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New England Patriots News 1-15, AFC East Notes

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 1-15, and AFC East Notes for this week.

With the win this evening, the Patriots return to the AFC Championship Game for the sixth straight season which is an NFL record. They break the record they shared with the Oakland Raiders who were in the 1973-77 title games.

It is telling of how deep this team is and the resilience that they have when they play poorly which they did for long stretches of tonight’s game and still walk away with not only a victory but cover a ridiculously high 16.5 point spread.

The Patriots with the win are just two wins away from title number 5.

Dion Lewis set a Patriots and NFL record during tonight’s game with a rushing, receiving and return for a touchdown, the first time it has been done in postseason history. Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return also marked the first kick return for a touchdown in the Patriots postseason history. But something tells me, he’ll focus more on the two balls he put on the ground this week.

Julian Edelman also set a Patriots record tonight. With his 8 catches for 137 yards he moves into first place for receptions in Patriots postseason history, moving past Wes Welker. Edelman is now tied with Thurman Thomas with 76 catches in the NFL playoffs. With possibly two games remaining on the slate this season, he could jump pretty high on the leader board.  Andre Reed (85), Michael Irvin (87) and Welker (88), Reggie Wayne (92) are the next players ahead. Jerry Rice with 151 postseason receptions remains far ahead of everyone else.

Congrats to Logan Ryan who played arguably his best game in a Patriots uniform tonight. Ryan has had ebbs and flows in his career in Foxboro and this will certainly go down as big night. He covered WR DeAndre Hopkins tightly all night long and turned in an interception with a return to the Houston five-yard line that set up the Patriots final touchdown of the game. He’s going to get paid, if not here, somewhere.

Goodbye, Big Vince?
By all indications, it looks like Vince Wilfork played his last NFL game tonight on the cold field of Gillette Stadium. Reports are that he’s contemplating retirement. If true, this game wouldn’t be the way he’d want to go out, but it is poetic justice his career ends on the field where he played such a meaningful role for many years.

Wilfork always carried him with class and dignity and he and his wife’s actions off the field and in the community, were of the highest order. Happy Trails #75.

Fake “News Reporting” Click Bait, Returns to the Election and Foxboro:
A fluff piece with no teeth or actual news reporting, despite being touted as such on SB Nation tried to paint the Patriots as losing their fan base because of their ties to Donald Trump. Raise your hand if this particular angle has been beaten to death already.

The female author of the piece got what she wanted and got her 15 minutes, but then cried gender bias when the backlash on social media called her out. And anyone who has ever been on Twitter knows that the daggers of the quicksand that it can be knows no one certain bias. The piece tried to claim that the Pats are losing their fan base support because Bill Belichick and Tom Brady supported President-elect Donald Trump in the November Presidential election.

Using six people as a barometer from a neighborhood in Lincoln? We’ve yet to hear of fans turning in their season tickets because the waiting list continues to grow. And the ratings for the Patriots games continues to lead the networks whenever they play. Do fans really care who a player or coach supports in an election? No, they care about wins and titles.

Anything that seeks to get that 15 minutes, and this clickbait piece certainly did, only need mention the Patriots and it is sure to get plenty of play. Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets also reportedly supported Trump and contributed to his campaign, and yet we’ve heard nary a peep of his fanbase backlash.

Patriots Prominent on Social Media This Week:
Between the pics of Bill Belichick napping on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and the subsequent flap over whether to allow ESPN the use of that from the fan that took it, to others, the Pats were all over social media this week.

Adam Markopoulos’ picture captured Belichick and his girlfriend Linda Holliday on the ferry to the Vineyard. Bill had his laptop out to work but after Holliday curled up in his lap and fell asleep, Bill nodded off himself. Which is not particularly noteworthy. We’ve all been there. But the popular perception of Belichick as Emperor Palpatine overseeing the Death Star and never sleeping makes it a coup.

We sometimes forget that these players and coaches are human and Markopoulos’ pic naturally went viral. ESPN asked to use the picture and that’s when the story got interesting. Markopoulos turned them down, as is his right but the way he did it struck a nerve with New England fans.

Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola posted greetings and encouragement to sick children, which is always worthy of note and popular with NFL fans. But the back and forth between Tom Brady and Dwayne Johnson aka “The Rock” was a great one. The two are friends and both represent Under Armor. Brady’s new sleepwear is on sale and his imitation of Johnson while sending him a set was good. But Johnson’s retort was even better.

Who Do You Like Today:
After last week’s Wild Card Weekend where I went 3-1, the Divisional Playoffs are usually the best games of the postseason. So far, I’m 2-0 in the playoffs this week, having taken Atlanta and the Patriots.

But two intriguing games await today, with Cowboys and Packers, followed by KC and Pittsburgh. I’m sticking with my picks from Friday and going with Dallas and KC moving on.

Eastbound and Down, AFC East Notes:

Bills Hire McDermott As New Head Coach:
The Buffalo Bills have found their new head coach in the person of Sean McDermott the former Defensive Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

McDermott, 42, becomes the 20th coach in Bills history and the third coach in just the past four seasons. He becomes a head coach for the first time and has built an impressive resume along the way.

Speaking with the Buffalo media for the first time, he thanked his former coaches and added, “I’ve been a part of building a defense, brick by brick, step by step,” McDermott said. “Within that, I have gone to two Super Bowls. I know what that smells like, feels like, tastes like. I feel confident in my ability to move this franchise forward.”

While he will report directly to the owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, GM Doug Whaley will retain control over the roster, although McDermott stated it will be a collaborative effort. He didn’t mention what the feeling was on current QB Tyrod Taylor and whether the Bills would pick up his option this spring.

Dolphins Promote Burke to Defensive Coordinator:
The Miami Dolphins moved quickly to replace departed DC Vance Joseph who was named as the head coach of the Denver Broncos by hiring from within, Linebackers Coach Matt Burke.

Burke was brought in by the team in 2016 after stops with the Bengals, Lions, and the Titans. Now he faces some serious challenges. Miami’s defense allowed the most yards (6,122) in team history and was 29th in the NFL in that category (382.6 yard per game).

The Fins defense was a woeful 30th against the run allowing over 140 yards per game and 15th against the pass (242 yards pre game) and 18th in scoring defense (23.8 points per game).

Burke plans on keeping the 4-3 system over switching to a 3-4 and said he wants an aggressive, attacking defense. But questions need to be addressed with the defense. Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake are the cornerstones of the DL but Miami must decide whether to keep Mario Williams. Jordan Phillips and Earl Mitchell missed significant time to injury.

Linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins also suffered injuries as did the secondary with Reshad Jones and Byron Maxwell missing multiple games. Burke will have his work cut out for him in 2017.

Jets to Target Deshaun Watson in the Upcoming Draft?
After a dreadful 5-11 season that seemed ripe for promise the Jets hold the #6 pick in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft.  What will they do with that pick now holds the biggest question for the team as it enters the dead zone before the draft hype picks up after the Super Bowl?

Right now the Jets have four QBs, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. But really, they may have none. Not one of the above mentioned QBs distinguished himself to be looked upon with anything resembling confidence in the position heading into 2017.

So what does GM Mike Macaggnan do? He may look hard at the National Championship Game from Monday night and try to land Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Watson led a furious 4th quarter comeback against Alabama to secure the National title.

He’s thrown for 4000 yards and 35 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons and is as comfortable under center, as he is in the shotgun. A dual threat runner and passer, he has good pocket awareness and footwork and could be as close to NFL ready as any other QB coming out of college this spring.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Houston Has A Patriots Problem

The Houston Texans became the final benefactor of the untimely season-ending leg injury to Oakland quarterback Derek Carr.

Now they get their reward. A trip to Gillette Stadium this Saturday night.

And Las Vegas has installed the Patriots as an early 16-point favorite.

The AFC South champions, who are not the fourth best team in the conference, and certainly not the sixth best, will play the top seeded Patriots this Saturday night. That became official when the Pittsburgh Steelers handled their home field business on Sunday against the ice cold Miami Dolphins. Playing in temperatures in the teens, the Steelers froze the Fish, 30-12, sending the Black and Gold to Kansas City for next weekend and the Texans to Foxborough.

Let it be stated that “on any given Sunday (and Saturday)”, any team can win. Houston has the best defense in the league, several coaches with Patriot lineage, and some offensive weapons that have to be accounted for. The Texans could very well come into Gillette Stadium and do to the Patriots what the Jets did in 2010.

Is it possible? Checking the record, gauging the teams at present, most likely not.

Houston has never won in Foxborough. The only time the Texans have ever beaten the Patriots was the infamous 2009 season finale at NRG (then Reliant) Stadium when Wes Welker blew out his ACL in a meaningless game. In the games played at Foxborough, the Patriots have won by an average score of 38-12, including the postseason.

The teams met in Week 3, during Tom Brady’s suspension on a Thursday night. The Patriots were forced to throw third stringer Jacoby Brissett out there, yet the Patriots won by a 27-0 whitewash. Brock Osweiler, who beat the Patriots in a regular season game at Denver in 2015, looked like a deer in the headlights, completely befuddled and lost.


LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots had their way against Houston in Week 3. (USA TODAY Images)

In the previous playoff match between the two teams, the Patriots easily handled the Texans at home, 41-28 in 2012. That was the infamous “varsity letterman jacket” game, when the Texans showed up looking like high schoolers.

Realistically speaking, Houston looked pretty good on Saturday as they manhandled the undermanned Raiders, 27-14. Osweiler looked much more like the playoff stud Houston dreamed of when they gave him that wad of cash in the offseason. The vaunted Texan defense, even without J.J. Watt, looks menacing. Down lineman Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus spearhead a ferocious attack, and if you want to run the ball, someone named Vince Wilfork will be there to either stop you or tie up blockers so that linebackers will swallow you up.

Of course, you have an all-Patriot top coaching brass. Head coach Bill O’Brien was Brady’s former position coach. Offensive coordinator George Godsey was Rob Gronkowski’s former position coach. And defensive coordinator Romeo (RAC) Crennel was the same here in Foxborough until he left to become a head coach himself after the 2004 season. Also, do not forget Houston linebacker coach Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls as a Patriot by both playing great defense and catching touchdowns (he is one of only two Patriots in history with two Super Bowl touchdowns, the other being David Givens). Vrabel is winning tons of praise from his linebackers for his coaching expertise, not that that should surprise anyone.

The weather should slightly favor the Patriots, but it won’t completely incapacitate Houston. The predicted high temperature for Saturday is 35 degrees, with a low of 26 and there’s snow in the forecast. It won’t be like the frigid weather in Pittsburgh and Green Bay on Sunday. But Houston, who plays in a balmy city with a retractable roof, will not find weather conditions comfortable.

That said, here is basically what the Patriots have to do.

Defensively, play their game and do not allow Osweiler to get comfortable in the pocket. His best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, can be dealt with. The Patriots should be wary of tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was second to Hopkins in pass receptions this season. Lamar Miller did top the 1,000-yard mark in rushing, but he won’t really strike fear into the Patriot front seven. The key to stopping the Houston offense will revolve around Osweiler, like it did in Week 3 when they were shut out.

Offensively, the Patriots will definitely have to account for Clowney and Mercilus. Clowney is slowly becoming the feared defensive force since being taken as the top draft pick out of South Carolina in 2014. He had his first career interception on Saturday early in the playoff game against Oakland, but that was more about being in the right place at the right time. Mercilus is versatile and is helping neutralize the absence of the injured Watt.

In the past, all the Patriots had to do was to account for Watt and that was that. But with Clowney and Mercilus lurking, plus the run-stopping force of Wilfork in the middle, the Patriots will have to do their blocking assignments accordingly and not rely too much on the run game. The Patriots might not be able to drop 40 on Houston, though they did score 27 with Brissett at the helm (who had two fewer yards passing than LeGarrette Blount had yards rushing).

If the Patriots take Houston seriously and not get caught looking ahead to either Kansas City or Pittsburgh the following week, they should win and win easily. Wilfork was disgusted at his team’s lack of effort in Week 3 and told everyone so, so he alone will insure that his players won’t repeat that stinker in September. O’Brien, Godsey and Crennel have the collective smarts and recollections to at least give the Patriots a good game.

But the Patriots aren’t 16-point favorites for nothing. They are the far superior team, they are at home, Brady is back and hotter than ever, and the Patriots have their sights set on the home city of their opponents for a February date with the best NFC team.

The Patriots will take some comfort that the best NFC team won’t be the Giants, who got blistered (finally) in Green Bay on Sunday, 38-13. The Giants are 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls, but Eli Manning and company were sent home for the winter. If you think Bill Belichick cares about the Giants losing, all he will say is “We’re on to Houston.”

And hopefully for the Patriots, they’ll be on to Houston again in February.

Tom Brady Joins Instagram, Set to Conquer Another Social Medium

Tom Brady held a Facebook Live session on Saturday as he left fans wondering what social network he’d be joining next, just days after asking fans for their thoughts about which one he should select.  After putting up a counter to countdown to the announcement from his living room, when it zero, he told the world what network you’ll be able to find him on next.

Instagram.

Brady made his decision in front of thousands of fans who tuned in for the news, as the quarterback used the new feature from Facebook to let his nearly 4-million followers  know where to find him.

The veteran quarterback then went on to make his first post, with Brady standing outside enjoying the snow that New England was blanketed with this weekend:

Brady to this point had been a part of only Facebook, with the veteran having increased his posting over the past couple of seasons with funny photos of himself and his teammates, along with the weekly “TB Times” images coming after each game, which began this season.

With the veteran branching out to Instagram, expect some good stuff as he lets fans get a little closer in his interactions, and begins his march toward conquering yet another medium in social media.

Wild Card Weekend: Game Day Thoughts and Predictions

In what will hopefully be the lone weekend without the Patriots taking part in the postseason, the outcome of these next two days will obviously determine who will visit Foxboro when New England next takes the field one week from today in a Saturday night battle at 8:15 at Gillette Stadium.

Here are some thoughts and predictions of this weekend’s games:

SATURDAY’S GAMES:

OAKLAND AT HOUSTON: After Derek Carr’s injury, the terrific story that was the Raiders breakout season quickly derailed a year that Oakland fans have been dreaming of for more than a decade.  It also took away a lot of the intrigue and excitement in what should have been potentially a fun game to watch, taking away the possibility of seeing the Raiders make a Dallas-esque run at home in their first playoff game in quite a few years.

Instead, it worked out in New England’s favor and now the Raiders are on the road and playing in a game where most are predicting a snoozer from a ratings standpoint, with ESPN airing a Saturday afternoon match-up that is already expected to be a loser for them from a financial standpoint.  The biggest problem?  Outside of those two cities, there’s not much excitement or intrigue surrounding this battle, with embattled Texans signal-caller Brock Osweiler set to face off against a rookie quarterback in Connor Cook.  Considering this game is at home and that Houston holds much of the advantage, one would have to believe this is Osweiler and head coach Bill O’Brien’s best chance to to get a win and advance to the Divisional round.

Make no mistake, this is a huge game for Osweiler.  He has the chance to silence every critic who has questioned him this season by going out and performing at a high-level in what will be the most important game of his career for a team who gambled their future on him.  He can win back every teammate and fan by attacking an ailing Raiders team that is reeling from seeing a promising season fall apart in a blink of an eye after losing their quarterback at the end of an incredible regular season.

Or it go the other direction.  Osweiler is facing a Raiders team with nothing to lose who will likely be going all out with a defense that has been playing pretty some good football.  Teams like this who are unpredictable tend to be dangerous, and it will be interesting to see how this game unfolds given the circumstances and the stakes that are riding on it.

Prediction:  Houston hasn’t had much luck in games like this and it wouldn’t be shocking to see a guy like Cook go out and “sling it” against a Texans team that has heard the whispers about O’Brien’s future being in question, and against a quarterback like Osweiler who really seems to have lost his confidence after a rough year that even saw Texans fans cheer his benching loudly weeks ago, causing his teammates to need to quiet them.  While Houston winning this game wouldn’t be a shock, not seeing the Raiders win might actually be more surprising.  They’ve had a great year and I think they still have some fight left in them, which might include a surprising win for Cook.  If that happens, it could lead to an ugly afternoon full of frustration for Texans fans.

Final Score:
Oakland: 19
Houston: 13


Sherman and the Seahawks should beat Detroit on Saturday. (USA TODAY Images)

DETROIT AT SEATTLE: File this one under another match-up that isn’t exactly a “must-see” game but it slightly edges out the earlier AFC tilt that we just discussed in terms of marquee names.  But this is going to be a tough one for a 9-7 Lions team who hasn’t won a playoff game in 25-years and faces the challenge of trying to end that streak on the road in Seattle in one of the toughest stadiums in the NFL.

The Lions have enough talent to win this game.  Matthew Stafford looks like he’s seemingly adjusted as he’s dealt with the dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand, but the bigger question will be whether he can avoid mental mistakes, which have cost them at times this season.  He’s gotten good production from players like Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, along with the emergence at running back by Zach Zenner.  However, the biggest question will simply be if the Lions can protect Stafford enough in a hostile environment for Detroit to be able to score against a stingy Seahawks defense.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have managed to put up over 20 points per game over the last three weeks, including going over 30 in a loss to the Cardinals in Week 16 as they managed to win two of their last three games.  That means the Lions need to put up points and more importantly, get an early lead and take the crowd out of the game, while hopefully not making any mistakes in the process.

Prediction: This is a tough game for Detroit, and asking them to go into Century Field and play a perfect game in the postseason is likely too much to hope for.  It would be great to see the Lions knock out Seattle and end their 25-year postseason win drought, but Stafford’s tendency to turn the ball over at the wrong time seems to be a more likely scenario, especially against a tough Seahawks defense.  Futility for the people of Detroit is likely in their future, which is unfortunate.  However, no one here will be disappointed if the potential of a rematch for New England against the Seahawks is eliminated should the Lions pull off the unlikely upset.

Final Score:
Detroit: 19
Seattle: 24

SUNDAY’S GAMES:

MIAMI AT PITTSBURGH: This is obviously a big match-up in determining New England’s next opponent because this game has some interesting implications.  Should Pittsburgh win, the winner of Oakland and Houston will be the first team to visit New England next Saturday night.  But should Miami come in and upset the Steelers, that will trigger a rematch of last week’s regular season finale between the two AFC East rivals.

Not many people seem to be giving Miami much of a chance, but the Dolphins really are playing well right now and they beat Pittsburgh earlier in the year 30-15 down in Miami.  As a result, they should have the confidence that they can come in and have a shot at winning this game.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are on the other end of the spectrum, with the majority of people out there believing that coming into Heinz Field with their fans waving their Terrible Towels will be too much for the Dolphins, who will reportedly be without quarterback Ryan Tannehill for at least another week.  But the Dolphins join Pittsburgh with a strong ground game coming into this match-up, and quarterback Matt Moore, who aside from his game against New England last week, has played pretty well since Tannehill went down.  They can run the ball and Miami’s defense is tough enough where they could potentially force a couple of turnovers.

Prediction: Most people seem to be picking Pittsburgh but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Dolphins pull off the upset.  As much as it’s hard to admit, Miami has improved and they’re more of a threat in this game than some might think.  Seeing them get after Ben Roethlisberger and force a turnover or two seems like a reasonable expectation and Moore is experienced enough with some pretty good weapons to move the ball and score points.  As a result, the Dolphins actually have a shot at proving they’re a good football team and a win in Pittsburgh would certainly make a statement.  People may think a marquee match-up between the Steelers and Chiefs will play out next weekend, but I think Miami is headed to Foxboro next Saturday night, which could mean the Patriots may have to spend this week preparing for the Dolphins all over again.

Final Score:
Dolphins: 27
Pittsburgh: 23

NEW YORK GIANTS AT GREEN BAY: The Packers seemed like they were on their way to oblivion midway through the season, yet somehow here they are after going on quite a run at the end of 2016 by winning their final six games.  The same can be said of the Giants, who started out 2-3 yet went on to win 9 of their final 11.

The Packers come into this game having already beaten the Giants once this season, winning 23-16 in Green Bay back on October 9th.  Things have changed quite a bit since that match-up, with the Packers reinventing their ground game thanks to injuries by Eddie Lacy and James Starks.  They’ve seen success by former receiver Ty Montgomery, who along with Christine Michael (claimed off waivers from the Seahawks) saw them re-establish some balance on the ground behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which has helped their passing game.

Meanwhile the Giants have won two playoff games at Lambeau Field with quarterback Eli Manning at the Helm, with Manning carrying a NFL record five-game postseason road win streak coming into this match-up.

The Giants have also been running the ball well, with New York totaling at least 114 yards on the ground in each of their past three games, including the regular-season finale in Washington where rookie Paul Perkins finished with a season-high 161-yards. That should help them keep the Packers off-balance and will certainly be an area to watch in this match-up.

Prediction: As much as it pains me to imagine, this Giants team looks like their Super Bowl teams of the past where they’re starting to get hot at the right time.  Manning is no stranger to pulling off the upset and given his history in Green Bay, should have no reason to believe he and his team can’t win this weekend.  As for the Packers, while they may have the advantage at home, New York’s defense will likely make life tough on Rodgers and get him off his rhythm.  He’s not a quarterback who gets the ball out quickly and he likely won’t have the time he’s accustomed to this weekend to try and improvise and dance around in the pocket or run around against that defense.

Unfortunately, I think New York advances, which makes me shudder just thinking about it.  They seem to be on a collision course with New England should the Patriots take care of business and win the two games they need to get to Houston, which would be a nauseating scenario to fathom.  While a battle against Green Bay in February would be fun to see, don’t be surprised if Manning knocks off Rodgers this week and leaves open the possibility of a rematch no one would be looking forward to given the past history between these two teams.

Final Score:
NY Giants: 28
Packers: 24

Be sure and check out Steve Balestrieri’s look at this weekend’s match-ups and predictions for all of these games as well – CLICK FOR LINK

Which Receivers Caught the Most 3rd Down Passes From Tom Brady in 2016?

Wrapping up the regular season totals, here’s a rundown of which Patriots receivers had the most third down receptions and conversions both overall and down in the red zone from Tom Brady in 2016.

BRADY’S TOTALS:

Overall: 82-of-123 (67%) for 1289-yards 11TDs, 1 INT
Red Zone: 10-of-19 (53%) for 79-yards 7TDs, 1 INT

Here’s a look at the numbers for each of the receivers who caught all of those passes:

Julian Edelman’s numbers are other-worldly outside of the red zone, with the veteran receiver converting 20 of the 23 receptions he made, as well as two touchdowns. He was a perfect 4-of-4 targeting Dion Lewis, although Lewis had just one conversion.  But another thing that stands out is the fact that Brady missed Bennett just twice all season, as well as just once with Danny Amendola and all three of Bennett’s Red Zone receptions were touchdowns.

How The AFC Playoff Field Shapes Up

Route 6 is the “Grand Army of the Republic Highway”. Route 20 is the “United Spanish War Veterans Memorial Highway”. Route 1 is the “Boston Post Road”.

Correction. Route 1 has a name change.

It’s now called “The Road to the Super Bowl”.

The long and at times horridly congested iconic east coast Main Street, which begins in Fort Kent, Maine and ends in Key West, Florida, is actually the new road to NRG Stadium in Houston. Instead of following I-45 or I-10, you merely hop on this road and it will take you there. However, you have a much greater obstacle than incessant traffic jams, traffic lights and miles and miles of urban blight.

The obstacle lies somewhere on this long and exasperating road, between the towns of Norwood, Mass. and Wrentham, Mass. The obstacle is a huge edifice on the former site of a well-known harness racing track. The occupants of this huge edifice are so good that in addition to this edifice, there is an entire entertainment complex, which features a sports bar that is audaciously named after the television network that covers most of their games.

It’s just like old times. When the Celtics and Lakers met for the NBA Championship in 2008 for the first time since 1987. When you watch the 2017 Rose Bowl and for a few glorious moments, you see the great Keith Jackson in the broadcast booth. When Tony Bennett turns 90, gets serenaded in the city most identified with him, then turns up as a performer in the 2016 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

And the Patriots have home field for the playoffs. Just like old times.

The holidays can bring about very comforting feelings in most people. In New England, Christmas/Chanukkah/Kwanzaa make this part of the country feel incredibly cozy. Holiday lights and decorations, snow in the street and on the houses and trees, holiday movies and music, all combine to justify what made Currier and Ives so famous. Now, a week since Christmas and at the end of Chanukkah and Kwanzaa, you feel comfortable around here once again. The Patriots have the top playoff seed, a potentially easy road to the Super Bowl, and it feels just like the calendar went back instantly to December 24th.

The football gods have been kind to the Patriots since DeflateGate. First, they helped the Patriots to go 3-1 during the Tom Brady suspension. Second, they gave the Patriots a regular season schedule which would have harmed them only if strength of victory tiebreakers had to be applied (which is how they would have lost to Oakland if that came into play). Third, cruel fate intervened when the most serious playoff threat to the Patriots, the Raiders, lost their top two quarterbacks late in the season and now will probably see their season end next weekend at the hands of a weak Houston team.

Here is a look at the other five playoff teams in the AFC, and how they potentially shape up against the Patriots.

#2 seed – Kansas City

The Chiefs were an even bigger benefactor of the season-ending leg injury to Oakland quarterback Derek Carr than the Patriots were. Unexpectedly, it’s the Chiefs who get the other bye next weekend and not the Raiders, by virtue of their head-to-head sweep of the Silver and Black. This prospect helps the Patriots greatly, in an indirect way.

Kansas City cannot face the Patriots any earlier than the AFC Championship Game. They must face the #3 seed if it wins the Wild Card round. That will in all likelihood be Pittsburgh, who will be favored to take out #6 Miami at home next weekend. It will prevent the Patriots from having to play both Kansas City and Pittsburgh in successive weekends. It also, by forcing these two teams to have to play each other, helps the Patriots in that the winner of this game might be a little banged up when/if it has to go to Foxborough the week after.

Last season, the Patriots beat the Chiefs 27-20 at home in the Divisional round. Playing Kansas City at home instead of Arrowhead is huge. The 2014 blowout loss at Arrowhead punctuated how hard it is for the Patriots to win there (the Patriots went from 1964 to 2003 without a win in that city). The biggest concern for the Patriots is to not punt the ball to Tyreek Hill. Other than that, the potential matchup would largely hinge on Josh McDaniels coming up with a good enough game plan against their very good defense. Head coach Andy Reid is a game management liability, as evidenced by the last 5 minutes of Super Bowl XXXIX when he was the Eagles’ field boss, and the closing moments of last year’s Divisional game as well.

#3 seed – Pittsburgh

The Steelers, like the Chiefs, also cannot face the Patriots until the AFC Championship. They will take on Miami at home next Saturday. A nice cold snap does wonders in neutralizing the Dolphins, who still lost by three touchdowns to the Patriots in 79 degree weather at home. Miami historically does very poor in cold weather games, especially in the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback who can slice and dice that suspect Miami secondary. The Dolphins can try and shut down Le’Veon Bell, but then have to deal with Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh should be a prohibitive favorite to win this one.

In Foxborough, Roethlisberger is 0-3 in his career. He is capable of lighting it up and could very well match Brady pass for pass. The Patriots beat Pittsburgh earlier this year at Heinz Field, but Big Ben did not play in that game. Pittsburgh represents the biggest challenge for the Patriots in their quest to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston.

#4 seed – Houston; #5 seed — Oakland

The Texans are the same guys who came to Foxborough in Week 3 and got shut out by the Patriots who started a third string quarterback. They make the playoffs because they won the pitifully weak AFC South. They are clearly not the fourth best team in the conference.

Their game against Oakland at NRG Stadium (site of the Super Bowl) will be very interesting, but for the wrong reasons. Both teams will be without their starting quarterbacks, as Tom Savage suffered a possible concussion on Sunday against Tennessee. Brock Osweiler looked completely befuddled and lost in the Week 3 loss to the Patriots.

But how much better will Oakland fare? They may have to start Michigan State rookie Connor Cook at quarterback. The other offensive and defensive weapons are there for the Raiders, including putative Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. Most experts think Oakland is too wounded without Carr, never mind his replacement, Matt McGloin.

This game could go either way. The winner likely goes to Foxborough.

#6 seed – Miami

The only way Miami wins this game is if it is an unusually warm day in Pittsburgh and one of the Big B’s gets hurt. If it’s Roethlisberger that gets hurt, Miami can then load up and shut down Bell and dare Landry Jones to beat them through the air. If it’s Bell, the Dolphins can double team Brown and flood the secondary with nickel and dime packages. The down linemen can have their fun in trying to chase Big Ben down, but they are talented enough to have a chance to upset him and flush him from the pocket often.

Predictions: Pittsburgh over Miami, and whichever team makes fewer mistakes than the other in the other game. New England easily handles the winner, and Kansas City escapes with a close win at home against Pittsburgh. That’s no gimme, of course; Kansas City has a history of choking at home in the playoffs when seeded high, and Reid has postseason in-game coaching yips much like his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer.

So, enjoy a few more weeks of that nice, warm holiday feeling, and enjoy the playoffs, too. And good health also to the Green Bay Packers. Let’s hope the third time is the charm, and that they finally handle the Giants at Lambeau in January. Bad things happen to the Patriots when the Giants beat the Packers in the playoffs. Look it up, folks.

Looking back at 2016, Brady is coming off an impressive season, but one of the things that stood out was his success down in the red area, which saw him finish with an impressive 69% completion percentage during the regular season.

Pulling the numbers out of our stats database, here’s a full look at the totals among receivers who were targeted and caught passes inside the opponents’ 20-yard line this season from Brady this season.

Martellus Bennett finished the year with the most yards (68) and touchdowns (5) as well as the most first downs (7), with Brady missing him on just one pass after completing 8-of-9.

Another name that stands out is Danny Amendola, who Brady was a perfect 4-of-4 with with three first downs and two touchdowns before he got hurt.

Taking it a bit further, take a look at how crazy Brady was in the first quarter this season, with the veteran quarterback missing just one pass all year.  That explains the team’s first quarter success, which saw them outscore opponents 130-32, the most points out of all four quarters by the Patriots’ offense this season.

Brady was perfect throwing to everyone with the exception of Malcolm Mitchell, missing him just once in three targets.  Their first quarter scoring is a sharp turnaround from 2015 where the team scored 89 points, the fewest of all four quarters.  In last year’s first quarters during the regular season, Brady was a combined 13-of-18 (72%) with 78 yards, 6 touchdowns and one interception.

Second Quarter:

Third Quarter:

Fourth Quarter:

Interesting that Gronkowski went without a fourth quarter reception down in scoring territory, with Brady missing Edelman twice and Malcolm Mitchell once.  Surprisingly, Mitchell has the most yards and first downs in the final 15-minutes, as well as one of Brady’s two fourth quarter red zone scoring passes.

All-in-all, a solid performance for the veteran quarterback.  Hopefully it carries over into the postseason in just under two weeks.

Patriots Report Card, Week 17 Win Over the Dolphins

Strong performance nets Patriots Home Cooking for the playoffs

The Patriots handled their own business this time around and finished the regular season right with an impressive 35-14 win over the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon in Miami.

With the victory, the Patriots finished with the best record in the NFL at 14-2 and secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They also finished with an 8-0 road record, just the seventh time that it has been done.

Before hitting the All-22 coaches’ film, here are our grades for the week. We’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: A
Tom Brady was razor sharp once again completing 25-33 for 276 yards and three touchdowns behind a clean pocket for most of the day despite being short three of his receivers. He spread the ball around hitting seven different receivers on the day.

His play action fake to LeGarrette Blount was a beauty, freezing the linebackers just long enough to hit Martellus Bennett for an easy touchdown pass. He also recognized the blitz coming when the Dolphins had closed to 20-14 and he and Edelman combined for a 77-yard touchdown pass, that essentially put the game away.

Brady set the standard for a touchdown to interception ratio with 28 scoring tosses to just two interceptions on the season breaking the old record of 27/2 set a few years ago by Nick Foles. He also passed Dan Marino on the all-time passing yardage board.

Brady also showed that the Patriots were all in very early in the game. On the third snap of the day, he scrambled for a first down, setting the tone for a touchdown drive that got the team off to a fast start offensively.

Running Backs: B
LeGarrette Blount’s workload has been cut back as the team tries to save him for a playoff run. He ran for 51 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown and other than a few late stops by Miami on the final drive, had a very solid game.

Dion Lewis carried 11 times for 48 yards, displaying a nice ability to run between the tackles despite his diminutive size. He caught a pair of passes for just four yards.

James White had just two carries for nine yards and chipped in with four catches for 21 more. Overall the Patriots running game had a good but not spectacular day, running for 120 yards on 29 carries. Going against a Miami team that had been gashed against the run all season, it was bit less than what was expected. The backs contribution in the passing game was also a bit low for what we projected in this matchup with just six catches for 25 yards.

Wide Receivers: B+
Josh McDaniels and Brady got everyone involved and despite no Gronk, no Amendola and no Malcolm Mitchell they were still able to keep Miami on their heels for most of the game.

Julian Edelman had another big day catching eight passes for a career-high 151 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown. With so many of Brady’s weapons out, he targeted Edelman thirteen times and he responded with nearly 60 percent of the receiving output. Edelman did have a drop (his league leading 12th), but considering the areas where he treads, that is expected. His penalty however in the end zone was costly as it took them out of a touchdown drive and forced them to settle for three.

Michael Floyd is proving to be a late-season, waiver wire steal. He caught three passes for 31 yards and a highlight reel touchdown. From the 14-yard line, he caught a short slant from Brady and then bulled his way into the end zone carrying a slew of defenders with him. He also made a really, nice catch on the sideline, displaying deft touch and getting both feet down inbounds.

But his best play was perhaps one where he didn’t even have the ball. The Patriots demand that their wide receivers block, in both the running game and downfield. It is something they also take pride in. Floyd’s thunderous block on Tony Lippett sprung Edelman on his long touchdown reception.

Chris Hogan had four catches on his four targets for 27 yards.

Tight Ends: B+
Martellus Bennett had three catches for 33 yards and a touchdown and was one of the targets that the team didn’t use as much as they could have in this game, perhaps a case of McDaniels not showing all of his cards. But his touchdown was a nice throw and catch with Brady. Bennett is a solid blocker in the running game and now that he’s getting healthier, that should improve even more.

Matt Lengel had a single catch for 4 yards as well as a drop.  Brady has shown that he’ll go to him, which just opponent’s defenses more to think about.

Offensive Line: B+
The Patriots offensive line had a very good game on Sunday. They opened holes for the running game to really set the tone for the offense in the first half. The situation prevented them from continuing that in the third quarter but on a day where Brady and the passing game was clicking, the 120 yards they pounded out in the running game was enough. Miami’s Ndamukong Suh is a player that plays on and frequently over the edge. But the OL put him on the MIA list and after he was yapping at the Pats, they ran right at him for Blount’s touchdown run, pushing him back with ease.

They did a good job of protecting Brady overall and Miami with a very good defensive line got zero sacks. They did get pressure at times and a few hits, but overall, Brady had plenty of time to throw.

Defensive Line: B
The Patriots defensive line continues to be a position of strength all season long. Alan Branch has been fantastic in run support all season. Jay Ajayi had 206 yards the week prior against Buffalo and was held to just 59 yards. Miami as a team rushed for just 75 and averaged 3.3 yards per rush. That is getting it done or as NE likes to say, “Doing Your Job.”  Branch had a few run stuffs in the backfield and knocked down a pass at the line.

Trey Flowers is rapidly becoming an impact player on the edge. He was generating pressure from both the edge or the interior of the line and has been the team’s best pass rusher in 2016.

Chris Long continues to do the little things on the edge that won’t show up on the scoresheet but help win games. He set the edge in the running game and was getting some pressure on the outside. Jabaal Sheard has to be shaking his head on a would-be sack of Moore where he let him slip away after blowing by his block on the right side.

Malcom Brown was benched again for Vincent Valentine so perhaps there might be more to this story than the one late meeting.

Linebackers: A-
Dont’a Hightower was active for this game which showed that the Patriots were all in trying to win and secure the top seed in the AFC. He still doesn’t seem 100 percent, though.

Elandon Roberts stepped up with solid run support chipping in seven tackles and helping limit the Dolphins running game to an afterthought.

Kyle Van Noy had a good day that was marred by a blown coverage. Kenny Stills blew by Van Noy who it appeared was trying to pass Stills off to a safety that wasn’t there. Shea McClellin made a heads up play on the Devin McCourty forced fumble and scooped it up and returned it 69 yards to set up the Patriots final score.

Secondary: B+
The Patriots secondary had a pretty, solid day. They were trying to limit the big plays of the Dolphins passing game and forcing them to slowly make their way down the field. And in that they were successful. The one area that they were having issues with was the crossing routes of the Dolphins which were open for the majority of the day. Their target was usually Eric Rowe and they had him in chase mode after they used the legal pick plays inside.

Logan Ryan had another good day with tight coverage and an interception. He logged seven tackles, Malcolm Butler added six tackles and provided good coverage.

Devin McCourty was victimized on the Stills touchdown by someone blowing a coverage. Whether Van Noy was supposed to stick with him in an obvious mismatch or not, McCourty was stuck in No Man’s Land between two deep wide receivers who were open. That was obviously a mistake but give the Dolphins credit for a creative play call.

McCourty also sealed the deal with a forced fumble on Damien Williams. Williams caught a pass at the Patriots six-yard line and was attempting to spin and work his way to the end zone. McCourty reacted quickly and punched the ball free, where Shea McClellin scooped up the loose ball and raced 69-yards putting the Patriots in scoring position to put the game away.

Matt Moore was completing a majority of his passes but for the most part, the secondary kept the play in front of them and held Miami to just 205 yards passing on the day. They were averaging just about six yards per attempt.

Special Teams: B
Stephen Gostkowski had a good day making all three extra point attempts and his first two field goals. His only miss was a 52-yard attempt at the end of the first half where his position was right on a seam where the turf was patched. The field was in terrible shape after the bowl game on Friday night, so he gets a pass for that one.

Ryan Allen was only called on to punt three times but he had a good day averaging 44 yards per kick including a 56-yarder. The Dolphins averaged only 3.5 yards per punt return and 20 yards per kickoff return on the day.

Julian Edelman was back returning punts again with Amendola and Cyrus Jones out but only had one for zero yards. The kickoff return game was nothing special again. Geneo Grissom had a costly penalty on a punt return that pushed the team way back.

Coaches: A
Bill Belichick remembered the 2015 finale and ensured that this time the results were going to be much different. After laying an egg in Miami and being forced to go to Denver for the AFC Championship game, the Patriots weren’t going down that road again. They came out fast, prepared and put the Dolphins on their heels with some dominant play in the first quarter.

Belichick made it clear last week that the Patriots were going all-in this time in an attempt to secure home-field advantage for the entire playoffs. He had the team prepared to go and they looked like the hungrier team than Miami did.

Josh McDaniels had a good plan for the offense to get untracked quickly. Miami was expecting the Patriots to come out running so McDaniels reacts with three straight passing plays although Brady was forced to scramble for a first down after he was flushed from the pocket.

McDaniels kept the Dolphins off balance by mixing things up nicely as the Pats rolled up nearly 400 yards of offense and 35 points. He got everyone involved in the play calling which kept the pressure on a defense that was banged up and missing some of its players.

Matt Patricia had a good game plan as well. They were determined to slow down Jay Ajayi and force the ball into Matt Moore’s hands. Then the goal was to force Miami to slowly work their way down the field and take away the big, chunk plays in the passing game. That worked as they played some good defense except for a period at the end of the first half and early in the third quarter.

But the Patriots defense forced two big turnovers that resulted in 11 points for the offense so it was a good day there as well. Patricia has them forcing much more turnovers down the stretch.

So, the Patriots get the bye week to rest, recuperate and do some self-scouting, an area that they’ve always been very good at in recognizing areas that they need to tighten up in.  Next stop…the Divisional Round of the playoffs at Gillette Stadium.

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Patriots Handle Business, Stay Home For January

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Try to forget the fact that if the Patriots had only played like this last year, they could be looking at a possible three straight Super Bowl wins.

Unlike the putrid 20-10 loss here at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami last year, the 2016 Patriots hit the Miami Dolphins hard and never lost sight of the big picture and the big goals. Except for a stretch of two Miami touchdown drives around halftime, the Patriots strutted their superiority and beat the Dolphins 35-14 to clinch the top playoff seed in the AFC and secure home field advantage for the playoffs. The Patriots have two weeks to prepare for some playoff team other than Pittsburgh, and they will be at home for that game and a possible AFC Championship Game a week later.

This is the sixth time in franchise history that the Patriots are the top playoff seed. In four of the previous five such seasons, the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, with the unlikely 2010 loss at home to the Jets the only blemish. They were the top seed as recently as 2014, where they became Super Bowl champions at season’s end.

This was the first win by the Patriots in Miami since 2012. Despite 79-degree weather with 74% humidity, which is sultry even for Miami in December, the Patriots were able to function on all eight cylinders for most of the game. Field conditions were an issue, as the field had been used on Friday night for the Orange Bowl game, but as Bill Belichick told CBS Sports, “Both teams have to deal with it.”

Two monster plays more or less decided this game for the Patriots. Midway through the third quarter, with Miami trailing only 20-14 and with all the momentum, the Patriots had the ball at their own 23 facing third down and seven, the drive seemingly being stalled thanks to a holding call on Shaq Mason. Tom Brady found Julian Edelman on a quick slant in on the left side and Edelman made the catch for a first down.

And a bit more.

At the point of attack, Bacarri Rambo whiffed on an easy tackle and Edelman took off towards the middle of the field. A few more yards downfield, Tony Lippett had an angle to stop Edelman near midfield. But new wideout Michael Floyd moved in and clobbered Lippett, springing Edelman free for a 77-yard touchdown. It was the longest touchdown catch of Edelman’s career. Lippett was hit so hard by Floyd that concussion protocol was conducted on him after he was helped off the field. Lippett came in on the next series.

It was still 27-14 Patriots going into the fourth quarter. Miami took possession at their own 32 on their first possession of the fourth quarter and drove to the Patriot 9 in eight plays. On second and goal at the 9, backup quarterback Matt Moore dropped back and hit Damien Williams in the left flat at about the five-yard line. Devin McCourty closed fast and managed to punch the ball out of Williams’ hands. The ball rolled backwards and was covered by Shea McClellin. He took the fumble and ran 69 yards to the Miami 18. McClellin would have scored if he had any foot speed at all, but the Patriots clinched the win six plays later when LeGarrette Blount plowed in for a touchdown from one yard out.

Right from the get go, the Patriots showed that this game would not be a repeat of 2015, where the Patriots sat regulars and used the game as a means to work on the run game. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first two offensive possessions, the first on a 13-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a touchdown pass from Brady to Marcellus Bennett from 2 yards out off a beautiful play fake which completely fooled the Miami linebackers.

The second drive went only 45 yards and five plays. The fifth play will have Patriot Nation abuzz for the next two weeks. Floyd caught a quick slant on the left side at the Miami 14, cut back inside and dragged three defenders into the end zone for a touchdown. It was Floyd’s first touchdown as a Patriot, and that play, combined with the hard hit on Lippett will be well received by both the fan base and the players and coaches. Floyd, who became infamous with his battles with alcoholism, bought himself a ton of goodwill with his performance on Sunday.

Brady finished 25 of 33 passing for 276 yards, three touchdowns and a 130.4 passer rating. He finished the season with 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, setting a new NFL record for touchdown to interception ratio (Nick Foles was 27-2 in 2013). Brady will at least contend for the MVP award this season, and the fact that he is at least in the conversation despite missing the first four games of the season due to the DeflateGate suspension is nothing short of remarkable.

Edelman was obviously the receiving leader with eight catches for 155 yards. Blount and Dion Lewis combined for 99 yards rushing, averaging just over four yards a carry. Unlike other visits to Miami where the Dolphin defense rises up and plays its best game of the season, the Patriots were able to sustain many good drives all afternoon long. Ryan Allen punted only three times on the afternoon, his first punt coming with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.

The Patriot defense forced two Miami turnovers. In addition to the Williams fumble, Logan Ryan had an interception in the first quarter just two plays after the Floyd touchdown. Moore was flushed out of the pocket and threw a terrible pass down the left sideline towards Dion Sims. Ryan was right there to make the interception.

The Patriots now play their familiar game of wait and see who they will play next. Miami will head to Pittsburgh next week, and Oakland, running out of healthy quarterbacks and the victim of some awful misfortune, will head to Houston. Only Pittsburgh, the three seed, cannot possibly play at Gillette Stadium in two weeks. The winner of Oakland-Houston will head to Foxborough in two weeks barring an unheard of Miami upset at Pittsburgh. The Patriots will benefit in that they will not have to face Kansas City and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks as had been expected; those two teams will more than likely face each other in the Divisional round and be a little beat up if the winner does indeed head to Foxborough in three weeks.

The Patriots could care less right now who they will play. They have home cooking throughout the month of January. The Patriots can now celebrate New Year’s Day with, hopefully, super dreams for 2017.

Martellus Bennett is a really big fan of winning.  In fact he equates it with another activity that is “fun” for him.

He’s already been part of a team that has won 14 regular season games in one season and while at first it was something that took a little getting used to, he started getting pretty comfortable with it.

As a matter of fact, he even went so far as to compare it with something else it sounds like he enjoys.

You absolutely have to love this guy and his addition has been huge, especially after the Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending back injury that without Bennett, might have otherwise potentially put their postseason hopes in jeopardy.

He’s been quite the character since joining the team and he’s had a terrific year after finishing the 2016 regular season with 55 receptions for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Hopefully with the postseason set to begin for the Patriots in two weeks, he’ll get to experience the fun of winning for a few more games.