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Key Moment: Two big takeaways fuel second-half comeback for Patriots

01.01.12 at 5:51 pm ET
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FOXBORO — For the fourth consecutive week, the Patriots were able to turn well-timed turnovers into points, providing the key moment in their 49-21 win over the Bills in the regular-season finale for both teams.

On Sunday against the Bills, there were two big ones: The first one came with just over four minutes left in the third quarter and the Bills clinging to a 21-20 lead. With Buffalo facing a second and 2 at their own 28, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass and looked left. He flung a short pass out there, meant for wide receiver Ruvell Martin. The ball was picked off by Sterling Moore, who took it back to the Buffalo 25. New England then followed that up with a five-play, 25-yard drive that ended when Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on a perfectly run route from 17 yards out. A two-point conversion made it 28-21, Patriots.

‘€œI just wanted to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and I knew the ball was going to have to come out quick,’€ Moore said of the first of his two interceptions. ‘€œSo after about five yards, I went to head back around and the ball was coming, so I just tried to dive in front and get my hands on it.’€

On Buffalo’€™s next drive, Fitzpatrick managed to guide the Bills to the New England 32-yard line, and with a first and 10, Fitzpatrick went deep down the field for C.J. Spiller. This one was picked off by Devin McCourty, the second straight game where the Rutgers product was able to come away with a pick. McCourty took it back all the way to the Buffalo 47-yard line. After a 44-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rumbled in from three yards out to give New England a 35-21 lead with 11:20 remaining in the game.

‘€œThe ball got tipped, and I just remember in college, my defensive backs coach always used to say, ‘€˜When you’€™re in the middle of the field, you can make a lot of interceptions on tipped balls,’€™’€œ McCourty said. ‘€œOnce it was in the air, I was just trying to track it down and get to it.’€

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, BenJarvus Green Ellis, C.J. Spiller, Devin McCourty

Snap Judgments: Patriots 49, Bills 21

01.01.12 at 4:03 pm ET
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FOXBORO - Stop me if this sounds familiar: On Sunday the Patriots looked pathetic in the first quarter, were booed by the fans at Gillette Stadium, fell behind 21-0 and then woke up and rallied behind Tom Brady to a victory over an AFC East opponent.

The Patriots gave the doubters plenty of early ammunition against the Bills (Ryan Fitzpatrick shredded them for the first 30 minutes) but were dominant after trailing by three touchdowns and collected win No. 13 of the season on Sunday, a 49-21 triumph that means this: The AFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxboro.

As the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Patriots will have a bye and then host a Team To Be Named Later (could be the Jets, Titans, Broncos, Raiders, Bengals, Steelers or Ravens) in two weeks.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

- Tom Brady (23-of-35, 338 yards) passed the 5,000-yard mark (and later moved past Dan Marino’s 5,084 total) in the win, and now stands behind Drew Brees on the single-season chart. Brady wasn’t as sharp as we’ve seen in recent weeks (couple of passes that skipped in front of Rob Gronkowski and an interception from Nick Barnett that was thrown well behind Wes Welker), but made plays when he had to, including the three TD passes, one to Hernandez and two to Gronkowski.

– Sterling Moore jumped in front of Ruvell Martin and picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick in what was a game-changing turnover in the third quarter. Nice hustle play from Moore, and the Patriots converted the turnover into eight points, with Danny Woodhead punching in the two-point conversion following the Gronkowski TD. Devin McCourty – playing much of the game at safety – intercepted Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter (thanks to a Spiller drop) and returned it 38 yards. Moore had his second interception of the game with just under three minutes left, picking off Fitzpatrick and returning it 21 yards for his first career touchdown.

– Stevan Ridley started at running back and received the bulk of the carries, finishing with 81 yards on 15 carries. Ridley’s biggest gainer of the game was a 21-yard rush on the first New England TD drive. There is no doubt — none — that Ridley is clearly the most explosive back on this team, and it would be a surprise if he isn’t given a significant role in the postseason. Look, this things are fluid with the Patriots, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis has just a single carry (a one-yard TD) in the first half and six total (for just 20 yards, though he added a second TD). A storyline to watch over the next couple weeks: Has Ridley assumed the lead spot?

Aaron Hernandez (Pro Bowl snub?) was terrific again, catching seven passes for 138 yards, including a 39-yard TD pass in the second quarter (set up by play-action from Brady to Ridley). He also had a 44-yard reception in the fourth quarter, a catch-and-run special that set up the second TD rush by Green-Ellis. Rob Gronkowski (eight catches, 108 yards) also had two TD’s (17 TD catches on the season and 18 total) and now holds the NFL record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end with 1,327.

Mark Anderson pulled off the ol’ swim move on Chris Hairston and sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second quarter, his 10th sack of the season. Anderson and Andre Carter are the first New England teammates with 10 or more sacks in a season since 1985 (Andre Tippett and Garin Varis).

– Green-Ellis wasn’t much of  a factor in the running game, but had a key 53-yard reception on a screen in the third quarter. Superb work by the offensive line – particularly Brian Waters – on the play. It was the longest catch of Green-Ellis’ career.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The defense was again hideous early in the game, allowing three first-quarter touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick was 13-of-16 for 156 yards and a pair of touchdown passes in the quarter, finding Stevie Johnson for an 18-yard score (Johnson- who beat Kyle Arrington to the corner of the end zone -was flagged and benched for taunting after the score) and C.J. Spiller for a 15-yarder that gave the Bills a 21-0 lead. Spiller beat Dane Fletcher on the TD, one of several times Fletcher failed in pass coverage. Heaps of ineptitude from the secondary in the first half, with both Arrington and Antwaun Molden unable to stop Derek Hagan. No defense has allowed more passing yards in a season in NFL history It’s swell that this defense has played better as games have gone on the last couple of weeks, but isn’t fair to at least ask what will happen if this team falls behind 21-0 to the Steelers or Ravens?

– The Patriots were flat-out fooled by a fake punt by Buffalo in the first quarter, a George Wilson seven-yard rush on 4th-and-1 at midfield on the first drive.. The Bills also converted a 4th-and-4 on the next drive, as Nate Jones was easily beat by Johnson in the open field. Impressive grapefruit showing by Chan Gailey in defeat, right down to the Johnson benching.

Who would be next in line if Bill O’Brien leaves the Patriots for Penn State?

01.01.12 at 2:26 pm ET
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If Patriots’€™ offensive coordinator Bill O’€™Brien does depart to take over the job as head coach at Penn State, it would leave a void on the coaching staff, but would create some intriguing possibilities for New England going forward.

Much of the talk would likely center on the possible return of former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels, who is the offensive coordinator in St. Louis, cut his teeth with the Patriots as an assistant from 2001 until 2005 before becoming the Patriots offensive coordinator in 2006. He was OC in New England for three seasons before taking the head coaching job in Denver and then moving on to become the OC in St. Louis. However, it’€™s expected that the entire Rams’€™ coaching staff will be shown the door at the end of the season, making his return a possibility if the job opens up.

There are some possibilities on the current staff, including tight ends coach Brian Ferentz, a younger assistant who has been part of the New England staff since 2008. The son of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz (who was a former assistant under Belichick) he started with the Patriots as a coaching assistant in 2008, moved to offensive coaching assistant the following year and became an offensive assistant in 2010. He was officially promoted to tight ends coach at the start of this season, and has helped youngsters Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez become two of the best young tight ends in the game.

Another interesting possibility would be Pat Hill, who worked with Belichick in Cleveland and was recently let go by Fresno State. Hill was part of Belichick’€™s staff from 1992 through 1995, serving as Cleveland’€™s tight end and offensive line coach.

There’€™s always the chance that the Patriots would go without a coordinator — they’€™ve done it on several occasions, including this year, when they did not name a defensive coordinator. On the offensive side of the ball, it wouldn’€™t be out of the realm of possibility to not name an offensive coordinator, but give more responsibility to someone like Ferentz, let him learn on the job, and if he flowers, officially name him the OC in a year or two. One other possible wrinkle worth mentioning — O’€™Brien is also the team’€™s quarterbacks coach, and the Patriots could split the jobs again going forward.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill O'Brien, Brian Ferentz, Josh McDaniels

Patriots have an 11-year streak on the line

01.01.12 at 12:32 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Aside from the obvious motivation of playing for the No. 1 seed in the AFC East, there’s something else the Patriots are playing for – history.

The Patriots haven’€™t been swept in a season series since 2000, his first year in New England, when the Patriots went 5-11. The Jets and Dolphins turned the trick in that season but the Bills have a chance to sweep the series with the Patriots for the first time since 1999.

The Bills, of course, had the chance in 2003, when they won the infamous ‘€œLawyer Milloy‘€ game, 31-0 in the season opener. The Patriots exacted revenge by the identical score in the season finale that year at Gillette. The Bills have lost all nine lifetime meetings at Gillette and haven’€™t won in New England since sweeping the season series in ‘€™99.

Is there anything about the staff’s preparation that motivates them the second time around?

“I think it’€™s really just more about the players,” Bill Belichick said on Friday. “The payers go out there. They’€™re the ones that block and tackle and catch and kick and make the plays. If you have good players and they go out there and do those things then you win. If you don’€™t and if you don’€™t coach them well, even if you have them and you don’€™t do a good job of coaching them then things don’€™t turn out so well.

“I think when you talk about those kind of historical things, the things to point to is the performance of the players. That encompasses a lot of players and a lot of games, but they’€™re the ones that are out there winning them. Talk to Mike Vrabel or [Tedy Bruschi] Bruschi or Troy Brown. Those guys have won a lot of games. Honestly, they’€™re better qualified to answer that than I am because they’€™re the ones that won them.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Buffalo Bills, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel

Live Blog: Patriots look to wrap up No. 1 seed in regular season finale against Buffalo

01.01.12 at 11:53 am ET
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Patriots/Bills

Setting the scene: Patriots-Bills

01.01.12 at 9:59 am ET
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FOXBORO — You can leave those heavy winter coats and wool socks at home if you’re planning on attending the Patriots-Bills regular season finale today at Gillette Stadium.

Mother Nature apparently had a good New Year’s Eve and is in a giving mood, presenting the Patriots and Bills with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-40s for today’s finale of the 2011 season on New Year’s Day 2012.

There will be some wind to contend with but it’s predicted to be no more than 10-15 MPH out of the south-southwest so wind chill shouldn’t be a factor.

The 12-3 Patriots will clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs for a second straight season with a win. If they lose to the Bills, they will have to sit, wait and hope the 11-4 Ravens and 11-4 Steelers both lose their 4:15 p.m. games to gain home field and the No. 1 seed.

The Ravens are on the road in Cincinnati and have motivation to win since they clinch the AFC North with a victory over the Bengals while the Steelers are also on the road, in Cleveland, battling the Browns with a banged up Ben Roethlisberger.

As for the Patriots, a win would put Bill Belichick in the rarest of air among NFL coaches all-time. He would become the first head coach in the Super Bowl era with five seasons of at least 13 wins.

In addition to the unbeaten 16-0 regular season of 2007, Belichick’s Patriots won 14 games in 2003, ’04 and ’10. He is already the first coach in NFL history with nine straight seasons of at least 10 wins, a streak that began in 2003.

Adding to Belichick’s resume is another remarkable stat, his Patriots teams haven’t been swept in a season series since 2000, his first year in New England, when the Patriots went 5-11. The Jets and Dolphins turned the trick in that season but the Bills have a chance to sweep the series with the Patriots for the first time since 1999.

The Bills, of course, had the chance in 2003, when they won the infamous “Lawyer Milloy” game, 31-0 in the season opener. The Patriots exacted revenge by the identical score in the season finale that year at Gillette. The Bills have lost all nine lifetime meetings at Gillette and haven’t won in New England since sweeping the season series in ’99. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals

Nuggetpalooza: All the numbers as the Patriots square off with the Bills

12.31.11 at 9:28 am ET
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The Patriots bring down the curtain on the regular season and try to secure the AFC’s top seed against the Bills in Foxboro on Sunday. As always, I found a few numbers that I thought were interesting, along with some records that the teams are chasing that you may not have heard about:

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* – By allowing 130 yards last week against the Dolphins, Devin McCourty became the 17th defender (and first Patriot) to allow over 1,000 yards in receptions since they began tracking the stat in 1995. He is currently at 1,096 yards allowed, 98 behind the all-time single season leader:

1,194 – Walt Harris, Bears, 1999
1,158 – DeWayne Washington, Vikings, 1997
1,116 – Corey Fuller, Vikings, 1997
1,096 – Devin McCourty, Patriots, 2011
1,093 – Jimmy Hitchcock, Vikings, 1999

Note this: McCourty has allowed 100 or more yards four times this season, the most such games in the league. Only one other player (the Redskins’ DeAngelo Hall) had even three such games this season. And keep in mind that McCourty missed three games this year due to injury.

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* – The Bills have scored a return touchdown in each of the last two games at Foxboro, scoring on a fumble recovery in 2009 and a kickoff return last year. In addition, they had an interception return for a score in their earlier meeting in Buffalo. The Patriots have not scored a return touchdown in any of their last seven meetings against the Bills.

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* – Everyone wringing their hands (or scoffing) about Tom Brady’s shoulder should note this: After being knocked down an average of 4.1 times over the team’s first 14 games (and only nine total over Weeks 13-15), Brady was decked a season high eight times by the Dolphins last Sunday. I guess the silver lining is that the Bills don’t knock down opposing quarterbacks very often, as they are tied for the fewest in the league, averaging 3.1 knockdowns per game entering Sunday.

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* – Record Watch – The Patriots have allowed 32 opponent drives of 10 or more plays this season, one shy of the most ever allowed by the club in the 17 seasons that they’ve tracked the stat. The 2004 and 2010 Patriots allowed 33 such drives. They’ve allowed 3+ such drives in each of their last three games, joining Tampa Bay as the only two teams with such a three game streak this season. No team has had a four-gamer this season.

What’s more, they’ve allowed an average of 3.97 points on those drives this season, which could end up being the highest ever allowed by the team:

3.97 – 2011
3.96 – 1999
3.94 – 2010

They are not threatening the league record in either case. The 1999 Browns, in their first year back in the NFL, allowed 45 such drives (nearly three per game), while the 2004 Raiders allowed 5.40 average points per 10+ play drive (20 touchdowns and 8 field goals on 30 such drives).

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* – Patriots opponents have started 52 drives at or inside their own 20-yard-line this season and scored a whopping EIGHTEEN touchdowns on those drives, which is not only the most allowed in the league this season, but it’s easily the most allowed in any of the 17 seasons in which they’ve tracked the stat:

18 – Patriots, 2011
15 – Rams, 2009
14 – Chargers, 2002

Look at it this way, over the last 17 years, only 4.6% of teams allowed 10 or more touchdowns on drives started at or inside the 20-yard-line, but the Patriots have allowed 10 such touchdowns OVER THEIR LAST FIVE GAMES! Want a bit more context? The Ravens and Seahawks have each allowed only one touchdown all season on such drives. The Pats have allowed two or more such touchdowns in SIX different games.

On such drives this season, New England has allowed touchdowns 34.6% or the time, a score of some sort 48.1% of the time, and an average of 2.81 points per drive. All three are new league records for defensive futility.

————————————————————————————————————– Read the rest of this entry »

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