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Patriots Clinch Top Seed in AFC, Will Have Home-Field Advantage in Playoffs

The Patriots have locked up the top seed in the AFC, giving them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. (USA TODAY Images)

The road to the Super Bowl comes through New England.

After the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Denver Broncos 37-28 on Monday Night Football, the New England Patriots officially locked up the No.1 seed in the AFC. They had already won the division and secured a first-round bye, but now the Pats have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Broncos must win next week against the Oakland Raiders in order to clinch a first-round bye. If the Broncos lose and the Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, then Cincinnati will sneak into the No. 2 seed.

Locking up the top seed in the AFC doesn’t guarantee the Patriots a trip to the Super Bowl, but it does give them a significant edge in the playoffs. The Patriots are 15-0 at home over the past two seasons. It’s officially Super Bowl or bust.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Listen to our ‚ÄúPatriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast‚ÄĚ on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.

Game Rewind: The Patriots Clinch the AFC East, Dominating the Third Quarter

Tom Brady and the Patriots clinched the AFC East for the 12th time since 2000, blowing out the Miami Dolphins 41-13 Sunday. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the Miami Dolphins 41-13 on Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots returned home after a two-week road trip, clinching the AFC East for the sixth-straight season thanks to a dominant effort in the second half. After getting embarrassed in some phases week one, New England was able to get revenge on their division foes.

After reviewing the game, here¬†are a few thoughts on Sunday’s victory. —

Defense Keeps Team in Game Again, While Offense Struggles: The defense continues to play well, putting the team in good position to win games. On Sunday the unit held Miami’s offense to 3-of-16 on third down, had two interceptions and compiled four sacks.

There were some rough moments, as Mike Wallace torched Malcolm Butler on the first drive and scored a touchdown as the second half came to a close. It’s a tough matchup for the undrafted rookie cornerback, and it’s fair to question why Darrelle Revis or a more qualified defensive back wasn’t put on Wallace.

The defense clamped down in the second half. While the Dolphins had 271 yards and 13 points in the first two quarters, they were held to only 90 points and shut out in the final two quarters.

New England has outscored their last four opponents (Detroit, Green Bay, San Diego and Miami) 54-6 in the second half. The defense has allowed only one second half touchdown since the bye week (six games) coming against the Colts in Indianapolis.

The Return of Chandler Jones: After missing six games and being sidelined for about two months with a hip injury, Chandler Jones returned to the field for the Patriots.

Jones recorded seven total tackles, 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble in his first game action. Jones lined up in multiple spots, playing defensive end with his hand in the dirt and standing, also kicking inside to rush in certain situations.

He was on the field for 55-of-74 defensive plays, working his way back from the injury. While he wasn’t a full-go, Jones didn’t miss a beat. He looked explosive, moved well and his fresh legs could give a much-needed boost to the pass rush. Great sign moving forward.

Patriots End Troubling Trend, Dominate in Third: New England struggled in the third quarter heading into the contest. In the three games previous, the team scored just three total points in those games and had four-straight possessions to start the third quarter in San Diego, all resulting in three-and-outs for the offense.

On Sunday, Tom Brady and the offense flipped a switch. The Patriots scored 24 points, dominating Miami and crushing any hopes of another upset. In their four possessions this week, the team scored on every drive. Hopefully this continues after some shaky play coming out of the break in weeks past.

Brady’s Scramble¬†Boosts Team: On the first drive on the second half, New England was driving down the field. New England was on Miami’s 20, facing a third and 11. After the snap, Brady ran off right-tackle after the play broke down, picking up 17 yards and lowered his shoulder to the Dolphins defender.

The crowd went crazy, Brady was fired up and instead of settling for a field goal, the Patriots picked up the first down to score a touchdown on the following play. Any time Brady decides to run instead of throw, it’s usually a win for the defense, but his competitive spirit and toughness sparked the team’s dominant third quarter play.

Belichick Climbing All-Time Ranks: With yesterday’s win, Bill Belichick tied Curly Lambeau for fourth all-time, 229 wins, and passing Don Shula for most division titles as a head coach since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The Patriots have now won 12 division titles since 2000, all with Brady as the starting quarterback.

New England’s dominance has been remarkable. Whether you’re a fan of the team or not, it’s incredible to see this team win year-in-and-year-out. The consistency and strong foundation inside the franchise is what every NFL team strives to achieve.

What’s Next:¬†The Patriots¬†travel to face the Jets in New York, wrapping up their road games for the 2014 regular season. New England has a 4-3 record on the road this season and defeated the Jets 27-25 Oct. 16 at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots could clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory Sunday.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Listen to our “Patriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast” on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.

What the Patriots Must Do Differently in Week 15 to Defeat the Miami Dolphins

The Patriots could lean on LeGarrette Blount and the ground game to win on Sunday against the Dolphins. (USA TODAY Images)

When the New England Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins in week one, they found themselves in an unfamiliar position. Last place in the AFC East, with the other three division teams all winning.

Now it’s week 15, the Patriots lead the AFC East with a conference leading 10-3 record. New England has an opportunity Sunday to clinch the division and secure at least one home playoff game. Needless to say, there’s a lot on the line.

But week one was an ugly performance by the Pats. Despite a 10-point lead at halftime, they were unable to finish the job and left the team searching for answers early on.

After taking a look back at the last matchup, here’s what the Patriots must do different this week in order to win. —

Win in the Trenches: The Dolphins dominated at the point of attack on both fronts in week one. Miami’s rebuilt offensive line helped tailback¬†Knowshon Moreno gashed the Patriots defense for 134 yards.

It will be different this time around, though. Moreno is on Injured-Reserve and left tackle Brandon Albert, who many praised for securing their offensive line, was also lost for the year with a knee injury.

New England’s front seven, playing primarily in a 3-4 alignment week one, was pushed around all game. It’s safe to assume Bill Belichick will be making some adjustments going into this contest. Not only will the team focus on the running game featuring Lamar Miller, but also pressuring quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

On the flip side, the Patriots offensive line has a tall order in front of them. Miami has two strong defensive ends, Cameron Wake and Oliver Vernon, who could give New England a tough time. With left tackle Nate Solder struggling in week 14, he’ll need to rebound for the Patriots to change the outcome. Tom Brady was sacked four times in week one.

Run it Down Their Throat: The Patriots rushed 20 times for 89 yards in week one. With Miami’s defensive line knocking back the Pats offensive line, it was tough for New England to gain any traction on the ground.

Miami’s struggled to defend the run as of late, allowing 661 yards in the last three weeks alone. Josh McDaniels might look to exploit that weakness, with a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray grinding it out. Given Miami’s strong pass rush weapons, this would also keep them away from Brady and put New England’s offensive line in better position to succeed.

Third Downs in Focus: The Patriots went 5-for-17 on third down week one. The Dolphins on the other hand went 7-for-13. With Brady under duress and the running game stuck in the mud, New England’s offense couldn’t stay on the field.

This time around New England may look to the aforementioned ground attack with Miami’s weakened run defense. High percentage throws and better execution will be key.

The Pats defense is coming off a stellar performance in week 14, holding the Chargers to seven offensive points and just 4-of-13 on third down. They will look to suffocate the Dolphins rushing attack, making them one-sided and forcing Tannehill to make tough decisions. Defensive end Chandler Jones potential return would be a big boost to their pass rush.

Finish Strong: In week one, the Patriots had a hot-and-cold performance. Even after bumpy start, the team had a 20-10 lead going into halftime. The Dolphins scored 23 unanswered points in the second half, ultimately winning 33-20.

The Patriots have struggled in the third quarter over the past three weeks. In fact, the team has only scored three points combined in the last three contests, with their lone field goal coming against the Detroit Lions at home in week 12.

The Patriots have to find a way to get into a rhythm and get back on track in the second half. Perhaps the run game could help get the offense on track. The last thing this team wants to do is what they did last week at San Diego, opening the third quarter with four-straight three-and-outs.

Game Analysis: The Dolphins had an opportunity last week to make this game for the division. Despite a first quarter lead at home against the Baltimore Ravens, the team fell apart and lost 28-13. With Miami head coach Joe Philbin on the hot seat, the pressure will be on he and the team to perform at Gillette Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots know what’s at stake, however, and have won eight of their last nine games this season. While I believe this had the potential to be a dogfight a few weeks ago, Miami seems to be pointing fingers at each other and not ready for a New England opponent that’s averaging 35.6 points-per-game at home this season.

The Pats could lean on the run game, opening up play action later in the contest. If the Patriots grab an early lead, this contest could get ugly quickly.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 20

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Listen to our ‚ÄúPatriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast‚ÄĚ on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.

Game Rewind: The Patriots Defense Continues to Prove it’s Championship Caliber

Patriots cornerback, Darrelle Revis, dominated on Sunday night, limiting the Chargers leading receiver, Keenan Allen, to three yards on two catches. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the Chargers 23-14 in San Diego Sunday night.

The Patriots have now won eight of their last nine games, coming home successful after a week long stay in San Diego. It wasn’t pretty, but the Patriots made enough plays to win against a tough Chargers team.

After reviewing the game, here¬†are a few thoughts on Sunday’s victory. —

Defense Reigns: The biggest takeaway from this game, New England’s defense is championship caliber. The Chargers have a solid offense, but the Patriots defense made them look bad on Sunday night. With San Diego averaging over 23 points-per-game prior to this contest, New England’s defense held the unit to only seven points.

After so many years of the Patriots fielding a powerhouse offense with a leaky defense, it seems they now have a defense that can win them games when the offense struggles. The Patriots offense couldn’t get into a rhythm for much of the evening, but the defense was able to make plays and secure the team’s 10th victory of the year.

Revis and Collins Shine in Defensive Performance: The Patriots defense won this game for the team Sunday and two players stood out in their effort. Darrelle Revis shutdown Chargers top wide out Keenan Allen, who led the team with 72 catches going into the contest. Revis blanketed Allen throughout the game, holding him to just two receptions for three yards.

Second-year linebacker Jamie Collins also played an outstanding game. Collins had to step up Sunday. With Dont’a Hightower sidelined (shoulder), Collins took over as the defensive play caller and was utilized in several different ways. He filled the stat sheet tallying eight solo tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss. Collins has flashed during the season, but his ceiling as a player seems very high.

Bill Belichick praised Collins post game:

‚ÄúJamie has had some really outstanding moments throughout the course of the year. His consistency has gotten better every week. This was a big game for him San Diego with [Hightower] out ‚Äď taking over the communication and working with Johnathan [Casillas], who has had the least amount of time playing in there. I thought Jamie did a great job of controlling the defense, recognizing a couple of checks and adjustments we needed to make… He did a really good job for us.”

Offensive Line Issues Left Pats Offense Sputtering: The Patriots have averaged over 30 points-per-game this season, but there have been some hiccups along the way. New England couldn’t get rolling Sunday night and the third quarter was specifically bad for the unit.

The biggest issues for Tom Brady and the offense started up front, with the offensive line struggling impose their will. The line failed to open up many holes in the run game after the opening drive and the line looked overwhelmed in pass protection. Left tackle Nate Solder continues to struggle, he was pushed back by Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram consistently in the game.

After fixing many of their line woes midway through the season, the offensive line has not been good the past two weeks. Even though it hasn’t always led to sacks, Brady has been pressured more than usual and forced to shuffle inside the pocket. He looked uncomfortable Sunday night.

Slow Starts in First and Third Quarters Troubling: The Patriots offense struggled at times Sunday, specifically to start the game and coming out after halftime. New England had only one possession in the first quarter, the unit drove 89 yards down the field on 17 plays, but failed to punch it in for a touchdown and settled for a field goal.

The third quarter was a much bigger concern, starting with four straight punts and settling for a field goal on the fifth possession. New England had favorable field position for a large majority of third quarter, but couldn’t move the ball. Here’s how it breaks down:

– Drive begins on New England’s 19; 3 plays, 8 yards, punt.

–¬†Drive begins on New England’s 48; 3 plays, 4 yards, punt.

–¬†Drive begins on New England’s 44; 3 plays, – 4 yards, punt.

–¬†Drive begins on New England’s 30; 3 plays, 4 yards, punt.

–¬†Drive begins on New England’s 25; 10 plays, 55 yards, field goal.

The first four drives of the second half resulted in 12 offensive plays for 12 yards, four three-and-outs for the Patriots. Not what you would expect from a Tom Brady led offense and one of the league leaders in scoring.

Credit the Patriots defense for keeping the team in position to win this contest, as well as San Diego’s defense for their play, but New England’s¬†offense has to adjust and figure out how to get out of slumps. The unit looked like it was stuck in the mud and could not get rolling. With field position so much in their favor, this game should not have been as close as it was down the stretch.

Mid-Season Additions Make an Impact: Over the course of a season, an NFL team will make a countless number of roster transactions. This season, the Patriots acquired two players in late October who have given a boost to the defense and stood out on Sunday.

Akeem Ayers has stepped in for the injured Chandler Jones and done a remarkable job. He pressured Phillip Rivers several times during the game and came up with a big interception. He’s surpassed many expectations and worked his way into a strong role moving forward, showing a willingness to set the edge and providing a pass rush.

Jonathan Casillas stepped into the starting lineup Sunday and did a solid job overall. He had four solo tackles and forced a fumble. While it’s not ideal if he’s a weekly starter, the 27-year-old linebacker has been a special teams contributor and shown that he can contribute on defense when called upon.

What’s Next:¬†The Patriots return home for a Division Game against the Miami Dolphins in week 15.¬†New England¬†has an opportunity to clinch the division on Sunday, but the Dolphins will look for a similar result to week one when they defeated the Patriots 33-20 in Miami.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Listen to our “Patriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast” on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.

Bill Belichick’s passive game plan allowed Aaron Rodgers to pick apart the Patriots defense. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots lost to the Green Bay Packers 26-21 at Lambeau Field Sunday evening.

The Patriots had won seven in a row, looking to sweep the NFC North this season. The Packers had other plans, having success on both sides of the ball to extend their win streak to four.

Sunday’s contest felt like a playoff game. Two great teams, slugging it out and one made a few more plays than the other.¬†After reviewing the game, here¬†are a few thoughts on Sunday’s loss. —

Pats Outplayed in Trenches: Brady and the offense were held to only 21 points Sunday, their least amount of points scored since the team’s last loss in week four at Kansas City. This may have something to do with the fact New England had the ball for only 23:25 in the game.

Brady was pressured consistently during the game — to his credit, he did a good job maneuvering in the pocket at times — which threw off his timing and derailed the passing game. The Packers secondary did not have to cover for very long.

On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers had all the time he wanted in the pocket, putting a lot of pressure on New England’s defensive backs to cover for extended periods of time. Whether it was the team’s game plan or not, the Packers offensive line kept Rodgers upright and Green Bay was able to sustain drives.

Too Conservative Against Rodgers: The aforementioned time in the pocket for Rodgers could have cost the Patriots this game. New England’s game plan was pretty clear, keep Rodgers in the pocket and don’t let his mobility extend drives. Well, the defensive plan backfired as the team failed to pressure and left their cornerbacks out to dry.

Were the Patriots too conservative? It seemed that way. Going into the contest, a game plan similar to the one used against Andrew Luck would have made sense. Pressure without losing containment, blitz up the middle and force the QB into waiting arms of the defensive end.

The few times New England brought pressure, it seemed to have positive effects. Obviously there’s a risk when blitzing an elite quarterback like Rodgers, but letting him sit in the pocket for as long as he had wasn’t working. The Pats did not have to send five or more players to attack, but there were times it seemed no player on the defense had the responsibility of pressuring, just keeping Rodgers in the pocket.

Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins could have been used more aggressively, but we’ve seen this Patriots coaching staff play too conservative against upper-echelon quarterbacks before.

Third Down Struggles: The Packers went 10-of-17 on third down Sunday, consistently moving the chains and sustaining drives. Whether it was gap containment, quarterback pressure, tackling or coverage, the Pats could not get off the field throughout the day.

While the Patriots should be applauded for their red zone defense, more stops have to be made without allowing opponents to control the clock and putting points on the board.

Two of the biggest plays in the game occurred in third down situations. With only :23 seconds remaining in the first half, Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 45-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers a 9-point lead (23-14) going into the break. At that point in the game, an absolutely deflating play in a critical spot.

Later in the contest, the Patriots were threatening on Green Bay’s 20 facing a third-and-nine. With new England down by five points, a touchdown would have given them the go-ahead score. Instead, Mike Daniels and Mike Neal for the Packers sacked Brady, putting the Patriots in a fourth-and-18 situation.

In this game, third downs told the story. The Packers had more success and the Patriots failed to execute in key moments.

No Answer for Adams: Going into the game, there was a lot of talk about Packers receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Green Bay needed a third option to step up offensively in order to have success.

Rookie wide out Davante Adams had six catches for 121 yards, beating whoever New England lined up against him. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner tied up with Cobb and Nelson, Adams was able to exploit his matchup for his best game of the year.

Second-year cornerback Logan Ryan was paired with Adams for most of the evening, but was fairly uncompetitive with the rookie and gave Rodgers another option despite his two primary receivers locked up in tight coverage. Alfonzo Dennard also tried to defend Adams, but was unsuccessful as well.

While the cornerback position is considered a strength for New England, mostly because of Revis and Browner, this is an area of concern moving forward. Belichick seemed unwilling to put Kyle Arrington on Adams, given Arrington’s past struggles on the outside, so other opponents may look to target them in a similar fashion.

All is Not Lost: While you can look at this game from a doom and gloom¬†perspective, all is not lost. The Patriots still sit atop the AFC conference and are one of the best team’s in the NFL. New England has beaten each of the other division leaders (Broncos, Colts, Bengals) and hold tie breakers that will come into play for playoff seeding.

At the end of the day, it was a disappointing loss, but not a season ending defeat by any means. Losing to a quality opponent, on the road, by one score does not make the Patriots a bad team. Keep it in perspective, make adjustments and finish the season strong.

What’s Next: The Patriots now travel to San Diego, facing the Chargers next Sunday night. New England will stay on the west coast all week, preparing for a 7-5 Chargers team fighting for a¬†spot in the playoffs.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Listen to our “Patriots 4th¬†and 2 Podcast” on Blog Talk Radio as writers Russ Goldman, Steve Balestrieri¬†and I from¬†¬†discuss the latest Patriots news on Wednesday.

Pregame Thoughts and Analysis: Patriots Travel to Lambeau for Showdown Against Packers

The Patriots could rely on the ground attack Sunday, keeping Aaron Rodgers sidelined and taking advantage of Green Bay’s 29th ranked rush defense. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots will travel to Lambeau field to face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots, now 9-2 on the season, are coming off a 34-9 victory over the Detroit Lions. The Packers, 8-3 this year, defeated the Minnesota Vikings 24-21 last week.

The Patriots have won seven-straight games, averaging 39.6 points-per-game over that streak. New England has also won 14 straight games against NFC North opponents, including a 3-0 record this season. Here are a few thoughts on the upcoming game.

Pregame Thoughts¬†—¬†

First Impressions: This is one of the biggest games of the year. The Packers have been hot lately, dominating opponents at home. The Patriots have been battle-tested over the past few weeks, facing several AFC contending teams like the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. The Packers on the other hand, are looking to strongly assert themselves into the Super Bowl conversation. With the top two scoring offenses in the NFL meeting, along with two of the best quarterbacks, it will be an exciting game Sunday.

Pressure Without Losing Containment: Aaron Rodgers has great mobility. And even though he doesn’t run every down, his ability to pick up a first down with his legs is a threat to Bill Belichick and the Pats. That’s why I could see New England using a similar game plan as they did against the Colts.

Using the outside linebackers and defensive ends to contain Rodgers, blitzing Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower up the A gap (on either side of the center) periodically throughout the contest. Also expect the Patriots to use a mix of man and zone, trying to keep the plays in front of them, minimizing big plays Green Bay thrives off.

Don’t Let Eddie Lacy Get Rolling: Packers tailback Eddie Lacy is a tank. At 5’11, 230 he can get moving in a hurry. One thing that pops out when watching film, he takes a few yards to get moving, but once he hits a full stride, it takes several defenders to bring him down.

Tackling Lacy within the first five yards will be key. The Patriots edge players and defensive backs will need to stop him early before he’s able to pick up chunk yardage on the ground. While the Patriots have had success this season against great offenses such as the Colts and Broncos, neither have a running back like Lacy. This will be a true test for New England’s defense.

Getting Off to a Fast Start: The Patriots offense has been a well-oiled machine the past two months. That being said, scoring early Sunday could be huge for New England. The Packers have played exceptional at home and smother their competition early in the game. In fact, Green Bay has outscored opponents 66-0 in the first quarter through five games this year.

Run Right at Them: The Patriots have shown the ability to take advantage of their opponents biggest weaknesses. The Packers are ranked 29th in the NFL, giving up 136.7 yards-per-game on the ground this year. Expect LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray to get plenty of work, keeping Rodgers sidelined and the clock moving.

Final Thoughts:¬†This matchup will¬†showcase two high-powered offenses, but the defensive play by both teams should determine the outcome. New England’s defense is much stronger than Green Bay’s, but that won’t make it a cakewalk. If the Patriots can hold the Packers to field goals, it’s a reasonable exception New England will win comfortably. Although if the Packers defense can elevate their play, this game will get much tighter.

The Packers need to win in order to hold first place in the NFC North with the Lions winning on Thanksgiving Day. The Patriots are focusing on closing out the AFC East and locking up the top seed in the AFC, securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Patriots and Packers should trade scores, but New England’s defense has been much improved this year. Expect the Pats to make a few more stops, squeaking out a tough win on the road this Sunday.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Packers 23

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Game Rewind: Patriots Roll Lions, Revis and Browner Shine

Brandon Browner has brought a physical presence to the Patriots secondary. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the Detroit Lions 34-9 on Sunday, coasting to their seventh-straight victory.

The Lions fought early, but the Patriots looked like the real kings of the (NFL) jungle this week. New England kept Detroit’s offense out of the end zone throughout the contest and¬†scored¬†24 points in the first half, more than the Lions allowed in a game all season.

Four weeks ago, Pats Fans were talking about the six-game gauntlet the team had coming up; Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, at Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, at Green Bay Packers and at San Diego Chargers. Well, so far the Patriots have coasted through the first four opponents and look like the best — or one of the best — team’s in the league.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. After reviewing the game, here¬†are a few thoughts on Sunday’s win. —

Revis and Browner Dominated: The first thought from this game was how well Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis played. Ok, we know Revis is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. That being said, it can’t be understated how important he’s been this season for the Patriots defense.

Perfect example Sunday, as Bill Belichick was able to use no.24 on Golden Tate, rolling coverage to Detroit’s superstar receiver, Calvin Johnson.¬†Just because Browner had help over the top for the majority of the game, doesn’t diminish his performance. In fact, this was his best game as a member of the team.

Browner’s physical presence kept Matthew Stafford and Johnson out-of-sync all game, with Megatron held to 58 yards on four receptions. Both cornerbacks are making an impact and the Patriots defense is playing at a high level.

Pat Chung’s Resurrection: In his second stint with the team, Chung has emerged as a key contributor this year. Prior to the season, the safety spot next to Devin McCourty was a concern. While the team does rotate defensive backs at times, Chung has been the primary safety next to McCourty and performed well for the most part.

Chung was lined up all over the field Sunday, continuing to showcase a strong tackling ability and bringing a physical nature to the middle of the field. His play against Lions tight end Joesph Fauria in the redzone stood out as key moment from Sunday’s contest.

Run Defense Has Been Stellar: The Patriots run defense has been strong the past three weeks, limiting opponents to under three yards-per-carry. On Sunday, Detroit had only 91 yards on the ground, despite 25 carries by the team.

The most impressive part of the Pats run defense, has been the ability to limit the rushing of opponents without stacking the box. New England continues to use five, and even six, defensive backs while controlling the line of scrimmage.

Looking ahead to week 12, the Patriots will face perhaps their biggest test of the season with Packers tailback, Eddie Lacy. More on that later this week.

Offensive Line Has Stepped Up: With Ndamukong Suh and a vaunted Detroit defensive line a tall order for any offensive line, the Patriots rose to the occasion. Left tackle Nate Solder had a strong game and has played really well since his struggles at the beginning of the year. Rookie center Bryan Stork also had a great game and he’s made an impact on this offensive line since his first start in week four.

It wasn’t perfect, as Brady was pressured and hit early in the game, but overall it’s hard to ask for more when facing such a big challenge. It’s time to give some credit to offensive line coach Dave Deguglielmo for this unit’s turnaround.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven

Pregame Thoughts and Analysis: Patriots Host Lions Sunday Afternoon

Patriots Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels, has his hands full facing the Lions top-ranked NFL defense this Sunday. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots will host the Detroit Lions Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots, now 8-2 on the season, return home after defeating the Indianapolis Colts 42-20 last Sunday. The Lions, 7-3 this year, lost on the road 14-6 against the Arizona Cardinals last week.

The Patriots have won 13 straight games against NFC North teams, including a 2-0 record in 2014. Here are a few thoughts on the upcoming game.

Pregame Thoughts¬†—¬†

First Impressions:¬†The Lions are the NFL’s top ranked defense this season. While their defense has shined, the offense has struggled. Despite several weapons, Matthew Stafford and Lions offense are averaging just 18.8 points-per-game. Star wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, has battled some injuries this year, but is a full-go for a potential head-to-head battle against Pats cornerback, Darrelle Revis.

Protecting Brady is Biggest Key to Victory: The Lions have an attacking front seven on defense, making it hard for opposing quarterbacks. Detroit has invested heavily on their defensive line; drafting Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah and Nick Fairley in the first round.

The Lions have registered 26 sacks through 10 games this season. While the Patriots have settled down on the offensive line, they face a big test this week. If they can keep Brady upright, he should find success. However if the Lions can generate pressure, New England’s high-powered offense could be derailed.¬†

Pats May Shy Away from Balance, Pass to Win: Even though Detroit’s pass rush and interior pressure is the biggest concern for the Patriots Sunday, New England should pass to win this week. In part because the Lions have allowed a NFL best 68.8 yards-per-game to opposing offenses. Better yet, teams facing the Lions have rushed for no greater than 37% less than their team rushing average.

What does this mean? With pressure from the Lions defense inevitable, expect Brady and the offense to do a lot of quick passes, screen plays and if they choose to run, draws in order to slow down the pass rush. Don’t expect another 200-plus yard rushing performance from New England. Instead, Brady and the passing game will be the focus of this week’s contest.

Revis Island for… Tate?: While many expect Revis to cover Johnson Sunday, the Patriots might switch things up for the upcoming contest. Revis could potentially cover Golden Tate, double-teaming Johnson — perhaps with Brandon Browner and safety help — in order to neutralize a threatening aerial attack.

With Revis on Tate, Johnson covered by two defenders, Bill Belichick could use Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan on the running backs or others. Stafford will still attempt passes to Tate and Johnson, as well he should, but slowing¬†those two receivers would hurt¬†Detroit’s chances Sunday afternoon.

Of course if Revis shadows Johnson, it will be a treat for all those watching the game. Two of the best at their respective positions going head-to-head.

Final Thoughts: This matchup will come down to strength versus strength, the Lions stout defense against the Patriots offense. The Lions have kept opposing offenses in-check for the majority of the season, but the offense has not been able to generate as many points as projected.

While the Lions present a tough challenge on defense, the Patriots have been too strong offensively in recent weeks. In their last six games, New England is averaging 40.5 points-per-game. Detroit is in a tough spot, traveling to face the NFC leading Arizona Cardinals in week 11, before coming across the country to face the AFC leading Patriots. It may be close early, but look for New England to build momentum as the game moves along and eventually hold a commanding lead in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Lions 20

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Mid-Season Patriots Grades and Awards

The Patriots are rolling midway through the season, led by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowksi on offense. (USA TODAY Images)

The 2014 NFL season is at the halfway mark. The Patriots have played nine games and sit atop the AFC East with a 7-2 record.

While the team started slow, 2-2 through the first four weeks, New England won five-straight and rested during week 10 as they prepare for the second half of the year.

Here’s how the team graded out through the first nine games. —

Offense: B +

The last five weeks, the Patriots have been on fire offensively. Tom Brady has been incredible, tossing 18 touchdown passes and only one interception. The offensive line has settled down, finding a starting five, and overall improved after a bumpy start.

Rob Gronkowski is playing on another level. His impact on the offense is incredible; whether it’s making big catches, run blocking or creating space for other receivers with opposing defensive backs gravitating towards him. As he’s gotten healthier, the team has been more deadly on offense, no coincidence.

While Julian Edelman has been pretty consistent, Brandon LaFell has emerged as a threat in the passing game. He’s struggled with drops at times, but also made some athletic plays after the catch and become a third option (after Gronkowski and Edelman) for Brady to rely on.

There are some negatives, too. Let’s not forget the struggles at the beginning of the season. The offensive line was a revolving door, the passing game was somewhat out-of-sync and the team lost Stevan Ridley for the year to a knee injury.

With Ridley sidelined, the running game has been inching along. Shane Vereen is inconsistent and third-year tailback Jonas Gray has underwhelmed. Without a more consistent rushing attack, the offense is somewhat limited. Something which needs to be addressed moving forward.

Defense: B 

Coming into the year, expectations were high for the Patriots defense. It hasn’t been perfect, but the unit has improved as the season goes along.¬†The loss of defensive captain, Jerod Mayo, definitely hurts the team, but the Patriots have made adjustments over the past few weeks.

The additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner has given the secondary flexibility, depth and the ability to play more physical with opposing offenses.

The Patriots pass rush has been fairly inconsistent, but stepped up in recent weeks as the defense has gotten more aggressive. While Chandler Jones has been sidelined with a hip injury, Rob Ninkovich and recently acquired Akeem Ayers have turned up the heat. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes all three players down the road.

New England must improve in run defense, as they’ve allowed an average of 120 yards-per-game on the ground, as well as tackling. Overall, however, the unit has done a good job forcing opposing teams to settle for field goals and getting off the field on third downs.

Special Teams: A -

The Patriots special teams play has been solid most of the season. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has missed just one field goal, 24-of-25, and second-year punter Ryan Allen is averaging 46 yards-per-punt.

Matthew Slater and Don Jones have been incredible on kick coverage, as the duo consistently beats their match-ups throughout each contest. Brandon Bolden also deserves an honorary mention for his standout play and keep an eye out for Jonathan Casillas in the second half of the season.

Danny Amendola has given New England a spark on kick returns, averaging 25.4 yards-per-return. Amendola along with Julian Edelman have New England ranked as the second best punt return unit in the NFL.

While special teams can often be a forgotten phase of an NFL game, the Patriots have outplayed many of their opponents and it’s showing up week-in-and-week-out.

Coaching: B +

Perhaps my biggest criticism of the Patriots coaching staff is aimed more towards the beginning of the season. It seemed they could not settle on a starting offensive line and the unit looked out of sync.

The Patriots also have 91 penalties through nine games, and will likely break the franchise record of 111 set during the 2003 season.

All that put aside, it’s been business as usual for New England. Bill Belichick has been able to overcome key injuries on both sides of the ball and the team focused on the task at hand. At 7-2, the Patriots are two wins away from an incredible fourteenth consecutive¬†winning season.

Patriots Awards:

MVP: Tom Brady

A case could be made for Rob Gronkowski, but as Brady goes, the Patriots offense goes and they’re on fire. The talk of his “decline” highlighted the off-season, but Brady’s showing why he should still be considered one of the NFL’s best players.

Offensive Player: Rob Gronkowski

As he got healthier and more involved in the offense, the unit started pouring on more points. Gronkowski creates space for other receivers, makes impact blocks in the run game and his unbelievable receiving ability makes him one of the most dangerous players in the league.

Defensive Player: Darrelle Revis

The Patriots paid him $12 million this season to help transform their defense into a legitimate threat. While it hasn’t been perfect, Revis has made New England’s secondary one of the best statistical units in the NFL. His presence gives Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff the ability to game plan week-to-week for opposing offenses.

Rookie of the Year: Bryan Stork

You might not¬†think a fourth-round center would be the “rookie of the year”, but Stork has helped solidify the offensive line. There have been ups-and-downs, as there is with all rookie players, but his future is promising.

Most Surprising Addition: Brandon LaFell

When LaFell was signed, it wasn’t expected to have the type of role or impact he’s had this season. LaFell has matched his career-high in touchdowns (5); needs only 13 catches to tie his career-high in receptions (currently at 36); and is 163 yards shy of his career-high in receiving yards with eight games to play.

Most Disappointing Player: Aaron Dobson

Dobson faced an uphill battle after off-season foot surgery and his lack of special teams value has him sidelined on game days. The former second-round pick has been an afterthought this season.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

Reaction: Patriots Dominate Broncos, Take Lead in AFC

Tom Brady and the Patriots were too much for Peyton Manning’s Broncos in week nine. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 43-21 at Gillette Stadium Sunday evening.

The Patriots scored first, taking an early 3-0 lead after a Stephen Gostkowski 49-yard field goal, but then fell behind 7-3 on the following drive.

The second quarter, however, was all New England. The Patriots outscored Denver 24-0, taking a commanding 27-7 lead going into the half. Peyton Manning looked frustrated throughout the contest, ultimately suffering his worst loss (22 points) since joining the Broncos.

Despite allowing 472 yards, the Patriots defense stood tall against an explosive passing attack. New England’s defenders played physical, clearly disrupting the timing of Denver’s passing attack.

Here are a few thoughts on Sunday’s contest. —

“Brady’s Better!” - Gillette Stadium chanted loud and clear, “Brady’s better!” in the second half. Fans¬†knew how big this contest was going in, Brady versus Manning sixteen. And it was sweet, if you’re a Patriots fan.

Brady went 33-for-53, for 333 yards, four touchdowns and an interception Sunday. He threw his first interception — off a receiver deflection — since Sept. 29, against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The pocket wasn’t always clean, but Brady was able to push the ball downfield, despite strong winds, consistently finding receivers to sustain drives. New England’s offense continues to roll, putting up nearly 40 points on a regular basis over the past five weeks.

The Broncos defense has been praised as a much improved unit, but the Patriots offense, led by Brady, proved to be too much to handle in this game.

Incredelman - Julian Edelman was incredible Sunday, taking over the contest at times in two different phases of the game.

He hauled in nine passes on 10 targets for 89 yards and a touchdown. Edelman added a momentum-turning play, returning an 84-yard punt back for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Edelman’s production had dipped in previous weeks, including a combined four drops against the Jets and Bears, but he came back with a vengeance in week nine. Between he, Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have found a tremendous rhythm in the passing game.

Pats Flex Muscles in Secondary - When the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason, it was clear they wanted to upgrade their defense on the back end.

Browner has shown good-and-bad through his first three games with New England. While he’s been able to match-up with bigger receivers, he’s also been penalized seven times for his play.

Revis was targeted earlier in the game, allowing three catches and looking lost in coverage. After that, his side of the field was quiet for the contest. Revis did a great job collapsing on screen plays to Demaryius Thomas, forcing Manning to look at other options.

As an honorable mention, Patrick Chung may have been the best defensive back on the field for the Patriots Sunday. He was outstanding in coverage, emerging in his limited role and doing a superb job tackling in the open field. After being washed out in Philadelphia, he’s returned to New England providing an upgrade in their big nickel package.

Revis said after the game, “We felt like we matched up with their receivers across the board… We just wanted to go out there and out-physical them.”

They did just that Sunday.

Final Thought:¬†This isn’t the Super Bowl, the Patriots did not win a championship because they beat the Broncos in week nine. With that being said, you have to feel good about this team beating their toughest AFC opponent and rolling into the bye week on a five-game winning streak.

The Patriots looked mediocre to start the year, but have improved each week and now should be considered one of the NFL’s best teams. With the Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers on the schedule over the next four weeks, they’ll continue to get tested as the season moves forward.

For now, the Patriots are 7-2 and atop the AFC. Hopefully the team enjoys this victory, recharges and can carry the momentum in two weeks.

Do you have a Twitter account? Be sure to follow me: @PatriotsHaven!

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