Tag Archives: 2016 AFC Championship Game

Patriots Report Card, 36-17 Win Over Pittsburgh for AFC Crown

Steve Balestrieri
January 25, 2017 at 5:59 am ET

High Marks All Around In Destruction of the Steelers

The Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl after a 36-17 dismantling of the Steelers. After beating the Steelers by 10 without Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh earlier this season, the conventional wisdom was that this one would be a lot closer, with many media folks picking the Steelers in this matchup.

But New England put together a dominant effort in all three phases of the game and held the potent Steelers offense to just nine points until a garbage time touchdown with three minutes to go. So much for not facing and beating an elite QB.

With the victory, the Patriots (16-2) will continue to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons (13-5), in the Super Bowl for the ninth time, the most in NFL history. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick go for the 7th time in 16 years, which is a crazy fact in the age of parity and the salary cap in today’s NFL.

So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: A
Tom Brady was masterful and in control all game long. After having an off-day against the Texans the week prior, Brady was focused, sharp and picked the Steelers defense apart. He completed 32-42 for 384 yards and 3 TDs for a passer rating of 127.5

In his last six games against the Steelers, Brady has thrown 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He picked apart the Steelers zone coverage and constantly found the open man. When they changed things at the line, Brady would audible at the pre-snap and kept Pittsburgh’s defense on their heels.

When the Steelers closed to 10-6 in the second quarter, Brady engineered a magnificent nine-play 82-yard drive for a touchdown that put the Patriots in the driver’s seat for good. Completing key third down passes to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, the Patriots put the dagger in with a perfectly executed 34-yard flea flicker to Hogan for the score.

Running Backs: C+
LeGarrette Blount was held easily in check in this one until his 18-yard burst thru the line where he ended up carrying over half the Pittsburgh defenders with him to the one-yard line. He followed that up with a touchdown on his next carry. His 2.9-yard average wasn’t what the team was looking for but running the ball wasn’t in the gameplan this time.

Blount had 47 yards on 16 carries, Dion Lewis wasn’t as effective as we thought he’d be as the interior of the Pittsburgh defensive line did a very good job of stuffing the run. He ended up with just 11 yards on six carries.

Wide Receivers: A
Unlike the first Pittsburgh game where the WRs were an afterthought to the running game, this time the Patriots came out fast and throwing the ball. Brady spread the ball around to nine receivers on the day and Pittsburgh had no answer.

Chris Hogan gets the game ball with a new Patriots postseason receiving record of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The amazing thing was he could have had more. He dropped a bubble screen with plenty of blocking ahead of him and let another go off his fingertips in the end zone. But it was a fantastic day for the former Buffalo Bill.

The best line of the game went to the Boston Herald’s Ron Borges who said about the free agent the Patriots signed in March, “Ten months later, the Steelers showed as much interest in Hogan as the Bills had. The Bills didn’t covet him and the Steelers didn’t cover him.” Brilliant and summed up perfectly.

Julian Edelman had another fantastic performance with 8 catches for 118 yards and a score. The Steelers had no one that could cover him and he found the open areas of the zone coverage time and again.

Tight Ends: B
The Patriots used their “12” Personnel package in the first meeting quite a bit with 1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs with both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in the lineup. This time around they went with their “10” package with 1 RB and 4 WRs for nearly 20 snaps. So, the tight ends weren’t big targets in the passing game.

Bennett however, did catch five passes for 32 yards and provided some solid blocking in the running game.

Offensive Line: B
The offensive line did a great job of pass protection this week, after a game against Houston where Brady was under pressure for most of the game. This time, they clogged the middle when the Steelers tried to bring pressure up the A-gaps and their edge rushers James Harrison and Dud Dupree were rendered practically invisible with strong performances by Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.

The run blocking was another story as the Pittsburgh interior DL stood up strong all game long in run support. Joe Thuney was tossed aside by Jason Hargraves like a sack of mail on one sequence.

But the game plan this week was to throw and Brady’s protection was very, very good for the majority of this one. He frequently had so much time he stood flat-footed waiting for someone to get open.

Defensive Line: B+
The Patriots defensive line had a tremendous day of stuffing the run. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine were tremendous inside. Pittsburgh’s running game got just 54 yards on 20 carries. After Le’Veon Bell went down with an injury, they brought in D’Angelo Williams who carried 14 times for just 34 yards.

Valentine had a huge stuff of Williams on a 2nd and goal run that pushed them back to the five-yard line. That sequence resulted in a field goal after the Steelers had 1st and goal from the one-foot line.

The defensive line had another stop on the Steelers later in the game. Branch stuffed a run on first down. He and Valentine set up another stop by Hightower and Pittsburgh came away with no points.

Linebackers: B
Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts were going to be the main players in the game, but once Bell went down, they went more with Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin. Van Noy forced a fumble from Eli Rogers and Rob Ninkovich flew up from the line to recover it. No surprise there, whenever there is a big play in a big game, Ninkovich is always there.

The Patriots tried some A-gap blitzes with Hightower and Roberts but the Steelers OL did a good job of picking them up. McClellin did get some pressure on a few plays from the edge.

Secondary: B+
The defensive game plan was to limit the Steelers two best players, Bell and Antonio Brown on Sunday. Brown is one of the most dangerous players in the league and is a threat every time he touches the football.

Malcolm Butler was matched up with Brown with a safety over the top. They took away his ability to use the middle of the field nearly perfectly, where he always seems to get a ton of yards after the catch.

After Bell went down, the secondary switched from more man coverage to zone. Roethlisberger did very well against that, completing 16-17 passes, but the majority were of the check down variety and they took away the deep part of the field.

Both Butler and Logan Ryan had strong games in the secondary as the latter continues his very good season. He was taken out on a nicely designed pick play by the Steelers where Jesse James got a 16-yard gain. Eric Rowe was the fortunate one on Sunday night. He was beaten a few times and was the gift recipient of a couple of drops and then was beaten for the late touchdown when a communication breakdown allowed  Cobi Hamilton to be all alone for a 30-yard touchdown.

But overall, it was a fantastic effort for the secondary and the defense as a whole. We heard ad nauseam how the Patriots hadn’t faced an elite QB all season. Well, they did on Sunday and held them to essentially nine points until the garbage time score late.

Special Teams: B

Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, although this time in the conference championship game it didn’t come back to haunt him. He was perfect on three field goals, however.

Ryan Allen didn’t have to punt much but was effective with a 43.5 net average. The coverage units were solid and Jonathan Jones gets high marks for a couple of bone-jarring hits.

The return game was disappointing after a big night against Houston. Dion Lewis had a single return for just 18-yards and Edelman didn’t have any punt returns.

Coaches: A
Bill Belichick had the team ready to go and put together an outstanding game plan for this one. After leaning on Blount and the running game in Pittsburgh, the Patriots planned to start fast and do it with the passing game.

Josh McDaniels called a fantastic game and the decision to go with the up-tempo was brilliant. The Steelers had no answer for either Hogan or Edelman and Brady, as he’s been so often against Pittsburgh, picked them apart.

In our keys to the game, our take was that the Patriots should force the Steelers linebackers to play in space and they showed that their coverage was an Achilles heel. He caught them time and again in the times the Steelers attempted to blitz Brady and the play call for the flea flicker touchdown to Hogan was a beauty.

Matt Patricia and Belichick had the game plan to take away Bell and Brown and force Roethlisberger to beat them with Rogers, Coates, and James. It worked to perfection. Roethlisberger even hinted after the game in a not-so-subtle jab that perhaps the moment was too big for the young receivers.

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.

Brady, Patriots Look Super, Thrash Steelers for AFC Title

Steve Balestrieri
January 23, 2017 at 9:00 am ET

The Patriots are going back to the mother ship. Yes, folks, that’s right the Pats are heading to Houston for Super Bowl LI after thrashing the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 on Sunday night in Foxboro. They did it by playing great defense in the red zone and in goal-line situations and by riding the arm once again of Tom Brady.

Brady did what he’s done so many times before to the Pittsburgh defense. He eviscerated them to the tune of 32-42 for 384 yards with 3 TDs and zero INTs for a passer rating of 127.5. Pinch us if we’ve seen this scene before. Against Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers teams, Brady has now thrown 22 TDs and 0 INTs.

Brady hit Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman on the perimeter all night long torching the Steelers secondary again and again. Combined, the two had 17 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Pittsburgh had no answer.

With the win the Patriots will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl, most in NFL history. And Tom Brady and the Pats will be playing in their seventh Super Bowl in the past 16 seasons. That is a ridiculous number and when people talk about dynastic eras in the sport, keep in mind this was done in a salary cap era where the league wants to push its parity.

So, the Patriots will be facing off against the Atlanta Falcons, who like NE, won in a rout as Matt Ryan picked the Green Bay defense apart in 44-21 curb stomping. But there is and will be plenty of time to talk about that matchup. Tonight is about the AFC Championship Game and this team’s place in the franchise’s history.

Other observations from tonight include:

Chris Hogan WAS a pretty good signing: Back in the spring, we were singing the praises of Hogan and the decision of Bill Belichick to sign him away from Buffalo. But the news, like many of the Patriots free agent signings, was met with a lot of ho-hum type of reactions. After all, when Bills GM Doug Whaley listed the players that should compete for the open Bills #2 WR slot, he didn’t even include Hogan, who was a restricted free agent.

Well after a solid first season in Foxboro where he was the #2 WR in the NFL in terms of average yards per reception, Hogan made his presence felt. Against the Steelers, he set a Patriots postseason record with 180 yards on 9 catches and 2 TDs. He narrowly missed a third score when a Brady pass glanced off his hands in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots used him in the slot a lot like they did with Rob Gronkowski against Pittsburgh and the results were remarkably similar. Although the two have vastly different skill sets, Hogan used his speed to find open spots in the zone and then blew past the defense for a long touchdown flea flicker from Brady.

How Will the Play of the Defense be Minimalized Now? The Patriots defense has transformed itself since the midway point of the season. And nothing they did in the second half of 2016 got any credit for the way they played individually and the scheme by Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick. All we heard was “they haven’t played a good QB”…ad nauseam.

This unit was the top defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed, giving up just 15.6 points per game, and 12.9 during the second half of the season. “Pittsburgh is the test with their big play WRs and Bell” was the rallying cry heard all week. Well, what’s going to be the excuse now?

The Patriots defense held Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to just nine points until a garbage time TD with about 3 minutes left when they were playing soft upped their total to 17. It was also the least amount of points the Steelers scored during their nine-game winning streak. Remember when NE beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 27-16? “But that was with Landry Jones!” the naysayers said. “Wait until they face Big Ben.”

The defense gave up just 17 points and held Pittsburgh to just 1 score in trips to the red zone (part of our keys) and 0-2 in goal line possessions. For a team that prides itself on their toughness and physicality, the Patriots punched them in the mouth and showed they were the more physical team tonight.

Belichick and Patricia Changed Things Up Perfectly: Early in the game, the Pats were playing man coverage with safety help over the top for Antonio Brown. After La’Veon Bell went down with a groin injury, they changed it to a zone scheme on the fly and without the bigger threat of Bell in the running game, the focus was to keep the play in front of them and make the Steelers earn their scores by slowly making their way down the field.

While Roethlisberger ended up with 314 yards, the Patriots kept them out of the end zone with some tough play in the red zone. Brown wasn’t a big factor catching seven catches for 77 yards and Bell had just 20 yards on six carries before exiting. De Angelo Williams, who had torched New England a year ago, had just 34 yards on 14 carries. Pittsburgh as a team ran for just 54 yards on 20 carries, a 2.7-yard average.

In our keys to the game, we wrote about the disparity between Roethlisberger’s passer rating at home and on the road. At home, it was a stellar 116.7 and on the road, it was just 78.4. The Patriots held him to just an 83.1 passer rating for the game. So yes they CAN stop an elite QB.

Drive of the Game: With the Patriots holding a 10-6 lead in the first half, the Steelers were in the position to stop New England and possibly take the lead. The Patriots went 82 yards in nine plays to increase their lead to 17-6 and never look back.

Some of the key plays to keep the drive alive were the 12-yard pass from Brady to Julian Edelman on 3rd and 10. Then facing a 3rd and 8 at the NE 44-yard line, Brady hit Chris Hogan for 22 yards, which set them up at the Pittsburgh 34-yard line.

That led to the scoring play a 34-yard flea flicker where Brady handed off to Dion Lewis who pitched it back to Brady and he found Hogan for a much-too-easy scoring pass where he blew by the defenders who were rushing up in run support.

The Patriots had answered the Steelers scoring drive with a big one of their own and any hope that the defense had of stopping New England went out the window.

Josh McDaniels Deserves a Lot of Credit for this One: After a sloppy and less than ideal Divisional game where the offense never really seemed to get into a rhythm, this game was supposed to be a much different test. The Steelers defense had been playing much better in the second half of the season and was supposed to give a much bigger test than the unit did earlier in the year.

While Houston moved its edge players inside to get to Tom Brady, Pittsburgh wasn’t going to do that. They are a “we do what we do” type of defense. Edge rushers James Harrison and Bud Dupree stayed on the edge and weren’t big factors in the pass rush.

McDaniels recognized where the weak spots in the zone coverage were and the Patriots exploited them. Brady and McDaniels saw tendencies and were on the same page where Brady audibled and took advantage of the matchups.

Hogan 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs, and Julian Edelman 8 catches for 118 yards and a score were unstoppable all night long and the running backs, where we thought would be matchup problems for Pittsburgh never materialized.

We’re on to Houston…

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.

New England Patriots News 1-22, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
January 22, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 1-22, and AFC East Notes for this week.

With a win, this evening, either the Patriots or the Steelers return to the Super Bowl for a record ninth time. It just highlights that the two franchises from the AFC continue to play at an ultra-high level while the league is trying to push parity.

The Patriots with a victory are just one win away from title number 5.

On Saturday afternoon, I got to speak with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown who were in town to do some recruiting at Grafton High School.  Grafton’s Ifeatu Melifonwu is a CB/S that is a name to keep your eye on in the future. He’s a 6’3, 190-pound senior who is an athletic freak.  While his preferred position is on defense, he scored 25 touchdowns this fall for the Indians who made it to the state title game. His older brother Obi Melifonwu is graduating from UConn this spring and entering the NFL draft.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh with Grafton coach Mike Binkowski (left) and head coach Chris McMahon on Saturday.

Brown is a native of Spencer, Mass and has four children who still reside in the state. Harbaugh said that the team was already starting their strength and conditioning programs but it would begin in earnest after National Signing Day. For Harbaugh to fly out from Michigan to visit with the young man yesterday, they must have serious interest in him. Harbaugh was relaxed, personable and interacted with many of the fans in attendance after the game.

Chip Kelly to NE? May Not Be So Far-fetched:
Both ESPN and NESN are reporting that the recently fired head coach of the 49ers Chip Kelly may be heading to New England.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that after he interviewed recently for the Jacksonville Jaguars opening at offensive coordinator, one he didn’t get, that Kelly “was headed to New England to meet with Belichick.”

Getting the offensive coordinator position seems very unlikely now with the news that current OC Josh McDaniels will not be taking a head coaching job. One scenario could be with Bill Belichick, giving his good buddy Kelly an offensive assistant role in the booth, until he lands a new head coaching job. He did a similar thing with Packers DC Dom Capers a few years ago.

Goodell Going Back to Atlanta is a Good Thing:
Most Patriots fans want to see Roger Goodell come to New England so that they can vent their frustration on the Commissioner after the Deflategate fiasco.  Goodell, however, has decided to go back to Atlanta for the second week in a row. Wisely.

No good can come from Goodell coming to Foxboro to face the ire of Patriots fans, and it is a possibility that some oiled-up fans may take it a step farther and attempt physical harm to the Commissioner, what one member of the media stupidly called for.

That would be a stain, the kind of which the Patriots and Robert Kraft would never be able to shake. Instead, fans will have to live with the possibility of seeing Goodell hand the Lombardi Trophy to Kraft, Tom Brady, and Belichick if they win tonight and again in Houston in two weeks.

Besides, Goodell is just the spokesman for 31 other owners who were all too willing to buy into the phony science and petty jealousy. They, not just Goodell wanted to exact their pound of flesh from New England. Kraft, in an interview with the New York Times, hinted as such.

“Sometimes the league screws up, and I think they really messed this up badly, Kraft said… “There’s jealousy, there’s envy and there’s stupidity. Sometimes, life is unfair. You have to suck it up, move on and not use it as an excuse.

Patriots Add TE Depth With Housler Signing:
The Patriots are playing for the AFC Championship tonight but have already started planning for 2017 with the move they made on Thursday by signing TE Rob Housler to a reserve/future’s contract.

Housler didn’t play in 2016, being released by the Chicago Bears in the final cut-down to the 53-man roster at the end of training camp. He played from 2011-2014 for the Arizona Cardinals after being drafted in the 3rd Round, (69th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft.

During his time in Arizona Housler caught 105 passes for 1133 yards and a touchdown. In 2015 he spent time with both the Browns and Bears. Looking ahead to next season, his roster spot may hinge on whether or not the team resigns Martellus Bennett. Rob Gronkowski is returning from injured reserve and the team still has Matt Lengel and Michael Williams who went on IR.

He had two productive seasons in 2012 with 45 receptions for 417 yards and in 2013 with 39 receptions for 454 yards and a touchdown with the Cardinals.

Who Do You Like Today:
After last week’s Divisional Playoffs I went 2-2, having whiffed on Dallas and KC which puts me at 5-3 in the postseason. I’m sticking with the Patriots at home and Green Bay with the big win on the road against the Falcons.

Eastbound and Down, AFC East Notes:

Bills’ Williams Named to the Pro Bowl:
The Buffalo Bills have announced that DL Kyle Williams has been named to the Pro Bowl in 2017 to replace Miami DL Ndamukong Suh who can’t play due to an injury.

This is the fifth time in Williams’ career that he has earned Pro Bowl honors after being named a Pro Bowler in four straight seasons back in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Williams played in 15 games during the 2016 season for the Bills, notching 64 tackles, 5 sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss. Williams has tallied 40.5 sacks in his career—the most by any defensive tackle in Bills team history.

Dolphins to Play the Saints in London:
The Miami Dolphins will be playing in London again in 2017, playing the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium.

The game will be played in either Week 3 or 4 on September 24 or October 1 according to NFL sources this week.

Another game to be played in either Week 3 or Week 4 at Wembley Stadium will be between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Dolphins will lose one of their home games in Miami as they’ll be dubbed the “home team” for the Wembley contest.

Teams traditionally get a bye week after playing in London so Miami’s bye week will be an early one in 2017.

Two other games, to be played on Week 7 or Week 8 at Twickenham Stadium, will be between the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns, and between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams. Those game dates will be Oct. 22 and Oct. 29.

Former Jets’ Great Gastineau Has Dementia:
The Jets released the sad news that former defensive line great, Marc Gastineau is suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. The former DL, now 60, admitted this in a radio interview this week.

Gastineau, speaking to WOR Radio in New York, he was pushing the USA Football’s Heads Up program to promote safety in the sport.

”When my results came back, I had dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Those were three things that I have. … It’s something that I want every player that goes out and plays to be protected in the best way they can be protected,” Gastineau said.

ESPN posted a transcript where Gastineau claims that his own playing style was the cause of his brain injuries and that the new USA Football program will make it safer for kids, including his own, to play the game safer than when he played.

“I led with my head all the time,” he said. “Do you remember Marvin Powell? He was one of the best linemen in the NFL. He and I used to have wars [in practice]. … People would come and gather round because when we hit each other, I mean, you would hear pops, like a shotgun going off.”

”I’m not going to say that I’m not going to let my child play when I know there are techniques out there that if I would have had them, I know that I wouldn’t have the results that I have now,” he said.

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.

Patriots – Steelers AFC Championship Key Matchups

Steve Balestrieri
January 20, 2017 at 9:44 am ET

The New England Patriots head to the AFC Championship Game for a record sixth time in a row and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m.

The game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Phil Simms as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Cappello.

The Patriots (15-2) defeated the Houston Texans in the Divisional round 34-16 despite not being at their best offensively. The Patriots turned the ball over three times although Dion Lewis set an NFL record with a rushing, receiving and a return for a touchdown. The Patriots defense forced three turnovers with interceptions of Brock Osweiler.

The Steelers (13-5) defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 18-16. The Steelers offense also struggled and failed to score a touchdown relying on six Chris Boswell field goals. The Steelers defense stopped a two-point conversion with seconds left in the game that could have sent it into overtime.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Steelers meet for the 30th time but just the 10th in Pittsburgh. The Steelers own a 15-14 edge overall in the history between the two teams. However, since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, the Patriots have had great success against the Steelers taking 10 of 13.

In their last meeting, earlier this season the Patriots won 27-16 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger and had Landry Jones at quarterback. Tom Brady completed 19-26 for 222 yards and LaGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs on 24 carries.

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

First up is the Patriots offense: