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This Sunday the Patriots are going to play in the AFC Championship for the third straight year, and the eighth time since 2001. In a league that preaches parity, the Patriots are the only team for the past 13 years that are a constant threat to have a shot at the Super Bowl. It truly speaks volumes about how well the organization is run, the coaching of Bill Belichick, and the consistency of Tom Brady. Saturday night was just another win in a long list for Brady and Belichick, and it was a performance that looked more like those early 2000′s teams than the teams of recent memory. One thing is apparent — this team is focused.
- The most amazing stat of the game on Saturday was there were six touchdowns, none of which could be attributed to Tom Brady. He handed the ball off about twice as often as he passed it, 46 and 25 times respectively. He only completed 13 passes for 198 yards — hardly eye popping statistics to say the least. However, he controlled the game and made zero mistakes, which is how a young Tom Brady orchestrated three Super Bowl victories in four years. It’s been said all along that the offense is at it’s absolute best when they establish and maintain a healthy balance of run and pass. The emergence of the rushing attack has taken a ton of pressure off Brady as well as turned the passing game into a compliment rather than the focal point.
- Before getting into the obvious play of LeGarrette Blount, praise needs to once again be stated for the terrific play of the offensive line. On Blount’s 73-yard touchdown run the line opened up a gaping hole on the right side that allowed Blount to cut back to and go untouched for the score. Playoff football is won in the trenches and this offensive line is firing on all cylinders. At the end of the day, the Patriots finished with a combined 234 rushing yards with six rushing touchdowns. You don’t get those types of numbers unless the big guys up front are paving the way. Credit again to the magnificent coaching of Dante Scarnecchia.
- Blount has now turned out two incredible games in terrible weather. He has been the epitome of a post-season running back the past few weeks. While he didn’t net over 300 all purpose yards this time, he did finish with a line of 24 attempts for 166 yards and four touchdowns. The running back by committee that was employed all season has to led all of these backs being fresh in January. Blount will more than likely never be “premier” running back, but for this year he is exactly what the offense needs.
- It’s likely that Stevan Ridley is going to have the label of “fumble prone” his whole career, but ever since his benching in Houston he has come back strong. He has held onto the ball which is a huge boost to his confidence. Ridley showed Saturday that he can run with the same power as Blount when he pushed straight ahead for the touchdown and two-point conversion. Both attempts seemed stalled at the line but Ridley kept his legs moving and fought his way in. Blount and Ridley continue to be a vicious running back combo and their continued production is a necessity if this team wants to win it all.
- Enough can’t be said about Julian Edelman this season. He has to be the number one option opposing defenses plan for in the passing attack, yet with the added attention he still makes plays. He finished Saturday with six catches for 84 yards. To put that into an added perspective, Brady completed 13 passes, six of which were to Edelman. Credit to Josh McDaniels’s game plan for continuing to find ways to get Edelman open, and even more credit to Edelman for continually getting open. He’ll be a great story line in the offseason with the contract status, but for now let’s enjoy him catching passes from Brady.
- Alfonzo Dennard, as you may or may not remember from last season, was my Patriots man crush. He was the first physical corner this team has had since Ty Law, and the fact that Belichick landed him in the seventh round was an added bonus. This year he’s dealt with some off the field issues and some injuries on the field. In only his second year, all of that could really have a negative affect on a young player. How does Dennard respond? Well, he does so with two interceptions, four passes defended, and two tackles. That first interception was Dennard wanting the ball more. He read the route and timed his jump perfectly, and took the ball from LaVon Brazill. The second interception was just a garbage time pick, but it did end the game.
- The depth of this secondary is outstanding. For the first time all season they have their full cast of players available, which allows for mid-game adjustments. When Kyle Arrington got beat by T.Y. Hilton, he didn’t much of any action because Logan Ryan subbed in and played well. Ryan is definitely not flashy, but he plays smart, sound defense for a rookie. Aqib Talib is the glue that holds it all together. His constant presence on the outside allows Matt Patricia to try different looks and it has led to the best secondary in recent memory.
- This isn’t to say the secondary was free of error. The deep pass from Andrew Luck to Brazill that cut the lead to 29-22 was a play that is inexcusable. It was the exact style of play that the Colts beat the Chiefs with last week, and it was the exact type of play that this defense is built to stop. Their whole style is the “bend-don’t-break” defense which protects against the deep ball over the middle. Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty were caught off guard and they let Brazill slip behind them. Something’s telling me this type of play won’t happen again.
- Dont’a Hightower is now tasked with being the primary linebacker in the middle with Brandon Spikes being placed on IR. Hightower exceeded all expectations on Saturday. He finished with eight tackles, a pass defended, and the interception. His best asset has always been his ability against the run. He has great lateral movement and is able to read the ball carrier, square up, and deliver solid tackles. His biggest weakness was his ability against the pass. Saturday night he played great in both aspects. There will always be a question of whether or not the second year player can consistently play this well, but the fact is he was asked to step up and he did in a major way.
- The other young linebacker Jamie Collins also had himself a game on Saturday. The second round pick hasn’t had an outstanding rookie year by any means, as the Patriots brought him along slowly. Thanks to injuries and snowstorms, though, he has had an increase in playing time which has led to an increase in production. His stat line from Saturday reads six tackles, two of which were for a loss, a sack, a pass defense, an interception, and three additional hits on the quarterback. He is undoubtedly the most athletic linebacker the Patriots have, and that was evident this weekend. On his sack, he ran through Donald Brown to drive Luck into the ground. The interception was an underthrown ball by Luck, but Collins picked it off thanks to his great positioning in coverage. He blanketed Colby Fleener all day and was rarely caught out of position. The young guys have a big test against Peyton Manning, but if they play with the same confidence I like our chances.
- Ryan Allen will kick the ball out of the endzone next time, for sure.
- Stephen Gostkowski was effortlessly launching punts, but the big story in special teams is how well Tom Brady held the ball for kicks. Super Bowl winning quarterback, GQ model, married to a supermodel, and now you can add experienced field goal holder to his impressive resume. There really isn’t anything this guy can’t do.
- Now all the stars of aligned. This is the match up everyone was hoping to see. Brady vs. Manning in the AFC Championship game. With these two elite quarterbacks in the twilight of their careers, rest assured the media hype is going to be at all-time high. This could very well be the last time these two meet in the playoffs, let alone the conference championship. With that you can bet both of them will want this one more than any other game. Peyton Manning has always had the stigma that he’s a playoff choke artist, a label he would love to shake off by beating Brady on the way to the Super Bowl. Brady would love to silence his critics who get on him for some recent playoff struggles. This game will have more of a buzz than the Super Bowl, and with #12 in our corner I couldn’t be more confident.
Tags: AFC Championship, alfonzo dennard, Andrew Luck, Aqib Talib, Bill Belichick, Colby Fleener, Colts, Devin McCourty, Divisional round, Donald Brown, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Julian Edelman, LaVon Brazill, LeGarrette Blount, NFL Playoffs, Patriots, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady