Perry's Report Card: Edelman, Gronk make all the difference
Perry's Report Card: Edelman, Gronk make all the difference
After the Patriots made their way back to the locker room following Saturday's victory over the Chiefs, Bill Belichick lauded them for being the better team from "wire-to-wire," and he was right. Aside from their difficulties defensively on third down and their inability offensively to salt the game away earlier in the fourth quarter, the Patriots' Divisional Round victory was as complete a performance as could be expected. They had finished the season 2-6 while the Chiefs had won 11 in a row, proving that momentum was little more than a myth. What mattered was which team played best on the day of the game -- a message preached by both Belichick and Tom Brady in the days leading up -- and there was little doubt as to which team that was.
Even though Julian Edelman was expected to return to the field in the Divisional Round against the Chiefs, no one knew what to expect from the Patriots offense. Would his surgically-repaired foot allow him to be the dynamic receiver off the line of scrimmage that he was earlier in the year? Would he be able to separate in tight spaces? Would he have an impact in helping his teammates uncover in the secondary? How much work would he be able to shoulder? He was rusty, dropping three passes that normally would have been caught, but he was targeted a team-high 16 times and caught 10 for 100 yards. His impact on the offense was illustrated on one particular play when the football wasn't even sent his way. Lined up in the slot alongside tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was out wide, Edelman drew the coverage of three defenders. That left Gronkowski in a one-on-one situation with Kansas City corner Sean Smith, and his back-shoulder score from the eight-yard line capped the first scoring drive for the Patriots on the day. When on the field together, particularly on the same side of the field, defenses have a difficult time matching up.
Against the third-ranked defense in football, Brady was accurate and took care of the football. He completed 28 of his 42 attempts but one of those incompletions was a throwaway and five were dropped. With the addition of Edelman, Brady was allowed to get the ball out of his hands much more quickly, and he was kept relatively clean. For the first time since Week 9, he wasn't sacked. Brady also answered any questions about his injured right ankle when he climbed a collapsing pocket on his team's first drive of the game, stepped up and hit Gronkowski for a 32-yard completion over the middle. His mobility did not seem at all inhibited.
After Edelman, it was Keshawn Martin -- two catches for 57 yards on four targets -- who made the most sizable impact. His 42-yard grab down the sideline when Chiefs corner Marcus Peters got "nosy," as Brady put it in a conversation with WEEI, was the longest completion of the game and helped spark his team's 98-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that culminated in Brady's one-yard sneak touchdown. Brandon LaFell's struggles seemed to continue as he was targeted five times and caught three passes for six yards. One incompletion sent his way was nearly picked off deep down the middle of the field, and one has to wonder if he'll continue to see those kinds of opportunities. Since popping up on the injury report with a foot injury following a Week 15 win over the Titans, LaFell has played in a majority of the offensive snaps for the Patriots, but he's caught just six passes for 32 yards in three games.
RUNNING BACK: B
Steven Jackson (six carries, 16 yards) and James White (one carry, five yards) combined for just 3.0 yards per carry, but when they were handed the ball there simply wasn't much room for them to run. Against Kansas City's stout front, the game plan was clearly to rely on the passing game and the passing game along. Brady dropped back 43 times and called just nine designed rushes. Whereas White was one of Brady's most relied-upon targets in the passing game late in the season, he saw just three passes headed his way with Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski back in the fold. His 29-yard catch-and-run proved he can still be a productive option when called-upon.
TIGHT END: A-
Gronkowski was not feeling 100 percent -- he continues to deal with a balky knee and he showed up on the injury report with a back issue in the days leading up to the game -- but he still performed as one of the most physically dominant pass-catchers in the game. He continued to be a problem when lined up wide down in the red zone, catching both of his passes while split out to the left. On his second score, when he confused All-Pro safety Eric Berry and ran by him for an easy touchdown, Gronkowski moved fluidly and appeared to be not at all hampered by whatever ailed him physically. Michael Williams played just seven snaps and Scott Chandler saw just five, highlighting the fact that Josh McDaniels opted to go with 11-personnel for the majority of the game with one back and one tight end.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
To keep Brady off of the turf (he was hit legally just once) against a talented defensive front earned this group one of its top marks of the season. Sebastian Vollmer (one hurry) was sound on the left edge and showed plenty of toughness in his first game back since being carted off of the MetLife Stadium field with an ankle injury in Week 16. Right tackle Marcus Cannon (three hurries) had perhaps his best game of the season. Left guard Josh Kline and right guard Shaq Mason were also impressive. Mason's performance was particularly notable in that he played on the right side after playing almost exclusively on the left this season. Also, in a pass-heavy attack the talented rookie run-blocker more than held his own in fellow rookie Tre' Jackson's absence, allowing just one quarterback hurry.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Stephen Gostkowski was once again perfect on his extra points, and he added two field goals from 40 and 32 yards away. In the game he surpassed Adam Vinatieri as the franchise's all-time leading scorer in the postseason, and he tied Thurman Thomas and Emmitt Smith (126 points) for fifth all-time on the NFL postseason scoring list. Matthew Slater was a problem in the eyes of Kansas City special teams coach Dave Toub, as evidenced by the (almost comical) triple team Slater saw as a gunner in the second quarter. The following day, after watching the film, Slater said that special teams coach Joe Judge didn't have many coaching points for him on that particular play. Not much one man can do against three. Amendola's 22-yard return was highlighted twice by Belichick after the game as a key play in that it helped lead to Gostkowski's second field goal.
Chiefs wideout Jeremy Maclin played on Saturday, but he clearly wasn't himself. Dealing with a high ankle sprain, he finished with two catches for 23 yards on three targets. With Maclin limited, the Patriots could focus their defensive game plan on slowing down the Chiefs running game and smothering tight end Travis Kelce in the passing game. Other than allowing Kansas City to convert on 12-of-20 third-down attempts (and 1-of-2 fourth-down tries), Matt Patricia's group was able to execute its plan.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
The group finished with one sack -- an easy one for Chandler Jones, who only had to touch down Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith after Smith fell behind the line of scrimmage -- and it picked up four quarterback hits and 17 hurries. At times, however, those hurries led to rush lanes being abandoned and opened up running room for Smith, who picked up 44 yards on nine attempts, six of which were scrambles. After dealing with a shin injury he suffered against the Jets in Week 16, Ninkovich was healthy enough to see 83 of a possible 89 snaps and was one of the team's most consistent performers up front. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Jabaal Sheard all shined at times, while Jones and Hicks had up-and-down days. Jones caused a key fumble in the third quarter that led to Gronkowski's third-quarter score, but he also was blocked too easily at times -- once in particular by tight end Travis Kelce, who's not known for that part of his game. Jones appeared to suffer a right knee injury in the fourth quarter and his availability in this week's practices bears watching.
The depth of this group was stressed down the stretch as Jamie Collins (back) and Jerod Mayo (shoulder) were both knocked from the game with their injuries. Dont'a Hightower was also forced out of the game at times as he dealt with the lingering effects of his knee injury. That meant Jonathan Freeny, Darius Fleming and Dekoda Watson all saw playing time, which may not have been the plan, but they held up well, according to Belichick: "Our depth there at linebacker really came through for us . . . It’s one of those situations where everybody’s got to be ready to go. You never know how it’s going to go in the playoffs." Watson finished with two hurries and Freeny had one of his own. Though they played well, the Patriots would certainly like to have Collins and Hightower available to take the majority of their defensive snaps in the AFC Championship Game.
Patrick Chung is consistently a factor in helping the Patriots defend the run, but lined up on Kelce for much of the game, he proved once again that he's been one of the league's better strong safeties in coverage this year as well. He allowed Kelce to reel in four of six targets for just 12 yards after the Chiefs tight end caught eight passes for 128 yards in the Wild Card Round against the Texans. Logan Ryan allowed eight catches on ten targets -- including a touchdown on a perfectly-placed pass from Smith to Albert Wilson -- admitted after the game that the team's third-down defensive struggles "starts with me." Rookie corner Justin Coleman took over the team's nickel back duties from Leonard Johnson and performed relatively well. He allowed four catches for 31 yards and recorded a pass breakup in his first game back from a concussion suffered against the Jets in Week 16. He played a season-high 68 snaps in the win.