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Patriots Match-Up Mania: Tournament Time

Will Bill still smile tonight?

Will Bill still smile tonight?

Tom Brady isn’t really matched-up against Andrew Luck tonight, or is he? They’re never on the field together so they can’t block or tackle each other. However, the presence of both men under center is the decisive factor for both teams.

 

Brady is Brady. His playoff resume is well known and boasts the most playoff wins (17) ever. He’s also struggled lately in the postseason with a 5-5 mark in the last 10 games. He’s been erratic at times this season, largely because of the chaotic state of the offense around him. He’s still the essence of the New England Patriots, and the ubiquitous Patriots Way. He said while esponding to a question about facing Luck’s Colts and Luck himself:

 

My motivation is pretty simple. I just try to win, that’s what I try to do and try to be part of the reason why we’re successful. That’s part of doing my job and trying to be the best I can be for the team…To be a professional athlete and to play at this high level with this level of competition, winning is the only thing that’s important. That’s one goal and one objective that I’ve had for a  and very long time.

 

 

The media coverage of Luck makes him sound like a Brady clone. Is there a difference between the two, beyond the age and experience factors? I thought of two distinctions.

Mobility. Brady can’t move. We’ve all seen him try and we’ve seen him not scramble when he possibly could. Luck is RGIII compared to Brady. Against Kansas City, Luck displayed some elusiveness with the touchdown he scored after he recovered a fumble.

Weapons. Luck’s team might be the only team left with fewer established options than Bill Belichick’s squad. T.Y. Hilton is the target of choice for Luck and should face the Aqib Talib treatment from the Pats tonight. Julian Edelman at least has Danny Amendola running routes alongside him. And, would anyone trade LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley for Donald Brown and Trent Richardson?

 

The quarterback play is usually a huge factor in a game. Luck doesn’t have much around him to work with. BB’s defense keeps getting injured, just ask Brandon Spikes. Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher are the next in line to do their jobs. Two other key players should be Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones who need to keep Luck in line and possibly provide a sack or two.

Patriots Stun Broncos With Biggest Comeback In Team History

Julian Edelman leaps into the end zone to give the Patriots the lead in the fourth quarter.

It was fitting that the coldest regular-season game played in Foxboro in the last 20 years (22 degrees) was also (one of) the best regular-season games played in Foxboro in the last 20 years. For the 10th time in 14 career meetings with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady got the best of the other best quarterback of our era after Denver dominated the home team in the first half, but just the first half, scoring the first 24 points of the game and forcing three turnovers.

It was the final turnover, however, that was the biggest one. Denver special teams player, Tony Carter, allowed the ball to hit him after Wes Welker, back to return the kick with three minutes remaining in overtime, may have made the “get away” call just a little too late. New England recovered and three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski capped the biggest comeback in Patriots’ history with a 31-yard field goal to beat the Denver Broncos, 34-31.

If you’re going to turn the ball over three times in a game, you might as well get them all out of your system in the first half.

“The weather conditions get a little tough [and] things can turn quickly,” said  Brady, who finished 34-of-50 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, of the second-half turnaround.

Despite only one touchdown pass from Manning in the first half, Denver jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead thanks to Patriots’ fumbles on each of their first three possessions. Von Miller returned the first 60 yards for a touchdown 4:53 into the game and Kowshon Moreno plowed in from two yards out just over a minute later following a Brady fumble that was returned to the New England 10. They were two of his 224 rushing yards on the night, easily a career-high.

Then, LeGarrette Blount put the ball on the ground, leading to a field goal and quick 17-0 lead before Manning threw his first touchdown pass to in the second quarter to make it 24-0 all before the break.

It seemed like it would be a laugher after the first 30 minutes, but Brady drove the Pats down the field after receiving the second-half kickoff and after just eight plays, hit Julian Edelman from five yards out to make it 24-7. Then, after five straight draw plays to begin their first drive of the half, Moreno put the ball on the ground as Dane Fletcher jarred it out and Brandon Spikes got the recovery. Six plays after that, Brandon Bolden ran it in from a yard out and just like that it was 24-14. By the end of the third, it was 24-21 as Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on 3rd-and-6 to bring the Pats within three.

It kept going after that. Manning threw just his sixth interception of the year into the arms of Logan Ryan and three plays later, Brady hit Edelman for their second scoring connection of the night to cap the 30-yard, 78-second drive and somehow give the Patriots the 28-24 lead.

After Wesley Woodyard dropped a tipped interception that he had both his hands on and a would-be 2nd-and-20 was negated by an illegal hands to the face penalty, Gostkowski hit his 20th consecutive kick to give the Pats the seven-point lead with just over seven and a half remaining.

When it looked like it could be over on the next Denver drive, Aqib Talib, who had completely shut down Demaryius Thomas all night, was called for holding and negated his own interception, giving the Broncos some hope. Then Manning started converting third downs and Thomas started catching passes. And the Patriots started committing penalties. With 3:06 left, Manning hit Thomas from 11 yards out to tie the score at 31 after Denver picked up two first downs from penalties on the drive, including a pass interference call on Rob Ninkovich on 3rd-and-7 in the red zone. Brady would then go three and out and Ryan Allen was called to punt the ball to Welker with 1:45 remaining.

Denver took over at the 33-yard line, going into the wind. Then, Manning went three and out with a near sack from Andre Carter, a pass break-up from Kyle Arrington and an incomplete floater to give Brady one more chance from his own 11-yard line with 28 seconds left and two timeouts. Just a screen and a draw would take Brady and Manning to overtime, though.

After winning the coin toss, the Pats elected to forego possession and select the side of the field with the wind at their back, giving Manning and the Broncos the ball first. Both teams would trade possessions with New England’s ending on a long incomplete sideline pass on 3rd-and-4 after everyone thought Kenbrell Thompkins was interfered with on the previous throw, forcing the Pats to burn their first timeout to cool off.

When it seemed the Pats would be playing for a tie at best, the only thing that hadn’t happened in the game happened. Nate Ebner recovered the loose ball at the 18 and with 6’8’’ backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the game to try to get the block, Gostkowski sent those who stuck it out home happy with a little bit of history to take with them.

Special teams players pile on Nate Ebner after he recovered the botched punt to set up the winning field goal.

Special teams players pile on Nate Ebner after he recovered the botched punt to set up the winning field goal.

“We just calmed down and each played one play at a time,” said Edelman, who finished with nine catches for 110 yards and the two huge touchdowns. “We didn’t turn the ball over in the second half.”

For Brady, it was his 33rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime and this was certainly one of the bigger ones as New England now controls its own destiny in its hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Denver turned the ball over four times in the second half while the Patriots played mistake-free and scored on all five of their possessions, including 21 points in the third quarter, 10 in the fourth and, of course, the three in overtime. Manning finished with just 150 passing yards while Brady put up 344. It was the Pats’ ability to score touchdowns and not having to settle for field goals that gave them a chance to get back in the game.

While they did fumble the ball six times, they only losy three. Welker finished his return to Foxboro with just four catches for 41 yards and, of course, it wouldn’t be a Welker outing at Gillette without a big drop.

“We had a lot of guys step up here,” said Bill Belichick after the game. “You could rattle off 35-40 guys.”

After the improbable victory, New England will move on to the disappointing Texans (2-9) while the Broncos will take on the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks.

Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.

NFL 2013: BST&N’s Patriots Midseason Report Card

The Gronk could only be held out of the endzone for so long. TB12 is back on track.



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It’s been one crazy roller-coaster ride for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in 2013. Entering the season with a key playmaker departure in Welker and Hernandez gate in full swing, the odds were not in favor of the 3-time Superbowl Champions. Furthermore, after season-ending injuries to defensive captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the Red Sox playoff chase took a front-seat to what seemed like a rocky road ahead for New England. Sprinkle in Gronk’s lengthy return, Vereen’s IR stint and Amendola’s notoriously fragile nature, the Patriots seemed doomed after multiple sputtering offensive performances. Early season woes aside, Brady and company sit atop the AFC East at (7-2), while the Jets (5-4) and Dolphins (4-5) trail a few games back. There is a new powerhouse in the (9-0) Kansas City Chiefs, just one game ahead of Peyton Manning and the (8-1) Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Division leaders (6-3) Colts and (6-4) Bengals peaked early but looked subpar in Week 10 losses.

Belichick is a November and December mastermind which bodes well for the Patriots who are lucky to even be in this position in 2013. After resting up this week on the bye, New England travels into Carolina for a MNF matchup against a (6-3) Panther team that has won 5 straight – most recently San Francisco on the road. As we enter the second half of the 2013 season, check out this report card grading the Patriot’s performance thus far.

Passing Offense: C+ : Despite dropping 432 yards and 4 touchdowns on a Dick LeBeau Steeler’s defense in Week 9, Tom Brady is averaging exactly 200 yards less in 2013 (232 YPG). There is no doubt the aforementioned injuries above took a toll on TB12’s production in the first half of the year. Historically completing 63.4% of his passes, Brady sits at 57.1%, 13 TDs and 6 INT through 9 games. He passed for less than 250 yards in 5/9 games, something he only did 4 times last year. Tom had a rough October, throwing 2 TD and 4 INT but quickly dismissed skeptics with the dominating performance against Pittsburgh. On passes 11-20 yards through the air, Brady is only completing 45.7%; however he has logged 7 TD and 2 INT. His swollen hand is an afterthought and “the decline” of Brady does not seem imminent. With Gronkowski (19 rec, 284 yds, 1TD) came a renewed chemistry and a versatile offensive attack. TB12 is better than 13 TDs through 9 games, Peyton Manning has 33. The only reason they are not lower on this two weeks ago was a preview of the success that can still be attained.

Rushing Offense: B+ : What started as running back by committee has quickly become Stevan Ridley’s (118 car, 514 yds, 6 td) backfield to lose once again. The Patriots average 129.1 rushing YPG, good for 8th in the NFL. This provides an imperative balance Brady continues to lean upon during his supbar start to 2013. The Patriots came into the season with a healthy lot of 5 halfbacks, adding LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington to go alongside Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Blount is the only player to remain unscathed by the injury bug, logging carries and kick returns, yes kick returns, in every game (70 car, 312 yds, 2 td). Vereen looked sharp, gaining 159 total yards in Week 1 before it was discovered his wrist needed to be surgically repaired – forcing him to IR until Week 11. With Shane out, Bolden stepped up as the passing down back with 107 yards receiving and 205 yards rushing/2 touchdowns. Depth at RB is integral and New England only looks up as do-it-all Vereen is slated to make his much needed return on Monday Night Football.

Offensive Line: C+ : The Patriots allowed 27 sacks all of last year, care to guess how many they have surrendered just over the half way point in 2013? The answer is 26, yikes. Although the Pro Bowl caliber core hogs have not changed much since last year, RT Sebastian Vollmer broke his right leg in Week 8 against the Dolphins and has been spelled by Marcus Cannon. There are many variables that have caused a spike in the number of opponents getting to Brady. First and foremost, Tom is not as mobile and athletic as he used to be. There are countless times this season where TB opts for the “safe play” by taking the sack by being passive in the pocket. He was never nimble by any means but at times turns heads with a juke here or there. Without the Gronk security blanket, Brady does not have enough chemistry to trust his receivers with risky back-shoulder attempts. In turn, plays are taking longer to execute. Furthermore, the lack of experience from the receiving corps creates situations where hot-reads become ever important. So while some of the blame is shifted off the o-line due to the rushing success, they need to give Tom more time in the pocket.

Wide Receivers: B : Amendola is what we thought he was. A talented, young and feisty competitor with a nose for big plays. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to shake the injury woes trailing him from St. Louis and has missed 4/9 games to start the year. There will never be another Welker; however, Edelman has filled the slot nicely, hauling in 49 of 74 targets for 473 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jules started the year hot with 34 receptions in the first 4 games but just 15 in the next 5. He has cooled down recently in favor of rookie Aaron Dobson (31 rec, 454 yds, 4 TD), who mysteriously overtook fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkin’s (23 rec, 334 yds, 2 TD). While Kenbrell never looked sure handed, he did make that game-winning catch against New Orleans. Gronk looks to be back at it and remains on another level. In 3 games he’s been targeted an aggressive 33 times, catching 19 of those passes at an average of 14.9 yards for 284 yards total. If he’s out there at full strength, the Patriots are dangerous contenders. “B” rating for putting up solid numbers despite a ton of drops and inexperience.

Defense Line: A- : Keeping up with the Jones’. Quickly becoming one of the most athletic and distinguished families in all of sports, Chandler Jones is making a strong case for a Honolulu dance. The DE leads the Pats with 8.5 sacks on the year, following the footsteps of Baltimore Ravens DT Art Jones and the current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones Jones. He has displayed flashes of finesse and bull rushes of strength, attracting double teams as of late. Week in and week out, Chandler continues to disrupt the QB and has been the anchor on the defensive line with Wilfork out. Ninkovich remains solid with 3 sacks on the year. As a unit, New England has limited opponents to 232.8 passing YPG – good for 12th in the NFL. On the ground, teams are pounding the rock at an average of 128.2 YPG which is 30th in the NFL, that is where Wilfork is felt most. Now after losing Tommy Kelly, rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano had some serious pressure on them. How have they responded? Keep reading to find out.

Defensive Rookies: A- : The Patriots have a host of rookies receiving ample opportunity in 2013. The aforementioned DT Chris Jones has 5 sacks & 1 huge “penalty” against the Jets. Aside from that “mistake”, he has been brilliant in attempting to fill some pretty heavy shoes. Fellow DT Joe Vellano has also proven to be a solid run-stuffer half way through the year. Next up is LB Jamie Collins. Quiet to date, Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher have been splitting the reserve duties with Mayo out. It seems as though Jamie has a little ways to go in Belichick’s book. Notorious for his premature crotch grab pick six TD celebration against the Jets, CB Logan Ryan still has a lot to work on. Just last week a touchdown flew right by his head as he played the receiver, not the ball. We get it, who doesn’t love big plays? Logan has been successful rushing the QB off the edge with 1.5 sacks but will need to improve on his ball skills to become a well-rounded cornerback. S Duron Harmon only recorded 8 tackles but has a nack for the ball with 3 PD and 2 INT. These plays need to continue in the coming months. DT Michael Buchanan has not seen much time but when he has it’s been effective, getting the QB twice in 2013. That’s six rookies on defense, it’s been a while

Defensive Backs: B+ : You can’t start anywhere else except with the exceptional play from CB Aqib Talib. In the 6 games he’s started, Talib has 9 PD, 4 INT and 1 FF. He prevented the NFC’s Gronk (Jimmy Graham) from recording a single catch in Week 6 but has not seen the field since with that lingering hip injury. Spotted at practice the past couple weeks, Aqib is questionable but is expected to return against the Panthers. S Devin McCourty has carved out a nice space in the Patriots defense as a defensive captain and center fielder, making multiple TD saving deflections, breakups and 1 INT. His leadership play alongside veteran Steve Gregory makes for a solid and consistent group; quite the opposite from old friends Brandon Merriweather and Patrick Chung. Gregory was wearing the communication device in his helmet the past two games but just recently broke his thumb and is expected to miss at least a couple weeks. Kyle Arrington, Alfonso Dennard and Marquice Cole continue to be serviceable NFL cornerbacks, not making outstanding reads/jumps but not giving up homerun balls either. New England can improve on their man-to-man coverage but made enough impact plays to survive.

Special Teams: A- : Another rookie, P Ryan Allen beat out Zoltan Mesko in training camp for the gig. Mesko didn’t even make the trip to Foxboro in Week 9 – getting cut midweek. Allen is averaging 46.9 yards per boot with a 39.9 net. Although a long of 65 yards is impressive, it was a touchback and that area of his kicking needs to take a turn for the better. K Stephen Gostkowski has returned to his accurate ways, converting on 22/23 tries with a long of 54. Furthermore, he’s had his fare share of clutch kicks during a couple nail-biters. What pushes this rating into the “A” bracket is the effectiveness of PR Julian Edelman. He is average 11.5 yards per return and has made the field short for Tom Brady and company in key situations. Belichick preaches executing in “all three phases of the game” and the Patriots would not have a 7-2 record if they weren’t solid all around. If Talib can make a healthy run in November/December, watch out NFL.

Regular Season Prediction: 13-3, 2 seed behind Denver (13-3 with tiebreaker)

Playoff Prediction: Lose 34-31 in AFC Championship @ Denver

Big Second Half Lifts Patriots Past Dolphins

Brandon Bolden celebrates his third-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 17 apiece.


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For pretty much all of the first half, it looked as though Week 8 against Miami would mirror the dreadful finish in the Week 7 loss to the Jets as the offense could get nothing going, the Dolphins were running through the injury-depleted defensive front and Tom Brady’s hand had swelled up to the size of a balloon. Patriots Nation was certainly frustrated for a bit as their team found themselves down 17-3 at halftime, before Brady, doing all he could to keep his throwing hand functioning, led them back in the second half for the 27-17 win with 24 unanswered points despite not picking up a first down until the final minute of the first quarter.

We can skip the majority of the first half lowlights, like Brady getting picked on his first attempt while throwing for only 25 yards, and just give the ugly particulars. A Brandon Gibson reception after three third-down conversions and a Daniel Thomas run put the ‘Phins up, 14-0, just five minutes into the second and rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis made it 17-3 before the half, but it was his miss in the third quarter, after the Patriots had gone three-and-out with just a miserable drive, that gave the home team some momentum back. Dont’a Hightower sacked Ryan Tannehill on third down and Sturgis’ kick hit the upright from 46 yards away.

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Patriots Match-Up Mania: The Replacements, Continued…

Gronk has been cleared to play.

Bill Belichick’s post-game press conferences seldom yield any valuable information. It’s an annoying trend as Belichick possesses and can share significant insights into the sport he has a mastery of.

As the injury-riddled New England Patriots prepare to face the New York Jets at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Belichick inadvertently revealed his thoughts on all of the new players being worked into the team’s regular rotation with a seemingly innocuous comment to CSNNE.com’s Mary Paoletti. Bill was specifically replying to a question on newcomer Austin Collie and observed:

I mean, they’re never 100 percent ready. But there’s a difference between being ready and when you put the person in there and feel like, well there’s just too many things that can and probably will go wrong because they’re just not prepared enough for those…It’s certainly a very individualized type of call and I don’t think there’s any book on that. You just have to try to figure it out the best you can.

I’m focused on the “never 100 percent ready” comment, and I’m expanding the context of it beyond new players – veterans and rookies, alike – to injured veterans returning to the field and reserves switching roles to account for injuries, and starters changing positions. With the many injuries sapping the Patriots depth through six games, the concept of new players is at a premium in Foxboro.

Yes, Rob Gronkowski is available, or “cleared” by some doctor. Will he play? Who knows? Say he plays. What do we get? A fully Gronk’ed Gronk, or a timid, nervous Gronk who really isn’t ready but needs to see some action? Is he even in game shape after reportedly dominating practices? He has had success versus the Jets. Who hasn’t?

Collie made two key grabs in the Saints win. Kenbrell Thompkins isn’t really a replacement at all. However, he seems to be getting it now – finally. Did he “figure it out” in time to make his mark?

The real replacement match-ups to focus on are on the defense that could be without the squad’s top three players. Vince Wilfork we know about. Ditto for Jerod Mayo. Aqib Talib didn’t travel to New Jersey with the team. How do you fill those three holes?

McCourty could be playing corner at some point, too. But, he and Ninkovich taking a more pronounced role as captains is a significant match-up type issue. Players like Dane Fletcher, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and draftees Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan need to take advantage of bigger roles due to injuries.

Patriots Match-Up Mania: The Replacements

Can Vince Wilfork really be replaced?

Can Vince Wilfork really be replaced?


Any NFL season could accurately be described as a war of attrition. No team’s roster will look the same in November than it does in September as injuries add up in the physical game of football.

Attrition is a fact of life for your New England Patriots as we head into a Week 5 clash with Cincinnati.

Rob Gronkowski , Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola aren’t new to the team’s corps of walking wounded. The previously indestructible Vince Wilfork was felled last week, and had season-ending surgery on Thursday. Now, Stevan Ridley is out Sunday, too.

Training camp sensation Zach Sudfeld, who memorably botched an attempt to fetch an onside kick against Atlanta, was waived in yet another roster move.

Match-ups involving missing Pats players and their Bengals opponents are crucial on Sunday.

Wilfork’s Acchiles injury and subsequent season ending surgery is the biggest blow to the team that has relied on him for all but 6 games since 2004. How Bill Belichick replaces him is now the primary defensive concern. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia explained this as any Belichick staffer would:

Certainly injuries are an unfortunate part of the game of football, but that is what it is, and we’re obviously going to expect whoever’s out on the field to perform to the highest level of their ability. But Vince is certainly someone who we rely on week in, week out to really attack each opponent at a very professional level.

I think Patricia is talking to you, Joe Vellano. Other line starters Tommy Kelly, or even Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, will be called upon to step their games up to try to replace Big Vince. Fortunately, Belichick has more to work with with a much-improved defense.

Whoever plays has to be ready for a speedy offensive attack.

Replacing Sudfeld – does he look good in green? – should be easier, even if Austin Collie doesn’t play. Don’t assume Sudfeld’s status is a sign that Cincy will get Gronk’d. Don’t bet on Amendola, either. Don’t bet on anyone playing on offense beyond Tom Brady.

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