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AFC Championship Game Will Be New England – Jacksonville

Steve Balestrieri
January 15, 2018 at 8:54 am ET

The much anticipated AFC Championship Game will not be a rematch between the Patriots and Steelers as the Jacksonville Jaguars for the second time this season went into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers 45-42 in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.

New England had already advanced on Saturday night by thrashing the Tennessee Titans 35-14 and will now face the Jaguars who won a close defensive struggle 10-3 over Buffalo and now a shootout against the over-confident Steelers.

The Jaguars, played the underdog role well all week, listening to several Pittsburgh players including safety Mike Mitchell and running back Le’Veon Bell openly talk about beating New England in a rematch, totally dismissing Jacksonville, which was doubly infuriating for the Jaguars since they blasted the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh earlier this season.

Mitchell was even reported to be standing outside the Jacksonville locker room trash-talking the Jaguars before the game. Once again, this failure resides right in the lap of the Pittsburgh coaching staff. While talking up their “upcoming” game with New England, they forgot about Jacksonville and their performance on the field was easy to point at.

Jacksonville, behind the power running of Leonard Fournette, play-action passing of Blake Bortles and that tough opportunistic defense raced out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter before the Steelers decided it was time to play. Ben Roethlisberger shook off a shaky, poor start to toss five touchdown passes, several of the highlight reel variety on fourth downs to keep the game close, but it was not to be.

Jacksonville came to play…this week. The Steelers were too fixated on next week and now go home with nobody to blame but themselves. To discount and overlook a tough team with the #1 defense in the NFL, and one that had routed you earlier in the year in your own building is unconscionable. He’ll have all spring and summer to answer those questions and they are legit ones. That locker room is way too loose.

Jacksonville is Ready: But for Doug Marrone’s team, they’re flying high right now. They entered the playoffs as the #3 seed and now part of the final four and they, (and rightfully so) feel like they can beat anybody. The pass defense is the #1 unit in the league and will present a tremendous obstacle for the Patriots.

Why? They can create plenty of QB pressure without blitzing just rushing their front four. That means they can drop seven men into coverage and fill up the passing lanes. Their cornerbacks are very good, we saw A.J. Bouye last year with the Texans in the playoffs.

Jalen Ramsey is the Jags other starting corner and he wasted little time in declaring the Jaguars as the next Super Bowl champions. Speaking to the fans upon return to Jacksonville, Ramsey said, “I ain’t got too much to say, but make sure you all bring that same energy out next week and the week after,” Ramsey said. “We are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that b***h. We are going to the win that b***h.”

Both starting corners are big, (6’0 and 6’1), fast, physical and athletic.

Teams Are Very Familiar With Each Other: This summer during training camp, the Jaguars and Patriots conducted joint practices with each other and there is much that can be learned about each other from those long looks on the Gillette upper fields.

You can guarantee that both sets of coaches will be looking at those tapes this week to see if they can catch the slightest nuance from their opponent. It also gives a good look at the role players, the guys that may only come in for a handful of snaps each week to see how the team may use them and get a better feel for their strengths and weaknesses.

Chris Hogan and A.J. Bouye battle during joint practices between Jax and NE in August. (SBalestrieri photo)

One player who gave the Jaguars fits (and who’ll be missed this week) was Julian Edelman who was nearly uncoverable in the workouts. For the Jaguars, Marquise Lee had his way with Malcolm Butler on several occasions. And Brandin Cook’s speed was something that the Jacksonville defense definitely struggled with. While Leonard Fournette showed why the Jaguars were so high on him.

We’ll have more on these matchups later this week.

Coughlin Factor Will be Overblown This Week: Tom Coughlin has his hands all over the Jaguars success this season. He knows how to build a solid football team. And it starts with his defense and then he builds a big physical offense built around the running game that feasts on play action when the defense over commits to stopping the run.

This is what he did here in Jacksonville to start the franchise, then brought it to the Giants and now he and Marrone are doing it here in Jacksonville again. They are a very physically tough, well-balanced football team. But less than 8 hours after their defeat of Pittsburgh, social media is already overflowing with the “Coughlin has the blueprint” on how to beat New England mantra, like he owns a secret talisman that is kryptonite against Tom Brady. That is what we’ll hear all week.

Coughlin’s teams win by being balanced and tough defensively. As we said above, they’ll present a very difficult challenge for the Patriots to beat this Sunday. And his defense in both Super Bowls slowed down the Patriots passing offense by making them one-dimensional and getting after Brady. In Super Bowl XLII they held New England to 45 yards rushing. In SB XLVI it was 83 but 21 of those belonged to Wes Welker.

And remember, for as stout as Coughlin’s defenses played in each, it took incredible deep, passing plays by Eli Manning to pull out each. The velcro catch down the middle in the former and the beautiful dime he threw to Mario Manningham in the latter.

It is just great team defense, there isn’t a secret or a blueprint. It is going out and producing. Both of these teams are vastly different from those teams and this will be a great chess match all on its own.

We’ll have a deeper look at the Jaguars here soon. Final Four Week is here. All four teams got here the old fashioned way…they earned it. This is what the postseason is all about.

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 1-14, And the Beat Goes On…

Steve Balestrieri
January 14, 2018 at 7:44 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 1-14, & AFC East Notes.

What a crazy week it was, we began the week with below zero temperatures in a deep freeze only to see Friday and early Saturday reach a balmy 60. Then by the time the game ended last night it was cold once again with single digit wind chills. Couple that with the Patriots playoff game and so little talk surrounding the game itself, it was indeed a crazy week.

However, when all was said and done, the Patriots are moving on to their seventh straight conference championship. That’s some rarified air folks. Breathe it in, enjoy it and ignore the noise.

Reports of the Patriots Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated:
Since the Patriots are indeed flying in that rarified air, there is no shortage of media people that can’t wait to be the first to say “the Patriots run is over”, and there is feuding among the top three of Brady, Belichick, and Kraft.

Well if you thought (or were secretly wishing for) this latest flap over nada to distract the team and throw them off of their game, you were sadly mistaken. They handled this like everything else and used it as a tool to bring themselves together and blasted the Titans into the offseason.

Next week, they’ll face a very good team either way between Jacksonville or Pittsburgh with the chance to go to the Super Bowl. And if they do fail, it will have zero to do with distractions, or in-fighting or worrying about who is the “Patriot of the Week.” This team is mentally tough and blocks out distractions better than anyone else.

Brady Continues to Amaze:
Speaking of wishful thinking, so many of these dweebs with their hot take shows have been predicting the end of the line for Brady for so long that it has become almost comical. I first heard these “he could be done as an elite QB” since the 2008 season when he tore his ACL. Ten years. The Brady funeral procession has been waiting for ten years and the beat goes on.

After all of the talk about his struggling December was all about his age and ignoring the fact that he was missing nearly half a dozen of his offensive players, once he got most of his players back he did what he’s always done. Made the naysayers pay. Right, Kevin Byard? He didn’t look like Blake Bortles last night nor was he afraid to test Byard in the middle of the field. When will they ever learn…don’t poke the bear.

Brady improved to an incredible 6-2 in playoff action when attempting 50+ passes. How is that incredible you ask? All other QBs attempting 50+ are a combined 3-28. Put that on a cliff. And thanks, Kerry Byrne for that stat.

How About that Patriots Defense?
It is amazing what you see on social media, the talk we’ve been hearing since September was that the defense was the Achilles Heel of the team and the lack of a pass rush/setting the edge in the running game was going to be the death knell of this team.

The run defense has been steadily getting better down the stretch and the QB pressure has been getting better and better and Matt Patricia doesn’t have that “marquee pass rusher” he and Bill Belichick have schemed a pass around the pieces that they do have.

And while the panic level around New England went thru the roof after the Titans went on their first touchdown drive, the coaches did what they always have done. They figured out what was wrong, adjusted and stuffed Tennessee until a total garbage time touchdown when the game was over.

Tennessee gashed the Chiefs for over 200 yards rushing the week before with Derrick Henry accounting for 156 of them. On Saturday night, that number was 65. And Henry, who was supposed to be the equalizer rushed for 2.3 yards per carry gaining just 28 yards. They took away Mariota’s running lanes in the passing game and the pass rush hit the Titans’ QB for eight sacks which is a franchise record.

Amendola is Money Once Again:
We’ve been unabashed supporters of the Patriots slot receiver. In the last two Super Bowl wins, he was right in the mix of things in each victory. No one has better hands and he has a nose for moving the sticks, finding the sweet spot in the coverage and always saves his best for the biggest times at crunch times.

One fact that escaped us last night was that Amendola has never had a 100-yard receiving game. Well not any longer. With the Patriots getting healthier on offense, Tennessee was busy trying to defend everywhere and that’s where Amendola steps in. He’ll never be “the guy” and he’s usually the third or fourth option for Tom Brady in many of these passing plays, but woe to the defense that ignores him. He caught 11 passes on 13 targets for 112 yards last night including a superb play by him and Brady for a key third-down conversion. Brady was flushed out of the pocket and threw across his body where Amendola made a tremendous leaping grab.

Every spring and summer, the rumors always have the Patriots cutting ties to the diminutive wide receiver, and every playoff run has us wondering “how could they get rid of this guy?”

Patriots Offensive Line Answers the Bell:
One of the other storylines this week was that big, physical Titans defensive line, doing what they did to Alex Smith and the Chiefs doing the same thing to Tom Brady, bringing pressure up the middle and shutting down the Patriots offense that “hasn’t been good all December” and “this could be 2010 all over again.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying. The charges of Dante Scarnecchia had a very good game on Saturday night. They picked up the A Gap blitzes, did a solid job of protection all night long and allowed zero sacks and just four QB hits.

Coaching Carousel Keeps Turning; Staff May Be Quite Different in 2018 :
The Patriots coaching staff and front office is always being looked at from other teams, trying to catch lightning in a bottle and emulate the Patriots success. And with both Offensive and Defensive Coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia receiving serious consideration from two teams, it seems on the surface that both may soon be gone. Where does that leave the team in 2018?

Bill Belichick is always grooming, “the next man up” in the military tradition, he no doubt learned at Annapolis. He’s grooming the next guy to take the job. That’s the difference between successful coaches and unsuccessful ones. You don’t train your subordinates to follow but to lead. And the team should be fine on paper.

Both Linebackers Coach Brian Flores, as well as Wide Receivers Coach Chad O’Shea, have been being groomed to step into the coordinator positions if indeed McDaniels and Patricia depart. Both are highly esteemed inside the building although the true test for each will come when they actually step into the roles. One potential, albeit long-shot snafu that could arise, is if Flores departs also. He’s already getting some consideration as a head coaching candidate from the Arizona Cardinals. If he were to leave as well, then that might open up the position for an outsider.

But Belichick always likes to promote from within and keep that continuity, so that would be intriguing if it were to occur. One name to keep an eye on if that occurs, … Greg Schiano, not really an outsider per se as he an Belichick have always been close.  

Gruden Lands in a Good Position to Thrive:
Jon Gruden leaving the ESPN Monday Night Football gig to return to coaching wasn’t a shock. Everyone who was close to him has stated that he is a coach, first and foremost and would eventually return to the coaching ranks sooner or later. Gruden was just waiting for the right spot. And he returned to the Raiders where he found success in the early 2000s.

A couple of years ago, he was interested in the Eagles coaching vacancy by Philly owner Jeff Lurie wasn’t interested in him, being out of the NFL for so long. But Mark Davis, the owner of the Raiders came calling with a boatload of cash and the rest, as they say, is history.

Gruden can coach, we’ve seen that with the job he did in Tampa with the Bucs. What he isn’t tremendous at is building a football team, as we’ve seen on the MNF telecasts, he loves everybody. But he doesn’t have to worry about that. He has a very good GM in Reggie McKenzie who has assembled some intriguing pieces around the roster for Gruden to work with. First of which is QB Derek Carr.

I can’t wait to see how those two interact and work around an offense that didn’t play to its full potential last year. The Raiders have some intriguing pieces on offense that seem tailor made for Gruden. That alone will keep the Raiders fans in the seats at the dump they play in until they make the move to Las Vegas. “Chucky Takes Las Vegas”…

Who Do You Like This Week NFL Divisional Weekend:
Wildcard Weekend Last week 3-1 mark.

Saturday: Falcons at Eagles – Atlanta
Titans at Patriots – New England

Sunday: Jaguars at Steelers – Pittsburgh
Saints at Vikings – New Orleans

****No AFC East Notes This Week****

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 myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Brady, Patriots Manhandle Titans 35-14, Advance To AFC Title Game

Steve Balestrieri
January 13, 2018 at 11:53 pm ET

For the seventh season in a row, the Patriots are going to the conference championship with a chance to go to the Super Bowl. After starting a bit slowly against a physically tough but overmatched Tennessee Titans team, the Patriots caught fire in the second quarter and scored 35 straight points before allowing a garbage time touchdown to win 35-14.

Tom Brady threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns, Danny Amendola had a fantastic game with 11 receptions for 113 yards and Dion Lewis and James White were basically unstoppable in the passing game. While the still much-maligned Patriots defense notched eight sacks of Marcus Mariota. The Titans QB threw for 254 yards but lost 52 of those back with sacks. The Titans gained a net total of 267 yards on the night.

The Patriots will host the winner of the Pittsburgh – Jacksonville game next week. Other observations include:

Brady Has His Way With LeBeau’s Defense Again: After the first two drives stalled without a pass to the running backs, the offense got it figured out and Brady picked apart the Titans defense by targeting the running backs, James White and Dion Lewis in the passing game where Tennessee had no answer.

The Titans were among the worst in the league defending backs in the passing game and it showed. Tennessee is stout against the run allowing an average of just 88 yards per game so Josh McDaniels and Brady eschewed the running game for the most part by throwing the ball short to the backs where they found great success.

While throwing to Dion Lewis out of the backfield, Brady was 9-10 for 79 yards. Overall he was 13-17 for 108 yards targeting the backs. White had a touchdown reception as well as running but also had a couple of drops. One on a wheel route was nearly a huge gainer but it bounced just off his fingertips.

Rob Gronkowski, despite being doubled most of the game caught 6 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown.

The Run Defense Put Derrick Henry on a Milk Carton: One of the big matchups entering the game was the Titans running game against the Pats defense which has struggled for much of the year. But like we saw down the stretch, the team has improved against the run and tonight, they shut down Henry who ran wild against KC a week ago.

Henry rushed for 28 yards on 12 carries, his longest run of the day was four yards. He was never a factor in the game and the Tennessee game plan of pounding the ball inside and keeping Brady off the field never materialized. Mariota had some nice, effective scrambles early but once Matt Patricia made his adjustments, the Titans running game was rendered ineffective. Overall they rushed 16 times for 65 yards while the Patriots rushed for 101 yards on 27 carries.

Amendola, Along with White and Lewis Were the “Little Big Men” for the Team:
The offense was clicking with the smaller players producing big-time. Amendola probably benefited the most from having White and Hogan back as with the different players in the lineup, and Tennessee opting to double cover Gronkowski, he had room to work underneath and if he can get his hand on the ball, he’s money.

Amendola is the subject of rumors every spring/summer that he’s on his way out and every year around playoff time, he reminds us all how valuable he is. Tonight was no exception. He made several catches of the difficult variety and is among Brady’s most trusted receivers with the game on the line.

The Patriots Pass Rush Continues to Improve: As the game went on, the pass rush kept getting better and better. The Pats pass rush notched eight sacks with them getting spread around. Deatrich Wise and Geneo Grissom each had two.

Others getting sacks were Trey Flowers, Adam Butler, Ricky Jean-Francois and Marquis Flowers. They were bringing the heat on Mariota and after the first few drives, he wasn’t able to scramble for yardage.

Stephon Gilmore didn’t give up a single catch during the game and had tremendous coverage all night. He made a nice diving pass breakup as well

This win has to be a big confidence builder for the team overall. The defense was supposed to be tested by the ground game of Henry and Mariota and they held up quite well. And to get after Mariota like they did with eight sacks? Off the charts.

Offensively, getting most of their missing pieces back was huge. The offense hasn’t looked this potent in weeks. Brady was cool, calm and collected, laser sharp and had a very impressive outing.

So…. We are on to the Conference Championship.

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 – Titans Key Matchups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge

Steve Balestrieri
January 12, 2018 at 7:30 am ET

The New England Patriots return from the bye week to take on the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the 2017 Playoffs. The game will be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, where if the team is successful this week, will be the place for the AFC Championship Game.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Saturday, January 13, at 8:15 p.m. ET and can be seen on WBZ-TV Channel 4. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from 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 (13-3) took care of business in Week 17 beating the Jets to end the season and had a much needed week off to heal up the many injuries that they have suffered this season.

The Titans (10-7) stormed back from a big 21-3 halftime deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round 22-21. The team rushed for 202 yards with Derrick Henry accounting for 156 of them. QB Marcus Mariota completed a TD pass….to himself in one of the crazier plays you’ll see.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2017 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 Titans are meeting for the 42nd time going back to the old days of the AFL and when the Titans were the Houston Oilers. Overall the Patriots hold a 24-16-1 edge. The Patriots have won the last six meetings including a 2003 season Divisional Playoff win.

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

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots RBs vs Titans Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Tennessee

The Patriots running game was firing on all cylinders until Rex Burkhead and James White went down with injuries. However, Dion Lewis has been simply outstanding in the second half of the season. Lewis will get the lion’s share of the work in the running game, even if both of those backs return.

The Titans are very stout against the run allowing just 88 yards per game. It starts with the big men in the middle, Sylvester Williams, Jurrell Casey and Austin Johnson. They’re big and physical and will make the going tough.

Look for the Patriots to pass to set up the run. The Patriots have run for more yards in the red zone in 2017 than any other team in the league. When they get down low, they like to run Lewis inside and catch teams in a pass rushing situation.

Patriots WRs vs Titans Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots passing game should get Chris Hogan, James White and maybe ….Burkhead back this week which will be a huge boost for the passing game.

The Titans can get after the passer and have 43 sacks, they also have the biggest ball hawk in All-Pro Safety Kevin Byard, but the two areas that they struggle in are the two are the Patriots strengths, covering running backs in the passing game and covering tight ends. They’re going to have to bring pressure up the middle if they’re going to slow down this passing offense.

Look for the Patriots to target Gronkowski and the backs early and often in this one. With the big men up front, the Patriots may try to keep them in their base look and then go hurry up to wear those big men down. If Brady has his full complement of receivers this week, this offense should easily have its way with Dick LeBeau’s defense.

Next up the Titans offense:

Titans RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Tennessee

The Titans have the big man, Derrick Henry at running back and Marcus Mariota, who is a dual threat to run or throw. They averaged just over 114 yards per game on the ground. Demarco Murray has already been ruled out of this one with an injury so it will be Henry. He gets better as the game goes on, so if the score is still close late in the game, that’s when he’s at his most effective.

The Patriots run defense has had major issues this season defending the run especially on the edge but they’ll be getting Alan Branch back inside and the addition of James Harrison should really pay dividends. That means Kyle Van Noy, who is also returning from injury can move inside where he’s more effective.

The Titans are a run-first team, but they’ll want to mix things up and keep New England off-balance. But will Henry influence the game enough to tip the scales for the Titans? He’ll get his yards but the Patriots have gotten better against the run down the stretch. Shutting down the Jets and Bills on the ground.

Titans WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge New England

The Titans have 3rd year QB Mariota who had a great 2016 but slipped badly this year throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Tennessee has a talented group of receivers with Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker and Corey Davis outside and Delanie Walker at tight end. Walker led the team with 74 catches for 807 yards and three scores.

The Patriots struggled horribly in September against the pass but since then, things have tightened up considerably. The Patriots on third down have the fourth best opponent passer rating of just 76.8. The corners and safeties have tightened things up. Look for Pat Chung to battle Walker which will be a key area to watch. Harrison may add a bit to the pass rush for the Patriots who got 42 sacks on the season. Mariota averaged just 199.4 yards per game passing this year. If the Patriots get off to a quick start, the big question is, can he throw enough to keep up?

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots’ Special Teams are among the best in the NFL, they excel in punt and kick coverage and continuously turn in big plays. Stephen Gostkowski had a very solid season and his kickoffs consistently put opponents deep in their own end. Ryan Allen is very adept at pinning opponents inside the 20 and the team has perennial Pro-Bowl ST player Matthew Slater on the coverage units.

The Titans punter Brett Kern led the league in punting average with 49.7 yards per punt and have Adoree Jackson on both their punt and kick return units.

Next up, who wins and why…

Prediction:

Once again the key here from a Patriots perspective is to get off to a quick start. They haven’t been good at throwing the ball (23rd in the NFL) so they’re not going to be at their best if they have to throw and get away from the run.

With the Patriots getting most of their weapons back this week, look for Tom Brady to spread the wealth around and test this pass defense. Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz schemes are the same defenses that he ran in Pittsburgh. There is no mystery there for the Patriots or Brady. Will LeBeau mix things up and play more man coverage this week? That’s the big question here. If they sit back in a zone, the only chance they’ll have is if they get great pressure up the middle. Another key is ball security. With an offense that scores just about 20 points per game, the Pats can’t afford to give Mariota and the Titans offense short fields and easy scores. They have to feel pressure to score every time they get the ball in order to keep up.

Tennessee is at their best when the force the game into a physical slugfest where the score is a 17-14 type of game into the fourth quarter. Those are the games tailor-made for them to win. Mariota is a dual threat to run/pass but I don’t expect the Patriots to “spy” him with a linebacker. It will just come down to the players doing their job and the defensive ends not getting too far upfield.

Brady, Gronkowski, and Lewis will have big games this week and New England advances for the seventh straight year to the AFC Championship Game with a solid team victory as they pull away late.  Patriots 31-14

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.

Podcast: The Coaching Carousel And The NFL Playoffs

Russ Goldman
January 4, 2018 at 12:39 pm ET

In this episode, we first looked back at the Patriots victory against the Jets. Next, we talked about the coaching vacancies in the NFL that could interest a few Patriots coaches. Later on, we previewed the Playoff Games for this weekend.

Patriots  Week 17  Report Card, Patriots Down Jets 26-6

Steve Balestrieri
January 2, 2018 at 8:56 am ET

The Patriots took care of business, downing the Jets 26-6 as they should have and enter the playoffs as the #1 seed. Which means that as long as they keep winning, the AFC path to the Super Bowl goes thru Foxboro. Just as importantly, the Patriots appeared to come out of the game relatively unscathed physically, something that really important as their injury list looks like a starting lineup most weeks.

But the win wasn’t your garden variety Patriots victory, the team didn’t execute exceptionally well offensively and looked sluggish for most of the game. Of course, the number of missing players and the cold would have had plenty to do with that.

While it isn’t worthy of sounding the alarm bells, they’ll be the first to say, this isn’t the way they wanted to head into the bye week. Defensively, the team allowed just two field goals and as we all know, the Patriots won’t lose many games allowing just six points.

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

Quarterback: C

Tom Brady didn’t have a sharp game completing just 18 of 37 for just 190 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. His game was off and the communication with the wide receivers was off as well. He identified a mismatch and launched a ball where Brandin Cooks should have had an easy touchdown. But Cooks inexplicably stopped running. In the red zone, Brady threw to the corner and no one ran there and was flagged for intentional grounding.

Several of his passes were off the mark. He threw badly behind Danny Amendola and was nearly picked off on another. He had Cooks on a deep cross but overthrew it on what appeared to be a touchdown.

But his receivers dropped several passes as well, Brady was going to attempt to throw a block on a Jet Sweep and at the last moment, thought better or it and to be gracious, he at least got in the way.

Running Backs: A-

Once again there was no James White, no Rex Burkhead, and no Mike Gillislee. No problem. Dion Lewis, the little big man was the team’s workhorse logging 32 touches as he was the star of the game offensively getting 93 yards on the ground and another 40 thru the air. Lewis scored twice, one rushing, one receiving and continuously made yards after contact.

Lewis channeled his inner Le’Veon Bell on Sunday with several stops behind the line of scrimmage to allow his blockers to gain an edge. That’s someone who’s seeing the field well and his patience paid off.

Brandon Bolden had nine carries and averaged better than five yards per rush but was not good in pass protection, getting pushed back time and again. James Develin was his usual solid self, although Brady overthrew him badly on the first series of the game.

Wide Receivers: C
The wide receivers were targeted 25 times on Sunday and they were not great overall. But they made up by constantly drawing third-down penalties on the Jets secondary. We mentioned above, Cooks stopped on what would have been a deep post-touchdown route. He also dropped an easy quick screen. But he finished with 5 catches for 79 yards which included a nice 37-yard sluggo route where he and Brady hooked up nicely and drew a couple of defensive penalties including a 40+ yarder which would have been another touchdown. He caught a five-yard touchdown pass.

Danny Amendola was the cause for Cooks TD being so wide open. He ran a shallow cross and dragged his defender with him, causing two Jets (the other covering Cooks) to collide, leaving Cooks all alone in the end zone. But he too made an uncharacteristic mistake, misreading a hot route where Brady threw to air on the sideline and Amendola went out and up. But his quick pass on a Jets blitz was a classic Amendola nice catch and run for 12 yards and a first down.

Phillip Dorsett was wide open on a deep crossing pattern and misjudged the ball, diving for it when it wasn’t necessary and dropped it. But he made a nice sliding/diving catch across the middle.

Tight Ends: Incomplete

Rob Gronkowski officially played in this game but wasn’t targeted once in the passing game. Now the alarmists are hitting the panic buttons all over New England, “Oh my gawd, if the farkin’ Jets can take away Gronk, we’re one and done in the playoffs!” To quote Aaron Rodgers… R-E-L-A-X.

Not taking anything away from the Jets game plan, where they planned on doubling him all game, but Gronks absence in the passing game was completely by design…by the Patriots coaches. Brady didn’t look to him once…not once. They let him go out there and block a bit in the running game and he ran some routes to stay sharp, but they essentially bubble-wrapped him for the playoffs.

Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister each had one target in the passing game. “O” stands for zero

Offensive Line: B-

The offensive line’s play was a notch down from last week. They were only okay in the run blocking scheme this week. Lewis was hit too much at or behind the line of scrimmage, the Jets did a pretty good job of slowing things at the point of attack. Lewis by virtue of his elusiveness made more on his own than he should have.

The pass blocking wasn’t as crisp either. While we mentioned Bolden whiffing a few times on A-gap blitzes, it wasn’t all on him. The Jets for a team that struggled to get consistent pressure all season, had more than they should have against Brady.

Nate Solder and Cam Fleming didn’t have great days at tackle, allowing too many pressures coming off the edge.

Defensive Line: A-

It was a very good day for the Patriots defensive line. When was the last time that they stuffed Bilal Powell, who usually tortures them? Powell had 13 carries for 46 yards but 24 of them came on one play where Eric Lee got washed inside and Elandon Roberts took a bad angle. After that, Powell had 12 carries for 22 yards. Overall, the Jets carried 19 times for 40 yards which averages out to 2.1 yards per carry.

Malcom Brown had another very solid day inside, stuffing a few plays and being stout at the point of attack. Ditto for Lawrence Guy who has had a quietly solid season. Guy does the dirty work between the tackles and had a couple of run stuffs as well.

Eric Lee had a so-so day but got Bryce Petty for a sack and a safety in the fourth quarter.

Linebackers: B

Marquis Flowers was the main guy on the edge as although Kyle Van Noy returned to action, they only played him about 15 snaps, just to get the rust off. Flowers and Roberts were okay for the most part, but they both blew the coverage allowing a big gain to the tight end Sterling.

James Harrison made his debut and played between 25-30 snaps and looks far from done initially. He does a very good job of setting the edge and reacted well to a third-down pass underneath by tattooing Robby Anderson with a thunderous hit short of the sticks. That one fired up the other defensive players.

Late in the game, Matt Patricia let him get after Petty, early in the game he was on the field mainly in run support as he only had a few days of practice in which to acclimate to the Patriots defense. Once he did rush, he was impressive, getting two sacks and forcing a fumble. On his one sack, he showed a rip move that was pure power. A nice start for Harrison. If he can give them 25 or so plays like that every week, the coaches will be very happy.  

Secondary: B

Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore had kind of a bounce-back week. Kind of? Well, they were rarely targeted, as the Jets don’t have a prolific pass receiving core. They were most often seen in run support. But when your opponent, even if it is the Jets go 0-12 on third down, you’re doing well.

New York was targeting Jonathan Jones, who was beaten by ArDarius Stewart for a 46-yard bomb that was perfectly thrown by Petty. Devin McCourty was good but uncharacteristically missed an open field tackle. While Petty threw for 242 yards, the Jets scored six points and were (again) 0-12 on third down.

Special Teams: A+

Ryan Allen had easily his best game of the year. He put five punts inside the 20 and in the second half, he dropped three inside the five. Matthew Slater downed two of them. It was a fantastic day for him. The coverage units were fantastic as usual although the return game was only so-so.

Stephen Gostkowski’s kickoffs are something we regularly laud here and once again he was spot on. They were constantly pinning the Jets deep. The only downer was when Belichick (perhaps wisely) decided to punt rather than try a 52-yard field goal. Why? Because had he made it, Gostkowski would have led the league in scoring for the sixth time in his career. Currently, he’s in a three-way tie with five, the most ever

Coaches: B+

Bill Belichick was playing some Jedi mind tricks on the Jets psyche by placing some big thermometers right outside the Jets locker room to remind them how cold it was. While he was sending a subtle message to his team to ignore the elements by doing his normal walk-thru before the game in a t-shirt and shorts.

Belichick went against his normal self by winning the toss and taking the ball to start the game which proved smart. They went right down the field and scored before settling into the deep freeze for the majority of the game.

Josh McDaniels got creative with an offense missing several key players by calling a multitude of different things and they did enough to win.

Matt Patricia’s defense has made a remarkable turnaround despite also missing some key players for most of the season. Remember when fans were calling for his head after the first four games where the defense was being gashed? Now he’s being interviewed by numerous teams to be their head coach.

The Patriots allowed 128 points in their first four games. In their last 12, they’ve allowed 168. Think about that one…

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 2017: The Year in Review

Steve Balestrieri
December 30, 2017 at 11:18 am ET

While we’re waiting for the Jets game on Sunday to round out the regular season, it will also mark the end of the calendar year 2017. And it has been quite a year for the Patriots. One thing that can be said about this team is that they can be many things, but boring is never one of them. The year began with a tough divisional win over Houston, to the crushing of the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, to the epic comeback in the Super Bowl over the Falcons. And that was just the beginning of the year.

Free agency, the 2017 NFL Draft, Mini-camp and Training Camp set the table for a very exciting year. The slow start out of the gates made for intriguing storylines but in the end, the team has won 12 games with one still left to play. The legacy of this team has yet to be written, and that won’t begin for another two weeks. In a perfect world, the team would have four games remaining to play.

So here is our list for some of the big moments of 2017:
Best Moment:
James White’s touchdown to win the Super Bowl. What seemed like a pipedream in the third quarter came to fruition as Tom Brady and the Patriots offense cruised down the field in overtime with an epic drive to win the game. Watching White dive across the goal line was a surreal moment that will be an iconic moment in team history right up there with the Malcolm Butler interception.

Honorable Mention: Julian Edelman’s catch to keep the tying drive alive in the SB. It was a tremendous effort that seemed crazy at the time and was caught perfectly by the cameras as frame by frame, it was an obvious catch.

There was a couple of others, Cooks winning TD catch against the Texans and Harmon’s game-clinching INT vs Pittsburgh were great moments for the team.

Worst Moment:
Seeing Julian Edelman go down in the preseason. It was the beginning of an epidemic of injuries this year. After the year Edelman had in 2016, especially with the Super Bowl, confidence was high in 2017. It wasn’t to be.

Dis-Honorable Mention: Just about anytime Brady has an off-game, we’re subjected to all of these hot takes “Is this the beginning of the end?” yada, yada…stop. No Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, James White, Rex Burkhead and others and he puts up an MVP-type season? Who else does that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? This nonsense gets old. A week ago without all those weapons, the Patriots put up 37 points against a pretty good defense and what was a playoff team. And he had a bad game?

The trade of Jimmy Garoppolo is still incomplete at the moment. While no one wanted to see him leave the Pats, his success so far isn’t an immediate ticket to Canton and an automatic Super Bowl bid just yet. We’ll see how he does when teams have a lot of tape to watch on him. But right now, the results are very impressive.

Best Addition- Veteran:
Brandin Cooks came in and logged 1000 yards receiving with a game to play. From the beginning of mini-camp, we’ve watched this guy turn on the jets (no pun intended) and just imagine how effective he’d be if the other guys were all healthy. Has he been perfect? No, but he’s brought a dynamic to this offense that was sorely needed.

Honorable Mentions: Rex Burkhead and Stephon Gilmore. Burkhead hasn’t been able to stay healthy this season, but when he’s in the lineup the offense is very difficult to slow down. Gilmore despite being the whipping boy for the fans and media due to his contract has been the better starting corner overall.

Best Addition – Rookie
Deatrich Wise has had an under-the-radar solid season where he’s put up similar numbers to Chandler Jones’ rookie season while logging far fewer snaps. Wise had a very solid training camp where he appeared much more mature and seasoned than a guy entering his first NFL training camp. The moment was never too big for him and he’s had a solid rookie campaign.

Honorable Mention: Adam Butler was a guy few if any, gave any shot at making the team in July. But he worked hard and made a few splash plays every day in training camp. He’s become a nice rotational piece for the defensive line.

Biggest Loss:
This one is a tie between Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower since we listed Edelman above. I loved what Chris Long brought to the defense and when he left via free agency, I thought it was going to hurt. And seeing what he’s doing in Philly has not changed my opinion at all. Losing Long and Jabaal Sheard in free agency was a big loss on the edge.

Chris Long (left) was a key member of the defense in 2016

But the team added Kony Ealy in a trade and drafted Derek Rivers and Wise in April. Rivers was an intriguing piece, who had just begun to catch on when he was lost for the year due to injury. But the team still had the veteran Ninkovich for one more season…they thought.

Ninkovich’s abrupt retirement during training camp coupled with Ealy’s inability to catch on and Rivers’ injury really left the team strapped on the edge. It has been an issue since Week 1 of the season. Ninkovich was never going to be listed as the most talented guy at his position but when the games were on the line he was at his best.

Hightower was the one guy this defense could ill-afford to lose. The talented, physical but oft-injured linebacker/edge player from Alabama re-signed to New England in the offseason and can do a multitude of different things; play MLB, OLB, DE and be an effective blitzer as well. If the team falls short of its goal this postseason, Hightower’s absence will no doubt play a huge factor.

Biggest Surprise:
Dion Lewis has taken over the Patriots backfield in the second half of the season and has been simply outstanding in doing so. With a very crowded backfield during training camp, many had Lewis in not even making the roster. Early in the season, the Patriots were going more with Mike Gillislee and James White and Lewis’ snaps were virtually non-existent. This led many to believe that Lewis would be gone by the trade deadline.

Thankfully that didn’t happen. He’s been outstanding in the running game and is averaging more yards after contact than any back in the NFL. He had his best game as a pro last week and the arrow is continuing to point up.

Honorable mention: While I can’t really say I was surprised by Burkhead’s success, we all thought he was a great fit for the Patriots, but the way he worked himself in as an integral part of the offense WAS a surprise, taking away reps from James White.

Biggest Disappointment:
Derek Rivers injury was a huge disappointment here. While many will point to his just being a rookie and coming from a small program at Youngstown State, I was intrigued by his measurables and watched him closely at training camp and it seemed the light had gone on and he was going to be an impressive guy to watch. Hopefully, he’ll be ready to go in 2018.

Honorable Mentions: The accident suffered by Harvey Langi and his wife was a scary reminder that these things can happen to anyone. Langi and his wife were stopped at a red light in Foxboro when another vehicle slammed them at close to 50 mph. Both had to be cut out of the vehicle with the jaws of life. He’s another guy that the defense could have used this year. Hopefully, both are recovered fully by now. Kony Ealy…. Coulda, shoulda, woulda…

Here’s hoping that 2018 gets off to an even better start. Happy New Year.

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 – Jets Part II Key Matchups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge

Steve Balestrieri
December 29, 2017 at 10:28 am ET

The New England Patriots finish off the 2017 regular season by taking on the New York Jets in Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium.

The teams have moved in different directions since the last time the teams met in Week 6. Both entered that game at 3-2 and since, the Patriots are 9-1 and are in line for the AFC’s top seed. The Jets are 2-8 since that matchup and are left looking for answers.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, December 31 at 1:00 p.m. ET and can be seen on WBZ-TV Channel 4. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from 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 (12-3) took care of business last week by defeating the Buffalo Bills 37-16. Dion Lewis rushed for a career-high 129 yards as the Patriots ground out nearly 200 yards on the ground. The defense held the Bills to just three field goals.

The Jets (5-10) lost to the Los Angeles Chargers 14-7 as they limp to the season’s finish line but still are playing hard for coach Todd Bowles. They’ve been in all of their games this season and looking to the future.

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 Jets are meeting for the 118th time. The Patriots hold a 62-54-1 edge overall. The Patriots are 33-25-1 all-time at home against the Jets. The Patriots have won the last three matchups and the past two wins by Gang Green have been in overtime. One of which was in 2015 with the famous “pushing rule” game which cost the Patriots home field advantage in the playoffs but wait, the Pats get all the calls right?

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

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots RBs vs Jets Front Seven – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots running game has been steadily getting better as the season goes along and Dion Lewis has emerged as the Pats go-to back. Last week against the Bills, they were missing Rex Burkhead and James White, but Lewis and Mike Gillislee gashed the Buffalo defense for nearly 200 yards.

The Jets, like the Patriots, have had issues stopping the run and have allowed 116 yards per game. In the first matchup this season, New England ran for 125 yards. The key matchups will be how effective the Pats offensive line is at getting to the second level against a good linebacking core.

Lewis will be the main back again, however, with Burkhead on the shelf, Gillislee has missed practice time with a knee injury. If he’s unable to go, we may see more of Brandon Bolden this week.

Patriots WRs vs Jets Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots passing game is still missing a ton of key players with Chris Hogan, White, and Burkhead out. But the good news is Malcolm Mitchell is back and is slated to play some this weekend. He’ll no doubt have some rust issues but his return is very good news for the passing offense. Matching up with Rob Gronkowski has to be the Jets priority on Sunday. I’d expect to see him doubled this week.

The Jets have done a good job of defending the pass this year allowing just 237 yards per game. They’ve only had two teams pass for 300 yards or more against them this year. Their improved secondary begins with the two rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye who have come in and played much better than anyone could have hoped this early in their careers.Their biggest weakness remains, rushing the QB and if they give Brady time, he should have a big day.

Gronkowski had a big game with two touchdowns in the last matchup and the Jets will have to find a way to slow down the big man. It will be up to the other players on the offense to make them pay if they decide to double Gronk. Brandin Cooks will have to step up this week and make the Jets force coverage toward him.

Next up the Jets offense:

Jets RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge New York

The Jets have a very good running back in Bilal Powell and he is coming off a big game last week (145 yards) against the Chargers. Look for the Jets to test the edge of the Patriots defense which has been leaky for much of the season. Powell missed the first game and has usually played well against the Patriots.

The Patriots run defense has had major issues this season defending the run especially on the edge and they’ll be short inside with Alan Branch still out injured. But there are a couple of silver linings this week. Malcom Brown played arguably his best game of the season last week against the Bills and the Patriots just picked up James Harrison. The Steelers all-time sack leader is closer to the end of the road than the beginning but I think he’ll be looked to primarily help with setting the edge here. If he can do that, then his time here regardless of his pass rush ability, will be a success.
We don’t know how much he’ll play this week, but they’ll be a lot of eyes on him and we’ll be focusing on the running game first.  

Jets WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge New England

Josh McCown is out for the season and the Jets now have Bryce Petty under center. He has some good weapons in the passing game, Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse outside, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Powell out of the backfield. The problem has been protection this season. Jets QBs have been sacked 43 times in 2017.

The Patriots pass defense has been light years better since the first Jets matchup where McCown threw for 350+ yards. The secondary didn’t have a good week against Buffalo last week and will be looking to enter the postseason on a high note.

Look for Matt Patricia to be a bit more aggressive this week with Petty under center than McCown. We’ll see some safety or corner blitzes and some A-Gap pressure as well.

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots’ Special Teams are among the best in the NFL, they excel in punt and kick coverage and continuously turn in big plays.

The Jets STs units are a step below the Patriots and don’t have the edge anywhere here. But they showed last week that they’ll be aggressive, starting off the Chargers game with a successful onside kick. Expect them to empty the tank this week.

Next up, who wins and why…

Prediction:

This key here from a Patriots perspective is getting off to a fast start. Game time temps are slated to be 10-15 degrees with a wind chill below zero. The Jets, although they’ve played hard all year are playing for nothing but pride. If New England gets off to a quick start, they may just want to fold up tents and get home to watch the ball drop in Times Square.

Turnovers are key here as well. The Jets don’t have a prolific scoring offense so ball control and not turning it over is key here.They can’t give the Jets any short fields and any momentum to pull off the upset.

Look for the Brady and the offense to keep it varied, mixing in the pass and run equally and the defense to get a couple of sacks as well as a turnover of their own…or two.  Pats finish the regular season 13-3. Patriots 34-13

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  Week 16  Report Card, Patriots Run Over Bills 37-16

Steve Balestrieri
December 26, 2017 at 9:12 am ET

The Patriots took care of the Bills again and won by 21, but it wasn’t as easy as the score would indicate. Buffalo had a much better game plan this time around and played hard. The score was very close until about midway thru the fourth quarter when the Pats pulled away.

This one had more controversy as Kelvin Benjamin appeared to snag a go-ahead touchdown just before the end of the half. The referees signaled a touchdown but the league’s replay officials, (which took forever) decided it wasn’t a catch. Whether you believe it was a catch or not, it certainly appears that the league’s officials in New York are adding to the problem with over-analyzing these things rather than simplifying them.

But in the end, the Bills with an extra four points or not, couldn’t stop the Patriots or Dion Lewis and New England scored on six straight possessions. Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo offense weren’t going to match that and the Pats win assured them of their eight straight 12-win season and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

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

Quarterback: B-

Tom Brady much like the first game in Buffalo wasn’t sharp in the early going, before getting it going in the second quarter and beyond. He was late in throwing a slant to Kenny Britt which resulted in a Jordan Poyer pick-six and a 10-3 Buffalo lead. He threw well behind Rob Gronkowski and then overthrew him on passes where he was wide open. But he quickly found his game.

After the pick-six, the Patriots would outscore Buffalo 34-6 and Brady began heating up. He didn’t throw an incompletion in the second half and ended up 21-28 for 224 yards with 2 TDs and an interception.  

Running Backs: A

No James White, no Rex Burkhead? No problem. Dion Lewis, the guy whose name former Bills coach Rex Ryan claimed he didn’t know slashed Buffalo again. Lewis headlined a Patriots ground game that gashed the Bills for 193 yards. The Patriots knew the Bills were selling out trying to stop Brady from throwing and had a slew of smaller defensive backs in to stop the pass. The Patriots ran right at this group with deadly effect. New England ran for 191 the first time the teams played and 193 on Sunday.

Lewis led the way with 24 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns. In two games against the Bills, this season Lewis ran for 221 yards. It is safe to say they know his name now.

Wide Receivers: C
The wide receivers again this week were pretty much a non-factor in the game. Buffalo’s secondary as we said, tried to take them away by flooding the field with DBs and it worked for the most part. NE’s wide receivers had a combined 7 catches for 87 yards.  Danny Amendola had three catches for 28, Phillip Dorsett had one catch for 24 yards, newcomer Kenny Britt had just one reception for 16 yards and Brandin Cooks had just two receptions for 19 yards, but he did draw a 49-yard pass interference penalty.

Tight Ends: A

Rob Gronkowski was a big factor in the passing game catching five passes for 67 yards including a sick 17-yard touchdown grab. Running a go route down the left sideline, Brady threw a back shoulder pass that Gronk snagged one-handed and was able to get both feet down for a highlight reel touchdown. He also drew a couple of pass interference penalties on the Bills as well as producing his normal stellar work in the running game.

Dwayne Allen had two catches for 26 yards while Jacob Hollister had a catch and a run for five yards each. On his run, if he stayed with Gronk and Allen to the outside, he had a touchdown. But he cut back inside and was tackled on the three.

Gronkowski also was asked about the Patriots success (12+ wins in the last eight seasons) and had a typically Gronk answer:


Offensive Line: B+

The offensive line’s play was very good this week, especially in the passing game. Brady was sacked twice but was only hit on two other occasions. He worked from a clean pocket for most of the day.

The running game was on point again as the offensive line was winning the battles there and opened up big holes for Lewis to exploit. They were getting to the second level and keeping the linebackers off the runners.  The Patriots set the pace and dictated how the game was going to be run.

Defensive Line: B

It was a good day for the Patriots front seven especially the defensive line. The Bills ran for just 84 yards on 24 carries, a 3.5-yard average. LeSean McCoy had the lion’s share of that with 17 carries for 71 yards. He had a nice 18-yard run on the edge, but the longer the game went on, the better the run defense got especially inside. The Patriots sacked Taylor six times and had 11 tackles for loss.

Linebackers: B

Marquis Flowers had a big, big day as he notched 2.5 sacks and had three tackles for loss and three QB hits in the Bills backfield. Elandon Roberts shared a TFL with Eric Lee but this week, there weren’t the glaring errors with misses and filling the wrong gaps as the linebackers were prepared and stepped up.

Especially with Flowers who has always been known as a STs guy but had a career-type of a day that was an unexpected bonus.

Secondary: C

After having their best day of the year the last time the teams played, the New England secondary had its issues all day long with the Bills receivers. Kelvin Benjamin is a beast. Even on one leg, (he needs MCL surgery after the season), the 6’5, 243-pound Benjamin gave Stephon Gilmore fits. The Bills were high-pointing the ball or allowing Benjamin to use his body to screen off Gilmore where he had five catches for 70 yards. But at least he was there with him all day.

Malcolm Butler had an awful day against Deonte Thompson who had Butler turned all around a few times with four catches for 91 yards. Butler was caught biting on a double move and just had a rough day all-around. Shady McCoy had five catches for 76 yards, with most of it coming on an outstanding 39-yard run where he caught a screen pass at the line of scrimmage and weaved and faked his way thru the Patriots secondary down to the 10-yard line.

Pat Chung did a pretty decent job on Charles Clay and Devin McCourty was solid in the back end but it wasn’t the greatest day for the secondary as a whole. But they were bailed out a few times by Taylor’s poor decisions to not throw the ball away, where he took horrible sacks and by curious decisions by the Bills coaching staff.

Special Teams: B

No worries here, Stephen Gostkowski was perfect in his four extra points and three field goals. His kickoffs as always are spot on and allowed the Patriots coverage units to do a great job of limiting the Bills return game. Ryan Allen punted only once for 44 yards with no return. Buffalo’s coverage units also had a very solid game. Special Teams play only played a key role in the Bills’ missed 50-yard field goal.

Coaches: B+

Bill Belichick had the team coming home after a long road trip and a particularly emotional win over the Steelers. Although they started slowly, the team was prepared and they had a good game that was executed well. As always, the Patriots halftime adjustments were outstanding, outscoring Buffalo 24-3 after the break.

Josh McDaniels’ offense was missing Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Marcus Cannon, Rex Burkhead and James White. And they still scored 37 points without a big turnover from the defense. That was their second highest output of the season.

And for all the hand-wringing about the Patriots defense, Matt Patricia’s unit gave up a total of nine points on just three field goals, the only touchdown the Bills scored in two games this season was by their defense. While it was neither perfect nor pretty, it was still effective.

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 Overcome Slow Start, Run Away From Bills 37-16

Steve Balestrieri
December 25, 2017 at 6:47 am ET

The Patriots took the Bills best shot and like the champion fighters that they are, got off the mat and put up a relentless assault scoring on six straight possessions to pull away from a game Buffalo team late to post a 37-16 victory.

The win puts New England at 12-3 and guaranteed a bye for the Wild Card round of the playoffs. It is also the eighth straight season of 12+ wins for Bill Belichick’s teams. Those are some unchartered waters right there folks. Jacksonville lost today to the 49ers so the Pats are guaranteed a bye. If the Steelers lose either tomorrow against the Texans or to the Browns,…or the Patriots beat the Jets next week they’re the #1 seed.

The Bills played really well for the first half and appeared to score a touchdown right before the half when Tyrod Taylor threw to Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone. It certainly appeared to be a touchdown but upon further review, the officials ruled that he didn’t maintain control long enough. This is a case where the replay officials in New York are just plain over-analyzing these things. Enough already.

But Tyrod Taylor and the offense, while moving the ball all day lacked finish and he made some terrible decisions with the football which killed drives. And while certain people like to denigrate the wins by stating that the opponent “crapped themselves”, the Patriots offense and Brady have a big hand in that as well. They put pressure on opponents by scoring six straight possessions. And for a Patriots offense missing Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, James White, Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead and starting RT Marcus Cannon, the 37 points were the second most they scored all year.

Don’t be fooled folks, this was a huge win. The Bills entered this weekend a playoff team and needed this one to stay alive. They weren’t playing out the string and going thru the motions here. The Bills led until late in the third quarter and you could see New England taking over this game, which they did and never looked back. Other observations include:

Brady Starts Slow, Takes Over: I have to shake my head sometimes at the commentary I see. Take a good look at the names on the key missing parts of the offense two paragraphs above.  Yes, Brady started slowly and made some poor throws and bad decisions. And yet, given that, and missing the above names, he still scored on six straight possessions and put up 37 points on a pretty good defense.

Brady finished 21-28 for 224 yards with 2 TDs and a pick, for a QB rating of 106.9.

Brady made a poor decision on the pick-six and where he took too long getting the throw out. That was also a great play by Jordan Poyer who jumped the route and picked it off, carrying it for a touchdown.

But Brady got better as the game went on and didn’t have a single incompletion in the second half. “But, but, but he only threw for 224 yards.” For years we’ve been clamoring for the Patriots to get a running game going where Brady didn’t have to throw for 300-350 and 45-50 times a game for them to win. They’ve now got that and despite them missing several key components were asserting their will, with #12 pulling the strings.

Lewis, Gronkowski Lead the Offense: Dion Lewis had a fantastic day running the football, gaining 129 yards on the ground on 24 carries with a touchdown each running and receiving. Lewis, the vertically challenged but tough and incredibly difficult runner to bring down added five catches for 24 yards. He was like trying tackle a ghost out there and consistently made yardage after contact. Mike Gillislee returned to the active roster and provided a solid 28 yards on six carries including a one-yard touchdown.

Gronkowski was a force once again hauling in five catches for 67 yards including a highlight reel touchdown as well as drawing a couple of very big pass interference penalties which were as good as big gains. On Gronkowski’s touchdown, Brady threw a back shoulder throw down the left side to the pylon and the big man snatched it out of the air with a beauty of a one-handed grab.

It should be noted that there was none of the targeting of Gronkowski that was feared before the game. Bills’ coach Sean McDermott had said that Buffalo was intent on playing for a playoff berth not seeking revenge and that’s exactly what they did. Buffalo played Gronkowski tough and physical but there were no cheap shots taken.

Curious Decision By McDermott Dooms Buffalo: One of the bigger head-scratchers of the day was by McDermott, who had been playing aggressively all day. Facing a 4th and 1 and down by seven points in the fourth quarter, McDermott opted for a 50-yard field goal, never a sure thing and Steven Hauschka pushed it wide right.

The Patriots responded by going on a 60-yard drive with Lewis putting the finishing touches on that drive and the game by putting the Patriots up by 14 with nine minutes to go. With LeSean McCoy in the backfield, it seemed like a no-brainer that the Bills would go for it and try to break their red zone frustrations against the Patriots.

The Bills were 0-4 on Sunday and 0-6 in the red zone against the Patriots this season. Buffalo’s offense this season against the Patriots defense managed four field goals in two games. Speaking of the defense…

Front Seven Do a Go Job of Limiting McCoy: Coming into this game, the concern was that the Patriots front seven would have a very hard time of slowing down McCoy in the running game where they’ve struggled. And this game was close for more than three quarters, so the scenario was perfect for McCoy to put his stamp on things. The bottom line was McCoy was good but not great and he never was able to consistently take over and finish drives for the Bills.

He had his moments, a nice 18-yard run and a scintillating 39-yard catch and run on a screen pass from McCoy. But overall the Patriots front seven did a pretty good job overall on him, limiting him to 71 yards on 17 carries (4.2-yard average). Overall the Bills running game averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, netting just 84 yards on 24 carries.

Kelvin Benjamin is a Beast: The Bills made a trade for Benjamin this season with Carolina and the big man has been hurt, playing on a bad MCL which will require surgery in the off-season. That has limited his downfield production but he was using his incredible size to his advantage all day against Stephon Gilmore.

Benjamin had a tremendous height advantage on the Patriots corner and was giving him fits all day, leaping for throws on the sidelines and using his 6’5, 243-pound body to use by boxing out Gilmore, who was competitive but couldn’t stop him. Benjamin ended up with five catches for 70 yards on seven targets.

More concerning than Gilmore was the struggles Malcolm Butler was having with Deonte Thompson. Thompson had four catches for 91 yards on five targets with Butler guessing wrong and being beaten on several occasions. Against a limited Bills passing offense, the secondary didn’t have its finest hour.

Tyrod Taylor had 281 yards thru the air but just 242 net after making some terrible decisions with the ball and taking a couple of awful sacks rather than just throwing the ball away. And the curious decision was time and again with the 32nd pass offense in the NFL, McDermott in third or fourth down in short yardage, decided to put the ball in Taylor’s hands rather than McCoy. And it cost them.

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With the win, the Patriots move to 12-3 and a bye. They don’t need any outside help to secure the #1 seed in the AFC, with a win over the Jets next week, they’ll be home as long as they keep winning. Missing several key players, this was a big, and important win. Buffalo still has a shot at making the postseason, but they’ll need to beat Miami next week and get some help from the outside.