Patriots

NFL Championship Weekend preview

972491.jpg

NFL Championship Weekend preview

From the outside looking in, the plight of a Patriots fan in the 21st century is something that very few people can appreciate, and even fewer care to.

For football fans in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, or really anywhere around the league, the idea that folks here in New England might feel anything less than unabashed satisfaction and gratitude for all that weve been afforded is ridiculous and borderline insulting. Its like listening to your buddy with the trust fund moan about his anxiety or your boss complain about the cost of filling up his Range Rover. For the ladies, its like overhearing the twig in your office whine about being a fat cow. For the fat cows, its like coming home from a long day of relentless milking and that bitch in the neighboring pasture wont stop mooing about her sunburn.

Wait, what?

Oh, right.

My point is that no one in the NFL world gives the slightest damn about the fears associated with being a Patriots fan.

Oh, really," they'll say. "You got problems? YOU GOT PROBLEMS?! (Lifts up shirt to reveal large shoulder tattoo of Wayne Fontes) What do you think of THIS?"

And thats cool. We get it. But what are you going to do? This is our life. And no matter how ridiculous it may look from the outside, there's now some serious baggage associated with loving and caring about this team. The truth is that heading into Sundays game and if they win, the Super Bowl the overwhelming joy and confidence that was born out of those three Lombardi Trophies pales in comparison to the pain and embarrassment of the three that got away.

At this point, we know how it goes. We've been here so many times before. We know that while there's obviously a chance that Sunday's game results in a blowout, it's far more likely to be decided by a few freak plays that unfold in a matter of seconds. That before you can even catch your breath, it will all be over. That the ramifications will be permanent. That legacies will be forever built, preserved or further scarred.

Those few freak plays never used to phase a Patriots fan. We used to thrive on that stuff.

These days, it's scary as all hell.

And . . . well, with that, I guess it's time for the preview.

Hope everyone enjoys what will be a historic NFL Sunday.

The Game: THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

The Match-Up: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

The Time: Sunday, 3 pm (FOX)

The Line: 49ers (-4.5)

Believe it or not, this is the third time in the last five years that the road team has been favored in the NFC Championship. Although sadly, the results of the previous two do little to help us out.

In 2011, Green Bay was favored by 3.5 at Chicago, and won 21-14.

In 2009, Philadelphia was favored by 3.5 at Arizona, and lost 32-25.

The Coaches: When it comes to football, I don't like to play armchair coach. Especially when it's a team other than the Patriots and I know that there's so much that I don't know. But with that being said, there's not a coach in the NFL that leaves me scratching my head and screaming at the TV more than Mike Smith. The guy has a real knack for making the absolute worst decisions at least opportune times. I mean, let's face it: If Matt Ryan doesn't lead that late drive against Seattle and Matt Bryant doesn't nail that last second field goal, Smith is looking for work. (This is far from scientific, but a Google search for "Mike Smith Bad Decision" delivers 7.5M hits. Do the same for Bill Belichick? 150K.)

Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh might be out of his mind, but it's hard to argue with the results. After all, football's a crazy game, so what's wrong with having a crazy coach? As long as he's bold, decisive and undeterred as Harbaugh's been since taking over.
The Quarterbacks: Colin Kaepernick set an NFL quarterback record last week with 183 rushing yards against the Packers. On the other hand, Matt Ryan ran for 141 yards all season. (I realize that comparison's unfair and insignificant, but still thought it was funny.)

But here's a far more meaningful tidbit: The Falcons were the worst team in the league this year at defending quarterback runs, allowing 8.9 yards per rush. They also ranked 23rd in passing yards allowed. I'd say that bodes well for Kaepernick, assuming he can avoid slipping on his own slobber.

Then there's Matty Ice, who lifted a boulder off his shoulder with last week's dramatic win.

He's obviously in line for a tough test this Sunday, but for all the talk about how great the Niners defense is, weren't we all saying the same thing about Seattle? While Ryan was far from perfect, 24-35 for 250 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a miraculous season-saving drive is still pretty good. And regardless of the opponent or for that matter, the QB Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are still one of the most terrifying receiving combos in the game.

A big factor in Ryan's performance will be how long he has to work in the pocket. The Falcons did a great job of protecting their QB this year, ranking seventh in the league with only 27 sacks allowed. Meanwhile, NFC sack leader Aldon Smith continues to struggle without a healthy Justin Smith (who's playing through a partially torn triceps muscle) by his side, and hasn't taken down the quarterback since Week 14 in Miami.

The Narrative: I never bought much into the comparisons between KaepernickAlex Smith and BradyBledsoe, but I'll say this: If Kaepernick hurts his knee in the second quarter of this game, and then Smith comes in and throws a touchdown to David Patten, I might have to change my tune.

The Coincidence: Did you know that the 49ers haven't won a road playoff game in almost 25 years? Their last one came on January 8, 1989, in the NFC Championship game against Chicago and check this out: The Bears starting QB that day?

The one and only Jim Harbaugh.

OK, that's actually a lie. Jim McMahon was the starter and Harbaugh was third string behind Mike Tomzak. Still, he was there!

The Pick: Give me the Niners. Even though everyone's picking the Niners. And even though anytime everyone is picking the same team, that team invariably ends up losing.

One slightly overlooked aspect of the Falcons success against Seattle, was their success on the ground. Atlanta ran for 167 yards against the Seahawks, which was only the seventh time this season that they've broken 100 yards in a game, and the first time they were up over 150.

But I don't see a repeat performance coming against the Niners, whose rush defense ranked third in the NFL in yards per carry and fourth in yards per game. With Michael Turner rendered useless, the Falcons offense won't be as effective, giving the Niners enough of an edge to win.

Final Score: San Francisco 31, Atlanta 27

The Game: THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

The Match-Up: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

The Time: Sunday, 6:30 pm (CBS)

The Line: Patriots (-8)

As you've heard no fewer than 25,000 times by now, this is the Patriots seventh trip to the AFC Championship in the Tom Brady era. And thanks to the archives at Covers.com, here's a look at how Vegas fared the previous six times.

January 27, 2002: The Pats were 10-point underdogs at Pittsburgh, and won by seven.
January 18, 2004: The Pats were four-point favorites against the Colts, and won by 10.
January 23, 2005: The Pats were three-point favorites at Pittsburgh, and won by 14.
January 21, 2007: The Pats were 3.5-point underdogs at Indianapolis, and lost by four.
January 20, 2008: The Pats were 14-point favorites against San Diego, and won by nine.
January 22, 2012: The Pats were seven-point favorites against Baltimore, and won by three.

So, if you're keeping track at home: Tom Brady's Patriots are 5-1 all-time in the AFC Championship, but 3-3 against the spread (and have lost three straight).

The Perspective: Hey, did you know that this is the Patriots seventh trip to the AFC Championship in the Tom Brady era?

OK, that's a joke. But just hammer home how ridiculous that is

In the time since Brady took over, the Ravens, 49ers and Falcons (including this year) have combined for seven trips to the conference title. And while the Pats have five wins, the other three teams have combined for zero.

The Fears: Two things really scare me about the Ravens.

1. Ray Rice: It was a down year for Rice, who ran for fewer yards, caught fewer passes and amassed fewer yards from scrimmage than he has at any point since taking over as Baltimore's feature back. But he broke out last week in Denver with a season-high 130 yards on a career-high 30 carries. Combine that with the lingering nightmare about what he did to the Pats in that playoff game three years back, and yeah, I'm not looking forward to the Pats having to deal with that guy.

2. Deep Bomb to Torrey Smith: Every time the ball goes, all of New England will hold its breath. It will be a series of the most frightening three-second intervals of the season. Watching Flacco rear back and unload, seeing the ball fly through the air and knowing that all things being equal, the Pats will be faced with a match-up that they're unlikely to win.

Of course, Belichick knows this, and has no doubt spent the week scheming and schooling on the best ways to prevent Smith from getting free. But even then, it won't be easy.

The Reality: The world has been trained to fear the Ravens defense, and a long as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still in uniform it's damn near impossible to break that habit. You see them, and you see greatness. You see Terrell Suggs, and you don't want him anywhere near the ball. You see Bernard Pollard and you don't want him near anything. It might be for a different reason, but Pollard's the scariest guy of all.

But under the surface, we know that the Ravens D is not what it used to be. This season was the first time in five years that they ranked out of the top 10 in points allowed (they were 12th) and the first time they ranked out of the top 10 in yards allowed (they were 17th).

It still feels crazy to say out loud andor type it in silence, but the Ravens defense is no match for the Patriots offensive attack.
The Response: So, if we're going to assume that the Pats will consistently score on Baltimore, then this will only be a game if Baltimore can consistently score on the Pats. And in that event, it will come down to Joe Flacco.

That's not disregard Ray Rice after I already made such an enormous deal about him, but there will come a time when Flacco will have to make plays; most likely, plays with slightly higher degree of difficulty than last week's late-game bomb to Jacoby Jones.

And on that note: How about that trade for Aqib Talib? Honestly, how much better do you feel having that guy around to solidify the secondary? I'd say at least a little better than last year, when the Pats had Julian Edelman chasing around Anquan Boldin down the stretch.

Clearly the Pats secondary still has some issues, but there are far fewer than before.

The Pick: I mean, who knows? Obviously I think the Pats will win. Not only because they're favored by eight points, or that in situations like this I have ZERO ability to remain partial.

They're just the better team. They have the better coach (if not by much), the better QB (in a landslide) and the homefield advantage.

Final Score: Patriots 38, Ravens 28

And it's on to New Orleans.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

John Elway created a stir this week when he said his Broncos, after a 3-1 start, had “gotten a little bit soft." Elway, the Broncos GM, said that after five straight Denver losses – the last two by the combined score of 92-39

Denver’s head coach Vance Joseph said Elway’s remark bothered him. He talked to his players about it. On Sunday, the Broncos went out and did something about it. They lost by just three at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yay.

They’re pretty much all soft in the AFC this year. Check out the AFC West. There’s Denver. And the Raiders – who the Patriots handled with disturbing ease on Sunday, 33-8. The 6-4 Kansas City Chiefs, who, after starting the season 5-0, just lost on the road to the one-win Giants.

MORE:

The AFC East is soft. Miami was 4-2. It’s lost four straight including a 40-0 loss to Baltimore. The Jets were 3-2. They’re now 4-6 (which is a minor miracle given how ragged their roster is). The Bills were 5-2. Now they’re 5-5, having lost by a combined 101-34 the past two weeks as coach Sean McDermott willingly stuck a butter knife in an electrical outlet and replaced Tyrod Taylor with a not-ready-for-preseason-Week-4 Nathan Peterman.

The AFC South is led by the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville -- which can play some defense -- isn’t as bad as the rest. The Jags have won four straight and play cutthroat defense, but they had their hands full with the 0-10 Browns on Sunday. During the week, running back Leonard Fournette complained about having to play in the cold in Cleveland. At least he showed up Sunday and ran for 111. The Titans are awful when they leave Tennessee, which was further proven last Thursday when they lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh. Since October began, they’ve been outscored 122-43 in four road games. Their one road win in that span was a 12-9 decision over Cleveland. 

The big, bad AFC North contingent led by the Steelers at 8-2? Talented. But led by a forever-whining, passive-aggressive quarterback who openly and annually mulls retirement and two “me-first” skill guys in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Their greatest strength may be in executing elaborate post-touchdown skits. Vital.

Meanwhile, here are the boring-ass Patriots. Yeah, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and continuity in the program and coaching staff, but the gap between them and everyone else in the conference is that they don’t worry about the cold or the road or the five-act plays after they score.

They stayed a week in Colorado Springs to get ready for the altitude. Two Patriots -- Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola -- had to be treated for dehydration in the second half. After five PLAYS, Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu was asking out of the game, saying he couldn’t breathe.

The Raiders -- a team that went 12-4 last year -- haven’t improved a bit defensively all season. They are, under head coach Jack Del Rio, one of those “we do what we do” defenses the Patriots love to face because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Brady is now 8-1 against Del Rio-led teams/defenses and the numbers against Del Rio’s teams are absurd: 225 completions on 310 attempts for (73 percent) for 2,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It just feels like the AFC is a collection of teams, with an overwhelming majority of them in turn-it-on, turn-it-off mode. Their coaches are just kind of casting about, constantly open to suggestion and willing to give anything a shot because, hell, they better try something to get hot or they’ll be passing out resumes at the Combine in four months.

The Patriots remaining schedule goes like this: Dolphins, Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Bills, Jets. Shake me awake on December 17 when the Steelers game comes. And we have a mountain of data explaining how that one will go, too.

I’m not weary of the team. It’s historic and fascinating, like watching a hooded Mozart compose and a helmeted Van Gogh paint every week. But the exercise of trying to conjure scenarios where the Patriots play November football with the exquisite ineptitude of their opponents is not easy.

They are doing this without Julian Edelman or Dont'a Hightower. They played Sunday without Chris Hogan, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon and Matt Slater.

Offenses can’t score against them. Defenses can’t stop them. They create points on special teams. They manage the game, the clock and their opponents like simple arithmetic while every other team’s doing trigonometry. What was broken in September has been long fixed.

The time will come again when the Patriots appear just as inept, clueless and mired in mediocrity as every other AFC team appears right now. But it won’t be this year.

So embrace the softness? I guess?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Wentz, Eagles roll over Cowboys 37-9 after losing kicker

eagles_cowboys_carson_wentz_111917.jpg

Wentz, Eagles roll over Cowboys 37-9 after losing kicker

ARLINGTON, Texas -- No kicker, no problem for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Carson Wentz threw for two touchdowns and three 2-point conversions after Philadelphia lost kicker Jake Elliott to a head injury, and the Eagles all but wrapped up the NFC East with a 37-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.

The Eagles (9-1) outscored the Cowboys 30-0 in the second half while extending their winning streak to eight games, their longest since 2003-04 and tied with New Orleans for the best current run in the NFL.

Philadelphia leads the second-place and defending division champion Cowboys (5-5) by four games with six to play after handing Dallas its worst home loss at 8-year-old AT&T Stadium.

Dallas' Dak Prescott threw a career-high three interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in his second straight loss without star running back Ezekiel Elliott, serving a six-game suspension for alleged domestic violence.

Jake Elliott's injury wasn't a factor for nearly a half because the NFL-leading Eagles couldn't get in scoring position. They failed to get a first down on five straight first-half drives, starting with one at the Dallas 15 when Elliott missed a 34-yard attempt and soon after left the field.

Trailing 9-7 at halftime, Wentz led the Eagles on scoring drives of 75, 90 and 85 yards, the middle one boosted by Jay Ajayi's 71-yard run against his hometown team in his second game since getting traded by Miami.

"The biggest thing was sticking with the game plan," said Wentz, who is up to 25 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. "The big boys up front kind of came out angry. We ran the ball the second half really effectively."

Ajayi had 91 yards on seven carries and LeGarrette Blount added 57 on 13 carries, including a 30-yarder leading to the last offensive touchdown.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson declared at halftime that he would go for every fourth down and try 2-point conversions after every touchdown.

It came into play right away when Corey Clement scored on an 11-yard run to open the second half and ran in a screen pass behind three blockers for the 2-pointer.

The first fourth-down try was Wentz's 17-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery for a 29-9 lead. That 2-point pass failed. Torrey Smith had the other TD catch, an 11-yarder.

After Derek Barnett hit Prescott's leg and arm as he was throwing, Nigel Bradham picked up the loose ball and ran it 37 yards for a touchdown. Wentz's 2-point pass to Trey Burton provided the final margin.

"We got some nice 2-point conversions," said Wentz, who was 14 of 27 for 168 yards. "Now we've got to go back to the drawing board with our 2-point plays."

The Cowboys appeared to have fixed the problems of missing injured left tackle Tyron Smith and 2016 All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee from a week earlier, when they allowed eight sacks of Prescott along with three Atlanta scoring drives following Lee's injury in a 27-7 loss to the Falcons.

But after protecting Prescott fairly well before halftime, Dallas allowed three sacks and 180 of Philadelphia's season-high 215 yards rushing in the second half. Lee's replacement at weakside linebacker, Anthony Hitchens, left with a groin injury after halftime.

Prescott was 18 of 31 for 145 yards for a career-worst 30.4 passer rating before backup Cooper Rush took mop-up duty.

"It's no excuses," said Prescott, who teamed with Elliott in a remarkable rookie season that is now a distant memory with already two more losses and three more interceptions than Prescott had a year ago. Elliott won't be back until the final two games of the regular season.

"We're not saying injuries or any of that's bothering us. We're not saying it's the reason we're not winning is because of those guys."

NO RUST THIS TIME

The Eagles had a focus on being better following the bye after losing nine of 11 last season after a 3-0 start going into the break. Now Philadelphia will take a shot at the best record in the NFL with history on its side when starting this strong. The Eagles have two NFL championships (1949, 1960) and two trips to the Super Bowl (1980, 2004, both losses) following 9-1 starts.

SECOND-HALF MELTDOWNS

The Cowboys have been outscored 47-0 in the second half the past two weeks following a three-game winning streak that seemed to have Dallas back on track following an NFC-best 13-3 record last season.

"It would be pretty tough not to panic, but I don't think we are panicking," said running back Alfred Morris, who had 91 yards filling in for Ezekiel Elliott. "It's been two tough losses, ugly losses on top of that. But at the same time, I know the character of this team and the fight we have."

EMERGENCY KICKER

Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill is the emergency kicker for the Eagles. But he completely missed the safety net on a practice try on the sidelines, sending the ball into the stands. He did reach the goal line with his first kickoff, though.

UP NEXT

Eagles: Home against Chicago next Sunday.

Cowboys: Los Angeles Chargers visiting for annual Thanksgiving game.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE