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Five incredibly early thoughts on the Patriots and Colts

01.05.14 at 5:29 pm ET
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Here are five thoughts on Saturday’s divisional playoff contest between the Patriots and Colts:

1. Turnovers will be at a premium. The Patriots and Colts were two of the best teams in the league when it comes to turnover ratio. New England was a plus-9 over the course of the regular season, good for eighth-best in the NFL — the Patriots defense forced 17 picks and recovered 12 fumbles, while Tom Brady and the offense had 11 picks and just nine fumbles as a team. Saturday’€™s playoff game aside, the Colts also do a good job taking care of the ball — they were plus-13, third-best in the NFL. Andrew Luck threw 10 picks, while the team lost four fumbles. Meanwhile, Indy came away with 15 picks and recovered 12 fumbles of their own.

2. Expect a matchup between Aqib Talib and T.Y. Hilton for a portion of the evening. Since Reggie Wayne went down midway through the season, the Colts have leaned on Hilton fairly exclusively when it comes to the deep passing game. Hilton finished with 82 catches (on 138 targets) for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns, all of which are team-highs, and added 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’€™s wild-card win over the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Patriots have utilized Talib against the opposing team’s No. 1 pass catcher for the bulk of the season. The All-Pro corner has responded nicely with shutdown games against the likes of Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham and Vincent Jackson. It won’t be wire-to-wire, man coverage all night, but the two will face off against each other frequently throughout the contest.

3. When it comes to run defense, the Patriots caught a huge break. The Colts really struggled to run the ball consistently this season. They didn’€™t need to worry about it too much in their remarkable playoff win over the Chiefs — Luck had 45 pass attempts, while Indy ran the ball just 19 times on Saturday — but Indy is as one-dimensional as they come when you’€™re talking about a team in the final eight. Over the course of the regular season, the Colts averaged 108.9 rushing yards per game, tied for 20th in the NFL. Donald Brown had 102 carries for 537 yards and six touchdowns over the course of the season, and is the only real threat in the ground game for the Colts. For a New England team that struggled to stop the run over the course of the second half of the season, this represents a sizable break.

4. Conversely, the Patriots should be able to move the ball on the ground against Indy. The Colts showed some stoutness on defense over the last month of the season — Indy allowed an average of 6.7 points per game over the final three weeks of the regular season, and old warhorse Robert Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks — and while the group certainly didn’€™t impress anyone over the first two-plus quarters against the Chiefs, they got some good stops down the stretch in the third and fourth quarters, allowing the offense the chance to climb back into the game. The one stat that really stands out as a potential vulnerability for Indy is its run defense: over the course of the regular season, the Colts were 26th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 125.1 rushing yards per game. Indy yielded 100 or more yards on the ground in 13 of its 16 games this season. Considering the fact that the Patriots have averaged 168 rushing yards their last three games, this is a winnable matchup for New England.

5. Penalties will be at a premium. These were two of the least-penalized teams over the course of the regular season. The Colts were best when it came to total penalties (66) and penalty yardage (576). Meanwhile, the Patriots were second in the league in penalties (69) and third in the league in penalty yardage (625).

Read More: Andrew Luck, Aqib Talib, Donald Brown, Raggie Wayne

San Diego Chargers eliminate Cincinnati Bengals, paving way for Andrew Luck to play Patriots at Gillette Stadium

01.05.14 at 4:15 pm ET
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CINCINNATI — The Patriots can get ready for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium next Saturday night.

Andy Dalton turned in another atrocious playoff performance while Philip Rivers managed a near-perfect road playoff game as the San Diego Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10, Sunday at an appropriately dreary Paul Brown Stadium.

Dalton threw a pair of second-half interceptions and forced his own fumble on a scramble as the Bengals fell to 0-5 in the postseason under head coach Marvin Lewis. Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs in all three seasons in the NFL but has lost in the first round each time.

Rivers finished 12-of-16 for 128 yards and a touchdown for the No. 6 seed Chargers, who advance to play the No. 1 seed Broncos next Sunday in Denver. The Chargers beat the Broncos, 27-20, in Denver on Dec. 12. The Chargers trio of Ronnie Brown, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead combined for 196 yards rushing on 40, a 4.9 yard-per-rush average.

The Chargers dominated the opening quarter, grabbing a 7-0 lead on a 5-yard TD run up the middle by former Patriots back Danny Woodhead. The Chargers ran the ball 12 times for 57 yards, averaging 4.8 yards a carry and possessing the ball for over 10 minutes of the opening quarter.

The Bengals responded with a strong second quarter, holding the ball for 10 minutes, 34 seconds, tying the game on an Andy Dalton TD pass to Jermaine Gresham just as Dalton was hit by linebacker Melvin Ingram.

The Bengals appeared to be going in for the go-ahead touchdown when Dalton connected to Giovanni Bernard at the Chargers 10. But he was stripped from behind by Donald Butler and the ball was recovered in the end zone.

After the Bengals defense forced a punt deep in San Diego territory, the Bengals marched to the Chargers 28, thanks to a 13-yard pass to Gresham, who was pushed out of bounds with 11 seconds left. But the side judge ruled Gresham was tackled in bounds and the clock ran down to two seconds.

Both the Gresham catch and Bernard fumble resulted in long reviews by referee Jeff Triplette, the same referee who allowed a controversial TD run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis against the Colts in early December.

Mike Nugent connected from 46 yards to give the Bengals a 10-7 lead at the half.

San Diego took their opening possession of the second half and marched 80 yards in 10 plays, taking the lead for good, 14-10, on a Rivers 4-yard TD pass to Ladarius Green.Dalton turned in an awful third quarter performance, capped off by a fumble on a head-first scramble that gave the Chargers the ball at the Cincinnati 46. The Chargers capitalized on a 25-yard field goal from Nick Novak, making it 17-10.

After another Dalton interception led to another Novak field goal, Ronnie Brown put the game away with a 58-yard TD run with just over two minutes left to send San Diego to Denver and Indianapolis to Foxboro next Saturday.

Read More: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals, nfl, Philip Rivers

Colts complete wild comeback to knock off Chiefs

01.04.14 at 8:13 pm ET
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Andrew Luck engineered one of the great comebacks in NFL history Saturday night, erasing a 28-point third-quarter deficit on the way to a 45-44 win over the Chiefs in a crazy AFC wild-card contest.

Luck and the Colts trailed 38-10 at the start of the third quarter, but Luck threw three second-half touchdowns, the last one coming with just over four minutes left in regulation, to lift Indy to the improbable win. Donald Brown added a pair of rushing scores in the second half for Indy, which will advance to the AFC divisional playoff series next weekend.

Luck ended up 29-for-45 for 443 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions, while T.Y. Hilton had 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, Kansas City’s Alex Smith finished 30-for-46 for 378 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Dwayne Bowe led the way for the Chiefs’ offense with eight catches for 150 yards and a touchdown.

Early on, it was all Smith and the Chiefs, as Kansas City busted out to a 24-7 first-half lead, thanks to three first-half touchdown passes from Smith — one to Bowe, one to Donnie Avery and one to Anthony Sherman. Knile Davis tacked on a late second-quarter rushing touchdown to make it 31-10 heading into halftime. The early led was made all the more impressive by the fact that the Chiefs lost All-World running back Jamaal Charles in the first quarter because of a head injury.

Smith connected with Davis on a 10-yard touchdown pass to open the third to make it 38-10, but that set the stage for the comeback. The Colts were able to put up two quick scores at the start of the third to draw to within 38-24, but while the Chiefs were unable to register anything more than a pair of Ryan Succop field goals over the last quarter-plus, Luck and the Indy offense was in command.

Down the stretch, Luck connected with Brown, Coby Fleener and Hilton for second-half scoring strikes, with the pass play to Hilton coming with 4:21 remaining in regulation and going for 64 yards down the middle of the field — it gave the Colts a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. A late drive from the Chiefs came up short, as Kansas City turned the ball over on downs with just under two minutes to go.

Read More: Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, Dwayne Bowe, T.Y. Hilton

What are realistic expectations for Patriots rookies this postseason?

01.04.14 at 4:18 pm ET
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With the regular season now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a look at how this year’s rookie class fared. We already noted the fact that this New England team will rely more on its first-year players than any other AFC squad — here’s a realistic look at what might be expected of them when it comes to the postseason.

Jamie Collins: The second-round pick out of Southern Miss started very slow, but injuries and the overall evolution in his game allowed him to see more time as the season went on, eventually becoming a regular part of the linebacker rotation by the end of the season — from Week 14 on, he played at least half the snaps, and appeared to adjust to the pace of the game very well. Part of his problem at this stage of his career is that his hyperathleticism sometimes works against him, and he ends up overrunning plays and then has to hustle back to get to where he needs to be. However, there’s no reason to think that the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder won’t be a part of the rotation going into the postseason — his work in pass coverage continues to improve, and he shows up as surprisingly stout against the run.

Totals (per coaches film review): 38 tackles (23 solo), 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovered (special teams).

Aaron Dobson: The big, rangy receiver out of Marshall — a second-round pick of the Patriots in the spring — had a rough start, but had more than his share of positive moments over the course of the regular season. Those highlights included a 5-catch, 130-yard effort against the Steelers, a game that produced two of his four touchdowns on the season. The 6-foot-3, 204-pounder was dogged by injuries over the course of his rookie year and struggled at times, but like Collins, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a part of the rotation at receiver going into the postseason.

Totals: 37 catches, 519 yards, 4 TDs, 7 dropped passes.

Logan Ryan: The cornerback might have done enough to be considered New England’s own rookie of the year. The third-round pick out of Rutgers led all NFL rookies with five picks on the season, with two of his takeaways coming in a big December win over the Ravens. He has nice versatility (he’s played both left and right corner, as well as the slot this year, and there’s been little dropoff) good ball skills and a willingness to put in the work needed in order to succeed in the NFL. It will be interesting to watch his overall progression — there have been plenty of young corners who have done well as rookies in New England, only to fall clear off the radar screen in their second and third year in the league. But for now, expect Ryan to serve as the fourth corner on the roster heading into the postseason, behind starters Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington.

Totals (per coaches film review): 41 tackles (33 solo), 1.5 sacks (14 yards), 2 quarterback hits, 5 INTs, 1 TD, 10 passes defensed.

Josh Boyce: The fourth-round pick out of TCU looked to be headed for a red-shirt season as a rookie, but a run of injuries, as well as his own emergence, saw him get on the field toward the end of the season and do a nice job with the opportunities he was given. A nightmare of a matchup, his physical tools make him a handful to cover, especially in the open field. (Just ask Cleveland’s Buster Skrine, who looked completely helpless when faced with the challenge of trying to take down Boyce in the open field on this play.) The season came to an end for the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder when he suffered an ankle injury in a December loss to the Dolphins — he was just placed on injured reserve — but should be ready to go for OTAs and minicamps in the spring.

Totals: 9 catches, 121 yards; 9 kick returns, 214 yards.

Duron Harmon: Like many of the defensive rookies on this list, Harmon (a third-round pick out of Rutgers) started slow. But a run of injury — in Harmon’s case, to starting strong safety Steve Gregory — meant he was pressed into service. That meant going wire-to-wire and playing all 90 defensive snaps in the epic win over the Broncos, as well as 69 of a possible 70 defensive snaps in the regular-season finale against the Bills. (Although in the case of the latter contest, that was probably more of a case of the team trying to get him as many snaps as possible going into the playoffs.) The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder played well when called upon, and while he won’t likely be a defensive starter when the postseason begins next Saturday, he will almost certainly be a regular part of the rotation in the secondary in nickel and dime packages.

Totals (per coaches film review): 30 tackles (23 solo), 2 INTs, 44 yards, 4 passes defensed.

Steve Beauharnais: The linebacker out of Rutgers — a seventh-round pick this past spring — flashed elements of old special teasers linebacker Tracy White in his game. However, because of numbers, he was a healthy scratch for most of the season. A sturdy, no-nonsense individual, look for him to have a limited role down the stretch, but he should figure in New England’s plans for 2014.

Totals (per coaches film review): 1 tackle.

Michael Buchanan: A seventh-rounder out of Illinois, Buchanan started strong as a backup defensive end to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich — over the first four weeks, he was a primary backup, and played a sizable portion of snaps. But after the Patriots re-acquired veteran Andre Carter, Buchanan’s playing time dropped dramatically. (Over the second half of the season, he reached double digits in snaps just twice, and took a healthy scratch along the way.) For what it’s worth, he did play well on special teams down the stretch. Going into the playoffs, he’s likely a third option at defensive end behind the starters and Carter, but will figure into the mix in a more prominent role in 2014.

Totals (per coaches film review): 3 tackles (3 solo), 2 sacks, 15 yards, 5 quarterback hits; 7 special teams tackles.

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Read More: Aaron Dobson, Chris Barker, Chris Jones, Duron Harmon

Bill Belichick goes deep on special teams and explains why he hates the extra point

01.04.14 at 12:53 pm ET
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Bill Belichick is fond of reminding everyone who watches football that the outcome of many games is often determined by much more than the offense and defense.

In 1976, just two seasons into his NFL career, Belichick got one of his first big NFL assignments, serving as an assistant special teams coach for the Detroit Lions. He would serve the same role two seasons later for the Denver Broncos, in addition to becoming a defensive coaching assistant.

In 1979, Belichick began his 12-year stint with the New York Giants alongside head coach Ray Perkins as a defensive assistant and special teams coach.

So, whether it’€™s Jacoby Jones in the Super Bowl last year or the Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC championship game, Belichick knows full well many postseason games between evenly matched teams come down to the kicking game. Does he anticipate seeing more of the same things over the next few weeks?

“Who knows what the difference in a game in a close game is going to be. But certainly the kicking game is always an important part of every game and any close game, especially when you have points involved, which we have with the field goals but potentially in a return game or blocked kick or that type of thing,” Belichick began. “Those are kind of bonus points. I don’€™t think you ever go into the game thinking, ‘€˜We’€™re going to get seven points from our punt return team or we’€™re going to get seven points from our kickoff coverage team to recover a fumble and run back for a touchdown.’€™

“Those are kind of bonus points you don’€™t really count on. You hope you get a couple of them over the course of the year but statistically that’€™s about what it’€™s going to be. So, a big play in that area is a huge play really because it’€™s like bonus points. I mean really I’€™ve always had a great appreciation for the kicking game. I think that I was fortunate when I grew up when Coach [Wayne] Hardin was the coach at Navy, he emphasized the kicking game a lot.

“Plays like the quick kick and some plays in the return game and so forth that kind of caught my eye as a kid and always sort of stayed interested in. I had an opportunity to coach it and I think it’€™s one of the great things about football is it brings that third element to the game besides offense and defense. It adds the kicking game, the specialists, all the different rules and strategical situations that can occur on kickoffs, punts and field goals and fakes and all those kind of things, field position plays. I think that’€™s an integral part of the game.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos, detroit lions, Gino Cappelletti

Road to North Jersey, Playoff Edition: Ten more questions as postseason gets underway

01.03.14 at 3:43 pm ET
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With the playoffs set to open Saturday night, here are 10 questions about the postseason party that should be answered over the next month, as we continue on the road to North Jersey and Super Bowl XLVIII. (Consider this the companion piece to the initial “Road to North Jersey” story we did a month ago.)

1. IS THERE A WILD CARD WHO COULD GO ON THE ROAD TO REACH THE SUPER BOWL?

The Niners are playoff-tested, playing well at the right time and have demonstrated that they aren’€™t intimidated by just about anything. The fifth seed in the NFC, the defending conference champs have to go on the road if they want to get back to the Super Bowl, but if there’€™s a wild card team out there with the cojones to pull it off, it’€™s San Francisco. Through the first 10 games, the Niners were something of a trick-or-treat team, going 6-4 out of the gate and causing some to believe they were incapable of duplicating last year’€™s success. But they won their last six games to head into the playoffs on a roll (in that stretch, Colin Kaepernick‘€™s average passer rating is 106.5, with 10 touchdowns and one interception) and now head to Green Bay for a wild card matchup with the Packers. Some of the Kaepernick’€™s best games have come against the Packers, including a 34-28 win in the 2013 season opener and a 45-31 win in last year’€™s playoffs.

2. IS ANDY DALTON READY FOR THE BIG STAGE?

There’€™s a lot to like about the Bengals. They have a young and aggressive defense, and have some of the best offensive skill position players in the league. The question is the quarterback: while Andy Dalton made the postseason in his first two years in the NFL, no one is sure he’€™ll be able to take a team deep into January. Surrounded by some terrific young offensive options in the league in A.J. Green and Gio Bernard and an impressive young defense, it appears that the time is now for Dalton. The 26-year-old has proven himself to be very good at times this season, and pretty bad at others — he had five games this year where he had a completion percent of better than 70 percent, and also had five games where he threw for at least 325 yards. Of course, on the flip side, he also had three other games where he threw at least three picks. Dalton will get his chance to come of age this January — if he can come through with some signature postseason moments, the Bengals could be one of the surprise teams in the AFC. If not, it could another offseason of questions in Cincinnati.

3. WHICH STAR HAS THE MOST TO GAIN AND MOST TO LOSE WHEN IT COMES TO HIS LEGACY?

We wrote it before the dawn of the playoffs, and it’€™s still true a month later — Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is directly in the crosshairs this postseason. Much of it depends on how the postseason plays out, but on the surface, it certainly has the most to gain and most to lose over the next month. On the heels of a record-setting regular-season performance, if he’€™s able to break through and win his second ring, it would create some separation from the rest of the field of quarterbacks and allow him some measure of vindication for past playoff failures. (That includes this year’€™s loss to Tom Brady and New England in the freezing cold of Foxboro, as well as the Broncos playoff defeat at the hands of the Ravens last year.) If he and Denver can’€™t seal the deal this time around, it will be viewed — fairly or unfairly — as yet another example of the quarterback coming up short with a title on the line.

4. CAN THE SAINTS FIND SUCCESS ON THE ROAD?

As a wild card team, New Orleans will have to hit the road if it wants to reach North Jersey — that journey would start Saturday night in Philly. That’€™s bad news for the Saints, as their home/road splits are as dramatic as any team in the playoffs: they were 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road, they average almost twice as many points at home (34) than on the road (17.8), and scored a combined 36 points in their last three road losses. (By contrast, they scored 30 or more six different times at home this season.) Quarterback Drew Brees was the best home QB in the league with a 74 percent completion rate in the Dome, to go along with 27 touchdowns and just three picks. On the road, he completed 64 percent of his passes, with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Not good for a team heading into a chilly Saturday night game in Philly.

5. ARE THE PLAYOFFS READY FOR CHIP KELLY?

Kelly will coach his first playoff game Saturday night when the Eagles host the Saints in an NFC wild card matchup, and the high-octane Kelly is ready to attack the postseason with an offense that’€™s looked pretty impressive, especially over the second half of the season. Following a 3-5 start, the Eagles turned to quarterback Nick Foles, who has led Philly to the top 5 of almost every major offensive category, including rushing (first at 160.4 yards per game), total offense (second at 417.3 yards per game) and scoring (fourth at 27.6 points per game). Foles had an amazing 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio on the year, and completed at impressive 64 percent of his passes while rolling to an 8-2 mark as a starter. (Of course, LeSean McCoy has a sizable role in the success of the Eagles, as his 1,607 rushing yards and 539 receiving yards make him one of the most impressive multidimensional threats in the game.) It’€™s uncertain as to whether or not the Eagles can keep those numbers rolling into the playoffs, but they’€™re going to be fun to watch as long as they hang around.
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Devin McCourty, Aqib Talib and Logan Mankins recognized as All-Pros

01.03.14 at 2:06 pm ET
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Safety Devin McCourty, cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive lineman Logan Mankins were all named second-team All-Pros on Friday.

McCourty is in the midst of one of the finest seasons of his career — the defensive back has been a tremendously steadying influence along the back line of New England’s defense, and with the losses of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries early in the year, has stepped up and assumed more of a leadership position. He started 15 games for the Patriots this season, and the 26-year-old has 69 tackles (48 solo), nine passes defensed and an interception.

McCourty said it was an honor as a secondary to have two defensive backs named All-Pros.

‘€œI think when you’€™ve got two guys, not at the same position, but both in the secondary, that speaks volumes to the work that you’€™re putting in as a group,” he said. “For us two to be named to [the All-Pro team] means we’€™ve been playing pretty well. Now it’€™s all about continuing to do it in the postseason.’€

Talib has also enjoyed the finest season of his career, as the corner has played in 13 games, and come away with four interceptions and 13 passes defensed. The 27-year-old, in his first full season with New England (he was dealt to the Patriots from Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 campaign), has spent the bulk of the season shutting down some of the league’s elite pass catchers, including Jimmy Graham of New Orleans and Vincent Jackson of Tampa Bay. For his efforts, he was also named to his first Pro Bowl late last month.

‘€œIt’€™s an honor, I guess. I really didn’€™t even know about it,” Talib said Friday. “Just like that Pro Bowl, man, I’€™ll find a way to celebrate that after we finish our business. Simple as that.’€

Mankins, a 2010 first-team All Pro, has been the centerpiece of New England’s offensive line, working as both the left tackle and left guard over the course of the season. Earlier this month, he was voted to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl and his sixth overall. Since entering the starting lineup in 2005, Mankins has helped New England finish in the top 10 on offense eight times.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Logan Mankins,
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