July 31, 2014

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.

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