January 22, 2008
Grogan's Grade: AFC Championship
BY: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
R.R. Marshall: Steve, it was far from a masterpiece but the Patriots did defeat the San Diego Chargers to go 18-0 and return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven years. Did they give you a few anxious moments like the rest of us?
Steve Grogan: It's funny because even in the close games the Patriots have played this year I felt that they were in control and it was going to be no problem for them. This was the first time I didn't have that feeling in the fourth quarter, and that this one just might slip away from them if they're weren't careful. The real key to this game was once the Patriots got down in the red zone they scored touchdowns and when San Diego got down there they had to settle for field goals. That was pretty much the difference, otherwise it was a pretty evenly played game.
RRM: I think everyone kept waiting for the Patriots to deliver the knockout blow to the Chargers, but instead we had to settle for a decision instead of a TKO. Is that pretty much how you felt as well?
SG: That's a pretty good way of describing it. You kept waiting for Tom Brady to do something to open the game up like we've seen from him all season long, but for some reason it never happened. On the other hand you take your quarterback who is the best in the league and he has his absolutely worst game of the season in the AFC Championship Game against the next best team in the conference and you still win by nine points. Go figure?
RRM: Tom Brady tossed three interceptions in this game after throwing only eight all season long. Why did he have so much difficulty against the Chargers?
SG: Tom Brady had a bad game, and it looked to me like the cold and the wind bothered him quite a bit. It's just hard to throw the football when it is that cold and windy. It was the first time I've ever seen him struggle in those conditions, and I don't believe it was really had all that much to do with what the San Diego defense was doing. He just didn't seem to look comfortable with the offense they were running and he couldn't get into any type of rhythm. I don't think the Chargers were doing anything that confused him, he just didn't look like the Tom Brady we were all used to seeing.
Brady forced a few balls that he shouldn't have thrown. On that first interception he forced that fade up the sideline, and that fade is hard to throw when it's cold and windy. On the end zone interception by Antonio Cromartie that kept the Patriots from breaking the game open I don't believe Brady ever saw him. It looked like Cromartie was hanging behind a couple of those big linemen and he just came out of his line of vision after he threw the ball. It wasn't vintage Tom Brady by any means, but he made the throws he had to make and it was enough against a tough opponent on a very cold day.
RRM: You've played in cold, windy conditions similar to what we saw in this game. Just how difficult is it to throw the football?
SG: It's hard to explain, but when I played they didn't rub the balls down for the quarterbacks like they do today so that they have a better feel. When your hands get that cold they dry out and it's hard to keep enough friction on the ball because both your fingers and the balls get slick from the cold. You really can't get that friction you need to snap off a pass for a long ways down the field. It's just pretty hard to do, and at times you saw that problem with both the quarterbacks in this game.
RRM: All year long we've voiced concerns about the Patriots being able to run the ball once the cold weather came around, and for the second straight week Laurence Maroney runs for over 100 yards. I guess Bill Belichick knew what he was doing all along?
SG: He usually does. Once the Patriots decided they couldn't throw it they switched to the two tight end offense and just tried to ram it down the Charger's throats, and Laurence Maroney was able to get it done for them. Maroney is so quick and fast he has a tendency to want to dance around people. He did a little bit of that juking and dancing early on in this game but I think they've been hammering on him that once he hits the hole to just hit it and go as far as he can as fast as he can, and that's made him a better runner. I really get the impression that they've been working with him and he is a much better runner now than he was earlier in the year, and it couldn't have come at a better time!
RRM: Maroney drew most of the headlines but I felt Kevin Faulk was the MVP of this game for the Patriots. How about you?
SG: Kevin Faulk had a huge game and without him I don't think we're talking about the Patriots going to Arizona right now. Faulk has come up big for them like that all year. He's one of those players you don't really notice because he's not flashy, he just makes first downs for you. He made some really tough catches in clutch third down situations in the second half, and he was the difference maker for the Patriots in this one.
RRM: It took a big play by Randy Moss to finally get the Patriots' offense going, not with a pass reception but with a reverse. For the second straight week he made only one catch in the game, but it certainly seemed he drew the Chargers' attention?
SG: That reverse by Moss seem to shake the Patriots' offense out of their lethargy, and it was a good idea to get the ball in Moss' hands. He made a nice run on that play and picked up a first down that was halfway crucial at that point in the game considering they had fallen behind. Until that point it didn't look like they were in synch on offense. I know defenses have been concentrating on Moss but they have to figure out a way to get the ball to him more often.
They were using special coverages on Moss for most of the day, and on the game-clinching touchdown pass to Wes Welker coming across the middle Moss pulled three guys out of there which allowed Welker to run free into the end zone. When defensive backs are running off like that you could see in several of the runs by Maroney he was starting to one side and cutting back towards the other, and usually he was cutting back to the side Moss had just cleared out. Just having Moss on the field makes defenses do so many other things that it opens up a vulnerable area, and the Patriots have taken advantage of that in these two playoff games.
RRM: The Patriots' defense has gotten their fair share of criticism from both the media and the fans as of late but on a day when the offense sputtered they kept the Chargers out of the end zone. I guess they are pretty stalwart group after all?
SG: They've done that all year, people just haven't noticed it. They let teams move the ball up and down the field on them but you get inside the red zone against them and more often than not they're making you settle for a field goal. If you look at the stats the game was fairly even with the exception of third down conversions and scoring in the red zone. San Diego was only 3 of 12 on third down while the Patriots were 7 of 13, and New England converted 75% of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns while the Chargers converted none. That's what wins championships.
RRM: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers played the entire game with a partially torn ACL in his right knee. Having played with knee injuries yourself I'm sure you could relate to what he was going through on the field?
SG: Philp Rivers deserves a lot of credit for playing this game in the cold weather on a bad knee and still being able to move his football team up and down the field like he did. He even got out of the pocket a few times and ran around a little bit, and that was pretty impressive because I know he had to be in a lot of pain. When you're playing with some pain that can affect your performance and you do a nice job of hanging in there and making plays for your team like he did you really have to give him some credit for doing that. He really showed me something in this game.
RRM: Rivers played in the game when the media said he shouldn't have, and LaDainian Tomlinson couldn't go and the media said he should have gutted it out for his team. Am I missing something here?
SG: Tomlinson really disappointed me the way he just sat on the bench. It looked like he was pouting. He wasn't up cheering his teammates on, he wasn't patting anybody on the back, and to me that shows you're a very selfish individual when you do something like that. It's possible LaDainian Tomlinson could have made a difference in the game but it's really hard to tell. I never want to criticize a player for not being on the field. If he's hurt, he's hurt. Somebody made that decision that he shouldn't be out there, but he wasn't so hurt that he couldn't stand up and at least show his support for his teammates rather than sit on a warm bench all afternoon while they were busting their butts.
RRM: Michael Turner and Darren Sproles were actually pretty effective in running the football for San Diego in the first half. Did the Patriots make some adjustments to shut them down in the second half?
SG: They may have made some adjustments but if they did they were minor because I didn't notice that. San Diego ran the ball pretty effectively with Turner and Spokes in the first half but they just totally got away from the running game in the second half, and that surprised me because I thought that was a mistake on their part because they are a good running team no matter who is carrying the ball for them. Sproles is the kind of guy that can bust one open in a hurry and if you put the ball in his hands enough times you never know what he can do for you, so San Diego's not trying to run the ball in the second half I thought was a big mistake on their part.
RRM: You called it! It took three tries by New York Giants' kicker Lawrence Tynes but his club finally knocked off the Packers in overtime in frozen Green Bay to capture the NFC Championship. Did that game unfold the way you thought it would?
SG: It was a fun game to watch between two evenly matched teams, and it didn't surprise me that the Giants ended up winning that game even though they were on the road. The Giants had been playing some outstanding defensive football lately and I thought it was their defense that was the deciding factor in the game. I was a little surprised at the way Eli Manning was throwing the ball down the field to Plaxico Burress. He was just kind of lobbing them up in the air and Burress was making catches, and Green Bay never really adjusted their defense which was kind of stupid.
Someone asked me which team I'd rather see play the Patriots in the Super Bowl and I said the Giants. This is one of the most experienced teams on defense the Patriots could face from the NFC and they will cause them some problems, but in terms of the Giants offense I think that this is the better team for them to play. I'm not sure I'd want to play Brett Favre in a big game like the Super Bowl because he always seems to rise to the occasion. But the great story line of Brett Favre returning to the Super Bowl was spoiled when he cut his own throat by throwing the interception in overtime, so instead the Patriots will have another Manning to contend with in Super Bowl XLII.
RRM: After three consecutive impressive playoff victories can we say that Eli Manning has finally arrived as a pro quarterback?
SG: Yes, I think Eli Manning has finally figured out what it's all about. Right now I think he's playing with a lot more confidence than he ever has, and that's in stark contrast to what I saw from him earlier in the year. Early in the season I watched him when his team was struggling and he just didn't look comfortable with his offense and what they were asking him to do. Now he looks extremely comfortable and he's playing some extremely good football right now.
RRM: I wouldn't be surprised if his older brother Peyton showed up as a guest commentator for FOX for this game?
SG: Probably so [sighs].
RRM: What are your early thoughts on Super Bowl XLII?
SG: The Giants have accomplished so much that was totally unexpected in such a short amount of time that it does remind me of our '85 Patriots team. Just like us they had to win three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl, and now they've reached their goal of getting to the Super Sunday. I don't think their goal was to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season like it was for the Patriots, and that could be a difference maker. I do think the Giants will play the Patriots tough. They are both familiar with each other since they played just last month which makes preparation easier. You know the personnel; it's fresh in your mind, but I just don't think the Giants have the firepower to go to Arizona and beat this Patriots' team.
RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the 21-12 win over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game?
SG: I know this may seem a little harsh because they won the AFC Championship but I'm going to go with a B+. I didn't think the Patriots' offense played especially well so they'll get a B, but the defense really came to their rescue against the Chargers and deserves an A. Outside of Maroney and Faulk most of the heroes in this game were on the defensive side of the ball, like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Junior Seau. I'm really happy for players like Seau who will be finally getting the chance to play in a Super Bowl. It's the ultimate experience for any football player, but I'm sure Bill Belichick will have them focused on the task at hand. He's done that for 18 straight games, and I'm pretty sure he's not going to change his routine now [laughs]!
Next: Check out PatsFans.com next week for Steve Grogan's super Super Bowl preview!!!