FOXBORO, Mass. — Games like this don't come around very often. And no, I'm not talking about Super Bowls, which happen for New England, oh, five times in 11 years. But how exciting was that AFC Championship, which was filled with enough drama, execution and mishaps to last a season?
Of course, it extended the Patriots' season by two weeks, and they're preparing to head to Indianapolis to take on the Giants. Let's get to it in this week's Two-Minute Drill.
1. Peyton Manning's rough year is about to get worse with the Super Bowl in his home stadium. Either his greatest rival, Tom Brady, is about to win his fourth Super Bowl, or his little brother, Eli, is about to pass him in Super Bowl titles with two. And again, one of these outcomes will happen right under his nose.
2. I certainly don't expect Brady to have two straight poor performances, and I'll go out on a limb and guess I'm not alone with that thought, which obviously bodes well for the Patriots' chances in the Super Bowl. The stats back it up, too. Brady has never thrown multiple interceptions twice in the same postseason, and he's also never done it in back-to-back playoff games. History has been kind to Brady, and it's on his side here.
3. Taking it a step further, Brady has only thrown multiple picks in consecutive games on three occasions in the regular season. He did it in three straight games in 2002 (all losses), two straight in 2003 (both wins) and two straight in 2009 (both losses).
4. I'd give a lot of credit for Brady's struggles to Baltimore's defense, but his three egregious mistakes were on him. Brady flat-out missed a wide-open Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown in the right seam in the first quarter, and that's a throw that Brady has made, what, 50 times this season at various spots on the field? Then, Brady's two interceptions were mental mistakes, and those don't come around very often for him.
5. Brady's first pick came on the third drive of the opening quarter. He could have hit Wes Welker for about five yards on a hitch route in the right slot, but Brady chose to head toward Julian Edelman, who was split to the right of Welker and ran something of a fade pattern. Edelman and cornerback Lardarius Webb had a lot of contact, and it definitely came as late as 10-12 yards down the field, so I wonder if Brady threw the pass expecting a flag for holding or pass interference. But otherwise, it was underthrown, and safety Bernard Pollard was hovering over the top of the play.
6. At worst, Brady made a poor decision to throw into double coverage. At best, Brady expected a flag, but it's risky to throw a pass in the situation of the AFC Championship when you're hoping for the outcome to be a flag. And credit Webb for making a great play on the leaping interception, too.
7. Brady's second interception was an extremely unnecessary gamble on a deep ball to Matthew Slater, who hadn't caught a pass since Week 1. Slater, who is unquestionably the fastest player on the roster, had no chance to race by Pollard, who shaded him over the top. Pollard then batted the pass down to cornerback Jimmy Smith, who did get beat by Slater on the play.
8. Anyway, Brady could have gained about five to eight yards by dumping it to Welker on an out route, or he could have hit Gronkowski for a bare minimum of a 20-yard gain down the right sideline. Brady had plenty of time to throw because the Ravens ineffectively rushed three linemen, and Gronkowski got behind the defense on a crossing pattern. Gronkowski was open at the 30-yard line, but if Brady put some air under the ball, he might have been able to hit Gronkowski for a 30-yard gain. It would have been a difficult throw, but at least there was an opening in that direction.
9. The overall point is Brady just made a couple of bad decisions, and he had other options on each of his interceptions. He makes very, very few poor choices, and that's the type of stuff that is easily correctable, especially for a guy who is as mentally strong as him. It's not like he was short-arming passes or hesitant to trust his receivers, which would be a larger issue. With all that said, that's why I think Brady should bounce back just fine in the Super Bowl.
10. I think it's really cool that the Patriots' "MHK" patch takes precedent over the Super Bowl logo, which is traditionally on the left side of players' jerseys. The symbol of dedication has meant a lot to the organization, and it's nice to see the league recognize that.
11. There are only seven Patriots on the active roster who were with the team in 2007, when they last met the Giants in the Super Bowl: Brady, running back Kevin Faulk, left tackle Matt Light, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, left guard Logan Mankins, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker.
12. The rematch from Week 9 will also have a very different feel. The Patriots' seven inactive players in that game were defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, wide receiver Taylor Price, linebacker Dane Fletcher, running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Shaun Ellis, offensive lineman Donald Thomas and quarterback Ryan Mallett. It seems like an eternity ago when Price was still on the team.
13. Take it a few steps further, and that was linebacker Jerod Mayo's second game back from his knee injury. It was also his first full game, as he was on a pitch count the week before in Pittsburgh. And even in Week 9, Mayo was nowhere close to full strength. That was also the game when both linebacker Brandon Spikes (third quarter) and safety Patrick Chung (fourth quarter) got hurt.
14. The Giants weren't close to full strength, either. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and center David Baas were all inactive for that game. If you hear people say the Giants have the advantage in the Super Bowl because they won the first meeting without Bradshaw, Nicks and Baas, well, there's nothing wrong with that opinion, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The Giants' inactive list was certainly filled with more prominent names that week, but the injury situations were basically a wash in the fourth quarter, when there were four lead changes in the game.
15. Remember, Spikes was replaced by Tracy White, who was solely a special teamer prior to that game. In the first quarter, Spikes laid a ferocious hit on Giants tight end Jake Ballard, who made two key catches over the middle of the field during the final drive when White was in there. Would Spikes' presence have been the difference in that last drive, or would he at least cause Ballard to look over his shoulder a little more? I hate bringing up "ifs" when it relates to injuries, but Spikes was playing a really solid game prior to getting hurt.
16. Don't forget about one of the other tremendous storylines from that game. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was as erratic as he could be, mixing in a couple dominant reps with a handful of horrid ones. On his last snap with the Patriots, he was blown out of his gap and allowed Brandon Jacobs to run free for a 10-yard touchdown. Haynesworth was benched and then released two days later.
17. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, cornerback Sterling Moore is going to go down as one of the major contributors after swatting the ball out of wide receiver Lee Evans' hands in the final seconds Sunday. And if Moore does something big in Indy, he could reach cult hero status. And to think, just three months ago, he couldn't find his way down Route 1 or comprehend the the high number of Dunkin Donuts he found in the area. He has come a long way, for sure.
By the way, Moore attended last year's Super Bowl as a fan when one of his teammates at SMU gave him an extra ticket sort of at the last minute.
18. Good quote from wide receiver Matthew Slater on Tuesday. Slater was discussing Brady's importance to the team and finished it by saying, "I'm glad the guy is on my team," Slater said before stopping and emphasizing, "or I'm on his team. It's his team."
19. The Patriots held Ravens running back Ray Rice to 67 yards on 21 carries and, more impressively, 11 yards on just one reception. His 78 yards from scrimmage were his second lowest total all season (63 yards in Week 7 against Jacksonville), and Patriots defensive tackle Kyle Love had a telling quote after the game.
"We went into the game with the mind-set of stopping [No.] 27," Love said. "If he couldn't run the ball, they couldn't beat us. That was the whole mind-set of this game."
20. At the very least, the Bengals should send the Patriots a postcard from Hawaii. The Patriots' eight Pro Bowlers had to be replaced because they're going to the Super Bowl, and three Bengals got the nod in their absence. Quarterback Andy Dalton replaced Brady, tight end Jermaine Gresham replaced Gronkowski and defensive tackle Geno Atkins replaced Wilfork. Aside from the free vacation, the Pro Bowlers will get $50,000 if they win the game and $25,000 if they lose.
Bonus: After re-reading my live blog of the Patriots' loss to the Giants in Week 9, I realized there was a lot of interesting stuff that happened in that game that I hadn't already mentioned above, so I wanted to bring it up since, if you're a Patriots fan, you're probably sick of hearing about the Super Bowl being a rematch of another game.
Price was added to the injury report the day before due to a hamstring injury, which essentially proved to be the final straw for him in New England.
A week earlier, wide receiver Julian Edelman was a healthy scratch against the Steelers and then got arrested on Halloween. Edelman fumbled a punt in the game, causing speculation that he might be done with the team. Since, he's emerged as one of the Patriots' most steady tacklers on defense. Who knew?
I spotted a guy in the crowd with a Brady Michigan jersey, but it had the No. 12 on it, which is really a shame.
Defensive end Brandon Deaderick started to hit his stride and take over for Shaun Ellis.
Safety Josh Barrett injured his calf late in the game and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.
The Patriots' defense played a lot more man coverage, and they did it well.
Light and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora got into it. They really dislike each other. It'll happen again in the Super Bowl.
Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal at the end of a scoreless half. It was the 49th attempt from 20-29 yards in his career, and just the fourth miss.
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was lauded for playing his best game as a Patriot even though he didn't catch a pass on five balls thrown his way.
Brady was bad. He had three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) and missed on some open throws.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez scored a touchdown on his 22nd birthday.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington did a great job to intercept Eli Manning in the end zone.
Later in the game, Arrington and safety Sergio Brown were each called for egregious pass interference penalties that helped the Giants score two touchdowns in the final three minutes.
The Patriots fell to 5-3 and into a first-place tie with the Jets and Bills. Remember when the Bills were 5-3?