September 25, 2016

Pats Pregame Points: Before the Big Game, Week One

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

That’s one way to make it to Indianapolis. Relying on their defense to overcome an uncharacteristic performance from Tom Brady, New England held on for a 23-20 stomach-cramp win.

With two weeks until the big game, this column will be more devoted to the AFC Championship than to Destiny in Indy (which may or may not be the title of an adult film). So put off tolerating highlights of a certain previous Super Bowl and bask in the glory of New England’s fifth AFC win since January 2001.

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero: Despite our rooting interest, we must feel some sympathy for Billy Cundiff, the Ravens kicker who failed at his job at the least opportune time possible. Just a tough way to go. A welcome way for Pats fans, sure, but still tough.

Stagger, Lee: Similar sympathy (and/or ironic thanks) to Lee Evans, who allowed Patriot defensive back Sterling Moore to knock a winning touchdown pass out of his hands.

The lesson? To paraphrase Mike Vrabel when he was asked about catching a touchdown pass vs. Carolina, hold onto that ball like it’s your newborn son.

Hold The Rice: After watching what must have seemed like a continuous loop of Ray Rice running for an 83-yard touchdown back in the 2009 playoffs, New England set out to stop the dynamo and did so, holding him to 67 yards in 21 carries for 3.2 yards per.

For a defense that had some trouble stopping the run in the regular season, the past two playoff games have seen a welcome change.

Kraft Work: Kudos to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, not just for his steady day toting the spheroid (15 for 68 yards, 4.5 per), but for his thoughtful touch to the MHK patch on his uniform. Good to see the team honoring the late Mrs. Myra Kraft this year.

Lest we forget, the 5-3 Patriots headed down to New York (well, New Jersey, but close) to take on the Jets in a fight for first place in the AFC East. They beat the Jets by three TDs and have won every game since. We’ll take it.

Where There’s A Wilfork, There’s A Way: The AFC Championship win came in no small part to the efforts of defensive lineman/bulwark Vince Wilfork, who finished with six tackles and one sack and seemed to make an impact on every other play. A great game for the big fella. He went against solid center Matt Birk, but too often seemed like he was in the back corner of the playground taking Birk’s lunch money.

How’s The Grankle? Tight end/Beanstalk resident Rob Gronkowski had his ankle twisted during a tackle by safety Bernard Pollard, a name so odious to New Englanders he’s approaching Bucky Bleeping Dent territory.

No matter what, Gronk’s playing. Let’s hope he helps the good guys triumph.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – AFC Championship, Patriots vs. Ravens

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Professor

Well, then. Now that almost 48 full hours have passed and all of us have likely caught our breath, we can examine more clearly and coherently then Patriots stirring, improbable, 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. The win, which sends the Pats to their seventh Super Bowl and fifth under the magical tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (the most of any QB/coach combo of all time), was maddening, scintillating, ugly, glorious and completely perplexing, sometimes all at once. The Pats won with defense and physicality and if you had that one down headed into the game, I’ve got some lottery numbers for you to play (I’ll throw in a healthy commission for your trouble), with Brady playing one of his worst games of the season and the team losing three turnovers but somehow getting away with it. Multiple defensive guys had huge days and when you take that, some strong, powerful running by the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, more of the same mental toughness this team has shown all year and at least a spoonful of luck (fear not, we’ll get to the missed, 32-yard field goal, also known as the biggest gag job I’ve ever seen), it all adds up to a trip to the big game 12 days from now in Indianapolis. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, all dressed up and ready for the dance.

OFFENSE: C+
Quarterbacks: C
Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: Brady is as tough, if not tougher than any QB in the NFL. On his fourth quarter, one-yard TD plunge, he was upside down in midair when he was blasted in the kidneys and lower back by the helmet and shoulder pads of none other than Ravens all-time linebacker Ray Lewis. And not only did he hold on to the ball, securing the points that would prove to be the difference in the game, he got right up, spiked the ball Gronk-styles and jogged to the sideline. It hurt just watching that play but if Brady was affected, no one either in Gillette Stadium or watching the game on TV knew it. Now, bearing that in mind, Brady pretty much sucked otherwise, just as he said on the podium after the game. He routinely missed open receivers. He was skittish and happy footed at times. He threw two interceptions and had two other ones nullified by penalties. His fourth quarter pick, one play after Brandon Spikes made one of the plays of the game, on which he needlessly forced a bomb into double coverage (intended for Matthew Slater of all people) was something you would never in your wildest dreams imagine seeing him do let alone in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship with a three-point lead. He finished 22-of-36 for 239 yards (6.6 YPA), zero TDs (the first time that’s happened in the playoffs since the 2002 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh) and the two picks, all good for a woeful 57.5 passer rating. He was outplayed by Ravens QB Joe Flacco (??!!). But hey, the Pats won and if we know Brady,, who tied Joe Montana for the most post-season wins by a QB of all time, this performance will motivate him to no end come Feb. 5. Let’s chalk this one up to a fluke, an aberration, a one-time thing. There’s still no one Pats fans would rather have.

Running Backs: B
Green-Ellis was a big factor all day despite splitting reps almost completely evenly with Danny Woodhead. It was a vintage, head down, straight ahead running kind of day for the Law Firm, who pounded his way to 68 yards and a TD on 15 carries. On one play, he got his helmet completely twisted around and ripped off, forcing him to go to the ground coconut unprotected, yet another display of the team’s overall toughness Most of the Pats success running the ball came on draws out of the shotgun with the Ravens D spread out and expecting the pass; the more traditional stuff was swallowed up with relative ease. But Benny did his part and then some. Woodhead was quiet save for once nice draw and Aaron Hernandez failed to replicate his monstrous efforts out of the backfield from the Divisional round win over Denver. And our binky Stevan Ridley sat this one out after fumbles in consecutive games, though given the Pats opponent in the Super Bowl, the New York Giants, he will likely be needed. The Giants have a ferocious pass rush and the Pats would be wise to run the ball a healthy amount in order to help neutralize it. On Sunday, Benny looked like he’ll be up to that challenge.

Wide Receivers: B-
This one was mostly the Wes Welker show again, with Deion Branch making two catches for 18 yards and everyone else doing mostly nothing (Julian Edelman caught one pass for eight yards). Welker had a couple of missteps (one drop, one slip, one deflection that turned into a pick that was luckily wiped out by a penalty) but was still his usual, dependable self. He finished with six catches for 53 yards, got the snot beaten out of him once again and naturally, a couple of his grabs resulted in enormously important first downs. At this point, as has been the case for several weeks now, Welker pretty much is the receiving corps. Any time Branch can put up an effort like last week against the Broncos (three catches, 85 yards, that amazing, 61-yard TD), it’s a bonus. This is Welker’s group. Everyone else (except Chad Ochocinco who may as well get cut before the Super Bowl if for no other reason than that he’ll be a distraction on Media Day getting asked over and over again why he is so awful, he doesn’t even dress for the biggest game of the year) is just renting.

Tight Ends: B+
Not quite the usual game-breaking day for A-Herb or Rob Gronkowski but solid nonetheless. Once again, the focal point of the Pats offense, they combined for 12 catches and 153 yards, though neither of them found the end zone. Gronk, who suffered a rough looking ankle injury late in the game but returned after missing just nine snaps, was immense in other areas than just catching the ball as he often is, at one point absolutely destroying Ravens pass rushing demon Terrell Suggs while staying home to block. And his first play back after leaving because of that ankle? He’s throwing a key block on Brady’s TD leap. These two guys are monsters, as we all know. But now that we’ve reached the final game, the biggest game, maybe we should look at them in the bigger picture. The bottom line is, in an amazing, exhilarating season filled with major moments and major performances, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have become the most important cogs in the Pats offensive machine whose names are not Tom Brady. And they’re both just in their second year. Unbelievable.

Offensive Line: A
Have to hand it to Matt Light; in what is probably the best season of his career, he just keeps getting better and better. Every week, it seems, there’s some stud, maniac pass rusher on his side and every week, that stud, maniac pass rusher is rendered an afterthought. On Sunday, it was Suggs, who had 14 sacks during the regular season and has garnered some sincere talk about being named Defensive Player of the Year. Against Light, he had two tackles. Period. That’s two. No sacks. Maybe once, he got within a yard and a half of Brady. And that’s it. The O-line is the core of this team and on Sunday, it stepped up and then some. And not just Light, either. Brian Waters, the best free agent signing this team has made in quite some time, was tasked with bottling up Ravens nose man Haloti Ngata and did just that. Logan Mankins once again shook off his late season knee injury to play a complete, spotless game. Nate Solder had the only blemish, getting beaten to the outside and allowing Baltimore’s only sack to someone named Paul Kruger, not exactly one of the Ravens big names on D. It was a fantastic performance and one that will certainly need to be duplicated in the Super Bowl against the Giants pass rush. The O-line’s inability to handle that same front four in Super Bowl XLII was one of the biggest reasons the Pats lost that game. If Sunday against the Ravens similarly fearsome D is any indication, this time around, this group will be ready.

DEFENSE: B+
Defensive Line: A
Anyone out there own a Vince Wilfork jersey? Cause I’ll buy it off you. That’s how valuable that thing has to be after Sunday. Wilfork, one of the best, most important Pats of the past decade, played the game of his life against the Ravens, making plays against the run and the pass, wreaking havoc and at one crucial point late in the fourth quarter, single-handedly taking over. On the Ravens second to last possession of the night, with a third-and-3 from his team’s 30, he blasted through the line to wrap up Baltimore’s star back Ray Rice with one arm, dragging him to the turf with one arm for a three-yard loss (a massive stupid play call by the Ravens by the way, but that’s another conversation). The Ravens then decided to go for it rather than try a 50-yard field goal (a decision that obviously makes a hell of a lot of sense now), so Big Vince simply steamrolled center Matt Birk right into Flacco’s grill, taking the QB to his knees while still carrying the giant O-lineman, forcing Flacco to lob the ball to no one and turn the ball over on downs. It was the most dominant sequence any Pats defensive player has displayed in ages when you factor in the situation and circumstances. And it’s fitting that Wilfork, one of the longest tenured, core members of the organization, was responsible for it. And that’s not even getting into some of the stuff he did earlier in the game, which he ended with the following stat line: six tackles, three for a loss, one sack, and another hit on the QB. And he did it all while missing just three of 73 snaps. Outstanding. Everyone else up front played well too; Mark Anderson got pressure on Flacco a fair amount of times and played the run well. Brandon Deaderick plugged up space and both Gerard Warren and Kyle Love played roles in holding Rice, who came in leading the league in total yards from scrimmage, to just 67 yards on 22 carries and only one catch for 11 yards. When this group plays this well and is able to physically overmatch its opponent, it takes so much pressure off of the secondary and makes life easier for everyone. It’s hard to imagine them doing that any better than they did on Sunday.

Linebackers: B
Good for Brandon Spikes. He’s still working his way back from that knee injury suffered against the Giants the last time they played the Pats, but man are his fresh legs a wonder. He made nine tackles on Sunday, a huge part of the defense slowing down the Rice and the Ravens rushing attack. But his finest moment, as well as what was for about three minutes the play of the game, came on a passing play. Spikes intercepted a fourth quarter Flacco pass by simply staying in his land, trailing the tight end as underneath help for the safety and making an awesomely athletic play, extending one of his big paws just enough to snag the darted throw and reel it in. It was a sensational interception; not only did it come out of almost nowhere and was it such a cool display of athleticism, but the timing was perfect. It’s great to see Spikes make plays like that when he gets to stay on the field in passing situations. He’s getting closer to becoming an all-around backer. If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, watch out. Jerod Mayo was solid, not great and that seems to be his M.O., which is OK. He made a couple of big hits and looked very impactful at times yet was doing the chasing, flailing thing a couple times too. It was a mostly typical day for him. And Rob Ninkovich continued to be the second coming of Mike Vrabel; he got to Flacco once (along with James Ihedigbo) and was great against the run, combining with Anderson to do good work taking away the edges. And Dane Fletcher was active and aggressive in limited time. The Pats defense is healthy and coming together at the most opportune time possible. The linebacking corps is no exception.

Defensive Backs: A-
Go ahead, try to start an argument on this one. If you think that more attention should be paid to Flacco playing one of the best games of his career (22-of-36, 306 yards, two TDs, 95.4 passer rating) and torching the secondary down the stretch than to Sterling Moore’s two season-saving plays, more power to you. Because if Moore hadn’t knocked away a sure TD pass to Lee Evans on Baltimore’s second to last defensive play of the day (a play on which Evans was completely complicit) or broken up what would have been a first down throw to tight end Dennis Pitta on the next play, we wouldn’t be having this little chat. Moore was almost as much a hero on this day as Wilfork and more power to him. He’s yet another one of Belichick’s collection of undrafted, unheralded, never-heard-of DBs who rose above the rest of them to become one of the biggest reasons this team is going to the Super Bowl. Gotta love it. Things were OK elsewhere despite the yardage totals and the Ravens success on third down (nine of their last 14); Patrick Chung wore the goat horns on a 42-yard pass play to Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith. Kyle Arrington missed a chunk of time with an eye injury, but was pretty good. Devin McCourty saw more time at safety and also could share some blame on that throw to Smith (as well as a 29-yard catch and run for a TD also by Smith) but managed to make it through another week without humiliating himself. Ihedigbo had that sack with Ninkovich on a nifty, delayed blitz and added eight tackles including one for a loss. And Edelman got matched up with the Ravens best receiver Anquan Boldin, and was burned more than once but completely lucked out that Baltimore’s offensive coaches were too stupid recognize the matchup until the final five minutes. It’s going to be interesting to see how this group deals with the Giants receivers, two of whom (Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz) are absolute studs (and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s say interesting means terrifying). But we’ll worry about that next week. For now, let’s continue to celebrate Moore. What a couple of huge, huge plays. Hallelujah.

Special Teams: C
Yikes. In what could have been a disaster, Woodhead fumbled a kick return at his own 30 following a long Ravens TD drive that gave them their first lead of the game. Luckily for him, the Pats defense came up with one of its best, stiffest stops of the evening afterward, keeping the Ravens from a first down and forcing them into a field goal that made the game 20-16, setting the stage for the Pats to reclaim the lead on their next possession. There was Woody again on the ensuing kick, running another one back, which was a big surprise, especially seeing as how Ridley had been banished for his fumble-itis and neither of those were half as costly. Anyway, it was a huge bullet dodged. The Pats have been pretty much nowhere in their return game all year but have gotten away with it. You have to wonder if Woody will be back there again next Sunday in Indy. As for the kicking game, Stephen Gostkowski was 3-for-3 on field goals and only had one kickoff returned all day and our man Zoltan blasted two punts for an average of just under 50 yards per. Job well done.

Coaching: B+
Maybe this grade should be a bit lower. Some of the play calling, particularly down the stretch, was questionable and that’s being friendly. The bomb to Slater made little sense at the time, even less so when it was picked off. And when the Pats got the ball back following the Ravens failed, fourth down conversion attempt, they went three-and-out with a chance to salt the game away, with a couple of real head-scratchers (a toss play to Benny on 2nd and 4?) included. But in the end, this grade is a testament to how ready Belichick had this defense ready to play. The Pats were on their heels on defense all year but allowed just 30 points in two playoff games and had guys making plays everywhere both weeks. There may not have been too many name guys out there, especially in the secondary, but they were Belichick’s guys, tough guys, guys who took his coaching and got better every single week. And now, the Pats have won 10 straight games and are going back to the Super Bowl. It’s pretty unreal. We could harp some more on the play-calling. Or we could do a comparison with the coaching on the Ravens sideline (so so poor in the fourth quarter in so many ways that it warrants its own 3,000 word column). But why bother? This season was arguably the best job of Belichick’s career. Let’s just leave it at that.

Pats Pregame Points: AFC Championship

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

We had almost forgotten the feeling: a heady mix of excitement and contentment after winning a playoff game can make for a fun week. At least until the Ravens start talking.

As nice as it would be to take some of New England’s points with them from their 45-10 Broncos corral, it’s on to a new (and much different) opponent as Baltimore comes to Foxboro.

It’s A Shame About Rays: Linebacker Ray Lewis has been around so long it seems like he’s 50 years old, but he continues to play like a crazy dude gunning for the guy who threatened his sister. The Patriots’ interior linemen have their work cut out for them with Lewis and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who’s so big and aggressive he could rent himself out to lumber companies to clear swaths of trees.

The other Ray, running back Ray Rice, offers an entire playbook’s worth of problems.

The Joy Of Six: When quarterback Tom Brady throws six touchdown passes in one game, you know he’s doing something pretty special. But when those passes come against a spent Denver team, it’s tough to carry that over to next week.

That’s partly because…

A Scary Reed: Old or no, hurt or no, safety Ed Reed puts every offense on notice. He’s a smart, talented player who’s been making big plays forever. Coach Bill Belichick spoke of Reed in such glowing terms, you’d think he wanted to take him out to dinner.

Nothing fancy. Just, you know, a quiet place with good food and engaging conversation.

2012: The End Times… Not sure if the Aztecs foresaw tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez having such a huge impact on the Pats’ offense, but maybe their whole shtick was less about “the world ends” than “the tight ends.”

Get it? Tight ends. Because, you know, they – oh, never mind.

Defense On Gronk Un-Seam-ly: It made no sense to us that Gronkowski got so wide open running along the seam of the Denver defense. The dude’s 6-foot-6, galloping down the middle of the field. How could Denver miss him?

Don’t expect Gronk to go unnoticed and/or uncovered vs. the Ravens.

Running An Aaron: So, running Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield? Why not? He started out with a 43-yard dash and added New England’s final TD of the game, a 17-yard reception that included a nifty maneuver to avoid a defender at the five-yard line.

(One note to Aaron: high-stepping into the end zone might work against the Bills and Broncos, but the Ravens will have something to say about it. And by “say,” I mean “do.” Just be careful.)

All of this tight end production helped out in other areas, like, for instance…

The D On Deion: When Deion Branch broke open along the sideline in one-on-one coverage for a second-quarter, 61-yard TD, it proved that, just when you think that guy’s done, he pulls off a veteran move (like a nice, not-quite-pass-interference nudge along the sideline). Something else for Baltimore to consider next Sunday.

Magnificent Seven: What a difference a game makes. Denver ended up with 14 negative plays on the day, thanks in large part to New England’s hustling, penetrating front seven. Brandon Spikes, great to have you back. Vince Wilfork, glad you’re still around. Rob Ninkovich, you looked awesome.

Of course, taking on a run-oriented offense like the Broncos’ and an efficient NFL-caliber offense like the Ravens’ are two different tasks. Interesting to see if the Patriots’ D can stay on top of running back Rice and pressure QB Joe Flacco. After last Saturday, that seems more likely than it did before.

I’m Special, So Special, I’ve Gotta Have Some Of Your Attention: Let’s not forget the special teams success in this one. Denver got very little return yardage despite fielding eight kickoffs. It’s usually a good sign if we’re not discussing special teams this time of year.

Interesting tidbit to take with you this week: This is New England’s sixth AFC Championship game since January 2002. That’s a lot of success in a decade, and it shows you how far this franchise has come.

Here’s hoping it goes a bit farther on Sunday.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected] to tell him how awesome he is.

Making The Grades – Broncos at Patriots

OK, class. Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you were at all worried about the Patriots Divisional round playoff matchup with the Denver Broncos on Saturday night? How many of you worried that the legend of Tim Tebow would come down off of the mountain top, part the Gillette Stadium turf and ride on to another biblical victory? Who among you was convinced that the combination of Denver’s college style running game, the Patriots season-long problems on defense and Tebow’s mystical ability to metaphorically turn water to wine would spell another first-round, playoff exit, the Pats third in three years? Were you completely convinced that Tebowmania would trump the Pats superiority in talent, skill and experience in pretty much every level of the game?

If any of you have answered yes to any of these questions then I have a bridge to sell you (or at the very least, some holy water). Because what went down in Foxboro on Saturday was a win so thorough, so complete, so exacting, that it almost belied the 45-10 final score. The Broncos were shellacked, lambasted, whipped and swarmed under by a healthy, rested and probably pissed off Pats squad that had to be loving the fact that hardly anyone in either the local or national media breathed a word about them all week long, likely in fear of being struck down by a bolt of lightning for having the temerity to spend one less minute talking about his excellency, Tim Tebow. Instead, the Pats simply came out and played their best, most complete game of the season, perhaps the best game they’ve played as a team since last season’s 45-3, early December, Monday night massacre. The Pats registered 509 yards of total offense while allowing their guests a measly 252 and forcing them into a whopping 14 negative plays. The offense, specifically Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, tied or set multiple records while the defense pushed around its overmatched counterparts with authority and severity. It was a borderline perfect game, a fine way to snap a three-game, post-season losing streak while also building up some momentum for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, simple and to the point, just like the Pats blowout win itself.

OFFENSE
Overall Grade: A
It seems like a waste of time or at least nitpicky to break the offense and defense down into position groups regarding this game. Everyone out there deserves a big fat A. Yes, Brady threw a bad, first quarter interception, but it was the only lousy throw he made all night out of 34. Sure, Stevan Ridley had a fumble in the third quarter after which he was banished for the rest of the evening. But the score was 42-7 and anyway, the Pats running game at this point is just a means to set up their passing game so Ridley’s miscue can pretty much be written off (although it bears watching, seeing as how he’s fumbled twice in his last two games, whether he gets much run against the Ravens on Sunday). Everything else concerning the offense was pure bliss, from Brady’s vintage, Hall of Fame-esque performance (26-of-34, 363 yards, a record-tying six TDs, five of which came in the first half, good for another record), to Gronk’s 10-catch, 145-yard, three-TD night (tying another record), to Aaron Hernandez’s 116 total yards, 61 of which came on the ground from the running back position, to Deion Branch’s exquisite, 61-yard TD catch and run on which he ran a sideline streak, got one step on his man and hauled in a perfectly thrown, front shoulder pass from Brady before scampering into the end zone (after which CBS’s Phil Simms said, “This may be the best I’ve ever seen Brady throw the football.”). The offensive line, which lost Logan Mankins in the second quarter (another scenario that will warrant close attention headed into Sunday) was pretty much flawless, keeping Brady completely clean save for two hits, shutting out Broncos pass rushing demons Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller and plowing the way for a five yard average on the ground on 30 rushing attempts. Matt Light and Nate Solder in particular were beyond outstanding, taking Denver’s only real threats on defense, the previously mentioned Miller and Dumervil, and rendering them both almost entirely obsolete. Cyborg Gronk must get even more props than he’s already received not just because of yet another other-worldly stat line (his first TD catch, a diving, juggling masterpiece) but because his ability as a blocker is almost as impressive as his ability as a receiver. And, not that we’re complaining, but how can he possibly continue to be so poorly covered in the red zone? On his third TD, he lined up in the slot, ran the same seam route he’s been running 10 times per game all season and was left alone in a dead spot in the Denver zone. Opposing defenses have no answer for him or for A-Herb (tight end/slot receiver/running back). And when you add Wes Welker, who submitted a typical, solid performance (six catches, 55 yards, one TD), it’s hard to imagine even a defense like Baltimore’s, which is not what it once was, making a dent. Of course, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. But it’s difficult not to surmise such possibilities after an offensive explosion like Saturday’s. Everything was so on point, the Pats even scored in the first quarter on their first possession, the first time that’s happened in their last 12 games. Every week is a different one. But this team, its offense in particular, looks pretty unstoppable right now. Can they keep it going for two more games? We’ll see, but all signs point to that being a great, big yes.

DEFENSE
Overall Grade: A
Yep, you read that right. The defense gets an A, and the old head nearly exploded when typing out that grade. Once again, so we’re clear – 252 yards allowed, 14 negative plays. Other than a few runs by Willis McGahee on which he powered his way to some extra yardage after initial contact, the Denver offense was nowhere. While part of that is because the Broncos aren’t equipped to play from behind or to rely on the pass (situations in which they found themselves all night), take nothing away from the effort put forth by the Pats, who were completely and totally prepared for Denver’s rushing attack and played with an attitude all night. It started up front where Vince Wilfork, Mark Anderson and the rest of the Pats D-line were at least excellent and sometimes completely dominant all night long. They got plenty of push up there from the get-go, which allowed the linebacking corps of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich to have room to make plays up the middle and to the sidelines. Spikes, in his first full game back since suffering that strained MCL back in early November, was particularly excellent, with six tackles, two for a loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a couple of hits on Tebow and a fumble recovery. More than anything though, Spikes is a tone-setter. He plays with a fire and aggression that seems to filter through himself and onto his teammates. That attitude mentioned earlier came in large part from Spikes and Patrick Chung which makes a lot of sense given how fresh both of them must be after getting a prolonged break due to injuries. Chung had one of the defense’s only boneheaded moments, picking up a late hit penalty in the third quarter for clocking McGahee after he was clearly out of bounds. But his energy was palpable and contributed greatly to setting the tone. Wilfork was the best of the linemen, making life miserable for Tebow with a sack and a half and a couple more hits while looking as active as he has in weeks. And Mark Anderson and Ninkovich both played huge, Anderson because of his play against the run (not even remotely his strong suit) while getting all but one of the defensive reps and Ninkovich for routinely getting pressure on Tebow, rolling up a couple of sacks, forcing a fumble and looking as much like Mike Vrabel as he ever has in doing so. All of this made for a quiet night in the secondary and there’s never anything wrong with that. Even Devin McCourty, who saw time at safety again, needn’t be picked on, not when the opposing QB goes 9-of-26 for 136 yards, posts a 52.7 passer rating and gets sacked five times (one of which even came from Shaun Ellis of all people!). This was the game we’ve been waiting to see if this defense was capable of playing all year. It is. Now, let’s see it repeat its delivery against a team that has a more proficient, professional looking offense. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is better than Tebow, but he’s not at all great and his receivers good but not stars. The jury is still out. But there has to be so much more confidence engendered from Saturday night’s performance, both on the part of the players and the fans. Suddenly, the idea of this defense needing to play an important role if the Pats are to advance to the Super Bowl is far less daunting.

SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING/EVERYTHING ELSE
Overall Grade: A
Not much to report by way of special teams other than Brady giving our man Zoltan a run for his money as the punter. And the crowd, which figured to be somewhat subdued given the brutally cold conditions, was in full throat and very impressive. So let’s devote the majority of this section to the coaching, which was a slam dunk. The Patriots had a major problem handling the Broncos rushing attack back in Week 15 so they fixed what ailed them in that regard and held Denver to just 3.6 yards in 40 attempts. New ways were found to make plays on offense as witnessed by Hernandez’s multiple reps coming out of the backfield. And the focus was impeccable right from the start. Bill Belichick, who tied Chuck Noll for fourth place on the all-time post-season wins list with his 16th, dialed up every single right number in this one and also managed to make his counterpart, Denver’s John Fox, look like a fool in the process. Whether it was letting Gronk go either uncovered or one-on-one with a safety who’s half his size in the red zone or kicking a field goal down by five TDs in the third quarter, Fox had no chance. But lots of folks don’t against Belichick, who couldn’t be touched in this one. Maybe it was Josh McDaniels insider knowledge of the inner workings of the Broncos (which, by the way, will likely no longer be allowed by the league starting next year probably at least somewhat due to all the whining and crying coming out of the Denver media last week). Maybe it was Bill O’Brien wanting to go out on top before he begins his attempt to restore the Penn State football program. Or maybe it was the mere fact that Belichick is one of, if not the, best coaches of all time, even now after all the personnel shortcomings and recent playoff failures. It’s hard to imagine any Pats fan preferring anyone else.

Patriots Buffet Table – Patriots vs Broncos, Version II

by Patriots Daily Kitchen Staff

A rematch against the Running Tebows. They’re not the team X we’ve been told to worry about, but I guess they’re Team Xtian.

What to Eat?

The good news is the regulations preventing slaughtering horses for human food finally expired. The bad news is no one has taken advantage of this exciting business opportunity yet. Oh well, the Pats play the Broncos and Colts next year, fingers crossed.

One of the signature concessions at Mile High is the Broncos Brat. A 1/3rd pound bratwurst with grilled onions, peppers and sauerkraut.

Denver style Broncos Brats
2 bratwursts per person
2 bottles of beer (see below)
1 large onion, sliced
2 large green peppers, sliced
2 bratwurst buns per person, hotdog rolls are too small, if needed use small sub rolls
sauerkraut
vegetable oil

Slice the onion into 8 wedges, and separate the layers. Slice the peppers into strips. Coat with olive oil, and grill either in a vegetable basket, or on a sheet of aluminum foil.

To a large pot, add the 2 bottles of beer, and the bratwursts.

Move the pot to a section of the grill where you have the heat set to low. Allow it to drop to a simmer.

Once it is simmering, add the brats. Simmer for 20 minutes. Do not boil as they’ll split.

Brats are usually precooked, but even if the ones you have aren’t they will be cooked after this simmering.

Take the brats out of the cooking liquid and roast them over the section of the grill with high heat. Allow them to pick up some color and turn when needed.

Place a brat on each bun, and if desired top with a few of the onion pieces, peppers and sauerkraut.

What to Drink?

We drank some Black IPAs back during the Jets game, and now it’s time for another emerging IPA style. The White IPA. Hey, whatever happened to the Jets? I thought they were team X? I guess they’re just an X-team,

Whereas a Black IPA is an IPA darkened to look and sometimes taste similar to a Porter or Stout. A white IPA is an IPA with some characteristics taken from the Belgian Wit beer. Such as an Allagash White, or one of the toned down widely available versions favored by Pete King.

This means there are wheat and spices used in making the White IPA. In an odd but not sad coincidence the spices in the Belgian Wit were originally used in place of hops. Coriander and citrus peel provided citrusy flavors and aromas that aren’t all that common in European hops, particularly orange, grapefruit and tropical fruit. Therefore, four hundred years ago when the Belgian Wit was first appearing these were new flavors in beer. When the modern American hop growing movement really took off, four hundred years later. Citrus turned out to be one of the signature aromas and flavors of American hops.

In some ways these are also a spin off of all the “Belgian IPAs” that came out a few years ago. Those were the first IPAs made with Belgian yeast. The White IPAs will tend to be lower in alcohol, somewhere in the 5 to 7% ABV range. Along the lines of a normal IPA. Belgian IPAs tend stronger, usually at least 8% ABV in keeping with a Belgian Triple or Double IPA. The Belgian IPAs usually didn’t have added spices, relying on the yeast to provide the spice notes. When they do the variety of spices are different from those in an Wit. White IPAs will contain Belgian Wit ale spices – coriander, various citrus peels, grains of paradise, chamomile. Finally the White IPA should contain Wheat, if it doesn’t it won’t be cloudy. Cloudiness being caused by the higher level of protein contained in wheat when compared to barley.

The tie in to Denver isn’t an obvious one. Until you consider the Belgian White style only took off in this country when Coors started making Blue Moon.

Without that “craft like” beer, then Belgian Whites wouldn’t have become so popular. And it’s unlikely anyone would have thought to combine them with an IPA.

Deschutes and Boulevard produced the first two that I’m aware of. There collaboration being a similar recipe brewed at each facility. Boulevard having more experience with wheat and Belgian beers. And Deschutes being one of the best Pacific Northwest brewers = hops.

Boulevard has arrived in New England just in 2011, they haven’t sent their Collaboration #2 White IPA yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t arrive at some point. It was meant to be a one time brew, but if the style takes off I’m sure they wouldn’t let one of the original 2 die off. Deschutes, who we sadly can’t get, already came out with a second limited white IPA called Chainbreaker.

Sam Adams just introduced a new beer into it’s 2012 lineup, Whitewater IPA. The release was set to occur with the Spring mixpack, and on the brewer’s calendar that meant about a week after Winter actually started. With orange peel, coriander and apricot. Shades of Dogfish Head Aprihop. The website does say February 2012, but there are already places selling this in the spring mixpack. It may be the 6 packs and draft that will be arriving in February.

Harpoon will be making a White IPA as part of it’s 100 Barrel Series. This one won’t be out until August, however this month the Black IPA 100 Barrel we mentioned would be made is finally coming out.

Saranac White IPA is a winter seasonal, so get it now. 6% ABV, Citra hops go well with the orange peel and coriander. All provide citrus flavors and Citra also brings in some tropical fruit. Pete King will lose it over this beer.

It’s a draft only beer, and you won’t find it on the website but Blue Point on Long Island has made their Blue Point White IPA a few times since the summer.

Normally we’d include many more beers, but there just aren’t any right now. Good news is anyone on the Eastern Seaboard should be able to find Sam, Saranac and eventually Harpoon. And you will be seeing more. Wheat beers and IPAs are two of the top selling styles. Other breweries won’t let the opportunity pass them by. Now when you see more and more of these “White IPA”s appearing you’ll know what to expect.

Pats Pregame Points: Divisional Round

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Tebow is not a quarterback. The Tebow is a life decision. So what side are you on?

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow runs with authority and passes with mediocrity. He also tends to win big games, none more so than the 29-23 overtime shocker over Pittsburgh. We’ll see if the on-again, off-again trend continues this week in Foxboro.

Tim After Tim: Which one of these guys is going to show up? The one who went 0-3 to wrap up the season, finishing with a miserable 7-3 loss to Kansas City at home and needing the Raiders to turtle and miss the playoffs? Or the one who averaged over 30 yards per pass completion vs. the Steelers?

The way the Broncos win, coupled with Tebow’s outspoken religious beliefs seem aligned so perfectly, so improbably, that even Mitch Albom couldn’t write this book.

Cruel Runnings: Tebow takes over the ground like Cortez took over Mexico – relentlessly and, as he believed, with a higher power in mind. If New England begins the game at Gillette the same way they did at Mile High (giving up 167 yards rushing in the fourth quarter), Sunday churchgoers across the country will end up donning the orange and blue.

The Passed And The Present: Denver fooled Pittsburgh with a lot of play-action passes. The Steelers proved stubborn in leaving safety help downfield, a display of inflexibility that ended up biting them in overtime on the 80-yard TD pass.

Doctor Rosenrosen: Looks like much of this game will come down to what the Patriots’ defense can do, and that will depend on linebackers Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes. If Fletcher gets blocked, Spikes can come in for stronger run support, but pass coverage suffers with his lack of speed.

There’s A Tom And A Place: Quarterback Tom Brady had a rough start at Denver but got on track in the second quarter, leading the way for 41 points. Will he get on track at home from the start?

If not during this game, when?

And I Love Her…nandez: The Broncos held Lilliputian receiver Wes Welker and Brobdingnagian tight end Rob Gronkowski to 94 yards combined the last time these two teams met. Hernandez made the difference with nine catches for 129 yards, and could do so again.

If not he, then who?

Branch Out, Or Branch In? Who can play third receiver? Can Deion Branch make a difference? Will it matter? Will Brady keep an eye out for ol’ Chad Eight-Five (English translation)? Will he look Tiquan Underwood’s way once or twice? Exactly how many questions can I ask in this paragraph?

Safety Pinned: Looks like the coaching staff is attempting to relieve hopeless Devin McCourty from his pain at cornerback by switching him to safety. Might work. Can’t be much worse than what he’s done this year. I’ve seen better corners at the Guggenheim Museum.

(Kind of a visual joke there. Just go with it.)

Just Joshing: If former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels can come in as Patriots offensive assistant and make a difference, that would prove a major coup by Coach Bill Belichick. If not? Eh, it was worth a shot.

Another home playoff game this year. Let’s hope for another next week.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Are The 2011 Broncos The 2010 Jets?

By Dan Zeigarnik

Does anyone remember how Patriots fans were taking a victory lap when they found out that they had to face the Jets in the playoffs last year?

New England was 14-2, clearly the best team in the AFC despite its bad defense, and had recently defeated the Jets by 42 points. The 2010 Patriots resemble this year’s Packers, not just because of their great offense, great record, and inability to stop their opponents, but because their fans have already mentally booked reservations for the Super Bowl. However, would anyone be surprised after the fact that like last year’s Jets, the Giants will come in and upset the Packers with a disruptive defense? The Giants have a history of this, as anyone who remembers the Week 17 barnburner against the undefeated Patriots that the Giants lost, only to get the last laugh a short month later. As a fan who has been burned the last couple of years by high expectations, I have appreciated the nervous tension that this year’s Patriots have provided.

This was the collective mood of Patriots nation for a good part of the season, but unfortunately there has been remarkable mood swing. Last week, everyone was petrified of the playoffs, because the team had a terrible month of December despite winning all of its games. The running joke was that they were the worst best-team ever.

Just looking back at the 5 games in December, the games that were supposed to be cakewalks and not prepare the Patriots for the grueling expedition that is the NFL playoffs, makes one wonder where all the newfound exuberance came from:

  • For starters, Patriots miraculously played only 2 teams with a winning record all year: Giants and Steelers and lost both of them. That’s right, just 2 games against teams with an above .500 record! For contrast Baltimore is 6-0 against playoff teams. The Patriots also have a 1-2 record against playoff teams this year, losing to the aforementioned Pittsburg and New York while defeating Denver which was 8-8.
  • The Patriots, in a pathetic display of mediocrity almost lost a game to the lowly Colts when they just installed a new starting quarterback, Dan Orlovsky.
  • They followed the game up with an embarrassing squeaker against the Redskins in which Rex Grossman looked like an All-Pro and had Washington inside the Patriots 10 with a chance to tie the game with seconds left in the 4th quarter, before he threw an interception to Jerod Mayo.
  • The next three games against Denver, Miami and Buffalo, saw New England give up big leads early, and only be saved by their opponent’s turnover riddled implosions.

This anemic performance in the month of December has squared perfectly with the criticism that the team has been unable to shed in the past couple of years. Yes, the team is an offensive juggernaut and when they are on a roll its hard to stop Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez. However, their defense is as porous as the Mexican border. They are 31st in pass defense and their vaunted bend-but-don’t-break defense is ranked 23rd in Red Zone defense, letting teams score touchdowns 55% of the time.

Despite all these issues, the team still won 13 games and finished first, but last week fans were incredibly nervous of New England’s ability to make it far in the playoffs, and that’s a good thing. The Boston area’s sense of sports entitlement is nauseating and actually takes away from the enjoyment one gets from rooting on their team. What’s the point of watching the whole season if all you care about is if they win the Super Bowl or not? There was a sense of uncertainty about whether the Patriots of could make it out of the Divisional round, and that’s great. Sports are supposed to have a high level of unpredictability, otherwise why tune in.

Now that the Tebow train is riding into town, everyone assumes that the Patriots will trounce them. Could this happen? Sure and it would be amazing, but I don’t see the reason for such a mood swing. How quickly people have forgotten the lessons from year’s past or even last month’s. Denver ran all over the Patriots until McGahee got injured. Then they proceeded to turn the ball over three times. Without these favorable proverbial bounces of the ball, the game could have turned out much differently.

So let’s hope for a Patriots trouncing of Denver, but to expect it and not take your devilishly-hot streaking opponent seriously is to fail to learn the lessons of history, and we all know what happens to them….

Around The League – Week 17

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

There are a bunch of NFL owners who are stupid, it’s a wonder they made the billions of dollars required to own a franchise. This week, three of those nincompoops – Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie, San Diego’s Dean Spanos and (for the grand prize) Dallas’s Jerry Jones, were in the news for all the wrong, albeit hilarious, reasons. They’re the gifts that keep on giving.

Let’s start in Philly, where Lurie called a press conference to tell the assembled masses that despite his team missing the playoffs and suffering through one of the more humiliating seasons any team has experienced in recent memory even though it spent wads of cash on seemingly every available high-profile free agent during the off-season, he’d be retaining head coach/GM/best friend Andy Reid for a mind-boggling 14th season. Reid, who has never won a title, only advanced to one Super Bowl and lost five NFC Championship games (three of them at home) as well as countless other big games during his tenure, seems to have enough cache in the Eagles organization to set fire to Lincoln Financial Field and still keep his job and all the personnel power that comes with it. Not only has Reid never won anything, he tried to succeed this year by assembling a fantasy team on the fly while simultaneously making his offensive line coach into his defensive coordinator. The Eagles subsequently lost eight of their first 12 games and looked pathetic in doing so, but hey, they won their last four, so why not keep the guy for yet another year. Reid, who would have been fired by most teams at least five years ago, has to have incriminating photos of Lurie or something. It’s hard to imagine being a fan of this team and being sold the same bill of goods (we’re continually OK with being just good enough to never, ever win) year after year. At this point, seeing Lurie actually hold Reid accountable and fire him would be more of a surprise than ever seeing him actually lead his team somewhere special.

Next, we move on to San Diego, where Spanos didn’t fire head coach Norv Turner or GM A.J. Smith despite two straight non-playoff years, declining ticket sales and a steadily aging, rotting core of players on both sides of the ball. Not only that, he actually said, “Bottom line, I believe these two men give us the best chance to win. A.J. Smith is the best man to improve this roster and Norv Turner is the best man to lead that roster onto the field.” No one must have told Spanos that Turner’s career record is below .500 and has made just four trips to the playoffs in 15 seasons as a head coach in San Diego, Oakland and Washington. Or that Smith has presided over four playoff teams that have won a grand total of two playoff games. Even more inexplicably, Spanos told Pro Football Talk, “I’m sure it will be a challenge,” in regard to selling tickets after defending his decision to keep Turner and Smith. In other words, look for the Chargers to continue to not only be nowhere near winning a championship, but keep drifting further from even having a chance to.

And then there’s Dallas, where the court jester Jones, after watching his team lose yet another must-win game and miss the playoffs altogether for the third time in four years, said that the thought of removing himself from the position of his team’s GM has never once crossed his mind. Jones, likely the biggest egomaniac in the NFL, basically came out and said that the main focus of any GM is to procure good coaching and good personnel and that the Cowboys have both of those so therefore, why should he even consider giving up the job? Apparently to Jones, winning one playoff game in 17 years is all the evidence he needs that he’s procured good coaching and personnel. Jones, a glorified carnival barker who cares more about stoking his own ego and selling sponsorships for his $1 billion stadium than winning, is a lost cause. The only coach he’s ever employed who had the sack to stand up to him (and won two Super Bowls doing it) was Jimmy Johnson and he quit rather than continue to work for Jones despite all of his success. Cowboys fans must have been thrilled to see Jones respond to his team missing the playoffs again with his news about staying on as GM. Hey, they’re only about 15 years from their next playoff win. Maybe Jones will have figured out by then that his style doesn’t work. Then again, maybe he won’t.

This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: How good is the Packers offense? With QB/MVP shoo-in Aaron Ridgers sitting out a meaningless game, his backup, former seventh-round pick Matt Flynn, only threw for 480 yards and six, count ‘em, six TDs, setting a couple of new franchise records in a 45-41 win over the Lions.

2. New Orleans: The Saints offensive express kept chugging, rolling up 617 more yards and 45 more points and setting a slew of team and league records in the process while stomping on the Panthers, 45-17. New Orleans should have little trouble with Detroit in this weekend’s Wild Card game; its truest test will be the following weekend at San Francisco, outdoors, against a great defense.

3. New England: Another woeful start, another massive comeback, another win for the Pats who beat Buffalo 49-21 for their eighth straight win. It’s probably safe to say that Pats coaches, players and fans alike are all now huge Cincinnati fans, as the Bengals will be the Divisional Round opponent next Saturday night in Foxboro if they beat Houston tomorrow.

4. San Francisco: The Niners lost their edge a bit late in their 34-27 win over St. Louis, allowing the hideous Rams offense to run off 17 fourth quarter points. But in securing a home game and a bye week, along with their ferocious defense and power run game, there aren’t many other teams who look as traditionally title-ready that San Francisco.

5. Baltimore: The Ravens needed to beat a desperate Cincinnati team on the road to secure the AFC North and a No. 2 seed and they did just that, getting another big game out of Ray Rice (24 carries, 191 yards, two TDs) and ensuring that when they inevitably play the Steelers in the playoffs once again, the game will be in Baltimore.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Tampa Bay: The Bucs, losers of 10 in a row to end the season, quit on their coach, their fans and each other so completely, they trailed the Falcons 42-0 with just under seven minutes to play in the first half on Sunday. Raheem Morris, who was fired the next day (but conceivably could have gotten the gate at halftime of the game against Atlanta) had to have at least partly breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of such a heartless group.

2. Indianapolis: The Colts remembered that winning would cost them the No. 1 overall pick so they packed it in after a two-game win streak and fell to the Jaguars, ensuring themselves the right to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck in a few months. Then on Monday, owner Jim Irsay fired insufferable GM Bill Polian and his son Chris, making it the first smart move Indy has made all year.

3. St. Louis: Give the Rams some credit for not rolling over on now fired coach Steve Spagnuolo, who’s unemployment as of Monday morning was about the surest thing in the league. But at the end of the day, winning 10 of 48 games in three years with seven of those wins coming in year two, was the death knell for Spags.

4. Minnesota: The Vikings showed some decent resilience down the stretch, especially with Adrian Peterson missing so much time. And Jared Allen, who’s 22 sacks would be a record had BrettFavre not literally laid down for Michael Strahan some years ago, is a superstar. But man, has this team fallen far since nearly going to the Super Bowl just two years ago. There’s a long road ahead for Minnesota.

5. Cleveland: Just realized this past week that head coach Pat Shurmer, in his first year at that job, was also the Browns offensive coordinator. Um, that’s a lot of responsibility for anyone, let alone a coach who’s never, you know, coached before. Maybe that’s why the Browns puked up yet another 4-12 season and continue to be one of the league’s darkest outposts.

What’s Trendy
- The Giants: Sure, it was against the Cowboys, who would have found a way to lose to a college team if the game really meant something. But winning on Sunday night to clinch the NFC East and capping off a three-game win streak to take into the playoffs was a real achievement for the Giants. That defensive line looks as fearsome as it did in (gulp) 2007.

- The Bengals: They may have had just a 1-6 record against winning teams and backed into the playoffs. But the fact remains that Cincinnati completely distanced itself for the last days of the putrid Palmer/Ochocinco/ T.O./Jail Bengals era to become relevant once again with a rookie QB and a completely revamped defense. They may not go anywhere (even if they beat Houston tomorrow, it will be all over next week against the Pats) but who cares? Congrats to them on an amazing turnaround.

- The Cardinals: Did you know that Arizona started the year 1-6 but finished it 8-8, just a game out of the post-season? And that they did it with this John Skelton guy taking most of the snaps at QB? There may be something afoot in the desert. Watch out for this team next season.

What’s Not
- The Broncos: Denver didn’t need to win on Sunday at home against the Chiefs to win the awful AFC West. But even though they made it through the back door, losing that game, at home, by a score of 7-3? Pretty disgusting. Tim Tebow is pretty much over, as evidenced by these last three Broncos losses. Next stop, the off-season and a whole new round of questions about Tebow after the Steelers vaporize him and his teammates on Sunday.

- The Raiders: Oakland needed a win to get in so it promptly went out and gave up 38 points at home in a loss to the going nowhere Chargers, setting a new league record for most penalties in a season in the process. What was even better was the enxt day when coach Hue Jackson (who, remember, traded a first and a second round pick for Carson Palmer), ripped his team after the loss while taking zero responsibility for his own complicity in the Raiders 1-4 finish. Jackson seems to be a bit of a power tripper, which likely won’t serve him too well when the team hires a new general manager to oversee his wacky personnel decisions next year. Yep, same ol’ Raiders. Even when they’re better, they’re still a mess.

- The Bears: A day after finishing the season having lost six of seven and missing the playoffs, Chicago fired its general manager but retained head coach Lovie Smith. Not that Smith deserved the gate, but how in the hell is that supposed to work? Even if the new GM doesn’t fire Smith the minute he gets the job and keeps him on as head coach for say, a year (a la Mike Holmgren and Eric Mangini in Cleveland), how does Smith survive long-term? And how will he get through to his players the same way if they know his fate is at the mercy of the new GM who didn’t hire him? If you’re going to clean house, clean house. Don’t half-ass it like the Bears just did.

And finally…
A fond farewell to out favorite bullies/assholes, the Jets, who saw yet another blustery guarantee by coach Rex Ryan go up in smoke with a 19-17 loss to the Dolphins. It was the third straight loss for the Jets, who will miss the playoffs for the first time under Ryan, meaning that it will be at least a couple of hours before he guarantees they win the Super Bowl next year.

In the end, along with an awful performance by GM Mike Tannenbaum in providing depth for the roster headed into this season, the Jets were undone by the culture fostered by Ryan since his arrival in New York three years ago. Players have always been allowed to run amok in the Jets locker room, spouting off whatever comes to mind, respect for anyone else be damned. Ryan has behaved in much the same way over his tenure, routinely shit talking anyone and everyone without stopping for even a second to think about the consequences of his behavior.

Now, the inmates are running the asylum. “Captain” Santonio Holmes basically quit in the middle of the game against Miami, being screamed at to get off the field in the huddle by some of his teammates, then lambasted in the press afterward for being a total selfish piece of shit all season long. It got so bad that even rookie, seventh-round pick Greg McElroy, a QB out of Alabama who didn’t see the field all year, ripped the team’s culture, declaring a “corrupt mindset” had infested the locker room, and discussing instances of players not caring about wins or losses so long as they got theirs. It didn’t help the Jets that they have a terrible quarterback who is worse now than he was as a rookie, have a mediocre running game and play a defense that can’t generate any pressure on opposing QBs even though drawing that up is supposedly Ryan’s strong suit. But the biggest reason why the Jets failed so spectacularly this season is because of Ryan himself and the attitude he encourages from his players every time he opens his big mouth.

The day after his season ended, Ryan was typically defiant. He said, “I’m always going to chase a Super Bowl. I get criticized for it beyond belief. But if you don’t, you’re probably a loser. I’m not a loser.” Oh but you are, Rex. Because what you don’t get is that you get criticized beyond belief not for chasing a Super Bowl, something every coach and player in the league also does. You get criticized beyond belief because you can’t help yourself from constantly talking about it, something very few of those other players and coaches don’t do. If Ryan ever learns to control himself, behave with even an iota of humility and without so much of the unnecessary bombast, maybe he will lead a team to a title one day. From the sounds of it, this disaster of a season did not teach him that, or anything for that matter. So get ready for that guarantee for next year. It’s coming around the bend.

Pats Pregame Points: Playoff Bye Week

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Patriots’ 49-21 season-ending win over Buffalo resembled a 75-cent DVD: worth checking out, but only for three quarters.

With their playoff bye and home field secured, New England waits to see whom they’ll play on Saturday, January 14. Until then, some theme songs to ring in the New Year.

Start Me Up: Whatever it’s going to take, New England needs to figure out how to get going when the game actually begins. Their first quarter output has been miserable on offense, defense and – as Buffalo showed with a fake punt – special teams. Whether it’s individual effort or overall preparedness, the Pats have looked off the past couple of weeks. (Speaking of off, check out Mick Jagger’s moves in the “Start Me Up” video.)

Moving In Stereo: Again, that makes two games in a row where New England found themselves behind by double digits. Yeah, we’re repeating ourselves, but only because this song by The Cars is awesome.

I Musta Got Lost: Nothing better than this J. Geils beauty to explain the play of Foxboro’s defensive backs in the first quarter. Some positive change came from installing all-but-useless corner Devin McCourty at safety and switching around a few other other players.

Vacation: On the positive side, having a bye week for a home playoff run? It’s something you really wanted, even if you weren’t willing to admit it. Kind of like this Go-Go’s song.

Moore Moore Moore: How do you like it? When a guy like rookie Sterling Moore can come in and get two interceptions, maybe things are starting to break the right way for this defense.

Maybe. We’re just saying. At the very least, it’s entertaining, but in an unexpected way, much like this disco video from the 1970s.

You Got Lucky: Tom Petty brings home a good point in that New England has benefited from their opponents’ unforced errors. Whether via a delay of game penalty or a shotgun snap that looked more like an air rifle, Buffalo did all they could to give away momentum.

Starting with –

New Year’s Day: Many thanks to U2 for one of our favorite songs, and many thanks to receiver Steve Johnson for expressing his New Year’s wishes on a t-shirt, revealing it after a TD, and getting benched for the ensuing celebration penalty.

Up to that point in the first quarter, Johnson had four catches for 40 yards. Coach Chan Gailey then did what the Patriots defense couldn’t – shut him out of the stat book.

Wreck of the Ryan Fitzpatrick: The Bills’ second-half disaster was brought to you in part by their QB, who followed up a flawless, 21-point first quarter with a horrid scoreless stretch that included four interceptions (five if not for a McCourty penalty).

Minute By Minute: Always liked this song by the Doobie Brothers. Once again, it reminds us that no matter whom New England plays in nine days, a full 60 minutes will be required.

Tom Tom Club: QB Tom Brady joins an elite group of quarterbacks who surpassed (emphasis on “-passed”) 5,000 yards through the air. Glad to see it, and with the way he’s been playing this year, not at all surprised.

The song “Genius of Love” reminds us of good times from the past. With help from Our Tom, may more good times happen in the next few weeks.

If you agree with these song choices or can think of any better songs that fit the Pats’ situation, let us know in the comment section below.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – Bills at Patriots

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Professor

Hey class, you ever hear the one about the time the Patriots fell behind their opponent by at least two scores in the first quarter, looked completely incompetent on both sides of the ball in the process but bounced back to not only with the game but completely blow the doors off in doing so?

Yep, you’ve heard that one before. You hear it every week. The Pats ended their regular season on Sunday with a rousing, 49-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills but even though the final score was totally lopsided and the Pats entire point tally was unanswered, the game didn’t engender a whole lot of confidence headed into the playoffs. For the third consecutive week, it took a double digit deficit to wake the Pats from their Sunday afternoon nap and against Buffalo, it was the steepest of the three (10 two weeks ago in Denver, 17 last week against Miami and 21 on Sunday). Going back to their Week 11 win over Kansas City, the Pats have trailed in the first half every week except for one, the win in Week 13 against the Colts (though it should be noted that in that game, the Pats were an onside kick away from potentially blowing a 28-point lead to a then winless team). This inability to put a full, 60-minute game together hasn’t wound up being a problem during the regular season against mediocre competition (the best record of any team the Pats have beaten this year is 8-8). But now that the post-season is here, with potential games against the fellow iron of the AFC in Pittsburgh and Baltimore looming, can this team really afford to fall behind 21-0 in the first quarter and count on being able to make a few scheme and personnel adjustments, come back and win?

That’s something we’ll have to find out. On Sunday, after getting steamrolled by the Bills in the first quarter to the tune of an eight-play, 80-yard TD drive, a 10-play, 70-yard TD drive and a six-play, 82-yard TD drive, the Pats remembered they had a game to play and subsequently wiped the Bills off the Gillette Stadium turf. Tom Brady became the third QB to surpass 5,000 yards passing in a single season (the second in the last two weeks), finishing with 5,133, Rob Gronkowski set a new league record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end (1,327) while extending his record for TD receptions in a season by a tight end to 17 and Bill Belichick became the first coach in league history to win at least 13 regular season games in five different seasons. All of these records are wonderful and the Pats certainly looked immense at times over the final three quarters, even on defense (four INTs, two sacks, 217 yards allowed in the final three quarters, 61 yards passing allowed in the second half). But despite the overall dominance from quarters two through four, something still smelled a little bit funny. Luckily for the Pats, they have an extra week to figure out how to fumigate before their playoff run commences. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, brought to you by Lysol, Febreze or any other stink eater you can think of.

OFFENSE: B+

Quarterbacks: B+
Brady was just as guilty of failing to wake up on time as the rest of his teammates, missing his first three passes then taking a sack on his fourth dropback. It took him a few throws not only to get the right timing down with any of his targets but to get his accuracy where it needed to be, as he was firing throws into the ground in the early going. But naturally, since he’s, well, Tom Brady, when he picked it up, he really picked it up. After beginning the day 1-of-8, he completed 11 passes in a row and finished the day with a tidy line of 23-of-35 for 338 yards and three TDs (113.8 passer rating). He did toss his first pick in four weeks but it was off a deflection at the tail end of the first half and wound up not causing any damage. Perhaps best of all, though, was that Brady showed zero ill-effects from his non-throwing shoulder injury which caused him to be limited in practice all week and made for so much hand wringing by the local media. And along the way, he threw his 300th career TD pass, tying him with John Elway for fifth all-time. The Pats defense obviously needs to make some strides between now and the night of January 14, when they play their first playoff game against either the Broncos, the Steelers or the Bengals. But isn’t it comforting to know that Brady is running the show on the other side of the ball? The answer, without a shred of doubt, is yes.

Running Backs: B+
Not to toot one’s own horn, but did anyone see who was out there getting the majority of the reps at tailback? Yep, it was our newest binky, Stevan Ridley. Ridley took the most snaps of any Pats runner by a wide margin and made that decision pay off, rolling up 81 yards on just 15 carries and looking fast, quick and super tough in doing so. He did fumble once, getting the ball punched out of his arms from behind, though luckily, it bounced out of bounds. Ridley continues to look like the future at the position (with all due respect to fellow rookie Shane Vereen, who just hasn’t been able to get on the field enough). He has such good instincts that when he learns to refine his running style at all, he could be a major force. Another piece of good news pertains to the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who looked as good on Sunday as he has in over two months. Benny took a screen pass from Brady in the third quarter, put his head down and didn’t stop until he’d picked up 53 huge yards, looking fast and lithe in the process. He added two more TDs, giving him 11 on the season, and for the first time in weeks, was decisive and powerful in those short yardage situations (the first TD plunge was a textbook, picture perfect launching of himself over the pile and into the end zone). The Pats again chose to throw more than they ran but proved for the second consecutive week that they are onto something in the running game. Ride Ridley, spell him with Benny, particularly in short yardage, and watch the production (138 yards on 29 attempts, 4.8 YPA on Sunday) happen.

Wide Receivers: C
Just calling this section “Wes Welker” as opposed to Wide Receivers was certainly taken into consideration given that not only was Welker the only Pat in this position group to make a catch, he was the only member of the corps to have more than one ball thrown his way (Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood got 62 combined reps, had no catches among them and were targeted a grand total of one time). Welker, who seemed to have a bit of a hard time getting on the same page with Brady from time to time, managed six catches for 51 yards and got the snot beat out of him on a couple of plays, only to bounce right back up and jog back to the huddle every time, just like always. The fact that Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien know they can count on the tight ends to be options 1B and 1C in the passing game mitigates the fact that there is pretty much nothing there at the wide receiver position. Branch is completely unpredictable, Underwood is a glorified practice squader and Ochocinco is one of the biggest busts in Pats history. With that in mind, as many Pats fans must think on a weekly basis, thank god for Welker.

Tight Ends: A
Aaron Hernandez not making the Pro Bowl is reason No. 3,276 why the Pro Bowl is a joke, the biggest embarrassment of all the major, professional sports all-star games. Just days after being snubbed in favor of the Chargers Antonio Gates, who is grandfathered in at this point, A-Herb had his second monstrous game in three weeks, catching seven passes for 138 yards and TD and adding 26 rushing yards on two carries (making him the Pats second leading rusher on the day), those plays clearly a byproduct of his exceptional skill in running with the ball after the catch. Given his size and quickness as well as his skills in the open field, it’s hard to see how anyone can cover him; linebackers aren’t quick enough, safeties aren’t skilled enough, corners aren’t big or strong enough. Perhaps that’s why on his TD, a 39-yard sideline route on which he high-stepped into the end zone, there were no Buffalo defenders within 20 yards of him. A-Herb finishes the regular season with 79 catches for 910 yards and seven TDs, all while playing in the giant, cyborg shadow of Gronk, who only had the greatest season a tight end has ever had. We already discussed the cyborg’s exploits but just to recap, eight catches, 108 yards, two more TDs, played every snap, threw a couple of crucial blocks in the running game, and was so humbled after the game when he learned Belichick and O’Brien had specifically called the game’s final pass play – a 22-yard flare from Brian Hoyer – so he could get the receiving yardage record, he sounded like a high schooler. Gronk pretty much looked as much like the T-1,000,000 as he has all year. 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs. Absolutely amazing.

Offensive Line: C+
Matt Light returned to the starting lineup after missing last week with an ankle injury but even his presence couldn’t keep the line from starting off as slowly as the rest of the team. Brady got beat up on Sunday, taking four sacks and getting hit three more times and while he came out healthy and in one piece, that’s a little but too much abuse for Week 17 with a bye and at least one home playoff game already sewed up. With no Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell lined up at left guard and acquitted himself fairly well. Nate Solder got to see more time as the third tight end thanks to Light’s return and that always helps the running game. He also split time at right tackle with fellow rookie Marcus Cannon, who has seen better days. If Mankins is healthy enough to go in the Divisional Round and the Pats have the line they’ve played with for the most part all year (Light, Mankins, Dan Connolly/Wendell, Brian Waters, Solder/Sebastian Vollmer), there shouldn’t be much of a reason to worry. But that continuity is huge, as evidenced by the lack of it these past two weeks.

DEFENSE: C+

Defensive Line: B-
It feels like the gimmick of giving two grades to the defensive groups got stale fast so this one and the next two will represent some attempts at an average. You can pretty much chalk up a giant F for the D-line in the first quarter, when they were all dominated by the Bills offensive front both in defending the run and trying to get any semblance of a pass rush. But when the tide turned, it really turned. Mark Anderson wreaked havoc, getting in Bill QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face with regularity and rolling up his 10th sack and even looking stout against the run. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Anderson didn’t come off the field for the Bills final nine drives of the game, understandable given Buffalo’s need to throw on nearly every play and Anderson’s role as the team’s top pass rusher. He played 61 snaps, the most of any defender who isn’t a defensive back or named Jerod Mayo and looked like just what the Pats need in the absence of Andre Carter. Of course, Anderson’s playing time going forward will hinge on what kind of offense the opponent is playing; remember, after exploding against Denver two weeks ago while the Broncos were in catch-up mode, he barely played last week against the Dolphins. Elsewhere on the D-line, Kyle Love had another pretty good game, with a sack, another hit on Fitzpatrick and a nice stop of running back C.J. Spiller behind the line, while Vince Wilfork was mostly invisible (two tackles, neither solo). And Shaun Ellis followed up his strongest game of the year against Miami with a total no-show on Sunday. This group needs to step up and make things happen going forward given the massive limitations in the secondary. This has been the case all season though, and the results, to be kind, have been mixed.

Linebackers: B-
Dane Fletcher got off to a brutal start, missing a couple of tackles in particularly ugly fashion before bouncing back to have a pretty decent game. It was sort of a microcosm of the entire defense, the linebackers in particular, who lost Rob Ninkovich three series into the game with a hip injury, but recovered relatively well from both a sluggish start and Ninkovich’s absence. Mayo of course played every down and alternated between looking overmatched and overrated with making the occasional nice play, including a picture perfect pass breakup of what looked like a easy completion on a second half sideline throw from Fitzpatrick to one of his tight ends. And Brandon Spikes finally returned from a sprained knee that’s had him out of action since early November, getting a handful of reps (some of them in the Pats nickel package) and making three tackles. When Spikes got hurt, he was the best linebacker on the team. If he’s healthy, Ninkovich’s injury isn’t too serious and Tracy White, who’s missed two games with an abdominal strain, comes back for the playoffs, the Pats may just have themselves a legit strength and advantage at this position. Can you believe it?

Defensive Backs: C
In the first quarter, Fitzpatrick was 13-of-16 for 165 yards and two TDs. Antwuan Molden gave up a hideous, 47-yard pass interference penalty at the goal line on a ball that was overthrown and Devin McCourty was again so awful that he was moved to safety. But that’s OK, the Pats made their adjustments and those, combined with the benching of star receiver Steve Johnson (uncoverable to the tune of four catches, 40 yards and a TD in that first quarter) for getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty thanks to flashing an undershirt that said, “Happy New Year,” saved the Pats secondary. It didn’t hurt either that Sterling Moore, who got a lot of run in the second half thanks to a miserable effort by Kyle Arrington, made two stunning picks, both of which featured perfect reads, great timing and highlight reel catches. Moore ran the second of the two back for a TD and looked like he was more than capable of playing some serious reps at corner in the playoffs. And Julian Edelman moved into the slot in place of an ineffective Nate Jones following the Bills third TD march and didn’t come out of the game until he’d played 41 consecutive snaps. Edelman made five tackles in his longest stint on defense of the season and proved again that he may well have a future both with the Pats and in the NFL as a defensive back. Sunday also marked the return of Patrick Chung, who not only played for the first time since Nov. 9, he played the entire game. Chung played well, making a couple of big hits, running a textbook safety blitz on which he missed sacking Fitzpatrick by a spilt second but still caused a hurried, incomplete pass. As bad as the Pats have been at corner all year, they’ve been worse at safety, making Chung’s return and solid play reason for at least a temporary sigh of relief. As for McCourty, he looked OK out there roaming, assisting on tackles and not getting burned for one 40+ gain after another. He also came up with a pick off a deflection late in the game and returned it 38 yards while showcasing his amazing speed (and while we’re here, why don’t the Pats use this guy to return kicks? He’s perfect for that role). Molden had a pick too, though he didn’t play particularly well, which leads one to wonder what the rotation of defensive backs will look like come the Divisional Round. On Sunday, after the first quarter, Jones and James Ihedigbo were the odd men out (meaning Ihedigbo didn’t get to suffer his weekly injury thanks to the lack of snaps). Given how few looks have worked back there all season, here’s hoping that’s the way things line up on January 14.

Special Teams: B
The Pats defense actually made a stop on the Bills first possession of the game but the punt team fell victim to a fake – a direct snap to the upback who strolled through an 18-wheeler sized hole for an easy first down – which led to the Bills early onslaught. But other than that slipup, things were reasonably solid in this phase of the game. The Bills have a great return game (they ran back a punt for a TD just last week) but the Pats held it in check, allowing just five yards on one punt return and an average of 21 on two kick returns. Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals, one of which was borderline bomby (47 yards). And our man Zoltan, whose omission from the Pro Bowl roster was still another reason that game is such a farce, answered his snub with an average of 48.5 yards on two punts.

Coaching: B+
Just to get any negatives out of the way early, these slow starts are starting to cast shadows on more than just the players. The Pats were clearly playing for something on Sunday, a point everyone, starting with Belichick, didn’t miss a chance to stress during the week. So then how is it even remotely possible that they come out so flat when the game starts? Belichick’s coaching job this season has to be among his best ever; the fact that he won 13 games and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed with this defense is transcendent. But what can he do to get his players to play a full game? Again, you can get away with weeks and weeks of extended dry spells whether in the first quarter or the fourth during the regular season against the likes of the Redskins or Bills or Colts. And maybe you can get away with it in the playoffs too (note: you probably can’t and if you don’t believe that, take a good look at both of the Pats last two playoff losses, particularly the one against Baltimore two years ago).

To really put the cherry on top of his stellar coaching sundae, Belichick needs to preside over an effort that doesn’t take 15-20 minutes to get going. It’s been made clear more than once this season that the Pats are perfectly fine with coming out, letting the other team get in a few solid jabs at them while they feel everything out, then pouncing. That philosophy has been stretched pretty thin at this point, though. The Pats have been outscored 38-14 in the first half of their last two games. It’s one thing to give the opponent a little time to show its hand, it’s another to fall behind by three scores while running just five offensive plays.

Belichick and his staff get this week’s grade because their incredible aptitude for making the exactly right adjustments to all of these deficits. While the Bills were shorthanded in the second half, holding a QB to 61 passing yards after letting the same QB pass for 246 yards in the previous half is an impressive feat. And on offense, the timing of moving to the no-huddle is perfect every week with Sunday no exception. From an in-game perspective, there’s no one better, as evidenced by how easily the Pats coaching staff runs circles around its opposite number on a weekly basis. But as great as this group is at changing things up when they need to be changed, how about a week in which they don’t have to? You know, like a week where the game plan is working from the opening kickoff and the Pats are the ones running out to a big lead. Now’s as good a time as any.