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After three great games, Patriots make a statement

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass during the second quarter of their NFL AFC Divisional playoff football game against the Houston Texans in Foxborough

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass in the second quarter of their NFL AFC Divisional playoff football game against the Houston Texans in Foxborough, Massachusetts January 13, 2013. AT left is Patriots’ Natle Solder. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)


We saw three great football games this weekend. And then we saw one great football team.

After a tremendous Saturday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, Sunday got started with another phenomenal game as the Falcons jumped out to a big lead, squandered that lead, and then came back to win 30-28. Through three games, this was as good a weekend of football as I can ever remember.

And then came the Patriots against the Texans, which was not a great game, or even a good one. It was just the Patriots beat the Texans 41-28 on the strength of a huge game from Tom Brady, while making a statement that they’re the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

The way the Patriots’ offense is playing right now, I don’t see anyone slowing them down. Brady can spread the ball around to so many different receivers -- even with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead both exiting the game early with injuries, he completed 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions -- that the Ravens aren’t going to have much of a chance in the AFC Championship Game.

And at the moment I’d definitely favor the Patriots over the Falcons in the Super Bowl, and I’d probably favor them over the 49ers too. Yes, the 49ers won at New England in December, but I think Bill Belichick with two weeks to game plan would make life very difficult for the young San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

So many crazy things have already happened in these playoffs that it’s way too early to make any definitive declarations about what we’re going to see in the final three games of this NFL season. And Gronkowski being knocked out of the rest of the playoffs is a significant blow. But after watching the divisional round of the playoffs, my best bet is that we’re going to see the Patriots win the AFC Championship Game, and then win the Super Bowl.

Here are my other observations from Sunday’s games:

Icing the kicker didn’t work. As Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was about to try his game-winning field goal, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called timeout. But the Falcons went ahead and snapped it, held it and kicked it anyway -- and Bryant missed. That practice kick apparently helped Bryant, because he made it when it counted. Carroll may make other coaches think twice about icing the kicker.

Why is Tony Gonzalez retiring? I know the soon-to-be 37-year-old Gonzalez says he’s done after the playoffs, but I don’t see why he should be. He caught six of the seven passes thrown to him, for 51 yards, and his one-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone was a thing of beauty. He has plenty of football left in him.

Live by Richard Sherman, die by Richard Sherman. Sherman was the best cornerback in the NFL all season and one of the biggest reasons the Seahawks made the playoffs, and he got off to a great start against the Falcons, knocking away two passes on Atlanta’s first drive. Unfortunately, he also got torched on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White. Sherman is an outstanding cornerback, but the Falcons weren’t afraid to go after him.

The Seahawks missed Chris Clemons. Clemons was the Seahawks’ best defensive lineman during the season, but he was out after suffering a torn ACL last week against the Redskins. It was easy to see how much Seattle missed him. Not only did Matt Ryan throw 35 passes without ever getting sacked, but the Falcons often ran directly at Clemons’ replacement, Bruce Irvin, who’s a good young pass rusher but still a liability against the run.

That’s a penalty? Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd got flagged for something I’ve never seen before: Throwing the ball too hard at the official. I’m all for the players treating the officials with respect, but I think this official was oversensitive. Lloyd didn’t chuck it at the guy’s head or anything, he just threw it quickly and the official didn’t see it coming. I agree with former NFL official Jim Daopoulos, who said it looked like the official who threw the flag had a short fuse.

Matt Schaub has a long way to go. Schaub has his moments when he looks like an elite NFL quarterback, but those moments don’t come consistently enough. Most of the time, Schaub is too skittish in the pocket and too prone to bad decisions. I think my least favorite of all was a third down on which he was pressured, rolled out of the pocket and then just threw the ball out of bounds, giving up on the play. Great quarterbacks don’t give up on plays like that.

Rob Ninkovich was outstanding. I started by praising the player on the Patriots who always gets praise, Tom Brady. So I’ll close by praising a player who doesn’t get nearly enough attention: Ninkovich, the starting linebacker who was all over the field on defense, with an interception, three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a hit on Matt Schaub that hurried a throw on third down, a very athletic play on which he caught Foster from behind at the end of a 28-yard catch and run, and a recovery of an onside kick. Players like that are the players who help teams win Super Bowls.