Fifty-yard punts help raise the average, but the ones that dropped Ryan Allen’s Sunday helped send the New England Patriots to Minneapolis.
“Ryan’s done a good job for us all year, and again in a game like this,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters in his postgame press conference, via Patriots.com. “I don’t know how many times we punted – more than we wanted to – but he had a lot of big plays for us.”
Off Allen’s left foot bounced a total of six punts for a 41.3-yard clip against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Such a mark would’ve ranked last in the NFL this regular season. Given the field position, such a mark likely couldn’t have mattered less to special teams coordinator Joe Judge and assistant coach Raymond Ventrone. And yet, seeing how Allen finished the 16-game schedule tied with Sam Martin and Bradley Pinion for third-to-last, such a mark was only fitting in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.
Distance means little without the benefit of context. A line-drive punt that goes 65 yards and is returned for 20 doesn’t hold as much weight as a lofted 35-yarder that becomes a fair catch inside the 10. It’s not always a matter of swinging for the fences. It can be about touch, too.
Allen’s afternoon at Gillette Stadium was case in point.
In the first half, the 27-year-old by way of Oregon State and Louisiana Tech punted a 42-yarder out of bounds at Jacksonville’s 24, had a 53-yarder fair caught at Jacksonville’s 23, and saw a 46-yarder roll out at Jacksonville’s 25. The Jaguars showed some two-deep return looks then, limiting directional kicks as Belichick would go on to note, and went on to respond with two touchdowns on those ensuing drives.
Though in the second half, there was less room to work with. The Patriots’ punt-coverage team never stepped on with ball on their own side of the 50.
Those decisions intensified with New England down 17-10 and then 20-10. But those decisions put trust in New England’s defense to get stops against a more conservative approach, and in Allen to set the stage for one – or two or three.
His final trio of punts did that, landing within a yard of each other as the likes of Matthew Slater, Johnson Bademosi and Nicholas Grigsby closed in.
ALLEN’S SECOND-HALF PUNTS
- 37 yards, fair caught at the Jacksonville 10
- 37 yards, fair caught at the Jacksonville 9
- 35 yards, fair caught at the Jacksonville 10
Jaguars rookie Dede Westbrook could do nothing more than throw his hand in the air as each fell into his grasp within 10 yards of his own end zone. There’d be no touchbacks – Allen had three all regular season on 58 punts – just drives that saw Jacksonville start in the shadow of their own goal post.
“Yeah, in each of those situations we did what we felt was best in that situation at that time,” said a coy Belichick, whose offense departed on fourth-and-4 from the Jaguars’ 47, fourth-and-2 from the Jaguars’ 46, and fourth-and-2 from the Jaguars’ 45 over the last two quarters.
A three-and-out, a field goal, and another field goal would follow for Blake Bortles, Leonard Fournette and Co. over that span. So would an opportunity for Tom Brady, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks and the rest of New England’s offense to rally, 24-20.
“He had some good punts when we were backed up and needed the field position,” Belichick added of Allen, a 2013 undrafted free agent and two-time Ray Guy Award winner, “and then we had some plus-50 punts in the second half that he executed really well, which is like we did in the Jets game a couple weeks ago. We were able to maintain the field position that we had, so it was key for us.”
This wasn’t the New York game of Week 17, when Allen posted a 42.3-yard average with five punts inside the 20. But it was a ticket to Super Bowl LII to meet the Philadelphia Eagles.
And Allen let it fly high rather than far to help New England get there.