January 19, 2012
Grogan's Grade: Wild Card Playoff: Patriots vs Broncos
BY: Steve Grogan
R.R. Marshall: Steve, it seemed the Patriots took out two straight years of frustration over their successive home playoff losses by demolishing Denver and Tim Tebow mania 45-10. Could you tell by the way the Pats came out to start the game that they were playing with a chip on their collective shoulders?
Steve Grogan: I think you could see it in certain guys, Tom Brady in particular. A lot of their players were around for those losses and really understood what it meant to lose a postseason game at home. But you could tell Brady was definitely into the game and wanting to make sure they didn't go home a loser again. Some of the older guys like Vince Wilfork and Matt Light seemed fired up as well, but many of the other players hadn't been to the big show before and probably didn't understand how important every playoff game is. But the important thing is they all got the job done and that's what counted.
RRM: The Patriots caught Denver by surprise by lining up Aaron Hernandez in the backfield on several occasions. Do you think this idea came courtesy of our former and future offensive coordinator, the prodigal son Josh McDaniels?
SG: It's hard to tell who came up with that concept but whoever did it was a really good idea, although Hernandez almost fumbled one of the handoffs because he wasn't used to taking handoffs! Once he got the ball under control he showed he has the speed of a big running back and displayed nice moves in the open field. He certainly caught the Broncos off guard and made some big plays early in the game.
RRM: I thought the play that put the game away came late in the second quarter when the veterans Brady and Deion Branch hooked up for a 61-yard touchdown that ballooned the lead to 28-7. I'm guessing a lot of people didn't think Brady could still throw it that far or Branch could still run that far?
SG: We haven't seen Brady throw the ball down the field that much this year, but he hasn't had to really. He's thrown some down the middle to the tight ends but he hasn't completed many of those long balls on the outside, but this one was a perfectly thrown ball. He actually threw it on a line more than a rainbow, and Branch did a nice job of separating right at the last second. Both Branch and the defensive back were pushing and shoving and Deion got just enough push to get a step on the guy and take it all the way. It was fun to watch.
RRM: Based on the way the officials have been calling things all season long I thought sure Branch was going to get flagged for offensive pass interference for a push off on that play?
SG: He did get away with that push, but after watching all four of the playoff games this weekend it looked to me like there was probably an edict that came down from the NFL front office saying let's not decide these games with penalties. All the games had a lot of things going on that had been called during the regular season but in these playoff games the hankies were staying in the pockets, so I think the officials were instructed to let the players decide the game.
RRM: An overlooked aspect of the game was the great work by Patriots' punter Zoltan Mesko who twice pinned Denver inside their own 20-yardline in the first half and helped the Patriots win the battle of field position. Did you know he was tops among all NFL punters in placing the ball inside the 20 this season?
SG: I didn't realize that either. Mesko has done a good job for the Patriots but I think he has gone largely unnoticed because they haven't had to use him that often. I really think he's turning into one of the better punters in the league. He can boom them deep when they are backed up in their end and he can pin the opposition down when the Patriots have a short field. He certainly has become a weapon that they have used effectively.
RRM: The Patriots' defense can't be overlooked. Did the return of Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes make that much of a difference, or did that extra week of preparation come in handy?
SG: I think those were factors, and also having faced Denver only a month before helped them out a lot as well. The Patriots were playing against an offense that was not terribly effective, but they also seemed to play with a lot more emotion in this game. Having the secondary somewhat healthy played a big factor for them, but it was their front seven that took away the Denver running attack and really forced Tebow to try and throw and he couldn't get it done like the week before against the Steelers.
RRM: The Baltimore Ravens and their bruising defense will be the Patriots opponent in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday. Do you consider this the classic irresistible force versus the immovable object type of match up?
SG: I would say that is a pretty good way to describe it. Baltimore has a very good defense although it is aging, and one of their leaders Josh Reed reinjured his left ankle against Houston on Sunday so he probably won't be at full speed. The Ravens can shut down teams pretty well, and the Patriots are a team that relies on its offense to beat people, so it is going to be an interesting match up for sure.
RRM: When the Ravens steamrolled the Patriots in the playoffs two years ago their quarterback Joe Flacco played only a minor role in the victory. He was hardly impressive on Sunday versus the Houston Texans, what is your take on him?
SG: I think he's gotten a little better every year. Flacco is still not an upper echelon type of quarterback and maybe never will be, but he manages a game well and makes all the throws that you need him to make. If you take away the Ravens' running game, which is the staple of their offense with Ray Rice, Flacco can still beat you throwing the ball. Trst me, this will be a much tougher assignment for the Patriots' defense.
RRM: What do the Patriots have to do to defeat this very physical Ravens team and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years?
SG: First of all the Patriots' defense will have to contain Ray Rice and try and shut down that Baltimore running game. They didn't do a very good job of that the last time they played them in the playoffs and it cost them the game. I would try and make Flacco be the guy to beat me, and I don't know if he can do that. On offense the key will be the Patriots' offensive line. They are going to have to pass protect for Tom Brady as well as they did against the Broncos. It's just amazing that no matter who they play the weapons this Patriots' offense has to work with; it's just impossible to take them all away. The Patriots are going to score their 30 points even against a team like the Ravens, so it will be a matter of whether this New England defense can rise to the occasion and keep Baltimore from scoring over 30 points.
RRM: The shock of the weekend had to be the loss by the defending champion Green Bay Packers at home to Tom Coughlin's New York Giants. Could this possibly be shaping up to be a rematch of that nightmarish 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII?
SG: It certainly looks like it could be another Patriots-Giants match up in the big game. The Giants have hit their stride and are playing really well right now. Eli Manning has really matured and has become a prominent leader for them on offense. They have a couple of weapons on offense but their defense is just so stifling that it would be fun to see the Patriots' offense go up against that defense again and try and have a chance to get revenge for the Giants ruining their perfect season back in 2007. But first things first, they have to get by Baltimore. I would like to point out that San Francisco is no push over either, and anyone who thinks the Giants are going to go in there and just waltz past them is sadly mistaken. The 49ners really impressed me with the way they came back again and again in the final minutes in their game against New Orleans, so the NFC Championship Game should be quite a battle.
RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the Bronco busting 45-10 win on Saturday night?
SG: No doubt about it, they have to get A's across the board. It was an impressive performance in the playoffs by all aspects of this Patriots' squad. This was the best postseason performance I have seen from Tom Brady in quite awhile. It looked like he knew exactly what he wanted to do and he got it done. He's been better this year because he has more weapons and the weapons he has are also more mature. The two tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez were impressive as rookies last year but they both matured this year and are doing bigger and better things. They have taken some of the pressure off of Wes Welker and it just helps to make Brady that much better.
I thought the Patriots defense in general played their best game of the season. They were much more aggressive in their style of play and they never allowed the Denver offense to generate much of anything. I think they have to carry that attitude over this week and attack the line of scrimmage to keep Ray Rice under wraps. You could see the job the Houston defense did against Rice in their playoff game, and if you can one dimensionalize that Baltimore offense your task becomes so much more simpler. They will have to guard against the screen pass because Rice is able to break a long one against you coming out of the backfield. But you have to be encouraged by what you saw from the Patriots on Saturday night, and if they can play with that kind of emotion this Sunday I think everyone will be happy around here for another couple of weeks.
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