First impressions from Patriots' 35-17 win: Gronk rolls to career-high


First impressions from Patriots' 35-17 win: Gronk rolls to career-high

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady returned to Gillette Stadium and was extremely accurate, helping the Patriots to a 35-17 victory over the Bengals to move to 5-1 on the season. Here are some quick impressions from Brady's homecoming . . .

PATRIOTS 35, BENGALS 17: Curran's Best and Worst | Gronk on Bengals: They're always baiting everyone | Game notes

-- Brady's ability to place the football has long been one of the strengths of his game, and that facet of his game was on display yet again Sunday. He finished 29-for-35 for 376 yards and three touchdowns. He hit on the first seven passes he threw to Rob Gronkowski and was a combined 13-for-13 when targeting Martellus Bennett and James White. Brady's touchdown pass to Gronkowski was a short one -- just four yards -- but it was spotted perfectly, low and away, so that Gronkowski, who was well-covered, was the only player who could get his mitts on it. 

-- Gronkowski provided the Gillette Stadium crowd with his share of hold-your-breath moments as a few of his catches -- leading to a career-high 162 yards -- ended with hits to the knees or ankles. Gronkowski too exception to one hit over the middle from Bengals corner Adam Jones when Jones got Gronkowski down around the ankles. Gronkowski stood up, had words for Jones, and then several Bengals crowded around Gronkowski as words continued to be exchanged. On Gronkowski's next catch, he went out of his way to say something to corner Dre' Kirkpatrick, causing linebacker Vontaze Burfict to get involved. Gronkowski was eventually slapped with a taunting penalty and came off the field for a snap, pleading his case to both Bill Belichick and tight ends coach Brian Daboll. It didn't appear as though there was much sympathy for Gronkowski coming from the coaching staff after the flag. Had Gronkowski picked up another similar penalty, the rules would have called for his ejection.

-- LeGarrette Blount, who was involved in the scuffle that led to Gronkowski's penalty, was later flagged for unnecessary roughness after running in a one-yard score. Teaching moment for the Patriots players and their coaching staff. 

-- The Patriots defense allowed the Bengals to win the time-of-possession battle, and they gave up touchdown drives of 60 and 80 yards, but they came up with a goal-line stand in the second quarter that proved crucial to the victory. Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts stuffed their first attempt, which was followed by Malcolm Butler's pass-breakup on an Andy Dalton attempt to AJ Green. On fourth down, the right side of the defensive line, including Alan Branch and Chris Long, caved in the Bengals offensive line, and Dont'a Hightower finished off the play to turn the ball over on downs. 

-- Hightower put together his most dominant performance of the season thus far with 1.5 sacks, one of which resulted in a safety -- his second forced safety in as many weeks -- and three run stuffs. Butler had a strong game for himself as well, allowing just two catches on eight targets. He also broke up four passes and dropped one would-be interception. The Patriots mixed up their coverages throughout the afternoon in order to slow down Cincy's passing attack. While Green found soft spots in zones and beat one-on-one coverage on occasion, he never broke the game open for the visitors, finishing with six catches for 88 yards. One of the two catches Butler allowed went to old teammate Brandon LaFell on a five-yard touchdown that was a well-executed pitch and catch. 

-- Stephen Gostkowski's up-and-down stretch continued on Sunday. He made both of his field-goal attempts, but he missed one of his three extra points on the day. Gostkowski came into the game having missed three field goals in New England's last four games. 

This whole panel picked Patriots to beat Chiefs ... except Ray Lewis

This whole panel picked Patriots to beat Chiefs ... except Ray Lewis

Just as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, Ray Lewis will always pick against the New England Patriots.

The Patriots are road underdogs entering Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. But after a demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round, many NFL analysts believe Tom Brady and Co. will keep rolling to their third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

Lewis? He's not convinced.

Here's Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Steve Smith and Lewis making their picks for Patriots-Chiefs on Showtime's "Inside The NFL" -- with Lewis as the lone dissenter picking Kansas City to win.

What's Lewis' reasoning?

"I think there's a young lion that's sitting in Kansas City named Pat(rick) Mahomes, and he's heard this Tom Brady story too many times," Lewis said.

Simms then reminded Lewis that Mahomes doesn't play defense, but we'll give the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker credit where credit is due: Mahomes was the best quarterback in the NFL this season and will be an absolute handful for the Patriots' defense.

So, why did Lewis' coworkers all pick the Patriots to pull off the upset in Arrowhead Stadium, where they've won just one game since the stadium opened in 1972?

Simms likes the Pats because of their strong rushing attack and excellent screen pass game -- "the best in the NFL" -- which could be valuable weapons in the expected sub-freezing conditions. Smith believes New England is rallying around its "underdog" status, while Esiason has been all-in on the Pats since Week 1.

But considering Lewis once said he'd rather have Rex Ryan than Bill Belichick, we shouldn't be surprised with his selection.

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Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

Neck-roll enthusiasts rejoice: Patriots, Chiefs prove there's still a place for the fullback

KANSAS CITY -- Anthony Sherman was certain his position should not be considered a relic of football's past. 

The Chiefs Pro Bowl fullback stepped to the podium at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday and was asked about his role and its future in a game that seems to be getting faster and more pass-happy by the year. 

"Three of the four teams left have a fullback and use them on a consistent basis," said Sherman, who graduated North Attleboro High and attended UConn. "Maybe you want to be like us. I don't know."

His numbers aren't wrong.

Sherman played 98 offensive snaps this year for the Chiefs and was the highest-graded fullback in football this season, per Pro Football Focus. New England's James Develin played 399 snaps in 2018, coming in second in terms of playing time at the position to San Francisco's do-it-all weapon Kyle Juszczyk. New Orleans deployed fullback Zach Line on 226 snaps, fourth-most among fullbacks.

Those are three of the top four offenses in football -- the Rams are the other -- and they all have room for fullbacks in their scheme. They also have creative offensive minds pulling the controls who understand when to use the fullback, and how a player at that spot can complement some of the other things they're trying to accomplish. 

What's fascinating is that it's the Patriots -- a team that re-wrote record books over a decade ago because of their passing game, a team that has been as forward-thinking offensively as any -- who have turned back the clock and used their fullback more than any other team left in the postseason. 

On 29 percent of their snaps, the Patriots went with two backs and one tight end (21 personnel) this year. That put them second in that category, behind only the Niners (41 percent), and it's up from their 21-personnel usage in 2017 (24 percent). In 2016, the Patriots used 21 personnel on 16 percent of their snaps, almost half their 2018 percentage.

Bill Belichick's team, it seems, has been building to this. In the latter portion of their schedule, it wanted to get tougher at the line of scrimmage. It wanted to prove it could run the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it would. Since New England's bye week, it's utilized "21" on 35 percent of its snaps. 

But even before that, the Patriots seemed to be willing to go heavier more often. In the offseason, they traded their No. 1 wideout for a first-round pick used on an offensive lineman. They drafted a running back with their other first-round choice. They signed their run-blocking dynamo of a right-guard to a lucrative, long-term extension. 

Did Belichick sense a market inefficiency? Did he believe that the best way to separate from the pack was to fortify his offense's running game because others treated that facet of the sport as an afterthought?  

Did he feel like defenses were getting too light as they focused on defending the pass? (If so, last weekend's Divisional Round win over over the Chargers and their defensive back-heavy alignments was a check in his favor.) 

Or did he sense that this had to happen for this particular iteration of his team? That because of the talent level of his wide-receiver and tight-end groups, the Patriots would have to move the ball on the ground if they were to get to where they wanted to go? Was keeping a 41-year-old quarterback upright with more run plays part of Belichick's thought process?

Hard to say. Could've been a combination of all of those factors. But if you look at the NFL's Final Four, the Patriots aren't the only ones who buck the league's pass-happy trends. It goes beyond fullback usage. 

Three of the four teams remaining -- New Orleans (fourth), Los Angeles (seventh) and New  England (eighth) -- were in the top eight in terms run rate in 2018. And all three ran more than they passed on first down, ranking within the league's top-nine in terms of run rate on first down.

So maybe Sherman was right. Maybe the role of the running game -- and, by extension, the fullback -- isn't dying. But Sunday's AFC title game feels like it will have a say in just how well a relatively old-school offensive attack can work in today's NFL.

Will it be Kansas City's variable passing game, its forward-thinking concepts and its young quarterbacking prototype that wins in the cold in January?

Or will it be the team that likes its two-back packages, the team that over its last four games has nearly split its number of run and pass plays (52 percent pass, 48 percent run) that moves on?

The answer could come early since the drawback of carrying the identity the Patriots do into Arrowhead Stadium is that they don't seem to have the tools necessary to create explosive pass plays through the air when thrust into obvious passing situations. They don't seem built to play from behind.

But if the tools they have -- a grind-it-out running game with a heaping helping of fullback play, a devastating play-action passing game -- are enough to get them the lead? They may never give it back.

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