The Rearview Mirror - Divisional Round in Review
New England defeated Houston 34-16 in the Divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday night. The Texans capitalized on back-to-back Patriots’ turnovers in the 2nd quarter to pull within one point, 13-14. From that point, New England outscored Houston 20-3 despite Tom Brady having his shakiest game of the season, completing only 18 of 38 attempts with two interceptions.
Cornerback Logan Ryan was a defensive superstar on Saturday
Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images, and published by Newsday.com
Cornerback Logan Ryan (in on seven tackles) batted away a third-and-eight out route to Keith Mumphery in man coverage in the 1st quarter. Later in the same quarter, Ryan blitzed from the slot position to sack Brock Osweiler (23 of 40, for 198 yards, one touchdown, one interception). In the 2nd, Ryan was not fooled on third-and-one play action, sticking with Lamar Miller and tackling him for a loss on the reception. In the 4th, Ryan picked off a long pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins (six catches and 65 yards on nine targets) and returned the ball to the Houston six yard line, setting up the Patriots’ final touchdown.
Devin McCourty (in on five tackles) bottled up running back Akeem Hunt in the left flat to prevent a third-and-six conversion in the red zone in the 1st quarter. In the 3rd quarter, McCourty recovered from a slip on the turf to pick off a third-down pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins. In the 4th quarter, safety Duron Harmon intercepted a second-down pass intended for tight end Ryan Griffin to kill off the Texans’ final scoring opportunity. As has been noted widely, all three Patriot interceptions were made by former Rutgers University players.
Twice New England’s defense held up in the red zone, limiting Houston to field goals instead of touchdowns. In the 1st quarter Houston was stopped at the 15 yard line on a drive that got new life from Eric Rowe’s 15-yard Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty. In the 2nd quarter – after A.J. Bouye’s interception of a tipped pass – Houston got only as far as New England’s nine yard line.
Dion Lewis became the first player in NFL playoff history to score touchdowns running (1 yard), receiving (13 yards), and kick returning (98 yards) in the same game. While Lewis (188 all-purpose yards) is regaining his early 2015 status of an offensive star, it’s fair to note that the running back was almost a triple threat for putting the ball on the ground: Houston recovered his fumbled kick-off return in the 2nd quarter after Akeem Dent’s hit; New England’s Joe Thuney recovered his fumbled carry in the 4th after being hit by corner A.J. Bouye; and the officials ruled Lewis was already down when he let the ball go on a carry up the middle in the 1st.
Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman combined for 232 of the Patriots’ 287 receiving yards. On Saturday, New England’s offense relied more on deep pass attempts, not the short, high percentage completions we are used to. In the 1st quarter the Patriots picked up 30 yards on a pass interference penalty on A.J. Bouye’s coverage of Chris Hogan up the left sideline. On the very next play Tom Brady found Hogan between the zones along the right sideline for 22 yards. Midway through the 2nd quarter Hogan’s reception completed a 45-yard play on third-and-ten to reverse field position on Houston. The long completions inflated Tom Brady’s third-down quarterback rating to 145.8.
With his punt returning skills and overall toughness, Julian Edelman reminds this observer of former Panther receiver Steve Smith Sr. With New England’s offense sputtering in the 2nd quarter, Edelman pushed off (penalty not called) to create space between Kareem Jackson and Andre Hal and pull in a 48 completion on third-and-nine. Early in the 3rd quarter Edelman pulled in a 26 yard catch up the left sideline, and midway through the same quarter Edelman took a short completion another 26 yards.
Credit to the Texans’ coaches and players for good pressure on Tom Brady most of the game. Twice in the 2nd quarter Houston sent linebackers right over the weakest point on the offensive line, center David Andrews. Brian Cushing (four tackles) got around Andrews for a four yard sack on third-and-six before Whitney Mercilus (four tackles) brought down the Patriots’ quarterback in the backfield on third-and-four.
With the Houston pass rush creating so many problems, it was curious that New England continued to operate out of the shotgun formations on early downs. Playing under center on first and second down Tom Brady had a 74.1 quarterback rating, but that number plunged to 11.8 when Brady was in shotgun on first and second down.
New England’s offensive line seemed to be outplayed for much of the game. On their first possession, the Patriots’ attempt to convert a third-and-one was thwarted when the Texans’ Vince Wilfork (playing his last NFL game) overpowered both David Andrews and Joe Thuney at the point of attack. At the end of the 2nd quarter the Patriots faced a third-and-goal from the one yard line and the Texans defensive line again shoved the Patriots backwards, creating no space for LeGarrette Blount (31 yards on eight carries).
…And One Comment about the AFC Championship.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be the most challenging offense that the 2016 New England Patriots have faced to date. Le'Veon Bell is second among running backs at 105.7 yards per game, Antonio Brown is fourth among receivers at 85.6 yards per game, and Ben Roethlisberger is ninth among quarterbacks at 273 per game. The challenge for the defensive coaches will be to figure out which part of the Steelers’ powerful offensive – seventh best in the NFL at 372 yards per game – they will focus on limiting.