Tag Archives: 2015 NFL Post season

Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Patriots Free Agent Profile Steven Jackson

Steve Balestrieri
February 2, 2016 at 7:41 am ET

The Patriots suffered a slew of injuries in 2015, and ended up with 21 players on injured reserve. The running back position was no exception with both starters, Dion Lewis and later LaGarrette Blount being lost for the year.

This was compounded by the early season losses of Tyler Gaffney and fullback James Develin. So the Pats brought in veteran Steven Jackson who has a Hall of Fame resume but hadn’t played at all in nearly a year after closing out 2014 with the Falcons. Jackson appeared all but retired, and stated he didn’t want to return unless he had a chance to appear for a Super Bowl berth.

“It helps me close a chapter on my terms,” Jackson said. “That’s what I always stressed … if I went back to the NFL it had to be for a team that had a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl.”

The Patriots signed the 32-year old running back and he appeared in the final two games of the regular season and gained just 50 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown, which was more a statement on the state of the offensive line than him. His one shining play was a 20-yard catch and run in Miami he had on a pass from Tom Brady.

In the post-season facing two very good run defenses in Kansas City and Denver, Jackson had 24 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown (his first professional post-season score) against Denver in the AFC Championship Game.

Now both he and the Patriots have a decision to make, does he want to come back for one more chance at a ring with a team that is always in the hunt or does the back who will turn 33 right around the time of training camp decide to call it a career after gaining 11,435 yards and 69 touchdowns in his time? Had the Patriots made the trip to Santa Clara this week, that question would be a no-brainier, but now there still remains a sliver of hope for him to try it one more time.

Do the Patriots entice him back for a final chance and give him the opportunity to not only win a spot on the roster but contribute meaningful snaps for the offense?  Or do they go with either different, younger players in free agency and/or the 2016 NFL Draft?

Jackson obviously wasn’t the player he was back about 7-8 years ago when he was a dual threat both running and catching the football out of the backfield. But his meager stats in four games weren’t the result of him having nothing left in the tank either. He is still a serviceable running back and he was in surprisingly good shape for someone who hadn’t played in nearly a year.
Why Jackson Will Return: Jackson got a small taste of what the Patriots can bring to the table offensively when the playoffs started with an almost healthy receiving core. Starting a season with an upgraded and healthy offensive line and the return of Dion Lewis would be a bonus.

They won’t be asking him to carry it 20+ plus times per game, but contribute as a role player at this stage of his career, something he’s still capable of doing. He’d still have to win a job during training camp as they’ll undoubtedly bring in some younger talent during the spring.

But Bill Belichick has always admired him and loves his veteran presences on a team. He could be signed for the veteran minimum with the chance to hit some incentives along the way.

Why Jackson Won’t Return: The Patriots will most definitely look to add youth in the upcoming draft at the end of April and thru free agency. As in the case with Blount, they could extend an offer for a chance to come back and win a job in July, but may decide that it is just time to move on.

In Jackson’s case, his comments when he signed, sounded like someone who was all in 2015. He may just decide that his bust in Canton will not involve having a Super Bowl ring attached to it.

Bottom Line: There is always a chance that Jackson returns for a final swan song for his career. Belichick loves veterans who can lend leadership along the way when the going gets tough. Players like Brian Cox, Roman Phifer, and Ted Washington all come to mind when thinking about those earlier Super Bowl teams.

He admires Jackson and spoke about spending an entire day with him when evaluating him for the draft when SJax was a rookie. There is a slight possibility of them asking him to come back for one more shot.

But I think that Jackson will take the decision out of the team’s hands. I believe that he’s going to call it a career and ride off into the sunset and explore other career opportunities closer to home. The odds on him retiring are about 80 percent. The small chance of him not doing that is the fact that he hasn’t announced it yet. I’m sure he’s coming to that decision and will announce it soon.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Patriots Fourth And Two Podcast: AFC Championship Game Review

Russ Goldman
January 29, 2016 at 11:42 am ET

Check out our PatsFans.com, weekly ‘Patriots 4th & 2’ podcast.  Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and Steve Balestrieri our featured columnists for the site, break down the games every week and bring some analysis to the latest news featuring both the Patriots and the NFL as well.

In this episode, we looked back at the AFC Championship Game loss for the Patriots. We analyzed each quarter of the game, and also graded all the Patriots units along with the coaching staff. We also had another segment of “Around The League” and we ended with our early predictions for the Super Bowl.

Be sure to listen in during the coming weeks; just because the Patriots playoff run in over, there is no off-season for them or us. We’ll bring our listeners the questions surrounding the team approaching free agency as well as looking at some players that the team may be interested in. We’ll look at some available free agents in the coming weeks as well as the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft.

Belichick, Patriots Made the Right Decisions in Denver

Steve Balestrieri
January 26, 2016 at 9:30 am ET

The Patriots season is over, the Broncos held on in the final 12 seconds to stop a two-point conversion that would have sent the game to overtime. With their defense earning a much-deserved win, Denver moves on Super Bowl L. And now the second guessers are circling, eagerly awaiting their chance to snipe at Bill Belichick and point fingers at him as to why the Patriots lost.

I think this has more to do with people wanting to chip away at Belichick’s image and having to assign blame to someone  at a loss than just admitting the fact, that the Broncos were the better team on Sunday.

Did Belichick and the Patriots coaches make some questionable decisions in the rarified air in Denver? Absolutely and you could start with the very rare decision to take the ball at the opening kickoff, something they never do. The hope was to strike quickly, put Peyton Manning the and Denver offense in catch-up mode and take them out of their game.

It didn’t work, the Patriots stalled and it was the Broncos who scored on their first possession. If you want to question anything from the start, question why the powers that be (Belichick, Matt Patricia), treated Manning like the one of yore in the first quarter, afraid to bring pressure. Once they finally did do that, they were already down 14-6 and the Denver offense didn’t do much more the rest of the game.

But the calls everyone are falling all over themselves to second guess are “Why didn’t they take the field goals, they’d be heading to the Super Bowl.” Sounds simple enough and reasonable, but let’s look at the facts leading into it.

4th & 1 with 6:03 Remaining: Through the first 54 minutes of the game, the Patriots offense couldn’t move the ball with any rhythm or continuity. Their longest drive, 48 yards, resulted in only a field goal. Their lone touchdown drive to that point came off of a turnover, a backwards pass gone awry and set them up with a very short field.

So if you’re the head coach, you are looking at this game in the context that thru 54 minutes your offense has done next to squat, you are still within one score and a two-point conversion and this just might be your only chance to tie this thing up and hope your defense can generate a turnover. The offense put together its longest drive of the day and is inside the red zone at the 16-yard line. 4th and 1 isn’t the most difficult one to make, in the red zone. If and a big IF, if you have any semblance of a running game. The Patriots didn’t so this is where you trust your QB and skill position players to make a play.

A field goal here does what? Narrows a 20-12 lead to five, and the Patriots would still need a touchdown to win. The way Denver’s defense had been playing to that point, there was nothing to suggest that the Patriots were going to get another opportunity, especially with the way the pass rush of the Broncos was bringing pressure on Brady every single snap.

The point differential here is everything, if Denver’s lead had been six points, I believe Belichick wouldn’t have hesitated for a field goal attempt. Then they’d need only another field goal to tie or a touchdown to win. Watching the game, I thought at the time, they have to go for it here, thinking they may not get this close again.

Many have lambasted the play call and while I see their point, looking at the replay, it wasn’t so much the play call but the execution by DeMarcus Ware who blew up the play. The call had Edelman coming in motion from right to left, at the snap Brady slides to the right and Edelman is supposed to slip behind the flow and catch a pass from Brady where he’s supposed to be alone in space.

Everything seemed to be working, except Ware blew the play up. Coming hard after Brady, he was on him in no time. Brady couldn’t fire the ball to Edelman as Ware was in his face. Instead he had to loft it over him; Edelman, instead of catching the ball at the line of scrimmage, was caught waiting for it to come down a yard behind the line. Chris Harris who had been playing about 3-4 yards back, flew in and with Aqib Talib’s help stopped Edelman for a loss. That was just a great head’s up play by Ware. Had Brady been able to fire it in quickly, Edelman makes that first down easily.

If your offense can’t get you a yard at crunch time when you’re down by a touchdown, then you aren’t going to win a lot of games. And in this case, they did not.

4th & 6 2:25 Remaining: But the Patriots did get another chance late in the game. This time they drove to the Denver 14-yard line with just under two and half minutes remaining.

The Denver pass rush was finally beginning to tire just a bit and their secondary was taking some injuries. Look at the scenario again; if they kick a field goal here, it still leaves your team needing a touchdown. And although the defense has stuffed the Broncos in the second half, even with three timeouts and the two-minute warning, one first down by the Broncos ends it.

At this point now, Belichick’s hand is about forced; do you kick a field goal, still needing a touchdown to win, knowing one first down ices the game for Denver? So they went for it. Brady was under duress (as one nearly every snap) but was able to get the pass away in the back of the end zone where Gronkowski was covered by three different defenders. The pass was a bit high and tipped away.

Gronk Talib

Gronkowski and Brady were screaming for a pass interference penalty on Talib, who did have a bear hug as well as a tug on the jersey of Gronkowski at the back of the end zone. The referee was right there and had a perfect view of it. But it was to no avail, Talib got away with a veteran move, did just enough to NOT get called for a flag and Denver took over on downs.

Should there have been a flag? You can argue that one ‘til the cows come home. Perhaps Denver’s obvious lobbying the refs prior to the game had an influence on the call, who knows? It was close, that’s for sure.

So in looking at the scenario late in the game, while everyone can’t wait to point fingers and assign blame to Belichick for going for it…twice. They were the right moves at the time. But there seems to be this unending desire to chip away at the Hoodie at every opportunity. Looking back at some decisions against Philadelphia and the finale at Miami, I can and would agree with. Against the Broncos on Sunday…nope.

We’re on to the off-season, Free Agency and the Draft.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Monday Observations: Brady Battered, but Resilient In Loss to Broncos

Steve Balestrieri
January 25, 2016 at 6:31 am ET

The Patriots will look back on this one as the one that went awry from the outset. The Pats were playing a step slower and from behind all day long and could never get on track as the Broncos defense dominated the New England offensive line in their 20-18 win in the AFC Championship Game.

This was a game that the front seven of Denver took charge of right off the bat and never let up, sacking Brady 4 times and being credited with 20 QB hits. The Patriots offensive line wasn’t close to providing anywhere near the protection that Brady needed to get the job done.

Playing at home and with the crowd noise, Denver keyed in on the Patriots snap cadence and were teeing off all game long. Several times their edge rushers blew past the tackles on the outside untouched. The coaches tried to even put an extra tackle (Cameron Fleming), out there to help but he too was rendered into a turnstile without laying a hand on the defender.

The Broncos defense and coach Wade Phillips deserve a lot of praise for this one. They were able to take away the quick passing game of the Patriots and bring the heat with a very talented front seven. Von Miller led the way with 2.5 sacks and four QB hits. Derek Wolfe had a sack and four QB hits. DeMarcus Ware chipped in with a half-sack and seven QB hits.

In contrast, the Patriots edge rushers, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard…0 stands for zero. No sacks, no QB hits, no pressure. The only pressure the Patriots were able to produce was in the A-gap with Jamie Collins and Allen Branch who combined for the three Patriots sacks.

The flip side of the offensive line’s struggles was the continued inability to run the football. The Patriots were able to muster only 44 yards on the ground on 17 attempts which comes out to a measly 2.6 yard average. Brady was the team’s leading rusher with 13 yards which sends up red flags as to what kind of day it was.

In a game where they were only trailing by one score, any semblance of a running game would have taken a tremendous amount of pressure off of Brady. As a result, the Pats third down percentage was once again an awful 2 for 15.

Brady Battered but Resilient: Brady deserves a lot of credit for hanging tough in this one. He was bruised, battered and bloodied all day long. His numbers won’t reflect him having an even close to Brady-type afternoon, 27-56 for 310 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 picks, but he was under duress on nearly every play.

It marked the first post-season game where he didn’t complete at least 50 percent of his passes, and while he made some questionable decisions, he did lead the team to what should have been a tying touchdown with 12 seconds left.

The pass and catch to Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards to set them up at the 10-yard line was a beauty over double coverage. And he and Gronk hooked up again for the touchdown on a fourth-down pass from the 4-yard line. A rare Stephen Gostkowski missed PAT in the first half (his first since 2006), couldn’t have come at a worse time. It forced the Pats to go for two which the Broncos stopped to clinch the game.

Gronk is a Gamer: Rob Gronkowski had another outstanding day. The big tight end wasn’t at 100 percent, was drawing a lot of double and at times triple coverage but still came thru with a big game. Gronk hauled in eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown and although was struggling with leg cramps and dehydration was still able to make plays at crunch time.

His big 40-yard catch over double coverage was one of the best plays of the season and he was able to defeat double coverage at the back of the end zone for the potential game tying touchdown at the end of the game.

Curious Decisions to Start: The Patriots made a couple of head scratching decisions to start the game and their second really hurt them. The first was after winning the coin toss, the Pats went against their normal M.O. and elected to receive. I can’t recall the last time they did that to start a game.

Obviously the thinking was to get the ball, score quickly and make Peyton Manning play from behind. They didn’t do that and were forced to punt. Which leads to the second strange decision.

At the beginning of the game, the Patriots defense was treating Manning like the Manning from 2003 where they seemed afraid of blitzing him for fear that he’d make them pay. Well…it did. Manning was operating early in the game with impunity for the most part and after driving down to the Patriots 21-yard line on their opening possession, Owen Daniels ran down the seam.

Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich couldn’t decide who should cover him and in the end neither did. Manning laid a 35mph fastball down the middle that was way too easy for the score. That gave Denver the lead they would never relinquish. Manning would toss another touchdown to Daniels where he faked Collins out badly to the corner of the end zone.

Once they finally decided to start getting after Manning with some aggressive packages, the Broncos offense stalled for much of the rest of the game. They did get one nice run by C.J. Anderson that set them up with a field goal, but that was it.

Manning finished 17-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions although he was tagged for a fumble on a backwards pass that was picked up by Jonathan Freeny. Malcolm Butler had opportunities for two interceptions that went right thru his hands.

The Patriots defense did a good job of limiting the Broncos running game, holding them to 99 yards rushing of which nearly a third of that total was on the one run by Anderson in the second half. It wasn’t the defense that lost this one. We wrote yesterday that Manning was 3-12 when the opposition scored 19 or more points. The Patriots scored just 18 and that isn’t enough

Denver Won STs Field Position Battle: This wasn’t a stellar day for the Patriots special teams’ units. First Gostkowski misses his first PAT in 524 attempts which puts them down 7-6. Ryan Allen wasn’t able to push the Broncos back and his 46.8 average was a bit misleading.

In contrast, Denver’s special teams were constantly pinning the Patriots deep in their zone. Britton Colquitt had an outstanding day, his punts were hanging up there allowing the coverage units to get down field. He had four punts inside the 20 including a few inside the 10-yard line.

On a day where the Denver front seven was kicking the NE offensive line’s ass, it ended up being a huge win for them as they held favorable field position for much of the day.

White Targeted, Martin/LaFell Invisible: There has been calls for the Patriots to get James White more involved in the passing game. Well they certainly did that, targeting the 2nd year RB 16 times in the air. The problem was he caught only 5 passes for 45 yards.

They kept attempting to hit him on a go-route isolated on a linebacker and while a few came close, especially one in the end zone, it didn’t materialize for them. While some of the issues came about because Brady didn’t have proper time to get him the ball, one would think they would’ve looked elsewhere.

On the flip side, WRs Keshawn Martin and Brandon LaFell were relegated to milk carton status. Martin was targeted once, LaFell not at all and both were invisible. On a day where Denver was placing a premium on stopping Gronk and Edelman, they needed to make some plays and didn’t.

A disappointing end to a year that started so well, no it’s on to offseason. The draft is next up and the team will have to look to it and free agency.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

New England Patriots News 1-24 and AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
January 24, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news notes and what’s happening around the division.

Belichick Snubbed Again: When the PFWA (Pro Football Writers of America) announced their annual awards, it was no surprise that Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was named Coach of the Year, by the writers all over the nation who cover the NFL.

While I have no issue with the job Rivera did this season, after all the Panthers went 15-1 and cruised thru the season I didn’t vote for him, (yes I am a member and did vote).

My question is, does the unparalleled success by the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era make the fact that winning 12+ games every year become passé in the eyes of the rest of the league? In the last six seasons, the Patriots under Belichick have not won less than 12 games, they’ve hit that number the last four years in a row. In 2011, they won 13 and in 2010 they won 14.

And yet every year the rest of the NFL falls all over themselves to crow about the job some other coach is doing. A record of 75-21 the past six seasons is outstanding in any circles, but today the Patriots are playing in their fifth straight conference championship game. With a win today, Bill Belichick would have more conference championships (7) than anyone since the 1970 merger breaking a tie with Don Shula.

Belichick and Brady are appearing in their 10th conference championship together today. That’s 10 in 15 seasons together. That’s continued excellence my friends and it seems every year it is ignored.

Mayo to IR, Snyder Activated: In another crushing end to a season following an injury, Jerod Mayo was placed on IR this week with a shoulder injury. His latest injury cut short his third season in a row less than a week before the conference championship.

This may be his final season in a Patriots uniform unless he renegotiates his contract that will carry an $11,400,000 cap hit in 2016. Mayo had returned from two serious injuries in 2013 and 2014 where he played only six games in each and played in all 16 games this season. After starting a bit slowly, he turned things up a notch in the middle of the season and played much more solid until he faded a bit down the stretch.

In his stead the team has activated LB Kevin Snyder from the practice squad. Snyder is the 5th member of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to be a member of the New England this season joining Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Jonathan Freeny. He’s a guy that can contribute on defense and special teams.

The 6’2, 240 pound Snyder was signed as an UDFA by the Lions and spent time with them and the 49ers on their practice squad before being released in October. He signed with the Pats practice squad before being signed to the active roster this week.

Snyder ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in March with a 7.09-second time in the all-important (to NE), 3-cone drill, 4.31-second short shuttle, 35-inch vertical leap and 9-foot, 9-inch broad jump.

His signing is perfect timing for his checkbook; in lieu of his $6600 a week paycheck for being a member of the practice squad, he will get a $46,000 share of playoff money this week.

Why You Should Feel Good about the Patriots Chances Today: Facing a tough Denver Broncos defense, ranked #1 in the NFL this season and on the road here are few reasons Pats Fans should feel confident.

  • Tom Brady with both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in the lineup is 22-1 in his last 23 games.
  • In those contests, Brady has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 7322 yards, 64 TDs and just 13 INTs for a passer rating of 107.
  • Facing the #1 ranked defense in the postseason, Brady has faced all three on the road and is 3-0. And NE won the Super Bowl in all three seasons.

Slater Slater part of Football Royalty: Greg Garber of ESPN wrote a fantastic piece this week on Patriots ST captain Matthew Slater and his dad Jackie, long-time Rams OL and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

The Slaters are #2 in the amount of Pro Bowls earned by a father son team with 12. They trail only the Mannings with 16. Slater was the slight, asthmatic kid with the thick glasses who everyone told would never amount to anything on a football field.

But he learned a one-of-a-kind work ethic from his dad and never looked back. And Jackie is one proud dad of the player and man his son has become. Take the time and read this one…it is well worth it.

Some Other Playoff Notes:

By starting the game on Sunday for the Patriots, Tom Brady will stand alone in NFL with the most playoff games played in with 31. He currently stands tied with former Patriot Adam Vinatieri.

Obscure stat of the day goes to Ryan Hannable of WEEI who found that when an opponent in the playoffs scores 19+ points, Peyton Manning’s record is 3-12.

BTW Tom Brady’s record when scoring 19+ points in the postseason is 20-2.

Even More Obscure Fact of the day goes to Alex Spier of the Boston Globe who researched the amount of times that Brady and Belichick face an opposing head coach what their winning percentage is. Whe-2n facing a coach for the seventh time…Brady and Belichick are 8-2. And they’ve faced Broncos HC Gary Kubiak six times, tomorrow will the seventh. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bills Hire First Female Assistant Coach: Kudos to the Bills and Rex Ryan by hiring Kathryn Smith as their special teams quality control coach for next season. Smith has worked with Ryan for nearly the past decade and has earned her shot.

Special teams quality control coaches normally break down film from the opponent and is considered a stepping stone job to ones with more responsibility. Ryan knows her and trusts her ability to get the job done. It wasn’t some kind of publicity stunt and she earned the right to move up the ranks.

But not everyone is happy about it. Kevin Kiley a radio host from Cleveland made many misogynist quotes on his show that reveal he has more in common with 19th century thinking than those of today. Let Smith succeed or fail or her own accord. And let’s not jump to conclusions and act a fool for your 15 minutes.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Who Are the Players to Watch, Patriots Broncos AFC Championship

Steve Balestrieri
January 23, 2016 at 10:48 am ET

The Patriots need just one more win to book a trip to Santa Clara for Super Bowl L and a chance to win back-to-back championships. That is something that the mainstream media has been remiss in reporting all week. Considering it hasn’t been done since the 2003-04 Patriots with Tom Brady at the helm, it deserves mention. And not just a little.

The Pats took care of business against the Chiefs and looked much more like the team that throttled the opposition early in the season than the team that limped into the postseason losing four of six. Tom Brady was especially sharp hitting 28-42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, despite his team having a case of the drops.

The Broncos had an impressive 23-16 comeback win against the Steelers. Down 13-12 midway thru the 4th quarter, Peyton Manning with a strong running game, led them to the eventual game winning touchdown and then added a field goal to put this one away. The defense held the potent Pittsburgh offense to just 16 points.

We already broke down this game with our Key matchups breaking down the offensive, defensive and special team’s units for this week.

Now it is time for our players to watch for this week. We’ve selected three players from each team that will be key to each team’s success.

Julian Edelman: The Patriots sparkplug wide receiver returned after missing two months and it seemed that he never left. Edelman caught 10 passes for 100 yards. He set the tone right away as he caught a key third down pass from Brady to move the chains on the Patriots opening drive.

Edelman’s presence ignites the short passing game that the Patriots lean on in lieu of the running game and no one does it better than Edelman. Prior to his injury the Patriots offense on third down was humming along at 50 percent (54 of 107). After his foot injury the team’s third down conversion percentage plummeted to 31 percent (34-108). During the first game in Denver without Edelman and Danny Amendola the Patriots were a woeful 2 of 13 on third down. Last week against the Chiefs, the Pats were 6 of 12 to get back to that 50 percent mark.

Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are Brady’s favorite and most trusted targets in the Patriots passing game, how well they produce will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.

Key stat: With Edelman back in the lineup, his presence along with his ability to get open quickly gave Tom Brady the capability of getting the ball out of his hands incredibly fast. This helped the Patriots offensive line which has had issues with protection. On Brady’s 10 completions to Edelman he got the ball out of his hands in 1.57 seconds from snap to throw. On Gronkowski’s six receptions while lined up outside the numbers, Brady’s snap to throw times were an even faster 1.48 seconds.

Chris Harris: The Broncos most athletic cornerback will be the player tasked with stopping Edelman on Sunday. He has the quickness and physicality needed to matchup with #11 and try to take away that underneath quick pass that the Patriots offense thrives on.

Harris has been dealing with a shoulder injury which was characterized as a deep bone bruise. He played only on third downs against the Steelers, but was reportedly much better this week, with HC Gary Kubiak characterizing him as “ready for a full load” on Sunday.

Harris himself said he felt “light years better” and was listed as probably for the AFCCG on the Broncos injury report Friday. His matchups with Edelman will be the story inside the story of the passing game of NE against the Broncos defense. Especially when Edelman slides inside into the slot.

Key Stat: When moving inside in the slot, Harris held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 44.6 in the 2015 regular season. Something will have to give here. This should be a good matchup between the two players.

Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski definitely benefitted from having Edelman back in the lineup along with Amendola. No longer could teams dedicate a fleet of players assigned to Gronkowski, he now had much more room to operate in and he made the most of his opportunities.

On the Patriots opening drive, facing a 3rd and 13 from the KC 43-yard line, Gronkowski attacked the middle of the field and hauled in a 33-yard pass from Brady which set up the opening touchdown, also a pass to Gronkowski.

Whenever the Patriots spread the Chiefs out with a four or five-man wide formation, Brady would look to Gronkowski if he were singled up in man-coverage and the results were plain to see. Six of Gronkowski’s seven receptions were outside the numbers and they resulted in two touchdowns. Brady targeted Gronk eight times against KC, completing seven for 83 yards and the pair of scores.

Key Stat: In the first meeting in Denver, prior to being injured in the 4th quarter, Gronkowski had six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. And that was without Edelman and Amendola in the lineup. In Brady’s last 23 games with both Gronkowski and Edelman available the Patriots are 22-1. And in those games Brady has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 7322 yards with 64 TDs, 13 INTs for a passer rating of 107. That is how effective this trio is when they all are together.

Peyton Manning: The Denver signal caller is entering the twilight phase of his career. He’s no longer the focal point of the offense but rather a game manager who has to rely on his running game to get the job done as injuries and age have taken their toll.

The throws down the middle of the field aren’t as easy anymore as he now longer has the arm strength to test those passes which used to come so easily for him.

But he still has his brain and that with his experience can still be a dangerous combination if the game is close at crunch time. He was patient against Pittsburgh as he didn’t try to do too much and would only take what the defense was giving him. But Denver’s defense kept the game a one-point affair late into the fourth quarter. How Manning and the offense respond if they fall down by more than that will bear watching on Sunday.

Key Stat: Manning had his worst statistical year of his career in 2015 throwing just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

Dont’a Hightower: The Patriots linebacker is questionable for this game and his status as well as his production will be a huge key for the Patriots defense on Sunday. Hightower is the Patriots key player on their defense, he is a big run stuffer that explodes in the gaps and blows up plays at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield.

He is also an underrated player in space that is very good at covering backs and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. In the Pats front seven, Hightower is the anchor and Jamie Collins is the playmaker. The two give New England a very talented pair that work seamlessly with one another.

One other aspect for Hightower’s game is his ability to blitz up the A-gap. Both he and Collins have been quite adept at that and with an immobile Manning in the pocket, that could be something to watch for a couple of times on Sunday.

Key Stat: In the first meeting between the two teams in Denver, the Broncos rushed 15 times for 43 yards (2.9 yard avg), when Hightower was on the field. After he left with an injury, Denver ran 15 times for 133 yards (8.8 yard avg), and three touchdowns.

Derek Wolfe: The Broncos interior defensive lineman played a big role in the earlier meeting back in November and may once again be one of the key players to watch in this conference championship. With Brady attempting to the get the ball off quickly, it negates much of the rush that the Broncos can bring from the edge.

But Wolfe can bring the pressure from the inside and not allow Brady to step up in the pocket. He and Malik Jackson in the interior may play a bigger role in this game than their more well-known teammates in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in disrupting the Patriots passing game.

Wolfe had a big year in 2015 with 6.5 sacks, all in the last eight games after missing the first four games of the season, serving a suspension for violating the league rules on PEDs. He just signed a four-year contract extension worth $36 million with 17.5 of it in guarantees.

Key Stat: In the first meeting Brady had Gronkowski in single coverage with Miller, a huge mismatch, and as Gronk was breaking free with plenty of room to run after a catch, Wolfe burst thru a double team and was able to get the sack. It was one of those plays that turned field position as the Patriots instead of being near midfield, were forced back around the 10-yard line.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Patriots, Broncos Keys to the AFCCG, Who Has the Razor’s Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
January 22, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The New England Patriots need one more win to get back to the Super Bowl with a chance to repeat as champions. But to do so, they face a familiar nemesis in the Denver Broncos.

The game will be televised by CBS with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on the call. The game will also be on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak doing the play-by-play and analysis. Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. ET

The Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 27-20 as Tom Brady threw for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski. The team welcomed back Julian Edelman and his presence ignited the short passing game. Edelman missed the final seven games but had 10 catches for 100 yards on Saturday.

The Broncos made a big fourth quarter comeback and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16. Trailing 13-12, it appeared as if the Steelers were driving for clinching touchdown when a fumble turned the game around. The Broncos scored the next 11 points in the final four minutes to pull away for the win.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our playoff edition of the “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give a quick break down on some of the key match-ups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Broncos will meet for the 51st time in their history, the most the Patriots have faced an opponent that has been outside their division. The Patriots never seem to play their best football in the altitude there as they’ve been 9-20 in Denver since the early days of the NFL. There was one stretch from 1984 -1998 that the teams met 11 times, nine of them in Denver and the Pats lost them all.

The two teams met in November in Week 12 with the Broncos taking a 30-24 win in OT.

Here is a look at some of the key match-ups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots Return of Edelman, Good News For James White

Steve Balestrieri
January 21, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots are just a win away from returning to the Super Bowl and after the win over Kansas City, there is confidence in the offense, especially in the short passing game once again.

The return of Julian Edelman and a healthy Danny Amendola did wonders for Tom Brady, the offensive line and the receivers as they were able to spread out the Chiefs, neutralize their pass rush and surgically pick them apart.

Edelman and Amendola missed the game in Denver back in November and their presence are expected to jump start the offense quickly against the Denver defense which led the league in sacks with 52. The Broncos have some quality edge rushers with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shaq Barrett along with inside guys Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.

In the November game, Brady was hit or pressured on half of his drop backs, but against Kansas City all that changed.

With Edelman back in the fold, Brady was getting the ball out lightning fast and methodically carving up a very good Chiefs secondary. Edelman brings that out and now with the team confident that they can throw the ball quickly and move the chains, it is creating a snow-ball effect which should benefit James White out of the backfield.

Gronk 16 yd TD3

White still didn’t have the coaches’ trust in that earlier Denver game as Brandon Bolden got a lot of snaps during the Week 12 loss. Now White seems fully integrated in the offense and with Edelman and Amendola back, he should emerge as a bigger weapon this time around.

In the earlier game, the Patriots tried to stress the Broncos linebackers by putting them in coverage. It was a match-up they didn’t fully exploit but with Edelman back on the field, White is a weapon that they can bring to bear.

We saw some of this against the Chiefs. Instead of keeping White in to block on the majority of his snaps, they shifted him out wide, at times going 5-wide and that with Brady’s quick release (average 1.94 seconds according CSNNE’s Mike Giardi), rendered the Chiefs talented pass rush toothless.

White had a big 29-yard catch and run, from out of the backfield in the KC game and could be primed for more. Denver has a very talented defense that likes to set the tone and be very aggressive. By spreading them out and forcing them to declare where the pass rush is coming from, Brady can send White, Edelman or Gronkowski in motion to see if the defense is sticking with man or dropping into zones.

James White 29 yd2

Can we see them trying to put pressure on the linebackers again by using the backs, i.e. White out of the backfield or split wide? Absolutely and he may be utilized more this time around and even more so than he was against the Chiefs.

Being able to get rid of the ball so quickly will help Brady immensely against this talented front seven. Giardi posted some eye-popping numbers from Saturday regarding how quickly Brady was throwing the ball.

On Edelman’s ten receptions, Brady’s average time from snap to throw was an incredibly fast 1.57 seconds. When the Patriots spread the Chiefs out and had Rob Gronkowski split wide, Brady threw to him seven times, completed six and got two touchdowns. He got rid of the ball in a ridiculously fast 1.48 seconds.

It makes life incredibly difficult for the pass rushers to get there in that fast of a time. Look for the Broncos to bring pressure up the A-gap, much in the same manner that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia use Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. But if Brady is getting the ball out that fast, it is going to create more receiving opportunities for White and that is a positive for New England.

With Edelman and Gronk bound to get a lot of attention from the Denver defense, White could be the Patriots “X-Factor” in the game on Sunday.

And if he and the rest of the Pats do their job on Sunday, they’ll be packing their bags for Super Bowl L.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.

Patriots 2015 Playoff Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Broncos AFCCG

Steve Balestrieri
January 19, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots travel out to the Mile High City in Denver to take on a familiar opponent, the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three years. Both teams won in the AFC’s Divisional Round while at home.

The Broncos came back from a 4th quarter deficit with 11 points in the final four minutes to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 on Sunday evening. Capitalizing on a recovered fumble where it looked like the Steelers were about to put the game away, they drove for a go-ahead touchdown and then added a field goal after the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.

The Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Foxboro 27-20 as Tom Brady threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns breaking KC’s 11-game winning streak. New England took the opening drive and drove for a touchdown in the game’s first four minutes and never looked back. And forcing them to play from behind was instrumental in the Pats success. Kansas City during their entire 11-game winning streak, trailed for a total of nine minutes

The game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by CBS and will have their announcing crew of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on the call. It will also be carried by the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 FM the SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak.

An interesting tidbit about tickets for this week’s game comes from the Denver Post: Tickets for the AFC championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots game will go sale to the general public at noon Monday, the Broncos announced Sunday. …

Tickets will only be sold to those with a billing address in the Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, western Kansas and Wyoming. Sounds like the good folks in Denver are worried at seeing a ton of Patriots fans for the game.

Here are our five first impressions of the Broncos:

Forget the Hype or Ignore the Noise in this one: The mainstream media is falling all over themselves in trying to make this “Brady vs Manning XVII” or some other nonsense. As if the question is still an open one…that book was closed long ago.

Manning is a complimentary piece now and the offense no longer revolves around him airing it out 40-45 times a game. If truth be told, Bill Belichick and the Patriots would love nothing more than to force Manning into HAVING TO throw all game long. That is a game the Patriots would feel they would be best served to win.

The legacy pieces for Manning were already well into play on Sunday as the lead-in to the Divisional Game was less about Pittsburgh and Denver and more about hailing the conquering hero. Since Saturday, think back how many times you’ve heard, “With a win on Sunday, Tom Brady will have the opportunity to win back-to-back Super Bowls.” In fact, no one has done it since…Brady did in 2003 and 2004. And we haven’t heard it in the mainstream …once.

We have seen from multiple sources that Monday was the 1-year anniversary for Deflategate. One thing you won’t hear on Sunday that it will be 30-day anniversary of the HGH story released by Al Jazeera that Manning played a part in, especially from his buddy Nantz at CBS.

But back to Manning, his arm even in the near 50 degree temps on Sunday still struggled to hit those outside throws with any velocity. Good news for Denver has the extended weather forecast at being near 50 again on Sunday. Manning remains a very smart signal caller and has the experience to recognize a lot of pre-snap reads that can lead to an audible at the line.

This isn’t “Brady vs Manning XVII” but Brady vs the Denver defense. More to that in a bit…

Forget the regular season numbers, Denver is a running team now: The Broncos were a poor running team until Manning was sat down and Brock Osweiler brought in. That brought wholesale changes to their formations and the commitment to running the ball that has paid dividends.

While the Broncos averaged 107.4 yards rushing per game on the season, those numbers were much better in the second half of the season. During six of the last seven games Denver has rushed for more than 100 yards. During the final seven games the Broncos averaged an impressive 134.8 yards per game on the ground. If not for the Oakland game where they were stymied for just 34, that number would have been 151.6.

Coach Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme along with running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson have excelled for Denver down the stretch. This will be a key area to monitor as the game moves closer.

During the first meeting prior to Dont’a Hightower going down with an injury, Denver rushed 15 times for just 43 yards, a 2.9-yard average per rush attempt. After Hightower went out Denver rushed 15 more times for 132 yards, an 8.8-yard average per rushing attempt with three touchdowns including Anderson’s 48-yard scamper in OT. The big Patriots linebacker will be a key cog in stopping the run this week.

Denver’s Defense Will Look Different with Ware on Sunday: Missing in the first matchup between the two teams was bookend pass rusher DeMarcus Ware who was out with a back ailment. He and Von Miller led the Broncos pass with 7.5 and 11 sacks respectively as the team was tops in the NFL in that category with 52.

They also get a good push from interior DL Derek Wolfe who notched 5.5 sacks of his own in just 12 games this season. Wolfe was suspended for the first four games of the year for violating the league’s rules policy on performance enhancing drugs and then parlayed that into a four-year contract extension worth $36 million with $17 million guaranteed. Money well spent.

Denver had the fourth overall defense in terms of points allowed with 18.5 in 2015, was third best against the run allowing only 83.6 yards per game but was #1 in terms of total yards (283.1) and Yard passing (199.6). Wade Phillips unit has been the cornerstone of this team all season.

The secondary is deep and active, led by Chris Harris, Aqib Talib as well as safety T.J. Ward, the hard-hitting presence who plays right up to and many times over the line. While they didn’t generate a ton of interceptions, the secondary has the ability to blanket opponents and shut them down, coupled with their pass rush.

Special Teams Was a Big Factor in Win Over Pittsburgh: While many will point to, and rightfully so as the Steelers fumble as the turning point in that game Sunday, the Broncos STs delivers a large share of the credit as does the failure of Pittsburgh’s for keeping that game close.

Kicker Brandon McManus single-handedly kept the Broncos in the game with four field goals and later put the game away with a fifth. He was all the scoring the Broncos would get for 23 consecutive playoff drives until the late touchdown on Sunday. While the Steelers punting unit couldn’t deal with the gusty winds blowing in Mile High, Britton Colquitt had no such issue and won the battle of field position easily.

Denver’s coverage units are very solid and their punt coverage team allows only a 6.1-yard average. Who can’t forget the muffed punt by the Patriots’ Chris Harper in November that Denver was right on top of and it turned a 21-7 Patriots lead into an eventual loss.

Their punt returners Emmanuel Sanders as well as Omar Bolden are dangerous. Bolden gashed the Steelers for a 42-yard punt return on Sunday that led to a field goal. But he hurt his knee on Sunday and may not be available for Sunday’s game. The Patriots STs will have their hands full on Sunday.

Broncos Solidify Offensive Line Just in Time for Playoffs: Denver much like New England has had injuries to their offensive line. They’ve had to mix and match with their backups and the results weren’t always the best.

But on Sunday the debate as to who would start for the Broncos at right tackle was answered…and emphatically as Michael Scoffield not only started but played all 74 offensive snaps against the Steelers. While he got flagged for one holding call, he was solid in the game and did a good job in the running game.

Left guard Evan Matthis who was hurt and coming off the bench down the stretch for the last three games of the season, also started and played all 74 offensive snaps. But a question that does remain is where is Vernon Davis?

The tight end who John Elway traded for has had issues learning the offense and played in just 11 snaps during the final two regular season games. Against Pittsburgh, Davis played only a single snap signaling that he is now the third TE on the depth chart behind Owen Daniels and Virgil Green. While there’s still a chance that we’d see Davis against New England, it seems that this move was one of those low-risk, high-reward moves that just didn’t pan out.

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

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast 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.