There's nothing like being able to exhale early when it comes to a playoff game. That's what Pats fans got to when the Houston Texans came back to Foxborough to once again show the country how overmatched they truly are against a good team that knows what it's doing.
The Pats cruised to a 41-28 win in Sunday's AFC Divisional round and while they lost Rob Gronkowski again in the process, there wasn't much over which to wring hands. If you want to pick nits, you could point to the 10 quick points the Texans scored to close out the first half and make the game more respectable for about 10 minutes. Or the shoddy kick return coverage. Or the two garbage time TDs the Texans scored late in the fourth quarter.
But instead, let's choose to focus on all the good things that the Pats accomplished in this game. Two of their key offensive cogs, both of whom we would later learn were integral to the game plan, were lost early, but the Pats barely missed a beat adjusting to a different course of action on offense. Once again, Texans' star defender J.J. Watt was mostly held down, more often resembling Brian Bosworth than a potential Defensive Player of the Year. The defense played one of its best, most complete games of the season. And Brandon Spikes, in addition to contributing to the slowing down of Houston back Arian Foster, also showed us what a good dancer he is.
The Texans were complicit in their own demise once again, still appearing clueless on both sides of the ball about how to attack the Pats. It's tough to imagine that team going much further than they have the past two years as presently constituted, particularly with Gary Kubiak at head coach and Matt Schaub at QB.
But that's another story for another website. For our purposes here, we'll focus on the Pats, who advanced to their seventh AFC Championship game in 11 seasons and will meet the Baltimore Ravens in a rematch of last year's title tilt. And if anyone who writes for a certain Boston newspaper tries to tell you that we didn't really learn anything new about this team from Sunday's win, please be sure to dismiss it as just more cynical, crap-stirring designed to draw attention to said writers and nothing more. The Patriots are the most mentally tough team in the business and that was on display in this game in a major way, from adjusting to injuries on the fly, to having every major call go against them but still winning in a runaway. We may not have "learned" that, but we sure were reminded of it.
So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
A mostly masterful performance from Tom Brady, who passed for one more yard than Schaub (344-343) in 11 fewer pass attempts. He also tossed three TDs, threw zero picks and posted a passer rating of 115. Other than a couple of low throws, Brady was in complete command from the jump and as usual, diagnosed everything the defense showed him and reacted accordingly. In particular, when Brady went deep, he did it as accurately as he has all season, with a couple of left sideline throws, one to Wes Welker and the second a TD to Shane Vereen that pretty much sealed the game up for the Pats, standing out. Brady benefited from the Texans once again having no clue to how to stay with the Pats' quick snap, no-huddle offense. The amount of plays on which Houston wasn't even close to being set despite having a game's worth of film from a month ago to practice off of was staggering and again speaks to how overmatched and poorly coached a team it is. And Brady, being as excellent as he is, sees mistakes or breakdowns like that and takes advantage as well as anyone. Brady hasn't put up the greatest numbers against the Ravens of late and they always play him and the Pats as team very tough. But there's just no one better suited to lead this team to a sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
Running Backs: 5
Holy Toledo, Shane Vereen. Pressed into service after Woodhead hurt his thumb on the Pats' first offensive play of the game, Vereen saw the most game action of his career and he literally ran with it. Soft-shoeing through the Texans' defense all day, Vereen shined both as a ball carrier and a receiver, scoring three TDs, two receiving. He caught passes out of the backfield and split out wide, where the Texans manned him up one-on-one with a linebacker more than once and got burned. Not only could the Texans' linebackers not stay with him in space when he caught the ball, Vereen showed excellent skill as a route runner, executing his assignments precisely and athletically. It's easy to forget that Vereen, who finished the game with 124 total yards to go with those three scores, was a second-rounder last season, picked ahead of Stevan Ridley. He had a hard time staying healthy last year and was third on the depth chart for most of this season. But he showed that he was worth the draft choice on Sunday as arguably the Pats' most valuable offensive player. As for the main man, Ridley came into the game a little later on. But he had another big showing, carrying 15 times for 82 yards (5.5 YPA) and a TD. Ridley has run with strength and power that belies his size all year long and on Sunday, he looked typically strong and powerful. He routinely dragged Houston D-linemen or linebackers along with him for significant yards after contact, even Watt. The way he finds creases in the line where there doesn't appear to be any room then explodes through them is quite impressive. The Patriots have a couple of studs in their backfield and they carried the offense in a big way on Sunday.
Wide Receivers: 4
Gronk goes out mere moments into the game and who fills the void? Welker, of course. Brady's ultimate security blanket added to his list of remarkable achievements with the most productive playoff game of his career, becoming the franchise leader in playoff receptions. Welker caught eight passes for 131 yards, 120 of those in the first half, likely to the chagrin of clueless Texans' defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who remarked last Friday that he doesn't think the Pats' receiver is all that athletic. One has to wonder if he was watching when Welker hauled in a perfectly thrown deep sideline pass over his shoulder with Houston corner Kareem Jackson stuck to him. Or when he broke through a bracket on the first play after Gronk's injury to pick up a first down on 3rd and 11. Or on one of the screen passes where he took the ball and ran through the entire Houston defense. Pats fans know how athletic Welker is, it was just nice to be reminded, especially after Phillips's asinine comment. Brandon Lloyd was more quiet and incurred a terrible penalty when an official wasn't paying attention when Lloyd tossed the ball to him and got it in the face, perhaps costing the Pats a TD. He also had a couple of what should now be trademarked stop, drop and rolls where he chooses to hit the turf and curl into the fetal position after making a catch instead of running with the ball. But he sold his TD perfectly when Brady and the O-line executed a perfect stretch play fake, leaving him one-on-one with Jackson, taking the quick throw and deking the Houston corner out of his jock. Welker had a couple of drops and Lloyd still has moments of maddening inconsistency. But it's not difficult to have plenty of confidence in them going forward. Job well done by those two on Sunday.
Tight Ends: 4
Really tough loss in Gronk, who probably came back too soon from his broken arm. But the Pats proved that they know how to win and score a ton of points without him so not having him available next week or, if they beat the Ravens, the Super Bowl, won't be nearly as daunting as in last season's ultimate game when he was playing on one leg. His absence will hurt them the most in the red zone. But having said that, Aaron Hernandez had his best, most explosive game since Week 1 on Sunday and that has to make everyone invested in this team feel a little bit better moving forward. Hernandez still looked gimpy and tentative in the first half but on the Pats' first drive of the second half, the one on which they crushed any momentum Houston may have gained in the final moments of the second quarter, he busted out. Brady hit him in the flat and Hernandez took it from there, outrunning multiple defenders and showing the kind of precise, agile cutting ability that's helped make him a star. He looked confident in his ability to plant and cut like he could before his ankle injury and that's a major plus for the Pats. And Michael Hoomanawanui, who will play as much as, if not more than, he did after Gronk's first injury. Luckily for the Pats, Hoomanawanui has proven to be a very able, valuable contributor and is a hell of a run blocker. He's no Gronk, but he's pretty good nonetheless.
Offensive Line: 4.5
Brady took seven hits and was sacked once on an athletic play by Watt on which he split a double team of Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly and exploded into the Pats' QB. But other than that, this group was excellent once again, dominating the line of scrimmage in the running game and frequently giving Brady more than enough time to operate, especially when the Texans blitzed. A typical sight was Logan Mankins either smothering someone when the Pats ran left, as they did on Vereen's rushing TD as well as several other times, or pulling out right and burying an unassuming Texans' defender (one such occurrence was rewound on the DVR three times in the living room where I was watching). Nate Solder was also fantastic, completely shutting down Texans' outside backer (and primary letter jacket wearer) Connor Barwin for the second time in two games. The Texans' defensive approach is very predictable, particularly up front where they frequently send four down linemen plus one additional rusher (yet another point that must have eluded Phillips seeing as how Brady now has 22 TDs and zero picks against five or more rushers on the year) and the Pats were ready for it. This group, which bounced back from a mini slump in Week 17 against Miami, looked to be at the top of its game again in this one. That should bode well next week against a resurgent Baltimore defense that's playing great right now.
Defensive Line: 4.5
The D-line got pressure on the opposing QB and controlled the running game. Foster had one stretch in the second quarter during which he really got off and accumulated the bulk of his 90 yards rushing. But he was stymied in the first quarter and after halftime, when the Pats put the game away with haste, rendering the Houston ground attack inert. Vince Wilfork didn't have the same game as he did a month ago from an individual standpoint, but he remains the anchor of this group and his mere presence forced the Texans to run Foster away from the middle of the line which, not coincidentally, were the only times all night that he was successful. Chandler Jones re-injured his ankle and didn't play in the second half after a very active first two quarters and that could hurt the Pats next week. But, as it has all season, the depth saved the day with Justin Francis again proving his worth. Francis is quick when he rushes the passer but also has shown good strength and power when he's gotten a chance to play. And of course, where would the Pats be without Rob Ninkovich? The X-factor on defense all year, Ninkovich again came up with one of the plays of the game on Sunday, when he fooled Schaub into throwing the ball into the middle of the field after a perfectly executed exchange and blitz with Jerod Mayo. Ninkovich and mayo switched places on the play, with Ninkovich looking like he'd blitz up the middle only to fall back into coverage, and Mayo coming off the right edge. The play call couldn't have worked better as Schaub practically gave the ball to Ninkovich, who made a nice, jumping catch. As unfortunate as Gronk's injury was, if the hip injury Ninkovich suffered against the Dolphins a couple weeks ago had been more serious and he subsequently had to miss any time, the Pats would have been worse off. What a terrific player he is.
Let's watch Spikes dance again. There, that's good. When he wasn't busy doing the Our Ball Bounce (or OBB, yeah you know me!), Spikes was a focal point of the Pats controlling Foster and the run game. He remains the Pats' most imposing linebacker and he was his usual stout self in this game. His best play that didn't involve any dancing was one on which he was running off the field, quickly realized he should still be out there, turned and ran back right into the play and made a big tackle that stopped the Texans short of a first down. Great stuff. Mayo had another very nice game, getting into the Texans' backfield a couple of times, running that exchange with Ninkovich perfectly and even looking good in coverage on some plays. And Dont'a Hightower, who is better every week, held his own and made a couple of nice plays in his first career playoff game while splitting nickel and dime duties with Spikes. Let's hope we see a few more smooth moves out of this group against the Ravens.
Defensive Backs: 4
It was back to normal for the secondary in this game, with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at corner and Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety, all playing pretty much every snap. Talib didn't have as much success blanketing Andre Johnson as he did in the first game but he still looked like every bit the No. 1 corner the Pats traded for and his presence solidifies everything in the back for the Pats. The only play this defense has allowed to go for more than 40 yards since Talib's arrival was a screen pass in the Jacksonville game and that's not a coincidence. He's not on the same level, but Talib may be the best corner the Pats have had since Asante Samuel, only more physical. His game is Ty Law-esque and while like Samuel, he's not as good as Law was in his prime, that's OK. He's more than good enough and is as big a reason why the Pats' defense is now a formidable unit as any. Dennard looked a bit rusty but it's good to have him back since his presence allows Kyle Arrington (who wasn't great in this game) to play at his most comfortable position which is in the slot. Gregory had a bad helmet-to-helmet penalty but it didn't cost the Pats that badly and he was in on braking up a couple of passes. McCourty held down the fort as he usually does, his highlight being just close enough to Johnson on a first quarter end zone throw to scare Schaub into a bad pass. He's also the fastest player on the team, which he reminded everyone on the Texans' first long kick return. One curiosity: Tavon Wilson played the sixth DB role over Patrick Chung. He did fine and made a couple of solid hits but what is more noteworthy about this move is that Bill Belichick and the defensive staff seem to have finally figured out what a liability Chung can be. If you have a No. 25 jersey, you might want to take it to the Goodwill. Chung is as good as gone.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 3
The special teams gets a 1.5, saved only from the lowest score possible by our man Zoltan Mesko's huge game punting the ball. Mesko was booming them all day, netting just under 50 yards per kick in a monster performance. After that, zilch. Even though Stephen Gostkowski looked very confident making his two field goals, he was culpable in the miserable kick coverage, even earning himself a 15-yard penalty for a horse collar tackle on one of the Texans' three huge returns (although on the positive side, Houston return man Danieal Manning probably would have scored on the play). This is an area the Pats have to figure out during the week. Between the three returns in thsi game and the brutally timed one they gave up against the 49ers that scuttled their amazing comeback, covering kicks has become a problem. The Ravens have a great return man in Jacoby Jones. This needs to be shored up.
The ugly special teams performance is balanced out though by a perfect score for the coaching. It's not that difficult to look good in a big game when you see Kubiak, Phillips and the Texans' staff on the opposite side of the field, but Belichick and company still earned their money in this one. When the two main cogs of your offensive game plan go down within the first eight snaps of the game and you still dominate on that side of the ball, obviously the players deserve a truckload of credit, but that the coaches were able to adjust so fluidly on the fly speaks volumes. On defense, the plan worked too. Blitzes were perfectly timed and worked frequently (the amount of times a blitz on 3rd and long resulted in Schaub having to get rid of the ball too soon resulting in a short gain and subsequent punt was tremendous). Nothing ever got behind the Pats' secondary. That exchange blitz by Mayo that resulted in Ninkovich's INT was a perfect call. The deep throw to Vereen for a TD on the first play after stopping the Texans' offense on fourth down was another outstanding call. Everything the Pats planned for didn't quite work out. But every move they made to adjust sure did.
So now, this coaching staff will go up against what's proven to be its toughest adversary that isn't the Giants over the past few years. This will be a far more formidable task than matching wits with Kubiak, Phillips and crew. But how can you not feel confident in their chances of winning the coaching battle? The Pats are the villains in the Ray Lewis story (hey did you know that this game could be his last?), and it stands to reason that the public sentiment leading up to the game will be against them.
But if anyone is up to facing that challenge down and winning, it's these players and these coaches. It's this team.