By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Under Bill Belichick and with Tom Brady, the Patriots have set all sorts of records while rewriting the history books. And on Saturday night in a frosty Gillette Stadium, they did it again. For the first time in memory, they won a playoff game that left just about everybody feeling a whole lot of … nothing.READ MORE: Mother Mourns Loss Of Lowell Murder Victim Dejah Jenkins-Minus: 'I'm Hurt, I'm Numb'
The Patriots’ 34-16 win over the Texans was not exactly as lopsided as the scoreboard might typically indicate, as this was not a dominant showing for 60 minutes. The Patriots played a sloppy game, turning the ball over three times on their own side of the field, leading to 13 Houston points. The other three Houston points came after the Patriots committed a dead ball foul after making a third-down stop to keep a Houston drive alive.
Of course, the Texans outdueled the Patriots in the slop department, with Brock Osweiler throwing wildly inaccurate passes throughout the contest and with the NFL’s “No. 1 defense” getting touched for a cool 377 yards.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots are a much better football team than the Houston Texans. It’s just … it did not feel like a moment of great jubilation in New England when the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“It doesn’t feel great,” said a victorious but far-from-triumphant Tom Brady, “because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played.”
Julian Edelman, who passed Wes Welker for the franchise record for most postseason receptions, echoed the sentiment: “We made plays when we had to, but if we want to keep winning and move on, we can’t play like that.”
As far as comparisons go, Saturday’s win had a similar feel to the 2007 AFC Championship Game, when the Patriots didn’t play particularly well and Brady threw two picks but they nevertheless walked away with a comfortable victory to survive and advance.
And that is the main takeaway. Despite the lack of style points and the occasional and uncharacteristic slip-up, the Patriots have the benefit of being able to learn from their mistakes while still living to fight another day.
“Pretty cool, pretty cool,” Brady nonchalantly said of advancing to next week. “Let’s go win the AFC Championship Game. That would be very cool. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
So, they won. Plus, Belichick has plenty of material to hammer into the heads of his players this week. You just know that he’s not at all disappointed to be gifted all of that fresh material.
But before we go into full AFC Championship Game mode, let’s take a dive into the leftover Patriots thoughts from their divisional round win over the Houston Texans.
–What stuck out to me the most in the Patriots’ offensive game plan was the clear effort to have Brady simply lob up deep balls and hope his receivers could come down with them. They must have identified a weakness in the Texans’ ability to make plays on the ball, because the mark of the Brady-led offense is an attack that is predicated on short, precise passing. The deep ball generally plays a much less significant role.
Brady threw downfield 14 times, completing just six of them but for 181 of his 287 yards. Chris Hogan, who caught three deep balls for 88 yards, also drew a 30-yard pass interference penalty on A.J. Bouye. Belichick referred to the deep balls as “a couple of prayers.”
It really was a radical change in approach for the offense, and as a result, Brady completed just 47.4 percent of his passes after posting a 67.4 completion percentage int he regular season.
Brady explained the shift in course as merely a result of the Texans covering the shorter zones, so I wonder if next week’s opponent might consider doing the same as a method of increasing their chances of success in Foxboro.
–Let’s talk about Dion Lewis. There should be no mistaking the value he brings to the team, and he made that pretty clear by becoming the first player to ever score a kick return touchdown, rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same postseason game and accounting for 21 of the Patriots’ 34 points.
On his first score, he had a 1-on-1 situation with Benardrick McKinney in the open field. He somehow snookered McKinney into thinking that he was going to cut back toward the middle of the field, where Texans defenders existed, instead of cutting up the sideline.
Step 1: Assess the situation (as Martellus Bennett gets blown up by Brian Cushing):
Step 2: Gently seduce McKinney with your eyes and get him to guess wrong:
Step 3: He gone:
And on the kick return, linebacker Brian Peters had Lewis dead to rights as Lewis slipped a tackle:
But Peters clearly underestimated the quickness and speed of Lewis:
And then he scored a rushing TD from the 1-yard line, because he’s not just a finesse back. He likes to earn those tough yards.
His impact was, quite obviously, immense.
–But OK, let’s talk about Dion Lewis. One fumble in a playoff game is too many. Two fumbles is infinitely worse. And to lose the ball on a kick return, when you’re supposed to be getting the ball and answering an opponent’s score, is quite problematic.
The situation on the second fumble was equally as troubling. Third-and-10, already in field-goal range, leading by 15 points. The mission is simply to run the ball off the left end, get down, keep the clock moving, and allow the team to stretch the lead and make it a three-possession game. Instead, Lewis was careless and left some separation between his body and the ball while trying to turn a 1-yard run into a 1.5-yard run. The risk-reward equation was not in his favor as Bouye stripped the ball despite having no leverage whatsoever:
Joe Thuney was in the right spot at the right time to fall on the loose ball, but that’s just not good football. You can get away with that against the Texans, but next week (and perhaps two weeks after that), you’re unlikely to be so lucky.
–The other awful mistake came from Eric Rowe. It’s been well-known for the past two years that it is illegal to pull an opponent off a pile. It’s as simple a rule as there is on the books. You cannot do it. Yet, after a third-down stop, Rowe did this, literally in the umpire’s face:
It was a bad penalty in and of itself, but when you consider it came after George Godsey dialed up the most pathetic third-and-18 play call of all time …
… then you recognize just how big of a bailout it was.
Bill Belichick was not amused.
His coaching, in this instance, ended with a hearty “Gosh darn it!” (Edited for TV.)
–Brock Osweiler stinks. He just does. He cannot throw the ball where he wants to throw the ball. Did you see this play?
Saturday marked the fourth times this year that Osweiler failed to throw for more than 200 yards despite 40-plus pass attempts. And since 1950, nobody’s done that even twice.
(Though that pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz that was dropped in the end zone was real pretty.)
–Allowing the kick return TD was a tough break for Larry Izzo. Unless you’re Mike Westhoff, the only chance you’re going to get on television as a special teams coach is your guys beef it. And his guys? They beefed it.
–Pete Morelli. Peter. Morelli. He may be a nice man; I do not know. But I know that when it comes to displaying a command of the moment and of the football game, the man has no ability whatsoever.
First down, Patriots … err … Texans! What’s the diff who cares?
Pete received a tongue lashing from Brady after Pete had no problem with Jadeveon Clowney dragging Brady to the turf well after a throw had been made. The initial contact wasn’t very late, but Clowney was allowed to continue to hit Brady for four yards up the field before ripping him to the ground. It was a wildly dangerous play; Pete tried to help up Brady. Brady rebuffed his advances and instead screamed at him for a solid 10 seconds.
(Brady might have asked Pete if he had seen how Derek Carr or Marcus Mariota broke their legs in Week 16.)
And really, because Clowney had gotten away with it before, he figured it was worth trying again. As a result, Brady took a flying Clowney to the groin:
The hit drew a flag, but that’s a shot that a quarterback doesn’t have to absorb if the referee is calling the game correctly. It could have been really bad, too, with Christian Covington having Brady’s ankles wrapped up.
The Morelli-led crew also missed a false start, which is always an impressive feat:READ MORE: Brad Marchand, Linus Ullmark Carry Bruins Past Canucks 3-2
There was also the mass confusion when Morelli determined that despite Osweiler throwing a football hard enough for it to travel 20-plus yards forward, a fumble must have occurred. It was such an obvious forward pass that the Patriots’ defense was subbing in players for third down. There was no doubt that this was a forward pass, unless your name was Morelli.
Morelli accentuating the goof by calling a penalty on the Patriots for illegal substitution was a nice flourish, in my opinion.
But I think my favorite call of the night was the offensive pass interference penalty on Michael Floyd, who was being hugged by cornerback Robert Nelson:
Floyd had the audacity to try to fight through the obvious defensive holding being committed:
I really think this guy just felt like warming his arm up by throwing a flag, because that call was preposterous.
“Easy call,” Phil Simms asserted.
–Lewis’ fumble on the kick return was bad, no doubt. But Brandon King maybe could have been slightly more aware of the football’s whereabouts:
–Here’s a good sports photograph:
Which reminds me: my favorite moment on Saturday came when Seahawks defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin sacked Matt Ryan when his team was getting smoked late in a playoff game. Not only did he get up and celebrate, but the Seahawks Twitter account even made a cool graphic to commemorate the moment!
What a moment!
Add in the Seahawks starting near-fights while Atlanta was taking knees to end the game and Earl Thomas’ misguided late-night Twitter rant and man, I think I speak for all humans when I say that we’ll miss the Seattle Seahawks.
–This looks like a scene from an action movie, when the hero walks away as the building behind him explodes:
–As I mentioned earlier, Belichick and Brady said that the deep balls were a result of what the Texans were doing defensively. But I have to think, given the way he played this wobbly duck over the deep middle, that the Patriots coaching staff identified a weakness in ball skills from safety Corey Moore.
That’s not a very good job by that man. No it is not. Still, it’s not the worst play on a deep floater by a safety named Moore in divisional round history. But it wasn’t very good.
–Look, I’m not going to tell the Krafts how to run their business. They’re doing just fine without me. But this guy is overdue for a pay raise.
Some people thought that was just a random man, but actually it is just Julian Edelman … from the future.
–The interceptions and the fumbles are the obvious mistakes, but there were some less obvious ones, too. Like, for example, late in the second quarter, the Patriots forced the Texans to punt out of their own end zone. Edelman caught the punt at the New England 42-yard line. He returned it 10 yards to get across midfield and set up the offense with a short field to score before halftime. But Matthew Slater (who might have gotten away with a needless hold at the end of Lewis’ kick return TD) made an illegal block in the back, and it was enforced at the point where Edelman caught the punt. So instead of starting the drive at the plus-48, they started at their own 33-yard line.
(Thanks to Morelli for taking 25 minutes to announce that block in the back penalty, by the way. Apparently, that’s a very complicated process, one that requires long meetings in the middle of the field.)
They’d end up driving all the way to within a foot of the goal line, but again, there are things you can get away with when you’re playing the Texans that you can’t quite do against real playoff teams.
–I, for one, am going to miss the heck out of Skinny Vinny.
–Brock Osweiler not only lost his fanny pack multiple times; he left a damn mess all over the place. He picked up his fanny pack after Trey Flowers had ripped it off, and so many of his personal items were left strewn about.
We’re trying to play a game here, Brock! Hold a yard sale on your own time, please.
–It was admittedly in part to several Texans defensive players looking like amateurs, but McCourty really proved to be an elite player in this game. The interception, obviously, displayed both his intelligence to properly predict the play and his athleticism to make the play. But even things much smaller than that stood out, like when he was the only thing standing between Akeem Hunt and a first down.
McCourty sealed off the sideline …
… forcing Hunt to come to a complete stop, thus allowing a whole host of blue jerseys to swarm in and gang tackle the ball carrier.
When you compare that to the poor angles and bad split-second decisions made by several Texans players (like the aforementioned McKinney whiff on Lewis), it really stood out how smart and well-coached the Patriots are.
–On the flip side, I’ve never seen a defense absolutely wallop an offensive player away from the ball like the Texans did. Cushing absolutely destroyed Bennett on that Lewis receiving touchdown, and then Lewis was the recipient of a helmet-to-helmet decleater by Whitney Mercilus.
I believe that’s called the “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Might As Well Beat ‘Em Up” defense.
–Let’s all take a moment to admire Nick Novak’s celebration, one which he launched after successfully kicking a 46-yard field goal to cut the Patriots’ lead to eight points in the fourth quarter.
That’s quite the celebration! But as my wife said at the time, “You’re a kicker. You should get it in.”
Regardless, congrats to Nick on making the big kick!
–Through six NFL playoff games, the average margin of victory has been … 18.3 points. It’s kind of funny, because all throughout the season in just about every weekly release from the NFL, the league boasted that there were a record number of games being decided by less than seven points. And it’s been nothing but “Blowout City, Population: Everybody” since the playoffs began.
I say this for one important reason: Don’t ever allow the league to expand the postseason field. OK? Fight like heck if you have to. Don’t let them expand it. Thank you.
–Saturday night marked Tom Brady’s 32nd career postseason start. For those who aren’t mathematically gifted, that’s the equivalent of two full regular seasons. Brady and the Patriots are 23-9 in those games, and if you average Brady’s stats out in a per-season fashion, they look like this:
61.9 percent completion rate
3 fourth-quarter comebacks
4.5 game-winning drives
For comparison’s sake, his regular-season averages per season are: 63.8 percent, 4,157 yards, 31 TDs, 10 INTs, 97.2 rating.
Considering those playoff games are typically against the best teams in the league, and considering the majority of them took place outdoors in January, that’s not bad for the NFL’s all time postseason leader in touchdowns, passing yards, completions and victories.
–With a trip to the AFC Championship Game on deck for the Patriots, they’ve now reached the conference title game for the sixth straight year. That is utterly ridiculous. Look, obviously it is a down year in terms of competition in the AFC. There’s no argument against that. And considering the Texans were basically spotted 13 points and still couldn’t even cover a 16-point spread, it’s an inescapable reality that they were absolutely playoff frauds.
But as we witness the struggles of the Ravens and Colts and Broncos and Jets and Bengals and Chargers and all the other teams that spend a lot of money and theoretically should be good, it stands out that the Patriots always seem to be immune from falling apart. It may not be seen as a grand accomplishment for them to make the AFC title game this year in such circumstances, but to dismiss it would be to overlook the fact that the Patriots have managed to avoid joining those AFC foes from having off years.
In Tom Brady’s 15 seasons as a starting quarterback, he’s made the conference title game 11 times. The Brady-Belichick era now has 11 championship game appearances, six Super Bowl appearances and four Super Bowl victories in a 16-year span. That’s more title game appearances and Super Bowl appearances than the great dynasties of the 49ers, Cowboys and Steelers, and they can create further distance with one more trip to the Super Bowl.
So yes, it’s not incongruous to discuss the sad state of the AFC competition while still marveling at the Patriots’ ability to avoid ever falling into the morass that has captured every other team at least a few times since 2001.
It’s all wildly, wildly, impressive. But for Bill, it’s just another night at the office.
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