AFC East: AFC Championship Game
1. New England Patriots: New England entered the AFC Championship as a more than a touchdown favorite over the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots also were 3-0 in their previous home games in the title rounds. However, the Ravens outplayed and out-toughed the Patriots during a 28-13 victory. The dynasty years are long over, and New England is struggling to win just one Super Bowl. The bar is high for the Patriots. Losing at home in the AFC title game is not enough.
2. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: New York’s hire of general manager John Idzik and new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were not good for Sanchez. The Jets’ incumbent starting quarterback will most likely lose his job if team can find a suitable replacement. Idzik has strong ties to Seattle, which makes the Jets a favorite to land Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Mornhinweg also is bringing a pass-heavy, West Coast offense to New York that doesn’t seem like a good fit for the inaccurate and turnover-prone Sanchez. The only thing keeping Sanchez on the team at this point is his guaranteed $8.25 million salary. New York will do all it can to find someone to supplant Sanchez this offseason.
3. Wes Welker, Patriots receiver: For the second consecutive year, Welker had a big drop in the playoffs. Last year it happened in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, which led to a game-winning drive by the New York Giants. This year, Welker’s third-quarter drop in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game killed the momentum for New England and led to Baltimore scoring 21 unanswered points. This is not the way Welker wanted to enter free agency. His immense production will command a large contract extension, but New England played hardball with Welker last year and probably will do the same again. It’s very possible that Welker played his last game in a Patriots uniform.
1. Jets salary cap: Idzik's hiring raised some questions about his talent evaluation, but there is no doubt he will fix New York’s salary cap. The Jets are projected to be $19.4 million over the cap this offseason. High-priced veterans such as Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, Eric Smith and Jason Smith are all likely candidates to get released. New York will be a much younger team in 2013 and they have to start over before they get better. After former general manager Mike Tannenbaum grossly mismanaged the cap, Idzik should be able to figure out how to pay the bill this year.
2. Aqib Talib, Patriots cornerback: The book on Talib several months ago was not good. He was a talented, but troubled, corner who was coming off a four-game suspension by the NFL. Teams didn’t want to touch him, and Talib was going into a contract year. However, the past few months of good behavior and good play on the field has done wonders for Talib. He had a solid second half of the season for the Patriots and was easily the team’s best cover corner. New England’s pass defense fell apart in the AFC title game when Talib went down with a thigh injury, showing his importance. The Patriots need talented corners and will consider bringing Talib back if they are convinced his off-field issues are behind him.
3. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills safety: Byrd’s stock was already high, but it just got another boost after making the Pro Bowl this week as an alternate. Byrd replaces Ed Reed of the Ravens on the AFC roster, which is ironic. Many feel Byrd is the second-best free-agent safety on the offseason market behind Reed. Byrd will get plenty of interest if he doesn’t re-sign with the Bills first. Buffalo may use the franchise tag to prevent any chance of losing Byrd, who is arguably the team’s best defensive playmaker.
Now it's time to focus on the offseason in the AFC East. There will be plenty of storylines to follow with all four teams.
Will Wes Welker return to New England? How will the Miami Dolphins spend all their cap space? Who will play quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets next season? We will be there every step of the way while your favorite teams answer these questions.
Thank you all for making this another successful NFL season in the AFC East blog. We will be back with more after touching base in South Florida.
"There is something to be said about being gracious in defeat," Sharpe said. “We’ve seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious [in the AFC title game]. And we’ve seen the opposing coaches that lost come out and talk to our [reporter] Steve Tasker. Coach [Bill] Cowher did it when he lost to them.
"Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not going to win all the time, and he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable."
Sharpe has a fair point. But for those like myself who regularly cover the Patriots, this is just Belichick being Belichick. He is tough with all media and doesn’t care for interviews whether in victory or defeat.
Belichick usually does the bare-bones minimum with media, although Sunday’s loss probably heightened his want to get out of Gillette Stadium more than usual. Belichick did go through the mandatory post-game news conference Sunday night. But it was clear that was probably the last thing he cared to do after another tough playoff defeat.
Here are several key plays and players that crushed New England’s hopes to advance to Super Bowl XLVII:
- The pass coverage was horrendous once Aqib Talib went out with a thigh injury in the first quarter. Backup cornerback Kyle Arrington and rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard struggled against Baltimore’s tandem of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin had two touchdown receptions and made several big catches in traffic in which he won the one-on-one battles. New England’s linebackers also failed to cover over the middle. Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, in particular, had trouble keeping up with Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who had five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown.
- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played one of his worst games of the season. Brady, who has struggled against Baltimore in his career, was 29-of-54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Ravens did a masterful job against Brady by not allowing many big plays. His longest completion was for 36 yards, but that was in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Baltimore also didn’t get any sacks but hit Brady seven times, which was enough to rattle him. One interception was off a deflection, and another was in the end zone to Ravens cornerback Cary Williams.
- Speaking of Brady, his rare poor clock management at the end of the first half was inexcusable. New England was leading by a field goal and had a chance to go up by 10 points with a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. Brady connected with Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for 17 yards to get to Baltimore’s 10-yard line with 26 seconds left. Brady only got one play off in 26 seconds, which was a quarterback sneak, before using New England’s final timeout. The Patriots settled for a field goal to go up 13-7 at halftime. But a touchdown to go up 17-7 at the half could have dramatically changed the momentum of the game for New England.
- Patriots starting tailback Stevan Ridley’s fumbling issues came up again in a big spot. Ridley was knocked out of the game with a concussion during a fourth-quarter fumble that sealed any hopes of the Patriots coming back in the game. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard delivered a crushing blow to Ridley, who walked off the field under his own power.
Baltimore outplayed New England in just about every facet of this game. This is further proof that you always have to be at your best in the playoffs.
"Can I get to my locker, please?" Welker said tersely. "Thank you."
The stern tone of his voice was telling. Welker was clearly frustrated after the New England Patriots suffered a 28-13 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Welker's final stats look solid. He had eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. But for the second year in a row, Welker had another infamous postseason drop that will go down in Patriots lore.
On third-and-8 with New England leading 13-7, the Patriots drove to the Ravens' 34-yard line aiming to take control of the game. New England quarterback Tom Brady found Welker wide open to his left that would have been another first down. Instead, Welker dropped the pass and forced New England to punt.
The game went downhill for the Patriots after that. New England didn't score the rest of the way and the Ravens recorded 21 unanswered points to advance to Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.
Welker’s drops have a way of propelling other teams to victory in the playoffs. His fourth-quarter drop in last year’s Super Bowl led to the New York Giants’ game-winning drive and more heartache for the Patriots.
On Sunday, Welker played well otherwise. But he was roughed up in an important third quarter. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard put a helmet-to-helmet hit on Welker and was flagged 15 yards just three plays before his drop.
"Yeah, I was fine, I was fine," Welker said, not making any excuses. "It was just, you know, a missed opportunity."
The once sure-handed Welker has had a lot of "missed opportunities," as he calls it, since Super Bowl XLVI. In fact, Welker led the AFC with 11 drops during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Based on that trend, it wasn't a surprise Welker's hands failed him again in a big spot in Sunday's AFC title game.
Welker is now an unrestricted free agent and will enter the offseason as a polarizing figure. Will Patriots fans most remember Welker's five 100-catch seasons, or the two huge drops in the Super Bowl and AFC title game? That's also a question for the Patriots to answer at the negotiating table.
Welker's production will command a large extension and big annual salary. It's difficult to imagine New England's offense without him. However, it’s also difficult to imagine the Patriots overpaying for a receiver who will be 32 in May, especially after recently paying large extensions to tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
The franchise tag also seems unlikely. New England paid Welker a one-year franchise tender of $9.5 million to retain him this season. But that number goes up to $11.4 million in 2013. That is too expensive for a one-year rental and would eat up New England's salary cap.
It appears it's either a multi-year extension or bust for Welker and the Patriots, who both have about five weeks to make a decision before the Pro Bowl receiver hits the open market.
“I’m really not worried about it at all,” Welker said of his contract status. “This is a tough loss and I’m just trying to get over it at the moment. Like I said, I’m not worried about any of it.”
New England was outplayed in just about every facet. Baltimore was much better in the red zone and won the turnover battle 3-to-1. Welker’s drop was a major turning point, but Patriots players and coaches refused to talk about just one play Sunday night.
“There are a lot of plays in the game; there’s a lot of things we could have done better -- all of us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It really wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t as good as the Ravens tonight. That’s why they’re moving on and we’re not. They were just better than we were in really everything.”
Welker dressed slowly at his locker Sunday night. You imagine the emotions going through his head after a tough loss and wonder whether this was his final shot to win a title with the Patriots.
The final question asked to Welker was how will he get over this game under tough circumstances.
“Same way I did last time,” Welker explained. “The sun will come up tomorrow and you just try to move on.”
But has the sun set on Welker’s career in New England? That is the multimillion dollar question.
Here are some notes at intermission:
- Injuries are becoming a factor for New England. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring in the first quarter and didn't return. He is New England's best cover corner and his return was announced as questionable. But it wouldn't be shocking if Talib is done for this game. Patriots defensive lineman Kyle Love also left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury and didn't return in the first half. His return was announced as questionable. New England rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) dressed for the game but hasn't played in the first half.
- New England receiver Brandon Lloyd had one of his best first halves of the season. Lloyd has four receptions for 40 yards. Someone had to step up in the absence of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the postseason with a broken arm. Brady and Lloyd haven’t been on the same page for much of the season, but that wasn’t the case in the first half. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez also has six receptions.
- The Patriots used some trickery in the first quarter. New England put quarterback Ryan Mallett on the field in what appeared to be a fake punt on fourth-and-2. It was a play the Patriots haven’t used all season. Baltimore blew a timeout after seeing the unfamiliar alignment.
- Overall, it was an ugly first half by both teams. Neither club really got its offense going and both teams struggled on third-down conversions. The Patriots even botched some clock management before halftime and settle for a field goal. Expect a better played second half by both teams.
We will bring you all the latest in Sunday’s AFC title game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots. These are the best two teams in the conference, and it's time to officially settle it on the field and determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.
Be sure to check out the AFC East blog and my Twitter account throughout the weekend for all the latest happenings in Foxborough.
We finally take a look at the reigning division champion New England Patriots, who play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
No. 1 need: Safety
Analysis: The Patriots were 29th against the pass this season and 31st against the pass in 2011. New England needs better safeties to prevent big passing plays over the top. Players like Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are not the long-term solutions. That has forced Devin McCourty, a converted corner, to become a full-time safety. New England's pass defense has made some strides. But a legit, playmaking safety would go a long way in New England. There is speculation that pending free agent Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens could be an offseason possibility. Patriots second-round pick Tavon Wilson also has shown flashes but still have a lot to prove.
No. 2 need: Cornerback
Analysis: It also takes corners to play good pass defense, and New England struggled at times in that area as well. A lot depends on what happens with No. 1 corner Aqib Talib, who is a pending free agent. The Patriots made a midseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that is paying dividends. Talib has been the athletic, cover corner New England expected. But Talib's had off-the-field concerns in the past, and the Patriots will consider that when thinking about a long-term extension. Without Talib, New England has a thin group of corners. Rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard has been a nice find, but he's inexperienced. Kyle Arrington is too up and down. The Patriots will have to explore this position in the draft or free agency.
No. 3 need: Wide receiver
Analysis: Much of this depends on what happens with Pro Bowl receiver and pending free agent Wes Welker. But the Patriots need to add some youth and depth at wide receiver. The Patriots don't have much behind starters Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Julian Eldelman showed flashes but suffered a season-ending foot injury. The Patriots will have to pay Welker a heavy price tag to keep him long-term. If Welker walks, that leaves a big hole in the offense. It won't be easy to replace Welker's immense production.
Here is the final injury report for both teams:
Probable: DE Chandler Jones (ankle), CB Marquice Cole (finger), OL Nick McDonald (shoulder), DE Trevor Scott (knee), RB Danny Woodhead (thumb)
Out: CB Asa Jackson (thigh)
Questionable: LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), FB Vonta Leach (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (knee), WR David Reed (thigh)
Probable: WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder), RB Anthony Allen (head), CB Chykie Brown (shoulder), DT Terrence Cody (ankle), G Gino Gradkowski (head), DT Arthur Jones (thigh), LB Ray Lewis (triceps), LB Albert McClellan (shoulder), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), DT Haloti Ngata (knee), S Bernard Pollard (chest), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Torrey Smith (back), LB Terrell Suggs (achilles), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
Analysis: The Patriots are very healthy, considering it is late in the season. New England lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the playoffs last week, and that is the biggest concern. However, the Patriots are 4-1 this season without Gronkowski and have been down this road before. The Ravens have already played two tough playoff games, and it shows on the injury report. But all the big names will most likely be ready for the AFC Championship Game.
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots or Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens?
Brady historically has struggled against the Ravens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady has the lowest Total Quarterback Rating against Baltimore than any other team. Brady has had another tremendous season. Can he overcome his struggles against the Ravens and produce another great game?
Or will the red-hot Flacco outperform Brady on the big stage? Flacco is coming off one of the biggest performances of his career in the divisional round. Flacco outdueled MVP favorite Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos to lead the Ravens to an overtime time. Will Flacco stay in the zone and make Brady the next victim?
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on which quarterback will have the better performance in the AFC Championship Game. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Ridley showed flashes in his first year with the Patriots by rushing for 441 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But fumbles in consecutive games landed him on the inactive list for the rest of the playoffs. Vereen had an injury-plagued rookie campaign, played in just five games and was never able to get on track.
But perseverance and dedication have changed the fortunes of New England’s second-year running backs. This season, Ridley played in all 16 games and led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He carried the load for New England in the regular season. Vereen mostly stayed healthy in his sophomore campaign, playing in 13 games and adding 251 rushing yards off the bench.
But most importantly, the tailbacks have been double trouble in the playoffs. Ridley and Vereen combined for 219 total yards and four touchdowns in New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round. The pair beat Houston on the ground and through the air, which was essential after the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) for the playoffs.
After sitting on the bench last year against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, both Patriots tailbacks will have significant roles in Sunday's postseason rematch.
“Last year, it was kind of devastating and heartbreaking to not be out there with the team in a big game,” Vereen said this week. “This year, I am able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.”
Trust is huge in New England. Ridley learned that lesson the hard way.
Talent was never an issue for the 2011 third-round pick. Ridley impressed coaches with his running style as a rookie and started to consistently earn double-digit carries in December.
But with more opportunities, Ridley had a couple of untimely fumbles. He put the ball on the ground in New England’s regular-season finale, which was recovered, then lost a fumble against the Denver Broncos in the first playoff game.
At that point, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had seen enough. Belichick clipped the already short leash with Ridley and made the rookie inactive in the AFC Championship Game and in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. Ridley understood the decision.
“This is an organization that is built on a lot of tradition, and they have been doing things the right way for a long time,” Ridley said. “If you don’t want to play football the [right] way, you’re not going to be here.”
Last season’s rookie disappointment motivated Ridley and Vereen to become better second-year players. The jump both players have made in Year 2 showed this past week against Houston.
Ridley rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. Vereen rushed for 41 yards, had five receptions for 83 yards and scored three touchdowns. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called Vereen’s impressive, 33-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to put the game out of reach a coming-of-age moment.
“On the last one, Tom threw a perfect, perfect pass and I was only able to bring it in because of where the ball was at,” Vereen explained. “It was a matchup that we were hoping to get, and we were able to execute the play. Everything lined up right, and Tom threw a perfect pass.”
Can Ridley and Vereen shine again? Last week was the first time both young tailbacks performed well in a pressure-packed playoff atmosphere.
The Patriots are heavy favorites for the second straight week. But New England knows better than to overlook Baltimore. The Ravens were underdogs this past week when they knocked off the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The past three meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by three or fewer points. So expect another close game.
The running games could be huge for both teams, especially in the second half. Ridley and Vereen were sideline spectators last year in the AFC title game. But this pair must produce for the Patriots for a second game in a row to secure a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.
“They’re a great football team. I don’t care what the numbers say,” Ridley said of Baltimore. “History shows what they do in the playoffs: They go on the road and they win. They have great leadership. They have one of the best players to ever play the game. We have ultimate respect for the Ravens.”
- The New York Jets are wrapping up their general manager search and should make a decision soon.
- Did Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin guarantee victory over the New England Patriots?
- Will the Buffalo Bills re-sign starting guard Andy Levitre?
- Are the playoffs teaching the Miami Dolphins they need more offense?
New England Patriots quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady continues to set records. He recently became the NFL's all-time winningest playoff quarterback, as well as the third player to throw at least 40 postseason touchdowns.
All of this confirms Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But Brady says he has no time to reflect on his legacy.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t really think about any of that," Brady said during his Wednesday’s press conference. "I’m just trying to win a football game this week. I think we’re very short-term focused and playing against a great football team that obviously deserves the right to be here. We know how challenging of a team they are, both schematically and personnel-wise. All of our focus is on this week."
Expect some articles over the next few days about Brady's place in NFL history. That will only increase if Brady qualifies for his sixth Super Bowl.
Is Brady the NFL's greatest quarterback? That's subject to debate. But Brady certainly has the résumé to make a case.
However, don't expect Brady to believe his own hype -- he never has. Brady continues to live in the moment, which involves Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.
"I try not to buy into what people say or think," Brady said. "I just live my life and certainly enjoy being the quarterback for this team. There’s nothing more fun than running out onto the field in front of 70,000 people cheering for us. That’s what it will be this weekend."
The big brother got the best of the little brother in the first meeting. But this time the stakes are higher when siblings Arthur Jones of the Baltimore Ravens face Chandler Jones and the New England Patriots.
A trip to the Super Bowl is on the line for the Jones brothers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Baltimore beat New England, 31-30, in Week 3 of the regular season.
Arthur, 26, currently has bragging rights in the family. But the oldest brother knows it's more important to win this weekend.
Whoever advances has a golden opportunity to bring the first Super Bowl ring to the Jones family.
"Absolutely, I rubbed it in his face a little bit," Arthur said Wednesday of beating Chandler in the regular season. "But the bragging rights are not going to matter if I don't win this game. This is a lot bigger game and a lot more at stake than last game."
The good news is one of the Jones brothers will be playing in his first Super Bowl on Feb. 3. The bad news is the other Jones brother will be heartbroken after getting so close in the AFC title game.
However, the first champion among the Jones brothers has already been crowned in a different sport: mixed martial arts. Middle brother Jon Jones, 25, became the UFC light heavyweight champion in 2011 and still holds the title. Jon, when reached on a promotional tour for "The Ultimate Fighter," said this weekend is another great moment for the Jones family.
"I’m so happy for my brothers and I’m excited to see the game this weekend," Jon Jones said. "I know they both want to play in the Super Bowl, so I expect them to play the best games of their lives. I’m proud of Arthur and Chandler.
"I know it’s not easy to make it this far in the NFL, but they’ve both dedicated their lives to becoming the best football players they can be. I can’t wait to see who makes it to the Super Bowl."
There are very few secrets Chandler Jones, 22, keeps from his oldest brother. But this is one of those weeks when he will.
Chandler tweaked his ankle in New England's playoff victory over the Houston Texans, but he did practice on Wednesday. The two close-knit brothers have talked this week. Yet, Chandler is doing his best Bill Belichick impersonation by not informing Arthur of his status.
Still, Arthur knows his younger brother better than anyone and expects Chandler on the field Sunday considering how much is at stake.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s a kid that has heart, and he’s going to be out there no matter what, I think,” Arthur Jones said. “But who knows? I’m not a doctor. I don’t know what’s going on and he’s doing a good job of not telling me.”
Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a great year for the Jones brothers. Chandler and Arthur both made it to the conference title game, while Jon won both of his championship fights in 2012.
It will take Sunday's AFC Championship Game to determine which Jones brother will finish the season at Super Bowl XLVII.
“It’s definitely a blessing for my family, and it’s definitely a unique situation,” Arthur Jones said. “It’s going to be cool. So why not us?”