January 24, 2012
Grogan's Grade: AFC Championship and Super Bowl Preview
BY: Steve Grogan
R.R. Marshall: Steve, usually conference championship games are ho hum, one-sided affairs but such was not the case on Sunday in Foxboro. The Patriots finally prevailed 23-20 but put all of New England threw the ringer in the process. Was this the type of game that you expected?
Steve Grogan: No, and after listening to all the pundits during the week I don't believe anyone expected a game like this. If on Saturday you would have told me the Patriots would turn the ball over three times, two of them on Tom Brady interceptions, and Rob Gronkowski would get hurt then I would have told you there was no way the Patriots could win this football game. But all those things happened and they did win, and you couldn't help but think that Mrs. Kraft had a hand in this one.
RRM: This game had so many odd turns to it, like the Patriots having more success running the ball than the Ravens and Joe Flacco flinging the ball around like Tom Brady. Perhaps the most unexpected development was that the Patriots were able to stand up to the physical level of the Ravens and matched them blow for blow for the entire 60 minutes. Did you think they were capable of that?
SG: Not defensively. I thought the Patriots defensive line, Vince Wilfork in particular, played an outstanding game. They were in the Ravens' backfield that entire first quarter and forced three consecutive three and outs to start the game. They also put a lot of pressure on Flacco early in the game and then near the end of the game which was a big plus for them. I also thought the Patriots' offensive line did a heck of a job controlling if not manhandling the Ravens' front seven. They ran the ball well and protected Brady extremely well against a very good defense, so the two front lines had a lot to do with winning the football game for the Patriots.
RRM: Years from now when fans look at this game in the record book it will merely show a 23-20 Patriots' victory with no mention of the two clutch plays made by Sterling Moore that saved the game for New England. I think we should dedicate this week's column to him, what do you think?
SG: I say sure, he deserves it. You have this kid no one had ever heard of before making two big plays at the end to really save the game for the Patriots. It was just crazy! It reminded me of Dave Roberts stealing that base against the Yankees back in the 2004 playoffs. It was a huge play from someone who was really a nobody on the team but it helped the Red Sox win a world championship, and this kid might have done the same thing for the Patriots.
RRM: One aspect of the play where he knocked the ball out of Lee Evans' grasp that no one considered is if the old possession rule was still being used that probably would have been ruled a touchdown. Thank you NFL rules committee!
SG: You're probably right, but it was close as to whether he ever got a second foot down to establish possession of the ball in the end zone. It looked to me like the ball was starting to come out when he got the second foot down, so it would have been close. It was at a time in the game when you couldn't throw the red flag for a challenge, and to be honest I don't know if it would have made any difference because it was that difficult a play to judge.
RRM: Does it seem ironic that after relying on their high octane offense all season long it was the Patriots' defense that saved their bacon at the end of the game?
SG: Yes, it is ironic. On that second play the kid Moore made to knock the ball away to bring up fourth down he had an arm hooked around the receiver and still made the play. I'm still convinced after watching all the playoff games last weekend and the two on Sunday that the league told the officials let the teams win it on the field; don't be a part of the game. I don't remember one offensive holding call in either game. All year long we saw block in the back penalties on kick returns, and I don't recall seeing more than one of those. There were a lot of contacts and pushing and shoving down the field that weren't called, so they were definitely letting them play and the Patriots took advantage of that. They just got after it and did what they had to do to win.
RRM: Tom Brady admitted after the game that he didn't play well. He missed a wide open Rob Gronkowski for a sure touchdown in the first quarter and threw two interceptions. He didn't seem to be under any more pressure than in past games, why do you think he was off?
SG: I know he has that sprained AC joint in his left shoulder and that could have been bothering him a bit. Maybe even after all these years of playing in the playoffs he felt that he had to make things happen because the two interceptions were forced throws that you normally don't see him try to force in there. On that second interception where he tried to hit Matthew Slater deep I think he was trying to hit a home run to put the game away. But with two defensive backs right there with Slater there's no way that ball should have been thrown. Brady might have felt like even if it's close Slater will knock it down, but the Ravens' defensive back Jimmy Smith made a great play to come up with the interception.
For whatever reason Tom Brady just wasn't himself, but I think this game will be a great motivational tool for him going into the Super Bowl because he will want to redeem himself. As great a competitor as he is he'll make sure it doesn't happen again.
RRM: Jan Stenerud and Scott Norwood are two examples of elite kickers that have missed field goals that ended up costing their teams a shot at a championship. Now Baltimore's Billy Cundiff can be added to that list, and I imagine his life will never be the same again?
SG: No, it won't. You feel sorry for a guy in that situation, but that's what he gets paid to do. I'm not sure what took place but they showed a really short clip of him running from the middle of the field down to where he was going to kick, a much longer than normal run. It was like he was in a hurry, so I don't know if he had been over kicking in the net on the sideline and was trying to get down the field faster than he normally did and didn't take his time setting up, but the kick wasn't even close.
RRM: Maybe he can get together for a beer with that rookie from the 49ners that fumbled the two punts and gave the NFC Championship to the Giants?
SG: There you go!
RRM: You hear over and over again about how the playoffs are not like the regular season and how the pressure can get to players. I guess this has to be the perfect example of what can happen?
SG: Absolutely. There's no question it's different in the playoffs. You think differently and a lot of things go through your mind, and I think in Cundiff's case he had the wrong things going through his mind and he yanked the kick it left.
RRM: While you have to respect the Baltimore defense it seemed they were talking smack after every play. Do they trash talk more than the average NFL team?
SG: I say that their defense trash talks a little most teams. I don't think the Patriots were taking any of it. Logan Mankins got into a couple of shoving matches and Brandon Spikes looked like he was doing a lot of his own trash talking. There's always some trash talking going on but I think the Ravens do it a little more than most, and for a lot of fans it makes them hard to like.
RRM: The fans got a big kick out of watching Tom Brady and Ray Lewis exchanging words after a successful Brady sneak in the first half. You had your own exchanges over the years, including that famous one with L.C. Greenwood of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Is it important for a quarterback to do that every so often to show he can't be intimidated?
SG: Yes, you have to. You can't back down from anybody. You earn the respect from all of your teammates around you as well as the fans, but you also have to be smart about it. It always helps to have a couple of your offensive linemen close by. You also learn pretty quickly not to get into any altercations near their sideline because you won't have anyone to help you [laughs]. But it does show your players and your fans that you can't be intimidated by anybody, and that is important if you want to be a quarterback in the NFL.
RRM: We will get a Patriots-Giants rematch in Super Bowl XLVI. What are your thoughts on the Pats matching up against Tom Coughlin's boys?
SG: I think this is a much tougher match up for the Patriots than the 49ners would have been. There will be a lot of speculation over these next two weeks, but the Patriots' defense will have to continue to play well and Brady has to play much better football or this may not be a close game at all.
RRM: The Patriots couldn't beat the Giants in Foxboro this season even with New York missing several of their wide receivers and defensive linemen. What leads you to believe they can beat them on a neutral field with all of their players now healthy?
SG: For some reason it's always hard to beat a team the second time around. San Francisco beat the Giants during the regular season but the Giants went back out there and won. Last year the Patriots mauled the Jets in Foxboro in December and a few weeks later they came back in the playoff game and beat the Patriots. For some reason it works, and I don't know if it's because there is a little more motivation involved since you were beaten the first time around or what, but it always seems to wind up that way.
RRM: Are you expecting a low scoring game in the Super Bowl, or since these two teams are familiar with each other will we see a lot of points on the scoreboard?
SG: I think it will be a close game but I think the game will be in the high 20s. Both offenses are playing well and should be very familiar with the defenses they will be going up against so that should help both offenses.
RRM: Given what has happened to this team since 2007 does just reaching the Super Bowl again make this a successful season, or will it be considered a disappointing season if they fail to return with their fourth Super Bowl trophy?
SG: I think it would be disappointing not to get another one. The standard has been set pretty high around here and coming in second just doesn't do it for the organization or the fan base. I think a Super Bowl victory would really solidify Brady and Bill Belichick in the history of the NFL, and they know that and the guys playing around them know that. Having been beaten once already by the Giants in 2007 I think they need to bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy.
RRM: I'm going to put you on the spot right now. Who wins Super Bowl XLVI?
SG: I think it's just too close to call right now. I have to know whether Gronkowski's is going to be healthy, and if he is I think the Patriots win. If he's not I think the Giants have a good chance of winning the game. Gronkowski is such a big part of the Patriots' offense with what they are trying to do, and if they don't have him or if he's not at 100% it's going to be a drastically different ball game. But that's just my opinion.
RRM: Any chance the Patriots' offensive line gets overpowered by the Giants' defensive front like it did four years ago making life miserable for Tom Brady?
SG: I don't think so. They didn't get overpowered by the Ravens' front seven and they aren't going to get overpowered by the Giants. The Giants maybe have one guy more than the Ravens have that is pretty darn good, but the Ravens have a pretty good front and the Patriots controlled them pretty well so I don't think that will be a big factor this time around.
RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the 23-20 victory over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game?
SG: I gave them B+'s all across the board, mostly because of the opponent and the importance of the game. If this had a been a regular season game it might have been a little bit of a lower grade. They made a lot of mistakes but they still won, so while they don't deserve an A they get B+'s. Vince Wilfork was immense on defense and deserves a game ball, and so does what's-his-name, Sterling Moore, for those two plays at the end of the game! It will certainly go down as one of the most memorable games in the history of the Patriots, now we have to hope they can add one more victory and make it an even more memorable season.
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