NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The Patriots are poised for a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens next weekend in the AFC Championship Game after dispatching the Houston Texans via a 41-28 final score; New England lost three key contributors to injury in the game, which was significantly closer than the previous contest. Read on for five keys to this afternoon’s divisional round contest.
1. Rob Gronkowski exacerbates forearm injury; playoff status in doubt
Tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted on just one pass in this game after returning from a broken forearm over a month ago; while attempting to reel in a pass which brought him out of bounds, Gronkowski was forced to break his fall with his right forearm, which appeared to cause him a great deal of pain. At that point, he was forced to the locker room and did not return for the rest of the game. Obviously, Gronkowski’s absence would significantly impair New England’s chances throughout the rest of the playoffs, and it appears that he will not be able to take the field against Baltimore next week, or in the Super Bowl if the Patriots end up advancing that far after reportedly re-fracturing his forearm as reported by multiple sources. Gronkowski’s injury means that the Patriots will be forced to rely on their running game and a combination of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd in the passing game for the rest of the season. New England fans can only hope that Gronkowski’s injury will not carry over into next season.
2. Woodhead’s injury creates an opportunity for Shane Vereen to shine
New England started the game with running back Danny Woodhead in the backfield, but he left the game after receiving just one carry with what was evidently a left thumb injury and did not return to the game. In his absence, running back Shane Vereen received the bulk of New England’s first-half workload at running back, gaining a total of 90 yards on ten total first-half touches, including a one-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and an eight-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Vereen ceded the majority of the second half workload to Stevan Ridley, finishing the game with just two additional touches, but nonetheless added a 33-yard touchdown reception in the early fourth quarter which extended New England’s lead to 38-13 and effectively put the game out of reach. Based on his performance this week, expect to see more of Vereen as the playoffs continue, especially if Woodhead is unable to contribute for the rest of the season: Vereen’s 124 total yards and 10.3 yards per touch made him one of the Patriots’ most valuable offensive weapons this week.
3. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez duplicate their previous success vs. Houston
New England was forced to make due with Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez given Rob Gronkowski’s absence during the Patriots’ previous matchup vs. the Texans; that continued this week after Gronkowski’s early exit. In December, Welker dropped three passes and ended up with three receptions for 52 yards, while Hernandez caught eight balls for a total of 58 yards and two touchdowns. This week, Welker redeemed himself, catching eight of thirteen passes for 131 yards, including a 47-yard reception. Hernandez added six catches for 85 yards on a total of nine receptions, making New England’s second-largest gain through the air, a 40-yard catch. Behind Vereen, Lloyd was New England’s third most valuable receiver, catching five passes for 32 yards and one touchdown, a third quarter pass which gave the Patriots a 31-13 lead. New England will have to rely on more production from these three otpions to establish their passing game next week against a proud Baltimore defense.
4. Patriots offensive line continues standout play, protects Brady vs. rush
One of New England’s mandates this week was protecting Tom Brady from Wade Phillips’ blitz-heavy defensive scheme; in this regard, Josh McDaniels’ offensive gameplan can be considered a success, as Brady was brought dwon just one time throughout the entire game, on an early play by a combination of J.J. Watt and returning Texan Brooks Reed. Although Brady sustained a total of seven quarterback hits throughout the game, Houston was ultimately unable to pressure him in the passing game. The result was another impressive performance, as Brady finished the game with 25/40 passing for a total of 344 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. The dominant performance appeared to be a response to recent criticism of Brady’s postseason effectiveness; with another similarly effective passing performance, the Patriots will be well-positioned to advance past the Baltimore Ravens and into yet another Super Bowl matchup.
5. Struggles in defending tight ends continue vs. Daniels, Graham, Casey
Houston’s offensive gameplan appeared to target its tight end options early and often, with fullback/H-Back James Casey also getting significantly involved in the passing game. The decision ultimately proved successful, as tight end Owen Daniels caught nine of his fifteen targets for 81 yards, with James Casey adding 29 yards on 3/6 receiving and Garrett Graham catching both of his targets for a total of 13 yards. As we saw in Baltimore’s victory over Denver, the Ravens favor their tight ends in the passing game: Dennis Pitta caught three passes on five targets for a total of 55 yards, while Ed Dickson added three catches for 29 yards. In Baltimore’s 31-30 victory back in week three, the two tight end options combined to catch a total of seven passes for 55 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown reception by Pitta in the second quarter. New England’s defensive gameplan must emphasize these two next week in an effect to solve one problem which has been plaguing the Patriots all season.