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5 Observations: Ravens at Patriots

For the second time in four seasons, the Baltimore Ravens went into Gillette Stadium and knocked the New England Patriots out of the playoffs, this year by a 28-13 score. The Patriots were outscored 21-0 in the second half, in a game where the Patriots failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities. Injuries were an issue as the Patriots lost Kyle Love and Aqib Talib early on in the game after entering the game without Rob Gronkowski.

Here are five observations from the loss:

Tom Brady certainly didn’t have his best game in Sunday’s season-ending loss to the Ravens. (FILE:USPresswire)

Not clutch

A team which prided itself on being clutch back in the Super Bowl runs in the 2000′s, the Patriots were anything but clutch in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. Baltimore outscored the Patriots 21-0 in the second half and ran away with a 15-point win. Tom Brady was a perfect 67-0 at home in his career when leading at the half, but that stat went out the window when the Patriots picked the worst time to have arguably their worst half of the season. The Patriots are usually the team forcing their opponents into making mistakes, but in this game it was them turning the ball over. It all started with Stevan Ridley’s fumble early on the fourth quarter, when the Patriots were trailing by just eight and moving the ball. Brady threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter thus making the Patriots lose the turnover battle 3-0. No team is going to win a playoff game when they lose the turnover battle 3-0. In the past it’s been the Patriots being clutch and making the plays when it matters, but they were anything but clutch and that is the reason why they will be watching the Super Bowl from their couches.

Missed opportunities

It was a game of missed opportunities especially on offense, and some uncharacteristic mistakes which ultimately led to the Patriots loss. The Patriots dominated the game early on, they held a over a six-minute time of possession advantage after the first quarter, but yet could only come away with a 3-0 lead. The Patriots, who usually are as good as any team in the red zone, did not get it done on Sunday. They finished the game 1-4, settling for field goals three times. On the flip side, the Ravens were a perfect 4-4.

A big turning point in the game came nearing the end of the first half, with the Patriots in the red zone. Brady scrambled for a three-yard gain before sliding with just over twenty seconds remaining at the Baltimore seven-yard line with the Patriots having one time out in their pocket. Instead of taking their final time out with around 20 seconds left and it being second and goal, Brady and Bill Belichick did not call their time out until four seconds remained and Stephen Gostkowski booted a field goal giving the Patriots a 13-7 lead at the half. What the Patriots should have done was immediately called a time out after Brady slid, thus leaving the Patriots about 20 seconds to take two shots in the end zone and then if they didn’t convert, kick the field goal on fourth down. It was very poor clock management, something you hardly every see from the Patriots.

Wes Welker was once again the victim of another game-changing dropped pass. With the Patriots leading 13-7 and a 3rd and 8 from the Baltimore 34-yard line, Welker dropped a pass which was a sure first down. If Welker makes the catch, there’s no question the Patriots would have at least ended up with a field goal. It was a missed opportunity, which drastically changed the flow of the game. It is worth mentioning two plays before, Welker took a vicious hit from Bernard Pollard, resulting in a penalty. Welker was shown in the huddle, clearly dazed, trying to compose himself. Not to make an excuse, but the hit two plays prior could have had an impact on the drop. Regardless, the Patriots not getting any points on that possession dramatically changed how the second half went.

Defense struggles

Although the offense only scored 13 points, the defense didn’t do their job either as they allowed 28 points, including 21 in the second half. Although they sacked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco twice, they didn’t do a good job of getting consistent pressure on him forcing him into poor decisions. Flacco was able to tear into the Patriots secondary, particularly in the second half as the Ravens scored on three of their first four possessions of the second half, building a two-score lead. Flacco finished the game 21-36 for 240 yards and three touchdowns for a quarterback rating for 106.2. A much improved defense from earlier in the season should not have allowed Flacco to put up numbers like he did. The Patriots did a good job of keeping running back Ray Rice in check as he only rushed for 48 yards on 18 carries.

Offense doesn’t get it done

The NFL’s best offense picked the worst time to score the fewest points in a game all season as the 13 points were a season-low. It was only the second time all season the team didn’t score more than 20 points — the other came in their Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. Brady wasn’t his clutch, Super Bowl era self, as he finished the game 29-54 for 320 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 62.3. There were drops at critical times, and a game of missed opportunities as a whole. Although the Patriots rushed for 108 yards, only 33 came in the second half. The team seemed to abandon the running game, something which has been the key to their success all season long. Sunday was the only game all year in which the team lost when rushing for 100 + yards. Prior to the game, the Patriots were 13-0 when rushing for more than 100 yards as a team and 0-4 when they didn’t. For the NFL’s best offense to only come away with 13 points in the AFC Championship game is a major disappointment to say the least.

Injuries played role

There is no denying injuries played a role in the game for the Patriots. Aside from entering the game without tight end Rob Gronkowski, the team lost Kyle Love and Aqib Talib early on, forcing them to regroup on defense, but the trickle down had an effect on the overall unit. It forced Kyle Arrington and Marquise Cole into more playing time than usual, and although they played better than they have most of the year, it still wasn’t good enough to get it done. It also could have had something to do with the Patriots’ approach on defense as they did not blitz as much as they had in the second half of the season, possibly because they didn’t feel comfortable with what they had in the secondary in one-on-one coverage. The loss of Love, forced more playing time on to the other defensive linemen, something that showed in the second half as the group was clearly gassed.

Gronkowski missing the game was not taken as seriously as it should have. He was Brady’s biggest target in the red zone all season long, and only one touchdown in four trips Sunday showed the value of Gronkowski. He also is a very underrated run blocker, and demands the defenses attention every play. It would have been a different game with the Patriots 100 percent health wise, but the Ravens were definitely the better team on Sunday and deserve to move on to the Super Bowl.

For Patriots coverage 24/7, follow me on Twitter @hannable84. Thanks for reading all season, and be sure to check back throughout the off-season for updates and what the Patriots need to do for next year.

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5 Observations: Texans at Patriots

Although it wasn’t as lopsided as the two teams’ regular season matchup, the Patriots still convincingly beat the Houston Texans 41-28 to advance to the AFC Championship game, taking on the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at Gillette Stadium. This will be the second straight year the teams have met in this game. Things didn’t get off to the best of starts for New England, but they quickly regrouped and controlled the vast majority of the game.

Here are five observations from the win:

Rob Ninkovich had a solid game Sunday finishing with four tackles and an interception. (FILE:USPresswire)

Adjusting the game plan

The Patriots offense took two big blows early on in Sunday’s game when Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski left the game with injuries. Woodhead was injured on the games first play from scrimmage, while Gronkowski was injured just six minutes into the game. Gronkowski broke his forearm again, and will miss the rest of the playoffs, while Woodhead returned to the sideline, but never returned. He left Gillette with his hand heavily iced. These two players were major pieces to the game plan, so losing them early on forced the Patriots to adjust on the fly, and it was something they did quite well. Woodhead was the teams’ main running back in the earlier meeting, so it was assumed he would have that same role again. The other running backs did a nice job filling in, each playing significant roles in the win. The Patriots were without Gronkowski for seven games, so they have played without him before, but in those games they game planned without him. Although he was never 100 percent, there still most likely was a good chunk of the game plan devoted to the Patriots tight end. A lot of credit needs to go to Josh McDaniels and his ability to adjust on the fly and also the players for stepping up and executing.

Defense makes plays

One of the biggest plays of the game came on defense when the Patriots were leading 24-13 midway through the third quarter. The Texans were driving, but Rob Ninkowich stepped up intercepting Houston quarterback Matt Schaub for the only turnover of the game, which drastically changed momentum, shifting it all to the Patriots. Ninkovich always seems to make big plays when the team needs a play the most. Ninkovich wasn’t the only player who stood out on defense. Aqib Talib shadowed Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson all game long and while Johnson hauled in eight passes for 95 yards, Talib prevented him from being a game changer. The defense didn’t put as much pressure on Schaub as maybe they would have liked, only sacking him once and hitting him three times, but they certainly played well enough to win, not allowing many big plays. The run defense was outstanding, especially early on, led by All-Pro Vince Wilfork, who finished with five tackles. Houston ran for just 91 yards. The Patriots run defense will be especially important next week against Ray Rice and Baltimore’s offense. They will also need to put more pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to try and force a turnover or two.

Running game consistent

Although the Patriots ran the ball 24 times, compared to 40 throws, it still was a balanced attack keeping the Texans defense off balance. Shane Vereen stole the show for the Patriots scoring three touchdowns on the day after scoring only four the entire regular season. Vereen rushed for 41 yards on seven carries and a touchdown while catching five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Vereen’s speed gives him mismatches on most linebackers and Brady and the rest of the offense was able to take full advantage. Stevan Ridley, who didn’t play until the third series had a fine day as well, rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. With the absence of Woodhead it was especially important for these two young players to step up and that is just what they did. For those who don’t think the Patriots running game is important, the Patriots are 13-0 when as a team they rush for over 100 yards and are 0-4 when they don’t. This is a big, if not the biggest, key to the game next weekend.

Protecting Brady

As a whole, the offensive line did a good job protecting Brady against a fierce Texans defensive line led by J.J. Watt. Watt finished with four tackles, .5 sack and one quarterback hit. A job well done by the Patriots as Watt is one of, if not the most feared pass rusher in the game. Brady was hit eight times in the teams’ first meeting and then was hit six times in the first half alone Sunday, but the offensive line settled down and Brady was only hit once in the entire second half. Protecting Brady got enabled him to have a successful afternoon leading his team to another AFC Championship game. Brady was 25-40 for 344 yards and three touchdown passes. His favorite target on the afternoon was Wes Welker, who made some huge catches, finishing with eight for 131 yards on 13 targets. Aaron Hernandez was also a favorite of Brady, hauling in six passes for 85 yards, and did a nice job of getting into space and breaking tackles. Although the Ravens defense is old, they have faced Brady many times and players like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis have given him fits in the past. It will be extremely important to keep Brady on his feet and comfortable in the pocket next week.

Wounded Patriots

Unfortunately, despite the win there still was some bad news. As mentioned earlier, Gronkowski will have to miss the rest of the playoffs after re-breaking his left forearm. There were reports out there following the game he felt skeptical about playing on it this week. Woodhead injured his hand, but no further update was available on him. Chandler Jones did not play at all in the second half with an apparent ankle injury. He did not need crutches or a boot following the game, but no other information was available. Finally, in the fourth quarter Ninkovich was forced to the sidelines with a hand injury — no further update was available.

With it being the playoffs, everyone is going to be playing through bumps and bruises, but for a team that was relatively healthy going into Sunday’s game, they came out of it pretty banged up with injuries to significant pieces to their team. At this point besides Gronkowski, it is unclear of what the status of each player is for next week. Regardless, the team will need to move on and just focus on beating Baltimore with what they have.

For Patriots coverage 24/7 follow me on Twitter @hannable84.


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5 Observations: Dolphins at Patriots

Coming into the game, the Patriots knew with a win they would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and get a first-round bye. With the knowledge in hand, the team played all of their starters (including Rob Gronkowski) and rolled to a 28-0 win. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, but considering the conditions (wind and cold) it was an impressive, much needed win. The Patriots will now be off next week and await their opponent in the divisional round.

Here are five observations from the regular season finale:

The Patriots got Rob Gronkowski back in Sunday’s 28-0 win over Miami. (FILE:USPresswire)

Offense efficient

Although it wasn’t their best performance of the season, the offense did what it needed to do to get the job done and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Tom Brady finished the day 22-36 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. As usual he spread the ball around to his receivers, hooking up with six different players. Leading the way was Wes Welker who caught eight passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. The offense also saw the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was definitely limited, virtually playing with just one arm. He was very hesitant to use his left arm, the arm in which he suffered a broken forearm six weeks ago. Gronkowski finished with two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots were very good on both third and fourth downs, going 8-16 on third downs and then 2-3 on fourth. The Patriots also dominated time of possession, controlling the ball 35:38-24:22. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a very solid game, mixing the run and pass, keeping the Dolphins defense off balance all game long. It certainly wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was very efficient and a good way to go into the playoffs.

Defense dials up the pressure again

Going into the playoffs the defense needed a solid performance to build off of, and that is just what they got Sunday as they shut out the Dolphins. One of the major keys to their success was generating pressure on Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This has been a point of emphasis all season long, which has improved on a week to week basis as the season has gone on. You could tell once Aqib Talib was brought in, the entire scope of the defense philosophy changed, as they played much more free and lose — blitzing much more than they did in the first half of the season. Sunday the Patriots recorded a season-high seven sacks. Justin Francis led the way with three, while Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Trevor Scott and Derrick Martin all added one apiece. The unit also hit Tannehil eight times, forcing him into numerous bad throws, including an interception. One of the major keys to the Patriots success in the playoffs will be how much they can get after opposing quarterbacks, because when you get into the playoffs, quarterbacks rarely make mistakes on their own — sometimes you need to force them yourself.

Offensive line protects Brady

All season long the offensive line has been a major storyline in each game and Sunday was no different. The line had another very strong game, protecting Brady giving him a lot of time in the pocket. Brady was sacked just once and hit only twice, which was key on such a cold and windy day. The guys getting it done in the trenches were: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer. The group also did a superb job in creating holes for the Patriot running backs to run through. The Patriots ran for a total of 167 yards on 38 carries. Stevan Ridley led the way with 20 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns. Danny Woodhead had a phenomenal game out of the backfield, especially catching passes, as he recorded five receptions for 79 yards. The offensive line will need to continue to play well, and will play a major role in the success of the offense as the team heads into the playoffs.

Patriots still wounded

The bye could not have been any more important for the Patriots as they are still battling a number of injuries and will need the extra week to get healthy. Gronkowski wasn’t any where near 100 percent as he returned from a broken left forearm. Getting two weeks off will be big in getting him closer to 100 percent for the playoffs. Also on offense Mankins, Welker, Aaron Hernandez, among others are banged up with various aliments and the extra week off will help. Defensively, Alfonso Dennard was inactive for Sunday’s game, while Talib was active but didn’t play. Brandon Spikes did not see much playing time, if at all, as he is battling a few injuries himself. The bye week will be welcomed by the defense, especially in the secondary as they need everyone healthy to be at their best. They are at their best with Talib and Dennard at corner and Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety. They need all their players healthy in order to be able to play that way. While getting to play one less game because of the bye, the more significant thing is the extra week allows the injured to get back closer to 100 percent.

Looking ahead

It has been announced that the Patriots’ first playoff game will be Sunday, January 13 at 4:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium. Their opponent will be Houston, if they are able to defeat the Bengals. If Cincinnati wins, then they would play the winner of the Baltimore-Indianapolis game. If I were the Patriots, I would want Houston to win and have the Texans come back to Foxboro. They are limping into the playoffs, and I think New England would have an easier time with them compared to Baltimore or Indianapolis. No matter what the case, it is sure to be an exciting month of playoff football — buckle up.

For Patriots coverage all the time, follow me on Twitter @hannable84.


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How important is a first-round bye for the Patriots?

By now everyone knows where the Patriots stand going into Sunday’s regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins. Right now, they would be the No. 3 seed and host the No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bengals on Wild Card Weekend. This can all change following Sunday’s action.

A win combined with a Houston or Denver loss would move the Patriots up to the No. 2 seed and give them a first-round bye. A win combined with losses by both Houston and Denver would give New England the No. 1 seed and the road to the Super Bowl would run through Gillette.

This week the big question surrounding the team and the game is should the team rest its players, or go all out for the win? The good thing the Patriots have going for them is they are playing at 4:25 p.m. and the result of the Texans-Colts game will already be known before kickoff. If the Texans win, the Patriots will likely be the No. 3 seed no matter what happens, as the Broncos host the dreadful Kansas City Chiefs and will likely roll to their 11th straight win. But, if the Texans lose, Bill Belichick will know with a win the team clinches a first-round bye and will obviously go all out and play for the win.

While getting a first-round bye is partly out of the Patriots control, the statistics show just how important getting a bye is in regards to a teams’ Super Bowl chances:

- The Patriots have had first-round byes all five times they have made it to the Super Bowl since the 2001 season.

- 15 out of the 22 teams to make Super Bowl since the 2001 season had first-round byes.

- 9 of the last 11 AFC representatives in the Super Bowl have had byes.

- 6 of the last 11 Super Bowl Champions had first-round byes.

The Patriots Super Bowl chances will take a serious hit if they don’t get a first-round bye. It is no secret the team is banged up on both sides of the ball. It was clear the back-to-back Houston and San Francisco games took a toll on the team and their health. Those are the types of games the team will be faced with in the playoffs — add in the travel aspect makes it even worse. The Patriots desperately need a first-round bye to get a week off to give their players an extra week of rest and secondly to get an extra home game making their first road game the AFC Championship and factor in the possibility of an upset would allow them to host the game.

So, should the Patriots be playing for a first-round bye this week? The answer is a 100 percent yes.

For Patriots coverage 24/7 follow Ryan on Twitter @hannable84.

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5 Observations: 49ers at Patriots

In one of the wildest, craziest games of the year the Patriots rallied from a 31-3 deficit midway through the third quarter, but eventually fell to the 49ers 41-34. The first half was by far the worst half of the year for the Patriots where nothing went right and the 49ers dominated, out gaining the Patriots 249-114. The Patriots responded scoring 28 unanswered points tying the game at 31 with 6:43 left in the game, but the 49ers made the plays at the end to walk away with the win.

Here are five observations from last night’s instant classic:

Tom Brady and the Patriots suffered their fourth loss of the year Sunday night. (FILE:USPresswire)

49ers dial up the pressure

Tom Brady had one of his worst first halves of the season going 10-19 for 76 yards and an interception while having just a 40.7 rating. The biggest reason for this was the 49ers ability to get after Brady, especially when they would rush three and four players. There is no secret, this is the key to stopping Brady and the Patriots offense — putting pressure on him and making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket. Teams have tried dropping seven and eight players in the secondary and Brady still picks them apart. With what a great front-seven the 49ers have they were able to get to Brady, which was the major difference for them in the game.

What changed from the first half and most of the second half were the 49ers didn’t get after Brady. He had all day to throw and was comfortable in the pocket and the results showed with Brady and the offense scoring 28 unanswered points. Things did eventually change after the game was tied, and San Fransciso eventually went up by seven. The 49ers once again started getting to Brady, including sacking him twice on the possession after the 49ers went up by seven with around five minutes left in the game. For the game Brady was sacked three times and hit another seven. Clearly the key to stopping Brady and the offense is disrupting the Patriots passing game, and you do that by getting after the the quarterback and make him feel as uncomfortable as you can.

Heart and desire

The difference between the Houston Texans and the Patriots was the Texans pretty much gave up when they went down big in last Monday night’s game at New England. The Patriots did anything but give up as they rallied from 28 points down to eventually tie the game at 31 with six minutes remaining. While the Patriots ultimately lost the game and coming back doesn’t undo how poorly the first half went, the heart and desire the Patriots showed is something coaches cannot teach and is something a team needs to have. You certainly hope the Patriots never get put in a position like that again, but the heart and desire they showed is something not many teams in the league have in them, especially trailing by 28 midway through the third quarter, and going against the best defense in the league.

Special teams an issue

The play of the game in a game which featured 75 points was surprisingly a special teams play. After the Patriots tied the game at 31 with 6:43 remaining LaMichael James returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to the New England 38-yardline. Then on the following play 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for a 38 yard touchdown. The Patriots had all the momentum, but James’ kickoff return completely took the wind out of the Patriots sails. In a game which featured so many big plays, it should be noted possibly the most important play of the game was a special teams play. New England also had several penalties on punt and kickoff returns, which is something very uncharacteristic of Patriot teams. These penalties set them back inside their 20-yardline on several drives, which is something that cannot happen going against the best defense in the league.

The Patriots also had a few individual players who struggled. Steven Ridley had a critical fumble in the second half when the Patriots were driving and he didn’t see much playing time following the play. There is no question Ridley is fumble-prone, something the young running back will need to work on. He finished the game with nine carries for 23 yards. Despite catching 10 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown, Aaron Hernandez dropped several passes. While not all the throws were on target, for Hernandez to be targeted 19 times and only have 10 catches shows he did drop his fair share as well. This is something which doesn’t get much attention, the poor hands Hernandez has.

4th and 1

Much has been made of the decision of Bill Belichick and the Patriots to go for it on 4th and 1 from their own 12-yard line trailing by seven with 2:20 left in the game with having two timeouts and the two minute warning in their pockets. Some wanted the Patriots to punt the ball away, use their timeouts and get the ball back with hopefully better field position. I didn’t have a problem with the call; this is what Belichick does when he’s been in these situations in the past. Whether he trusts his offense and Brady more than his defense remains to be seen, but regardless of the reason, this is the decision Belichick always makes.

Prior to the incompletion to Danny Woodhead on 4th and 1, the Patriots were 5-5 on 4th downs in the game. To me the Patriots had a better win probability of getting the one-yard and the first down, then having two timeouts plus the two minute warning to go 80 yards than punting the ball away and not allowing Frank Gore and the 49ers offense to get a first down and potentially getting the ball back with no timeouts and having to go at least 60 yards with just under two minutes remaining.

What this means now

While the Patriots lost their first game in their last eight, they lost to arguably the best team in the NFC and even all of football. The 49ers are a very good team, with one of the best defenses in the league. This shouldn’t be looked at as a bad loss. While there certainly were issues in the game, this is something which can ultimately benefit the team moving forward. In past years the Patriots haven’t faced many formidable opponents late in the year and really didn’t have much to go by entering the playoffs. The one common thread between teams which have given Patriots problems is they are all very physical. The Giants, Seahawks, Ravens, 49ers are all very physical. New England will never be a hard-nosed physical team, but they do need to try and figure out ways to beat physical teams.

The Patriots are now 10-4 with two games left against the Jaguars and Dolphins. They are currently third in the AFC trailing the Texans and Broncos for the top two seeds. As it stands right now the Patriots would be playing on Wild Card weekend and then if they win would have to travel to Denver and play the Broncos. With the Broncos holding a one-game lead over the Patriots and facing Cleveland and Kansas City the next two weeks, it is fairly certain they will wrap up the No. 2 seed. The Patriots will in all likelihood be the No. 3 seed and need to play two road games in order to get to the big game in New Orleans. It’s amazing how the loss to the Cardinals in Week 2 looms now.

For Patriots coverage 24/7, follow Ryan on Twitter at @Hannable84.

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5 Observations: Texans at Patriots

There is something about big December games for Bill Belichick and the Patriots as they rolled to their 13th straight December win, 42-14 over the Texans. In a game which was so highly anticipated, it was virtually over early in the second quarter as the Patriots scored on their first three possessions to lead 21-0 and never looked back for their seventh straight win.

Here are five observations from the dominant win:

Brandon Lloyd stepped up and had a big game in Monday night’s convincing win over the Texans.(FILE:USPresswire)

Brady, McDaniels come out on fire

You could not have scripted a better start for the Patriots as the offense scored on their first three possessions building a 21-0 lead. It couldn’t have looked any easier as Tom Brady and the offense picked the Texans defense apart. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels mixed in the running game as much as he needed to keep the defense off balance. He also used a number of different formations to create the match ups he was looking for and Brady exploited them. The drives totaled 56, 82 and 70 yards respectively with Aaron Hernandez catching touchdown passes on the first and third drives, and Brandon Lloyd catching a touchdown on the second. Over the first three drives Brady was a man on a mission going 11-14 for 155 yards and three touchdowns.

You knew in a big game the Patriots would come in with an impressive game plan and that’s just what they did. McDaniels and Brady seemed particularly pumped up for this game with McDaniels showing more emotion than he has in any other game this season. McDaniels used the Texans aggressiveness to the Patriots advantage running a number of misdirection plays getting the Texans to bite and then throwing or running the opposite way. The running game was used just enough to keep the Texans linebackers and safeties honest, which allowed Brady to dissect the Houston secondary and allow the Patriots to jump out to a huge lead and never look back.

Defense excels against good team

Coming into the game much of the talk was how the defensive would fare playing against a very good Houston team featuring a solid running and passing attack. The Patriots defensive rose to the occasion holding the Texans to just 12 points, all of which came in the second half when the result was all but in doubt. They limited Houston to just 323 yards of total offense and only 100 yards rushing, including only 46 from All-Pro running back Arian Foster. Vince Wilfork was the leader of the group having one of his best games as a Patriot. Going against double teams on most plays, Wilfork still managed to record four tackles (one for a loss), one sack, and one impressive defended pass. His value to the defense truly is irreplaceable and as much credit as he gets, he deserves that much more.

As each week goes by, the defense keeps getting better and better, and now they can say they have done it against a winning team in Houston. This could be the difference in the playoffs this year — the defense having the ability to win a game on it’s own, not relying too much on the offense.

Talib effect

Whether it is Aqib Talib himself, or just a coincidence, ever since he stepped on the field for the Patriots there has seemed to be a different defensive philosophy with the unit playing much more loose and dialing up blitzes creating pressure on their own. This was something non-existent early in the year, possibly because of Bill Belichick and the coaching staff worried about getting beat deep if they were to send extra guys after the quarterback. As has been the case in recent weeks Belichick and the defense blitzed on a number of plays making Matt Schaub uncomfortable in the pocket forcing poor throws, including one to Devin McCourty late in the first quarter.

Although Schaub was only sacked twice, he was hit eight times. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Justin Francis led the rush with two quarterback hits each. The Patriots also defended seven passes, a very high number for them. The teams tackling was also arguably their best of the season, something which needed to be good going against a very good rushing team in the Texans. Talib seems to have given the defense a confidence boost, especially in the coaching department allowing them to play more loose and free, letting guys blitz and make plays instead of sitting back and waiting for their opponents to make mistakes on their own.

No Watt factor

Entering the game much was made of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt who came into the game with 16.5 sacks and 15 pass deflections, but was limited to zero sacks, and zero passes defended. He did record four tackles, but was essentially a non factor. The credit has to go to the Patriots offensive line as Houston’s defense came in ranked fifth in the league in sacks. Although Brady did take some tough hits, six hits to be exact, he was sacked just twice. The group got Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly back, which were certainly big positives to go along with Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Ryan Wendell. The offensive line also did a formidable job in running blocking, opening up holes for the Patriots running backs. The Patriots ran for 130 yards, led by Stevan Ridley’s 72 yards. The offensive line is ultimately the key to the entire offensive moving forward being able to protect Brady as well as opening roles for the running backs to maintain a balanced attack.

Injuries bare watching

While it was a very good win, it did come with a bit of a price because of a few injuries particularly on defense. Talib was injured right before halftime and did not return. It appeared to be a hip injury. Fellow cornerback Alfonso Dennard also injured himself late in the game and reports from the stadium were it was a hamstring injury, something which kept him out of training camp. The Patriots cannot afford to lose these players as they have valuable roles in the secondary. Also, something to watch defensively is the health of Brandon Spikes. Although he didn’t miss any time, he seemed to be a step or two off, limping heavily after most plays. He did have an ankle injury listed this week, so it is something to monitor the rest of the way.

Offensively, the team made it out of the game injury free, but the unit was already heavily banged up with Rob Gronkowski out until most likely the start of the playoffs and Julien Edelman on injured reserve. Lloyd and Donte Stallworth picked up the slack Monday night with Lloyd catching a touchdown pass and recovering a fumble in the end zone. He caught seven passes for 89 yards. Stallworth caught just one pass, but it was a big 61-yard bomb going for a touchdown. These two players will be huge for Brady and the offense until Gronkowski gets back. As the regular season winds down the Patriots are making a strong push for the AFC’s overall No. 1 seed and need as many players to step up as they can.

For 24/7 Patriots coverage, follow me on Twitter @hannable84.

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Monday night’s game is unfamiliar territory for Patriots

Monday night’s showdown with the Houston Texans is arguably the Patriots’ most important game of the season thus far as the New England enters with a 9-3 record and winners of six straight, while Houston comes in with an 11-1 record, also winners of six straight. This is something the Patriots have not been used to of late — a big game in December.

The past two seasons the Patriots have gone 10-0 in their December and January games, but the only problem is their opponents in those games have not been very good. Of those 10 wins, only two of them came against teams who qualified for the playoffs. Last season it was Denver where the Patriots went into Denver and won 41-23, before demolishing them on Wild Card weekend 45-10. In 2010 New England beat the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, but there was only one problem, backup quarterback Matt Flynn started that game for the injured Aaron Rodgers and the Patriots barely squeaked out a 31-27 win at home.

The Patriots should get defensive end Chandler Jones back for their big game against the Texans Monday night.(FILE:USPresswire)

This game could be viewed as a positive for the Patriots as it gives them the opportunity to go against the best team in the AFC and see where they stand just three games before the playoffs. Houston comes into the game virtually running away with the AFC, having a two game lead over the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens. Baring something catastrophic the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will be going through Houston.

Although the Patriots have been winners of six straight, only one of those wins came against a team who would currently be in the playoffs — the Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The defense has seemed to have gotten better each week, but again how do people know it’s really them, or just by the result of playing a weak opponent? Monday night will answer everyone’s questions about just how good New England is. Houston has a very balanced attack on offensive featuring undoubtedly one of the top-five running backs in the league in Arian Foster. Quarterback Matt Schuab is one of the best game managing quarterbacks in the league and he has Pro Bowl targets in Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels to throw to. The Patriots defensive will certainly be tested.

Houston also has one of the best defenses in the league led by defensive end J.J. Watt who comes in with an impressive 15 pass deflected and also 16.5 sacks. Despite losing a number of key players due to injury, they have not missed a beat. They enter the game ranked second against the run and fourth in overall points per game. They have also been very good on third down, something the Patriots have excelled at. This will be one of the keys to the game seeing who will win that match up. The offensive line will be tested once again and for Tom Brady to be successful he needs to feel comfortable in the pocket and stay on his feet. The Texans are also very good in defending short passes, which is where the Patriots do the majority of their damage, so they will likely have to take more chances down the field.

No matter what happens Monday night, it will only help the Patriots going forward. Unlike the past few seasons they will know where they are compared to the best the AFC has to offer and then have three games to work on those things and be ready to go come playoff time.

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5 Observations: Patriots at Dolphins

While the Patriots clinched the AFC East division title with their 23-16 win over the Dolphins, it certainly wasn’t the performance the team wanted, but it was enough to get the job done. The Patriots left some points on the board and had some uncharacteristic breakdowns leaving the players not completely satisfied. New England now has two of the biggest games of the season the next two weeks with Houston visiting Foxboro next Monday night, followed by the 49ers the next Sunday night.

Here are five observations from Sunday’s win:

Steven Ridley led the Patriots to their best drive of the season clinching the win.(FILE:USPresswire)

A game-clinching drive

With the Patriots leading 20-13 and receiving the ball with 8:28 remaining in the game, in the past has been a drive where the Patriots have struggled, giving the ball up fairly quickly allowing their opponent to stay in the game. Sunday this wasn’t the case as the Patriots delivered possibly their drive of the season, going 77 yards, but more importantly taking 7:18 off the clock resulting in a field goal making it a two possession game, thus clinching the win. The drive was dominated by the running game, which was virtually ineffective earlier in the game, but Josh McDaniels stayed with it getting the job done against a very tired Miami defense. Stevan Ridley led the team on the drive rushing for 46 of his 71 yards, while Shane Vereen added eight of his 14 yards. Tom Brady only needed to throw for 24 yards on the drive, which sealed the win. The Patriots have been put in this situation many times this season and haven’t been able to get the job done. This drive gives the team something to build on for the rest of the season especially with the next two games looming so large.

Brady roughed up

Going into the game Brady hadn’t been sacked in the last month, but the quarterback was roughed up in Sunday’s win. Brady was sacked four times and hit seven — things he hasn’t had to deal with of late. The Patriots were going against a very good front-seven of Miami and making matters worse was a depleted offensive line left the job of stopping them. Once again Logan Mankins was kept out, and the team lost Dan Connolly early in the first quarter to a back injury. That left (left tackle-right tackle) Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer the task of protecting Brady and leading the way for the running backs. The unit did not perform as well as they have in recent weeks, which certainly effected both Brady and the running game.

Brady didn’t appear comfortable in the pocket all game long, thus having one of his worst games of the season. He finished 24-40 for 238 yards and one touchdown as well as an interception. As previously mentioned, the running game was nonexistent until the final drive. Prior to the drive the team had only totaled 56 yards on the ground. The Patriots finished with 108 yards rushing on 32 carries, which equates to 3.4 yards per carry. The offensive line will be important for the team down the stretch, as they need to be able to protect Brady as well as open holes for the running game. They will certainly be tested the next two weeks going against very tough defenses in the Texans and 49ers.

Defensive making strides

The defensive quietly has been getting better and better each week, especially in the secondary. Some of this improvement comes from the overall defense playing more “loose” and blitzing more. Once again Bill Belichick devoted much of his time on the sidelines with the defense, sometimes paying no attention to the offense and speaking with the defense. His adjustments worked, especially dialing up more pressure. The same thing occurred two weeks ago against the Colts as following working with the defense on the sidelines the Patriots started blitzing more. Sunday it was Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory from the secondary as well as Jerod Mayo on a delayed blitz up the middle which stood out. This is something many wish the Patriots would do more of. as whenever they have it has been very effective, producing good results, rattling opposing quarterbacks.

One of the major emphasis of Belichick’s defenses is having everything kept in front. The Patriots did a good job not giving up any plays over 30 yards which has been something the unit has struggled with this season. One position which was a question entering the game was defensive end with Chandler Jones out with an ankle injury and Jermaine Cunningham suspended. Trevor Scott filled in nicely recording three tackles and two sacks. Also, something to also be noted is Brandon Spikes’ play in pass coverage, which has improved dramatically as the season has gone on. He is third on the team in passes deflected and first among non-members of the secondary. Everyone knows how well the offensive can be, the key to how far the Patriots go this season is the defense.

Play calling a bit suspect

As as been the case a few times before this season, McDaniels’ play calling was a bit suspect on Sunday, particularly in the second half, possibly costing the Patriots a few points. Leading by seven points at the half, the Patriots got the ball to start the second half and had a chance to set the tone for the second half, but did not come up with anything as they went three and out. An in-completion followed by a seven-yard run by Ridley set up third and three. After struggling with the run in the first half, McDaniels called a running play to the outside and Ridley was stopped short of the first down. Why run the ball when you struggled so much in the first half and have Brady as your quarterback?

Another questionable call occurred early in the fourth quarter when Aaron Hernandez’ catch and run for 31 yards got the ball down to the Miami two yard line. The Patriots still led 17-10 at the time and had the chance to make it a two possession game, but McDaniels called three straight passes. The first, a sack of Brady, the second a drop by Welker in the end zone and the third another sack resulting in a field goal. Why not run the ball on 1st and goal from the two? Even if it gets stopped, its still at worse second and goal from the two. McDaniels calling a pass on 1st and goal from the two really messed that whole sequence up resulting in three points instead of seven. While critiquing two plays seems like nitpicking, the playoffs are closing in and we all know one play in the playoffs can be the different between winning and losing.

Gronk’s absence showing

Nobody noticed the absence of Rob Gronkowski in the victory over the Jets, but Sunday it certainly was there. Gronkowski is one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league and clearly the team needed him Sunday with the state the offensive line was in. The red zone is also an area where Gronkowski excels in and was Brady’s favorite target. Gronkowski has eight touchdowns in the red zone on 18 targets, which is by far the most targets of any other Patriot. New England scored touchdowns on just two of their four trips to the red zone on Sunday, clearly missing Gronkowski. Hernandez has picked up some of the slack, but he just isn’t Gronkowski. Hernandez is a very different player, a much more shifty, non physical player. He also doesn’t have the same set of hands Gronkowski has, which was shown Sunday as he had two drops early in the game.

One player picking up the slack was Welker who caught 12 passes on 18 targets for 103 yards and a touchdown against his former team. Brandon Lloyd was essentially a no show Sunday recording only one catch very late in the fourth quarter, it was his only target of the day. Julien Edelman left the game with an ankle injury was was reportedly seen in the locker room on crutches and a walking boot after the game. The Patriots are now very limited with their receiving corps. Besides Lloyd and Welker, the Patriots now have special teams captain Matthew Slater as their third receiver (with Edelman out). There has been no word on Deion Branch’s injured hamstring, but if he isn’t healthy and resigned one would expect the team to be working some wide receivers out this week with two of the biggest games of the year upcoming.

For non-stop Patriots coverage follow me on Twitter @hannable84.

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5 Observations: Patriots at Jets

In a game that was scoreless after the first quarter, the Patriots exploded for 35 second quarter points en route to a blowout 49-19 win over the Jets, who were utterly embarrassed on national TV Thanksgiving night. With Rob Gronkowski missing his first game due to a broken forearm many wondered where the offense would come from, but it turned out the Patriots didn’t need much of their offense as the defense and special teams scored 14 points on their own and forced five New York turnovers.

Here are five observations from the win:

Tom Brady had yet another terrific performance Thanksgiving against the Jets.(FILE:USPresswire)

Special teams/defense come up big

With no Gronkowski, and a very depleted offensive line scoring points was something some thought might be an issue. This wasn’t the case at all as the Patriots offense didn’t miss a beat as well as getting 14 points from special teams and defense, both coming in a nine second span in the second quarter, dramatically changing the game. Steve Gregory picked up a Mark Sanchez fumble and returned it for a touchdown. Then, on the ensuing kickoff Devin McCourty knocked the ball loose and Julian Edelman picked it up and ran it in for another touchdown. This is the second straight week where the Patriots have gotten scores from their defense and special teams. Although it was against the Colts and the Jets, special teams and defensive touchdowns are not everyday occurrences, and could be something the Patriots use to their advantage when they need to get an edge over some of the elite teams they face next month and into the playoffs.

Offensive line continues to impress

Once again the offensive line is a major talking point after playing well despite missing key parts. Guard Logan Mankins was ruled out Wednesday, then in a bit of a surprise Sebastian Vollmer was listed as inactive due to a back injury just 90 minutes before kickoff. As always the reserves stepped in and didn’t miss a beat. The loss of Vollmer was especially concerning as he has been the Patriots best lineman this season. Thursday it was Donald Thomas filling in for Mankins, and Marcus Cannon for Vollmer. A lot of the credit has to go to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia as he always has his players prepared to play, no matter what their role. Something which he does not get as much credit as he should. Brady was not sacked at all, and the Jets recorded only one quarterback hit. The run blocking was also very good, going into hurry up mode at times. The Patriots ran for 152 yards on 39 carries, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. The depth on the offensive line will certainly help as the season winds down as they will try and get their starters back to full health before playoff time.

Jets are a joke

Could this game have been anymore embarrassing for the Jets? Not only did they lose 49-19, giving up 35 second quarter points, falling to 4-7 on the year, but it happened Thanksgiving night at home in front of a national audience. There is no excuse whatsoever for allowing three touchdowns in a 52 second span, including one where your quarterback ran into his right guard popping the ball loose. After a promising first quarter, the wheels completely fell apart and then the effort just didn’t seem to be there the rest of the night. Another issue with the Jets was backup quarterback Tim Tebow. He was the only player, for both teams, who dressed and did not play, reportedly because of two broken ribs. Third string quarterback Greg McElroy was not even active for the game. If Tebow was unavailable, why dress him, and keep McElroy out? What if Sanchez were to have gotten hurt? Following the anonymous player comments about Tebow a few weeks ago, this decision just goes along with what a joke of a team the Jets are right now.

Tough to grade defense

The biggest talking point with the Patriots of late has been their defense and how they have played. You really can’t look at this game and take much out of it. When you’re leading 35-3 at the half there isn’t much to look for in the second half. There weren’t many opportunities for the Patriots defense to show who they are and how/if they have improved. You can’t really judge their blitzing approach because when you’re leading by that much you’re not going to blitz. What can be said is Aqib Talib is definitely going to play a major role for the Patriots the rest of the season. He played every play except for one Thursday night. Although he is just an above average player, not a superstar, he will certainly help the Patriots secondary for the remainder of the season. His presence seems to allow the front seven to play more loose and take more chances in blitzing.

Patriots approach when up so much

A lot has been made this week with the Patriots’ approach when leading by so much and playing their starters following Gronkowski’s injury on the extra point which gave the Patriots their 59th point last week. Thursday night Brady played until late in the fourth quarter leading by 30+ points since midway thru the second quarter. The offense did not let up at all, running reverses and long passes well into the second half. On one of the reverses Edelman took a hard hit to the head and did not return with an apparent concussion. Some have said it was karma since the Patriots were running reverses when leading by so much. The rest of the league takes offense to Belichick and the Patriots’ approach always putting the petal to the metal regardless of the score. While sometimes I do wish they would sit back and play conservative leading by so much late in games, that just isn’t who Belichick and the Patriots are. As an avid follower of the Patriots I have learned to live with and accept it, which is what the rest of the league should. Players are paid to play the whole game regardless of what the score is.

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5 Observations: Colts at Patriots

In what turned out to be a statement game for the Patriots coming off of one of their worst games of the year, the team rolled to a 59-24 win over the Colts. The 59 points tied a franchise record for points in a game. All three units contributed as the offense, defense as well as special teams all scored touchdowns in the victory. This will be a short week for the Patriots as they will take on the Jets Thanksgiving night in the Meadowlands.

Here are five observations from Sunday’s win:

Julian Edelman had his best game as a professional in the win over the Colts.(FILE:USPresswire)

Defense finally dials up some pressure

This has been the game Patriots fans have been calling for all season. Finally Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia let the defense loose and dialed up the blitz putting pressure on rookie quarterback Andrew Luck all game long. The pressure game from everywhere as they mixed up their blitz calls. Some plays they brought corners, some safeties and others the linebackers. This didn’t happen just on running downs, but also on crucial third down plays. Although the defense only sacked Luck once and hit him six times, its pressure was certainly felt by Luck as he threw three interceptions and didn’t look comfortable in the pocket all game long. It will be interesting to see if this is something which will continue on a week to week basis. There were some glimpses of this against the Rams in London, but nothing at all last week against the Bills.

Letting the front seven play free and also the secondary puts the defense is the best position to be successful. As I’ve said before, the strength of the defense is the front seven. What good is it having linebacker Brandon Spikes in pass coverage? He is a run stopper, not a pass defender. Getting the most out of him is him blitzing trying to make plays with his ability to get through the line and after the quarterback. The Patriots used to have their corners and safeties blitz every once in awhile throwing a wrinkle at the opposing offense, but there hasn’t been any of that of late. Sunday that changed as on a few plays Kyle Arrington, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower and Steve Gregory blitzed. While when blitzing it leaves the secondary either playing man to man or having fewer players in zone coverage, it should force the opposing quarterback into getting rid of the ball much quicker and eliminates having the quarterback sit in the pocket and pick the defense apart. Any quarterback can complete passes when given the chance to feel comfortable in the pocket and not worry about getting hit/sacked. Hopefully this is a stepping stone for the defense to continue to create their own pressure by sending four+ players after the quarterback.

Talib makes his debut

Going into the game one of the many story lines was newly acquired corner back Aqib Talib and how he would impact the secondary. As many thought, he started with Kyle Arrington at cornerback, but did not play the whole game. It wasn’t expected he would as he has not seen any game action in five weeks. It was his first game back from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. While Talib will be most remembered for his interception return for a touchdown, he did have some poor plays where he was beaten, including for a touchdown in the first quarter. Talib will certainly help the defense, but I don’t see him as much of a difference maker as many have made him out to be. Adding him certainly will not be the thing which takes the team over the top as the definitive favorites in the AFC. He along with the rest of the secondary will need to simply play better than they have so far this season, and as a play maker Talib will certainly help.

Overall the secondary played pretty well on Sunday highlighted by three interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. Besides Talib, Alfonso Dennard had an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown, while rookie Tavon Wilson had an interception with less than three minutes remaining in the game, and the result all but in doubt. All three of the interceptions came of a result of poor throws made by Luck, primarily the result of pressure generated by the defense. For the most part, when the game was still a game, the Patriots did not give up very many big plays and kept everything in front of them. After a poor first few possessions, the Patriots defense made a few in game adjustments, led by Belichick, which seemed to work out. While the overall performance was promising, remember Luck is a rookie quarterback and he hasn’t played very well on the road this season. It is a game to build on leading into the Jets game Thursday night.

Offensive line shines

Once again the depth of the Patriots offensive line was tested as starters Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly were out. As they have for the majority of the season Nick McDonald and Donald Thomas stepped in and did a very good job in protecting Brady. He was not sacked once, and only hit twice. Belichick noted after the game receivers deserve credit for this too, for getting open quickly. He also noted the offensive line did a better job in pass blocking than run blocking which certainly appeared to be true. The Patriots rushed for 115 yards, but that is not a true indication of the running game as Julian Edelman had a 47 yard run, so the running backs only totaled 68 yards on 24 carries. One offensive lineman to point out is right tackle Sebastian Vollmer who has dramatically raised his game this season and is playing at a very high level in both the passing and running games and should deserve some consideration for the Pro-Bowl. I wouldn’t expect Mankins and Connolly to return Thursday for the Jets game. Mankins did not play in the Jets game earlier in the year and Connolly left the game after one series due to an illness. With the biggest games of the season not until mid December I wouldn’t expect players to return to action until they are as close to full health as possible.

McDaniels calls good game

McDaniels has received a great deal of criticism this season for being “too cute” instead of just allowing his play makers and big names to make plays. Sunday he put his players in positions to make plays, calling a solid, well-balanced game. He also knew when to go into the hurry up and when to sit back and grind out drives. Following Rob Ninkovich’s fumble recovery in the third quarter, McDaniels and the Patriots went right for the knockout punch on the first play following the turnover. It worked as it was Rob Gronkowksi’s second touchdown catch of the day blowing the game open. Although the team only ran the ball 25 times it was just enough to keep the Colts defense honest. Brady had a solid game going 24-35 for 331 yards and three touchdowns. He completed passes to six different receivers. One other observation was his ability to get the ball in Edelman’s hands in space. This is when he is at his best and McDaniels along with Brady put him in good positions. Edelman finished with five catches, for 58 yards and a touchdown, along with the 47 yard run.

Injuries becoming an issue

This has now become the big story from the game. According to numerous sources, first reported by Tom E. Curran, Gronkowski has broken his forearm and will be out 4-6 weeks. This creates a major problem for the Patriots offense as much of the offense went through him. Not only is he a major part of the passing game, he is one of the best run blockers on the team. One of the offenses favorite routes is the seam route Gronkowski runs so well. He is also Brady’s favorite target in the red zone. With Hernandez unable to get back on the field following his ankle injury, it will be interesting to see what the team does at tight end as virtually their entire offense was based off of Hernandez and Growkowski. The team does have three other tight ends on the roster in Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and Visanthe Shiancoe, but neither of them can play at the same level as the other two. Shiancoe did have some good years in Minnesota, but he is far from the player he once was. I do not expect Hernandez to be back Thursday, as the team already rushed him back earlier in the year forcing him to miss the games he is now. The injury puts even more pressure on Brady and the rest of the offense. I would expect Edelman to see more action, getting him the ball in space, and also possibly more of an emphasis on the running game. Luckily, they should get Gronkowski back for the playoffs so things could be worse.

Also, Patrick Chung did not play again on Sunday and tweeted “Gotta love business,” but then removed it shortly thereafter. Interesting comment to make. Suddenly the Patriots are dealing with a number of injuries to key players, but luckily for them they have a relatively soft schedule until mid December when they host Houston and San Francisco.

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