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Patriots rushing attack in red zone will be key against Broncos 01.15.14 at 6:28 pm ET
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LaGarrette Blount has been a force in the red zone for the Patriots in their last three games. (AP)

LaGarrette Blount has been a force in the red zone for the Patriots in their last three games. (AP)

FOXBORO — When looking into what the Patriots’€™ game plan may be come Sunday afternoon in Denver for the AFC championship game, much has been made of the Patriots€™ running attack and just how much they will run the ball.

Over the past three weeks the Patriots have ran the ball 123 times, averaging 41 rushes per game, something very un-Patriot like in the past few years. But, with the temperatures in Denver expected in the 50s at kickoff and a Denver secondary without star cornerback Chris Harris, maybe the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady will try and take advantage with more of a passing attack.

Regardless of their offensive game plan, once the Patriots get inside the red zone they will need to have an effective running game.

It’€™s clear the Patriots offense misses tight end Rob Gronkowski as once they get inside the opponents 20-yard line, in the seven games he played, the Patriots had a 69 percent (22-of-32) touchdown success rate in the red zone, compared to 49 percent (19-of-39) in the 10 games (postseason included) without him. But, in the last three games where the Patriots have piled up 545 yards on the ground, they’€™ve had a 69 percent (9-of-13) touchdown success rate in the red zone –  the same as when Gronkowski was in the lineup, and of those nine touchdowns, seven have come on the ground.

One of the biggest reasons for the Patriots’ success in the red zone of late has been LaGarrette Blount, who has rushed for 431 yards (6.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns in the last three games, including five coming from inside the red zone.

“€œThe offense is definitely clicking at the right time of the year,” Blount said. ‘€œThis is the time we need to get hot. This is the time we need to stay hot. With me, Stevan [Ridley], [Shane] Vereen and [Brandon] Bolden, all of us are productive backs and we bring something different to the table. They have just been trying to get the ball in my hand just a little bit more.”

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Patriots playoff mash Wednesday at 12:02 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The expanded media presence at Gillette Stadium signifies the hype surrounding this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and the Broncos. Add in the fact that it’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning‘s 15th career game against one another, Wes Welker playing against his former team and former Patriots cornerback Marquice Cole signing with Denver on Tuesday, the story lines are endless and the hype is real.

Here are a few quick links as of Wednesday at Noon:

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, playoff edition: Patriots enter at No. 5 01.02.14 at 10:55 am ET
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Fittingly, the Seahawks end the regular season where they spent most of it, at the top of the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. The Pete Carroll-led Hawks have ensured that they’ll be playing any and all NFC playoff games in Seattle, a place where they’ve lost just once over the last two years.

The Niners cling to the No. 2 seed as they prepare to take on a Packers team they’ve been successful against in their prior two meetings. The Panthers (3), Broncos (4) and Patriots (5) round out the top five playoff teams.

As wild card weekend approaches, keep in mind that the last three Super Bowl champions played in the first round of the playoffs. If history has taught us anything, any team that has reached the postseason has a shot at the title. We’re in for another exciting year of postseason football. Let the games begin.

Seattle Seahawks1. (1) Seahawks (13-3) — If defense wins championships, the Seahawks have the best shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. The Seahawks finished the regular season at the top of many defensive categories, including points allowed, passing yards and takeaways.

San Francisco 49ers 2. (2) 49ers (12-4) — A tough road lies ahead for the Niners, who look to return to the Super Bowl. They’ll most likely have to travel to Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle to get to where they want to go.

Carolina Panthers3. (3) Panthers (12-4) — Carolina brings one of the league’s best defenses into the playoffs. The Panthers’ ferocious D sacked opposing QBs a league-high 60 times.

Denver Broncos 4. (4) Broncos (13-3) — The precision and methodical offensive attack Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense deliver makes them the favorite in the AFC. Denver set an NFL record with 606 points scored, averaging almost 40 points per game.

New England Patriots 5. (5) Patriots (12-4) — The Patriots are the experienced veteran team in the AFC that no one wants to play. With the number of key injuries this team has suffered, Bill Belichick deserves to be named Coach of the Year.

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, Week 14: Patriots jump to No. 3 12.03.13 at 10:44 am ET
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The dominance continues. Seattle’s reign atop the WEEI NFL Power Rankings has reached its seventh straight week. The Seahawks look like a lock to play in New Jersey in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Panthers (2), Patriots (3) and Broncos (4) all inch one spot closer while the Saints drop out of the top five after being absolutely dismantled in Seattle. New Orleans won’t have much time to think about the loss because the red-hot Panthers are next on the schedule in a battle for the NFC South.

As the regular season draws closer to an end, we’ll see more teams officially eliminated from the playoffs. It looks like at least five playoff teams from 2012 won’t make a return trip in 2013. The Packers (20), Vikings (27), Redskins (28, already eliminated) Falcons (29) and Texans (32) have not lived up to expectations.

Seattle Seahawks1. (1) Seahawks (11-1) – Good luck to any NFC team that has to go through Seattle to reach the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost at CenturyLink Field and is 22-6 since becoming the starting QB last year.

Carolina Panthers2. (3) Panthers (9-3) — Owners of eight straight wins, the Panthers and their highly ranked defense will take on the Saints on Sunday night.

New England Patriots 3. (4) Patriots (9-3) — As usual, the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady-led Patriots get stronger and better as the season shifts to November and December. They are one win and one Miami loss away from wrapping up their 11th division title in 13 seasons.

Denver Broncos 4. (5) Broncos (10-2) — The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through Denver. The Broncos’ remaining opponents have a combined 16-32 record. None of the four teams they will face have a record over .500. 

San Francisco 49ers 5. (6) 49ers (8-4) — The injuries on the offensive line combined with the inconsistency of the run game over the past two weeks are a concern heading into Sunday’s game against the Seahawks.

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Jason Cole on M&M: ‘[Tom] Brady outplayed [Peyton Manning] by a large margin’ on Sunday 11.26.13 at 3:40 pm ET
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Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Cole joined Mut & Merloni on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the play of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in New England’s 34-31 victory over Denver on Sunday night, as well as the status of the AFC and Super Bowl XLVIII.

One of the top story lines of Sunday’s game was, of course, the matchup between Brady and Manning. Brady once again seemed to have the advantage in the contest, as he finished the night with three touchdown passes, a 107.4 quarterback rating and the win, while Manning only managed 150 passing yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 70.4 QBR.

“I thought Brady outplayed him by a large margin, and I thought Peyton looked really uncomfortable, and not because he was getting rushed,” Cole said. “He just didn’t look comfortable throwing the ball, he didn’t throw with much authority. I think that because of the way New England disrupted his receivers, similar to what they did against New Orleans earlier this season, he never had his timing down, and perhaps that’s because they had to throw so little in the first half and didn’t throw much in the third quarter.”

Added Cole: “[Manning] just never seemed to get into a groove, so the doubts about him in big games, particularly cold-weather big games, persists. He’s not answered that, and makes me really concerned about [Denver] going in the playoffs.”

While the Broncos (9-2) and Patriots (8-3) are in line for the top two seeds in the AFC at the moment, the Chiefs (9-2) are a worthy competitor in the conference, despite losing two straight games to Denver and San Diego.

“Kansas City, when they are healthy, in a playoff situation [can be a threat]. That’s similar to what we saw on Sunday night between the Patriots and the Broncos, which is if you allow defenses to bump receivers and knock them off their routes, hold them up at the line, I think that helps the defense so much, and I think Kansas City will be able to do more of that when they get into the postseason,” Cole said. “To me, they have a chance to get their defense back in line and be competitive in the postseason. But that’s the only other team, I think, that can challenge New England or Denver at this point and time.”

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Tony Carter on fateful punt: ‘One of those freakish things that happened’ 11.25.13 at 2:18 am ET
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FOXBORO – After 72 minutes and 62 points in another instant classic between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it appeared the Patriots and Broncos were going to play to the dreaded tie.

Following both teams not doing anything with their first two possessions in the overtime period, with just over three minutes left, Patriots punter Ryan Allen booted one inside the Patriots 20-yard line towards Broncos return man Wes Welker. Of the 170 total plays ran in the game, this particular one, thought as of the simplest ones became the play that ultimately decided the final outcome.

Tony Carter

Tony Carter

Instead of coming up and making the catch, Welker did not, which allowed the ball to bounce in front of him. On most occasions the ball would seemingly bounce harmlessly dead, but on this particular one it skipped into Broncos cornerback Tony Carter’s leg and Patriots backup safety Nate Ebner pounced on the loose ball, recovering it for the Patriots, which set up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning, 31-yard field goal in the Patriots’ 34-31 win over the Broncos.

“I felt like there was a lot of traffic, high ball, and basically I didn’t want to get into a situation where someone is running into me or anything else and we ended up with a situation that I didn’t want to happen in the first place,” Welker said. “I have to do a better job of getting up there and getting those guys out of the way and making sure it doesn’t hit them.”

Welker noted the call to alert his teammates to get out of the way of the ball, as they cannot see the punt since they are blocking and setting up a potential return, is “Peter, Peter” and acknowledged he may have been a bit indecisive when making the call, leading to the ball hitting Carter.

“I have to get to him earlier and tell him,” Welker said. “I need to get those guys out of the way if I am not going to make the catch. I was a bit in between and you can’t be that way.”

For Carter, who is in his fifth season and evidently played for the Patriots in 2010, he heard the call but everything happened so fast there wasn’t much he could do.

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Wes Welker: ‘I’ve got a lot of respect’ for Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick at 1:56 am ET
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FOXBORO — A disheartened Wes Welker spoke to the media about his return to New England following the Patriots’ 34-31 comeback victory over the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.

“It was a little different for sure,” said Welker. “It was great seeing Mr. Kraft. I got a lot of respect for him as a man, as an owner of a team and everything else.”

Wes Welker had four catches for 31 yards in his return to Gillette Stadium. (AP)

Wes Welker had four catches for 31 yards in his return to Gillette Stadium. (AP)

The former Patriots receiver caught four balls for 31 yards in his first return to Gillette Stadium since signing with Denver this off-season. Before the game, a video tribute highlighting the great moments of Welker’s career in New England was played inside the stadium on the video board.

“It was very classy of them to do something like that and I appreciate it very much,” the wide receiver said.

One of the big storylines coming into the game was the relationship between he and Bill Belichick. In a pregame interview conducted by Tedy Bruschi on ESPN, the 32-year-old receiver said, “I think so” when asked if he still had a good relationship with Belichick. Welker went on to say he was anticipating, “the most awkward situation that could possibly happen” if he and his former head coach were to interact.

After the game, Welker talked about that interaction which took place on the field following the game where Belichick sought out his former receiver.

“It wasn’t awkward at all,” Welker said. “It was good to see him. I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a coach. He came over and was like ‘good job; we’ll see you all again I’m sure.’”

For Welker, a 10-year veteran, he acknowledged he tried to make this just another game, but it wasn’t easy.

“I tried to. You try to make it just a regular game, but it’s hard at times,” he said. “You try and go out there and focus and do your job. I’m sure there were more emotions and things like that going into it for sure.”

In his first time back at Gillette Stadium the game could have marked closure on his time in New England, but ultimately it didn’t go as he would have liked and now it’s time for Welker to put the game behind him and move on to another big game against division rival Kansas City next Sunday.

“It would have been a lot better closer if we would’ve won, but I had a lot of good years here and things like that,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had closure before and I’ve kind of moved on. We have another big game this week against Kansas City and we have to move on to that.”

Ryan Hannable contributed to this article.

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