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Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez present dual challenge for Baltimore pass defense

01.18.12 at 2:31 pm ET
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FOXBORO — In the Patriots’€™ locker room, it’€™s the offensive equivalent of the high-rent district.

Three lockers, back-to-back-to-back, have the three leading receivers: Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. And while Welker does his share of damage as an individual receiver, Hernandez and Gronkowski have formed one of the most dynamic tight end combos in the NFL.

Between them, the two young tight ends accounted for 169 of the 402 receptions and 2,237 of the 5,257 passing yards from Patriots pass catchers this year. Small wonder that one NFC scout said they could be the difference makers in Sunday’€™s AFC Championship Game, saying that Baltimore lacks an ‘€œeffective counterpoint’€ to try and slow down the both of them.

‘€œThey use their personnel groups really well, whereas most teams, when they go two tight ends, it’€™s usually a somewhat running formation or at least a balanced formation. They can do anything,’€ said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. ‘€œThey can go in diesel, which is a two-tight end look, two receivers and a back, and they can spread them all out and make them look like five-wide [receivers] and can be just as efficient if it was five-wide because their guys are so athletic. It’€™s a big predicament for us.’€

But Gronkowski isn’€™t buying into the idea that he and Hernandez are going to be what sets the Patriots apart from the Ravens.

‘€œI mean, (we’€™re) definitely not what’€™s going to make the game won or lost,’€ Gronkowski said. ‘€œIt’€™s a team game, and that’€™s all that matters. We have to make sure we go out as a team and we all play together as a team, and whoever makes the plays, makes the plays. Just basically go out, have a good run game and a good pass game and the defense plays well. That’€™s what matters — the whole team.’€

While Gronkowski has set numerous records this season playing more of a traditional tight end role with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, Hernandez has been used like a chess piece, shuffled around the field. He’€™s lined up flush against the tackle, in the slot and split wide, and on Saturday against the Broncos, he was in the backfield and rushed for 61 yards in the divisional playoff victory over Denver. (On the season, he has 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.)
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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, John Harbaugh, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker

Myth-busting the Patriots-Ravens matchup

01.18.12 at 7:55 am ET
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One man’s attempt to debunk three myths (was going to be five, but no Wikipedia makes that kind of heavy mental lifting impossible) that have been posing as storylines this week …

1. A team with zero quality wins can’t make the Super Bowl

You really want to do this? OK, the Patriots did not beat a team with a winning record during the regular season. Absolutely accurate. And they have not defeated a team with a winning record during this postseason. Also true. But does it really matter? The Patriots have eight wins over teams that finished 8-8 this season (Denver twice, Oakland, San Diego, Jets twice, Philadelphia, Dallas). A festival of triumph over mediocrity. Does that tell you more or less about a team than, say, five wins over 9-7 teams or three wins over 10-6 teams? Who the hell knows? Also this: If the Patriots had lost just once to one of these teams this would be a non-issue. Would they be better off with a 12-4 record if it meant the Raiders were 9-7? Would that make you more confident 10 minutes before kickoff on Sunday? Sure, it would have meant playing in Baltimore instead of Foxboro, but who could pass up the chance to claim a win over a 9-7 team, right?

Look, this hasn’t been a killer schedule. Not even close. And the Patriots have lost to the two best teams they played this season (Steelers and Giants). That’s a fair criticism. But if it’s third-and-7 for the Patriots with 4:36 left in the fourth quarter of a 24-21 game on Sunday I really don’t think the fact that the Ravens beat the 9-7 Bengals three weeks ago is going to play a factor in the odds of Tom Brady successfully completing a pass to Rob Gronkowski.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis, Tom Brady,

Devin McCourty’s versatility brings added dimension to Patriots secondary

01.17.12 at 4:43 pm ET
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One of the most surprising things in the regular-season finale and the playoff opener was the sight of Devin McCourty at safety instead of his usual cornerback spot. McCourty split his time between corner and safety over the last two games — on most occasions, McCourty was lined up opposite receivers on first and second downs before switching to deep safety on third and other passing downs.

Defensive backs coach Josh Boyer gave his assessment of McCourty as a safety on a Tuesday afternoon conference call with reporters.

“I would say Devin, like all of our guys, has position flexibility. I think he has worked really hard in the film room and on the practice field trying to improve his techniques,” Boyer said. “With some things that haven’€™t gone so good, we work hard on those, and then the things that do go well, we try to improve upon those.

“Just from a position flexibility standpoint, we have a lot of guys that have done some of the stuff that Devin is doing,” Boyer said. “Sterling [Moore] has had positional flexibility for us, as well as Patrick Chung. So all of our guys back there, Kyle [Arrington] included in that mix, they are very aware of what is going on [and doing] what we feel is best for the team that week of who is going to be in what spot.”

Boyer was asked about what sort of skills McCourty has that make him a good fit at safety.

“For the safety, one of the things you are looking for is a guy that can track the ball in the air, which Devin has been able to do,” Boyer said. “You have to have a little bit of range. You have to be kind of a physical player being able to step up in the box. Devin has done all of those things at points in times for us in the season. There are things that we can still improve on in all those areas.”

Read More: Devin McCourty, Josh Boyer,

Bill Belichick on Ravens’ Joe Flacco: ‘They’ve won a lot of games, and I think that’s the big thing’

01.17.12 at 2:26 pm ET
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Using some of the same terms he used to describe Denver quarterback Tim Tebow last week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the best way to describe Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is with a simple stat.

“They’€™ve won a lot of games, and I think that’€™s the big thing,” Belichick said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “A quarterback has to do what his team needs him to do to win, and Joe has done that. I don’€™t know how improve much on 11-5 and 12-4 and they just keep doing it. He’€™s been a solid guy since his rookie year in terms of managing the game and using the clock and making good decisions and those types of things.

“He’€™s been able to throw the ball obviously to his backs, to his tight ends and down the field to whether it’€™s [Torrey] Smith or [Lee] Evans or [Anquan] Boldin or whoever it happens to be. I think he can make all the throws that you need a quarterback to make. He can run the team and manage it well. He can make checks and decisions that the offense needs to have a good flow and take advantage of defensive alignment. I think he’€™s certainly over four years improved in all those areas incrementally, but he did them at a pretty high level to begin with, and he continues to do that.”

Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer praised Flacco, saying the Baltimore passing game “really starts with him.”

“Flacco is a very capable quarterback.  He is a guy that can throw the ball 65 yards down the field.  He can hit the intermediate routes.  He is very smart; he understands when to go to the check downs.  Even at times he takes some good sacks; he doesn’€™t put his team in bad situations,” Boyer said. “I would say it is a very good passing game.  They can hit them deep, intermediate or short.”

Read More: Anquan Boldin, Bill Belichick, joe flacco, Josh Boyer

Deion Branch one of the best when it comes to hanging on to the football

01.17.12 at 1:09 pm ET
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The fellas at Pro Football Focus do a great job putting together stats that take you inside the game, and so their latest work should be no surprise. They looked at drop rate for pass catchers for the 2011 season, and found that Patriots’ wide receiver Deion Branch was one of the best in the league when it came to holding on to the ball.

Among all receivers with at least 35 “catchable” balls thrown in their direction, Branch only dropped two passes. (He had 53 catchable balls thrown his way, and had 51 receptions.) Seattle’s Golden Tate had a perfect drop rate, going 35 for 35, while Branch’s 51 of 53 landed him ninth on the list at 3.77. (Former Patriots Jabar Gaffney was seventh overall with only two drops on 69 chances, to finish 2.9.)

On the other end of the spectrum, while others had more drops, no one had a worst percentage than Tampa Bay’s Arrelious Benn, who had eight drops on 38 catchable balls for a drop rate of 21.05 percent.

For the complete story, click here.

Read More: Arrelious Benn, Deion Branch, Golden Tate, jabar gaffney

Rob Gronkowski, Zoltan Mesko get personalized ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ songs on ‘Conan’

01.17.12 at 9:18 am ET
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As we documented last week, singer/songwriter John Parr recently released an updated version of his hit song “St. Elmo’s Fire,” honoring Tim Tebow and the Broncos.

On Monday’s episode of “Conan” on TBS, host Conan O’Brien poked fun at Parr’s “Tim Tebow’s Fire” song and joked that he was now trying to cash in on the Patriots’ win over the Broncos. In the video below, you can see O’Brien’s parodies of the song, featuring Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko and assistant strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera.

Kidding aside, Parr was nice enough to talk to our own Kirk Minihane on the “20 Minutes of Silence” podcast, just days before the Pats knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs. You can hear the podcast right here!

Read More: Conan O'Brien, John Parr, Rob Gronkowski, St. Elmo's Fire

Here’s why the Patriots will win on Sunday

01.17.12 at 6:53 am ET
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You know what we’ve got on Sunday?

Two Super Bowl or bust teams.

When the season began, neither the Patriots or Ravens would have been satisfied with a spirited, hard-fought loss in the AFC championship as the conclusion to the season. Nope, the expectations were Lombardi Trophy or Lost Season.

How many other teams, realistically, thought that way in September? The Packers, obviously. The Saints, sure. The Steelers. One more, and it’s almost now charming in its delusion: The Jets.

That’s it. Every other team would have signed for 12-4 and a playoff win. That includes the two remaining NFC teams.

This will be the only Super Bowl or Bust matchup of the entire postseason. Doesn’t mean the winner will win the next game, of course, but it is going to be a particularly brutal defeat on Sunday for the Patriots or Ravens, much more so than for a 49ers team that won six games in 2010 and is way past house money stage, or for a Giants team that missed the postseason last year, won nine games this year and was 7-7 just a month ago. If the Giants lose 23-14 to the 49ers on Sunday I suspect, with some time to gain a little perspective, they’ll look at the season (with that win in Green Bay as the unquestioned highlight) as a whole as a success.

I’m picking the Patriots to win this game, but it’s about as close to a coin flip as it can get. A Baltimore win would be nothing close to a surprise, that defense plus Ray Rice is plenty enough to beat New England. Doesn’t take much to make a case for the Ravens on Sunday.

But three factors stand out when choosing New England, and it’s the first one I believe will matter most ‘€¦

Brady vs. Flacco

No quarterback in the history of the NFL has won as many regular-season games in his first four seasons as Joe Flacco (44 – but if you’ll allow a quick caveat: Brady won 48 in his first four seasons as a starter but is disqualified here because he played in one game in his actual rookie season of 2000). Flacco has a career TD/INT ratio of 80-46, which even in the new NFL world of juiced-up passer ratings is impressive. And on Sunday, Flacco won his fifth career postseason game. So you’d think this is a guy that would reside firmly at the elite table of current quarterbacks, below Brady, Rodgers and Brees but right there with Roethlsiberger and Eli Manning (who is two wins away from pretty much locking up a spot in Canton, hard as that may be to believe).

But no one ever puts Flacco in that group, his national temperature is tepid at best. Why? Well, he had his worst season in 2011 (most INTs, TD’s were down, yards per attempt and completion percentage were career lows) and looked very shaky at times against the Texans on Sunday. Probably you remember Baltimore coming to Foxboro and destroying the Patriots in January 2010. Also you might remember this: Flacco stunk in that game, finished 4-for-10 for 34 yards and an INT (10.0 passer rating). In his postseason career he has completed 53.1 percent of his passes with seven INT and six TDs (Tony Romo – who routinely gets massacred by the press for not being a “winner” with just a single playoff win in five games – has completed 59.3 percent of his playoff passes with four TDs and just two INTs). Flacco is a perfectly serviceable NFL starter, perhaps a little more than that. But if he had been drafted by, say, Seattle instead of Baltimore it’s fair to wonder what Flacco would be. Having Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata as teammates can cover up some of the quarterbacking acne.

When the Patriots lost to the Giants in Week 9 they were 5-3 on the season and Tom Brady already had 10 interceptions. Since then the Patriots are 9-0 and Brady has thrown 25 TDs (as many as Flacco has thrown in any season of his career) against three picks. Yup, this Ravens defense is significantly better than any Brady has faced during that stretch (tops in the NFL in pass defense) and the heart of that group dominated him in that playoff game two years ago, but he enters Sunday playing at least as well as he has at any time of his career. Huge head-to-head edge for the Patriots at the most important position.

Understanding The Need For Balance

The three losses:

Buffalo, 45 passes, 26 rushes

Steelers: 35 passes, 12 rushes

Giants: 49 passes, 24 rushes

(And these were not blowout games, obviously, the kind that would force your quarterback to throw and throw some more. The losses were by three, six and four points.)

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Read More: AFC Championship, Bill Belichick, Patriots, Ravens
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