AFC East: Gillette Stadium

There are a lot of New England Patriots fans who read this blog. So it’s a good time to offer this public reminder: The Patriots will offer their Aaron Hernandez jersey swap on Saturday and Sunday at the team’s pro shop at Gillette Stadium.

We wrote about this last week when New England first announced the decision. Hernandez recently was arrested and charged with murder and faces five additional gun charges in Massachusetts. The Patriots promptly cut the tight end.

The jersey swap is a classy move by the Patriots to allow their fans to trade in Hernandez jerseys for any jersey of equal value. It’s also a smart move by New England, because it’s another way to further distance itself and prevent fans from wearing Hernandez jerseys to the stadium this upcoming season.

For years, the New England Patriots have been known as a model NFL franchise. New England, more than any team over the past dozen years, has been a football factory that found a way to stay focused in a league full of distractions.

But has New England lost sight of "The Patriot Way?" This has been an uncharacteristically wild offseason for New England that includes losing Wes Welker in free agency, multiple surgeries for Rob Gronkowski, the circus-like signing of Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez being released after a charge of murder and five additional gun charges.

According to ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox, these are no longer the usual Patriots. New England's reputation has been tarnished, Fox says, following the Hernandez incident.
The New England Patriots seem to be trying to do the right thing. Now. Now that they know Aaron Hernandez has been accused of executing an associate. Now that their star tight end is behind bars facing murder and weapons charges, denied bail and awaiting a trial that likely won't start until next year. Hernandez is worthless to the Patriots now, and the organization is going to great lengths to disassociate itself from him. Less than two hours after his arrest last week, New England cut Hernandez and removed his jersey from their pro shop at Gillette Stadium. This weekend, they will allow fans to exchange any Hernandez jersey that was bought at the stadium for another of equal value at no charge. Out with Hernandez, and in with Tim Tebow. But it isn't that simple and can't be that neat. New England has acted wisely and admirably in the immediate aftermath of this heinous story, but it can't be forgotten that New England was the organization that employed Hernandez. The Patriots chose Hernandez. Not once. Twice.

Do you agree or disagree with Fox's assessment? You can read Fox's full column on the Patriots' reputation here.
The New England Patriots wasted no time when they released star tight end Aaron Hernandez less than two hours after his arrest on Wednesday. Now, the Patriots are making it clear they do not want to see Hernandez jerseys at Gillette Stadium this upcoming season, either.

New England announced Friday that the team is offering a free jersey exchange for fans who own Hernandez jerseys. The will offer a swap for any Patriots jersey of equal value at the Pro Shop at Gillette Stadium on July 6-7.

"We know that children love wearing their Patriots jerseys but may not understand why parents don't want them wearing their Hernandez jerseys anymore," Patriots spokesman Stacey James said in a statement. "We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots Pro Shop for another player's jersey will be well received by parents."

This is a smart move by the Patriots. It's a service to their fans, because most would not wear Hernandez’s jerseys this fall while he's facing a murder change and five additional gun charges. It's also a service to the Patriots, because it’s another way to try to quickly move on from their association with Hernandez, who played in New England the past three seasons.
It won't take long for Wes Welker to extract revenge from the New England Patriots – or vice versa.

New England will host Welker and the Denver Broncos this upcoming season in a highly anticipated game at Gillette Stadium. The NFL will announce a time and date for the game in the spring.

The Patriots and Broncos are title contenders in the AFC. But the rivalry went up another notch when Welker left New England for Denver on Wednesday in free agency. The Patriots were reportedly low-balling Welker, who in turn left his good friend Tom Brady for another elite quarterback in Peyton Manning.

Welker will not be the only free agent with AFC East ties seeking revenge. New Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace will travel to play his former Pittsburgh Steelers team this season. Miami also will host the Baltimore Ravens, who lost free-agent linebacker Dannell Ellerbe this week to the Dolphins.
The New England Patriots were 0-3 this season against the two teams competing in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII. The Baltimore Ravens beat New England both the regular season and playoffs, and the San Francisco 49ers entered Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots in December.

Both teams taught the Patriots a valuable lesson: New England must improve its overall physicality in 2013.

The Patriots advanced to the AFC title game and was just one step away from making the Super Bowl. But New England got beaten up and pounded this season when facing top teams like San Francisco and Baltimore. The 49ers and Ravens accounted for three of the Patriots’ five losses, and the common theme was that New England lost to the more physical teams. Indeed, the Seattle Seahawks used the same blueprint of beating up the Patriots to win in Week 6.

The Patriots are not a soft team, but there are finesse elements in their schemes. For example, New England runs a spread offense that relies much more on tempo than physicality. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd are good, finesse players upon whom San Francisco and Baltimore pounded for four quarters. On defense, New England could not consistently get to the quarterback, and receivers and tight ends had no fear making tough catches against its secondary.

New England doesn't need to tweak much to remain in the title hunt in 2013. But being more physical is one thing the Patriots should work on if they want to get past bruising teams like the Ravens and 49ers.
Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe has never been one to hold his tongue. Now an NFL analyst for CBS, Sharpe had a lot to say after New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick shunned the network for a postgame interview following a 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

"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.

Poll: Ravens or Patriots?

January, 14, 2013
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There's no point in waiting for this one. Let’s poll our AFC East community right away on next weekend’s AFC Championship Game.

SportsNation

Which team will win the AFC Championship Game at New England?

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    43%
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    57%

Discuss (Total votes: 301,930)

Who will win in the rematch between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots? The winner will advance to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

Will it be the Patriots? New England beat Baltimore at Gillette Stadium last year in the AFC title game. Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady is tough to beat in these big spots and is clearly the best quarterback of the remaining teams in the field. Can Brady lead New England to his sixth Super Bowl appearance?

Or is it Baltimore’s time? The Ravens are on a magical run in the season with future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore beat the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Can the Ravens get past the Patriots to advance to their first Super Bowl since the 2000 season?

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the winner of Sunday's AFC title game. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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.

Have the stars aligned for Patriots?

January, 13, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just two weeks ago, we were discussing the New England Patriots hosting a wild-card game, then potentially traveling to Houston and Denver in order to advance to the Super Bowl. But thanks to some good fortune, the reigning AFC champion Patriots do not have to leave Foxborough to make it to New Orleans.

The stars have aligned just right to boost New England's chances of another Super Bowl run. The second-seeded Patriots will host the Houston Texans Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET. If the Patriots advance, they also will host the fourth-seeded Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium in next week's AFC Championship Game.

Houston's loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season finale gave the Patriots a valuable first-round bye. But Baltimore's overtime upset of the top-seeded Broncos Saturday was the biggest surprise. It provided New England an unexpected home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Of course, none of this matters unless New England can take care of business on the field. Nothing in the postseason is easy. But home games against Houston and Baltimore in the playoffs is more appealing for the Patriots than playing a wild-card game and two postseason games at Houston and at Denver.

The Patriots are aware that anything can happen in the playoffs. It's interesting to note that elite quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers were both knocked out in the divisional round Saturday. Tom Brady & Co. must play their best football Sunday against the Texans to avoid joining that list.
PatriotsUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Patriots defense -- led by Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib -- will try Sunday to shut down the potent Houston offense for the second time this season.
Everyone knows quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' top-rated offense will be ready for the postseason. But what exactly do we make of New England’s inconsistent defense?

Will we see the aggressive Patriots defense that shut out the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago in the regular-season finale? Or will we see the Patriots defense that was ranked 25th throughout the season, including 29th against the pass?

We will find out if New England's much-maligned defense is playoff-ready when the Patriots (12-4) host the Houston Texans (13-4) Sunday at Gillette Stadium. New England has the worst defense statistically of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. In the AFC, the defenses of the Denver Broncos (No. 2), Houston Texans (No. 7) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 17) are all ranked significantly ahead of the Patriots.

The Patriots have made several strides defensively from a season ago. But if the old NFL cliché of "defense wins championships" still stands, this could be what derails New England's Super Bowl hopes.

"Obviously when you get a group of guys together for an extended period of time, you're going to get better," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the defensive improvements. "But there are also things we had to improve at -- especially communication, getting on the same page and doing things like that."

Last season, New England's porous defense didn't cost the team until the final drive in the Super Bowl. When the Patriots needed a big stop in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants, they couldn't get it and lost the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.

This season, New England's defense is younger, faster and more dynamic. The Patriots were 31st in total defense in 2011 and improved six spots in 2012. But is that good enough?

The Patriots' biggest strength defensively is their physical front seven. New England is ninth against the run, allowing just 101.9 rushing yards per game. Baltimore tailback Ray Rice is the only player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Patriots. Two of New England's seven Pro Bowlers this season are on defense in Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who must lead the way in the playoffs.

"We have guys that have been here before and we have guys that haven’t been here before," said Wilfork, who won his only Super Bowl with the Patriots in his rookie season in 2004. "So our job is to make these guys understand what it takes to win, especially in a situation like this."

Stopping the run will be huge against Houston. Texans tailback Arian Foster is the foundation of Houston's offense. The Texans have the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL, and that opens up Houston's dangerous play-action passes.

New England trounced Houston 42-14 in Week 14. The Patriots stuffed Foster in that meeting, holding the running back to just 46 yards on 15 carries. But Foster is coming to Gillette Stadium with momentum after a 140-yard performance in a wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I expect to see the best. Whatever they have, I expect to see it -- the kitchen sink if it’s called for," Wilfork said. "But last week you saw why [Foster] is one of the top offensive players in the game -- not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game."

New England did very well defensively in the last draft. That is one of the key reasons the Patriots are younger, physical and more athletic. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard have all made an impact.

"Those guys really bring a lot of energy. Those guys are hungry," Mayo said. "Those guys have really kind of fit in very well. They came in trying to learn as much as they could. I always talk about when I came in as a rookie trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could, and those guys have done the same."

This is also a big game for Patriots No. 1 corner Aqib Talib. New England acquired Talib in a midseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the move has paid immediate dividends.

Talib is easily New England's best cover corner and will see a lot of Houston Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson in this game.

"Talib's ability to match up on the opponent's best receiver is huge," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They now play much more man coverage and blitz more, which helps an average pass rush. It gives Bill Belichick more options, which is exactly what he wants."

New England's defense still has a sour taste in its mouth from last year's postseason. The Patriots cruised in the divisional round against Denver, won a tight contest against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, then had a chance to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. But Eli Manning's heroics against New England's defense killed the Patriots down the stretch. With 3:46 left in the game, New England allowed New York to drive 88 yards on nine plays for the game-winning touchdown.

If the Patriots aim to win a title this year, their defense must be ready to step up and make key stops throughout the playoffs.

"Everyone in the league is hungry for a Super Bowl," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I want to get back there just like everybody else that’s in the playoffs. The No. 1 goal in your head coming into training camp is, 'Let's get to the Super Bowl.'

"This is what we play the game for."

Poll: Who wins the AFC?

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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We are down to the top four teams in the AFC. The Denver Broncos (13-3), New England Patriots (12-4), Houston Texans (13-4) and Baltimore Ravens (11-6) will all play this weekend in the divisional round.

SportsNation

Which team will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?

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    46%
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    43%
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    4%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,360)

So which team will represent the AFC conference in this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans?

Will it be the top-seeded Broncos? Denver enters the playoffs on a roll, winning 11 straight games. The Broncos will host the Ravens, a team that quarterback Peyton Manning has owned in the past. Can Manning pull off two more victories and lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl during his first year in Denver?

Or will it be Baltimore? The Ravens are the underdogs but will be on an emotional high thanks to linebacker Ray Lewis. The future Hall of Famer will retire after this season, and Baltimore wants to send Lewis out a winner. Can the Ravens get Lewis to the Super Bowl one more time?

The second-seeded Patriots also have a shot. New England will host the Texans Sunday and are 2-1 against the three other teams in the AFC. The Patriots beat Denver and Houston but lost to the Ravens. Can New England repeat as AFC champs?

Finally, we have the Texans. Houston has looked shaky in the past month but anything can happen in the playoffs. Can the Texans upset New England at Gillette Stadium and win another game to represent the AFC?

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on which team will be the AFC champion. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Players in the New England Patriots' locker room are not taking the route of Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy this week. The reigning AFC champs are showing the Houston Texans plenty of respect leading into Sunday's playoff game, despite trouncing Houston, 42-14, in Week 14.

"Trust me, you're going to see a different Texans team," Patriots veteran receiver Deion Branch explained. "That we all know, I promise you that. They're a great team. They've been a great team all season long. Unfortunately they ran into a couple stumbles but that's football. Trust me, it won't be the same team that we played five weeks ago."

New England knows it is difficult to beat the same team in both the regular season and postseason. The Patriots failed to pull that off during the 2010 season, when the New York Jets upset New England in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium after a blowout loss there in Week 13.

The Patriots cannot get overconfident against Houston and must prove they have learned from that experience .

"We expect it to be a totally different ballgame," Patriots special-teams ace Matthew Slater said. "We expect this to be a different team that shows up here this weekend and we know we’re in for a fight."

Starting fast will be important. New England took a 21-0 lead at halftime and was never in danger in Week 14. Houston must be sharper and set the tone early in this playoff rematch and let New England know it's going to be a much tougher contest.

"They didn’t play their best game," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "They know that and we know that. Come Sunday we are expecting their best."
The New England Patriots are on a bye week. But your resident AFC East blogger is still getting a taste of wild-card weekend.

I am traveling to Houston this evening to cover Saturday's playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. This will give me a chance to scout two playoff teams in the AFC bracket up-close and personal.

The Patriots will face the Texans on Jan. 13 at Gillette Stadium if Houston beats Cincinnati. If Houston loses, the Patriots will face the winner of Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.

It should be an exciting weekend of postseason games.

Patriots' dominance by the numbers

December, 11, 2012
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The New England Patriots picked up their biggest win of the season by thrashing the Houston Texans, 42-14, Monday at Gillette Stadium. It was a major statement by New England (10-3).

Here are some astounding numbers to chew on from Monday's game, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information:
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had his 14th game of four passing touchdowns and zero interceptions. That's an NFL record.
  • Brady threw three of his four touchdowns when Houston blitzed five or more defenders.
  • Brady passed Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas with 18 games with four touchdown passes. Brady tied Drew Brees for fourth all-time.
  • The Patriots scored 40 points or more for the 26th time since 2001, which is an NFL-high in that span.
  • The Patriots have won 13 straight December games, which is tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history. They also have won 20 straight home games in December.
  • The Patriots have at least 10 wins for the 10th straight season. That's second in NFL history.
  • According to Elias Sports Bureau, New England's 28-point win was the largest margin against a team holding the best record in the NFL.

Overall, it was a landmark night for New England. The Patriots are just one game behind Houston for the top spot and now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the biggest games of the regular season will take place at Gillette Stadium when the New England Patriots (9-3) host the Houston Texans (11-1) on "Monday Night Football."

Here are three keys to watch in this game:
  • 1. Tempo, tempo, tempo: This game could come down to which team sets the pace. Great teams dictate tempo, and that is something both the Patriots and the Texans are very good at. New England runs a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that thrives on getting more offensive plays than its opponent. As a result, the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring and have the top-rated offense. Houston likes to set a physical tone by running the football. The passing game feeds off the run and is capable of making big plays through the air. Pace will be key for both teams.
  • 2. Big-game QBs: We know what Patriots quarterback Tom Brady brings to the table in big games. But Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is a major unknown in this area. This game, by far, will be the biggest of Schaub's career. He's never won a playoff game but this will be the closest thing to it considering how much is on the line. Schaub, who has been good this season, still needs to prove he can thrive under these circumstances. A win over Brady in Gillette Stadium will silence many of Schaub's critics.
  • 3. Home-field advantage: Speaking of Gillette Stadium, the Patriots rarely lose at home in December. New England is 22-1 at home in December since 2001, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The Patriots have won 19 straight, and their last home loss in December came a decade ago against the New York Jets. Gillette Stadium has been a house of horrors for opponents this time of year. New England has the best December home record in the NFL since 2001.

The AFC East blog will bring you all the latest from Gillette Stadium. Be sure to check back Monday night four our live chat in addition to postgame reaction. You also can get live updates by following on Twitter here and here.

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