By: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
January 10, 2006

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R.R. Marshall: Steve, I was a little worried when the Patriots began their playoff game against the Jaguars by missing out on two early scoring opportunities, and when Deion Branch dropped what could have been six points at the end of the first half I couldn't help but wonder if it all those missed chances would come back to haunt them. Did you get that feeling before they put the game away in the second half?

Steve Grogan: I had just a little bit of doubt, not a lot but early in the game it didn't appear that things were going the Patriots' way. You had to wonder if it would be one of those games where they wouldn't get any breaks and Jacksonville would jump in and take advantage. But the more the game unfolded the more you could tell that Jacksonville's offense wasn't going to do anything. Then it became a question of whether the Patriots could get their offense untracked and get some points on the board, which they ended up doing. I thought it took Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich awhile to shake off the rust after not playing for more than a month, and by the time he did it was too late. The Patriots' defensive game plan was to take the run away from Jacksonville and make him throw to beat them, and while Leftwich does throw the deep ball well he was under so much constant pressure he just couldn't get it done.

RRM: Tom Brady was his usually unflappable self in his record-setting 10th consecutive playoff victory, completing 15 of 27 for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Wasn't it impressive the way he continued to hold onto the ball to give his receivers time to get open downfield even though the Jaguars put a pretty strong rush on him and sacked him four times?

SG: Tom Brady is just so calm and cool under pressure, although I thought he struggled a little bit in the first half against Jacksonville. He came back in the second half and did everything he needed to do for them to win. We really found out what a tough kid he is this season. I thought he got banged around more this year than in any other previous season due to the problems they had with the offensive line, but he was able to hang in there and he continued to show the leadership ability that has become his trademark.

RRM: I know Bill Belichick usually accounts for everything with his game plans, but did you ever hit the umpire like Brady did on his first pass of the game?

SG: Several times [laughs]. There are times when the umpire is just there; he's part of the field and you can't do anything about it. It happens more often than you would think, and most times they don't ever see it coming. The umpire is looking at the offensive linemen trying to detect holding infractions, so he isn't really watching the ball and sometimes it's on him before he even realizes it and it's too late to get out of the way.

RRM: I thought I had heard of everything until John Madden spilled the beans about Bill Belichick having Richard Seymour using paddles in practice to simulate Jacksonville's tall defensive tackles that Brady would have to throw over during the game. I guess there's just no limit to his imagination?

SG: I've actually heard of coaches using that before, but it has been a long time since it was done. It is mostly done with basketball when you are going to play against someone that is really tall, but only rarely in football have you heard of that technique being used. It's just another little thing that the Patriots work on that other people wouldn't.

RRM: Like you I've seen every Patriots' playoff game aside from their first one in 1963 (I was only five years old!) and Ben Watson's spectacular 63-yard catch and run where he broke three tackles has to go down as one of the greatest individual efforts in the postseason history of the franchise?

SG: I would say that's a fair statement. I just love watching tight ends like Watson that can catch a ball, bounce off of people, break a few tackles, and then have the speed to run away from people. That was a huge, backbreaker of a play in the game because it put the Patriots' up 21-3. Up until that point it was still a ballgame until Watson did that, and the Jacksonville players had to be wondering after that.

RRM: Do you think any tight end the Patriots have ever had could have made that play?

SG: That's a good question. Ben Coates could have made that type of play but I don't think he had that same kind of open field, breakaway speed to run away from defensive backs that Watson has. Russ Francis had that kind of speed to a point but wasn't quite as physically imposing as Watson with his ability to bounce off of people. That's what makes Watson so unique. He's a very talented young player, and as far as I'm concerned they need to get the ball to him a lot more.

RRM: The Patriots' secondary held Jacksonville to 247 yards passing while keeping them out of the endzone. Have they improved that much or is Bill Belichick masking those weaknesses with his scheming?

SG: No, I really think the members of that secondary are playing much better. I think the return to health by several members of the Patriots' front seven has helped them a great deal. When you are getting consistent pressure on the quarterback you don't have to cover as long downfield so that helps, and when you are containing the running game the secondary doesn't have to think about helping out on run support and they can focus on pass coverage, which has made them better as well.

RRM: The ABC coverage of Asante Samuel's 73-yard interception return was so thorough I don't think there is much more I can you ask you about the play. How about from a quarterback's perspective, is there anything Leftwich could have done on his end to prevent that play from happening?

SG: That play was huge, no doubt about it. The Jaguars had just figured out that they needed to pick on Samuel after he had given up a couple of completions prior to that play, so Eric Mangini picked the perfect time to call that type of coverage. There was nothing Leftwich could have done. As a quarterback you make that throw and you hope the defensive back doesn't get the break on it.

RRM: Corey Dillon felt he was being punished for his outburst this week by not starting the game against Jacksonville. Do you think that was the case, or was it due to the Patriots opening up the game in the three-wide formation that is more conducive to Kevin Faulk's talents?

SG: I think more than anything it was due to the kind of offense they wanted to run at the start of the game. They wanted to go no huddle, and usually Corey Dillon is not on the field in that situation. I hate to see him start shooting his mouth off when his team is in the midst of their playoff run. This is too important time of the year to be putting yourself in a bad situation like that. You never win when you do that with that Boston press so you might as well not say anything.

After watching him in this game I think Corey Dillon is still banged up. When he's on the field he doesn't look to be himself; he doesn't have that quick burst and doesn't really hit the line of scrimmage with the power that we were used to seeing last year. I'm thinking that he's still being bothered by that ankle problem he's had most of the year. Fortunately Kevin Faulk is back and is playing really well right now. If the Patriots continue to go with that spread formation you can expect to see Faulk getting a lot of playing time, and I hope Dillon can accept that.

RRM: Since you were of a member of the '85 Patriots squad that won three consecutive playoff games on the road I was going to ask you what it took to win away from home in the postseason. But since the Patriots were the only one of four teams to win at home this past weekend maybe it's not as hard to do any more?

SG: I guess it's really not that hard and we weren't so special after all [laughs]. I really don't know how to explain what happened, I guess it's just one of those things. Washington got two early defensive touchdowns that changed the course of their game and Cincinnati lost their quarterback Carlson Palmer early in their game, so there were some pretty unusual circumstances in some of those games. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues this weekend.

RRM: Before I ask you about this week's game in Denver I wanted to ask you if you watched the Rose Bowl and what you thought Texas quarterback Vince Young's future in the NFL might be now that he has declared himself eligible for the draft?

SG: I watched the game and I came away very impressed with Young's athletic ability. He threw the ball much better in that game than the other two or three other games I've seen him play. He has the arm and he definitely has talent, and I'm sure somebody is going to take a chance on him pretty high up in the draft. They will have to rein him in a little bit and if they can get him to control that talent he will be a real find for some team.

RRM: It's another Saturday night for the Patriots but they ain't got nobody (my apologies to the late, great Sam Cooke), they got the Broncos in Denver. The Pats got pounded 28-20 in Denver back in Week #6, but with many of their injured players now back do you expect things will be different in the rematch?

SG: I think this will be a very competitive game. The Patriots' offensive line was really struggling at the time and they have come together since that game and have done a good job of keeping Tom Brady clean. Brady is also adept at getting rid of the ball quickly when he senses pressure, so even though Denver can put a lot of pressure on the quarterback that doesn't scare me. What does concern me is Denver's ability to run the ball down the opposition's throats, which I don't think they will be able to do against the Patriots this time around considering the way the New England front seven is playing right now. If the Patriots can shut down that Denver running attack and make Jake Plummer try to beat them I think they have a great chance of winning.

RRM: Denver quarterback Jake Plummer posted some impressive numbers this season and connected on several long passing plays that helped to do in the Patriots last time around. Are you confident that the reconstituted New England secondary will keep that from happening this time?

SG: I'm not saying that it won't happen or can't happen again, but it is less likely to happen now than it was at that point in time of the season. Right now Jake Plummer is more a manager of the game for this Denver team. Mike Shanahan likes to run the football, and as long as Plummer doesn't make mistakes they are usually pretty successful. Again, the Patriots' focus has to be on taking away the running game and making Jake Plummer try to beat them. I don't think he can do that.

RRM: It sounds like even though they will go into this game as underdogs you like the Patriots' chances in this game?

SG: I'm feeling pretty good about their chances this week. Anytime you go to Denver and try to win it's tough. The Patriots are definitely playing some good football right now, and although they are not running the football as well as you would like this time of year, they are stopping the run very well which helps out the young secondary. They are playing great defense right now, and when you play great defense you are usually going to stay in the game. It looks like they are peaking at the right time, which is exactly what you want to be doing at this time of year.

The two places they are going to have to go to get to the Super Bowl are difficult places for a visiting team to win. Denver really doesn't scare me a lot. Their running game is very good but the Patriots' defensive front seven has been shutting down the opposition's running game no matter who they play and they should be able to handle the Bronco's running attack. It's still tough to win in Denver, and trying to win in Indianapolis (which more than likely is where they'll have to go) presents its own problems with Peyton Manning and all the weapons he has on offense. But the Colts are not the issue this week, so we'll wait to see what happens in Denver and Indianapolis this weekend.

RRM: What are the chances for a Steelers' upset in Indianapolis on Sunday which would give the Patriots a chance to host the AFC Championship Game?

SG: Actually, I think that could happen. It would not surprise me because Pittsburgh can dominate you on the ground and control the clock, which would keep Peyton Manning and his offense on the sidelines. I'm not sure the Pittsburgh defense is as strong as it has been in the past to be able to cope with Peyton Manning, but the Steelers are playing well and with a lot of confidence so it could happen.

RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the Patriots' 28-3 win over Jacksonville in Week #17?

SG: I'm going with an overall grade of A- for this one. I thought the defense definitely deserved an A, but the offense was a bit lacking and only merits a B. There were a few sloppy moments for the Patriots, particularly on offense. I thought the defense played pretty well and was consistent throughout the game. Just like always the Patriots did what they had to do, and it's just amazing to me some of the things this team has accomplished. Bill Belichick broke Vince Lombardi's record for consecutive playoff victories, Tom Brady broke Bart Starr's record for most postseason wins in a row, and Willie McGinest became the all-time sack leader in playoff competition. I don't think we really understand just how good these guys have been the last four or five years, and we may not for awhile. It's clear to me that we are watching history being made around here and it's been a lot of fun. Let's all hope the fun continues for another week.

Grogan's Grades for Week #17

Offense: B
Defense: A
Overall: A-

R.R. Marshall's Q & A columns on the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, and Boston College Eagles appear year round in both the electronic and print media. He can be reached at [email protected]