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.
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.
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.
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