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January 19, 2013
Grogan's Grade: Playoff Edition
BY: Steve Grogan

R.R.Marshall: Steve although it wasn't quite as easy the second time around, the Patriots knocked off the Houston Texans 41-28 to advance to the AFC Championship game for the second straight year. What impressed you most about the double-digit victory?

Steve Grogan: I think the offensive adjustments that they made, particularly after Rob Gronkowski left the game, was pretty impressive. I thought the defense played well for three quarters. I thought the last quarter the defense kind of felt like the game was over with and backed off a little bit, which is of some concern. Zoltan Mesko punted the ball extremely well. Their kickoff coverage was bothersome Sunday, but all in all, Houston's a good football team - they're not a great football team but the Patriots took care of business and did what they had to do.

RRM: Well the unlikely hero of the game emerged as Patriots running back Shane Vereen, who tied Curtis Martin's all time record of 3 touchdowns in a playoff game. I guess he must have been inspired by Bill Belichick's foxhole speech during the week?

SG: I think they've been hiding him all year and saving him for this game. I don't know why a guy that can make that many plays hasn't been in the game more often but he certainly had the game of his life Sunday. Without him, they would have been in a real struggle.

RRM: I have to ask, the new wrinkle of lining up Vereen at wide receiver seemed to perplex the Texans who tried unsuccessfully to match him up with a linebacker. It looks like Josh McDaniels put the bye week to some good use figuring out some good schemes.

SG: No question about it. And I don't know whether he was running where Gronkowski would have been, or whether they had this in the plan from the get-go. But they saw something where they could get a match-up with Vereen on a linebacker and he was jjust way too fast for a linebacker to cover and made a couple big plays.

RRM: I'd like to give that linebacker some credit because he had Vereen pretty well covered. Brady just put it where only Vereen could catch it.

"I don't know whether he was running where Gronkowski would have been, or whether they had this in the plan from the get-go. But they saw something where they could get a match-up with Vereen on a linebacker and he was jjust way too fast for a linebacker to cover and made a couple big plays." - Steve Grogan on Shane Vereen (FILE:USPresswire)

SG: It was a great throw and then the other they didn't both to line anybody up out there to cover him and it was pretty much a walk-in on the other touchdown pass. They saw something that Houston was doing that they thought they could get a guy out there whether it was Gronkowski or Vereen to make big plays, and that's what they did.

RRM: Well Houston was also seemingly mystified by the Patriots quick counts. I don't know how many ‘gimme' runs and quick passes they got on the quick snap. It's funny because I already heard one of the Baltimore linebackers calling it a ‘bush-league offense,' but if it works in the NFL, it works, right?

SG: If anything works, then you do it. Sunday Houston was not ready for them on several occasions when they made a big play, got to the line of scrimmage and snapped the ball. That's part of the game. That's the defense's responsibility to get themselves back there and lined up. Houston didn't do it and the Patriots took advantage of that.

RRM: Tom Brady stood up to the pressure of J.J. Watt and the Texans defensive line and completed 25-of-40 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Where do you rank this among Brady's playoff performances?

SG: Well it was certainly a great performance. I think a lot of the credit has to go to the offensive line though. That Houston defensive front has a couple of really good pass rushers and Brady did hit the ground a few times Sunday but he had more than enough time to throw in most cases and that's because his offensive line was doing such a great job for him.

RRM: The Patriots defense has to get the Yeoman's share of the credit for the big win. Despite yielding 28 points and 425 yards of total offense, they held Houston to only 4 out of 15 on third down. I thought they really kept the Texans at arms length for most of the game, which after the way the season started out is a major improvement for this defense?

SG: It's major improvement and they mentioned on the broadcast Sunday that Aqib Talib has been a big factor in that and I really think he has. He's solidified the one corner position and allowed them to do some things in the secondary that they couldn't do earlier in the year. I thought Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower played extremely well at the linebacker position Sunday. So they're playing with a lot more confidence on defense and I don't know if it's because of the scheme or the success they've had lately, or whether it's bringing in a new cornerback with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder that's kind of rubbed off on everybody else, but they're definitely playing better defense than they were during the first half of the season.

RRM: Well Houston coach Wade Phillips was quoted during the week as saying that he didn't think that Wes Welker was as athletic as some of the receivers they've had to cover this year. After torching his secondary for 8 catches for 131 yards including that one handed spectacular grab that helped break the game open, maybe he wants to rethink his opinion a little bit?

SG: I'm definitely sure that he's rethinking his opinion. It's surprising that a coach would come out and say something like that before a big game. Wes Welker's proven himself to everybody in the National Football League that he's one of the great receivers of all time. I don't think he's got anybody to apologize to about the way that he plays.

RRM: Unfortunately the Patriots have to overcome several losses in this game, none bigger than Rob Gronkowski re-injuring that left forearm again. Granted in this game they didn't seem to lose a beat putting up 41 points but does losing him look to be a major impediment to the Patriots winning the Super Bowl against a physical team like Baltimore this week and potentially another physical team after that should they advance?

SG: It's going to be really hard to be as physical without Gronkowski in there, or as physical as they'd like to be. But they're a resilient offense. They find ways to adjust when people get hurt. Danny Woodhead started the game and then got hurt and you never saw him again. It's going to be a tough match up against the Ravens. They're a good football team, they're very physical, they've got the whole Ray Lewis emotional thing going -- final games, final season. That's going to be a tough football game but they are playing them at home and that'll help. It's just going to come down whether you can keep Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin from just flinging the ball down the field and going up for jump balls like they did to win the game in Denver.

RRM: I was going to ask you your opinion about that Denver game. It will go down as an NFL playoff classic in double overtime, but it just seemed Denver had so many chances to win the game and put it away, and once again Peyton Manning out in the cold weather couldn't get the job done?

SG: Peyton Manning's a great quarterback, there's no question about it. But he, over his career, has struggled in the cold weather ocassionally. He played a very good game the other day but when it came down to the final few minutes, he made a mistake that cost them the game. They asked on the radio on Monday "Playoffs: Manning vs Brady", I think Brady by far has better playoff numbers than Peyton Manning has. Brady seems to play well in the playoffs and Manning has struggled sometimes.

RRM: The Patriots and Ravens have faced eachother so many times in recent years, but how much importance can you place on the regular season meetings when they squeaked by the Patriots earlier this year, or have teams changed so much that the game has no real relevance at all?

SG: No, you'll know the personnel, that helps, what they do. But of course they have the same advantage on their side of the ball. You know strengths and weaknesses of players. The schemes may change just a little bit, but I think this is going to be a battle of nobody trying to fool anybody, they're just going to line up and do what they do best, let the chips fall where they may, and the best team will win.

RRM: Bill Belichick's philosophy is usually to take away the opponents major strength, and this week it really seems they really did the job of keeping Arian Foster from making any big plays against them. This week you've got a choice between Ray Rice or Joe Flacco, and I would think that their first point of emphasis would be to contain Ray Rice because Rice can really hurt you coming out of the backfield just as much as running the ball and that would seem to be the area of focus this week getting prepared for the Ravens?

SG: Rice wasn't a huge factor in that Denver game but he's always been a huge factor in Patriots games, so I would think that's a guy they're going to focus on taking out of the game and then try to get a little pressure on Flacco. I think you can force Flacco into some mistakes if you can get to him a little bit. He's not going to get out of the pocket and kill you running the football, although he does that occasionally. But Ray Rice is the guy I think they have to stop.

RRM: Not that we shouldn't mention Mr. Flacco at all, but in order for the Ray Lewis retirement tour to continue Flacco will have to, in successive weeks, beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road. As much as there's the debate over whether Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback or not, that's a tough undertaking for anybody?

SG: No, no question. To beat the two of those guys back-to-back on the road is going to be very difficult. If he does it, I think it puts him in the status that you'd have to call pretty close to elite. He's had a great career. What is this, his 5th year? And he's been in a playoff game all 5? He's a good quarterback and he can throw the ball down the field and he causes you a lot of problems with the receivers he has. But I still think you have to force him to be the guy to beat you and not Ray Rice.

RRM: What's your overall opinion of him Steve? Is this guy a championship quality quarterback, or is he just maybe that one little intangible away from reaching that goal?

SG: I think he's just a notch below that "elite" level. But he is good. I like what he does, I like the way he throws the ball down the field. He just hasn't been able to win the big one when they needed to. That hasn't always been his fault, but I can't put in the same category with Peyton and Eli Manning and Brady and Drew Brees. He's not there yet, he has to win the big one first.

RRM: Curiously despite the fact that the last several games between the Patriots and the Ravens have been decided by a field goal or less, New England is installed as almost double-digit favorites on Sunday which considering the way the Ravens have been playing is somewhat of a surprise. How do you see this game breaking down on Sunday?

SG: I think when these two teams play, it's always a dogfight and always close it seems like. So I think this one's a 3-4 point spread either way is going to win the ball game.

RRM: Most Patriots fans don't realize that you're a big baseball fan. I was wondering as a member of a former player's generation - what did you think of the baseball writers pitching a shutout in the Hall of Fame voting last week?

SG: It was interesting that they did that. There was a different era there where a lot of those guys who were on the list were using steroids and I think they sent a message to the players and to the fans that cheaters don't belong in the Hall of Fame, or at least they don't belong on the first ballot for the Hall of Fame, and I kind of agree with them. I think some guys were playing clean and a lot of guys were playing dirty and if you're playing dirty -- you don't belong in the Hall.

RRM: Well before we let you go we have to get your thoughts on the other side of the bracket -- the NFC Championship game. You've been tooting the horn of the Atlanta Falcons all year. God bless Matt Ryan from BC who finally got his first playoff win, though it didn't come easy. Even though they're playing at home this week, I think it's going to take divine intervention for them to beat the 49ers this Sunday -- I don't know what your thoughts are…?

SG: They talked about the Seahawks being the team that was on fire, but I think San Francisco has caught some fire here lately. Colin Kaepernick is a tremendous athlete with his running ability. He causes some major problems with his running ability. He causes a lot of major problems to a defense because he does throw it pretty well too and they've got some other weapons offensively and defensively so it's going to be a tough battle I think for Atlanta to even win at home.

RRM: Colin Kapernick on turf. It boggles the mind.

SG: Yes. I was shocked at the speed that he had. I hadn't really seen him play that much, but he's got tremendous speed and he throws the ball really well for a young quarterback so they've got to keep him out there for right now.

RRM: You were known as a running quarterback during your time and you were one of the best, but this guy in the open field? I think he would Gale Sayers a run for his money?

SG: Yeah, he would give most everybody a run for their money it looked like to me. He just blew by people, so it'll be an interesting game. It always is, it's a fun time of year.

RRM: Well what are Grogan's Grades for the scintillating 41-28 win over the Texans that propelled them to the AFC title game for the second year in a row?

SG: I think I'd give the offense an A, the defense a B+ just because I thought in the fourth quarter they had a little bit of a letdown. They kind of thought the game was over with and let Houston score a couple of times. Special teams was a B because Zoltan Mesko punted well, but they gave up several big kickoff returns which could have been a major problem. So overall I would give the whole team an A-.

RRM: How ‘bout a shout out to Devin McCourty, my favorite whipping boy all year that's turned into a starting safety and not only does he run down Manning on that long kickoff return, he basically kept the team from getting into the end zone because the defense held them. I mean maybe the outcome isn't different, but to keep them out of the endzone in that situation, who knows?

SG: Exactly. It gives them a lot of momentum if they score a touchdown there and it was disappointing for them to kick the field goal. So McCourty's taken a lot of flack from people over the course of the season, but I think he's a guy that plays hard and he seems to have found his spot at the safety position and has made some plays defensively. That was a big play to run down that guy on the first kickoff return.

RRM: Bottom line, will we be doing our Super Bowl preview next week?

SG: I hope so. Again, these two teams - you never know what you're going to get when they match-up. But I would say playing at home is an advantage, however, a few years ago they had them in Foxboro and Ray Rice took the first play and went 80 yards for a score and the Patriots never came close after that. I think this Baltimore defense is older and not as dominant as they were 4-5 years ago. It will be a real dogfight. It will be a close football game I think.

Grogan's Grade: AFC Divisional

Offense: A
Defense: B+
Special Teams: B

Overall: A-


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