AFC East: 2012 Divisional Rapid Reaction


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

What it means: The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game to face the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium for the second year in a row. New England moves one step closer to its sixth Super Bowl appearance under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Brady also set a new NFL record with 17 career playoff victories.

Young RBs growing up: New England's young running backs came of age in this playoff game. Second-year players Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley scored New England’s first three touchdowns -- and four touchdowns total -- in the win. Vereen showed his versatility with 41 rushing yards, 83 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. Ridley added 82 rushing yards and one touchdown. Neither player was a factor in New England's playoff run last year. But both made significant contributions in New England’s opening playoff game this year.

Gronkowski may be out for season: The biggest injury concern coming out of this game is the health of Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. He re-injured his previously broken left arm in the first quarter and didn't return. He was in major pain before going to the locker room. Early reports indicate that Gronkowski could be out for the season. (Update: Sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that Gronkowski is out for the rest of the playoffs.) This is the second straight year Gronkowski is significantly injured for the playoffs.

Welker hard to guard: With Gronkowski out, Wes Welker became the focal part of the passing offense. Welker recorded eight receptions for 131 yards against Houston. He had six catches for 120 yards in the first half. Welker made several key catches to keep the chains moving.

Other injuries: The Patriots had several other key injuries to monitor next week. In addition to Gronkowski, New England starting defensive end Chandler Jones re-injured his ankle in the third quarter and didn’t return. The Patriots’ other defensive end, Rob Ninkovich, also was injured in the fourth quarter, and New England running back Danny Woodhead injured his thumb in the first quarter and didn’t return. New England needs its key players healthy for next week.

What’s next: The Patriots will host Baltimore in the AFC title game for the second straight year at Gillette Stadium. Both teams have had a good rivalry in recent years. Baltimore beat New England in Week 3 of the regular season and will be emotionally charged during linebacker Ray Lewis’ final playoff run. The Patriots will try to avoid being swept by the Ravens in two games this season.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some thoughts on the New England Patriots' 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Patriots won a postseason game for the first time in four years and ended a three-game playoff skid. The AFC East blog said this was the easiest matchup possible for New England, and it turned out that way. Denver was no match for the Patriots, who punched a ticket to the AFC Championship Game and will host the winner of Sunday's divisional game between the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans.

Fast starters: New England was criticized for its slow starts in the final two regular-season games. But the Patriots exploded in the playoffs by taking an astounding 35-7 lead at halftime. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw five touchdowns in the first two quarters and tight end Rob Gronkowski had eight receptions for 97 yards and three touchdowns at intermission. "Gronk" tied a playoff record for first-half touchdowns. The Broncos had no answer.

Brady ties TD record: Brady wasn't done in the first half. He threw another touchdown in the second half to tie an NFL playoff record. Brady finished with 363 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. Brady also had a 48-yard punt during a quick kick in the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget Hernandez: The Patriots have the best tight-end duo in the NFL. They used both weapons by also getting backup Aaron Hernandez. Usually when you give Patriots head Bill Belichick two weeks, he finds a new wrinkle. New England put Hernandez in the backup where he could show off his tailbacks skills. Hernandez led the Patriots in rushing with 61 yards, including a 43-yard scamper on the first drive. He also caught four passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Ninkovich shines: New England needed someone to step up defensively, and the team got a great effort from linebacker Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots baffled Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow with a solid pass rush. Ninkovich tied defensive tackle Vince Wilfork for a game-high 1.5 sacks. Ninkovich also had five tackles and two quarterback pressures.

What's next: The AFC Championship Game comes to Gillette Stadium next weekend. New England will try to advance to its first Super Bowl since losing to the New York Giants following the 2007 season.

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