Tag Archives: 2016 Patriots playoffs

QB Play, Balance, Why Patriots-Steelers Find Success

Steve Balestrieri
January 19, 2017 at 9:20 am ET

The Patriots and Steelers will battle it out for the AFC Championship on Sunday evening and this is the way it should be. Back in September, many people had these two teams meeting for the championship and that is exactly the way it played out. And it is no surprise that the teams with the best balance and quarterback play are still standing in the end.

Despite what the NFL would have you believe and through their best efforts about parity in the NFL, this still is a quarterback driven league. Since 2003 the AFC has been represented once in the Super Bowl by a QB not named Brady, Roethlisberger or Manning. That was in 2012 with Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens.

For the fans sick of seeing one of those three in the big game, it isn’t going to change because either Brady or Roethlisberger will be representing the AFC again as the two teams clash in New England despite Manning hanging it up this season.

Brady missed the first four games of the season but then proceeded to set a new standard for Touchdown to Interception Ratio by throwing 28 TDs to just two INTs. Brady completed 67.4 percent of his passes and finished with a QB rating of 112.2 which is ridiculous for a QB at the age of 39.

Roethlisberger shook off an injury in the middle of the season that caused him to miss two games but still threw for 3819 yards and 29 touchdowns with a QB rating of 95.4. With him under center, the Steeler offense is a balanced juggernaut that can score points in a hurry.

And balance is why both teams are here at the end. The Patriots and Steelers remain balanced in the running and passing games on both offense and defense to keep their opponents off balance.

New England had the 7th ranked rushing offense in 2016 averaging 117.0 yards per game. Their passing offense was 4th with 269.3 yards per game. Overall the unit was 4th in the NFL averaging 386.3 yards per game. Pittsburgh’s offense had the 14th ranked rushing attack with 110.0 yards per fame. The Steelers had the #5 passing offense averaging 262.6 yards per game. Overall Pittsburgh was the 7th ranked offense in terms of yardage with 372.6 yards of offense every week.

That balance doesn’t allow opponents for keying on any one specific area of the offense to stop. If a defense tries to load the box and bring eight men up to stop the run, then they’ll burn you with a pass. Want to drop six defensive backs in the dime to slow down the passing game? Then they’ll hit you with a run and make you pay.

This competitive balance carries over to the defensive side of the ball as well. The Patriots and Steelers have the most balanced defenses of the four teams left in the Super Bowl hunt.

New England was the #3 rush defense in the league in 2016 allowing just 88.6 yards per game. The pass defense checked in at 12th with NE opponents passing for just 237.9 yards per game. The Patriots defense was1st overall in points allowed and 8th overall in yards allowed with 326.4 yards per contest.

Pittsburgh’s defense allowed just 100.0 yards per game on the ground (13th) and 242.6 yards via the air (16th). Their 342.6 yards per game allowed on average per game was 12th best in the NFL. Neither team has a particular glaring weakness on the defensive side of the ball.

Looking at the NFC’s two finalists, Atlanta’s run defense is rated 28th in the NFL and the Green Bay pass defense is the 31st in the league. While much of the time, you can throw many stats out the window once the playoffs begin, the two AFC teams have the better balance on each side of the football to carry them to a Super Bowl victory in Houston.

Does it guarantee success? Not hardly. But I’m going out on a limb here and saying the winner of the AFC’s championship game on Sunday will win Super Bowl LI in Houston. Just what the fans of 30 other cities want, another Brady/Roethlisberger championship.

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.

Five Patriots Players to Watch Against the Texans

Steve Balestrieri
January 13, 2017 at 7:45 am ET

Every Game Now is a One-Week Season

The Patriots take the field in the Divisional Playoff game against the Houston Texans on Saturday night in Foxboro. Kickoff is slated for 8:15 p.m. and the weather is supposed to get cold again with temperatures in low-to-mid 20s at the start of the game.

The Pats worked hard this season to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes thru Gillette. They’re taking a Houston team, basically playing with house money. Until the Raiders lost two QBs, nobody gave them much of a chance of reaching this round and few of the experts covering the NFL give them much of a shot this week. That’s why they play the games on the field.

I would expect Bill O’Brien to be very aggressive this week. Look for the Texans to empty the playbook and throw as much at the Patriots as they can. 4th and 1 at anywhere near mid-field, they’ll go for it….at least they should.

With a win on Saturday, the Patriots will set another record, passing the Oakland Raiders and be playing in their sixth straight conference championship. Nothing says sustained excellence better than that. So, with that in mind….

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

Quarterback Tom Brady: The Patriots QB had a tremendous season after coming off his league-imposed “vacation” for Weeks 1-4. Brady continues to amaze, even at the ripe old age of 39. In truth, he’s playing better now than he was at 29. In 2016, he set a new NFL record for touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 28 TDs to just 2 INTs. He’ll also add to his record just by taking the field on Saturday and play in his 32nd postseason game, the equivalent of two NFL seasons.

He’ll be facing a Texans defense that knows the Patriots well. DC Romeo Crennel held the same position here for the first three Super Bowls of the Patriots era. Linebacker coach Mike Vrabel played an integral part of those teams. Houston head coach Bill O’Brien was the offensive coordinator here. So, Houston knows what the Pats like to do, especially in certain downs and situations. Crennel will try to change his pre-snap looks to something different once the ball is hiked to slow Brady’s thought process down and give his pass rush that extra half-second to get home.

Of course, Brady knows this too, he’ll be ready for the shifting line just before the snap, to the secondary members shifting at the snap. It all will come down to execution. Brady will have all his WRs at his disposal this week. The team misses Rob Gronkowski, but they’ve adapted to absence the best that they can at this point. Brady will lean on his buddy Julian Edelman heavily, especially early in this one.

Cornerback Logan Ryan: The Pats corner has traditionally been tasked with covering the Texans best wide receiver and their most talented offensive player, DeAndre Hopkins in past meetings. He’ll probably get the nod there again. In two meetings between the teams in 2015 and in Week 3 this season, Ryan covered Hopkins and allowed only 5 catches on 11 targets for 96 yards with two passes defended.

Ryan began the year on the right, #2 CB opposite Malcolm Butler. But the team leaned on the 25-year old’s versatility and shifted him inside to the slot. That allowed the defense to move the bigger Eric Rowe outside with Butler. The results have been much better playing from the entire secondary. Ryan leads the team with 92 tackles and is solid in run support as well as three QB hits and a sack blitzing from the slot. He has logged 11 passes defended and a pair of interceptions on the year.

Look for Ryan to be tasked with covering Hopkins again with some over the top help and trying to bracket the Texans top receiver. He’s elevated his play down the stretch, allowing just around 40 percent of passes thrown his way to being caught.

Wide Receiver Julian Edelman: Edelman entered this season as a bit of question mark, at least physically. After his foot surgery in 2015, he re-injured it in training camp during a joint practice and things were looking a bit dicey. But after a somewhat slow start, Edelman answered the bell for all 16 games and turned in an excellent 98 catch, 1106-yard performance in 2016.

Now he’s healthy and leads the deepest group of wide receivers the Patriots have had in the Brady/Belichick era. He’ll be playing in his 13th playoff game of his career against the Texans and just needs two catches to pass Wes Welker for most post-season catches (69, you know what that means Gronk?) in Patriots history. But for Edelman, he’s like Brady and the rest of the Patriots under Belichick. Personal stats mean nothing, the only thing that matters is getting the win.

Look for him and Brady to try to get the chains moving quickly on Saturday night. Houston has a good pass defense that allowed just 201 yards per game during the regular season. The Patriots will attempt to use the quickness of Edelman to get those short, crossing routes open and create some space for the other receivers to work in.

Defensive End Trey Flowers: The Patriots defensive end has had a breakout season in 2016. After having an impressive training camp last year in his rookie campaign, he suffered some different injuries that caused him to play in just a single game. But the soft-spoken native of Alabama has really stepped up his game in 2016.

The Patriots under Belichick and Matt Patricia, like for their defensive players to be versatile and Flowers has fit the bill perfectly. He’s played defensive end and has frequently been pushed inside on passing downs as a smaller, interior pass rusher. He’s been just as good at setting the edge in the running game as rushing the QB from the edge and push the pocket from the inside. Frequently lauded by the coaches for his solid play, he’s been playfully nicknamed “Technique” by his teammates. But since the midway point of the season, Flowers has logged seven sacks, most on the team.

He’ll go against Duane Brown for part of this upcoming game. The Texans LT missed the first contest and he spearheaded an effort against Oakland last week that kept the Raiders pass rush from sacking Brock Osweiler once. Flowers will be looking to get into the pocket and disrupt the timing of the passing game. Patricia will move him around both inside and out but look for the 2nd year pro playing in his first playoff game to be a factor.

Offensive Tackle Nate Solder: Much of the talk during last week’s Wild Card game centered around the uber talented Houston DE/LB Jadaveon Clowney. Clowney is an athletic freak who had a tremendous impact on the game, blowing plays up in the backfield, creating pressure and intercepting a screen pass in the flat. Looking to neutralize him will be Patriots LT Nate Solder.

Solder was limited to just four games in 2015 before being placed on IR. He’s returned and has played outstanding this season. But with the unexpected emergence of RT Marcus Cannon, little has been mentioned about Solder’s play. He hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 10.

This promises to be a great matchup. Clowney was limited by injuries early in his career and came on at the end of 2015. Now fully healthy, he’s been the force that many foresaw for him when he was the #1 pick in the draft. Solder will have his hands full with the talented pass rusher and if need be, the Patriots will double him up. But look for the coaches to match them one-on-one initially.

Who Do You Got This Weekend: With the Divisional Round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs here, it usually means some of the best football of the season. These games are normally some of the best to watch and this week’s slate has some intriguing matchups. Last week, I went 3-1, whiffing on the Giants and their own version of the Love Boat cruise.

So, for this week:

New England over Houston- see our breakdown here.

Atlanta over Seattle- Matt Ryan finds holes in the LOB without Earl Thomas. Seattle just hasn’t been that good on the road this season, with the exception being their game in NE.

Kansas City over Pittsburgh- This will be one of those weird games where either the Chiefs win a close one or get blown out. I see the Chiefs holding serve over an explosive Pittsburgh offense with a late field goal to win the game. The home field advantage here, being in Arrowhead is the difference. But the “X-Factor” is LaVeon Bell for the Steelers. KC didn’t have a very good rush defense, and Bell can turn the game in a hurry.

Dallas over Green Bay: Ditto for home field. The Cowboys offensive line and their running game will be the difference at home as they control the clock and limit how much Aaron Rodgers and the Pack’s offense has the ball. Word to the wise for Dallas. You’ve ridden a rookie QB all the way to home-field advantage for the playoffs. Let him do the things he’s done all season. Don’t be like the OC for Alabama and get all conservative with Dak Prescott now.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as well have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

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 – Texans Divisional Playoffs, Keys to the Game

Steve Balestrieri
January 12, 2017 at 5:45 am ET

The New England Patriots will play the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs from Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday night at 8:15 p.m.

This week’s 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 Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.

The Patriots (14-2) were on a bye week after winning the top seed in the AFC. They finished off the regular season by beating the Miami Dolphins 35-14 to finish the season with a perfect 8-0 road record. Now they’re rested and ready to go

The Texans (10-7) beat the Oakland Raiders 27-14 in the Wild Card game in Houston. Brock Osweiler threw for a touchdown and ran for another and the defense led by Jadeveon Clowney shut down the Raiders offense, holding them to just 203 yards and forced three turnovers.

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 Texans will be meeting for just the 9th time as Houston entered the league in the 2002 season. The Patriots hold a 7-1 advantage in these contests while holding a perfect 4-0 advantage at home, including a 41-28 playoff win over the Texans in 2012.

The Patriots dominated the Texans 27-0 in Week 3 of the 2016 season with Jacoby Brissett, the Pats rookie 3rd string QB at the helm. The defense shut down and shut out the Texans that night forcing three turnovers while rushing for 185 yards.

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

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots Playoff Opponents, Five More Texans Impressions

Steve Balestrieri
January 10, 2017 at 8:35 am ET

Patriots Prohibitive Favorites in Rematch With Houston

The Patriots return after their bye week for the Divisional Round of the 2016 playoffs to take on the Houston Texans. The two teams will meet on Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. in Gillette Stadium and the broadcast will be aired by CBS.

The two teams met back in Week 3 of the NFL season with the Patriots taking a 27-0 shutout win at home with Jacoby Brissett under center. However, the Patriots, especially QB Tom Brady have been quick to point out that Texans have their respect particularly the Houston defense.

Many of the players and fans will point to the overconfidence of facing the Jets after the 2010 season and just a little more than a month after the “Butt Fumble” blowout. The Jets shocked the 14-2 Patriots that year in Foxboro.

Here are our further Five Impressions of the Texans:

Osweiller Back At QB…For Now: When the Texans signed Brock Osweiler away from the Broncos, they thought they were adding a franchise QB to the team that would lead them for years to come. It has been a rough year for the big, tall QB.

Houston was just 29th in passing in the league in 2016, averaging only 198.5 yards per game. Back in September, Osweiler was on par with those numbers completing 24 of 41 passes for 196 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He was benched late in the season for Tom Savage, who played well. But Savage was sidelined with a concussion, and it Osweiler begins to falter, he may have a short leash.

Osweiler played well last week in the Wildcard Game against the Raiders. In the first half, he completed 12-18 for 146 yards and a touchdown and appeared much sharper than he had been for most of the season. In the second half, the Texans scaled back the offense because A. they had a lead and B. because the trust factor wasn’t there for Osweiler and they didn’t want to allow Oakland back in the game with a turnover.

This week, facing Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, they shouldn’t have that kind of luxury and Osweiler will be expected to produce far more if the Texans want to advance.

Miller May Be the “X-Factor” for Houston’s Offense: Back in September, we wrote here that Lamar Miller, signed as a free agent from the Dolphins was a great pickup and would be a big upgrade in both the running and passing games for the Texans.

And he indeed was, he carried the ball 268 times for 1073 yards and five touchdowns for the Texans this season. He added 31 receptions for 188 yards and a score thru the air in 14 games. He missed time at the end of the season due to an injury but returned for the Wild Card matchup and was able to boost the Houston running game. He carried 31 times and ground out 73 yards and a touchdown against Oakland last week.

Houston was the 8th ranked rushing team in the NFL this season averaging 116.2 yards per game. The Patriots were the #3 team against the run this year allowing just 88.6 yards per game. If Houston is going to pull the upset here and advance, they’re going to need a big game from Miller, both in the running and passing games to take the pressure off Osweiler. Miller had 80 yards on 21 carries in the first matchup here.

Clowney, Leads the “Big 3” For the Texans Defense: With J.J. Watt on IR this season, placed there right after the New England game, the pressure was on the rest of the unit to step up. And it started with the former #1 pick DE Jadaveon Clowney. Limited by injuries early in his career, the “Bust” label was being tossed around when discussing the athletic freak from South Carolina. But no longer.

He came on at the end of the 2015 and topped that off with a very impressive 2016 logging 40 tackles and half a dozen sacks. He’s athletic, strong, and very fast off the edge. He can disrupt and blow plays up, as we witnessed against the Raiders last week and be a game changer for this defense. He’ll be matched up against Nate Solder for much of the game and will be a handful for the veteran left tackle.

Whitney Mercilus is the outside linebacker on the left side for Houston and he leads the team with 7.5 sacks on the season. He gives the Texans bookend pass rushers that can get after the QB and disrupt the opposing team’s offensive rhythm. He’ll be going against Marcus Cannon this week.

Benardrick McKinney was singled out by Bill Belichick for praise this week, as the Patriots were very interested in the Mississippi State linebacker when he came out of college for the 2015 NFL Draft. Belichick was effusive in his praise for the big LB, stating, “He’s a very good football player,” Belichick said. “We did a lot of work on him coming out of Mississippi State. He’s the kind of player that played outside and inside linebacker.”

“He also played a little bit at defensive end, is an excellent blitzer, runs very well, is long. He’s 6’4 so he gets to a lot of plays with his length, particularly in pass coverage, a hard guy to throw over or around, a very good tackler, good range, good speed, good instincts, good wrap-up tackler… It’s very unusual to find a player with his skills that can do so many things in the running game, in the passing game, on the line, off the line. He’s an excellent player, one of the best players we’ve played against all year. He played well against us.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, McKinney logged 16 tackles and a sack of Brissett. The Patriots may look to counter the linebackers of Houston, (McKinney, Mercilus, and Brian Cushing) by putting them in space and forcing them to cover the tight ends and running backs this week.

Tight Ends Key to the Passing Game: When the Texans drop back to pass, the focus will naturally be centered around their most talented pass catcher, WR DeAndre Hopkins. But to be successful, Osweiler will need to get his tight ends involved.

Houston has two big tight end targets in the passing game and both have been effective. C.J. Fiedorowicz caught 54 passes for 559 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Ryan Griffin made 50 catches for 442 yards and a pair of scores. When the Texans need to move the chains, Osweiler will lean on the big men in the middle of the field. The Patriots have had issues in the past at covering tight ends and these two should see plenty of targets.

Hopkins will see plenty of looks outside, he was targeted 151 times on the season, but the Patriots will look to take him away with bracketed coverage. Will Fuller the speedster from Notre Dame got off to a hot start with a pair of 100-yard games to begin the season, but more than half of his production was logged in the first four games. He will need better production this week.

Osweiler has to get into a rhythm this week, and to do so and beat a Patriots defense that will force them to work their way down the field, they’re going to need their tight ends to step up and move the chains.

If Texans Seem to be Familiar, They Are: In September, we wrote the Texans were really a Patriots-South coached team with a lot of familiar faces on the staff. The level of familiarity between the two staffs was startling. Once again…

There are a lot of Patriots connections with the Houston Texans and head coach Bill O’Brien is building himself a team on a solid foundation of New England talent.

O’Brien was the QB coach and the offensive coordinator with the Pats from 2007-2011. Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crenel started in New England as the DL coach in 1993 and became the DC here from 2001-2004, including the first three Super Bowl wins.

Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey was the Patriots tight ends coach and was here from 2011-2013. Linebacker coach Mike Vrabel is one of the hottest coaches in terms of getting top job offers. He was a standout member of the Patriots during the first three Super Bowl winning teams as a linebacker and goal line tight end. Special teams’ coordinator Larry Izzo was a standout STs player on the Patriots between 2001-2008.

And of course, the biggest Texan of them all is Vince Wilfork. The big man spent 12 seasons with the Patriots. Wilfork played in 158 games and tallied 517 tackles, 16.0 sacks, three interceptions for 48 yards, 35 quarterback hits, 28 tackles for loss, 12 fumble returns, four forced fumbles and 26 passes defensed.

When looking at the organization that O’Brien is building around him in Texas, it is easy to see where the emphasis on creating a winning atmosphere is coming from.

Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.

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.