The New England Patriots are three wins away from securing home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Their win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday went a long way in proving that they will be ready.
One bad bounce after another went against the Patriots, from an apparently bad penalty call that wiped away a pick-six, to a fumble that was recovered by the Chargers, to a brutal Tom Brady interception before halftime. But the Patriots were fortunate to be trailing by only one point after the first half, and their defense continued its stellar play to help New England pick up the win.
So, before we look forward, here's one last look back at how the Patriots picked up their 10th win of the season and crossed the double-digit victory plateau for the 12th straight season.
Here's our weekly look at which players generated and allowed the most pressure.
Defense (39 total pass snaps):
Akeem Ayers: 34 pass-rush snaps; 4 hurries; 3 hits
Rob Ninkovich: 25 pass-rush snaps; 2 hurries; 1 sack
Vince Wilfork: 20 pass-rush snaps; 2 hurries; 1 hit
Sealver Siliga: 17 pass-rush snaps; 1 sack
Chris Jones: 16 pass-rush snaps; 1 sack
Jamie Collins: 12 pass-rush snaps; 1 hurry; 1 hit; 2 sacks
Jonathan Casillas: 10 pass-rush snaps; 0 hurries
Dominique Easley: 9 pass-rush snaps; 1 hurry
Alan Branch: 9 pass-rush snaps; 0 hurries
Patrick Chung: 1 pass-rush snap; 0 hurries
Devin McCourty: 1 pass-rush snap; 1 hurry
Kyle Arrington: 1 pass-rush snap; 1 hit
In total, the Patriots generated pressure on Philip Rivers 18 times (10 hurries, 6 hits, 4 sacks), with two separate plays where two different players generated pressure at the same time.
As you can see, Akeem Ayers and Jamie Collins were the pass-rushing stars of the day. Collins, in particular, made a splash with a pair of big sacks.
One of those sacks was on third down on the Chargers' opening drive, with 11:55 left in the first quarter. Collins timed his rush perfectly, but it wasn't just his own handiwork that allowed him to get the sack. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas (52) was close to the line of scrimmage, giving the illusion that he was going to rush.
In doing so, the center was distracted into helping on Casillas instead of blocking his man, Collins. That allowed the second-year linebacker to get a free rush after Rivers and bring him down.
Offense (47 total pass snaps):
Nate Solder: 47 pass-block snaps; 1 hurry; 1 hit; 1 sack
Dan Connolly: 47 pass-block snaps; 3 hurries; 2 hits
Bryan Stork: 47 pass-block snaps; 1 hit
Ryan Wendell: 47 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries; 1 hit
Sebastian Vollmer: 47 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries; 1 hit
Shane Vereen: 8 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
LeGarrette Blount: 7 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
Rob Gronkowski: 6 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
Michael Hoomanawanui: 6 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
In total, the Patriots allowed pressure on Tom Brady 15 times (9 hurries, 6 hits, 1 sack), with one play where two different players generated pressure at the same time.
Nate Solder and Dan Connolly did not have their best games.
Solder struggled with defensive end Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney, who both are known as just the kind of explosive, quick pass-rushers that have given Solder fits already this season.
Freeney got Solder to the ground on a couple of occasions, and on this hit of Brady with 7:47 left in the second quarter, he put a spin move on Solder to work through the offensive tackle. Solder was caught off-guard and off-balance by the move, which allowed Freeney to get past him.
Once again, the Patriots had some interior problems with pass protection. Where Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork were the solution to their problems early, they have struggled as of late.
Wendell gave up this pressure with 1:14 left in the first half, when the Chargers put Melvin Ingram at an inside position. Wendell never even got a hand on Ingram.
Interior pressure is always what gives Tom Brady the most trouble. The Patriots appeared to have their offensive line in order, but while two bad performances may not be enough to prove they've lost it completely, they will have to make sure it's not a problem before the playoffs roll around.
Brandon Browner's Hit Wasn't Helmet-to-Helmet, but Wasn't Quite Textbook
Bill Leavy flagged cornerback Brandon Browner for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Chargers tight end Ladarius Green. The penalty wiped out a would-be interception returned for a touchdown by Patriots safety Devin McCourty, and it had the potential to be a game-changing play.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they didn't lose a game on a bogus penalty. But that's not to say that this hit wasn't a penalty in another way.
Replay showed that Browner's helmet never made contact with Green's, but it also showed that another penalty may have occurred.
The NFL rulebook — Rule 12, section 2, article 7 (a) and (b) to be exact — says the following about hits on defenseless receivers:
(a) Players in a defenseless posture are:A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.
Green was bobbling the ball when Browner arrived, thereby making him defenseless.
Should that make it a hit on a defenseless receiver? What else is a defender supposed to do, wait for the offensive player to make the play before finally asking permission for a hit?
Oh, well. Even if Browner's hit wasn't helmet-to-helmet, and wasn't on a defenseless receiver, it was probably shoulder-to-neck.
(b) Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:Forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or facemask is lower than the passer's neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him.
Browner's initial contact was with Green's shoulder, but his shoulder drives into Green's neck during the action of the hit.
Even if coaches had the option to challenge penalties, there's no guarantee this one would have been overturned. They may have simply changed the wording on the penalty, but it would still have been a 15-yard penalty.
LeGarrette Blount Should Still Be The Forefront of the Patriots Rushing Attack
Three weeks ago, Jonas Gray ran his way into our hearts with a mesmerizing 201-yard performance against the Indianapolis Colts. That performance appears to be the furthest thing from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's mind over the past few weeks, as he has turned to veteran back LeGarrette Blount for a lion's share of the workload.
It's not hard to see why. Since rejoining the Patriots, Blount has rushed 42 times for 202 yards (4.8 YPA) and two touchdowns. Blount is also running hard, with 154 yards after contact (3.7 YPA).
Blount has mastered the arts of balance and low pad level. Brady dumped off a short pass to Blount with 9:21 remaining in the first quarter, which Blount took 11 yards thanks to his ability to stay on his feet and to drive through the contact of multiple defenders.
He was hit just one yard past the line of scrimmage on this run, but ended up picking up six yards simply by churning his legs and lowering his shoulder through the contact. This is textbook between-the-tackles running.
Blount has said that Belichick coached him up on his pad level, and the hard work appears to be paying off for both parties.