FOXBORO (CBS) – The Patriots sure do know how to make things interesting, don’t they?
After dominating the Texans 42-14 last month in Gillette Stadium, the Patriots struggled a bit early on Sunday afternoon in the postseason rematch.
No matter, though, as the final result of 41-28 was more than good enough to push the Patriots to next week’s AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.
Before moving on, though, let’s take a look back at four ups and four downs from Sunday’s win.
In a game full of national stars, it was the running back largely unknown outside of New England who shined brightest on Sunday.
That’s not to say Shane Vereen didn’t make a name for himself at Cal, but he’s never had a game like this in a Patriots uniform. Vereen simply did it all, gaining 41 yards and scoring a touchdown on seven carries (5.9 YPC) while also catching a career-high five passes for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It was Vereen who got the Patriots on the board first, picking up a 25-yard reception two plays before plunging into the end zone from the 1-yard line. Vereen’s eight-yard catch-and-run late in the second extended the Patriots’ lead to 17-3 at the time, and it all set the stage for his 33-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter. That third score gave the Patriots a 38-13 lead, essentially sealing a victory with more than 13 minutes left on the clock.
Vereen became just the third Patriots player to ever score three touchdowns in a playoff game, joining Rob Gronkowski and Curtis Martin. While Vereen’s been a valuable contributor to the team this year, there weren’t many who saw this type of performance coming.
The cornerback has helped change the entire defense since hopping aboard midseason, and he showed what type of impact he can make on Sunday.
Talib drew the not-so-enviable task of tracking all-world receiver Andre Johnson all game. Though Johnson was able to catch eight balls for 95 yards, Talib worked tirelessly to keep Johnson in check and prevent any big plays.
Because Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia could trust Talib to do such a solid job on Johnson, they were able to let the defense do what it needed to limit Arian Foster and the rest of the Houston offense.
Talib led the team with 10 tackles (nine solo) and was nothing short of outstanding in this game.
Yet again, hand it to the big men up front for keeping Tom Brady clean all night long.
The unit of Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer not only aided Vereen and Stevan Ridley to 123 rushing yards, but they also held the vaunted pass rush of J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Co. to just one sack. Even that sack wasn’t all on the offensive line, as the play called for Brady to fake a handoff to his left and then roll back to his right, a play the Texans read perfectly before pouncing on Brady.
It wasn’t a flashy job — it never is for the linemen — but they fulfilled the ever-present mantra of Bill Belichick. That is, they did their job.
Wes Welker/Aaron Hernandez Duo
It would be wrong to single one of these guys out over the other, so they both get credit here.
With Rob Gronkowski disappearing very early on (more on that later), the offensive game plan shifted, and these two stepped up big in the passing game. Welker led the way with eight receptions for 131 yards, with Hernandez not far behind with six receptions for 85 yards.
It was the timing as much as anything, though, that made Welker and Hernandez such crucial players in this win. Of the six third-down conversions the Patriots had on the night, three were made by Welker and one was made by Hernandez.
Each player also contributed with a huge gain. Welker caught a 47-yard pass down the left sideline, setting up the Patriots at the Houston 8-yard line. They scored on the following play. Hernandez picked up 40 yards after his patented stop-then-start move allowed him to get past several white jerseys on the opening drive of the second half. The Patriots scored two plays later.
It was the type of play-making ability that separates teams that move on and teams that go home, and with Gronkowski out, the Patriots know they have these unique weapons to step up in his place.
One of the biggest reasons the Patriots lost the Super Bowl last year was because Rob Gronkowski was playing through an injury. This year, if they hope to win a championship, they’ll have to do it without him on the field at all.
The tight end suited up after a two-week break, and on the first pass thrown his way had to make a diving attempt out of bounds. He immediately grimaced in pain, and several minutes later, he was heading to the locker room.
The reports then surfaced that he had broken his arm again and that his season was officially over.
The team played well without him in the final six weeks of the year, going 4-1 and averaging 34.2 points per game, and they did just fine on Sunday, scoring 41 points after he departed. Still, no team is ever better off when it loses a player of Gronkowski’s caliber.
You hear it a million times from coaches and players – the three phases of the game. In this game, you saw why you can never overlook the importance of special teams.
The Patriots were burned on the opening kick of the game, letting Danieal Manning break free for a 93-yard gain. Devin McCourty was able to catch the returner from behind, preventing the touchdown and ultimately saving four points, but that was an unacceptable way to start a game.
Kick coverage issues reappeared later, when Manning again broke free. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was penalized 15 yards for a horse collar tackle, setting up the Texans on the New England 48-yard line.
The problems on coverage weren’t enough to cost the Patriots a victory, but you’ll recall that it was a 65-yard LaMichael James kick return that took the wind out of the Patriots’ sails after that incredible 28-point comeback against San Francisco a few weeks ago in Foxboro. Big kick returns can change games, and the Patriots need to make sure they’re not on the wrong end of any next week. They may not be able to avoid a losing fate.
End Of First Half Game Management
The Patriots won, so the mess at the end of the first half won’t get much focus. Nevertheless, the Patriots looked to not have a plan late in the second quarter, and it cost them.
With 1:15 left in the second quarter, the Patriots took over at their own 23-yard line. They had two timeouts, so they could have tried to drive for points, or they could have run rushing plays, forcing the Texans to use their timeouts. Instead, they did a little bit of both but failed to execute.
They ran for four yards on first down, then huddled and slowly went to the line to burn some clock. That looked to be a calculated decision, but Brady threw incomplete on second down, which stopped the clock. On third down, Brady was pressured and was hit as he threw, and the ball fell to the turf. The clock stopped, and the Texans ended up with the ball at their own 38 with 24 seconds still left on the clock and all of their timeouts. They quickly drove 26 yards, setting up a 55-yard field goal for Shayne Graham, which he drilled to cut the Patriots’ lead to just four points at the break.
It was ugly, and it caused for some unnecessary added tension during halftime.
The other early injury came on the very first offensive snap of the night for the Patriots, when Danny Woodhead injured his thumb on a run up the middle.
Woodhead did re-appear on the sidelines, standing with the offensive subs, but he never entered the game again. The extent of his injury is unknown at this point, but if he’s out of the lineup next week, it could be huge.
While Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley showed no problem carrying the load on Sunday, this team has relied on Woodhead in key situations countless times over the past few years. The timing of losing him at this juncture couldn’t be much worse.