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Take me to your leader: Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo now in charge of Patriots’ defense 01.18.12 at 8:57 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The last time the Patriots faced the Ravens in the postseason, the New England defense was a fundamentally rudderless ship.

Caught in the throes of transition, New England was trying to take the first few steps beyond the Tedy Bruschi/Rodney Harrison/Richard Seymour/Mike Vrabel era, and made several missteps along the way, both when it came to personnel and off-field chemistry. In many cases, the veterans who were around wanted no part of being a leader (or were simply lousy at the job), while the young guys who might have had leadership potential didn’€™t feel like it was their place to speak out.

Two years later, the Patriots are back in the playoffs against Baltimore, and the leadership situation for New England on the defensive side of the ball is far different than it was in 2009. In the time since that hideous postseason defeat, the Patriots made a clear effort to flush out anyone who might have been a problem in the locker room. In their place, new leaders have emerged. Two guys who were a little cautious about speaking up in 2009 now have no such problems. Vince Wilfork — who delivered a memorable rant before the start of the 2010 season about the need for a new era of leadership with the Patriots — has emerged as a bonafide defensive leader, while linebacker Jerod Mayo has also stepped forth to put his imprint on this team.

While Wilfork’€™s leadership skills have come to the fore when it comes to working with the other defensive linemen, Mayo’€™s has been more across the board. This offseason, it was Mayo who provided the spark when it came to organizing workouts, and watching a few minutes of those unofficial practices, it was clear that Mayo was running the defense.

Wilfork, who said Mayo ‘€œby far (is) one of the best leaders that we have on this team,’€ acknowledged that while Mayo was a special player from the start, it took a few years before he got used to the idea of being a leader. Part of that likely stemmed from the fact that at that time, the rookie was part of a defense that included veterans like Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Seymour. But when all those guys departed within months of each other, he was quickly pushed into the spotlight.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Jerod Mayo, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour
The Patriots won’t be burned by Ray Rice this time around at 3:16 pm ET
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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.”

Read More: 2012 playoffs, AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick
Myth-busting the Patriots-Ravens matchup 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,
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
Here’s why the Patriots will win on Sunday 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
Bill Belichick on The Big Show: How Ray Lewis left an ‘over-the-top’ first impression 01.16.12 at 5:25 pm ET
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Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in his weekly appearance on The Big Show, acknowledged that his team had a strong all-around performance against the Broncos before suggesting that it was incumbent on his team to “turn the page” and begin preparing for a Ravens team that represents what he characterized as an even more formidable challenge.

Belichick spoke highly of Baltimore, but was particularly effusive in his praise of safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis. Indeed, Belichick suggested that the two players enjoyed shared traits that have helped to make both standouts at their positions.

“He’€™s a magnet to the ball. His guy might be open, but they’€™re not throwing it to him. When they’€™re throwing to his guy, he’€™s right there where he should be,” Belichick said of Reed. “He’€™s 20 yards away from his guy but he’€™s close to the ball. He’€™s got great vision and anticipation. He’€™s very fast. He’€™s got good quickness. But I think the big thing with him is his instincts.

“He has a great understanding of what’€™s happening on the play, where the ball’€™s going, who’€™s threatening. He’€™s almost always in great position and usually getting there before the play has totally unfolded. As it’€™s developing, that’€™s when he figures it out and he’€™s already started to make his move to the point of attack,” he continued. “You’€™ve got to be careful with him. You’€™ve got to know where he’€™s at because he’€™s going to be by the ball. If you’€™re throwing it, you better make sure you can get it there before he does. … His anticipation and instincts, I’€™d say, are second to none at that position, very comparable to Ray Lewis as a middle linebacker.”

As for Lewis, Belichick first met the middle linebacker in 1996 when he a defensive coordinator for the Patriots after he’d been fired by the Browns (who were about to relocate to Baltimore to become the Ravens). Belichick met with Lewis, a linebacker at the University of Miami, in the spring before the draft.

Ultimately, Lewis ended up going with the No. 26 pick of the first round to the Ravens, while the Patriots took Terry Glenn with the No. 7 pick of the first round (and later nabbed Lawyer Milloy with their second-round pick, the No. 36 overall selection, as well as Tedy Bruschi in the third round). Though Belichick didn’t end up taking Lewis, he left the meeting with him with an extremely favorable impression. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis
Back at back: Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has run the ball before 01.15.12 at 10:51 pm ET
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One of the relatively new offensive wrinkles we saw from the Patriots on Saturday night against the Broncos was the use of tight end Aaron Hernandez as a running back.

Hernandez was able to give the New England offense a jumpstart with a 43-yard carry around left end that set up the Patriots’€™ first touchdown of the game, and he would end up with 61 yards on five carries.

‘€œWe didn’€™t have any backs in the game in that personnel grouping — we just had three receivers and the two tight ends,’€ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 43-yard pickup by Hernandez, the longest run of the game for either team.

‘€œThat’€™s not something we’€™ve done a lot of. You see all those receivers on the field and you’€™re not really thinking too much about the running game defensively, so we tried to pop a couple runs in there just to keep them honest.

‘€œWe thought they might be thinking — I mean, obviously they’€™re thinking pass — we threw the ball most every time, but we tried to get a couple runs going there and Aaron made a good run. It looked like he broke a tackle and he did a nice job handling the ball there.’€

The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez, who also had four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown, has been used as a chess piece before by Belichick and the Patriots. He’€™s one of the most versatile pass catchers in New England history, as he’€™s lined up flush against the tackle in the traditional tight end spot, in the slot or split wide like a receiver. This season, the 22-year-old had 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. The Patriots have used him in the backfield on occasion (they’€™ve showed that look frequently in training camp practices the last two years), but never to the extent that he was utilized on Saturday night.

While Saturday’€™s move caught some people by surprise, Bob DeSantis wasn’€™t shocked. Back when Hernandez was back at Bristol (Conn.) Central, the longtime athletic coordinator at the school said Hernandez did ‘€œeverything except sell popcorn.’€
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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Bob DeSantis,
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