Sunday’s impressive 37-16 win in the opening round of the NFL playoffs proved the Patriots are once again ready to take on all challengers when the postseason rolls around. Despite the final score, it was a tight, well-played, competitive game most of the way through. But the Patriots were clearly better and I never had a sense they’d lose. It was one of the better and sharper games they have played all year. And they’ll need to continue that trend as the competition is only going to get better. Lets take a look at each unit.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady has clearly played better the second half of the year, overall, than he did the first half. Chemistry with the receivers is probably one reason. Sunday, he was very good. He killed the Jets on critical third down after third down and at times made it look easy the precision he ran the offense with. He had a couple bad plays, a pass or two that could have been picked and a sack where he held the ball too long. But overall, he is approaching if not at his previous year’s level and that is good news for the Patriots.
RUNNING BACK: An outstanding day. Corey Dillon was very effective running the ball, though he did have one fumble. Laurence Maroney too ran hard, though he was unable to really shake loose on the Jets. Kevin Faulk contributed and caught a touchdown pass. The blocking was great, especially from fullback Heath Evans.
WIDE RECEIVER: A good day. Jabar Gaffney appears comfortable and made some good catches. His snare on the second Patriots first down of the game was actually a better catch than it appears on television. Live, you could see Brady was a bit inaccurate on it and Gaffney made a nice in flight adjustment to grab it and get the first down. He was good all day and had eight catches, though he did drop one potential touchdown. Troy Brown had one of his better games of the year, catching a couple big third downs and getting down field a bit. Reche Caldwell was his usual solid self and had five catches.
TIGHT ENDS: Good day here. Ben Watson had a drop, but blocked well. Daniel Graham was back to his old self blocking and was excellent. He caught a touchdown pass nicely at the end of the half as well in traffic.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Great day here. Matt Light held up well against the pass and the guards did an excellent job picking up the inside blitzes the Jets tried. They also got out well in space a number of time, especially Stephen Neal. Nick Kaczur at right tackle may have had his best game of the year.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Very good day here, though I don’t think it was as spectacular as I heard others say. That being said, Richard Seymour had his most disruptive and best day of the year. Nice to see him step up his game for the playoffs. He was all over the field including hustling numerous times to make plays on receivers way down field. Vince Wilfork was back from injury and was solid, but not spectacular and the Jets did gash him up the middle a couple times. He did have the heads up play of the year picking up a Jets lateral and running with it in the third quarter. That changed the game. Ty Warren was quiet for the first time in some time.
LINEBACKERS: A monster game here from Tully Banta-Cain, who seems to be getting better and better the more he plays. The rest of the crew was pretty solid. Mike Vrabel was active and had a nice game plugging the middle and dropping into coverage.
SECONDARY: What more can be said about Asante Samuel? The guy has just made plays all year. Before his fourth quarter interception return for a TD, he was solid all day and batted down a couple of big passes. Ray Mickens and Ellis Hobbs did a nice job at the corner spots. At safety, Artrell Hawkins let himself get out of position and took a bad angle on the Jets long touchdown pass and run. That was a major mistake. He had a bit of an off game, as did James Sanders, though neither was terrible. They’ll need to play better from here on out, however.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nice game from Stephen Goskowski connecting on all three field goal attempts. His kickoffs were mostly long and high as well. The punting was decent and coverage good. Not a bad day here.
As well as the Patriots played, they’ll have to play even better in the next round against a better San Diego team. It won’t be easy at all. But if they can slow down Tomlinson some (I don’t think they need to stop him completely, just hold him down under 120) and take away Antonio Gates, throwing to receivers is not what San Diego really likes to do. On offense, the Patriots have a challenge against the tough San Diego pass rush. They’ll need to find a way to combat that similar to how they combated the tough Carolina pass rush in the Super Bowl a few years back. Do that and they may just advance to the AFC Championship Game.