Though they did it with more difficulty than most foresaw, the Patriots defeated the Texans, 34-16, in a hard-fought divisional playoff match. New England advances to the AFC Championship for a record sixth year in a row, taking on Pittsburgh Sunday evening at 6:40.
As someone who predicts these games with all the assurance of a turkey forecasting the weather, forgive me for pointing out that I actually made a decent call on this one in my previous column: “All in all, I would not be shocked at the Patriots grabbing an early lead, then coasting a bit before finishing up strong, much like they did down in Miami.” Pats led 14-3, committed two costly turnovers, and allowed the lead to slip to 14-13. They then nabbed a bunch of turnovers themselves to lead by three scores midway through the fourth quarter.
Isn’t it funny how New England played so hard to get the bye week, yet they came off of that week seeming flat? (Note: the “isn’t it funny?” is from my grandmother, who used to ask that regarding unsettling topics. “Isn’t it funny, Chris, how you never call me?”) Some of the uncharacteristic gaffes included receiver Michael Floyd tipping a pass that was intercepted. Quarterback Tom Brady took the blame on the off-target-yet-catchable throw. The two just looked out-of-synch. Running back Dion Lewis left more balls on the ground than a lazy tennis instructor. And one could argue that defensive back Eric Rowe opened the Pandora’s Box of foolishness by committing an unsportsmanlike penalty midway through the first quarter, ruining what would have been the defense’s third consecutive three-and-out.
After watching the play a couple of times, my opinion wavers. Yes, Rowe pulling someone off the pile qualifies as dumb, but replay showed Texans tight end Ryan Griffin jumping on the pile right in front of Rowe, who seemed like he instinctually reacted. So, dumb, but understandable, kind of like reading an US Weekly when you’re bored. In any case, they got through the ridiculous to reach the sublime.
(I’m just happy it was Griffin and not tight end C. J. Fiedorowicz, because I can not spell that guy’s name.)
Oh, so many numbers surrounding this win. Here’s a favorite: Brady is now 16-3 at home in the playoffs. For comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs have two home playoff wins in franchise history.
Here’s another: Brady’s 22 post-season wins are more than 22 current NFL teams. Another column, another reminder that we should all savor these days with the Patriots. You can believe that, when the time comes, they’ll find another quarterback who can win games, but they will never have another Brady.
This Sunday, anything could happen. It could be a 44-43 barnburner, a 16-15 defensive struggle, or a 34-6 blowout (though my money would lay with the first option). Look for the Steelers to score some points, but expect the Patriots to score just a few more.
If You Can Keep Your Edelman When All About You Are Losing Theirs: Okay, yes, Brady had fewer successful passes than the U.S. Olympic men’s 4X100 relay team (uncanny at this point), but unlike that squad, the quarterback kept getting himself second chances. (Much like the women’s team, one could say.) His first pass of the day went to Julian Edelman for five yards, but give credit to the Texans for shutting down the short stuff faster than a supermodel getting hit on by the Lollipop Guild. (Was that too much? That seemed like too much.) Edelman ended up with eight receptions (expected) for 137 yards (less expected). His 48-yarder at 2:34 of the second quarter marked 70 post-season receptions, setting a Patriots record. He did a great job to help swing momentum in the third, hauling in consecutive 26- and 14-yard passes around the 12-minute mark to add a necessary jolt to New England’s nine-play, 90-yard TD drive and a 24-13 lead.
Brady actually completed six of seven passes for 94 yards on said drive, the extra yardage due to a holding call on tackle Nate Solder that involved about as much contact as my first date. (I took her to see Doctor Detroit. I wish I were making that up.) Edelman even added a run in the fourth quarter, a 12-yard jaunt that qualified as the longest one of the night to that point (Danny Amendola and then LeGarrette Blount would best it with 15- and 18-yard rushes, respectively.) Edelman’s run found success in large part due to tight end Martellus Bennett, who had more blocks than Beacon Street.
Special mention here of Chris Hogan, who tallied 95 yards on just four catches. His early work helped get New England on the board, eliciting a pass interference call from A. J. Bouye for a 30-yard gain, and following that up immediately by gathering in Brady’s 22-yard lofter along the right sideline.
Houston, We Have A Cliché: Against Houston they had a…an issue, we can say, but the idea of a “blueprint” to stop the Patriots’ offense deserves to get thrown out like yesterday’s news. I mean, sure, the Texans played like a house on fire, but in the end, New England stayed as cool as a cucumber, and eventually the cream rose to the top.
My God, that is exhausting. Anyhoo, if your team can rush Brady up the middle with players like Whitney Mercilus and JaDeveon Clowney, drop back seven defenders, and avoid missing tackles in the open field, then, yes, you’re going to do more damage than a bull in a china sh – goddammit.
Put Houston’s Dion Notice: Up-and-down day for Lewis. We’ll focus on a few of the “ups” (and you can watch his highlights here), as his 13-yard catch-and-run TD and kickoff return in the first staked the home team to a 14-3 lead that – as close as it got – made Houston play catch-up for the rest of the night. His one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter raised the lead to 15 and gave the Pats a little breathing room. On that play, Lewis got popped by Mercilus but managed to slide past him with Vince Wilfork on his back. Lewis gave even better effort on his previous run, a five-yard carry at 12:44 of the fourth. On that play, he managed to slip through two defenders on the left side with all the sneakiness of a pearl earring finding that space between your dresser and the wall.
Also, keep in mind regarding the reception TD that McKinney ran a 4.66 40-yard dash and had a 40.5-inch vertical leap at the 2015 combine. He’s not exactly an old man sporting a hip replacement, there. What’s most impressive is that fullback James Develin’s motion causes the linebackers to shift in the direction of the play, but Lewis’ time-bending hesitation dip-and-dart left McKinney diving for air.
Fun Fact: Lewis became the 25th different receiver of a Brady post-season TD pass. Brady has now played in 32 playoff games. That stat alone contains enough potassium to tide you over for a month, it is so bananas.
Something Of A Phenomenon: Running back James White had a simple stat line with exactly one catch, but he made it count. At 9:09 of the third, White looked to blow away any linebacker in coverage, and McKinney stepped up once again (Don’t do it!), falling behind White as Brady lofted a beaut into the right corner of the end zone. White had zero carries in the game, but he executed well on his one big chance.
David And Goliaths: I don’t know, Davey. Rough day from center David Andrews. He seemed out-matched on a few occasions, surrendering a sack on a spin move from Mercilus and getting absolutely murdered by defensive tackle/shipping container D. J. Reader on the Texans’ goal-line stand at the end of the first half. Andrews looked like a sand pail caught in an ocean wave on the play, as Reader’s backfield disruption stopped a touchdown. While Develin had a block on Clowney and Bennett had Mercilus sealed to the outside, the big tackle forced Blount away from the crease in the defense, forcing him toward Mercilus and safety Eddie Pleasant for no gain. Definitely an area to improve on, execution-wise.
Knights To Remember: Early on, Logan Ryan broke up a third-down pass to Keith Mumphrey to force Houston’s second consecutive three-and-out, setting the tone for New England’s trio of former Rutgers Scarlet Knights to have themselves an impressive playoff game. Midway through the first, Ryan had a sack blitzing from the Texan’s left side that was so well-executed he himself had to take a bow. Devin McCourty broke up a pass in the end zone with such efficiency that he forced a Freaky Friday, making the tight end go into defensive mode as McCourty went up for a sure catch. (That tight end’s name? C. J. Fedorawitch. Sort of.) Each of the three Rutgers alums notched an interception, with Duron Harmon’s sealing the win with 3:13 to go.
The Third Degree: Besides the alums from the Banks of the Raritan, it’s tough to pick out defensive stars in this game because so many seemed to contribute and execute well. One strong indicator of this is Houston’s miserable third-down conversion rate of 18 percent (three of 16). Blame quarterback Brock Osweiler for some of this inefficiency (23 of 40 for 197 yards, one TD, three INT), but certainly the defense deserves some credit here, too. Holding the visitors to field goals after a couple of ugly turnovers made sure the Patriots had the lead at halftime.
Can’t Be Saved: Well, CBS’ broadcast was pretty good overall, capturing the excitement of the crowd, the intensity on the sidelines, and the tension in the game. But do we have some complaints? Heck yes. We’ll begin, as usual, with our list of missed and/or inefficient replays.
• We got a side view, but would have loved an end zone view of Houston’s third-and-one stop on New England’s first possession. Clowney made the hit in the backfield, but how did he get there? Phil Simms credited Wilfork, but trying to tell from the sideline was like trying to read a poster on the opposite subway tracks as the train goes by: wayy too much happening in front of it.
• Like above, we got a full-field, sideline view of the aforementioned first-quarter pass interference call on Bouye grabbing Hogan. That made it tough to discern exactly where the penalty occurred. Again, Simms described it, noting that Bouye put his arm in front of Hogan, but a close-up replay of the two from the end zone would have confirmed it. Makes me wonder what different replays, if any, Simms and Nantz are watching, and if they’re more distinct than what the home viewer gets.
• At 11:49 of the second quarter, defender Jabaal Sheard walked off the field as gingerly as a Schweppes. We never saw what happened.
• After an incomplete pass at 6:43 of the second, Jim Nantz wondered aloud if Texans safety Corey Moore had interfered with Bennett on the play. We were left wondering that, too.
• With about two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the first half, Edelman had a 48-yard reception. While Nantz mentioned a potential push-off by Edelman, on the distant, full-field replay it was difficult to see that. Plus, we missed what may have been a facemask penalty, never getting a closer look.
• At 6:18 of the third quarter, Brady threw a deep incompletion along the left sideline for Edelman, who seemed to get to the ball late. The receiver immediately turned to the refs. Nantz said, “Edelman this time, looking around, to no avail.” Why was he looking? Simms added that the refs were getting a “verbal beating,” yet we never got the opportunity to discern whether or not Edelman had a legitimate gripe.
On a positive note, the end-zone-view replay of Lewis’ kickoff return TD deserves praise. On it, we see Develin and Geneo Grissom push their men to the outside, allowing Lewis more space than you’d give a flighty co-worker right after her boyfriend decided to take that job in Saskatchewan.
Oh, Christ, Janice. I am so sorry. Why not take the rest of the day?
Now, the production/commentator-based mediocrity.
• On-field reporter/Exasperated-Dad-Trying-To-Get-Directions-From-Siri Jay Feely opened his comments with “Special teams played a pivotal role here in Week Three: two kickoff returns for touchdowns, for the Patriots.” Seeming to catch himself (because no one returned a kick for a touchdown in that game) but wanting to gloss over his mistake, he stumbled through, “They caused fumbles, scored 14 points off those fumbles.” Nantz could have corrected Feely, but only said “That (special teams) was a big story here in the Thursday night game, September the 22nd.”
Listen, like a lot of occupations, reporting from the sideline is tougher than it looks. I’m not saying just anyone could do it; all I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, at least get your opening statement on point.
• Two good grades for sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. She gave a solid report on Clowney’s post-kickoff-return rant, adding details regarding team-wide reaction. Her best moment of the night happened during one of my least favorite rituals, the grab-the-coach-rushing-to-the-locker-room-at-halftime interview. She asked Coach Bill O’Brien, “What has impressed you most about what you’ve seen here?” an open-ended, more inviting alternative to, “What do you need to see in the second half?”
Of course, after O’Brien answered the first question, Wolfson followed up with, “What do you need to see in the second half?” Ah. So close, Wolfson. Sooo close.
• On Lewis’ kickoff return fumble, Simms obsessed over the idea that Texan Tyler Ervin caused the miscue with a “hard hit,” a phrase Simms repeated three times. On the replay, we can clearly see linebacker Akeem Dent punching the ball out of Lewis’ grip, but Simms remained focused on the hit. Giving Ervin most of the credit was like saying Dereck Whittenburg’s shot won the championship.
• With 19 seconds left in the half, it was third down New England at the one-yard line. When the home team called a timeout, Simms said, “I’m pretty sure they’re going to go for a touchdown here.” He then corrected himself, “Well, it’s third down. Of course they’ll go.”
Janice? Seriously? Just go home.
• During a replay of the rush on Osweiler that forced an incomplete pass at 6:01 of the fourth quarter, Simms talked up defender Chris Long’s hit on the QB. As we watched, we could see linebacker Kyle Van Noy swatting the pass as Osweiler released it.
Mentions of Long: Five. Mentions of Van Noy: Zero.
• Maybe the least efficient work of the night occurred during some odd officiating with a little over two minutes left in the third quarter. Linebacker Shea McClellin smacked Osweiler on the arm, causing an incomplete pass that rolled several yards downfield. For whatever reason, the referees failed to blow the play dead, resulting in an alert Patrick Chung recovering the “fumble” and returning it for a let’s-enjoy-this-before-it’s-overturned TD. CBS cameras went away from field action for a few seconds, forcing them to hurry back once Chung neared the goal line. Neither Nantz nor Simms did a great job explaining what had happened; viewers were left to piece the action together via replays on the hit itself. The announcers should have been more on top of that one from the start, especially considering a) the lack of a whistle, and b) Chung’s immediate reaction to pounce on the football. As both Nantz and Simms noted after the play, “Chaos.”
• After Osweiler’s final interception (the one to Harmon), the QB seemed to lose his cool, gesticulating downfield, protesting like I do when I watch Negan on “The Walking Dead.” If you’re going to bring in this awful character, act least diverge from the plot of the comic!
Though the play looked like an overthrow to his tight end (Griffin, not the other one), Osweiler seemed less mad at himself than a physical mistake would warrant. Was he upset with Griffin, or did he feel like safety Chung interfered on the play? CBS showed replays, but nothing from the end zone to get a solid review of any contact. No one in the booth commented on Osweiler’s reaction or what could have instigated it. A few plays later, a sideline shot revealed him still steaming.
(By the way, Safety Chung might be the best name for an ’80s cover band, ever.)
• This isn’t a CBS thing as much as an all-out football coverage deal, but I for one don’t care to see the opposing team’s player responsible for turnovers or extended drives after a score. For example, when Houston cut the lead to 7-3 on a Nick Novak field goal, the ball had barely dropped out of the net when the producers went to Rowe sitting on the sideline, talking with Harmon. My appetite for schadenfreude has some heft, but even I don’t enjoy watching, say, Osweiler after New England’s final TD (set up by his second interception).
I mean, what if we cut to that guy and he’s beating the hell out of himself like the protagonist from Fight Club? It could happen.
The exception to the No Schadenfreude Rule? Coaches. I’m a Larry Izzo fan, but the look on the special teams coach’s face following Lewis’ kickoff return had to be shared.
Ain’t That A Shane: Kudos to CBS for the fun fact that Texans punter Shane Lechler got drafted in the fifth round in 2000, the same year Brady got drafted in the sixth. Selected by the Raiders, by the way. Solid pick. Lechler is the Tom Brady of punters.
Can You Please Spell Out Which Night It Is? Really, CBS? Going into commercial playing the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night?” That’s good enough for me and my lame references, but you guys have got to come up with a more recent song describing one of the most fun nights of the week. Have you called Yusuf Islam?
Brock Of Ages: So, um, based on his four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed, the Texans have quarterback Osweiler on the roster for a bit. Is he salvageable? I’d say so. I mean, New England made some solid plays on defense, and Osweiler’s receivers didn’t always provide the most help. On McCourty’s interception, the safety showed the range and honing-in skills of an orca, traveling several yards to cut in front of the pass. Granted, with Osweiler’s wind-up, his throws take about as long to develop as the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, so he’s still a work in progress in some ways. Should be interesting to see what Coach O’Brien does with him next year.
Where There’s A Will There’s A Whoa! Okay, Osweiler performed about as well as a wet cell phone inside a bank vault, but that drop by receiver Will Fuller did a lot of damage. The QB missed Fuller on a slant with 10:21 to go in the first that could have gotten several yards, if not a first down. Between that drop and the mishandling of a catchable pass by tight end C. J. Fetasandwich (oh God it’s getting worse), Osweiler’s numbers could have looked a lot better.
Maybe Not Great, But Good Scott: Not always a fan of Bart Scott on the CBS football panel, but I enjoyed his intro to his pre-game prediction. Being a former Jet, he had to bring up their 2010 playoff upset of the Patriots and how the regular season means nothing. He hit the landing, however, by adding, “that being said, Patriots, 42-17.”
Psycho Killer: As much as I enjoy the references from AT&T’s data free phone ad, I can’t help thinking that this guy galumphing around the city watching shows on his phone is a bit of a tool. I mean, can’t we just walk down the street for one minute without escaping into whatever world is portrayed on our tiny screens? Also, do we need a Psycho reference? Are we watching this guy have some kind of a breakdown? I’d rather see him passing his time checking his shows while sitting on the bus, then watching where he’s going strolling around NYC. People get hurt that way.
Dancing On The Ceiling: I’m a fan of the new Airpods on iPhone 7 ad with the protagonist dancing on walls and ceilings to a song called “Down” by Marian Hill. Though I have to say I hate earbuds because my ear canals are too small for them. It’s like trying to fit a football inside a Funyun.
Is that too personal? I feel like that got wicked personal all of a sudden.
But Someone Might Out-Good Them: As addressed in previous columns, I’m a pizza snob. Living not too far from New York City and within driving distance of one of the most highly-acclaimed pizza restaurants in the country has made me that way. Well, maybe it’s time for a change, because apparently, “No one out-pizzas the Hut.” It’s only a mildly annoying slogan that jumps on the tired premise of turning a noun into a verb. Sure, it looks just like frozen pizza, but it has, apparently, out-pizza’d everybody else.
I will start using versions of that slogan in my everyday life, though: “This morning, no one shall out-oatmeal me!” “I’m gonna sandwich the hell out of this lunch!”
A Light At The End Of The Tumble: Those Michelob Ultra ads are hilarious. Working out like a crazy person so you can enjoy a 95-calorie beer? At that point, how’s about a little seltzer with a splash of cran and a lime? Is drinking Pink Floyd Tribute Band Beer (an ode to Waters) really worth it? Hard to say. Also, considering the fact “ultra” means “extreme,” I’m not sure how that name fits. It seems like true “ultra” beer would just be a jagged tin can full of grain alcohol.
Michelob Ultra: Now punch me in the face!
The Patriots’ extreme journey to Super Bowl 51 continues. See you next week.
Chris Warner believes that a football-based version of Utimate would attract millions of fans. His email is email@example.com; Twitter: @cwarn89