NFL Nation: Super Bowl XLVI

Reviewing the Patriots' blame game

January, 21, 2013
The key third-quarter drop by Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker certainly wasn’t the only reason the New England Patriots lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Baltimore Ravens. There was plenty of blame to go around.

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.

Patriots: Who stays and who goes?

February, 10, 2012
Early odds have the New England Patriots as the favorites to win it all next season.

But don't punch your ticket to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans just yet, Patriots fans.

The reigning AFC champions and Super Bowl runners-up still have a lot of work to do to rebuild into a title contender. The Patriots have 20 free agents -- approximately 38 percent of the 53-man roster -- and just a month to make decisions before most will hit the open market. Of New England’s 20 free agents, 17 are unrestricted.

So who stays? Who goes? Who are the potential replacements?

Let's examine.

The no-brainers

[+] EnlargeNew England's Wes Welker
Mark L. Baer/US PRESSWIREWes Welker, who led the Patriots in receptions and receiving yards, should be back in New England.
Players: WR Wes Welker, WR Matthew Slater, DL Kyle Love, QB Brian Hoyer

Analysis: Free agency can be unpredictable. But these are four locks I definitely see coming back to New England. Welker's production (122 receptions, 1,569 yards) is off the charts, and New England's offense wouldn't be the same next season without him. Welker will either get the franchise tag or a multiyear extension. But he will be with the Patriots in 2012.

Slater is New England's special-teams ace and made it to his first Pro Bowl this season. He found a niche in New England and eventually became team captain. Slater is a favorite of the coaching staff and will return. Love started 13 games and really came into his own this season. He's an exclusive rights free agent, so he's not going anywhere. Hoyer also is a restricted free agent. The Patriots hold all the cards with their backup quarterback. So unless New England gets a trade offer it can't refuse, Hoyer will back up Tom Brady again next season.

Replacement options: The Patriots probably won't replace any of these four players. But 2011 draft pick Ryan Mallett might be ready to push for the No. 2 quarterback job next season, which could make Hoyer a tradable commodity if New England receives a tremendous offer.

Like their chances

Players: DE Mark Anderson, C Dan Connolly, S James Ihedigbo

Analysis: Anderson (10 sacks) was New England's best pass-rusher last season. The Patriots need more pass-rushers, not fewer. Expect New England to make a strong pitch to bring Anderson back. Connolly is an intriguing case. He filled in well at center for the injured Dan Koppen (foot). Connolly, 29, started 11 games and the offense didn't miss a beat. He is three years younger than Koppen and not coming off a season-ending injury.

The Patriots won't spend big on two centers, so the smart money is on Connolly. Ihedigbo overachieved, working his way from a good special-teamer to a starter by the end of the season. Ihedigbo would be nice to bring back for depth and special teams.

Replacement options: Look for the Patriots to add another pass-rusher to complement Anderson via the draft or free agency. If they have to replace Anderson, there are some big names available. I think Houston Texans defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams would be a stud in New England's hybrid 3-4, 4-3 defense. The Patriots have the cap space to go after Williams, especially if they don't re-sign Anderson. But there would be tons of competition for Williams.

If it doesn't get a pass-rusher in free agency, New England could turn to the draft. The Patriots have two first-round and two second-round picks. The replacement option for Connolly would be Koppen, who is a favorite of Brady. But I don't see that as reason enough not to sign Connolly, the younger, healthier player . The Patriots will certainly replace Ihedigbo in the starting lineup next season.

New England needs another playmaking safety opposite Patrick Chung. Fortunately for the Patriots, there are plenty of good safeties available this year, including Michael Griffin, Dashon Goldson and Tyvon Branch.


[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Patriots could consider bringing back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the right price.
Players: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Deion Branch, LB Niko Koutouvides, LB Tracy White

Analysis: Welker is New England's biggest free agent, but Green-Ellis may be the most interesting. There are reasons to keep the Patriots' leading rusher and reasons to let him walk. New England drafted two running backs last year: Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. With Danny Woodhead also in the fold, I thought the writing was on the wall for Green-Ellis entering the final year of his contract. But Green-Ellis did everything that was asked of him and led the team in rushing yards (667) and rushing touchdowns (11). The coaching staff especially likes the fact that Green-Ellis has never fumbled in his four-year career. I think the Patriots will make a pitch to bring Green-Ellis back but won't overpay. If Green-Ellis wants to really cash in, he may have to sign elsewhere.

Branch is on his last legs but could return on a short-term contract in a limited role. New England will make some upgrades at receiver. Branch would be a backup next season. The Patriots will have an interesting decision to make on White and Koutouvides. Both were solid on special teams, but New England probably has to choose one or the other. White and Koutouvides are both backup linebackers. New England can't afford to let two special-teamers without much starting potential at linebacker hold roster spots.

Replacement options: If New England replaces Green-Ellis, it will be in-house. The Patriots have more than enough running backs, and letting go of Green-Ellis would be a sign that Ridley is ready for more responsibility. Ridley, Woodhead and Vereen may not be a bad trio if they all work hard and improve during the offseason.

Branch will be replaced in the starting lineup. I fully expect New England to have interest in free-agent receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has strong ties to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Lloyd has a lot of respect for McDaniels and credits him for jump-starting his career in Denver. The Patriots need a deep threat to go with Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Lloyd, who averages 15.4 yards per catch for his career, would be a great addition.

Thanks for your service but ...

Players: DE Andre Carter, C Dan Koppen, RB Kevin Faulk, LB Gary Guyton, DE Shaun Ellis, DL Gerard Warren, CB Antwaun Molden, CB Nate Jones, S Bret Lockett

Analysis: This is the group that probably won't return next season. Carter is 32 and coming off a season-ending quad injury. The Patriots need to get younger on the edges. As we mentioned, Koppen missed the entire season with a foot injury, and the Patriots have to choose between two centers (Connolly and Koppen). Faulk was brought back during the season to add stability to a young group of running backs. But he was inactive in the Super Bowl and probably is close to retirement. Guyton showed a few flashes but eventually fell out of favor in New England. The Patriots are set at linebacker with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich. So Guyton won't be back. Veterans Ellis and Warren provided depth and leadership on the defensive line. But both are over 30 and will be replaced by younger players in the offseason. Molden, a restricted free agent, had trouble covering receivers. He's most infamous for the 12 men on field penalty in the Super Bowl.

Replacement options: With the exception of Carter and Koppen, most of these players are expendable backups. It will be very easy to replace them, mostly with younger players and draft picks. Overall, the Patriots are in a good spot to improve their roster. Yes, they have 20 free agents, but Welker really is the only game-changer of the group. Expect a decent amount of roster turnover in New England. With smart moves, the reigning AFC champs could have an even deeper roster next season.
With the way New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was dancing and partying the night of the Super Bowl, surgery for his injured left ankle didn't seem needed. But it turns out "Gronk" did have ankle surgery after all.

Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal reports Gronkowski had arthroscopic ankle surgery this morning. Mullen reports the recovery time is expected to be about 10 weeks, which is lengthy. But that should take Gronkowski right into New England's offseason program.

Gronkowski developed into one of the NFL's best tight ends this season. He recorded 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.
NFL Films does a wonderful job replaying live sound from the previous week's games. That is why I was interested to hear what players and coaches had to say during Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

It was an emotional game where momentum swung from New York to New England and back to New York. The Giants won the game, 21-17. But there were two very interesting tidbits I took from New England's perspective.

First, following a fourth-quarter drop by Patriots receiver Wes Welker, NFL referee John Parry said to another official: "That was the game." Keep in mind New England was winning, 17-15, late and was about to punt the ball deep in New York's territory.

It showed even officials involved in the Super Bowl knew that New England's 31st-ranked defense wasn't going to make a big stop to win a championship. The ref's thought process at that moment wasn't any different from the media and fans who closely watched the Patriots all season.

Second, on New York's final drive, Patriots coach Bill Belichick encouraged his defense to let the Giants throw to Mario Manningham, who made the big 38-yard grab to get New York's Super Bowl-winning drive started.

"This is still a [Victor] Cruz and [Hakeem] Nicks game," Belichick said on the sidelines. "I know we're right on them. It's tight but those are still the guys. Make them go to Manningham, make them go to [Bear] Pascoe. Let's make sure we get Cruz and Nicks."

The Patriots were a team this season that thrived and executed under pressure. But these fourth-quarter mishaps by Welker and Belichick/New England's defense were the difference in Super Bowl XLVI.

Take a bow, Indianapolis

February, 6, 2012
Like Houston and Jacksonville, Indianapolis has come to be one of my homes-away-from-home as I’ve covered the AFC South since 2008.

I was fortunate to spend Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Naptown, and there was not a lot of napping going on.

I wrote a year ago after the Dallas/Fort Worth debacle that Indianapolis would be superior.

It was.

[+] EnlargeA fan rides a zip line over Super Bowl Village
AP Photo/Eric GayIndianapolis drew rave reviews as a host for Super Bowl XLVI.
Logistics are key for a Super Bowl. If things are too spread out, buses and roads and traffic come too much into play. Indy’s downtown is perfectly spaced for people to be able to walk to everything -- from Lucas Oil Stadium, to the NFL Experience, to the zip line that drew rave reviews and looked like a blast, to the media center, to the city’s core of restaurants, bars and hotels.

I thought police mishandled traffic, both pedestrian and automotive. My two-year old had a better handle of flow than they did. Otherwise, this top complainer couldn’t find anything to complain about. I have not been to another cold-weather city Super Bowl. I cannot imagine a better setup and execution.

My blog network colleagues were kind enough to quickly respond to my email asking for their reviews. I understand media reviews don’t serve as the end-all, be-all. But get a bunch and they can be largely representative of the overall feel.

Dan Graziano, NFC East blogger: “They were so happy and proud to have the game, and it showed all week. They were organized, polite, unfailingly helpful and friendly, from the time we arrived and right up through airport security on Monday morning. I'd go back in a second for a Super Bowl there.”

James Walker, AFC East blogger: “Indianapolis was very organized and the people were gracious. They exceeded my expectations and definitely upstaged Dallas/Ft. Worth as a hosting Super Bowl city. The good fortune with weather also made for a great experience.”

Jamison Hensley, AFC North blogger: “Hospitality and convenience couldn't have been better in Indianapolis. You could sense the pride that the city had in hosting the event. That said, I wouldn't put it ahead of New Orleans, Miami or San Diego (new stadium needed) in terms of Super Bowl cities.”

Mike Sando, NFC West blogger: “This was my 14th Super Bowl experience and easily one of the best. The JW Marriott was a well-equipped SB headquarters hotel with 1,000-plus rooms. Downtown was hopping all week. The close proximity of the relevant hotels and restaurants enabled that feel and allowed for short walks between destinations. Volunteers were plentiful and helpful. Indy deserved the fortunate weather that made this pretty much a perfect week.”

Final Word: Super Bowl XLVI

February, 4, 2012
Super Bowl XLVI Final Word: Patriots | Giants

Five nuggets of knowledge about Super Bowl XLVI:

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick and Tom Brady
David Butler II/US PresswireBill Belichick and Tom Brady have a chance to make history Sunday by equaling the mark for most Super Bowl wins by a coach and QB.
Legacy builders: The New England Patriots and New York Giants didn't have much interest in talking about the big picture during Super Bowl week. Anything beyond Sunday's game was too much to comprehend. But this game is important for legacies on both teams. For the Patriots, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can tie the record for the most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback and head coach with four. (Former Steelers coach Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls; quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw also have four rings.) For the Giants, a second championship would cement quarterback Eli Manning's status as an elite quarterback. New York coach Tom Coughlin also would have a stronger case for the Hall of Fame with his second ring as a head coach.

Setting the tempo: An area that hasn't been talked about much this week is New England's effective use of the no-huddle offense. The Patriots used it more and more late in the season, and it's helped set the tempo. New York likes to use plenty of substitutions, particularly on its talented and deep defensive line, to keep everyone fresh. But a no-huddle will disrupt New York's substitution packages. New England didn't use the no-huddle offense much at all in the previous loss against the Giants in Week 9. How will New York adjust to it in the Super Bowl?

Gronkowski's contribution: Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski is officially listed as questionable with an ankle injury. But he is expected to play. Gronkowski won't be 100 percent, but his presence already makes an impact in this game. New York has to account for him, and that will open things up for others, like receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski caught eight passes for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Giants in the regular season. Don't expect that type of production in the Super Bowl.

Don't forget the kickers: Gronkowski, Brady, Manning and New York's defensive line have dominated the discussion for two weeks, but do not forget the kicking game. This Super Bowl is expected to be close and could come down to Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski and Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes. Both have done a good job this season. But there is a big difference kicking in the Super Bowl. In the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff couldn't handle the pressure and missed a chip shot near the end of regulation. Gostkowski and Tynes could have opportunities to be heroes or goats.

New England's track record with revenge: The Patriots have downplayed the revenge factor all week. Regardless of whether it's on their minds, they have done a great job of avenging prior postseason losses. The Patriots entered the season 0-3 in their last three playoff games. The most recent postseason loss was against the AFC East rival New York Jets. A motivated New England team convincingly swept the Jets in two regular-season games. The revenge tour continued in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, who knocked New England out of the playoffs after the 2009 season. The Patriots returned the favor two weeks ago. Now, New England has a chance to avenge the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants. Will the Patriots complete the trifecta?
Vince WilforkMark L. Baer/US PresswireVince Wilfork and the Patriots' defense made the stops when it needed to in New England's win.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had never been in a game quite like this. It was evident when the 22-year-old Pro Bowler stood up to watch Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff line up for a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.

Leading by three points, Gronkowski followed his instincts and wanted to see Baltimore's triumph or train wreck. That's just the kind of guy "Gronk" is. Meanwhile, most of his Patriots teammates couldn't stomach the situation and looked the other way.

"I watched it, and I looked around I saw everybody not watching it," Gronkowski explained, somewhat surprised. "It's whatever way you want to take it. But I watched it, and I was glad watching it."

Cundiff shanked a chip shot wide left to give New England a 23-20 victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. The surprising finish helped the Patriots advance to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis to face the New York Giants on Feb. 5.

Many of Growkowski's teammates didn't realize they were going to the Super Bowl until the crowd at Gillette Stadium reacted. The response on the New England sideline was that of shock, disbelief and jubilation -- all wrapped into one moment.

In the end, the Patriots knew they were pushed to their limits -- and thrived. Yes, New England had three losses in the regular season. But the Patriots learned more about themselves in Sunday's heart-stopping, back-and-forth slugfest with Baltimore than all three losses combined.

New England entered this postseason going one-and-done in back-to-back seasons. This Patriots team won last week against the Denver Broncos with skill. But getting past Baltimore on Sunday took pure will.

"We are a pretty mentally tough team," Patriots receiver Wes Welker said. "We don’t even really get down or get too high or too low or anything like that. We just try to stay steady and understand that we need to make plays. No matter what the circumstances or what happens out there, we’re in it together and that’s how we’re going to win games."

How tough was this game for New England? The Patriots had to do something you didn't see from them all season: win with their 31st-ranked defense.

New England's much-maligned group held a three-point lead in the fourth quarter by stopping the Ravens on the final three possessions -- OK, maybe two? possessions -- to seal the game. New England's offense, which averaged 40.5 points in its previous four games, scored only 23 points and committed two turnovers.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was responsible for the offensive turnovers with two interceptions and admitted, "I sucked pretty bad today." New England had issues moving the ball for long stretches and also stalled in the red zone, where the Patriots were two of five.

New England's defense gave up 398 yards but stuffed the Ravens when it mattered.

"[The defense] is the real MVP of this game, without a shadow of a doubt," Patriots Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters said. "I'm sure there are some things they want to clean up. But more than anything, we put them in some bad situations and they kept us safe and clean and kept us in the game."

New England and Baltimore were unquestionably the two best teams in the AFC. The difference between them Sunday was only a missed field goal. The Patriots were just a little bit better.

There was talk of New England not beating anybody of substance all season. Before Sunday’s game, the Patriots hadn't defeated an opponent that finished with a winning record. The Denver Broncos (8-8) were the only playoff team the Patriots had beaten. New England swept Denver in two games -- once in the regular season and once in the divisional round of the playoffs.

When I mentioned this to Patriots veteran running back Kevin Faulk, he shrugged and indicated he didn't care. The Patriots have won 10 games in a row and are heading to the Super Bowl.

"We never put those teams on our schedule. The NFL schedules that," Faulk said. "So we just have to play the teams that they schedule for us. It doesn’t matter what their records are. They’re still a football team that’s in the NFL."

New England didn’t play its "A" game Sunday. The Ravens had a lot to do with it. But looking ahead, the Patriots will have to play a lot better to win their fourth Super Bowl of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Brady wasn’t happy with himself after the game but he did tie his childhood hero, Joe Montana, for the most playoff wins in NFL history. This was the first time in a long time Brady didn’t have much to do with New England’s postseason win. His defense was finally there to back him up after Brady carried the Patriots with an MVP-caliber season.

Despite Brady's performance, Patriots owner Robert Kraft entered the locker room Sunday night with a big smile and the AFC Championship trophy in hand. Kraft said he was comforted by something Brady told him after the game.

"Well, here's what he said to me: He said to me, 'I promise you I’m going to play a lot better in two weeks,’” Kraft said. "He's still pretty good in my book. I’ll take him over any quarterback."

The Patriots knew they were good. But it took the 18th game of the season for the Patriots to truly learn their level of toughness and resilience.

After being pushed to the limit by Baltimore, the Patriots will go to Indianapolis confidently knowing their team is championship material.

The game was a good one. North Texas will always have that.

But other memorable elements (which I observed from afar) of Super Bowl week in the region went solidly in the con column:
  • An inability to deal with bad weather.
  • Officials’ failures to comprehend that frozen water on a sloped stadium roof eventually gives into gravity.
  • Completely botched temporary seating that meant hundreds of ticket buyers were left without seats.
  • A mangled national anthem by Christina Aguilera.

Patrick Hruby uncovered this “internal document” addressing how things can be improved when Indianapolis hosts the game next season.

On a more serious note, Sally Jenkins discusses how Super-Bowl excess crossed the line for her this time.

Here’s why the Super Bowl week experience in Indianapolis stands to be an upgrade: cold won't be a surprise. The city isn’t consumed, as Texas typically is, with everything being big. Indy is small, and small and compact erases a lot of logistical issues. While the participating teams will surely be housed in hotels well outside the city, everything else will be bunched downtown.

Including the people who simultaneously understand frozen water, sloping roofs and gravity.