|01.18.12 at 3:31 pm ET|
FOXBORO — When it comes to managing emotions around this weekend’s AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes knows he needs a little help.
‘Well, that’s going to be key,’ said Spikes, who frequently plays like he’s been binging on 5-Hour Energy. ‘Some of the guys on the team are just making sure I’m … you know, I can get a little crazy out there. It’s all fun and games, I just have to make sure throughout the week that I prepare and just be ready, mentally, physically, everything. It’s a big game.
‘Personally, it’s just something in me,’ Spikes added. ‘There could be nobody in the stands. I’m going to play hard every play, relentless, like it’s my last play.’
After suffering a right knee injury in a Nov. 6 loss to the Giants, the second-year linebacker was on the shelf for seven weeks. But he was able to bring a jolt to the New England defense in the regular-season finale against the Bills, and built on that nicely in the divisional playoff win over the Broncos with six tackles (three solo), a sack, two quarterback hits and one pass defensed.
For the 24-year-old, who finished the regular season with 51 tackles (36 solo), one quarterback hit and one pass defensed, he said the time away from the game ‘cut him deep.’
‘I never really dealt with injuries. This was my first one,’ said the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder who was more known for his Twitter feed than his game while he was out. ‘My teammates kind of had my back and they held me down throughout the whole thing and just kept pushing me. As far as just watching the guys play, it definitely killed me. It was good to be back.’
|01.18.12 at 3:16 pm ET|
FOXBORO — It was the singular defining moment of one of the more humiliating losses in Patriots playoff history.
Ray Rice, off left guard, scoots through a hole, pushed Brandon Meriweather aside and motored 83 yards to a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. The Ravens would go on to beat the Patriots, 33-14, two years ago and there are still many on the Patriots who remember that play.
Vince Wilfork was on the nose and watched as No. 27 sped past every Patriot.
“He’s tough to bring down,” Wilfork said. “I mean, his lower body is probably like my lower body, with big thighs and he’s very strong. Hard runner, low center of gravity, can catch well and can block. When you can put those three things in a running back, you’ve got a complete running back and he’s been doing it ever since he’s been in the league. Tough, tough guy to bring down. Very, very physical runner. To be that small, you wouldn’t expect him to be that tough of a runner.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s probably one of the toughest guys to bring down in this league because he always keeps those wheels spinning. He always comes up with big plays for his team, if it’s in the pass game or the running game. When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him. I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That’s first on our list, we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense.”
Jerod Mayo was in his first NFL playoff game and was left in shock as Rice rambled downfield.
“He’s one of those guys that can do it all,” Mayo said. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s good in blitz pickup. He’s a small guy, but at the same time he’s strong. He always has his feet going, breaks a lot of tackles, so he’s a dangerous weapon for them. There’s a reason why he’s their leading receiver and leading rusher. You rarely see that. He’s a great player.”
But if there’s anyone bound and determined to make sure it doesn’t happen again, it’s coach Bill Belichick.
“Yeah, very, very tough guy to defend,” Belichick said Wednesday. “Similar to problems that we’ve had with [C.J.] Spiller, Reggie Bush in Miami, guys like that can run the ball inside, can run the ball outside, can run with power, can take short plays and go for long yardage, can take wheel routes and close routes and routes out of the backfield and out-run the defense and get behind them. He’s a tough guy to matchup on and he does so many things that you try to stop one thing and you’re vulnerable somewhere else. As usual, it just comes down to team defense, everybody doing their job.”
The Patriots made adjustments in their next meeting, holding him to 88 yards in 28 carries and a long of eight yards, as the Patriots beat the Ravens, 23-20, in overtime on Oct. 17, 2010.
Belichick and the Patriots no doubt paid attention to the Texans defensive scheme last Sunday, a game plan that held Rice to just 60 rushing yards in 21 carries, an average of just 2.9 yards with a fumble. And like Reggie Bush, Roy Helu, Jr, C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Rice is a shifty back who can catch the ball as a multi-dimensional back. Sunday, he caught four balls for 20 yards.
“I don’t think, obviously, any one person can stop a player of his caliber,” Belichick added. “It takes a great team effort to do that, whether it’s running or covering or screen passes. It could be a screen pass for 50 yards, it could be a wheel route out of the backfield for 50 yards. It could be the crossing pattern against the Jets that went for 50 yards, it could be a running play up the middle against Cincinnati or two of them actually in short yardage that go for 60, 70 yards. We’ve seen him do it against us, so I have all the respect in the world for Ray Rice. He’s a tough football player. He’s versatile and he really can kill you in a lot of different ways, including returning kicks. I hope they don’t do that with him.”
|01.18.12 at 2:31 pm ET|
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 ‘effective counterpoint’ to try and slow down the both of them.
‘They 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. ‘They 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.
‘I mean, (we’re) definitely not what’s going to make the game won or lost,’ Gronkowski said. ‘It’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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|01.18.12 at 7:55 am ET|
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.
|01.17.12 at 4:43 pm ET|
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.”
|01.17.12 at 2:26 pm ET|
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.”
|01.17.12 at 1:09 pm ET|
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.