BOSTON (CBS) — There are so many points over the course of the 2013 Patriots season where the suggestion that a trip to the AFC Championship Game was on the way would have been laughed off as ridiculous. From the preseason drama of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and the ongoing Tim Tebow saga as well as the Rob Gronkowski injury watch, to losing two out of three to the Bengals and Jets (with a narrow win over the Saints in between), to needing late comebacks to beat the Texans and Browns before losing to the Dolphins, there have been times this year when the Patriots have not always inspired supreme confidence.
Yet here they are, where they always seem to be at this time of year. And that’s impressive — historically so.
Though Tom Brady wasn’t a superstar in the divisional playoffs, it is his presence on the field that — along with Bill Belichick’s spot on the sideline — has steadied the ship and gotten the team to this point. What’s been most remarkable about Brady in particular has been his adaptability. He quarterbacked a tight end-focused offense with Hernandez and Gronkowski from 2010-12, when 33.5 percent of his completions and 34.9 percent of his passing yards went to tight ends. But this year, with Gronkowski injured for all but seven games and with Hernandez spending his days playing matchmaker in prison, Brady had very few tight end receiving options. The percentage of Brady’s completions to tight ends dropped from 33.5 to 13.9 percent, and just 17.1 percent of his passing yards came from tight ends.
The offensive philosophy completely changed overnight, and Brady rolled with the punches. His numbers were down by his standards, but with 25 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions, he did what was necessary to win games and — more importantly — not lose them.
And for three straight games now, Brady — one of the best passers of all time — has been content to take a backseat and let the running backs do all the heavy lifting. If it wasn’t clear by that willingness to step out of the spotlight that ego wasn’t a problem for Brady, his taking over the role of holder on kicks on Saturday night should really drive home the message.
And so, the Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth time since 2001. While the lack of championships since 2004 has taken the word “dynasty” out of the New England lexicon, consider that only the greatest runs from the greatest modern NFL franchises have endured this type of sustained success. Ready?
New England Patriots, 2001-13: Eight championship game appearances, five (and counting?) Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins in 13 years
San Francisco 49ers, 1981-94: Nine championship game appearances, five Super Bowl appearances, five Super Bowl wins in 14 years
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-79: Six championship game appearances, four Super Bowl appearances, four Super Bowl wins in eight years
Dallas Cowboys, 1992-95: Four championship game appearances, three Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins in four years
The Niners, though great, did that with two different quarterbacks, and the Cowboys changed head coaches in the middle of their run. And none of those teams operated under a salary cap, which makes the current Patriots run all the more incredible.
Of course, without the titles, the Patriots won’t stack up with the NFL’s great dynasties, but with a week of build-up for this weekend’s AFC Championship Game, there’s no better time to take a step back and try to put this current moment in perspective.
And hey, because we’ve got all that time to kill, let’s run through all of the leftover thoughts from Saturday night’s 43-22 win over the Colts.
–LeGarrette Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday night. I don’t know what Jeff Demps did on Saturday night, but I don’t think he compared.
–Not to toot my own horn too much, but I did write that Blount’s late-season emergence as a powerful, somewhat unstoppable back changed the Patriots’ playoff perspective after Week 17. Some people responded with eloquently stated dissenting opinions, such as “Yeah Buffalo was a truly tuff test today. LOL,” or “Hahahaha this article is a joke,” or “if we’re not playing the bills again in the playoffs, then he won’t be the force he was today in the playoffs.”
Those are all real comments. But the results speak for themselves. LeGarrette Blount can’t be stopped. Toot toot.
–I feel pretty terribly for Ryan Allen, who got absolutely clobbered by the Colts punt return team, which smelled blood in the water and pounced. At the same time, I’m thankful that we all got to see what it would look like if you or I got dropped onto the field in the middle of an NFL game. Not pretty.
–That was a bad snap, obviously, by Danny Aiken, but frankly I believe the Patriots got what they deserved there. For the second straight game, the Patriots pulled the “keep the offense on the field on fourth down, pretend like we’re going for it, then rush the offense off the field and have the punt team sprint into place with just 18 seconds left on the play clock to try to catch the defense off guard.” I dislike this strategy because it has absolutely no benefit, and in this case it led to a delay of game penalty. While Aiken still needs to make a good snap after the penalty, the decision to pull the stunt takes the entire punt team out of its comfort zone, and it changes the way the unit has run the play since training camp. Why complicate things when the potential benefit is minimal or nonexistent?
–Josh McDaniels is rarely praised around here, and he’s often criticized. I understand it, and I participate in it, but he deserves a ton of credit for sticking with the game plan on Saturday. The Patriots ran 25 rushing plays in the first half, compared to just 12 passing plays. That dedication to the run game allowed them to come out in the third quarter and run the play-action pass to Danny Amendola, which awoke the Patriots from an offensive hibernation and led to a score that proved to be the game winner.
–That score wouldn’t have happened with Julian Edelman drawing a pass interference penalty. Edelman may have been interfered with, but he proved that if his football career ever fizzles out, he’ll always have a standing job offer from the Montreal Canadiens. Nothing says “flop” quite like the flailing hands. Nice touch.
“Help! I’ve been shot!”
–I hate to be that guy, but if the refs call this trip from Joe Vellano on Andrew Luck …
… and if they don’t fall for the Edelman flop, it’s a different game. Them’s the breaks, though.
–You know which group of people deserves a mention? The fans. I watched as a few hundred fans trickled into the stadium two hours before kickoff, willing to deal with a driving rainstorm for the privilege of watching a bunch of athletes stretch and jog on the field. Though the heaviest rain fell before the game, 68,000 fans sat under rainy skies all night. That’s dedication. I was impressed.
–Football being a “game of inches” is so cliche that it actually hurts me to type those words. But it’s hard to say it’s not true, and that was evident just before the two-minute warning in the first half. Luck threw deep for LaVon Brazill, who had a step on Alfonzo Dennard up the right sideline. Luck’s pass was woefully underthrown, and the only thing stopping Dennard from intercepting the pass was Devin McCourty colliding with him while trying to make the pick himself. But the reason the pass was so poor was Rob Ninkovich’s leaping effort to just make contact with Luck’s hand at the point of release:
For any high school coaches who try to instill the virtues of fighting for every last inch, there’s your motivational poster.
–Luck made some absolutely gorgeous passes, but he also made a ton of awful mistakes. That’s what being a young quarterback on the road in the NFL playoffs will do to you, and it’s how a guy can throw nine interceptions all season long and end up throwing seven INTs in just two playoff games.
–On the other side, while Brady didn’t post eye-popping numbers, he did make some perfect passes. This one, a third-down bullet through a tiny window to Danny Amendola to set up the Patriots’ second early touchdown, might have been his best.
The diving catch wasn’t bad, either.
–I read a lot of game previews and I even wrote some myself, but I don’t believe I came across anyone saying “Jamie Collins will be an impact player.” But with six tackles, three QB hits, one sack and an interception, was he ever. The rookie linebacker’s physical abilities weren’t surprising, but the confidence that was oozing out of him was the part that most stood out to me. I thought the loss of Brandon Spikes would be a huge one, but if Collins plays with that kind of aggression, the defense doesn’t skip a beat.
–Dont’a Hightower also made a game-changing play when he picked off Luck and stymied a Colts scoring drive before halftime. Hightower was actually a step behind Stanley Havili in coverage, but when you wear the No. 54 Patriots jersey in the playoffs, I guess footballs tend to gravitate toward you.
–Chandler Jones, though, is just so disruptive and such a monster that I think he’s the defensive MVP. Watch this play from the Colts’ opening drive, where Jones absolutely bullies Anthony Castonzo, gets around him, chases down Luck and hits the QB to force an incompletion.
–There was a lot of pregame chatter about T.Y. Hilton all week, about whether the Pats could stop him. I heard a lot of people say he wasn’t some real game-changing type of player, but if I could … I’ll borrow a line from Shaquille O’Neal and say that T.Y. Hilton is the [blanker-blankin’] truth.
–In the latest installment of “Football Is A Brutal Game,” see Kenbrell Thompkins’ night. The rookie receiver was essentially a decoy for most of the game, and he finally got a catchable pass thrown his way late in the third quarter. But he got walloped upside the head while trying to make that catch, and he needed to be helped off the field. On came Austin Collie, and Thompkins’ night was done there.
Football is a brutal game. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I don’t play it.
–The Sporting News ranked Tom Brady as the worst remaining quarterback in the NFL playoffs last week. I guess The Sporting News was wrong.
–I guess Deion Branch is a lousy spy.
–Is it too late to give Brady an All-Pro spot for his work as a holder? I mean, those two PATs were perfect.
–Red Auerbach had his victory cigar, which he’d light up late in games that were sure to be Celtics victories, and apparently Bill Belichick has his Bon Jovi rock songs, which blared through Gillette Stadium at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots winning by three touchdowns.
–Anyone in New England who was rooting for the Chargers to win on Sunday is certifiably insane. Give me Brady-Manning, one last time in the playoffs, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and give it to me now.