Patriots

Wildcard Weekend confirms Patriots in class of their own in AFC

Wildcard Weekend confirms Patriots in class of their own in AFC

[This post has been updated following the Steelers’ win over the Dolphins to reflect that the Patriots will face the Texans in the divisional round.]

Hey, so turns out the other AFC playoff teams might stink. Who knew? 

Putting aside that the Patriots already beat the Texans, 27-0, without Tom Brady, it’s tough to look at the results of Wildcard Weekend and be worried by what the Patriots might have coming at them next week or the one after. 

Houston’s got some studs on defense, but take Saturday’s performance with a reminder that it was against a rookie fourth-round quarterback making his first NFL start. And for as dynamite as Jadeveon Clowny was, keep in mind it was against backup tackle Menelik Watson.

Now look at the offense and how the Texans built their lead in that game. After Houston punted on its first drive, the Raiders started their first possession at their 7-yard-line and played like a bunch of idiots. Connor Cook nearly threw a pick-six to Jadeveon Clowney, but the drive ended up being a 3-and-out followed by a bad punt from Marquette King that started the Texans at the Oakland 40. That led to an eight-yard drive from the Texans that yielded a field goal. 

Houston’s next drive came as the result of Cook throwing an interception that gave the Texans a 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard-line. Lamar Miller ran it in on the drive’s first play. 

The Texans built a lead they didn’t relinquish and they did it by starting with excellent field position and jumping on a rookie quarterback’s mistakes. Oh, and Oakland’s defense was below-average this season (21st in the NFL in points allowed, 23rd by Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average), so that Texans offense needed good field position to put up an unspectacular performance against an unspectacular defense. 

Phil Perry recently pointed out that field position doesn't come up often enough in the discussion of why the Patriots shut teams down. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots gave their opponents the worst average field position to begin drives this season. The Pats also threw two interceptions all season, so it’s not like there’s much evidence New England will do its opponent the kind of favors the Raiders did on Saturday.  

The Steelers, meanwhile, didn’t need good field position to rough up the Dolphins Sunday. Pittsburgh had Antonio Brown, and that was enough for the Steelers to score more points in the first quarter than Miami did in the entire game. One shouldn't be as quick to dismiss them as they should with the Texans.

Still, their competition was so bad in their Wild Card game that it's tough to get a read on whether they're playing great football or thriving in an easy situation. That timely forced fumble in the final minute of the first half with the Dolphins eight yards from a touchdown? Chalk that up to shoddy ball protection from Matt Moore, something no one would expect out of Tom Brady. 

When looking at these teams, and even the No. 2 seed Chiefs, it’s extremely difficult to not pencil the Pats in for the Super Bowl before they’ve even played a postseason game. A very diligent piece by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier notes that the Pats’ league-best defense in terms of points allowed is statistical fool’s gold and didn’t really play any good offenses this season. Then again, they’re not likely to face one in any of their conference’s playoff games, either. 

The Patriots finished third in the NFL (and tops in the AFC) in points scored. Of the other AFC playoff teams, know was second in that category? You saw them get eliminated Saturday. 

The Steelers were tied for 10th in points scored this season. The Chiefs were 13th and the Texans were tied for 28th. 

In the Patriots’ only loss with Tom Brady under center this season, they allowed 31 points to the Seahawks. Between all the other remaining AFC playoff teams, only the Steelers had a 31-point game against a playoff team this season, and they did it against the Chiefs. Sure, Pittsburgh put up 30 points Sunday, but that was against a Miami team that allowed an average of 23.8 points per game during the regular season.

This isn't to discredit the weapons that Pittsburgh has. Brown was a monster Sunday and so too was Le'Veon Bell (167 rushing yards, two touchdowns). Ben Roethlisber remains Ben Roethlisberger. The issue is that, should the teams potentiallly meet in a potential AFC Championship, the Patriots would put up a hell of a lot more than the six points the mediocre Dolphins mustered.

Is there a team in this bunch that’s really going to put a ton of points on the Patriots this postseason while also clamping down Instagram Tom and Co.? It’s hard to imagine that based on what we've seen thus far in the playoffs.

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

FOXBORO -- Over the Patriots’ 17-year run of excellence, the inevitability of improvement has been a constant.

No matter what’s messed up, no matter how bad it looks, the Patriots will -- almost without exception -- figure it out. There are myriad reasons for that and one of them is that they have the ultimate weapon in quarterback Tom Brady, but he isn’t the bottom-line answer to all of it. The common denominator to why they get better is trust. They buy in. The "Do Your Job” stuff gets co-opted and thrown on T-shirts and beer coozies to the point where it gets trite and worn, but the core belief that the answers they seek are attainable by the players in the room if they do what they’re asked never wavers.

They don’t ever get to a point where they wonder who they are.

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

The flip side of this is that -- over the same 17-year run -- the Patriots have a tendency to wreck teams.

Hours before the Patriots dismantled the already reeling Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks -- a 10-win team in each of the past two seasons since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49 -- had a sideline dustup where Doug Baldwin, one of their best players and leaders, shoved offensive-line coach Tom Cable. It’s standard fare out there with an immensely talented team that routinely allows itself to devolve into a screaming, finger-pointing mess of men who all seem to believe they know what’s best and that the guy in charge doesn’t know better than they do. And they have Super Bowl 49 to thank for that.

And the same loss of identity seems to be underway in Atlanta, where the Falcons are melting from the head down in the wake of their Super Bowl 51 loss to the Patriots.

Sunday night, in the Super Bowl rematch between two teams that entered the night trying to gain a toehold, New England’s upward climb began. The Falcons, meanwhile, slipped even further from the team that had the Patriots in a chokehold in the third quarter of the Super Bowl but allowed New England to wriggle free and ruin the Falcons' psyche and confidence for the foreseeable future.

After the game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was saying things like, "Believe in the team, like crazy. We’ve got work to do to get to our standard of ball. And we will work like crazy to do that.”

Bill Belichick, meanwhile, opened his remarks by lauding his team’s preparation.

"I'm really proud of our football team tonight,” said Belichick. "That includes everybody; guys on the practice squad, some of the guys that were inactive and of course all of the players that played and our coaching staff. I just thought they really worked hard this week. We had a very, very productive week. I thought the players were well prepared, ready to go and played hard for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. We had a lot of contributions from everybody. We played good complementary football. It wasn’t always perfect but we played hard and we competed for 60 minutes and that was off of a real good week of work. Hats off to them. The players did a great job. They went out and played as competitively as they could and tried to play a smart game, made the adjustments, some of the adjustments that they needed to make to some things that Atlanta was doing, some looks that they gave us. [It was] a really good job by our football team tonight. I’m proud of what they did.”

There’s a saying in golf about the key to improvement: The secret is in the dirt. It means that the key isn’t talking about it or thinking about it or watching video, it’s in doing. Over and over again until it’s right and repeatable.

Through the first six games there were myriad issues the Patriots faced on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady was routinely getting bludgeoned and the Patriots' running game was inconsistent.

Sunday night -- even though Brady got banged around some -- there was further improvement and Brady consistently had room to step up and operate. The Pats were so effective on the ground (162 yards on 36 carries) that Brady threw just 29 passes -- the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time since the start of 2014 he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

The Patriots couldn’t get control of games and couldn’t get off the field on third down earlier this year. Sunday night, they built a 17-0 lead and the Falcons were 0-for-5 on third down before halftime and 3-for-12 on third and fourth down in the game.

The Patriots consistently had secondary busts and were cutting receivers loose left and right. Six straight quarterbacks of mixed abilities had thrown for more than 300 yards against them. Sunday night there were no obvious breakdowns and Matt Ryan, the defending league MVP, threw for 233.

The Patriots had some bouts of bad tackling and front-seven play. Sunday night, they allowed 120 rushing yards and 37 of those came on Ryan scrambles.

Is everything fixed always and forever? Hardly. But to put this kind of performance together without cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Elandon Roberts -- all players who were at or near the top of the depth chart -- was remarkable. Especially against a team with the physical talent and resume of 2016 success Atlanta has.

"I thought we executed our game plan perfectly tonight,” said safety Devin McCourty. "Our coaches have been on us about just make a team make a play to beat us. You know, Julio Jones catch in the end zone, [Mohamed] Sanu’s catch on the 1-yard line -- like, those are great catches. I thought we competed and made them earn every yard. When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well. That’s always a little different. It was just, overall, everyone understanding game plan and play-in, play-out, 11 guys on the same page.”

Getting ahead, which has been a point of emphasis the Patriots haven’t been able to satisfy, was a big part of the success, said Belichick.

"We played this game from ahead, that was a switch,” said Belichick. "We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight, so it was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run and when we needed to run we got the yards.”

There will be times, too, when the opposition plays right into your hands. Atlanta was hell-bent on getting its mojo back. It wanted to attack. The first time the Falcons rolled the dice on fourth down in the first quarter they lucked out and got nine yards on a fourth-and-seven scramble by Ryan. That drive ended with a blocked field goal.

Near the two-minute warning, set up at the Patriots 48 and trailing 10-0, the Falcons tried it again on fourth-and-six. They threw a low-percentage downfield ball to Mohamed Sanu that missed, and the Patriots took possession and cruised in to make it 17-0. It was a stupid, chest-puffing exercise in bad situational football and it backfired. So, too, was the decision to try a jet sweep on fourth down from the New England 1.

Now the Falcons have that to dwell on. Along with the blown 17-point lead last week against Miami. And the blown 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. The Falcons came into Foxboro and dug themselves deeper.

And the Patriots’ annual climb began.

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Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- It wasn't that long ago that it felt like the Patriots couldn't get off the field on third down. Last week against the Jets, during their first drive, the Patriots defense put quarterback Josh McCown in four third-down scenarios . . . and he converted on all four. The last was a short touchdown pass to put New England in an early hole. 

Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons was a different story. Atlanta went 2-for-9 on its third-down chances at Gillette Stadium and 1-for-3 on fourth down. In a game where the Patriots were dominating the time of possession (they ended up controlling the football for 34:05), the Falcons were desperate to keep their offense on the field.

They couldn't. 

"We made a lot of plays when we needed to make them," said Bill Belichick. "Red area, third down, some critical situations, goal line. We didn’t make all of the plays, but when big plays came up we were able to make those plays. Those are big stops for us.

"Again, give the players credit. They’re covering good receivers. They’re playing against a good offensive team, a good quarterback, good system, good offensive line. They just really competed with them all the way through. When those plays needed to be made we stepped up and we were able to make most of them."

Two of Atlanta's first three drives were three-and-outs. On their fourth series, late in the second quarter and down 10-0, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Patriots 47-yard line.

The Falcons had plenty of time to think it over since the two-minute warning came down following their third-down play. Still, judging by the play call, they felt their best shot at picking up the necessary yardage was to attack Patriots corner Jonathan Jones in one-on-one coverage during a Mohamed Sanu corner route. Matt Ryan overthrew his target and the Patriots took over, driving the field and scoring in the half's final seconds. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

"They were playing aggressive tonight, as they should," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "They have great weapons over there and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, and the list goes on with the guys they've got. They had a lot of confidence in going for it."

But going for it on fourth down so early in the game caught some Patriots players off-guard. They had their punt-return team on the field and ready to go but had to make a late switch in order to be ready for the pass play. 

The Falcons converted one fourth down, their first, on their second drive of the night when Ryan scrambled for nine on fourth-and-seven. But they failed their next two, and some Patriots players acknowledged the aggressiveness of their opponents was heaed-scratching. 

"It kind of surprised us at some point," Trey Flowers said. "They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs."

"That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too," Duron Harmon said. "They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance."

The Patriots got their second fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter -- a gut-punch for a Falcons offense that at the time was trailing, 20-0. On third down, Malcolm Butler broke up a goal-line pass intended for Julio Jones. On fourth, Atlanta attempted an end-around run with speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel that was snuffed out quickly by Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The play lost five yards and got the Patriots started on a 74-yard field-goal drive.

"I thought we competed and made them earn every yard," Devin McCourty said. "When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well."

It was certainly better than it had been at times earlier this season. For the Patriots -- without corners Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore -- to hold the reigning MVP and his teammates to a 25 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs? That's an authoritative step in the right direction. 

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