January 09, 2007
Grogan's Grade: Week 17
BY: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
R.R. Marshall: Steve, Bill Belichick and his Patriots seemingly had all the answers as they drubbed Eric Mangini's New York Jets 37-16 in their AFC Wildcard Playoff meeting. Is that the way it seemed to you?
Steve Grogan: I think this was a little closer game than what the final scored indicated, but it was such a great game to watch. You had the chess match between Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini, two guys that know each other pretty well. I thought the Patriots' players carried out the game plan extremely well. They were 11 of 16 on third down conversions which is just an incredible percentage, and when you are doing that you are not only keeping the ball away from the opponent but usually putting the ball in the endzone which is what they did.
Right from the start in their first series the Patriots went to quick counts and a no-huddle to keep the Jets defense from doing all that shifting around on defense, and it caught me off guard and it certainly seemed to keep the Jets off balance as well. It was a great strategy by the offensive coaches, and I've done my fair share of criticizing their game plans this year but they had a great game plan for this one and I'd be the first to admit it.
RRM: We get used to Tom Brady having superb playoff performances and he didn't disappoint, completing 22 of 34 for 212 yards and two touchdowns. When you look back at the start of the season when everyone was wondering whether he was injured and compare that to this game where he was firing lasers all over the field isn't the difference just striking?
SG: Brady seemed very comfortable with what they were trying to do. I thought the field being in great condition this time as opposed to the last time they played the Jets was a big help to him. You had a guy like Jabar Gaffney come out of nowhere and catch eight balls, and that's a testament to Tom Brady and the fact that he doesn't care who gets the catches as long as they are open and they are holding onto the ball.
RRM: All year long Patriots fans waited for either Doug Gabriel or Chad Jackson to become Tom Brady's go-to guy and instead it's Gaffney who rises to the occasion. Have the Patriots' found another diamond in the rough like they did with David Patten a few years ago?
SG: They may very well have found a diamond in the rough. He's a guy that had a great college career and I'm not sure why he hasn't blossomed in the pros, but you could see flashes of skill from him the past few weeks when the ball was thrown his way. I would think this game has to be a big confidence builder for him and for Tom Brady's belief in him. They may have found a keeper here in Jabar Gaffney.
RRM: The play that swung the momentum in the Patriots' favor for good occurred when Rosevelt Colvin swatted down a Chad Pennington toss that was ruled a backwards pass and Vince Wilfork scooped it up and showed off his skills in the open field by rumbling 31 yards downfield. He said he used to return kicks in high school so I guess it was like riding a bike to him?
SG: Not to correct you but the field is never open when Vince Wilfork is out there because he's filling it up by himself [laughs]! I'm not sure I believe his kick returning exploits but that was a very big play in the game. It looked like a lateral to me when they threw it earlier in the game, but when he threw that one and Colvin knocked it down it didn't register with me immediately because he quit on the ball. It even confused the cameramen, and once they found Wilfork (which is pretty easy to do if you think about it) I quickly realized the pass must have gone backwards. Give Wilfork some credit because he was smart enough to pick it up.
RRM: The sight of Bill Belichick shoving aside a photographer to bear hug Eric Mangini at the end of the game will be a lasting image from this game. Just another snapshot to add to the Belichick photo album I guess?
SG: He just doesn't know how to do it smoothly, does he [laughs]! I really think he had this all planned out. He was going to walk across the field and give Mangini a hug so everybody would get off of his back once and for all, but the photographers were getting in his way and giving Mangini more attention than they were giving him and he just lost it. It was a very, very, awkward moment to say the least. They mentioned during the game how Bill was showing a lot of emotion on the sideline during the game which is unusual for him. This was a big game for him and whenever you see him slapping guys on the head and jumping up and down you know it was important for them to win.
I think this whole feud centered around Belichick's disappointment over Mangini leaving after only one year as his defensive coordinator. I believe Mangini tried to take a couple of assistant coaches with him and maybe a couple of players and that probably rubbed Belichick the wrong way. Hopefully the water is under the bridge now because these two guys are going to be coaching against each other in the same division for a long while.
RRM: So if he had this planned in advance are you saying he still would have given Mangini the hug even if the Patriots had lost?
SG: Hmmm, probably not.
RRM: With hardly any free agents on their roster it certainly appears the Jets are going to be an obstacle for the Patriots for years to come?
SG: The Jets definitely have some talent on that team and they also have a great coaching staff, so it's not going to be a cakewalk for the Patriots in the AFC East for the foreseeable future.
RRM: It seemed the only thing that kept this from being a perfect game for the Patriots were the penalties and the Corey Dillon fumble that led to three points for the Jets?
SG: They did have that stretch during the season where they were fumbling the football at quite an alarming rate, and fumbles and turnovers in general were a big part of the reason this team was having so much trouble offensively. Dillon has had a few but he is usually pretty good at hanging onto the football. As a matter of fact I believe that what his first fumble in playoff competition and fortunately it didn't hurt his team that much.
RRM: Stephen Gostkowski very quietly scored 13 points on three field goals and four extra points and was also successful in keeping people from bringing up the subject of Adam You-Know-Who around here. What else can you ask from a rookie kicker?
SG: The rookie kicker has done a good job. He's had three different holders during the course of the season which it the kind of thing that can put a kicker into a funk, but he has hung in there and done his job. Not having to worry about your kicker this time of year is a nice luxury, and Gostkowski has given them just that at a time they really need it the most.
RRM: Asante Samuel capped off the game with an interception return for a touchdown but his comments regarding $$$ and his future in New England seemed to sour a lot of people on him. What's your take on what is sure to be the Patriots' next contract squabble?
SG: You pick up a paper the day of a playoff game and the lead story in one of the Boston papers is about a guy wanting more money because of the way he has played. That to me is not right, but according to what Samuel said on Monday he made those comments three of four weeks ago and the paper waited until the first playoff game to run them. There's no denying the fact that he has had a great year and that he is a great young cornerback that will be paid a great deal of money. I truly believe the Patriots will do everything they can to keep him here, and deep down I think they will find a way to bring him back next year if he is reasonable in his demands in any way, shape, or form.
RRM: In some of the other playoff games Dallas quarterback Tony Romo fumbled a snap from center on what could have been a game-winning field goal and became the goat in the Cowboys' lost in Seattle. Did you ever have something like happen to you?
SG: As far as dropping a snap on a field goal attempt the one game they let me do that my rookie year I did exactly the same thing and I never held again for the next 16 years [laughs]! I got that out of way early on, but have I thrown an interception late in a game to lose it for my team? Absolutely. Every quarterback does at some point in time and it is a horrible, horrible feeling. Playoff losses are always tough to take, but when it is at a player's expense because of something he did that normally wouldn't happen you have to feel badly for the player. My heart was breaking for Tony Romo when that happened.
RRM: Our old friend Peyton Manning tossed up three interceptions but his Colts still prevailed over the Chiefs 23-8 and they will play in Baltimore on Saturday. Will the Ravens put the clamps on Manning?
SG: That's going to be a great game. You have an offense that can put points up from anywhere on the field against a defense that can stop just about anybody. It's going to be a fun game to watch, and I think Peyton Manning is still one of the best in the game. If his defense plays the way it did against Kansas City they should win that game.
RRM: All four home teams won last weekend which raises the question why is it so hard for road teams to win in the playoffs?
SG: It's really hard to say. I think it's difficult to win on the road period during the regular season but it becomes even harder in the postseason. The fans are so into the game when you are on the road that it makes it difficult for you to hear and think. It really shouldn't be that way, the field is the same size no matter where you play and everybody gets rushes of adrenaline to play the game. Once the home crowd gets into it and you're ahead it makes it very difficult for the visiting team to come from behind. It has to have something to do with familiarity and being in your own place, that's the only think I can think of.
RRM: The Patriots face a difficult task this week in the San Diego Chargers, a team that posted the best record in the NFL this season. Are the Chargers that good or are they overrated?
SG: It's funny but San Diego is a team we don't see that often around here. I've only seen them a couple of times and they have tremendous talent offensively and a good front seven on defense. It's going to be a difficult task to go out there and travel cross country while San Diego has had two weeks to prepare for the game. I think the Patriots can beat them because they are playing great defense right now and their offense seems to be rounding into shape, but it is going to take a perfect game to beat a team with the talent San Diego has.
RRM: LaDainian Tomlinson gets so much attention and rightly so, but San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is such a nightmare match up for teams as he was in the game at New England last year. How will they try and defend against him?
SG: This would have been a perfect game for Rodney Harrison. If you match him up on Gates you have a chance because he can be physical with him and run with him. I'd be surprised if Harrison is ready to go so quickly after a knee injury. A sprained knee like that usually takes at least four weeks to heal so it's pretty doubtful. I don't know what they'll do to defend against Gates. Bang him off the line of scrimmage to slow him down is one way to do it, but they definitely have their work cut off for them trying to stop him and this San Diego offense.
RRM: The Patriots will have to account for pass rushing specialist Shawne Merriman if they want to keep Tom Brady upright in this game. They have so much trouble against good pass rushers like Jason Taylor that many in Patriots' Nation have to be concerned?
SG: Merriman was a guy that was suspended for four games and he still had 17 sacks which tells me he is a pretty good pass rusher. I heard Tom Brady say that San Diego plays a lot of zone defense and tries to get pressure with their four people up front. Brady has been very good this season in particular playing against teams that play zone. Even with all these new receivers they haven't had a problem with that scheme, so I think if they can keep the San Diego pass rushers off of him I think Brady has a great chance to be successful.
RRM: It would appear that the Patriots have two big factors in their favor, a talented but inexperienced rookie quarterback in his first postseason game in Philip Rivers, and a head coach in San Diego's Mary Schottenheimer that sports an unremarkable 5-12 postseason record?
SG: You can count on Bill Belichick throwing a few things at Rivers that he hasn't seen before. Unfortunately the Chargers possess the ultimate weapon in Tomlinson to take the pressure off of the rookie quarterback. They aren't going to totally shut Tomlinson down because he is the best running back in the league, but you have to stop him from breaking the big ones against you because those can really break your back. If they can hold him to short gains then he isn't going to kill you.
Knowing Schottenheimer I think one of two things will happen. He may go into a shell with Rivers and not let him do anything, instead pounding the ball with Tomlinson and shying away from the young quarterback having to make plays to win or lose the game. The other possibility is he'll go to the extreme the other way and come out throwing all over the place to prove to his critics that he doesn't get tight in playoff games. Any coach that has that kind of record in the playoffs has to wonder about himself. Even a quarterback like Peyton Manning that has had such great success during the regular season but hasn't won much in the playoffs has to have doubts about himself because that's just human nature. If you get out in front early against a Marty Schottenheimer-coached team in the playoffs I think it puts the pressure on him, and it would be a big boost to the Patriots if they can get ahead early in this one.
RRM: What are Grogan's grades for the big 37-16 playoff victory win over the archrival Jets?
SG: I have to award straight A's across the board for this game. It was just a great effort on both sides of the ball for the Patriots as well as special teams. The defense generated a lot of pressure on Chad Pennington and held the Jets to only three of 11 on third down conversions. But the story of the game for the Patriots was the excellent pass protection for Brady provided by the offensive line. I thought they did a great job of protecting Tom Brady in this game which they didn't do last time they played the Jets, and that was one of the primary reasons they didn't win that game. They also carved out some running room for Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney which really gave them a balanced attack on offense. They were able to control the ball for long periods of time and keep the ball out of the Jets hands. The game plan worked so well they might consider using it again for this week, because the less that LaDainian Tomlinson has the ball in his hands the better off the Patriots will be.
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