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Chilled: Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco edge Green Bay to advance to divisional round

01.05.14 at 8:15 pm ET
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Phil Dawson kicked a 33-yard field goal as time ran out to lift the Niners over the Packers, 23-20, in a frigid NFC wild-card contest Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

San Francisco survived the icy temps in Green Bay with 227 passing yards and 98 rushing yards from quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as well as wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who came away with eight catches for 125 yards in the win. On the other side of the ball, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 17-for-26 for 177 yards with a touchdown.

The Niners now advance to face the Panthers in Carolina next Sunday at 1:05 p.m. in divisional playoff action.

This was a back-and-forth contest for most of the afternoon, as Kaepernick and the Niners took a 13-10 halftime lead on the strength of a pair of early field goals from Dawson, as well as a 10-yard rushing touchdown from Frank Gore. Rodgers countered with a touchdown pass of his own, while the Packers added a 34-yard field goal from Mason Crosby right before the half to cut the lead to 13-10.

The two teams were unable to score in the third, and traded touchdowns to open the fourth to make it 20-17, San Francisco. After the Packers knotted that game at 20 with 5:06 left on a 24-yarder from Crosby, Kaepernick and the Niners engineered a 14-play, 65-yard drive that ended when Dawson delivered the 33-yard game-winner as time ran out to lift San Francisco into the divisional round.

Bill Belichick impressed by Andrew Luck and ‘explosive’ Colts offense

01.05.14 at 7:50 pm ET
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A lot has changed about the Patriots-Colts rivalry, but the Indy offense the Patriots will face in Saturday’s divisional playoff game at Gillette looks just as explosive as the vintage version New England faced a decade or so ago.

In many ways, the only thing that’s different is that No. 12 is under center instead of No. 18.

“[They’re an] explosive football team –€“ we all saw it the other night, how quickly they can score, how explosive they are,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Colts on Sunday, who put up 35 second-half points Saturday night in their wild-card win over the Chiefs. “They’€™ve done a real good job of not turning the ball over; haven’€™t given up a lot of negative plays, very few penalties — like 50 penalties or something like that, whatever it is, not very many.

“For the most part this year they’€™ve played mistake-free and have an explosive, well-balanced attack. Obviously [Andrew] Luck has done a great job and they have a tremendous passing game, but their balance, their running game, their offensive line, production out of their tight ends has been solid too.”

Belichick was impressed with just about every aspect of the Colts’ comeback win over Kansas City, one of the best come-from-behind wins in the NFL playoff history, including the mental toughness needed to come back from a 28-point second-half deficit.

“[Saturday’s] game was about as good as it gets,” Belichick said. “To be that far behind in the third quarter, it didn’€™t look too good for them — and then, all of a sudden in a hurry you could feel them coming back, or at least I could. If they could get it back to a two-score game in the fourth quarter, and then finally if they could get it to a one-score game and they were able to quickly drive it down and score and take the lead.

“I think they’€™re a very explosive and dangerous team.”

Belichick touched on a number of Indy-related topics in his Sunday afternoon conference call with the media.
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Read More: Andrew Luck, Bill Belichick,

Danny Woodhead: ‘If people are shocked, they’re shocked’

01.05.14 at 6:01 pm ET
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CINCINNATI — So many times in New England, Danny Woodhead was the silent little engine that could.

On Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Woodhead – as he did so often in Foxboro – let his feet and hands do the talking in a 27-10 Chargers win over the Bengals that put Woodhead into familiar territory.

For the fourth straight season, the former Patriot finds himself in the AFC divisional playoffs. He figures to be another big weapon for Philip Rivers and the Chargers when they take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos next Sunday.

Sunday, he set the tone early with a five-yard TD run right up the middle, putting San Diego up, 7-0, and sending a message that the team that came within a bad call on an overtime field goal by Kansas City last week had come to Cincinnati with every intention of winning. The 11-5 Bengals, champions of the AFC North, were favored by a touchdown on their home turf in the rematch of the iconic “Freezer Bowl” in the 1981 AFC championship.

“We practiced all week with the idea of coming in here to win,” Woodhead said. “We were underdogs. If people are shocked, they’re shocked. There’s nothing we can do about that. Our job was to go out there and execute.”

That’s exactly what Woodhead, Rivers and the Chargers did against a Bengals team that didn’t lose all season at home before Sunday. The Chargers committed no turnovers in 56 snaps. Woodhead carried the ball 15 times for 54 yards and gained another 14 on two catches.

The Patriots let him go after the 2012 season and he signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Chargers in March, a deal that included a $1 million signing bonus. The Chargers wanted a threat in the backfield that would be hard to account for in open space. He was that and more Sunday as he cut through big holes his offensive line established.

“I just try to take advantage of every opportunity I’m given. Our offensive line was great today and set the tempo early,” Woodhead said. “We ran and ran and we just build momentum.”

Woodhead was there so many times on Sunday like he was in New England. Every time Rivers needed a big play to put the game away in the second half, it was Woodhead’s number that was called. He carried the ball three times on San Diego’s opening drive of the third quarter, which ended in a touchdown that put the Chargers ahead for good.

Now, as was the case in New England with Tom Brady, Woodhead is into the second round with a playoff-proven quarterback. Rivers was spectacular only in his efficiency Sunday, throwing just 16 passes and completing 12 for 128 yards and a touchdown and a 118.8 quarterback rating.

“Philip is a great quarterback who has done it in the past in the playoffs,” Woodhead said. “Everybody knows he’s a great quarterback. We went about our business and just executed today.”

Read More: Cincinnati Bengals, Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots, nfl

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

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