NFL Nation: Gillette Stadium

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.

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 their 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, 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 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
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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."
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 the 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.

Final Word: AFC East

November, 16, 2012
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Here are five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Hot playoff contenders: Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots (6-3) and Indianapolis Colts (6-3) could be a playoff preview. If the season ended today, both teams would be in. The Patriots would be the AFC East champions with a home playoff game and the Colts would be a road wild card. The Patriots and Colts are hitting their stride at the right time. Indianapolis is on a four-game winning streak and New England has won three in a row. One of these streaks has to end at Gillette Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Christopher LeeGetty ImagesRob Gronkowski has scored five touchdowns in his past three games.
‘Gronk’ more involved: Patriots Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end last year. But he got off to a slow start this season. Gronkowski appears to be finally hitting his stride and has five touchdowns in the past two games. He is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's favorite option in the red zone and is looking to extend his touchdown streak to four games.

Are the Jets focused? Do the New York Jets realize they have a game this weekend? It’s hard to tell considering how much the zany Jets have focused on backup quarterback Tim Tebow this week. There have been anonymous quotes, Tebow’s response of “sadness” and coach Rex Ryan’s ire. Tebow has dominated the headlines this week over New York’s opponent: the St. Louis Rams. The circus-like atmosphere makes you question how it impacts New York’s focus and preparations going into this game.

Sanchez under pressure: New York Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez has a lot on his plate. But one of the most glaring issues for Sanchez is struggling against the blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez has a NFL-worst 48.7 completion percentage against the blitz. He’s also thrown four interceptions and has been sacked 10 times. New York has little supporting cast around Sanchez and teams are not afraid to bring extra rushers.

Moving forward: The Buffalo Bills (4-6) beat the Miami Dolphins (4-6), 19-14, on Thursday night. Both teams are relagated to the spoiler role the rest of the season and will try to make it tough on playoff contenders. It starts next week. Buffalo will have extra time to prepare to play the Colts on Nov. 25. The Dolphins will host the Seattle Seahawks (6-4).

Five-step drop: Jake Long dilemma

November, 5, 2012
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With two teams on the bye, the AFC East is shorting its progression.

Here are five notes and observations on Week 9 in the division:

  • [+] EnlargeJake Long
    Darron Cummings/AP PhotoDolphins tackle Jake Long runs the ball after catching a forced fumble against the Colts on Sunday.
    The Miami Dolphins (4-4) have a tough decision to make with left tackle Jake Long. It is clear the pending free agent and former No. 1 overall pick is not the player he used to be. Long has battled injuries and played below his usual level for a couple of seasons. He struggled again against defensive end Dwight Freeney in a 23-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts (5-3). Long spent a lot of time on the ground, getting penalized and trying to stay in front of Freeney. Coming off his rookie contract, Long may aim to be the highest-paid lineman in the NFL. But it’s been more than a year since he’s consistently played at an elite level. Miami must decide whether to pay Long for what he’s done in the past or what he will be the next few years. Miami doesn't have a viable replacement unless rookie Jonathan Martin can eventually switch to the left side.
  • Miami’s loss puts the team in a tough spot. They have two games in a five-day stretch against the Tennessee Titans (3-6) and Buffalo Bills (3-5). On paper, both opponents are struggling. But the Dolphins could quickly go from 4-4 to 4-6 if they're not focused. Miami also has the potential to be 6-4. I asked Miami coach Joe Philbin about this quick turnaround in Indianapolis. “We have to be smart,” Philbin said. “We’re going to have to take a look at the injury situation and get through this thing and look at our practice time, how much time we can spend on the field, those types of things. We’ve given it some thought already. ... But it’s a challenge for anybody.”
  • I don’t get what the Bills are doing with tailback C.J. Spiller. He is clearly Buffalo’s best playmaker and doesn’t get nearly enough touches. Six carries? The Bills lost to the Texans, 21-9, and it was a close game until the fourth quarter. I don’t understand why the Bills would have a pass-to-run ratio of 38-16, more than 2-to-1, with Spiller touching the ball sparingly. The Bills had two weeks to figure out what works offensively. Maybe they will never figure out.
  • Buffalo’s season is over if it can’t win next Sunday in Gillette Stadium. The Bills (3-5) will travel to face the New England Patriots (5-3) with their season on the line. The Bills will be huge underdogs in this game but are desperate and need to pull out all the stops.
  • The Patriots (5-3) and New York Jets (3-5) are both coming off their bye weeks. That means each team has two weeks to rest and get healthy. For the Jets, I want to see if they have figured out their identity on offense. Is this a ground-and-pound team, or will they let quarterback Mark Sanchez fling the ball. It’s been a different formula each week. For the Patriots, the pass defense is key. They acquired cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade but can’t get him on the field for another week due to a suspension.

Final Word: AFC East

October, 5, 2012
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

Reclaiming Gillette Stadium: Sunday marks the first home game since the New England Patriots were upset at Gillette Stadium in Week 2 by the Arizona Cardinals. The Patriots entered that game 35-1 in their previous 36 home games with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But Arizona ended the streak with a 20-19 victory. New England (2-2) is 0-1 at home and will try to start another run at Gillette Stadium on Sunday against quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Including playoffs, Brady is 8-4 all-time against Manning.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bolden
AP Photo/Bill WippertBrandon Bolden emerged against the Bills in Week 4, giving the Patriots a formidable one-two punch in the rushing game.
Running Patriots: The Patriots are not known for their running game, but they are eighth in the NFL in rushing at the quarter-mark of the season. New England had its best rushing day last week against the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots rushed for 247 yards and had two 100-yard rushers (Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden) in the 52-28 victory. New England showed it is unafraid to run if that's what the defense allows.

Grounded and pounded: The Jets (2-2) entered the season expecting to "ground and pound" opponents under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Instead, the Jets' offense has been grounded. New York is ranked 28th in total offense and 24th in running the football. Shonn Greene, the Jets' leading rusher, is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. The Jets lack an offensive identity and don't appear capable of outmuscling opponents as they have in the past. New York needs to figure out its offensive issues sooner rather than later. The Jets host the undefeated Houston Texans (4-0) on "Monday Night Football."

Coyle homecoming: Last week, Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby returned to Arizona to face his former team. This week, it's Dolphins first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's turn. Miami (1-3) will play its second consecutive road game Sunday, against the Cincinnati Bengals. Coyle spent 10 years as a cornerbacks and defensive backs coach with the Bengals and developed several good players in Cincinnati.

Spilling over: Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller didn't look himself in last week's loss to the Patriots. Spiller came back sooner than expected from a shoulder injury and played tentatively. He rushed for 33 yards on eight carries and had a crucial fumble before halftime. Spiller struggled with blocking and breaking tackles. The Bills hope another week of rest has allowed Spiller's banged-up shoulder to heal. The San Francisco 49ers, the Bills' next opponent, are fifth in the NFL in run defense.

Seven-step drop: How good are the Jets?

September, 10, 2012
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 1 in the AFC East:

  • There was an “I told you so” attitude with the New York Jets after their 48-28 blowout of the Buffalo Bills Sunday. Not only did the Jets (1-0) prove a lot of skeptics wrong in Week 1, but they did it against a Buffalo (0-1) team that received a lot of good press and offseason hype. It’s only one game, but the big question now is, “How good is New York?” The Jets were picked by many to be a third-place team in the AFC East and to finish around .500 this year. But they look dangerous when playing complementary football. It was a complete performance by the Jets Sunday where the offense fed off the defense, which also fed off special teams. If this is the type of Jets team we will see consistently, then perhaps the Jets are better than most thought. We could have a better indication of where New York stands next week when the Jets travel to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1).
  • Also, the Jets’ receiving corps deserves a lot of credit for its production. Santonio Holmes, rookie Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley consistently schooled Buffalo’s young cornerbacks. The Jets had receivers running free regularly on Sunday, even during incompletions. New York quarterback Mark Sanchez did a good job taking care of the football and taking chances deep at the right time. Holmes, Hill and Kerley all had at least four receptions. “It was a great performance by us,” Holmes said. “The game plan went really smooth this week. Guys were paying attention to details. Everything just felt great and we put on a show.”
  • [+] EnlargeMario Williams
    Kellen Micah/ICON SMIMario Williams, right, took issue with the way Austin Howard pass blocked on Sunday.
    How did Jets journeyman offensive tackle Austin Howard keep Bills Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams at bay? According to Williams, Howard cheated. “Pass blocking doesn’t consist of using your hands to the face on every play,” Williams said afterwards. Howard, with some help, pitched a shutout against Williams, who was held to just one tackle with zero sacks and one quarterback pressure. Williams made a point to say Howard illegally and consistently used hands to the face as his primary method. According to Williams, he told the replacement officials on several occasions. “You don’t listen or even call it one time out of the 20 that were there?” a frustrated Williams said. “That’s really disheartening for everyone.” Jets head coach Rex Ryan had a different take. “Austin Howard played a tremendous game,” Ryan said. “Maybe he made a name for himself today.”
  • The look on Bills receiver David Nelson’s face said it all in the locker room. I wouldn’t be shocked if Nelson is done for an extended period. Nelson was carted off in the fourth quarter. It was a tough way to go out for Buffalo’s second-leading receiver, who is the best slot option the team has. This probably means rookie receiver T.J. Graham has to step up in Nelson’s place. Graham was inactive Sunday against the Jets.
  • Bills head coach Chan Gailey said starting running Fred Jackson’s knee injury wasn’t as serious as Nelson’s. But Jackson didn’t finish the game and his status is in doubt for a big Week 2 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs (0-1). Jets safety LaRon Landry went low on Jackson, whose leg got caught in the turf. Jackson walked on the sideline after the game but didn’t return. Backup C.J. Spiller looks more than ready for the increased responsibility. Spiller rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown in relief against a tough Jets defense.
  • There may be more good news for the New England Patriots' defense. After pounding young Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker in a season-opening win, Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback John Skelton also was sidelined in Week 1 with a possible high-ankle sprain. That type of injury can keep players out for about a month. But Skelton will most certainly miss next week’s game against the Patriots (1-0) at Gillette Stadium. That paves the way for enigmatic backup Kevin Kolb, who filled in decently on Sunday but has been a bust since signing a big contract with Arizona (1-0).
  • Finally, you have to wonder how much Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long's knee is bothering him. He was beat on several plays and looked unusually shaky at times Sunday against the Houston Texans. I’m not worried about Long’s play as much as the injuries piling up. Seventy percent of Long is still better than many left tackles. But it seems the past couple of years Long is playing hurt too often. It’s the second season in a row Long is starting the year banged up. It’s a long season and the Dolphins’ best player already is managing injuries. This is a contract year for Long, and Miami (0-1) has to decide whether it can make Long the highest-paid lineman in the league next season when he’s starting to develop the “injury-prone” label.
The Tom Brady-Peyton Manning quarterback rivalry is one of the best ever. After a one-year hiatus, it is set to return in 2012.

Brady and the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots will host Manning and the new-look Broncos next season. Manning picked the Broncos on Monday from his list of finalists and will resume his Hall of Fame career in Denver.

Expect the Patriots-Broncos game at Gillette Stadium to be a prime-time showdown. The television networks should be gawking over this one, as Manning and Brady haven't played since the 2010 season. If the game is scheduled late in the year, it likely will involve playoff implications.

Including the playoffs, Brady holds an 8-5 career record against Manning.
Vince WilforkAP Photo/Elise AmendolaVince Wilfork, right, and the Patriots' defense dominated Saturday's playoff game against Denver.
Trick question: Which team has the top-rated defense in the NFL playoffs? If you answered the New England Patriots, you are correct.

The much-maligned Patriots' defense had the best performance of the playoffs thus far in a 45-10 win against the Denver Broncos. A group that was mostly on its heels during the regular season attacked Denver and quarterback Tim Tebow, allowing just 252 total yards. Whether the one-game performance was a fluke or a sign of things to come is a subject of intense debate.

We will find out Sunday when the Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. When it comes to defense, the Patriots stand out in a group that includes the Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants in the conference championships. Baltimore and San Francisco were both top-four defenses. The Giants were injured on defense all season, but are finally healthy and playing like the talented unit most expected.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, New England is trying to become, by far, the worst-rated defense ever to win a Super Bowl. New England was ranked 31st in total defense in the regular season. Only the Green Bay Packers -- who were 15-1 but one-and-done in the playoffs -- were worse. Is this Patriots' defense good enough to win a championship?

"Everyone is real easy to jump on the Patriots' defense and say they're so terrible and they can't win a Super Bowl being this bad. But I don't agree with that," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I don’t think it's great. It's clearly the worst defense still in the playoffs. They allow all these passing yards, but they don't allow that many points, and that's more important."

The Patriots continue to challenge the longstanding theory that "defense wins championships." The past three Super Bowl champions -- Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis -- were led by dynamic offenses. But this season, defense is making a comeback.

The Patriots have the best offense and worse defense remaining in the field. Yet, they are the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.

"Big defenses will stand up in playoff situations. So it's still relevant," NFL analyst Steve Young explained in a conference call this week. "It's just not quite as relevant as the old days in my mind. It's a big deal, and I think the Giants and 49ers playing each other is interesting, because [they have] two really great defenses. The Patriots will have to be proven wrong, that they can't go the distance in this pass-happy era. ... I think the question is going to be answered on the field. Phenomenal offense against a great defense and we'll see in this era who can pull off championship football.”

The matchup between Baltimore's offense and New England's defense is an intriguing one. Both groups have been the weaker links of their respective teams. With Baltimore's passing game inconsistent, the key to slowing the Ravens will be corralling Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. In many ways, Rice is to Baltimore what quarterback Tom Brady is to New England. Rice led the Ravens in rushing (1,364) and receptions (76). Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually attempts to take away an opponent's best weapon and force a team to win with its second and third options. Similar to last week, expect New England to gear up heavily against the run and see if Baltimore can keep up with New England's high-powered offense by passing the football.

But stopping Rice won't be easy. He had six 100-yard rushing games this season, including 204 yards against the Cleveland Browns and 191 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I'll tell you what, he’s probably one of the toughest guys to bring down in this league because he always keeps those wheels spinning," Patriots Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "He always comes up with big plays for his team, if it’s in the pass game or the running game. When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him. I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That’s first on our list, we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense."

If things go as planned for New England, there will be a lot of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to keep up. Flacco's performances in the playoffs have been inconsistent. Last week he completed just 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards in a 20-13 win against the Houston Texans. Flacco also was sacked five times. That also happens to be the same amount of sacks New England registered against Tebow last week. You also cannot ignore the "Brady Factor" when talking about New England's defense. The future Hall of Famer is playing some of the best football of his career, and is coming off a six-touchdown performance against Denver, which tied a playoff record.

New England's high-scoring offense is averaging 40.5 points in the past four games and has complemented the defense well. Despite all of New England's defensive issues, the team is pretty solid in the red zone and is 15th in points allowed (21.4) per game.

"The Patriots are not great [defensively], but they don't need to shut teams out either with Brady and the offense that they have,” Williamson said.

For months many have wondered if the Patriots' struggling defense can step up in the playoffs if the offense cannot light it up against an elite defense. This is probably the week we find out against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.

Perhaps no group in the playoffs has more to prove this week than New England's defense, which might or might not be turning the corner.

"It's playoff time," Patriots starting cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "Our records, our stats go out the window this time of year. We're fully committed to play for one another."

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