Tom Brady was shaky early on, Wes Welker had an uncharacteristic drop, and Rob Gronkowski was nursing an injury that kept him from making any sort of impact. But the Patriots’ AFC divisional-round matchup with the Texans on Sunday night didn’t turn out to be a carbon copy of last year’s heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
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Quite the contrary, in fact. The only thing the same as last year is the team New England will face in the AFC Championship Game, after the Pats pushed aside Houston 41-28 to earn a rematch with Ray Lewis and the Ravens.
The Patriots responded from early setbacks and first-quarter injuries to two key offensive players with precise offense, opportunistic defense and contributions from two second-year running backs whom they’ve been waiting to see flourish in big spots like these since they were both drafted on the second day of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley — taken 56th and 73rd overall, respectively, in the 2011 NFL Draft — carried the New England offense when starting tailback Danny Woodhead (thumb) and Pro Bowl tight end Gronkowski (arm) left the game with first-quarter injuries.
Vereen became just the second Patriots player in franchise history to score rushing and receiving touchdowns in a postseason game, while Ridley added 82 rushing yards and scored a crucial third-quarter touchdown that extended the Patriots’ lead to 11 after 10 unanswered Texans points to end the first half.
Vereen’s career day — after rushing for a meager 251 yards and catching just eight passes in 13 regular-season games — included 124 yards of offense, five receptions and three touchdowns.
“People stepped up all over the board tonight,” Vereen said at his locker after the game. “We hate to lose [Woodhead]. He’s such a key part of our offense. But at the same time, all the running backs hold each other accountable to step up when one of us goes down. As a running backs group, we keep a focus that no matter who’s in the game, we’re able to perform.”
Sunday was Vereen’s first career playoff game. His three-touchdown effort made for quite the debut. Postseason football is old hat for Tom Brady, though. And in the same weekend that his old rival Peyton Manning failed to earn his 10th career playoff victory and escape the AFC’s divisional round, Brady notched his 17th career postseason win, surpassing his childhood idol Joe Montana for the most in NFL history.
Without the services of Woodhead and Gronkowski (early Sunday night reports indicated that Gronk will miss the rest of the postseason), Brady completed 25 of 40 passes, tossing three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the win. He’ll play in his seventh AFC Championship Game, New England’s second straight against the Baltimore Ravens, on Sunday.
When asked about the near-miss of yet another much-anticipated Manning-Brady AFC Championship Game, Brady responded bluntly, “The two best teams are in the finals. Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we. It’s very fitting. We played them earlier in the year. They got us. We blew a pretty big lead there at the end, but we’re going to have to play our best game next week.”
The Gronkowski and Woodhead injuries, both coming on New England’s first offensive drive, could have thrown a wrench in a less-prepared team’s game plan on Sunday. But the Patriots adjusted. The results of those adjustments were 41 points and 457 yards of total offense against the league’s seventh-ranked defense.
“We had a whole plan built for (Gronkowski) and for (Woodhead),” Brady said after the game. “And we run the first series of the game and all those plans change. A little bit of it was, ‘What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?’ But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and we put together a pretty good game.”
“We have certain plays for certain guys and Rob and Danny are a big part of the game. But that’s what (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) does best,” Brady added. “He gets guys in the best positions to make plays and always comes with a way to adapt and scheme things up. There’s no one better in the league.”
The Texans wore letterman jackets the first time they came to Foxboro in Week 14 and lost 42-14 on a Monday night. J.J. Watt wagged his finger after a first-half sack and Arian Foster exchanged words with Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib after a big run on Sunday, but the Texans failed to back up their bravado for the second time in Massachusetts in five weeks.
Whereas the Patriots had their way with Houston, they’ve struggled quite a bit in their past two meetings with Baltimore. In 2011’s AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were a Lee Evans drop and a Billy Cundiff missed field goal away from either beating or tying New England at the end of regulation.
In Week 3, the Ravens beat the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore.
Sunday’s matchup will mark the first AFC Championship Game rematch since the Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos squared off in the 1986 and 1987 conference title games.
From top to bottom on the team’s org chart, from Brady to the eighth man on the practice squad, there’s nothing but respect from the Patriots for next weekend’s opponent. They know the battle that awaits them.
Asked about the challenge of going up against Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a smile, noting, “I don’t look forward to it all.”
Belichick continued, “The Ravens have obviously an outstanding team — defense, special teams, offense. They’re good all the way around; very well coached. We thought they were as tough as anybody we played all year.”
Sometimes things don’t go as originally planned.
Over the last two weeks, the Patriots were building an offensive strategy for Houston’s defense that heavily featured Gronkowski and Woodhead.
At the start of the postseason, most of the nation prepared for a Manning-Brady AFC Championship Game to be played in Denver next Sunday.
But things happen. Things change.
The Patriots will play the Ravens in Foxboro on Sunday and Gronkowski won’t be involved — let alone featured — in the offensive game plan.
If New England showed us anything on Sunday, it’s that you’ve just got to be able to adjust.