The New England Patriots won the AFC East and a first-round playoff bye, rinse and repeat. It’s par for the course in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, although each season does present a new hurdle.
This year it was Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension, during which the team got to see what it has in backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. As the Patriots prepare for their AFC Championship Game showdown at Gillette Stadium on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, we take a look back at five crucial plays that have shaped their season.
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Week 1: The missed field goal at Arizona
It wasn’t Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s miss, though he hasn’t been his usual perfect self this season, either. With just 41 seconds left in a hard-fought season opener at Arizona, the Patriots clutched to a 23-21 lead as Arizona mounted a late 10-play drive to the Patriots’ 29 yard line.
Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro lined up for a possible game-winning 47-yard field goal try and yanked it wide left (the snap wasn’t great, either). It was a big road win in Garoppolo's first start and allowed Patriots Nation fans a sigh of relief with still three Brady-less games to go.
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Week 5: Marty B blows up in Brady’s return
It helped that the Patriots faced the Cleveland Browns in Brady’s season debut, but even against cellar-dwelling competition, Brady showed he hadn’t missed a beat.
Week 5 also marked one of the few games in which the Patriots had both stud tight ends Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski on the field together at near full strength. This afternoon belonged to Bennett, who snagged three touchdown receptions, the first coming in the second quarter on a 7-yard strike when Brady checked down to the TE, capping an eight play, 75-yard drive.
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Week 10: Earl Thomas lights up Gronk
The Brady-Bennett connection is even more important now, given Gronk’s season-ending back surgery. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas delivered the clean, crushing blow to the 6-foot-6 tight end’s chest as Gronk tried to make a catch down the seam. The hit left Gronkowski with a perforated lung and may have been the origin of a ruptured disk that forced him out of Week 12's game against the Jets.
The 27-year-old hopes to return to the team next season. In the meantime, the Patriots are lucky to have Bennett, a solid blocker as well, who left the Divisional Round game against Houston with an apparent knee injury but managed to return later.
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Week 15: Logan Ryan’s game-changing pick
In late December the Patriots sought revenge in Denver for last year’s AFC Championship game loss out west to the eventual Super Bowl winners and found themselves locked in a defensive struggle, surprise-surprise. In their first four drives, the Pats ran 16 plays for 44 yards, punted three times and came away with one field goal thanks to a muffed punt deep in Denver’s zone. The game turned on the first play of the second quarter after the Broncos mounted a 10-play drive to the Patriots 14-yard line.
On a third-and-3, quarterback Trevor Siemian dropped back and threw left to Emmanuel Sanders on an out pattern when Logan Ryan jumped the route then raced up the sideline for a 46-yard return. New England finished the drive for the game’s only touchdown in a 16-3 win that caused an offense-versus-defense divide for the defending champs as the Pats improved to 12-2.
Divisional Round: Dion Lewis strikes three times
When running back Dion Lewis scores a touchdown, the Patriots don’t lose. Really, they don’t, or haven’t yet: they’re 15-0 all-time in such games as noted by Adam Kaufman on Twitter. So it boded well when the Patriots opened the scoring against Houston this past Sunday on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Lewis.
Then, late in the first quarter, the dynamic Lewis took a 98-yard kickoff return for a score, giving New England its first defensive/special teams TD of the season. Lewis later completed the hat trick with a 1-yard rushing score. Even though the Pats somehow covered the spread, they put forth a turnover-riddled and underwhelming performance. Now it’s “on to Pittsburgh” as New England seeks its seventh Super Bowl trip since 2001-2002.
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