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Notes and Observations Week 17: Patriots Beat Bills; Clinch #2 Seed in the AFC

LeGarrette Blount scores one of his two touchdowns on route to banner day for the Patriots running back. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

After everything that has happened to the Patriots this season, it is absolutely incredible they are the number two seed in the AFC. The offseason was highlighted by Tom Brady’s favorite receivers from the year before, but in the worst possible scenarios. Wes Welker went to Denver to catch pass from Brady’s rival Peyton Manning. Rob Gronkowski had an endless string of surgeries that put him on the shelf for the first half of the season. Aaron Hernandez was arrested and is awaiting trial for a murder charge. The season has been plagued with injuries to most of their key players. Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelley, Sebastian Vollmer, and Rob Gronkowski are all on injured reserve. Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola, and Aqib Talib have all missed reasonable amounts of time dealing with injuries of their own. Not to mention the revolving door of an offensive line that has been called upon to protect Brady and produce in the run game. Add all of that up and you can see just how impressive this season has been for the Patriots.

- The obvious mention from Sunday’s game is the amazing performance by LeGarrette Blount. To think they traded Jeff Demps, who is currently not playing due to track and field, is an absolute steal. Over the past weeks we have seen the running game emerge into what looks very much like a rushing attack made for January football. Yesterday was the culmination of everything that has been building up, and it was highlighted by Blounts showing. He finished the game with 189 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns. Then add on that he had 145 yards on kick returns and it is obvious Blount put this game directly on his shoulders. He continued to push the pile forward on runs as he’s been doing all year, but he also showed incredible vision. Blount is the type of bruising runner who every team would want come January.

- A ton of credit has to be given to the offensive line as well. On both of Blount’s big runs the line hit their blocks perfectly and Blount walked through basically untouched. The offensive line has been a revolving door of sorts this season, but I as mentioned last week Dante Scarnecchia is great at getting the most out of his players. The balance of the offensive only works so well because this line has the ability to protect both aspects, running and passing.

- Sunday was like watching one of the games from the championship years. The conditions were awful and it was to be dictated by the defense and a strong running game with Brady being the game manager. It was refreshing to see a game that Brady didn’t have to find a way to win, and just had to keep the offense going. That’s how they were so successful years ago. They won with a collective team performance, and due to the constant shuffling of the roster, it’s going to take every member of that roster to win it all. While Peyton Manning can enjoy all the fanfare for setting all types of records on offense, we can say from experience none of that means anything come February. This team needed to reinvent itself on offense and they have done that in the span of one season. A huge credit needs to go to Josh McDaniels and the players on offense for stepping up in big ways.

- Stevan Ridley has been running with a lot of confidence recently and the tandem of him and Blount is a winning formula in the playoffs. Yesterday he had 74 yards on 12 carries. He is still the most explosive running back the team has, and pairing him with a bruiser like Blount is going to make defenses relax on the pass rush this post season. As fun as it was watching Brady throw five or six touchdowns a game and light it up on the scoreboard, it’s refreshing seeing him hand the ball off more than he throws it.

- Julian Edelman finished off his impressive year with 9 catches for 65 yards. He finished the year with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. However the best stat of all is that he played in all 16 games. Every year he has become better after converting from a college quarterback to an NFL wide receiver. This year he was asked to supplement the production that was lost when Welker went to Denver. Everyone questioned his durability and he silenced every single one of his critics. He showed that he is one of the toughest players out there taking big hits after short catches over the middle, and bouncing right back up. He’ll be a major focus this offseason, but for now let’s watch what he can do in the playoffs.

- For the most part the defense had a good game. There were a few coverage breakdowns like on Fred Jackson’s big catch and run with Michael Buchanan in coverage. Thad Lewis also hit a couple big throws throughout like the 41-yard pass to T.J. Graham, and a couple 20+yard passes to Scott Chandler. With Devin McCourty out and rookie Duron Harmon stepping in they mostly played to prevent the big play by keeping either one or two safeties deep. The strategy worked for the majority of the game as the big plays were few and far between. Harmon looked good in his extended role on Sunday. He like fellow rookie Rutgers alumni Logan Ryan, shows maturity on the field. He is aware of the situation and his surroundings which results in good positioning on plays.

- The secondary of the Patriots has really taken shape over the course of this season, and is easily the best one they’ve had since the 2004 season. When healthy the starters are Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard with Kyle Arrington in the slot. Logan Ryan has shown the ability to play outside and inside. Ryan has also shown an impressive ability of being around the football with a team high five interceptions, and he just missed one yesterday. Then factor in the safeties of Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, and Duron Harmon, and you realize the depth they have. There is no reason not to think that this secondary can compete with any offense in the league.

- Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both had strong showings on Sunday. Hightower was in on six tackles while Collins continued to show his ability in pass coverage, but showed everyone he could put pressure on the quarterback as well. While he didn’t record a sack, he did tally two hits on the quarterback. The main thing that really stood out in both of them is they were playing aggressive but smart. They didn’t get caught out of position often at all, and still attacked the play instead of reacted to it. Confidence is huge on defense and it’s refreshing to see these young players trusting their game.

- The defensive line had another impressive game. While everyone knows how good Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are on the outside, it’s impossible not to point out how sound Sealver Siliga is as a player. His role is to plug up the middle and he does it as good as anyone in the league. Not only is he tough to move, but he has shown agility off the snap that has led to three sacks in just five games. He certainly isn’t the caliber of Vince Wilfork, but I can’t be the only one who wants to see he and Wilfork play along side each other next season.

- Another regular season is in the books and the Patriots once again have a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The road to Metlife Stadium certainly won’t be easy, but the toughness this team has shown all year should make even the most skeptical fan confident in their chances. Enjoy the week off and get ready for the divisional round in two weeks.

About Steve Bastek - @sbastek12

Graduate of Bridgewater State University with a BA in Communication studies. I've been a Boston sports fan all my life and enjoy having the opportunity to write about it.

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