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Ten Things We Learned Sunday: Patriots continue to disprove the doubters

by: Christopher Price on Mon, 01/23/2012 - 3:57am

FOXBORO -- Forget everything you thought you knew about the 2011 Patriots.

All the preconceived ideas that had been built up over the last few months have been shattered. Every preconceived idea you might have about them has gone poof, replaced in many instances with the exact opposite result. Up is down, black is white, dogs and cats are living ... well, you probably know the rest. But by way of example, in Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium (click here for the complete recap), they were able to disprove the following theories:

• New England can’t win when it doesn’t get a great performance from quarterback Tom Brady, especially in a big game. The quarterback was a relatively pedestrian 22-for-36 for 239 yards with two interceptions, one of the worst playoff stat lines of his career. In fact, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco was the better quarterback on Sunday, with a passer rating that very nearly doubled that of Mr. Two-Time MVP, 95.4 to 57.5.

• The Patriots’ defense isn’t good enough to win a game on its own, particularly the patchwork secondary. New England and its defensive backs made the stops when it counted, finally allowing the sold-out crowd to exhale when defensive back Sterling Moore -- who was released by the Raiders earlier this season -- knocked away a pair of key Flacco passes late that kept the Ravens out of the end zone with the season on the line.

“Well, I sucked pretty bad today,” Brady said after the game, “but our defense saved us.”

The Patriots can’t stop elite skill position players. all-world running back Ray Rice -- the same guy who tapdanced all over the Patriots' heads two years ago in the postseason, was bottled up, managing to eke out 67 yards on 21 carries. While Flacco hit Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin on big gains, they were mostly contained -- while New England allowed four plays of 20 yards or more, only one did any serious damage.

The Patriots can’t be more physical than the Ravens, kings of the black-and-blue AFC North and one of the toughest teams in the league. New England was the more physical team on Sunday, with Vince Wilfork controlling the defensive line and getting seven hits on Joe Flacco. Meanwhile, the New England offensive line held the fearsome Baltimore pass rush to one five-yard sack and three quarterback hits. Terrell Suggs had five tackles (two solo) and one quarterback hit.

“We stepped up,” Wilfork said. “We all stepped up big time. Being in this situation is a great moment. You have to cherish this moment.”

“It feels great. It feels great,” said Bill Belichick, who will be going to his fifth Super Bowl as coach of the Patriots. “We’re thrilled.”

When it came to the AFC, the Patriots won the war of attrition. As traditional powers like the Colts and Jets floundered, teams like the Steelers suffered ill-timed injuries and bad defeats, while young up-and-comers like the Broncos and Texans proved themselves not quite ready for prime time. In the meantime, the Patriots kept plugging away, and in the end, they were able to persevere, showing extraordinary mental toughness and managing to play their best football at the right time of the year.

It wasn’t always pretty, but the least flawed team in a wildly flawed conference deservedly gets to call the Lamar Hunt Trophy its own for the seventh time in franchise history and the sixth time since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994.

“We won 10 straight games, and they haven’t all been pretty,” Brady said. “We’ve started slow, we’ve started fast. The offense has played really well at times; the defense has played really well at times. It’s a pretty mentally tough team. There’s really some resiliency, we’ve shown that all season. Even in the games we’ve lost, the three games we lost, we fought until the end. We’re always going to fight to the end.

“It’s great to be a part of a team like this. It’s tough to get here, man. It’s hard to win these games. It’s hard to win games in the NFL, because every team is very talented. We did enough here the last 10 weeks to win these games. I’m sure this next game is going to come down to the end and hopefully we have enough plays.”

And now, the NFL’s answer to “Mythbusters” takes its’ act on the road to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. While they don’t have the same underdog qualities the 2001 team, or the same ruthlessly efficient mannerisms of the 2003 and 2004 team, there is that same sense of inevitability with this bunch, like some sort of predestined script has already been penned about them and they are collectively acting it out, with the final scene set for two weeks at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Luckily, we got to this moment,” Wilfork said. “It’s been tough. Nothing’s been easy. We had to deal with certain situations, but you know, this team handled it pretty well. They never gave up. They’re very, very passionate about what they do. They love this game, and I can take the field with anybody like that.”

Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

WHEN IT COMES TO THE RUNNING GAME, THE PATRIOTS DIDN’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE

In last season’s playoff loss to the Jets, New York went nickel and dime for a sizable portion of the game in hopes of slowing down the Patriots’ passing game, but New England didn’t seize the opportunity, choosing instead to go to a pass-heavy attack (they ran the ball 28 times and threw it 45 times). On Sunday against the Ravens, New England was faced with the same dilemma, but provided a far more balanced offensive attack. Early in the game, they were frequently able to take advantage of the fact that Baltimore had extra defensive backs on the field to pound the ball. With rookie running back Stevan Ridley deactivated, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had his best game in two months, going off for 68 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown, the leading rusher for either team. (Green-Ellis didn’t necessarily have crazy numbers, but the Patriots got excellent value out of him -- he carried the ball for 15 of his 23 snaps, and was targeted as a receiver on another snap).

By the numbers: Green-Ellis was at his most consistent on New England’s first drive of the second quarter, when he accounted for 36 of the 75 yards on the series with five carries, including a seven-yard burst up the middle for the touchdown where he displayed extraordinary patience waiting for blocks to develop.

Money quote: “Just staying on track. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, not trying to do anything more than we had to. I think we just go out there and play with confidence and do the things that we do. We always put ourselves in good positions and stay in rhythm. They threw a lot at us, but we’ve got a lot of weapons that people have to defend and they got to respect and honor them, so as long as those guys go out there and make those plays, obviously it does the world for us, especially up front. Those guys getting open [and] [Tom Brady] finding them makes our lives a hell of a lot easier.” -- Offensive tackle Matt Light on the key to New England’s offensive success on Sunday

VINCE WILFORK. JUST VINCE WILFORK

It’s hard to overstate the effect that Wilfork had on the game Sunday, especially in the early going. The defensive lineman lined up in a few different gaps, but dominated Baltimore’s offensive line in the first half. He was able to occupy at least two blockers on a first-quarter passing play that allowed Mark Anderson free access to Flacco for a sack, and he was able to pick up a five-yard sack of his own late in the same quarter, as well as a tackle on Baltimore running back Ricky Williams that went for a five-yard loss. He was also great late -- on the Ravens’ next-to-last possession, he had his two biggest plays of the night. First, with New England holding a slim 23-20 edge, Baltimore was facing third and 3 at the Patriots 30. That’s when Wilfork shot through the line to bring down Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss. On the following play, the Ravens were in fourth and 6 and decided to go for it. Wilfork was able to get a great rush on Flacco, and the pass meant for Dennis Pitta fell to the turf.

By the numbers: Wilfork had six tackles (three solo), a sack, three tackles for a loss and a quarterback hit.

Money quote: “I thought Vince had a lot of big plays today. ... Vince is obviously our most experienced player and he’s been a great leader, great captain all year. His leadership has been tremendous – so has Jerod’s. You can’t say enough about Mayo. He does everything for us in terms of calling defenses, making adjustments, the running game, the passing game. He’s the first guy in the building every day and the last one to leave, so those guys have been great all year. I can’t say enough about both of them.” -- Belichick on Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo

BRANDON SPIKES IS NEVER DULL

The linebacker, who was nearly flagged for a pair of personal fouls (he got into it with some of the Ravens on a post-play dustup) make one of the most important plays of the game, picking off Flacco midway through the fourth quarter on a Flacco pass meant for Ed Dickson. It was a great personal moment for Spikes, who has been on a roller coaster ride for the last 13 months, going from a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to a knee injury that sidelined him for half the season to becoming an integral part of a defense that will be headed to the Super Bowl. Known more for his occasionally indecipherable Twitter feed (he took what appeared to be a good-natured shot at Rice after the game), the linebacker now stands on the cusp of a very important ballgame in two weeks.

By the numbers: Spikes led the Patriots with nine tackles (two solo), one interception and one pass defensed.

Money quote: "It’s just great. As a man, you’re measured as to how you respond when you get knocked down. I think, actually on that pick, on the play before, the receiver did a great job. Respect to him -- he knocked me on my butt. On the next play, I was able to make a play on the ball. It just felt great. You’ve got to respond when you get knocked on your butt." -- Spikes on rising to the challenge after an eventful year

WHEN IT COMES TO THE PATRIOTS, NO ONE ENJOYS PLAYING THE ROLE OF VILLAIN MORE THAN BERNARD POLLARD

(This helps if you’re listening to Al Pacino’s, "Say goodnight to the bad guy" speech from “Scarface” while you’re reading…) The same guy who delivered the shot to Brady’s knee that knocked him out back in 2008 as a member of the Chiefs (and was in the neighborhood when Welker went down with a serious knee injury late in the 2009 season when Pollard was with Houston) was at it Sunday afternoon as a member of the Ravens. Late in the third quarter, Pollard pulled Rob Gronkowski down at the end of a 23-yard pass play, forcing the tight end to land awkwardly on his left foot/ankle. The Gillette Stadium crowd went quiet as Gronkowski was helped off the field and into the locker room. But he quickly returned, taking the field with roughly 12 minutes remaining in regulation and helping out as a blocker on Brady’s game-winning plunge into the end zone with 11:33 left in the game. Gronkowski, who finished with five catches for a team-high 87 yards, was seen after the game with a walking boot on his left foot, and the will-he-or-won’t-he for Super Bowl XLVI will almost certainly last through the next two weeks. He said after the game that he felt “good,” for what it’s worth.

By the numbers: While the Ravens did a very good job with a variety of coverages on Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, they were still able to combine for 13 catches and 119 yards -- marking the first time in 69 contests that the Ravens allowed 100 or more receiving yards to opposing tight ends. In addition, Sunday afternoon marked just the third time since the start of the regular season that neither one of New England’s two tight ends reached the end zone.

Money quote: “He was the best quarterback on the field today, period. All you guys that dogged Joe all week need to shut up. The media doesn’t know. They just don’t know. It’s time to leave the man alone. He’s played four years and made the playoffs all four years. He played his [expletive] off today.” -- Pollard, defending the play of his quarterback after Sunday’s game

ONCE AGAIN, NEW ENGLAND’S SPECIAL TEAMS CAN RISE TO THE OCCASION

The history of New England’s special teamers in the playoffs is well-trod ground: Adam Vinatieri, Lonie Paxton, Troy Brown and Josh Miller are among the postseason heroes. On Sunday against the Ravens -- with the exception of one big fumble from Danny Woodhead on a kick return -- it was another good afternoon for the Patriots’ specialists. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski connected on three field goals (from 29, 35 and 24 yards) and five of his six kickoffs were touchbacks. Punter Zoltan Mesko averaged 48.5 yards per punt on his two opportunities. Both kick and punt coverage did their jobs. All of that was juxtaposed with the missed 32-yarder at the end of the game by Cundiff, which was one of the ugliest misses in recent memory and sparked more than a few similarities to Mike Vanderjagt’s miss at the end of the 2004 regular-season opener that led to a last-second New England win. As we saw in last season’s loss to the Jets in the divisional playoffs, special teams mistakes can be killers in the postseason. This time around, it was the Patriots’ opponent that committed the error.

By the numbers: Cundiff was 12-for-13 on postseason field goal attempts before his miss in the final minute Sunday against the Patriots.

Money quote: “There is no one man who has ever lost a game. Don’t you ever drop your head; we win as a team, we lose as a team. There is no ‘Billy is the fault, Billy missed the kick.’ It happens. Move on like a man, because life doesn’t stop.” -- Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis on Cundiff’s miss at the end of the game

THE NO-HUDDLE CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

The Patriots came into the game looking to turn things into a track meet. They had used the no-huddle to great effect over the course of the season -- including last Saturday’s win in the divisional playoffs over the Broncos, New England had used the no-huddle on 24 percent of its total snaps. And entering Sunday’s game, the Ravens’ defense had faced a no-huddle on just five percent of the snaps. Almost predictably, the Patriots came on with their foot on the gas -- New England used the no huddle 22 of 41 snaps in the first half, including on 12 of their 22 snaps in the second quarter. For the game, the Patriots went no-huddle on 33 of a possible 68 snaps. It wasn’t a season-high for them (that was 52 percent of the time, which they did twice this season), but close.

By the numbers: That being said, the Patriots did not have the same level of success in the no-huddle on Sunday that they did earlier in the season (or the divisional playoffs against Denver, for that matter). Brady was 11-for-19 in the no-huddle for 103 yards and an interception. He was 11-for-17 otherwise for 136 yards. Rushing, the team carried the ball 12 times in the no-huddle for 35 yards. The team had 61 yards rushing outside of the no huddle on 19 carries.

Money quote: “It was two very physical teams I thought. We ran the ball in a few times; I thought we ran the ball great. It’s a great team. The Ravens are in this position for a reason. They’re a very good team. They’re tough, they’re physical, they can cover, they can rush, they stop the run -- they do a lot of things very well.” -- Brady on the offensive performance Sunday afternoon

THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO RUN A QUARTERBACK SNEAK

Brady is one of the few quarterbacks in the league who can consistently execute a quarterback sneak. It’s a weird play, one that too many quarterbacks have problems with. (Just ask Matt Ryan, who botched two of them in Atlanta’s wild card loss to the Giants two weeks ago.) On Sunday against the Ravens, New England struggled in the red zone (it was just 2-for-5), but Brady’s over-the-top quarterback sneak from a yard out with 11:33 to go in the fourth quarter (which bore more than a passing resemblance to former Chicago Bear Walter Payton going over the top) was the red-zone highlight of the afternoon for New England. Brady took a wicked shot in the small of the back from linebacker Ray Lewis, but held onto the ball for the score.

By the numbers: Brady’s rushing touchdown was the third of his playoff career, tying him with Lawrence Maroney for the third highest rushing touchdown total in Patriots playoff history. Both of Brady’s playoff rushing touchdowns prior to today were also in the fourth quarter. His first was a 6-yard scoring run in the 2001 Divisional Playoffs against Oakland (Jan. 19, 2002) and his second was a 1-yard score in the 2004 Divisional Playoffs against Indianapolis (Jan. 16, 2005).

Money quote: “We keep telling him to stop doing that stuff but he doesn’t listen to us very well. Look, if he sees something like that, he just goes for it. It was a heck of a play. We’ve been stuffed to times in a row, and obviously needed that one to come through. We struggled in the red zone to a degree, and it was just him making a play.” -- Light on Brady’s quarterback sneak

WHEN IT CAME TO QUARTERBACKING IN AN AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME, THE PATRIOTS HAD SEEN THIS BEFORE

In the 2007 AFC championship game, the Patriots faced a young quarterback who had already been slapped with an underachieving label, only to see him submit a surprising performance that ultimately turned public sentiment in his favor. After that game, Philip Rivers had a whole new rep. On Sunday, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco submitted the sort of performance that could ultimately have the same sort of impact on his legacy. Flacco was 22-for-36 (the same percentage as Brady) with 306 yards, two touchdowns and one pick, and made some very impressive throws all afternoon, including his touchdown passes to Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith. He was the best quarterback on the field, and if it wasn’t for an ill-timed bobble (combined with  some nice work in pass defense by Sterling Moore) by Lee Evans, he could have sent the game into overtime with a fourth-quarter drive that was as impressive a sequence as any quarterback in the league under those circumstances.

By the numbers: Flacco had a quarterback rating of 95.4, and the Ravens were 31-3 entering the game when Flacco had a rating of at least 95.

Money quote: “I thought Joe played a great game. Obviously, he played well enough to win this game. I have said it all along, you know, to run down the qualities that makes Joe Flacco a great player, a great quarterback, a great person. I have said it many times -- I think his best football is in front of him. He only gets better. He’s our kind of guy, he’s a tough guy, he’s a competitive guy, he’s a leader, and I just can’t wait to see where this thing goes with him. And we are proud to have him as our quarterback.” -- Baltimore coach John Harbaugh on Flacco’s performance

THE PATRIOTS VETERANS WILL REALLY ENJOY THE NEXT COUPLE OF WEEKS

There are three players left on the New England roster who were part of that fantastic voyage from 10 years ago that ended at the Louisiana Superdome: running back Kevin Faulk, left tackle Matt Light and quarterback Tom Brady. And those three (more than most) know what the next two weeks mean in terms of preparation, taking care of your business and making sure you remember that what you’re about to embark on is special, down deep, it’s a business trip. To that end, the Patriots’ players will meet at Gillette Stadium on Monday to go through a logistical meeting that will include tips on tickets, what to do with family and instructions on how to manage your time over the next two weeks. It will help address the questions that many of the younger players are sure to have as the Patriots began prep for another meeting with Eli Manning, Tom Coughlin and the Giants.

By the numbers: Including Sunday afternoon’s AFC championship, Brady (21 games), Faulk (20 games) and Light (19 games) now have a combined 60 games of postseason experience on their professional resumes.

Money quote: (tie) “We’re going to celebrate tonight, but tomorrow, we’re coming back to work to prepare for another team.” -- Faulk on the focus for the next couple of days

“The taste and the victory and the whole nine [yards] ... when you get an opportunity to do it again – it’s incredible. It’s an incredible feeling. It will take a while to sink in that we’re going [to the Super Bowl] and then it will be a heck of a week of preparation as always. But this is what we fought hard for all year to have an opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. We’ll see how it goes from there.” -- Light reflecting on the opportunity to go to his fifth Super Bowl