good friend, God, has lived to play another day – and for the Super Bowl.

From the moment the coin hit the ground in favor of the Ravens and they deferred to the second half – stealing the Patriots’ bread and butter on their home field – it just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. They committed fewer penalties, made less mistakes and completed a higher percentage of their passes. Most importantly, their zero turnovers, compared to three from the Patriots, were nothing less than huge. They were the team that executed better on Sunday.

Like it did towards the end if the regular season, the Patriots offense struggled to capitalize when their defense set them up with good field position and scored just 13 points – their lowest total of 2012. As the league’s No. 1 offense, the fewest points they had scored this year before yesterday were 18 in the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals.

The windy conditions at Gillette Stadium forced both teams to play conservatively and cost the Pats a couple chances at field goals they would normally attempt.

Their opening drive looked promising, but Wes Welker couldn’t haul in a deep pass from Brady when he had his defender beat by a couple if steps. They then almost caught the Baltimore special teams off guard, however, as Ryan Mallett snuck into the punt formation and forced the Ravens to burn a timeout.

A quick three-and-out by Baltimore gave New England the ball back, but only after a holding penalty called on Aqib Talib backed them up to their own 21. They had to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and took a 3-0 lead on their 32nd straight red zone possession that resulted in points.

The next Baltimore drive ended quickly as well, but came at a cost as Talib hurt his thigh while breaking up a pass on third and long. Some production from last week’s star Shane Vereen on the ensuing drive and a 15-yard personal foul penalty called on Lewis were for not as Brandon Lloyd ended up dropping a tough catch on third down.

Flacco then missed an open Dennis Pitta down the field and New England couldn’t convert following a 28-yard punt return from Welker as Paul Kruger influenced the Brady pass. The Pats D allowed just one completion in the first quarter and the Ravens went 0-for-3 on third down. New England led the Ravens 3-0 after one quarter of the AFC Championship game for the second consecutive year.

As the second quarter began, Flacco would lead a 90-yard drive in his first Title Game win to put the Ravens on the board with a two-yard run by Ray Rice. Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower both missed tackles on the back as he then walked into the endzone on second down. Pitta had an 18-yard reception on third and four and Flacco took advantage of Talib’s absence, hitting Torrey Smith on a 25-yard pass to the New England 15.

Brady would answer right away, however, aided by another personal foul penalty, this time on Dannell Ellerbe. A 24-yard pass to Welker set the Pats up in good position and Brady found him again from a yard out to make it 10-7 Patriots with 4:18 left in the opening half.

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2013 AFC Championship Preview: Ravens @ Patriots

Tom Brady is going to cut Ray Lewis' last shot of another ring short on Sunday - 6:30 - CBS

Tom Brady will cut Lewis’ last shot of another ring short on Sunday – 6:30 – CBS

The stage is set for a repeat of last year’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. This is the first time two teams have met in a conference championship game in consecutive seasons since 1994 (DAL & SF). The past three of four games between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens have been decided on the final play. This tidbit is a testament to how intense the battle will be come Sunday night at 6:30. Add in the fact that this is the “last” chance for Ray Lewis; spectators can count on his aggressive play all game.

After losing their most dominant force on offense last week, Rob Gronkowski, spirits remain high in the Patriots locker room. The team has been here before and knows how to execute without one of if not the best tight end in the NFL. While Danny Woodhead is not Gronk, he too was lost early on against the Texans but it did not matter. Shane Vereen was the standout player last week, filling in for Woody, totaling three touchdowns and 124 all-purpose yards.

It has become evident year after year that on both sides of the ball, Belichick implements a system that utilizes each cog to the best of their abilities. Bill will not put a player in a position to fail by deciphering the strengths of each individual. Whether it’s putting Hernandez in open space or Welker underneath, Belichick’s 37 years in the NFL has reined superior with the Patriots. After passing Montana for the most postseason victories (17) as a quarterback, Brady is looking to reach his sixth Super Bowl in his thirteen-year career. Let’s take a look at three keys to victory against some feisty road warriors, the Baltimore Ravens.

1)   Disrupt Joe Flacco: Why are the Ravens traveling to Foxboro on Sunday to compete for a Super Bowl birth? Because of the time Flacco had in the pocket and his strong arm. There is no denying that was some of the worst coverage by Denver’s defensive backs in that Hail Mary. Regardless, Flacco was able to stand tall and deliver long balls all day against the Broncos.

In the playoffs, Joe Flacco is 8/12 for 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield. During the regular season, Flacco completed 37% of those tosses with 7 TD. Furthermore, he had the most attempts without an interception (81) of any QB. What does this mean for the Patriots? It’s two-fold.

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Vereen Leads Patriots Past Texans, Back To AFC Title Game

Dual threat: Shane Vereen scored three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing) to lead the Patriots past the Texans and back into the AFC Championship game.

Dual threat: Shane Vereen scored three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing) to lead the Patriots past the Texans and back into the AFC Championship game.

Remember just over a month ago when the Texans were the best team in the AFC? With the best defense in the league? Yeah, I’m having a little bit of trouble recalling that too. It seems just a bit far-fetched right about now.

It wasn’t quite like the first time around, but the Texans still gave up 40 points, J.J. Watt still didn’t bat a pass, Rob Gronkowski still ended up missing the majority of the game (more on that a little bit later) and the Patriots still scored 40-plus points. They also won and believe it or not, it is the first time in the Brady-Belichick era that the team has won a playoff game that was a rematch of a regular season game (1-6).

In the final game of the weekend, Tom Brady became the winningest quarterback in NFL history as he passed his idol Joe Montana with his 17th career postseason victory to set up a rematch with the Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday following the 41-28 victory.

The Texans won the toss and, perhaps to the delight of the Patriots, elected to receive as the temperature reached 51 degrees in a January heat wave in Foxboro. The teams were each at full strength and it was time to see whether the game five weeks ago was a fluke or a preview.

What happened when the ball came down in the hands of Danieal Manning six yards deep in the endzone shocked everybody, however. After taking over the kick return duties just last week, he found a seam and took off running. It looked like he was gone until Devin McCourty caught him from behind at the 12-yard line of New England.

The Pats defense held and after fullback James Casey dropped a likely touchdown pass, Houston was forced to kick a field goal, which was good from 27 yards out by Shayne Graham. Following just eight yards on their first drive, however, Zoltan Mesko was on the field as the Patriots went three-and-out, but a monster punt and good coverage set Houston up back at their own 17-yard line.

Houston punted the ball back, but on a second-and-long, Gronkowski landed on his injured left arm while trying to catch a pass and looked to be in some serious pain. A conversion on third and 11 kept the drive going, but then Wes Welker, who took a big hit to move the chains on the previous third down, dropped a relatively easy pass on third and eight and the Texans got the ball back, still leading 3-0 with 5:49 left as Gronkowski went to the locker room. Again, Houston punted though after Aqib Talib nearly picked off a second-down pass and Arian Foster dropped one on third down.

Brady then led the Pats on a 65-yard drive following a poor punt by Donnie Jones. The six-play drive utilized Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen for five of the plays. A 13-yard reception by Ridley and a 25-yarder by Vereen set them up in the red zone. Vereen then took it in from a yard out and gave the Patriots the lead with 1:28 left in the first on the first postseason rushing touchdown of his career. After kicking the extra point, Stephen Gostkowski made sure to get all of the ball on the kickoff to keep Manning from running another one back deep into their territory. New England led 7-3 after one.

Houston picked up a few yards, but stalled again. Jones’ third punt of the day gave New England the ball back, but a good-looking drive stalled when Brandon Lloyd made a pretty big mistake in his first playoff game. He was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the red zone for throwing the ball at the official with a bit too much force, but again, Vereen looked very solid, picking up 48 yards on the drive, including a 22-yard run and a six-yard run on third and two in which he made Connor Barwin look pretty foolish. Gostkowski nailed a 37-yard field goal to extend the home team’s lead to 10-3 with just over 10 minutes left in the half.

Same story on the next Houston drive. After a solid start and the first good run from Foster on the day, Dont’a Hightower blew up a play in the backfield and Steve Gregory made a nice open-field tackle on third and 12 to force another punt. Gregory also made another play earlier in the drive to kill a little momentum with a pass break-up following a 24-yard hook-up between Matt Schaub and DeVier Posey.

With a chance to really grab momentum, the Patriots did just that with an 80-yard touchdown drive that included a 13-yard reception by Welker on third and 11 and a 47-yard, one-handed catch by the little guy to set up first and goal. Again, Vereen got into the endzone, this time on a Brady pass from eight yards out and just like that, it was 17-3 Patriots. Lloyd caught the first pass of his postseason career for seven yards earlier in the drive and Welker became the team’s all-time leader in playoff receptions on the 47-yarder. He broke Troy Brown‘s old record of 58 and at the end of the game, had 61.

Another impressive kick return from Manning forced Gostkowski to try to stop him, but he committed a horse-collar tackle that set the Texans up at the New England 47-yard line. They then rode Foster, who, on five carries in five plays, got the first Texans touchdown of the day. After review, the touchdown was confirmed and the New England lead was cut to seven. Foster now has scored a rushing touchdown in all four of his career playoff games.

It was just the third touchdown for the Texans in their last 13 red zone appearances. With just over a minute left, Brady and the Patriots took the field, but like Peyton Manning the night before, appeared content to get to the next quarter. He was hit again on third down and Houston got the ball back with 24 seconds left and three timeouts. Mesko’s punt was nearly blocked and the Texans set up at their own 38-yard line.

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2013 NFL Divisional Round Playoff Preview: Patriots Defense vs. Texans Offense

Schaub will need to play better to earn a Texan victory

Schaub will need to play better to earn a Texan victory

As if the Houston Texans needed additional motivation to avenge for their embarrassing performance on Monday Night Football in Week 14, Dan Shaughnessy laid it up on a silver platter. Characterizing this divisional round rematch as another bye week is bold, but that is the world we live in — the digital age. Everybody has an opinion; some just have more awareness and access than others.

Off-field commentary aside, the Patriots defensive unit dominated Matt Schaub a month ago. In preparation for the divisional round playoff rematch, BST&N is taking a deeper look at Houston’s offensive performance and New England’s defensive counter.

Despite falling behind 21-0 early, the Texan QB was limited to:

19/32 – 232 Yards – 0 TD – 1 INT – 68.8 Passer Rating

 

Furthermore, Wilfork lead our stingy defense to record:

2 SACK – 8 TFL – 7 PD – 7 QB HITS

 

After rewatching the game last night via NFL Network, I’d like to highlight several of my observations on the defensive side of the ball:

- Alfonzo Dennard & Dont’a Hightower had multiple open field tackles on third down. These two rookies played an integral role in limiting Texan success.

- Jerod Mayo was lined up all over the field, disguising his blitzes and creating constant pressure off the edge on Schaub to make rushed hot reads.

- DL Brandon Deaderick logged 5 total tackles, the most of his 2012 campaign.

- DE Justin Francis was disruptive, causing 2 QB hits – one forced a game-changing Devin McCourty interception

New England also did a remarkable job of limiting stud Arian Foster to:

15 CAR – 46 YDS – 3.1 AVG – 1 TD

On the contrary, he was effective in the passing game – grabbing 4 balls for 39 yards. If limiting Andre Johnson to less than 100 yards is a win, the Patriots earned another victory in Week 14 (8 REC – 95 YDS). The downside of this statistic is that he was targeted 10 times and had one drop. The Patriots were playing prevent defense with an early lead but they need to do a better job of denying Andre the ball.

The course of the rematch could go a variety of ways, but I expect a much tighter game. On the first drive of Week 14, Ridley fumbled on the goal line and the Texans muffed the recovery. Combine that with a few costly third down penalties on Houston and New England was the benefactor of some huge needle swinging plays early on. Not to mention, Woodhead’s lucky fumble into Brandon Lloyd’s arms was just good fortune.

While the Patriots have defended the run admirably all year, Arian Foster has made history by rushing for the most postseason yards (425) in his first three playoff games. He gained 140 yards against the Bengals last week, but once again – only totaled 46 yards on the ground in Week 14. Limiting Foster and making the shaky Schaub ( 0 TD, 3 INT in his past three games) beat the Patriots will be the key to victory on the defensive side of the ball. If New England causes a few turnovers and wraps up like Week 14, Tom Brady and a healthy Gronkowski will take it home in a much closer game than people expect.

Be on the lookout for a Patriots Offense vs. Texans Defense preview tomorrow.

Early Struggles Doom Patriots As 2nd Half Surge Not Enough

Down and (eventually) out: Tom Brady couldn't quite lead his team to a comeback for the ages as the mistakes mounted up in Foxboro.

Down and (eventually) out: Tom Brady couldn’t quite lead his team to a comeback for the ages as the mistakes mounted up in Foxboro.

Usually, 34 points is enough to win you a game.

Although, professional football games usually aren’t this ugly.

And the old adage lives on: good defense usually beats good offense.

That was not the case Sunday night, however, as this game was anything but usual. The league’s best offense met the league’s best defense in a primetime matchup at the stadium where the first-place Patriots have been unbeatable during the last three winters. The 9-3-1 San Francisco 49ers made the cross-country trip to the home of the 10-3 New England Patriots and, though they undoubtedly got nervous in the 2nd half, escaped with a 41-34 win over the three-time champs.

“Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a team is to spend all week having everyone tell you you’re going to win the Super Bowl.”  It seems, at least right now, that this sentiment offered by Al Michaels during the broadcast last night, is right on the money.

In the nastiest of weather conditions (35 degrees and raining), which undoubtedly affected both teams, the 49ers came out flying and looked to definitely have the edge in the first 10 minutes of the game. As the president addressed the nation, the 49ers offense went to work.

The home team got the ball first as the rain poured down and got right into their no-huddle offense. After a 1st down completion to Brandon Lloyd, Stevan Ridley put the ball on the ground, but luckily for the Pats, Ridley’s backside was ruled down by the officials. On the next play, however, Ridley was sent backwards and less than a minute into the game, the stingy 49ers defense had forced a three-and-out on the league’s best offense and provided a sign of things to come.

Colin Kaepernick wasted no time after the three-and-out as he came out firing and picked up first downs on three consecutive throws. On the sixth play of the drive, Kaepernick hit former Patriot Randy Moss with a 24-yard pass for the touchdown as the crowd in Foxboro sat in shock at the start. San Fran marched 63 yards in 2:40 for the touchdown on 3rd & 7. It was Moss’ 156th career touchdown – second all-time.

Aldon Smith then showed why he has a chance to set the single-season sacks record as he got to Tom Brady twice on the next drive, though he was unable to bring him down either time. The San Francisco defense forced a second straight punt to open the night. The weather then helped the home team out as Kaepernick couldn’t handle the snap on 3rd & 1, but did cover it up and the team was able to punt it away.

A holding call on Mike Rivera on the return gave New England the ball at their own 20 and Brady threw up what may have been an ill-advised attempt that was picked off by Carlos Rogers, who returned it 53 yards to the 5-yard line of the Patriots. Thankfully, Delanie Walker returned the favor by fumbling at the New England three and after review, the fumble stood. Steve Gregory forced the fumble and Aqib Talib got the recovery. Brady made the touchdown-saving tackle (which ended up being huge) on Rogers to keep him on the right side of the goal line following his first interception in 230 pass attempts at home. Another three-and-out resulted, however, and Zoltan Mesko, who was very busy in the 1st half, entered the game for the third time.

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2012 NFL Preseason Patriots vs. Giants: Three Up, Three Down

Is it possible Brian Hoyer doesn’t make the 53-man roster?

It wasn’t the prettiest affair, but week four games of preseason rarely are. This field goal affair finished just 6-3 and without much shown from the Patriots. Not only did they not play any notable starters, but the team seemed to just be going though the motions while they ready for the regular season grind.

While it seemed that way, it’s evident that head coach Bill Belichick spent the night evaluating the back-end of his roster as he prepares and plans what 53 players will make up the best team.

Three Up:

Jermaine Cunningham: The third year defensive-end, who has been having a good preseason by most accounts, came up big tonight. The former Gator had two sacks and forced a holding penalty in his attempt to secure a roster spot. After playing in just nine games last year with zero starts, Cunningham spent his offseason committed to getting his career on track and even earned a prime parking space from the coaches. Perhaps Cunningham is ready to contribute.

Jeff Tarpinian/Niko Koutouvides/Mike Rivera: Tarpinian (seven total tackles), Koutouvides (nine), and Rivera (eleven) represent the make up of the depth in the team’s linebacking corps. The trio held Giants first round running back David Wilson to just 3.16 yards per carry while starter Eli Manning was in the game. With Dane Fletcher out for the year, each could very well be counted on to help fill in for some of the team’s injury prone starters and just as importantly the need on special teams. Is it possible Bobby Carpenter becomes the odd man out if the team keeps just six backers?

Sergio Brown: Believe it or not, but the game’s official statistics listed one of the game’s stars with just one tackle. Brown excelled on several special teams units (especially in kick/punt coverage) and while he’s been exposed in previous seasons when forced into safety action, Brown may have just secured a spot. It would appear that his competition is fellow special teams ace James Ihedigbo. This will certainly be a positional battle to keep an eye on Friday night when the team trims to 53 men.

Honorable Mention: Zoltan Mesko (9 punts – 6 inside the 20 – that averaged 45.9 yards per boot), Justin Francis (undrafted out of Rutgers, the talk of camp comes up with a sack late in game).

Three Down:

Ryan Mallett/Brian Hoyer: Granted Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer had little time to rid of the football, but neither impressed. It’s not like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took the training wheels off either, as he called screens and short passes for the majority of the night. Neither separated themselves, but is it totally out of the question that the team keeps just one of the two? If so, it’d have to be the second year Mallett.

Offensive Line: The group yielded five sacks on the evening, including yet another fumble forced. While Nate Solder and Logan Mankins did not suit up, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer, and Dan Koppen saw decent burn (Koppen even played on the team’s final snap). Much of the protection issues this summer have been due to depth issues and guys who will not make the team out there. It’s been no secret that there have been many moving parts along the front five which is a reason not time to panic yet, but the body of work from the four preseason games is not encouraging.

Jeff Demps: The dynamic Demps had one kick return for 19 yards and four punt returns for 12 yards. Call me critical, but the man with the great forty time did a lot of stuttering without enough strait-line decisiveness. The project is almost assured a roster spot (if the injury he suffered late in the game is not serious), but the burner has yet to showcase the touted homerun ability.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Bolden (averaged just under 4 YPC, but was aided by a few longer runs and fumbled another return), Sterling Moore (an intriguing player on the rise coming into camp, Moore hasn’t looked great in coverage in extensive preseason action), Replacement Referees (the head official required four separate microphone conversations with the audience in explaining two penalties on a punt in the first half).

The team will cut 22 players before Friday night at 9 PM and there will surely be surprises and debates to follow. The squad finishes just 1-3 in the preseason, but as we know the only important part of the preseason is making through healthy and for the most part the Patriots did so.