January 01, 2012
Patriots Wake Up, Clinch Top Playoff Spot
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- You cook a roast the same way the Patriots win football games: low and slow.
For the second straight week, the Patriots fell way behind at home against a divisional opponent they were supposed to beat easily. Then, for the second straight week, they methodically came back, by tightening the screws on defense ever so slowly, and then the offense eventually getting enough offense to win the game. No panic, no worries. Just get a measure of your opponent, and gradually divide and conquer. Low and slow.
And in the end, the victory tastes as wonderful as a perfectly done roast. When it's also a top playoff seed, it's like filet mignon.
The Patriots may not want to spot playoff opponents this many points like last week (Miami, 17 points) and Sunday (Buffalo, 21 points). But the Patriots got 2012 off to a great start by scoring the last 49 points of the game, defeating Buffalo 49-21 and finishing the 2011 campaign at 13-3, and clinching the top playoff seed for the second straight year. The top seed meant little last year when the Jets came in and upended the Patriots in the Divisional Round, but Miami sent the Jets home for the winter with a 19-17 win in south Florida, officially making the Jets a non-playoff factor in 2011.
Instead, the Patriots are looking at possible second round opponents such as Denver, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, who all locked up the last three playoff seeds on Sunday.
Baltimore locked up the other first round bye in the AFC, as well as the AFC North title, with a 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, who needed to win to assure themselves of the six seed. Cincinnati got the six seed anyway, when Denver lost at home to Kansas City, 7-3. But Denver still won the AFC West title when Oakland lost at home to San Diego, 38-26. Tennessee wound up being the hard luck team of Sunday, being eliminated from the playoffs despite beating Houston, 23-22 thanks to both Denver and Oakland losing.
So the Wild Card round playoffs for next weekend will see Cincinnati travelling to Houston, and Pittsburgh (who beat Cleveland on Sunday but lost the division and first round bye to Baltimore with their win over Cincinnati) will venture to Denver. Houston continued their post-clinching fall from grace and could be ripe for picking at home against a game Bengals team that played Baltimore tough at home before succumbing to the Ravens, thanks to two long touchdown runs by Ray Rice. Pittsburgh should be a solid road favorite at Denver, who looks like the Tim Tebow experiment may be fizzling out.
Should both road teams win next week, and both road teams should be favored, then Cincinnati would head to Foxborough to take on the Patriots, and the Steelers would head for Baltimore and a divisional grudge match with the Ravens, the latter winning the division and the bye thanks to a season sweep of the Steelers. That would put three teams from the AFC North into the AFC Final Four.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, San Francisco locked up the two seed by beating the Rams, 34-27, rendering a New Orleans win over Carolina meaningless. Atlanta mauled Tampa Bay at home while Detroit got into a wacky shootout at Green Bay, losing 45-41 despite the Packers resting Aaron Rodgers (backup quarterback Mike Flynn threw for six touchdowns). The Falcons thus get the five seed and Detroit the six seed. The Giants captured the four seed thanks to their NFC East championship/play-in game win Sunday night over Dallas, 31-14. New Orleans hosts Detroit, while the Giants host Atlanta for the Wild Card weekend.
The Patriots have a week to rest everyone, and most likely prepare for the Bengals in two weeks. What Bill Belichick will again have to address is how to keep the score close so that the offense can win the game. The Patriots gave up 406 total yards to the Bills and three early touchdowns, but shut the Bills down the rest of the way. Giving up 400+ yards in the playoffs is a perfect way to produce the third one-and-done in a row for the Patriots, who haven't won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game.
Brady finished the season with 5,235 passing yards for the season, the second highest in NFL history behind Drew Brees of the Saints. He threw three touchdown passes, two of them to Rob Gronkowski, and had a passer rating of 113.8. Brady had a most amazing afternoon as he went through stretches where he was misfiring on throws he usually makes in his sleep, yet still amassed huge numbers and wound up with the highest passing total in team history.
Gronkowski continued his season for the ages, as he finished off his record breaking season with the most receiving yards by a tight end in NFL history, to go along with his touchdown record set a few weeks back. Gronkowski finished with 1, 327 receiving yards, breaking the record set earlier in the day by Jimmy Graham of the Saints. Both men broke the old record set 31 years ago by Kellen Winslow of San Diego.
If the Patriot defense falters, both tight ends once again showed how lethal they can be as offensive weapons. Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez had 15 catches combined for 246 yards (both exceeded 100 yards) and three touchdowns. At times the Buffalo pass rush forced Brady out of rhythm, but in the end Brady made many more plays than Ryan Fitzpatrick did.
Early on, the Bills served notice that they would not fall over and play dead. On the sixth play of the game, facing fourth and one at their own 43, the Bills lined up for a fake punt and snapped the ball to George Wilson, who ran for six yards and a first down. This seemed to be the linchpin for the early 21-0 Buffalo lead, as the play seemed to rattle the Patriots and the Bills scored TDs on their first three possessions.
Another play during that run by the Bills may have hurt them later in the game when the Patriots were running up their 49 in a row. On the second offensive possession for the Bills, Fitzpatrick hit Steve Johnson for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Johnson then proceeded to lift up his jersey and expose the sentence "Happy New Year" written on his undershirt. He received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and head coach Chan Gailey benched him for the remainder of the game. Johnson is a free agent and has probably played his last game for Buffalo, but not having Johnson to deal with the rest of the game helped the Patriots greatly.
So, 2012 starts off wonderfully for the Patriots. The Jets get bumped from the playoffs, and the team has a decent chance of avoiding Pittsburgh in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Cincinnati does not have the makeup of the last two playoff opponents to come to Foxborough and upset the Patriots, but the Bengals are a much improved team on both sides of the ball. Still, they backed into the playoffs, but if they can indeed win next week at Houston, they will come to Gillette Stadium in two weeks and provide a good, if not insurmountable, test for the Patriots.
But no more of this spotting the other guys three touchdowns. Make it a New Years resolution, guys.
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