|ESPN.com: New England Patriots||[Print without images]|
Bill Belichick knew what he was talking about this week. It may be a tired adage -- "prepare for anything" -- but Belichick stressed it this week, and he was on point. Who would've expected the Patriots would be down both Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so early in the game? The offense had to adjust, and coaches deserve credit for that. Meanwhile, Belichick lost his lone challenge of the game, but it's hard to argue it made sense in the situation.
The Patriots' 13.8 yard-per-catch average was their fourth-best of the season, and more impressive given that Gronkowski was knocked out of the game before having a chance to contribute. Brady instead turned to new tricks for old dogs -- getting Wes Welker involved in the deep game on a 47-yard catch -- while running back Shane Vereen was a new part of the pass offense altogether. Most importantly, Brady didn't turn the ball over, while the offensive line allowed just one sack in the game. The one knock against this unit was its ability to execute in the fourth quarter, going three-and-out on a possession that was sandwiched between two Texans touchdown drives.
This unit posted an impressive 5.1 yard average, mixing up Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, two of their top draft picks last season, even after Danny Woodhead went down on the first offensive play. The fact that neither Ridley nor Vereen fumbled was a plus. What keeps this group from receiving a better grade is five runs of zero or negative yards, which guard Logan Mankins pointed out after the game.
The final stat line was a bit ugly, with Matt Schaub completing 34 of 51 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns. But as usual, this unit has a way of coming up with the big play when it's needed. In this case, it was Rob Ninkovich's interception as the Texans were driving in the third quarter, which the Patriots turned into seven points. In general, the Texans' pass offense got better as the game went on, with New England's cushion on the scoreboard lessening the blow of the Texans aerial attack.
The Texans' game plan was clear here: use Arian Foster. In fact, they didn't use anyone else, with backup ball carriers Ben Tate and Justin Forsett not even seeing the field. Through the first quarter, Foster rushed four times for three yards. Not allowing the Texans to establish the running game with Foster early was an underrated storyline of this game, even though he finished with 90 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries.
It's the first failing grade given out this season. Strike No. 1: Allowing Houston's Danieal Manning to return the opening kickoff 94 yards, the Patriots' coverage unit doing their part in letting the Texans do what they wanted to do in Week 14 in getting off to a fast start. Strike No. 2: Kicking it back to Manning and having him return it 35 yards after a Patriots touchdown in the second quarter. And, for the trifecta, giving Manning the hat trick with a 69-yard kick return in the fourth quarter. After the game, Devin McCourty was asked what happened on the three returns, and responded "If we knew that, we would have fixed it after the first one." They weren't McCourty's fault, but not being able to fix such a glaring problem in the playoffs deserves this grade.