What we learned during the Patriots’ 41-28 win over Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game Sunday night.
Third down matters
This game was largely won on third down, as has been the case all season for New England. The Pats are 7-1 in their last eight games. They’ve outperformed their opponents on third down in all seven wins. They did not in the loss to San Francisco. If Matt Schaub was able to make a few more connections on third down Sunday the outcome might’ve been different. He rarely did until late, part of a 4-for-15 effort for the Texans. The worst of those third-down attempts was a horrendous interception thrown in Patriots territory late in the third. Credit to Ninkovich for playing coy and then pouncing on the pass over the middle, but it was Schaub who put the first nail in the Houston coffin with that pick.
Time to disrobe and dance …
… Because the season is over for Rob Gronkowski, who reportedly needs another surgery to repair his left forearm. The Patriots entered looking about as healthy as a team can in its 17th game of the season. That changed in a heartbeat when Woodhead left after the Pats’ first offensive play with a thumb injury and Gronkowski departed moments later after breaking his left forearm again. Chandler Jones’ night also ended with an ankle issue, and Rob Ninkovich was attended to for a hand/wrist problem. Remember, New England does not have two weeks to rest up this time, and the Ravens are a physical bunch. Injuries will be an issue next week.
The Texans have a star in Arian Foster, but the collection of Patriots running backs has been solid in this matchup, and Sunday offered a breakout performance for Shane Vereen, who had three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Vereen had 150 total yards and a TD in the Dec. 10 meeting and combined for 219 total yards and four scores Sunday. Ray Rice outshined the Patriots collection of backs when the Ravens topped New England in Week 3. The Pats trio was just coming together then. Provided Woodhead is healthy, they’re now a formidable unit.
It’s better with Baltimore
It was easy to dream of another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup in the conference finals, but the Ravens-Patriots offer up the best storylines in a rivalry that continues to blossom. This will be the first rematch in an AFC Championship game since the Broncos and Browns met in ’86 and ’87. It will be the seventh meeting between New England and Baltimore since 2007. Five of those meetings were decided by six points or less, including last season’s title game in which the Ravens missed a field goal in the waning seconds. The only meeting that wasn’t close was Baltimore’s rout of the Pats in the 2009 Wild Card round. Trash talk will spew from Ravens camp. In fact, it started before the Pats even closed out the Texans.
Welker > Wade
Wes Welker and Tom Brady do not need motivation, and the comments by Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (“…he’s not that big or a real athletic guy.”) were so benign (except to the most overly sensitive fan base in America), so it probably had nothing to do with Welker’s big game. But yes, Welker had a big game. His 120 receiving yards in the first half were a Patriots playoff record. The injuries to tight ends just keep on coming for New England, which continues to make Welker’s already important role even more so.