Still reeling from Saturday's 35-31 Patriots' playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens?
How could you not be? This was one of the best football games you'll ever see, a heavyweight, back-and-forth bloodbath that came down to the final minutes and took the twistiest of twisty roads to get there. In advancing to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game and ninth since 2001, the Pats became the first team in NFL postseason history to come back from two 14-point deficits to win. Tom Brady passed for 367 yards and three TDs while running for another and tying or breaking a handful of records in a vintage performance. The Pats survived an early onslaught and bounced back to drive the Ravens and their whiner of a coach John Harbaugh to distraction.
The game had everything, from big plays to trickeration to questionable calls (and what NFL game doesn't have that?) to huge missed opportunities to unsung heroes to formations barely ever seen before.
FYI last drive, Pats were calling 34 an ineligible OL and splitting him out. 47, w/receiver's number, was going out into seam from LT spot— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) January 11, 2015
And in the end, after all the breathless moments, with the stands at Gillette Stadium shaking, the Pats advanced. So with that, let's get fired up like Brady after getting poked in the eye and kneed in the head and get right into this week's report card.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
OFFENSE - If you’re not a fan of unabashed gushing, read no further because Brady deserves nothing less.
Most postseason wins (QB) - NFL History: Tom Brady: 18 Joe Montana: 16 Terry Bradshaw: 14 John Elway: 14 pic.twitter.com/UFMxznpyvY— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 10, 2015
Forget the pick at the end of the first half (which, admittedly, added to a trend that needs to stop) and focus on the Pats’ final possession of the game and Brady’s touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell on his 50th attempt and how quickly he was able to get rid of the ball in the face of pressure. Look at the way he managed to set a single game postseason record for most passing yards with zero running game at his disposal, and even the fact that he was more or less the team’s leading rusher (??!!). The stats may say something different but this was Brady’s best playoff game in years and years. Every game is its own, different, individual experience but Brady posting this kind of performance in this sort of game has to bode very well moving forward.
Brady was 8 of 9 for 71 yards, a TD and a first-down rush on the go-ahead drive.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) January 11, 2015
After Brady, the next most vital component of the offense was Danny Amendola and no, you couldn’t possibly have called that ahead of time. Beyond his five catches and his 81 yards and his two TDs, Amendola displayed a toughness and a drive that we’ve not seen too often since he showed up last season. That has to do in some part to his lack of reps after falling behind Julian Edelman on the depth chart after just one game. But whatever the reason, the fact that he could come up so big in this kind of environment made it all the more impressive.
Elsewhere, Rob Gronkowski submitted a seven-catch, 108-yard performance with a TD that should be shared with whoever on the Ravens’ coaching staff thought it would be a smart move to have a safety cover him one-on-one split wide in the red zone. Ho-hum. LaFell couldn’t have played the winning TD any better – as spectacular a throw as it was from Brady, it was also a tremendous catch.
The offensive line got pushed around a little bit and couldn’t handle the Ravens’ front four in the running game. But considering how clean Brady stayed after Josh Kline replaced Bryan Stork and how completely Sebastian Vollmer eliminated pass-rushing demon Elvis Dumervil, this group deserves high marks. And even Michael Hoomanawanui pitched in with his most productive game in forever with some of that production coming out of the four-lineman formation that Harbaugh cried over afterward.
Oh yeah, the play of the year. Almost forgot.
We knew what an incredibly valuable receiver Julian Edelman is already and he had a typically strong game catching passes. But who knew he’s also a better playoff quarterback than Peyton Manning? Nice throw, Jules. GRADE: A-
DEFENSE - A bit of a dilemma in considering how to properly assess the Pats’ defense. On the one hand, in the simplest of terms, it just wasn’t very good overall. The Ravens’ 31 points were the most allowed at home by the Pats all year. Flacco had four TD passes and a 92.1 passer rating. Baltimore’s run game shredded the Pats for just under five yards per attempt, with Justin Forsett rolling for 129 yards on 24 carries (5.4 YPA), all despite the fact that they spent a fair amount of time with three run-stopping specialist defensive tackles in Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch getting the call up front.
Darrelle Revis wasn’t as bad as some may have you believe, essentially eliminating (or in Revis’s own words, erasing) Steve Smith after halftime. But he gave up a TD and had two very costly penalties, one of which wiped out a sack and forced fumble by Jamie Collins that was recovered at the Ravens’ two-yard line. There was no pass rush to speak of for the majority of the game, with the Pats playing more zone than normal and the Ravens’ offensive line both playing well and getting away with some pretty blatant holds. By consequence, both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich got close from time to time but wound up virtual non-factors.
There were a handful of occasions on which the Pats were simply outflanked too, with a few play action or bootleg flips to fullback/Harvard grad Kyle Juszczyk and a pass in the flat to Forsett that turned into one of the easiest touchdowns known to man.
On the other hand, the D stepped up big time in the second half when the game hung in the balance. The Ravens scored just three points in a fourth quarter that featured an impressive red zone stop preceding the Pats’ game-winning march and Duron Harmon’s interception that sealed the outcome. Flacco helped immensely, throwing his first pick in eons right to Devin McCourty, who read the play perfectly from his deep safety spot.
Collins looked like he was the source of the breakdown on the wide open TD to Forsett but he played another excellent, all-around game, especially in coverage. He nearly came up with multiple picks and were it not for Revis’s second penalty, that sack and forced fumble that wound up getting called back would have resulted in a massive turning point. He was the most active member of the defense and if you didn’t know NBC’s Cris Collinsworth didn’t have a thing for him before this game, you 100 percent know it now.
Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung also came up with nice efforts, especially Hightower, who continued his ascent into the star stratosphere with some big stops and his usual sound technique and recognition skills. Give those guys credit for playing well individually and the whole group for shoring things up at the most critical juncture. Now the defense and the coaches just need to do more of that shoring up in time for Sunday night. Whether this Patriots’ defense really is as good as it’s been made out to be or not, it needs to at least be better than it was on Saturday just a couple more times. GRADE: B-
SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING - Pretty straightforward game for the special teamers with a shout out to the coverage teams for keeping Ravens’ ace return man Jacoby Jones under wraps. Amendola and Edelman each had a couple of nice returns, with Edelman in particular ripping off one sideline runback that went from nothing to maybe, possibly turning into a big play. Not bad for a quarterback. Aside from that, not too much to report from the kicking game.
From a coaching standpoint, things started off on a rough note with Belichick, Matt Patricia and staff kind of outsmarting themselves by coming out with more run-based zone looks than usual and not only getting shredded in the middle of the field but trampled by the run anyway. It didn't help that Ravens' offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was on fire in the first quarter either. Luckily, when the Pats moved back to their more familiar coverages and looks, they were able to get more pressure, force Flacco into some mistakes and bad decisions and just tighten up the whole operation overall. It’s no secret that Revis is better, the pass rush is better and the linebackers have more room when the Pats play more straight man and it’s safe to assume that Belichick and Patricia are well aware of this.
On the other side of the ball, if Josh McDaniels needs to present any potential future employers any more of resume, he has plenty to mine from this game. The Edelman pass was a great call, perfectly timed and designed of course. But what he was able to dial up knowing that he couldn’t afford to even try running was a display to behold. The Patriots’ offense functioned as well and as productively and as consistently as it has in weeks. The playcalling, the adjustments and the running of circles around Harbaugh and his defensive staff with the four-linemen, ineligible slot receiver alignment were at best masterstrokes and at worst the kind of material that can breed a lot of confidence among players and fans alike that even bigger accomplishments are at hand.
The Pats can fix what ails them on defense and they're in near peak form on offense. Throw that in with the collective mindset of the team, the makeup and overall mental toughness to do what they did in this game and where are you at?
One step closer to a sixth Super Bowl appearance in 15 seasons and a great shot at that fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Belichick earned his 20th career playoff win, tying Tom Landry for the most career postseason wins by a head coach in NFL history.— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) January 11, 2015
Belichick will now advance to his ninth conference championship as a head coach, which ranks him second all-time behind Landry (10)— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) January 11, 2015
GRADES: SPECIAL TEAMS: B, COACHING: A-