Patriots

Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

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Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

FOXBORO The spin put forth and I was spinning too was that the Patriots would go as far as Tom Brady would take them.

Their defense? A liability. Something to be overcome.

But on Saturday night, with the football world and Tebownians everywhere watching, the Patriots executed their defensive plan to perfection. Bottling up the Denver running game, holding the Broncos to five plays or fewer on eight of their 13 drives, the Patriots oft-lamented group made it so Brady only had to score 11 with his offense to win.

They scored 45 just for good measure. And the New England defense could exhale and answer questions for once about what went right.

Those guys up front did a great job, said linebacker Jerod Mayo when asked the key to the performance against Tebow. I cant even lie to you. Those guys up front did an excellent job. Vince (Wilfork), Gerard Warren, (Brandon) Deaderick, Kyle Love. They let us run through and let us make plays, man, helluva game.

Admittedly, the Broncos were bringing in an offense from the football stone ages. But it was good enough for them to have won 7 of 8 at one point before the Patriots beat them 41-23. And it exploited an undermanned Steelers defense last week in the Wild Card round.

And the New England defense hadnt shown enough for anyone to feel secure theyd shut anyone down, no matter how much of an anachronism they were.

But in the cold and the wind of a January night in Massachusetts, Denver got nothing done. Their lone touchdown drive was a 24-yard excursion off a Brady interception in the second quarter.

I asked Wilfork how it felt for the defense to pull its oar as hard as the offense and Brady have all year.

If he plays well then everyone else plays well, said Wilfork. When he has an off-day, we try to rally around him as a team to help Tom and the offense. We arent going to get 20-30 points all the time. It doesnt happen like that. Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them score less. Thats the mind-frame we have. We dont want to depend on offense to score 30 points just thinking that each week is going to be like that. We arent going to set ourselves up for failure.

But it had shaped up that way. To believe theyd play this well was to take on faith the idea that, at some point, theyd coalesce as a unit.

Faith is something Wilfork and other defenders have had all year in the face of porous performances and disheartening statistics.

All year we had confidence, said Wilfork. I remember talking a long time ago, at the beginning of the season, about the confidence I had in this team and this defense from what I can see we can do. The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys dont believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way. I think that with a performance like tonight, in the postseason, everything is elevated. We dont want to be good; we want to be great, especially at this time.

You want to be able to make the game changing plays and great situational plays, Wilfork continued. All that comes in, but this team wont go away.

The biggest game-changing defensive play ended Denvers first possession. After moving from their own 24 to the Patriots 37, Rob Ninkovich got around the edge and strip-sacked Tebow. Brandon Spikes who had a terrific performance recovered. And the Patriots scored to go up 14-0.

In other games, picks and turnovers came like found money. Right place at the right time stuff, it seemed like. This was a playmakers play.

There were other flashy plays too five sacks of Tebow. But the guts of this game was simply keeping Tebow and the Denver running game contained.

We stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained, not letting the ball outside, said Ninkovich. When youre out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, but you know that hes got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team. So youve just got to be disciplined in your responsibilities in the defense. Just playing good team defense all together and great communication, it starts with that.

No defensive player was biting on the vindication storyline.

In one ear and out the other, Ninkovich said when asked if it was nice to get a chance to shut people up. As a defensive player, I couldnt listen to that. Anything outside of here. People can say what they want but at the end of the day its about wins and losses and we were able to get 13. During the year we had our ups and our downs and we were still able to put an eight-game winning streak together.

And advance to the AFC Championship.

Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

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Ryan's 2 TD passes enough as Falcons hold off Seahawks 34-31

SEATTLE - Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons did enough through 3 1/2 quarters that even the best comeback attempt by Russell Wilson fell short this time.

A couple of yards short to be exact.

Ryan threw a pair of touchdown passes, Adrian Clayborn returned a fumble 10 yards for a score and the Falcons watched Blair Walsh's 52-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds fall short, holding off the Seattle Seahawks for a 34-31 win on Monday night.

Atlanta won its second straight to stay on the heels of New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South, and handed Seattle a second consecutive home loss.

"What an absolute team win from the guys tonight," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "Coming here, in this environment, with the crowd, we thought it would be two competitive, tough teams that were going to battle for it in the biggest way."

Ryan threw TDs to Mohamed Sanu and Levine Toilolo, while Tevin Coleman added a 1-yard TD run on Atlanta's opening possession.

But it was Clayborn's fumble return that helped break the game open early in the second quarter and gave Atlanta a 21-7 lead. He scooped up a loose ball after Wilson was crunched by Takk McKinley and Courtney Upshaw.

"I think we're moving in the right direction. We keep proving we can finish games and beat guys. We have to take the momentum and keep rolling with it," Clayborn said.

With Seattle down 11 points, Wilson hit Doug Baldwin on a 29-yard TD with 3 minutes left and then threw to Jimmy Graham for the two-point conversion. Seattle got the ball back and moved in range for Walsh, whose attempt was on line but landed short of the crossbar.

"That was in our range, and in hindsight I would have just driven it more," Walsh said. "I would have driven it more and not left it short. I was too accurate and didn't have enough on it."

Wilson again was the entirety of Seattle's offense, throwing for 258 yards and two touchdowns, and running for another 86 yards and a TD.

But it was an awful night for the Seahawks, filled with more injuries and questionable decisions by coach Pete Carroll. He called for a fake field goal late in the first half rather than attempting a 35-yard kick. He also made a questionable challenge in the fourth quarter that didn't go his way and left Seattle with just one timeout.

That lack of timeouts came back to haunt Seattle on the final drive when seconds ticked away and rather than running one more play, Walsh was sent out to attempt the 52-yard kick. His long for the season is 49 yards.

The conclusion only amplified Carroll's baffling decision at the end of the first half, when Seattle ran a fake field goal rather than having Walsh attempt a 35-yarder that would have pulled Seattle within 24-20. Holder Jon Ryan completed his shovel pass to Luke Willson, but Grady Jarrett read the play and tackled Willson for a 4-yard loss.

Willson said Atlanta's defense on the play was different than what Seattle had seen on film.

"It would have been a really good call if we had made it," Carroll said. "Terrific opportunity right where we wanted it and the defensive tackle made a better play."

Seattle played a game for the first time since the end of the 2010 season without Richard Sherman. His streak of 99 consecutive starts in the regular season was snapped because of a torn Achilles tendon suffered against Arizona. The Seahawks were also without safety Kam Chancellor because of a neck injury, leaving their vaunted secondary with several new faces.

"Those two are phenomenal players. ... It was a lot different," Sanu said. "They did a lot of different things but we just had to take advantage of our routes."

MATTY ICE

Ryan was more than happy to pick on a defense without Sherman and Chancellor. He was 19 of 27 passing for 195 yards and rarely faced pressure. Seattle had one sack, and the Falcons went 9 of 14 on third-down conversions.

Sanu made a great one-handed grab for a 2-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Ryan found Toilolo on a 25-yard TD in the third quarter to give Atlanta a 31-20 lead. Matt Bryant added a 19-yard field goal with 3:49 left to put the Falcons ahead by 11, and Wilson's late heroics weren't enough.

Ryan's streak of 64 straight games passing for at least 200 yards was snapped.

INJURIES

Seattle's injury woes continued. The Seahawks lost rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a concussion on the second play of the game, forcing newly signed veteran Byron Maxwell into a more prominent role than expected.

Early in the second half, promising running back Mike Davis was lost to a groin injury after taking a screen pass 21 yards. Davis had two receptions and had carried six times for 18 yards before getting hurt. Seattle also lost starting guard Oday Aboushi in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

Atlanta got a scare when safety Keanu Neal was checked for a concussion in the first half. He was cleared to return.

UP NEXT

Falcons: Host Tampa Bay on Sunday to open a three-game homestand.

Seahawks: Travel to division foe San Francisco on Sunday.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon.